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Let us make Europe a safe place for environmental human rights defenders

The Brave Women of Kruscica join hands at an event on the third anniversary of the morning they were attacked for refusing to let construction equipment cross the bridge over the Kruščica River. (Photo courtesy of Jakub Hrab/Arnika)

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In 2017 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a group of dedicated grassroots environmental activists staged a 500-day-long protest against the construction of new hydropower dams on the Kruščica river. The fight led by local women, who later came to be known as the Brave Women of Kruščica, met with many obstacles, including physical violence and arrests, but it has not been in vain: it has helped to safeguard access to fresh drinking water for local residents while staving off risks posed by the projects to the habitat of many animal species.

Two years later, in 2019 in the United Kingdom, more than ten years of protests and pressure from environmental campaigners resulted in a government moratorium on fracking, a controversial method of extracting underground gas, offering relief to residents of areas located near extraction sites who feared earth tremors and exposure to other environmental harms linked to potential accidents.

In Spain, almost twenty years of relentless campaigning and a legal battle by Spanish ecologists culminated in October 2020 in victory when the country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that put an end to a vast residential development project threatening a coastal natural park recognised for its protected marine habitats.

And in March 2021 in France, a government decree setting very short buffer distances between human habitat and areas treated with highly toxic pesticides was deemed unconstitutional thanks to the collective efforts of a number of national and regional environmental NGOs, backed by citizen and consumer associations and health organisations.

These are just a handful of real-life examples of how environmental action has benefited the human rights and collective safety of entire communities in Europe. Many other inspiring success stories can be found, including on Voices of Nature, a brand new website set up by the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention. There are countless others around the world. Some make the headlines. Many go unnoticed.

Environmental human rights defenders

The people behind these extremely important efforts are environmental human rights defenders. The term refers to human rights defenders working on environmental issues. Many of them are ordinary citizens who are simply exercising their human rights, or who are forced to act by circumstances or sheer necessity; some of them may fall into this category regardless of whether or not they self-identify as human rights defenders. The interdependence between human rights and the environment has gradually become one of the central pillars of today’s human rights discourse, as I have noted in my 2019 human rights comment entitled “Living in a clean environment: a neglected human rights concern for all of us”. It is now abundantly clear that environmental harm interferes with the enjoyment of basic human rights and freedoms, such as the right to life, to health, to privacy, or freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment. It follows from this that those who act to protect the environment and to prevent environmental degradation, including climate change, contribute to the protection of our human rights.

The critical contribution made by environmental human rights defenders to our societies has not gone unrecognised, as evidenced by, for example, the landmark resolution on environmental human rights defenders adopted in 2019 by the Human Rights Council, and the “Geneva Roadmap” that seeks to aid its effective implementation. Their role has also been acknowledged by the mandate of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, not least in the seminal UN Framework Principles on human rights and the environment. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), together with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Universal Rights Group, have developed a dedicated resource portal and a Defenders Policy in support of environmental defenders. Within the Council of Europe, this year’s 9th Edition of the World Forum for Democracy honours their work by focusing on the topic “Defending the Defenders” as part of its year-long campaign devoted to the complex interplay of democracy and environmental protection. In many places around Europe, national and local authorities have given environmental human rights defenders a seat at the policy table in recognition of their valuable voice, experience, and expertise.

At the same time, governments in Europe often consider environmental defenders and environmental advocacy a nuisance at best, and a threat at worst, and respond to legitimate activism with reprisals. Some simply allow unbridled economic development to take precedence over citizens’ legitimate environmental concerns or allow vested moneyed interests and powerful non-state actors to stifle activism. Environmental defenders’ activities have won them some formidable enemies and in many places around Europe today, speaking out and standing up for the environment or denouncing the effects of climate change carries a hefty price tag.

A rise in attacks and reprisals against environmental defenders

The persecution of environmental human rights defenders in Europe is hardly a new phenomenon. In the 2014 report entitled “A Dangerous Shade of Green”, the NGO ‘Article 19’ documented dozens of examples of killings and violent attacks on environmental activists on the continent; other examples, mostly from countries of the former Soviet Union, can be found in the 2019 report “Dangerous work: Reprisals against environmental activists” by the NGO Crude Accountability. Sadly, however, these attacks and incidents have not abated – if anything, they have grown in intensity. Only recently, over 400 academics researching climate and environmental change published an open letter in which they voiced concern about the increasing criminalisation and silencing of environmental activists around the world, which they see as “a new form of anti-democratic refusal to act on climate.”

Support for the work of human rights defenders, their protection, and the development of an enabling environment for their activities are among the core elements of my mandate as Commissioner for Human Rights. It was with this in mind that last December I convened an online roundtable with environmental human rights defenders from across Europe, including lawyers, campaigners and representatives of both local and international NGOs from several European countries. Their testimonials have laid bare the intensification of oppression and intimidation faced by Europe’s environmental human rights defenders in recent years. As can be seen in the conclusions of the roundtable report, those who bring truth to light on environmental issues and are at the forefront of the fight against climate change are currently facing attacks on all fronts.

Sadly, there are places in Europe today where environmental human rights defenders are beaten, threatened, verbally abused, intimidated, or otherwise prevented from carrying out their legitimate activities in a safe and free manner. To mention but a handful of the most glaring examples: an environmental campaigner from Russia was severely beaten by unknown assailants and hospitalised with skull fractures and a broken nose. In Ukraine, an environmental activist investigating the pollution of a local river, allegedly caused by a nearby waste treatment plant, was found hanged under suspicious circumstances. The fight against illegal logging in Romania’s primeval forests has already claimed the lives of several rangers and has put the lives of some activists at risk. I personally heard the harrowing testimony of an environmental campaigner who described being beaten almost to death in 2015; although his assailants were caught on video and identified by an eyewitness, they have never been brought to justice.

When confronted with reports of violence or intimidation of environmental human rights defenders, law enforcement agencies all too often turn a blind eye. Worryingly, in some European countries, this has become quite commonplace. Government reprisals or the inability or unwillingness of public authorities to guarantee the safety and protection of environmental activists has led some of them to seek refuge elsewhere. A prominent environmental activist and head of one of Russia’s oldest environmental groups had to flee the country after being harassed with numerous spurious judicial proceedings. Several other environmental campaigners who fought against the construction of a motorway through a primeval forest, opposed the illegal exploitation of protected forestland, or advocated more openness about the fallout of a nuclear incident, had to leave Russia out of concern for their own and their families’ safety. An environmental defender from Romania told me about having to relocate abroad after receiving information about a bounty placed on his head by criminals in connection with his environmental work, fearing the law enforcement’s inability to guarantee his protection.

Stigmatisation, surveillance and other restrictions on environmental activism

Violent attacks are hardly the only problem facing environmental defenders today, however. Increasingly, governments view and present environmental organisations as suspicious and pass legislation or measures with the aim of limiting their scope for action. A prime example of such legislation disproportionately affecting legitimate environmental activism are the so-called foreign agent-type laws. Such laws force many environmental defender organisations to either avoid official registration altogether or to discontinue their operations, on pain of heavy fines and other punitive measures, including criminal prosecution, judicial harassment, or dissolution. The first such law, adopted by Russia in 2012, was the subject of my predecessor’s intervention in a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights. Regrettably, this bad example has inspired copycat solutions in other parts of Europe. Similar legislation was adopted in Hungary in 2017 despite criticism from my office – and found to be in breach of EU law in June 2020. In May 2020, Poland’s environment minister announced that similar legislation was under consideration and that a working group had been set up to that end; he also accused some environmental organisations of acting not for the environment’s sake but rather on the instructions of undefined “bigger interests”. In Slovenia, the government inserted in a bill on COVID-19-related economic support a provision limiting the ability of environmental activists to participate in environmental impact assessments; the proposal is currently under constitutional review.

Environmental human rights defenders who took part in the above-mentioned roundtable mentioned various other types of government activities deliberately limiting their scope for action and effectively hampering collective efforts to put an end to the adverse consequences of environmental degradation and climate change. These, in turn, can have a chilling effect on the whole of society. In many Council of Europe member states, environmental human rights defenders are deliberately mocked, ridiculed, scapegoated, marginalised, or even likened to extremists and given derogatory labels, such as ‘(eco-)terrorists’ – including by public officials, media outlets, or even judicial authorities. Some governments and businesses resort to offensive and stigmatising public relations campaigns to isolate environmental campaigners and make attacks on them more justifiable to the general public. Their organisations are also smeared online in an attempt to tarnish their reputation, and activists are regularly cyber-bullied. In some member states, law enforcement agencies disrupt the legitimate activities of environmental organisations by raiding their offices and seizing their equipment, thereby further adding to the stigmatisation in the public eye.  

Worryingly, participation in environmental protests is also increasingly equated with unlawful activity or interpreted as a ground for imposing preventive individual restrictions on freedom of movement or the right to liberty. Rules on public assemblies are sometimes applied selectively to the detriment of protests by environmental groups. Public participation in global environmental summits has often been curtailed and large numbers of environmental activists placed under surveillance. These last measures in particular represent a far-reaching intrusion into the privacy of those targeted, but are difficult to detect and challenge legally, due to their covert nature.

For example, ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in 2015, France imposed surveillance measures on a number of grassroots environmental activists and placed some of them under preventive house arrest. Legislation adopted by Poland ahead of the COP24 conference in 2018 gave broad surveillance powers to the police and secret services to collect personal data about COP24 participants and to prevent spontaneous peaceful assemblies in the city where the summit was being held. In 2019, a court in Moscow sentenced a youth climate activist and solo picketer to six days in detention for his peaceful protest as part of the global “Fridays for the Future” campaign. In the United Kingdom, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – currently before Parliament – has been criticised by environmental activists for its possible negative impact on freedom of assembly and peaceful protests, and for the discouraging effect its provisions would have on people’s participation in environmental demonstrations.

Intimidation and harassment of environmental journalists

Aggressive tactics used against environmental human rights defenders are also frequently extended to investigative journalists, both because of the environmental harm they might uncover and due to their role in helping activists spread the message about their causes. Examples mentioned during the roundtable ranged from a vexatious lawsuit by an oil company against a newspaper to testimonies about threats against journalists interested in covering environmental campaigns. In March this year, in an apparent attempt to cause a road accident, two bolts were removed from the wheel of a car belonging to a French investigative journalist known for her investigations into the agricultural sector; this incident followed previous threats to her and her family and the poisoning of her dog. Another freelance journalist renowned for her investigation into the environmental degradation caused by the discharge of toxic pesticides by the agri-food industry was targeted by groundless defamation lawsuits initiated by powerful business owners. Although these claims were eventually withdrawn, the overall objective of such vexatious lawsuits, otherwise known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs), is to intimidate journalists into abandoning their environmental investigations.

The way forward

The worrying state of affairs described above is untenable. If European governments – both at the central and the local level – are serious about their stated commitments to fighting environmental pollution and climate change, it is high time that they recognised and acted decisively on their responsibilities vis-à-vis environmental human rights defenders and environmental journalists.

First of all, Council of Europe member states must provide a safe and enabling environment for environmental human rights defenders to operate free from violence, intimidation, harassment, or threats. They should adopt a zero-tolerance policy on human rights violations against environmental human rights defenders and environmental journalists; swiftly and firmly condemn any threats or violence against them and their organisations – including by non-state actors; lead full and effective investigations into any threats or violence committed against them, with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice; and provide access to effective remedies for such violations.

Second, we must put an end to the stigmatisation of environmental human rights defenders in Europe, including that emanating from non-state actors and taking place online. Politicians and opinion leaders must refrain from referring to environmental defenders using derogatory terms and from seeking to misrepresent or undermine their work. Instead, they should publicly and firmly support their activities and recognise the fundamental importance of their engagement and their contribution to our societies. They should also repeal legislation that interferes with environmental organisations’ ability to work freely and independently. There can be no room in Europe for foreign agent-type or other laws stifling legitimate civil society activism.

Third, public protests and campaigns are among the most effective — and indeed indispensable — environmental advocacy tools for raising public awareness and effecting change. States should respect freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in relation to environmental matters, and protect the exercise of these rights from interference, including from non-state actors.

Fourth, we must pay due heed to the voice of environmental human rights defenders. Public authorities and private businesses should ensure genuine, effective, and transparent participation of environmental organisations, communities and individuals in decision-making on all policies and projects which may have an environmental impact. States should collect and disseminate environmental information and guarantee procedures that allow concerned individuals to act when confronted with environmental degradation, including the right to receive affordable, effective and timely access to information about environmental issues. In line with my recent written observations to the European Court of Human Rights in a case concerning the negative impact of climate change on human rights, states should also ensure respect for the right to a remedy and remove barriers to access to justice by victims of human rights violations caused by environmental degradation or climate change.

In this regard, I reiterate my call for all Council of Europe member states that have not yet done so to promptly ratify the 1998 Aarhus Convention and the 2010 Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents (Tromsø Convention) and to support their effective implementation. I also invite those states that have already ratified the Aarhus Convention to consider supporting the development of a rapid response mechanism in order to deal with cases of harassment and threats against environmental human rights defenders.

Respect for the rights of environmental human rights defenders is also an obligation of non-state actors. Businesses in Europe should internalise their corporate responsibility to respect human rights, in line with the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework. Against the backdrop of the ongoing push for more stringent rules on corporate due diligence on human rights in Europe, it is now more than ever important for companies to be seen as positive and responsible players, in particular with regard to environmental human rights and those who defend them.

Lastly, Europe needs more environmental human rights defenders. States should strive to ensure public awareness on environmental matters and to educate people from an early age about the need to preserve the environment and how to do so. I was pleased to learn that in Sweden and Finland, for instance, lessons on the environment and its meaning for individuals and societies are integrated in school curricula, at every stage of education. Such initiatives are essential for raising a new generation of environmentally aware and active citizens. The Council of Europe offers valuable educational resources in this area.

We cannot claim to be serious about protecting the environment or combating climate change unless we protect those who put themselves on the line for these goals. I want to pay tribute to the environmental human rights defenders’ selfless work and the sacrifices they make so that we can have a dignified future existence on this planet. Without their vision and courage, the environment we live in is bound to suffer serious harm – along with our human rights and well-being. Defending the defenders is not just a moral and political imperative. At the very least, it should also be a reflex for collective self-preservation.

I will continue to raise concerns regarding the plight of environmental human rights defenders in dialogue with authorities and to speak out whenever they face attacks, reprisals, or undue restrictions. I would also appeal to everyone to stand firm in their defence. As they are increasingly targeted, let us reverse the trend and make Europe a safe place for environmental activism.

Council of Europe

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Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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Without roots, no future. Germans and Russians – Decoupling ideologies

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Source: Wikipedia

Krieg ist das Ergebnis einer falschen Politik und sein Erbe Not und Elend.1 (From Gestrüpp meines Lebens, a diary kept by my grandfather, Helmuth Banik)

…next – Prussia, family roots and identity of heart

Cultural diversity or universal uniformity? Peaceful co-existence of nation-states or institutional global governance with international organizations and their sphere of influence gaining more and more ground, even in everyone’s private life? Which future will be ours?

Roots, earth and homeland—while unearthing the deepest parts of my family history and, at the same time, German history, my uninhibited view of my Prussian roots continues to pave my way towards a new future. Our world today is on the verge of a new beginning. It is up to us to decide which way humanity will go in the future. An individual’s identity is complex and has many layers that need to be uncovered. So, too, is our world: complexly composed of many layers that need to be uncovered for its roots to be revealed—as there is no future without roots.

Thus, it is necessary to decouple from all ideas and ideologies that have long determined political activity around the world. Let us start with Russia and Germany, since their destinies are forever linked; historically, culturally and geopolitically.

“I have sympathy toward the German people; my ancestors came to Russia from Westphalia under Peter the Great. Great nations can stay dormant for some time, but they always wake up!” Quote from a Russian friend

Sapere aude! In the spirit of Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of Königsberg, let us reinvent and imagine the world in which we want to live!

Without Russia, not a better world in sight

The world, but especially the European Union (EU), is at a crossroads. The old structures and beliefs of the current governance seem to be collapsing before our very eyes. How simple was yesterday’s world. The enemy, namely Russia, was in the East. A bipolar world vision, divided between “the good” and “the bad.”

In the West, the EU with its main ally, the United States, represents the good world, an ideal world—in short, the world of the G7. Countries with a democratic system under the rule of law in which freedom is one of the fundamental values: All other countries in the world are measured and judged according to this ideal, especially if they want to enter this “club of the free world.”

And now? What has become of this G7 world? The measures taken to fight the pandemic were lockdown and other more or less draconian actions that deprived a large part of the world’s population of their fundamental rights, whatever the political regime or national culture. This is the cruel reality of a uniform crisis management policy that is visibly shared by democracies and authoritarian regimes. The main characteristics of this policy are the intransigence of clinging to the rule of the political-economic elites and, with that, the absolute will to remain in power and control communications and, as such, the population. The boundaries separating democracies and authoritarian regimes are disappearing, and a uniform technocratic world without identity is emerging. Propaganda—in this case, the massive communication of fear and hatred—is getting a second wind, this time not on a national level but on a global institutional scale. Moreover, it seems to be accompanied by a new Cold War strategy: According to an EU strategy paper, China is classified as a “systemic rival” (ecfr.eu 2020) and, together with Russia, is considered a new challenge to NATO by the Biden administration (Le Figaro 2021).

And the Russian president? Vladimir Putin always keeps the door for cooperation wide open, as he makes clear in “Offen sein, trotz Vergangenheit,”2 the recent article published in Die Zeit in which he states: “Ich möchte noch einmal betonen: Russland plädiert für die Wiederherstellung einer umfassenden Partnerschaft zu Europa.”3

Moreover, the opportunities offered by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) do not seem to be taken into consideration. On the contrary, the G7 initiative to “Build Back a Better World” (B3W) is an alternative to the BRI. Conflict instead of cooperation. Yet, we should keep in mind: It is not possible to have a better world without integrating Russia.

The technotronic era involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite, unrestrained by traditional values. Soon it will be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date complete files containing even the most personal information about the citizen. These files will be subject to instantaneous retrieval by the authorities.” (Zbigniew Brzezinski in Between Two Ages: America’s role in the technotronic era)

Humanity’s ultimate battle

There is an urgent need to continue questioning the sustainability of a power, political system and governance that are global—values and mercantilism, democracy and dictatorship, free market economy and planned market economy, diverse identities and universal uniformity, nation states and institutional global governance.

What future awaits us?

Either:

a political system of “universal digital governance,” of total and totalitarian surveillance with a capitalist state economy, that is, a system in which humanity serves the system by constantly adapting to its different benchmarks, a technocratic world order according to Brzezinski,

or:

new political structures that are very much at the service of humankind and that ensure a free and autonomous life for everyone in the spirit of Immanuel Kant’s sapere aude, that is, global governance that ensures a peaceful return to the primacy of humanity, relations and nations, deeply rooted in its own history, a return to cultural diversities and identities, to creation and, thus, a return to the roots.

The geographer and geopolitician Jacques Ancel set the vision of French geopolitics. According to Ancel, man is the creator of global governance, of identities and, subsequently, also the borders of civilizations, where “human groups … reach a harmonious balance and … end up recognizing borders deriving from a common memory, history, culture and language.” It is “a nation of the heart in itself, not rational” (Ancel 1938, Banik 2021).

Neither Germany, nor China, nor the U.S., nor Russia is an isolated paradise. No country can claim to know the absolute truth. Violence, increased global competition (for natural resources, food, water, etc.) and international terrorism are forcing us to face up to the current realities, to abandon any ideology driving ideas such as the European project, socialism with Chinese or even Russian characteristics, or the ideology prevalent in the United States, which styles itself leader of the free world (Banik, 2016, 2019).

Ultimately, it is up to us to decide which path humanity will take.

“Kultur hat nie Grenzen gekannt. Kultur war immer unser gemeinsames Gut und hat die Völker verbunden.”4 Vladimir Putin, 25.9.2001

The big European house

According to Jacques Ancel, “human groups … reach a harmonious balance and … end up recognizing borders deriving from a common memory, history, culture and language.” It is thus important to encourage community spirit and to create human bonds—instead of strategic alliances—of geographical proximity and to overcome ideologies. The only way is to integrate Russia by creating a great pan-European house and, at the same time, taking advantage of the BRI as a link that encompasses the Eurasian region.

Russia and Germany have a common memory and their destiny is forever linked. It is up to Germany to finally assume its responsibility and play the key role in creating this space of peace and security. Integrating Russia is crucial if we are to create new political visions which serve humankind and which ensure a free and autonomous life for everyone.

Geographically, Russia is the largest country in Europe. Geographically, Europe is much larger than the territory of the EU. The EU, and subsequently Germany, must at all costs avoid being caught up in the tension that seems to be developing between China, Russia and the U.S. In case of a military conflict, the major nations will win while the EU will be the main loser. The current danger is the image of the resurgent enemy resulting from the aggressive policy of the Biden administration and the EU towards China and towards Russia. Two almost “military” fronts have thus been created. In fact, the Cold War has never ended but merely changed its guise.

Rise in military spending

According to the Sipri press release of April 26, 2021: “The five biggest spenders in 2020, which together accounted for 62 per cent of global military expenditure, were the United States, China, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. Military spending by China grew for the 26th consecutive year.” China has focused on its navy. It is the second largest military spender after the United States. In 2020, “China’s military expenditure is estimated at $252 billion in 2020, representing an increase of 1.9 per cent since 2019 and 76 per cent since 2011.” (Sipri 2021). “Russia’s military expenditure increased by 2.5 per cent in 2020 to reach $61.7 billion. This was the second consecutive year of growth. Nevertheless, Russia’s actual military spending in 2020 was 6.6 per cent lower than its initial military budget, a larger shortfall than in previous years” (Sipri press release, 26.4. 2021).

From the perspective of the two fronts—“The Chinese Enemy” and “The Russian Enemy”—one must also consider U.S. military spending in 2020, “[which] reached an estimated $778 billion, representing an increase of 4.4 per cent over 2019. As the world’s largest military spender, the USA accounted for 39 per cent of total military expenditure in 2020” (Sipri press release, 26.4. 2021).

In view of the world’s ever-increasing military outlays, it is urgent that we revitalize and reform the instruments already in place, such as the NATO-Russia Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the EU-Russia dialogue and the various regional formats such as the Arctic Council. It is worth noting the bilateral agreements of strategic importance between China and Russia in the field of nuclear energy and within the framework of the Polar Silk Road, as well as the importance of the Eurasian Economic Union, in which Serbia, for one, has a free trade agreement.

Towards a uniform, faceless, controlled world?

China’s withdrawal or Chinese deglobalization

China’s 14th Five-Year Plan is the continuation of the country’s efforts to reform and modernize, but the “dual circulation” model also marks an important step towards China’s deglobalization. This “dual circulation” strategy welcomes foreign investment, but only in those products and services that are not (yet) available in China. Therefore, China aims to reduce its economic dependence on foreign countries and focus on building its own capacity. Nevertheless, it also wants to boost bilateral agreements, and is pursuing the BRI. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) follows the same logic, pursuing reinforcement on the geographical and geopolitical level in Eurasia. With the implementation of the RCEP, the largest free trade area in the world is being established. On the other hand,

China’s FDI in Europe continued to fall, to a 10-year low: Shrinking M&A activity meant the EU-27 and the United Kingdom saw a 45 percent decline in completed Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) last year,…” (Merics 2021).

“Keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”

The United States is pursuing a strategy, particularly in the area of foreign policy, that was initiated by Donald Trump, meaning “America first” when it comes to economic, military and geopolitical issues. American foreign policy is, above all, marked by the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Note that, contrary to what Trump decided in 2020, Biden has reversed the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany (Politico 2021). Lord Ismay’s narrative seeking to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” is still relevant today.

The EU: a theater of conflict between China and the United States

Europeans have an increasingly critical view of China. China is seen as a systemic rival for the EU. The pandemic has exposed problems, including strategic dependence on imports from China. Therefore, the EU wants to remain credible at the international level and is seeking closer cooperation with the West, especially the United States, rather than an adjustment of its economic relations with China independent of the Americans.

Germany uprooted and war trauma

Germany seems to be stuck in a kind of “time loop.” Even though the Berlin Wall has long disappeared, there is still no uninhibited view of an open perspective towards the East, towards Germany’s historical East, especially towards Russia and the chances for cooperation that the country offers. German public opinion is still manipulated. As a result, it remains frozen in distrust of Russia. Further, the experienced war trauma—destruction, displacement and loss of homeland—has disconnected a whole generation from its own history, leading to a partial loss of its own identity. This disconnection has been unconscious, inherited by the descendants.

Towards total surveillance?

Basically, the conflict between the different ideologies and the omnipresence of the “pandemic” in the mainstream media strongly distract our attention from the real battle that has been going on in the background for a very long time.

The battle for world domination is not the conflict between different nation-states, e.g. the U.S., China or Russia, or between different political systems, democracy or dictatorship, but it is the struggle for supremacy by the lobbyists and by international institutions and organizations such as the World Economic Forum (WEF), the EU institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and by the various interest groups and industrial associations that seem to be striving for a uniform, controlled world made of public-private partnerships, without nation-states, without cultural diversity, without a past, without a history, without roots and without identity.

“Smart government” and total surveillance

The advance of artificial intelligence and the 4th Industrial Revolution are visibly shifting geopolitics to geoeconomics. The need for control of international markets prevails over military conflicts. Large technological communication companies, such as social media giants (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), search engines like Google and Baidu, platforms like Amazon and Alibaba, cooperate more and more closely with their respective governments, thus creating public-private partnerships (PPPs). Back when geopolitics prevailed, the state’s sovereignty was ensured by the military control of the country and its borders. Now we see an increasing interdependence and cooperation between different governments, technology companies and large enterprises—“global players,” such as Big Data and Big Pharma. We are clearly heading towards a political system based on the “state economy,” as is already the case in China. In China, the state-owned enterprises, the “national champions,” are playing a predominant role not only in China but also on the international markets. In order to better face the Chinese competition, the EU has also launched a new industrial strategy to support and finance the creation of industrial alliances, a kind of “European industrial champions” (touteleurope.eu 2021)—even if the approach is not uniformly supported within the EU.

With an increasing number of PPPs, the establishment of state capitalism blurs the boundaries between business and government. In China, Russia and the United States, this issue is played out at the national level, while on the European continent it is advanced by the EU institutions. What is insidious is that, thanks to the cooperation between politics and technology companies, the media propaganda effectively supports and feeds this structural change. Thus, fundamental rights and identities are slowly being extinguished in favor of the uniformity of the corporate market.

Roots, identities, nations

Russians, Poles and Germans not only have a common history but shared cultural footprints. This history is a strength and not a weakness. According to Ancel’s vision, these three countries are at the crossroads of arbitrary borders and of borders of civilization. There are, on the one hand, the so-called arbitrary borders, which are more fraught, more strategic borders that have resulted from military pretensions. The borders of civilization, on the other hand, are more permanent as these are based on a common memory, common history and common language arising from a group of humans in equilibrium. The borders of civilization are “nevertheless more complicated because they are the object of numerous political and commercial interpretations”—even if the commercial justifications aim at “clearing a path” and not “enclosing” as the military justifications do (Ancel 1938, Banik 2021). For Russia, Poland and Germany, reconciling the past means “making a path in harmony,” our path back to our shared roots.

According to Ancel, the frontier is “a political isobar that fixes, for a certain time, the equilibrium between two pressures: the equilibrium of mass and the equilibrium of forces” (Ancel 1938). The real problem is not the question of borders. Borders will always exist, even in a globalized world. “There are no problems of borders. There are only problems of Nation” (Ancel 1938). Jacques Ancel argues for mankind as creator. “One does not revise borders, except by force; one modifies minds” (Ancel 1938; Lomnica 1938 foreword).

Quoting Vladimir Putin:

“Und wir können es uns einfach nicht leisten, die Last früherer Missverständnisse, Kränkungen, Konflikte und Fehler mit uns herumzuschleppen. Eine Last, die uns an der Lösung aktueller Probleme hindert.”5 Die Zeit, 2021

Regaining a sense of self

We, the Germans, unfortunately refused to take the hand that Putin extended to us in his speech to the Bundestag on September 25, 2001. The window of opportunity is wide open again. The German people need to reconnect to their entire cultural past. It is up to every German to discover his or her own roots, reconnect to his or her family past, healing the wounds and thus helping Germany to integrate its entire history and become whole again.

Similar to my path back to my Prussian roots, let us take an uninhibited view of our roots and seize this chance in order to create new prospects for German-Russian cooperation.

As Putin said in 2001:

“Ich bin überzeugt: Wir schlagen heute eine neue Seite in der Geschichte unserer bilateralen Beziehungen auf und wir leisten damit unseren gemeinsamen Beitrag zum Aufbau des europäischen Hauses.”6

There will be no better world, especially for Europe, without Russia’s integration into the pan-European house – and no better world if Germany is still cut off from its roots.

…Back to the roots

Katja Banik

www.katjabanik.com

Specialist in geopolitical issues, doctorate from Sorbonne Nouvelle University;

speaker and guest lecturer on geopolitical, economic and political issues, focusing on Jacques Ancel’s geopolitical vision of “the identity of the heart.”

Author of articles published on moderndiplomacy.eu, russiancouncil.ru (RIAC) and worldscientific.com, and author of the book Les relations Chine-Europe à croisées des chemins, published by L’Harmattan, Paris. Katja is the descendant of ancestors who lived in East and West Prussia. Her family on her mother’s side had to flee from Königsberg in East Prussia in January 1945 and, on her father’s side, from Schneidemühl in West Prussia. She increasingly connects the topics of identities, roots and borders in her geopolitical views.

Visible roots: Kurort Oybin, Germany 2021 and 1955:

Great-granddaughter and great-grandfather Friedrich Herbst


[1] “War is the result of the wrong policy and its legacy is distress and misery.”

[2] “Being open, despite the past.”

[3] “I would like to emphasize once again: Russia advocates for the restoration of a comprehensive partnership with Europe.”

[4] “Culture has never known borders. Culture has always been our common good and has united peoples.”

[5] “And we simply cannot afford to carry around the burden of past misunderstandings, offenses, conflicts and mistakes. A burden that prevents us from solving current problems.”

[6] “I am convinced that today we are turning a new page in the history of our bilateral relations and that we are making our joint contribution to the construction of the European house.”

Author’s Note: The paper was previously published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

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Europe

The End of a Belle Époque: Stability and Risks in Germany’s Elections

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On September 26, 2021, Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure as Federal Chancellor of Germany will end. Protracted periods of stability, even positive stability, as a rule lead to a decrease in domestic political activity: players get used to an adaptive strategy, lose their ability to manoeuvre tenaciously, and at a turning point cannot decide to change. Germany is no exception: the upcoming elections are a fork between the continuation of traditional politics (stability) or an attempt at renewal (risk), primarily for the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Although Merkel announced her intention to leave the post of CDU head, having ruled out her re-election as chancellor, back in 2018, the process of choosing a successor, and therefore determining the future course, was not without difficulties. At first, the stake was placed on Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer—then the general secretary of the party, a technocrat even outwardly similar to the chancellor, but she did not gain popularity and after the scandal in the Thuringia state elections in February 2020, she resigned. After a year of hesitation, the place was taken by Armin Laschet—Prime Minister of one of the largest and most developed regions, North Rhine—Westphalia, an experienced politician and traditionalist.

In the struggle, they bypassed not only a stubborn revisionist, the former head of the CDU/CSU faction in the Bundestag Friedrich Merz, and the ambitious Minister of Health Jens Spahn, but also the leader of Bavaria, Markus Soeder, who has earned great popularity in the fight against COVID-19. At the state level, his Christian Social Union (CSU) operates independently, but at the federal level—it acts in alliance with the CDU. If the bloc won the elections, he could apply for the post of chancellor, but the CDU/CSU board voted against this after behind-the-scenes consultations. This confirms the party’s explainable choice in favour of stability: excessive risks during the transition of power can lose political capital, and continuity will help preserve the main voters.

However, the current ratings and political tradition will not allow the CDU to single-handedly form a government in the event of victory, and in the coalition negotiations, the stake on stability may already play against the party. Since 2013, the “grand coalition” of the CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) has been in power. In the absence of traditional competition, the “crisis of the centre” proved fatal for the Social Democrats, who ceased to be associated with the working class and the centre-left agenda and lost their voters.

It is difficult to count on a third “grand coalition”, even for reasons of continuity in such conditions: support for the CDU/CSU fluctuates at the level of 23–25%, and for the SPD—18-20% of the vote.

The Social Democrats have relied on Olaf Scholz, the most experienced finance minister and vice-chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. He surpasses Laschet in popularity, but his ability to further increase the rating is limited. The #laschetlacht scandal related to the incorrect behaviour of the candidate during the floods in Germany in July 2021 may cost the CDU some support.

What can the CDU/CSU count on in this situation at the coalition negotiations? How can a majority be achieved? The big party crisis did not mobilise small parties in the way the CDU would have liked. The radical Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the intractable Greens have gained in popularity: if a coalition with the first is excluded for ideological reasons, then an alliance with the latter contradicts the preservation of stability. Chancellor-candidate Anna-Lena Baerbock and the party’s electoral programme make it clear that they are in favour of changing the course of German policy (for example, for stopping Nord Stream-2). Today the party is supported by about 20% of voters (and in the spring this figure reached 28%)—this is twice as much as 4 years ago, and reflects public demand for innovations. Accordingly, the black-green coalition initially has a potential for conflict.

It turns out that the CDU needs a coalition of three parties. The centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) claims 10–11% of the vote and could either balance the Greens, or boost the coalition with the CDU/CSU and the SPD to the required majority. The first option was already considered 4 years ago and the negotiations did not lead to success, despite the political weight of Merkel, which Laschet does not have. FDP leader Christian Lindner is not the easiest negotiator and does not have confidence in the Greens. Will he go for another deal?

The coalition of CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP could have a symbolic meaning in the context of transit—the main colours of the parties add up to the German flag. It responds to the CDU’s stake on continuity (at the expense of the SPD), but tolerates moderate innovation (from the FDP). Germans today have no clear coalition preferences, which indicates that the population has no idea of their capabilities. In this situation, the voter may well support the course towards stability.

In other words, we can talk about the firm intention of the ruling party to maintain the leadership and course of the outgoing chancellor. However, it is controversial whether this stake will work in the long term: coalition negotiations will be difficult, and there are few backup options. Laschet will have to manoeuvre between persistence and concessions, and analysts will have a very interesting autumn.

From our partner RIAC

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