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Just because

  • February 2018
  • Ágnes Szűcs

Just because

National governments against the Spitzenkandidaten Model

 

 

As the 2019 European Parliament elections are coming, a new battlefield has been opened: the Spitzenkandidat system. From one hand, it brings some surprise because the idea of European political parties nominating their lead candidates to be the president of the European Commission, has been so far considered as a great success. But on the other hand, it is business as usual in European politics where personal interests are always put first, and Europe comes second.

 

I am not claiming that the Spitzenkandidat is the best idea ever and it will definitely save Europe from falling apart. But it is indeed an attempt to tackle the problems of democratic deficit and declining voters’ turnout. Endless number of papers and conferences can be written and organized around these issues, but they don’t favour action. In 2014 something was at least happening, even if it was too little and too late. But there were new slogans, TV debates and media coverage of the issue. And at the end of the day, Jean-Claude Juncker, the EPP’s top candidate, was elected to be the head of the Commission.

 

I find it a bit ridiculous that the polls are trying to measure the impact of the Spitzenkandidat system on voters’ behaviour. Only 5 percent of voters made a decision based on the lead candidate. And, so what? If we really go into this debate, we can easily get to Winston Churchill’s evergreen quote “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter.” Yes, my grandma doesn’t have any clue what the European Parliament does and who Juncker is. So, shall we strip her from her voting rights? Or shall we close down the whole Parliament because the majority of the European voters can only guess what they do? Definitely no. We need to raise their awareness. And the Spitzenkandidat system is a very good mean to do so, if we don’t expect miracles from it. Just a tiny swift, like my grandma watching a bit of the lead candidates’ TV debate.

 

In other words, as Juncker said very well, the process aimed „not to personalise, but to visualise one of the issues of the election campaign, which was to know who would be appointed President of the Commission and how.” But despite all of my appreciation for these thoughts, he isn’t an exception from the rule either when it’s about using Europe as a tool to maximize his interests.

 

In the recently leaked paper “Building on the Spitzenkandidaten Model”, the Commission’s think tank, the European Political Strategy Centre managed somehow to seize the opportunity to praise Juncker’s legacy on issues that are not directly related to the topic. I never denied how useful it can be for our future career to adorn our boss. But it was a bit too much. Just like Juncker repeated the proposal to merge the presidencies of the Commission and the European Council, which can only be interpreted as another tactical move in his old turf war with Donald Tusk.

 

But these small battles are fine. The real problems start when we leave the sacred borders of the Eurobubble. Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Portugal have already raised doubts over the Spitzenkandidat system, despite the fact that the European Parliament has clearly stated they would only elect a president for the Commission if she or he was a Spitzenkandidat before. The real fight is again about the existential question of the European institutions: who needs to be stronger, national governments or a supranational EU institution?

 

I understood the true nature of this fight a couple of months ago, when I had the chance to talk to a high-level Hungarian government official. I asked why the Hungarian government opposes the lead candidate process. Given that it is something meant to tackle the EU’s democratic deficit, which they always criticize. I can summarize the answer very promptly: “just because”. Or, if you insist on a more elaborated answer: national governments don’t want to raise the EU’s democratic legitimacy at all, and they will veto whatever these supranational institutions propose. Well, I think there aren’t any more questions to be asked.

 

The beauty of this logic is reflected very well in French President Emmanuel Macron’s stance. So far, he, the saviour of Europe wanted to create transnational lists for the upcoming European elections, which implies the top candidate system. But now that it is getting clear that he won’t be able to push through his ideas, he started to oppose the 2014 framework. Why? Because he still doesn’t know if he would be able to establish a new European political party or the En Marche would have to join one of the long-established political families in the Parliament. And in this case, it is much better to be a nationalistic leader than a pro-European one, because if there is no official Spitzenkandidat in 2019 who should be elected for the top position at the Commission, Macron can still push for his favourite candidate.

 

The war is getting more and more interesting. I am looking forward to the upcoming battle at next week’s European Summit.

The Appeal of the Centre

  • February 2018
  • Andrea Lotesoriere

The appeal of the centre

Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera wants to become the Spanish Macron

 

 

Many European countries are suffering from political instability as of late. Just to name a few examples: Germany is waiting for the SPD base to approve the coalition deal following months of uncertainty after the general elections in September; Italy seems to be heading towards ungovernability as well; Westminster bungled the snap elections and ended up in coalition with the Northern Irish unionists of the DUP holding up the government majority, and France is enjoying a period of stability and reforms but mostly thanks to their electoral system.

 

Specifically, before Emmanuel Macron’s victory, the campaign was dividing experts and pollsters everywhere as to who was going to go to the heads-up confrontation with the centre-right, the far-left, the far-right and Macrons party En Marche all scoring around 20% of the votes. Indisputably the great losers of that election were the Socialist party (down to 4% after Hollande’s majority just four years prior) followed by the Republican Party who got excluded from the final showdown.

 

Perhaps the French scenario is just the clearest example of a widespread phenomenon in western democracies, which is the crisis of the traditional left/right political division and the inability of the historical parties to adapt to the time. Moreover, France’s success story is not replicable in the countries with a proportional electoral system, which ends up in a gridlock between the “new” parties and the old guards, often splitting both on this axes and the old left/right one. This is clear for example in Italy which has now become a 3-party system with one-third being further divided between Eurosceptic far-right and Europhile centre-right but with none of the three able to form a government by themselves, and yet unwilling (at least prior to the vote) to compromise and form a coalition which, as we have seen in Germany, is far from an easy or popular task.

 

One party that seems to be following macron steps is Ciudadanos, with its leader Albert Rivera mix of ambitions and political savvy. The movement, founded ten years ago by Rivera himself, has rapidly moved from the local to the national dimension and has successfully, together with Podemos, broke the old bi-partisan system that has ruled Spain since the fall of Franco’s dictatorship. The 38 years old Catalan from Barcelona has brought the party to the top of the poll with 28%, while PM Mariano Rajoy party is projected at 21%, the socialists at 20% and the anti-establishment Podemos trailing back at almost 17%.

 

The Catalan crisis offered Rivera a great opportunity which he promptly seized. He established himself as more inflexible than Rajoy towards Barcelona’s independence desires and as such has gained the votes of the Catalan unionists as well as to man Spanish citizen who sees him as a true defender of national unity. On top of this, he showed the ability to mediate and not get stuck on principles. For example, at the eve of the vote in 2015 he stated clearly his unwillingness to participate in a government together with Rajoy and yet, after the chaos of two failed consultations and one year without a government, he agreed to help the Partido Popular to avoid chaos and “for the good of the country”. This move alone distinguishes itself from the purism of the Five Star Movement in Italy and many other parties and leader around Europe, but is a double edged sword which can easily (as seen in Germany’s coalition talks) backfire.

 

For the moment, his tactic is paying off and it seems he’s yet to truly reveal his full power. Rajoy, even with a weak government, can benefit from an economy that is back on track and from the support from the other European leaders as demonstrated during the Catalan crisis. Yet it is estimated that the PSOE and the PP lost around 8 million votes in the last ten years while Ciudadanos has only gathered around three million in the 2016 elections. There is room for improvement, but if Rivera is able to pump up his numbers in the near future, he could very well not only become the Spanish Macron, but ally with the man itself in his endeavor to reform the EU and even aim at a central role in forming a new party in time for the European elections next year.

 

The old dichotomy is not working anymore. The historical parties, based on decades-old ideologies, are struggling to keep up and will meet their fate soon rather than later if they are unable to reform. Will the new kids on the block steal all the spotlights or is this a temporary coup? Only time will tell. The game is on, who’s playing and who is watching?

Who’s the Man? (With the Master Plan)

  • February 2018
  • Edo Katanic

Who’s the Man? (With the Master Plan)

How populists use Soros to legitimise their fight

 

Budapest Metro Station (Voanews)

 

Every country has some legendary characters from fairy tales, or the ones grandmothers used to tell their grandchildren about. In the world of politics, one can notice how the character of 87-year old George Soros is a provocation for populists of all kinds. Whether it is the collapse of the British Pound or the non-governmental organisations in Macedonia, George Soros is always around to be blamed. The most recent occasion was the news that George Soros is financing campaigns in the UK to stop Brexit. This came as a welcome bulletin for the likes of Nigel Farage, who used the opportunity to deliver a classical populist statement that a rich globalist is behind the anti-Brexit campaign, trying to reverse the will of the people.

 

It is of course legitimate for the rich and famous to donate or support causes they believe in, but this case is something completely different. George Soros, a Jew that barely survived the Second World War, is valued around 8 billion dollars, and is not your average billionaire. Online figures show that he spent most (Around 18 billion) of his fortune protecting free speech, democracy and the rule of law in various countries. Of course, I am not an expert or biographer of the man, but I believe the attacks on Soros have strong roots in the 1990s.

 

At the beginning of the 1990s, the UK was struck with something that was named “Black Wednesday”, a day when the UK Pound had to be withdrawn from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was such a massive crush for the UK that the Tory party, under John Major, never recovered from it and it basically paved the way for Tony Blair and his New Labour. Back then, many blamed Soros and his speculative business with the Pound for this disaster. Even nowadays, there are articles online that discuss “how Soros broke the Bank of England”. Around the same time, Central and Eastern European countries were becoming independent or were separating from communism, so new and progressive societies needed to be built.

 

It was not coincidental that Soros formed the Open Society Foundation, inspired by the name from Karl Popper’s famous work. Soros started to massively invest in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, before moving later on to areas such as Central Asia. He aimed to finance a variety of things, from publications, NGOs and oppositional movements, to prospective students that would return afterwards to their native countries. Of course, this has not been welcomed by everyone, and was regularly attacked by politicians, especially from the right-wing, who feared foreign or any kind of interference in their plans. In some countries, civil society activists were labelled with derogatory terms that included Soros.

 

However, as retro is back not only in fashion, what we thought was a product of the 1990s is now alive and kicking. Probably the best-known example is Hungary, Soros’ native land. Soros opened up his Central European University in Budapest (initially in Prague), the heart of Central Europe and a symbol of breaking with the communist past. However, he did not expect that he would be oppressed by a man who was his scholarship recipient back in the 1980s. The story is well-known, so are the hideous adverts on Budapest’s streets and metros. Another recent example is Macedonia, where a right-wing government, which is now in opposition after losing the elections through serious accusations of corruption and misbehaviour, managed to pull the last straw and blame Soros for helping the opposition.

 

Of course, small-town forces like the ones in Macedonia are aware that Soros does not respond to these remarks and that it is easier to attack him than, for instance, a strong Western power. They can basically get away with it. Unfortunately, the attacks against George Soros remain as some of the most brutal, with strong anti-Semitic and anti-migrant tones. For more than 20 years, from Warsaw to Skopje, Mr. Soros has been viciously used as a tool to mobilise hatred. He also remains the main man for conspiracy theories, ranging from alt-right lunacies to shady-funded media outlets, which consistently refer to him as a mastermind of all the street protests, organised actions or just plain movements against their favourites. Sadly, despite having or lacking sympathies for Mr. Soros, these attacks show us that the political culture in many countries is still not at a satisfactory level, and in Europe it seems to have deteriorated. That has to sound the alarm, otherwise tomorrow someone else will be the one to blame.

 

Right-wing protests in Macedonia (Kurir.mk)

Let’s Tweet Again – Fake News and Social Media

  • February 2018
  • Ágnes Szűcs

Let’s Tweet Again – Fake News and Social Media

Event Report

05/02/2018

 

 

The discussion was opened by defining fake news and how things should be done regarding the fake news. It is important to distinguish different types of fake news. First of all, we have satire or parody, whose aim is not to provide harm, but to satirize real life events. Then there are false connections, that do not support the content. After that, we have the misleading content, which frames something or an individual. Also, we have false context, imposter content, manipulative content (Photoshop example) and there is the fabricated content, where 100 percent is false. False information is spread with the intention to create confusion and artificial emotional response, with a political or economic interest. The unregulated environment helped them to foster this.

Press publishers have been caught unprepared with the transition from analogue to digital. The European Commission has acknowledged that, and proposed reduced VAT for e-publications. The cost for producing quality news is much higher than producing fake news. The efforts that social media are starting to make to tackle misinformation should be further incentives by the European legislator. The future legal landscape should be formed to support quality content and to prevent additional burdens to the market. Critical thinking needs to be developed as it is the cornerstone of democracy. Ideally, tackling fake news by human intervention should be a part of corporate responsibility of online platforms. Considering the resources that companies have, much more has to be done.

After that, the discussion moved on to differentiate the term fake news from disinformation, especially politically, as the concept of fake news is often misused. Disinformation is defined as a deliberate spread of false information. The debate then moved on to Russia, whose breakpoint was the war in Georgia in 2008, when Russia started the disinformation campaign through channels such as Sputnik and RT. They are very lucid in tailoring the messages to their targeted audience in their spheres of influence. The Lisa case in Germany was an excellent example of disinformation, as it was a made-up case of refugees raping a young Russian-speaking girl. A similar example was made-up in Lithuania as well, but fact-checkers managed to react quickly.

The discussion then moved on to the social media, and specifically practices and ways of tackling bots and fake news on Twitter and Facebook, especially Twitter, due to its openness. French elections were pointed out in particular, where fake accounts with a Russian background were endorsing certain French presidential candidates, and were at the same time following RT and Sputnik. A famous example is the Macron Leaks, which happened 3 hours before the closing of the French presidential campaign, where an apparently huge scandal was produced on Twitter that Macron is funded by Saudi Arabia, which was made-up with reportedly leaked information and emails. It all originated from a US based alt-right activist.

 

 

The focus of the discussion then moved to Italy, which is holding parliamentary elections on March 4th 2018. There is not a strong Russian influence in Italy, which lacks a fact-checking culture. There is currently a rise in Euroscepticism, especially anti-Euro sentiments fostered by certain political parties, which the fake accounts are trying to promote.

The moderator then pointed out how the attention on this issue is often focused on Russia, but we mustn’t forget that other actors, especially extremist within EU member states or the USA, are also active in the proliferation of fake news. Some of them are also able to have financial gains from them, thanks to the increased traffic to their websites and the way online advertisement works. So how can we identify them and be effective against disinformation?

It’s not easy to cut an income stream from this people, in addition to the fact that many from the extreme want and like to share this news to promote their point of view. Aside from the bots, the people who share this news do it for the emotions they get from it or the emotions they want to emphasize. So what could we do? We are trying to communicate the message to the large audience that does not want to consume this kind of media. Some will say it’s wasted time since the people who do consume it already want to believe in them, nevertheless it’s important to stop it before the minority becomes the majority.

This news are easy to make, for example, while studying a Macedonian fake news farm, Channel 4 was highlighting how high operational costs were to find who was spreading disinformation, while even a teenager could easily Photoshop the Euronews logo onto anything, with little to zero cost. It is unlikely that this teenager would have any political idealism behind his move, but the accessibility made it easy for him to get some money with low effort. What we can do is keep promoting critical thinking in schools as well as with the adults. Media literacy is something the state should promote and some countries are indeed starting to implement some legislation about this.

The debate then moved to regulations. Recently the German state is moving towards a new regulation that will punish the platforms that fails to take action against fake news within 24 hours. This would mean hiring a permanent staff just to tackle this problem. So can we stop fake news through legislation or should we tackle it at the micro-level? The risk is to promote censorship and limit free speech so it’s a sensitive issue. The media prefer to remain self-regulated if possible, and limit how much the government can dictate the terms of information. Regulation at the EU level could be dangerous; maybe it would be better to do it at national level, since every member states have a different media situation. On the other hand the national government intervention could be a double-edged sword, since some member states are moving towards a more authoritarian approach, which would mean limiting the power of the oppositions by giving the government carte blanche to decide what is hate speech or fake news and what isn’t. There are in fact existing legislation that we could implement more effectively, all the while defending our values and freedom of speech. There are cases, like in Ukraine, where regulation has become a matter of national security but in general we cannot have a blanket solution that applies to everyone.

 

 

An interesting contribution from the audience called for investigating more in the process of algorithms doing editorial choices, and emphasizes the need of transparency. The comment praised the German “NetzDG” law because it makes social media sites accountable.

The speakers expressed diverse opinions on the issue. It is said the Facebook makes a lot of money without producing literally anything, while at the moment it has 30 people working on FakeNews for 2 billion users. Nevertheless, some changes have started during the US presidential elections. The Twitter has made three public announcements, clarifying the exact number of Russia-related accounts and showing that they retweeted Donald Trump’s contents 370 thousand times. These release show that social media sites are able to act if they feel the pressure for more openness. It’s not only that governments who should push them for change, but also the users and civil society organizations should advocate for more transparency on FakeNews and editorial choices.

At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that we voluntarily give our private lives to these companies and they voluntarily sell it to the advertisers. When we want to influence them, we should take it into consideration that they these social media sites want to make money at the end of the day.

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