Ivan Illich, a great advocate for intercultural communication, gifted us with a great insight. It is found in his book Tools for Conviviality. He wrote there that foreign languages ought to be pursued not so much to communicate with those native to them, but rather, so that we may listen to the particular silences found in the background of all languages, and thereby retrieve the original cultural humus from which they sprang. Notice the metaphor of the germinating seed in tandem with that of the historical journey, back to origins.
I would suggest that without an in-depth listening on both sides of the Atlantic pond, not only will the journey not begin, but any meaningful transatlantic dialogue may forever elude us. In this global village in which we live, there is an urgent need to return to the future for a novantiqua kind of civilization. It is good to have lights on a car to see what’s ahead, but a rear-view mirror is also necessary to avoid a disaster.
A fruitful dialogue is always underpinned by an exchange of ideas, the envisioning of new imaginative paradigms, and a courageous execution of those ideas and visions. Let us however be aware of Illich’s caveat: assuming that the soil is good, little will germinate and even less will be gathered in the spring, unless the seed has undergone the rigors and silence of winter. Within that silence we can hope to find the space and the courage for a convivial dialogue. Then we may hope to repair worn-out transatlantic bridges of understanding and retrieve shared values. I write this while many, on both sides of the Atlantic are urgently advocating the abandonment of NATO and the whole political structure of the Transatlantic Alliance. That alliance will certainly be in jeopardy should the worst happen at the November and Donald Trump is elected president.
It may prove helpful to keep in mind a few memorable quotes of famous cultural guides and heroes in various fields and have them function as a leitmotif of sort. I have chosen four to begin with. The first one is by the poet Paul Valery who wrote this refrain in an essay on European identity: “As far as I am concerned, any people who have been influenced throughout history by Greece, Rome and Christianity are Europeans.” The second is from a statesman, the founder of the European Union Robert Shuman, who said: “I never feel so European as when I enter a cathedral.” The third is by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, who in a lecture given at the University of Prague in 1935 stated this certainty of his: “I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism.” Finally, the fourth one is by a scientist, Albert Einstein, who declared that “perfection of means and confusion of goals seems, in my opinion, the character of our age.”
The above quotes illuminate each other and shed light on some of the false assumptions that have ill served Western Civilization in our times. It is generally assumed that a culture war is presently going-on between the two sides of the North Atlantic and we need wise leaders to show us the way to the future. The confirmation for this premise is identified on this side of the North Atlantic in the perception of as a pervasive anti-Americanism which has been present in Europe for a few decades now, while over there in Europe it is identified as anti-Eurocentrism, found especially in academic circles where one hears constant appeals to de-emphasize Eurocentric notions in the teaching of Civilizations, all in the name of political correctness, multiculturalism and a general relativism very much in vogue in the West.
In Europe one hears pleas for a return to a more authentic European cultural identity that distances itself from a globalizing, pervasive, technological fix-all, market oriented popular American culture contemptuous of regional cultures; it is that fear that fuels the anti-global movement. The French poet Baudelaire already in the 19th century had warned us that “technology shall Americanize us all,” but he was no anti-American. By technology he meant a rationalistic mode of thinking contemptuous of poetic and humanistic modes.
In any case, it seems to me that it is an erroneous assumption to conceive the two cultures as being on parallel universes, in different boats going their own direction toward different political destinies. To be sure there are cultural wars but they are internal more than external. They exist internally on both sides of the Atlantic. When in Europe I hear statements such as “you Americans…” I promptly interrupt and ask “which American?” If we recollect the first quote from Valery we may begin to perceive how misguided such an assumption is. It loses sight of the fact that, despite the particular cultural differences on both sides of the Atlantic, despite the integration of non-European and non-Western influences, the roots and the trunk of the tree have a common origin. The mistakes are also similar, since before we were all “Americanized” by a penchant for the technological fix-all, we were all Cartesian rationalists.
We are in the same boat, and it is called Western Civilization; in it we shall float or sink together. That thought alone ought to unite, more than divide us. This is a civilization that goes back to the ancient Greeks who perceived themselves as Westerners vis à vis the Persians. It goes back to the Romans, with Virgil as the grandfather of Europe and an empire that paves the way for the spread of Christianity and medieval Christendom and Scholastic philosophy in Europe, with a Dante advocating a United Europe in his political tract De Monarchia, the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Moslem influence in the Dark Ages, Germano-Saxon ideals of freedom, the synthesis of Graeco-Roman civilization and Christianity that is Humanism and paves the way for the new beginning that is the Renaissance, the Enlightenment (that of Vico and Montesquieu as well as that of Voltaire)—all largely positive elements of Western Civilization.
When Valery says that anyone influenced by the universality of the idea of Europe is a European he does not mean it in a chauvinistic mode, nor as a geo-political reality, nor in Machiavellian-Nietzchean terms of “will-to-power,” or in terms of real-politik. He is simply stating a cultural reality shared by people in Australia and the Americas and even Africa and parts of Asia.
Contrast, if you will Valery’s statement with this one: “…by the favor of universal Enlightenment, it might become possible to dream, for the great European family, of going the way of the American Congress…what an outlook then of power, of glory, of well being, of prosperity! What a great and magnificent spectacle!” Notice if you will, the comparison with America; it looks as if the economic rat race has already taken off; notice also the stress on power and glory. I submit that this is the opposite of Valery’s idea of Europe. Try as you may, the word freedom is nowhere to be found in this statement proffered by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. That may explain why Beethoven withdrew his dedication from his Eroica symphony.
Indeed the cement for a genuine union of disparate people can only be found in the cultural sphere, and not in Machiavellian considerations of “real politick.” The lesson of Italian unification is instructive here: after it was achieved, Massimo Dazeglio, one of its architects, said: “now that we have made Italy let us make the Italians.” That was like putting the cart before the horse. Unfortunately, even nowadays cultural concerns are more often than not conspicuously absent from the pronouncements of our political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Gone are the Monets, the Shumans, the De Gasperis, the Adenauers, the De Gaulles, the Churchills of a generation ago with a vision of the spiritual boundaries of Europe and the assumption that Western Civilization is constituted by an idea.
Nevertheless, I would suggest that any European of any nationality and faith, or no faith, aware of her/his cultural roots, can also sincerely assert the second statement by Shuman. An atheist and an American such as George Santayana who left Harvard University to go and live and die in a monastery in Italy, did in fact assert it. As someone deeply concerned with the life of reason, he was acutely aware that one cannot understand the essence of Western Civilization by ignoring the positive contributions of its Christian heritage and reducing it to a shallow, and often slanderous, caricature. Which is not to deny other interrelated influences and shared values, such as democracy, free speech, free exchange of ideas, religious freedom, the philosophical and scientific spirit which have a common source in ancient Greece.
Europe in fact presents us with a Janus face: on one side Humanism which begins with Petrarch, on the other Enlightenment rationalism which begins with Descartes. This phenomenon needs to be recognized before we can even hope to recover lost humanistic modes of thinking, often misguidedly considered superseded or synthesized by the Enlightenment.
A common bank and a common army may be useful and even necessary, but they alone do not constitute the cement needed to hold together disparate people with different languages. Ideas and ideals are a sine qua non for a genuine union. Moreover, we ought to take heed of what Klaus Held warned us of a few years ago. At the end of a brilliant essay on the essence of European culture already analyzed in the Global Spiral and titled The Origins of Europe and the Greek Discovery of the World he writes that: “A European community grounded only in political and economic cooperation of the member states, would lack an intrinsic common bond and would be built upon sand.” And if indeed we are in the same boat running full speed ahead in the middle of the Atlantic, we need to ask: where are we coming from, where are we heading for, do we have a map and a compass, what are our shared values, what is our common identity as Westerners, what is our Leitkultur, what are our common dangers? Are there icebergs ahead? For indeed even luxury liners declared unsinkable even by God, have been known to sink, and as the Einstein quote powerfully suggests, it does no good to rearrange the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. Great civilizations have been known to vanish, Plato called one such “Atlantis.”
A bit closer to our times, Jacques Ellul also sounds the alarm in his The Betrayal of the West. Moreover, Jacques Derrida, in a lecture given at the University of Turin on the 20th of May 1990 asked this crucial question: “To what concept, to what real individual can we today ascribe the name of Europe?” He answers his own question in an essay he wrote later titled “L’autre cap suivi de la démocracie ajournée” where he envisions a future Europe (more of a promise than a reality) that conceives of itself as an idea around the guiding principle of “a mature sense of democracy” placed within the context of Western Civilization. He even suggests that this mature Europe ought to get rid of a geographical capital and opt for a polycentric network similar to medieval universities. As he puts it: “Europeans need to re-discover their spiritual frontiers beyond petty nationalities around the idea of philosophy, reason, monotheism, of the Jewish, the Greek, the Christian, Islamic memory, around Jerusalem, around Athens, Rome, Moscow, Paris.”
If nothing else, Derrida has revived the notion that more than a geo-political reality Europe is a still largely unexplored and unrealized idea. Several philosophers have in fact explored this idea that is Europe and have attempted to answer the question of its essence and identity. Unfortunately, not many on both sides of the Atlantic bother to read what they have to say on the subject.
I have already mentioned Dante, but within modern times, besides Deridda, we could include at a minimum the following contributors to this idea: Leibniz in the 17th century, who first identifies the proto-language (Germanic-Celtic) as the fountainhead for the union of the people of Europe, and then Kant who promotes universal values with an ethical component, followed by Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Croce, Ortega y Gasset. With the arrival of the new polity called the European Union in mid 20th century we have Adorno, Berdjaev, Habermas, Gadamer, Havel, Levinas.
Finally, let us analyze the above mentioned quote from Edmund Husserl. What is he alluding to by that “mistaken rationalism”? As a philosopher, he cannot possibly be talking about the life of the mind or the life of reason. Rather, he is talking about a calculating kind of rationalism devoid of imagination that ends up making trains run on time but never asks where those trains may be headed for. A rationalism that rationalizes what ought never to be rationalized, that begins with the ego but, as Lévinas teaches us, fails to realize that there is kernel inside the ego with an ethical component called the self, thus ending up with the logos without the mythos. The kind of reason which has produced political ideologies that substitute religious dogma (the mythos without the logos), identified by Vico as a cancerous growth of Western Civilization and dubbed by him “the barbarism of the intellect.” More particularly, Husserl is referring to the major shift which occurs in the 17th century with the advent of Cartesian rationalism, followed in the 18th century by the age of Enlightenment.
The problematic of the Enlightenment seems to be this: When Descartes in his Discourse on Method does away with humanistic modes of thought, he ushers in rationalism which eventually becomes modern relativism and nihilism. When truth is instrumentalized it undermines the very truths that rationality espouses. So, it appears that we Westerners were all “Cartesian rationalists” in the 18th century before we are “technocratic Americans” in the 19th with a fascination, on both sides of the Atlantic, with technological wonders, and an obsession with rational computerized push-botton fix-alls.
The currents of civilizations’ influences on one another are indeed mysterious. Perhaps E.F. Schumacher explains the matter best when he writes in his A Guide to the Perplexed that: “The change of Western man’s interest from ‘the slenderest knowledge that man may obtain of the highest things’ (Aquinas) to mathematically precise knowledge of lesser things marks a shift from what we might call ‘science for understanding’ to ‘science for manipulation.’ The purpose of the former was enlightenment of the person and his liberation; the purpose of the latter is power. ‘Knowledge itself is power,” said Francis Bacon, and Descartes promised men they would become ‘masters and possessors of nature.’ In its more sophisticated development, ‘science for manipulation’ tends almost inevitably to advance from the manipulation of nature to that of people.”(pp. 53-54). Enter Machiavelli’s “real politik.”
The Enlightenment refuses to enlighten itself since it considers itself the culmination of full-fledged reason doing light unto itself; everything can be doubted except one’s own method. The concept, abstract reason, logical thinking is privileged at the expense of the poetical. It is reason eating its own tail with no outside point of reference and no reference to “common sense,” a sort of grammar of lunacy which begins innocuously enough with Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” The ability to hear the gods is lost. A sad condition indeed which Kierkegaard, in identifying the Hegelian totalizing tendency, calls “the sickness unto death.”
Vico who is the culmination of Italian Humanism, offers a corrective to Descartes with his “poetic philosophy.” He interprets wisdom and knowledge in a fresh new imaginative mode as “sapienza poetica,” (poetic wisdom) and alerts us that when reason detaches itself from “poetic wisdom” and refuses to retrace its steps back to the wonder of the child, it becomes pure rationalism or the “barbarism of the intellect,” perhaps best exemplified by Dante’s image of Bertrand del Born in a cave in hell, holding his own decapitated head as light unto himself. Vico on the other hand, keeps reason and imagination together, he blends the rational and the poetical to arrive at a new understanding of both image and idea, a synthesis that is novantiqua, in between Geist and Leiben which he calls “poetic wisdom.”
Closer to our times, Emmanuel Lévinas offers a corrective to the whole European philosophical tradition for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He indicts Western philosophers for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts such as Hegel’s “Spirit” or Heidegger’s “Being,” assimilating countless individuals to rational processes and negating their individuality. He argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers not excluded—interact with persons different from ourselves.
Vico, Havel and Levinas are modern examples of cultural guides for the construction of new paradigms, the new wineskins for the new Europe. The rest depends on our courage to take responsibility for our existential condition and do something about it.
Let me end with a thought from a former Spanish Euro-parlamentarian, Raimond Obiols, who on March 4, 2002 wrote the following in the Debate on the Future of Europe: “We Europeans should not ourselves be overwhelmed by the pessimism caused by an inappropriate comparison with the role of the US as a political military superpower. We should set ourselves the target of building up civilian power, with a growing capacity for political, diplomatic, cultural and economic influence capable of exporting stability and equilibrium, encouraging and creating positive international consensus by intelligently employing Europe’s enormous potential for “soft power.” And this is how Mr. Obiols defines soft power: “hegemony by means of asserting values, cultural influence, leadership in knowledge and communications. Getting what one wants through attraction rather than coercion.”
Obviously, Mr. Obiols is proposing the substitution of a Humanistic imaginative paradigm to a tired old Machiavellian one, a peace oriented one to a power-oriented one inevitably ending up in war and strife. In the old days, the days of Thoreau, Gandhi and King it used to be called “soul power.” Havel has a similar insight when he declared in his Politics and Conscience way back in 1984 that “impersonal manipulative forces can be resisted only by one true power we all possess, our own humanity.” In effect, Havel is calling Europe back home to its true identity, to the recovery of its soul rooted in Christian Humanism. He is asking her: Quo vadis Europa?
EU to mount decisive summit on Kosovo
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
EU politicians turn to “ball of snakes” to make own careers
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.
Sovereignty versus nature: Central and Eastern Europe not ready to fight for environment at all costs
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.
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