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Democracy in Danger in a Schizophrenic Europe

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide” –John Adams

History is never deterministic; it is in fact full of unexpected surprises, but if the above ominous warning by John Adams has any kind of validity today, we may be witnessing, subsequent to Brexit and the far right extraordinary gains in the latest EU parliamentary elections, the beginning of the end of the EU as we know it, and as its founding fathers envisioned it.

Indeed, their vision or aspiration was that the new Europe, the EU, would be an example of democracy for the rest of the world to admire and emulate. An example exemplified by a Constitution which would transcend mere economic or geo-political considerations and spell out the cultural identity of this new Europe and what were the genuine cultural reasons for aspiring to a union and a new polity.

That indeed seemed to be the case at the beginning of the EU in the early 50s. Is it still the case today? With 30% of the EU parliament now controlled by right-wing ideologues, mostly ultra-nationalists and Euroskeptics, out to subvert the very political entity to which they have been elected, the founding fathers’ dream seems to be fast becoming a nightmare. They must be turning in their graves.

As the above quote by Adams, one of the fathers of American democracy, hints at, eventually even an old democracy begins to decay and decline. Vico declares as much in The New Science. We may be seeing that prediction realized in the current US congress infested nowadays by so called “tea party” members who are within the citadel of government, the Congress, to subvert the government and in the process the oldest existing modern democracy.

Some in the EU, those discouraged and skeptical of a EU capable of reforming itself seem ready and willing to reach out for the hemlock and commit suicide. That of course conjures up the image of Socrates committing suicide in order to be faithful to what he believed and the laws of Athens, which come to think of it, was in a way the beginning of the end of a vibrant Athenian democracy. Once a democracy allows a good man like Socrates to be prosecuted and condemned unjustly, it probably means that it is already rotten to the core and its days may be numbered. As Socrates put: the issue gentlemen is not whether I live or die but whether corruption, which is faster than death, catches up with you, and she is leery to let you go. In effect, Socrates is saying that the real issue is corruption and injustice and knowing oneself individually and collectively.

Which brings us to the current malaise of Democracy in the EU. There are presently 27 member states. One, the UK, just decided to leave and is about to ask for a divorce. Some are founding members and have been part of the union from the beginning; others have been admitted at various later stages. The late-comers are the Eastern European countries, formerly part of the Communist Soviet block but now democratic, independent, sovereign countries. Those eastern EU countries are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Rumania, Bulgaria; 9 countries: more than one third of the 27 remaining member countries; they were all admitted after the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989.

One such exemplary country is Poland. Some 25 years ago, On June 4 1989 to be precise, it began the journey toward admittance to the EU. Every one of the openly contested parliamentary seats was won by a candidate from the democratic opposition and a noncommunist government, the first since World War II came to power. In effect democracy had won over despotism. In 1991 Poland becomes part of NATO, then in 2004 (after a referendum in 2003) the country became part of the EU. It is now one of the EU countries pushing for greater economic and military integration and less military dependence on NATO.

Since its entrance into the union, Poland has been hailed as a great victory for democracy in Europe. A country this that went from Soviet oppression and financial crisis, to normalcy and even a modicum of economic prosperity. This was accomplished not by suggesting a third way between East and West or joining spheres of influences, but by simply embracing European values, a democratic political orientation being a sine qua non for membership in the EU to begin with.

By and large there are precious few Poles that nowadays are nostalgic for the good old days of Soviet influence and domination, shipwrecked in the post-Soviet geopolitical space, as the Ukraine is presently. None of those countries feel trapped by democracy or are eager to get out of the EU influence to rejoin “mother Russia.” That is not the case for the Western countries, the original members of the EU: France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, etc.

Those countries are infested with Euroskeptics and right-wing parties who would get out of the EU tomorrow if they could, to wit Brexit. The motivation may vary but they all seem to be tinged by ultra-nationalism, banded about as “patriotism,” xenophobia, hatred of immigrants and refugees, skepticism and even dislike for democratic modes of political conduct. Marine Le Pen, who won 27% of the EU parliamentary votes in France has declared her admiration for Vladimir Putin’s kind of “patriotism.” UKIP’s Farage has in the past declared Putin the world leader he “most admires.” Putin, we should point out, is a man who while paying lip service to democracy, in effect engages in authoritarianism, media manipulation, disregard for the international rule of law, for borders and regional sovereignty, and corruption, to wit the latest doping scandals.

One does not hear that kind of uncritical admiration for Putin in the Eastern EU nations, not even in the Ukraine with a minority of Russian sympathizers. The majority presently seems to wish to embrace European values, as Poland did some 25 years ago. This is puzzling: do we have a tale of two Europes on our hands, with opposite views of what democracy is all about? It appears that what the Ukraine is desperate to escape, the EU’s far-right is eager to become. We have those who long for more democracy (the one third of the eastern countries) and those who have had it for more than half a century now, but no longer seem to be very appreciative of it. It’s as if they are tired of it. One even begins to wonder if those right-wingers even understand what World War II was all about. What was the point of it all, at least for the West?

To solve this conundrum we may need to look at present day Ukraine and then compare it to Poland. It is intriguing to reflect upon the fact that a quarter of a century after the Poles voted for democracy and European values, there has been another landslide that has propelled a group of anti-Europeans into parliamentary prominence. Millions of French have voted for National Front, a party with anti-Semitic roots; millions of Brits have chosen the UK Independence Party, another anti-European organization. The results were predictable and in fact were predicted in my book A New Europe in Search of its Soul some ten years ago.What you have in those parties, just to mention two here, but there are others in Italy, Holland, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, is a bizarre coalition of malcontents, racists, xenophobes, cheats, bullies, authoritarian personalities a la Putin, all ready to take themselves to the EU parliament to subvert it. The subversion has already party succeeded. It will continue to succeed under the umbrella of a parliamentary coalition, the coalition of the malcontents, so called.

The malcontent is real enough due to the globalization trend of the last thirty years which has left many in the middle class poorer and powerless, while the rich double and triple their wealth and do not even pay the taxes paid by ordinary law-abiding citizens. This initially ideal, democratic, aspirational polity called dedicated to solidarity (a word made famous by the Poles) has alas become the union of greedy bankers and myopic politicians passing as statesmen. All that is true, but it can become an excuse in the hands of a Grillo or a La Pen or Farage who has managed to promise to the middle class what he knows he cannot deliver and thus succeed in exiting the EU. Just as a Trump in the US, these politicians are merely take advantage of popular discontent, as consummate opportunists that they are.

So here we have the tale of two Europes on full display: on one hand there is the Europe which rejects “European values” from inside the citadel of democracy, a sort of Trojan horse of which Putin is taking full advantage to destabilize the EU and re-establish Russian influence in Europe. The strategy, simply put is one of divide and conquer. On the other hand you have countries like Poland 25 years ago embracing democratic values, and the Ukraine aspiring to them now, who wish to escape authoritarianism and ideological fanaticism.

At this point the question arises: is this democracy named EU ready to commit suicide under the guise of protest and a clamor for reforms on the part of the establishment parties and the need for the EU to stop making bad decisions, such as the devastation of poor countries’ economies for the sake of a common currency benefitting the more prosperous countries? The EU needs a higher dose of solidarity and distributive justice but instead it seems to be ready to take the hemlock.

Even more pointedly the question arises: will the center hold? History will render the final verdict. For the moment one thing is sure; William Butler Yeats had it on target when he said in The Second Coming that in our brave new world of entrepreneurs and assorted opportunists “The best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

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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Europe

Will there be another referendum over Brexit?

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Brexit continues to be an implicit term in the Britain’s political equations. Complicating the process of the British withdrawal from the European Union is a joint measure taken by the British government and European authorities.

At the same time, the British government, with its widespread negative propaganda against the Brexit, is seeking to re-arrange a referendum. In other words, the European authorities are trying to direct the public opinion about the Brexit.

Recently, some western news sources are speaking of an issue called “repeating the Brexit referendum”, and name it as a possible option! An option that had been previously denied by British authorities, including Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the country. According to the France news agency, regarding the increasing doubt about the British Prime Minister’s efforts to conclude an agreement with the United Europe, the possibility of holding a second referendum on Brexit has multiplied.

This source has also announced that there are major obstacles on the way of confirming this agreement between Theresa May and European leaders, which has, in turn, intensified this trend. The existence of legal complexities in this agreement made its implementation difficult for both sides.  Meanwhile, it is possible that the members of the parliament will vote in favor of Theresa May’s decision.

Although it seems that Theresa May is trying to convince legislators to give a positive vote to this agreement, not only members of the Labor Party, but also some members of the Conservative Party are opposing it. The MPs argue that the Brexit is basically contrary to the interests of the UK.

Meanwhile, supporters of the “People’s Vote” campaign, who are now very active in England, believe that the parliament’s negative vote will pave the way for a new referendum on the Brexit. This issue is no way contrary to the demands of Theresa May and the Conservative Party, but it’s secretly supported by them. The negative propaganda of the Theresa May’s government against the Brexit since 2016 is known to everyone. After the British citizens voted to leave the European Union in 2016, the two Labor and Conservative parties (as UK’s two traditional parties) tried their best to change the general vote on this issue. The active role played by people like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair can well indicate the dissatisfaction among British authorities over the Brexit.

Supporters of the People’s Vote campaign are currently trying to convince the public for holding a new referendum on Brexit. “The People’s Vote campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s Brexit deal is put before the country in a public vote so that we can decide if a decision that will affect our lives for generations makes the country better or worse off. Good deal or bad deal, it’s definitely a big deal – and that’s why it should be put to a People’s Vote”, that’s how the campaign’s supporters define their goal.

Proponents of this campaign believe that the parliament’s negative vote to May’s plan is the best opportunity to hold another referendum. On the other hand, Theresa May doesn’t intend to violate the people’s vote in the 2016 referendum explicitly, so she tries to appear to be opposed to a new referendum, but she set the game in a way that it will eventually lead to the UK’s remain as part of the European Union.

Labor Party officials led by Jeremy Corbin have also agreed to vote again on the Brexit, and have officially backed this issue. The fact that Britain’s two rival parties have come to an agreement on holding a new referendum has provided the ground for its ultimate realization.

First published in our partner MNA

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West return to 2007: Europe’s anger over incompetent politicians

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The anger and discontent of European citizens over European politicians is increasing day by day. While more than ten years have passed since the economic crisis in Europe, we are still witnessing austerity plans in this block.

France’s recent round of demonstrations isn’t limited to this country anymore, and we’re now witnessing demonstrations in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands.

Many European citizens spent the years between 2007 and 2012 with the hope that the austerity policies would affect the devastated economy of United Europe and the Eurozone. That’s why they tried to cooperate with their own governments (which were mainly the far-right and social-democratic administrations). However, after 2012, we witnessed the end of European citizens’ patience towards politicians like Merkel.

Part of this dissatisfaction revealed itself in cases such as the European Parliamentary Elections in 2014, where more than 100 right extremists managed to enter the European Parliament. Now, in 2018, we are witnessing the continuation of the economic crisis in Europe in the security, social and political spheres.

It’s not without a reason that the number of nationalist groups’ supporters has increased in the mentioned areas. The security crisis is strongly felt in today’s Europe. Common policies which were adopted by European authorities couldn’t improve the security crisis within the Schengen borders and other European borders.

During 2015 and 2016 (and somehow in 2017), the Immigration and security crises in Europe caused other issues such as the economic crisis to become marginalized. But now it’s shadowed over the whole of Europe. Under such circumstances, the main question of European citizens is that what was the impact of austerity policies adopted for ten years inside the EU borders?

They can clearly see that the adoption of such policies has had no effects on improving their economic conditions. The existing economic crisis continues to be felt in everyday life of European citizens. The rise of the signs of the financial crisis in Europe, and the decline in credit ratings, and the growth of unemployment in countries that continue to be affected by the financial crisis have created many social crises in Europe.

The protests that are taking place today in France and other European countries are not merely an objection to rising fuel prices or tax increases for low-income groups. It is a protest against the unstable economic structure of the European Union and the Eurozone.

Emmanuel Macron, the young French president, as an economist, promised to redefine the existing economic structure in the Eurozone, with regard to the current economic crisis. However, Macron himself has now become the symbol of crisis in Europe!

The economic crisis in European countries doesn’t limit to austerity policies! The external debt crisis in the European countries should also be added to the economic and credit crises in the West. The crisis is heavily extended in countries like Italy, causing a lot of trouble for other member states of the Eurozone. The economic cohesion of the Eurozone member states has fueled this trend.

In any case, it seems that the patience of European citizens has come to an end. As noted, according to the predictions, these crises were to be resolved before 2012, and economic growth symbols was to be replaced by austerity symbols. But at the moment, there is little indication of economic growth in European countries, and austerity policies remain strong.

Finally, it should be concluded that the European countries, especially the EU member states, have no choice but to “self-destruct” their economic foundations and replace them with new patterns. If European officials continue to insist on existing methods and economic models, they will be doomed to failure in the near future. In this case, nationalist groups and far-right extremists will dominate Europe’s political, economic, social and security equations, and this would definitely be a terrible nightmare for those like Merkel and Macron.

First published in our partner MNA

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EU steps up action against disinformation

MD Staff

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To protect its democratic systems and public debates and in view of the 2019 European elections as well as a number of national and local elections that will be held in Member States by 2020, the EU is presenting today an Action Plan to step up efforts to counter disinformation in Europe and beyond.

Taking stock of the progress made so far and following up on the call made by European leaders in June 2018 to protect the Union’s democratic systems, the European Commission and the High Representative are setting out concrete measures to tackle disinformation, including the creation of a Rapid Alert System and close monitoring of the implementation of the Code of Practice signed by the online platforms. The Action Plan also foresees an increase of resources devoted to the issue.

High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini said: “Healthy democracy relies on open, free and fair public debate. It’s our duty to protect this space and not allow anybody to spread disinformation that fuels hatred, division, and mistrust in democracy. As the European Union, we’ve decided to act together and reinforce our response, to promote our principles, to support the resilience of our societies, within our borders and in the neighbourhood. It’s the European way to respond to one of the main challenges of our times.” 

Andrus Ansip, Vice-President responsible for the Digital Single Market, said: “We need to be united and join our forces to protect our democracies against disinformation. We have seen attempts to interfere in elections and referenda, with evidence pointing to Russia as a primary source of these campaigns. To address these threats, we propose to improve coordination with Member States through a Rapid Alert System, reinforce our teams exposing disinformation, increase support for media and researchers, and ask online platforms to deliver on their commitments. Fighting disinformation requires a collective effort.”

Stepping up detection, response and awareness

The Action Plan – prepared in close cooperation also with Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová; Commissioner for Security Union Julian King and Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel – focuses on four areas key to effectively build up the EU’s capabilities and strengthen cooperation between Member States and the EU:

Improved detection: Strategic Communication Task Forces and the EU Hybrid Fusion Cell in the European External Action Service (EEAS), as well as the EU delegations in the neighbourhood countries will be reinforced with significant additional specialised staff and data analysis tools. The EEAS’ strategic communication budget to address disinformation and raise awareness about its adverse impact is expected to more than double, from €1.9 million in 2018 to €5 million in 2019. EU Member States should complement these measures by reinforcing their own means to deal with disinformation.  

Coordinated response: A dedicated Rapid Alert System will be set up among the EU institutions and Member States to facilitate the sharing of data and assessments of disinformation campaigns and to provide alerts on disinformation threats in real time. The EU institutions and Member States will also focus on proactive and objective communication on Union values and policies.

Online platforms and industry:The signatories of the Code of Practice should swiftly and effectively implement the commitments made under the Code of Practice, focusing on actions that are urgent for the European elections in 2019. This includes in particular ensuring transparency of political advertising, stepping up efforts to close active fake accounts, labelling non-human interactions (messages spread automatically by ‘bots’) and cooperating with fact-checkers and academic researchers to detect disinformation campaigns and make fact-checked content more visible and widespread. The Commission, with the help of the European group of regulators in charge of audio-visual media services, will ensure a close and continuous monitoring of the implementation of the commitments.

Raising awareness and empowering citizens: In addition to targeted awareness campaigns, the EU institutions and Member States will promote media literacy through dedicated programmes. Support will be provided to national multidisciplinary teams of independent fact-checkers and researchers to detect and expose disinformation campaigns across social networks.

Finally, the Commission is today also reporting on the progress made in tackling online disinformation since the presentation of its Communication in April 2018.

Next steps

The European Commission and the High Representative will develop and implement the measures set out in the Action Plan, in close cooperation with Member States and the European Parliament.

With a view to the European elections, the Rapid Alert System will be set up by March 2019. This will be complemented by further strengthening relevant resources.

The signatories of the Code of Practice will have to provide the first implementation update to the Commission by the end of 2018, which the Commission will then publish in January 2019. Between January and May, the online platforms will have to report to the Commission on a monthly basis. The Commission will also carry out a comprehensive assessment of the implementation of the Code of Practice in its first 12 months. Should the implementation and the impact of the Code of Practice prove unsatisfactory, the Commission may propose further measures, including of a regulatory nature.

Background

The European Union has been actively tackling disinformation since 2015. Followinga decision of the European Council in March 2015, in order to “challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns“, the East StratCom Task Forcein the European External Action Service (EEAS) was set up. The Task Force, together with the relevant Commission services, focuses on effectively communicating the EU’s policies towards its eastern neighbourhood; strengthening the overall media environment in the eastern neighbourhood, including providing support for media freedom and strengthening independent media; and improving the EU’s capacity to forecast, address and raise awareness of pro-Kremlin disinformation activities.

In 2016, the Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats was adopted, followed by the Joint Communication on increasing resilience and bolstering capabilities to address hybrid threats in 2018.

In April 2018, the Commission outlined a European approach and self-regulatory tools to tackle disinformation online, including an EU-wide Code of Practice against Disinformation, support for an independent network of fact-checkers, and tools to stimulate quality journal­ism. On 16 October, the Code of Practice was signed by Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla as well as the trade association representing online platforms and trade associations representing the advertising industry and advertisers.

In his 2018 State of the Union Address, President Juncker also put forward a set of concrete measures to make sure that next year’s European Parliament elections are organised in a free, fair and secure manner. The measures include greater transparency in online political advertisements and the possibility to impose sanctions for the illegal use of personal data in order to deliberately influence the outcome of the European elections.

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