The Brent Spar Case
On February 16, 1995, the British government granted the Shell-UK company authority to sink an oil platform (the Brent Spar) no longer being used off the coast of Scotland. Taking preparation times into account, the sinking was scheduled for the month of June. Several weeks prior to the scheduled date, the international environmentalist organization Greenpeace protested the risk that such sinking posed, affirming that the platform contained 5,000 tons of oil – a dangerous quantity for the marine ecosystem. The English company immediately denied such accusation, in this way dismissing also the idea of an attack against the environment: nearly all the oil contained in the platform had already been transferred to a tanker when the platform was decommissioned in 1991. In reality, only 130 tons of oil remained inside the platform, with uncertain consequences to the ecosystem. Various scientists favorable to the sinking of the platform were then engaged by the British government for the purpose of legitimizing the logic advanced by the Shell Group. Prime Minister John Major announced his position in favor of sinking, claiming that this would be the safest and most economical solution.
Greenpeace launched its media attack beginning with its claims that the scientists engaged by the government were hardly impartial, in light of the absence of any guarantees for the protection of the marine environment and the subjectivity of their opinions. In the meantime, the environmentalist organization had mobilized its German office in Hamburg and Herald Zindler, the head of its action service, who would organize the assault and boarding of the platform together with around 20 militants. The filming of the event was shown around the world. Greenpeace announced its intent to stay aboard the platform until Shell and the British government gave in to its demands. The environmentalist organization also demanded that the platform – and all other platforms destined for dismantling – be brought to land and disassembled for the recycling of composite materials.
During the same period, Greenpeace published a report prepared by a number of independent scientists entitled ”No grounds for dumping: the decommissioning and abandonment of offshore oil and gas platforms” that demonstrated the risks posed by the sinking of the Brent Spar platform due to the fact that “the platform still contained 100 tons of toxic sludge (composed of bio-accumulative chemical products including arsenic, cadmium, PCB, and lead) in addition to 30 tons of radioactive deposits derived from drilling and storage operations in oilfields.”. This report applied the above-mentioned measures to a total of another 416 platforms installed in the North Sea, in such way assessing the pollution in this area at 67,000 tons of stainless steel, 700 tons of lead, 8 tons of PCB, and 1,200 tons of radioactive waste…
Coverage of the conflict in the mass media was intensified by an appeal for European nations to boycott Shell service stations. Protests rapidly reached an unexpected dimension and their success was greatest in Germany, where all the socio-economic categories supported the call, and precisely: the obstetricians’ association, the Kunert company (a leader in the production of hosiery), trade unions, and Protestant churches. By mid-June, Shell’s German subsidiary reported losses to the order of 35 million French francs daily. The fourth-largest subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch petroleum products group controlled 12% of the German service station market and accounted for no less than 10% of the group’s total sales and therefore 10% of its profit. Obliged to negotiate, with the greatest of discretion, the Shell German subsidiary’s General Manager Peter Duncan organized a meeting with Greenpeace Germany Director Thilo Bode. The environmentalist movement capitalized on Europe’s contradictions stemming from England’s particular position in the European Community and the way it was perceived by other nations. The amplitude of reactions in Germany was such that Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked John Major to refrain from sinking the platform during the G7 Summit in Halifax (Canada). On June 20, 1995, the Anglo-Dutch company officially announced that it had abandoned the idea of sinking the Brent Spar platform, which was towed to Norway and moored in a fjord. Shell was required to disburse 230 million francs for the operation. Greenpeace had won.
On the strength of this victory against the world’s second largest industrial group at the time, Greenpeace felt invincible and announced to the entire world that its next campaign would by the Moruroa Atoll following news of the President of the French Republic’s intention to conduct a series of nuclear tests there. Applying the principle of monitoring media activity without definitively achieving success, Greenpeace continued its information work. After so many shields had been raised in defense of the environment, Shell’s lawyers engaged the Norwegian Det Norske Veritas Foundation to verify all the scientific data on the Brent Spar platform. Thirty-three specialists were asked to submit their individual reports on October 18. All were unanimous in stating that sinking the platform posed no risk. The association learned of the opinions of the specialists engaged by Shell (and in particular its initial conclusions and probable form of disclosure) and realized that it would soon be placed with its back against the wall by the irrefutable logic advanced in the Foundation’s report. Fearing the strong media attention that could be turned against it, the environmental organization based in the Netherlands decided to stage a pre-emptive counter-attack, a technique that consists in applying a principle developed by Sun Tzu: cut the grass beneath your adversary’s feet. In the case at hand, this meant countering the arguments of the Veritas Foundation before such arguments could be used. The public disclosure of the report would have certainly worked as a media bomb with great detrimental effect to Greenpeace at a moment in which its credibility was at stake in the more important action regarding French nuclear tests.
Contrary to the allegations made, the Brent Spar did not contain toxic sludge or radioactive waste in its central duct. The platform had been effectively nearly empty since it was decommissioned in 1991. By taking the initiative, Greenpeace defused the bomb and successfully dodged the accusations of manipulation, disinformation, intellectual dishonesty, and scientific incompetence, and in this way damage to its image was only slight. The procedure is simple and effective: the Greenpeace-UK Director Lord Peter Melchett sent Shell General Manager Christopher Fay a letter of confession in which he admitted having erred in assessing the risk: “I am very sorry. Our calculations were inexact […]. Please accept my apologies for this mistake. [The samples were taken] in the piping that led to the platform’s tanks and not in the tanks themselves…”.
The international press, irked at having been manipulated in this way, inveighed against the environmentalist organization without result, which was in the eyes of the press guilty of having mystified public opinion by using perfectly orchestrated disinformation. Yves Lenoir, a former member of the French committee, denounced the methods used: “This is a typical example of Greenpeace methods that completely invent a scandal without any facts at all.”
Mobile warfare is the fulcrum of Greenpeace strategy. In his military writings, Mao Zedong defined the “strategic problems of revolutionary war”. One of the most important strategic problems that must be solved regards the relationship between the positional warfare and the mobile warfare. The former must “fight against fixed operation lines and the positional warfare using mobile operation lines and mobile warfare”, the latter must be compatible with the following principle: “battle against the strategy that aims to strike with two fists in two directions at the same time and instead favor the strategy that aims to strike with just one fist in only one direction at any given moment.”
Knowing how to manage transparency: utilizing this register, on that occasion Greenpeace neutralized the logic of dishonest obstinacy and presented itself as an untarnished hero motivated solely by its constructive objectivity. The principle of transparency is one of counter-information’s essential components.
Turning communication into an offensive weapon: the apology letter addressed to Christopher Fay was publically disclosed. This maneuver of no little interest served the objective of publicizing the environmentalist organization’s behavior to public opinion, in particular, to its sympathizers and donators. Greenpeace received involuntary assistance in this from Shell, whose main objective was to amplify the environmentalist association’s failure. The principle of this publicity initiative applied by Greenpeace permitted its message to be oriented in the desired direction and to limit the margins for the adversary’s criticism. For this reason, despite the communication offensive against Greenpeace launched by Shell-UK, Shell-France, and John Major, the perception of its failure in the eyes of public opinion was mitigated by the perception of its sincerity.
Capitalizing on your adversary’s contradictions: acceptance of one’s errors can be immediately placed in better perspective by bringing theirs to light. Parallel to its confession “Greenpeace recalled that some scientists had asked themselves about shortcomings in the information disclosed by Shell”, while also noting the fact that whereas some scientists believed sinking the platform to be more ecological than dismantling it, others were less convinced. Highlighting these contradictions in the scientists’ reasoning made the possibility of making an error in good faith more believable, in this way legitimizing the error made by Greenpeace.
On one hand, every mistake offers the chance for a new learning experience. The mistake made by Greenpeace allowed Shell to raise a related problem: the management of oil and gas platforms no longer utilizable. The attack that was so detrimental to British interests provided the occasion for a constructive contribution to the scientific debate. On the other hand, this war of information between Greenpeace and Shell brought the latter to a contradiction: continuing to harshly attack Greenpeace and exploit the defeat of its science would appear an unjustified exaggeration, especially in light of the latter’s confession. Crushing the environmentalist organization made it impossible for Shell to regain its previous media status. The environmentalist organization’s media skills suggested that it would be better for Shell to have it as an ally than an enemy, and for this reason Shell officially invited Greenpeace to take active part in its “Offshore Europe 1995” conference dedicated to environmental protection.
In order to ensure adequate media coverage for its Brent Spar operation, Greenpeace spent 350,000 pounds sterling to rent satellite communication lines – twice the amount the BBC paid to cover the event. Its days of being a dilettante were long over.
By adopting a decidedly defensive strategy that continuously confirmed the complete reliability of the sinking operation, Shell expended great energy and obtained only mediocre results, and was never really able to counter the attack of which it was a victim. This fatal outcome for the oil company originated in the falsification of its perception of the theaters of action. Whereas Shell communicated on the basis of tangible, objective reasoning and scientific facts, Greenpeace based its fight on subjective, subversive, pseudoscientific terrain and the enlargement of contradictions. This forced Shell to add arguments of more self-justificatory nature based on objectivity. If the Anglo-Dutch group had mastered the art of polemic and the offensive techniques of information warfare, the final verdict would have undoubtedly been different.
“These new forms of warfare are no less radical than the previous ones, and oblige those under attack the economic world, the protagonists of civil society to adopt new strategies. In particular, it is fundamentally important to prevent accusatory actions whose effects are irremediable because they are media effects: the pathetic apologies made by Greenpeace will not remedy the injury done to Shell in any way.”.
For most organizations, traditional crisis management and institutional communication models have shown their limits when faced with radicalization and the massive use of new communication technologies. A number of elements of precise and effective response can be derived from the concept of counter-information, which may be defined as the combination of communication actions that thanks to pertinent and verifiable information permits to attenuate, invalidate or turn back an information attack against the attacker. Counter-information differs from the disinformation employed by special services but responds to constraints and requires the same quality as the original information attack, and precisely: preliminary intelligence, mastery of psychological and psycho-sociological mechanisms, skillfulness in the management of communication techniques and principles (including advertising), and close contacts with the mass media, etc. Hence every prevention of an insidious open information attack requires knowledge and mastery of the offensive techniques of information warfare. The criteria of effectiveness of counter-information are as follows:
– in order to be credible, counter-information must make an effort to channel open and well-argued information, verifiable and not manipulated information;
– where, when, how, and to which extent must information be employed? Counter-information is a question of information strategy and management;
– the adversary’s contradictions and weaknesses must be systematically attacked;
– the argument in support of attack is all the more incisive when the evidence of the facts presented can be ascertained;
– communication is linked to the exemplarity of demonstration and the skillful use of spontaneous resonance elements.
The media defeat suffered by Shell Group demonstrates, above all, the limits of a discourse and logic based exclusively on a technical validation of the issues at hand, while also suggesting that counter-information is the only response that permits the mitigation or even the reversal of an embarrassing and untenable situation.
Hostage to its own certainties, Shell Group attempted to wage the battle on apparently favorable ground. Remaining in a strong/weak relationship without taking the initiative, the Anglo-Dutch company was forced to develop a defensive strategy. The oil company’s reaction based on mechanisms of direct conflict provided inadequate response to the powers of persuasion of the environmental protection organization that had acquired mastery in the art of dialectics and rhetoric in the meantime. Despite its initially restricted margin of maneuver, Greenpeace was able to construct global reasoning that publicized the issue with the use of subversive techniques. Its sensational victory is exemplary from various points of view. First and foremost, it demonstrates that no international company may deem itself safe from the risk of substantial destabilization by even an organization with limited means. Many structures today are capable of conducting effective communication campaigns and selecting the resonance amplifiers most appropriate for the exertion of pressure on political institutions. No multinational appears to be dedicating enough attention to these new risks, and some have been victims of similar experiences, such as the French oil company ELF, which was obliged to pull out of an important business project in Chad.
Uber & the Neoliberal State
Everyday in my local papers, I read stories with headlines like “Subway Ridership Dropped Again in New York as Passengers Flee to Uber.” AMNY, in its daily Tweet compilation section, generally devotes at least half of its selections to posts bashing the subway and bus system. In the midst of the hangover that was last week’s Uber IPO (in which it immediately lost 8% of its value), it would be appropriate to contemplate the intersection of Uber (and its ugly stepsister Lyft) and the government.
In the shadow of the Great Depression and WWII, under the Administrations of the multimillionaire Franklin Roosevelt and the no-nonsense Republican Dwight Eisenhower, the federal government invested the equivalent of football fields full of cash on infrastructure projects like the Interstate Highway System (which cost half a trillion in today’s dollars). States and cities likewise undertook great transportation schemes. Between the 1920s and 1960s, Robert Moses funded 413 mi. of parkways and 13 bridges for NYC through, among other things, local tolls.
This spirit of investing in the mobility of American citizens and goods gradually died off with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s; federal spending for transportation infrastructure spending has been in decline since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The sea change was most spectacularly evidenced on Oct 22 1981, when President Reagan fired and blacklisted 11,345 striking federal air traffic controllers. Cue to the present… The American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s infrastructure a dismal grade of D+ since 2013. Trump on the 2016 campaign trail said that, “Our airports are like from a third world country.”
Governmental abdication in regards to public transportation has created a vacuum that the private sector is now trying to fill. This is problematic for many reasons. Bereft of the full-time employee status and union membership of public transit employees, Uber and Lyft drivers, as “independent contractors”, are treated like sharecroppers, with no minimum wage or pension/healthcare plans. Infrastructure underfunding leads to lost opportunities for construction companies and their suppliers, which costs the economy money and jobs. Uber and Lyft, by contrast, contribute nothing to the roads, tunnels and bridges that they use, other than tolls and the income that they don’t shield via elaborate tax evasion schemes… That and a nearly threefold increase in congestion, which hurts shipping and personal drivers’ commutes. Safety laws are frequently broken by Uber and its drivers, who undergo nothing more than a basic background screening, and receive no substantive training, prior to being hired. The secluded, close-quarters nature of the rideshare template has led to many incidences of sexual assault and harassment for drivers and riders alike (by contrast, bus and yellow-cab drivers are generally shielded from their clients by bulletproof glass).
The privatization of transit also creates a commuter caste system, in which affluent citizens can spend $20 on a quick Uber ride to work, while poorer people must rely on perpetually-delayed trains, anxiously waiting on train platforms that are often literally falling apart due to neglect. This problem extends far beyond rideshare apps. For years, Elon Musk has been unsuccessfully trying to sell various municipalities on the concept of the experimental hyperloop, a pricier, less efficient version of a subway. Hyperloop trains of the future will supposedly be able to travel at 700 mph… but they can only carry 28 people at a time! So Musk wants cities to potentially invest billions to construct underground tunnel networks that only a couple hundred people a day max would be able to use, let alone afford, considering the pricy ticket fees that would probably be necessary in order to generate electricity for the hyperloop’s futuristic maglev-vacuum operating system. Bullet trains also operate on a maglev system, but the cost gets spread out to over a thousand customers per trip, instead of just 28. Emulating Musk, fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos just unveiled his space exploration company Blue Origin’s lunar lander prototype. The fact that NASA is, due to chronic underfunding, being outpaced by Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is not only a national disgrace, but a matter of concern for the welfare of humanity as a whole. If space travel becomes monopolized by a handful of billionaires, it could eventually lead to the scenario envisioned by sci-fi dystopias like Elysium, wherein only the rich will be allowed to escape our dying planet, while the poor masses are left behind.
In regards to public transportation (and many other fields), the US is quickly falling behind China. The Middle Kingdom has over 19,000 mi. of high-speed rail (much of it built just this past decade); the US has just 2% of that total and much of it is contained to an old NYC-DC Acela line that is woefully obsolete. Eight new airports get built in China every year, meaning that China’s total stockpile of airports will double by 2035. The last American international airport was built last century and many existing airports, like the infamous LaGuardia, are falling apart due to underfunding. The nation famous for its cyclists also boasts the world’s largest elevated bike lane; by contrast, bike lanes are a very controversial issue in American cities, where its staunch-individualist detractors decry them as Communist plots.
This growing disparity is being fuelled by the two nation’s different appropriations models. China realizes the importance of central planning in regards to major infrastructure projects. Investing in high-speed rail might not be “profitable” if measured solely by ticket revenue, but it pays for itself in the long-term by spurring urban development, construction contracts and employment, and increased tax revenues from workers now able to access better jobs and commerce. Not to mention that traffic accidents, often the result of crumbling and obsolete road infrastructure, is the #8 cause of fatalities worldwide, including 32,000 a year in the US. The American mindset is more myopic, focused only on short-term viability for investors. This was encapsulated by Trump’s infrastructure plan, which focused on subsidies for corporations and localities… the same model that has been failing America’s infrastructure for decades.
It’s clear that the Uber-ization of public transportation is an inadequate and unsustainable solution. The corporate model is solely predicated on short-term growth and the exploitation of its workforce. In order to keep up with fellow superpower China, the US must take a centralized approach to maintaining and upgrading its faltering subways, trains, airports, bridges, roads and waterways. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration employed about 9M Americans in the construction of some of the world’s most successful infrastructure projects, such as 29,000 new bridges, at the height of the US’ greatest financial crisis. People like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are looking to emulate this past success by enacting a Green New Deal, which would employ millions of Americans in constructing sustainable infrastructure. Likewise, it would be a boon for construction firms, industrial goods suppliers like Caterpillar, shipping-oriented companies like Amazon and urban-based businesses as a whole. America must invest itself, in its people, in its future.
Convergence Of Competitive Markets And Indian Elections
If competition is a key component of a flourishing economy, it is equally true that competition in electoral politics and elections is a powerful force for the healthy growth of a vibrant democracy enhancing legitimacy of political parties and their responsiveness to the aspirations of the electorate.
Viewed from the Indian perspective, there is a striking identity between the rights of consumers in the free market economy and the rights of voters in our political democracy. Equally noteworthy is the identity of the fundamental principles governing the rule of law in the free market system, the institutional arrangements for safeguarding consumer rights and the rule of law of elections and the regulatory environment for monitoring the functioning of a free and fair electoral democracy. The free market system ensures the best available goods and services are offered to the consumer at the optimal price following the principles of free market competition without restrictive and unfair trade practices enforced through the Consumer Protection Act1986 and the Competition Act 2002.
In the democratic system, the voters are given the right to elect the best available persons as people’s representatives through conducting elections in a free and fair manner which forms the bedrock of democracy. This is ensured by the Election Commission through the enforcement of the Guidelines of Model Code of Conduct for political parties and candidates during elections mainly with respect to speeches, polling day, polling booths, portfolios, election manifestos, processions and general conduct. Thus, while the role of a Referee in the free market system in India is played by the Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum and Competition Commission of India, the rules of free and fair elections in political democracy are enforced by the Election Commission of India.
In a market economy, competition facilitates a host of benefits: awareness and market penetration, higher quality at same prices, increase in demand and consumption through competitive pricing, product differentiation, upgradation and innovation, improvements in efficiency of production at optimal levels by minimising cost and losses and increasing customer service and satisfaction. Competition in politics and elections elevates the voter to a pivotal role in democracy as that given to the consumer in a market driven economy. Electoral candidates vie for votes by promising reforms such as better governance, greater socio-economic equity and positive measures for poverty alleviation.
Each political party through its campaigns, manifesto and other propaganda machinery strives hard to win the maximum number of voters in electoral democracy transforming it as a political free market system with fierce competition between the players similar to the efforts of sellers in the free market economy to attract the maximum number of customers.
A free market system across the globe, is characterised by the existence of not only the most efficient firms but also several inefficient ones who are unable to produce the best quality goods and services at lowest prices and even those resorting to fraudulent , restrictive and unfair trade practices. Similarly, in political democracy and elections around the world, besides politicians and parties with high degree of integrity and democratic values, there are those with criminal records, adopting ideologies prejudiced by notions of race, caste, colour, gender and religion based politics, and those charged with allegations of vote buying etc. which continues to undermine the democratic process.
Consumer Rights in a Free Market Economy
In India, the interests of the consumer in the market economy from restrictive, unfair and anti-competitive trade practices by firms is safeguarded through several strong legal provisions which inter alia includes the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act 1986 and the Competition Act 2002. In addition, consumers rights in the economy are further protected through The Indian Contract Act, 1872, The Sale of Goods Act, of 1930 and The Agriculture produce Act of 1937. This is further strengthened by the establishment of supportive quasi-judicial institutional arrangements i.e the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission at the National, State and District level as well as the Competition Commission of India.
The main objective of the competition law of India is to promote economic efficiency using competition as one of the means of assisting the creation of market responsive to consumer preferences. The advantages of perfect competition are three-fold: allocative efficiency which ensures that costs of production are kept at a minimum and dynamic efficiency which promotes innovative practices.
To achieve its objectives, the Competition Commission of India endeavours to do the following:
- Make the markets work for the benefit and welfare of consumers
- Ensure fair and healthy competition in economic activities in the country for faster and inclusive growth and development of the economy.
- Implement competition policies with an aim to effectuate the most efficient utilization of economic resources.
- Develop and nurture effective relations and interactions with sectoral regulators to ensure smooth alignment of sectoral regulatory laws in tandem with the competition law.
- Effectively carry out competition advocacy and spread the information on benefits of competition among all stakeholders to establish and nurture completion culture in Indian economy.
Voters Rights in a Political Democracy
As a free market economy cannot sustain consumer rights without supportive legal and institutional framework, there is little doubt that for the survival of a free and fair democracy, the rule of law should prevail and it is necessary that the best available persons should be chosen as people’s representatives for proper governance of the country (Gadakh Yashwantrao Kankararao v Balasaheb Vikhepati lAIR 1994 SC 678). India isa sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic. Democracy is one of the inalienable basic features of the Constitution of India and forms parts of its basic structure (Kesavanand Bharati v State of Kerala and Others AIR 1973 SC 1461). The concept of democracy, as visualised by the Constitution, pre-supposes the representation of the people in Parliament and State Legislatures by the method of election (N.P.Punnuswami v Returning Officer Namakka lAIR 1952 SC 64).
Accordingly, in India, in the realm of political democracy and elections, the interests of the voters and electorate is safeguarded through the Constitution of India, Representation of the People’s Act 1950 and 1951,Presidential and Vice Presidential Elections Rules 1974, Registration of Electors Rules 1960 and Conduct of Elections Rules 1961.
In India, the above legal provisions of elections and voting under political democracy are administered and further supplemented by the Election Commission’s directions and instructions on all aspects. The underlying principle of parliamentary democracy enforced by the Election Commission of India is to ensure free and fair elections for which there are three pre-requisites: (1) an authority to conduct these elections, which should be insulated from political and executive interference, (2) set of laws which should govern the conduct of elections and in accordance whereof the authority charged with the responsibility of conducting these elections should hold them, and (3) a mechanism whereby all doubts and disputes arising in connection with these elections should be resolved. The Constitution of Indi has paid due attention to all these imperatives and duly provided for all the three matters.
The Constitution has created an independent Election Commission of India in which vest the superintendence, direction and control of preparation of electoral rolls for, and conduct of elections to, the officers of president and Vice President of India and Parliament and State Legislatures (Article 324). A similar independent constitutional authority has been created for conduct of elections to municipalities, panchayats and other local bodies (Articles 243 K and 243 ZA) along with legal and institutional provisions for settlement of disputes relating to elections.
Model Code of Conduct in India
Election Commission of India has laid down a set of guidelines for conduct of political parties and candidate during elections. The main points of code of conduct are:
- The government may not lay any new ground for projects or public initiatives once the Model Code of Conduct comes into force.
- Government bodies are not to participate in any recruitment process during the electoral process.
- The contesting candidates and their campaigners must respect the home life of their rivals and should not disturb them by holding road shows or demonstrations in front of their houses.
- The election campaign rallies and road shows must not hinder the road traffic.
- Candidates are asked to refrain from distributing liquor to voters.
- The Code hinders the government or ruling party leaders from launching new welfare programmes like construction of roads, provision of drinking water facilities etc or any ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
- The code instructs that public spaces like meeting grounds, helipads, government guest houses and bungalows should be equally shared among the contesting candidates. These public spaces should not be monopolized by a few candidates.
- On polling day, all political party candidates should cooperate with the poll-duty officials at the voting booths for an orderly voting process. Candidates should not display their election symbols near and around the poll booths on the polling day. No one should enter the booths without a valid pass from the Election Commission.
- There will be poll observers to who any complaints can be reported or submitted.
- The ruling party should not use its seat of power for the campaign purposes.
- The ruling party ministers should not make any ad-hoc appointment of officials, which may influence the voters in favour of the party in power.
- Before using loud speakers during their poll campaigning, candidates and political parties must obtain permission or license from the local authorities. The candidates should inform the local police for conducting election rallies to enable the police authorities to make required security arrangements.
In a wider sense, both free markets and democratic elections are run on the basis of a set of rules with respective regulatory bodies enforcing the rules of the game. While there is a strong element of political centralization in the decision making process of elections, free market system is tilted more towards the principle of economic decentralisation. However, the consumer and the voter whose rights are legally and institutionally safeguarded remain as the principal beneficiaries of both systems- the economic and political. Thus free markets and democracy have identical underlying objectives of maximising welfare of the people. The convergence of the political economy of free markets and elections therefore highlights the democratic principles governing the welfare of citizens.
Euro – 20 years on: Who won and who lost?
The common European currency – the euro – came into being 20 years ago. Since January 1, 1999, the euro has been widely used in cashless money transfers. On January 1, 2002, banknotes and coins were introduced into circulation. How did the European countries benefit from the single currency? How many profited from its introduction?
In the early 1990s, the European Community entered a new stage of development which was characterized by a transition to a higher level of integration within it and expansion to include more members. This was provided by the Treaty on European Union, which was signed on February 7, 1992 in the Dutch city of Maastricht and entered into force on November 1, 1993. The Maastricht agreements and the subsequent decisions of the EU’s governing bodies – the European Council and the Council of the EU –formed a groundwork for a gradual, stage-by-stage creation of a monetary union and the introduction of a single currency, the euro.
At the time the decision on the introduction of the euro came into effect it was believed that the main objectives of the transition to a single monetary policy and the replacement of national banknotes with a single European one were the following. First of all, a monetary union was supposed to put the finishing touches to the formation of a common market and was to transform the EU territory into an economic space with equal opportunities for all players. A single currency was expected to facilitate the transition of the EU to a common economic policy, which, in turn, was seen as indispensable for moving to a new level of political integration. Many also viewed a single currency as vital for cementing European integration and a symbol of the economic and political integrity of the region. It was assumed that the euro would keep European countries “in the same harness” even in times of crisis and would help them to overcome differences and even resist outbursts of nationalism.
The second goal was to prevent losses caused by continuous fluctuations in the rates of Western European currencies. Once the euro was established, risk payments for possible losses in different-currency transactions became a thing of the past. It was assumed that stable and low interest rates would bring down inflation and stimulate economic growth. Thirdly, it was thought that fixed exchange rates within the euro zone with no more fluctuations would boost investment activity and, as a result, would improve the situation on the labor market. In addition, a better economic performance was to make it easier for countries to enter the EU and adapt to the new reality. A better economic performance was supposed to make European products more competitive in world markets.
Fourth, a single currency was supposed to significantly cut circulation costs. At the end of the 1990s, the existence of various national currencies cost the EU countries 20-25 billion ECU (26-33 billion dollars) annually, including the cost of keeping records of currency transactions, insuring currency risks, conducting exchange operations, drawing up the price lists in various currencies, etc. Finally, fifthly, the initiators of the single currency hoped that the euro would become one of the international reserve currencies. The introduction of the euro was supposed to change the balance of strength between the United States and united Europe in favor of the latter. In the long run, it boiled down to ensuring more independence of the EU economic policy since interest rates on long-term loans would be less dependent on American ones.
What is happening at present? Not surprisingly, the greatest difficulties emerged while grappling with the most pressing and large-scale agenda involving the ambitious plans of the political and economic transformation of the EU and the strengthening of its global geo-economic role. Indeed, since the late 1990s, the economic and financial spheres of the EU have undergone dramatic changes. In 2004 and 2007, the majority of Central and Eastern European countries joined the Union (an increase in social dumping). The current EU “bears little resemblance” to that of 20 years ago. “Not only the currency has become different, but the entire European economy has changed.”
Nevertheless, as predicted by those who criticized the approved version of transition to a single European currency, chances for meeting the criteria of eurozone membership in case the global economy followed an unfavorable scenario are pretty slim for most countries of the eurozone. As economic and financial crises sweep Europe one after another, the presence of the euro and the unprecedentedly high level of the European Central Bank’s autonomy and its extensive powers are restricted by the “possibility of influencing the economy” of separate states. Since inflation rates vary from country to country, the interest rate suggested by the ECB (about 2%) turns out to be too low for countries with high inflation (which leads to financial bubbles) and too high for countries with low inflation (which has a negative impact on investments).
As a result, the economic slowdown in European economies in the 2000s through 2010s led to increases in budget deficits. According to the requirements of the eurozone, governments have to raise taxes or cut spending, even if it damages national economy. Formally, there exists a procedure to tackle economic upheavals in this or that country of the eurozone to minimize their consequences for other members. From the point of view of abstract macroeconomic indicators this procedure is functioning well. But, judging by what happened in Spain, and then in Greece and Italy, its social, economic and subsequently, political costs are too high. In the first place, we talk about social upheavals, which became one the main reasons for the rise of “right-wing populists” across Europe.
The euro is running into problems mainly because it hinges on politics, rather than economics. On the one hand, it is this that largely keeps it from the collapse. The EU leadership is ready to sustain any financial or economic losses to preserve the single currency. However, from the economic viewpoint, the ECB’s readiness for currency interventions has ruined market discipline. In March this year the German Wirtschafts Woche stated that the euro had failed to become either an effective currency or an EU stability enhancing tool. What proves it is the fact that without “billions and billions in financial injections on the part of the European Central Bank and European governments to save the euro the single currency would have long sunk dead”. The 2008 financial crunch quickly triggered the crisis of the eurozone which culminated in the Greek debt crisis of 2010. As a result, “the dispute over how to save the single currency laid bare purely political differences across Europe”.
As skeptics forecast, membership in the eurozone, sought by countries with different levels of economic development regardless of the tough requirements and selection criteria, resulted in a situation in which a setback in the global economic performance hit weaker members the hardest. Citing the IMF, Le Figaro points out that “the euro exchange rate is too high for France and Italy (which deals a blow on their competitiveness), and is too low for Germany (by about 20%)”. This provided the German economy with a clear edge over other EU members and secured a “huge foreign trade proficit”. Moreover, in the course of the eurozone crisis in 2009 there emerged a vicious circle: Germany’s domineering position in the EU enabled Berlin to dictate its policy of austere budgetary measures to the greater part of the rest of Europe, which, in turn, gave rise to an outburst of anti-German sentiment in a whole range of countries, including Greece and Italy.
Therefore, in 20 years of its existence the euro has made Germany yet more powerful economically than it used to be. Simultaneously, it has become a major factor that contributed to Germany’s isolation in Europe. Critics say that while drafting the euro project its authors meant to weaken Germany. Instead, the single currency “strengthened it, providing it with competitive advantages through a “weak” euro”. Central Europe has become a supplier of spare parts for German businesses thereby putting into practice the Mitteleuropa Doctrine in the 21st century. The rest of the EU countries have become a market for German goods. Meanwhile, Germany has to pay for economic failures of an ever greater number of its EU partners. In such a way, Germany’s economic might has all but become a major threat to European integration. Pessimists fear the current economic and geopolitical trends will sooner or later push the Germans into pursuing a more “egoistic” and “aggressive” policy, in every sense of the word. Everyone remembers what this kind of policy ended with in a period from the mid19th to the mid20th century.
As for the second and third points of the objectives of a single currency, the results are contradictory. Inflation in the eurozone is indeed at an all-time low. There has occurred a unification of the common market of goods, capitals and workforce. At the same time, measures which are being taken by the European Central Bank to fight low inflation have more than once driven a number of EU countries into recession and sovereign debt crises. Living standards in EU countries have not been growing steadily over the past few years. A rise in wages has turned out to be much smaller than predicted in the late 1990s. Most European banks still prefer holding debt obligations of their countries only, which, in case of financial crisis, is fraught with banking problems and could ruin national economy. As for competitiveness, the appearance of a single market “in the first place, aggravated competition between EU countries”. Simultaneously, the introduction of the same standards and requirements for all countries of the eurozone “cemented their differences, rather than brought them together”.
The fourth point can be considered fully implemented. Economic transactions have been simplified, cost less and have got rid of exchange-related risks. According to the British The Economist, three out of five residents of eurozone countries consider the euro useful for their country. And 75% of Europeans are sure that the single currency benefits the EU. Meanwhile, the removal of barriers to capital movements has led to a significant imbalance in investments, especially in the industrial sector. The main benefits went to countries located in the center of the EU while the geographical “periphery” of the eurozone has lost some of its former investment attractiveness. But the presence of the euro makes it impossible for the less fortunate countries to stimulate the economy by bringing down the currency value.
As for the fifth point, some of the ambitious plans have been implemented. The euro has already made a significant contribution to the weakening of the position of the US dollar in the global economy. According to the European Commission, one-fifth of the world’s currency reserves are denominated in the single European currency. “340 million citizens use it daily, 60 countries and territories link their currency to it”. On the other hand, 10 years of 20 years of its history the eurozone has devoted to the struggle against an “unprecedented crisis”. By now, experts say there has been a “fragile recovery.” Nevertheless, unlike its main competitors, the dollar and the yuan, the euro has no solid foundation. The EU budget is used mainly for paying subsidies to member countries, while the years-long disputes over prospects for creating a common EU ministry of finance all but fuel differences between 19 eurozone governments.
Thus, according to optimists, criticism of the euro is first of all the result of profound differences on the fundamental issues of European economic policy. The single currency consolidated the leaders of Europe, provided them with the common goal of creating a more integrated, a more attractive for trade and business, and a globally competitive, economy. However, a further stable existence of a single currency mechanism in Europe calls for urgent reforms, which European politicians are either not ready for or are not capable of. According to critics, the single currency has driven the different economies of the EU countries into the Procrustean bed of all-fitting standard format. The single currency mechanism completely ignores, if not completely denies, the geographical, historical and cultural specifics of the member states. Overall, the current model of economic and monetary integration in the EU mindlessly forces countries whose national economies do not match the general format “to carry out endless reforms,” which all but aggravate their long-standing inherent problems.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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