More and more frequently one reads articles analyzing the sad geo-political situation of the European Union and proclaiming its eventual dissolution. The argument usually goes something like this: the center of the union simply does not hold.
There are too many centrifugal forces at work. The idea of a United States of Europe is a preposterous chimera or utopia which will never come to pass. The nations comprising it are too culturally and politically disparate. A bureaucracy residing in Brussels is unwilling or unable to salvage the situation which becomes more and more anti-democratic, leaning to the right and toward a rabid kind of nationalism; which is to say, the good old days are on their way back and right in the middle of the citadel we have the Trojan Horse: the likes of the Europarlamentarian Le Pen (who supports the likes of Donald Trump) ready and willing to assume the helm of the crisis.
What makes possible the above apocalyptic scenario is the political paradigm underpinning it. It is usually comprised of mere economic criteria. While admitting that the Union originally brought about economic prosperity and well being, at least for the well do countries and individuals improving the general condition, they will refrain to ask the primary crucial question which ought to be asked and probed; namely this: if the polity was conceived as a union, what exactly is the cultural glue that ought to hold it together. Is one available or possible? In other words, what does it mean to be a European? Its’s a question of identity which is hardly ever debated.
The situation is similar to that of Italy in 1860 when finally the nation became a united nation from the Alps to Sicily. There was a patriot by the name of Massimo D’Azeglio who pointed out the Achilles’ heel of such success and it was not that it had taken too long (some 300 years) since Machiavelli advocated the unification of the country (misguidedly claiming the ancestry of the Romans, later also claimed by Mussolini), neither was that the methods to achieve it ought to have been less nationalistic and less Machiavellian, but that the Italians had constructed a polity without pondering what it was that would keep them together within it as Italians; which is to say, the cultural glue may not have been well thought out. So he coined a slogan, later adopted by the de facto prime minister of the new nation under a Constitutional Monarchy, Benso de Cavour, that “now that we have made Italy we need to make the Italians.”
The cart had effectively been placed before the horse and the not too surprising result was that you now had two Italies: North and South with a growing economic divergence pretending to be one united country, so that one million Italians (including my own grandfather) had to emigrate to the Americas or to Australia at the end of the 19th century. I dare say that this paradox of a united Italy divided in two economic spheres has never been sufficiently reflected upon. Similarly, the paradox of a united Europe divided in two economic spheres with little cultural glue and identifiable common values to keep the 26 member states together in harmony, is still waiting to be dealt with. Now that the first nation has left the Union and others are contemplating the same move, the question naturally arises: have we made Europe and neglected to make the Europeans, or at the very least pose the question of identity “what does it mean to be a European?”
To better understand the present crisis one needs to envision a Frankestein monster sick in bed with many health experts trying to revive it. Considering the monster that he is, that eventually he will turn on his own creators, one wonders if all those who are trying to revive are wise or foolish. Don’t the ones who advocate his demise look wise? Of course they do, unless, unless we change the underlying paradigm by which the union is usually explained.
Let me submit some sundry observations and reflections which may shed some light on the paradox of a union, or a Frankenstein monsters that foments divisions in the name of a union. Let us begin with a quote from the 2004 report in the European Policy Center in Brussels wherein Dr. Jocelyne Cesari, a senior research fellow at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) located in both Paris and Harvard University has this intriguing quote: “Europe is the only part of the world which has a general hostility toward religion. Europeans tend to explain every sign of backwardness in terms of religion…The European tendency to equate Muslim religion with fanaticism—already present in Voltaire’s “Mahomet, of Fanaticism (1745), still lives on.” She goes on to trace this tendency to the Enlightenment era, which leads one to wonder if the Enlightenment needs to still enlighten itself.
And yet, I dare say that religion may well be best overlooked remedy for the recovery within Western civilization of a lost cultural vibrancy and the sense of the transcendent. The symptoms of such a loss are the observable despair and cynicism, boredom, and a general despondent nihilistic attitude among the young generation; a generation which has all the technological gadgets imaginable to play with, but believes in precious few values. I’d like to suggest that the loss of humanistic modes of thought within Western civilization may well be due to the fact that we live and have our being in a wholly horizontal, immanent culture which misguidedly assumes that it is possible for Man to live by bread alone, and has considerable difficulty in imagining a social paradigm that goes beyond material prosperity, scientific formulas, manipulation of nature and society and a Machiavellian real politick paradigm.
The paradigm of heroic materialism which is so prominent in Marx’s ideology (and is often accompanied by state atheism) has turned out to be not so heroic after all; the emperor was in reality naked. Even a Putin would admit as much nowadays although he is cynically manipulating religion (Russian and Greek Orthodoxy) for his own political ends as a good Machiavellian and former KBG agent. He would probably acknowledge that the Marxist ideology did not create the famed “workers’ paradise on earth.” To the contrary it created untold misery, but now he wants to re-Christianize Europe under the hegemony of the Orthodox Church and save it from its secularism which forbids minarets and religious garb, promotes soccer games on Sunday and forbids the voice of religion in the public agora reducing it to a private affair. The People’s Republic of China is now embarked on the same materialistic experiment; it has joined the rat race with the West. Materialistically speaking it has been doing rather well. Déjà-vu?
It seems to me that the very first question that needs to be raised on the above mentioned issues is this: What is the cause for this reluctance within Western development thinking to bring in the same field of vision political and religio-cultural components? A preliminary consideration could be that the myopia in this regard is due to the fact that modern Western Civilization, beginning with Descartes’ rationalistic philosophy, and the subsequent advent of the industrial revolution, has opted for a system of cognition and a structure of knowledge which is partial and incomplete, clever by half so to speak, in as much as it privileges the socio-economic component at the expense of the spiritual.
The result of this reductionism leads development specialists to function as one-eyed giants, purveyors of science bereft of wisdom. They analyze, even prescribe and act, as if human destiny can be stripped down to mere material dimensions. Science is seen as what makes this paradigm possible. Trouble is that it truncates the holistic humanity of Man by failing to integrate its three realms: the spiritual, the intellectual, the material.
It may be appropriate here to pause for a reflection upon the high rate of suicide in developed countries. It is quite interesting that Finland, for example, has the highest rate in Europe for attempted suicides in 1989, as per the latest available statistic. World-wide, Finland had 37.2% of all attempted suicides in the world, which is to say 314 over 100,000 people per year. Those rates are much higher in Europe than in Asia. They suggest a nexus between suicide and hopelessness which has little to do with mere material prosperity. More specifically, they hint at four things:
1) that material abundance may be less essential than the presence of meaning in one’s life; that people lose even the willingness to survive once they have lost the meaning of their destiny (See Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl)
2) that ultimately, a meaningful existence is the most basic of human needs
3) that awe and mystery and a poetic vision are as integral to human existence as rationality and material comfort
4) that the future prospects of the human species depend upon internalizing an essentially religious perspective able to transform what is by now the dominant, materialistic, secular outlook.
It would be enough to read a book such as Jeff Haynes’ Religion in Third World Countries (1994) to become convinced that indeed most people in developing countries derive their primary source of meaning from religious beliefs, symbols, and mysteries. They sense that no Marxian ideology or promise of material paradise will ever abolish life’s tragic dimensions: suffering, death, wasted talents, hopelessness; that to insist that it can be accomplished with material prosperity alone in a valueless society, is to trivialize life itself.
Moreover, the sociologist Peter Berger in analyzing the link between modernity and secularization arrives at this conclusion in his book titled A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (1992): “there are vast regions today in which modernization has not only failed to result in secularity but has instead led to reaffirmations of religion … It may be true that the reason for the recurring human outreach toward transcendence is that reality indeed includes transcendence and that reality finally reasserts itself over secularity” (pp. 28-29). An intriguing question which cannot be settled by facile caricatures of religion (which begins with Voltaire) as the promoter of ignorance and obscurantism, not to speak of the proverbial “fear of the gods” of Lucretius.
A similar judgment is expressed by Ramgopal Agarwala, a World Bank officer, when he declares in an essay which appeared in Friday Morning Reflections on the World Bank: Essays on Values and Development (1991) with the title “A Harmonist Manifesto. Hindu Philosophy in Action”, asserting that “A society based on harmonism will be more than just a ‘sustainable society.’ There have been many primitive societies which were sustainable. Instead, it will be a sustainable society, with a cutting hedge at spiritual advancement that will provide the excitement that has been so painfully lacking in recent years. Spiritual advancement is the antidote to the boredom that lies just below the surface of many of the ills of the modern world.” This echoes Dostoyevsky’s insight that if one places Man in a wholly deterministic universe, he will blow it up simply to prove that he is free.
So much for the theory; the more challenging task in a world with a pervasive secular outlook, is to promote development in practice, while respecting religious and indigenous values. The first pitfall that needs to be avoided is that of treating values in a purely instrumental fashion, as means to goals outside the value system in question. This is the equivalent of using religion to engineer popular compliance with a modernization program. A better stance is the non-instrumental one that begins with an abiding respect for the inner dynamism of traditional values serving as springboard for modes of development which are more humane then those derived from outside paradigms. This is more desirable because indigenous values are the matrix from which people derive meaning in their lives, a sense of identity and cultural integrity, not to speak of the experience of continuity with their environment and their past.
In this regard, let us take a close look at an appropriate example derived from the Islamic religious tradition. Because the Qur’an condemns interests as usury, Islamic banks neither pay interests to depositors nor charge it to borrowers. Since banks need to operate as viable economic enterprises in a modern world, one may wonder as to how they are able to solve this conundrum. They simply spread the risks flowing from their borrowing and lending. They receive a share of the profits earned by their borrowers and pro-rata shares of these profits are then distributed to depositors. This is a clear example of how a religious norm can alter a modern practice, instead of the other way around.
The next difficulty is the identification of those secular matters that already exist within religion as such. This is not an easy task, since the time of Marx’s stigmatization of religion as “the opium of the masses,” ushering in secular atheistic humanism. To be sure, an anti-religion stance was already in place within Western civilization with the advent of Cartesian rationalism and Voltaire’s idolization of reason ushering in rampant rationalism, but the anti-religion stance became more intransigent with Marx’s above statement; since then those who consider themselves “enlightened” tend to look upon religion as inimical to a secular humanism which claims to overcome man’s religious alienation. That is a caricature of religion in general and Christianity in particular but many have misguidedly thrown out the baby (religious faith) with the bath-water (religious corruption and fanaticism). They usually end up grinding an axe against religion making it the scapegoat for many of the failures of the post-modern rationalistic mind-set.
As is well known, Marx contended that it is such religious alienation that turns Man away from the building of history on earth and the acceptance of ‘inevitable progress’ as contemplated in Hegel’s philosophy of history. He denounced religion on the grounds that it abolishes history by making human destiny ultimately reside outside of history as a sort of pie in the sky. Another caricature if there ever was one. For him Christian humanism was nothing short of a fraud and an oxymoron. Perhaps the French surrealist poet Andre Breton expressed this philosophy best when he branded Jesus Christ as “that eternal thief of human energies,” not to speak of Nietzsche’s outlandish view of the same. In effect this is the challenge of secularism to religion, the hidden agenda of the eventual elimination of religion as such, often ambiguously disguised as “clear separation” of the secular from the sacred, or as “strict neutrality” on religious matters. More often it comes out of a biased slanderous caricature where the facts are cavalierly distorted and selected.
In facing this challenge religion needs to answer this crucial question: Can it supply men and women of today with a convincing rationale for building up historical tasks within a humanistic philosophy of history, while at the same time bear witness to transcendence? In order to answer this question one needs to analyze the secular commitments which all authentic religions already implicitly advocate. Teilhard de Chardin did that for Christianity in insisting that matter and history matter, that evolution does not contradict creation that building the earth is the responsibility of every human being. He once compared a contemporary pagan with what he called a “true Christian humanist.” The former, he said, loves the earth in order to enjoy it; the latter, loving it no less, does so to make it purer and draw from it the strength to escape from it. But the escape is not to be construed as an alienating flight from reality, but rather as the opening, or the issue which alone confers final meaning on the cosmos.
This is the basic difference between an Epicurus and a St. Francis of Assisi. They both loved the world but the first proposed a closed, deterministic immanent world or one based on an eternal return; the other proposes a world with windows to the transcendent tending toward what the ancient Greeks called a telos, or an ultimate purpose. That distinction is crucial. To discern it better, all one needs to do is look around at modern Europe to realize that indeed Epicureanism, since Lucretius, is alive and well in the West: there, soccer games are much more popular than Sunday worship. The rather convenient scapegoat for this phenomenon is usually to blame the “corrupting” pragmatism and materialism of American popular culture. Ironically, some 60% of people in the US worship on Sunday, compared for 25% in Western Europe, which is not to say that merely going to Church makes you a genuine Christian.
In any case, De Chardin insisted all his life that it was a Christian duty to build the earth and history, to contribute to the solution of pressing secular tasks dealing with justice, wisdom, creativity, human development, solidarity, peace, ecological balance, as penultimate responsibilities and goals to be achieved right here on earth. Another example of the commitment to secular values implied in Christianity is the concept of “liberation theology” which embraces the struggle for a more just world that better responds to human needs; fostering the building of history, in other words, without forgetting the witness to transcendence. A creative tension between the immanent and the transcendent needs to be kept together; not unlike the horizontal of a cross (the historical) intersecting the vertical (the transcendent).
What we have argued so far may intimate, at least to those with open minds, that it is an extraordinary mistake to assume with Marx that development is incompatible with religion, just as it is a great mistake to assume that democracy is incompatible with religion. This is especially so today, when most religious institutions allow for, even encourage, “religious freedom.” I suggest that if one manages to overcome those unfortunate, stereotypical modern notions originating in the so called “age of reason” which some secular humanists have reduced to caricatures parading as ideas, one may be surprised to discover that a respectful dialogue between religious values and social development plans, usually proves beneficial to both.
In the final analysis the greater challenge today is not that of secularism to religion to become more tolerant, but that of religion to secularism to become more holistic and humane, to open itself to a greater gamut of values, thus leaving history and human endeavors open to the transcendent. Without transcendence one remains stuck in the immanent and the material but the material is only one component of human nature, the intellectual and the spiritual ought to be accorded at least the same importance if the aim is to live according to one’s nature. Alas, unless that lesson is re-learned, all the so called technical progress of the modern West may turn out to be a pseudo kind of progress and a pseudo kind of democracy. Indeed, as long as we refuse to change our misguided assumptions and paradigms, the crisis of the EU will remain inevitable.
Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country
The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.
Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government
Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.
Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.
In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.
Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy
The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.
The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.
At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.
In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.
Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum
Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.
Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.
The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.
In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.
Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.
The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy
Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.
First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.
Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.
In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.
Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid
In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.
Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.
At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.
Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.
Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.
Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power
The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.
P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.
Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.
From our partner RIAC
Is British Democracy in Danger?
On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.
Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.
To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.
While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.
Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.
One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.
Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.
The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security
2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.
In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.
On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.
Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.
Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.
In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.
The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.
A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?
As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.
Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.
The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.
Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.
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