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.)
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France under the Front National

Credit: Jacques Brinon/Associated Press
Credit: Jacques Brinon/Associated Press

“France would have lost her soul in her eyes and those of the world.” This sentence ends the recent column by Jacques Attali, an influential French economist and policy-advsior. In his recent op-ed titled, Do you really want this kind of France?, Jacques Attali reflects on the surge of the Front National (FN) and what France would look like under its reign.

The extreme-ring wing party Front National finds its roots in the conservatism of the old fascist and colonialist France. In its early years, the FN demonstrated without any shame its admiration for the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis during World War two. Additionally, many of its leading members belonged to the Organization de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), an underground organization composed of former French soldiers opposed to the independence of Algeria in the 1960s. The OAS tried at several occasions to assassinate General de Gaulle and committed a series of terrorist attacks in Algeria and France.

The current honorary President and founder of the FN, Jean-Marie le Pen, has always been sympathetic to such xenophobist, racist and colonialist ideologies. Nevertheless, the FN was never targeting the presidency nor trying to gain power under his leadership. The FN saw itself as an opposition force to the socialist and right political establishment, and did not want to govern. The attraction to power appeared with the 2002 presidential election when Jean-Marie le Pen rose to the second round facing Jacques Chirac. Mr. le Pen ultimately lost the election, but the influence of the FN in shaping political narratives and policies was initiated. As illustrated below the rise of the FN since 1974 has been progressive.

la-force-du-front-national-de-marine-lepen-en-france-e1336213611418

From 2002 to today, the rise has been steady, progressive and meticulous. The architect behind such political consolidation is Mr. le Pen’s daughter, Marine le Pen. Her entire platform rests on shifting the image of the party from an ultra-nationalist party into a conservative and nationalist party. She has worked on making the FN an acceptable voting option and political alternative for a larger segment of French citizens.

France is currently in election mode with the departmental elections. These ongoing local elections – the first round was on Sunday, March 22nd, and the second one on Sunday, March 29th – are supposed to solidify the political weight of the FN. The conclusions of these 2015 department elections are that even tough the FN does not win any department, as hoped, the party nevertheless demonstrates some serious gain. It received 40% of the votes in the 1100 counties still present for the 2nd round. Ensuing the elections, UMP takes 66 departments (currently at 41) and the PS 30 (so loosing 31 departments). The FN does not gain any, but its presence can now be felt all around France.

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Marine le Pen, with her slogan le Rassemblement Bleu Marine, has played the rhetoric of leading the first political party of France ensuing the European elections of May 2014. French citizens gave the majority to the representatives of the FN, followed by the right-wing UMP and then the socialist PS. Since May 2014, the FN has been campaigning on the base of being the first party of France. The FN has used the current political status-quo with a sluggish socialist presidency and a very divided right-wing UMP led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy. The FN appears as the only stable and united political force with a simple agenda. From campaigning to governing, the gap remains to be filled.

Attali Looks at France under the FN

In an intellectual exercise, Jacques Attali draws a picture of France under the FN if elected at the presidency in 2017. His point is that even though it could be a one and done type of mandate, the consequences of the FN policies, politics and laws would be disastrous for France, the EU and the image of France at home and abroad for several decades.

In European politics, the FN would certainly work in removing France for any common European project. It would in some ways look like the Cameron’s mandate seeking for increasing his political leverage in his consent euro-bashing rhetorics. The FN would push for a referendum to leave the common currency, the Euro, and ultimately the EU. The Schengen agreement

Credit: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
Credit: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

would certainly see its last hour, killing the free movements of people in Europe. In terms of defense and security policy, France would leave NATO and any cooperative agreements with other European partners and may instead solidify her relationship with Russia.

At home, Attali argues that the core values, principles and norms adopted and incorporated for century in French politics would be erased. In practice, the death penalty would be re-instituted, and human rights and the social contract would deeply suffer. Currently, in some cities of France under FN mayors, associations and other local initiatives have lost funding and are being progressively removed (listen here to an investigation by FranceInter at the life of French citizens in cities under FN control).

Economically, a national currency, most likely the Franc, would be reinforced creating some serious financial and economic trouble in France and in Europe. In terms of religion, aside from Christian heritage, the others will have most likely to adapt or leave. Political rhetorics and narratives will resemble to ones used by Nicolas Sarkozy in order to create a split within the French society based on the modo of us versus them. Us being the good Frenchman, and them the unwanted French. Anything foreign would be rejected in order to protect French uniqueness and culture.

Attali does not foresee a successful mandate for the FN and underlines that the FN would face a choice between dictatorship and repudiation considering the disastrous consequences of its policies. Ultimately, the FN would pick the latter in order to maintain its power and criticize any oppositions as root causes of France’s problems.

FN: A Necessary Evil?

The FN illustrates the real malaise in the French society. The malaise comes from a core aspect in French psyche: exceptionalism. France perceives itself as such because of her history – the birthplace of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Napoleonic Code, the Trente Glorieuses, its nuclear arsenal, among others – and its role in shaping regional and world events as an exceptional nation. France as the United Kingdom and United States share this exceptionalist component in their political belief and system and foreign policy. France understands her role as an important part of world politics and does not perceive anymore being able to shape it.

Such concept of exceptionalism demonstrates a belief in France in shaping events, not being subject to them. Globalization is perceived as a threat to France’s uniqueness and autonomy. Such belief holds no empirical grounds considering the numbers of French firms leading in their respective sectors thanks to globalization, French as one of the most spoken languages in the world and French citizens are present all around the world. The selective-memory/analysis of globalization as a menace to the sovereignty of France is a constructed myth for obvious political reasons.

Credit: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP
Credit: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP

Last but not least, Attali’s analysis falls under a new trend of work, prediction. For instance, the recent book by Michel Houellebecq, Soumission, projecting the reader into a France in 2022 seeing the rise of an Islamic party leading to a progressive islamization of France society, has launched a serious polemic about the societal and political trauma of France in time of crisis. If Houellebecq is a divisive and satirical author, Attali is a respected economist and intellectual. Nevertheless, both work underlines complex societal and national crises. France is a nation in search of an identity and voice in the 21st century.

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

Mr. Tusk Goes to Washington

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In his first visit to Washington in his capacity as President of the European Council, Donald Tusk met with President Obama and Vice-President Biden today, March 9th, 2015. Over his two-day visit to the American capital, Donald Tusk seeks to solidify the EU’s relationship with the US. In addition, President Tusk will visit the Holocaust museum tomorrow, March 10th, in order to send a message of reconciliation to Europe’s Jewish community after the recent rise of anti-Jewish sentiments.

The agenda discussed between the two transatlantic leaders covered the following issues: Russia and the crisis in Ukraine; the situation around the Mediterranean with Syria, Libya and the consolidation of the Islamic State (IS); and naturally the negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This comprehensive agenda underscores an interesting paradigm: each crisis is regional for the EU with serious international repercussions.

On the case of Ukraine and the role of Russia, the Europeans and Americans share the visions of the problem as it is a direct threat to the old concept of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, the Europeans, as expressed by President Tusk prior meeting with President Obama, are not willing to deepen the sanctions against Russia. There is a lack of unity among the EU-28 for domestic political reasons – like in Italy and Greece – and strong lobby groups in France, Britain and Germany – weapons, energy and finance – fearing a deepening in the tensions between the EU and Russia. From a personal standpoint, President Tusk, a former Prime Minister of Poland, has much more hawkish view of the problem and tends to emphasize the role of NATO.

The Mediterranean region is becoming one of the hottest part of the world. Geopolitics are moving fast and looking dire from Europe. The war in Syria seems unattainable, and the consolidation of IS in Syria, Iraq and now Libya is of great concerns for the EU. With a number of failed-states causing a regional vacuum, IS has found its territory to implement its strategy and vision. IS is attracting young Europeans, leading Europeans to conduct terrorist attacks against other Europeans, as well as widening its territorial control in the Middle East. President Tusk told reporters on March 9th, that “We [Europeans] must help because we cannot have a failed state run by warlords and anarchy — sitting in anarchy just 100 miles off the southern coast of Europe.” The power vacuum left after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 had not been filled until the arrival of IS. Now IS is at the doorstep of Europe.

In the case of the TTIP, the negotiations initiated in 2013, are moving into their their year. It was supposed to be a mega-free trade deal, quickly signed, allowing further harmonization and lowering tariffs, allowing to bail-out the European economies, and ultimately boosting up the transatlantic economy. The TTIP is a way for the US and the EU to compete with the rise of new powers like China, India and Brazil. But instead a quick agreement, the negotiations have become more complex and Europeans have increased a certain numbers of concerns about the consequences of such FTA on their lives. Several issues are of concerns for Europeans: first, the lack of transparency in the negotiation process; second, lowering standards on health and food regulations (on Genetically Modified Food or even chlorine washed chicken); third, investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms (ISDS); and last, a certain opposition to globalization and American capitalism. If Americans and Europeans want to have the TTIP agreed, it will need to take place in 2015 otherwise it could look like the endless WTO’s Doha Round.

The transatlantic relationship is one of the world’ strongest and this high-level visit by President Tusk demonstrates that the EU and the US see eye-to-eye on foreign and economic policies. The degree of interdependence and interconnection between the two sides of the pond is such that the US cannot ignore what is happening at the doorsteps of Europe, and the Europeans have to realize the importance of the alliance with the US in order to assure its security.

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

 

 

Talking Europe – Blaming the Media for Europe’s Crisis

tv

In an unexpected radio talk on France Inter, the French public radio, several journalists, experts and two MEPs tackled the theme of time allocated in French media on the questions of European affairs. Such thematic is crucial in order to understand the lack of interest of European citizens on European politics. Should the French and European media be blamed for the lack of interest in European politics? Or, should it be on the European citizens? Once again, a nuanced argument is required.

Yes, they do – Blame it on the Media

The most obvious example was the debate between the candidates for the position of the President of the European Commission. In France, the public channel of France Televisions did not broadcast the debate live taking place on April 28th, 2014, while twenty European channels did. The President of Sauvons l’Europe, Fabien Chevalier, claimed that “french television treats Europe as little as possible” (in French, “La télévision française traite l’Europe a minima”). The lack of mediatization of European politics has contributed to a certain degree of alienation of European politics among French citizens. Europe has become a foreign affair; when it is in fact, as argued by Stéphane Leneuf, an actuality of proximity. European questions have progressively become more neighborhood than foreign questions. This brings back to the overarching question asked at the beginning of the show: Is it possible to talk about Europe without being as sad as an empty fridge?

Such decision by French public network of not broadcasting the first European debate for the President of the Commission clearly send a signal that European politics do not matter. The media need to get a part of the blame in the widening gap between Europeans and Brussels. For so long, Europeans have complained of the foreign and opaque nature of European politics. Now that democracy is slowly being incorporated into the European politic, the media do not play its role of mitigator.

Additionally, members of the media tend to argue that talking Europe is too complex in the short period of time allocated. They argue that nobody is interested about institutional transformation and bargaining power taking place at the European level. It is undeniable that explaining vertical and horizontal integrations can be difficult and certainly dry. Nevertheless, this is part of a European reality. One can argue that institutional and political questions about the French Fifth Republic are extremely complex too. Media do tackle these national questions, why not the European ones? European subjects are just an addition of a second level of analysis; and they do matter on daily basis.

No, they don’t – Blame it on the Europeans

European citizens have the instruments, meaning internet, to do their own research (this was the response by France Televisions for not broadcasting live on TV the debate claiming that it was available online). As it has become predominant trend in France, citizens have lost the real meaning of citizen, which entails rights and duties. In France, French citizens feel more entitled about their rights that actually fulfilling their duties; one of them being voting and being informed. In the 21st century, and in one of the richest and most developed continents in the world, it is difficulty acceptable to have a low informed electorate. If European citizens can find a way to watch online a soccer game, they shouldThe enemy invasion: Brussels braced for influx of Eurosceptics in EU polls be able to find a way to watch the debate between the five candidates to the Commission’s Presidency. Additionally, the rise of populism in France send a double signal: first, the rise of a lazy citizenry. It is always easier to claim that European politics are complex and foreign than trying to understand and learn. Second, the fear of globalization, or what French people call mondialisation. The EU is a clear representation and in some degree, a child of globalization. It embodies a new type of socio-politico-economico actor. French citizens have always been very cautious and fearful of globalization. They view Europe as a threat to their regional and national identities in the same ways globalization supposedly does it. Such fear is unfounded as European Member States are in fact fighting to protect such regional identities. One of the most obvious examples is in the current negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), wherein geographical food names has become an issue of contentions between the US and the EU.

Speed and Humans

Two fascinating point emerged from the discussion: first, the speed of politics; second, bringing Europe to a human level. As argued by a guest, the gap between national and European politics in terms of speed is considerable. National politics tend to be quick and embedded into short-termism, while European politics are much slower and complex moving from the Commission, to the Council, to the Parliament and so on. National politics have instead become some short of a game under constant scrutiny and polls rating. National politics are in some degree a spectacle; European politics are not (or at least not yet).

Second, the message ought to be that Europe is not a foreign affair. Over 50% of laws impacting Europeans’ daily life come from ‘Brussels.’ It is important to have a greater discussion at the national level about these laws. So far, at least in France, the main political narrative by the French political class, all political parties included, is based along two lines: either, Brussels made us to do it; or, we were able to protect French interests from Brussels. French politicians have yet to continuously demonstrate that European and French interests are intertwined. Such acceptance will not be a sort of political suicide as believed, but rather the acceptance of a fait accompli. Considering the global forces of the 21st century and the domestic condition of France, Europe is France’s best asset for striving in the complex waters of the 21st century.

In a recent comment, I argued that one of the greatest challenges facing the Juncker Commission will be to reconnect Europe with the European citizenry. A large segment of European citizens feels that the gap between their daily life and Brussels is 606x340_268524too wide to care. European citizens considers that Brussels is a cold technocratic and bureaucratic place. In some degree, it is true. However, European politics deeply matter and do influence daily life. As underscored in Juncker’ speech before the European Parliament (read here a review of the speech) important issues will be addressed during his mandate like the TTIP, GMOs, energy policy, digital policies, environmental policies, fundamental rights, immigration policies, economic and fiscal convergences and so on. Well, each of these issues will affect Europeans’ daily life. The argument of Euroskeptic MEPs, like the ones from the Front National, is that European decisions are endangering national sovereignty. The best response to such ignorant statement: try to defend them without the EU.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).