Progressive Page articles

Weekly opinion articles interpreting current political and social developments in Europe and the wider world from a progressive perspective

“Your body is a battleground”

By Katarzyna Kotula / 8 March, 2021

This year’s International Women’s Day in Poland is organised around the slogan ‘Women’s Rights. Without Compromise’. But more than in any other country in the European Union, Polish women’s rights are under attack again, by regressive and government policies that amount to full-blown war on women in the name of traditional values. And the 1990s slogan ‘Your body is a battleground’ is true as rarely before.

Over 30 years ago, in 1991, when the battle for legal abortion in Poland began, and women’s rights were under attack, Barbara’s Kruger poster “Your body is a battleground” was shown in Warsaw for the first time. The poster had been created by the US artist Barbara Kruger for the Women’s March on Washington in 1989. The image of a woman’s face, disembodied, split in positive and negative exposures of black and red, accompanied by texts in favour of women’s rights, abortion and sexual education, was conceived at a time marked by numerous demonstrations against a new wave of antiabortion laws in the United States. It was originally tied to a specific moment, but the true power of the work lies in the timelessness of its declaration, which is clearly visible in the reality of women in 2021 in Poland.

Today, more than ever, women’s bodies are a political battleground. At the end of the harsh pandemic year, women in Poland have been stripped from their right to decide whether to terminate or maintain a pregnancy with foetus abnormality, as the Polish Constitutional Tribunal (regarded as unconstitutional and political by the democratic opposition in Poland and the European Parliament) has enforced a near-total abortion ban. On 22 October 2020, the tribunal has issued a verdict which declared unconstitutional a 1993 law, allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities. In the past few years, a majority (98 per cent) of legal abortions in Poland were carried out on those grounds. Therefore, the ruling banned most pregnancy terminations performed in hospitals. The decision by the country’s constitutional tribunal further tightened Poland’s abortion laws, which were already among the strictest in Europe.

In the past six years, with the Law and Justice Party (PiS) as the ruling party, Polish women have been losing their rights bit by bit. The Polish right-wing conservative politicians are strongly supported by the Catholic Church and ultra conservative organisations such as Ordo Iuris – an extreme anti-choice group whose founders were ‘inspired’ by the controversial Catholic fundamentalist network Tradition, Family and Property – that push the government further and further to the right. Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS government has targeted women’s rights as if they were dangerous to families and traditional values. Over the last six years, PiS leaders, politicians, and church officials advocated for laws and policies aiming to reinforce traditional gender roles, downgrading feminism, and publicly discouraging efforts to combat violence against women. Women in Poland have long faced restrictive abortion laws, limited access to sexual and reproductive health, information and care, inadequate services, and support in the face of violence, as well as the perpetuation of traditional and prescribed gender roles. Since PiS party came to power in 2015, the situation has regressed considerably. Yet what has happened on 22 October 2020, marked a total backlash of women’s rights in Poland in a way never seen before.

In the past few months, Polish streets have been flooded with women, men and young people marching in massive numbers to fight for women’s fundamental rights. Sweeping through Polish cities, town and even villages, these are the biggest protests since the communist times. Peaceful protesters were faced with excessive police violence, using forces gas, telescopic batons and kettling techniques – using blockades to keep a crowd in a limited area. Many have been detained and the organisers of protests in smaller towns, often young teenagers, have been charged with organising illegal events as the country was put under the pandemic regime, and have been threatened by the police with legal consequences for their actions.

Meanwhile, thousands of women have been put in a dramatic situation with doctors and hospitals refusing to perform abortion procedures immediately after the Constitutional Tribunal ruling was announced, even before the official implementation. For a brief moment, it seemed that a battle was won, as the government – surprised by the large scale of protest – postponed the publication of the decision. But finally, the verdict was published, and the law came into effect on 27 January 2021. As of this day, hospitals and doctors have been turning away women seeking abortion, and women’s organisations such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning have received numerous calls from distressed women seeking help after being sent away from clinics, despite having appointments because of foetal abnormalities. Many other women’s organisations and groups have put all their efforts into helping women to get access to abortion abroad or through international networks which help women to get access to pharmaceutical abortion. Countries all over the world not only declared their support for Polish women, but also proposed abortion funds and presented staunch support from political leaders.

Barbara Kruger’s poster appeared on Polish streets once again, in December 2020. The war against women continues, but the determination of women to fight for their rights increases. It is not an end, but a new beginning, a second wave of Polish women’s revolution.

Polish women look up to their sisters in Argentina and Ireland, aware that this is a war that they will finally win, regardless of how long it might take. Despite the government’s restrictions, the social process has begun. As an effect of police brutality and the ruling party’s opposition towards women’s rights, the Polish society has turned towards a greater support for legalising abortion. A series of opinion polls found that most Poles – 80 per cent – are opposed to the tribunal’s verdict, over 50 per cent support the protests as well as legal and safe abortion. Although the ruling party tried to distance itself from the abortion ruling, it is well known that the decision on a nearly total ban on abortion had originated from PiS. As a result, the support for the ruling party has dropped significantly. But what is most significant: the support for the legalisation of abortion law has never been at such an important level.

The EU’s multilateral ambitions: the why and the how

By Nicoletta Pirozzi / 22 February, 2021

On 17 February, the High Representative Josep Borrell and the European Commission released a Joint Communication on strengthening the EU’s contribution to rules-based multilateralism: on first sight a document in the continuity of previous ones, but also one that reveals important changes in how the EU sees itself on the international stage.

One might question the necessity of a new document to reiterate the EU’s commitment to multilateralism, since this has been enshrined as the guiding principle of its foreign and security policy in all major strategic documents of the last two decades. Yet, there are two good reasons why the Union should renew and qualify its multilateral approach to international affairs. The first, and more pressing one, is the need for coordinated action at global level to face the Covid-19 challenge and its consequences, be it sanitary, economic and social threats to the resilience of our societies. The second is the opportunity to re-join forces at the transatlantic level after the disruptive unilateral moment imposed by the Trump administration, and the return of the US to multilateral fora – from WHO to the Paris Agreement – initiated by President Biden.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that once again the EU’s assertiveness in promoting multilateralism comes as a reaction to a phase of its denial by its transatlantic ally. This had already been the case in 2003, when the then High Representative Javier Solana published the European Security Strategy, and the Commission its communication on the choice of multilateralism: two pivotal strategic documents that marked Europe’s distance from the unilateral US invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration.

Almost 20 years later, the EU chooses to do the same, with a similar aspiration to revitalise both multilateralism and its own role on the world stage. And in fact, the Joint Communication explicitly underlines the compatibility of the EU’s strategic priorities and objectives with a multilateral stance, “as the principles that underlie the EU are the same of those of the United Nations”. But how do the content and the spirit of this post-Covid and post-Trump communication on multilateralism differ from previous documents?

The first twist relates to the ‘why’ the EU should continue to embrace multilateralism. While the Communication reaffirms the EU’s engagement in promoting peace and security, together with fundamental rights, universal values and international law, it stresses that “these efforts go hand-in-hand with a more interests-based approach”. In line with, and taking to the extreme, the “principled pragmatism” in international affairs proposed by the 2016 EU Global Strategy, the Communication advocates for a more assertive EU that uses multilateralism as a means to achieve concrete policy priorities. With it, the EU seems to embrace a more realistic and less normative stance in its external action, thus acknowledging the inescapable emergence of a multipolar world, the transactional nature of the global system and the prevalence of power politics. This also adheres to the belief that the EU needs to become more geopolitical, as EC President von der Leyen has pledged in her vision of the mandate of the European Commission – even though this, for the moment, is still more an aspiration than a reality.

The next turn concerns the ‘how’ the EU should pursue its multilateral agenda. Crucial attention is placed on “extending international norms, standards and cooperation” on issues ranging from rule of law to international taxation, from digital cooperation to consumer protection to environmental degradation. It is intended as a way to cope with the proliferation of powerful norm-shapers that operate outside institutionalised channels, like digital platforms and multinationals, thus requiring an “active regulatory cooperation” at global level and “more ambitious standards and rules” to tackle disinformation, digital finance and internet governance.

It is also stated that the EU should work to “reform what needs to change”. Interestingly, a well-deserved attention is devoted to the strengthening of institutions such as the WHO and the WTO, but it is not accompanied by a similar focus on the UN Security Council, for which the Communication talks about a general commitment to a comprehensive reform. It seems that, after the repeated unsuccessful attempts of the past, the EU has given up on the need to equip the global order with a functioning, legitimising peace and security body. And yet, there are a number of reform proposals that could be promoted by the EU which do not require a hard-won amendment of the UN Charter and could become flagship initiatives to enhance its role within the UN, as suggested by a recent FEPS report drafted by the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI).

Finally, the Communication diverges on the past approach on the ‘what’ in two main respects. It insists much more than previous documents on the need to focus on the internal “coherence, unity and solidarity” of the EU as a condition for a more effective external action, thus recognising the unprecedented challenges impacting the European project and the increased urgency of an enhanced coordination among institutions and member states. Furthermore, it proposes a sort of ‘modular multilateralism’, centred on a stronger cooperation with like-minded partners – first and foremost the US – to defend universal principles and rules, and complemented by issue-based partnerships with interested actors on transnational issues such as climate change, education, and technology.

Overall, the Joint Communication presents in an honest way the gaps and opportunities in a world in transition, “more unpredictable and unequal”, and dominated by the competition of “visions and agendas”. It offers a candid assessment of the EU’s fragility and puts forward some solid proposals to implement its commitment to multilateralism but does not go deep enough into the analysis of its potentialities, in particular on the reform of the UN. The current circumstances impose a healthy dose of realism but navigating the future will require an additional injection of dynamism and ambition.

A great window of opportunity for a progressive agenda in Europe

By Ania Skrzypek / 15 February, 2021

The 2019 European elections finally saw the turnout going slightly up. In parallel, Social Democrats noted an unanticipated positive result. Almost two years into the legislative period, despite the pandemic, the polls consistently show two tendencies. First, Europeans tend to be positive about the EU in numbers comparable to before the 2008 crash. Second, progressives in the lead of their respective governments consolidated their positions. The question might sound far reached but: could there be a correlation? And if so, how can we built upon it?

It has been a year since the pandemic paralysed EU member states and changed the life for all the Europeans, possibly forever. Even though vaccines were developed in a record time, there are sadly also problems with their provision, and worries about their capacity to protect citizens against the COVID mutations. The heated discussions in the actual and virtual chambers of the European Parliament could signal a general frustration among policy makers. Intervention after intervention, there is a sense that the EU needs to grow much stronger, much more effective and much more united to do better – on complex questions such as relations with Russia; on defending the principles it should stand for, such as democracy and rule of law; or on saving Polish women from a fate that they are sentenced to after the further restriction of the abortion law.

But while reading transcripts of the parliamentary debates and diverse paper clippings might be a downer, perhaps somewhat paradoxically one can find an antidote in looking carefully at surveys – such as Parlemeter or Eurobarometer – instead. The numbers are rather surprising, going against the presumption that people, who have been confined to their homes for so long – many of whom have lost dear ones and are now looking at very insecure prospects – would manifest anything else than frustration and depression. Such an assumption would sound both logic and legitimate, drawing from the news about outbursts and riots against lockdowns across the Union. But surprisingly, a majority of European citizens do cherish a specific positive thought – and quite unexpectedly it is connected with the EU.

Across diverse surveys, it stands out that Europeans dropped their ambiguity for a clearly defined attitude towards the EU. For the first time since 2007-2008, the proportion of those who are positive about the Union went above 50 per cent. Three quarters believe in the EU Recovery Plan and two thirds are optimistic about the Union’s future. The numbers of those who are satisfied about how the EU responded to the pandemic broadly equal those who are not. In many cases, the Union’s pandemic management scores higher than that of citizens’ own national governments. Finally, there are clear demands for the EUs role in the years to come – including a larger EU budget with more financial means to support public health care, the fight against poverty and a strive for equality between men and women. Last but not least, citizens demand the EU to take an active role externally, as protagonist of defending human rights and freedom of speech across the globe.

These numbers are encouraging by themselves, but the breakdown of where these positive attitudes stem from is even more so. It might sound far-fetched to make a categorical conclusion, but there seems to be a correlation between those figures and the role played by Social Democrats in the lead of their respective governments (in Portugal, Spain, Malta, Finland, Sweden and Denmark).

To begin with, over the past 12 months, an unprecedented number of government statements related to the EU have been issued. More specifically, an important amount of these has been devoted to the interactions between the respective member state and the EU in the coordination of their fight against the pandemic. These statements are extremely carefully crafted, in Sweden or Finland for example, they have also been used to illustrate the processes of checking the compliance with the national rescue packages and the EU regulations. This had an educational aspect, and also served to increase transparency and consequently to build confidence, while sending a message that the EU rules (Treaties and Directives etc) are there to be followed at all times.

Furthermore, Social Democratic governments made sure to use these statements as explanations. For instance, the respective Spanish and Maltese ministers have clarified that while the fight with the pandemic imposes many safety measures that are harming their economies, the solutions are not always straightforward and must be well balanced, taking into account the long-term objectives. Consequently, providing help to farmers or fishermen (and -women) has to be accompanied with attention to how such assistance could not only help at the given moment, but also be an incentive in preparing the reform of the Common Agriculture Policy and attaining the objectives of the New Green Deal. This is what makes a difference between merely managing the crisis and governing in times of crisis.

Finally, no matter how difficult and absorbing the national situations have become, Social Democrats in power remained internationalists. For example, the Spanish government was at the forefront of debates, emphasising that this is the moment for multilateralism to become the global political approach. The Finnish and Danish governments consequently kept on informing the public about their financial contribution to European and international organisations in a hope that joint efforts could ensure faster development of the vaccine. The Swedish government focused on the need to protect people, protect their (human) rights across the globe and fight with any power abuse or media manipulation.

This has been a qualitatively different attitude compared to what had been observed so often across the EU, especially during crises. There was no blaming or using EU as scapegoat. Instead, there was a discourse of respect, transparency, solidarity and cooperation. As a result, it stands out that citizens of these six countries are among those who evaluate their country’s EU-membership as most positive (with the exception of Malta, where this opinion only stand at the EU average – 63 per cent). They are well informed and also have very clear priorities of what the Union should focus on and can actually deliver upon, which appear to be quite well correlated with what their national governments were arguing for (the Swedish wish that the EU steps up in terms of human rights protection worldwide, the Spanish one that it does more for the equality between men and women etc).

There are three lessons to be drawn. First, while Social Democrats in the respective governments have been consequent and true to their values, they also choose to promote international solidarity and European cooperation even ifoccasionally, amongst themselves, they held different opinions on specific issues (ie regarding financing of the recovery instruments). Their principled stand translated into approval ratings that saw them consolidated in their positions throughout 2020. Secondly, because they have been so consequent, so open and so explanatory about the EU, the narratives that are so often picked up by media about Brussels as a ‘villain’ were absent. Instead, there was a space for positive and hopeful attitudes to develop. And finally, of course scepticism about polls or correlations is indicated, but if to believe them just for a moment – especially as they echo other surveys done by FEPS and partners – there is a great window of opportunity. Citizens across the continent seem ready to look beyond the decade in which “EU” and “crisis” were inseparably linked in all commentaries. Instead, they are hopeful and clear in their expectations, which correspond to the progressive agenda for Europe. Such an openness is rare and should be responded to. And the best way to do this would be to take this energy to make the Future of Europe Conference what it has always been meant to be: by the people, with the people and for the people!

10 years after Mubarak’s fall – there was no ‘Arab spring’

By Renzo Guolo / 8 February, 2021

Ten years ago, after weeks of demonstrations on downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square, President Hosni Mubarak’s government crumbled. The regime that had led Egypt since 1952 was apparently ousted. The upheaval was certainly profound. But to speak, as Western media did, of an ‘Arab Spring’, charging it with improper political meanings, was a glaring mistake. It would have been enough to analyse the Egyptian scene in a cool-headed way to understand that the forces in the streets lacked the organisational structure, project, and social representation necessary to give a lasting political outcome to the revolt.

Exasperated by the economic crisis, by corruption and the lack of a future, the Egyptians who brought about the end of Mubarak’s rule (in office 1981-2011), put into question the historic political exchange between the regime and the citizens of Egypt. In this exchange, Egyptians accepted the absence of freedom against the promise of an upward social mobility for all. But the economic and political conditions did not allow for this any longer. The expulsion of the last heir of the ‘Free Officers Movement’ of the late 1940s and early 1950 however did not translate into a consensus in the Egyptian society. The objective political immaturity of the forces in the streets did not allow to go beyond the request, certainly politically significant, for the resignation of the Rais. It is no coincidence that, after the exaltation of bloggers and young people without ideology as actors of change, the initiative returned to the forces that have been deeply rooted in Egyptian society for decades: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. These strategic competitors have been present in every corner of the country for more than half a century. And these forces will, again, compete for power.

After the parenthesis of Mohamed Morsi’s government, the cycle of restoration ended with the rise of general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Morsi fell due to his own inexperience, due to the ambiguity of his leitmotiv of the Islamisation of the state, but also because of the obvious hostility of the military. In the wake of the heavy repression after the deposition of the elected Islamist president, with the military parading as executors of the ‘popular will’, the protagonists of the Tahrir Square uprising fell too. The restored regime does not tolerate any dissent.

Today, the military are again the undisputed masters of the country. The social classes that are hostile to the Islamists group around them: those who recognise themselves in secular nationalism originally forged by the former president Gamal Abdel Nasser (in office 1956–1970), but also religious minorities such as the Copts, who feel protected by the generals. In addition, there are the increasingly large social groups that are benefiting from state intervention in the economy, which is led by military cadres themselves. A class of the ‘military entrepreneurs’ has replaced the fragile, and often improvised, economic actors that emerged with the post-1989 ‘economic opening’. Actors of a sort of state military capitalism, that was born with President Anwar Sadat’s (1970-1981) anti-Soviet turn, raised in the Mubarak-era, and well-established in the early Al-Sisi era. It is a closely woven system of interests that binds millions of workers and their families to the powers and the fate of the ruling class. In this situation, foreign investors are kept away – with the exception of the energy sector which requires important resources and technologies – producing an internal consensus, based on the convergence of interests with the fate of the regime.

The ban on economic competition has a corollary in the political authoritarianism, aimed at excluding from the scene any possible opposition, whether democratic, liberal or of Islamist origin. All Islamist forces are considered terrorists: whether they accept to compete in free elections, like the Muslim Brotherhood, or are hostile to popular sovereignty which they consider an undue usurpation of the power of the divine, such as the jihadist groups. Lumping all these groups together and hiding their internal differences, serves to brand them as a total enemy altogether, but also to baring the Brotherhood durably from the political scene. In the strategy of disrupting the Brotherhood, the regime counts on the support of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates, who not only encourage this policy for internal and international objectives, but also support Egypt, not least economically. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, is supported by Turkey and Qatar, at least until the recent rapprochement of Doha with the other Gulf countries. The internal situation is therefore closely linked to the international state of affairs.

The anti-Brotherhood axis with Saudi Arabia and Israel closes the circle of Egyptian politics, founded, on a regional level and beyond, on the guarantee of stability and anti-Islamist containment in exchange for a free hand in internal affairs. This harshness becomes clear not only in the heavy repression of dissent of any kind, in the tendency of intellectuals to flee the country, in the blatant violations of human rights, of which the Regeni case was only the striking tip of the iceberg (the abduction, torture and murder of an Italian PhD Student who was conducting research on Egyptian trade unions), but also in the rampant government control over the judiciary, in the militarisation of institutions and the growing political weight of the security bureaucracies.

Against the backdrop of these complex geopolitical and diplomatic constraints, an EU strategy able to induce the Al-Sisi’s regime to greater openness in terms of human and democratic rights, can only be found in a very open and frank discussion of the Egyptian dossier. This is not only about values, but also about collective security. The massive repression of dissent threatens to push many young people to sympathise with organisations that are determined to use force to oppose an increasingly authoritarian power. Some militants of the Brotherhood contest the line of their leadership towards the regime, which they consider too soft, leave the historical Islamist formation to look for more radical forces. Already in the past, this phenomenon has contributed to strengthen the ranks of jihadist groups – with the consequences we know.

The Egyptian case is only a piece in the puzzle of the decline of the ‘Arab spring’: ten years after, the balance is not positive. The case of Tunisia stands out as an exception: in spite of considerable difficulties due to social and economic conditions, the country has a large civil society that is determined to keep the democratisation process open. But Libya and Syria have been heavily impacted by civil war, as has Yemen. The internationalisation of these conflicts has aggravated the situation, reshaping new spheres of influence. With the exception of Tunisia, there is no greater pluralism, no increased respect for minorities, no better economic development, and certainly no attenuation of inequalities, compared to the past. The lack of an autonomous, strong civil society remains the weak point in this region, where the main protagonists of the scene remain old political actors who determined, still, to polarise conflicts to their advantage.

Tax agenda for a fair recovery

By Pedro Marques / 1 February, 2021

The year of 2020 brought us a pandemic and the most severe economic shock of our lives. Notwithstanding, while facing both challenges, member states were still able to come together and find joint ways to address the health crisis and to deliver on a recovery package, designed to relaunch our economy. The European Union showed, even to its fiercest deterrents, that it can act as a whole and provide results that work for the common good.

This should motivate us to consider other areas in which cooperation would be equally beneficial but in which, for the moment, it remains suboptimal. Here, the field of taxation emerges as a prime candidate.

No decisive action was taken to achieve tax justice

Even after being confronted with several tax scandals, such as the Panama Papers, LuxLeaks or the Paradise Papers, no decisive action was taken to achieve tax justice. Yet, it is clear that the European Union’s current ruleset is outdated and unable to deal with tax evasion and tax avoidance schemes. Tax planning consultants and wealth managers are able to make profit by exploiting loopholes and circumventing the law.

In the EU, for instance, even if value is being created in a particular country, currently there is no effective way to prevent profits from being shifted and booked in low tax jurisdictions. This regulatory environment allows multinational enterprises, particularly those operating in the digital economy, to shop around for the lowest tax rate, thus undermining national tax policies and leaving SMEs and workers to foot the bill.

Furthermore, countries are also pressured to engage in a race to the bottom to merely retain the tax revenue that already belongs to them. This is not just a matter of opinion, it is a fact. In the European Union, corporate tax rates decreased from 35 per cent in 1995 to an estimated 21.4 per cent in 2020. Unfortunately, not even the clearest evidence is enough to satisfy the market religion of liberals and conservatives, both of which have repeatedly opposed the S&D Group’s proposal to have a minimum effective corporate tax rate of 18 per cent at the EU level. Desperate tax competition is not a solution and it has been driving the welfare state into stress and fiscal austerity.

Desperate tax competition has been driving the welfare state into stress and fiscal austerity

Thankfully, there is a silver lining. Public opinion is more aware than ever about this issue and politicians are being pressured into fixing the loopholes that have been fueling this unbalanced system. The OECD launched the BEPS 2.0 project (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting), which seeks to reach a broad agreement on an international tax reform. The initiative is divided into two pillars, the first is tailored to address challenges arising from digitalisation and the modern economy; the second seeks to establish a global minimum effective level of taxation. This is an historic opportunity to make globalisation work for the many. The European Union should be committed to the OECD negotiations, even more so in the light of the recent leadership change at the head of our historic ally, the United States.

Nevertheless, we must be ready to pursue an alternative in case the global negotiations are unsuccessful or underwhelming. The European Commission has already shown ambition to pursue common solutions for all member states. That includes the current consultation on a digital levy, but also previous initiatives, particularly the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB), which seeks to establish a common set of rules for corporate taxation in the single market. Evidently, there is a key obstacle for moving forward at the EU level: it requires us to face unanimity, which has consistently reduced our ambition when it comes to promoting tax justice.

Until now, the discussion to move past unanimity and to deliberate on tax matters through qualified majority voting has been unfruitful. Many are quick to uphold the banner of sovereignty as a shield against using the community method, but equally quick to forget that there is no such thing as sovereignty when tax policies are being forced upon our countries by multinational corporations. It is not admissible that families, working people and the middle class are asked, once again, to make sacrifices, while the largest corporations enjoy even more profits, but remain undertaxed. As we look to finance the recovery, fixing the corporate tax landscape must become part of the equation.

As we look to finance the recovery, fixing the corporate tax landscape must become part of the equation

This is a window of opportunity – a small one – to make lasting positive changes to the tax systems in Europe, thus ensuring more equality, sustainability and redistribution of wealth: green taxes that include the polluter pays principle and favour a just transition towards a sustainable economy; a financial transactions tax to curb speculation and to make sure the financial sector pays its fair share; taxes on extreme wealth accumulation, which could restore the quality of our public services and contribute to debt sustainability. Such new taxes could dramatically boost the fiscal firepower of our countries, finance the recovery and ensure a relief for workers and SMEs.

We should not refrain from debating how to address the expectations of citizens when it comes to achieving tax justice. As the “Conference on the Future of Europe” is approaching, a profound reflexion on tax justice, and on the ways to attain it, should be on the table. This is how we achieve true tax justice. This is how we leave no one behind.

America as Joe Biden takes office

By Robert Kuttner / 20 January, 2021

With more than 25,000 troops patrolling, downtown Washington today looks like the Green Zone in Baghdad, as Joe Biden is determined to have a normal inauguration. But the extraordinary security measures that have made the capital into an armed camp are a vivid reminder that America is far from normal.

As Biden takes office, all of the urgent questions boil down to these two: Will he be able to enact the important parts of his programme? And will the United States be able to contain and weaken a burgeoning popular fascist movement that finally got taken seriously after the attempted insurrection of 6 January?

The two questions are related. Biden can begin to reduce the support for Donald Trump’s brand of neo-fascism only if he can demonstrate to white working class voters that the Democratic programme serves their interests better than the Republican one. Yet the appeal of Trump is not just about economic issues; it’s also about racial resentments. And even as Biden tries to link the interests of the Black and white working classes with economic benefits, he will also be promoting racial justice that will be opposed by Trump’s base.

Let us begin with the first question. Can Biden successfully govern? Here there is some hope.

Thanks to the two surprising Democratic victories in the Georgia special Senate elections, the Democrats will have a bare majority in both Houses of Congress. That means, in principle at least, that they can legislate. But the Senate rules effectively require a supermajority of 60 votes (out of 100) on most legislation, thanks to the filibuster rule. The exception is the budget, which usually occurs very early in the session. So Biden will very likely be able to enact most of his proposed $1.9 trillion relief package as part of the budget.

That legislation includes many provisions that are easy to grasp and that will be popular even among Trump voters. The most vivid of these is a provision increasing the previously enacted emergency payment of $600 to every adult of moderate income to $2,000. The Republican opposition to this level of aid is widely cited as a key reason for their loss of the Georgia Senate seats.

Other popular provisions of Biden’s legislation include liberalisation of subsidies for good health insurance, at time when millions of American workers have lost their health coverage along with their jobs. The proposal also dramatically increases financing for production and distribution of Covid vaccines.

The hope is that these successes will increase Biden’s popularity, and give him the political leverage to win at least some Republican Senate support for other measures that will require 60 votes, such as his proposal to spend $3 trillion over ten years on green infrastructure investment. There are several Republican senators facing close election contests in 2022, and some may feel the need to support measures that provide practical help to their constituents.

Biden is also helped by the schism in the Republican Party. Trump supporters are planning primary election challenges against the 70 Republican members of the House who refused to join colleagues in the abortive effort to overturn the election results. Many of these House members are in swing seats, which they won in 2020 by only a few percentage points. If far-right challenges succeed in ousting these relatively moderate Republicans, those seats will be more vulnerable to Democratic wins in 2022.

These factors, taken together, increase the odds that Biden may be able to defy the usual pattern of the party of a newly elected president losing Congressional seats in the first mid-term election. Biden could benefit from two important tailwinds. The pandemic will be over by the fall of 2022, and the economy will be in recovery. He is well positioned in one other respect. The Democratic Party is famously fractious. But in 2021, it is more unified than it has been for a very long time.

During the campaign, Biden benefited from the urgent need to save American democracy from Trump. Many Democrats to Biden’s left supported him with enthusiasm, despite concerns that he was from the neoliberal Clinton-Obama wing of the party. But after Biden’s victory, progressives were pleasantly surprised by his cabinet, most of whose leading members turned out to be more progressive than expected. In part, Biden’s cabinet reflects the crisis, which will require him to be more like Roosevelt than like Clinton. In part it reflects Biden’s effort to repay and extend the progressive loyalty to him in the campaign.

Thus, the optimistic scenario: Democratic unity holds; Republicans continue to fragment; Biden governs successfully, and Democrats pick up House and Senate seats in 2022, and they even peel off some Trump voters based on the strength of the economy.

A less optimistic scenario would have Republicans divided over loyalty to Trump and the far right, but all too unified when it comes to blocking Biden’s programme. We will soon learn which obtains.

But the second question is far more vexing. It is one thing to topple an aspiring tyrant; it is another to deal with authoritarian and even fascist views that live on in perhaps one third of the electorate.

Thanks to legislation rushed through Congress after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the so-called USA Patriot Act, America’s government domestic intelligence and law enforcement agencies now have powers close to those of a police state. Liberals who detested that law when it was enacted are now grateful that it is there to be deployed against far-right private militias. The problem, however, is that it is easier to disarm and prosecute outright insurrectionists than to change attitudes. It is an outrage, but it is not a crime, for one third of Americans to view Trump as a truth-teller and a saviour.

In a recent essay for the American Prospect, I quoted a famous 1953 poem by Bertolt Brecht, who chose to live in the DDR but resented the regime’s clumsy bureaucratic conformism. After a party official warned that the party was disappointed with the people for their lack of enthusiasm for the official programme, Brecht wrote, perhaps the government should dissolve the people and elect a new one. In a doubly ironic twist on one of Germany’s most celebrated ironists, the problem in America today, as in East Germany under communism, is that you cannot fire the people. You have to win them over.

Every society has its thugs. What Trump had in common with Hitler was to valorise thuggery and validate Big Lies. For a time, the thugs governed.

In the German case, it took defeat in a war plus half a century of agonising self-reflection to tame fascism. The United States narrowly ousted Trump in an election, but faces no defeat in a war; and our self-reflection has barely begun. Indeed, the racist, slaveholding Confederacy was defeated militarily by the Union army in 1865 and was occupied for a time. But that did not defeat racism.

Even if Biden succeeds in governing, and even if he makes progress in repairing the damage to democracy, ridding the country of the hate in the hearts of too many Americans will be a longer-term project.

Budging beyond Brexit

By Roger Liddle / 12 January, 2021

For half a century I have campaigned for a united Europe with Britain playing a full role. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) that was approved by the British Parliament on 30 December heralded, for me, a very bad and very very painful day.

The TCA finalises Britain’s divorce from the most successful peace project in history, undermining the UK’s future economic potential, the country’s national security and our influence as a force for good in the world.

For a Social Democrat, it signals a retreat from a social market economy governed by rules, standards and rights of which there is no equal in the world. It represents a victory for a poisonous nationalistic populism over liberal, rules-based internationalism.

The deal is designed to accommodate a British Government of ideological leavers who in the negotiations prioritised reclaiming a theoretical sovereignty over the practical benefits of deep co-operation.

It is the only trade deal in history which is about erecting barriers where there were none before.

For British business it is thin in substance: tariff and quota free trade in goods, but only if those goods comply with complex ‘rules of origin’; very little on services (where, by comparison with goods, the UK has a large trade surplus with the EU); nothing of substance on financial services or data transferability, which will be left to the EU Commission’s autonomous decisions on equivalence. The loss of potential growth, investment and jobs will be a heavy blow for a British economy already more weakened by Covid than our Continental competitors. 

For decades, anti Europeans complained of the bureaucratic burdens the EU imposes on Britain: now Britain faces a huge new bureaucracy and cost in trading with the Single Market.

As for national security, Britain has lost access to critical EU databases and the European Arrest Warrant, all because of a dogmatic refusal to accept any role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Yet Prime Minister Johnson has no visible plan to demonstrate how this theoretical sovereignty his agreement restores, will deliver the promised new opportunities of Brexit.

Once, the right-wing concept of Brexit was to complete the Thatcher-revolution. But what is it now? 

There is little evidence of popular support for the one-time Brexiteer nirvana of deregulation and low taxes, especially in the post Covid-19 world. Conservatives will find themselves trapped between the political preferences of its new working-class supporters in the north and midlands for state intervention and industrial subsidy on one flank, and the treaty provisions on a level playing field and tariff retaliation on the other.

The same constraints apply to new trade deals with the rest of the world: they will either amount to very little, or if they lower standards and attack employee rights, they will encounter fierce political opposition at home as well as the threat of EU retaliation.

It will take time for the emptiness of the Global Britain agenda to become apparent. But once it does, it will create a new opportunity to make a pro-European case. 

Bad as this deal is, the alternative would have been far worse: not just a chaotic no deal but a lasting rupture with the European Union with a rogue Britain on its doorstep. I am as emotional in my European commitment as anyone, but in serious politics we must base decisions on objective realities. That is why I believe this bill had to be supported.

The big question for Labour now is: what next? The European question in British politics has not been settled. 2020 simply marks the bitter end of one long historical phase. However, for anyone in the Labour Party to think that we can now forget about Europe and ‘move on’ is to live in their own little world of illusion.

Labour should no longer keep repeating the referendum arguments for remain; we must accept we lost that argument (and it is very hard for me, but I believe necessary, to put that sentiment in print). 

Good people, who voted for Brexit – and there are many – will not be won back by irreconciled Remainers telling them they were fools.

However, we cannot abolish our geography. No way does this deal resolve the ever-present complexities of Britain’s economic, security and political ties to the continent. But it does contain within it the institutional structures on which a new and closer relationship can and should be built over time.

It is notably heavy in governance structures, with a Joint Partnership Council presiding over several dozen specialised committees charged with implementation with wide powers to change the substance of the TCA in the light of experience. There is five-year review clause, perfectly timed for an incoming Labour government to make a whole range of improvements.

I would like to see my children and grandchildren lead Britain back into the European Union. But for that to work, EU member states have got to want us back and to be assured that this time Britain would stay. Nor would the EU want us to re-join on the old ‘half in, half out’ basis (unless, perhaps, the EU were to evolve into an inner and outer tier, which I have never been persuaded is likely).

Pro-Europeans should now concentrate on exposing the flaws in the TCA and in doing that, gradually rebuild, crucially across the political divide, the case for deeper European cooperation and pooled sovereignty. 

As for the Brexiteers, they should heed Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s (in office 1721-1742) famous warning at the start of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740: “they are ringing their bells now, but soon they will be wringing their hands”.

Portugal’s presidency: to heal Europe

By László Andor / 7 January, 2021

If you hated Covid-19 in 2020, you will hate it more in 2021, under the Portuguese presidency of the EU Council. The mundane reason for this is that the period of presidency in the EU is not simply a time of pushing dossiers, dialogues and trilogues, but also one of visiting the country that holds the presidency for a variety of programmes, mainly conferences. Due to Covid-19, however, this year you will almost certainly miss out on the riverside of Porto, the seafront of Faro, or the fish market of Lisbon.

But luckily, you have all the dossiers in front of you, which represent the ambitions of the Portuguese government, the central member of the trio formed with Germany and Slovenia. And some of these dossiers, due to the relay element in the choreography of presidencies, are the ones handed over by the predecessor, in this case Germany. Since it was not so long ago, we remember well that the government in Berlin had to concentrate on the adoption of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and Next Generation EU (NGEU), and on facilitating the unholy Brexit deal that was predisposed to be a loose-loose game. Since the ink is just drying on the new budgetary framework and the Brexit trade deal, Portugal still needs to run a few circles to make all this operational. Among other concerns, they have to ensure that the hard-won rule of law conditionality does not remain on paper.

Moving towards the post-pandemic period of reconstruction, on the other hand, Portugal today is chairing a creative process that will determine the EU’s future for a longer period, at least the next investment cycle. With Prime Minister António Costa, one of the strongest politicians of the European Social Democratic family at the helm, the programme of fair, green and digital recovery is actually the act we have been waiting for. After talking for so long about the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), bringing on a matching action plan can open a new historic chapter, similarly to the memorable Lisbon Strategy of 2000.

And in a post-pandemic situation, a new social agenda is bound to facilitate giant leaps on health policy. Just like the post-World War II reconstruction delivered national health care in various European countries (the UK, under Clement Attlee’s Labour government, being the most emblematic example), the post-pandemic recovery allows the EU to develop what has been already branded as Health Union. This starts with the coordination of vaccine procurement and dissemination, but continues with building safety nets for future resilience, and must also encompass policies to shore up health care capacities undermined in past decades by either the suppression of public investment or the emigration of medical staff.

Compared to the creative and innovative potential in the Health Union, receiving the migration dossier with the task of delivering consensus on it, while the clock is ticking, is a perfect “hospital pass”. The challenge here is no less than producing a new migration and asylum policy. One that replaces the old Dublin rules, which are outdated at least since the 2015 refugee crisis – if not already before. Last September, the European Commission put forward a proposal for the migration pact. But it immediately met massive headwind, despite moving away from the approach of the 2015 emergency schemes.

Solutions must be found to two main issues: regular migration flows and migration crises. A final and sustainable deal on the pact is yet to be reached, ideally under the Portuguese presidency. But Portugal’s Internal Affairs Ministry was not making its task easier when they stressed that problems related to migration from outside the EU could only be solved with “solidarity between countries”, and “such solidarity cannot be voluntary”. Insisting on “flexible” but also “mandatory” solidarity may herald clashes that could pale the ones witnessed last year around rule of law conditionality.

The Rule of law might become the issue on which Brussels finds itself in an alliance with the newly dominant US Democrats very quickly. Mending the transatlantic relationship is an agenda that has a momentum, once Joe Biden moves into the White House in Washington DC. However, any assumption that some kind of pre-Trump golden age can be restored will only lead to disappointment. The future can only be different from the past, whether the subject is Chinese technology or any other issue of international affairs.

It is somewhat ironic that the UK left the EU to pursue the vision of a “global Britain”, since implicit in the Portuguese presidency programme is the vision of a “global European Union”. A summit is scheduled with India, and important reference is made to deepening the relations with Africa as well as with Latin America. Concerning a newly reformed multilateral framework, the Portuguese, as explained by Europe minister Ana Paula Zacarias, are aiming at no less than setting international standards for social inclusion, labour rights and environmental protection.

Since 2016, and the twin trauma of “Brexit and Trump”, EU actors had ample stimulus to work on the concept of strategic autonomy, especially since a self-dubbed “geopolitical Commission” entered office. It is of course easier to talk about such concepts in general terms than defining a specific European position on China, Russia or Iran, and, if necessary, defend it vis-à-vis the US administration. But with the new US leadership’s finger on the reset button, and the world awakening from the shock of Covid-19, no better momentum should be expected. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

Biting through: tackling the power of big tech

By Paul Tang / 15 December, 2020

Europe must bring the power of the large, often American, online platforms under democratic control. That is the promise made by EU commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Thierry Breton in their Digital Services and Markets Acts published on 15 December. Those proposals do not go as far as the announcement by the US competition authority to reverse the takeover of WhatsApp and Instagram by Facebook. The liberal Commissioners may leave an imprint of their teeth, but they did not dare to bite through.

The last time Europe wrote rules for digital services was back in 2000 – 20 years ago. At that time, Zuckerberg was the captain of his fencing team in high school and the only digital service he used was the music sharing platform Napster. Teenagers nowadays are fully online, and they often fall into the hands of a few market players at an early age. 70 percent of the Dutch primary schools use hardware and software from Google. Nine out of 10 mobile phone owners worldwide use Google’s Android operating system and today’s average 30-year-old is a daily user of Facebook’s WhatsApp and Instagram and Google Search, Chrome and YouTube.

And the average person will not shed a tear for that: many services do not cost any money and work very well (together). Yet these services are not free of charge. Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are masters in collecting individual data of website visits, search results, most visited places, mood and medical conditions. All these are personal data that is very precious to corporate interests.

Personal data gives big tech the power to influence our behaviour and to bind us to their services. They determine which search results or timeline we see and use this to keep our attention as long as possible. This opens the door for fake news, conspiracy theories, hate speech and the like, and gives them the opportunity to sell advertisements. Facebook and Google collect 99 and 86 percent respectively of all their turnover from advertising sales. These two companies are jointly responsible for half of all online advertisements. As a result, the free press is threatened.

By reading this article on the website of FEPS, about 50 advertising intermediaries registered you as a Social-Democrat and you’ll receive the corresponding advertisements, even if you’re shopping clothing online or visit football websites. 86 per cent of all websites have hidden trackers of Google, also applying to newspapers and other publishers, who are depending on the income of advertising. They see their incomes fall, since they no longer have the exclusive right to display advertising to their readers.

The power over personal data translates into the power of money: small emerging competitors are bought up or if necessary or squeezed out of the market. In recent years, Google has bought over 200 companies and made life difficult for Yelp, for example, the online platform for local businesses that did not want to be taken over.

There are several other reasons for the legislative proposals by Commissioners Vestager and Breton as well and the proposals contain many good points. For example, there will be greater transparency about personalised advertisements and algorithms, behavioural obligations for the largest platforms to share data with competitors and bans on self-preferencing in search results, for example, but also significantly higher fines. However, it is very doubtful whether the proposals are sufficient to deliver on Vestager´s and Breton’s promise to bring big tech under democratic control, for at least two reasons.

Firstly, the possibilities of removing or squeezing (still small) competitors out of the market remain. The US competition authority is choosing, not without reason, to reverse the takeover of WhatsApp and Instagram by Facebook. The fact that this will be a tough legal battle and that the outcome is still uncertain does not detract from the way of thinking and intervention. By early January at the latest, the European Commission, under Vestager’s responsibility, will have to decide on Google’s takeover of the fitness and activity tracker company Fitbit. This decision is perhaps even more decisive than the EC’s legislative proposals.

Secondly, the revenue model of data hoarding and personalised advertising remains untouched. Studies show that non-personalised advertising is much more effective and efficient. The Dutch national broadcaster Ster is a textbook example of innovation with non-personalised advertisements, who saw a rise in revenue and satisfaction after switching to this system. As long as personal data can continue to be used for advertisements, consumers, advertisers and publishers are doomed. By harming the revenue model and by restricting, if not banning, personalised advertisements, the balance on the digital advertising market and many other markets can be restored.

If we wait too long to act, an Orwellian society in which every movement is tracked is the only prospect we have. Behavioural and transparency requirements are very important but is not likely to bring Big Tech under democratic control. Let us not wait another 20 years to get to the heart of the problem but let us put an end to business models based on our personal data. The solutions are there, but it is a question of biting through!

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