Full Steam Ahead: Europe Moves Decisively towards Security and Defence Union

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by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

Today the European Commission is launching an ambitious European Defence Fund with an annual budget of €5.5 billion (according to press release). The Fund will operate through two strands—Research and Development & acquisition. As one of the proponents, Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Jyrki Katainen has stated the impetus behind the initiative: 

“People across Europe are worried about their and their children’s security. Complementing our cooperation with NATO, we need to do more and better ourselves. Today we are showing that we walk the talk. The Fund will act as a catalyst for a strong European defence industry which develops cutting-edge, fully interoperable technologies and equipment. Member States will remain in the driving seat, get better value for their money – and ultimately see their influence increased.”

Also today the Commission published a Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence, to launch a public debate on how the EU-27 might develop its capabilities in this area by 2025. At the core of it are three scenarios (Security and Defence Cooperation; Shared Security and Defence; and Common Defence and Security) outlining how the European member states can move towards a Security and Defence Union by 2025.

Elements European Security Defence

– Under Security and Defence Cooperation scenario, defence cooperation would be strengthened, but the EU’s participation in the most demanding operations would remain limited. EU‒NATO cooperation would retain today’s format and structure.

– Under a more ambitious Shared Security and Defence scenario the EU would become more engaged in Europe’s protection taking on a greater role in areas like cyber, border protection or the fight against terrorism, and strengthen the defence and security dimension of internal EU policies like energy, health, customs or space. EU–NATO cooperation would increase across a full spectrum of issues.

– The most ambitious Common Defence and Security scenario the EU would be able to run high-end security and defence operations, underpinned by a greater level of integration of member States’ defence forces. Protecting Europe would become a mutually reinforcing responsibility of the EU and NATO.

There is an opinion among experts that (while being in development for quite a time) the move has been given an addition push by the US administration’s foreign and defence policy stands. Writes Joseph Braml in The Cipher Brief:

“In future relations with the United States, Europe has to plan for a number of contingencies. The best case scenario would see a U.S. administration that only puts pressure on the Europeans in the security realm to spend more on defense. The worst case scenario would be an attempt on the part of the new U.S. administration to divide Europe in order to weaken a trade and monetary competitor.”

Well, we already see something similar to this “worst case scenario” unfolding after the Riyadh summit, in the Middle East. With today’s moves the Europeans (being well aware that the two world wars have started on their continent, to devastating effect) want to take the defence and security issues under own firm control.

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Turkey’s Troubled EU Accession: In Limbo Either Way

by Elbay Alibayov | Global Politics Illustrated

Most recent: the official plot

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu attended the informal meeting of Foreign Ministers of European Union members and candidate countries held in Valetta, Malta, on 28 April 2017. He met with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, among others. Turkey-EU relations (especially the prospects of the former’s EU membership aspiration) were discussed, according to released information. It was announced afterwards that, despite the recent (Turkish referendum related) rhetoric of politicians, the EU kept the door to the European Union for Turkey ajar and “the accession process continues, it is not suspended, nor ended .”

A snapshot

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MC: “Are you serious?”

FM: “I’m telling you. Door is still open.”

MC: “After all you in the EU have said?”

FM: “Even after all you in Turkey have done.”

Scratching beneath the surface

Neither believed the other side. Both knew that the “open door” was merely mirage: Europeans had no appetite for bringing seventy-nine-million-strong Muslim Turkey in, while the Turks had no intention of submitting on issues they valued as critical. But it served both well to pretend that everything was for real: For Europe, the mirage had to stay on the horizon, in order to use it as bargaining chip and (as they thought) to contain its otherwise edgy and ambitious neighbour through the accession’s conditionality; Turks, in turn, played the game in order to get more concessions from the EU on various issues (from trade to migration and security) of common interest. Moreover, both were aware that the other side knew their game, but still kept playing.

Limbo it is

There are two meanings of limbo. One stands for “an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition.” It is exactly what Turkey’s EU accession story is about (just compare: both Croatia and Turkey opened the accession talks with the EU in October, 2005; Croatia joined in 2013, while Turkey is nowhere near).

Interestingly, this intriguing story qualifies for another, original in fact (from some Christian beliefs), meaning of limbo—that is “the supposed abode of the souls of unbaptized infants, and of the just who died before Christ’s coming.”

So, whichever way you look at it, Turkey is in limbo… special kind of it, where neither/nor situation may last forever and keep everyone satisfied (contrary to original meaning where those in limbo are supposed to suffer). So are the circumstances. And it seems that both sides have adjusted to them and try to smartly make the best of it: Europe won’t let Turkey in as a member state, although cannot afford losing it as a partner; Turkey realises that full-blown membership (in supposedly “heaven” of the European Union) is not going to materialise, but it is better to stay at least in the candidate status endlessly (with some access to the table) rather than to go solo (or through “hell” if you wish) all along . Happy limbo it is.

Chemical Attack in Syria: Events, Implications, Lessons

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A poison hazard danger sign in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, Syria on 5 April, 2017.         Image credit: Ogun Duru / Anadolu Agency

Reflections on the week past

by Elbay Alibayov

There has been a lot of outrage and condemnation of the use of poisonous (supposedly nerve) gas during the bombardment of the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. Deservedly so: The stockpiling and use of chemical weapons is banned in Syria (since 2013, when the government signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and subsequently started handing over its chemical stocks) and an appropriate action must be taken against those responsible.

This is all clear. What is not clear is who is responsible for what has happened. In spite of wild speculations that evoked the waves of emotional talk exacerbated by the shocking imagery of suffocated children there is not much evidence at this point—neither of the kind and source of the chemical weapons used, nor of those who used it (deliberately or not) in Khan Sheikhoun. And I guess this is rather irrelevant question in the game of geopolitics played in front of our eyes. Whatever happened and whoever did it, the events of this one week have changed the positioning of parties to the Syrian war, at least for the time being. And that is the only thing that matters in this game.

Action—Reaction—Counteraction

Action. Things took off immediately after the airstrike on Tuesday, 4 April by the Syrian Army resulted in the gas poisoning and numerous deaths and injuries among civilians. The media deriving their stories (quite uncritically) from the third (and vaguely defined) sources and the politicians relying on those reports were quick to declare the “crime against the humanity” (which undoubtedly the use of chemical weapons is) and as by default pointed their finger at the regime of Bashar al-Assad as a culprit.  The next day Nikki Riley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations was all around with the pictures of victims and emotional speeches at the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Interestingly, her claim seemed to target Russia more than Assad’s regime: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

Reaction. President Trump reacted sharply. In his first response (at a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday 5 April) he stated that Assad had “crossed many, many lines”. It did not take him long to move from statements to action: on Thursday, 6 April the U.S. President authorized the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield Shayrat “in retaliation after a chemical attack against civilians”.

Counteraction. Russia’s response followed immediately. President Putin called the U.S. strikes a violation of international law.  In a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Russia suspended the Memorandum of Understanding on Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents with the U.S. aimed at avoiding collisions in the Syrian airspace and has called on the UN Security Council to hold (yet another)  emergency meeting “to discuss the latest developments.”

Whose move is next? What is it going to be about? Whatever it is, at this stage of the game the short combination described above already have scored good points for some, opened opportunities for others, while altering more promising horizons for those who thought to be in more advantageous position before the recent developments.

Implications

The chemical weapon attack in Khan Sheikhoun has had instant implications on a number of important dimensions of the Syrian war. It immediately reversed the tolerance towards Assad as remaining in power and called again for his unconditional removal. Second, it undermined the negotiation process between the regime and the opposition—both the Russians and Turks-facilitated in Astana and the UN-led Geneva talks.

Next, it put in confrontation the Americans and the Russians (given that they rejected each other’s narratives about who was responsible, and later on strongly disagreed about the response) and thus risks undermining their (not an easy otherwise) cooperation in fighting the Islamist militants (both al-Qaeda and ISIL) in Syria and in the region. And altogether it incredibly complicated the course of the war in Syria, which seemed moving towards some sort of settlement.

Of course, there shall be an international independent commission. But it will take time. And its findings may not necessarily be conclusive. The complexity of the Syrian war and its potential to directly influence a broad array of regional and international security issues do not allow for taking much time however. The events in Syria and around are unfolding at high pace, and with this dynamics and the implications of each and every move on multiple directions there is an imperative to clarify certain and very important issues right away.

If not addressed right away, those issues (whatever important they deem at the point of occurrence) lose their significance being displaced or overshadowed by a new wave of events in Syria or elsewhere in the region and across the world. We live in incredibly event-intensive times, after all. So it well may be that next week will see Americans and Russians renegotiating their positions with calm pragmatism they customarily exhibit, while others waiting for their turn to make adjustments. The chemical attack in Idlib (sadly so) would become the fact of history, as did many other no less brutal and outrageous acts of this war.

Scenarios

Okay, one would enquire, if this is the case then what is a point in establishing the responsibility for using the chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. I would argue that there is a point. Because whatever happens in Syria is not necessarily about Bashar al-Assad, whatever the official rhetoric by the politicians from all sides. Interestingly, this concerns not only external actors but even the domestic opposition groups.

The endgame going on in Syria looks beyond Assad—it is about who is going to control which and how much territory in Syria once the war ends. (As for the regime change… it is more about stability and regional interests as seen by influential external players than about human rights and democratic aspirations of local activists. Example? Well, is there anyone thinking that the regime of al-Sisi in Egypt is any better than the rule of Mubarak seen from this point of view?) Therefore, it makes sense understanding what is going on behind the scene.

One way to find out the culprit(s) is to understand who is interested in such a situation and who benefits from it. And if you look at how things stand from this perspective, you face a paradox: It appears that the Assad regime is the least interested party, among all the internal and external, state and non-state actors taking part in the war, directly or through proxies. All have some unsettled issues, big and small. All but Assad (at least prior to this week).

Things were going perfectly well for Assad and his aides recently, both in terms of military and territorial gains (from the Islamist militants and the rebels alike) and with regards to political positioning (as vis-à-vis the opposition so internationally). Why on earth would Assad “score an auto-goal” (to borrow from Elijah J Magnier) which may reverse the final outcome of the entire game at the time when he is firmly moving towards the win anyways? What is the necessity of using particularly chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun? Was it so strategically important, if not imperative to use? There are a lot of questions to be answered. Just few possible scenarios of what has happened.

Assad. One cannot dismiss any option unless it is proven unjustified. Therefore, the possibility of the Syrian army conducting the chemical attack remains on the table (with all the doubts I raised above). However, all the possible explanations to Assad’s motivation offered thus far sound naïve and even more, desperate to find at least something that sounds convincingly reasonable: “Why did Assad use nerve gas in Idlib? It’s impossible to know. Maybe it was a signal to an increasingly aggressive Israel that he still had chemical weapons, or maybe it was a warning to Russia that he wasn’t a pawn to be traded in a grand bargain with Trump. But most likely, it was a reaction to the free hand he was seemingly given when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a few days earlier during a visit to Turkey that Assad’s future ‘will be decided by the Syrian people’ — meaning that the United States no longer demanded his departure.”

Coincidence (or good/bad luck for players, depending on their positioning). As always in this life, there is a possibility that this was a sheer coincidence—this is the explanation that Russians are promoting (that the “regular” airstrike by Syrian Army has by accident, randomly hit the militants’ chemical weapons storage while bombing the militants’ general munition warehouse, also used for supplies to Iraq). With little success though, if to judge by the other sides’ rejection of this narrative. Moreover, Tillerson went as far as to suggesting to reporters on Thursday that, “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent.” Tough an accusation.

Third parties. I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but this time around the timing, the selection of subject and even victims (more than twenty children among the overall reported seventy-four people killed), and the immediate and unequivocal reaction—all point to a possibility of well-thought out, in advance planned and timely executed plot.

Lessons

Whoever stands behind it (we may never learn for sure), one lesson to learn is that this war has tied up in one knot so many interests of too diverse actors that ending it is not going to be an easy task, if at all possible.

I recently argued in one discussion that we may have to redefine the notions of “victory” and “the end of war” when it comes to Syria (and perhaps some other places, such as Libya) so that to be realistic of what we as international community (considering that there is still a common interest to qualify as “the community” with regards to this war) actually can and aim at achieving. A year ago, I wrote about Syrian war warning that it was becoming a “perfect war” with no control over it and hence, no peace in sight. A lot of things have changed since, but only tactically.  Strategic interests of major players in this geopolitical game remain unchanged. The attack in Khan Sheikhoun was just another reminder.

That is why it does not come as surprise that experienced politicians saw a window of opportunity for them to re-engage and to attempt at changing, if not reversing, the power balance in Syria (which was shaping towards favouring Russia, Iran and its proxies, and Turkey to certain degree). What else would you read from a statement made by the EU President Tusk made via Twitter: “U.S. strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the U.S. to end brutality in Syria”?

One of commentators this week has concluded his article by drawing the following lesson from the alleged gas attack of Khan Sheikhoun, claiming that “In general … what happened in Syria on Tuesday is a reminder that those at greatest risk of chemical weapons attacks are those whose government wishes to make an example of them.” I would dare suggesting that the scope of usual suspects to be extended in this case as to read that those at greatest risk of chemical (and any other brutal) attacks are those whom the domestic and external players alike wish to make an example in their game. And that means each one of us.

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Ukraine and the Game of Geopolitical Go

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Image Credit: Sasha Maksymenko

by Elbay Alibayov

Political skills are frequently compared to chess-playing. However, it is the game of Go that comes closest to the art and craft of geopolitics. Go is a territorial game, where objective is to control more territory than the opponent. And the playground is big enough to allow performing poorly (or failing) in some areas but still winning the game by doing better on the board as a whole. Ukraine is the case in point.

Another milestone

Three years ago, on 18 March 2014, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Crimea signed an accession agreement with Russia that resulted in forming new constituent entities within the Russian Federation. The agreement was signed two days after the citizens of Ukraine’s then Autonomous Republic of Crimea and city of Sevastopol voted to join the Russian Federation at the independence referendum (which was not recognized by the Ukrainian authorities). The move was (and still is) regarded in Russia as an historic act of “reunification”, while it was met with an outcry on the West and in the neighbouring countries, and was largely branded as the final act in “Russian annexation” of the Crimean peninsula (further to military occupation in February that created the conditions for the referendum).

For those observers who are familiar with historic background of the Russo-Ukrainian relations and their geopolitical context, it did not come as surprise though: the issue of Crimea (and especially the port of Sevastopol) and subsequent eastern Ukraine separatism are just another milestones on a long route of settling the relations between Russia and Ukraine in contemporary, post Soviet, history. Which itself is just a small section of a millennium long common history, with its numerous zigzags, highs and lows, infightings, controversies and moments of common pride (it is enough to remind that the Russian and Ukrainian statehood has started from Kievan Rus’ of 9-13th centuries; while Crimea becoming firmly part of the Russian Empire after the 1783 annexation and then changing hands in the course of the 20th century).

Sevastopol and national security

The irony of Russian geography is that, in spite of having a vast territory stretching from East Europe to the Far East, Russia is comparable to a land-locked country in terms of useful naval access to the world’s main theatres of action. That is why Crimean peninsula scores high in Russia’s national security strategy, and she cannot afford losing it. It is obvious that Crimea’s annexation was only an issue of time. The work in this direction started early in the post-Soviet times—already in the 1990s some Russian nationalist politicians were declared persona non grata, for meddling into Ukrainian internal affairs (under the pretext of protecting the interests of ethnic Russian or “Russian speaking” population).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine were negotiating the division of fleet and military and naval bases inherited by the newly independent states. From 1997 Russia was leasing the military bases of Sevastopol port from Ukraine, as per Partition Treaty. For quite some time, the sides were using their bargaining chips (gas supply and transit from Russia vs. Sevastopol bases of Ukraine) within tolerable margins.

Things became complicated once the United States and the European Union backed pro-democracy opposition groups started challenging the established status quo. Even worse for Russia, once coming to power after the so-called “orange revolution” of 2004-05, they began openly threatening to discontinue the leasing (which was due to expire in 2017). The situation temporarily normalized when the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was installed in Kiev. The agreement was immediately renewed and extended for another twenty-five-year period until 2042 (known as the Kharkiv Accords).

However, the Euromaidan protests of the opposition forces in 2014 saw Yanukovych ousted, and that was a signal for the Russian military that the time has come for action. Russia simply could not allow this happening. Honestly speaking, no one (at least among actual or those aspiring to be great powers) would.

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Crimea: a done deal

So where is Crimea now? The answer is simple and clear: Crimea is gone; forget it. It has quickly passed a grey zone (limbo, if you wish) of “no return—no further transformation” and has comfortably integrated into the Russian state. And it seems that, over time, everyone has accepted this stand of affairs.

No return means that there is no chance Crimea will be part of Ukraine ever again, given its strategic, even existential, importance to Russia: Crimean peninsula is the only place that hosts its Black Sea Fleet—one of very few outposts from where Russia can defend its southern borders and geopolitical interests in the region, as well as project its strategic offensive capabilities globally. Moreover, since the annexation Russia has deployed additional forces to strengthen its surface and sub-surface combatants and amphibious primary based in Sevastopol, Karantinnaya and Streletskaya Bays, as well as naval aviation and air defence located in nearby bases along with naval infantry.

On the other hand, there was a smallish chance that Crimea would be formally recognized as an independent state by other states and the UN any time soon. That meant no transformation into a fully fledged sovereign state; and declaring independence while being de jure part of Ukraine and de facto Russia’s satellite did not seem a feasible option, either. The only transformation from the grey zone practically justifiable (and the one that Russia did not hesitate undertaking) was integration—that is, Crimea becoming formally the part of Russian Federation. Therefore, for Russia (and by extension for all others) Crimea can be considered (at the very least, for the visible future) as fait accompli.

Eastern Ukraine: a prize no one dares to win

Eastern Ukraine, particularly people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk of the Donbass region (acronym for Donetsk [Coal] Basin), is following suit. The circumstances of Donbass are different from those of Crimea, but the destination is the same—into the grey zone where it becomes a low intensity irritant and a bargaining chip. The principal difference being that the Donbass entities are going to stay there at least in the immediate to medium term, if not indefinitely. There are reasons for that.

First comes the superiority of objectives. For Russia, the Donbass uprising has served as a supplement, to distract attention from Crimea and allow settling the primary issue (i.e., everyone to accept Crimea’s secession and integration, or annexation, even though without overwhelming formal recognition internationally) while creating a buffer zone and a constant irritant in Ukraine that will make the neighbor’s government vulnerable and more dependent on Kremlin, to extent necessary for keeping it on a safe distance from the meaningful, full-blown Euro-Atlantic integration.

Moreover, there is a principal difference between Crimea and Donbass in terms of conflict dynamics and political economy. The former was taken in a clinically performed operation and today is firmly controlled by Kremlin and does not seem to create any problems neither within its federal entity borders nor to its neighbours (I even read the reports in Russian media about how much Crimean Tatars, who initially were opposed to secession from Ukraine, come to “appreciate their newly obtained liberty”). For anyone raising their voice of concern (it still occasionally happens nowadays), the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has an immediate response pointing to Kosovo. Legalists may debate the nuances of course, but it hardly would affect the real situation on the ground.

This is not the case with Donbass and its two self-declared entities—Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Political economy of the conflict here includes numerous non-state actors, ranging from separatist groups to anti-Russian paramilitary battalions with diverse ideologies and allegiance, and various gangs who proliferate from the chaos and lawlessness and thus are interested in sustaining the present situation rather than ending the war. They have seized control of many industrial sites and are engaged in all sorts of illicit production and smuggling activities as within the region so across the borders.

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According to reports, separatists have seized control of steel mills, coal mines and other enterprises, and up until recent were trading with the government controlled territory.  In turn, paramilitary battalions (such as Azov, Aidar, Tornado), as revealed in international investigations, ignore the rule of law and “have been involved in widespread abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.” Paradoxically, such groups may be of lesser headache in a low intensity conflict and lack of state control than in post-conflict situations when they play a destabilizing role and undermine the rehabilitation and state-building attempts of central authorities.

Next, Donbass is not of existential importance to Russia. Given the outdated infrastructure, degraded condition of coal mines and steel mills of the region (all demanding quite urgent and considerable investment with doubtful prospects of competitiveness), it does not represent such a great economic value to Ukraine either. The cost of physical rehabilitation is estimated in tens of billions dollars; who is going to pay for that?

To sum up, today neither Russia nor Ukraine has an appetite for fully embracing the Donbass, for it will come at prohibitive economic, social and political cost. The intricacy of Ukraine’s position is well summed in one of recent articles: “The good news is that Ukraine is prepared for all-out war with Russia; it is also prepared for and could cope with aid cutoffs from Washington and the end of sanctions. The bad news is that Kiev is thoroughly unprepared for the one scenario that could destroy Ukraine at little cost to Putin: Russia’s return of the Donbass.”

Power the aim, people not in equation

For the time being the strategic positioning of sides to the conflict over control of territories in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been temporarily settled. “Temporarily” here may mean without meaningful change for decades to come, however. It appears that such a solution serves the interests of all state and non-state actors involved, directly or indirectly.

This is true for the status of Crimea, but becomes increasingly so with regards to Donbass and the implementation of Minsk II agreement that ought to bring peace to the troubled region. Two years after its signing, some analysts observe that “as the Minsk 2 process is now merely a self-sustaining diplomatic fiction, it has consequently become pointless; but it has also become indispensable. The present status quo and ‘neither war nor peace’ scenario is benefiting everybody, including the international community, as it justifies its lack of deeper involvement.”

“Benefits everybody”… well perhaps it is fair to say that it serves all but the ordinary citizens. And they are those who are paying the ultimate cost of the conflict. According to UN Human Rights Commissioner’s data, about ten thousand people have been killed (including two thousand civilians) and close to twenty-three-and-half thousand injured since the mid-April 2014. And it does not count the displacement, loss of jobs and hard earned property, the minimalist services and quality of life, insecurity of daily life and uncertain future, etc.

But hey… let me put it straight: people (whether human lives or their well-being) are never taken into geopolitical calculus by group actors, independently of what they claim in their public statements. Just look around… Whether we like it or not, the rule established by humankind since the dawn of civilization is that in political game, including the geopolitical game of Go, anything else but power can be sacrificed.

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Global Security: Governance and Benevolence

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Munich Security Conference 2017, 17-19 Feb 2017 (Image credit: MSC/Mueller)

Reflections on the week passed

by Elbay Alibayov

I was following the Munich Security Conference this week. There was a bit of everything, which is perhaps only natural. My initial impressions (not an analysis or a detailed account of the event):

A lot of open discussions, good judgement and right, if not uneasy, messages (particularly coming from European representatives; I liked the address by EU’s foreign affairs chief Mogherini and Angela Merkel’s confident leadership, especially in the face of rather cautious, if not modest presentation by the US team).

Some narrow agenda driven stances and accusations (for example, an orchestrated attack of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran as the only source of security problem in the Middle East; it is no doubt, but only part of the problem, the rest being contributed by themselves). It is time to recognise that there is not going to be peace, order and prosperity in the Middle East unless the region’s most influential actors learn to cooperate in spite of differences and disagreements on particular issues.

Some eyebrow raising events (like the formal meeting, at the sidelines of the conference, of two delegations from Iraq led respectively by PM al-Abadi and Kurdistan’s president Barzani) and inconsistencies (like both the Afghanistan’s President Ghani and Pakistan’s Defence Minister Asif rightfully claiming that their countries are at the forefront of fighting global terrorism, while on the same very day Pakistani military conducting border shelling and, according to local sources, crossing the border under the pretext of destroying the terrorist base in Nangarhar).

Some awakening calls on new global threats (namely, the warning of bio-terrorism by Bill Gates) and some disappointing news (like the admission by Thomas de Maiziere that there is no meaningful cooperation between European security organisations and the UN counter-terrorism body).

Whether this will translate into constructive and well thought out and coordinated action remains to be seen. One thing was clear is that the way international affairs are conducted has changed. Perhaps this was most explicitly stated by the Russian FM Lavrov in his call to embrace a new world order. Otherwise, the spirit of changed international affairs was expressed in the title of the security report published prior to the Conference: “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order.”

It seems that everyone agrees that we are living in a sort of “ante” era of global governance—in between the “post” (as represented by the system established after World War II and amended after the end of Cold-War) and before the new system is established and functional. What this new global governance system will look like nobody knows yet; it only takes shape (also through various tests undertaken here and there by global and regional actors) but as an objective process moves forward, whether some like it or not.

There is also one thought that does not leave me for many years, since the early 1990s when I first saw the face of human suffering in real life, not through the TV screen (shockingly, these were hundreds thousands of refugees and displaced people in my country, among them my relatives, forced from their places of residence by the Nagorno Karabagh conflict). After that, living and working in Bosnia (from Srebrenica to Sarajevo), in Kabul and Baghdad… it does not leave me alone… Isn’t this all suffering enough? What sort of moral impetus do we need to be humans?

Something is wrong with us as humankind. We may be (and are most of the time) benevolent as individuals but lack Humanity as organised groups. As groups, we easily humiliate, torture, kill. We feel little empathy for other’s sufferings. We fail to see the loss of a single life as tragedy. And when it happens en masse, it is only statistics and labels to us that matters. This is something that has not changed through the millenia of human history…

In the words of Hitchens, we have “downgraded” people to the level of “problems” (thanks to Shadi Hamid for sharing through Twitter this brilliant essay, A Valediction for Edward Said, written by Christopher Hitchens back in 2003). He wrote it about Palestinians, but his observation holds true to many other people: “People may lose a war or a struggle or be badly led or poorly advised, but they must not be humiliated or treated as alien or less than human.” No global security or development agenda will be working and delivering peace and prosperity unless we understand this.

 

2017 Annual Forecast: Europe

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Image Credit: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

“In 2017, the eurozone crisis could enter a new, more dangerous stage.”

For Europe, political and economic risk is nothing new. For years, nationalism, populism, conflicting strategic interests, low economic growth and high unemployment have driven EU members apart. The eurozone has seen a variety of threats to its existence over the past decade, connected to issues such as high levels of debt, fragile banking sectors and growing Euroskepticism. But so far it has managed to survive them. In 2017, however, the eurozone crisis could enter a new, more dangerous stage as risk reaches its largest political and economic players. As it does, it will threaten the future of the institutions that govern the Continent in more profound ways than before.

The coming risk will be most pronounced in Italy, France and Germany. Nationalist forces have been building steam for years and will show their strength in general elections in Germany and France – and potentially Italy, if its government resigns before the end of the legislative session in mid-2018. And even if they fail to win some or all of these elections, the nationalists’ popularity will nonetheless influence the decisions of their countries’ leaders, furthering the political fragmentation of the European Union, increasing the demands for a return of sovereignty to national governments, and leading to more unilateral actions by member states. Uncertainty about political events in these core countries will also increase financial risk, especially in the banking sector.

And as it deals with these issues from within, the European Union will also have to deal with new issues from without – namely, the new global order that began the minute Donald Trump was elected. Questions over the reliability of NATO’s security umbrella, not to mention recent terrorist attacks, will create opportunities for EU members to work together on security and defense. But growing Euroskepticism and domestic political considerations will prevent them from implementing economic and financial reform. Countries in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, will focus on regional and bilateral cooperation to try to show a united front against Russia.

Questions About the Future

What happens in France, Germany and Italy – the eurozone’s three biggest economies – in 2017 will influence one another and indeed the entire currency union. The elections in France and Germany will test the Franco-German alliance, upon which the European Union was founded, and the economic duress in Italy will test the stability of the eurozone. Political tension will again develop between Northern and Southern Europe, which hold different views on the future of the eurozone.

France will be preoccupied with its elections for the first few months of 2017. During this time, the outgoing government will not introduce any significant reforms. The same cannot be said for the new government, regardless of who wins. Though most of the presidential candidates have similar stances on security issues – most, for example, support tough measures to fight terrorism and limit immigration – they differ markedly on economic issues. Voters will have to decide whether they want programs that will deregulate and liberalize the French economy or if they want added protectionism.

The presidential election, held in two rounds and scheduled for April and May, will show that a significant number of voters support anti-globalization and nationalist positions. This will affect France’s moves even if the moderates win. The next government is likely, therefore, to be skeptical about free trade and focus on security and defense – and support plans to enhance both at the EU level. The president can be expected to introduce measures to limit immigration, to push Brussels to redesign the Schengen agreement and to improve the European Union’s border controls. It will criticize the European Commission, even going so far as to demand that it scale back its responsibilities.

If moderates win, they will petition the eurozone to repatriate some powers to its constituent members (something that will clash with Germany’s demands for a more apolitical administration of the common currency). The new government will probably also push for better relations with Russia. If the far-right National Front wins, the French government will probably introduce measures to limit the free movement of goods, people, services and capital throughout the European Union. It can also be expected to announce plans for a referendum on France’s EU membership.

And therein lies the problem for the European Union: The bloc has been breaking apart for several years, but without France – a founding member whose alliance with Germany was the basis for its very formation – its dissolution is likely irreversible. In the ensuing crisis, the union would fragment into smaller regional groups. Questions about the future of the eurozone would trigger a run on Southern Europe’s banks and precipitate the collapse of the currency area.

Ahead of its own general election in September or October, Germany will try to keep the European Union united. But it will be difficult for Berlin to do so. The members of the ruling coalition, composed of center-right and center-left legislators, will try to distinguish themselves from one another before the vote, during which the government in Berlin will avoid making any significant decisions on EU issues. Conflicting national interests among EU members will also make consensus on EU reform difficult to find. (One of the few areas where Germany and its EU peers can find some degree of understanding, however, is defense and security.)

Significant EU reforms on financial or economic areas should not be expected. Germany and its northern neighbors will be even more at odds than usual with the south over the management of the eurozone, given the political pressures endemic to election seasons. The government in Berlin will remain skeptical about issues such as granting debt relief to Greece or allowing eurozone members to miss the European Union’s deficit targets. Germany is also likely to conflict with the European Central Bank (ECB), especially if the economic case for quantitative easing continues to weaken. Germany and its northern neighbors will advocate the program’s termination, though the ECB, in light of continued economic weakness in the periphery, may resist any effort to that end.

Security and immigration will feature prominently in the German electoral campaign. The general election will show that German voters are willing to support smaller parties on the left and on the right. This will probably lead to a more divided parliament and to difficult coalition talks. While the nationalists may perform well enough to get some members into the legislature, they will be excluded from coalition negotiations.

What could force Germany to take a more decisive role in the European Union, however, would be a victory by the Euroskeptic forces in France or Italy. If that happens, Berlin would try to preserve the bloc and reach an understanding with the rebel governments to introduce internal reform. But the government in Berlin would also hedge its bets by making plans with its regional allies in the event the European Union and eurozone do, in fact, disintegrate.

As for Italy, political uncertainty, low economic growth and high debt levels will once again raise questions about the future of the eurozone’s third-largest country – and about the currency union as a whole. Italy’s caretaker government will be weak, and early elections are probable. No matter who is in charge, the Italian government will push for flexibility on EU fiscal targets and demand solidarity from its EU partners to deal with the immigration crisis. The government in Rome will also be ready to act unilaterally and criticize the European Union to achieve its goals.

If Italy holds early elections, the fear of a victory by anti-establishment forces would hurt Italian banks, raise borrowing costs and generate pressure on the euro. A victory of the Euroskeptics would put Italy on a collision course with the European Union. The first reaction by Germany and EU institutions would be to accommodate the new government in Rome and prevent it from putting membership in the eurozone to a vote. In the long run, however, that kind of referendum will be difficult to avoid. In 2017, therefore, Italy will be one of the greatest risks to the currency area.

The Netherlands, one of the eurozone’s wealthiest countries and an important player in Northern Europe, will hold a general election in March. As in other eurozone countries, Euroskeptic and anti-immigration forces there will have a prominent role, showing that discontent with the status quo is strong. Even in the likely case the Euroskeptics fail to access power, their influence will force the Dutch government to become more and more critical of the European Union, resisting plans to deepen Continental integration and siding with other Northern European countries in their criticism of events in the south. If events in France and Italy bring about the collapse of the eurozone, the Netherlands would react by continuing to work with Germany and other Northern European countries.

Elsewhere, in the European periphery, the minority government of Spain will be forced to negotiate with the opposition on legislation, leading to a complex decision-making process and to pressures to reverse some of the reforms that were introduced during the height of the economic crisis. Catalonia will continue to push for its independence as its government challenges Madrid in some instances, ignores it entirely in others, and negotiates with it when necessary. Even if negotiations to ease frictions between Madrid and Catalonia take place, the central government will not authorize a legal referendum on independence, and Catalonia will not abandon its plans of holding it. Tensions will remain high in 2017, but Catalonia will not unilaterally declare independence this year.

In Greece, the government will continue pushing its creditors for additional measures of debt relief, but because of the German elections there will be little progress on the issue. With debt relief temporarily off the table, Athens will demand lower fiscal surplus targets and will reject additional spending cuts. Relations between Athens and its creditors will be tense, but there should be room for compromise. The resignation of the Greek government is possible, albeit improbable, considering that the emergence of opposition forces in the country makes the outcome of early elections highly uncertain – and the government has no guarantee of retaining power.

An Eventual Understanding on the Brexit

In 2017, the debate in the United Kingdom will not be whether the Brexit should happen but how it should happen. The British government will be divided on how to approach the negotiations with the European Union, and the Parliament will demand a greater say in the process. The issue will create a constant threat of early elections, but even if such elections do come to pass, they would only delay the Brexit, not derail it. The government and the Parliament will eventually reach an understanding, however, and the United Kingdom will formally announce its intentions to leave the European Union.

Once the negotiations begin, the United Kingdom will push for a comprehensive trade agreement to include as many goods and services as possible – one that would also give the country more autonomy on immigration. This would involve either signing a free trade agreement with the European Union or agreeing on Britain’s membership in Europe’s customs union, an area where member states share a common external tariff. A transitional agreement to buy London more time to negotiate a permanent settlement will probably also be part of the discussion. London and the European Union will also negotiate the terms of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal, including its EU budget commitments and the status of British citizens in the European Union and the status of EU citizens in the United Kingdom. Given the magnitude of these issues, not to mention the magnitude of the elections in France and Germany, several of the most important decisions will be delayed until at least 2018.

Many Divisions, Some Exploited

Countries of Central and Eastern Europe will circle the wagons to protect themselves from what they see as potential Russian aggression – and from the uncertainty surrounding U.S. foreign policy. Leading the charge will be Poland, which will try to enhance political, economic and military cooperation with its neighbors. It will also support the government in Ukraine politically and financially and will lobby Western EU members to keep a hard stance on Moscow by advocating the continuation of sanctions, increasing military spending, supporting Ukraine, etc. – a position the Baltic states and Sweden are likely to support. Unsure though Warsaw may be about the Trump administration, the government will still try to maintain good ties with the White House as it continues to defend a permanent NATO presence in the region. Countries in the region may even pledge to spend more on defense.

Not all countries will react the same way to this new geopolitical environment, of course. Hungary or Slovakia, for example, do not have the same sense of urgency as Poland when it comes to Russia, so their participation in pre-emptive measures could be more restrained.

Moscow’s attempts to exploit divisions within the European Union will strain German-Russian relations. Germany will try to keep sanctions against Russia in place but will face resistance from some EU members, which would rather lift sanctions to improve their relations with Moscow. Germany will also defend cooperation on defense and security as a way to deal with uncertainty about NATO and Russia. The German government will continue to support Ukraine politically and financially, but not militarily.

In the meantime, Russia will exploit divisions within the European Union by supporting Euroskeptic political parties across the Continent and by seeking to cooperate with the friendlier governments in the bloc. Some countries, including Italy, France and Austria, will advocate improved relations with Russia, giving Moscow a better chance to break the sanctions bloc in the union. Some level of sanctions easing from the European Union is likely by the end of the year.

Stopping Migration at Its Source

There is only so much EU member states can do to stem the flow of migrants in 2017. In the Central Mediterranean route, Brussels will try to halt migrants from leaving Africa by cooperating with their countries of origin and by working with the primary transit states. But the difficulty in actually severing African migration routes and the absence of any viable government in Libya will limit the European Union’s ability to halt the flow of peoples through the Central Mediterranean.

In the Eastern Mediterranean route, the European Union will keep its line of communication with Turkey open, its political differences with Ankara notwithstanding. European elections and internal divisions, however, will prevent the bloc from giving in to many of Turkey’s demands, particularly the one that grants visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. A short window of opportunity on the issue will open in the first months of the year, but if no progress is made before Europe’s electoral cycle begins in March in the Netherlands, the issue will be postponed for the rest of the year. Agreements on less controversial issues such as trade and funds will be somewhat easier to approve.

Aware of how unreliable their outside partners are, EU members will try to shield themselves as much as possible. They will continue to toughen their national migration laws, and to increase deportations, to discourage migrants from coming in the first place. Otherwise, the European Union can still tighten its border controls, but there will always be a debate – one waged between the countries of arrival (such as Italy and Greece) and the countries of destination (Northern Europe) – over Brussels’ failure to develop a coherent migration policy.

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2017 Annual Forecast series on PolicyLabs:

2017 Annual Forecast is republished with permission of Stratfor

European Union and Iran: Turning the Page?

By Elbay Alibayov

On 25 October, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the EU strategy towards Iran. It is a comprehensive document consisting of five sections under a preamble: (a) political dialogue, (b) trade & economy, (c) sectoral cooperation, (d) regional security, and (e) socio-economic issues, rule of law, democracy and human rights. It covers a broad range of cooperation areas and activities (rightfully calling them ‘an ambitious plan’) and envisages the reopening of the EU Office in short term perspective, to facilitate the dialogue and joint activities to the mutual interest and benefit. But it is not only the content of this important document but the timing and contexts in which it occurs make it especially interesting.

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Acting in concert? The EU and Iranian Foreign Ministers at a news conference, 2015 (Photo: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY)

 

Europe and Iran: mutual interests

European countries and Iran (or Persia) have a centuries-long history of coexistence, where partnership and collaboration have been mixed with competition and rivalry and confrontation, often-time simultaneously. It is only natural, given geographic proximity, shared economic and security interests, and diverse social and cultural ties. They also need each other more than ever today, for various reasons.

For the European economies still struggling to recover after the crisis Iran may offer a golden opportunity. Iran is the world’s largest economy outside the WTO, with high growth potential in many sectors; its GDP was worth 425.33 billion US dollars in 2014. The biggest sector of Iran´s economy is services (such as real estate and specialized and professional services; trade, restaurants and hotels; and public services), which account for more than half of GDP. Oil production constitutes about a quarter of the output, with manufacturing and mining, agriculture, construction and electricity, gas and water distribution being among the largest contributors.

The recent World Bank assessment expects Iran’s growth to rise to 4.2 and 4.6 percent in 2016 and 2017 respectively, as a result of the lifting of the sanctions and a more business-oriented environment. It also stresses the importance of strong capital inflows, including Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and the repatriation of part of the frozen assets for the economy’s fast recovery.

Iran needs Europe, too. It needs contracts, investment, technology transfers, more jobs—and as soon as possible, as a land awaits rain after a long draught season. Europe can offer, along with investment and technology, its state-of-the-art financial services but also, importantly, facilitate Iran’s faster global economic integration, and thus help getting post-sanctions benefits at higher pace (especially compared how things have been developing thus far—understandably enough but still to disappointment of Iranians) and broader extent. Europe can also add its voice to advocate for the firm place to be secured for Iran in global security and other Middle East related international talks (which is anyways happening, through the Russian and US joint efforts, namely in Syria and Iraq).

This is not all economy for Iran, however. Growth is slower than expected after the signing of Iran Nuclear Deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) and the economy’s performance is subject to heated debates in Iran. Unemployment rate (Q1 2016) in Iran has grown to reach 11.8 percent, and the inflation rate (as of September 2016) went up to 9.5 percent, with the interest rate making rather modest decline from 22 to 20 percent. That is not enough to overcome the daunting economic and financial problems. Neither is it enough to satisfy the demands of the population, especially youth. The debate and consequent criticism of the reformist government led by President Hassan Rouhani has taken its high pick as of recent, with the next year’s presidential elections approaching.

Today, Iran is still considered a high risk market. It currently is not rated for sovereign risk classifications by private credit rating agencies (CRAs, such as Moody’s, Standard & Poors, Fitch etc), but Iran’s country risk assessment as per the OECD classification of the Participants to the Arrangement on Officially Supported Export Credits equals to 6 (on the scale from 1 to 7; ascending risk), as of 28 October 2016. [To compare with the others in the region: Egypt is 6, Saudi Arabia is 2, while Oman and Qatar both stand at 3.]

The risks notwithstanding, Iran is assessed as a market with potentially extraordinary high return opportunities for investors. It is not accidental that Russia, Turkey and China have tightened their political and economic relations with Tehran, after the sanctions lifted as a result of the nuclear deal. Today, it is pretty much ‘first come first serve’ market, but if everything develops as envisioned in the JCPOA and commitments on both sides kept, it is not going to be like that forever. Competition will be high, and it makes sense to be among the first to take critical segments in the growing economy in distress. The way how Airbus and Boeing pushed their pending approval contracts (combined worth 44.6 billion dollars) with Iran through is quite indicative.

Britain: New (old) rival

Russia, Turkey and China as the Europe’s competitors are ‘known knowns’ in the Middle East geopolitical theatre. But hey, why to look far away? There is a capable rival next door that has just recently emerged out of the Brexit—United Kingdom, with its all advanced financial, legal and other satellite services and an infrastructure for transactions and global operations. Britain may now take its chances and endeavour in setting own deal with Iran, apart from the EU. Ironically, the initial report on which the resolution is based was produced by the British Labour party’s Member of European Parliament (MEP) Richard Howitt back in June this year (before Brexit referendum, to be sure). Britain always has had an interest in Iran and actively involved in political and economic relations (including some notorious interventions, like MI6 in alliance with CIA deposing the elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953—something that Iranians have neither forgotten nor forgiven).

There is a sizeable Iranian Diaspora in the UK, to advocate for the expansion of relations, too: According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates the number of UK residents of Iranian origin was about 86,000 in 2015. At the same time, Iran apparently is contributing the largest number of asylum seekers in the UK, and their number is growing:  in the year ending June 2016 there were 5,466 applicants registered (2,920 more than in previous year)—much more than from other top contributors Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. Britain is making moves to normalise the relations. Along with intensifying the diplomatic ties and reopening the Embassy in Tehran in summer 2015, the Government has removed Bank Saderat Iran (BSI) from its list of sanctioned entities (as of 22 October 2016).

Americans indecisive yet

The United States may not be as eager as Europeans, to engage in business with Iran full-steam and right away, due to various political reasons at home (uncertainty with regards to the new administration’s foreign policy and with ever-strong hardcore politics lobbying for tough stances, including in normalising the relations with Iran) and abroad, with commitments under lasting strategic alliances in the region (with Israel and Saudi Arabia, both being in their own competition with Iran and watching the US warming up towards Iran with jealousy if not resent, and actively lobbying against it) and being occupied at the moment with much less pleasant business of dealing with numerous wars and former allies disintegrating, if not turning back (the recent rhetoric of the Philippines President Duterte is indicative of changing allegiance).

The tag-of-war over the Middle East strategies and particularly those related to Iran is at its high at this point, considering the golden moment opening up to influence the yet-to-be-formulated foreign policy of the new US President. For example, the Atlantic Council’s recent strategy paper while acknowledging the risks involved, calls the United States ‘to prepare for an eventual normalization of relations’ with Iran. To the contrary, the report on new world order commissioned by the Center for a New American Security (a think tank said to be close to the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton), takes a customary hawkish approach towards building future relations with Iran: ‘[t]he United States must adopt as a matter of policy the goal of defeating Iran’s determined effort to dominate the Greater Middle East’ and making it even more clear, ‘Tehran should understand that Washington is not expecting the nuclear agreement to lead to a changed relationship with the government of Iran.’

The truth is that the US needs Iran for economic reasons (such as an oil and gas supplier or for investment of its companies) much less than for geopolitical, security reasons. And even in geopolitical calculations, Iran is not on the top of its agenda (as long as there is no major trouble, beyond the rhetoric). That said, the American companies, strategic investors and transnational corporations headquartered in the US keep a close eye on Iran, weighing the political risks and ready to engage once situation appears favourable.

First reactions

All this being good and promising, the Euro Parliament’s resolution has also quite elaborate statements on the human rights issues. And this is what triggered the reaction, especially of conservatives.

The issues explicitly addressed in the resolution (and this means not only mention but call for action, greater cooperation with international organisations and human rights NGOs, and international periodic reviews) include: death-penalty executions; proper and independent functioning of civil society organisations; human rights defenders; freedom of expression both online and offline, of opinion, of association and peaceful assembly, of thought, conscience, religion or belief; individual, social and political rights without discrimination or persecution on grounds of sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, gender, sexual orientation or other status; basic right to equality before the law, as well as the right of equal access to education, health care and professional opportunities; fair trial guarantees; release of all political prisoners and imprisoned EU citizens;  individuals imprisoned from religious minority communities or because of their beliefs; full gender equality to ensure women’s equal participation in the labour market and in all aspects of economic, cultural, social and political life; respecting the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Did I miss something?

Unsurprisingly, the establishment felt concerned. But not much threatened if to judge by the scale and intensity of responses. Iranians are known for their diplomatic skill and pragmatism. They know perfectly well that the human rights issues shall be in the EU resolution but hardly they will constitute a mandatory precondition to economic relations (they are well aware of practices; take China or Saudi Arabia, their rival, as an example). Still, they realise that certain concession might be required in this respect, and show readiness to talk. Impositions do not work, everyone knows that by now. The openness to discuss certain issues is already a good starting point and shall not be underestimated (although high hopes on Iran taking any steps immediately, if at all, might be equally misleading).

The language of first reactions (especially comments of broadly quoted Iranian judiciary’s Human Rights Council, Mohammad Javad Larijani who bluntly dismissed the human rights related interventions as corrupt) and the government’s response (the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Bahram Qassemi press statement, where he downplayed those demands from the resolution as not correlated to existing realities  and urged the European Parliament to take a more positive attitude towards Iran by passing ‘constructive and realistic resolutions’) points to that.

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The Euro Parliament’s resolution and recent hyper activity of the EU institutions and European governments vis-à-vis Iran (including additional aid funding to cope with humanitarian issues) comes at interesting times. On the one hand, the global developments indicate of a new world order emerging: at the very least, it is shaping towards a global governance with more than one power centres acting on the area/region and issue-based power sharing rather than the old-times Cold War and post-communist era arrangements (of the last quarter-century) where global spheres of influence were either distributed between two super-powers or one powerhouse dominating anyone else.

On the other hand, various internal country and region specific and global events and developments coincide and thus create a juncture point offering new opportunities for the parties concerned—to strategically reposition and strengthen their standing, particularly in the Middle East. This means that Europeans may move ahead with expanding the relations with Iran on their own, independently of whether or when (if at all) their strategic partner the United States decides so.

 

The EU in Catch-22 Situation: Treaty Reform v Constitutional Compromises

On 6 April, the Dutch voters rejected a proposed trade and accession deal between the EU and Ukraine, in a national referendum. Ironically, the former Ukrainian President Yanukovich was ousted in a public protest two years ago because of not embracing this very deal. But there is more to that: the Freedom Party (PVV) of the Netherlands, which was a driving force behind the No move has stated that this outcome was a step towards the referendum on quitting the EU. This statement from one of the EU’s founding states coupled with the looming British referendum this summer is a clear signal that the EU is facing its toughest survival test ever—that is, political/constitutional. Being an inherently political project, the EU has struggled but shown resilience in economic and financial turmoil (exercising fluctuat nec mergitur, which also happens to be the motto of Paris), but may well sunk being tossed by political waves.

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The daunting problems

The EU is struggling today on all fronts—politically, economically and financially, socially, and security-wise. This did not happen overnight; the problems kept accumulating for quite some time but were either ignored or brushed away as irrelevant. One the one hand, the EU faces the challenges of increasingly volatile world, as anyone else in the 21 century does. This is an irreversible, objective, process brought by globalization whereby fast changing environment poses unprecedented surprises to individuals, societies, states, and international organisations. On the other hand, there is a burden of misguided policies accumulated over the years (roughly since the end of Cold War). Increasingly, the EU has resembled all the characteristics of an empire in decline:

— fast and unfeasible territorial expansion at the expense of gradual progression;

— inequality in wealth distribution, as between the centre and the peripheries so within each country;

— mass migration from the peripheries to the centre combined with the tense intergroup and interfaith relations;

— poor overall economic performance, especially vis-à-vis aggressive external competition;

— inflexible decision making processes combined with diminished government effectiveness;

— sizeable and quite expensive central bureaucracy;

— the rise of radical political movements and disintegrative forces; and finally

— the escalating security threats (having declared bellum justum, or ‘just war’, fights it on its borders and elsewhere, while being systematically rampaged by savage attacks in its heartlands).

Since the end of the Cold war, the EU has increasingly resembled all the characteristics of an empire in decline.

These are quite grave symptoms, considering what has happened with all those initially successful imperial constructs in the course of history (from Romans, China and Mesoamericans, all the way long to British, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarians as of the last century). Also, it is important to note that these problems are correlated (not necessarily cause-effect relationship tied) but vary independently, which means that (a) there hardly is a one-off (whatever fundamental) solution that can fix all the troubles, and (b) it is almost improbable to address them by ‘traditional’ EU decision-making approach. Now the question is, whether it is at all possible?

Contributing factors

One of the political science methods to look into the problem is path dependency model, which is built on a presumption that where you end up depends upon how you got there, as a result of a series of choices made in the early trials along the way. From this perspective alone, there have been various (and numerous) explanations offered. Considering the political nature of the crisis faced by the EU, I will point out to the governance related weaknesses, namely, the inability of EU institutions to make difficult decisions and undertake strong action upon them, in order to survive politically and economically in this volatile world. As a result of its institutional complexity and the intricate political dynamics involving 28 member states, policy-making in the EU is slow, increasingly ineffective and inflexible, and above all, leaning towards preservation of status quo rather than change oriented.

There are four factors which, depending on the policy in hand, combine to contribute to this situation:

* the top policy direction giving bodies (such as European Commission and the European Council) frequently hold uncoordinated stands which leaves the decisions in impasse;

* the Parliament’s rule-making function, even though upgraded after Lisbon Treaty, in effect is not up to the task;

* mushroomed European agencies act upon diverging interests and policy agendas; and

* the member states act upon different (and at times competing, if not conflicting) preferences in various policy choices.

If the former three factors can be grouped as technical contributors the latter factor is crucial, since the most significant decisions in the EU are reached not through supranational institutions but as an outcome of bargaining between the national governments. Moreover, in negotiating and building compromises they lock in their domestic preferences, so that the ‘agreements [become] reflective of the lowest common denominator of national priorities’ [1], which in terms of the quality of decisions means that not the best policy alternative but rather the least objectionable would be opted for, in the end. In this set-up, the different policy preferences of member states come as natural and can be explained by such variables as member states facing different problems; being exposed to the same problem but with varying degree of severity; or demonstrating the interests that are driven by domestic political dynamics and present-day agendas.

Key criteria of successful government: effectiveness, legitimacy, credibility

Being problematic in the best of times, this arrangement turned out to be a killing factor during the euro crisis, calling the very survival of the EU into question. Hard economic and social tests of the recent years (and in addition, the refugee crisis) have exposed the deep rooted weaknesses of the EU, which cannot be addressed by merely cosmetic institutional adjustments (if aiming to achieve long-term sustainable outcomes). As it stands today, the EU does not meet any of the three core criteria against which the performance of any democratic system is broadly judged [2]: it lacks legitimacy to take tough decisions on behalf of the EU entirety; it does not have effective controls (and institutional capacities) to ensure the implementation on the ground; and it lacks credibility with the EU citizens due to unpopular austerity policies and many other failures (mostly related to wealth redistribution and welfare). [3]

As it stands today, the EU does not meet the three core criteria against which the performance of any democratic system is broadly judged: legitimacy, effectiveness, credibility.

Therefore, it has become obvious (for quite some time already) that the Treaty reform is imperative if the European integration endeavour is to move forward. Resistance to reform of various actors being the problem by itself, there are two challenges facing the pro-reform minded political actors. First results from different perspectives, second is a constitutional puzzle in its own right.

With regards to different perspectives, it has been long observed that, while everyone speaks of the EU reform they mean quite different things (even between political actors within one country, let alone across the member states). Everyone seems to be eager to make EU thrive and the Europeans as the community to prosper, but they somewhat fail to understand, let alone support, each other’s perspective even though sometimes it is in their common interest (partially because of the different set of problems faced, as discussed above, but also due to diverging approaches to handling their domestic problems—take, for example the rise of illiberal democracy in the East European states). This miscommunication (dubbed ‘lost in translation’ and meaning much more than the language barrier) between the EU member states (plus the Brussels based supranational institutions) reminds me of a verse from Rumi’s Mathnavi-i-Manavi, where the characters want and mean the same thing (grapes, in this case), but fail do understand each other and end up in disagreement and mess:

A man gave four companions one dirham/ The first said I will get angur with it/ The second, who was Arab, answered, No!/ I want inab, and not angur, you rogue!/ The third, a Turk, in Turkish chimed: It’s mine!/ I do not want your inab, but uzum/ A Greek, the fourth, called out:/ Put a stop to all this nonsense, It’s stafil I want./ Ignorant of the secret of those names/ through discord they were led to wrangling/ Long on ignorance, of understanding shorn,/ each punched, in knuckleheadedness, the other.’

Lack of legitimacy which derives from the ‘constitutional conundrum’ is at the heart of the EU troubles: the problem is that, despite being formalised in the Lisbon Treaty, the constitutional compromises (such as compromises between the supranational and intergovernmental interests) are not supported by ‘a constitutional framework from which to derive procedures for solving disputes and building new interstate compromises.’ [4] In this set-up, even if we suppose that in the end the member states come to the customary consensus at lowest common denominator, they still face a constitutional impasse which would demand much more effort than merely understanding each other’s preferences. What happens is that the EU finds itself in a paradoxical (or absurd) catch-22 situation: in order to get out of the crisis they need to reform the Treaty, but to do so it is necessary to follow procedures which, in turn, are not envisioned by the provisions of the present Treaty.

The EU’s catch-22 situation: in order to get out of crisis it needs to reform the Treaty, but to do so it has to follow procedures which, in turn, are not envisioned by the provisions of the Treaty.

The strategy for successful EU evolvers

It is broadly accepted that the future is unknown; it is impossible to predict the consequences of our decisions accurately, let alone offer their metrics. What is possible however is to look into reality – the EU is falling apart under the pressure of daunting problems and needs to change its mentality in order to survive, remain relevant, and evolve further ahead. Despite frequently referred to as ‘European integration project’, the EU is not a project in technical terms (‘project’ by definition being a set of activities to achieve a predefined goal in a limited time and with specified resources). Instead, the EU was designed as ‘an evolving institutional arrangement without fixed end-point’, where integration should be treated as means to an end and not the final destination. [5] This suggests the adoption of a strategy built on continuous adjustment and refinement.

The situation is complicated and threatening, but not hopeless. The much needed Treaty reform is impossible today (and perhaps in the nearest time period) due to political reasons briefly outlined above. But the attempts shall not stop. I am convinced that the only way is through deliberation, research, experimentation, learning and adapting – that the EU can transition through the current crisis into its next development stage (and perhaps, even different institutional shape). Considering the difficulty and at times irrelevance of grand projects in this fast evolving and unpredictable world (they demand vast data which is not always available, and time consuming computation, and time and resources to process, assess, and prioritise, and above all – by the time they are submitted to decision makers, such policy projects are already outdated, as the conditions on the ground have changed in the meantime), it makes much more sense concentrating at tactical level.

The attempts at finding solutions for the EU’s problems must continue – by scholars, development practitioners, government technocrats, and politicians of all ranks. I would distinguish two dimensions of this endeavour. First is practical: its modus operandi is sense-making through the trial and error approach, numerous small bids simultaneously placed across a variety of policy domains, to address primarily sectoral and sub-sectoral problems thorough timely adjustments. They will add the continuous waves of ‘random, low-intensity shocks’ necessary to keep the system healthy.[5] These efforts should be a driving force behind the EU reforming, while the other dimension – dealing with conceptual issues and strategising – would comprise learning, reflecting, and elaborating on the evidence produced by the former dimension and making larger-scale recommendations grouped along various clusters, such as by the EU policy domains and pillars, over time.

The importance of the EU is not limited to the European nations and their strategic allies only. It is a historic test of an approach that can offer a practice-tested answer to centuries-long questions. It can offer a model to be followed in the future elsewhere across the globe, with the necessary adjustments to local circumstances, political tradition and culture. (Even today, after a short period of existence, in historical terms, it can offer enough material for the students of political philosophy to entertain, on topics like EU as Empire, EU as Utopia, EU as Institution of World Order, or EU as Globalisation Era Political System).

The strategy is to keep implementing multiple small-scale innovative initiatives, learning and adapting, in order to keep the fundamental policy alternatives alive for the time when the ‘politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable’, from the evolutionary perspective.

To conclude, I believe that what the pro-reform EU champions have to do is, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, to keep on with the research and discourse and diplomatic talks, while simultaneously designing and  implementing multiple small-scale innovative initiatives in various policy domains, and keep learning and adapting to the changed environment accordingly—all in all, in order to keep the fundamental policy alternatives alive for the time when the politically impossible will become the politically inevitable, from the evolutionary perspective.

 

[1] James Hampshire, ‘European migration governance since the Lisbon Treaty’, Journal of Etnic and Migration Studies, 42:4 (2016), pp.537-553 at p.549

[2] The three criteria are known as the [democratic] government’s effectiveness, legitimacy, and credibility (owing to Samuel Huntington [1991] and Philip Keefer [2007]). In his recent book Francis Fukuyama [2015], following this tradition in political science, calls the key elements to successful government a strong state, the rule of law and institutions of democratic accountability.

[3] See, for example: Pieter de Wilde and Michael Zurn, ‘Can the Politicisation of European Integration Be Reversed?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 50:1 (2012), pp. 137-153 at p.138

[4] Sergio Fabbini, ‘The Constitutional Conundrum of the European Union’, Journal of European Public Policy, 23:1 (2016), pp.84-100 at p.84

[5] Andrew Glencross, ‘Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question’, International Affairs, 91/2 (2015), pp. 303-317 at 317

[6] Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile: How to Live in the World We Don’t Understand (London: Allen Lane, 2012), p.106

[7] As quoted in the Economist, 28 January 2010: ‘Milton Friedman, who, when monetarism was being mocked in the 1970s, replied “our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”’

Britain’s EU Referendum: Communication Insights

This is a combined version of a series of instalments on the EU referendum, posted on PolicyLabs between 20 and 24 February, 2016. Their message became even more relevant since the debate has kicked off full steam ahead—with the growing confusion and polarisation among political elites and the constituency alike, as warned in these PolicyLabs posts.

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Introduction

Upon his arrival from Brussels the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he had secured a good deal for Britain and called for the referendum on EU membership to take place on 23 June. Even though the date of the referendum was confirmed only today, a debate was gaining momentum for some time already, with two opposing camps positioning themselves against each other in the halls, the media, and web-based networks. And although there is a long and zigzagging way to go, certain features of the campaign can be observed already at this point, and learning lessons now and taking timely corrective actions would definitely benefit the quality of future discussions and their eventual outcome. I will look at the debate from three angles: supply side of the politics (the Government, in this case the Prime Minister and his aides), intermediaries (campaigners from both camps and the media), and the demand side (citizens and their groups).

Part 1. Mistaking the shadow for the substance: the effects of priming

Setting the agenda, controlling the outcome

It appears rather odd to me, that after an over four-decade-long and quite happy marriage the fate of the relationship—whether to stay together or divorce—has been made dependent on the outcome of the Prime Minister’s on-going negotiations with the European leaders and the Commission.

According to Eurosceptics, the problems of Britain’s EU membership have always been of fundamental character; therefore they are much broader and deeper than present-day issues negotiated by the Government. This notwithstanding, step by step the public attention has been taken away from those big problems and ‘primed’ on the current negotiations results. The secret of priming lies in the associative nature of our memory and opinion formation, when externally introduced ideas have a capability of promoting certain causal interpretations and thus, invoking sequential thoughts and actions with relative ease. In this case, the public opinion on whether to leave or to stay in the EU is increasingly correlated with, and made dependent upon, the success of negotiations and the concessions to be made against the Prime Minister’s offers to fellow European leaders. This opens doors for mistaking the shadow for the substance, I am afraid.

From the outset, the dilemma of staying or exiting was formulated as of universal scale. And it was absolutely correct: Britain’s relationship with EU is the largest policy issue of the day because its outcome will decide which strategic path the country takes. This is a critical issue, with vested interests of a broad range of domestic and international actors involved. Britons believe that they add a unique value to the Union and therefore deserve a special, much fairer treatment. Thus, they expect meaningful concessions on a number of fundamental issues of concern.

Negotiations with the EU leadership and the heads of state, however, have not gone as successfully as intended. The most significant British proposals were dismissed right away under the pretext that the Treaty could not be revisited or precedents could not be set. This was a clear signal of where the negotiations were heading, which unfortunately did not get rightful attention at home. Today, there is no single proposal, whatever small and insignificant, where the deal is guaranteed. Even comparatively modest changes to Britain’s status are somehow acknowledged with sympathy by some countries, but not welcomed by others.

In response, British negotiators have dropped, ‘downgraded’, or replaced their demands after every unsuccessful attempt to renegotiate her status in all four major areas negotiated. Take just the relatively recent shuffling, from ‘repatriation’ of sovereignty through the exemption from ‘ever closer union’ to a group-bound ‘red cards’; from the tax and regulation ‘safeguards’ to the City, to mere recognition of the coexistence between euro and other currencies; from curbing the migration to  temporary and hardly target-hitting ‘emergency break’ with no clear mechanism behind it. And it goes on and on, leaving an impression that instead of sticking firmly to principal demands agreeable to both sides of British stay-exit divide, the negotiation team has embraced the strategy of easily accepting refusals, finding excuses, and tabling yet another, less radical offer—in a desperate bid to secure a deal, any deal, whatever the price.

This manner of dealing with difficulties of the external world has been famously observed by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. He elaborated on Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes: The fox tried hard to reach the grapes, but failed; then making light of it, he concluded that they were sour anyways. Sartre pointed out that it was not the quality of the grapes that changed in the meantime, but the fox’s perception of them—he transformed the reality in order to be able to cope with it. Sartre called this ‘escape behaviour’ from the world’s obstinacy [1]. Interestingly, a similar observation was made by Sir Harold Nicolson about ‘the average Englishman’ at the time, that ‘when faced with conditions involving tremendous and most unpleasant mental effort, he escaped from that effort by pretending that these conditions were easily remediable, or much exaggerated or actually nonexistent.’ [2]

Wrong association, irrelevant choices

Whether the above is a sign of skilful political maneuvering or the escape-behaviour, concerns us not at this point. Everyone understands the difficulty and intricacies involved in such an endeavour. This is not an easy task at all, to get a concession from 27 fellow members plus the Brussels based bureaucracy, in the environment where no one seems to live the easy times and thus tries to negotiate some ‘reforms’ to their individual or group benefit.

However, making the referendum dependent upon the outcome of negotiations has a two-fold repercussion for Britain. On the one hand, it affects the outcome of these negotiations: under the mounting pressure of public expectations at home, the British team behaves hastily and thus exposes its weakness of being desperately in need of a deal—something that their skilful European counterparts eagerly exploit. The art and craft of politics rests in making gains from never ending trade-offs, after all.

On the other hand, the public opinion on the fundamental issue is primed, made subordinate to some deal over the vaguely understood concessions which may or may not meet the level of referendum’s momentous decision. This situation resembles the observation made by the historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson: ‘The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regard as important the decisions he is allowed to take.’ [3] The reality is that, whatever issues are at stake at the negotiation table today, they still are business-as-usual of the politics, something that the officials from all member states are ought to do on an ongoing basis. They are rather technical by their nature and tactical by their level of significance, and as such, their outcome cannot and shall not determine the referendum’s result.

If we follow the behavioural pattern primed on the negotiations, then the rest appears quite predictable in the light of what is already unfolding upon the conclusion of the most recent round of Brussels talks: Britain will get the deal on one or more issues and this will create an impression of glorious victory, something that she desired on the whole. Even though it is utterly irrelevant to the subject matter, our intuitive decision-making nonetheless works so smoothly that no one will ever notice that from the outset they were simply bound to the wrongly imposed association: ‘[whatever] Concession—Britain’s demands met—We stay in’.

[1] For the interpretation of this episode from Sartre’s Sketch for a Theory of Emotions, see: Robert C. Solomon, Introducing the Existentialists: Imaginary Interviews with Sartre, Heidegger and Camus (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 1981), p.22; and Robert C. Solomon and David L. Sherman, eds., The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.170

[2] Harold Nicolson, ‘Is war inevitable?’, The Nineteenth Century and After, 126/749 (1939), pp. 1-14

[3] C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law, or The Pursuit of Progress (London: Buccaneer Books, 1993), p. 103

 

Part 2. Missing the forest for the trees: the limitations of framing

‘Either-or’ choice of a narrow frame

At the time being, the referendum debate in the media has taken shape of weighing advantages and limitations (or costs and benefits) of Britain’s membership in the EU, by the opposing camps, in order for the public to figure out the balance and make their minds. The approach being quite logical, it can be easily observed that the entire debate has been inadequately, or narrowly, framed.

Communication experts claim that frames are unavoidable, in part because they help simplifying the decision making process. As defined by political communication expert Robert Entman, ‘to frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.’ [1] The problem is that framing (whether intentionally or not) may distort the picture and risk hijacking the outcome sought—an insignificant fraction selected as representing the whole entity is given undue prominence, and in that way a decision is eventually taken. The narrow frame may also take from the table the most valuable choices to consider.

One manifestation of narrow framing is that the EU referendum’s choice has been taken as strictly ‘either-or’ business. Such an antagonistic stand-off ignores the complexity of the modern world and results in a simplistic stock-piling of arguments on the opposite arms of a balance. This is not much useful approach for the purpose of the referendum because both sides will present narratives abundant of facts and figures in support of their stance and will turn it eventually into a negative sum game, the decision theory’s situation with no winners. Continued in this fashion the discussion won’t help Britons making informed decision at the ballot box this summer (or any other date, to this matter).

The frame translates itself into two options currently debated. Even if the conditionality on negotiation results is taken out, they still do not offer a set of plausible alternatives for the public to consider. One is to stay in the EU simply because it has been more beneficial for Britain to team up with the continental Europe. This sounds as a ‘passive acceptance’ attitude, which simply surrenders to the prevailing circumstances, something like escape-behaviour. Another option is to exit from the EU because playing alone, with no commitments attached, has always been in Britain’s best interest. This is a ‘predetermined negation’ attitude towards EU which builds on the notion of Britain’s perceived comparative advantages. If we look closer at these options they do not appear to represent the reality, nor do they meet the overall intention of the referendum.

The two options are lacking a strategic perspective, the single important feature of such an endeavour as referendum. Even an unsophisticated analysis makes it obvious that these options do not stand the test: both are viewing the British/EU relations as static (based on the assessment of present moment’s snapshot or, at best, on the most recent trend) and rather one-sided (concerning the two entities only, without taking the global context into equation). In other words, this frame does not take into consideration the dynamic and evolutionary nature of political processes that are never satisfied with status quo, do not accept anything as a permanent fix but rather view them as temporary solutions to be challenged in the future, once the opportunity avails itself.

This is especially evident in the light of the most prominent of British claims—about the regaining her sovereignty.  It has also been the longest maintained concern with regards to her membership in the European Union: it is enough to recall the annoyance of European politicians at the British demands for long term sovereignty safeguards in advance, during the entry negotiations back in the 1970s. At the heart of this British quest essentially lies the same central question that was formulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau more than two centuries ago: ‘How to find a form of association, which will defend the person and goods of each other member in the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before.’ [2] This is what shall be debated. Otherwise, why to bother at all with holding such a high-profile, expensive, time and effort consuming event, which also happens to raise expectations evoked by zealous argumentation of the opposing sides?

A need for strategic focus, broader perspective

It appears that, as a result of narrow framing very important other options were left aside, thereby limiting the choice spectrum. Two of them deserve special attention. One option is to stay in order to continue the attempts at reforming the EU and getting Britain a fairer deal, from the inside. This has been a long-standing argument held by the integration proponents—that Britain stands better chances to succeed with the reforms when it is a member state. It resembles a somewhat ‘resilient’ attitude towards the rigidity of the EU’s governance. Another option is to exit the EU but leave the door open for pursuing the negotiations on a comprehensive revision of the Treaty and Britain’s place in the reformed Europe, as an outsider. To me, this option would stand for an ‘evolutionary’ attitude—one built on both the cooperation with neighbours and the strengthening of domestic societal and institutional adaptive capacity.

A detailed assessment and comparison of these two sets of options (one that is currently at offer and another briefly presented above) is beyond the scope of this article, but one example would help underlining the principal difference. Suppose that you are driving round a place you have not been before. What would you use as guidance: street signs or a map? The former is rather straightforward and easy to follow, but once you face an unexpected obstacle, you are lost. The latter, to the contrast, demands some effort to comprehend but offers various choices for navigation and thus, allows adapting to the changed circumstances. Perhaps it would be fair to say that a direct, narrow guidance is useful for tactical decisions, while mapping is the relevant guidance for deciding on strategic and complex issues.

Away from narrow frames, at this point it is possible to share two thoughts on shaping the future discussion. First is that the EU referendum debate shall adopt a forward looking approach—the one that looks beyond the referendum day and into what is going to happen after the decision is taken.  Then people will come to the ballots with realistic understanding of the consequences of their decision. Moreover, they will do so upon reflecting on the strategic choice and being prepared to answer the critical question: How do we want the European Union, Britain, and their relations develop in the decades to come?

Another insight is that the discussion shall look beyond the EU/Britain relations, to adopt a balanced view of national, European and global goals and interests. Today, cost-benefit analysis of British membership in the EU accounts for only one dimension and does not take into consideration the broader context. These relations, being multifaceted and quite nuanced in their own right, occur in a complex political, security, social and economic environment. Moreover, this environment is very dynamic and full of uncertainty—it is rapidly changing across broad variety of factors and is continuously influenced by competing (sometimes even conflicting) interests of domestic and international actors.

[1] Robert M. Entman, ‘Framing: Towards Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm,’ Journal of Communication, 42/4 (1993), p. 52

[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract on Principles of Political Right, trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Classics, 1968 [1762]), p.51

 

Part 3. Bird in the hand: the hidden workings of mental habits

Threats and opportunities

In the management theory, the notion of risk is closely linked to the effects of uncertainty on the organisation’s goals and includes both threats and opportunities. This makes perfect sense: In the complex and highly unpredictable world we live, it is difficult to know for sure whether what we see (let alone something that we try to foresee) is going to turn bringing benefits or losses, or both. It demands not only good evidence but also sound reasoning. However, it appears that due to certain sense-making mechanisms of our mind we frequently tend to hold to our initial judgements and easily dismiss any argument to the contrary, without attempting to think creatively. As a result, we miss opportunities. I will illustrate this thought on two examples which are metaphorically very close.

First case is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. When asking the Three Weird Sisters about threat posed to him, Macbeth receives two foreshadows. One of them warns that he will be safe as long as Great Birnham Wood does not move uphill to attack him. Woods attacking the king does not match with Macbeth’s predefined understanding of things and he, without giving it another thought, dismisses it outright: ‘That will never be:/ Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earthbound roots? Sweet bodements, good!’[1] Later he falls on his sword because of this overconfidence.

Now consider the case from The Histories of Herodotus. Greeks are warned that Persian king Xerxes is preparing for an unprecedentedly large-scale assault. Athenians send for an advice from the Oracle of Delphi and hear bad news that the land will be destroyed, but they will be granted a wooden wall by Zeus, as protection. They fail to make sense of it, as it does not match their mental models. Here is when Themistocles, the man who is able to see the things from a different perspective, argues that ‘the “wooden wall” meant the fleet and that they should ready themselves to fight by sea.’[2] As the story goes, the Athenians followed this advice and indeed saved their land because they took advantage and themselves surprised the invaders.

The uncertain future, therefore, is initially neutral. It is up to us actually, whether we turn our knowledge about it, whatever obscured and fragmented, into advantage or fail to prepare and thus end up being caught off guard. As one of the most influential risk authors these days, Nassim Taleb, holds in his Black Swan, ‘the idea that in order to make decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the predictability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty.’[3] This brings me to our cognitive strategies, those which we engage in making decisions on daily basis. They have direct bearing on the way how Britons will vote at the referendum.

The flows of our reasoning process

Findings of the most recent polls by YouGov [4] and Ipsos MORI [5] have confirmed the trend that was in making, at least since the last summer—the share of those willing to leave the EU is consistently increasing at the expense of those willing to stay. There is a variation, though: the former puts the ‘Leave’ camp ahead of the rivals, while the latter narrows the ‘Stay In’ camp’s lead to approximately the same percentage-point gap.  There is no contradiction in this; in fact it is something expected in polls, due to randomness of data collection (for example, the British Polling Council’s Inquiry found the variation missing in the polls leading to the 2015 General Elections as their shortcoming).  What is much more intriguing is that the trend may turn somewhat misleading and raise the exaggerated expectations. There are psychological factors in play.

Whatever the respondents say in advance, let along in the situation when everything is rather cloudy, is merely an indication, and the indication which is time bound—it reflects what is there right now. This uncertainty also encourages the poll respondents take on gambles much more eagerly than they would do otherwise. In reality, making your choice at the referendum is a much harder task than deciding at the election ballot, and there is high chance that people would tend to play safe on the day, at least for two reasons.

First is that by its nature (once in a generation event and with no third option to choose from) referendum puts huge responsibility for the consequences, on the voters. Even at individual level, normally we know what we are doing but are not in full control of consequences—some of them are unpredictable, or unintended. This spirals to another degree of significance when millions of individuals driven by their personal intentions combine together in one single act, the outcome of which, even if not set in a stone, still will determine the development direction of Britain for decades to come.

Second reason is that people are offered to trade their wellbeing (something they keep dear to their hearts) as it stands at present to the one they aspire for. This requires an individual to be mentally ready, if not eager, for such a change—and this is not our strongest feature: people are resistant to change, they prefer stability over it. This manifests itself in various ways. For example, numerous experiments have proven that we are very reluctant to give up what we posses, irrespectively of what is offered instead (in reasonable proportions, of course). Or, take our strong desire to stick with current state of affairs and endlessly postpone the game changing decision.

Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (the former is the Nobel Prize winner in Economics) explain many of these mental habits as influenced, at least partially, by loss aversion. [6] They claim that loss aversion is inherent to human decision making, deriving from the evolutionary history when people had to treat threats as more urgent task in hand. Moreover, it has been experimentally demonstrated that the pain of loss is twice as strong as the pleasure of gain. Then the wisdom of ‘a bird in the hand worthy two in the bush’ proverb becomes even mathematically proven.

Towards a two-pronged choice architecture

People’s inclination for taking the loss avoiding, conventional choices at critical moments will play its role on the referendum day. Benefits of the EU membership are known; that is to say, Britons hold them in hands and they are tangible. To the contrary, benefits that are going to accrue after breaking from the EU are yet to be experienced. This makes the job of Eurosceptics much harder. Going back to the poll figures, I would suggest that, considering the above mathematics, only a two- or three-fold percentage point advantage prior to the referendum day would be enough for them to hold a hope of winning the vote.

The insight for the campaigners from both camps is that they shall make all efforts to ensure that the debate enables people to overcome various mental traps of intuitive decision making and to make choices which are informed by what they want to have in terms of their wellbeing, rather than being driven by what they may currently (rather short-sightedly) prefer. Consider the following.

Think of people making choices about their summer vacations. Every year they decide whether to stay somewhere close to home or to go abroad, and where to go, where to stay, what sort of activities to undertake, and so forth. In so doing, the majority do not engage in complicated calculations but rather allows their emotions of that moment to drive their decision making, even though they try to make their decisions sound as well-reasoned. And sometimes they are: like, for example, driving to some local resort and camping over there, in order to save money for children’s education. What is characteristic of this process is that everyone knows that the decision they make has only an effect limited to this year (except for some really disastrous choices or simply bad luck) and the next year they will be free to do something different.

Now suppose that the same people are given a chance to permanently change their residence, for a better life (as the offer claims). This is an opportunity with an array of attractive features but also unpredictable consequences. Plus, it means leaving behind the house they have lived for years and are somehow accustomed to, the social environment and neighbourhood friends, the job, you name it. Most importantly, this is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime choice which cannot be revisited on an annual basis, and therefore the responsibility for the outcome is enormously high. As one can imagine, people may have numerous reasons to opt for the offer or to turn it down, and they will do so by exercising their right for a free choice. Moreover, there is no right or wrong choice, as long as people know what exactly they are going to gain—and not only at the point of trade but many years down the road.

Freedom of choice has always been highly regarded by people. It is also one characteristic feature of democratic society we take pride of. However, as famously noted by Dostoyevsky, there is price to pay: ‘What human being wants is just an independent choice, whatever the cost of this independence and whatever it may bring about.’[7] But here is the trick with the referendum—because, unlike ordinary everyday situations, in this case it is not enough anymore to merely employ some intuitive methods and quickly form a judgement. This task requires some considerable mental activity, an effortful computation, lots of evidence and perhaps, some guidance. In short, this implies that people who make life-changing decisions cannot be left alone in respect of their freedom of choice—they shall be assisted.

In the case of the EU referendum such an assistance shall come from the intermediaries—the campaigners and the media. I shall note that the idea of (implicitly) assisting people in making their policy choices is not new; almost a decade ago the behavioural scientists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduced ‘nudging’ as one method of helping people make policy choices that are in their best long-term interest.[8] What I suggest here is a bit different: it is not about directing people towards a certain predefined ‘default option’, but about setting a fair competition between two camps in introducing their respective choices, and doing so in close cooperation with citizens and their organised groups. To borrow from Robert Buckman, a businessman who put knowledge management at the heart of building a successful enterprise, the best way to address the organisation’s growth (read, the competitiveness and market survival) challenges is to follow its customers: ‘Look where they are going. What do they want right now? In five years from now? In ten years from now?’[9] Similarly, the job of the campaigners is to learn what people need and want, immediately and in a medium term period, and to demonstrate how each offer meets their particular requirements and expectations.

It should be made clear to Britons what do they get as a result of their choice. Their concerns and expectations differ quite significantly between various social groups and across the localities—it is very clear from the publications in the press, interviews, and the on-line discussions and is something that should have been expected in this respect. Therefore, costs and benefits of each choice shall be made relevant to the concerns and aspirations of every large group of stakeholders—something that is known in policy analysis as ‘net assessment.’ Generalisation and vague statements won’t do in such situation. Whatever the referendum’s outcome, the debate will be considered meaningful and achieving its primary objective (that is, to help people make decisions which are based on full and relevant information tailored to their circumstances) only if Britons make their rational judgement on the day—the one that treats the threats and the opportunities equally.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Tragedies of Shakespeare: Complete Works, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, eds. (London: Macmillan, 2007), act 4, sc. 1 [97-107], p.1897

[2] Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Tom Holland (London: Penguin Books, 2014), bk. 7 [141-144], pp.496-497

[3] Nassim Nicolas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 211

[4] YouGov trackers on the European referendum, available athttp://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/y0omer21fg/YG-Trackers-Europe-Referendum-050216.pdf

[5] Ipsos MORI database on the EU membership research, available athttps://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2435/European-Union-membership-trends.aspx

[6] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (London: Penguin Books, 2012), pp. 282-284

[7] Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864), pt. 1, ch. 7 [translation is mine – E.A.]

[8] Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

[9] Robert H. Buckman, Building a Knowledge-Driven Organization (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 235-236

 

Part 4. The questions to be answered

So far, the battle over Britain’s future in the European Union has been taking place in shallow waters. Some of the reasons behind making the debate about such a momentous decision so irrelevant and misplaced were discussed in this paper. They include the priming of the referendum on the outcome of on-going renegotiation of Britain’s status and narrowly focusing the debate on two tactical options, instead of taking a comprehensive view of all the issues involved and seeing the outcome of the would-be referendum in a long term strategic perspective. There are also technical issues involved, such as those related to the quality, or usefulness, of information offered to citizens.*

Most importantly, it appears that the British society is not prepared to take the decision of such a life-changing magnitude yet.

European countries are struggling with numerous problems, trying to recover from the crisis that hit their economies so hard. At the same time, they are working to respond to a broad range of newly emerging political, security, economic, and social and cultural challenges. From increasing authority transfers to Brussels and concerns over  the ‘insufficient legitimacy of supranational institutions’ [1], to the unpopular austerity measures (which some activists from the left regard as the manifestation of ‘departure from the welfare state’ [2]) to the growing inequality (as between the EU economies, so within each given country), slower than expected (and indeed imperative) growth dynamics, high unemployment among the youth, to the cultural-identitarian concerns and failure of multiculturalism, to the rise of radical movements on both left and right—all this are legitimate concerns of Britons, as well as other Europeans, whether from the EU’s core or its periphery. Most of those problems are not unique to Britain, or to Europe as such—they are being witnessed across all the industrialised countries.

One group of questions is about how much of these problems can be attributed to the EU: What are causes of these problems and what are their effects? Where do they originate from? And to what extent the solutions are in the hands of the European institutions and how much is in hands of national governments?

Another group of questions is concerned with the reform: How the EU shall be reformed in order to be better suited to address the mounting and unprecedented problems of the twenty-first century? What is the role of Britain and other leading countries (such as Germany and France) in the reform process and, later on, in the reformed Europe? What kind of reforms to address Britain’s domestic problems the Government shall undertake on its own, within its sovereign responsibility? Is it possible to undertake two sets of reforms—domestic and common European—simultaneously and, above all, harmoniously?

These are not easy questions to answer, but these are the only relevant kind of questions to be posed and reflected upon. And if no one is ready to offer the answers today (what seems to be the case), then perhaps the best course of action would be not to rush with holding the referendum and instead to engage in a properly administered policy analysis deliberative process, in order to bring clarity and separate the wheat from the chaff. Such process shall normally involve two groups of audiences, where the communication is maintained as within each group’s members, so between the groups. One group comprises scientists, politicians and advocates [3] and another group is of citizen and institutional stakeholders.

This process requires a good organisation behind it. Considering vested interests of various groups and the enthusiasm with which both camps, and their affiliates and associated media outlets are going to convince citizens in the rightness of the choices promoted by them respectively—the role of impartial professional assistance to the constituency will be of paramount importance. And it sounds logical that this should be the Government’s responsibility to provide such an objective and balanced information by means of an ad hoc committee comprising the representatives of all parties and interested sides, along with independent policy analysts and subject matter and communication experts.

Interestingly, the findings of this process will help decide on the final set questions about the referendum itself: Does the referendum, as it has been set today and whatever its outcome, offers the solution? Does it serve the interests of citizens of the United Kingdom? Or is it a manifestation of political struggle of political and economic elites? For example, there has been an argument set forth by Andrew Glencross, that the ‘the simplicity and decisiveness that a referendum, particularly one that spurns the EU, promises is merely a mirage. … British political parties are presenting an in/out referendum as a simple solution to a complex problem. The reality is that direct democracy cannot resolve the Europe question – and nor should it: political and economic ties with the EU necessarily form part of an enduring British political conversation.’ [4]

Whether to hold the referendum in the end or to abolish the idea and to find some other mechanism/solution is a crucial decision, which can only be reasonably decided upon the policy deliberative process suggested herein. If the decision (as informed by various forums) is to run the referendum, then it would not be late to hold it, say, in March 2017 – still well within the timeline initially promised by the Prime Minister, when the citizens would be in good position to take their well-informed decisions on the United Kingdom’s future. It is important to remember that the real decision Britons will take is not about an immediate ‘leave or remain’ choice—it is about forward-looking ‘what and how’ strategic alternatives.

* Policy analysis issues will be addressed in a separate post.

[1] Edgar Grande and Swen Hutter, ‘Beyond authority transfer: explaining the politicisation of Europe,’ West European Politics, 39/1 (2016), pp. 23-43 at 23

[2] See, for example, Thomas Fazi, The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent and How We Can Take it Back (London: Pluto Press, 2014)

[3] According to James Throgmorton, these are the must-talk-to audiences in policy analysis process, see James A. Throgmorton, ‘The rhetorics of policy analysis,’ Policy Sciences, 24/2 (1991), pp. 153-179 at 174

[4] Andrew Glencross, ‘Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question’, International Affairs, 91/2 (2015), pp. 303-317 at 317

 

Britain’s EU Referendum: Communication Insights (Part 4)

Part 4. The questions to be answered

So far, the battle over Britain’s future in the European Union has been taking place in shallow waters. Some of the reasons behind making the debate about such a momentous decision so irrelevant and misplaced were discussed in this paper. They include the priming of the referendum on the outcome of on-going renegotiation of Britain’s status and narrowly focusing the debate on two tactical options, instead of taking a comprehensive view of all the issues involved and seeing the outcome of the would-be referendum in a long term strategic perspective. There are also technical issues involved, such as those related to the quality, or usefulness, of information offered to citizens.*

Most importantly, it appears that the British society is not prepared to take the decision of such a life-changing magnitude yet.

European countries are struggling with numerous problems, trying to recover from the crisis that hit their economies so hard. At the same time, they are working to respond to a broad range of newly emerging political, security, economic, and social and cultural challenges. From increasing authority transfers to Brussels and concerns over  the ‘insufficient legitimacy of supranational institutions’ [1], to the unpopular austerity measures (which some activist from the left regard as the manifestation of ‘departure from the welfare state [2]) to the growing inequality (as between the EU economies, so within each given country), slower than expected (and indeed imperative) growth dynamics, high unemployment among the youth, to the cultural-identitarian concerns and failure of multiculturalism, to the rise of radical movements on both left and right—all this are legitimate concerns of Britons, as well as other Europeans, whether from the EU’s core or its periphery. Most of those problems are not unique to Britain, or to Europe as such—they are being witnessed across all the industrialised countries.

One group of questions is about how much of these problems can be attributed to the EU: What are causes of these problems and what are their effects? Where do they originate from? And to what extent the solutions are in the hands of the European institutions and how much is in hands of national governments?

Another group of questions is concerned with the reform: How the EU shall be reformed in order to be better suited to address the mounting and unprecedented problems of the twenty-first century? What is the role of Britain and other leading countries (such as Germany and France) in the reform process and, later on, in the reformed Europe? What kind of reforms to address Britain’s domestic problems the Government shall undertake on its own, within its sovereign responsibility? Is it possible to undertake two sets of reforms—domestic and common European—simultaneously and, above all, harmoniously?

These are not easy questions to answer, but these are the only relevant kind of questions to be posed and reflected upon. And if no one is ready to offer the answers today (what seems to be the case), then perhaps the best course of action would be not to rush with holding the referendum and instead to engage in a properly administered policy analysis deliberative process, in order to bring clarity and separate the wheat from the chaff. Such process shall normally involve two groups of audiences, where the communication is maintained as within each group’s members, so between the groups. One group comprises scientists, politicians and advocates [3] and another group is of citizen and institutional stakeholders.

This process requires a good organisation behind it. Considering vested interests of various groups and the enthusiasm with which both camps, and their affiliates and associated media outlets are going to convince citizens in the rightness of the choices promoted by them respectively—the role of impartial professional assistance to the constituency will be of paramount importance. And it sounds logical that this should be the Government’s responsibility to provide such an objective and balanced information by means of an ad hoc committee comprising the representatives of all parties and interested sides, along with independent policy analysts and subject matter and communication experts.

Interestingly, the findings of this process will help decide on the final set questions about the referendum itself: Does the referendum, as it has been set today and whatever its outcome, offers the solution? Does it serve the interests of citizens of the United Kingdom? Or is it a manifestation of political struggle of political and economic elites? For example, there has been an argument set forth by Andrew Glencross, that the ‘the simplicity and decisiveness that a referendum, particularly one that spurns the EU, promises is merely a mirage. … British political parties are presenting an in/out referendum as a simple solution to a complex problem. The reality is that direct democracy cannot resolve the Europe question – and nor should it: political and economic ties with the EU necessarily form part of an enduring British political conversation.’ [4]

Whether to hold the referendum in the end or to abolish the idea and to find some other mechanism/solution is a crucial decision, which can only be reasonably decided upon the policy deliberative process suggested herein. If the decision (as informed by various forums) is to run the referendum, then it would not be late to hold it, say, in March 2017 – still well within the timeline initially promised by the Prime Minister, when the citizens would be in good position to take their well-informed decisions on the United Kingdom’s future. It is important to remember that the real decision Britons will take is not about an immediate ‘leave or remain’ choice—it is about forward-looking ‘what and how’ strategic alternatives.

* Policy analysis issues will be addressed in a separate post.

[1] Edgar Grande and Swen Hutter, ‘Beyond authority transfer: explaining the politicisation of Europe,’ West European Politics, 39/1 (2016), pp. 23-43 at 23

[2] See, for example, Thomas Fazi, The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent and How We Can Take it Back (London: Pluto Press, 2014)

[3] According to James Throgmorton, these are the must-talk-to audiences in policy analysis process, see James A. Throgmorton, ‘The rhetorics of policy analysis,’ Policy Sciences, 24/2 (1991), pp. 153-179 at 174

[4] Andrew Glencross, ‘Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question’, International Affairs, 91/2 (2015), pp. 303-317 at 317