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The Politics of Difference: Italy’s Nationalist Turn and the Struggle between “New” and “Old” Italians

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Nationalism has permeated Italian politics more than other Western European countries. In all the elections that have been held since 2018 the right-wing nationalist parties of Lega Nord (Lega) and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI)have significantly increased the number of their voters. However, Italy’s nationalist turn has not only concerned parties of the right but also from the left. This article illustrates the way in which the proliferation of nationalism affects the mobilization of Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. For mobilization I intend all the efforts of right-wing and left-wing parties and media to either involve or marginalise Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. I argue that, although they might differ in their scope, both right-wing and left-wing political agents promote politics of difference through communication strategies that serve to mobilize Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. In this context the term “politics of difference” primarily refers to policies that are meant to track and exploit arbitrarily defined distinctions between citizens based on their “origins”.

The right-wing political parties and their attacks on Italians with non-Italian backgrounds

Legaand FdI are officially members of the coalition of the center-right, but they have endorsed political attitudes that are closer to the tradition of the post-World War II Italian far-right parties. They have founded their propaganda on the exaltation of the Italian national identity in opposition to several external and internal “others”.Lega’s slogan Prima gliItaliani (Italians First) was firstly used by the fascist ideology-inspired party Casa Pound. FdI leader Giorgia Meloni started her political career as a member of Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), which was the first Italian neo-fascist party. In her social media communication Meloni uses the word Nazione(nation, with a capital ‘n’) to refer to Italy instead of using the term “state” as most of her Italian colleagues would do.

The leaders and the activists of Lega and FdI have generally shown a hostile attitude toward Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. Congo-born former Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge, who was in office between 2013 and 2014, received all kinds of insults from Lega activists because of her origin. In January 2019 the court of Bergamo sentenced current vice-president of the Senate Roberto Calderoli with eighteen months of prison for saying in a public meeting that Kyenge looked like an orangutan. During the electoral campaign in Sardinia in February 2019, the president of a local Lega club Giovanni Barbagallo posted pictures of the Partito Democratico (PD) and Liberi e Uguali (LeU) candidates on his Facebook page, asserting that they were foreigners and that he hoped that at least they knew the Italian language. However, both candidates owned the Italian citizenship since it is mandatory to participate in the electoral process.

Salvini has always displayed a scornful attitude toward Muslims and Roma people, independently of their citizenship. In a radio show in June 2018, the then Minister of Interior Salvini claimed that he planned to make a statistic of Roma people in Italy. He also added that all foreign Roma nationals needed to be expelled from the country except those with an Italian citizenship, that “unfortunately we have to keep (…)”. In a public speech held in August 2019, Salvini defended his right to use the racial slur zingaraccia against a Roma woman who had said that he deserved to be killed. The controversial Decreto Sicurezza(safety decree) that Salvini promulgated when he was Minister of Interior introduced a norm that enabled the state to deprive individuals of non-Italian background of their citizenship if they were found guilty of terrorism.

Lega and FdI accuse the government to take more care of foreigners’ needs instead of focusing on Italians. In spring 2019, the FdI and other far right circles of Rome organized public protests against the allocation of state-owned houses to Roma families. Tensions arose especially in Casal Bruciato where an Italian family that had squatted a municipal flat, was forced to leave so the legitimate beneficiaries could move in. A Roma family with Italian citizenship moved inside the house escorted by police who protected the family from an angry mob that had rallied outside the building. The FdI section of the 4th Municipality of Rome wrote on the Facebook account that the Mayor gave houses to “nomads” instead of the Roman families that needed them.

Some exponents of FdI tried to normalize the idea that every citizen of foreign origin could be harassed in the privacy of his/her domestic environment if s/he was suspected of receiving benefits that the state did not provide for Italians. In November 2019, FdI members Marco Lisei and Galeazzo Bignami filmed the names of alleged “foreign” families that lived in state-owned houses in Bologna. The video was posted on Facebook in order to argue that the local administration gave houses to foreigners and not to Italians. However, as argued by the online newspaper nextquotidiano.it on November 12, 2019, nothing in the video proved that these families were not Italian. The video was deleted when the public prosecutor of Bologna opened a case for possible infringement of privacy laws.

Salvini emulated the act of the FdI exponents in his own Padano style. While the leader of Lega was touring the “Pilastro” neighbourhood in Bologna a lady in her sixties told him that she knew where a family of foreign drug dealers lived. Without verifying the information Salvini went to the doorstep of the building where the family of presumed drug dealers lived and pressed the buzz. A person answered the intercom and Salvini asked whether it was true that they were selling drugs. It turned out that the person that was indicated as the main pusher of the house, was a 17-year-old Italian citizen, born in Italy from an Italian mother and a Tunisian father. He did not have any criminal records and was not at home when Salvini went to his door. The exploit of the Lega leader drew harsh criticism. The vice-president of the Tunisian parliament Osama Sghaier claimed that Salvini was a racist and that his attitude undermined relations between the two countries. The former president of the Italian Constitutional Court Gustavo Zagrebelsky declared that Salvini’s act brought to memory the Kristallnacht. Salvini has now deleted the video because the boy that he accused of drug-dealing reported the former Interior Minister for privacy violation. It was recently discovered that the lady who gave this false information to Salvini had been introduced to the Lega staff by a carabinieri marshal. The Carabinieri Force has now opened a case to determine whether the officer infringed his institutional duties.

Despite the continuous provocations shown toward Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds, FdI and Lega have always rejected accusations of racism and xenophobia and both parties count activists with non-Italian backgrounds among their party members. For instance, Nigeria-born Toni Iwobi had been a member of Legafor nearly 25 years when he was elected member of the senate in 2018. The exponent of FdI Paolo Diop was born in Senegal and moved to Italy at a very young age. He used to support CasaPound and in a 2015 interview he declared that he admired Salvini, that he was a nationalist and a fascist, and that he preferred people to call him negro – the equivalent of the English word “nigger” – rather than being labelled as a person di colore – literally “of colour” – as the politically correct phrasing would put it. Ironically, in April 2018, Paolo Diop and his girlfriend were victims of a racist aggression by a group of people who insulted Diop calling him negro. This unfortunate event did not make Diop change his political convictions.

The “New Italians” and the search for “italianness”

Nationalism is not a prerogative of the right, and the left has also claimed its historical and cultural connection to this ideology. In July 2018, current Liberi e Uguali (LeU) member (former PD) Stefano Fassina published an article on the Huffington Post in which he announced the formation of the party “Fatherland and Constitution” (Patria e Costituzione). According to Fassina, it is necessary to return to the anti-fascist ideal of fatherland that is inscribed in the Italian Constitution to avoid the negative impacts of liberalism and extreme nationalism. The leftist circles often employ the term NuoviItaliani(New Italians) to refer to the generation of citizens that have non-Italian backgrounds. In the 2013 electoral campaign, PD pompously announced the inclusion of NuoviItalianiin the party’s list of candidates. The term has perhaps been coined to provide a positive image of Italians with non-Italian backgrounds. But the “New Italians”appear as a category of people marked by different cultural backgrounds and the overall Italian population is conceptualised as if it was composed of two main ethnic bodies: The “old”, autochthones and purest Italians who are simply Italians and the “new” culturally-hybrid Italians who are Italians but also something else and consequently something less.

The left-right competition over who endorses the authentic values of the Italian identity, has pushed people to question their degree of belonging to italianità (italianness) – an increasingly popular term – and that of others. Individuals with non-Italian backgrounds are trying to subvert the prejudices that have been constructed on their account because of their alleged different “origins”. Their voice reaches the mainstream through political organizations such as Cara Italia, media (television, newspapers, blogs and social media) as well as various art forms, music and sports. Several known and less known Italian-speaking trap and reggaeton artists describe their personal experience of italianness against a context that refuses to consider them as part of the national body. Unlike fifteen years ago, national discourses are now fashionable and national identity seems to be a fundamental part of the construction of one’s personal and collective self. Journalist Oiza Q. Obasuyi has published several articles about the way in which she and other citizens with non-Italian backgrounds feel stigmatized in their everyday life because of their “origins”. In her view people find it difficult to either accept or understand that one could be plainly Italian if s/he has a different skin colour or place of birth. In February 2019, she noted the absurdity of a question that a journalist made to pop singer Mahmood who won the most prestigious music competition in Italy, Sanremo. Mahmood was born in Italy and his father is Egyptian. Although he had never visited his father’s country, a journalist asked him which was the thing that he missed the most of his “country”, that is Egypt.

Journalists of either right or left political orientation are equally contributing to spread the idea that citizens with non-Italian backgrounds are somehow different from the rest of the population. The 17-year-old boy that Salvini accused of drug-dealing was asked in an interview whether he was Italian. The question was irrelevant and it shows that the journalist accepted the idea that being a foreigner is perceived as an aggravating factor for any crime or presumed crime that one has committed. In an article published on November 22, 2018, the online left-oriented newspaper nextquotidiano.it commented sarcastically on the fact that Paolo Diop had joined FdI. The journalist assumed that his non-Italian origins were not compatible with his political ideas and cynically exposed his non-italianness by stating that his original name was not Paolo but Talla.

Italian athletes are particularly subjected to journalists’ endeavours to make citizens with non-Italian backgrounds declare their allegiance to the Italian identity. Few years ago former football player Thiago Motta who is born in Brasiland who played for the Italian national team was asked to illustrate his mixed national feelings. Motta answered puerile questions such as whether he preferred pasta or churrasco and if he would rather dance samba or tarantella. When the Italian women 4X400 relay team won the gold medal at the Mediterranean games in July 2018, politicians and medias from the right and the left depicted the team as a symbol of diversity which can contribute to the development of the Italian nation. Roberto Saviano claimed that the four athletes represented the dream of a multicultural Italy that would not have been hindered by Lega’s racism. More recently, the press praised the “multi-ethnic” character of the Italian women’s volleyball team and designated it as a model for the society that Italy should try to build. In both cases journalists fail to see that by depicting the team and the athletes as “multi-ethnic” or “multi-cultural”, they build a narrative in which the athletes and the category of people that they are haphazardly called to represent have different “ethnicities” or “cultures” and are different from “usual” or “old” Italians.

The athletes know that their image is exploited for political purposes and are also aware of the essentialist ideology that informs the discourse on their “origins”. In an interview with Corriere della Sera volleyball player Paola Egonu was asked how she felt about the fact that “Italy” fell in love with the “multi-ethnic” character of the team. She replied that she was surprised of this reaction, because all players were Italian and it was normal to have different origins. Egonu implicitly told the journalist that origins are irrelevant to one’s degree of national belonging. Paradoxically, her opinion mirrors Giorgia Meloni’s comment on the picture of the Italian relay women’s team. The FdI leader commented the image of the four athletes holding the Italian flag stating that “The only thing the radical chic see in this picture is black athletes to politically exploit. I see the Italian flag waving. Long live our girls”. Meloni used the image of the girls to attack her opponents and therefore her act was not free of exploitative intents. However, she emphasised the symbol that makes the athletes simply Italian rather than their “origin” that makes them differently Italian.

Overcoming the Italian identity crisis

The idea that “origins” can establish a person’s degree of affiliation to a nation is absurd and its application would lead to the ontological dissolution of the Italian project. Italy was formed in 1861 and this means that every inhabitant of the peninsula has non-Italian origins if we look seven generations back. The myth of the “origins” is a politics of difference implemented in order to create a distinction between “old” and “new” Italians at the benefit of the former. In the framework of a nationalist political discourse, the narrative on one’s own past is always conceived to mediate the degree of his/her national belonging in the present and in the future. However, as Egonu’s words suggest, in everyday face-to-face relations, belonging and loyalty to a given collective entity is not conditioned by one’s putative origins, but rather depend on the way one decides to structure her/his self in the social, political, economic and cultural environment that s/he inhabits.

This article has shown how left-wing and right-wing Italian politicians and media deploy a politics of difference in order to mobilise citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. On the one hand, the right-wing parties Lega and FdI refute accusations of racism, fascism and xenophobia but on the other hand they are accustomed to racial and ethnic slur, they marginalize Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds, contend their italianness, and ignore their privacy and other basic civil rights with gestapo-type behaviours. They mobilise these citizens not simply as Italians but rather as foreigners or as “Italians of foreign origins” who for this reason may not always be considered as entitled to enjoy full political rights. This politics of difference, that is the emphasis on the distinction between old and new Italians, reflect the fear of competition between Italians and migrants, a fear that was spread by right-wing propaganda and that has generated a myth of “substitution”. The myth says that “foreigners” or citizens with non-Italian backgrounds and non-Italian cultures will outnumber and therefore substitute the original ethnic component of the country. The presence of activists with non-Italian backgrounds in the ranks of Lega and FdI does not reduce their liability and that of other party members who have stigmatized citizens with non-Italian backgrounds.

The politics of difference carried out by political and media agents through the emphasis of their different “origins”, “cultures” or “ethnicities” mobilises individuals with non-Italian backgrounds in the form of a dialectical positioning toward other citizens. Citizens with non-Italian backgrounds will be mobilised not as purely Italians but as a category that oscillates between the internal and the external otherness. The parties of the left, and in particular PD and LeU, are fighting the hard nationalism of the right with a soft nationalism of the left. In analogy to the policies implemented by the rightist circles, the exaltation of the national identity by the left and the discourse on origins that they propagate generates a contradictory effect on the mobilization of citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. The promotion of a “multi-ethnic” society leads to the formulation of ethno-building discourses. Ethnic identities – like religious identities – tend to become catalysts for political violence and marginalization as soon as political and economic problems emerge. Citizens should be granted full political rights whichever their backgrounds are and should not either be forced into assimilation nor be given the opportunity to ghettoize. More than that, one should not preclude the possibility that a citizen can embrace a given set of ideas or ideologies only because his/her “origins” seem to contradict his/her political choices.

The nationalist turn that has characterised Italy in the last years does not stem from the necessity to express a consolidated sense of belonging to the Italian nation, but rather the opposite. The search for italianness in the self and in the others shows that those who are conducting this search – right-wing and left-wing politicians and journalists, Italian citizens and “foreigners” who aspire to become Italians – have either lost or are scared to have lost not as much the character of italianness that they are looking for but rather the economic and symbolic assets that it gave them. Until fifteen or twenty years ago, there was no need for mainstream politicians and journalists to frantically look for who was Italian and who was not, because the question of what it meant to be Italian did not appear problematic. There were infinite modalities of being Italian which were validated by the possession of the Italian passport and/or by the possession of a permanent residency permit in the country. The crisis of the EU and the decade-long economic crisis have shifted the function of the Italian identity from a tool that allowed people to project their ambitions and lives in a trans-national horizon, to a ticket that individuals use to claim assets in a context with scarcer resources. The endorsement of an Italian identity has become an opportunity for political subjects who used to repudiate the Italian project and claim independence from Rome, such as Lega. The history of Lega that is now arrogating the right to decide who deserves to be Italian, show how national identities are constructed and dismissed according to the symbolic and economic assets that they offer. It is nonetheless impossible for any of the seekers of italianness to determine which aspects define italianness and who represents them better.

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A New Turn to the Indo-French Relations

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A file photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. | PMO India/Twitter

Hudson Institute’s researcher, Aparna Pande called France as “India’s new best friend” in 2019. Fast forward to present day, France has taken its partnership with India to the next level through the recent Indo-French space partnership for expeditions to Venus.

The space expedition partnership has followed the French envoy’s support for India’s UNSC membership and the launch of a satellite for climate observations. Furthermore, Emmanuel Lenain, ambassador of France to India said, “This year has been an eye opener for Europe. The world is becoming dangerous and the world has powers that do not want to play by the rules. We consider India as positive and trust it for exemplary dependency. France will support India’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations.”

Indo-French Relations

India and France have had trade relations since the 17th century. The diplomatic relations go back to the time when India became the newly independent country in 1947. The development of bilateral ties was significantly achieved through the state visit of French President  Jacques Chirac in 1998. Since then, there had been a series of state visits to and forth between the heads of both India and France establishing close ties with each other.

Additionally, India and France have been long term partners in the defence arena since 1953. India had acquired the famed MD 450 Ouragan, nicknamed ‘Toofani’ and Mystere in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, the Indian government has also procured the Rafale fighter jets from France which had arrived in July 2020.

Under the leadership of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanel Macron, the Indo-French relations have been strengthened through regular state visits contributed to take the strategic partnership established in 1998 further ahead. Just like the defence sector, the Indo-French relation is prospering in the space sector as well. This is also because of France’s pivot to Indo-Pacific region. The growing tensions between the US with China and Russia, Brexit, both France and India are realizing that a shift in the world order is underway especially with the Covid 19 pandemic making the world unstable on various fronts.

Indo-French Space Partnerships

The Indo-French space partnership for expedition to Venus seems a follow up from the 2018 bilateral agreement on the India-France Joint Vision for Space Cooperation. This strategic partnership was spread over different facets of space science including sounding rocket development, joint satellite realization, training programmes, satellite launches. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully reached Mars on its first attempt in 2014. In the same year, the French National Space Agency (CNES) successfully launched the E-CORCE Earth observation satellite. In recent years, there has been a number of partnerships between ISRO and CNES.

In 2019, there was an agreement signed between CNES and ISRO to establish a maritime surveillance centre in India. As part of this, both the space agencies are collaborating on India’s first crewed space mission, Gaganyaan project which is scheduled to launch in 2022. CNES has agreed to train Indian astronauts at the Toulouse Space Centre helping India to lay the foundation for preparation for future human spaceflight. The 2019 partnership followed the broader agreement signed during President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to India in March 2018.

The latest joint Indo-French Venus mission is a historic partnership till now. The instrument for the mission, VIRAL (Venus Infrared Atmospheric Gases Linker) is developed by Russian and French agencies. In September 2020, CNES has confirmed in a statement, “in the domain of space exploration, France will be taking part in ISRO’s mission to Venus, scheduled to launch in 2025. CNES will coordinate and prepare the French contribution, the first time a French payload will be flown on an Indian exploration mission.”

India-France relations in space have been a great success in the past. The upcoming ISRO-CNES Venus mission will strengthen the Indo-French partnerships further.

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Taking For Granted … Be Wary

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The title of these comments is inspired by my personal experience in important areas of public policy both as a politician beginning in the 1970s and more recently as Secretary General of the OECD from 1996 until 2006. That was a very important decade as it ushered in the period which some day we thought would be known as the beginning of globalization on a grand scale.

When I took up my responsibilities in Paris at the end of May 1996 it was a time brimming with  optimism about the great future ahead for our children and generations to follow! We were about to say goodbye to one of the most brutal and bloody centuries in human history. Physical human suffering was compounded by poverty and misery of hundreds of millions, especially in the developing world.

Many of us involved at the international level in public policy saw major opportunities to address challenges which had eluded us in the past. Indeed we took a great deal for granted and I must confess that I certainly did. Why? Here are a few examples and the reasons for taking so much for granted.

  1. We had just witnessed major geopolitical restructuring in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union had collapsed and we assumed that the threat of nuclear war had disappeared with it;
  2. With the replacement of the GATT the ( WTO) we took for granted the exciting prospect of global free trade and investment, which would bring economic growth and rising prosperity everywhere, but especially to the developing world. We expected “trade” not “aid” to be the route out of third world poverty;
  3.  The expansion of the proven Marshall Plan formula to regions fractured by division and conflict. We took for granted that such approaches could bring peace to the war torn Balkans and perhaps even to the Middle East and  the Arab World;
  4. We took for granted that with the publication  of the Brundtland Report “ Our Common Future” on Sustainable Development  followed by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, followed by the commitments in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the decades long stalemate of slowing green house gas emissions (GHGs) (and therefore global warming) had been broken  and that multilateral international commitments would ensure the protection of the biosphere and its natural capital;
  5. We took for granted that improvements to the stunning success of healthy capitalism through universal principles of good corporate governance, supported by an Anti Bribery Convention, would control the greed inherent in the undue exploitation of unfettered capitalism.  We took for granted that the wealth and wage disparities would narrow, especially in the United States;
  6. We witnessed the remarkable rise of the European Union (EU) uniting former enemies. We took its expansion and global role for granted. Regarding the EU,  I often quote a paragraph from the preface of A History of Europe by H. A. L Fisher, a warden at Oxford University in the 1930s. He wrote: “[No] question [would be] more pertinent to the future welfare of the world than how the nations of Europe … may best be combined into some stable organization for the pursuit of their common interests and the avoidance of strife“;
  7. We also took for granted the gradual spread of democracy and democratic institutions into the former countries of the Soviet Union and elsewhere in central Europe, South America and Asia;
  8. Early misgivings about the ideological bent of  Recep Erdogan as the Prime Minister, and then President of Turkey, were dispelled as he initially seemed supportive of good governance, freedom of the fourth estate, free speech  and democratic principles. We believed him and took for granted that the remarkable reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, would ensure the survival of a secular democratic Turkey;
  9. We took for granted the United States as a lone global superpower, magnanimous and fair, the first true united nation with people drawn from all corners of the planet to its robust democracy and unlimited opportunities.

As we look back over the past 25 years it is obvious that much too much was taken for granted. Given that so few of the opportunities we assumed would bring the world to a much better place were seized by my generation, what do you perceive as a better way forward? When we open that discussion in a few minutes, I hope I have convinced you to take little for granted. Be wary, if not skeptical, about those who foresee only a prosperous and peaceful future for this wonderful planet.

We need to remind ourselves of the following and address the questions I raise in our general discussion.

1. We failed to engage Russia with the West and as a result are now strengthening NATO in an effort to contain Putin’s aggressive behaviour. History may show this to be the most egregious of all Western public policy failures in the post-Soviet Union period because of its impact on other areas of global concern where Russia should have been a partner. Is it too late to recover from a failure to engage Russia despite the Russian adventures in Crimea and the Ukraine?

2. The EU is increasingly fragile, with concern about the future of the euro common currency and the EU’s capacity to deal with massive immigration from the war-torn areas of the Middle East. Do the weaknesses of the EU reflect a too rapid expansion without strengthening institutions which would move it toward a more federalist structure promoted by the Spinelli group?

3. Tensions have grown between China and its neighbours over territorial disputes, convincing the United States to pivot from its European focus and increase its military presence in Asia. Does this refocussing plus a strengthening alliance between China and Russia herald the reigniting of another Cold War like the one my generation grew up with?

4.Now many more nations( and possibly terrorist groups) have access to nuclear weapons. Does that greatly increase the possibility of a 21st century nuclear war?

5.The global free trade agenda is in the doldrums with the failure of the Doha Round and the concomitant rise of protectionist rhetoric, especially in the United States ,at the highest political levels. Does this mean that global free trade is now beyond reach?

 6. Is the prospect of eliminating poverty in the developing world through trade and investment  dying?

7.Reductions in GHG emissions, especially CO2, but also methane, continueto elude us after decades of effort, showing how ineffectual the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process has been and will be. The widely heralded but unenforceable Paris Agreement in the context of a history of failures is even dangerous because much of the public thinks our leaders have come to grips with this challenge (as we all did after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997). Do they do not realize that even if the agreed upon targets are achieved they are not sufficient to keep global temperatures below the level that the scientific community tells us is necessary to prevent dramatic and irreversible climate change?Is there resistance to developing a Plan B as a last resort to prevent unacceptable global warming? Solar radiation management , a form of geo engineering, seems to be broadly under consideration. Is that good or of concern? As areas of the world may become uninhabitable, will there be mass migration from areas of the developing word to more temperate climates?

8. For those who believe in democracy and perceived it as beginning to take root after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union do subsequent developments undermine the confidence that many democratic governments may be in retreat?  In some countries, such as Thailand, there has been a return to a military dictatorship. In others, such as Russia and other countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, there is only a pretense of democracy with rigged elections, as in Belarus. There also appears to be backsliding in Turkey, a very important global player and a bridge between Asia and its historic Western allies. The situation in Turkey, which held such promise only a decade ago, is very worrisome. President Erdogan seems increasingly autocratic and intolerant of criticism and dissent. Failure of this democracy could be a sad, even tragic, development. Turkey is a major regional and global power, and through the influence of Atatürk it became an emerging secular democracy with a majority Sunni population straddling Europe and Asia. Atatürk showed the world what individual leadership supported by ethical standards could accomplish in a short period of time.

9. Is the world faced with a growing number of autocratic strongmen who would prefer to destroy the important international infrastructure if it constrains their personal ambitions? It would appear that when one combines the far east, parts of Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand etc, more than 50% of humanity is or will soon be governed by “strong men“. With few exceptions such as Ataturk, history shows that such people have only one interest “me”.

President Trump gives every indication that he is anxious to join the ranks of these strongmen, initially by withdrawing the United States from the central role it had played through visionary leadership by building and helping to maintain the post war international and institutional architecture. His slogan “America First” should be interpreted for what it really is, namely, “Donald Trump First”.

There is a disquieting commentary in the New York Times of 16 December 2016 entitled “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy” by Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University. Here is an excerpt:

“Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? … Past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival … Our research points to several warning signs.

The clearest warning sign is the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics. Drawing on a close study of democracy’s demise in 1930s Europe, the eminent political scientist Juan J. Linz designed a “litmus test” to identify anti-democratic politicians. His indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments. “

Mr. Trump tests positive on all counts. In the campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters and pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton;

He haspage213image41232512page213image41225792page213image41222912threatened legal action against unfriendly media, and continues to suggest that he might not accept the election results saying the election will be rigged. If he loses will he in some way resist leaving office?

Since his 2016 election he has not changed his attitude on any of these issues.

David Frum, a Conservative and traditional Republican and a senior editor at the Atlantic published a book two years ago “Trumpocacy- The Corruption of the American Republic”. It has recently been released in paperback with a new preface by Frum which reviews the appalling record of this individual to whom Americans have entrusted the leadership of the most powerful nation in history.

In a concluding paragraph of the book he writes….” President Trump is cruel, vengeful, ignorant, lazy, avaricious and treacherous…”

Later he adds: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can be your finest hour as a citizen and as an American”

Today I cast Frum’s challenge to each of you in a global perspective rather than just American.

Yes, democracy can be fragile everywhere.

 We who live in well-established democracies must never be complacent or smug about the success of our societies. The comments of the Harvard professors above echo that concern.

Our democratic societies and their political systems must adapt to a rapidly evolving world. We are increasingly in that global village through forces of globalization amplified by communication and transportation technologies.

In line with the work of Charles Darwin, it has been said that “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” The same could be said of democratic governments and even empires.

What happens next to global free government is up to your generation of leadership. It is a humungous challenge, especially in countries where the seeds of democracy have never been planted or where they have enjoyed short life spans, Thailand and especially Turkey come to mind.

The future of democracy across the globe could be destroyed if the autocratic motives and moves of Donald Trump succeed, as they well might if I read the current political climate in the United States correctly. Despite shortcomings which need correction such as the unfortunate influence on elections through Super Pacs, the United States has been perceived for years as a remarkable democracy which others attempt to emulate. This may be about to change as it is increasingly viewed as government by the rich, of the rich and for the rich, and Trump does not appear to feel constrained by the institutional checks and balances of the constitution. He could put American democracy on the terrible path to an autocratic state which he seems to admire, especially in the Russia and Turkey of today.

In summary, what looked to be a promising future in all the major areas of concern in the 1990s has evolved into what could best be described as an economic, social, and geopolitical mess. But as bad as that story is, we have succeeded in making the future even more problematic with the arrival of global terrorism.

My generation must recognize the extraordinary failures of the past decades. Your generation must do better.

It seems that efforts to create consensus on major issues amongst many sovereign nations does not work. Is there not a better way forward in global governance? This is the last question I leave you with.

Have 190 counties not offered proof  of the impossibility of finalizing an international and binding free trade agreement known as the Doha Round, or as almost 200 countries have done in their efforts to find consensus on concrete solutions to address the challenges of climate change. Neither set of efforts, the first initiated through the WTO process and the second through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, has delivered the results sought and it is unlikely they ever will.

Is starting small and gradually broadening an international consensus a better option? The EU successfully evolved from a small base but has it expanded too rapidly to consolidate and build upon its remarkable and successful beginnings? Even the G20 may be ineffectual because of size and economic and social diversity.

Does the difficulty of building broad consensus on these issues suggests that a structure more resembling the UN Security Council would be more effective? Could the Security Council itself with a limited membership of powerful countries become a global steering group and replace the G-7 process?

Whether we like it or not, each major power has spheres of influence over smaller regional powers through shared history, culture (sometimes language), and trade and investment.

When we compare human and societal evolution to a relay race one generation must pass the baton on to the next. In a small way that is what I am saying to you today. I hope our discussion will touch upon a number of these important and often controversial issues.

We have fallen behind in many respects in the early years of this 21st century, perhaps even forfeiting many of the hard-earned benefits of good capitalism and democracy to an ever increasing number of corrupt strong men and autocratic regimes.

Is that the future?

Remember the words Shakespeare attributed to Brutus:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

I am persuaded that the latter may be our fate. We did not take the flood of opportunities at hand in the 1990s. Is it too late to recover through hard work, sacrifice and creativity in restructuring global governance for a better world.

What should we do? What can you do?

It will depend to a large extent on your personal values which I hope have not been irreversibly warped by admiration for the material success of greed and visible wealth of the famous 1% who dominate power and politics in the USA and increasingly elsewhere.

I have described the state of the world today as analogous to the fireplace at my country home. It is usually fully loaded with tinder, kindling and dry wood. All it awaits is a match. Unfortunately, in the world today there are many matches waiting to be lit and spread their deadly destruction to regions, if not the planet as a whole.

*This text is exclusively made as supplementary for a university lecture held on 28 OCT 2020. It is a part of the so-called ‘Geneva Lecture Series – Contemporary World of Geo-economics’, concepted and considered by prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic for the Swiss University in Geneva.

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Europe

Economic situation is EU citizens’ top concern in light of the coronavirus pandemic

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In a troubled period marked by the coronavirus pandemic, trust in the EU remains stable and Europeans trust the EU to make the right decisions in response to the pandemic in the future. In the new Standard Eurobarometer survey released today, European citizens identify the economic situation, the state of Member States’ public finances and immigration as the three top concerns at EU level. The economic situation is also the main concern at national level, followed by health and unemployment.

In the new Eurobarometer conducted in July and August, concern about the economic situation is reflected in the perception of the current state of the economy. 64% of Europeans think that the situation is ‘bad’ and 42% of Europeans think that their country’s economy will recover from the adverse effects of the coronavirus outbreak ‘in 2023 or later’.

Europeans are divided (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’) regarding the measures taken by the EU to fight the pandemic. However, 62% say they trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future, and 60% remain optimistic about the future of the EU.

Trust and image of the EU

Trust in the European Union has remained stable since autumn 2019 at 43%, despite variations of public perceptions during the pandemic. Trust in national governments and parliaments has increased (40%, +6 percentage points and 36%, +2 respectively).

In 15 Member States, a majority of respondents says they trust the EU, with the highest levels observed in Ireland (73%), Denmark (63%) and Lithuania (59%). The lowest levels of trust in the EU are observed in Italy (28%), France (30%) and Greece (32%).

The proportion of respondents with a positive image of the EU is the same as that with a neutral image (40%). 19% of respondents have a negative image of the EU (-1 percentage points).

In 13 EU Member States, a majority of respondents has a positive image of the EU, with the highest proportions observed in Ireland (71%), Poland and Portugal (both 55%). In 13 other Member States, the EU conjures up a predominantly neutral image for respondents, with the highest proportions observed in Malta (56%), Spain, Latvia and Slovenia (all 48%).

Main concerns at EU and national level

Citizens mentioned the economic situation as the most pressing issue facing the EU – over one-third (35%) of all respondents, a strong increase of 16 percentage points since autumn 2019, and rise from third to first concern. Concern about the economic situation has not been this high since spring 2014.

Europeans are also increasingly concerned about the state of Member States’ public finances (23%, +6 percentage points, the highest level since spring 2015), which moves from fifth to second place on a par with immigration (23%, -13 percentage points), the latter now being at the lowest level since autumn 2014.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, health (22%, new item) is the  fourth most mentioned concern at EU level. The issue of the environment and climate change has lost ground, down 8 percentage points to 20%, followed by unemployment (17%, +5 percentage points).

Similarly, the economic situation (33%, +17 percentage points) has overtaken health as the most important issue at national level, rising from seventh to first position. Although in second position, health has had a notable increase in mentions since autumn 2019 (31%, +9 percentage points), taking it to its highest ever level over the past six years.

Unemployment has also increased considerably in importance (28%, +8 percentage points), followed by rising prices/inflation/cost of living (18%, -2 percentage points), the environment and climate change (14%, -6 percentage points) and government debt (12%, +4 percentage points). Mentions of immigration (11%, -5 percentage points), are at their lowest level for the past six years.

The current economic situation

Since autumn 2019, the proportion of Europeans who think that the current situation of their national economy is ‘good’ (34%, -13 percentage points) has declined considerably, while the proportion of respondents who judge this situation to be ‘bad’ has increased sharply (64%, +14 percentage points).

At national level, a majority of respondents in 10 countries says that the national economic situation is good (down from 15 in autumn 2019). The proportion of respondents who say the situation of their national economy is good ranges from 83% in Luxembourg to 9% in Greece.

The coronavirus pandemic and public opinion in the EU

Europeans are divided on the measures taken by the EU institutions to fight the coronavirus outbreak (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’). However, a majority of respondents in 19 Member States is satisfied with the measures taken by the European Union institutions to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The highest positive figures are found in Ireland (71%); Hungary, Romania and Poland (all 60%). In seven countries, a majority of respondents is ‘not satisfied’, especially in Luxembourg (63%), Italy (58%), Greece and Czechia (both 55%) and Spain (52%). In Austria, equal proportions of respondents are satisfied, and not satisfied (both 47%).

However, more than six Europeans in ten trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future (62%). The most frequently mentioned priorities for the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic are: establish a strategy for facing a similar crisis in the future and develop financial means to find a treatment or vaccine (each 37%). 30% think that developing a European health policy should be a priority.

Europeans’ personal experiences of confinement measures were very diverse. Overall, close to three Europeans in ten say that it was fairly easy to cope with (31%), while a quarter say it was fairly difficult to cope with (25%). Finally, 30% say that it was ‘both easy and difficult to cope with’.

Key policy areas

Asked about the objectives of the European Green Deal, Europeans continue identifying ‘developing renewable energy‘ and ‘fighting against plastic waste and leading on the issue of single-use of plastic’ as the top priorities. More than one third think the top priority should be supporting EU farmers (38%) or promoting the circular economy (36%). Just over three in ten think reducing energy consumption (31%) should be the top priority.

Support for the Economic and Monetary Union and for the euro remains high, with 75% of respondents in the Euro area in favour of the EU’s single currency. In the EU27 as a whole, support for the euro has increased to 67% (+5).

 EU citizenship and European democracy

A majority of people in 26 EU Member States (except Italy) and 70% across the EU feel that they are citizens of the EU. At a national level the highest scores are observed in Ireland and Luxembourg (both 89%), Poland (83%), Slovakia and Germany (both 82%), Lithuania (81%), Hungary, Portugal and Denmark (all 80%).

A majority of Europeans (53%) say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU. The proportion of respondents who are ‘not satisfied’ has increased, by 3 percentage points since autumn 2019 to 43%.

 Optimism for the future of the EU

Finally, in this troubled period, 60% of Europeans say they are optimistic about the future of the EU. The highest scores for optimism are observed in Ireland (81%), Lithuania and Poland (both 75%) and Croatia (74%). The lowest levels of optimism are seen in Greece (44%) and Italy (49%), where pessimism outweighs optimism, and France, where opinion is evenly divided (49% vs 49%).

Background

The ‘Summer 2020 – Standard Eurobarometer’ (EB 93) was conducted face-to-face and exceptionally completed with online interviews between 9 July and 26 August 2020, across the 27 EU Member States, in the United Kingdom and in the candidate countries 26,681 interviews were conducted in the 27 Member States.

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