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Towards Strategic Autonomy: The Role of the EU in the Growing China-USA Rivalry

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Following the COVID-19 outbreak, what began as a health crisis soon turned into an economic and social emergency. In view of the growing rivalry between the United States and China, the pandemic poses a threat to the western economic liberal model and risks jeopardizing the world geopolitical order itself. The gap between the two superpowers is such that some media outlets started ironizing about the advent of a possible new Cold War. Be it a new Cold War or anything else you want to call it, one sure thing is that Europe, for the second time around, finds itself squeezed between two powers, risking ending up, once again, as the battleground between the two different blocs.

If the pandemic hit hard on the economic giants, particularly true was for the European Union, where COVID-19’s wave shed light on Brussels’ enormous dependence on the two opposing powers. As of China, a relatively new economic partner, the virus highlighted the extent to which the continent is dependent on areas nowadays considered critical for prosperous growth, i.e., health, technology, AI, and data. Conversely, on the other side, is the American giant, the historical partner, on which Europe relies not only economically, but also in terms of security. Defined as Europe’s “security umbrella” [4], and under NATO alliance, the United States, having troops stationed in many EU states, have proposed themselves as the main guarantor of that security that Europe, over the years, has forgotten to implement.

With the US pushing for decoupling from China and, on the other hand, China lobbying silently for greater economic dependence (FDI, private investment, technology), the growing conflict is putting global cooperation into question. This time, however, as Marie-Pierre Vedrenne (Vice-Chairwoman of Parliament’s Committee on International Trade) stated [5], the EU, which with all its 27 Member States, stands out as the world’s second-largest economy, cannot once again end up being a victim. US unilateralism and Chinese assertiveness triggered a rethinking of the EU’s strategic landscape [6]. To prevent Europe from being swept aside by the opposing powers, in the drafting of a new EU Recovery Plan, particular attention has been paid to what appears to be the key objective for Europe in the coming months, namely, strategic autonomy.

Admittedly, Europe, like many other Western countries, was poorly prepared on many fronts when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the need for a more robust political and economic approach did not arise alongside the virus outbreak in February. It was still November when European Union President Ursula Von Der Leyen started talking about the need for a new European Geopolitical Commission capable of boosting Brussels’ political role in the world arena. Due to the coexistence of nation-states and the single market, cooperation between all 27 states is not always easy to be reached, as shown by the rise in recent years of opposing narratives such as populism and authoritarianism. Indeed, a plan is needed, or Europe will risk, as announced by French President Emmanuel Macron, to disappear geopolitically.

Making America Great Again: the Strain on EU-US Relations

The alliance between the EU and the United States has been going on for quite a long time. The partnership is evidenced by the fact that both blocs are each other’s first exporting partner, with annual trade worth around $1.3 trillion. The alignment is also reinforced by the fact that both blocs share common values, namely democracy, respect for human rights, economy, and political freedom, in line with UN Charter three main pillars (peace and security, human rights, and development). In recent years, however, the relationship between the two has evolved, and not for the better. Under Trump’s administration, Europe is facing a situation where, for the first time, an American president does not share the very idea of the European project (Macron).

Alongside its notorious motto “America First”, Trump’s administration has taken several initiatives which, besides creating tensions in the world order, have put the US-EU partnership at risk. Among the most heated ones were the steel and aluminum tariffs, import tariffs on EU aircraft Airbus, and the threat to impose higher rates on car imports from Europe. Beyond the economic aspect, tensions have also arisen in the field of security. The American President has long called on his Transatlantic allies to respect the rule according to which 2% of member countries’ GDP has to be allocated to NATO defense spending fund. Moreover, by firmly pushing for unilateralism and protectionism, the US presidency has also expressed its intention to withdraw from some of 21st-century key treaties, such as the Paris Emissions Treaty and the Iranian Nuclear Deal. Furthermore, as a result of growing tensions with China, Trump has also recently threatened to permanently cut US founding to the UN health body, WHO. Simultaneously, tensions have escalated after a series of harsh statements — “the Chinese virus” — which have added further strain to the US-China situation.

As far as US-EU relations are concerned, two key points should be borne in mind: security and technology. According to figures, the United States would currently store 92% of Western world data, and, at a time when wars are fought on digital terrain, data access appears crucial. Here the importance of digital innovation for Europe. In contrast to strategic defense, actual defense, i.e., military defense, on the other hand, is far from being achieved in Europe. Not having an army on its own, and due to the significant presence of American troops on EU territory, Europe is unlikely to detach itself from the US “security umbrella”, at least for the near future. This is partly why, instead of talking of pure autonomy, experts have chosen the word “strategic” to underline that independence must be achieved in those areas which, due to the globalized world order, have an impact at a strategic level, such as, for instance, the field of cybersecurity. Apart from its military capacity, Europe remains the world’s second largest economy, and despite the long economic and historical link, should not blindly follow the United States if this doesn’t meet its interests.

From ‘Strategic Partner’ to ‘Systemic Rival’: EU-China Relations

Much more recent, when compared to the opponent’s, EU-China relations began deepening in 2008. As a result of the global financial crisis, many European companies, one of the most affected regions, opened to Chinese capital and investment, creating valuable trade links. Over the years, the relationship significantly developed, resulting in a series of diplomatic initiatives, such as the EU-China Summit, dedicated to strengthening of the cooperation between the two in dealing with global challenges through the rules-based international system.

Historically, in terms of partnerships, Europe has tended to establish closer ties with “like-minded” countries [7] as of the United States. When looking at China, at that time, still considered a developing country, in the 1990s, Transatlantic policymakers saw the advent of the internet on the continent as a factor leading to greater openness and transparency [8]. On the contrary, however, in particular under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the implementation of technology resulted in increased political control and repression (Tibet, Uighur reform camps, Hong Kong). An evolution that has surely not gone unnoticed by European politicians. “Europe has lost its naivety” (Macron). Evidence of this is also provided by the fact that, for the first time, in 2019, EU Strategy Paper on EU-China relations referred to the country as a “systemic rival, promoting a different kind of governance”.

While the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted Europe’s dependence on China’s supply chain (health sector), EU-China trade relations have long been affected by unequal market access. The lack of “competitive neutrality” [9] between the two, evidenced by policies, such as the “Made in China 2025” one, stems from the fact that China in seeking to favor its own national champions, wouldn’t grant in equal measures market access to foreign companies, among which Europeans.

If there is no doubt that the two continents share different set of values and distant rules of governance, further cooperation with China represents both an opportunity and a necessity (Charles Michel) [10], especially in view of a world order becoming every day more polarized. In Europe’s eyes China would simultaneously represent:

Cooperation Partner. Sharing the same objectives on the global scene, both could count on mutual aid in fields such as Climate Change (as of today China stands as the first country in the world for emissions, but at the same time as one of the most committed to the Paris Protocol) and global trade. In this regard, WTO modernization appears fundamental, especially to Europeans, in order to ensure that the current rivalry between the American and Chinese blocs does not result in a trade war.

Negotiation Partner. Although efforts to normalize dialogue between China and Europe are still ongoing, the creation of an annual China-EU summit (the last one taking place via Zoom in June of this year) represents an important step toward ensuring that the interests of both blocs are mutually respected.

Economic Competitor. Especially in critical sectors such as supply chain, technologies, AI and data.

Systemic Rival. Presenting a different form of governance and not acting in accordance with the three pillars established by the United Nations Charter (peace and security, human rights and development) concerning the respect of human rights, for the moment, an alignment like that with the US is still far from being conceivable. As noted by European Deputy Brando Benifei, it isn’t easy to engage in an on ongoing dialogue if you can’t have free debate [11].

Being Europe, the leading exporting country for China, and given current US administration reluctancy to implement multilateralism, it is in the interests of both countries that trade relations continue and that cooperation in critical areas such as climate change and international agreements is intensified. However, to accomplish this, some reforms must be implemented, especially when it comes to a more rules-based trade system. While EU and China are still far from the “like-minded countries” perspective, on the economic ground in order for collaboration to be fruitful for both parties, higher openness must be reached, namely creating a more balanced as well as more reciprocal level playing field.

NextGenerationEU

On May 27th, the European Commission announced its Recovery Plan, setting out the necessary economic steps to “repair and prepare for the next generation”. In order to achieve this, Brussels is prepared to allocate substantial funds: €750 million to boost the 2021–24 EU budget — NextGenerationEU — along with a longer-term reinforced budget in the region of €1.1 trillion for the period 2021-27. This ambitious plan assumes a new evolutionary phase of globalization in which there is a trade-off between the desire to reap the benefits of the free market and the necessity of maintaining the sovereignty and security of new global players [12]. In this context, the EU must too evolve, such that it can continue to promote multilateralism while at the same time being more responsive to its own interests.

Founding elements of the new plan are:

Diversification of supply sources. Through reinforced strategic stockpile building, especially in the health sector, Europe will boost its capacity to handle future crises, while, simultaneously, reducing its over-dependence from other world players such as China and the USA. In this context, of particular importance is RescEU, the European crisis management body, which will be reinforced through the strengthening of emergency response infrastructure, transport capacity and more active emergency teams, thus increasing EU’s resilience;

Relocation of EU strategic activities. The implementation of shorter supply chains to bring them as close as possible to their place of consumption will not only ensure a higher level of strategic autonomy but will also result in a positive impact on the environment. By cutting transport, corporate footprints will be profoundly reduced. Of particular importance, in this context, key markets, which should be kept within the European Union (Borell);

Free trade safeguard. Given today’s globalized world order (in contrast to the bipolar USSR/US situation), full economic benefits are only attainable in an international environment [13]. In order for this goal to be achieved, protectionism needs to be limited, while on the contrary, openness, cooperation, and coordination must be further promoted and implemented. In accordance with this logic, WTO, UN’s trade regulator, appears to be of particular importance;

FDI Strategic Guidance. Several guidelines have been issued by the European Commission to protect its strategic interests with regard to foreign investment. For this to happen, it is essential that relevant information relating to the monitoring of current or future foreign investment is coordinated and shared between the Union member states according to a system based on precise rules;

EU Green Deal. By investing in a greener economy and increasing the circular economic model, the strategy aims to modernize EU buildings and critical infrastructure and provide the EU Member States with affordable, nutritious, safe, and sustainable food. New employment opportunities will additionally be created through initiatives such as Renovation Wave and Just Transition Fund;

Digitalization. As with oil in the 20th century, data in the 21st is increasingly becoming a major currency. As a result, those who control data are more likely to be significant players in the international political economy. Therefore, the EU’s objective is to invest in better connectivity alongside the development of its industrial and technological presence. The investment in data and a more digital economy will also provide additional job opportunities. To achieve this, Europe will need to implement its data sharing legislation, setting out clear rules and strategies to boost cooperation at the European level, together with the capacity to preserve EU infrastructure secure.

Throughout history, financial crises have paved the way for economic coercion, leading states to devalue their strengths and set aside their interests to comply with the coercer’s demands [14]. Stuck between American protectionism and Chinese pressure, Europe risks devaluing its own potential. Standing, as of today still, as the world’s second-largest economy, when trying to face the crisis, Brussels must not succumb to the trap of transforming the current economic depression in a sell-off of its critical infrastructure and technology [15].

In view of what some have called a new Cold War, it is in Europe’s interests to maintain a dialogue with both, acting as a “stabilizer” between the two players, while at the same time developing its structure in those areas likely to provide it with greater strategic autonomy and safeguard its global relevance. As Vice-Chairwoman of Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, Marie-Pierre Vedrenne [16] pointed out, sometimes, it is better to refuse an agreement than to remain tied to an unprofitable one.

1. European Council on Foreign Relations, Hackenbroich J. ”China, America, and how Europe can deal with war by economic means” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_china_america_and_how_europe_can_deal_with_war_by_economic_meansn

2. EC Introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16/04/2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en

3. Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar

4. McKenzie M., Loedel P., “The Promise and Reality of European Security Cooperation” (1998) pg. 72-73

5. Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar

6. Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations “Europe in the face of US-China rivalry” (2020) URL: http://www.egmontinstitute.be/content/uploads/2020/01/200122-Final-ETNC-report-Europe-in-the-Face-of-US-China-Rivalry.pdf?type=pdf

7. Palgrave Studies in European Union Politics, “The European Union and Multilateral Governance” (2012)

8. CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies), Ortega A. “The US-China race and the fate of transatlantic relations. part II: Bridging differing geopolitical views” (2020) URL: https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-china-race-and-fate-transatlantic-relations-0

9. Joint communication of the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council, “EU-China – a Strategic Outlook” (2019), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-eu-china-a-strategic-outlook.pdf

10. EU-China Summit video conference, 22 June 2020, URL: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/international-summit/2020/06/22/

11. Brando Benifei for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar

12. European Council on Foreign Relations, Borrel J. ”The post-coronavirus world is already here” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/the_post_coronavirus_world_is_already_here

13. European Commision introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16.04.2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en

14. European Council on Foreign Relations, Hackenbroich J. ”China, America, and how Europe can deal with war by economic means” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_china_america_and_how_europe_can_deal_with_war_by_economic_meansn

15. EC Introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16/04/2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en

16.Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar

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Council of Europe fights for your Right to Know, too

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Authors: Eugene Matos de Lara and Audrey Beaulieu

“People have the right to know what those in power are doing” -Dunja Mijatovic Council of Europe, Commissioner for Human Rights.

Access to information legislation was first seen in 1766 in Sweden, with parliamentary interest to access information held by the King. Finland in 1951, the United States in 1966, and Norwayin 1970 also adopted similar legislation. Today there are 98 states with access laws; of these, more than 50 incorporated in their constitution. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights 2006 and the European Court of Human Rights 2009 both ruled that access to information is a human right, confirmed in July 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a sine qua non of 21st-century democracy.

Global civil society movements have been promoting transparency, with activists and journalists reporting daily on successes in obtaining information and denouncing obstacles and frustrations in the implementation of this right. To this end, the Council of Europe was inspired by pluralistic and democratic ideals for greater European unity, adopted the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents recognising a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities. It brings a minimum standard for the fair processing of requests for access to official documents with the obligation for member states to secure independent review for restricted documents unless with held if the protection of the documents is considered legitimate.

The right to freedom of information

Access to information is a government scrutiny tool. Without it, human rights violations, corruption cases, and anti-democratic practices would never be uncovered. Besides exposing demerits, the policy is also known to improve the quality of public debates while increasing participation in the decision making process. Indeed, transparency of authorities should be regarded as a fundamental precondition for the enjoyment of fundamental rights, as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The policy equips citizens and NGOs with the necessary tool to counter refusal from authorities to provide information. The European Court of Human Rights recognized that withheld documents could be accessed in specific circumstances. In principle, all information should be available, and those upheld can also be accessed, particularly when access to that particular information is crucial for the individual or group to exercise their freedoms unless of course, the information is of national security or of private nature.

Access to information in times of crisis a first line weapon against fake news

The COVID pandemic has enabled us to test access policies and benchmark the effectiveness of the right to know during trivial times, as Dunja Mijatovic mentioned. In fact, having easy access to reliable information protects the population from being misled and misinformed, a first-line weapon dismantling popular fake news and conspiracies. Instead, during COVID, access to information has supported citizens in responding adequately to the crisis. Ultimately, transparency is also a trust-building exercise.

Corruption and environmental issues

Information is a weapon against corruption. The Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) is looking at the specific issue of access to official documents in the context of its Fifth Evaluation Round, which focuses on preventing corruption and promoting integrity in central governments and law enforcement agencies. In about a third of the reports published so far, GRECO has recommended the state to improve access to official documents. In regards to the environment, the United Nations Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, commonly referred to as the Aarhus Convention, expands the right of access to information on environmental matters thus complementing the Tromsø Convention. Declaring these policies as the primary tools that empower citizens and defenders to protect the environment we live in.

Good models exist

Most Council of Europe member states have adequate mechanisms regarding the right to information. For example, in Estonia, “the Public Information Act provides for broad disclosure of public information” states Mijatovic. Moreover, “in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and several other countries there is an independent oversight body – such as an Information Commissioner – responsible for monitoring and enforcing the right to information, while some other countries entrust Parliamentary Ombudsmen with supervision of the right of access to information”. Finally, “the constitutions of several European countries do indeed guarantee the fundamental right to information.” Nonetheless, there are still in consistent levels of transparency among state institutions or a failure to meet the requirement for proactive disclosure. The entry into force of the Tromso Convention willbe an opportunity to bring back to the table the importance of the right to information and to read just European States practices regarding the enhancement.

Barriers and Challenges

Digitization is still recent, and authorities are not accustomed to dealing openly. There is a sentiment of reservation and caution. Before the advent of the internet, governments enjoyed a level of political efficiency and practical obscurity. Viewing public records required the time and effort of a visit to the records’ physical location and prevented easy access to details of individual files. Openness has made the policy cycle longer, with a more thorough consultation process and debates. The availability of digital documents has caused an unavoidable conflict.

One of the conflicts is a privacy protection and policy safeguards invoked against freedom of information requests. Requirements to provide transparency of activities must be mitigated with national security, individuals’ safety, corporate interests, and citizens’ right to privacy. Finding the right balance is essential to understand how local governments manage the dichotomy between providing open access to their records by maintaining the public’s privacy rights.

Several governments think twice before pursuing transparency policies. Access to information hasn’t been a priority for some of the European States. Mijatovic reported that “filtering of information and delays in responses to freedom of information requests have been observed in several member states”. Although there is a growth in these laws’ popularity, we are always a step behind meeting the supply and demand of information objectives in an era of digitization.

Legal perspectives

Tromso Convention has only been ratified by eleven countries, which are mostly located in Scandinavia (Finland, Norway and Sweden) or in Eastern Europe (Bosnia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Moldavia and Ukraine). Reading this statement, three questions should come to our minds:

1.    Why not all European states have ratified Tromso Convention?

2.    Why do Scandinavian countries have chosen to ratify the Convention?

3.    Why are most of the Member States from Eastern Europe?

Regarding the first question, the answer resides in the fact that the ones who haven’t taken part in the Convention already have strong national laws protecting freedom of information and don’t need to bother with extra protection and external surveillance. For instance, Germany passed a law in 2005, promoting the unconditional right to access information. Many other European states such as Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France &Poland have similar national law.

Regarding the second question, considering that all Scandinavian countries already have national laws assessing freedom of information, the most likely reason behind their ratification would be symbolic support to the cause or because the Convention’s framework is less restrictive than their national laws.

Finally, concerning the last question, we could suppose that most Eastern countries have an interest in demonstrating themselves as more transparent, more following the rule of law. For example, if we examine Montenegro’s case, we could assume that taking part in the Tromso Convention is a step closer to their accession to the EU in 2025.

As for the reservations that have been made, only Finland, Norway and Sweden have made some noticeable. Regarding Norway, the country declared that “communication with the reigning Family and its Household” will remain private in accordance with Article 3,paragraph 1 of the Convention. This limitation covers something interesting, considering that, as mentioned earlier, access to the data type of legislation was first adopted in order to get access to information held by the King. In parallel, Finland declared that “the provisions of Article 8 of the Convention concerning the review procedure [will] not apply to a decision made by the President of the Republic in response to a request for access to a document. Article 8 provides protection against arbitrary decisions and allows members of the population to assert their right to information. Sweden has made a similarreservation on Article 8 paragraph 1 regarding “decisions taken by the Government, ministers and the Parliamentary Ombudsmen”.

Thoughts towards better implementation

For smoother data access implementation, governments can act on transparency without waiting for legislation through internal bureaucratic policy. These voluntary provisions for openness can be an exercise towards a more organic cultural transformation.

Lengthy debates on open access are entertained by exceptions to access. To be sure, governments have enough legal and political tools to withhold information, regardless of how exemptions have been drafted. Instead, a more productive and efficient process is possible if we concentrate on positive implementation and enforcement, including the procedures for challenges on legal exemptions.

The implementation phase of access laws is challenging due to a lack of leadership motivation, inadequate support for those implementing these requests, especially since they require a long term social and political commitment. To do so, an overall dedication and government bureaucratic cultural shift should take place. Although the implementation of access to information should be included internally in all departments, considering a standardized centralized approach to lead the new regime with authority could send an important message. Record keeping and archiving should be updated to respond to requests with improved information management systems. As such, the goal would be to make a plethora of information immediately and unconditionally available.

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France’s Controversial ‘Separatism’ Bill

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In his very first days at the Elysee Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to detail his views on secularism and Islam in a wide-ranging speech. It took more than three years for this to happen, with the much awaited speech actually taking place in October a week after a teacher was violently killed for revealing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) during a lecture on freedom of expression. Macron said during his speech that “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, adding that there was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences”. Mr. Macron and his Parliament allies have described the bill as a reaction to the rise of Islamic separatism, which the President defines as a philosophy that seeks to create a parallel state in France where religious laws replace civil law.  Referring to the cartoons at a citizenship ceremony earlier and before the latest attacks, Macron defended the “right to blasphemy” as a fundamental freedom, even as he condemned “Islamic separatism.”

“To be French is to defend the right to make people laugh, to criticize, to mock, to caricature,” the president said. The proposed law allows religious associations and mosques to report more than €10,000 ($12,000) in international support and to sign a promise to uphold the French republican ideals in order to obtain state subsidies. The bill will also make it possible for the government to close down mosques, organizations and colleges that have been described as criticizing republican values.The controversial bill is blamed for targeting the Muslim people and enforcing limits on nearly every part of their lives. It allows government to oversee the funds of associations and non-governmental organizations belonging to Muslims. It also limits the schooling options of the Muslim community by prohibiting families from providing home education to children. The law also forbids people from selecting physicians on the grounds of gender for religious or other purposes and mandates a compulsory ‘secularism education’ on all elected officials. Physicians will either be charged or jailed under the law if they conduct a virginity test on girls. Critics argue the so-called “separatism law” is racist and threatens the 5.7 million-strong Muslim population in France, the highest in Europe. Its critics include the 100 imams, 50 teachers of Islamic sciences and 50 members of associations in France who signed an open letter against the “unacceptable” charter on 10 February.

A criminal act for online hate speech will make it easier to easily apprehend a person who shares sensitive information about public sector workers on social media with a view to hurting them and will be disciplined by up to three years in jail and a fine of EUR 45.000. The banning or deleting of pages spreading hate speech would now be made smoother and legal action accelerated. The bill expands what is known in France as the ‘neutrality clause,’ which forbids civil servants from displaying religious symbols such as the Muslim veil and holding political opinions, outside public sector workers to all commercial providers in public utilities, such as those working for transport firms.

French Members of Parliament held two weeks of heated debates in the National Assembly. People of Muslim faith interviewed outside the Paris Mosque and around Paris on the outdoor food market before the vote had hardly heard of the rule. “I don’t believe that the Muslims here in France are troublemakers or revolutionaries against France,” said Bahri Ayari, a taxi driver who spoke to AP after prayers inside Paris’ Grand Mosque. “I don’t understand, when one talks about radicalism, what does that mean — radicalism? It’s these people who go to jail, they find themselves with nothing to do, they discuss amongst themselves and they leave prison even more aggressive and then that gets put on the back of Islam. That’s not what a Muslim is,” he added.

Three bodies of the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM) have unilaterally denounced the “charter of principles” of Islam, which reaffirms the continuity of religion with France. The three parties said that the Charter was accepted without the full consensus of the other integral components of the CFCM, including the provincial and departmental councils and the imams concerned. “We believe that certain passages and formulations of the submitted text are likely to weaken the bonds of trust between the Muslims of France and the nation. In addition, certain statements undermine the honor of Muslims, with an accusatory and marginalizing character,” the Milli Görüş Islamic Confederation (CMIG) and the Faith and Practice movement said in a joint statement. The bill is blamed for targeting the Muslim community and enforcing limits on nearly any part of their lives. It allows for interference in mosques and organizations responsible for the operation of mosques, as well as for the oversight of the funds of associations and non-governmental organizations belonging to Muslims.

It is a difficult time for the nation, which has also accused its protection bill of containing the press freedom. The law introduced aims at making it unlawful to post photographs of police officers in which it is identifiable by “malicious intent” However, law enforcement has criticized the government after the declaration by Macron of the development of an online forum to flag police brutality.

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Why Is Europe Hostile Towards Russia?

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In his seminal 1871 work Russia and Europe, the famous Russian intellectual and Slavophile Nikolay Danilevsky set forth his theory that “Europe recognizes Russia as something alien to itself, and not only alien, but also hostile,” and that Russia’s fundamental interests should act as a “counterweight to Europe.”

One hundred and fifty years have passed since that work was published. The world has changed. No matter what anti-globalists might say, the rapid development of modern technologies and their use in our everyday lives has forced us to re-evaluate many of our beliefs about relations between states and people. The exchange of information, scientific discoveries and knowledge, and the sharing of our cultural wealth bring countries closer together and open up opportunities for development that did not exist before. Artificial intelligence does not know any boundaries and does not differentiate users by gender or nationality. Along with these new opportunities, the world is also faced with new problems that are increasingly supranational in nature and which require our combined efforts to overcome. The coronavirus pandemic is the latest example of this.

It is against the background of these rapid changes, which for obvious reasons cannot unfold without certain consequences, that we can occasionally hear this very same theory that “Europe is hostile towards Russia.” Although the arguments put forward to support this claim today seem far less nuanced than those of Nikolay Danilevsky.

Even so, ignoring this issue is not an option, as doing so would make it extremely difficult to build a serious long-term foreign policy given the prominent role that Europe plays in global affairs.

Before we dive in, I would like to say a few words about the question at hand. Why should Europe love or loathe Russia? Do we have any reason to believe that Russia has any strong feelings, positive or negative, towards another country? These are the kind of words that are used to describe relations between states in the modern, interdependent world. But they are, for the most part, simply unacceptable. Russia’s foreign policy concepts invariably focus on ensuring the country’s security, sovereignty and territorial integrity and creating favourable external conditions for its progressive development.

Russia and Europe have a long history that dates back centuries. And there have been wars and periods of mutually beneficial cooperation along the way. No matter what anyone says, Russia is an inseparable part of Europe, just as Europe cannot be considered “complete” without Russia.

Thus, it is essential to direct intellectual potential not towards destruction, but rather towards the formation of a new kind of relationship, one that reflects modern realities.

At the dawn of the 21st century, it was clear to everyone that, due to objective reasons, Russia would not be able to become a full-fledged member of the military, political and economic associations that existed in Europe at the time, meaning the European Union and NATO. That is why mechanisms were put in place to help the sides build relations and cooperate in various fields. Bilateral relations developed significantly in just a few years as a result. The European Union became Russia’s main foreign economic partner, and channels for mutually beneficial cooperation in many spheres were built.

However, EU-Russia relations have stalled in recent years. In fact, much of the progress that had been made is now being undone. And positive or negative feelings towards one another have nothing to do with it. This is happening because the parties have lost a strategic vision of the future of bilateral relations in a rapidly changing world.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin said that Russia is part of Europe, and that, culturally, Russia and Europe are one civilization. This is the basic premise—one that is not based on emotions—that should underlie Russia’s policy in its relations with Europe.

Russia and the European Union disagree on many things, but the only way to overcome misunderstandings and find opportunities to move forward is through dialogue. In this context, the recent visit of the EU High Representative to Moscow was a much-needed step in the right direction, despite the criticism that this move received from the European side. Nobody was expecting any “breakthroughs” from the visit, as the animosities and misunderstandings between the two sides cut too deep. Yet visits and contacts of this kind should become the norm, for without them we will never see any real progress in bilateral relations.

In addition to the issues that currently fill the agendas of the two sides, attention should be focused on developing a strategic vision of what EU-Russia relations should be in the future, as well as on areas of mutual interest. For example, it is high time that Europe and Russia broached the subject of the compatibility of their respective energy strategies, as well as the possible consequences of the introduction of “green energy” in Europe in terms of economic cooperation with Russia. Otherwise, it will be too late, and instead of a new area of mutually beneficial cooperation, we will have yet another irresolvable problem.

In his work Russia and Europe, Nikolay Danilevsky, while recognizing the good that Peter the Great had done for his country, reproached him for “wanting to make Russia Europe at all costs.” No one would make such accusations today. Russia is, was and always will be an independent actor on the international stage, with its own national interests and priorities. But the only way they can only be realized in full is if the country pursues an active foreign policy. And one of the priorities of that policy is relations with Europe.

From our partner RIAC

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