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Democracy in Danger in a Schizophrenic Europe

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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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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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