Two days in Paris between friends?

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Donald Trump, President of the US, responded positively weeks ago to the invitation of the newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, to assist at the military parade of the 14 of July. French public opinion, as well as experts, were certainly divided concerning such invitation and the presence of the American president at this national celebration. Politipond argues that such invitation was aligned with France-US interests and US-Europe interests regardless of the domestic turmoils of Donald Trump and his cabinet. Furthermore, this official visit highlighted a complex divide between the perceptions of the US, as an ally, and the perceptions of the US through the representation of his president. This subtlety was lost in translation.

Logics and reasons

Macron’s invitation has divided experts, public opinion and the media. Politico Europe probably published the article with the most telling title, Trump and Macron go from mano a mano to tête-à-tête  referencing the evolving tone of the relationship between the two men. If Macron demonstrated toughness during their first meetings at the NATO and G-7 summits in May, their third meeting on July 13-14 seemed much warmer. The claim is that Macron strategized his interaction with his American homologue in order to foster respect. Candidate and then President Trump have been consistent, as he has continuously demonstrated considerable respect to strongmen such as Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, and apparently Emmanuel Macron.

Some have compared Macron and Trump as they share some similitudes. Both won outside the party system; Macron created a movement Onward! a year prior the election and managed to undermine the historical supremacy of the right and left by winning the presidential and legislative elections, while Trump running as a republican candidate certainly does not fit within the conventional ideological lines of the party. Both are framed as non-politicians, as having never ran for office. If it is true for Trump, it is not the fully the case for Macron having evolved in the highest political spheres during the Hollande presidency. But the comparison cannot go furthermore. Macron has a certain understanding of politics and the history of the French Fifth Republic as designed and envisioned by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Macron is carefully crafting a presidential image, under the Jupiterian president aura, through a demonstration of strengthen as he is oftentimes represented surrounded by French military might. If President Sarkozy was seen as the hyperactive president, François Hollande, the ‘normal’ president, Macron is concerned about displaying and embodying French grandeur.

From Paris, especially the Elysée, the message behind this invitation was to commemorate the entry of the US in 1917 in World War one, which plays against the isolationist narrative emanating from the White House. 1917 symbolizes American engagement in the world, while 2017 may illustrate the beginning of a potential American isolationism. The relationship between the two countries is over 200 years old. The French monarchy played an important role in assisting the patriots against the British crown. Benjamin Franklin played a considerable role starting in 1776 in engaging with France, while serving from 1776 to 1778 in a commission in France in charge of getting French support for American independence. France not only recognized American’s independence but as well concluded an alliance with the 13 colonies in 1778. Skipping one century, in 1917 when the Americans joined the war on the European continent, Colonel C. E. Stanton, General John J. Pershing’s aide, famously declared before the tomb of the Marquis Lafayette, ‘Lafayette, we are here!’ This brief historical anecdotes illustrate the deep ties and historical connections between the two countries. The ties go beyond the leader at the time.

Points of Convergence?

The intervention of the two presidents in front of the press lists the series of issues wherein the US and France have shared interests: the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria, counter-terrorism, free and ‘fair’ trade, and the sanctity of national sovereignty. Two additional items were on the agenda of the French president. The first one concerned the COP-21 or Paris agreement entered into force Fall 2016 ratified by 153 nations. President Trump announced early on his presidency that the US would withdraw from the binding deal. European leaders, in particular Chancellor Merkel and President Macron, have been adamant about the necessity to meet the goals set-up in order to address the root causes of climate change.

The second item, an unconfirmed point, may be regarding  potential American support to the initiative of the G5 Sahel bloc – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad -, planning on launching a new multinational military force led by African powers. France has been militarily involved in the Sahel region since 2013 in order to limit the regional influence of Islamist militant group. This new force will operate in coordination with French troops and MINUSMA, Mali’s struggling U.N. peacekeeping mission. Financially, the European Union has pledged around 50 million euros, while France would contribute around 8 million euros by the end of the year. The US have played a role in providing equipments, information and military support to the French. This military effort aligns with the transatlantic counter-terrorist strategy. However, no comments on this point emerged.

Beyond the 14 of July – Perceptions matter

The Franco-American relationship has not deteriorated, but the French positive perception of the US as embodied by President Trump have collapsed over night. The recent Pew research center’s report on global perceptions illustrates clearly the instant changes of attitudes towards the US at the critical juncture of November 2016, the election of Donald Trump.

Global perceptions-1

The graph tells a compelling story of an immediate decline in the positive views of the US in a period of four months dropping by 15 percentage points (pp). The most damaging decline illustrates the confidence in the US presidency, wherein 74% expressed no confidence in President Trump, as opposed to 23% for President Obama.

Global perceptions2

 

This graph provides a global snapshot of the shifting perceptions between Presidents Obama and Trump. The only two countries with positive perceptions are Israel (+7pp) and Russia (+42pp). The rest of the world tends to share a lack of confidence in the American presidency held by Trump. The most critical are Sweden (-83), the Netherlands (-75pp), Germany (-75pp), South Korea (-71pp), and France (-70pp). Concerning the list of European countries above, President Obama had received strong support and a total admiration by Europeans. And this despite serious crises occurring during his mandate such as the Snowden revelations.

The last graph provides a snapshot over a longer period of time of the level of confidence in Western Europe (UK, Germany, France and Spain) in the American leader in power.Global perceptions3

President Bush never received considerable positive reviews from Europe. But the most damaging moment of his presidency, from European point of view, was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The UK and Spain joined the coalition of the willing, which was not the case for France and Germany. The confidence in the US grew overnight ensuing the election of President Obama in 2008. The Snowden revelations were the lowest point for President Obama and the EU-US relationship during his two mandates. But the persona of Obama was sufficient in maintaining positive perceptions and confidence in the US in Europe. As the confidence ratings climbed overnight in 2008 by ~+60 pp, they dropped by ~60pp.

Trump or Not, the US Remains Central

As advanced in the report, President Trump is perceived, especially in France and Europe, as arrogant, intolerant and dangerous. The data proves that the US-Franco/Europe relations continues to remain strong despite the occasional disagreements. Regardless of the tenant of the White House, the United States remains the indispensable nation figuring at the heart of world affairs and geopolitics. In the case of Europe, the United States is a major contributor and guarantor of European security, through NATO and parallel transatlantic defense and intelligence ties. President of France positions himself as a pragmatist, as declared during his meeting with Vladimir Putin in June. It is in the interest of both countries to maintain strong political, diplomatic and cultural ties. France has a card to play with at this time considering the fraught relationship between the German and American leaders and the ongoing turmoils in the UK. The key for the French leader is to keep a balance between cooperation and independence.

(Copyright 2017 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
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Deep Transatlantic Commonalities under Attack?

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The transatlantic forces at play are under stress. The domestic forces in the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and most part of Europe need to be reckoned with. The two players of the special relationship are embroiled in domestic turmoil between the Brexit negotiations and major rebuttal of long-standing policies in the US, which could have considerable impacts on the structure of Euro-Atlantic community.

The situation in France seems to be relatively stable since the election of President Macron and his victory in the ensuing legislative elections mid-June. If President Macron has demonstrated being a savvy political tactician, far from the neophyte status he received, he now needs to revitalize the French economy, reform the labor laws, reinvigorate the European agenda and integration process all under the threat of terrorism. But Macron’s election was framed as a blockade against the growth of populist forces in the Euro-Atlantic community. A return of France on the European and global stage certainly plays in favor of transatlantic relations. Now, the next chapter will certainly be the German elections in September.

So far, this year has been critical for transatlantic relations. A series of issues, from climate change to trade and defense, excluding the current Brexit negotiations, allow the world to reflect on the current challenges and potential ensuing consequences of such radical shift by Washington.

First, climate change is a priority considering global reach and impacts of a degrading environment. The US and its European partners are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases requiring them to lead the way in addressing environmental challenges. The 2015 Paris deal, formally known as the COP-21, sets out a global action place by limiting global warming to below 2°C and is the first legally binding climate deal. The agreement came into force on 4 November 2016 with at least 55 countries ratifying it. But on 1 June 2016, President Trump announced that the US would withdrawal from the agreement. In his address in the Rose Garden, he claimed that ‘the Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” The global reaction and especially from European counterparts was negative and critical. The issue of climate change will be back on the table for upcoming G-20 meeting.

Second, tree-trade has become a dirty word. In the European context, free and regulated trade among the 28 member states has permitted an unprecedented growth first contributing to the growth the 28 national economies. The world led by the US since the end of World War two was very much regulated around the notion that free-trade among states advantaged the US and the world, even though it certainly creates winners and losers. Aside from economic arguments, trade is one element of a state’s foreign policy arsenal, especially for an economic power like the US. The unplugging of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 12 pacific nations, which never counted China, in the very early days of the Trump administration is playing in favor of Beijing. By this decision, the US is playing in the hands of China. In a recent op-ed, Thomas Friedman wrote that “Beijing is now quietly encouraging everyone in the neighborhood to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, China’s free-trade competitor to TPP, which, unlike TPP, lacks environmental or labor standards; China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and its One Belt, One Road development project.” With regards to Europe, the future of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is uncertain.

The last aspect to be highlighted is the question of defense and security. Historically the pillar of this realm at the transatlantic level has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Again, the narratives on the campaign trail were that NATO was an ‘obsolete’ organization costing money to American taxpayers to finance the security and defense of free-riding European nations. Such narrative has remained in the US since Trump’s election. President Trump’s address at the NATO Summit in May, which was supposed to confirm his support and clarify his views of the alliance, failed to address the concerns of his European counterparts. The questions of free-riding and underspending by Europeans is not new and have been a frustration for past administrations. For instance, Secretary Gates’ comments in 2011 were deeply critical of the lack of political and financial willingness by his European partners.

These issues are central considering a series of factors. First, historically, the members of the Euro-Atlantic community, have agreed on shared values, institutions and norms making the liberal world order. A rebuttal of the Paris deal, the TPP (free-trade overall) and the defense alliance sends a message to the world that American longstanding commitment to global agreements is not reliable any longer. Second, the short-termism and transactional view of the foreign affairs demonstrate a total lack of overall strategy. The current administration seems to hide this lacuna by hiding behind the word of isolationism, which is not the case. Third, the Europeans, especially the Mercron couple (Merkel-Macron) between Berlin and Paris, ought to continue engaging Washington and pushing ahead long-established agenda and common policies. The responses in the US by major states, cities, universities and the public at large, regarding the withdrawal by the Trump administration from the Paris deal, illustrate deep transatlantic commonalities that need to be protected and deepened regardless of the rhetorics.

(Copyright 2017 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

 

 

Year Ahead – Europe in 2016

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A photo taken on January 22, 2016 shows a view of the interior of the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum) in Amsterdam esigned for meetings of the European Union during the presidency of the Netherlands. / AFP / ANP / Remko de Waal / Netherlands OUT

Starting a year without some predictions would not be of good omens. If 2015 was defined as the year of multilateralism, 2016 will certainly brought serious challenges to Europe. Here are some thoughts on the coming year from populism, economic stagnation, foreign policy, migration and European security.

Read here the 2016 projections in a piece published by Fair Observer.

(Copyright 2016 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

2016 State of the Union – Obama’s Foreign Policy: A Patient and Discipline strategy?

Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

In his final State of Union, President Obama reflected on his past seven years in office, but most importantly tried to shape the debate on the campaign trail and for the next decades. On the question of foreign policy, President Obama raised two aspects: threats facing the country and his conception of leadership and American’s role in the world. One of his initial questions early in the address was  “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” Such question has driven Obama’s foreign policy choices these last seven years and will continue to live on.

ISIL – The Non-Existential, but Omnipresent Threat

His contextual framework was very narrow and limited. President Obama skipped over most of the regions of the world in order to pinpoint terrorist networks like the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). “In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.”  Since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the US has evolved in a unipolar and more recently multipolar world order. In this new global order, many states have failed and are now the roots of today’s regional chaos causing civil war, mass murders, fueling mass migration, and hosting terrorist networks.

In addressing the threat represented by ISIL, President Obama underlined that the first priority is protecting American people and going after terrorist networks. American foreign policy makers, as well as European partners, have been using tough rhetoric in order to defend their actions against ISIL, such as “rooted out, hunted down and destroyed.” Such argument fits in the continuous war that the United States has been waging against terrorism since President Bush in 2001. But how constructive have these ‘tough’ rhetorics been in addressing the problem?

A Disciplined Leadership

Once again, President Obama has called for restrain in using extensive military force in fighting ISIL. He recalled the lessons learned in Vietnam and Iraq. And this brought Obama to talk about his vision of leadership and the way the US should be using its power. “There’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy” argued Obama “that uses every element of our national power.” Such statement does reflect on the way President Obama has responded to emerging and pressing crises like Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and so forth. Many experts and political leaders have compared such reflective type of leadership as a sign of weakness and

Credit: Politico.eu
Credit: Politico.eu

inaction contributing to the decline of American power and grandeur. But this reflective type of leadership ought to be merged with the Obama doctrine, which has been a foundation of his presidency.

Part of Obama’s foreign policy has been to increase cooperation with international partners especially European and some Asian powers. Obama underlined the need for the US of “rallying the world behind causes that are right.” In order to describe – and sale to a skeptical American electorate – the positives of international cooperation, President Obama listed a series of ‘successes’ like international efforts in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, the fight against Ebola, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TTP), the re-opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba and so forth (read several analyses on Iran, the TPP, Cuba, and Syria). Each issue, at the exception of the fight against Ebola, is still ongoing and requires legislative approval/support. Interestingly enough, President Obama did not mention one core international partner like the European countries, deeply involved in the fight against terrorist networks, or international organizations and so forth. Obama’s multilateralism was principally an American definition of the term, which could be summed up by his comments about the TPP. “With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do.”

Foreign Policy, or the Impossible Task

Obama’s comments on foreign policy were a long segment of his address. The section illustrated the overall tone of the address: a response to the constant attacks on the campaign trail and an assertion of the results of his strategy and policy choices. For such reason, it was a weak part. Narrowing the foreign threats at ISIL and other terrorist networks, and briefly mentioning climate change, was a disappointment. As mentioned, ISIL does not represent an existential threat to the US. The war on terrorism is seriously affecting and limiting the grand strategy of the US.

On the strategic aspects of the Obama doctrine and the successes of his foreign policy, once again it is difficult to identify any clear successes (as it is for any presidents). The Obama doctrine has permitted the US to use lethal force around the world without waging war on country, while violating core principles of international law. Merging the concept of multilateral successes and the issues from Ukraine, to Syria, to Iraq, to Colombia in the same sentence may be far stretched as well. Historically, this segment of the address has been used in order to comfort the democratic base, infuriate the hawks, and sadden the foreign policy experts.

(Copyright 2016 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

2015 in the Rear-view Mirror …

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Should 2015 be identified as the year of multilateralism? Despite the multitude of crises facing the West throughout 2015, the signature of three major multilateral agreements was not only meaningful, but will contribute to the shaping of world politics well beyond 2016.

2015, or the Year of Multilateralism

Could 2015 be seen as the year of multilateralism? Even if this question seems quite absurd considering the succession of negative news from terrorism, to economic slowdown, racism, populism, so on and so forth. But looking back, 2015 was to some extent the most promising year in recent years in getting regional and global leaders around the table and having them signed important documents. Three highly impactful agreements ought to be reviewed.

World-Climate-Summit-bannerFirst, the Paris Agreement of December 12, 2015 ought to be number one on the list. Yes, climate change is a reality. Yes environmental destruction is the greatest threat facing humanity. If polls, like the recent one produced by the Pew, show that Euro-Atlantic citizens feel that terrorism is the greatest threat to their security, they are certainly looking at it from a narrow angle. If ISIS has demonstrated to be effective at slaughtering unarmed civilians drinking coffee and listening to music, it does not represent the existential threat that climate change presents.

Source: Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. "Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger." Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]
Source: Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. “Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger.” Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]

The Paris Agreement (which will only come into force once signed by the Parties on April 22, 2016 and ratified by 55 Parties) is more a political victory than a great climate deal. The political victory comes as the developed and developing nations have finally been able to agree on a global agreement. For instance, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is unable to get its Doha Round anywhere and most of the global initiatives are going nowhere. But in Paris, world leaders were able to show unity for a cause. However, the document falls short as there are no enforcement mechanisms in place in order to penalize states that do not comply. The European Union wanted a binding treaty with serious teeth and got instead an Agreement pledging to limit GHG emissions in order to maintain global warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius target and a 5-year review of national progress and target readjustments. More work needs to be done domestically in order to transform current models of production and ways of living, especially in the US, India, China and the EU, but it is a good starting point.

The second major success for multilateralism is the Nuclear deal with Iran. After almost a GTY_iran_world_leaders_ml_150402_16x9_992decade of negotiations initiated by the EU (remember the EU3+1?), the US under the leadership of its Secretary of State, John Kerry, was able to come to an agreement on the nuclear negotiations with Iran. If the US and European nations were quick on framing it as a political victory, such deal would not have been possible without China and Russia. Both nations were central in order to have Iran signed the deal.  If the Europeans were on the side of the Americans, it was quite uncertain throughout the process to count the Russians and Chinese in. But Russia has appeared as an important partner. For instance, on December 29, Iran shipped more than 11 tonnes of low-enriched uranium to Russia. But the deal came through and is, as the Paris Agreement, imperfect. At least, it permits to relaunch diplomatic relations with Tehran and re-includes Iran as a member of the international community. Some of the sanctions will be lifted, permitting Iran to sale its crude oil starting next year, in exchange for a discontinuation of the nuclear program.

The third major agreement is the signature of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Since the collapse of the financial markets in 2008, which have caused an economic decline of the US and its allies and seen the rise of China, the US has initiated two major trade agreements: one with its Pacific partners (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States, and Vietnam), the TPP, and one with its European allies, the Transatlantic Trade and Investmenttpp eng Partnership (TTIP). If the negotiations with European partners on the TTIP are still ongoing (read here a book on the topic), a result for TPP was finally reached in October 2015. In a document released by the Office of US Trade Representative, it is argued that “The result is a high-standard, ambitious, comprehensive, and balanced agreement that will promote economic growth; support the creation and retention of jobs; enhance innovation, productivity and competitiveness; raise living standards; reduce poverty in our countries; and promote transparency, good governance, and enhanced labor and environmental protections.” Regardless of the supports for such trade agreement, the TPP will have undeniably major impacts on regional and global economic and political relations. The US is solidifying its position in Asia and diplomacy is playing a big role in promoting cooperation. However, one question clearly remains: should have China been included in such deal?

Notable European Leaders in 2015

A paragraph could have been written on each of the 28 European leaders. But this piece focuses only on three EU leaders.

François Hollande, President of France, could very well be at the top of European leadership by the way he has maintained his position at the helm of France under such 98cebbe6a5319916285991f0e66baa545b8bf9bddegree of threats and instabilities. Economically, the French economy is not picking up. The French GDP growth is of 0.3% in the last quarter of 2015 with an unemployment rate of 10.6% illustrating a situation of stagnation and difficulties to draft and implement meaningful structural reforms. In addition, his approval rating in 2014 and early 2015 was around 13%, the lowest for all Presidents of the Fifth Republic. In the middle of these domestic turmoils and failed reforms, Paris was struck twice by terrorist attacks, once in January targeting Charlie Hebdo, and nine months later against civilians in a hipster arrondissement of the capital. Despite all these crises, François Hollande has been able to see an increase of his approval rating, avoid the take-over of regions by the Front National at the regional elections, and host one of the most welcomed global summits in Paris. 2015 was quite a year for François Hollande, whom has demonstrated serious skills of leadership against adversity. However, this is coming at a cost as he has taken a securitarian approach and is now passing laws, like the removal of citizenship, that are in complete opposition with the philosophical roots of his party (and arguably his own).

Angela Merkel, or the Emotional Leader of Europe. If François Hollande is shifting towards the right in order to make the homeland more secure undermining French

Generated by IJG JPEG Library
Generated by IJG JPEG Library

republican values, Angela Merkel has managed to maintain Germany in a sound economic direction (even though German economy is showing some signs of weakness), while becoming the emotional leader of Europe. Germany’s friendly policy of welcoming refugees was in some degree one of the most positive policies of 2015 in Europe. If EU Member States were calling for the construction of walls, use of army and other aberrations (Denmark planning to confiscate refugees’ jewelry) in order to stop the flow of refugees, Germany instead welcomed them. Angela Merkel’s decision to go against her political allies and political foundation illustrates one of the most human moves in Europe (read a recent piece here published in the New York Times). Chancellor Merkel may very well paying the cost of her actions if Germany is the target of a terrorist attack later on and struggle in integrating all these refugees.

David Cameron – The British Prime Minister was reelected in late Spring 2016 on an ultra-David-Cameron-Europenationalist and anti-european platform. Since his reelection, he has now identified himself as the British leader fighting for Britain’s national interests and integrity against the European Union. The publication of his demands to Brussels initiating negotiations in light of a future referendum about the membership of the UK solely responded to a national agenda without any clear vision for Britain’s future. Cameron is another European head of government with no long-term vision for his country and the Union. He embodies the shift of the past rights moving to the extreme without a clear political philosophy. Cameron’s polices have proven to be more based on ideology than facts.

Voices from Brussels?

What about HR Mogherini, President Tusk, President Schulz, and President Juncker? The heads of the largest EU institutions – EEAS, Commission, Parliament, and European Council – have not been that vocal at the exception of President Juncker at the ‘beginning’ of the migration crisis. The European leadership was pretty quiet throughout the year (at the exception of Commissionner Vestager going after the largest global corporations one after the other). Eventually 2016 could be the year for Federica Mogherini, whom is scheduled to release the new European Security Strategy in mid-Spring (read here an analysis on the current strategic thinking). 2016 could be as well the year for Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, as Warsaw will be hosting the 2016 NATO Summit. Such meeting in Poland will be important for two reasons: first, promote European principles and values in a country moving away from Europe’s ideals; second, it should address the ongoing regional crises from Ukraine, to Syria, to Iraq, Afghanistan and think seriously on how to engage with President Putin.

(Copyright 2016 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

European Adventure – The Missing Variable

Cartoon: Jasper Rietman
Cartoon: Jasper Rietman – New York Times, Dec 18, 2013

The Europe we live in today is the worst possible Europe apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time. No European alliance, empire, commonwealth or community has endured forever, but we should want this one to last as long as it can – Timothy Garton Ash 

Politically, the European endeavor appears as fragile as ever. Pockets of populism (extreme-right and extreme-left combined) have been popping out since the collapse of the financial markets in 2007. But the recent results of elections in Sweden, Poland, the United Kingdom, Greece, France, Spain, Denmark and so forth are demonstrating that the European electorate is increasingly voting more extreme than before. In the case of France, the Front National, which was historically a party of opposition has become the “first party of France” to take her President’s words. If populism is becoming attractive, it has created a complex national debate of incomprehension and anger between populist voters and the mainstream rest. National unity, in France, Europe and even in the US, is under attack.

Experts and political analysts have been identifying a series of variables in order to explain the rise of populism such as immigration, terrorism, economic stagnation, high level of unemployment, corruption, cronyism, globalization and Europe. Each variable is highly valid and can explain what motivate Europeans to seek for extreme alternatives. But one core dimension has been missing and is most likely the strongest component: an adventure, a story (for Europeans) and a dream (for Americans).

Loss of Memory/Direction in a Ever-More Globalized World

Globalization has been framed as the foundation of all national turmoils and traumas. For populist movements the word ‘globalization’ is a toolbox with no clear definition for obvious political reason. The concept of globalization should be understood as an acceleration in the degree of interaction and interconnection between humans, capital and goods. To some extent, the physical world is shrinking; the speed in interaction is accelerating [distance-time are disappearing]. A smaller shared space ultimately affects the understanding of one’ space and culture.  In her recent address about the reflection on a common strategy, HR Mogherini framed the question of globalization from a security angle, which contributes to the reflection on the definition of the globalization in this piece. She said that:

Everything that is important to our citizens is influenced by our international environment. And there is actually no distinction, no borders, no line between what happens far away, what happens at our borders, in our region, and what happens inside our European Union. Even these categories are now losing sense. 

‘Losing sense’ is quite a powerful part of her statement. Populist movements are directly responding to this sensation of physical, emotional and ideational feeling of dizziness. In addition, populist movements argue that the European Union is in fact a materialization of globalization and its global forces weakening national unity. Unfortunately, this is not true if one takes a historical look at globalization bringing us back to the 14th century with the Dutch empire. Globalization has roughly emerged at the end of the Dark Ages and pushed the economic and political transition of Europe and North America into the pre-industrial world. Arguing that globalization is the root cause of all national traumas is an absolute fantasy considering the longevity of such phenomenon.

However, one should talk about the speed of globalization and its acceleration in the last 20 years. “We live faster than ever before” writes Svetlana Alexievich “Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other.” Certainly globalization has become a powerful force highlighting serious limitations and weaknesses of European foundations. If capital and people can travel quicker than ever before [in roughly 12hours a human can be on the other side of the world], and in a less than a second billions of dollars/euros can be wired from one continent to another, such forces can undeniably create serious problems to the slow-moving entity of the nation-state and the EU. These realities of an ever-more globalized world is creating a distortion between immediacy and reflection. Immediacy could be embodied by the current economic model of casino capitalism; while, reflection is in fact the foundation of European political regimes, Democracy/Republic. If casino capitalism is based on economic gamble informed by pseudo-rational thinking as it is more a question of rumors and speculation, democracy is a slow process of introspection, discussion, collaboration and compromise. The discrepancy between casino capitalism and democracy is obvious and stretching the limits of European societies. Here lays the core of the problem in the globalized world of the early 21st century.

Ultimately, when a politician like Marine Le Pen, president of the extreme-right party le Front National, tells a story of national sovereignty, national control through the construction of physical barriers and implementation of protectionism, these narratives attract a confused audience. But the lie is obvious, the building of physical barriers to block invisible forces won’t do a thing in order to solidify national sovereignty and empower cultural exceptionalism. Building physical barriers in order to limit the flow of people is a myth. Millions of Europeans went through the Atlantic Ocean, an ocean, for a better future; are a series of walls around Europe be sufficient to stop refugees to come in. Not a chance.

European Adventure

The story of the European construction is a remarkable story and endeavor. In the rumbles of Europe, visionary leaders and thinkers drove European politicians to follow their visions

Europe
Cartoon: Paul Lachine

in order to avoid another war that could destroy the world. World War two was one of the most vicious global fights with genocides, mass-movement of troops and civilians, arms and technological race and so forth. Over 40 million individuals died in six years leaving Europe as a massive field of destruction. From the agreement of the Treaty of Paris in 1951 to the Treaty of Nice in 2001, the European construction was far from perfect but it was an adventure for greater political, economic, and institutional integration. It was an adventure in order to horizontally expand the Community/Union from six original members into a Union of 28. It was an adventure as European citizens saw the fall of physical borders, from the Berlin War to national borders under the Schengen Agreement. It was an adventure when on June 7 and 10, 1979, European citizens could vote for the first time at a European election for the European Parliament.

It was an adventure as Europeans could finally move within a wide group of states in order to start a career, to start a European life, to study. It was an adventure as the continent saw an unprecedented economic boost bringing struggling states – Germany as one of them – into highly sophisticated and developed economic and industrial levels. It was an adventure in the agreement to share a common currency, the Euro, in order to facilitate commercial and financial transactions at first, and then the flow of people. It was an adventure as the Community/Union demonstrated the world that cooperation at its extreme did not undermine national sovereignty, but rather empowered it.

The Quest for a European Life

Today, the European adventure has become a European set of technicalities. The European adventure, which was at first bold and big, has become a highly technocratic and reductive vision of politics, finance, economics, and culture. Emotionally, European citizens are not opposed to the European Union, but are thrown off by the appeared and perceived distance between them and “Brussels.”populism-400x300

Europeans are in fact in search of meaning, a raison d’être. Unfortunately, this quest for a raison d’être is being hijacked by populist movements selling a past that never was. Populism, either fascist or communist, is attracting audiences – from elder voters to first time voters – because they are selling a ‘mission,’ a purpose to reconstruct a past that never was. Unfortunately, these populisms have no serious political, foreign, economic, fiscal, educational agendas. These populisms are simply selling smoke.

Instead of talking of clash of civilization – in order to identify a mythical clash between Western societies and radical islamic movements, which do not speak for societies with a majority of muslim citizens – experts should be talking of a civilizational depression. Instead of seeking for external enemies, Europeans should be looking within, inside and reflect of this European state of confusion. Europe may be simply dealing with its mid-life crisis. Now it is a matter of avoiding a complete divorce with a supposedly dark and repressive past, the European integration process.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Interview with O’Globo – Russia, France and Syria

The interview was conducted in English for O’Globo, a Brazilian newspaper, over the phone on November 20th and then a written follow-up several days later. Here is a discussion in Portuguese about the intervention of Russia in Syria and its regional consequences. The interview took place before two majors events: the destruction of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, a NATO member; and the terrorist attacks in Paris at the end of November. Both events have directly affected the situation in Syria by creating serious tensions between NATO and Russia as well as mobilizing European powers in contributing to the war efforts against ISIS.

Interview - O'globo
O’Globo. Published on November 24, 2015. Section: Mundo. p.25
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)