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The Role of Europe in the Balkan region’s geopolitical crossing

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] G [/yt_dropcap] eopolitics, the study of how spatial dimension impacts on and affects states’ politics, may offer an important contribution to analysing strategies suited to developing rail infrastructures beween Italy and the Balkans.

The Balkan idea sets and fixes the concepts and definitions between real and ideological, so as to generate a counterposition of geographical and geopolitical concepts.

While in some cases the term “Balkans” does refer to a mountainous system, in others the definition tends to stretch to indicate the peninsula, or an area of chronic instability, a Europe powder keg or Continent underbelly, to the point of being used to decline a value judgement (consider the expression “Balkanization”, a paradigm used in other geographical contexts characterised by political instability.)

The peculiarity of this space, which was for centuries a vehicle for great migrations, wars, traffic and cultural exchange, is provided by its physical form, which made it a fault, or point of contact, between different areas (Western and Eastern), religious and cultural models (Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and orthodoxy), as well as between two opposing economic models. The Balkans, observing a map, further present a triple “personality” in short distances: Mediterranean and maritime along the coast, Central-European in the Southern plains, Balkan in the continental mass. The ethnic mosaic, another concept linked to the Balkans, seems, then, to represent a sole aspect linked to a wider context, characterised by being complex and fragmentary.

The counterpositions and tensions distingishing this area, crossing and subject to external yearning, differently renewed each year till today, appeal to long-term factors in European history, but mainly to insular, peripheral peculiarities and peculiarities of the closed spaces characterising them. These conditions actually made it hard to create and develop a proto-national awareness based on territorial consciousness deriving from urban, borgeouis culture. In contrast, the varied stratification of urban cultures have given rise to various identifying paths, on which Balkan nationalisms, mainly characterised by elements such as ethnocentrism and xenophobia, were built. Affermation of new nations was actually based predominantly on the glue of purification from elements foreign to the natural Group. Such nationalist drives, on which foreign powers ambiguously weave cultural and geopolitical influence so as to erode definitively the authority of the Ottoman Empire and the institutional base it set up, will turn the Balkans into an area for European powers’ rivalries to clash (interposed). In the same way one may remember how the unification of the Balkans was only possible with intervention by the Sultan’s foreign power. One may indeed state the history of these territories, proceeding in the same direction as geography, characteised by complexity and diversity, reinforced certain peculiar traits such as diffidence towards the State, reinforced cultural identities and weak territorial attachment, mainly linked to the field of the small natural region.

Such phenomena reappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of great multinational entities (the dissolvement of the USSR and Yugoslavia), which led to new races to fill empty spaces, hence giving rise to Yugoslav secession wars, which were – not by chance – situated on the ridge of a great geopolitical transition.

Europe – in some way agent for intervention in the US area to follow its own strategic interests – failed to take concrete action, and this not only hindered the search for a solution, but also furthered the existing conflicts, until one may call the area a “geopolitical hotbed”.

All this went on while the Community in Europe was trying to find a common market and negotiate the Maastricht Treaty to create an Economic_Monetary Union. So this crisis created a threat for the European constituting order, and also represented a failed chance for Europe to show it exists and can act as a great power.

It is clear that if the policy of a dynamic era like this one can exploit the evolved communication system so as to spread or compromise spaces and adopt names, concepts and strategic doctrines that do not correspond to previous geography, it still cannot change geography itself, or what man accumulated on the land for millennia, from an urban, economic, infrastructure, ethnic and political point of view.

Indeed, each strategic representation cannot ignore the powerful bonds created by geography and history. In our age’s geo-history, the “Balkan hinge”, whose borders often divided historians, refers to an idea of a firmly delineated area rather than a great geographical region (is the natural border the Balkan chain or the Danube? Do Rumania or Slovenia belong? Turkey and Greece?) and occupies a European area represented by countries that entered the EU or are have been nominated to. For simplification, this area’s central core may be represented by the triangle of Belgrade-Thessaloníki-Sophia. Under the strictly geopolitical profile, one may state even today the Balkans do not constitute a unified system, but they are very fragmented in both North-South and East-West directions. With the exception of Slovenia, and partly Croatia – for historical reasons tighly linked to Central Europe – the region may be subdivided into Western, Southern and Eastern Balkans. The first area is geopolitically characterised by the contrast between Serbia and Croatia to spread its influence to Bosnia and Herzegovina; the second by the Albanese issue and influence from Greece; the third has special features and is formed of States bathed by the Black Sea.

Europe has, then, the duty to integrate this area by a development and regional interconnection strategy that focuses on a solid infrastructural transport network, a tool that is fundamentally important in that it is suited to facilitate and raise economic interexchange and the cultural “contaminations” necessary to yield that European spirit of belonging, useful to create consolidated continental awareness, embryo for true, structured political union. Trans-Balkan circulation (consider the Danube axis, or Via Egnatia, the Ljubljana-Belgrade axis, and Istanbul therefrom) historically represented an element able to unify the region’s various populations, in contrast to country and state atomising, favouring creation of an integrated whole, unifying the Balkans and linking them to the world. The circulation networks, then, represent a fundamental element, especially in this era of multi-pole geopolitical transition.

It is actually true that planning any infrastructural system can hardly ignore the global geopolitical and geoeconomic picture, even more so in the current context, where continental infrastructures constitute an essential moment for economic rebirth, able to affect both technology modernisation processes and foreign policy stability. In this regard it is important to refer to the fact that it is no accident the economic power developed recently by the Chinese colossus is supported by a series of strategic infrastructural projects useful for accompanying, protecting and raising the Country’s expansion capacity. This certainly involves the great “New Silk Way” project for land and sea, devised by Peking with the main aim of moving China close to the rest of the Euro-Asian continental mass and the Mediterranean, and also developing the inland zone, lagging behind the coastal strip.

But not only China, also other players like Russia, India, Iran and countries from Africa, ASEAN and Latin America are moving to create new communication paths.

So in the face of ths activism, experienced globally, it is good for the European front to also approach a development and regional interconnection strategy via a solid infrastructural transport network to involve all Europe and, most of all, the Balkan area. This could arise by simulating innovative initiatives to promote public – private partnership (obviously, no integration form may be painless, and to be held legitimate it must be based on consensus and acceptance by local governments).

This means the development of corridors becomes essential. For Italy in particular, corridors V and VII carry high strategic importance. Corridor V is especially important for Po Valley – Veneto outlets to the North-East. Primarily for the Trieste – Budapest route, which is central to the interests of Austria and Germany, which obviously have the understandable wish to keep intact all the Street and rail traffic using their networks, not least with regard to traffic from Southern France, the Iberian peninsula and Southern Switzerland. These flows would actually be interrupted by Corridor V, should it present better conditions than the current ones. It must also be added that improved transborder links with the Balkan area could also encouage concrete, real stabilisation and integration thereof with Europe’s Western part, freed from the (currently latent) danger of terrorism and crime. Continuing current instability would actually consolidate the proliferation of organised crime and terrorism, making the Balkan fault even more fragmented and unstable and creating an irreparable break with the sparkling Asian area which is living a period of unstoppable growth and expansion.

We must then focus on fully developing the concept of “network” to focus on creating full vertical and horizontal integration of the Europe system. This links could encourage mitigating this fragmentation which, as the opening foresaw, distinguished the history of this region, which could instead reproduce land for opportunity instead of conflict, representing at the same time an element to support Greater European integration.

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Exporting Religious Hatred to England

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A mob vandalised a Hindu temple in UK's Leicester. Twitter

Not a place hitting the main news channels often, Leicester is a small town of 250,000 inhabitants about a hundred miles north of London and 40 miles east of Birmingham the UK’s second largest city.

But an imported ideology is now the cause of religious violence that has profoundly affected Leicester’s ethnic community of South Asians.  This Hindutva ideology represents a belief in the transcendence of Hinduism and its culture.

Leicester prides itself as a city of tolerance and diversity where different religions and races all live together in relative harmony — a sort of ‘live and let live and mind your own business’ philosophy that had worked until recently.  But under the surface simmering tensions burst forth recently.  The trigger was a South Asia Cup cricket match between Indian and Pakistan held in Dubai and won by India.

Couple Hindutva with India’s win and groups of Hindu young men were keen to demonstrate their might, and did so on isolated young Muslims.  The latter then formed their own groups ready for revenge.

Where were the police one might ask.  Well, a couple of beaten up Asian teenagers did not register as exhibiting anything more than random teenage violence.  They were slow to react and did not discuss the ominous truth of religion as the prime mover behind the violence.

Civic leaders on both sides are now trying to quell the attacks.  But the damage has been done and the seeds of ill-feeling have been sown within the community meaning Hindus vis-a-vis Muslims and vice versa. 

India’s per capita GDP is higher than for Pakistan or Bangladesh, the two countries bordering it, which together constitute the subcontinent.  Thus the three countries are similar culturally.  The next question to ask is why then is India hugging the bottom on the 2020 World Happiness Report, next to ill-fated war-torn places like Yemen.  India is ranked 144 while its rival and neighbor Pakistan, although lower in per capita GDP, ranks a shocking (for India) 66.  Bangladesh also ranks much higher than India at 107, despite its devastating floods and typhoons.

Perhaps the answer lies in the pervasive hate that is the currency of the ruling BJP (Bharatia Janata Party), a currency spent liberally during general elections to the detriment of the Congress Party, which has stood for a secular India since independence.

But hate yields more votes as BJP leaders Norendra Modi and Amit Shah know well.  After all, they came to power via the destruction of the historic nearly five century old Babri Mosque, built on a Hindu holy site in an effort to ally Hindus by an astute Babur, the Mughal whose hold on India, just wrested from the Muslim Pathan kings, was still weak.  It worked for Babur then; its destruction worked for the BJP in the 21st century

Has India become more civilized since? 

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Giorgia Meloni: a return to Mussolini’s Italy?

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Image source: giorgiameloni.it

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of far-right political parties across Europe. They have managed to use the widespread discontent from society with the values and functioning of democracy to establish strong footholds in many countries, including those that were thought to be immune to such radicalisation. The reach of the far right does not recognise boundaries, and it is not a new phenomenon either. It has had a considerable historical role in Latin America, in Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Myanmar, India, South Africa, Germany, Italy, the United States, and more recently in Turkey, Brazil and Hungary which have suffered serious damage to their democratic rules and institutions. It is in this context that the election of Giorgia Meloni in Italy as the possible next Prime Minister.

Italy has a long history with fascism and far-right extremism that has forever characterised Italian politics. Italy’s history after the WWII can largely be blamed for this slow but steady radicalisation of its political landscape. Unlike Germany that went through a serious process of denazification after allied victory, Italy was not cleared of vestiges of fascism. After 1945, and with the emergence of the USSR as a rival power, the allies focused their attention and efforts on fighting Communist USSR. Italy, surprisingly, had a considerable number of communist supporters, therefore fascism was seen as something positive in the fight of USSR ideology expansionism. Fascism was good to fight communism, and allies turned a blind eye to it, and the creation of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) in 1946 did not raise any red flags. The party managed to become the fourth largest in Italy in 20 years.

The woman who will become Italy’s next Prime Minister leads a conservative party that can be traced back to the MSI: The Brothers of Italy, whose logo revives the MSI emblem. Meloni´s victory should be read against the backdrop of recent triumphs for the far right elsewhere in Europe. In France, despite the loss of Le Pen in the presidential election, the share of popular vote shifted the French political centre to the right; in Sweden the Sweden Democrats are expected to play a major role in defining Swedish politics after having won the second largest share of seats at the general election earlier in September; the same in happening in Hungary and Poland.

This revival of far-right extremism is not new. The collapse of the USSR allowed formerly dormant far right movements to flourish. This resurgence should  also be understood as the inability of centre and centre-left parties to connect with voters, and to appear attractive. Italy’s recent economic crisis has made Italians particularly susceptible to anti-establishment ideas. Italy was one of the countries that suffered the most during the pandemic specially fairly early on: Lots of people died, a lot of businesses had to close down, Italy found it hard to get support from the rest of the European Union. Meloni and her coalition capitalised this discontent. Meloni has chosen to fight the same enemies as other populist leaders: the LGBTQ+ community; immigrants, the European Union, Muslims; former Italian leaders and multiculturalism. She echoes Mussolini’s natalist obsession; Volume Mussolini argued that the Western race was in danger of extinction by other races of colour, Meloni has focused on ethnic substitution, defined as the loss of Italian identity as a result of globalisation and uncontrolled mass immigration fostered by the European Union. This has translated into harsh xenophobic policies.

Meloni’s election ironically coincide with the 100th anniversary of the March on Rome in October 1922 that brought Mussolini to power. 100 years later Italians. May have elected its first woman to become a Prime Minister, while this represents a break with the past and it symbolises a good step forward in theory, she also represents one of Italy’s worst chapters in its past: Mussolini’s Fascism. Meloni was a former MSI activist, and she is likely to form a government deeply rooted in populism and fascism, are very dangerous combination for contemporary European politics. We should not also allow to be fooled by her election as a woman. She has followed a similar path to Marie Le Pen called gender washing. She has adopted unknown threatening image as a female politician to mask the force of her extremism. For someone who is not familiar with Italian politics, her victory could be read as the triumph of female empowerment and gender equality. Throughout her campaign, she posed as a defender of women, however, her party has rolled back on women’s rights, especially access to abortion.

Gender washing is particularly predominant among right wing parties, as they do a better job at promoting women. Women like Meloni and Le Pen Are protected by the elite, because they support, the very pillars of male power and privilege, these women very often behave in the same way as the men in power. Meloni’s slogan God, Fatherland, and Family echoes the man-dominated and conservative model dating back to the Italy of Mussolini in the 1920s. Meloni’s politics should become more important than her gender, especially as she does not advance women’s empowerment, on the contrary, her victory means a drawback for women’s rights in Italy. Meloni is simply one more far-right candidate that has made it to power.

This should be worrying for Europe as a whole. There has been a constant failure to address the growing threat of the far-right movement at national and on a European level. In recent years, we have seen a slow and steady shift of European politics to the right, and the normalisation of a less inclusive and more racist and discriminatory discourse. This shift to the right should be seen as a ticking time bomb for the pillars of democracy. The pandemic and the current war in Ukraine have not helped the case for democracy.

There are rising living costs in the continent that are undermining governments and European institutions, and making people feel less satisfied with the way their countries are handling these issues. Crises have always been excellent breeding grounds for extremism, whatever political ideology it is. People are more scared during a crisis, allowing the politics or fear to work, and swing voters towards far-right extremists in particular. People that are more likely to vote for far-right alternatives, favour certainty and stability amidst societal changes. Change is perceived as a threat to conservative voters. Under current conditions, there are enough real or perceived changes for extremist to put the blame on. This is one of the greatest paradoxes and dangers of populism and extremism: it often identifies real problems, but seeks to replace them with something worse, the slow and almost imperceptible destruction of democratic values, institutions, and liberties.

The irony behind this is that although populists are usually extremely bad at running a country, the blame will never be placed on them. Populist leaders consolidate support by creating enemies and dividing the population between “us” and “them”. Failure in public policies, inability to provide viable solutions to crises will never be attributed to their elected officials, but rather to the enemies they have decided to use as scapegoats. In this way, as populist governments are unlikely to solve crises, things will eventually worsen, and more crises are inevitable;  meaning more fear is  also unavoidable. This creates a vicious circle that provides populists and extremists with further opportunities for power.

If there is something to be learnt from the current shift in international politics to the right, is the fact that voting behaviour differs from country to country. All politics is local. Voters are influenced by charismatic leaders, local events, regional issues etc. However, when it comes to the rise of extremism, common ground can be found between countries: the existence of a political, economic, or social crisis. Some far-right narratives have been able to cross borders, namely, anti-immigration and white and male supremacism. The Europe of today may be very dissimilar to the Europe of the near future should far-right movement continue to attain power in most countries. Far-right populist parties are a pan-European concern that should be addressed if we want democracy to survive in the long run.

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What lies ahead for Meloni’s Italy

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Not many would have predicted that 100 years after Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts marched on Rome, a leader claiming lineage from the same political ideology would ascend to power. Georgia Meloni is on her way to become the first woman Prime Minister of Italy, hailing from a party that emerged out of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). Her rise to power is as dramatic as that of the fascist dictator. Brothers of Italy, which Meloni founded in 2012, recorded a measly 4.3% of vote in the 2018 elections. In the four years since, the party has gained significant ground and is now set to win 26% of the vote in a coalition with Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s  Forza Italia. With the right wing coalition coming to power, major shifts in Italy’s domestic and foreign policy are expected. But taking command at such a turbulent time will be a task easier said than done. Hence, it will be interesting to see what course Meloni’s coalition might take.

As things stand, Italy is edging towards a major economic crisis. The continued war in Ukraine has terribly affected Italy’s economic growth in the post-pandemic era. The rising prices of energy resources and supplies have held back household consumption, slowing the rate of recovery. The economic growth projection for 2022 stands at 2.5% while 2023 is estimated to see a further fall to a mere 1.2%. Italy’s debt crisis has also severely worsened with rising interest rates in the post-pandemic years. The national debt currently stands at about $2.9 trillion which is estimated to rise steadily, touching $3 trillion i.e. around 150% of the GDP by the end of 2023.

In her election campaign, Meloni has addressed these economic woes with a populist vigour. Meloni advocates for a protectionist stance. Her policies include a business-friendly dispensation, steep tax cuts for all, early retirement and amnesties to settle tax disputes. While the right-wing coalition manifesto pledges ambitious spending plans, Meloni has promised to keep the public finances in check. Key to keeping the economy afloat and achieving these targets will be the new government’s efforts to meet the reforms and targets agreed by the Draghi administration and the European Union to obtain the €750 billion Covid recovery and resilience fund. Meloni has already indicated that she will seek some changes to the agreed plans, making it a priority for her new coalition.

While Meloni will become Italy’s first woman Prime Minister, her case presents an example of weaponising women empowerment to further autocracy. Under her leadership, Brothers of Italy has rolled back women’s rights in the localities it governs. These rollbacks include making abortions harder to access. Her party’s slogan – “God, Fatherland, Family” – is reflective of their intentions of leading a patriarchal setup in the guise of a woman leader. With their coalition coming to power, it is likely that Meloni and her party will continue on the route of further cutting back on women’s rights and freedom.

The right-wing parties have stressed on the importance of Christian conservative familial values in their election campaign. This has resulted in vicious attacks on what Meloni calls “the LGBT lobbies” who have “harmed women and family by destroying gender identity.” Last year, Brothers of Italy and Lega blocked ratification of the Zan bill which sought to categorise violence against the LGBTQ+ community as a hate crime. The two parties opposed the bill, calling it unnecessary and against freedom of expression.

Another part of Meloni’s populist rhetoric are her claims of “ethnic substitution.” She has repeatedly claimed that Italian identity is being erased by the globalists and EU officials, who have “conspired” to unleash “uncontrolled mass immigration.” In the past, she has infamously proposed a naval blockade of the Mediterranean to stop migration to Italy. While the coalition has promised stricter border controls, blocking boat landings and establishing EU centres to evaluate asylum applications; they have also assured to regulate legal migration more smoothly, with initiatives to integrate recent immigrants.

Meloni’s stance on the European Union has been the highlight of her election campaign. While she no longer advocates for a complete withdrawal from the organisation, Meloni is vehemently against its current state of operations. “I want a Europe that does fewer things and does them better, with less centralism, more subsidiarity, less bureaucracy, and more politics,” she said. She has pushed for an ‘Italy first’ approach, countering the regional integration of the EU. Addressing a rally in Milan earlier this month, Meloni said, “In Europe they are a bit worried. The fun is over, Italy will start to defend its national interests, as others do.” Meloni has indicated her support for Poland and Hungary in their current ongoing dispute with the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. She has previously made her admiration of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban clear, calling him a ‘democratic leader’ in the face of stark EU criticism over authoritarian measures.

While Meloni and her coalition have been critical of the European Union, it is unlikely that it will lead to drastic changes in the Italian policy towards EU integration. The economic challenges that the new government finds itself in will largely affect its decision making. To obtain a much needed relief fund from the organisation, it is important for the coalition to agree to certain terms proposed by the EU. Hence, while they can be a bit more assertive in their approach, complete rejection of the EU is not on the cards.

However, Italy’s foreign policy is set to see new developments. Meloni has previously condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine, supporting sanctions against Russia and supplying weapons to Ukraine. “It is the tip of the iceberg,” she said, calling the conflict’s objective as “revision of world order.” Meloni has also been critical of China, condemning the country’s “economic expansion measures.” In 2019, Italy became the first major nation to participate in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a programme to expand Beijing’s economic outreach. Meloni has since criticised the pact as a “big mistake,” indicating that Italy will re-evaluate its stance on the pact under her administration. She has also been vocal about the Taiwan issue, calling it an issue of “essential concern for Italy.” She also described Chinese threats against the island “unacceptable,” calling Taiwan and Italy’s relationship a “sincere friendship.”

Giorgia Meloni is not so different from the Trumps and Bolsonaros of our world. She gained popular support on the back of economic failure under the previous administrations and emerged as the clear winner once Mario Draghi resigned following the economic and political turmoil. Meloni fills the void that the centre-left parties have failed to address so far. She has presented herself as a new alternative against an opposition that now seems much distant from the needs and aspirations of the people. Her populist rhetoric has only helped to further fuel her rise to power. Facing economic catastrophe for the longest time, the Italians now demand security and stability. However, her anti-immigration and anti-EU policies do not present an answer to the problems Italy faces. Her populist rhetoric is highly unfortunate and raises the threat for hate crimes in the future. Her authoritarian stance coupled with the ‘Italy first’ rhetoric will not fare well in the future. In deep economic stress, Italy needs to welcome immigrants who can actively contribute to their economy and stabilise the turbulent waters.

Furthermore, Meloni’s election presents a threat to the democratic system in Italy. The right-wing coalition is in a position to negotiate a constitutional amendment that approves the President to be elected directly by the people. Currently, the President is elected by an electoral college which was setup in 1948 as a measure to prevent the future possibility of a government takeover by the fascist forces. While the Presidency is a figurehead role in the country, Brothers of Italy have advocated for a more robust head of state with a popular mandate. This advocacy for “Presidentialism” may have grave repercussions for Italy’s democratic setup, making the President a politically motivated role which will severely affect the system of checks and balances in the present system.

It is difficult to say whether Meloni’s coalition will be able to weather the storm in the coming years but one thing that is certain is that this election is one for the history books where victors are set to write the fate of Italy, once again.

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