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Historicism and Cultural Identity in the EU

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I have repeatedly stated that one of the acutest cultural problems in the EU nowadays is that of a lack of cultural identity rooted in Christianity; this is largely due philosophically to a poor appreciation of historicism. To my mind, the philosopher who first alerted us to this problem was Giambattista Vico, widely considered the father of modern historicism. I’d like to offer a brief outline of his theory of history, trusting that interested readers will then pick up and read his masterpiece The New Science.

In 1976 A. Robert Caponigri of Notre Dame University published an essay in honor of the great Yale Dante and Vico scholar Thomas Bergin (in Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, Yale University Press) in which he stated that “In the ‘Scienza Nuova’ Vico anticipates by two centuries contemporary man’s most profound discovery concerning himself: the fact that he has a history, because by creating history man discovers and actualizes his own humanity.” That statement alerts us to the fact that Vico is well within the Italian humanistic tradition. He is, in fact, nothing short of its culmination. A tradition this which is interrupted by Descartes’ anti-humanistic stance and now waiting, like ambers under the ashes of a technocratic rationalistic society, for a new rebirth.

I am not suggesting that the concept of history is a special privilege of Western Man. Non Westerns too have a history. However, it is only in 18th century Europe that Man becomes aware of the far reaching implications of that fact. While Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Muslims had chronicles and archives, they were not intellectually conscious of the astonishing fact peculiar to Western Man, that the history that man makes expresses his freedom vis à vis events, nature and social life; which is to say, that when Man creates history out of nothing (as a sort of creation ex nihilo), he creates an eminently human factum, a sort of artifact, which is then knowable to the human mind that created it. In short, the awareness that Man has, is, and makes history is a paradigm, or a myth of reality if you will, which is unique to Western thinking and is intimately related to the idea of freedom.

Carl Marx for one utilized this paradigm of Man as his own history, but he was not its discoverer as some surmise. Its discoverer was Giambattista Vico who first proposed it to his contemporaries as a sort of antidote to the then rampant abstract, rationalistic philosophy of Renè Descartes. In fact, I suggest that to perceive Vico’s originality one needs to explore this peculiar Cartesian rationalistic background of our culture. Only in contrast to the thought of Descartes, which has shaped the modern mind-set, can we grasp the relevancy of Vico’s thought.

In the first place, it should be noted that a-historical thinking, a tendency to emphasize and privilege the universal and abstract aspects of thought, at the expense of the particular and the contingent, has been around in the West since Plato. But Descartes believed that he had reached the end of his epistemological ventures with what he considered the final solution to the problem of human knowledge. He accomplishes it by deemphasizing the humanities and claiming that the main criterion of truth for man is that the judgments asserting it must consist of “clear and distinct ideas.”

In his Principles of Philosophy Descartes states that “I term that clear which is present and apparent to an attentive mind, in the same way as we assert that we see objects clearly when, being present to the regarding eye, they operate upon it with sufficient strength. But the distinct is that which is so precise and different from all other objects that it contains within itself nothing but what is clear.” Obviously, within this kind of epistemology symbols related to seeing predominate over those related to hearing. The insistence throughout is on clarity and mathematical knowledge. Mathematics is in fact specifically mentioned in Descartes’ Discourse on Method where he states that “Most of all I was delighted with Mathematics because of the certainty of its demonstrations and the evidence of its reasoning.”

And what exactly is Descartes’ true foundation for his theory of knowledge? His renowned “Cogito, ergo sum,” that is, thought in the act of thinking or reflecting upon itself. In other words, if I think, I exist or at least perceive myself as existing. This first certitude of one’s existence is characterized by the evidence thought has of itself with no other unclear elements. Therefore, Descartes concludes, the criterion of truth must be evidence accompanied by clarity and distinctness. What is dismissed out of hand are all “unclear” ideas upon which history rests: memories, inner psychic states, motives, images, symbols, myths, imaginative fairy tales, works of art with their ambiguous possibilities of meaning. In fact, the vast realm of personal and inter-personal knowledge, defined by Martin Buber as the realm of the “I-Thou,” is summarily rejected.

Now, it does not take much intellectual acumen to realize that since Descartes Western thought has been dominated by a rampant rationalism which, with the possible exception of Nietzschean romantic anti-rationalism culminating with existentialism, has a peculiar view of the relationship existing between a knowing experiencing subject (the self) and the objects and events around it (the observable world) which it perceives and knows. Since the seventeenth century this has been the almost exclusive domain within which the nature of reality has been considered in the West. It is a mode of thought wherein all of reality consists of “external” objects and events which are responsible for the perceptual experience of an observing subject. This is the realm of “I-it” as also defined by Buber; a realm concerned with the world of things and objectified events. It reaches its most restrictive form with modern science which, by its very nature, is exclusively concerned with observable objects and events.

Vico’s peculiar genius lies in the fact that he was the first thinker within Western culture to clearly perceive that Descartes left no room for history; that on this road Man would end up dehumanizing himself. In contrast, he proposed a theory of knowledge which emphasizes and demonstrates the importance and validity of historical thinking. His opus spanned fifteen years (1710-1725) and culminated with the publication of his New Science (the first edition appeared in 1725, the second in 1730 and the third in 1744).

Vico’s initial attack on the Cartesian paradigm begins with his inaugural lecture at the University of Naples in 1710 titled De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia. There he inquires as to what it is that makes mathematical ideas, the prime example of Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas,” so irrefutable? His answer is that such clarity and irrefutability derive from the fact that we ourselves have made them. In geometry we are able to demonstrate truth because we ourselves have created it. Vico employs a Latin formula to explain this idea: Verum et Factum convertuntur, which basically means that we can only fully create, and hence fully know, the things that we design and make out of nothing. In other words, the privileged position of mathematical propositions, as regards clarity and persuasiveness, rests upon the fact that they are arbitrary creations.

Vico then proceeds to qualify Descartes’ position before setting out the theoretical basis for historical knowledge proper. His basic insight is that truth is a dimension of the subject and it is a fallacy to think with Descartes that it can be conceived as a property of objects themselves. In other words, truth is the mode of presence of the subject to itself as mediated by the objects it observes. This circularity establishes the integrity of the mind as total presence to itself. Within it the dualism subject/object is mediated. To say it in even more simple terms Vico, as the consummate humanist that he is, proposes that besides metaphysics (rational intuition), mathematics (deductive knowledge), and natural science (empirical knowledge), there is a fourth, very important kind of knowledge: self-knowledge.

Within self-knowledge we are more than mere passive onlookers. We are the protagonists of situations which we understand from the inside. In its broadest sense Vico is equating this kind of necessary knowledge, well known to the ancient Greeks, with historical knowledge proper. Moreover, he alerts us to the fact that since nobody has made himself, this self-knowledge will not have the “clear and distinct” quality of mathematics. On the other hand, neither will it have the game quality, the fictitiousness and arbitrariness of mathematics. It will be a superior kind of knowledge because it is not an observing of phenomena exterior to us, and therefore ultimately unknowable to us. In fact, it will be even superior to the empirical knowledge of the natural world. In this respect, Vico is the precursor of Martin Buber’s basic insight that it is only in the world of I-Thou that true reality is to be found. The world of I-it is there to be analyzed, categorized, organized but it is not the total world. Vico had intuited that the world of Descartes’ cogito may be indubitable, but it also essentially limited and sterile. It cannot yield the essence of either thought or existence. From it we will never derive the causes and the nature of our being.

Vico has thus established that the Cartesian cogito, i.e., thinking thought, cannot be science but mere consciousness. In searching for a principle of truth one must begin from an absolute reality, namely that of God who has created all things and therefore knows them all. He is the Primus Factor, therefore in Him there is the first truth. In as much as all elements of things (both exterior and interior) are present in Him, complete truth resides in Him. This is so because verum factum convertuntur, he who causes a thing knows it.

This concept of causation in Vico shows the relative character of human knowledge. In as much as God contains all things, He can “read” all the elements of things. His mind is characterized by intelligentia. The human mind, on the other hand, is foreign to all, is foreign to all things that are different from itself and is therefore characterized by cogitatio by which it gathers elements external to itself. In other words, Vico is saying that we reason because we are imperfect. God does not reason, He intuits.

From this relative character of human thought issues a sort of metaphysics of humility, a new paradigm for perceiving reality; and it is this: the more external the object to the knowing mind, the more generic will be its knowledge. For example, nature had long been in existence when man arrives on the scene. The human mind, therefore, can never fully participate in its origins. Sciences are better or less knowable depending on how much human thought operates in building them: mathematics is surer than mechanics, mechanics surer than physics, physics surer than morality. Vico wisely suggests that the more congenial thing for man is to limit himself to the examination of what has been produced in history: the customs, the deeds, and above all, the language of Man. He refers to this as the certum, the cultural residue constituting the subject matter of the historian.

It is crucial that this certum, these records of history, be understood as that which man has made, the factum. Here again Vico’s insight is that the certum and the factum are convertible; which is to say, history leads to knowledge; more specifically it leads to self-knowledge when it approaches its own documents (the certum) with the understanding that these are what other selves have created in history. We are then within Vico’s hermeneutical circle: whenever Man creates in history, and above all when he creates language, he creates a structure that constitutes an interpretation of his experience. In turn that interpretation organizes the world around him. The study of history turns out to be an ongoing understanding and evaluation, in effect a constant reinterpretation, of these interpretative structures which men have created. There is no such thing as “objective” history, once, once and for all as some historians, in their eagerness to declare their discipline a “science” would contend.

A scientist with positivistic tendencies in describing the history of science, will reveal to the perceptive reader the Cartesian paradigm under which he labors. Inevitably, there is a tendency to see religion not at the very origins of science but as magic and superstition hostile to it; while science per se and its rational method of perceiving reality will be assigned preeminence over and above myth-making, poetry and poetic wisdom.

This rather cavalier intellectual stance would not be so repugnant were it stated as a premise at the outset. The sheer hubris of the Cartesian mind-set (what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect” and I call “hard-wired rationalism”) is exhibited by its insistence that it is the only valid and “objective” view of what constitutes reality, while other views or paradigms can only proceed out of ignorance and have therefore little, if any, intellectual value. A. Robert Caponigri puts it best when he writes that “The concrete processes of culture alone provide the context for the idea of man because only in that context are the conditions of total presence realized…In culture, the alienation latent in nature is overcome because all cultural structures are modes of the presence of man to himself as defined against nature.” (“The Timelessness of the Scienza Nuova of Giambattista Vico.” In Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, Ed. Jose Rimanelli, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1976, p. 310).

One of the most important Vichian principles is this: “The nature of institutions is nothing but their coming into being (nascimento) at certain times and in certain guises” (SN, 147). Vico’s stress upon the ongoing development of history is one in which the legacy of the past is taken with complete seriousness, but without obscuring the necessity of reprehending the past in ways appropriate to the present, or the necessity of leaving the future free to apprehend the past in ways which are perhaps as yet unthinkable. Indeed, the Columbus of 1992 is a differently perceived Columbus than the one of 1892.

With the above examined understanding of history Vico attempts to oppose Descartes’ claim that “clear and distinct ideas” constitute the highest form of knowledge. He perceived that Descartes’ claim inevitably leads to a concept of history as a clearly and distinctly apprehended “hard core of historical facts” known once and for all. Indeed, that “hard core” may have the simplicity of mathematical ideas but it is similar to them in the sense that it is an abstraction arbitrarily created out of the complex flow of history; an abstraction which can then be used as a counter in a game that we ourselves have invented. This appeal to thinking of history in terms of “hard core” facts can be better understood if we keep in mind that the moving of abstract counters in freely invented games gives one a great sense of control while calling for little commitment on the part of the player. For example, let the reader imagine, if you will, the computerized video games routinely played by generals in the Pentagon and other nations’ War Departments. In a few seconds these powerful Caesars are able to obliterate millions of enemy soldiers, not unlike the original Caesar who claimed more than a million lives in his Gallic War. In the video game, it happens from time to time that millions of one’s own soldiers are nuked by mistake. One general’s comment to this “friendly fire” mistake supposedly was “Holy cow!” The reader may retort that there is nothing wrong in playing a virtual war game if it ultimately prevents a real war. Fair enough. The problem however arises when those “hard core” facts are fallaciously assumed to exist objectively “out there” and made to constitute the substance of history. When millions of soldiers and whole cities come to be seen as mere counters in a dangerous chess game of “realpolitik,” then we end up with the “Evil Empire” engaging the world in an arms race costing the world a couple of million dollars a minute. Some already envision a new start of those games, called Cold War, in the 21st century, and they may be right.

E.F.Schumacher in his A Guide to the Perplexed (Perennial Library, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1977) puts the matter thus: “The change of Western man’s interest from ‘the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things’ (Thomas Aquinas) to mathematically precise knowledge of lesser things—‘there being nothing in the world the knowledge of which would be more desirable or more useful’ (Christian Huygens, 1629-1695—marks a shift from what we might call ‘science for understanding’ to ‘science for manipulation.’ The purpose of the former was the 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).

Vico clearly perceives this fallacy more than two hundred years ahead of his times and insists on the conversion of the certum with the factum, i.e., that the study of history is a reinterpretation of those interpretative structures which Man has created. He shows that the formula he initially applied to mathematics, the true and the made are convertible, is applicable to history as well. However, when applied to history, a different kind of knowledge arises. While in mathematics the resulting knowledge is “clear and distinct,” albeit fictitious and arbitrary, in history it cannot be so since we have neither created ourselves nor the world of nature out of nothing.

History cannot yield clear and distinct ideas because it deals with tangled non fictitious matters of purposes, goals, motives, acts of the will, fears, hopes in effort to reach self-knowledge. Even more simply put, history deals with the heritage of the past, understanding for the present and hope for the future. This truth of self-knowledge is convertible with what Man has accomplished in history because as Vico explains it: “…the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind” (SN, 331).

We are not accustomed of speaking of this matter in terms of verum and factum. And yet all we need to do is transpose “content” for verum, and “form” for factum, to understand that Vico is basically saying that the content of anything is but the form it assumed at the point in history at which it came into being. In other words, content comes into existence with or within form. Contrary to what Descartes thought he could do, content and form can be distinguished but cannot be separated from one another. To fully know one at its origins is to know the other. They are convertible because they arise together. There is no such thing as “the inner meaning of myths” or of fact separate from interpretation in the study of history. Once that is granted, then one has to also grant that history is equally knowable as mathematics. This is so because history is the result of the development of the human mind and of the universal principles it contains and by which it judges things and to which it tries to conform.

And here is how Vico himself expresses the unity of content and form: “Our science therefore comes to describe at the same time and ideal eternal history traversed in time by the history of every nation in its rise, development, maturity, decline, and fall. Indeed, we made bold to affirm that he who meditates this Science narrates to himself this ideal eternal history so far as he himself makes it for himself by that proof ‘it had, has, and will have to be.’ For the first indubitable principle posited above is that this world of nations has certainly been made by men, and its guise must therefore be found within the modifications of our human mind. And history cannot be more certain when he who creates the things also narrates them. Now, as geometry, when it constructs the world of quantity out of its elements, or contemplates the world, is creating it for itself, just so does our Science create for itself the world of nations, but with a reality greater by just so much as the institutions having to do with human affairs are more real than points, lines, surfaces, and figures are. And this very fact is an argument, o reader, that these proofs are of a kind divine and should give thee a divine pleasure, since in God knowledge and creation are one and the same thing (SN, 349).”

The above quote makes it quite clear that the starting point of this unique approach to history cannot be the Cartesian thinking subject. Vico demonstrates that Descartes, whole intention was that of overcoming doubt and founding a sure system of reaching truth, ironically ends up with the position of Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” However, given that Man is a partial being and not his own creator, given too that he doubts and his thought is a relative truth, the Cartesian criterion of truth proves to be inadequate. It is in effect a reduction of truth to the private, what Vico aptly calls “la boria dei dotti,” the arrogance of the learned, i.e., the production of truth in a closet independent of the real world out there. To the contrary, Vico insists that the above mentioned common ideal notions have become present in the human mind through the life of nations as “common sense of the people.” For him “common sense” is a consensus reached by a whole people without reflection and expressing itself in spontaneous wisdom or poetic wisdom. Homer’s poetry in the Iliad and the Odyssey was reached that way for those epics could not have been written by the same man. It sprang from the common sense and the poetic wisdom of the ancient Greeks before the onset of philosophical reflection. Such a notion is fundamental to a critical approach to problems of history, be they in religion, law, art, language, for truth is not something private to be pondered in a closet or an ivory tower for that matter. It is rather a public patrimony finding its natural dimension in the social life of man.

To briefly summarize Vico’s theory of knowledge we can say that history becomes science when Man orders and understands his deeds according to those eternal notions that Man (through the mediating operation of the intellect) finds in himself. The truth of history does not consist in mere facts produced by men, but also in the possibility that men have to recover the facts of history to the structure of their mind and to the eternal order that God reveals to the mind of men. As we shall see more thoroughly further down, in Vico philosophy and philology are completely integrated. While the human mind generates institutions such as language, laws, religions, poetry, myths, the civil world of tribes and nations, this production is not wholly autonomous. It operates under what Vico terms “the force of truth” immanent in the eternal notions present in the mind of man. This is providence at work. Of everything that Man may know, this is most authentically scientific.

Unfortunately the modern Cartesian positivistic mind-set has not yet fully come to terms with this Vichian new paradigm. The delusion persists that questions of meaning in history and civilization can be adequately answered with the technological know-how. Until that fallacy can be overcome, the danger of dehumanization and loss of freedom will continue to persist.

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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Tackling migration crises: Fighting corruption may help

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Increasing numbers of migrants are moving towards the Belarus/Poland border.photo: Belarus Red Cross

Twenty-three-year-old Mohamed Rasheed was at a loss after returning to Iraq from a grueling failed attempt to cross the Belarus-Polish border. “There’s no life for us here. There are no jobs; there is no future,” he told a Washington Post reporter.

Another man, who had just disembarked from a repatriation flight from the Belarus capital of Minsk to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, frowned and obscured his face with a scarf, according to the reporter, as he responded to a question about why he had left.

“Those words cannot leave my mouth. Who dares to tell the truth here?” the man said.

The two men were returning to a country whose population has largely been excluded from sharing in the benefits of its oil wealth. Youth unemployment hovers at about 25 per cent. Public good and services are poor at best. Security forces and militias crackdown on and fire live ammunition at protesters demanding wholesale change.

Mohammed and his fellow returnee could have been from Lebanon, a middle-income country in which three-quarters of the population lives under the poverty line thanks to a corrupt elite unwilling to surrender vested interests irrespective of the cost to others.

In fact, they could have been from any number of countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and their African and Asian peripheries.

Almost half of the youth from non-Gulf countries in the Middle East and North Africa want nothing more than to leave in the absence of opportunities and prospects. They are exasperated with corrupt, self-serving elites.

This is a part of the world where devastating wars have wracked Syria, Yemen, and Libya. More recently, these countries were joined by Ethiopia while others in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel reel from jihadist violence that feeds on social and economic grievances.

To primarily hold responsible for the migrant crisis, human traffickers and cynical authoritarian leaders like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who are willing to play power games and turn a profit on the back of innocent men, women, and children is swatting at symptoms of a problem that goes to the root of instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

To be sure, Mr. Lukashenko and the traffickers are part of the problem. Moreover, many Middle Easterners on the Belarus-Polish border appear to be economic, not political refugees with a legal right to asylum.

One could argue that the European Union’s refusal to take in the refugees on humanitarian grounds led to their repatriation to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, which may have shortened their ordeal. Many risked being ultimately rejected, even if they had been granted entry to the EU because they were not political refugees.

The jury is out on whether the refusal will serve as a warning to the many in the Middle East and North Africa contemplating ways to get to Europe by hook or by crook.

All of this describes the immediate aspects of a dramatic crisis. The danger is that the focus on the immediate will obstruct badly needed thinking of ways to prevent or reduce the risk of future such crises and human suffering, aggravated by the willingness of governments to fight their battles on the backs of the least protected.

The framing of the crisis as a security rather than a political, economic, and social problem further takes away from the development of policies and tools to tackle the root causes of repeated migrant crises – economic mismanagement; political, economic, and financial corruption; nepotism; and loss of confidence in political systems and leadership.

“Addressing population challenges, the youth bulge, and refugee and migration pressure from natural or man-made crises will require measures to promote sustainable economic growth and enhanced educational and healthy capacities,” said George M. Feierstein, senior vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former State Department official with multiple postings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Acknowledging that a broader US policy focus is likely to prove more challenging than one narrowly concentrated on security, Mr. Feierstein argued that the United States could “bring assets to the table that could potentially enhance its role in the region and strengthen its position as the preeminent outside power.” The former diplomat was referring to big power rivalry with China and Russia in the Middle East and North Africa.

Adopting Mr. Feierstein’s policy prescription would involve greater emphasis on regional approaches to global challenges, including climate change and public health; conflict management and resolution efforts to safeguard populations and minimize internal displacement and migration; and institutional capacity and resilience building; all backed by greater US private sector engagement.

Kyrgyzstan has potentially emerged in what could provide evidence that a de-emphasis of the security aspects of the migration crisis would not automatically surrender real estate and /or leverage and influence to China and Russia.

Part of a Central Asian world sandwiched between Russia and China on which the United States has seemingly turned its back with its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov is using his election pledges to fight corruption and offer financial rewards to whistleblowers to lure the US back.

Mr. Japarov’s proposition, designed to rescue Kyrgyzstan from the clutches of Russia and China, is the central theme of a document that he has sent to the US State Department. The document outlines proposals to revive a broad political, economic, and civic engagement with the US bolstered by anti-corruption measures and affirmation of democratic freedoms.

S. Frederick Starr, founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, suggested that Mr. Japarov is providing a template for US reengagement with Central Asia and Afghanistan. In fact, the Kyrgyz president is offering a formula equally relevant to the Middle East and North Africa.

If adopted by the Biden administration, Kyrgyzstan “would become ‘The Mouse that Roared’ to cite the title of the droll 1959 British film.  This time, however, the lesser power will have advanced its cause not by threatening military action…but with a sensible proposal by which a great power—the United States—…can once more become a serious presence in a major part of Asia that lies on China’s and Russia’s doorstep,” Mr. Starr said.

In contrast to Central Asia, the United States remains the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa. But it’s a power seeking to redefine the role it wishes to play going forward in a region struggling to come to grips with an uncertain but changing US approach.

Kyrgyzstan could be showing the way for both United States and the Middle East. However, to make it work and reduce, if not stop, migration flows, the United States and its Western partners would have to prioritise confronting corrupt elites who will stop at nothing, including displacing populations, to preserve their illicitly gained privileges.

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An election, another one, and yet another one: Will Bulgaria finally have a functioning government?

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As of November, Bulgarian voters headed to the polls four times this year. Therefore, the news of a new election evokes little surprise — almost like in Israel before Netanyahu’s ousting. In both countries, the tension kept rising while expectations became more and more modest with each successive electoral round. However, the contests that took place on Sunday 14th were of the utmost importance for the country; and not only. In fact, Bulgaria is the EU’s and NATO’s south-eastern bulwark and hosts a tract of the South Stream gas duct. Moreover, Sofia is currently blockingthe next round of EU enlargement negotiations over North Macedonia’s disrespect of extant bilateral obligations. Finally, the Biden administration has manifested the US’s renewed interest in the Bulgaria’s internal politics and international orientations. Thus, the result of the vote has wider implication for the European and Euro-Atlantic political and geo-strategic stability.

Background — Two failed elections

April 2021: How the parties ‘hung’ the parliament

Last April, Bulgarians voted to renew the sitting parliament in the general elections. However, after a summer-long wave of protests against the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, established parties looked rather weak.

According to most experts, this new season of contestation has mobilised new voters, previously disenchanted about politics. As a result, the parties and the leaders who casted themselvesas supportive of the protests increased their votes. In particular, the neo-liberal coalition Democratic Bulgaria (DB) got the support of the well-educated and those residing in bigger cities. Meanwhile, the personal parties Stand Up! Bastards Out! (ISMV) and There is Such a People (ITN) fished across the board.

But they cannot persuadePM Boyko Borisov’s supporters that his removal from office is a precondition for societal improvement. Thus, despite the many corruption scandals involving Borisov’s cliques, all polls forecasted his party, GERB, would have won the election.

Or, to be more precise, GERB won the ballot count — but without a majority (see Figure 1). Moreover, the indignation did not spare the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which sometimes vents sympathies  for GERB despite its corruption. In addition, the elderlies are overrepresented amongst the BSP’s voters, the party suffered from Covid’s increasing morbidity during the spring. Hence, the main traditional opposition party lost votes in favour of the abovementioned ‘protest parties’, weakening the wider anti-Borisov front.

Against this background, there was absolutely no chance of seeing a cabinet get through a vote of confidence. In fact, GERB won 75 seats and the DPS, an ethnic-Turkish party closely associated with GERB, got other 30. Meanwhile, the so-called “parties of the protest” had only 93 representatives on the 121 needed to form a government. True, the BSP managed to hold on to 43 seats — enough to make the protest parties’ eventual confidence motion pass. But DB and ITN refused to engage in serious negotiations with the socialists, forcing the parliament to disband.

The President scheduled new election in July.

July 2021: How politicians (did not) made it through another hung parliament

Most Bulgarian parties and their leaders failed to understand the real meaning of the election results in July. In fact, for the first timesince its appearance in 2009, GERB failed to win the most votes. In part, this could be explained arguing that a large share of GERB’s constituency does not vote ideologically. On the contrary, researchers hypothesise that support for Borisov’s party stems chiefly from the networks of clienteleshe has established. Thus, it was relatively uncomplicated for the President-appointed caretaker government to disincentivise practices such as vote buying and controlled voting. Either way, subsequent sociological analyses and available data show that GERB’s voters demobilised more than other parties’ supporters in July.

Conversely, the so-called ‘parties of the protest’ were the main beneficiary of the disengagement of GERB’s voters. True, most of the ITN’s, DB’s and ISMV’s voters were not ideologically committed to their party of choice either. Nevertheless, the results showed that protest voting can be powerful enough of a force to uproot an already-destabilised party system. In fact, all three parties increased their share of the vote and number of seats (see Figure 2). In addition, ITN’s votes increased in absolute terms by 92,000 units despite an eight-percent reduction in turnout.

After having seen the results, Borisov’s adversaries, especially President Radev, imagined the parties could agree on a new cabinet. In fact, GERB and the DPS lost 13 seats. Meanwhile, the so-called “parties of the protest” had as many as 112 representatives and the BSP was left with 36. Eventually, strong of its 65 deputies, ITN came up with the offer for DB, ISMV and the BPS. Essentially, ITN would form a minority “cabinet of experts” following an agenda agreed amongst the four parties. In other words, ITN came up with a confidence-and-supply arrangement which would have denied its partners any post. However, the populist reason which drives ITN’s strategy led to a massive failure although there was a draft government programme. Namely, according to several rumours, DB requested to rediscuss some of the cabinet members’ nomination as part of the agreement. Predictably, ITN’s preconceived denial to negotiate on the names caused DB’s rebuttalof the entire confidence-and-supply mechanism. Obviously, the BSP and ISMV opportunistically abandoned ITN’s wretched locomotive before the egregious failure of its government in pectore.

The President scheduled new election in November.

Yet another parliamentary… and finally a cabinet?

Considering the previous two votes’ result, it is unsurprising that few analysts tried to call the last electoral round. Indeed, much of this unpredictability stemmed from the decision of two President-appointed caretaker ministers to form a new party. Actually, the names of former finance minister Kirill Petkov and former economy minister Asen Vasilev were little known until May. However, the former’s intense public activity in the revealing the corrupt practicesof Borisov’s administration made him very popular. Moreover, Petkov’s rhetoric emphasises, unlike that of most other Bulgarian political leaders, dialogue, trust and teamwork— especially with Vasilev. Lastly, Petkov and Vasilev made a wit choice in calling their party We Continue the Change (PP). In fact, the name underlines continuity with the caretaker government’s activity and suggests a connection with its appointer, President Radev. After all, the President remains the most popular Bulgarian politician and PP benefitted from his informal blessing (Figure 3).

Overall, the results are surprisingto say the least (Figure 4). Although the turnout fell again to slightly less than 40% of eligible voters, PP achieved a convincing lead over GERB. At the same time, the entire political panorama changed dramatically virtually overnight. After a months-long decline, ISMV failed to clear the four-percent threshold to enter the parliament and risks disappearing. Evidently, the BSP continued its decline, ranking fourth – even after the DPS – and losing 54 seats on its pre-2021 level. Interestingly, PP seems to have syphoned offso many votes from the protest party par excellence, ITN, to shrink it to 25 seats.  The same dynamic drove votes from PP to DB, whose leader admitted the two parties’ self-evident ideological affinity recently. Finally, a nationalist ‘protest’ formationmanged to elect 13 deputies, remedying nationalists’ failures in April and July: Văzrazhdane (‘National Revival’).

Looking at the mere numbers of seats in the parliament, one would reach a simple conclusion. And some already say that the Bulgarians will soon have to deal with a new cabinet, with Petkov as PM. However, the most refined analysts have noted that the parties may fail to form a government for the third time.

Conclusion — What to look for in the next weeks and months

The most fascinating aspects of Bulgaria’s current election cycle is not new to those who follow Israeli politics, for instance. In fact, as it happened in Tel Aviv after Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, many feel changes coming. However, in Sofia like in Tel Aviv, there are still many unknown quantities to deal with in politics’ general equation.

Obviously, the reference is most directly to Văzrazhdane — this absolute newcomer to parliamentary politics. First, the party has adopted rather ‘atypical’ stances on, amongst other topics, Bulgaria’s NATO and EU membership. Curiously, most of the party’s propaganda material is freely and easily accessible online through social networksand Văzrazhdane’s website. Besides the fact that the majority of its activists and candidates are open to have an online chat with anyone. Hence, it is reasonable to expect that at least part of Văzrazhdane’s 127,568 voters is well aware of its ideals. Nevertheless, it may not be able to coalesce with a strongly pro-EU, neo-liberal and verticalized party as PP without denaturing.  Second, the party’s modest success may be more sustainable in the medium to long term than that of PP. Differently from PP, ITN, ISMV and otherBulgarian leader-driven political projects, Văzrazhdane has been growing up for year. In effect, a few sociologists and analysts were already singling out the party’s positive trajectory in July. Thus, its ideas may turn into a long-lasting destabilising factor for Bulgaria’s usually dull foreign policy in the coming years.

Furthermore, one can argue at length on what these results say on the state of Bulgaria’s liberal democracy. Sure, neither PP nor GERB are a serious threat to democracy as a procedural rule involving elections. However, both parties pose an unmistakable menace to the country’s already fledging liberal institutions. In fact, both Borisov and, in his short tenure to nowadays, Petkovhave shown little appreciation of parliamentarism. Moreover, Petkov embraces a brand of neoliberalismwhich implies a few carrots(e.g., raising pensions) and much more stick. In fact, he has only criticised entrepreneurs whom others have already associated with Borisov and promised not to raise taxes. In addition, he has an open feud with the Constitutional Courtover his dual citizenship — which invalidated his ministerial appointment. Finally, Petkov and his associated have approached the pandemicas a common-sense matterdespite the ongoing compression of citizens’ freedoms.

Therefore, the future remains unpredictable. Especially assuming that a Petkov cabinet would have the support of both the EU and the President. In fact, left unconstrained by Brussels in the name of stabilitocracy and supported by Radev to finish off his archenemy, Borisov, Petkov and his associated may end up rewriting the rules of Bulgarian politics in an elitist way. After all, they have already done it by violating all constitutional customs on caretaker governments’ self-restraint. Why not to try again?

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Europe

Engaging Morocco: A Chess Game Spain Does Not Want to Lose

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In a game of chess, each player knows the type of game they are playing and takes turns moving the pieces. In addition to the relative advantage of making an opening consistent with your objectives, you must anticipate your opponent’s moves and plan accordingly.

Morocco moved pieces on May 17 and 18, 2021, when it let in 8,000 immigrants in the city of Ceuta, a Spanish territory in Africa and external border of the European Union. It did so without warning, neglecting its functions as border guardian and allowing the entry of a mass of migrants amounting to 9.5% of Ceuta’s population.

This episode is of unprecedented character: it occurred in the context of a geopolitical change in the Maghreb, within an unparalleled worsening of Rabat-Madrid relations, and it was of an unmatched magnitude. The particularity of the event demands an assessment of the relations between both countries and of Spain’s strategy towards Morocco. Does Madrid know that it is playing chess with Rabat? Is it capable of reading the moves of Morocco in advance? Does it have an effective strategy?

Background

This act takes place during a period of dramatic change in the Maghreb area. Namely, hostilities over Western Sahara broke out again in 2019. Further, Morocco’s relations with Algiers have drastically deteriorated, while its relations with Europe have become more strained following the CJEU rulings in 2021 and conflicts with France and Berlin. Washington has increased its support for Morocco, recognizing its sovereignty over Western Sahara and providing arms supplies and military cooperation. In parallel, Rabat is making a pivot to Africa, strengthening ties with the Sahel and extending its diplomatic contacts with Nigeria, Senegal and other West African countries. These changes enhance the importance of Morocco’s movements and highlight the relevance of its interactions with its only European neighbor: Spain.

Relations between Spain and Morocco have always been conflictive and prosperous in equal parts. In addition to the positive aspects of trade relations, economic complementarity and cooperation in the fight against terrorism, there are also problematic aspects: territorial claims over Spanish possessions in Africa, maritime delimitation issues and immigration. Morocco’s rejection of the principle of Uti possidetis juris, seeking to change the borders inherited from colonialism, has brought conflict to its relations with its neighbors. With Spain, this is evident in events such as the Ifni War (Morocco-Spain), the Green March, the Perejil crisis and the events in Ceuta in May of this year.

In the media, relations between the kingdoms of Spain and Morocco are shaped by conflicts, such as the Perejil Crisis in 2002 and 2010-2011 without a Moroccan ambassador to Madrid. These confrontations, usually involving Spanish territories in Africa or issues of great public sensitivity such as migration or the Western Sahara, are short-lived and normally quickly resolved. As a result, relations between Madrid and Rabat are cyclical in nature and form part of Spanish domestic politics. This conditions that the high points in their relations never last long and that Spain’s responses in discussing the Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla publicly are avoidant rather than assertive. Within this framework, the events in Ceuta 2021 can be understood as a new setback in the development of complex relations.

These conflicts contrast with Spain’s deeply intertwined economic interaction with Morocco. Sectors such as automobiles, textiles and agriculture form part of the same value chain. Morocco is Spain’s second largest non-EU partner while Spain has overtaken France as the main supplier to Morocco. This responds to the concept of the “cushion of interests” put forward by Spain in the 1990s. The core idea of this strategy is that increased economic interdependence will reduce political tensions. According to this theory, since Morocco’s economy is more dependent on Spain than Spain is on Morocco, Rabat would be constrained in its political movements. However, given the frequency of conflicts between the two kingdoms, this liberal approach is of doubtful effectiveness.

The combination of frequent misunderstandings and growing economic interaction is not the only paradox to be noted in the relations of the two kingdoms. On the political level, the synchronization between the countries’ royal houses (mainly between Juan Carlos I and Hassan II in the past but also between Mohamed VI and Felipe VI at present) stands in contrast to the six years without the annual high-level meetings required by the Treaty of Friendship between the two countries. Moreover, Prime Minister Sanchez has broken with the Spanish tradition of paying the first foreign trip to Morocco, in place since the 1980s.

In short, the problems between Madrid and Rabat are cyclical and greatly affect Spanish domestic politics. Neither the strength of the commercial interaction nor the closeness between their kings are enough to smooth relations between the two countries.

The axes of the relationship between Spain and Morocco

The complexity of the relationship between Spain and Morocco revolves around six axes: migration, terrorism, energy, Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla, and the European Union. Each axis generates a series of opportunities and vulnerabilities for Spain, and it is the confluence of these axes that determines the ups and downs between the two countries.

The first of these axes is migration. Due to its sustained omnipresence in the media, it is the one that most concerns Spanish domestic policy. Sub-Saharan and Moroccan immigrants arrive to Spain through two different routes: by sea (to the peninsula and the Canary Islands) and by land (through the Spanish cities in Africa of Ceuta and Melilla). Since 1992, Madrid has increased cooperation with Rabat in this area.

Currently, the border externalization system is present in the repatriation of immigrants, the joint maritime police patrols, the joint police stations, the raids against massive assaults on border fences, and the construction and control of the Nador fence in Morocco. These projects are financed by European funds, which Morocco would like to see increase. This collaboration is asymmetrical: Morocco has sole control of the border, and Spain depends on its goodwill. Rabat, aware of this, does not hesitate to instrumentalize the issue.

The second axis is anti-terrorism and security cooperation. Collaboration in this area originated with the terrorist attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004. Cooperation now extends to police, judicial and intelligence cooperation. In addition, with the aim of controlling radicalization, Rabat appoints part of the imams in Spain. Here again, the asymmetry is in favor of Morocco. The Moroccan imams could position themselves in favor of the interests of their country of origin. Moreover, anti-terrorist cooperation is essential for Spain’s national security, and its potential loss would put Spain at risk.

The third axis is energy. The Spanish presence in this field is extensive, with participation in Morocco’s solar and wind power development and in its combined cycle power plants. In addition, Spain exports electricity to Morocco through two interconnections with the Iberian Peninsula, which accounts for 20% of the Moroccan demand. Spain used to be dependent on the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which passed through Morocco. Its closure in November 2021 has reduced this dependence but has posed a problem to guaranteeing gas supplies to Spain. In this field, Spain has the upper hand: it has vetoed the Mediterranean Solar Plan in Morocco (to avoid competition with Spanish renewable production) and has rejected a 3rd electricity interconnection requested by Morocco.

The fourth axis is that of Western Sahara. This former Spanish colony is of visceral importance to Morocco. In the heart of its territorial claims, the conflict remains ongoing since it began in the 1970s, and Rabat lacks international support on its position. Moreover, it is a topical issue, around which Morocco has recently won American support, French and German rejection, and on which it has declared that it will not sign trade agreements that do not include Western Sahara.

Spain faces a dilemma since it must choose between its public opinion (sensitive to the Saharawi cause) and its trade relations with Morocco. As a result, it maintains a dual position. Officially, Spain supports a solution through the UN, sends humanitarian aid to the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, recognizes the Polisario Front as representative of the Saharawi people and rejects Moroccan claims to Canary Islands waters on the grounds that Rabat has no sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Nevertheless, it applauds the autonomy project proposed in 2007 by Morocco (which does not envisage independence), rejected the US initiative to extend MINURSO’s mandate to human rights monitoring in 2013, and defends Morocco’s interests (and its own) before the judgments of the CJEU on trade agreements involving Western Sahara. The complexity of this axis, which forces Spain to walk in two directions at the same time, is a threat to any constructive relationship with Morocco.

The fifth axis is Morocco’s claims over the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla and the Spanish islands off the Moroccan coast. Rabat’s endeavor to re-establish its “authentic” borders does not end in the Sahara, further extending into these Spanish territories, over which it has a permanent claim.

These territories have four problems.

  1. Economically, they are dependent on Moroccan trade and on Spanish subsidies,
  2. demographically, the growth of the population of Moroccan origin causes changes in the social structure that can be a source of conflict,
  3. international protection is relative, since the Spanish territories are not explicitly protected by NATO, and although they are part of the EU and the Schengen Area, they are not within the Customs Union,
  4. the islands do not appear in the Spanish Constitution nor in the Spanish territorial organization.

Taking advantage of these weaknesses, Morocco has used different strategies to strengthen its claims: economic blockades, vetoes against further integration into the EU, a rhetoric of colonialism, and comparisons to Gibraltar, and even the Perejil crisis in 2002, in which a small group from the Moroccan navy occupied one of the Spanish islands. This axis has a latent presence in the relations between both countries: although Madrid avoids its public mention, Rabat’s claims may end up in direct confrontation Spanish national interests.

Finally, the sixth and last axis is the European Union. Spain´s relationship with Morocco is based on the European Neighborhood Policy and on the Union for the Mediterranean. Besides, this relationship currently revolves around the provision of funds to Morocco for the externalization of borders, the agriculture and fisheries trade agreements, and the rulings of the CJEU on these, which since 2015 have complicated Brussels’ relations with Rabat. Indeed, Morocco has changed its attitude towards the EU since 2008, reducing its concessions, increasing its demands and adopting a more pragmatic discourse. In the framework of Madrid-Rabat relations, the EU has acted as an appeaser, reducing bilateral conflicts. However, Spain is limited within the multilateral structure, since it cannot impose its preferences and its power is confined to blocking initiatives (as it did with agricultural liberalization for example). Moreover, the judgments of the CJEU have poisoned the bilateral relations between Spain and Morocco.

What nowadays is cooperation in migration, security and energy, due to conflicts around the Sahara or Ceuta and Melilla may one day become an undesirable dependency. Too many issues related to Spanish national security are subject to Rabat’s goodwill. That is why the disagreements between the two countries cause so much commotion in Spain, even if they do not always revolve around each of the 6 axes described above.

Ceuta 2021 — Another crisis or a point of no return?

This article begins with the events of May 18, 2021, when Morocco loosened its border controls and allowed more than 8,000 undocumented migrants, mostly young Moroccans, to enter the city of Ceuta. The figure is unprecedented, around 10 times higher than what used to be received until then. It is worth asking whether this event is a simple downturn in the cyclical relations between Morocco and Spain, or whether it implies something different.

When the Ceuta crisis in 2021 is put into context, an extraordinary deterioration of relations between Morocco and Spain is observed, enhanced by unilateral actions by Rabat. In 2018, Morocco closed the commercial border with Melilla. In 2019, it toughened the fight against smuggling in Ceuta, hindering the border crossing and prohibited its officials from entering Ceuta or Melilla. To this day, this has subjected both cities to an unprecedented economic asphyxiation. In 2020, Morocco vetoed the entry of Moroccan fish into Ceuta and revived the dispute over the delimitation of maritime borders in Canary waters. In 2021, it installed a fish farm in Spanish waters near the Chafarinas Islands without permission. In recent years relations between the two countries have worsened gradually, camouflaged behind the Covid-19 pandemic and around issues of relative relevance, which only indirectly affect the 6 axes above mentioned.

In contrast, the Ceuta crisis is relevant in almost every aspect.

  1. Morocco is instrumentalizing immigration, leaving aside its obligations as border guardian.
  2. The Western Sahara conflict lingers in the background: the crisis was a form of protest by Rabat against the hospitalization in Spain of the Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali, organized in an opaque manner by Madrid.
  3. Despite Rabat’s attempts to keep the crisis within the bilateral framework, it escalated to the European Union, where Spain received the support of the European Commission, the European Parliament (which issued a condemnation for violation of children’s rights against Morocco), and even of France.
  4. The crisis was followed by the reactivation of territorial claims over Ceuta and Melilla: The Moroccan Prime Minister compared the situation to Western Sahara.

Faced with the numerous and unusual vectors of this crisis, Spain must identify what objective Morocco is pursuing, and what its next steps will be. Rabat is obviously trying to capitalize on the momentum provided by the U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over the Sahara and its vigorous relations with some of its African neighbors.

Moreover, the deterioration of relations has coincided with a deterioration of Spanish domestic politics, while Morocco is taking advantage of independence, government instability, COVID-19, etc. Is Morocco pursuing a strategy against Spain? That is what the Spanish intelligence presumes, without knowing very well what strategy it is. In fact, the CNI considers the Ceuta crisis not to be an immigration problem, but an invasion that can be repeated again. Rabat could have taken the conflict into a gray zone, in which case it would be establishing the environment, waiting for opportunities.

The current situation is not part of the cyclical pattern that characterizes its relations with Morocco. Ceuta and Melilla are suffocating, Spanish intelligence fears losing anti-terrorist collaboration with Morocco, Rabat is in a strong position, and Madrid is unable to recognize what Morocco’s next step will be, limiting itself to trying to put an increasingly entrenched relationship back on track. The impetus with which Rabat is pushing for the recognition of its sovereignty over the Sahara, and its extrapolation of this to Ceuta and Melilla, suggests that the disagreements with Spain are not over.

In all this, Spain’s strategy towards Morocco is ineffective. The liberalism of the cushion of interests has failed. It was based on elements that were of national interest for Spain (migration, terrorism, etc.) but not for Morocco. The only sphere where Madrid has an advantageous position is energy: Spain exports electricity to Morocco, continues to refuse to establish a third electricity interconnection, and is receiving Moroccan requests for Spain to re-export Algerian gas. Moreover, Spain has learned that Morocco fears losing its reputation with the European Union and is trying to prevent the EU from getting involved in its bilateral relations. Thanks to the EU intervention, Morocco made a misstep during the Ceuta crisis this year.

However, everything suggests that Madrid is confident that the ups and downs will continue to prevail in its relations with Rabat and it accepts Mohamed VI’s invitation to inaugurate an unprecedented stage in the relations between the two countries. It is foreseeable, therefore, that Spain will keep Morocco as one of the two pilot countries of its Focus Africa 2023 plan, giving it and Senegal unparalleled attention in the development of constructive relations, and will export this experience to other African countries. In a game of chess, each player knows the type of game he is playing and takes turns moving the pieces. Spain knows that it is playing, but it has not realized that the game has changed, and that the chessboard is different. It has skipped several turns and, for too long now, its pieces have been sitting immobile.

From our partner RIAC

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