EU’s Anti-trust investigations into Facebook: Tech giant versus the Single Market

By Valentina Alexandru

What is maybe the most expansive advertising platform of all times – the Facebook Marketplace – has fallen under the radar of the European Union plus the UK, as suspicions arose as to how the data obtained from the advertising service is used. The antitrust investigation would shed light on whether the tech giant uses the data to influence competition within the internal market and the UK. 

In the words of European Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, ‘in today’s digital economy, data should not be used in ways that distort competition’. The Executive Vice-President has established as a political priority for her mandate to create ‘A Europe Fit for the Digital Age’. As she has made a target from investigating the Big Tech companies, Facebook is next in line. The Marketplace has seen a sharp rise ever since its creation in 2016, and at the moment is used by advertisers in 70 countries around the world, from which Facebook collects data that might be used to compete with them and therefore unduly influence competition. As online shopping has dramatically increased during the pandemic, Facebook President Mark Zuckerberg declared that the Marketplace has registered one billion users per month. The EU and UK authorities believe that Facebook’s behaviour affects both competitors, as competition within sectors where Facebook operates is impacted, for example classified ads, and customers, whose choice becomes limited. The competent authorities of the Union and the former Member State are determined to cooperate in this matter. 

As a response to the news about the investigation, a Facebook representative declared that they are constantly improving their services in order to meet the ever-changing requirements of their users. According to them, the Marketplace offers buyers a great range of products, whilst ensuring a highly competitive environment for the sellers. Facebook also believes that the investigations lack merit.

As they reach more and more people, tech giants attract more and more scrutiny. During the pandemic, they gained momentum and governments have started to better regulate their activity.France and Germany announced that the G7 have prepared what has been described as ‘a historic tax deal’, targeting large companies that fail to pay their taxes, as the Biden Administration has reopened talks on the matter. The announcement came prior to the first in-person meeting in two years by the G7 members – Italy, France, Germany, UK, US, Canada, and Japan. The French Finance Minister told BBC that the group is ‘just one millimetre away from a historic agreement’, as measures of getting multinationals including the Big Five to pay their fair share of taxes have long been desired. The members are confident that the deal will be closed by the end of their meeting, where EU representatives have also been invited, as well as representatives from India, Japan, Australia, South Korea and South Africa. 

The announced antitrust investigations are not the beginning, but instead represent just one of many challenges Facebook faced in the past years. Back in 2019, Germany has also made efforts to curb user data collection, which has resulted in ongoing court proceedings. The German Chief Cartel Office ordered the tech giant to limit its collection of user data, on claims of abuse of its dominant position within the market. Facebook has appealed the decision, and the German Court has now requested the guidance of the European Court of Justice.  This is perceived as a strategy to postpone the issuance of a ruling in the two-year long proceeding, that would determine if the Cartel Office acted ultra vires by subjecting data protection to the rules of EU competition. Moreover, the French antitrust authorities have recently announced that Facebook is willing to make a compromise and offer straightforward and impartial conditions that would facilitate its partners’ access to advertising inventories and ad campaign data, after a complaint from a French advertising company. 

The 2014 Facebook/WhatsApp merger case concluded that the rules of EU competition do not cover privacy issues, which instead are covered by the rules on data protection. The investigations announced recently by the EU, as well as the UK, have the potential to overturn this situation in favour of the users whose privacy rights are at stake, and as suspected by the EU authorities, whose personal information is used to decide the conditions of competition within the single market. One thing is for certain, that it will be difficult for Facebook to escape the determination of Ms. Vestager, who promised to better prepare Europe for the Digital Age.

The “Antidemocratic Turn” in Europe

By Ilaria Sacco

Democracy is losing currency while an antidemocratic turn is moving forward in Europe, states Freedom House, an NGO that conducts research on democracy and political freedom. Its annual report, Nations in Transit, measures progress and setbacks in democratization in 29 countries from Central Europe to Central Asia. The 2021 edition was named “The Antidemocratic Turn” as findings indicate that during the past year 18 countries suffered declines in their democracy scores. On the contrary, only 6 countries improved their scores. This constitutes the 17th consecutive year of overall decline in Nations in Transit, and the number of countries classified as democracies is at its lowest point in the history of this report. Startling statistics that concern also the Union. 

Eurasia: democracy under attack
“Countries all over the region are turning away from democracy or find themselves trapped in cycle of setbacks and partial recoveries”, warns the report. The situation appears severe both in Europe and Eurasia but with some differences. The expansion of antidemocratic forces is no stranger to the Eastern part, while it is more unexpected in Central Europe. Here, some countries have experienced the steepest decline ever. Leaving aside them, which will be further discussed, it is now being assessed how democracy has been under attack in Eurasia. 
2020 has not been a simple year for Russia: the fraudulent constitutional referendum, the attempted murder of Aleksey Navalny and the suppression of the protests have worsened its democracy’s score. Freedom House attributes a National Democratic Governance (NDG) to every country, a rating based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. Russia now represents the lowest possible. On the same wavelength, Belarus has experienced a brutal escalation towards a more severe authoritarian regime led by Lukašėnka during 2020, and its NDG is set at 1. The abovementioned countries were already “consolidated authoritarian regime” but what the report underlines is that this escalation was experienced also in countries where there had been hope for change. This is the case of Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, or the Balkans. 
Eurasia had been giving proof of refusing democratic principles and values with the adoption of “authoritarian counter-norms”. While antidemocratic leaders become more numerous and credible, democratic ones should undertake more actions. Finally, deeper troubles come from the antidemocratic turn emerging even inside the border of the Union.

Hungary and Poland
Freedom House puts what happened in Hungary and Poland during 2020 to the fore.
For what concerns Hungary, the country has registered the biggest decline ever and it is not assessed as a democracy anymore. The Nations in Transit 2021 argues that now it is ranked among “Transitional/Hybrid Regimes” and its democracy score has risen to a critical level (3 out of 7). The discriminating factor is, no doubt, the absence of a free and pluralistic press world. This has gotten worse during the pandemic, seizing the advantages that have permitted the government to expand powers, without meeting any limits. 
Poland is still treated as a democracy but an “antidemocratic learning process” is in progress now. The quality of democratic governance is deteriorating, and 2020 marked the lowest score in Nations in Transit. With regards to issues as the rights of LGBT+ people and women, Warsaw has a primacy, standing as the most restrictive country. 
In addition, 2020 was the year marked by the negotiations concerning the rule of law mechanism. Brussels has finally adopted a mechanism to protect its budget from breaches to the principles of the rule of law. What Poland and Hungary tried to do is to challenge its political nature, arguing that there is no commonly agreed definition.

 A new start?
2020 has involved light and shadow that shown democracy is an act, and not a state, as John Lewis once said. While the world was suffering one of the worst crises ever, some leaders have tried to slide into authoritarianism. However, proofs of deep engagement of the citizens were registered, and the defense of democracy has never faded in the background. We must be vigilant; this is what Freedom House is saying. An anti-democratic turn is occurring outside and inside the Union and we must be alert. As European citizens, we must invest on the Conference on the Future of Europe, which aims to face challenges such as authoritarianism and rising extremism. With this new major pan-European democratic exercise, we have the opportunity to remember that democracy remains always an act to defend

Vaccine diplomacy: triggering internal and external divisions in Central-Eastern Europe

By Myriam Marino

One year after the outburst of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Member States of the European Union are managing the most extensive vaccination campaign of all time. If differences regarding the rendition and administration of campaigns between Western and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) were expected, the current situation displays divergencies and peculiarities to be identified nationally, rather than regionally. Most importantly, in comparison with the negotiations at the origins of the EU vaccination strategy, Central-Eastern countries have taken a different path, along with the ever-increasing influence of Russia and China in the region.

The more recent wave of the virus has proved to be the most intense for CEE countries and, particularly, for the Visegrád Four members, reporting the highest death rates in Europe. Within this region, political actors have oftentimes taken over the reins of the national emergency, not rarely circumventing warnings and advice coming from the scientific community. Decisions to opt for an – often premature – easing of Covid-19 restrictions were taken by governments to avoid potential social and political reactions. A demonstrative example is the Czech Republic, where Prime Minister Babiš and President Miloš Zeman were in regular disagreement with scientific authorities, leading to the resignation of the health minister Jan Blatný. A new minister was, therefore, designated last April, the third since September 2020. This time, frictions between political and scientific exponents started regarding the Russian-produced Sputnik V vaccine. More specifically, national health experts had expressed skeptical opinions about the use of the Russian jab before its approval by the authorities of the European Medicines Agency.

Nonetheless, the Czech Republic was the only one among several states in the Central-Eastern European region that began looking with strong interest at the Russian vaccine. Long and delayed procedures of approval and shipment, as well as growing doubts over the effectiveness and safety of EU-passed vaccines, have persuaded a number of Member States to shift their national vaccination strategies. To mention another case, already in early March 2021, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda had discussed with Chinese President Xi Jinping the purchase of the Chinese-produced vaccine, to find alternatives to the EU-backed jabs. Nevertheless, it is worth emphasizing that several governments that have opted and are opting for non-EMA-approved vaccines still highly profit from the overall common recovery strategy of the European Union.

In spite of the diffused intention to introduce Sputnik V as the protagonist of many national vaccination campaigns, some political actors still displayed cautious stances towards it. At the end of April, the Czech medicines regulator was unable to approve the Russian jab, due to anomalies in the supplied and analyzed pieces. An analogous event had already taken place in Slovakia. Moreover, the Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič had initiated, in early March, the purchase of 2 million doses of the Sputnik V without prior internal political and scientific consultation. This resulted in a national political crisis and in the Prime Minister’s resignation on March 29th.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Prime Minister Orbán has firmly proceeded with the vaccination campaign. The Government has based its vaccination strategy almost completely on the Chinese and Russian jabs. PM Orbán released images of his own vaccination with the Sinopharm Chinese jab on social networks, while proudly promoting Hungary’s initiative to overlook EU-approved vaccines, over the last months. On the other hand, opposition parties were accused by the Government of discouraging the national vaccination campaign, as political opponents were displaying wary stances towards unapproved vaccines. All things considered, Hungary, currently figures as the second country in the EU with the highest percentage of people who have been inoculated with at least one dose of the jab, with 47.1% of the population (data of May 14th). 

While Central-Eastern Europe has become a potential setting for Russia and China to exercise soft power through vaccine diplomacy, questions arise over the issue of the Covid travel pass. An agreement was achieved on the 21st of May, stating that the “EU Digital COVID certificate” will be issued only to people vaccinated with jabs approved by the EMA. This decision could exacerbate existing divisions, not only at the European Union level, but at international levels, and create further and more intense controversies. Indeed, the influence extended potentially goes well beyond vaccine provision. Concerns arise, therefore, regarding the role of vaccine-producers and exporters in Western Balkan countries, as well, since, as written in a joint letter of nine EU foreign ministers from last March, “other actors are ready to step in the regional affairs, often at our expense”. 

Independent or short-sighted? The CAI and its geopolitical implications

By Robin Vandendriessche

On the 30th of December 2020, just three weeks before President Biden’s inauguration and on the second last day of Germany’s presidency of the Council, the EU and China concluded in principle the negotiations on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Negotiations have lasted for nearly seven years but gained considerable momentum in the last weeks of 2020. The CAI, according to the European Commission, will be the most ambitious agreement that China has ever concluded with a third country, allowing EU investors to better access the fast-growing 1.4 billion consumer market.

Many critics do not seem to share that optimistic assessment. Over the past years, China has intensified the oppression of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region,  has cracked down on Hong Kong’s democracy, and has increasingly threatened Taiwan. The fact that the EU rewards China with this deal now does not send a strong signal to Beijing. Furthermore, it is not clear how much the EU would gain from this deal. Clauses in the deal that will discipline the behavior of China’s state-owned enterprises are not likely to have a significant impact as China failed to fulfill similar commitments in the past. The same applies to China’s commitment to “work towards” enforcing international conventions on labor standards. Free trade unions are not likely to be created any time soon. 

Not many Europeans seem to believe that the CAI will succeed in leveling the playing field in China’s economy or eliminate its lack of reciprocity in market access. Especially the smaller member states, which have far lower rates of investment in China, were prepared to wait for a more balanced agreement. It was no coincidence that only French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel participated in the final talks between China and the EU institutions. Germany accounts for nearly half of all European investment in China, while France has the second biggest European business presence there.

European diplomats often criticized the Trump administration for adopting a unilateral approach towards China without consulting its European partners. Now, the Europeans did the same by signing a political agreement on the CAI just three weeks before the Biden administration took office. From a Chinese point of view, this was a logical move as the new U.S. administration sought a unified approach towards China. Beijing knew all too well that concluding the CAI could drive a wedge between the United States and the EU at a time when President Biden proclaimed to rebuild alliances. Even though the EU, and especially its larger member states, must have known that this move would not go down well with the new U.S. administration, it saw the Chinese desire to conclude the CAI before the Biden administration took office as a unique window of opportunity

The conclusion of the deal shows that the EU takes “strategic autonomy” over a value-led European common foreign and security policy. Although this move will satisfy the proponents of European strategic autonomy it will not help to work together with the U.S. on common interests such as halting China’s abuse of human rights or its lack of reciprocity. The EU has repeated the mistake of the Trump administration when it went solo in its trade war against China. By not waiting a few more years, the EU failed to take advantage of favorable dynamics, such as a more willing U.S. administration, that would significantly strengthen the EU position vis-à-vis China.

The politics of the CAI have become even more complicated since the EU, joined by the U.K. the U.S., and Canada, in March 2021 slapped sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the crackdown on the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. This coordinated move together with the U.S. could not be more different than the one to conclude the CAI in December 2020. As a response China sanctioned five members of the European Parliament, thereby infuriating the institution that has to ratify the CAI, putting the fate of the deal in serious doubt. 

The CAI does not seem as ambitious as the European Commission proclaims. Its swift conclusion was made possible by the economic interests of its French and German supporters and Chinese geopolitical preferences. Instead of waiting like several other member states would have preferred, the deal was concluded and the opportunity to present a united front against China with a more willing U.S. administration was lost. Recent sanctions and Chinese counter-sanctions have put the future of the deal in serious doubt but at the same time delivered an opportunity for the EU to correct its mistake and start working together with its allies on a more coordinated China-strategy.

How the Catholic Church continues to hinder LGBT rights progress in Europe

By Gregory Lens

The most recent annual ILGA Rainbow Europe report painted a bleak picture on the current level of progress for LGBT rights in the eastern part of the European Union. Commitments to equality are either stalling, or even completely vanishing from national political agendas. In eastern member states, governments are backtracking on their commitments, abolishing equality policies, and introducing restrictive legislation.

One only needs to glance at the public debates in countries such as Poland, Hungary, or even “western” Italy to notice that the often violent anti-LGBT rhetoric is laced with religious arguments. But to what extent does the Catholic Church influence policy in these countries? And what is there to gain?

Minority rights activists in the aforementioned countries have long decried the influence of the Church, while demanding the sidelining of an unelected moral institution that they say has no place in shaping government policy. However, many ruling political parties are closely tied to the Catholic Church in various states, most noticeably PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary. These vast connections to religious institutions have led to successful lobbying campaigns by the catholic clergy on family policies. 

EU member states where the Catholic Church used to exert the greatest influence over society and its morals are now on the progressive side in regard to LGBT equality; the noteworthy examples being Ireland and Spain, which both have extensive legislation to protect LGBT rights. Most western countries have undergone rapid secularization, which led to the sidelining of religion in daily lives. This occurrence has diminished the influence of the Church on policy-making to a practically non-existent level. 

The Eastern Catholic Churches seem to be fully aware of the effects of secularization on a population’s moral views. The best way for the Church to safeguard its influence is, it seems, by teaming up with conservative parties which are looking for scapegoats to blame every problem their country faces on as a way of deflecting their own shortcomings, such as diverting attention away from Covid-related issues

This connection between far-right parties and the Church appears to be a marriage out of convenience. Far-right parties need a minority group to vilify, while the Church is keen to push its own agenda. The Polish Catholic Church describes the LGBT community as “pedophiles” and “the plague”, statements with which the ruling party wholeheartedly agrees. The school curriculum has been adjusted by the ruling PiS party to include more courses on religious education, immersing students in the discourse of “traditional” values. By outright banning education on the topic, acceptance of LGBT individuals has stagnated severely in recent years. 

Eastern Catholic Churches have recently started labeling LGBT rights as a western phenomenon, stimulated by godless societies which have “lost their way”. Hungary has started to undermine existing LGBT rights, claiming that they are not compatible with the traditional Christian way of life in the country. However, the Roman Catholic Church was never a source of Hungarian patriotism and irreligiousness runs deep. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Orban claimed that Christian culture was the unifying force of the nation in 2016. Soon after this declaration, the Fidesz government retracted its laws regarding transgender individuals and outright banned sex conversion and gender identity policies, none of which seemed to have been particular issues in the Hungarian public debate. In an attempt to forge a stronger national identity, Fidesz teamed up with the Church sacrificing LGBT rights to attain its goals. 

By bestowing religious values on future generations and invigorating conservative sentiments in older voters, the Church tries to guarantee fulfillment of its goals to create a pious society. In that way, the electorate will vote for parties that affirm their beliefs. And it should come as no surprise that these political parties are closely affiliated to the Church. To garner even more support, leading members of national Churches nowadays actively inflame public sentiment by demonizing LGBT individuals as a vote-boosting measure. As long as religion remains connected to the ruling parties of a state, thereby blurring the separation of Church and State, LGBT equality will remain a distant reality.

And yet, signs of hope for the future do exist. The presence of the Vatican and influential bishops in national politics have caused Italy to lag behind on LGBT rights in comparison to the rest of western Europe. Before the vote on same-sex unions in 2016, the then-prime minister Matteo Renzi took the unprecedented step of publicly rebuking the esteemed Bishop’s Conference -the country’s leading religious body- when they attempted to interfere in the voting process, by stating that “they are not the ones to decide”. This could be considered as part of Renzi’s effort to clearly separate Church from State. A majority of Italians now support the protection of LGBT individuals and their rights, while, at the same time, the Italian parliament approved an LGBT+ hate crime law. If staunchly catholic Italy is ready to break away from the influence of the Church, eastern EU member states might one day be able to follow Italy’s example. 

Where Europe overflows: Russia as a colonial power

By Anna Woudstra Pardoen

One often tends to forget that Russia, in whatever iteration of its existence it was in, has been a colonial empire. Whereas other colonial powers journeyed overseas to find, claim and exploit new lands and territories, Russia expanded over land, northwards into the lands of the Finnic and Sami peoples, eastwards and southwards into the Khanates of Central Asia, and westwards into Eastern Europe. Then further southwards into the Northern Caucasus, and eventually ever further eastwards, colonising Siberia, the Russian Far East, ending in Alaska on the American continent.

Not all lands that were conquered by Russia have remained Russian. Famous is Russia’s disappearance from the American continent following the 1867 Alaska purchase. Here, Alaska was bought from Russia by the United States of America, therewith not taking into account the presence and wishes of its local native peoples – nothing unusual for the time. Later Russia lost its sovereignty over Finland following the 1917 revolutions, and would lose many of its satellite states and dependencies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nowadays, Russia is left with “just” two regions that could arguably be seen as colonies: the North Caucasus, and trans-Uralic Russia. Unlike analogous colonies of other European powers – the United States from Britain, Indonesia from the Netherlands, Algeria from France – these colonies have not seceded from their colonial overlord. In order to understand why, we have to consider what these colonies mean to Russia, and remember one important factor: without these colonies, Russia would lose most of its power.

Siberia, settled along the Trans-Siberian Railway by Russians in lands historically and currently native to various Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic and Ainu peoples, is Russia’s economic powerhouse. Home to only a fifth of its population yet covering close to four-fifths of its territory, Siberia and the Far East produce around 70% of Russia’s oil and gas. The North Caucasus, not overwhelmingly settled by Russians and home to a mix of small native ethnic groups, though itself producing only 1.1% of Russia’s oil and gas, lies close to the Volga-Ural Oil and Gas Province, providing nearly 23% of Russia’s production. Russia needs these natural resources to maintain its position of power in Europe, and needs the territory to maintain its geostrategic and geopolitical dominance over well over a tenth of the world’s landmass. Without these colonies, the political centre of Russia with its loci around Moscow and Saint Petersburg, would have no geographical defences and no world-dominating amounts of natural resources – it would be, with the greatest of respect to Belarus, just another Belarus.

Russia’s dominance over these regions, however, is slowly dwindling. Whilst insurgency in the North Caucasus against Russian domination has been present essentially ever since Russia conquered the explosive and ethnically diverse region in the 18th and 19th centuries, Siberia is also now rearing its head. Natalia Kurnaeva, a Russian vlogger from the Far East, summed it up best in her video on Vladivostok: all profits made from the region flow to Moscow, and barely any of it is reinvested in the region.

Looking at Siberia, some will see the analogy to the socioeconomic situation in the British colonies in North America that eventually led to the creation of the United States. The North Caucasus, meanwhile, could be seen as analogous to the African fight for decolonisation in the second half of the 20th century. But whether these colonies will ever actually secede from Russia remains to be seen.

The Kremlin maintains a strong grip on Siberia, and so do the Moscow-based corporations that exploit most of the natural resources of the region. Insurgencies in the North Caucasus have been consistently put down by the Russian military, and the Caucasus mountains used as a geographical advantage in projecting its influence over Transcaucasia, as it did during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Moscow would not want to lose its economic and geostrategic assets.

For now, Siberia seems unable to secede, and Moscow has cracked down on the North Caucasus. For the foreseeable future, these two colonies are likely to remain Russian. But with trans-Uralic discontent and an ever-present conflict brewing in Ciscaucasia, with Chinese inroads being made into Siberia, the long-term future of Russia is increasingly uncertain. Should these colonies secede, Russia collapses, and one of the four major powers in today’s multipolar world will have fallen. A process which may take decades, but is not unlikely to occur during our lifetimes. With all the consequences to the global balance of power that come with it.

EU-Mercosur Agreement: a shift in the EU’s mindset?

By Ilaria Sacco

In the last days of the Juncker Commission (June 2019), the EU and the Mercosur (the Common market of the South formed by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) reached an “agreement in principle” on the trade pillar (the so-called Free Trade Agreement, or FTA). The FTA would save over €4 billion worth of duties per year, making it the largest trade agreement the EU has ever concluded. After 20 years of negotiations, it is now in the translation and legal review phase. But when or whether this agreement will enter into force is very unclear.

The “after 2019”: a greener Union
2019 was a fundamental year in the EU as changes in the political balance have permitted the environmental issue to impose itself at the heart of the political agenda. After the 2019 Elections, Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, argued that “Greens could be kingmakers in the decision process”; Camino Mortera-Martinez, analyst at the Centre for European Reform, stated that “it’s now clear the Greens will have a very important role in policymaking”. This represents a turning point for the Greens, as they have also become more influential in crucial member states, such as Germany and France. This led to the creation of a greener Commission, which unveils the Green Deal. At this point, some objections were raised in Brussels regarding the incompatibility of the Mercosur agreement with EU environmental goals shaped by the Green Deal and its implications for indigenous people.
Something has changed also in the public opinion: at the end of 2019, for the first time, EU citizens put climate change at the top of the priority list. An independent YouGov poll commissioned by SumOfus revealed that an overwhelming majority of EU citizens believe that the FTA with Mercosur should be rejected. As David Norton, trade campaigns coordinator at SumOfus, noted “Europeans don’t want cheaper beef at the cost of deforestation”. A study by the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG) shows that from the turn of the millennium, an area of 513,016 square kilometers has been destroyed. Deforestation of the Amazon is used mainly to create grazing land for cattle, used by big landowner who produce for the European market. It is estimated that 80% of the destruction of the Amazon is linked to the beef sector, in which the EU is the leading trading partner. By ratifying an agreement that weakens controls, the EU risks becoming more and more complicit in the destruction of the Amazon. And while environmental issues were reaching the heart of the EU internal political agenda, incoherence became more and more unbearable at the external level. Thus, the mindset started shifting.

What happened with the FTA?
An inquiry by the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, followed by a complaint of five civil society organizations, stated that the European Commission should have concluded an updated sustainability impact assessment before the EU-Mercosur agreement was agreed. This event is occurring at a time when several member states have expressed reservations regarding its ratification. Germany, one of the member states that initially fully supported the deal, has now changed its mind; an independent report, commissioned by the French government, concludes that “the FTA is a missed opportunity for the EU to use its negotiating power to obtain solid guarantees that meet the environmental, health, and more generally societal expectations of its citizens”. For that reason, France states that it “will not vote on the text as it stands”; Austria’s coalition government has recently vetoed the FTA, as it goes against the Green Deal. On the other hand, Portugal, having close ties with South America, puts the FTA as a priority of its presidency while adding that it will search for clarifications on environmental standards. To conclude, 2019 represents a breakthrough. Changes in the political balance and public opinion, both greener, and the need to be a coherence actor, both internally and externally, have forced the EU’s mindset to change regarding the FTA. The Mercosur agreement is needed, but “as it stands” it could not be accepted in this new political equilibrium. The introduction of an environmental clause in the text could be the solution, but the EU is not close to cracking it. In medio stat virtus, but the balance between trade and environment is still very fragile.

IOM’s recipe: integrating migration issues into EU development policy

By Anastasiia Vasileva

It is no secret that the 2015 migration crisis has changed the European Union (EU) dramatically and put a divide into its ‘speaking with one voice’ strategy. Until today, a number of projects have  been put in place by the EU towards migration management and regulation policies reducing the incentives for illegal migration. One of them is its development aid towards developing countries where, together with international organizations and local NGOs, the EU is striving to sustainably reduce poverty, mitigate climate change, and  put migration at the heart of development aid. Being the largest donor of development aid in the world, the EU has funded the “Mainstreaming Migration into International Cooperation and Development” (MMICD) project, implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) since 2017, that is set to strengthen the process of integrating migration into cooperation and development policy. 

Undoubtedly,  the EU has been continuously giving due importance to the development aid as it believes that in order to reap the benefits of globalization it is imperative that trade regimes and governance challenges are overcome in developing countries. In fact, the EU is willing to increase its development aid to at least 0.7% of its annual gross national income to keep up with its commitments. Drawing on the commitments of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals, the EU has adopted the European Consensus on Development (2017) that reflects the challenges and substantive opportunities that migration brings with it into the developing world, but also to the EU, which is why the MMICD project is in place to meet the demands of such international obligations.

By developing guidelines and implementing them into practice in the selected pilot countries, namely in Madagascar, Ecuador and Nepal, the project creates the Toolkits for further implementation of policies and guidelines in other partner countries. The aim of the initiative has been to integrate developed guidelines into the pilot countries’ national plans and policies – a goal that has already been achieved. Unlike other broad development initiatives, the MMICD has been designed with sectoral focus, including education, rural development, employment, health, governance, urban development, private sector development, trade, security, environment and climate change under its sectoral umbrella. In each of the pilot countries the project focuses on improving two specifically selected development sectors. For each sector, the IOM has developed a specific guide complimented by the Toolkit for effective implementation – striving to meet Target 10.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, systematizing and fostering safe, planned and well-managed migration policies into development.

The project has also been adapted to the Covid pandemic and tailored a Toolkit with concrete development-centred programmes for policymakers and practitioners to integrate migration into Covid-19 Socio-Economic response. The applied nature of the Toolkit makes it a universal instrument, ready for structural improvements.

Already during the pilot countries implementation phase, there has been a much needed quality change in the strategic planning for urbanization management. For instance, in the case of Madagascar, where the project has been particularly focusing on rural development and urbanization, the IOM, together with the Ministry of Land Management and local authorities of the city of Ambalavao is pilot-testing its context-specific guide, developed for the time period between 2021-2035. The guidelines have managed to address the current challenges of the community such as the demands of a growing population, of internal migration and of the expansion strategy currently pursued. It is essential that the linkages between mobility, urban development and population growth are addressed, allowing the growing number of children to continue to access education services, as well as the new urban population to enjoy services such as health centres, police stations, public water stations and more, sustainably adapting the city’s infrastructure to the growing need of its citizens.

By implementing the practical guidelines and training materials in pilot countries the IOM, in coordination with local governments, integrates migration into the mainstream development sectors. This includes activities such as training, country assessments, technical assistance, capacity building, and exchange of the best practices with partners, which, in the long term, will generate employment opportunities and foster urban development. By relying on the IOM’s operations in the MMICD project, the EU is thus pursuing its European Consensus on Development agenda, integrating migration in its developing aid for a more sustainable future.

Media freedom in times of crisis: growing concerns and unsettled issues in the EU

By Myriam Marino

Poland and Hungary, already protagonists of the dispute connected to the rule of law mechanism of the EU budget in the ending months of 2020, are once again at the center of a question pertaining to rule of law and democracy. 

More precisely, on Wednesday March 10th, 2021, a debate took place in the context of the plenary session of the European Parliament in relation to new potential risks of breaches of EU fundamental rights. This time, concerns were manifested with regard to the freedom and independence of the media and were directed towards three specific Member States: Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.

Last year, the veto on the Recovery Fund was settled, enabling the aid package to proceed with a smooth and fast implementation. On the other hand, apprehension towards the status of media pluralism in the countries under scrutiny does not represent a novelty among MEPs. As a matter of fact, the last concrete attempt to manage the issue was in last November, when the fundamental role of freedom of expression and information within democracies was emphasized in the context of the European Parliament. Over the course of these discussions the alarming conditions of the media environment in a number of Member States emerged, and the focus was put on the effects of media centralization and censorship regarding the safety of journalists and on the work of independent media outlets. This debate eventually led to a resolution, adopted on November 25th, reiterating the European Parliament’s intention to promote media freedom and fight disinformation, encouraging Member States to stick to democratic standards. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that both Poland and Hungary are subject to the procedures of Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union due to serious risks of violation of EU fundamental values. 

Nonetheless, one recent specific occurrence has acted as a triggering event and revived existing worries related to weakening media pluralism, namely the shutdown of the Hungarian radio station Klubrádió. While representing the latest development in terms of changes within the country’s media environment, this event is oftentimes represented as part of a long process that, since early 2010s, has progressively resulted in a rather extensive restructuring and centralization of the media market of the country. The official decision in court -taken in September 2020- in favor of a suspension of the activities of the radio station was the consequence of apparent recurrent violations of broadcasting rules, identified by the Hungarian Media Council, which eventually led to the denied renewal of the radio’s license.

As far as Poland is concerned, a similar re-definition of media ownership has recently been brought about by the acquisition of a prominent German newspaper chain from the national energy group PKN Orlen, with the objective to add a “Polish viewpoint” to it. Moreover, worries over Polish media freedom are nowadays predominantly related to the Government’s initiative to introduce a tax on advertising, justifying it as a means to support the health sector during the pandemic. The reaction to the mentioned measure was a national strike of Polish independent media outlets that took place on February 10th.

Finally, concerns on the Slovenian media sector are rising as a result of growing political interference both in the context of public and private outlets, enacted through manipulation and explicit attacks towards journalists, while simultaneously reducing funds to certain outlets.

Contextually to the debate that occurred on March 10th, a majority of the MEPs suggested severe measures to be taken in respect to the involved countries to avoid a deterioration of the situation. Among the suggested proposals the rule of law conditionality was once again called into play, with few MEPs asking for it to be immediately put into effect. If the circumstance of emergency related to the veto enacted by Hungary and Poland required for a fast solution to be reached, the stance adopted now shows a less flexible attitude towards the two countries. On the other hand, however, a number of MEPs perceived the concerns expressed as lacking objectivity and as being influenced by differing political viewpoints. 

Media freedom represents a fundamental principle to uphold within democracies. However, safeguarding this value becomes indispensable in times of crisis. The resolution adopted in November already stressed how a concentrated media environment can lead to increased disinformation and hate speech. Similar consequences, indeed, must be necessarily avoided, particularly in the course of a pandemic. Furthermore, both on that occasion and in the last plenary session of the European Parliament it was emphasized how political actors strongly leverage the health crisis to undermine democratic standards. Therefore, in similar circumstances, MEPs have oftentimes focused on the necessity to ensure that EU funds are not exploited to strengthen state control over the media and/or for pro-government content. Perhaps encouraging the investment of funds in favor of media pluralism and freedom of expression would be a better approach.