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Conference Geopolitics and History

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Geopolitics is a strange science or, more precisely, a specific “thinking style”. While History reconstructs facts and interpret them ex post, according to the classic and still valid Cicero’s line of “Historia magistra vitae”, in geopolitics the basic rationale is future-oriented and not past-oriented: what shall I do, in History, to reach certain results?

Which are the initial conditions, the limits and the opportunities among those which occur once, as the Machiavellian Fortune, or those regarding the constant material features of a country?

As Giovanni Sartori always said, certainly all social sciences are series of data in which we can see similarities or not. However which data is needed to make a good geopolitical project?

I will try to answer this question: applying history to geopolitics enables those who have the character and the talent to do so to significantly improve the fortunes of their own country or even to change them.

Sometimes even to overturn them. As Italy, after World War II, and Japan, another defeated country, which were both the winners of the post-war period.

In fact, in his address at the 1947 Paris Conference, De Gasperi was right in saying he knew that “only the winners’ personal courtesy” was on his side.

Italy, however, had its Protectorate in Somalia, which ended in 1960.

Was it a serious geopolitical choice?

Certainly so because everyone knew that the colonial phase was almost over and that the geographic and business cycle of the time could do without the colonial system.

It was the geopolitics of trade between industrial countries while, when possible, the Third World played the card of unearned income and rents on raw materials or, in the Pro-Soviet socialist countries, it created “import substitution industries” to reduce our exports and slow down our development.

Later the great Italian development of the 1960s focused on large state-owned enterprises.

Private companies, however, woke up to reality and developed through exports and a fast-growing domestic market

Another lesson that current governments should learn is that there are not fully export-oriented economies, which kill their domestic markets to better compete on the “great international market”. It is nonsense and a crazy idea.

Both markets must develop harmoniously.

I remember it well – I had a first-hand experience in this regard. What was the geostrategic relevance? It was very simple.

The issue lay in competing with our allies without being noticed, by possibly invoking the right reasons of our opening to the Third World, where the “imperialists” that had won the Second World War were not very well-liked.

Without raw materials, but with plenty of labour force available and a perfect Mediterranean positioning, our fate was decided and settled.

The State managed raw materials at affordable prices for companies and the latter triggered internal development off.

At the time, increasing public spending was funded by growth itself.

The risk was well-run because, as great professionals, we tried to avoid the inflationary effects of export-driven growth with different currencies, often deliberately manipulated to create us problems – and I well remember Guido Carli leading, at first, our Exchange Office and later the Bank of Italy.

That ruling class had the highest degree of Italy’s geopolitical perception.

Compared to current times, the clashes between Colombo and Giolitti were a great piece of work between professionals, while today we seem to be in a nursery school.

They knew and we knew that our development mechanism was the one outlined by the State-Market mix, but without cherishing too many illusions about our private enterprises’ level of awareness.

State socialism?

Sometimes so, but it was the only way to grow fast and without too much inflation or too many asymmetric shocks.

If you want speed, you need to have a highly planned economy while, if you are interested in the ability to adapt to markets, you can be carried away by the slowness of the many free random transactions.

We had quietly inherited the public enterprises’ model built by Fascism, including IRI, IFI and the other public companies for restructuring and upgrading enterprises, but we had adapted it to the theory of social personalism – halfway between Emmanuel Mounier, the intellectual of reference for Pope Paul VI and the extraordinary legacy of the “Code of Camaldoli,” the document with which the Catholics were leading the new Republican Italy.

Once again there was a maximum level of geopolitical consistency.

We social Catholics were the only political force massively present in Italy. We represented the true Italy and we had a very good relationship with the United States.

Defending Tradition and our People after a defeat and, in the meantime, preparing economic revenge.

We also turned temporary aid, namely the Marshall Plan – officially known as the European Recovery Program (ERP) – from post-war economic and humanitarian aid, much less relevant than we currently believe, into the first step for reconstructing our whole economy, including the one which bothered our winners.

The perception level of Italy’s place in the world, ranging from Pasquale Saraceno to Ezio Vanoni and, immodestly, myself, was almost at the maximum level.

Hence we had to thank our Anglo-Saxon friends, but we had not to be relegated to be the fifth wheel of their business cycle.

Italy was and had to be master of the Mediterranean and open itself to Eastern European markets, even to the Soviet Union’s, having the largest Communist Party in the world in electoral terms.

It was our idea and we played that card with the image of a young, energetic, free and democratic Italy.

We said to our Allies we could follow them in the “Cold War” – and, indeed, what we did in that field will never be fully told by history – but they had not to annoy us when it came to opening markets to our manufactured products.

And there was that perception even when, with Enrico Mattei, Francesco Cossiga and Bettino Craxi, we upset some plans of our British and American friends.

Politicians devised the great economic and social strategies and even the way to make them be swallowed up and digested by the most recalcitrant among our Western friends.

That was the free geopolitical competition between nations; we were taking our history back after decades of protectionist freezing.

However we protected ourselves very well, even better than our Japanese competitors.

You may say we produced Motta-Alemagna “State panettoni” – and, indeed, we were criticized for that “entrepreneurial State” which was expanding also to less strategic economic sectors. However, if the well-known family brands were lost in comforts, pleasures and debt, what was the fault of the State which recovered factories, equipment and workers and kept on producing excellent cakes?

Nevertheless everything was over with the end of fixed exchange rates in 1971.

Oil became the primary market of the US dollar and, more strictly, of the US economy cycle, while Kissinger made a deal with the Saudis to “manage” the petrodollars coming from the oil price increases following the “Yom Kippur War”.

So America funded the Vietnam War and its failed project of “New Society” – a pocket-size Welfare State in the land of Protestant private enterprise extremism.

We were so accurate in our geopolitical perceptions that while we were close friends of the Arabs in the Middle East, we were also a stable and reliable point of reference for our Israeli friends.

It was not duplicity or double-dealing, but full geopolitical awareness of our limits and our potential.

More importantly, we had to protect our development rate.

The Moro affair, however, marked the end of the First Republic, the era in which Italy – with Andreotti, Craxi, Cossiga, Moro, Ugo La Malfa and the many friends trivially called “secular politicians” – had rebuilt the country precisely on the basis of a perfect geopolitical and strategic knowledge of our new role in the world.

Moro was assassinated and this destabilized our global military and economic security network, inductively leaked from the Red Brigades to our economic and non-economic competitors and enemies.

Hence it was the end of our “secret geopolitics”, as a result of Moro’s death, that stifled and blocked economic growth and our winning production formula.

And what about today?

If there is a ruling class not even understanding the geopolitics basics, this is exactly the current Italian ruling class.

We have sold everything just to make money and go back again into the eternal limbo of secular stagnation, which is a negative Kondratiev cycle for everyone, but especially for those who suffer it due to their competitors.

The entry into the Euro area, which had not to be taken for granted, was carried out by calculating the last six months of the Lira-German Mark ratio, a particularly good time for Italy.

As if, being sixty, we had to jump as in our prime.

No one said anything at the time.

It suited to Germany which, meanwhile, had become Italy’s global competitor. We could complain about it, but we did not.

Thatcher, Mitterrand and Kohl – constantly in touch with Cossiga – in fact accepted the German reunification just because they could take the German Mark hostage – as they had done with aspirin – and called it euro.

The statesmen of that Europe knew it perfectly, whereas our petty politicians take everything for granted. They are selected only for their appearing on TV and are now a prey to the lobbies’ money.

In fact, approximately 40 lobbies operate out in the open in Italy’s Parliament.

Obviously the First Republic’s ruling classes dealt with lobbies but, except for some rare cases, they were not influenced by them.

Too strong was the Party’s control for the worst to happen.

Now, after the ill-conceived privatizations – and that was the real reason for the shift from the First to the Second Republic – the State does no longer organize economic life and the results are before us to be seen.

Private individuals can never be farsighted and organize large companies for many years.

There is no capital, the business owner family is divided and the heirs are not up to expectations.

Pure liberalism and laissez-faire are good for small companies, while for the large and very large ones the State is needed, with its regulatory power, its wealth of capital and its professional managers.

Just as war is too serious a matter to be left to the military, the economy is too important a matter to be left only to capitalists.

Currently it is as if the memory of the First Republic’s geopolitics in a different context had remained, thus producing sometimes grotesque results.

A persisting “American myth”, while today the United States look well beyond Europe they now consider to be ruined, and thus a possible prey.

A sort of tender and comic loyalty to those who use the economic and strategic levers to eliminate us, such as the easy purchases of our companies and the failed economic expansion which, in fact, makes us others’ prey.

We have not even seized the Brexit opportunity.

We have not even our banks any longer. In the period of “Quantitative Easing” started by Mario Draghi, the Bank of Italy’s liabilities in the Euro system slumped: in September they fell to -354 billion euro.

We have no longer our banks – hence the transactions of the European monetary area penalize us, while capital is fleeing our country.

And when the European Quantitative Easing ends – much to Germans’ delight – what will happen to our funds and debt securities, which few actually want under the current conditions?

There is not even a sign that our ruling class has developed a few working assumptions, or at least leading us to think they know what is going on.

The underlying idea seems to be that everything is inevitable and dark, hence we might as well devote ourselves to Twitter, to the media, to appearances on some talk shows – in short, to the “image”, which seems to be particularly important for politicians’ popularity in today’s communication society.

Obviously we record booming foreign investment in small and medium-sized Italian companies – mostly minority shareholdings – but where are the profits going?

In the fashion world, the “Made in Italy” absolute model, the Arabs bought almost everything: Corneliani, Dainese, Tiffany and Gucci by Bahrain, while “Valentino” by Qatar. There are 15,800 French companies operating in Italy, not to mention banks: BNL-Paribas, Crédit Agricole, etc. In the energy sector EDF purchased Edison, but French companies also operate in the public transport sector in some Northern cities and in Tuscany.

Nothing wrong, in principle, but how do we respond to these attacks?

Are we doing at least the same? Not at all.

Currently the Italian penetration into the EU and US production systems is quite good, but not enough yet.

The level of our purchases “outside the area” is certainly not such as to equate what is lost.

According to my calculations, 24% of the total foreign acquisitions in Italy is operated by us externally.

Unicredit has a 9.7% Islamic shareholding, including the Emirates’ Abaar fund and LIA, the old Gaddafi’s bank, now disputed and contended by the two major factions.

The same holds true for BPM, with different percentages and with the agreement between Sanpaolo and Qatar’s National Bank.

Do you believe that all these large and politically significant bargains and business are governed by the relevant Italian authorities?

Not at all, there is only the naive myth of the self-regulating market.

I fear that this applies also to military security and intelligence – everyone can buy anything without the secret services being in a position to say “no”!

We all know that the Italian Stock Exchange is owned by the London Stock Exchange.

The corporate structure of the Italian Stock Exchange, however, also includes a bank from Dubai and another sovereign investment fund from Qatar.

Once again, power flows which operate without control, discernment and often even without most of the ruling class knowing about them.

Will this power structure have some impact on our policies in the Middle East? Will these capital dislocations influence our decisions?

Certainly so, but the flows must be controlled, otherwise they will govern and rule us.

The market is free, but the government has to manage and regulate it anyway.

Nations have not disappeared in the liquid world described by the all-too-famous sociologist Bauman. They have only been relocated. They do so every day, in a context in which there is a non-declared ongoing and creeping war.

It is the clash and confrontation between regions of the world, which occur in many concrete and abstract places.

In fact Europe is bound to lose and be broken up into areas – governments like it or not.

Hence the winner is whoever remains nation.The loser is broken up and becomes “liquid”.

The other pole is the United States, which will become increasingly autonomous and independent from the losing European Union.

In South America and Africa “bubbles” will materialize with homogeneous characteristics by production type, but they will change very quickly. The same will happen to Central and Southern Italy, which will be “attached” to North Africa up to becoming an economically and strategically homogeneous region.

Also Northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia will tend to build a united bloc. Central Germany and France will still play the scene of Kerneuropa’s unity, while Scandinavia, the post-Soviet republics of the old Hanseatic League and the Netherlands will be integrated northwards.

Italy has lost – hence it will be divided, irrespective of laws or Regions.

With a view to further highlighting Italy’s crisis – the crisis of those who have definitely lost the globalization fight – we need to mention the young people leaving the country after graduating, or anyway “trying their luck” and looking for a land of opportunity elsewhere, now that Italy is at the core of all misfortunes.

A dead country cannot give hope to life, namely to young people.

Why should one stay in Italy without any prospects?

Nevertheless the State and families pay generously for youth education and the fruit of their children’s skills are used by other countries, which invested not even a euro in their education and training.

In 2015 the Italians who left the country to live abroad permanently were 107,529. Not all of them are enrolled in the Register of Italians Abroad (AIRE) – hence we may also assume they are twice that number.

36.7% of these 107,529 Italians are young people aged between 18 and 35, who moved to Germany as many of their grandparents had done several years ago, before our great post-war reform.

There is no German motorway or Alpine Swiss flyover not built with the hard work, tears and blood of our children from the South of Italy.

However, 69.2% of those who moved abroad, did so to Europe.

Hence it did not take much to keep them home – the homologies with our EU colleagues are still many.

On average, the college and university years cost 3,000 euro for those who remain at home and over 8,000-9,000 euro for the young people who move to other cities.

The calculation is easily made, considering that in 2014-2015 – the latest years for which data is available – the total number of registered university students is 270,145.

A huge mass of young people and investment that are destroyed in a closed circuit characterized by the death of any hope, slammed doors, underpaid jobs for which there was certainly no need to study, as well as a biological, affective and professional life – if any – which is fulfilled when it is too late.

It is not a problem of money, but rather the knell of any hope in Italy, that you can see in the eyes of the many young people who have excellent diplomas and degrees, which cannot be used to make the country grow and change. Young people who are trapped in a repetitive circle of life with only one thousand euro a month – if any – to survive.

Not to mention how this situation affects pension schemes, which now provide only pocket money for these young people.

A death spiral: young people cannot settle down and give birth to children – hence the State’s fiscal crisis worsens thus leading to ridiculous pensions.

How can a country survive in this way? How long can we still keep an advanced production system in place, when university students have decreased by 20% over the last decade and academics and experts – “les savants”, as Saint Simon called them – leave the country?

Darkness at noon for Italy, as when Jesus Christ died.

How many factories and companies have gone bankrupt, often as a result of oppressive taxation and baroque bureaucracy. How many entrepreneurs have killed themselves to avoid the stigma of bankruptcy – the same stigma of failure looming large over the many young people who cannot find a job?

How many chances of surviving has a country based on this equation: fewer companies, fewer workers, less-skilled jobs and much less generational turnover?

We recorded over 700 suicides for economic reasons.

44% of them were committed by entrepreneurs; 40% by unemployed people and 10.3% by employees.

In the first half of this year they are already 81 (+28%).

Currently Campania has replaced Veneto as the region most affected by this sad record – and we can easily imagine the many issues related to economic lawfulness.

However, the fact that businessmen sometimes attempt suicide or work on the verge of viability – by possibly paying workers and not taxes, otherwise they could not even survive – means only one thing.

It means that social processes are not governed and that they are not managed by efficient authorities. They are allowed to go away as productive “bubbles”, while they should be included in a program – also a public one – to regulate them.

We should never leave the development of the small companies in my beloved Veneto region at the mercy of the German or Austrian cycle fluctuations and, when the former Yugoslav republics are available, we should compete, organize new markets and improve technologies.

We should not let technology and crafts go to Northern Europe, where our models are copied and sold at a lower price.

Work must be protected – certainly in a new way compared to the old tariff barriers – but we can hardly believe that such a sensitive mechanism can be left in the hands of small business owners or their tiny banks.

It was said that the First Republic was suffering from “production gigantism”, but the incompetent Second Republic is floundering in a phase of obsessive dwarfism and, sometimes, narrow-mindedness.

Our large companies – the few ones which have survived – are those who were born as small ones during the First Republic and that – sensitive to international laws and above all to the national interest – we have protected, nurtured, sometimes rescued and often funded.

There is no economy without national planning, especially now that all productive systems compete at the same time in the world.

In fact, when I look to the industrial policy of the latest Italian governments, I just become speechless.

The crisis always kills the smallest companies and Italy is a country that structurally does not protect its SMEs.

Renzi’s government has not even rescued one single small company and it has not implemented any policy to create others.

Scarce tax relief and no bureaucratic streamlining and simplification for the 5,332 new small technology companies set up between 2013 and 2015 while, over the same period, 1,127,167 traditional companies were registered as “new”, of which only 51% are real enterprises, but a mere 4% was created to develop an innovative idea.

Hence this is Italy’s new disastrous geopolitical equation: a few firms, that are still decreasing in number, of which very few ones develop innovation; falling domestic demand and total workforce, while Italy’s economic and social fabric is deteriorating.

A hetero-directed country, without its own memory or culture, forced as any South American banana republic to follow the fads and diktats of those who are winning the ongoing daily war, which is the third world war.

A ridiculous ruling class that presents world leaders with football players’ jerseys and purrs and applauds those who mocks it. A country which pretends to be what it no longer is, namely a great industrial country, our old First World Manufacture.

A non-existent political culture – whereas it is precisely politics which is culture at its finest – while schools become indoctrination centres for the most foolish fads and myths.

A country which does not know that the old alliances are dead, and that it must look for new ones, eastwards, in China, in the new string of pearls of Xi Jinping’s “maritime Silk Road”, or in the new technology society, as done by Israel.

As Leo Longanesi brilliantly said, “the modern grows old and the old comes back into fashion”.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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What to Do with Extraterritorial Sanctions? EU Responses

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One of the important decisions of the new US administration was its revision of the sanctions policy inherited from President Donald Trump. The “toxic” assets of the departed team include deterioriated relations with the European Union. The divisions between Washington and Brussels have existed since long before Trump’s arrival in the White House. The EU categorically does not accept US extraterritorial sanctions. Back in 1996, the EU Council approved the so-called “Blocking Statute”, designed to protect European businesses from restrictive US measures targeting Cuba, Iran and Libya. For a long time, Washington avoided aggravating relations with the EU, although European companies were subject to hefty fines for violating US sanctions regimes.

The situation deteriorated significantly during the Trump presidency. At least three events served as a cold shower for the EU with respect to the bloc’s relationship with the US. The first was the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA—the “Iranian nuclear deal”. Trump renewed American restrictions on Iran in full, and then significantly expanded them. His demarche forced dozens of large companies from the EU to leave Iran; they were threated by the American authorities with fines and other coercive measures. Brussels was powerless to convince Washington to return to the JCPOA. The EU authorities were also unable to offer their businesses guarantees of reliable protection against punitive measures being taken by the US Treasury and other departments. The second event was Washington’s powerful attack on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Trump has openly opposed the pipeline, although the Obama administration was also against the pipeline. Congress has passed two sanctions laws targeting Russian pipeline projects. The US Congress and the State Department directly warned European business about the threat of sanctions for participating in the project. In addition to Iran and Russia, concern in the EU was also caused by the aggravation of US-Chinese tensions. Brussels distanced itself from Trump’s cavalry attack on China. So far, US restrictions against “Chinese communist military companies”, telecoms and officials have minimally affected the EU. However, Washington aggressively pushed its allies to oust Chinese technology companies. It cannot be ruled out that in the future, US foreign policy towards China will become a problem for Brussels.

For the EU, all these events have become a reason to think about protection from extraterritorial US sanctions. The work on them was carried out by both European expert centres and the European Commission. Currently, we can talk about the formation of a number of strategic goals, the achievement of which should allow the European Union to increase its stability in relation to extraterritorial sanctions of the United States and other countries.

Such goals include the following:

Strengthening the role of the euro in international settlements. Already today, the euro ranks second after the dollar in international payments and reserves. However, unlike the United States, the EU does not use this advantage for political purposes. Many transactions between European businesses and their foreign partners are carried out in US dollars, which makes them more vulnerable to subsequent coercive measures. Calculations in euros could reduce the risk of transactions with those partners against whom the sanctions of the United States or other countries are in effect, but the sanctions of the UN Security Council or the EU itself do not apply. Here the EU authorities have laid serious groundwork and have a good chance of achieving their goal.

1.Creation of payment mechanisms, which cannot be stopped from the outside. INSTEX, a payment channel for humanitarian deals with Iran, is often cited as an example of such mechanisms. In 2020, the first transactions were made. However, success in this area raises questions. INSTEX has been widely advertised by EU politicians, but initial expectations were too high. The mechanism has not yet justified itself, even for humanitarian purposes. The Treasury Department can impose blocking sanctions against INSTEX at any time if it considers that the mechanism is being used to deliberately circumvent US restrictions against Iran. Switzerland’s SHTA mechanism, which is used for humanitarian deals with Iran, looks much better. It was created jointly with the Americans and it should not have any problems with functionality. However, regarding payment mechanisms in the EU, there are not only humanitarian transactions. There’s also the matter of plans to create secure transaction mechanisms in the trade of energy or raw materials; the question of what prospects these have for implementation remains.

2.Ensuring the possibility of unhindered settlements and access to other services for individuals and legal entities in the EU that have come under extraterritorial sanctions. In other words, we are talking about the fact that a citizen or a company from the EU, which fell, for example, under the blocking sanctions of the US Treasury, could make payments within the EU. Now European banks will simply refuse such transactions, and the courts are likely to side with them. In fact, the European Union wants to create infrastructure that has already been created, for example, in Russia. Moscow was considering the establishment of a national payment system even before the large-scale sanctions of 2014. Despite the limited weight of Russia in the global financial system, the country has its own sovereign payment system, which allows its own citizens to carry out transactions on its own territory.

3.Updating the 1996 Blocking Statute. In particular, we are talking about the development of an instrument of compensation for companies that have suffered from extraterritorial sanctions.

4.Creation of information databases in the interests of European companies under the risks of extraterritorial sanctions, as well as the provision of systematic legal assistance to companies that have come under foreign restrictions. In particular, we are talking about assisting European companies and citizens of the EU countries in defending their interests in US courts, as well as using other legal mechanisms, for example, within the WTO.

If necessary—balancing the extraterritorial measures of the United States or other countries with restrictive counter-measures.

However, the EU sanctions agenda is far from limited to the threat of extraterritorial sanctions. Ultimately, the United States is an ally and partner of the EU, which means that the opportunities for smoothing out crisis situations remain broad. Collaboration at the agency level is also highlighted as a recommendation. Moreover, after Trump’s departure, the United States may be more attentive to the concerns of the European Union.

The main priority remains the development of the EU’s own sanctions policy. Here many problems and tasks arise. The main ones include the low speed of decision-making and poor coordination in the implementation of sanctions. The centralisation of sanctions mechanisms in the hands of Brussels is becoming an important task for the European Commission.

The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).

From our partner RIAC

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Trinity for Scrutiny: Council of Europe, Human Rights instruments and Citizens

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Building on the tasteful piece written recently by Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, this article will endeavour to explore further why the Tromsø Convention(Norwegian International Convention on Access to Official Documents)[1], although adopted more than a decade ago, is in fact deserving of much more credit and fuss than it appears to have mustered so far.

To briefly catch everyone up, the Council of Europe (CoE) adopted in 2009 a Convention on Access to Official Documents foreseeing a general and minimal right for all to access public authorities’ official documents. Having entered into force last December, this convention pioneers a uniformed standardised right to obtain official documents and thereby information from official sources.  Evidently, the treaty draws on the pillar values of any and all healthy democracies that are transparency, pluralism and self-development of the individuals making up our civil societies.

Freedom of information, within which the right to access official documents is encompassed, is indeed crucial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is essential from a somewhat ‘hostile perspective’ in order to oversee public bodies’ conducts and uncover behaviours who clash with Human Rights and might otherwise be sanitized precisely when these call for remediation, sanction and reparation. Secondly, in a ‘friendlier’ outlook, it is indispensable for the purpose of feeding the public debate and thus, allowing for militant democracies, but also to strengthen legitimacy, foster public trust and endorsement of their elected government.

Lastly but perhaps most importantly, it should be pointed out that in a similar manner as the right to life, the freedom of information is in fact a key that opens, if not all, many doors embodied by other ECHR rights such as the freedom of expression and that of thought, procedural guarantees or even the freedom of assembly and association. In effect, without being adequately informed, how could one be aware of their rights and exercise them diligently? Without receiving quality information, how could one forge their convictions and gather with others to share affiliations and work towards a common goal? And without access to verified information, could one really form an educated opinion meant to be expressed freely subsequently?

In addition to being a prerequisite to the proper exercise and enjoyment of other fundamental rights, it also echoes directly with the first article of the ECHR providing for the Contracting Parties’ duty to respect Human Rights – and in reality, render them available to all persons under their jurisdiction. In that sense, the CETS 205 can and should be looked at as a practical example of States fulfilling Human Rights and hence as falling squarely within the same scheme.

Another link certainly worthy of some emphasis is the one that can be made between the advent of such a Treaty and the recent recognition and growing establishment of the right to truth. The right to truth, as devised by Special Rapporteur Louis Joinet in 1996, is made up of several dimensions amongst which there is the right to know. The latter, in turn, involves a right to access archives and historical official documents in order to shed light on past events – and ultimately heal a society. Thus, just like we – the civil society – have a right to know our past so as to reconcile and repair wrongdoings, we also have a right to get acquainted with our present and perhaps prevent wrongdoings at all. Both instruments’ emergence form part of a single reactive movement: the reinforcement and extension of human dignity and a renewed appreciation of individuals through greater access and involvement.

Whilst keeping these elements in mind, let us say a few words about the Convention’s content and characteristics. The project is said to have been guided by the concern of identifying and generalising a core of basic compulsory provisions in a way that will “encourage the Parties to equip themselves with, maintain and reinforce domestic provisions that allow a more extensive right of access, provided that the minimum core is nonetheless implemented.” Hence, this instrument does not purport to be a binding ‘best practice’ guide, but is rather the fruits of a (well-known) compromise resulting in the establishment of a minimum threshold likely to be accepted by the largest majority.

Say we embrace the path taken by the consultative committees and concede that realistic (aka lower) standards will amass more signatures and spread wider its application, what then of an equally realistic rapid examination of the outcome? Indeed, since its adoption in 2009, only ten countries have ratified the Convention whilst the instrument is said to merely reassert what already exists in most internal frameworks of the CoE countries.

The puzzlement does not end there: when looking closer at the contracting parties, one cannot help but notice that the ‘star students’ are MIA. European countries that ranked in 2018 in the top 10 of the world-wide Human Freedom Index[2] such as Switzerland (2nd), Germany (9th), Denmark (4th), or Ireland (7th) are nowhere to be found on the ratification addendum of the Convention. It is hard to imagine why such States that are already doing so well in that area would not want to lead the example and reaffirm principles that match their internal policies.

Commissioner Dunja, for her part, had highlighted that although the majority of CoE’s members have already adopted freedom of information laws on the domestic level, some definite issues remain with regard to their practical enforcement. This referred to disparities in degrees of transparency depending on the public body as well as failures to meet requirements set for proactive disclosure. We may then wonder, provided those trends are correct, if – ironically – there could exist a lack of transparency on those regulations. In other words, if national laws on freedom of information already exist almost everywhere in Europe but they do not satisfy the thresholds put forward by the Convention in practice, civil society should know about it to remedy the situation.

Still, you may wonder: why is it so important that we enquire about, and ensure that, a smooth implementation is possible on the domestic or – if need be – regional level? Because although this article has managed to avoid bringing up COVID-19 so far, the current pandemic only enhances the stakes surrounding an effective freedom of information. As we all know by now, in times of emergency, rapid and impactful decisions have to be taken. These decisions are then in that sense less prone to gather strong consensus and yet more likely to concern the public given the serious nature of the decisions’ object.

The year 2020 has shown that misinformation and somewhat tendentious media coverage of the pandemic’s evolution was damaging enough in terms of civil discontentment and eroding our trust in the Government. But adding to that the withholding of some facts and a lack of transparency on the part of public officials is simply a recipe for disaster.

This can perhaps be better grasped when looking at the cases of France versus Sweden. Civil unrest and vocal dissents have been taking place last year against the French government, said to be lacking transparency on several issues such as shortages of equipment, rationale for measures chosen, allocation of vaccines or even the number of vaccinations. In the fall of last year, a local survey recorded that two-third of the French citizens did not trust their leaders to fight COVID efficiently. The handling of the crisis tainted with obscurity and ambiguities resulted in an unfortunate loss of popularity for President Macron and civil disobedience.

In contrast, the Sweden government remained consistent with its strong stand on, and reputation for, transparency towards its population taking roots notably in a national law favouring public scrutiny adopted in 1766. Their tradition of ‘ultra-transparency’ as is sometimes called is closely related to the country’s culture of shared responsibility and mutual respect between State and citizens. With the national Agency for Public Health taking the lead on the crisis management by remaining very open on the data available and reasons for pursuing collective immunity survey showed in Spring 2020 that nearly 80% of the population entrusted both their health system and the national Agency. Moreover, this ought to be placed against a backdrop where even the King of Sweden did publicly air his reservations regarding the confinement-sceptic management.

Now whatever anyone thinks of the Swedish strategy a posteriori, it must be acknowledged that not only did their information and transparency handling maintain its citizens, numbers show it even did as much as increase the legitimacy of their prime minister. To top it off, Sweden is one of the first to have ratified the CETS 205.

To put it plainly: some countries’ tendencies to filter information, strive to maintain composure and showcase confidence in uncertain times simply proves to be more detrimental than an approach where full transparency and efficient dissemination of available information is endorsed at the risk of revealing some inconsistencies or displaying dubiety in the process.

It is hoped that this can serve as a support for reflection around the understatement of international agreements we may take for granted such as the one 2009 Convention on Access to Official Information and the realisation that in our case, having ratified such a document could be a real game-changer in the second phase of our pandemic and rehabilitate good governance where it has been shattered.


[1]hereinafter referred to in the text as ‘CETS 205’.

[2]Which, for the record, encompasses personal, civil and economic freedoms, and is based on indicators in various areas such as the rule of law, the freedom of expression and information, that of association and assembly as well as civil society.

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Laura, for EU-funds crimes please don’t call Bulgaria. We are busy right now

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Laura Codruta Kövesi © CC-BY Flickr/usembassyromania

EU chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, rejected almost all of the Bulgarian candidates nominated by Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev to serve in the new EU prosecutor office. Most of the proposed candidates have no experience as prosecutors, no experience in pleading, no experience in criminal investigations, and no experience in investigating EU funds. Laura Kovesi is reportedly irritated, and here in Bulgaria we certainly share her frustration with Ivan Geshev, as I have also previously argued for EurActivEuronews and LSE.

The new EU chief prosecutor office is tasked with the very narrow mandate of going after EU funds theft or mismanagement. It has to stick to EU funds related cases only; it does not cover all legal issues as an overarching EU prosecutor service which could potentially correct mistakes at the national level — much to the dissatisfaction of local groups. We’d really much rather have the option to turn to an EU prosecutor for many other cases but the EU system is a la cart, not a free choice menu. That’s why, in her very narrowly defined legal mandate, particular EU-funds experience is key to the new posts that Kovesi is trying to fill.

This is Kovesi’s first blow against the Bulgarian chief prosecutor who was convinced that the Bulgarian institutions are sending their best and brightest to the new high profile EU office. Unfortunately, most of the candidates turned out to be highly inadequate for the very specialized job at hand. Reportedly, no other country had its candidates rejected.

The question — as with any international nominations — persists: couldn’t they really find candidates who will be able to hit the ground running, ready to aggressively suck their teeth in EU funds crimes, which let’s face it, Bulgaria has a lot of? Surely, there must be Bulgarian prosecutors who have criminal, funds-related cases under their belt. Aren’t there any Bulgarian prosecutors who have successfully closed with convictions EU-funds theft, embezzlement, fraud, waste, and mismanagement cases in the Bulgarian system? Surely, these seem like the top candidates and most obvious choices for the Bulgarian chief prosecutor. People like that are the ones that know the nuts and bolts, and the legal tricks in the Bulgarian system. They would be Kovesi’s fiercest hounds in Bulgaria and that would be a good thing, right? Seasoned, fierce hounds ready to turn everything upside down: these are the kinds of people that Ivan Geshev wants as European prosecutors, right? 

But something tells me that these candidates were the first to be struck down by Geshev. Bulgaria is demonstrating from the outset, before the work has even began, that addressing EU funds crimes is the last thing on this Administration’s mind. And the upcoming elections in April will not change that because the Bulgarian chief prosecutor has a mandate of 7 years, and he is the one that decides who gets an EU prosecutor nomination.

As we await the second batch of candidates after this political blow, the message has been sent. Laura, for EU-funds crimes please don’t call Bulgaria. We are busy right now but please be assured that your call is very important to us. We will return your call as soon as we can.

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