Tag: EU

Will Turkey’s referendum mark the end of democracy and the birth of ‘Erdoğanistan’?

Turkey is approaching a critical juncture in its long-term political development. Irrespective of the outcome, the country’s April 16 referendum, which proposes changing the constitution to concentrate power in the hands of the president, heralds a new political era.

Many signs seem to point to a narrow victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his attempt to establish an executive presidency a la Turca, but the result is not a foregone conclusion.

Should Erdoğan’s suggested reforms be rejected, Turkey’s near future would be defined by its president’s next move. Without a formal shift in constitutional structure, Erdoğan could resort to nefarious means to consolidate his grip on power. Alternatively, given his long-standing ambition to establish what we call a “constitutional Erdoğanistan”, he might simply pause briefly before attempting a second bite at the cherry.

Turkey on the brink

Turkey has a strong parliamentary system with a prime minister as its head. The referendum proposes to abolish the role of prime minister and replace it with an executive presidency. A major shift like this is something that has only happened a handful of times since the republic was founded in 1923 according to a renowned historian of Turkey, Erik J. Zürcher.

The country’s political system has already undergone significant economic, social, and political changes since the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) came to power in 2002. The AKP was an eager champion of legal reforms relating to Turkey’s EU candidacy and accession starting in 2004. And in September 2010, it successfully shepherded changes aimed at bringing the constitution into compliance with EU standards.

Still, were the Turkish people to vote “yes” on April 16, the changes would be fundamental and irreversible. The referendum proposes 18 amendments that will abolish nearly 70 years of multiparty parliamentary government, moving Turkey away from the core norms of a pluralist, parliamentary state of law by reducing the separation of powers and the checks and balances system, among other changes.

Erdoğan’s aim is to transform the country into a majoritarian authoritarian system centered on one man. What Turks are risking is nothing less than “democide” – the scholarly term for voting to abolish democracy itself.

A critical juncture

Since the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey’s parliament, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, has been the place where national sovereignty resides.

In the early republican period, it was dominated by the party of modern Turkey’s revered founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938). Since the transition from single-party rule to a multiparty democracy in 1946, the parliament has been the crucial institution in the political life of the country.

President Atatürk leaving the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in 1930.
Dsmurat./Wikimedia

Elected lawmakers have long shared power with strong guardians of institutions such as the military, the judiciary, and Turkey’s government bureaucracy – all Kemalist-dominated – in a kind of hybrid political system not unlike that of contemporary Iran, Thailand, Pakistan and Myanmar.

The parliament has also served as the site where governments have been formed, thrown out of office and restricted.

As the scholar of Turkish constitutional development Ergün Özbudun notes, “even at the height of Atatürk’s prestige, the Assembly rejected a proposal to give the President of the Republic the power to dissolve the Assembly”.

Under Erdoğan, the AKP has worked through the parliament to legitimize its rule. By 2010, it had vanquished the last Kemalist bastions within the state thanks to successive landslide electoral victories and a now-defunct strategic alliance with the Gülenists (members of a Muslim-organised educational community who follow the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen).

Since then, Turkey has been a weak electoral democracy, with the power of the National Assembly slowly eroding. A “yes” victory in the April 16 referendum could permanently diminish the authority of this venerable institution.

An unbalanced campaign

The authoritarian style Erdoğan has in mind for the future was already on display during the referendum campaign itself.

Erdoğan’s tone has been aggressively nationalistic and populist. He compared European countries’ criticism of the campaign with the attempts of the Allies to dismember Turkey at the end of the first world war, for instance. And he promised to reinstate the death penalty after the referendum.

In the first ten days of March, the government allocated television airtime to various parties to promote their positions on the referendum. The president saw 53.5 hours in newscasts, and the governing AKP was granted 83.

Meanwhile, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), the main opposition, which draws its support primarily from Turkey’s secular and Alevi minorities, was allocated 17 hours, while the less influential Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) enjoyed just 14.5 hours. The Peoples’ Democratic Party, (Halkların Demokratik Partisi), a pro-minority party that is advocating a “no” vote, saw only 33 minutes of news coverage.

A March 2017 report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe confirms that state officials have leaned heavily on the scales to support the “yes” campaign. By occupying the bully pulpit of the presidency, with all the resources of the government along with privileged access to media at its disposal, the “yes” group has had an overwhelming campaign advantage.

A ‘yes’ vote means more Erdoğan

If Erdoğan prevails in the April 16 referendum, the plan is to hold presidential and general elections together in 2019. Were he to win these, Erdoğan would be eligible to serve two additional five-year terms, allowing him to stay in office until 2029. His previous terms in office (2003-2014) would not count toward the two-term limit.

As president, by current law, Erdoğan had to resign from his party and officially assume a politically neutral stance.

But under the new rules, he could rejoin the AKP, which, according to opposition parties, will abolish any chance of impartiality. The proposed amendments also make it harder to remove the president from office.

The proposed changes will grant the president wide-ranging powers to issue binding decrees with the force of law. And even though these will be subject to judicial review, the president himself will appoint most of the judiciary.

With his new presidential powers, Erdoğan would also be enabled to indefinitely extend the current state of emergency that was put into effect following the failed July 2016 coup against him.

A ‘no’ vote

Despite the uneven playing field, surveys show that the referendum race is tight, and Erdoğan could be defeated.

Currently, both the opposition Republican People’s Party and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party are advocating a “no” vote in the referendum. DİSK, a left-wing trade union body, and numerous other NGOs and civil society groups have also come out against the proposed changes.

A narrow loss on April 16 would be a blow to Erdoğan, but it is unlikely to kill his ambition. He is expected to simply regroup and try again, including by renewing the state of emergency that gives him wide-ranging authority to continue bypassing parliament. Such a move would allow for continued purges of those deemed in opposition to the government, including Kurdish groups and Gülenists.

This is Erdoğan’s modus operandi: to foment and instrumentalise social crises to centralize power. After the 2013 Gezi park protests against urban development in Istanbul developed into a wider movement against the regime, for example, the government severely clamped down on individual rights, including media freedom. Erdoğan claimed that Gezi protesters and their supporters were a threat to the national will.

The president used a similar argument to banish the Gülen movement, deemed a terrorist organisation since May 2016.

Thus, rather than stabilize the situation, a “no” vote is likely to induce further volatility in Turkey. Erdoğan can be expected to quickly introduce a new package of “constitutional reforms” – a move that would require either a national crisis or a new “enemy of the Turkish people” as a pretext.

Rhetorical attacks on Europe are likely to intensify. Earlier this year, charges of Nazism leveled against Germany, and criticism of interference in campaign rallies by Austria and the Netherlands, were widely cheered in Turkey, giving Erdoğan every incentive to double down on the EU animosity if he loses his referendum.

In a sense, no matter who prevails on April 16, Erdoğan may remain undefeated.

Simon P. Watmough, Postdoctoral research associate, European University Institute and Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, Research Assistant, Université de Strasbourg

Photo Credit: Kremlin.ru

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As the European Union celebrates 60 years, can Asia use it as a model for economic integration?

On 25 March 2017, the European Union’s heads of state and government will meet in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the European project. The date marks the signing of the Treaties of Rome, which established the foundations of European Community that preceded the EU.

While the EU is a unique experiment in integration in many ways, the world abounds in other kinds of regional trade agreements; the World Trade Organization records more than 635. Still, as the most advanced form of market integration in the world, the EU provides a good model for other regions, including Asia.

Why the EU is a good model

Market integration is one of the tools that helped take Europe out of the ashes of the world wars and supported its transition out of the Cold War into peace. It provided a historically fragmented, war-torn, extremely diverse continent with a period of geopolitical stability, and thus brought wealth and prosperity.

Despite Britain’s impending exit from the group, the EU remains the most advanced and successful model for peace through economics in Europe’s history. The bloc continues to attract neighboring countries, having expanded from the original group of six to the current 28, with a combined population of more than 500 million and GDP of more than €14 billion. These countries work together across a single market and carefully selected common policy areas.

The EU’s market integration began with the free circulation of goods, based on the logic that the more states trade with one another and become interdependent, the less they are likely to go to war. It has extended to the free movement of people (stimulating travel, work abroad and cultural exchange), and enhanced economic integration through freer movement of capital and services, the option of joining a common currency, and other joint initiatives and policies.

Later members joined for mainly economic reasons; many others to fill the geopolitical void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its regime transition. Central and Eastern European countries, for instance, were supported in their transition to market economy and democracy by joining the EU and various other international institutions.

All signed up to trade with each other, but also to promote shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, peace, solidarity, strength through diversity and the rule of law. But increasingly negative attitudes towards the EU in some member states, and the EU’s struggle with confidence in its achievements and its future potential is a sign this stability came at the price of dynamic decision-making.

Integration in Asia

Asia is home to more than half of the world’s population and to most of the world’s production. These make it one of the most dynamic regions in the world, with huge economic potential.

Just as for the EU and its members, some countries in the region feel a certain frustration with the lack of progress by the World Trade Organization in dealing with the most urgent economic issues. While this may make regional integration à la EU seem desirable, the scope to achieve similar outcomes in Asia is shaky.

National contexts and ideologies in the region differ as much as economic structures, institutional differences, geopolitical, cultural and historic conditions. The motivation in Asia to work towards greater integration is often subject to the economies’ interdependence through trade and production networks within the global value chain, and is often commercially driven.

Nonetheless, Asia has numerous geo-economic groupings that may lead to EU-like integration including the East Asia Free Trade Agreement (EAFTA), the Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These already make it the world’s second-most integrated region after the EU.

ASEAN also has a network of additional free trade agreements with neighboring countries, such as those between Australia and New Zealand (AANZFTA, China (ACFTA), South Korea (AKFTA), India (AIFTA) and a Comprehensive Economic Partnership with Japan (AJCEP).

Then there is ASEAN+3 – China, Japan, and South Korea, which has an ambitious Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, which aims to expand sectors and topics of interaction by 2025.

Countries in the area are also working towards the establishment of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as an alternative to Trans Pacific Partnership, which has been rejected by US President Donald Trump.

The scene for further economic integration across Asia is clearly set. The RCEP would be a good start, providing the basis for economic cooperation, poverty alleviation, facilitation of trade in products and services and more.

Hurdles for further integration

But significant hurdles would need to be overcome if this project were to succeed along similar lines to the long-term achievements of the EU.

The first involves the question of will for unity in diversity, an idea that guides the EU. The region’s cultures, political regimes, economic systems and religious beliefs are more disparate than Europe. And we can count on many governments resisting sufficient institutional proximity, which would necessarily result in some diluting of sovereignty, non-interference, and territorial integrity.

The second hurdle entails superpower interests in seeing such integration take place – or not – and in what shape. Asia remains under the influence of fiercely competing superpowers, buffeted by the conflicting interests of China, the United States, and Russia. What are the chances the region can achieve equal partnership rather than extending the predominance of major regional actors; of reaching partnership rather than absorption?

There is no power balance between states in Asia as exists in Europe with Germany and France. These countries share a strong belief in European integration, and social and cultural understanding. What would be the parallel historical, ideological and social drivers in Asia? What or who would hold Asian integration together in times of crisis, something the more consolidated and stable EU is currently struggling with?

If Asia could integrate in its own way – most likely much more loosely than the EU and with fewer joint institutions and policies – then the formidable growth potential of the region could become a great driving force for dealing with the biggest challenges of today and tomorrow. These include national security, migration, competition and the re-emergence of protectionism, automation and unemployment, and aging work forces.

Working together to solve these complex challenges would make them much easier to deal with.

In December 2016, the EU and ASEAN celebrated the 40th anniversary of their relationship. As a summary to their underlying beliefs, they stated that “regional integration (is) the most effective way to foster stability, build prosperity and address global challenges.”

Each needs to promote this in its own setting to succeed.

Gabriele Suder, Principal Fellow, Faculty of Business & Economics/Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne

Photo Credit: Europa.eu

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The latest bump in the road of Turkey’s quest to join the EU: European ultra-nationalism

The rift between Turkey and Europe is growing. From a Turkish perspective, Ankara’s long and winding quest to join the European Union, which began in 1987, has never been less likely than it is today.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invoked Nazism in his criticism of his European counterparts. And a recent dispute between the Turkish government and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte over Turkish ministers campaigning in Rotterdam cast a shadow over the March 15 Netherlands election.

This is only the latest in a long history of self-defeating conflicts between Turkey and EU leaders. But this time around, the diplomatic crisis goes beyond European anti-AKP sentiments toward Turkey’s ruling party. It relates also to social and political transformations underway in the EU itself.

Turkey’s EU bid

After positive early signs, Turkey’s EU accession process stalled in 2006 when an additional protocol, related to the division of Cyprus, was implemented to the opening of Turkey’s ports and airports to trade with Cyprus.

Cyprus was partitioned in 1974, divided between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots. Greek Cypriots have been integrated into the EU since 2004 as the sole representatives of the whole island, while Turks there live under isolation in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara.

In 2011, the EU Commission proposed a positive agenda for Turkey’s accession to the EU. But thanks to growing European fatigue over the enlargement of the bloc and the numerous economic and political crises it was then facing, the process again quickly ground to a halt.

By 2015 Turkey’s EU process had been revitalized while refugee migration to the EU was on the rise. However, in 2016 the EU Parliament proposed a temporary freeze on talks.

Loss of faith

Today’s EU is not as same as the one Turkey first sought to join. For Turkey, the European ideal has deteriorated as some European countries have increasingly embraced xenophobia, islamophobia, and anti-immigration sentiments.

All of these issues – which are in one way or another associated with Turkey – are discussed in the context of Turkish accession to the block. Europeans are also raising concerns about Turkey, especially after the state of emergency declared in the aftermath of the July 15 failed coup attempt.

The EU is of the view that some of the measures taken during the state of emergency pose problems for freedom of expression and rule of law in Turkey. Europe wonders whether the country is experiencing a democratic backlash.

Meanwhile, Europe’s weak response after the failed coup was disturbing for Turkish policy-makers and for President Erdoğan.

Many European leaders stayed silent during the event and in its immediate aftermath. EU officials’ later condemnation of the attempted coup was ambiguous, and they waited two months to visit Ankara.

Additionally, the failure of some EU countries to uphold European values in the context of the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis have exposed the limits of EU’s capacity to adapt itself to shifting domestic, regional and global conditions.

Turkish leaders have said several times that the refugee problem is a humanitarian crisis, warning that the EU perception of refugees as a security threat is not a solution.

Although it is true that the EU turned its eyes to the refugee crisis only when it started to be directly affected, some European countries, namely Germany, were the first to open their borders and integrate refugees. Therefore the main problem is not about a common European anti-refugee sentiment but rather the lack of a jointly undertaken, systematic European response to a crisis that’s banging up against the union’s door.

The image of a declining EU weakened by its institutions and threatened with post-Brexit disintegration seems to be growing in Turkey.

The “other” and ultra-nationalism in Europe

For Turks, this is further complicated by European foreign policy that has long perceived Turkey as the “other” in its backyard.

During the period of positive relations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this stance was largely publicly disavowed. But more recently some EU leaders have used Turkey as a political instrument, building their strong rejection of its possible accession to the EU on this view.

The domestic and regional challeges Turkey faces – and more importantly the EU’s perception of them – have hampered the possibility of building a stable relationship with the EU and creating a new roadmap for Turkey to join the European bloc.

Another piece to this “otherness” puzzle is the rise of ultra-nationalist parties in Europe, from the National Front in France and Alternative for Germany to the Freedom Party in the Netherlands.

Opposing Turkish membership of the EU has become a useful posture for some European capitals in mustering domestic support in the age of right-wing populism. Take, for example, the dense debates on Turkey’s EU campaign during Brexit vote, and the Dutch and Austrian elections.

This anti-Turkey discourse is likely to reinforce European ultra-nationalist parties in terms of obtaining more votes from the euro-sceptical, anti-Turkey electorate. But catering to nationalist instincts also makes it harder for the EU to defend its democratic credentials and to cast judgment on Turkey’s democracy.

Finally, it is damaging the institutional and formal character of relations between a candidate country, Turkey, and an international organization, the EU. A political schism among member states prevents the EU from acting as a unified, coherent potential partner.

Countries that, like Turkey, are engaging in institutional relations with the EU, must now deal with many different leaders, all of whom represent not only the EU but also the various domestic shifts in their own countries.

A rational common ground

Derailing Turkey’s accession process is counterproductive. It distances Turkish society from European societies and cuts off existing societal, historical and cultural ties between the two sides. Today, what remains of the progressive relation between the EU and Turkey is a loose network of institutions.

This does not serve the interest of either party. It is in the direct interest of Turkey to put the progressive relations of the past back on track and draw a renewed framework based on the shared value of democracy within the EU bloc. Both parties should also boost mutual understanding by searching the possibilities of further inclusion, rather than by playing on xenophobia and exclusion.

In the short term, a renewed Turkey-EU cooperation could help Europe to manage better the consequences of the Syrian crisis.

For the EU, then, a stable, democratic and prosperous Turkey in its neighborhood acts as something of a guarantee to its members’ own economic development, security, and democracy.

And in the long term, perhaps more importantly, such rational cooperation would bring new life to the belief in internationalism in an era marked by the rise of nationalism and populism.

Emel Parlar Dal, Associate Professor of International Relations, Marmara University; Ali Murat Kurşun, Research Assistant, Marmara University, and Hakan Mehmetcik, Assistant researcher, Marmara University

Photo Credit: Middle East Monitor

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scotland heads towards a second independence referendum

The seemingly inevitable prospect of a second referendum on independence was finally confirmed in a speech by Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. The Scottish government will begin preparing for a referendum sometime in late 2018 or early 2019, as Brexit negotiations unfold.

A second referendum became likely the moment the result of the EU referendum was confirmed. The devolution settlement that has endured since 1999 was always going to be put under considerable strain when Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, while the UK as a whole voted to leave.

In her speech, Sturgeon was at pains to point to out that, despite attempting to engage and persuade, the UK government had more or less dismissed her appeals for Scotland to be allowed to stay in the European single market after Brexit. Such a prospect was never likely anyway, but the incorrigible nature of the UK government’s position on the matter has, according to Sturgeon, left the Scottish government with no choice.

From the point of view of the Scottish government, a referendum on independence should now be held towards the end of the Brexit negotiations. That would, it is suggested, give the people of Scotland the chance to weigh up their options with the maximum amount of information available before the UK actually leaves the EU.

Sturgeon said she will ask the UK government to push a section 30 order, which would hand Scotland the right to hold a referendum. There is clear precedent for this: the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement between the UK and Scottish governments, which set out the broad terms of the 2014 referendum, preceded the official approval of the section 30 order in February 2013.

There is nothing to suggest that the technical process of holding a second referendum will be any different this time around. Politically, there may well be some stumbling blocks – though it would be counterproductive for the UK government to block a referendum entirely.

The UK government was accused last time of giving the Scottish administration carte blanche to decide when the referendum would be held and set the question on the ballot. That said, wise counsel would suggest too much interference in the second referendum could simply boost support for independence.

Is everyone ready?

When it comes to campaigning, the pro-independence movement is in a far healthier position than its opponent. Some elements have never ceased activity. Groups such as Common Weal and Women for Independence are still very active campaign organizations. The new media scene has also grown since 2014, with outlets such as CommonSpace now playing a key role in Scotland’s media landscape. It won’t take long for the pro-independence movement to return to full capacity again.

The pro-UK side, however, is in a different situation. Scottish Labour was badly tarnished by its role in Better Together, the campaign that was on the winning side in 2014. Since then, Scottish Labour has been absolutely decimated as a political force in Scotland and its poll ratings ahead of local elections in May are abysmal. Better Together Mk.II has some serious thinking to do about how to organize and who to select as its figurehead.

The polls have shown a slight increase towards Yes since the last referendum. However, the latest poll of polls still puts No in the lead with about 52%. That’s well within the margin of statistical error, so for all intents and purposes, the current state of play is neck-and-neck. This is very encouraging for the pro-independence movement since it started from a much lower base last time around. However, it remains to be seen if it can persuade enough women and older voters to back independence – two groups that voted No in 2014.

What’s changed?

The Brexit vote has transformed the independence debate in a number of ways. Whereas staying part of the UK was framed as the safe, stable choice last time around, the same can no longer be said with any real conviction. The decision to leave the EU has triggered all kinds of uncertainties and unknowns.

On the other hand, there are still serious questions around the fiscal and economic case for independence. The drop in the price of oil and the subsequent collapse in revenues to an estimated £60m as a result has left Scotland with a very high estimated fiscal deficit, were it independent today, of over 10%, compared to the UK’s fiscal deficit of 4%. The Scottish economy has also been significantly lagging behind the UK economy for quite some time. Any vote for independence would require serious and stark choices to be made on public expenditure in Scotland.

What’s more, the Scottish government will have to make plans for the future of its currency in the event of independence. Assuming it wants to remain a member of the EU, Scotland will have to sign up to the EU’s exchange rate mechanism in anticipation of the adoption of the euro. In the meantime, it would probably have to adopt its own currency and set up its own central bank. That process is perfectly possible but would probably have significant implications for the country’s credit rating when borrowing funds on international markets.

What to expect now

Last time, there was an official campaign period in the run up to the referendum. In reality, however, the campaign started a couple of years before that. Whatever your constitutional preferences, Scotland is back in campaign mode and the referendum to come will unquestionably dominate public life once again.

Meanwhile, the Brexit process will occur simultaneously. The future is therefore extremely uncertain, although once the Brexit negotiations between the UK government and the EU get properly underway there may be greater clarity as to what sort of impact that is having on opinion in Scotland.

Craig McAngus, Lecturer in Politics, University of Aberdeen

Photo Credit: Lukasz Stefanski

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Russian interference could be the greatest threat to European democracy

With important national elections scheduled this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, European officials on edge about possible Russian interference are pursuing various measures to counter it. The Conversation

But with a daily onslaught of fake and misleading news, repeated attempts to hack computer systems of “anti-Moscow” politicians and political parties, their task is immense.

Russian efforts to tilt elections and national referenda to suit its interests are ongoing. According to a report released by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Russia’s influence on the 2016 US election, Putin’s government “has sought to influence elections across Europe”.

Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic security agency, also warned of “growing evidence” of Russian attempts to influence Germany’s federal elections, set for September.

Alex Younger, the head of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, finds “profound” the risk to British sovereignty posed by the kind of state-directed fake news, propaganda, and other acts of subversion the Kremlin routinely engages in.

Russia has denied interference in the US or European elections, and calls such accusations examples of rampant “Russophobia” in the West.

Undermining democracy

Disinformation campaigns, or what are also sometimes called “active measures” in the “information space”, have become an increasingly important feature of Russian military doctrine.

The goal of these campaigns is to weaken and undermine support for the European Union, NATO, and public trust and confidence in democracy itself. And with the rise of anti-establishment, anti-EU politicians across Europe, Russia has found an increasingly receptive audience for such operations.

Russian propaganda campaigns date back to before the Cold War. But the sophistication and volume of these efforts are greater today than in the past. The internet has opened up new modes and opportunities for Russia to influence foreign elections — and new vulnerabilities for democratic societies, for which the free flow of information is a fundamental feature.

There is evidence, for example, that Russia played a role in several key national referenda across Europe last year: in April, when Dutch voters rejected an EU treaty with Ukraine that would have led to closer political and economic ties; in June, when British voters opted to leave the EU; and in December, when Italian voters rejected constitutional reforms championed by then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leading to his resignation.

The results of each of these votes served Russia’s broad interest in undermining EU cohesion.

Russian interference in Western elections can take various forms. Its operators may disseminate false or misleading news via blogs, websites, and social media or hack into computer networks and email accounts to steal and then leak compromising information against politicians seen to be anti-Russia (for example, Hillary Clinton). At the extreme, hackers may rig computer systems to manipulate election vote counts.

Russia’s disinformation campaigns also aim to instil doubt, confusion, and cynicism in the democratic process, erode public trust in institutions and in the news media — even to the point of eliminating the very idea of “a shared reality”. This foments populist anger and anxiety.

Thus disinformation campaigns and cyberespionage are for Russia attractive means to undermine Western governments and societies.

They’re also hard to track down and stop, offering Russia plausible deniability. Russian officials can operate covertly and through intermediaries, making it hard to find conclusive evidence directly implicating top Kremlin authorities.

It is often not clear if hackers are working with clear directions from Moscow or if they simply share sympathies with the Russian government and are acting independently.

A clear and present threat

Dutch authorities are so concerned about the possibility that its election could be manipulated that the interior minister announced that ballots will be counted by hand in the upcoming national election. Experts had warned that government computer systems were vulnerable to attack and disruption by state actors.

Likewise, the German government has advised of the possibility of a Russian cyberattack against the country’s federal elections. Russia is already suspected of hacking into the German Parliament’s computer network in 2015. German officials also suspect that Russia was behind a computer hack last November that resulted in 900,000 Germans temporarily losing internet and telephone service.

Putin has a powerful incentive to undermine German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been one of his most outspoken critics in Europe. She is also one of the strongest voices in favour of maintaining EU sanctions against Russia for its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist rebels in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who is running on a pro-EU platform ahead of French presidential elections in April and May, has accused Russian hackers of targeting him in an attempt to smear his candidacy. Richard Ferrand, the secretary-general of Macron’s En Marche party, has said that the campaign’s website and databases have been subject to “hundreds, if not thousands” of attacks from inside Russia.

An existential threat

Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, argues that Russian election interference and manipulation, if unchecked, could pose an “existential threat” to Western democracies.

European governments are taking various steps in response. They have tried to educate voters on how to identify fake news and have threatened retaliatory measures against Moscow if its subversive activities persist.

The EU has even created a team whose mission is to address “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns” by weeding out false or misleading online news.

Despite the various successes it can plausibly claim, election interference can also backfire on Russia. US intelligence agencies have traced the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer systems back to the highest levels of the Kremlin and before leaving office in January, President Barack Obama imposed a range of sanctions and other retaliatory measures on Russia.

Such public hacking and disinformation campaigns have further damaged its relations with the West. Russia will now be the primary suspect for any electoral problems or irregularities in the future.

With Brexit negotiations, the rise of anti-EU and anti-establishment political parties, and the uncertainty surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump, Europe already faces a precarious moment. But since Russian disinformation campaigns target the very foundations of liberal democracy, they represent something perhaps even more sinister, threatening, and potentially destructive than Europe’s many other troubles.

Richard Maher, Research Fellow, Global Governance Program, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute

 

Photo Credit: En.kremlin.ru

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Could NATO go to war with Russia … and what would happen if it did?

A new book by General Sir Richard Shirreff, Nato’s deputy supreme allied commander for Europe between 2011 and 2014, evokes a potential scenario that leads to a devastating future war with Russia.

The book, 2017 War with Russia, is clearly labeled as a work of fiction. But it portrays a fairly convincing manufactured incident that the fictional president of Russia uses as a causus belli for a clash with NATO. In his account, Russia rapidly expands its war aims by invading the Baltic States, which are NATO members, and world war ensues. Perhaps more worryingly, the author has since told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that such a conflict is “entirely plausible”.

Fact vs fiction

I do not want to give any more away about the book (it is a good and authentic, if gloomy, read). But the general’s underlying political message – clearly articulated in the book’s preface – is that the hollowing out of defense capabilities across the West and its reluctance and inability to stand up to Russia is making war ever more likely. Is this an accurate assessment of the real world?

NATO countries (in green).
By Addicted04, own work, CC BY

The novel is reminiscent of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and the excellent The Third World War: August 1985 by General John Hackett. The latter, written at the height of the Cold War, was conceived as a “future history”, supposedly looking back at the outbreak and subsequent unfolding of a full-blown NATO vs Warsaw Pact war.

Shirreff’s book, however, is a far more overtly political piece and is deeply critical of the West’s reduced defense spending and its unwillingness – and inability – to stand up to the Russian threat. At first sight, this appears a persuasive case, but on reflection is perhaps slightly less so.

Shirreff’s scenario assumes either that the Russian president had no other option to achieve his political goals than through the use of military force – or “hard power” – or that he is what might be termed “an irrational actor” in the mold of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Neither strikes me as convincing.

Russia has undoubtedly suffered economically from the global downturn in energy prices and from economic sanctions following the annexation of the Crimea, but the degree of dependence, in particular energy dependence, that Western Europe has on Russia is highly significant.

The security of co-dependence

For example, the Nord Stream pipeline laid in international waters along the Baltic from Russia to Germany supplies a significant – according to EU figures, 38.7% – proportion of Western Europe’s gas needs. In turn, Russia desperately needs the foreign earnings this generates. Consequently, the two sides of this hypothetical war are heavily economically inter-dependent. Put another way, Russia rationally could bring much more significant, and cheaper, political pressure to bear by turning off the gas supply: why resort to the chancier option of war?

Looked at from the viewpoint of Russia, and especially European Russia, she is being hemmed-in by her opponents with more and more of her neighbors coming under the sway of the US, the West … and NATO. Turkey, on Russia’s southern border, joined the military alliance in 1952, and since the end of the Cold War, many of Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States have signed up, too. Many in Russia want their leader to kick back against this. But is the real President Putin irrational? A real-life analysis of the Russian president’s actions would suggest that he is being entirely rational and that his actions are those or an arch-realist who places the needs of his country first. Putin, it seems, is looking to play the long game.

Russia has, moreover, always respected a strong leader, and the present incumbent of the Kremlin enjoys levels of popularity – at least 80% – that Western politicians can only dream of. Sabre-rattling is all part of this strongman image, but why risk it all by undertaking that most risky of maneuvers in international politics: war?

It’s certainly in Putin’s interests that the West cuts defence spending and has a diminished appetite for brinkmanship and it is perhaps understandable that a recently retired general should push for this to be reversed. But does that really make a war any more likely? Probably not – although there’s always that niggling possibility.

World War III

But if there was to be war with Russia, what might it look like? The Cold War scenario of vast armies fighting a large-scale conventional war dominated by tanks and aircraft directly supporting the battlefield is as outdated a concept as it is unlikely.

Both sides have considerable resources at their disposal but NATO is significantly larger than Russia in simple numbers: NATO has a total of 3.6m personnel in uniform, Russia 800,000; NATO 7,500 tanks, Russia 2,750; NATO 5,900 combat aircraft, Russia 1,571. However, these bald figures do not tell the whole story as NATO’s forces are deployed globally to a far greater extent than Russia’s, and even acknowledging that Russia could achieve a temporary military advantage in, say, the Baltic, for how long and at what price? Nevertheless, today’s armies are smaller and more reliant on technology than they were during much of the 20th century and the likelihood of a Kursk-style pitched battle between heavy armor is highly unlikely.

That said, the ever-greater reach of missiles and artillery, the accuracy and potency of modern precision-guided munitions, the extensive use of surveillance systems (from space, via drones, and through highly sophisticated electronic eavesdropping) would make a contemporary battlefield highly dangerous and highly destructive, as pictures from even relatively small-scale recent conflicts from Grozny to Aleppo show.

Consequently, while the armies and individual battles might be smaller than those in World War II, the death toll, the loss of war-making material and both sides’ ability to reduce everything in their paths to rubble would make a large-scale conflict far more wide-reaching and, in terms of recovery, longer-lasting than anything we have seen before.

In such a conflict, the very term “battlefield” would itself be highly misleading: such a war, employing ships, submarines, and aircraft with truly global reach, would indeed be a world war and would pay scant attention to the difference between military and civilian targets: this would truly be a war among the peoples.

And not just an earth-bound war: outer space would be a highly contested arena as would cyberspace, with both sides seeking to disrupt all aspects of normal life as the war was taken into the realms of politics, infrastructure, information, and commerce, too.

Despite Shirreff’s warnings, the nightmare scenario of nuclear war is highly unlikely as neither side ultimately would wish to unleash destruction on that scale. Likewise, chemical and biological weapons would if employed at all, be used at a very local level, and sparingly.

That is not to say that the scale of the destruction would not be significant, however. This would be total war, waged on every imaginable front, from the internet and the stock market to outer space.

The general has, then, written an excellent and compelling novel. But while there might be some argument in favor of a more robust foreign policy and greater defense spending, to dismiss the Russian leadership purely as aggressively irrational is both naive and shortsighted. Ultimately, when it comes to a new world war, both sides now have far too much to lose.

For an alternative view, read more here

The Conversation

Ian Shields -Associate Lecturer in International Relations, Anglia Ruskin University

Photo Credit: Kremlin

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is Italy about to feel the Trump effect? Matteo Renzi’s referendum and the populist threat

The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency is causing turmoil in Italian politics in the run-up to a constitutional referendum to be held on December 4.

The referendum sets the stage for Italy to host the third major anti-establishment protest shock of 2016 before we’ve even had the chance fully to digest the news of Trump and Brexit.

The referendum is on a wide-ranging constitutional reform designed by prime minister Matteo Renzi and his government. It took more than two years to navigate through parliament and was put to the public vote once it had failed to win a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Renzi claims the reform will make Italian governments more stable and efficient. But the worry is that Trump’s election increases the likelihood that the reform will be rejected by voters.

That’s not because of the merits or flaws of the reform itself but because of the politics surrounding it. Renzi has effectively staked his all on the outcome of this referendum. In December 2015, with his personal poll ratings riding high, he announced, in De Gaullean style, that if he were to be defeated in the referendum he would resign.

This manoeuvre, which he assumed would convince any waverers to support the reform, turned out to be a catastrophic tactical misjudgement. It effectively turned the referendum into a plebiscite on Renzi.

That provided a theme for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which has campaigned vehemently for a No vote purely to remove Renzi from office.

The Five Star Movement has crowed Donald Trump’s election as evidence of a protest movement sweeping the West. It is calling on Italians to seize the opportunity of the referendum to join in. And indeed, support for the reform has consistently declined throughout the year. Polls now show a small majority in favor of voting No – although a large number of undecided voters leaves the outcome in the balance.

Monthly average poll of polls, created from a total of 95 polls throughout the year. Author provided

Renzi, since the summer, has attempted to change tack and depersonalize the referendum, separating its outcome from his own future. But the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. Polls indicate that over half of Italians intending to vote, view the referendum as a judgment on the Renzi government and not the reform.

Renzi will surely be thinking of former British prime minister David Cameron, who famously argued that he would not resign if he lost the Brexit referendum, even when most observers knew that it would be inevitable. A No vote in the referendum would signal not just the rejection of the reform but the end of the Renzi experiment.

A very big constitutional problem

If this is to be Renzi’s fate, the result will be instability, if not chaos. That’s not because the country will immediately go to an election, but rather because it will be unrealistic to do so.

To try and reinforce support for the constitutional reform, Renzi has also carried through an electoral reform of the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies), which came into effect in July. This new electoral law (the Italicum) was expressly designed to reinforce the constitutional reform, which reshapes the Senate, curtailing its powers compared to the Chamber of Deputies – the only house to be directly elected under the new scheme – by ensuring that a stable governing majority would always emerge from the ballot box.

However, if the constitutional reform is rejected, Italy would be left with two completely different electoral systems for the two parliamentary houses. It would provide the basis for two separate majorities in a system where both houses currently have identical powers.

The potential paralysis that this would create makes it inevitable that further electoral reform would immediately have to follow a rejection of the constitutional reform. And if Renzi resigned, it would mean bringing in yet another transitional government to implement such a reform.

This would probably be a “technical” or “institutional” government along the lines of those led by Renzi’s two immediate predecessors, Mario Monti and Enrico Letta. These administrations were installed under the auspices of the non-partisan Italian president with a specific program of reform to implement, based on the (fragile) support of different political forces in parliament. Yet, the divisions between the parties over the sort of electoral reform needed would cause months of negotiation, instability, lack of direction and possible stalemate.

The elections that would surely follow electoral reform could result in the Five Star Movement emerging as the largest party. Successive opinion polls reveal a situation of tripolarity, with Renzi’s Democratic Party, the Five Star Movement and the centre-right parties (Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Northern League and Brothers of Italy) commanding about 30% of the vote each.

Trumped?

All this will have reverberations beyond Italy because of the way Renzi has been able to convince international elites (most notably the European Union and President Obama) that the constitutional reform will increase Italy’s capacity to deliver on the EU’s economic agenda. Indeed, some of Renzi’s supporters in Italy are arguing that expectations abroad about the reform are now so high that its rejection would send a shock wave through international circles, damaging Italy’s credibility abroad and leaving it at the mercy of the markets.

For Renzi, there is bitter irony in the way this referendum has turned into an impending watershed for Italian politics. He stands to lose both the reform and possibly his political career on a wave of anti-establishment protest when his own emergence as the leader of the Democratic Party and then as Prime Minister was precisely on the basis of an anti-establishment program. He swept to power promising to scrap the old political class (rottamazione) and lay the foundations for a “new politics” in Italy. That was barely two years ago, but Renzi has learned to his cost that an anti-establishment profile does not last long once in office.

-Professor of Politics, University of Salford

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.