Saturday, 11 September 2021

In Europe, migration remains a critical issue

Migrations and European fears

Victor Ângelo


The Afghan crisis has placed the problem of immigration again at the center of European discussions. In essence, it is the fear that thousands and thousands of people coming from Afghanistan will arrive in Europe, pushed to migrate for a combination of reasons: the flight from the Taliban regime, the economic misery, the lack of future prospects and the attraction that richer societies exert on those who live a daily life of despair and constant struggle for survival. Faced with this fear, the European ministers have identified the lowest common denominator as a plan of action: to try to contain the people within Afghanistan's borders or in the bordering countries. To do so, they are counting on the cooperation of the new Afghan power, the self-interested will of the Pakistani and Iranian leaders, and the experience and good name of the UN humanitarian agencies and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Swiss Peter Maurer, was in Afghanistan this week for three days for discussions with the Taliban leadership and field visits. Also, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, the British Martin Griffiths, visited Kabul to meet with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, now Deputy Prime Minister, and to obtain minimum assurances necessary for the acceptable delivery of humanitarian aid. These rounds of contacts have gone well, and the EU is likely to be the main source of resources for these organizations to do what is expected of them.

However, many Afghans will end up seeking refuge outside their national borders, particularly in Pakistan. It is not clear how many Afghan refugees were already living in Pakistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officially registers 1.4 million people. But there is a multitude outside the records. It is estimated that since August 15, the day Kabul fell, about 10,000 people a day are crossing the border into Pakistan. This flow will possibly increase because of the political, economic and social situation now in Afghanistan. A significant portion of these new refugees will seek to reach Europe.

Pakistan does not have the economic and institutional conditions necessary to host a new wave of refugees. It needs international support. The Pakistani ruling class knows how to operate. It will ask Europeans for material aid and political favours. It is not that it needs much political support, as it already has the full backing of the Chinese. Still, it will let the Europeans know that its willingness to provide humanitarian reception will be stronger if there is, in return, a cooling - even if discreet - of relations between the EU and India. In this geostrategic game, New Delhi stands a good chance of losing.

In the case of Iran, it is a different story. Relations between Europe and Iran are affected by two types of constraints: the lack of agreement on the limits of Iran's nuclear program and the sanctions and restrictions imposed by the Americans, which the Europeans are not capable of challenging. Despite all this, I maintain that Europe cannot exclude Iran from the humanitarian process. Even more so if we take into account that most of the migratory routes pass through that country. What will Tehran ask in exchange for a collaboration that will prevent the transit of human masses? This question cannot be ignored.

The different European states are willing to welcome those who have worked directly with their military forces. But they have no intention of going any further. The usual Viktor Orbán and company are now joined by a new star, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. And the social networks are already full of catastrophic theories about the impact that an increase in the proportion of Muslims in European lands would have. Not to mention, they say, the possible dangers of terrorist attacks. The reality is that here in the EU, as in other parts of the world, questions of cultural identity are increasingly at the centre of the political agenda.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 10 September 2021)



Sunday, 5 September 2021

The UN and the new Afghanistan

The United Nations and the Taliban challenge

Victor Ângelo


António Guterres has just underlined the gravity of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. He reminds us that about half of the population needs food aid in order to survive and that basic social support, particularly in the area of health, is closed or on the verge of collapse. With the onset of the harsh winter weather, the crisis will become even more serious and the capacity to act will diminish. He therefore announces that as early as next week the UN system will launch an urgent humanitarian appeal.

It is not possible to predict what response he will get. A good deal will depend on the kind of access the Taliban will allow, both to UN officials and NGOs. There is still no certainty in this regard, including the participation of women in humanitarian operations. The security of the implementing agents and their ability to act independently are also crucial. These are fundamental questions, which the Secretary-General will have to resolve before launching the appeal. It is not enough to make a general statement about these requirements. Concrete commitments are needed from those in power in Afghanistan. This means that it is urgent to initiate direct contacts between the United Nations at the highest level and the political leadership of the Taliban.

The humanitarian agenda is a good gateway to broader talks. It is true that one should not mix the humanitarian field, which has the sole and primary purpose of saving lives, with political matters. Aid that alleviates human suffering, prevents the physical and mental stunting of children, and keeps people alive is a duty of the international community, regardless of governance systems and ideological choices. But it can enable the opening of a path of rapprochement and political dialogue.

Guterres should take the initiative and seek to open a negotiation with the Taliban power that considers what the United Nations expects in terms of respect for international norms, human rights, and the commitments that bind Afghanistan to the community of nations. No matter how much we talk about national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of each country, and even accepting that relations between states are primarily based on these principles, today's times do not allow one to remain indifferent when there are violations of people's fundamental rights and situations that could pose a danger to the peace and security of the region and other parts of the globe. 

There are many points where the untangling of the skein can begin. One of them is the protection of the nearly 3,000 UN national staff from possible reprisals. Another concerns the future of the UN Assistance Mission on the ground, UNAMA. The mandate of this mission expires on September 15. What kind of configuration will be possible after that date? The Taliban may be ready to accept the presence of the more technical or directly humanitarian assistance-related UN agencies. What about the rest, the other UN agencies? That must be negotiated. Another matter that should be looked at is the representation of the country at the next UN General Assembly, which starts on September 14. The Taliban, given the way they came to power, will be excluded from participating, as has already happened in the past, at the end of the 1990s and until 2001. But this exclusion may be a matter to be put on the table for discussion.

The essential is to take the initiative, get the ball in the UN’s hands and put it back into play. The UN is, above all, a political organization. It cannot be governed solely with a humanitarian or development agenda. It is true that it must provide a comprehensive and coherent response that includes these dimensions. But the driving force must be political. And the new Taliban challenge offers the UN the opportunity to reconnect with its history and remake its image as a key player in international relations.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 3 September 2021)

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Time to look again at the global order

A new chapter in international relations

Victor Ângelo

Days go by and the world continues to see the dramatic images captured on the perimeter outside Kabul airport, now aggravated by the bomb attack. This is the most visible part of the shock and dread of Afghans who do not believe the promises made by the Taliban. But Afghanistan is larger than Kabul. In the country, especially in the major cities, there is the same panic and despair. Only there, the suffering is far away from the eyes of the world. Those who live in these regions and have the chance, seek refuge in Pakistan or other neighbouring countries.

There are those who think that these images will remain in the memory of humanity for many years to come. And that they will be recalled every time it is convenient to attack Western countries. This will indeed happen. These are scenes that leave a terrible representation of the West, of abandonment, incoherence, and improvisation. The memory issue, on the other hand, is more unlikely. The last two decades have unfortunately abounded in human tragedies. But each new misfortune tends to hide the previous ones. The memory of what happened in Syria, or more recently, of the dramatic situations that the populations of Lebanon, Myanmar and others experience daily, is increasingly faint. At the moment, the Afghan debacle takes up all the screen. 

What we must not forget is that in the eye of the hurricane of conflicts are people. It is time to think in terms of real people, men, women and children, who suffer all the violence, humiliations, terrors and miseries that these crises provoke. International security and diplomacy should be concerned, above all, with the daily lives of those who are victims of extremisms, abuses of power, and all kinds of tyrannies, whether they are in the name of an enlightened leader, a party that holds the absolute truth, or a religious flag.

Three decades ago, the UNDP - United Nations Development Program - helped us to discover an evidence that nobody before wanted or could see. With the release of the first human development report - and the following ones, year by year - it underlined that economic growth only makes sense when it is centered on individuals, in order to lift each one out of poverty, ignorance and ignominy. It is not the GDP that counts, but the progress that each person makes in terms of a life with more dignity.

The scenes around Kabul airport should have a similar effect. And just as the UNDP reports have served to create new alliances in development cooperation, the distress and uncertainties resulting from the handing over of power to the Taliban should be seen as opportunities to build bridges between the great powers, China and Russia included. This week's G7 meeting could have been used to engage Beijing and Moscow in the debate over the conditions of recognition of the new Afghan reality. Unfortunately, this did not happen. The only concern was the vain attempt to convince Joe Biden to extend the US military presence beyond August 31. The meeting confirmed once again that in the West there is no leadership other than the voice of America.

The G7 should be especially concerned about the kind of governance the Taliban will impose. Russia is aware of the risks to the stability of its allies in Central Asia. China is concerned about defending its interests in Pakistan - the Chinese do not rule out a scenario in which Pakistani terrorists and others might operate in the future from Afghanistan and threaten the economic corridor linking China to the Indian Ocean port of Gwadar. Both China and Russia would certainly have a great interest in participating in such a discussion with the G7 countries. This would turn a crisis into an opportunity for a rapprochement between rival powers. Everyone would gain from such a dialogue, starting with the citizens of Afghanistan.

This proposition may seem unrealistic. But the turn of the page imposed on us by the Taliban requires us to look at international relations with a new and forward-looking imagination. Who will take up this challenge?

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published yesterday in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Saturday, 21 August 2021

Our collapse in Afghanistan

Kabul: And After the Farewell?

Victor Angelo


Two days after the fall of Kabul, China conducted a major military exercise at the gates of Taiwan. It was a simulation of an attack, using a combination of air, naval and electronic jamming means. Taipei says that its defence space was repeatedly violated by Chinese fighter jets. And the exercise was seen as a dress rehearsal of what might follow.

It is clear that this military operation has been planned for some time, as part of a crescendo in recent months. But its intensity, level of penetration and intimidation seem to have been deepened, following what had just happened in Afghanistan.

Chinese leaders know that the American administration is fully focused on the aftermath of the chaos in Kabul. The Far East does not fit on Washington's political radar at the moment. More importantly, the new international reality - the image of a great power’s defeat - opened the opportunity to make the exercise more offensive, in a new test of American resolve regarding the protection of Taiwan's sovereignty.

Seen from Beijing, the events in Afghanistan indicate that American public opinion is less willing to commit itself to wars that are not its own, in distant lands, difficult to locate on the map and to understand culturally. Xi Jinping and his people have now become more convinced that the Americans will once again bow to the fait accompli. In this case, the reality that would result from the occupation of Taiwan by force. In this view, Washington would react with much ado, but would in fact hesitate until finally abandoning the hypothesis of a military response.

This may be a misjudgement on the part of the Chinese. But the truth is that the Americans have just projected an image that seems to confirm their choice of a policy of absolute primacy of national interests and that alliances with others only last as long as they do. That is, as long as they serve US interests. This image harms NATO, among others. Besides giving more arguments to those who say that the Atlantic Alliance is just a train of countries pulled by the US, it might make leaders like Vladimir Putin believe that they will not suffer major consequences if they cross certain red lines and threaten the security of European countries. It also undermines the fight for the primacy of rights and principles in political matters. Keeping human rights high on the international agenda when the population of Afghanistan has been abandoned to the primitivism of the Taliban is now more difficult.

Although it is still too early to assess the full consequences of the tragic end of twenty years of intervention in Afghanistan, the evidence is that it has changed the geopolitical chessboard in that part of the globe. We now have, side by side, three fanatical states, each in its own way. One, Pakistan, with nuclear capability. Another, Iran, with nuclear potential. And both in the orbit of China. The third, Afghanistan, is a powder keg domestically, a source of regional instability, and a possible breeding ground for international terrorist movements. Beyond the states, there are the people, who suffer the effects of fanaticism, oppression, corruption, and who live a daily life of misery and fear.

The European Union cannot look at these populations only through the prism of uncontrolled migrations. Unfortunately, this was the concern that guided the speeches of Emmanuel Macron and Josep Borrell, among others, when they spoke publicly about the new Afghanistan. It was as if they only saw hordes of Afghan migrants on their way to Europe. At a serious moment, which requires an innovative diplomatic strategy and an adequate humanitarian response, it is unacceptable to reduce the Afghan problem to a possible migratory crisis. The EU must learn the necessary lessons with regard to security, participation in conflict resolution in third countries and autonomy vis-à-vis the major powers. And it must seek to define a political framework to guide its way of dealing with backward-looking, hostile and inhumane regimes. As, for example, with the bearded men in Kabul.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published yesterday in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)

Saturday, 24 July 2021

Three men and the future of the European Union

The European Union on the road to collapse

Victor Ângelo


Hungary's Viktor Orbán, Poland's Jarosław Kaczyński and Turkey's Recep Erdoğan were once again recalled this week as three of the major threats to the continuity of the EU. The report now published by the European Commission about the rule of law in member countries highlights the first two. The crisis in Libya brings the third back into the picture. All of them are part of the daily concerns of those who want to build a cohesive Europe based on the values of democracy, tolerance, and cooperation.

The report confirms what was already known about the Hungarian Prime Minister. Orbán manipulates public opinion in his country, abuses power to reduce his opponents' scope for action as much as possible, and attacks the freedom of the press, the activities of civil society and academic autonomy. The suspicions of corruption in the awarding of public contracts to companies linked to his and the ruling party are based on very strong evidence. To further spice up an undemocratic and very opaque mess, accusations have now been made public of the secret services' use of the Pegasus computer application to spy on journalists and others who oppose their misrule. It's all that and not just the new law on homosexuality. But the man is cunning. He is reducing the conflict with Brussels to a dimension that is not even at stake - the protection of children and adolescents. And then he announces that there will be a national referendum on that issue, certainly skewed in his own way.

The fight against corruption and for justice to work well, especially its independence, are two fundamental aspects of the European project. It was the issue of justice that caused Poland to appear in large letters in the above-mentioned report. The party now in government, improperly called Law and Justice (PiS), led by the ultra-conservative Kaczyński, has done everything it can to subjugate the judiciary to political power and to ignore Brussels whenever it smells criticism. Thus, the chief justice, appointed by the hand of the PiS, does not want to recognise the primacy and authority of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The European Commission has given him until mid-August to apply two decisions of the European court, which reveals the existence of an open conflict between Brussels and Warsaw.

The policies pursued by the governments of these two countries affect the integrity of the Union and open the door for others to adopt similar behaviour. The fact that the presidency in this second semester is held by the Slovenian prime minister - a confused politician who sometimes looks at Orbán with some admiration - does not help matters.

Outside the EU's borders, Erdoğan remains a nightmare. To the conflicts related to Greece and Cyprus, add the growing Turkish presence in Libya. This country has enormous strategic importance as a departure point for illegal immigrants heading for Europe. Erdoğan already commands the gateways in the Eastern Mediterranean. His influence in Libya will allow him to control the flows on the central route. As a reaction, the EU is preparing the deployment of a military mission to Libya. The main motivation is to compete with Turkey on the ground. This is a mistake. Libya is an extremely complicated chess, where several countries are playing, including Russia. There is no clear political process, apart from a vague promise of elections at the end of the year. A military mission like the one being planned has a high probability of failure and endless bogging down in the dry quicksand of a fragmented country. The EU cannot lightly approve such an intervention. Meanwhile, Turkish freighters continue to pass in front of the beards of the European naval and air operation IRINI, which is supposed to serve to control the arms embargo on Libyan belligerents.

Orbán and the others are a real danger. But the title of this chronicle is obviously provocative. Collapse is not on the horizon. However, it serves to underline that in these matters of values and external relations, the EU must take unequivocal positions of principle. It is a matter of getting respect. Respect is an essential condition to build a successful future.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published yesterday in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)




Saturday, 17 July 2021

Europe must keep engaged with China

Europe, China, and the US: a turbulent triangle

Victor Ângelo


European policy towards China requires a smart balance between respect for democratic values and economic interests. It is a complex issue that touches the daily lives of European citizens. You only have to look at the map of rail connections - 5,000 freight train journeys are expected in 2021 - or at the sea charts showing the routes of cargo ships to understand the interdependence between Europe and China. We need to import what we do not produce - or have stopped producing. The Chinese need our markets to ensure important levels of economic growth, one of the pillars of internal stability and regime continuity.

This interdependence has increased spectacularly since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. It is part of his strategy. And the trend is for it to accentuate in the coming years. In addition to mutual investments and the increasing purchase by Westerners of Chinese stocks and treasury bonds, note that the economic corridor is more and more diverse. Some lines pass through Russian Siberia, others through Kazakhstan. Later, there will be a land link via Iran and Turkey, not forgetting the sea routes, which rely mainly on the ports of France, Italy and the Netherlands. The smooth functioning of this vast transit area requires a permanent political dialogue between the countries, which will have to be based on an understanding of mutual interests and perceptive pragmatism. To facilitate this dialogue and open a wider door, Europe should take the initiative to propose the creation of a consultative platform for the Eurasian corridor. Any disruption of traffic, for political or security reasons, would have a dramatic impact on the economy and people's lives, particularly in the European area. This tangle of relationships stems from the process of globalisation that began more than two decades ago. Anyone who thinks that the way in which the international economy is now organised can be significantly reversed is dreaming politics without having their feet firmly planted in reality.

The disruptions currently occurring here in Europe in the supply chains for raw materials or finished products produced in China and the escalating cost of transporting a container from a Chinese port to a European one already give us a bitter taste of what could happen if there were a serious disruption due to disagreement between the parties or the imposition of ill-considered sanctions. For example, before the pandemic, transporting a 40-foot container by sea from Shanghai to Europe could cost between $2,000 and $4,000. Now it has reached $17,000 and the waiting time can be up to several months. And this is despite the fact that Chinese container production accounts for more than 85% of the world's total. These problems may be temporary, the result of an acceleration of economic recovery in the more developed parts of the world and the pressure they put on shipping. Any European importer who needs made-in-China goods or components to maintain their manufacturing activities will be well able to explain the importance of a trade relationship without unnecessary hindrance. The more informed will also stress the need to avoid a further escalation of tensions in Taiwan and the South China Sea. This also applies to the Chinese side, which should not continue to pursue an escalation of offensive actions in these sensitive areas.

In a deeply interconnected world, one cannot think geopolitically and make strategic decisions following past models or seeing the world as a black and white scenario. The Americans have chosen a path of confrontation. On this side of the Atlantic, that option appears to be a dangerous choice and contrary to our interests. This is why Europe cannot and must not copy Washington.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published yesterday in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Saturday, 10 July 2021

Looking at Afghanistan's future with great sadness

Afghanistan: So many sacrifices, for what?

Victor Ângelo


Coming in like a lion, and then, exiting like a baboon. Perhaps this popular expression does not fully apply to the withdrawal of the American troops and their NATO allies from Afghanistan. It is, no doubt, an inglorious exit after almost twenty years of enormous human and financial efforts. The way in which they abandoned their main military base in Bagram, about an hour north of Kabul - in the dead of night, leaving behind an indefensible and unmanageable situation, namely a prison with more than five thousand prisoners linked to terrorism - has a dramatic symbolic value. It signifies impasse, retreat, and abandonment of the Afghan government and people to their fate. In a word, defeat. With Taliban fanatics gaining ground across the country, the withdrawal will allow them to reach Kabul before the rigours of winter. This is the ideal time of year for military campaigns in Afghanistan and the way is open for the assault on power.

There are many possible reflections on all this. At this moment it is especially important to understand the reasons for the American pull-out. Afghanistan has lost the strategic interest it held for years, when the fight against Islamist terrorism was considered a priority in Washington. The United States now thinks it is sufficiently protected against such threats. This is where they have a huge difference with their European allies. The Europeans continue to see terrorism as a major danger and view the Taliban offensive with great apprehension. But the Europeans in NATO had no choice but to uncritically align themselves with the American position.

For Washington, Afghanistan has come to be seen as an endless war and as a distraction from the new and now far more important focus: China. And it sees the rivalry between the two superpowers as resolved in the region where Afghanistan is located. This is why it does not want to waste any more time and resources in this geopolitical space where China already has the subordination of the two countries that matter most: Pakistan and Iran. The China-Pakistan economic corridor, which ends at the Pakistani port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea, is perhaps the most relevant project of the New Silk Road. In Beijing's eyes, it is guaranteed. On the other hand, Iran signed a long-term economic agreement with China in March 2021. Chinese investments are expected to reach $400 billion in the coming years. It is Iran's passage into China's orbit. In the middle will remain the Afghanistan of chaos and radicalism, but without the capacity to harm Chinese interests in the region. The Taliban are dependent on these two neighbours, especially Pakistan, and should not act against their interests.

But beyond the strategic games, there are the people, victims of a cruel conflict, poor but resilient and dignified. They are deeply concerned, as are many of us here in Europe. First, because a regime based on a primitive vision of life in society has no regard for human rights. It treats all people, starting with women and girls, in an incredibly oppressive and inhuman way. We cannot remain indifferent to the extreme suffering that is looming for millions of Afghan citizens. Second, because potential terrorists in Europe will find in the resurgence of Taliban tyranny a new balloon of oxygen. Third, because radical killers operating in the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa, in countries that are part of our historic alliances, will be able to gain new opportunities for support.

One lesson that will be drawn from all this is that you cannot count on support from Westerners. That support comes and then disappears, in the dark of night, according to convenience, the direction of the political wind and the priorities of those who live far from the problems.

To think that these are some of the outcomes of the long and painful Western intervention in Afghanistan can only leave us desolate. Above all, we are left with a bitter feeling of failure and impotence. Of a Europe that is submissive in foreign and security policy, in a world where it weighs little and counts for less.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published yesterday in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Saturday, 3 July 2021

Our strategic fragility: a key example

Taiwan so close

Victor Ângelo 

Taiwan is part of our everyday life. This is because the company that produces almost all of the chips used in electronics, mobile phones, robots and cars is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). An omnipresent but discreet colossus, worth twice the GDP of Portugal on the stock exchange. And it is pertinent to write about it this week, when there is so much talk about China.

Since TSMC produces over 90% of the latest generation of microprocessors and is located in Taiwan, it is at the centre of the Sino-American rivalry. This is a major critical point. If there were a conflict over Taiwan tomorrow, the worldwide availability of chips would plummet. This would mean the immediate paralysis of motor vehicle factories, computers, mobile phones, highly sophisticated financial operations, and everything related to the use of micro and nano transistors. In other words, it would be economic and social chaos.

Analysts looking at these things say that TSMC is the invisible shield protecting Taiwan. It may be, to some extent. And TSMC is betting on it: it plans to invest, over the next three years, $100 billion in expanding its scientific and technological capacity. More chips, infinitely tiny and of an extraordinarily more powerful artificial intelligence. The figures give an idea of what is at stake. They also show that national defence policy involves the development of an ultra-modern economy that creates strategic dependencies in other parts of the world. 

It is therefore neither in the interest of Beijing nor of others to destabilise Taiwan. At least not for the next seven to ten years. But this absolute dependence on a single company is also the greatest exponent of the fragility of the major global balances. It is the result of decades of ultraliberalism and the relocation of production, all of which is out of step with what should be geostrategic concerns. The prevailing philosophy led us to believe that commercial interdependence would erase the rivalries between the great blocs of nations. We now know that this is an illusion. The biggest wars of the last 100 years were started by self-centred madmen who did not take into account the economic - nor the human - impact of their decisions. I do not think Xi Jinping falls into that category, despite the words and tone he used yesterday about Taiwan at the Chinese Communist Party's centenary celebration. But it is also true that it would only take a highly sophisticated hacker attack against one section of TSMC to bring thousands of production chains that are dependent on the availability of chips to a halt.

Joe Biden understands that the United States cannot, in this vital area, remain totally dependent on Taiwan and on one company alone. The industrial plan he has just proposed envisages an investment of $50 billion to stimulate domestic chip production. To that will be added many billions from the private sector. The truth is that much of the scientific design work in this field is done by world-renowned American companies - for example, Intel Corp, Nvidia Corp, Qualcomm or Cisco Systems Inc. But separating design from production has led to extreme vulnerability. It is a bit like designing highly effective weapons and asking others to manufacture them and then supply us.

The European Union must follow a similar path. One of the starting points should be to build on what ASML Holding NV already represents. This Dutch company is dominant in the production of the machinery needed to manufacture semiconductors. The ambition is to produce in Europe as early as 2030, in addition to the machines, at least 20% of the new generation of semiconductors. This is a modest target, but it will still require huge investments in Europe's digital industries. The amount currently foreseen - around €150 billion - is insufficient when compared to what TSMC and South Korea's Samsung - the second largest chip producer - have in the pipeline. However, European sovereignty, including its defence, requires a decisive presence in the industries linked to digitalisation. 

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published yesterday in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)

Saturday, 26 June 2021

Reflecting about democracy

 Democracy cannot be make-believe

Victor Ângelo


In the most developed societies, we are witnessing an acceleration in the digitalisation of all dimensions of citizens' lives. The pandemic has contributed enormously to this digital revolution. But more is coming.  The ability to process millions of pieces of information through new methods of artificial intelligence and advances in automation will allow the control - and, in many cases, manipulation - of people in a way never seen before.

The new digital age brings numerous challenges, and even threats, for democracy. Think, for example, of the role of robots in the multiplication of propaganda, fake news, and the creation of echo chambers, which give the impression of massive political support for some, and build around them all sorts of illusions, alongside the harassment of others, the opponents, with thousands of hostile messages from fake profiles. But the most immediate aspect concerns participation in the electoral act. If a citizen can pay his taxes or renew his identity card while sitting at the kitchen table, why is he not allowed to vote by computer link-up, also from home? Going to a polling station, going through crowds of people, queuing up and wasting time seem like procedures from another time, even if people like Donald Trump try to discredit electronic voting.

Already this week, the French have thrown another challenge into the debate. The abstention rate in the regional elections reached a record high. Two-thirds did not vote. Worse still, around 9 out of 10 of 18–24-year-olds were not ready for the hassle. They just ignored the election calls. Analysts were baffled. In discoursing on the reasons for such indifference, they fell into the same simplism that Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and other political personalities had already shown on election night - it would be the fault of the citizens, who found the inconvenience not worth it. And they launched cries to the heavens to lament that such a trend could lead to the death of democracy.

All that is television talk. People - especially young people - do not vote because most of the political class doesn't mean anything to them, doesn't inspire them, has no new ideas, is just more of the same, with too much hubris and too few ethics. This is what is happening in France and other European countries. The main threat to democracy does not come from apathy among citizens. That is the consequence. The cause lies upstream, in the political parties - there are always exceptions - which are generally nothing more than a club of opportunists or fanatics, enlightened by short-sightedness.

The question of democracy is also on the agenda of the European Council meeting that has been held since yesterday, marking the end of the Portuguese presidency. The big question, which has been a long time coming and so far, unanswered, is what to do about the authoritarian governance currently practised in Hungary and Poland. The leaders in these two countries have long systematically violated Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, which defines the fundamental values on which the EU is based - freedom, democracy, separation of powers and human rights. The lack of an adequate response to these violations is another fuel to the fire that is consuming away the citizens' confidence in democracy and politicians.

Less talked about, but equally important for the vitality of democracy, is having a capable system of administration of justice that is independent of politicians. Citizens need to have confidence in the speedy and efficient functioning of the courts, as a means of defending their rights and correcting injustices. In the age of "digital totalitarianism" this is even more essential. In member states where justice is slow, ill-equipped, and inefficient, we have a problem almost as serious as the authoritarianism that exists elsewhere. Those states have a lame democracy. They should also be the subject of criticism in the European Council. Without effective justice, democracy is an illusion. And the citizens, as the French have now shown, are no longer so easily deceived.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)


Saturday, 19 June 2021

Summits and dangerous choices

The turmoil they want us to get into

Victor Ângelo


The UN General Assembly is today expected to re-elect António Guterres for a second term. The first one was not easy, for various reasons, including the fact that Donald Trump has been president of the United States four of the last five years. Trump had not the slightest interest in multilateralism. He was, moreover, unpredictable and oddball in matters of international politics. To appear to be going against his theses would be a kind of political suicide. This greatly reduced the Secretary-General's room for manoeuvre. Guterres then focused on four major areas: the parity agenda, particularly within the organisation, where he successfully implemented a policy of promoting women to senior posts; climate change; humanitarian response; and finding solutions to crises in countries where it did not clash with the permanent members of the Security Council. He also carried out some internal reforms, notably of the UN's organisation chart and representation at country level.   

The second mandate will be even more difficult. The summits of the last few days - G7, NATO, US-EU, Biden-Putin - have shown that we have entered a very complex phase in the global power games. Several conclusions can be drawn from what has been said. None of them puts the United Nations where it belongs, as a platform for convergence between opposing interests. At these summits, certain players have adopted a confrontational line, and others have allowed themselves to be dragged along. Even when the tone is calm, as was the case at the meeting between Biden and Putin, we cannot fall into illusions: each maintains his positions and sees the other as the hostile side. It is a new era of distrust and direct conflict between the superpowers, outside the established international order.

More specifically, bringing the rivalry with China into the military field and openly including it in NATO's agenda is a mistake. It is true that the two paragraphs dedicated in the final communiqué to relations with China are softer than the messages disseminated before and during the meeting. But in essence, we are giving Beijing reasons to strengthen defence cooperation with Moscow and to increase its participation in joint military exercises with the Russians, including in regions close to the European Union's borders. If we have criticisms to make, in the areas of human rights and freedom, of unfair commercial competition, or even when China pushes certain countries into excessive debt, with investments in infrastructure that serve, above all, its own interests, let us make them in the appropriate political forums. 

When you gamble, as you have done all week, on confrontation and bloc politics, you are almost irretrievably compromising the functioning of the United Nations Security Council. The veto then becomes the standard practice. The result is the weakening of the UN and the marginalisation of its leaders, starting with the Secretary-General. And all this is in contradiction with the repeated promises to strengthen multilateralism, which appear in the documents approved at the G7 and NATO meetings.

Soon after his investiture, Biden decided to bring his country back to the United Nations Human Rights Council, as an observer and to make it more relevant. This is a wiser decision than going ahead with the intention of convening a conference of democracies, an issue that was again on the table during summits with allies. Such a conference, which should include the good guys and exclude the bad guys, according to Washington's criteria, would further divide the international community and put the UN in an extremely delicate situation. To help the multilateral system and help defuse the turmoil looming on the horizon, the European Union should not support such an initiative. Nor should it be towed along by any superpower. It is precisely to avoid this that there is a common project and so much talk of deepening European sovereignty. 

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)