Far right groups with fascist-like ideologies and aesthetics are not rare in the Balkans. I am not referring to parties with nationalist and/or irredentist programs, which are quite standard in the Balkan political scene, but rather to movements that specifically identify with or make use of fascist and national-socialist symbols. Golden Dawn (Chrisi Avgi) in Greece is probably the most notable example of a Balkan far right organization that has openly made use of Nazi symbols and gestures. Other less successful political entities such as Serbian Action (Srbska Akcija), the Bulgarian National Union (Bālgarski Nacionalen Sājuz), the Croatian Party of Rights (Hrvatska Stranka Prava) and the New Right (Noua Dreaptā) in Romania have endorsed elements of fascist and national-socialist ideology. In the Albanian political scene, which is fragmented between Albania, Kosovo and Northern Macedonia, there are no organizations with fascist or Nazi heritage. However, the general rise of the far right that characterises the European continent could also concern Albania.
The Political Scene
I decided to focus on the question of whether Albanians liked Fascism when I came across the short documentary “How Mussolini Built the Albanian Road System” which was broadcasted by the local ABC News in 2019. In December 2019 the documentary was made available on YouTube. The film starts by showing images from an Italian propagandistic documentary of the 1930s which uses a triumphalist tone to depict the Italian contribution to the infrastructural development of Tirana. The voice over states that by highlighting the progress that fascist Italy had brought to Tirana, the Italian documentary was not lying. After a short review of the Italian investments in Albania during the interwar period (which started in 1925 with the foundation of the Society for Albanian Development [SVEA]), documentary comes to the conclusion that Albanians should be grateful to Italians because they built roads and buildings that Albanians enjoyed for several decades after the war.
In order to have a glimpse of the way in which Albanians perceive fascism it is interesting to look through YouTube users’ commentaries to the documentary “How Mussolini Built the Albanian Road System”. Several users claimed that Italy dedicated resources to the Albanian infrastructure for her sole interests and that she intended to colonize and assimilate Albanians. However, there are many comments that clearly support Italy’s presence in Albania. One commentator stated that if Italy had kept Albania for the fifty years of communist rule the country would have been much more developed. Another user states that Albanians were still using the infrastructure built by fascist Italy. Some comments praise Italy because her and Germany’s plan was to create ethnic Albania. Other users show support not simply to the benefits that fascism brought to Albania but rather to its ideology. A comment states that “(…) Mussolini was a great person”. Another writes “long live Mussolini and Hitler!!! Death to the communists and their allies that fought against Fascism!!!”. A user named “SS Skanderbeg” – the infamous SS division that Germans instituted in Kosovo in 1944 – shows his allegiance to the Albanian collaborationist regime by entering the flags of Italy, Albania and Germany conjoint to each other by the symbol “+”.
The authors of the documentary did not intend to praise Mussolini as much as they wanted to criticize the Albanian government. In the last four years the Socialist Party-led governments have undertaken a radical restyling of the centre of Tirana and some buildings that were built with Italian money and expertise have been demolished or are scheduled to be so. On June 2016, the “Qemal Stafa” stadium which was projected by Italian architect Gherardo Bosio in the late 1930s, was demolished and a new stadium was built on the same site. In the beginning of 2018, the government declared that the building that hosted the National Theatre which was projected by Giulio Berté, was going to be demolished in order to make space for a new theatre designed by Danish architect BjarkeIngels.
The discussion between supporters and detractors of the government has been characterised by populist speeches that have made constant reference to the alleged “fascist” heritage of the Tirana centre. On August 31, 2014 Gazeta Dita praised the effort of the government that was working to give back the (currently named) “Nënë Tereza” square its original identity, as it was conceived by “fascist” architect Gherardo Bosio. This article shows that until August 2014, the alleged “fascist” character of some buildings was not considered in negative terms. The attitude of the government toward the heritage of the interwar period changed in the later period. In the beginning of 2018, the Mayor of Tirana ErjonVeliaj claimed in the TV show “Opinion” that the building of the National Theatre was part of the fascist heritage and for this reason as well as for its structural fragility it deserved to be demolished. Veliaj was contradicted by the other guests of the show, including the host Blendi Fevziu who claimed that if it were not for fascist Italy there would have been no Tirana at all. The presenter intended to say that it is necessary to distinguish between the consequences of fascist occupation of Albania and the contribution that fascist Italy’s architects have brought to Tirana. The news about the possible demolition of the building generated apprehension among Italian journalists. Exit.al (February 19, 2018) affirmed that the Albanian government was targeting these monuments in order to delete the tracks of the Italian past of the country. An article on ilfattoquotidiano.it (July 15, 2018) commented the events by citing Indro Montanelli’s controversial work Albania una e mille in which the author states that Tirana is a city without a past. To some Italians the presence of “fascist” buildings generates a sentiment of national grandeur that serves to instil a sense of self-confidence vis-à-vis Albanians and Albania. The National Theatre affair is currently in a stalemate and its future is unknown.
The majority of Albanians who live in Tirana do not question the kind of “heritage” that the city buildings represent. In 1991 the mob brought down the statue of former dictator Enver Hoxha and threw stones to public buildings. However, such acts were determined by peoples’ dissent against the symbols of a political system that was still in charge and that they perceived as the direct cause of their political and economic problems. More recently, Albanians have only questioned the heritage of the urban environment when they were pushed to do so by political parties. In 2010 the Democratic Party-led government projected to demolish the pyramid-shaped building at the centre of Tirana. In that occasion the decision to bring down the edifice was based on the fact that it was built to honour the dictator Enver Hoxha. The Socialist Party – which was at the opposition – organized public protests and the demolition was not carried through. The story is now repeating itself but with inverted roles. The debate concerning the demolition of the National Theatre building shows that the actual government led by the Socialist Party has elaborated the discourse of the “fascist” heritage of such building to increase popular support. The same process might have triggered the opinions that characterised the majority of comments written below the documentary “How Mussolini Built the Albanian Road System”. Several users probably praised the works of fascist Italy in Albania because they were influenced by the documentary’s anti-government nuances. However, few comments seem to have been written by persons that sympathise with national-socialist and fascist ideologies. It is not possible to certify the authenticity of the affirmations made on YouTube, but the strong anti-communist sentiment that pervades the opinions of many persons, the spread of subcultures, and the myth of the Great Albania (which however enjoys very limited popularity in Albania), might push the followers of the local rightwing to identify with the political heritage of the continental far right.
The Ultras Scene
In the last two decades, the ultras subculture is becoming particularly popular in Albania and in the other Balkan countries where Albanians live. The iconographical investigation of some Facebook content shows that at least a part of the ultras makes conscious use of fascist and national-socialist symbols. KF Tirana or “Tirona” (as it is pronounced in the local dialect) has one of the most active fan community in the Albanian-speaking Balkans. The major Tironatifo groups are the “Tirona Fanatics” which was established in 2006 and the “Capital Crew” which was more recently created. All Tirona ultras groups are fierce anti-communists. In analogy to other far right organizations in Europe, Tirona ultras propagate revisionist history by denying that the Albanian capital was freed by the communists on November 17, 1944. Instead they claim that the true occupation started on that date. The anti-communist attitude is presented as an original character of any Tirona fan since Selman Stermasi, who was one of the leading figures of the club during the interwar period, resigned in 1946 after that the communist regime changed the name of the club from SK Tirana to “17 Nëntori”. The Tirona ultras’ aversion to communism emerges especially when their team plays against Partizani. FK Partizani was founded in 1946 and was originally the sporting club of the Albanian army. Tirona ultras have exposed banners with drawings of partisans being executed. In 2014 current vice prime minister ErjonBraçe claimed that Tirona fans were fascists because they used anti-communist slogans and exposed a banner addressed to Partizani fans in which it was written “for you we open Auschwitz again.” While many Albanians condemned the attitude of the Tirona supporters, on the comments sections of the Albanian online newspapers, some readers affirmed that Germans have always been allies of Albania and that the abovementioned SS Division Skanderbeg fought for ethnic Albania. Erjon Braçe continues to expose Tirona fans for their alleged fascism and has consequently become one of their major subjects of mockery.
The Facebook pages of the Tirona ultras have never made any written reference to fascism. However, in analogy to other European ultras groups, they have adopted symbols and attitudes that recall the fascist and national-socialist ideology. Well-known slogans in use by continental far right groups such as “better dead than red” and “good night left side” often appear in the stadiums and on the Facebook accounts. The “Capital Crew” has recently posted an artistic image of two persons tattooed with swastika and Celtic cross who beat another person who has a hammer and sickle tattoo. Pictures of Celtic crosses and of persons holding flags with this symbol have been posted on Facebook pages of Albanian and Kosovar ultras. Some groups of the Tirona ultras regularlytake pictures while making the roman salute. They have also used the eagle symbol of the Third Reich to make a banner that was printed on t-shirts. The iconographic analysis indicates that ultras might be consciously exploiting the symbols the national-socialist heritage of Albanian-speaking regions. The ultras of “Tirona Fanatics”, Skopje “Shvercerat” and Prishtina “Plisat” have adopted a flag that portrays a white double-headed eagle on a black background. Although the eagle is stylized in several different forms, the flag is highly reminiscent of the one that was used as the banner of the SS Division Skanderbeg in 1944.
Being ultras means – to a certain extent – being rebels and sympathizing with the anti-democratic far right can be considered a form of rebellion. However, sympathizing with the far right in the Balkans does not necessarily mean to act as a far right sympathizer would in Western Europe.Unlike many Western European homologues, Albanian ultras have advertised the consumption of weed which, like beer, underscores the pursue of fun and liberation. The Tirona Fanatics subgroup “Danoçat” have exposed a sarcastic banner baring the word “Brrakistan” and a marijuana leaf. The members of FC Shkupi “Shvercerat” often show a banner saying “Republic of Çair” with a mariujana leaf. Both Brrak and Çair are neighbourhoods respectively in Tirana and Skopje. Differently from Western European football ultras and in analogy to Balkan ultras, some Albanian hardcore football fans use their religion to remark their sense of belonging. During the match KF Laçi- KF Tirana in May 2019, a group of Tirona Fanatics chanted “Allahu Ekbar”. The media and several Tirona supporters criticized the act which was considered a provocation since Laç is populated by a catholic majority. The Tirona Fanatics made an official statement claiming that the chant was spontaneous and was meant to salute Muslim supporters for the Ramadan festivity. The event was however unusual and led the Albanian antiterrorism forces to make an investigation. It can be speculated that there is a historical connection between Tirona Fanatics and militant Islamism since the term “fanatic” evokes the revolt that characterised central Albania between 1914 and 1915 and which was later called by historians the “rebellion of the fanatics”. The leaders of the revolt wanted Albania to be ruled by a Muslim prince and forced the designated Christian prince Wilhelm zu Wied to leave the country. However, any reference that the Tirana ultras could have made to this event is in my opinion sardonic or unintentional. The administrators of the Facebook page have shown a fair attitude toward all major religions that are practiced in Albania. In June 2016, when the war in Syria was mounting, a group of Tirona Fanatics posted a picture in which they were wearing a t-shirt that said “Fuck ISIS”. Earlier, the Facebook page Albanian Ultras expressed sorrow for the Dinamo Zagreb fan Tomislav Salopek who was killed by ISIS in 2015. However, it is still difficult to understand why football supporters bring up a potentially divisive topic for Albanians such as religion.
In the interwar period the Tirana governments relied on Italy’s assets to develop infrastructure and in the 1930s the country was highly exposed to Italian culture. During World War II the country was ruled by fascist Italy from 1939 to 1943 and then by Nazi Germany until 1944. The Nazi-Fascist regimes annexed territories of present day Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia to their puppet state in order to obtain the support of the Albanian nationalists. Albanian official historiography has always condemned the collaborationist regimes and has seldom given recognition to Italy – let alone Mussolini – for the infrastructural works that were accomplished in Albania. The documentary “How Mussolini Built the Albanian Road System” shows that some journalists and academics have started to think differently. The instrumental use that governments make of the interwar infrastructural heritage that was built with the support of the Italians, will encourage the development of diametrical views. This short enquiry has shown that in Albania there are no organizations with far right ideologies and programs but there are individuals that sympathize with fascist ideologies and there are subcultures that endorse at least part of such ideologies. If Albania and the Balkans continue to be isolated by the rest of the continent, it is likely that more people in the region will be attracted by the dark charms of the far right.
From “Selective Engagement” to “Enlightened Realism”?
Four years ago, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced that Brussels was looking at new approaches to building relations with Moscow. These approaches would later become known as the “five Mogherini principles.” These principles represented the culmination of a long and emotionally taxing discussion within the European Union that represented the varied positions of the 28 states that made up the EU back then. A difficult compromise was made between those who favoured a hard-line approach towards Russia and those who preferred a softer approach.
“Selective Engagement” as the Foundation of the “New Normal”
It was, of course, through compromise that the European External Action Service was able to prevent a split from forming within the European Union on a crucial issue, which turned out to be a historic moment for the organization. We should note in passing that Brussels has thus far been unable to reach a similar consensus on other issues that are of fundamental importance to the European Union, such as the issue of Kosovo, the Israeli–Palestinian settlement, the civil conflict in Venezuela and the expansion of the European Union itself.
In terms of a specific policy, the most significant strategy of the European Union is the fourth of its five guiding principles – “Selective Engagement with Russia.” On the whole, “selective engagement” appeared to be a reasonably logical approach given the “post-Ukrainian reality.” Europe could not conceivably go back to cooperating with Russia the way it had done in the past, turning a blind eye to the dramatic events in Crimea and Donbass, as this would mean it was somehow condoning the “aggressive behaviour of the Kremlin.” Nor was it inclined shut itself off from Moscow completely with another cordon sanitaire, as the latter was key to solving numerous issues of European politics.
The judicious decision was thus made to work with Russia only when and where it would serve the specific interests of the European Union. Mogherini’s statement touched upon potential points of contact with the Russian side, including Iran, Syria, the Middle East as a whole, migration, the fight against terrorism and climate change. “Selective engagement” can be compared to a “buffet” in a restaurant, where patrons serve themselves from a wide selection of dishes instead of being offered a set meal from the menu.
As far as we can tell, the principle of “selective engagement” was mostly supported in Moscow, albeit with little enthusiasm. Generally speaking, cooperation between Russia and the European Union was primarily selective before 2014 anyway, and the prospect of creating a unified “Greater Europe” had more or less fizzled out by the end of the 2000s. This is why, three months after the “five guiding principles” had been announced, the Russian side presented President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker with a list of proposals regarding possible areas of “selective engagement” during his visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
Of course, the proposals that had been prepared for Juncker primarily reflected the interests and priorities of the Russian side. Thus, there was already friction about who would put on the spread for the “buffet” and who would fill their plates. Nevertheless, cautious hopes were expressed in 2016 that the new approach could indeed work, at least for a transitional period.
Four years down the line and we have no option but to conclude that the principle of “selective engagement” has enjoyed limited success in relations between Europe and Russia, if any at all. Not a single “road map” or holistic strategy has emerged from it over these past four years, nor has it served as the basis for marking out “red lines” in bilateral relations. In fact, “selective engagement” has remained nothing but a general political declaration on the part of the European Union. Relations between the eastern and western parts of Europe continue to be built by fumbling around in the dark, through trial and error. And since no one wants to risk making a political faux pas, there is no great desire to try something new. Any step forward is taken with enormous difficulty, political inertia extinguishes new ideas, and discussions of Europe–Russia relations increasingly come down to rehashing old, worn out and decrepit initiatives that were bandied around two, three and even four years ago.
It would hardly be fair to blame certain politicians or public officials or even single out individual EU members for the apparent shortcomings, if not the complete failure, of “selective engagement.” These shortcomings are, in our estimation, associated with quite objective circumstances.
Why Mogherini’s Fourth Principle Failed
First of all, there is nothing close to a consensus on either side as to what degree of “selectivity” would be optimal for engagement. There are two distinct camps in the European Union. The first is made up of those who advocate the “historical reconciliation” of Russia and Europe, while the second consists of those who want to stand up to the “Putin regime.” This division remains. Little has happened in the past six years to convince either camp to change its tune or alter the balance of powers between Europe’s “hawks” and “pigeons.” Neither Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, nor the results of the 2019 European Parliament elections, nor the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2020 managed to shift the equilibrium in Brussels.
This is why the European Union merely continues to renew the 2014 sanctions, each time announcing a victory for “European unity.” Agreeing on such an important and very specific issue as the feasibility of building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has proved impossible. Perhaps this is why the substantive content of the “selective engagement” with Moscow has never been brought up as a topic for serious political discussion in Brussels. After all, any discussion in this vein would inevitably jeopardize the much-vaunted “European unity,” laying bare the fundamental incompatibility of opinions within the European Union regarding the state of and prospects for relations with Moscow.
While a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle has raged among individual EU member states for the last four years in Brussels regarding the limits and possibilities of “selective engagement” with Russia, in Moscow, the concept of “selective engagement” continues to be a field of an equally fierce confrontation of influential institutional and group interests. Europe does not have a consistent long-term strategy with regard to Moscow, but Russia does have such a strategy with regard to Brussels.
In some cases, the confrontation between Moscow’s “Europhobes” and its “Europhiles” even spills over into the public space. For example, existing official and semi-official assessments of the impact of the EU sanctions and Moscow’s countersanctions on the Russian economy, as well as estimates regarding the success of the import substitution strategy vary greatly, from the clearly alarmist to the unabashedly triumphant. If the parties cannot work out their own positions on the matter, then how can we expect them to find common ground in negotiations with one another?
What is more, Russia and the European Union are very different players on the international stage, with different comparative advantages and different sets of instruments of power and influence. Significant asymmetries of both interests and opportunities between the “Russian elephant” and the “European whale” are inevitable. And this makes it extremely difficult to find a “fair” balance of interests in each specific case. For example, Mogherini talked about the desirability of working with Moscow on the issue of North Korea, but what exactly can Brussels offer Moscow in this area? Moscow, for its part, is trying to get the European Union to recognize the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as an equal partner; however, the economic potential of the EAEU is minuscule compared to that of the EU.
Moreover, while Moscow takes pride in its sovereignty and the fact that it can make independent decisions, the sovereignty of the European Union is limited one way or another by the one-sided nature of its relations with the United States. And this means that attempts to create a balance between the European Union and Russia will ultimately turn into a far more complicated game involving the decidedly scalene Brussels–Moscow–Washington triangle. Even if there is still some hope for the “Russian elephant” and “European whale” to come to an agreement, the “American tyrannosaurus” will do its best to make sure that does not happen.
Finally, we should not lose sight of the fact that “selective engagement,” as well as the balanced exchange of mutual concessions and the tactical coordination of the positions of the parties, are mainly applicable as mechanisms for resolving specific issues in the here and now. For example, offering mutual concessions on the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria, salvaging the Iranian nuclear deal or resolving issues related to the de-escalation of the Libyan Civil War are acceptable solutions. These areas can, to a certain degree, be isolated from the general background of relations, while at the same time preserving individual islands of cooperation in the vast ocean of confrontation.
But the fact of the matter is that the most fundamental challenges facing Russia and Europe are not tactical, but rather strategic in nature. These include the reduced clout of the two sides in the world economy and population, the technological inferiority of Europe and Russia compared to North America and East Asia, the rise of political populism and radicalism, the long-term decline in stability in neighbouring regions, etc. In confronting these challenges, trading specific concessions and negotiating tactical compromises do little. Such agreements are not a substitute for a common vision of the long-term future of Russia–Europe relations and, more broadly, a shared view of the direction in which the world is headed. Agreements on specific issues should, in one way or another, be embedded in this common vision.
Nikolay Chernyshevsky vs Immanuel Kant
Anyone in Russia who has at least the vaguest memories of reading Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s didactic novel What Is to Be Done? at school ought to remember the theory of “rational egoism” that he loved so much. Nothing can be done about a person’s inherent egoism, and there is no point hoping for them to change their nature and suddenly become selflessly altruistic. Chernyshevsky was a militant atheist and categorically rejected the existence of Kant’s “moral law” in such people.
However, according to Chernyshevsky, people do not come into conflict with one another because of egoism as such, but rather because of how they perceive their own interests. Most people are so focused on achieving their near-term goals, serving their basic instincts and acting in a reactionary manner that they not only ignore the interests of those around them, but also effectively neglect their own longer-term ambitions. This inevitably impacts both the egoist’s environment and the egoist himself.
“Rational egoism” proposes articulating these interests in a “rational” manner, that is, by taking the interests and wishes of others into account and building a rational hierarchy of diverse desires, propensities and personal tasks – all without denying a person the opportunity to pursue their own interests. Reason softens the most dangerous and destructive manifestations of egoism without encroaching on the fundamental features of human nature.
As applied to international relations, the theory of “rational egoism” could be interpreted as “enlightened realism.” An analogue of Kant’s “moral law” in this case would be the unity of fundamental values between Russia and the European Union. However, since the European and Russian elites are never going to agree on values, relations should be built on interests instead. That is, not on non-dogmatic religious views of Immanuel Kant, but instead on the atheist rationalism of Nikolay Chernyshevsky.
It would seem that the theory of “enlightened realism” could complement “selective engagement” as a platform for the development of EU–Russia relations moving forward.
Why We Need “Enlightened Realism”
The noun realism in this formulation implies a sober assessment of the specific moment we are experiencing, as well as the constraints associated with it. We cannot go back 20 years to the “honeymoon” period of Moscow–Brussels relations. And even if we could, it would only mean a return to a situation of “bad infinity” and the very same problems that continued to pile up and eventually led to the 2014 crisis. “Realism” forces us to acknowledge that, in all likelihood, we will not be able to find a solid institutional basis for developing relations that is acceptable for both sides in the foreseeable future.
Relations between Europe and Russia are going to be shaky for a long time to come, regardless of the paths of political transit that have already been embarked upon in the East and the West. Irrespective of who will be in power in Moscow and Brussels five or ten years down the line and regardless of whether or not we can reach a fair and satisfactory solution to the “Ukrainian issue” during this time. The difficulties are caused by differences in geographical location, historical experience, existing traditions and the psychologies of the respective peoples. We cannot merely draw up some kind of framework agreement or charter to get past the crisis; this did not work in the past, and it will not work now.
The noun enlightened places the concept of “realism” into a certain framework. To be sure, the politics of Donald Trump can be characterized as “realistic” (and also pragmatic, transactional, self-centred or cynical – underline as necessary). However, Trump’s “realism” is in no way “enlightened.” “Enlightened realism” means that the sides should take both their tactical and immediate interests, as well as their strategic and long-term needs, into account.
Foreign policy decisions should be made not only with a view to the next presidential campaign or how the general public might react, but also with an understanding of the strategic challenges, opportunities and priorities facing the sides. The further into the future we are prepared to look, the greater the number of areas of common interest between Russia and the European Union we will find.
What is more, “enlightenment” implies that the parties have to be mindful not only of their own interests, but also of the interests of the system of international relations as a whole, since the destruction of this system does not bode well for Russia or Europe. No tactical victory can outweigh the strategic costs associated with the destabilization of the global system, the breakdown of international organizations, the degradation of international law, and the transition to a “game without rules” where “every man” is “for himself” in world politics.
This understanding is especially relevant today, when other leading centres of power in world politics (the United States, China and India) are, for various reasons, not ready to bear the responsibility for preserving regional and global stability. It is in these conditions that Europe and Russia are inevitably assuming greater responsibility for maintaining peace and resolving conflicts in such regions as the Middle East and North Africa.
Let us stress once again that we are not talking here about abandoning “selective engagement” once and for all. Engagement will continue to be selective for the foreseeable future, as the only alternative would be no interaction whatsoever. The task right now is to give this engagement a new depth, greater clarity and a fresh perspective. Figuratively speaking, we are talking about moving from two-dimensional interaction to three-dimensional interaction, or, in other words, leaving the rowdy market square where narrow-fisted buyers haggle prices with dodgy traders for the tranquillity of university laboratories where we can start designing the future European and world order.
This will require a qualitatively different level of interaction between the two sides both at the level of political leadership and at the level of diplomatic missions, ministries of economy, independent experts and non-governmental organizations. Not a return to the rather meaningless biannual EU–Russia summits, but the beginning of practical work on the implementation of large, forward-looking joint projects.
The only way that the principle of “enlightened realism” can work in the engagement between Europe and Russia is if the sides endeavour to apply it to themselves first and foremost, and then to the other party. After all, “enlightened realism” is not about making concessions to the other side or surrendering one’s position. Rather, it is merely a more extensive and less opportunistic understanding of one’s own interests. Right now, both Brussels and Moscow are following in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s famous words: “[T]he nuisance of the intellectual sphere is the man who is so occupied in trying to educate others, that he has never had any time to educate himself.”
From our partner RIAC
Shaping Europe’s digital future
I am a tech optimist. My belief in technology as a force for good comes from my experience as a medical student. I learnt and saw first-hand its ability to change fates, save lives and make mundane what once would have been a miracle.
We now take for granted that we can take an antibiotic when we have an infection or go for an x-ray or MRI scan when we get injured or sick. These are all miracles that have changed the course of humanity for the better.
Thanks to technology, these miracles are becoming more breathtaking and more regular by the day. They are helping to better detect cancer, support high-precision surgery or tailor treatment for the needs of each patient.
This is all happening right now, right here in Europe. But I want this to be only the start. And I want it to become the norm right across our society: from farming to finance, from culture to construction, from fighting climate change to combatting terrorism.
This is the vision behind the new digital strategy that the European Commission will present this week.
We believe that the digital transformation can power our economies and help us find European solutions to global challenges. We believe citizens should be empowered to make better decisions based on insights gleaned from non-personal data. And we want that data to be available to all – whether public or private, big or small, start-up or giant. This will help society as a whole to get the most out of innovation and competition and ensure that we all benefit from a digital dividend. This digital Europe should reflect the best of Europe – open, fair, diverse, democratic, and confident.
The breadth of our strategy reflects the scale and nature of the transition ahead of us. It covers everything from cybersecurity to critical infrastructures, digital education to skills, democracy to media. And it lives up to the ambition of the European Green Deal, for instance by promoting the climate neutrality of data centres by 2030.
But, as we will set out this week, the digital transformation cannot be left to chance. We must ensure that our rights, privacy and protections are the same online as they are off it. That we can each have control over our own lives and over what happens to our personal information. That we can trust technology with what we say and do. That new tech does not come with new values.
I fully understand that, for many, technology – and especially those who own it – have not yet earned that trust. I see how that can break down when big online platforms use their own customers’ data in ways they shouldn’t. Or when disinformation drives out responsible journalism and clickbait matters more than the truth.
So I get and respect why some people are tech sceptics, doubters or even pessimists. And this is why I believe we need a digital transition which is European by design and nature. One that rebuilds trust where it is eroded and strengthens it where it exists. As part of this, big commercial digital players must accept their responsibility, including by letting Europeans access the data they collect. Europe’s digital transition is not about the profits of the few but the insights and opportunities of the many. This may also require legislation where appropriate.
The point is that Europe’s digital transition must protect and empower citizens, businesses and society as a whole. It has to deliver for people so that they feel the benefits of technology in their lives. To make this happen, Europe needs to have its own digital capacities – be it quantum computing, 5G, cybersecurity or artificial intelligence (AI). These are some of the technologies we have identified as areas for strategic investment, for which EU funding can draw in national and private sector funds.
Making the most of digital and data is as important for big industries as it is for SMEs. Although the biggest ideas often come from the tiniest start-ups, scaling-up can be an uphill task for smaller European firms in the digital world. We want European start-uppers to enjoy the same opportunities as their counterparts in Silicon Valley to expand, grow and attract investment.
For this, we will need to overcome fragmentation in our single market that is often greater online than elsewhere. We need to join forces – now. Not by making us all the same, but by leveraging our scale as well as our diversity – both key factors of success for innovation.
And we will also need the resources to match ambition. This is why at this week’s European Council I will push for a modern and flexible EU budget that invests in our future – and in the research, innovation deployment and skills to bring it to life.
This will be needed if we want Europe to lead the way in the areas with the most potential, such as data and AI. This week, we will put forward our plans for both alongside our wider digital strategy.
The starting point on data will always be personal protection. Europe already has the strongest rules in the world and we will now give Europeans the tools they need to make sure they are even more in control.
But there is also another kind of data that is the uncovered, unused goldmine of the data-agile economy of the future. I am thinking of anonymised mobility data or meteorological data gathered by airliners, satellite images, but also industrial and commercial data on anything from engine performance to energy consumption.
These types of non-personal data can underpin the design and development of new, more efficient and more sustainable products and services. And they can be reproduced at virtually no cost. Yet today, 85% of the information we produce is left unused. This needs to change.
We will develop a legislative framework and operating standards for European data spaces. These will allow businesses, governments and researchers to store their data and access trusted data shared by others. This will all be done under secure conditions that create greater value for all and ensure a fair return for all.
These pools of data will in turn drive our work to promote excellence and trust in artificial intelligence in Europe. AI is already helping small companies reduce their energy bill, enabling greener, automated transport, and leading to more accurate medical diagnoses.
To help businesses big and small to harness the full potential of AI, we will invest in a network of local digital innovation hubs and in centres of excellence for advanced research and education.
At the same time, we will act to ensure that AI is fair and compliant with the high standards Europe has developed in all fields. Our commitment to safety, privacy, equal treatment in the workplace must be fully upheld in a world where algorithms influence decisions. We will focus our action on high-risk applications that can affect our physical or mental health, or that influence important decisions on employment or law enforcement.
The aim is not more regulation, but practical safeguards, accountability and the possibility of human intervention in case of danger or disputes. We successfully shaped other industries – from cars to food – and we will now apply the same logic and standards in the new data-agile economy.
I sum up all of what I have set out with the term ‘tech sovereignty’. This describes the capability that Europe must have to make its own choices, based on its own values, respecting its own rules. This is what will help make tech optimists of us all.
This article by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was published on the occasion of presentation of Commission’s strategies for data and Artificial Intelligence.
The ending of Operation Sophia: The EU sway from its Human Security approach
The EU decision to terminate the Operation Sophia represents its will to choose European Security approach while having agenda of Human Security approach in its European Neighborhood Policy.
On 17th February 2020, European Union (EU) foreign ministers decided to end Operation Sophia, formally known as European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EU NAVFOR Med), and launch a new maritime mission in the region which will enforce the United Nations (UN) arms embargo in and around Libya. The decision came just before the end of the mandate of the Operation Sophia on 31st March 2020. However, the decision to end Operation Sophia and replace it with arms embargo mission is influenced by the internal and external politics of Europe.
What is Operation Sophia
The EU NAVFOR MED (“Sophia”) mission was launched in 2015 as an EU’s response to curtail illicit human and arms trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with this, one of the tasks of the mission was to save the lives of vulnerable migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. In the last five years, the mission helped trained the Libyan coastguard and navy and helped implement a UN arms embargo off the coast.
The Unexpected Consequences of the Mission
Requested and endorsed by the Italian government and supported by the EU,Operation Sophia was supposed to be the military mission focusing on restraining human and arms smuggling from Northern Africa into Europe via the Mediterranean. However, mission transformed into a humanitarian mission saving the lives of the migrants at sea and transporting them safely in Europe. Consequently, the EU witnessed the undocumented inundation of migrants coming from Syria via Turkey, and many Africans taking the Libyan route in the hope to reach a safer place and attain a better life. The mission has rescued over 44,000 people at sea and made them reach safely in Southern Europe particularly in Italy.
The Rise of Discussions among the EU Member States
This was followed by the new discussion among EU Member States particularly among Italy, Austria and Hungary to tackle the rising number of migrants’ inflow. In April 2019, the then-Italian coalition government threatened the EU to veto the entire mission. The then-interior minister Matteo Salvini contended that the search and rescue ships employed in the mission are instigating the local migrants to use sea route and reach Italy. Austria also opposed the reviving of Operation Sophia in the past because of similar claims. As Austria has long been having tensions with Italy over the influx of migrants and refugees in Austria from Italy. Therefore, Austria also was in favor of the termination of the mission as it will indirectly help curtail the migration flow in Austria as well. Hence, in October 2019, the EU decided not to extend the mission after March 2020, and replace it with the mission solely focused on the arms embargo.
What is New About the New Operation
The idea is to shift the new operation further east, away from the usual water route used by migrants leaving Libya in search of better lives in Europe. EU believed that to better curtail arms movement, the mission has to focus more on the eastern side which is the epitome of the arms transfer. The eastern part of the country is the base of the self-styled Libyan National Army forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar. Khalifa Haftar, a former general in Gaddafi’s regime had fled to the US later becoming a CIA asset, returned to Libya in 2011 to lead the revolution. In recent years he has styled himself the leader of the Libyan National Army with the backing of the UAE, Egypt, France and Russia amongst others. On the other side of the checkerboard is the UN-recognized Tripoli-based Government of National Accord which is backed byQatar, Italy and the local militias. The Haftar forces are attacking the UN-recognized Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which in turn is the major reason for the current ongoing conflict in Libya. Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. Fighting between the country’s factions has intensified over the past year.
With certain Member States backing Haftar and others backing GNA, the EU is in an imbroglio. As a result, the Union lacks a clear policy and will to deal with the crisis. While the EU contends that the new mission proceeding Operation Sophia will confine the flow of arms from Libya and its neighborhood, it has also been argued that the EU’s monitoring only by air will weaken the position of the mission and will favor the Haftar’s coup attempt. This will result in an increase in civilian casualties, destruction and more civilian displacement.
Human Security approach vs European Security approach
Argyro Kartsonaki and Stefan Wolff in their article named “The EU’s Responses to Conﬂicts in its Wider Neighborhood: Human or European Security?” have defined two types of the EU Security Strategy in European Neighborhood Policy (ENP): the Human Security approach and European Security approach. The Human Security approach embarks upon the increasingly humanitarian interventionist foreign policies, a focus on development, stable government, restructuring judiciary, combat terrorism and organized crime as part of security policy. The aim is to make the country under discussion stable in the long-term. The policy has been defined as the core of the European Security Strategy of the Council of the European Union in its all upcoming civilian and military missions under CSDP. Whereas, the European Security approach is about maximizing security for the EU and its citizens and member states. In terms of the EU’s foreign and security policy, this can be understood as the pursuit of EU internal security objectives with foreign policy tools employed on the conflict in ENP. The most frequent security threats identiﬁed covered under the European Security are international terrorism, transnational organized crime and illegal migration. The authors of the article did the empirical study of the EU civilian and military missions in the ENP and reach to the conclusion that the Union’s response to most of the conflicts is in line with a human security approach thus focusing on the long-term goals of ensuring stability, peace and prosperity in the ENP.
While this is true in most of the CSDP missions launched by the EU, however, it has been observed that EU has always been keen on taking the European Security approach especially in the conflicts where its own interests are at stake. Beset by the migration crisis, and upsurge of the right-wing politics, the EU seems to have the urge to choose the European Security approach to deal with the crisis while having the policy of employing the human security approach. The decision to replace Operation Sophia with the new mission represents the quintessential short-term policy focusing more on resolving the EU’s internal political impasse as compared to dealing with the external crises. The decision suits the Italian government as it will take away the coalition-government of Italy to criticize the mission and call it as a “pull factor”. It has given Italy the chance to be seen to play a leading part in expanding Sophia’s capabilities, by deploying Italian satellites and aircraft to support the mission. On the other side of the Mediterranean, this can risk the increase in the arms trafficking at the Mediterranean and strengthen Haftar’s status in Libya. The current decision represents the EU’s short-sightedness as its security policy in Libya seems driven by interests, not by norms and values.
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