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Mythology and European Identity

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There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.”-G.K. Chesterton

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap] he above quote by G.K. Chesterton may at first sight appear contradictory and illogical. I think it was intended to be paradoxical, to attract attention to a thorny issue with which Chesterton contends in some of his books, namely this: is Christianity integral part of the European identity? The issue boils down to a clarification of the proper role of pagan mythology in such an identity.

At the turn of the 21st century the issue of the European cultural identity has become crucial in the light of the formation, some sixty years ago, of a polity called the European Union. Few would deny nowadays that there is afloat in this polity a veritable cultural identity crisis which some call the issue of multiculturalism but at its core revolves around the issue of religion, specifically Christianity which is considered an Asian- imported religion with little affinity to the original pagan European religions based on traditional European mythologies. It is that dichotomy pagan/Christian and or history/mtyh which creates much confusion and consternation, despite the fact that the founding fathers of the EU were, by and large, traditional, pious, practicing Christians (one thinks of Schumann, De Gasperi, Aedenauer, etc).

This preamble leads logically to the following questions: is Christianity responsible for some of the acute socio-political problems we are experiencing nowadays on both sides of the Atlantic? Nietzsche, for one, certainly thought so. He blamed Christianity for the dilution and even the weakening and emasculating of European culture. The true European culture resided with the Vikings and Germans of old.

So the question arises: is Paganism and its mythology true in any sense? Would a resurgence of paganism bring us back to our original mores and values and restore a more authentic identity? In other words, will it save us from our present predicament? Here too, many believe so, and demonstrate this belief in theory and in practice. It appears that in Europe soccer stadiums are much better attended than churches on Sunday. As we speak, the number of practicing Christians (whether Catholic or Protestants) diminishes steadily. The only noticeable exception is the continent of Africa; an intriguing exception, if there ever was one.

This phenomenon has not escaped notice to Vladimir Putin who has latched on to it as an example of a corrupt pagan society named the West to be contrasted with a pious Christian Orthodox culture of which he fancies himself an example.

As Vico has well taught us, religion is found at the very outset of any human society (together with language and the family); it runs the very core of people’s convictions (even if in a negative mode) and how they view the world around them. To declare oneself “secular” is surely to have a stance vis a vis religion. Some think the solution is simple: simply eliminate religion from the public discourse in the agora and relegate it to the private sphere, if not eliminate it altogether. But is it that simple? Vico points out that religion, while inseparable from people’s ethnicity, history and language, is nevertheless integral part of a people’s culture, even when such a culture rejects religion in practice. It cannot be eliminated in theory as is the case in Europe nowadays wherein many consider themselves in a post-Christian epoch and therefore relieved of any duty of allegiance to the traditional religion of their forebears, those who founded the polity called European Union.

This viewpoint has gained increasing momentum lately. Many in the West have become increasingly convinced that Christianity was part of a long and unfortunate foreign process that led to the subversion of traditional European values and cultural norms. It is not indigenous; it originated in the Middle East and it is based on Jewish mythology, so the argument goes. We, as secularized enlightened humans, heirs of Greco-Roman culture, and the Enlightenment, of course (and here one thinks of Voltaire and his despising of religion) have emancipated ourselves from it and are all the better for it; returning to it would simply bring us right back to where we are now with all the problems of multiculturalism and white guilt and preferences to non-white others; paganism is an improvement on our current circumstances for it allows for indigenous expressions of the European identity.

During the trial of Christ, Pontius Pilate asked Christ a profound, simple, and penetrating question: “What is truth?” This is, of course, the question that should be asked before any argument is made regarding the utility of pagan beliefs. The simple fact is that the idea of the universe being governed by a discordant group of superhuman deities is beyond the scope of believability for most modern Europeans. The ancient Greeks and Romans had discovered the basic laws of physics, astronomy, and biology, and these scientific facts contradicted the pagan idea that the world or universe was governed by the whims of deities who were all too human themselves and prone to all the vices and vulnerabilities of humans.

Paul addresses the problem of pagan beliefs in his sermon on Mars Hill. He argues that the pagan deities could not have created or governed the world when the gods and goddesses themselves were fashioned from metal or stone. “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands. Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” Paul concludes that “we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” This argument cuts to the core of the issue with pagan deities. Their whole existence was predicated on their supposed animation of inanimate figures and statues. Paul correctly points out the absurdity of believing that these inanimate figures could have created living creatures. Paul counters this idea with the Christian belief that the one true God created humanity in His own image.

As is well known, the pagan Romans ultimately set out to try to conquer the world and make the whole world Roman. They almost succeeded. Caesar became recognized as a god himself, and the worship of all gods or goddesses were tolerated as long as such worship was subordinated to the state. Christians were persecuted not because they were worshiping foreign gods and myths but because they would not worship Caesar, that is to say, the State. Contrary to what Gibbons maintains in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the current decline and death of the West may be due to this brand of Roman imperial paganism and colonialism, not to anything corrupting within the Christian paradigm.

But in fact one of the weightier issues that discussions of paganism usually evoke is the question of the causes of the impending doom of the West. What has caused the West to contemplate suicide? The reason that this topic is important in any discussion of paganism and European racial and cultural survival is because pagans, since Gibbon and Nietzsche and Marx (who called religion the opium of the people) often cite Christianity as the primary cause or one of the primary causes of European decadence. Many neo-pagans consider Christianity to be a foreign import of Jewish myths into Europe, maintaining that the Christian doctrines of repentance, contrition for sin, the cardinal virtue of charity (all unknown to the pagan Aristotle) and the concept of salvation being freely offered to all, are contradictory to European values and to their survival.

These arguments of course deserve fair consideration, but it is worth noting that from the onset that Christianity itself, through the teachings of Christ, accounts for the possibility of Christians losing influence on society because of their own faithlessness. Christ in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) calls his disciples the “salt of the earth.” The analogy to salt is a metaphorical application to the function of salt in preservation. Ideally, the Christian Church should act as a conservative influence in society and be a means of preserving health in our institutions. If we Christians lose our resolve and convictions in Christian truth, then we will definitely see ourselves displaced, and the “salty” influence that the Church is to wield will vanish. Christ asks his disciples if they, the “salt,” lose their savor, then how will the earth be salted?

We are currently experiencing the result of this widespread apostasy in the West. Hilaire Belloc correctly observed that “the Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.” What Belloc is asserting is the simple fact that Europe and Christianity seem to go hand in hand. Christopher Dawson and G.K. Chesterton said pretty much the same thing. They also asserted that at the very least the recognition of that cultural fact is needed to preserve European civilization. It appears that as the Faith has declined amongst us, so too has our own sense of our identity and purpose. Confusion seems to abound. As a result we seem to become progressively more disillusioned and embrace nihilism and despair.

Few would deny that manners and customs have declined, traditional marriage and birthrates have dropped precipitously. Europe stands on the brink of a cultural disaster despite its relative material and technological progress, all buttressed by positivism or a near religious belief in science. The torch of Christianity has dwindled in tandem with European influence. It seems that Belloc had it on target: as the Faith goes, so goes Europe; that seems to be the trend, independent of the practice or non-practice of one’s faith.

The question persists: what is then the proper role of mythology in Western identity? It can safely be declared that, if nothing else, the major benefit that pagan mythology provides is its rich history in European literature as well as the appropriation of pagan symbols for Christian use. C.S. Lewis was very appreciative of such influences. Christian Europeans have a long and proud history of appropriating the myths, symbols, holidays, and traditions for Christian usage. By appropriating the best elements of our pre-Christian past, they were able to create a vibrant culture that wed Christian orthodoxy with the good taste of what came before. This is especially evident in the era of Humanism which originated in Italy in the 14th century and synthesized Antiquity to Christianity. Without humanism there would not have been any Renaissance either.

It is important to understand that this did not mean mixing pagan and Christian elements together in worship. No Italian humanist worshiped in Greek or Roman temples, not even Machiavelli who liked to study Roman history dressed in a Roman toga. Pagan deities were simply honored as heroes of ages long past who were not divine and could not deliver anyone from sin, death, or evil, never mind the devil himself. This did not mean for our European forebears that pagan symbols and traditions could not be cleverly redesigned to convey a Christian meaning. A good classical example of the synthesis of pagan history reinterpreted through the prism of Christian theology is the Sibylline Oracles, which is an excellent example of classical poetry.

Another prominent example of the appropriation of pagan symbols to Christian use is from the Celtic conversion: the endless knot which was a pagan symbol representing the mythic union of the sea, land, and sky. When the Celts converted to Christianity the endless knot was converted in its meaning to represent the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A similar example is the example of the sun wheel, a Neolithic European symbol intended to worship the Sun. This symbol was given a new Christian meaning and is now easily recognizable as the Celtic cross (see the picture above).

Traditional Christian symbolism abounds with examples of pagan traditions and symbols being used to convey a Christian meaning. The pagan Phoenix came to represent the Resurrection of Christ. The Easter egg came to represent Christian rebirth. The pagan feast of Saturnalia corresponds with the dates of the Christian Great O Antiphons leading up to Christmas. The Christmas tree is partially derived from the northern European pagan feast of Yule, and is given a Christian meaning in renewal. There are many more examples of Christians appropriating the best pagan symbols for Christian use.

Pagan theology is unquestionably no longer a tenable worldview for the European mindset. Europeans have been conditioned by centuries of Christian belief to see the universe ordered by a single all-powerful God, and the existence of pagan deities was simply interpreted as representing the heroes and mighty men of old before the days of Noah. The pagan heroes came to be worshipped as gods due to their extraordinary longevity and prowess. By the time of the advent of Christianity in Europe, paganism had long since run its course and had degenerated into state-worship. Chesterton and Dawson point out that it took a good thousand years of medieval purgation, so to speak, to cleanse and escape the gross enormities to which the pagan mind-set had descended. This is not to deny that Aristotle had arrived rationally at the idea of one god who creates the universe which Aristotle calls First Cause, and then gives it a natural law; but his image of god remains abstract, impersonal, a mere product of reason, a mere idea, albeit the highest idea a philosopher can conceive and contemplate.

Aristotle’s idea of God is certainly not the personal, providential god of history, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So, in many ways the modern West is experiencing the same problems that the pre-Christian West did. Europeans are now preoccupied with hero and state-worship, and they are experiencing the same abuses of the state that our ancestors did under Caesar, to wit the EU myopic bureaucracy unconcerned with the spiritual and the transcendent aspects of the life of destiny of Man which remains integral part of the Christian faith. The whole game now consists in a Machiavellian quest for power.

What Chesterton means with that above quixotic initial quote is that, contrary to the protests of neo-pagans, Christianity is the native natural religion of the European people. It is natural to revere heroes; it is unnatural to worship heroes as gods. Pagan religion was a perversion of the natural inclination to admire the finer traits of the human character. Christianity was a positive transition in Europe to the worship of the one true Trinitarian God. Nevertheless we Europeans are obliged to our pagan predecessors who forged many of the abiding symbols that we use today in the Christian faith. Christian authors, architects, composers, theologians, and artists have always demonstrated a profound respect for the pagan traditions and symbols of Europe. But this respect has always been demonstrated within the context of a steadfast devotion to Christian orthodoxy. We Europeans and Western people in general can and should appreciate the exploits of Thor, Odin, and Zeus without worshipping them as gods, rather honoring them as ancestors of our ancient past.

The most laudable attribute of our European ancestors as exemplified by the founding fathers of the European Union was their quest and desire to understand and express truth. The question returns: what prompted Pontius Pilate to ask Christ about truth? It was Christ’s simple and yet profound assertion that He himself was the Truth, the Way and the Life, and that truth could only be ascertained through belief in him? Christ stated that the whole purpose of His ministry was to convey the truth. “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.” A good question to ponder at Christmas time.

Christ is certainly not a myth like Zeus, Thor or Odin but an historical person born at a particular time in a particular place among a particular people but his mission is not particular but universal, meant for all people, for it is the truth that shall make us free. Pope John Paul II’s words to the European Congress and Christopher Dawson’s words in his The Making of Europe, remain prophetic: as Faith declines, so will our beloved Europe. For Europe, and indeed the West, to be the West again and assure its survival and salvation even in the merely political temporal universe, it must once again become the Faith.

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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Fostering Tolerance in Europe: Issues of Migration and Populism in Italy

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Authors: Maxim Sigachev and Elena Elena*

Tolerance remains a complicated issue in the West and Russia alike. The challenge, though, remains in the need to account for the connection between the notions of tolerance, social security, and the development of the society. The West tends to adopt a broader perspective on tolerance when compared to Russian practices. In Europe, the notions of ‘tolerance’ is informed by ‘active cooperation’ rather than merely ‘patience’, as is the case in Russia.

There are at least four dimensions to this issue in Europe:

  • that of the EU’s regulatory programs;
  • that of local communities;
  • that of European societies at large;
  • that of populism and Euroscepticism, which is believed to be the source of intolerance towards migrants and refugees.

This article is devoted to the problem of the social and political crises in Italy, which have been caused by pan-European problems (i.e., migration, anti-EU attitudes of the public) and strengthened by the national Italian conflicts (the gap between the Northern and the Southern regions, debates between the Left and the Right opposition, the rise of the populist parties etc.).

Social and political discrepancies in Italy

As a part of the EU, Italy has to get through the complex processes of adaptation to a life in a supranational union, which includes profound transformations in socio-economic, cultural, and even religious spheres. If we analyze the election agenda used by the Italian populist parties in the European elections 2019 campaign, we will notice the strong anti-EU discourse and a deep disappointment in the EU politics. Being part of the EU is conceived as a loss of independence. Further, we can notice the increasing deficit of tolerance in many spheres: religious, sociocultural, ethnic, ideological.

Research on the contemporary European political parties notes that Eurosceptical spirit is strong in developing economies and advanced economies (as is the case with Germany and the UK) alike[1]. Thus, Italy’s crises are not necessarily unique but can be found across the Western world as well.

The crisis of Western world order manifests itself on, at least, three levels:

  1. the supranational level: the rise of the Euroscepticism, which is represented in the lack of tolerance and mistrust towards the European Union as an institution.
  2. the national level: the rise of the national populism, which identifies the crisis of multiculturalism in the European nations, zero tolerance to immigrants (the European migrant crisis or refugee crisis of 2015–2018) and refugees as bearers of alien culture, a so-called exclusive nationalism.
  3. the economic level: further strengthening of social populism movements, which signify the end of the European welfare state.

The European societies are characterized by a growing alienation between the rich and the poor, the elites and the people, the establishment and the middle class.

The idea of social and political divisions was first proposed by Stein Rokkan, who studied the existing divisions between political parties that are caused by cleavages between the center and the periphery, the city and the village, etc.

Rokkan’s theory was developed by Paul Lazarsfeld, who studied electoral behavior and stated that “people vote not only for their own social group but also in favor of it”[2].

According to S. Rokkan, the European party system was developed on the foundation of existing social conflicts. Rokkan also formulated the basic lines of conflicts such as “center—periphery”, “state—church”, “employee—employer”, “city—country”. The social discrepancies of the Lipset-Rokkan theory were built on by French political scientist D.-L. Seiler in the work Whether it is possible to apply the clivages of Rokkan to Central Europe?

We can use this theory to explain the stability of the European political systems in the second half of the 20th century and electoral behavior of the Europeans.

Among the notable works on the cleavage theory are R. Rose and D. Urwin Persistence and Change in Western party systems since 1945 [3] S. Wolinetz The Transformation of Western European Party System Revisited [4]M. Abrams, R. Rose and R. Hinden[5], G. Evans and S. Whitefield The Evolution of Left and Right in Post-Soviet Russia [6].

Russian scientists rarely study the Italian political system and electoral behavior in the frameworks of the cleavage theory, as they usually study the different aspects of the political life in their research papers. There are some fundamental works that attempt to analyze facts and knowledge of Italian political thought from the perspective of the communist ideology. Cecilia Kin divided the liberal political thought into purely liberal and catholic in her work Italy at the turn of the century. From the history of social political thought, K.G. Kholodkovsky and I.B. Levin compared the Italian Socialist and Communist parties.[7]

The basic factors of social political crisis in contemporary Italy

The basic factors of the social political crisis in modern Italy can be divided into two groups. The first group includes socio-political divisions of a more historical, traditional character, whereas the second group consists of relatively new, contemporary collisions.

The North-South Divide

The contemporary socio-political crisis in Italy originates from the long-term and unfinished division between the North and the South, which has not been overcome since the Italian Risorgemento (unification) in 1861. Historically less developed Southern Italy has always faced serious difficulties. The process of modernization in Southern Italy is ongoing, the standard of living still pales in comparison to wealthy Northern regions. According to the Soviet-Russian researcher K.G. Kholodkovsky, Italy still suffers from the fact that different parts of the country existed as separate states for centuries. The most important consequence of this Italian historic disunity is economic and cultural gaps between the North and the South[8].

Polarization between the Left and the Right

The ideological conflict between the Right-wing and the Left-wing political forces also has historically contingent roots and goes back to the period of Risorgimento. In 19th century, the two leading political movements—republicans and monarchists—vied for leadership of a newly unified Italy.

One group of politicians led by Giuseppe Mazini tried to establish a Republican Republic, which was supported by the socialist-utopist Carlo Pisacane. Their ideas became the ideological basement for the Italian republicanism. The second group advocated for a monarchy and was led by Camillo Cavour who would later become Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy. Those advocating for monarchy provided a base for conservative right-wing sentiments/ideology.

In the 20th century, there was a divide between fascists and anti-fascists. Those who supported Mussolini espoused conservative views. The anti-fascist coalition united a broad spectrum of political movements including democrats, socialists, and communists.

Today it is impossible to claim that the contemporary Italian Left and Right are descendants of that original opposition, but ideological divides are still a prominent feature of Italian politics.

It would be more correct to divide the Italian parties not only along their preferences of political system but along their attitude toward traditional values as well. Today, political parties on the Right tend to be more nationally oriented and Eurosceptic. They typically advocate for traditional values and greater autonomy from EU Commission directives. They are also staunch opponents of high levels of migration from outside the EU.

The Left is more loyal to the EU and the benefits provided to Italy by its institutions. They also support more progressive economic and family policies. A key difference between left and right in Italy is migration. The left tends to be more tolerant of migrants and refugees and advocate for the integration of migrants into Italian society.

Thus, while the division between the Left and the Right has weakened, it certainly still remains intact. Due to the particularities of the national election law, it is difficult to get the majority of the vote needed and enough seats in the Italian Parliament to form the Cabinet of Ministers. Subsequently, this problem forces the Italian parties to create different coalitions to secure seats in the Parliament. These coalitions are often characterized by the ideology of party members (center-right, right-wing, etc.). This changed in 2013 when a new political party, the 5 Stars Movement, uprooted the traditional political spectrum. Now, there is no pure center-right or center-left coalition. Coalitions have become more volatile as ideological divides become deeper as compared to the situation of ten years ago. For example, the right-wing coalition which included Forza Italia! (S. Berlusconi), Fratelli d’Italia (G. Meloni) and the Northern League (M. Salvini) won the parliamentary elections of 2018. Despite this result, the far-right League abandoned its ideological partners to form a Coalition Cabinet with the Five Stars Movement which cannot be defined as entirely Left or Right-wing.

New collisions

Recently (in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century), new collisions emerged: Eurosceptics vs. Eurooptimists, populists vs. traditional political parties, the supporters of migrants vs. opponents of mass immigration (as well as the division between migrants and local communities).

Eurosceptics vs. Eurooptimists

The growth of Euroscepticism in Italy can be attributed to a crisis in relations between the European Union and Italy as well as disappointment from the Italian society in the EU.

Since 1957, Italy has been a strong advocate for greater European integration, however, recently Italy has begun to transform into one of the Euroscepticism centers. According to the sociological data of Eurobarometer, about 50 per cent of the Italian society is disappointed with the European Union.

The question about the relation between Euroscepticism and populism is an intellectual challenge. On the one hand, Eurosceptics are mainly populist movements: not only the anti-immigrant League but also The Five Star Movement. On the other hand, Euroscepticism has been typical for classical Italian communists—the heirs of the Communist party of Italy. Besides, old populism of Berlusconi is more euro-optimistic than the new populism of Salvini.

Particularities of the relations between Italy and the European Union are based on a disagreement in two key issues: immigration policy and the social economic policy.

Populists vs. Traditional Political Parties

One of the results of this political crisis is the growth of social and political populism. Weinstein noted that there are a few approaches to the phenomenon of populism. According to these approaches, a hybrid phenomenon seems to exist in different dimensions: as an ideology, as a specific style of politics, and as a specific form of political organization.[9] The Italian populism started with Silvio Berlusconi coming to power in 1994. Berlusconi is perceived as the founding father of Italian populism, who managed to unite center-right forces. K.G. Kholodkovsky underlines that “populism has in new conditions become a complex of sense and values, uniting many Italians in being connected with the illusion of personalistic overcoming of the gap between authorities and citizens. The breaking of the barriers between the authorities and the people has found its personification in the figure of the uniter of the center-right forces Sylvio Berlusconi”[10] As noted previously, the rise of Berlusconi came against the background of the collapse of Christian Democratic and the Communist parties. This fact reflects an important feature of populism:

  1. Populism is a consequence of the crisis of the traditional party system, the disappointment with classical parties and party leaders.
  2. Populism has overcome the traditional division between the Left and the Right.
  3. Populist parties are often reliant on a strong leader with a distinct character.

Pro-migrants vs. Anti-migrants

The migrant crisis manifested itself most significantly in Southern Italy, since the coast of the Italian South is the closest to the North Africa. From a geographical perspective, this fact has turned the Southern part of Italy (especially the island of Lampedusa) into a gate from Africa to Europe for immigration. The immigration issue is not a new one for Italy. There were several waves of internal migration from the Southern to the more economically developed Northern regions. This process fostered resentment between citizens from different parts of the country. However, the European immigration crises as well as burgeoning crowds transformed this internal cleavage into an external one.

The intensification of the migrant crisis in Italy and in the European Union has been reflected in public opinion. According to Eurobarometer, about half of Italians consider immigration as the most important problem for the European Union, whereas another half of the Italian society cites terrorism as the most important dilemma. This fact also demonstrates that Italians are anxious about the consequences of the immigration crisis, because illegal immigration is one of the factors of the growing terrorist threat. According to the Eurobarometer spring 2016 data, 44% of Italians pointed immigration as the most important problem of the European Union. By autumn 2016, this number rose to 49,1%, by spring 2017—fell to 40%, then in autumn 2017—fell again to 38%, by autumn 2018—rose to 41%.

The growth of anti-immigrant sentiments in the Italian society has led to the emergence of the new nationalism, which is typical not only for the poorer regions but also for the richer ones. The figurehead of new nationalism in Italian politics is the League, formerly the League of the North, which has changed its name to appeal to broader segments of Italian society.

Thus, the migrant crisis has added a new collision between migrants and Italians. The problem of illegal migration became an accelerator of the existing Italian conflicts rather than an entirely new phenomenon. Illegal immigration has essentially accelerated these already-existing Italian conflicts.

Conclusion

Economy and culture are the two principal ingredients of the Italian mindset and are sources of intense socio-political divisions, as economic reasons lead to a rise of new divisions, as well as feeding traditional ones.

Economic crises lead to social and political crises. Nowadays, Italian voters are disillusioned with the existing political order giving way to new and less ideologically driven parties. Yet, these parties’ first years in power have demonstrated their weakness in taking action to overcome the existing crisis.

For example, under Giuseppe Conte’s First Cabinet, known as “yellow-green government of change” (due to the colors of the League and the Five Star Movement), inter-coalition conflict between Salvini and Di Maio led to a significant political crisis, creating a weaker position for the Five Star Movement and the ambitions of the League’s leader Matteo Salvini for domination. On September 5, 2019, Conte’s Second Cabinet was formed, usually referred to as the “yellow-red government”, because it was supported by the “yellow” M5S and the center-left “red” Democratic party.

The internal political situation in Italy remains unstable, which also results in instability of its foreign policy. Irrefutably, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed significantly to the Italian political crisis. On February 13, 2021, the dilemma peaked when Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte stated he would resign from office. Pro-European technocrat Mario Draghi became the newest Prime Minister of Italy in the wake of Conte’s resignation. Draghi leads a unity government consisting of mainstream political parties and populist parties such as the League and M5S. This government only failed to garner support of the far-right Brothers of Italy.

Although Draghi has enjoyed widespread support throughout the coronavirus crisis, in the post-covid world there are long-term prospects for conflict between Italy and the EU and between Italy’s internally divided political system.

*Elena Elena, PhD student at the Institute of Socio-Political Research under the Russian Academy of Sciences (ISPR RAS)

From our partner RIAC

  1. Kranert M. Populist elements in the election manifestoes of AfD and UKIP, Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 67 (3), XXX–XXX. DOI: 10.1515/zaa-2019-0023
  2. Akhremenko A. S. “Social delimitations and structures of the electoral space of Russia” – Social Sciences and the Present, 2007, № 4.
  3. R. Richard, D. Urwin. Persistence and Change in Western party systems since 1945, Po-litical Studies, v. 18 Issue 3, September 1970.
  4. Wolinetz S. The Transformation of Western European Party System Revisited. – West European Politics, 1979, v. 2, №1.
  5. Abrams M, Rose R, Hinden R. Must Labor Lose? Harmondsworth, 1960.
  6. Evans G., Whitefield S. The Evolution of Left and Right in Post=Soviet Russia. – Eu-rope=Asia Studies, 1998, v. 50, № 6, p. 1023-1042.
  7. Kholodkovsky K. G. Labor movement in Italy (1959 – 1963). Moscow, 1969. (In Russ.) / Levin I. B. Labor movement in Italy. 1966-1976 Problems and trends of the strike struggle. Moscow, 1983. (In Russ.)
  8. Kholodkovsky K. G. The changing political image of Italy. – Italy at the beginning of the 21st century (collection of articles following the conference). Moscow, 2015. (In Russ.)
  9. Weinstein G.I. Populism – Identity: Personality, Society, Politics. Encyclopaedic Edition. Moscow, 2017. (In Russ.)
  10. Kholodkovsky K. G. The changing political image of Italy. – Italy at the beginning of the 21st century (collection of articles following the conference). Moscow, 2015. (In Russ.)

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American diplomacy’s comeback and Bulgaria’s institutional trench war

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Even though many mainstream media outlets have not noticed it, US diplomacy has staged a gran comeback in the Balkans. The Biden administration chose Bulgaria as the stage on which to reaffirm America’s hold on the region. Putting strong sanctions on Bulgarian oligarch, Washington is signalling not-so subtly to Russia that its reach goes far and wide. But there are sensible implication for the little South-Eastern European country’s future as well. Perhaps, the fight against systemic corruption is finally reaching its apogee. Could this be the end of misgovernance?

A corrupted country — Introduction

Many argue that corruption in Bulgaria and South-Eastern Europe is but a remnant of national Communist Parties’ half-century long rule. Thus, the EU’s threat to metaphorically swap the carrot for the ­­stick should have favoured a thorough clean-up. Instead, it merely yielded some short-term successes for anti-corruption campaigners, activist judges and specialised procurators. Yet, State capture and malpracticesremain endemic for one reason or another amongst post-socialist countries inside and outsidethe Union. More specifically, these efforts were vain and Bulgaria was still ill-equippedwhen it joined the Union on January 1, 2007. Hence, Brussels allowed in a deeply corrupted country where hidden interest behold even those occupying the highest echelons of power.

If not membership in the European Union, at least internal politics could have helped the country fend off endemic maladministration. Yet, the status quo has preserved itself intact despite calls and promises to root out corruption having been getting louder. In a sense, corruption’s pervasiveness is a feature and not a bug embedded in Bulgaria’s imperfect liberal free-market democracy. These conservative – and, in a sense, perverting – forces have found their embodiment in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his associates. Therefore, governmental agencies, political parties, courts and the entire extant structure of power contribute to prevent any change.

The wind of change: Popular unrest and institutional trench war

That notwithstanding, the proverbial ‘wind of change’ may have begun to lash across Bulgaria in summer 2020. After having taken to the streets against the party of power’s abuses and failures, voters abandoned Borisov in the April 2021 elections. Conversely, new parties and loose coalitions of civil-society organisations, formed shortly before the contest, won a relative majority of preferences. And, as many analysts noticed, these newcomers do not share much besides the desire to “dismantle the Borisov system”.

Nonetheless, these new actors failed to form a governing coalition due to the heterogeneity and inherent negativity of their agendas. Thus, President Rumen Radev scheduled new elections on July 11 and appointed a caretaker government.

Political reconfigurations

Indeed, there is an institutional custom prescribing such cabinets to limit their activities to managing current affairs. Nonetheless, these technocrats – many of whom supported Radev in his feud with Borisov – started an extensive review of past governments. In the process, the cabinet reshuffledbureaucracies, suspended Sofia airport’s concession and halted other public tenders for suspected irregularities. More importantly, the ministry of interior has confirmed prior suspects that Borisov-appointed officers may have illegally wiretapped opposition politicians.

In a word, President Radev’s ministers are endeavouring to tear apart the ‘Borisov system’ before the next elections. However, simply ousting most – or even all – of the previous government’s men in key positions within State apparatuses is uncomplicated. Especially when pushing such an agenda is the President,with the palpable backing of an absolute majority of the population. But the Borisov system has also an economic component. In fact, the party of power has set up a tentacular network of supportive oligarchs funding and favourable media coverage. Putting them out of the game is equally, if not more, important than firing bureaucrats — but also much more difficult.

Chasing the oligarchs

In other words, undoing the Borisov system’s appointments and putting trustworthy officers in those posts in just the first step. But real change requires leaving the wealthy individuals and organisations benefitting from the status quo clawless and teethless. Such a task entails deep economic transformations that would surely evoke immense opposition from powerful pressure groups. Evidently, there is not enough time before Bulgarians vote again and their representatives pick up a new executive. But the caretaker government is powerless in front of Bulgaria ‘s condemnation to persistent corruption no matter what.

On the contrary, the government has endeavoured to chase and derail some of these Borisov-connected oligarch. For instance, the finance minister appointed an Audit Committee with the task of reviewing the Bulgarian Development Bank’s (BBR) activities. As a result, the public discovered that oligarchs had steered the BBR away from its mandate of supporting small companies. In fact, eight large private companies have received more than half of the BRR’s total credits or ca. €473 million. On average, each of them has borrowed almost €60mln — and “this is not a small and medium business. In addition, these companies borrowed against a 2% rate instead of the average 5–7%. Following this leak, the Minister of Finance fired the entire board of the BBR. He also instructed the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB) to appoint a new directorate.

The US strike back

Quite surprisingly, the United States has just given Radev and his government a valuable assist. On June 2, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned several “individuals for their extensive roles in corruption”. In first instance, the sanctions target Vasil Bozhkov, a Bulgarian businessman currently hiding in Dubaito escape an arrest warrant for accusation of bribery; Delyan Peevski, prominent figure of and former member of the Parliament for the predominantly Turk Dvizhenie za Prava i Svobodi as well as the owner/controller four of the companies involved in the BBR’s scandal;  and Ilko Zhelyazkov, former appointee to the National Bureau for Control on Special Intelligence-Gathering Devices. Secondarily, the US have sanctioned “their networks encompassing 64 entities” with which no transaction in dollars is possible.

The US chose to hit Bulgaria, a NATO ally, with “the single largest action targeting corruption to date”. On the one hand, this falls within the boundaries of the current administration’s effort to restore America’s moral stewardship. More to the point, one may interpret the sanctions as a not-so/veiled message to Russia — which heavily influences Bulgarian politics. Still, those who had been looking at US-Bulgaria bilateral relations should have expected a similar decision. After all, the sanctions came after US ambassador Herro Mustafa’s reiterated criticisms of pervasive corruption in the country. Mustafa has also refused symbolically to meet Chief Public Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who embodies systemic corruption in Bulgaria.

Consequently, the game has scaled up to a whole new quality now. The BNB barred all Bulgarian banks to entertain commercial relationships with people under US sanctions. Moreover, the BNB had already froze some of Peevvski’s, Bozhkov’s and Zhelyazkov’s deposits, means of payment, and assets earlier. However, after the OFAC’s decision, the block extended to their entire network of affiliates and related entities.

Conclusion: The US are reclaiming the Balkans, and it may not be bad for Bulgarians

Officially, corruption’s malign influence on democracy provides the US with a moral justification to sanction any corrupt individua. Namely, the Treasury argues that it

undermines the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies; ha[s] devastating impacts on individuals; weaken[s] democratic institutions; degrade[s] the rule of law; perpetuate[s] violent conflicts; facilitate[s] the activities of dangerous persons; and undermine economic markets.  

Surely, the soon-to-come meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also played a role in this decision.

Yet, the sanctions’ timing suggests that there might be other forces at play. Rather, it seems that Washington decided to pick a side in the ongoing institutional trench war between Presidency and Government.

From Bulgaria’s perspective, even though most American media have not noticed it, the impression is quite clear. To quote President Biden: “America is back, diplomacy is back”. Specifically, this resurgence has a special meaning in the Balkans, a region of immense relevance for Europe’s energy security. Concretely, the US is taking the lead in the West’s effort to keep China, Russia, and Turkey out.

True, whether this external support will suffice for Bulgaria to finally eradicate corruption is debatable. Nevertheless, the US’s return may spur a positive competition dynamic in which Washington and Brussels compete for limited normative power. If this was the case, increase international pressures on Bulgaria to limit corruption may reach a breaking point relatively soon. At which point, either a fundamental shift will take place; or Bulgarian elites will entrench further

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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure

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Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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