Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Advice from Journalists and NGOs: How to lessen the impact of disinformation

A steep rise in disinformation outlets’ popularity has made many worry about the state of liberal democracy in our societies. The European governments, (usually) in cooperation with large businesses, are gradually trying to embrace the issue and tackle it through legislative and structural measures. But meanwhile, there are other actors with a substantial impact on day-to-day lives of the many. Who are they and what is their role in it? 

Under the umbrella of the Strategic Communication programme, the GLOBSEC Policy Institute organised a series of events in April 2017 addressing and debating the presence of disinformation and hoaxes in the media. Czech and Slovak journalists, activists and representatives of non-governmental sector joined the discussions to contribute with their experience. Such concentration of expertise from numerous fields resulted in a substantial number of practical tips and ideas to enhance the fight against the disinformation outlets’ influence. Although each of them would be worth sharing, several encompassing messages resonated within the discourse. What do we need to do?

1. To infiltrate a “grey zone” before it is too late. As everywhere, there are groups of people unshakeably convinced that the world is governed by secret groups or that every NGO and body supporting liberal democratic values is trying to destroy the world with liberalism. In case of such hardcore conspirators, it is naturally difficult to remodel their worldview. However, large segments of population fluctuate in the so-called “grey zone”. Assembling those who are sceptical towards a scale of narratives offered in the media (often connected to dissatisfaction with their own social and economic conditions resulting in negative sentiments towards the system in general), the grey zone represents a group that is vulnerable though still very much targetable. A proactive approach taking a form of positive narrative and debunking to ensure that disinformation and hoaxes do not flood their communication channels is thus urgently needed. 

2. To blur the black-and-white vision of the world on the social media
To the more difficult part - information “bubbleisation” is nowadays a well-known phenomenon. Generally, it leads to a concentration of views and opinions that secure the receivers’ belief about the truthfulness of their own worldview. Due to the so-called “filter bubbles”, the tendencies to live in closed information clusters have increased with social media being one of the key sources of information. Disinformation outlets use these channels wisely - maintenance of such “bubbles” allows them to strengthen the so-called black-and-white vision of the world serving their purpose. Despite existing websites generating completely untrue and made-up stories (such as this one or this one – both widely shared and written with the aim of influencing the US election), disinformation is often based on real events and news – ignoring relevant part of the context, shaping a story to benefit a desired message (debunked example here), or selecting certain examples to feed the audience with the image of villainised group, person or institution (characteristic for Facebook pages such as Alex Jones). We often see the technique used for enhancing anti-immigrant sentiments - through a careful search and selection of news concentrating on crimes committed by migrants or them receiving public funding, such sources completely ignore the application of same standards onto the rest of society. 

Hence a large portion of society is prone to start receiving an image of a completely different reality, framed to benefit a given (“black”) narrative and evoke desired emotions. As much as it is difficult to penetrate people’s bubbles, and even more difficult to make someone realise and (even) admit they were wrong, the active approach from civil society actors, private companies and media is required to complement the spheres where the public sector is missing.

3. To acknowledge and support a decisive role of journalists
To target as many shades of grey as possible, the experts agreed that, above all, those originally responsible for informing the societies play a key role. And they realise there is a decisive moment for them to do their job better than ever before. Now why is that: 
A)Journalists have the power to set the information into the context, to show what is behind every simplified claim or a piece of information.
B) Related to that, there is an opportunity to emphasise what “real” journalism as a profession is about – checking the facts, digging into a problem and verifying the sources. 
C) As opposed to a number of disinformation outlets, the journalists can demonstrate their accessibility and contact with public. As opposed to many anonym nicknames, journalists have identity (email or phone to which anyone can write or call) and act publicly in the name of their professional life.
D) Another major difference is that factual mistakes and misinterpretations in case of disinformation outlets are intentional. Unlike in the case of journalists whose mistakes generally tend to be admitted and corrected.
E) And finally, although the views on this issue differ between many, they dispose of possibilities to a) talk to the representatives spreading or supporting disinformation and conspiracy theories, and b) show the public they can prove them wrong. 

4. To avoid tabloidization
For a large scale of mainstream media, the “tabloidization” of topics, or even titles, is often a natural way to attract readers. That is, in fact, not surprising as the last year’s research estimated that 59% of Twitter users do not read articles before retweeting them. However, since representing the main source of information for many, the role of tabloids in joining the process hand in hand with investigative and opinion-makers’ journalists is crucial. Despite various intentions, catchy but aggressive headlines override the unintentionality of provoking negative emotions and often result in evoking sympathies with counter-narratives.

Moreover, the fast pace of information-processing adds up to the requirements to publish new content quickly. That too often leads to a lack of verification of sources and results in the mainstream media actually spreading disinformation themselves. And later, perhaps for the sake of preserving the image, the apology or explanation is generally not as visible as it could be to put the information back on the right track. In Slovakia, there has been a recent post by a widely read tabloid website, suggesting a plan for a new NATO military base in Slovakia. The story was, naturally, highly misleading but given current trends of declining pro-NATO orientation in the country, it evoked more than a thousand comments and around 2.5 thousand Facebook shares.

5. To enhance cooperation
Naturally, the presence of think tankers, NGO representatives and other actors contributing to the enrichment of civil society highly contributed to shaping the discussion into a cross-sectoral way. The main uptake from the debate? Cooperation. Technological companies, journalists, analysts, and basically everyone who cares about the sanity of the society should join forces and make it one of the priorities on their agenda. No one doubts this is already happening, but it seems as if the actors spreading disinformation were one step ahead thanks to their mobilisation and vigorous proactiveness. 

The more, the better
And that leads us to acknowledging why such discussions and formats are useful. Involving different people with a direct reach to various segments of society can help identify the existing gaps and build bridges to overcome them. As we talk about the presence of disinformation in the media, a large share of responsibility naturally lies on their shoulders. But as also confirmed by the attendees, everyone’s help and contribution is valued in the fight against the phenomenon so aggressively and intricately modifying the way people receive information and perceive the world.

Dominika Hajdu
Strategic Communication Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Into the Unknown: Brexit Negotiations Finally Start Today

Circa three months after Britain invoked the Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, making the first formal step towards the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the substantive part of the withdrawal negotiations has started today in Brussels. The aim of the negotiations is to avoid a clear and total hard brexit – i.e. a divorce without any deal on future relations between the independent UK and the EU27. Despite seemingly minimalistic in ambition, Britain and the EU will presumably not achieve a grand consensus on most of the pressing economic issues and will limit themselves to secure technically achievable and politically rewarding deal on the “low-profile” aspects of the divorce. In other words, brexit will be neither “hard” nor “soft”, but only a one that would ultimately allow both sides to avoid political calamity and to claim hope for future (economic) rapprochement. And without a political miracle, Brexit will constitute a loss-loss development for the future of the UK and the EU.

In the past three months, a number of factors have changed the nature of brexit-related discussions. The European side of the table seems to be doing fairly well in terms of its ongoing political consolidation. After the historical turns of 2016 – meaning the election of president Trump, brexit referendum itself and the former Italian PM Renzi´s (initial) demise – the trend was reversed by President Macron´s electoral successes which have lately constituted the source of noticeable hope for the reenergizations of the Franco-German engine. On other side of the English Channel, the Theresa May-led Conservative party has just lost its control over the more important parliamentary chamber in the Westminster.

With one-eighth of the assigned negotiating time already passed, the UK might be finally bureaucratically ready for the negotiations, however the political aspects of brexit, are turning increasingly ambiguous. PM Theresa May called the recent UK general elections, only two months ago, with essentially four fundamental motivations on her mind: a) to solidify her political standing within her own party, b) to obtain a larger (thus more secure) margin of majority in the Westminster, c) to secure a public validation for her vision of the brexit and d) to embolden her standing vis-à-vis her European partners.

However, her electoral miscalculation has created even a more complicated reality and instead of greater clarity we have greater ambiguity. Not only that we are not assured about the desired brexit “softness” that will eventually be sought by the elites in the Whitehall, but also one cannot precisely foresee whether Theresa May´s surprisingly diminished leadership aura will not embolden the political ambitions of her successor to be –the list of potential candidates already includes ¼ of her current cabinet. Ultimately, it would be irresponsible to predict May´s current (political) survival chances. What has, of course, been made clear by now, is that the Prime Minister´s fate will depend on the brexit negotiations as the key part of the test of her leadership. However, with growing internal Conservative party discomfort with her primacy, with a resurging political opposition and with the lame-duck image in Brussels, PM May´s chances of managing a decent, proper and orderly (as suggested by herself) brexit are highly questionable. 
Already understanding her predicament, PM May promised to “listen to all voices” in the party on brexit and to seek broader counsel on the ideal modality of Britain´s exit from the union. Does this automatically imply the dismissal of the concept of hard brexit, as some commentators are already suggesting? Certainly not. The main causal reasoning of brexit rests in the will of the British public to exercise greater control over the issue of migration. Whoever leads the British cabinet, whether it is PM May or anyone else, must have already acknowledged that continuing to guarantee the freedom of movement (to EU nationals) in any way, shape or form is currently politically suicidal. Thus, given EU´s persistence on attaching it to the four fundamental freedoms, the single market membership for an independent UK remains to be an unrealistic eventuality. Hence, the so-called “soft” brexit is simply not going to happen – at least without a profound shift in Britain´s domestic political reality.
However, on the side, the outlook for the endorsement of “softer” divorce elements being incorporated into the final deal seem to be considerably more plausible today, than anytime between the post-referendum pre-election era. A softer brexit would mean Britain and the EU agreeing on the reciprocal expat right guarantees and developing an almost membership-analogous approach to cooperation in science, education and possibly in internal security.
Very much in the spirit of the mentioned words, one must also underline that nature of brexit will not solely (or even mainly) depend on UK´s preferences and its negotiating abilities. Continental European leaders will be seeking a deal which would cause minimal damage to their economies and to the prestige level of the EU membership status as well. This automatically implies two certainties: no “cherry-picking” available (this goes mainly to the UK) and no room for unrealistically positive expectations on the modality of the negotiations (this shall go mainly to us – the attentive observers of brexit).
Thus, the mutually endorsed goal of the brexit negotiations shall be an agreement on the issues of clearly shared interests with a possible future opening to an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement. Given the clear time-constraints of the negotiation framework and increasingly complicated political context of brexit, nurturing hope for any agreement that would be significantly more ambitious, than the one just described, would be wishful and not thoughtful thinking. 
Irrespective of the situation in the Westminster and Whitehall, the brexit talks will be challenging and a mutually positive end-result is far from realistically achievable. As these talks unravel today and will occupy the agenda of political operatives on the both shores of the La Manche channel until early 2019 – at least provided that everything in negotiations goes just as intended – Britain and Europe will embark on a final journey – one that none of the sides seemed to be really interested in just as recently as a year ago and one that will ultimately turn out to be is the interest of none. Despite the recent positive turn in the political spirit of Europe´s political elite, brexit remains to be one of the least fortunate geopolitical changes happening in Europe
Tomáš A. Nagy 
Defence and Security Programme 
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Catalonia does not stop pushing for independence from Spain

Last Friday, the Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont announced that the new referendum on Catalan independence will take place 1 October. The Catalans will respond to one question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?” This is already second attempt in the last three years to push for independence from Spain.

The announcement does not guarantee that the referendum can be held or will be legal but let’s stop for a moment and think if this region of 7.5 million people with GDP of €204 billion and predicted growth rate of 2.5% in 2017 could become a new independent state in Europe? It is still an open question but I personally think that it will not happen any time soon. Why?

First, it is because Catalonia's dream of independence from Spain collides with some harsh realities in the legal system and Madrid won’t let Barcelona go so easily. The Spanish Constitution from 1978 guarantees the indissoluble unity of Spain and does not give Catalonia or any other Spanish region the right to self-determination. Moreover, Catalonia’ government does not have a sufficient support in the Spanish Parliament to amend the Constitution which would allow it to separate from Spain. Neither Catalonia enjoys the right of self-determination as guaranteed by the United Nations for example in the situation of severe current oppression of the people. Therefore, a sub-state entity’s “right to decide” favoured by Catalonia is not recognized neither by national nor international law. Therefore, the Spanish Constitutional Court rules consistently that any unilateral referendum on independence is illegal, which will be the case also this time. Last time the Catalans organised a non-binding poll in 2014, Artur Mas former Catalan Prime Minister was convicted of civil disobedience and banned from holding office for two years.

Second, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish political establishment including the leaders of the second and fourth biggest parties in the Spanish Parliament (respectively Pedro Sánchez, PSOE and Albert Rivera, Citizens) largely oppose Catalonian self-determination. Therefore, the government in Madrid has made it crystal clear that it will again use all legal means to stop the referendum. Even though it has recently softened its stance on Scotland joining the EU, it does not mean that it would allow Catalonia to call a vote on its political future. In the past Spain planned to veto an application by an independent Scotland to join the club because it was afraid that a breakup of the UK would give a boost to separatists in Catalonia. This policy proved to be ineffective.

Third, even though pro-independence sentiment remains strong it somehow loses its appeal both in the Catalan Parliament and the ballot boxes. The “referendum” that took place in 2014 did not bring the expected outcomes. It is true that 80% cast their vote for YES but only 33% of eligible voters took part in the referendum. Additionally, the independent parties do not have majority in the Parliament and the Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont has not been successful in getting support of the newly created party “Catalunya en Comú” (Catalonia in Common) in holding referendum. Finally, there is no voter majority in Catalonia in favour of secession. As of March 2017, only 37% Catalans supports the independence according the Centre for Public Opinion, a Catalan polling company. This is 11% less than 4 years ago and 2% less in 2015.

Despite my doubtful take on the independent Catalonia, I am strongly convinced that the voices coming from the region cannot be ignored. Last Sunday 40 000 people gathered in front of the historic castle of Montjuïc, a symbol of the city's struggles during different periods in its history, to listen to Pep Guardiola, former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager read out a brief manifesto. “I’m not a Spaniard, I’m a Catalan, I’ve never called myself a Spaniard, it’s a matter of sentiments and no one can change it” said Ramon Mullerat Figueras, a Catalan businessman from Santa Coloma de Queralt when I asked him about the future of his region. “Madrid thinks we live in “open” Spain but Spain is not open. Quite the opposite, it’s closed and protects its own “empire” and is completely disconnected from ordinary people in Catalonia” he continues.

While the separatist’s movements in Catalonia have been present in the past, it has never been so strong as nowadays. Both the economic and financial crisis that hit Spain and the corruption scandals in Catalonia itself fuelled the secessionist movement in the region in 2012. As Catalonia is already one of the most autonomous territories in Europe, the next step would be independence. Federal state, which we could point out as a solution, would not please the government in Barcelona, as paradoxically it would limit its autonomy. To the independence, which would be second option, the central government would never agree. The constructive dialogue of both governments is needed like never before. Without it the Catalans will keep pursuing their goal and Madrid would keep blocking it by legal means. This will be unhealthy for Spanish democracy and the imagine of the country abroad.

Dr. Kinga Brudzińska
Future of Europe Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Montenegro: 29th Member of the NATO Family

On Monday 5 June 2017, the NATO family grew by one more new member – small Western Balkans’ nation on the Adriatic coast – Montenegro (MNE). It is the first enlargement of the Alliance after 8 years when Croatia and Albania joined in April 2009. The dynamics of the MNE – NATO relations right after the (re-)gaining of the independence in 2006 might seem straight and problem-less. They were not. It took slightly over 10 years to reach the finale although Montenegro declared its intention to join NATO and joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme just months after it gained independence.

The military and technical conditions of the membership were relatively easier to achieve. Complying with political conditions (fight against corruption, rule of law...) was a much bigger challenge. But the biggest challenge was to build up domestic public support for the NATO membership. This was due to the fact that during the Kosovo conflict in 1999 NATO led air-strikes against targets on the territory of Montenegro, then part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The air-raids led to mostly military casualties but there were also some civilian victims. This is the reason why there is a vocal minority that objects to the membership of Montenegro in NATO. Especially that those who identify themselves as Serbians have been strongly opposing the membership. Number of victims in general was much lower in Montenegro than in Serbia but the Serbian minority feels solidarity with Serbia and therefore objects the NATO integration.

Relations with its bigger neighbour Serbia also played an important role. Montenegro separated from Serbia in 2006; and the latter is pursuing a policy of military neutrality – strongly opposing the NATO membership mostly due to the NATO’s role in conflicts on the territory of the former Yugoslavia during the 90s. Furthermore, there is still nostalgia about the former Yugoslavia and the times when Montenegro was part of this regional power and even one of the leaders of the so-called Non-Align movement. Up until now Serbia tries to balance its foreign policy between the West, Russia, China and other big players in a non-align country’s style.

Last but definitively not least is the Russian influence in Montenegro and in the region of the Western Balkans in general. Russia invested a lot in the Montenegro’s independence (see here) at the expense of its traditional ally in the region – Serbia – hoping to gain a foot-hold in the strategically important Adriatic region. Russian oligarchs invested substantively in Montenegro after it gained independence, mostly into tourism and tourism connected services but also heavy industry. But when the Government of MNE realized that it is not the best way for the country they swiftly turned to NATO and the EU as its main geostrategic goals. Russia was not particularly happy about this reorientation. Since 2012 there has been a significant decrease in direct foreign investments originating from Russia. Russia is also using more direct ways to influence the developments in the country – through the security services that are active in the country (as well as in Serbia and elsewhere in the Western Balkans); through media, pro-Russian political parties, NGOs, cultural organizations and the Orthodox Church. The influence of Russian ”special services“ in Montenegrin security services was one of the last serious ”technical“ obstacles that MNE had to overcome to secure the invitation to the Alliance.

During 2015 – 16, the internal political situation in Montenegro deteriorated due to activities of some newly established opposition groups that had two main goals – to depose long-term (then) Prime Minister of Montenegro Milo Đukanović and the Government led by his political party DPS (Democratic Party of Socialists). The second goal was to block country’s accession to NATO. Both goals were of equal importance for the so-called Democratic Front (DF) – a fraction of Serbian, anti-NATO and pro-Russian politicians that led the protests in Podgorica as well as in some other cities. Their goal was to unleash and lead public anti-NATO and anti-government campaign with the aim to ideally block the NATO accession or at least seriously hamper the process. Their goal was to convince the Western Allies that the public does not want to join NATO or at best is not prepared for it.

Despite these developments, in December 2015 Montenegro was invited to start the accession talks and eventually joined the Alliance. However, the 2016 Parliamentary elections were accompanied by considerable political tensions. The elections were perceived as the last opportunity for the anti-NATO coalition to pull the ”hand-break” on the process – if they had won the elections, they could have blocked the Parliament’s approval of the Accession protocols. On the election day, to the surprise of many, the security services arrested several suspects and announced in the media that they foiled a coup d’etat attempt supposedly orchestrated and financed from abroad. The group consisted of Serbian nationalists as well as Montenegrin citizens. Soon it was revealed that they allegedly had ties to the Russian extremist groups and probably even security services – GRU. Russia denied the allegations. The aim of the plotters was – supposedly - to storm the Parliament on the election night, to kill the then – Prime Minister Đukanović and form a pro-Russian and anti-NATO government. Despite the strange timing and dodgy plan to conduct the coup there was a subsequent wave of arrests both in Montenegro as well as in Serbia following the elections. Some of the plotters were identified as having served on the side of pro-Russian insurgents in Eastern Ukraine. The coup overshadowed the election.

At the end, Đukanović’s party DPS has narrowly won the election. After weeks of coalition forming the new government confirmed the Euro-Atlantic direction of the country and pledged to continue with the NATO integration. One of the concessions that the DPS made to secure the coalition was to replace Đukanović with Duško Marković as the Prime Minister. The new Parliament finally voted on and ratified accession documents to NATO on April 28, 2017. Russia reacted with blacklisting a number of Montenegrin officials and banning them from entering the Russian Federation. The existence of the blacklist was only made public when its first ”victim“ - the chairman of the International relations committee of the Parliament of Montenegro Miodrag Vuković - was detained on May 28 while transiting via Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. He was later deported from Russia. Montenegro, unlike neighbouring Serbia or Macedonia, joined the Western sanctions against Russian individuals and companies in response to the annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Therefore, a number of Russian officials as well as oligarchs were banned from travelling to Montenegro.

Montenegro’s accession to the NATO is an important signal that:
- Alliance’s “open door“ is indeed still “open“. This gives hope to other candidate countries such as Georgia, Bosnia and Hercegovina but especially Macedonia. The latter joined the Membership Action Plan already back in 1999 but wasn’t allowed to join together with Croatia and Albania due to the so-called “name-issue” with the neighbouring NATO-member Greece that is blocking Macedonia’s accession to NATO (and the EU). With the newly appointed Government in Skopje, there is hope that a compromise can be forged and Macedonia could become the 30th Ally, eventually.
- It doesn’t matter how small the country is. Once it fulfils the accession criteria, performs well and maintains Euro-Atlantic values it can join the Alliance and enjoy the collective defence. Montenegro has a population of slightly over 620.000 and Armed Forces of just over 2.000 men and women in uniform. Yet, it has been a valid security contributor to NATO operations such as those in Afghanistan.
- No third country has a veto power over other country’s NATO membership decision. This was made clear especially in regards to Russia who exercised a lot of pressure on tiny Montenegro to prevent it (though unsuccessfully) from joining the Alliance.

Ján Cingel
European Neighbourhood Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Friday, June 2, 2017

Under the Radar: On the neglected threat posed by nuclear weapons

When Barack Obama was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2009, the 44th President of the United States proclaimed that: ”The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of (nuclear) catastrophe. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war”. Today, less than a decade ago, we are witnessing the gradual materialization of this threat. Not only President Obama failed to deliver on a number of nuclear security-related initiatives, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Nuclear Cut-Off Treaty, but we have not seen neither a dramatic change in US nuclear posture, nor any sizeable cut in the US nuclear stockpiles. Not to mention the questionable deliveries of President Obama´s diplomatic offensive in the name of stopping proliferation around the globe. Obviously, it would be foolish to blame the previous two US administrations for the global state of nuclear (in)security, however it is adequate to note that the past leaders of ´free world´ have been underperforming – both in terms of the expectation and likely, also in terms of actual possibilities.  
With the arrival of the Trump administration, the American nuclear politics finds itself in a dilemma between a risky continuation of the Obama approach and even a riskier policy of nuclear assertiveness. To whatever extent sensational they are, nuclear (in)security matters of today mostly fly under the radar of the public attention. Obviously, the heated verbal exchange between the leaders of North Korea and America have recently brought some light on nuclear affairs, but given the scope of the challenge, this can hardly suffice if we are serious about prioritizing between serious and vital threats. Make no mistake, the threat of a nuclear exchange is both vital and present.  

Continuing on the previous note: even the most attentive global observers were stunned when, in April, President Trump warned in an interview with Reuters that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible as this was followed by fast (and a telling) affirmation from China´s highest official circles, claiming that indeed, the situation on the Korean peninsula could inadvertently slip out of control.

Suffering from the total lack of prospect of at least minimal economic progress, North Korea is now threatening the global community with another nuclear test – it would be its sixth throughout the course of the past eleven years. Despite its isolation, North Korea has been able to put its nuclear program on a continuously moving track and unless something profoundly changes in years to come, the regime could possess circa 50 nuclear warheads by the end of President Trump’s tenure. The new sanctions bill passed in the past weeks by the US Congress will have virtually zero impact in preventing the further nuclearization of North Korea. Like it or not, to date neither threats nor diplomacy has worked in getting the “Hermite Kingdom” seriously committing to disarmament. And whether the new US administration admits it or not, it wants North Korea to be at negotiating table just as much as its predecessors wanted. The relatively short history of nuclear weapons shows us that countries are very unlikely to give up their nuclear arsenal – unless there's a profound change in the inner political and societal circumstances. That was the case of South Africa giving up its arsenal simultaneously with the defeat of the apartheid. Will an analogous change happen in North Korea? Given, the mid and long-term predictivity of the regime in Pyongyang, it really could be anyone´s guess.

Even less on the radar are recent the developments between India and Pakistan. According to the thoughts of the most respected nuclear wise-men, this is still the rivalry most likely to escalate to an all-out armed conflict – potentially involving two nuclear power. It can hardly be perceived as positive sign that the Indian leadership is allegedly considering the legitimation of (pre-emptive) nuclear first strike against Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and related military infrastructure – a nuclear strategy that would clearly be more offensive in its nature than the current counter-value strategy.

Moving further in western direction on the map of nuclear challenges, we have Iran. Although President Trump may have reversed or softened his campaign rhetoric on a number of issues, on Iran, President Trump continues to question the efficacy of the nuclear agreement. While it can be hardly denied that Iran continued to support entities perceived (by the West) as terrorists, tyrants and enemies even well after the nuclear agreement went into force - but let´s admit as well that the nuclear treaty was never meant to prevent those things from happening. President Trump´s consideration of scrapping the nuclear deal would not prevent that from happening either, but it might (at minimum) divide the US from (some of) its allies and embolden the growing masses of political hard-liners in Iran. Not really a positive short-term prospect at all. Especially when recent US polls show that for some opaque reason the Iran nuclear deal is more popular in the States than ever before. You see, the notion that President Trump always blindly follows the imminent will of the public opinion has apparently just been disproved.  

Completely outside the international arena and well inside the domestic politics of the US. President Donald Trump has proposed to increase federal spending on the production of nuclear weapons by committing more than $1 trillion! (throughout the course of the next three decades) while slashing or eliminating spending on more-expendable tools of statecraft as diplomacy, foreign aid, and international organizations support. If the US has ever had a President thinking seriously about a world without nuclear weapons, it is certainly not the current one. And the rest of the nuclear world will follow the American example, as it always did so far.

On a more relaxing note: while the Vatican finally made it to be among the very few destinations (alongside Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium and Italy) the new US president visited during his historically first foreign trip, the Vatican´s continuous call to ban all forms of nuclear weapons as a “moral obligation” will likely be collegially heard but not listened to. Neither will the diplomatic voice of more than 100 countries that met at the United Nations last month to (seriously) negotiate a global ban on nuclear weapons. Who knows where will the ignorance of those who possess nuclear weapons drive those might wish to have them one time?! In a decade or so, we might retrospectively perceive the UN’s nuclear weapon talks to be the most important thing nobody’s was paying attention to. If not, there is a number of other (closely related) issues, well under the radar, capable of playing that retrospective role. 

Tomáš A. Nagy
Defence and Security Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Monday, May 8, 2017

Emmanuel Macron the Next French President

On 7 May 2017, Emmanuel Macron, an ardent European won the most closely fought presidential race in modern history of France. He did not only beat Marine Le Pen 66% to 34%, the traditional French parties (the Socialist and the Republicans) but also, he combated the cyber-attacks and the large amount of the fake news. “Macron wants Turkey to be part of the EU”, “Macron is financed by the Saudi Arabia”, “Macron might have a hidden bank account in a tax haven” or “Al-Qaeda has chosen its candidate” are only some of the headlines on the fabricated web pages or the social media.

Why did Macron win?

First, the French people chose the openness and modernity over self-isolation and nationalism. It was easier for President Elect Macron to win with Marine Le Pen than with anybody else. The French people afraid of their country being run by the National Front, voted for Macron to cast their vote against the far-right party. Similarly to 2002, the French “pacte républicain” worked out pretty well.

Second, the results show that most French people still believe that France remains stronger as part of the EU. Polls suggest that a majority of French people are against Frexit, partly because they think it will make them poorer, says Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Head of the GMF office in Paris. Therefore, they got afraid of Marine Le Pen’s anti-European Union and anti-globalisation agenda. Emmanuel Macron has mentioned on various occasions that he wants to vest the EU with even greater powers. Consequently, instead of the next “exit” he wants to revive the European project.

Third, Emmanuel Macron won because he was successful in getting the support of the other presidential candidates who received almost 20% of support each in the first round but fail to get to the runoff. Precisely, François Fillon, a centre-right candidate and Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate. Last but not least, Emmanuel Macron was endorsed by the outgoing though unpopular president François Hollande.

Finally, given the history of the facts manipulation during the last elections in the United States and the United Kingdom, the media outlets in France have successfully joined their forces to debunk the fake news. Those were for example CrossCheck, or Le Monde’s Le Décodex. CrossCheck brought together 17 newsrooms which found and verified content circulating online. Le Décodex is a growing database of sites that were spotted as “real” or “fake”. Le Monde was active also on Twitter with @crosscheck and published “disinformation review” where it corrected the facts. 

What does Macron’s victory mean for Central Europe?

Emmanuel Macron in his campaign called, among others, for strengthening ties with Germany, a dialogue with Russia and a two-speed Europe. While the V4 countries do not have anything against renewing the Franco-German momentum, they are divided when it comes to Russia and the concept of the multi-speed Europe.

Czech Republic and Slovakia unequivocally welcomed the triumph of the mainstream political thinking in the key European country. The two countries (together with Hungary) support the dialogue with Russia. In addition, Slovakia is less afraid of creating a common budget for the Eurozone, as it is already a Eurozone country.

Poland and Hungary are worried about the presidency of the openly pro-European Emmanuel Macron. First, because Emmanuel Macron said he would pursue tougher action (most probably sanctions) against them for violating the EU democratic norms. Second, they got offended when Mr. Macron called Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the allies with Marine Le Pen. Poland issued even an official statement condemning Mr. Macron’s words on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs webpage. Third, even though for Poland Emmanuel Macron’s policy towards Russia is more acceptable than Marine Le Pen’s one (she rejected the EU’s sanctions and claimed that the “Crimean Peninsula” was never Ukrainian), it will oppose any “normalisation of relations” at EU or NATO level that the French president might be in favour of. In more ideological terms, Polish and Hungarian governments seem to want the EU to be a little more than the common market whereas the ambitions of the French and German political leaders go much higher. If such a ‘downgrade’ of the integration process is not possible, they would like to keep the status quo about the EU treaties, the competences of the European institutions. Macron’s victory shows however that the consensus in Europe is shifting and the political union will be built around the Franco-German motor.

A new chapter for France and for Europe has just begun. Central Europe soon will have to make choices that will make the V4 split on many issues.      

Kinga Brudzińska
Senior Research Fellow
GLOBSEC Policy Istitute

Friday, May 5, 2017

Nord Stream 2: the Gazprom pipeline accelerating the reconfiguration of European gas flows

(Photo: tomtunguz.com)
Following the cancellation of South Stream, Nord Stream 2 (NS2) represents Gazprom’s last opportunity to effectively bypass Ukraine entirely for continental European deliveries, a troubling development in Brussels. At the same time, it offers a direct line to western European markets with declining indigenous production and an abundance of LNG regasification capacity, representing Gazprom’s marginal competitor. If it is built, Gazprom would be in a powerful position to negotiate the terms governing any future deliveries through Ukraine after 2019 when the current transit agreement expires. In a similar vein, NS2 immediately undermines the position of traditional Central European (CE) transit states which will lose relevance and gas transit revenues. Perhaps more consequently for the whole of Central and Southeast Europe (CSEE), it would weaken gas security of supply and competition, the defense of which is a key pillar of the European Commission’s Energy Union proposal.
CE transit states are already facing the inevitable decline of their traditional positions, with gradual market integration opening new trade flows that are redefining the modus operandi of transit and delivery defined over the past 20 years by long term pipeline contracts with Gazprom. While this represents progress towards a version of the single European market, contracted gas subverting Ukraine via NS2 potentially overwhelms existing reverse flow capacities, limiting available west-to-east spot trading.
CSEE countries would clearly benefit from an intervention on the part of the European Commission that delays or blocks construction of NS2, but its ability and appetite to do appears less and less likely as time passes and Gazprom pushes ahead - in April it agreed to a pipe-laying contract for the sub-sea cables and secured financing for 50% of the project from five western European energy majors. As an external pipeline, NS2 sits outside the jurisdiction of Europe’s energy laws and regulations, although its onshore connection, EUGAL, would fall within this boundary. If the European Commission decided to intervene, it would need to file a strong legal interpretation of EUGAL’s (by extension NS2’s) adverse impact on the more vulnerable CSEE region, for which there is a clear argument to be made, but no indications it will be pursued. With such an impactful and divisive zero sum project the ultimate compromise, tacit consent or objection on the part of the Commission will be heavily influenced by political maneuvering between Brussels, Berlin and Kiev. This article briefly summarizes the perspectives of Central European governments, the Commission and Gazprom over NS2, which is expecting to reach a tipping point this year.
First, what was at least on the surface collective regional opposition to NS2 in 2016, highlighted by a March letter of opposition signed by eight CSEE governments and sent to President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, has become fragmented and somewhat demoralized. Outside of Poland, governments appear resigned to the inevitability of NS2, opting to make independent contingency arrangements rather than lobbying together in Brussels; behind the scenes officials have quietly negotiated deals with Gazprom that provides minimum transit guarantees in the event NS2 is built. For other countries in the region not adversely affected by NS2, the signature itself represented the extent of solidarity.
On the other hand, European solidarity towards Ukraine has been elevated by geopolitical developments vis-à-vis Russia, and undoubtedly NS2 is now more strongly associated with the Kremlin’s campaign to isolate Ukraine than the merits of its impact on Europe’s gas network. Now the EU is providing billions of euros in additional financing and aid to Ukraine, leading to a more explicit interest in its state budget, like the 2 billion euros annually - or 2% of GDP - that its gas transit receipts total.
Otherwise, the Commission’s core concern with respect to Ukraine’s transit network is that it does not default due to under-utilization. Since Nord Stream’s commissioning in 2011, annual transit of Russian gas through Ukraine has fallen to what is now about 50% of capacity, and if NS2 is built lower annual transit could put the network at risk, posing a direct threat to Europe’s security of supply. Thus the idea floated by Germany’s former Minster for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmund Gabriel that Gazprom could ensure capacity bookings at or slightly above this minimum threshold beyond 2019 is one form of compromise.

However, such a compromise still does not address the impact of such a large portion of contracted volumes bypassing the Yamal and Brotherhood trunk lines to reach CSEE final destinations via Germany. If Gazprom’s primary intention is to reroute a majority of its CEE destined volumes through NS2 and the proposed onshore EUGAL pipeline (a 51 bcm pipeline parallel to Opal) rather than seeking greater market share in western European markets, this would adversely affect CSEE by limiting competition and weakening regional security of supply.

As it stands, the bidirectional upgrades that have been implemented since 2009 to better integrate the continent and open CEE to trade would instead facilitate Gazprom’s contractual obligations. Allowing contracted gas to absorb these west-to-east capacities effectively limits CEE access to Western markets and makes the region more susceptible to winter cold snaps or N-1 scenarios if the largest infrastructure was to go offline.
In turn this massive realignment, effectively transferring CEE’s onward delivery center from Ukraine to Germany, creates new congestion points and additional need for infrastructure investment that otherwise would not be necessary from a net social welfare perspective. A number of these projects are eligible for grants (e.g. Connecting Europe Facility, European Energy Program for Recovery, European Regional Development Plan) that ultimately fall squarely on the European taxpayer. In this regard, NS2 is a pathway that weakens the resiliency of Europe’s existing transmission system and requires additional reinforcement and/or guarantees for compensation.
Outside of this scope, the Commission is under no obligation to protect member state transit status. With or without NS2, the internal gas market is evolving away from long term sales and transit commitments. Transmission service operators (TSOs) are already adapting to this reality by meeting the new short-term demands of traders. In Slovakia, TSO Eustream can continue to provide reverse flow for Ukraine and promote the Eastring project in an effort to salvage its existing transit system, but the country’s transit role has likely peaked. For transit countries like Slovakia, Poland or Hungary, long time beneficiaries of their geography for a sizable and predictable revenue stream, Nord Stream weakened their position and market integration will continue this trend. As the bulk of long term contracts expire over the next five years, renegotiations leveraged by access to western markets also dictate new delivery conditions.
While acknowledging the real financial losses that the region faces, it is important not to get lost in the sensationalism of geopolitics when it comes to the actual risks of energy supply as they currently stand. CEE member states are not as vulnerable as they were seven or eight years ago; by the end of the decade Polish and Croatian LNG (pending final investment decision) should be accessible in Hungary and Slovakia and new infrastructure (Interconnector Bulgaria-Serbia, Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria pending final investment decisions) will to help to physically open southeast European markets like Bulgaria and Serbia to Caspian gas and Greek LNG. In this manner the region is finally investing the necessary political and financial capital (with enormous EU support) to complete these long discussed bit projects so that a crisis on the scale of 2009 cannot repeat itself. For example, the Opal decision that Poland has appealed is more a symbolic, precedent setting legal discrepancy than something that materially threatens Poland’s security of supply. Poland now has an LNG facility on its coast which it plans to expand and will be connected to the Baltic network and Slovakia by the end of the decade.
Finally, as a gas exporter Gazprom has reasons for attempting to bypass Ukraine to avoid transit risk. Ukraine has struggled with corruption across its gas sector while reform efforts have only recently shown signs of progress, and Naftogaz has held firm negotiating tariffs. This is not to deny Russia’s geopolitical strategy of weakening Ukraine, but to admit that there is also a logic for Gazprom: avoiding transit disputes that affect deliveries to Europe; the relocation of its production base to Yamal; and the fact that its largest customers with greatest market share opportunities are in western Europe. Perhaps deservedly so, this rationale tends to be lost in the polarizing dispute over Ukraine and general distrust of Gazprom’s intentions amongst Central Europeans.

Absent the ongoing proxy war in eastern Ukraine some European voices might not be as loud for protecting its transit status out of solidarity. Despite CEE transit states’ legitimate opposition to NS2 on the grounds that it is detrimental to security of supply and competition, German interests remain well represented in Brussels and the Commission has remained guarded. While VP of the Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič has openly questioned the commercial legitimacy of NS2, there have yet to be any official statements to slow the project’s momentum. Thus without further objection, Gazprom is likely to push forward towards a final investment decision later this year, revealing the Commission’s position one way or the other. Regardless, it is time for traditional Central European transit states to look ahead and prepare for changing gas market fundamentals.

Nolan Theisen
Head of Energy Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute