As part of the Geneva Lecture Series concepted and conducted by prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic, President of the Republic of Austria Dr. Heinz Ficher (2004-16) and current Co-chair of the Vienna-based Ban Ki–moon Centre for Global Citizens centered his two-hour long mesmerizing talk on Europe and its future prospects. University scholars and diplomats based in Geneva and beyond enjoyed the first hand insights in the very history of Europe and ist integrations since the end of the WWII.
Excellency Fischer elaborated on the important historic moments that forged today’s relations between member states of the EU and pointed out the weaknesses and challenges that the European continent will have to face in order to not reach a dead end in terms of the so-valued integration process.
Dr. Fischer introduced the topic by asking whether we have learned from our previous mistakes. According to him, we did learn from history. However, he believes that “after one or two generations, lessons of history start to fade away and get lost again [and that] we must keep that in mind to avoid dead end”.
Going back to World War II (WW2), the well-known European diplomat reminded us how Germany’s defeat changed the global balance of power, especially with the US and the USSR emerging as the two superpowers. The year 1945 has also been a crucial in the history of Austria, which reborn and reconstructed as an independent state in April 1945.
The end of WW2 left Europe with many questions; how to restore Germany? How to rebuild Europe? How to establish and protect peace and avoid mistakes that have been done after WW1? After the traumatizing events that happened during the war, peace “had a very high value and was a great priority almost worldwide”. Heinz Fischer remarks that “economic and politic cooperation between France, Germany, Italy and other European countries was the best way to retain and reduce nationalistic egoism and link the economist in a way that war cannot be an option to solve problems anymore as it happened so many times before”. However, we should not forget that, at the same time, the tension between Stalin and the western world on the other side was growing.
The Ban Ki-moon Center Co-chair continued by talking about the Cold War and describing the first steps towards the European Union that we know today.
“The US officials urged (western) Germany to take full responsibility for the development in their country and for good cooperation with other democracies. The next importation step was the announcement of the so-called Marshall plan for Europe. [It] was originally designed for the whole Europe but got rejected by countries under soviet dominance. Austria government was in a difficult situation because the eastern part of the country was, in that time, in the soviet occupation zone and, nevertheless, Austria joined the Marshall plan under heavy critics from its Communist party and Soviet officials.
[The] first peak of Cold War was the blockade of Berlin in 1948 and the foundation of NATO in 1949, which consequently made European integration faster and stronger.”
Nonetheless, Europe was still divided between the East and the West. It was only when Stalin died in 1953, that the beginning of a new era with a more collective leadership started. Fischer believes that his death was an important element for successful negotiations about the Austrian state treaty in April because the new leaders in Moscow wanted to demonstrate that they were ready for substantial negotiations and for compromises.
Adding to that, two years later, the Treaty of Rome was signed in March 1957, creating the European Economic Community (EEC) between Western Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. This accelerated further political integration.
By early 1960s, about 30% of the Old continent was gathered in the EEC – like-minded democracies, neighboring states of a growing politico-economic influence with good preconditions to strengthen and deepen such cooperation. The EEC was successful and attractive. Naturally, the decision-making of the Six was far easier than in today’s Union.
The step from the EEC to the EU was the basis for a better coordinated foreign policy, a precondition for the introduction of the euro currency and it strengthened the role of the European parliament. It was very attractive to join the EU as the union formulated strict conditions and admissions procedures for membership in the club.
In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin wall, Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway, four democratic countries with good economic performance, applied for the EU. On January 1995, all of them, excepted Norway, became member of the EU. Then, in 2004, the number of member states jumped from 15 to 25 and soon after 27, etc. These years were the best moments in the European integration process but it was also a turning point, the number of diverging interests was enlarging and it was growing parallel to the number of members. As EU became more and more the voice of Europe, it also brought more and more difficulties in terms of decision making.
Eastern countries were united in their anti-Communist and anti-Russian feelings however in other fields of politics they were more and more not united with each other and the rest of Europe. But the question remained: what was the reason for that development?
Dr. Fischer observed that the national identity of new democracies from the 90s, those that were under soviet dominance, had been brutally suppressed during soviet supremacy and their so-called internationalism was not a genuine development, it had been enforced and, soon after the collapse of European communism and the dissolution of Russia pact, these countries showed that they were fed up with internationalism even European internationalism and nationalism saw a powerful renaissance. With this background, populistic nationalism in some countries, but not all the eastern European countries, became step by step stronger than European thinking and European solidarity.
While growing nationalism is one big obstacle, for the European cooperation and integration, the necessity of consensus in the constitution of the European union in many fields of European policy is another big problem. Consensus is, indeed, recommendable and necessary for very far-reaching decisions with long time consequences. However, too many necessities for consensus are poison for a coherent European policy, the more consensus is necessary, the bigger is the role of national interests and the bigger the role of national interests is the more we have a union with injured wings and the more it is difficult to compete with the other big powers in the world.
Since decades we can observe new developments dimensions and challenges of ecological environmental policy, the figures of climate change and global warming speak a very clear language on global level but also in Europe we have a lot to do in these fields. The Paris climate agreement set the goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees but the question remains whether we will reach this goal and whether this will be enough to prevent further catastrophes such as biodiversity losses, glacier melting, intensified western conditions, etc. The EU is more and more trying to promote climate-friendly policies. It is indeed trying to reach progress and to mobilize the member countries on this field, they know that this must be a priority. Former President Fischer added that, in the last couple of years, China took more and more the lead in green and renewable energy whereas Trump administration withdraw from Paris agreement. However, the fact that Biden promised to re-enter Paris accord and put effort into fighting climate changes leads to careful optimism.
On the other hand, Excellency Fischer pointed out that the issue of forced migrations should not be forgotten. He added that this represent a huge global problem which the EU cannot solve alone and, even though nobody is expecting them to, they should be ready to contribute to a solution and to do their part. The number of refugees at the border of Europe between 2014 and 2015 increased rapidly to 1,3 million asylum seekers and this caused a lot of problems, troubles, hostilities and a wave of population and nationalism.
Observing the policies in some European countries and Austria is not an exception, the problem is not so much, some governments can solve the issue but the problem is whether they want to solve it.
In the meantime, the second wave has counted higher numbers than ever, we had time to place some coordination at EU level to fight jointly the virus. The Commission has made useful proposals in some areas such as cross-border commuting transport of goods, external borders purchase and distribution of vaccines. Also it tackled the international cooperation of comparable statistics and the strategic introduction of the next generation of EU recovery instrument amounting to 750 million euros which is linked to the next financial framework and the EU budget for the years 2021-2027. All being promising signs of a rapid reaction capacitation.
“The EU is facing challenging times. Cross-European cooperation has no alternative – it is today as fundamental as ever” – was the closing point of Heinz Fischer’s farsighted and comprehensive Geneva talk.
*President Hein Fischer answered the call of the Swiss UMEF University in Geneva on December 10th 2020, and gave this lecture under the auspices of so-called Geneva Lecture Series – Contemporary World of Geo-economics. Lecture series so far hosted former Secretary-General of the Paris-based OECD,current Rector of the Tokyo-based UN University, notable intellectuals such as prof. Ioannis Varoufakis and Nobel prize laureates. Some of the following guests are presidents and prime ministers of western countries, distingushed scholars as well as the chief executives of the important intergovernmental organisations.
Russia-EU break possible but unwanted
Pressures in relations between Russia and the West have recently become so strained that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of the possibility of a complete break in ties.
In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based academic and diplomatic think tank established upon a presidential decree, assessed how real the threat is and what consequences it could lead to.
It is necessary to make it clear what “a possible break with the EU” means – whether cutting relations with individual European countries or with European Union structures, said Kortunov.
“If we talk about EU countries, we shouldn’t forget that they now account for more than 40% of Russia’s trade turnover, they are the main source of investments and technologies that go to Russia. No one is ready to give up on this, and no one will,” he said.
As for structures of the EU bloc, in general, a break would be possible, but it would be both unwanted and unwelcomed, he said.
Kortunov noted that cooperation between Russia and the EU shrank in recent years, and a great many of the structures established to build bilateral ties have been closed.
“For example, in the past, we regularly held EU-Russia summits twice a year – in the first half of the year in Russia, in the second half in the EU presiding country or in Brussels,” he explained.
“Now such summits do not take place. The number of working groups that work in specific areas has decreased.”
Following this logic, breaking or freezing the remaining ties is possible but it is an extremely unwanted scenario because it is impossible to have good relations with European countries – EU members – and not have any relations with the EU itself, Kortunov said.
“A number of important issues lay within the competency of the European Union, including but not limited to trade and scientific and technical cooperation,” he said.
He warned: “Sooner or later, our projects with individual countries will run into unresolved issues at the level of the EU bureaucracy. Therefore, in principle – I repeat once again – a break is possible, but it is extremely unwanted because it is fraught with many negative consequences.”
Cooperation in ‘non-toxic’ areas
The EU is interested in cooperation with Russia as well, as it is a big market and important partner, he added.
Russia also plays an important role in the Middle East, and the situation in the region directly affects life in the EU, so cooperation on regional conflicts is another important part of Russian-EU interaction, said Kortunov.
To defuse the situation, he said, both sides have to exercise caution in their rhetoric.
“It’s one thing for members of parliament to say something critical, and quite another for the decision-makers in the executive branch to do that. The latter should exercise as much restraint as possible,” said Kortunov.
Cooperation in “non-toxic” areas, where Russia and the EU can work together despite political differences without making any difficult concessions, would also contribute to building trust, he said.
“And we need an open discussion with the EU about how we see ourselves in the world in five, 10, maybe more years,” he said.
“We need a strategic dialogue, which is not currently being conducted, at least I do not know that it is being conducted. And then we can gradually correct the relationship.”
Foreign Minister Lavrov said last week that the EU had been breaking bilateral mechanisms established under agreements on partnership and cooperation.
Asked if Russia is heading for a breach with the EU, Lavrov said he believed Moscow would be ready for it, and the country has to become fully economically self-sufficient in case sanctions are imposed in a sphere where they could risk the Russian economy.
From our partner RIAC
Dara of Jasenovac
The region that we now call Western Balkans does not remember that the realization of a movie caused many reactions and comments as ” Dara of Jasenovac”. The movie deals with the most painful topic in Serbian history – the genocide that Croats and Bosnian Muslims committed against the Serbian people in the so-called Independent State of Croatia, in the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II.
All Nazi concentration camps after the end of the World War II were preserved to this day, so that the memory of the crimes would not fade. Millions of visitors come to Auschwitz, Dachau and other death camps, and pay their respects to the innocent victims. When in December 2009 from a museum in Auschwitz the “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) sign was stolen, it was a planetary news. The sign was found after less than a month, although broken into three parts, which was again world news.
But few, outside of the Balkans, have heard about the Jasenovac extermination camp in Croatia, which was never liberated, but instead saw roughly 1,000 inmates escape in the hope that at least one of them would live to tell the world about the horrors of being imprisoned by the Croat Nazi-aligned puppet government that was appointed to rule a part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia.
Israeli professor Gideon Greif, an expert on Auschwitz, researched the history of Jasenovac, which resulted in his book Jasenovac: Auschwitz of the Balkans. The Croat-run Jasenovac extermination camp was the size of about 150 football pitches and was established on April 10, 1941, four days after Nazi Germany invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The wartime Independent State of Croatia, or NDH, was a Fascist satellite that was created by Nazi Germany and Hitler’s closest ally, Mussolini’s Italy. Under its leader, Ante Pavelic, the NDH set out to exterminate the Serbs, Jews and Roma who lived in the areas that were under their control – the Jasenovac camp was built to serve this purpose.
What made Jasenovac particularly cruel was the existence of a special camp for children where more than 20,000 Serbian children were brutally murdered. The methods used by the Croat guards to kill and torture the inmates were reportedly so barbaric that even SS chief Heinrich Himmler is believed to have suggested to the Croats that industrial killing, i.e. gas chambers, was a “cleaner way” to liquidate victims so that the guards wouldn’t need to use knives, axes, and other handheld weapons against those that they were sending to their deaths. Menachem Shelah, a historian with the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, wrote in 1990 that “the crimes committed in Jasenovac are among the most terrible in the entire history of humanity.”
Historians have estimated that between 700,000 to 1,000,000 people were killed at Jasenovac. The Nazis, themselves, recorded up to 750,000 deaths. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Croatian government has continually insisted that only 83,000 people were killed at Jasenovac. Croatia’s first post-Yugoslav president, Franjo Tudjman, an unabashed nationalist and the man responsible for restoring the Ustase-era flag as the national symbol of Croatia, insisted until his death in December 1999 that a mere 30,000-40,000 people died while imprisoned at Jasenovac.
The total number of deaths that occurred at Jasenovac may never be known as concerted attempts to suppress the extent of the horrors of the camp continue to this day. This, however, is not a new process. Immediately after World War II, Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, played down the crimes that were committed at Jasenovac as they were seen as a potential threat to the “brotherhood and unity” doctrine of Tito’s Yugoslavia.
“Dara of Jasenovac“ is the first film dedicated to the Nazi Croat camp Jasenovac for mass extermination of Serbs. The decision of the authorities to show the movie “Dara of Jasenovac” simultaneously on the public services of Serbia and Republic of Srpska, as well as on commercial television in Montenegro, was the right decision in the public interest.
It should be noted that the film Dara from Jasenovac has not only a historical role, but also a geopolitical one. Republic of Srpska has been under pressure since its inception in 1995, with the ultimate goal of abolishing it. There is a whole list of Hollywood films in which Serbs and their struggle in the wars of the 1990s were shown in a negative context. The aim was to show the Serbs as evil and Republic of Srpska as a criminal creation. The ideologues of this theory were the Bosnian Muslim political leaders and the financiers were predominantly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. That is why “Dara of Jasenovac“ has not only historical and artistic value, but also has a geopolitical one.
`We should continue to make films that will show the suffering of the Serbian people throughout history. I think that we will adopt it, not only as a program act, but also as a program of the Government of Republic of Srpska, to treat Serbian victims in the Independent State of Croatia in the right way“, said Serbian member and chairman of the BiH Presidency Milorad Dodik, after the premiere of “Dara of Jasenovac“. This statement shows that the leading Serbian politician in Bosnia and Herzegovina has strategic thinking, and that is to be commended. All that remains is, that Milorad Dodik should be supported in this plan by other Serbian institutions and especially by the state of Serbia.
Council of Europe fights for your Right to Know, too
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.
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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