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Boosting child and youth participation – from voice to choice

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Amid the ongoing pandemic and its disastrous effects on multiple aspects of human rights protection across the globe, there is consensus in one area: children and young people have been particularly hard hit. While – thus far at least – they have largely been spared from the direct health effects of COVID‑19, the crisis has had a disproportionate, profound impact on their wellbeing. Virus containment measures have deprived them more than other groups of their usual routines, cutting them off from their social structures and support networks. School closures, lasting many months in some Council of Europe member states, have exposed millions of children not only to reduced learning opportunities but also to isolation, depression and a marked increase in violence and abuse.

In March 2020, UNICEF warned that “all children of all ages and in all countries are being affected in particular by the socioeconomic impacts and, in some cases, by mitigation measures that may inadvertently do more harm than good. This is a universal crisis. And for some children, the impact will be lifelong.” Today, this ominous prediction is considered optimistic by some experts, as two-thirds of children globally are still suffering considerable disruption to their schooling and there are alarming reports of significant growth in mental health needs among children. In addition, economies have contracted while billions are being pumped into recovery programmes, generating budget deficits and debt burdens for years to come – and for our children to address.

While it is sometimes inevitable, especially in a pandemic context and given the pressing need to protect lives, that governments take far-reaching decisions at short notice and without consulting those most impacted, we must honestly acknowledge that such participation gaps are highly problematic.

Policy decisions are made by leaders who are elected by, and accountable to, a population in Europe that is ageing in overall terms. Yet the consequences of many of these decisions will be borne by our children, whether in terms of the learning opportunities they will have, their entry into the labour market or the impacts of future austerity measures on their health and social care services. The disproportionate impact of today’s policies on children and young people has long been acknowledged with respect to climate change and environmental damage in particular. And yet it took the courts to convince European policymakers to take the concerns of young people properly into account and avoid overburdening future generations.

It is therefore high time that we evaluate, self-critically, how successful our efforts have been so far to ensure that children and adolescents have a real chance of being heard and of actually influencing the decision-making processes that impact them. Respecting the right of the child to participate leads not only to better and more effective decisions, it also enriches democracy and helps young people develop citizenship competencies for life.

The right to be heard

According to Article 12 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by all but one UN member state, “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” The Committee on the Rights of the Child has identified child participation as one of the four fundamental and general principles of the Convention, the others being the right to non-discrimination, the right to survival and development and the primary consideration of the child’s best interests. Article 12 thus not only establishes a key right in and of itself but should also be considered in the interpretation of all other rights. The views of children must be taken seriously, and they must be given proper consideration when decisions are made. Article 12 further stresses that participation procedures and mechanisms should widen and become more meaningful as children grow older.

The right to be heard extends to all actions and decisions that affect children’s lives – in the family, in school, in local communities and at national political level. It includes issues relating to transport, housing, macro-economics, the environment, as well as education, childcare or public health. Participation applies both to issues that affect individual children, such as decisions about where they live following their parents’ divorce, and to children collectively and as a group, such as legislation determining the minimum age for full time work.

In its General Comment No. 12 on the right of the child to be heard, the Committee on the Rights of the Child stressed that the implementation of this fundamental right remains elusive in most societies around the world. Measures taken are often not very effective. Longstanding practices or attitudes and political and economic barriers prevent children from expressing their views on matters that affect them and from having these views duly considered. The Committee suggested that real child participation requires the dismantling of all legal, political, economic, social and cultural barriers and, beyond a commitment to invest resources and training, readiness to challenge existing assumptions about children’s capacities.

Today, at a time of unprecedented crisis with decisions profoundly affecting all aspects of children’s lives and set to continue doing so for many years to come, a wide range of welcome efforts are being made to promote child participation across Europe. And yet there is also a growing body of research reflecting on whether the current opportunities for children to influence public decision-making are effective and reasonable from a child’s perspective or whether they are often not merely symbolic. Few governments have made systematic efforts to institutionalise mechanisms at different levels for children to participate actively and meaningfully in all decisions that affect them. In many countries children still face challenges in accessing information about their rights and national policies that affect them.

Defining participation

Participation is widely considered as ‘taking part’ in an activity, process or community, involving responsibility, action and a recognised role in influencing decision-making processes. It is a continuous, systematic process, not a formal structure or single event. Participation requires training and engagement at all levels and, therefore, the provision of adequate resources. Crucially, promoting meaningful and genuine participation calls for an attitude that does not underestimate children’s and adolescents’ views but supports and encourages their right to participate in democratic processes.

Children and adults do not see the world alike. There are countless examples of policies, for instance to reduce child poverty or design child-friendly spaces that were developed by adults with the very purpose of benefiting children but that in fact had negative consequences for children. As we know from other domains, meaningful participation plainly leads to better decisions. Children are not only “adults-in-the-making”, they have unique perspectives that are essential to identifying, addressing and solving issues.

Unless we listen carefully to children and adolescents and involve them in all related processes, we will not therefore be able to create better learning opportunities, abolish discriminatory attitudes in schools or more effectively address violence against children at all levels.

Challenges to participating

It is often argued that children lack the experience and maturity to participate and that they do not understand what is in their best interest. This overlooks the fact that even small children articulate clear preferences, develop nuanced capacities for negotiating their friendships and family relations and have a deep sense of justice and social responsibility. It is also sometimes said that children are easily manipulated and influenced. Yet individuals vary considerably, and many adults are easily influenced, too. In addition, the argument contradicts the concept of evolving capacities inherent in the CRC, which requires recognition of the fact that children in different environments and cultures, and faced with diverse life experiences, acquire competencies at different ages. There is a growing body of evidence, for instance, of the significant contribution that children make in emergency situations, and I welcome the WHO’s recent co-operation project with six large youth organisations on addressing the impact of COVID‑19.

Another challenge to participation involves it being reduced to something rather formal and therefore not genuine or effective. The danger has been highlighted that child participation frequently resembles tokenism and decoration, sometimes even resulting in manipulation, as children may not be clear about their role and actual impact on relevant processes. If children are involved solely for the sake of “window-dressing” but all real decisions are left to adults, if children’s views and wishes are sometimes even used as arguments but without their true needs and interests being taken into account, there is a danger of children becoming frustrated and coming to think that participation leads nowhere. This may lead to cynicism and disengagement.

Effective measures to empower children and adolescents

The Council of Europe has devoted significant efforts to boosting effective child participation. Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)2 on the participation of children and young people under the age of 18 sets out general principles and calls on member states to protect children’s right to participate through legal, financial and practical measures, to raise awareness and training opportunities regarding participation and to create spaces for participation in all spheres.

Efforts to promote child and youth participation can be categorised into three different types of processes: consultative, collaborative and those promoting self-advocacy. When identifying the most appropriate method, it must be borne in mind that the first two types are usually adult-initiated and that special efforts must be made to ensure that children are offered a real chance of influencing both the agenda-setting process and also the choice of methodology used.

As general principles of effective child participation, it is important that children be involved from the earliest possible stage onwards and that the rules of the process, including about the decisions that can be made and by whom, are transparent to them. Children are not a homogenous group. As with society as a whole, the views and perceptions of the more disadvantaged and marginalised, including children with disabilities and from minority backgrounds, may need to be sought out proactively so that they are taken properly into account. All participation should be voluntary. The mechanism should be age-appropriate and chosen in accordance with the evolving capabilities of children, treating them all with equal respect regardless of their age, ability, situation or other factors.

Child participation should build the self-esteem of children and empower them to identify and tackle abuse or neglect of their rights. When successful, it should help children develop active citizenship competencies. It is crucial therefore to provide feedback to children on how their input was used and how it influenced any decisions that were taken. Lastly, children’s involvement is vital when it comes to evaluating the participation processes and assessing the quality of participation.

Promising practices

Various encouraging initiatives do thankfully exist to ensure that children are offered a meaningful opportunity to participate.

In Serbia in 2020, over 1 500 children took part in an anonymous online consultation about how the COVID crisis had affected them. Their concerns were fed into advocacy work and policy papers at national and European levels. Save the Children set up mobile teams to work with refugee and migrant children between countries and in transit centres in the Western Balkans so as to provide them with information and seek their views regarding child protection case management. Consultations with children also inform programme design, monitoring and evaluation, reflecting the crucial nature of child-friendly information and proper participation in situations where children are most vulnerable.

Examples of successful collaborative processes include, for instance, the active involvement of children in the General Discussions organised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Children make submissions on the discussion themes, participate in the design and planning of the day, act as session co-chairs and actively take part in all discussions. Eurochild’s Strategic Plan 2019-20 was drawn up jointly with children in a collaborative process during which children influenced activities, campaigns and strategic planning events, and continue to be involved in policy development through monitoring and evaluation. In Italy, Milan City Council involved the city’s children in planning, transforming and co-managing the renewal of nine school gardens.

The Scottish Youth Parliament is a prominent example of a child-led structure which has inspired other such initiatives. Officially launched in 1999, it was established as a follow-up to the review of how Scottish democracy could work and the realisation that young people and children should play an active role in it. Policies are developed by elected representatives and directly fed into the Scottish Parliament. There are also annual cabinet meetings where representatives of the Youth Parliament have an opportunity to speak to senior politicians about the issues that affect them most.

These are important tools to ensure that the voices of children count and have a direct impact. As such, they are also key in building the trust of young people in political processes and institutions. According to an OECD study, young people’s trust in public institutions and their perception of having political influence and representation in decision-making have stalled. At the same time, children and adolescents demonstrate strong motivation for addressing global challenges such as climate change, rising inequality, shrinking space for civil society and threats to democratic institutions. Fridays for Future is a case in point.

Promoting democratic participation

In some Council of Europe member states, the voting age has been lowered in an effort to address barriers to youth participation in political life, ensure more age diversity in public consultations and obtain more inclusive policy outcomes. Austria lowered the general voting age to 16 as long ago as 2007, Greece lowered it to 17 in 2016 and in Malta, 16-year-olds have been able to vote since 2018. In several other countries (such as Estonia, 12 Länder in Germany, as well as Scotland and Wales) the voting age has been lowered to 16 for local and regional elections. Experiences overall are highly positive, suggesting that 16‑year-olds prepare themselves well and vote very similarly to 18-24‑year-olds. There has been no evidence of a tendency among young people to vote for more radical or ‘bogus’ political parties. Lowering the voting age is also believed to be an effective tool to generate interest and greater awareness of politics at an earlier age, leading to more political involvement and higher voter turnout later in life. In fact, turnout among 16-17-year-old voters has been shown to be slightly higher than that of 18-24-year-olds. This is linked to the generally more stable life situation at that age, careful preparation at school and the fact that engagement with politics is still viewed as meaningful and positive rather than a senseless and frustrating experience.

States enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in establishing age restrictions for the right to vote – as long as the criteria are reasonable and proportionate. According to the Venice Commission, the right to vote must be conferred at the age of majority at the latest. The highest age limit that Council of Europe member states may set is therefore 18, but they can go lower based on their own assessment. Article 12 of the CRC obliges states parties to give weight to the views of the child “in accordance with their age and maturity”. It therefore makes sense to give effect to the increased political awareness of today’s young people, which is due, among other things, to greater access to information.

The voting age has been lowered continuously over past decades to expand the recognition of citizen authority as a basic principle of representative democracy. With few exceptions, population ageing has decreased the share of young voters across Council of Europe member states and concerns about fairness and solidarity between generations are being raised increasingly frequently in public policy debates. Lowering the voting age facilitates intergenerational discourse in parliaments and helps place youth issues on the political agenda – even though older voters will still greatly outnumber younger ones for many years to come. While lowering the voting age is not the only effective means of boosting youth participation, it is certainly a powerful message to our children that we stand ready to listen to them, take their views seriously and give them a choice.

From having a voice to having a choice

Young people have proven that they are interested and well informed, with growing political responsiveness and a clear sense of wanting to participate in decision-making processes. It is time to move away from symbolic approaches to child participation. Today’s children will bear the consequences of today’s decisions, whether regarding the environment, health policies, economic recovery or pension funds. Let’s seize the current opportunity of reflection and ‘building back better’ to show courage, foresight and strong commitment to Article 12 of the CRC. Let’s give children a voice through open and inclusive consultations and collaborate closely with them when setting agendas and priorities and when designing, implementing and evaluating policies that affect them. Let’s proactively encourage and support child-led initiatives that aim to improve existing patterns, empowering young people to make choices and meaningfully influence their future. And lastly, let’s promote their effective democratic participation, including by giving serious consideration to lowering the voting age.

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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