It has already been 10 years since the Polish-Swedish Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative was launched in Prague in May 2009. Since then, the EU has strengthened its relations with all six EaP countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Three of them – Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – have signed Association Agreements (AA) with the EU, including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA), and have been granted visa-free regimes. Armenia, which initially withdrew from signing the AA, has concluded a new, less ambitious bilateral treaty: a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. Azerbaijan has started negotiations on a new framework agreement with the EU. Finally, bilateral talks on EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities have been launched. The EU is now the biggest trade partner for five out of the six EaP countries, and is the second biggest trade partner for Belarus only after the Russian Federation.
By Sidonia Bogdan | Bucharest
Anti-graft efforts are a must for all EU states and Romania has achieved remarkable progress in its fight against this scourge. Nonetheless, it has been a bumpy ride and Romania can become a textbook example of how hard it can be to implement such a strategy at state level. Strengthening institutions, steadily promoting uncompromised magistrates in key positions, fighting back against political pressure on the judiciary and a keen eye for always respecting human rights are vital elements for the health of this process.
The outcome of the latest round of Euro-elections (May 2019) was instrumental in the reconfiguration of the European leadership. For the first time in 40 years the European People’s Party (EPP) and the group of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) did not win enough seats to form a comfortable majority. The new political circumstances made the election of the Spitzenkandidat impossible.
Since at least 2014, Russia’s economic and technological cooperation with Europe (and with the West altogether) have been in decline. Both Russia’s government and its people tend to underestimate the long-term consequences of this decline, because they fail to appreciate the fact that in previous decades and even in previous centuries, the paradigm of Russia’s development was based on close relations with Europe. In short, Russia was incapable of achieving economic growth if its relations with Europe were damaged. We should also remember that Russia’s governance is still despotic in nature, even though by the end of the twentieth century it had transformed from a Bolshevist regime to semi-authoritarian (now fully authoritarian) with the predominance of a state-run economy.
This despotic nature came to define the classic Russian approach towards such relations: Russia efficiently exploited both the political contradictions within Europe and the frictions between Europe and America. That approach provided the impetus for economic and technological modernisation, but also allowed the Russian authorities to prevent significant European influence on Russia’s political system.
However, the principles and values of institutional Europe (as well as the principles of trans-Atlantic unity) such as human rights and freedoms, the market economy and democracy, an independent judiciary and so on, pose a challenge to the domestic political order of Russia, especially after these principles came to be implemented in most Eastern European states.
So, it became harder for Russia to play its old-fashioned political game, and the essential tensions in Russia–Europe relations became apparent in 2008 when Russia’s post-Soviet political and economic model faced deadlock: in 2008, Russia’s annual GDP exceeded $1.6 trillion, and in 2017 it was less than $1.58 trillion.
Moreover, Russia’s annual economic growth has hovered around 1.5–2% since 2017 (after another recession in 2015–16), less than the average growth rate across the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development countries. At the same time, ties of cooperation between Russian and Western companies were damaged due to both the disillusion of foreign investors and the imposition of sanctions. So, even if Russia is growing, the development gap between Russia and Europe will only expand in the coming years.
It is in this context that Russia decided to rely on military power, in order to find a new path but also to prevent its near-abroad from gaining access to any competitive/ alternative political and economic institutional model. The reason was clear: any potential success story in the democratisation of post-Soviet states poses a threat to Russia’s domestic order.
Without the extended cooperation with Europe, Russia faces long-term and growing underachievement in its economic and technological performance.
This was the perspective which guided Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Nevertheless, sooner or later Russia will need to make a choice between reconciling itself to all the necessary domestic political steps towards a market economy, democratic governance and peace in its relations with Ukraine, including the withdrawal from Crimea and Donbas on the one hand – and the irreversible loss of its relatively high status in world politics on the other.
The second option will be just as probable, as Russia will not be able to use Europe as the technological and financial source for its modernisation. The main challenge here is that without the extended cooperation with Europe, Russia faces long-term and growing underachievement in its economic and technological performance.
This underachievement creates problems even for Russia’s military capacity, which is one of the main tools for Russia’s foreign policy. For instance, Russian defence industry is incapable of producing advanced satellites, warships and aircraft and many others without access to European technologies.
History does matter
In the twentieth century, Russia’s most important achievements in the area of modernisation came from Europe and the United States. In 1922, soon after the Bolsheviks took full power in Russia, they signed the Rapallo Treaty with Germany which gave them access to German arms manufacturing technologies. Later Moscow obtained much industrial equipment and technology from the Soviet occupation zone in Germany after WW2, and some of this equipment was used in Russian factories until this century. Supplies of industrial equipment and technologies from the United States, in the 1930s through commercial contracts, and in 1941–5 through the Lend-Lease Act, also played a crucial role in Russia’s modernisation. However during the second half of the twentieth century Europe remained the main driver for Russian economic and technological development. During the Cold War, the USSR used both legal ways and espionage to get equipment and technologies from Western Europe, including Great Britain, Germany and France. Moreover, rising oil prices and higher demand for petroleum from European countries, along with the discovery of huge oil and gas fields in Siberia, allowed Soviet Russia to increase its trade with Europe. Russia mostly exported raw materials and mostly imported machinery and equipment, other goods and technologies.
However, the Eastern European states inside the Soviet bloc were even more important for Russia’s modernisation. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) was established to this end in 1949. During the decades Eastern Europeans were not only consumers of Russian raw materials, but also supplied the machinery and equipment that Russia needed. Moreover, their workers and engineers helped Russia in the construction of crucial facilities such as gas pipelines.
Europe and Russia before and after 2014
After the end of the Warsaw Treaty and CMEA, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ties of cooperation with European states also changed, although Russia became even more dependent on the whole of Europe. Nevertheless, in the post-Soviet era, before the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s access to Western technologies and investments was also limited due to the grand corruption and poor institutional environment in the country.
Later, in the 2000s Russia was able to support its economic ambitions with huge amounts of petrodollars as it had done in the 1970 & 1980s. The modernisation and the trade and cooperation with European states as Russia’s main partners certainly benefited it a great deal.
The problem is that up to 70% of all FDI (Foreign Direct Investments) in Russia are FDI round tripping. So, actually they are not direct foreign investments but come back from the offshore subsidiaries of the Russian corporations.
However the other 30% are real, and most of them come from Europe. There were two peaks in the balances of FDI in Russia: $74,783 billion in 2008 and $69,219 billion in 2013. After that Russia lost many European investors; some of them have decreased their work in Russia since President Putin returned to power in 2012.
Of course, there are still European investors working in Russia, but they have definitely become much more prudent in their business strategies. Although the post-Soviet modernisation of Russia has not been completed, some competitive companies have appeared in the fields of telecommunications, IT, banks and retail.
Once again Europe was a source of knowledge, technologies, capital and equipment. Moreover, Russia cooperated with European companies in order to modernise its defence industry and armed forces. For example, in the 2000s Russian authorities tried to interest EADS (currently Airbus) and AugustaWestland (currently merged with Leonardo) in manufacturing aircraft in Russia.
The German defence company Rheinmetall supplied a training centre for the Russian army, the Italian company Iveco supplied armoured vehicles, and a couple of Mistral helicopter carriers were ordered from France (these ships had not been supplied due to the European sanctions in response to Russia’s actions against Ukraine). One more example: as one of the leading space powers, Russia was unable to develop and produce advanced communication satellites without cooperation with European aerospace companies such as Thales, Airbus and others.
So, Russia needed such cooperation in order to maintain its ambitions to world-power status. All the examples above mean that the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas have impacted Russia’s economics hard. This situation suggests that the country will be unable to develop successfully before it withdraws from Crimea and European investors come to trust Russia again.
This scenario will be unavoidable if the EU and the US maintain their positions towards Russia’s trouble-making foreign policy. Therefore Moscow’s model of economic growth, with its typical authoritarian practices of limiting private initiative and its aggressive foreign policy, is bound to fail – there are just no drivers for sustainable development in Russia, so the country will likely only be able to maintain its current status projection as a political winner for a limited time.
Reasons for measured optimism
So, more than five years of confrontation between Russia and the West have resulted in the long-term decline of Russia’s economy. The economic gap between Russia and the developed countries is increasing, and there is no hope of Russia managing sustainable development within the current political circumstances.
Nor can China replace Europe as Russia’s main trade partner. In 2017, the trade between Russia and six European countries presented in Table 3 was 1½ times higher than that between Russia and China that year. Also, China cannot give Russia the investments that the European countries gave before the Crimean annexation or even still give now, even if it were just because Russia is not a priority market for Chinese companies.
At the same time though, Beijing is trying to keep Moscow as a strategic partner. For instance, China has secured itself a longterm supply of oil and gas from Rosneft and Gazprom.
Also China is gradually entering the Russian telecommunications and transport sectors, and will hardly stop there. However, what China needs is a predictable neighbour which will definitely not join any anti-Chinese coalition. This is China’s main objective in its relations with Russia. All that means that China has no interest in Russia’s sustainable development, as it has no interest in Russia’s domestic political situation. So, the cost of confrontation is growing for Russia.
With Western sanctions in place, Russia is unable to modernise its economy. Due to the absence of significant sources for development in ‘fortress Russia’, it is fated to decline in its political and economic sustainability, which makes scenarios of domestic turbulence much more probable.
Also the number of people in Russia who have benefited from its authoritarian regime is decreasing. Consequently, we will see a significant transformation of the regime in the coming decade, with the option of transition towards democracy and market economy. In order to restore itself as a trustworthy actor and partner, Russia will need to undertake huge domestic reforms and withdraw from Ukraine, and possibly from Georgia and Moldova (that depends on the political circumstances of the future transition of power in Moscow in the coming decade).
Also, Russia will have to reconsider its trouble-making tactics towards the Western states and its adverse approach towards NATO and the EU enlargement process. Nevertheless, if this happens, some day Europeans will be the first to support Russian efforts towards economic and political modernisation.
Since the People’s Republic of China began its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, there has been much discussion on how this initiative would affect the countries it covers. The main goal of this project, as proclaimed, is to increase connectivity between China and other markets through the development of infrastructure and eliminating transport choke points.
This would enable a higher level of economic cooperation by reducing the costs of freight transport and the time necessary for the goods to reach their target markets. However, does this economic project come with political strings attached? Would China be able to leverage this new influence in Serbia and the Western Balkans, and thus gain a strong foothold in Europe?
Would China be able to leverage this new influence in Serbia and the Western Balkans, and thus gain a strong foothold in Europe?
I argue that much of the discussion in this area is either misplaced at present, or overlooks the real reasons why Chinese influence is rising in the WB and particularly Serbia; and I offer a list of policy recommendations that would make Serbia more resilient to this influence.
Loans passed off as investments
Whenever Serbia’s President Vučić discusses infrastructure projects that involve Chinese partners, he always depicts them as ‘investments’. In a country where media freedom is severely limited at best, these reports have been picked up by the media and widely disseminated, without any fact-checking. One should also understand why the country’s president – a figure who has no constitutional role in the conduct of economic or foreign policy – has been so vocal in promoting Chinese influence: Mr Vucić, as the president of the most important party in the country, has been able to dismantle almost all institutional checks and balances and put almost all state institutions under his political control ‘à la Orbán’.
Hence, Chinese investments in the country seem to be multiplying; this sheds a good light on the current regime, which bases its legitimacy on economic issues, making public finances stable and promoting economic growth. Growth is probably the most pressing issue in the country; public opinion polls show that the vast majority of citizens regard the overall economic situation, unemployment and low salaries as the most pressing matters to be addressed.
Furthermore, the sluggish growth in the previous decade stemming from the weak rule of law means that Serbia was only able to regain its 2008 pre-crisis GDP per capita level in 2016. However, in reality the true level of Chinese investments in Serbia is very low. Apart from two already completed acquisitions (the Smederevo steel mill in 2016 and the Bor mines in 2018) and one big investment that has been announced for the near future (a car tyre factory in Zrenjanin), there are few Chinese investments in the country.
But these investments are strategically located; the cities of Smederevo and Bor are almost completely economically dependent on these facilities. Since these two companies incurred substantive losses when in government hands, the state was more than happy to sell them off to interested investors. However, it seems that this process was not transparent or fair, since the names of the buyers were effectively already known before the tenders were completed. Although the Chinese companies are there to make a profit, their influence can also reach higher political levels, as they are among the most important economic players in that region of Serbia.
But since their total stock is very limited, the Chinese economic presence in Serbia is overall rather modest in actual numbers… Serbia is just a springboard for reaching the more developed, and therefore more important, markets in the EU. This is well reflected in the fact that Serbia, which is not yet a member of the WTO (so its trade barriers are higher than in other comparable countries), has signed free trade agreements with all its important political and economic partners (including the EU, CEFTA, Russia and Turkey), in addition to China.
Less bureaucracy, more appealing loans
For the time being the loans from the Chinese government are being used to fund infrastructure projects. The overall infrastructure in the country needs to recover after two decades of low investments: during the 1990s, military conflicts swallowed up most of the state’s financing capabilities, and public investments were the first to be cut after the 2008 economic crisis.
This is well portrayed in the Global Competitiveness Report 2018, which ranks the quality of the roads in Serbia as 95th in the world (out of 140 economies listed). To respond to this need for infrastructure investment, multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have provided significant assistance and loans. However, these institutions were more concerned with projects of international importance, such as the international E10 highway running from Budapest to Sofia or Thessaloniki, than with those of local importance, such as the E11 highway from Belgrade to Bar.
Furthermore, these institutions have rather strict regulations, including financial supervision and auditing, while construction companies need to pass well-designed tender procedures. Therefore, there is little room to siphon off funds. Meanwhile, the public procurement system in Serbia is notorious for its corruption scandals, many of which have been connected to government-sponsored infrastructure projects. China does not labour under these constraints.
The only condition Beijing has is that a Chinese company will get most of the construction work at the price determined beforehand, without submitting to any tender procedures. A smaller part of the work goes to local sub-contractors, also without a public tender, so that the local partners can also gain a (smaller) piece of the pie. For a political elite well-versed in political clientelism, this is a win-win situation. This is what mainly explains the attractiveness of the Chinese investment loans in the region. The interest rates on the Chinese loans are not that important.
For most of the loans the interest rate applied is 2-3%, a figure similar or just slightly higher than the rates applied by the international financial institutions. The interest rates on government bonds have recently also declined significantly (Eurobonds for 10-year loans in 2014 carried a rate of 5.5%, while in 2018 the rate was 3.5%, and the most recent Eurobond carried 1.6%).
So, since there is no big difference between direct state financing and Chinese loans, the latter are actually probably more expensive, because there is no pressure on costs from the competition, in the absence of tender procedures.
The actual level of Chinese loans is still low
In some countries, the Chinese infrastructure investment loans were renegotiated when the total debt level became unsustainable. Since the Chinese took over the Sri Lankan port of Humbantota in 2017 in a debt/equity swap, there has been rising concern over whether this situation could also occur in other countries, such as Zambia, but also in Serbia. If the government proved unable to meet its rising obligations to its Chinese partner, would the latter then take over some important infrastructure, or increase their political leverage in the country in some other manner?
The level of Serbia’s public debt is still high, but it is not yet at an alarming level. The fiscal consolidation measures put in place in 2014, together with the higher growth rates of the economy that followed curbed the level of public debt, whose share in GDP significantly decreased. Furthermore, the share of Chinese loans in total government debt is rather low, making up just €895 million euros, or just under 4% of the total public debt. But if the lack of bureaucracy or checks on how the money is spent makes Chinese loans appealing, why have there not been more of them?
The answer is: because the level of discretionary power which politicians have over regular loans financed through the international market is already significant – they can spend the money only in line with local regulations, which are easy to disregard or circumvent. Therefore, the Chinese loans are only being used in place of financing from international financial institutions.
A strong economy with limited soft power
Chinese soft power in the country is still weak. Many different initiatives regarding cultural, educational and scientific cooperation have been started, but these are restricted to a rather limited number of experts. The two Confucius Institutes in the country (in Belgrade and Novi Sad) are active in these fields (especially regarding language training), and have for the time being avoided entering into political debate.
Chinese state media does not have a local media affiliate, but is content with a cooperation agreement with a local radio station in Belgrade, which rebroadcasts their programmes on Chinese culture. The number of Serbian nationals working or living in China is also rather limited (most of them are teachers of English), so their perspective on the country does not affect how most Serbs perceive China.
The main drivers of Chinese soft power in Serbia are the fact that the Asian giant is perceived as a strong and growing economy, as well as the political support that China has provided to the Serbian government by not recognising Kosovo as an independent entity. Therefore, the wider population perceives China as a benevolent actor that supports Serbian interests – something which could easily be used as political leverage.
Serbia as a future Trojan horse inside the EU?
An important argument mentioned by regional policy experts, and even by high-ranking politicians such as Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, is that the rising Chinese influence in the country could make Serbia a Trojan horse within the EU. This is a valid argument, but it is based on false premises: Serbian accession to the EU lies in the rather distant future, and the Chinese have much more important friends who are already inside ‘fortress Europe’. First of all, there is rising anti-accession sentiment within the most important EU countries, such as France. As Nathalie Loiseau, the top candidate of La République en Marche party for the EU elections stated during her visit to Belgrade as French Minister for European Affairs in March 2019, there would not be a new wave of EU accession any time soon.
This is not only because of Serbia’s lacklustre track record in meeting EU criteria, but mostly because the EU itself is not ready for the accession of new members. Furthermore, if one wants to look for Chinese Trojan horses, one should not look at the gates, but beyond the walls. The two most important candidates for this title are Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Matteo Salvini’s Italy.
Both these countries are dissatisfied with certain EU policies, and are trying to establish strong political connections with non-Western stakeholders. Both countries are also vying for Chinese investments and loans, although this economic segment is probably more important for the Italian government, due to the sluggish performance of the Italian economy and weak public finances.
Hence, overemphasising Serbian cooperation with China as a political problem could seem simply hypocritical and insincere, bearing in mind the much higher levels of cooperation between the EU core countries and China.
How can the West take on the Chinese challenge?
For the time being, it seems that the West has not been able to counteract China’s rising influence in Serbia, as well as in the Western Balkans. Brussels needs to make some strategy changes. It needs to communicate with the Serbian people (who still wrongly believe that Russia is Serbia’s most generous donor!), not just their government – something the US seems to have acknowledged too: the US Embassy in Belgrade has recently stopped focusing on the painful past or on Kosovo, and turned to future fruitful cooperation.
Overemphasising Serbian cooperation with China as a political problem could seem simply hypocritical and insincere, bearing in mind the much higher levels of cooperation between the EU core countries and China.
It should also not come as a surprise that few EU flags were spotted during the street protests against Mr. Vučić’s government in recent months. It is hard for Serbians to see the EU as a supporter of freedom, when the president of the European Council Donald Tusk called Vučić his ‘friend’ and ‘soulmate’ at a press conference.
The very technical language of accession reform conditionalities is hard to understand for the general public, whereas EU support for Vučić is plainly clear. The EU should place more emphasis on the rule of law and media freedoms in the country (most programmes so far have not produced any significant outcomes), as well as the centralisation of political power, which could be tackled through changes in election system and judicial appointments.
The Kosovo issue should be resolved as soon as possible, but on a more inclusive and participatory basis, in order for a long-term compromise to be reached. These changes would eliminate most of the factors that enable China, Russia and other external factors to exert their influence in the country. Mutually beneficial cooperation with these countries could still take place, but Serbian society would then be able to distinguish between opportunities and traps.
For the time being, the EU’s actions as an external factor in the region are not strengthening or developing local resilience to foreign influence, but are in fact supporting the very forces that are undermining it.
By Marius Ghincea | Florence
The European Union prides itself on ‘making war unthinkable’ among its member states, and credits the European integration process for the great achievement of Pax Europaea, the longest period of peace in much of Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Making war unthinkable and materially impossible was the main original purpose of the European project, and represents one of the main pillars of the narrative of European identity that legitimises the European Union, at the same time providing it with significant global normative power (Schuman 1950; Diez and Manners 2007). But if Pax Europaea has been such a stupendous success, then why are the Europeans feeling so insecure, fearful and anxious about so many issues?
Successive surveys have shown that Europeans do not feel secure in an otherwise peaceful Europe, with fears and anxieties running higher in the last decade than at any other point in time since the end of the Cold War (Eurobarometer 89 2018; Borger et al. 2015). The regular Eurobarometer published by the European Commission and other surveys show increased levels of insecurity and anxiety linked with factors unrelated to the more ‘traditional’ aspects of security, such as socio-economic well-being, personal safety and terrorism, climate change, and immigration and national identity, especially in Central and Eastern Europe (Eurobarometer 88, 89; Dennison et al. 2018; Hunyadi 2016). These findings confirm that while military-related insecurity has diminished since the end of the Cold War, other types of insecurities have become more prominent and emerged to replace the ‘traditional’ fears that dominated Cold War-era Europe.
In the last decade, the European Union has faced significant, even unprecedented, overlapping challenges for which in the eyes of many Europeans it has frequently failed to provide adequate solutions. And even when it did so, the emergence and overlapping character of these challenges created social and political reactions that still have the potential to undermine the European project (Kinnvall, Manners, Mitzen 2018).
These overlapping challenges undermine not only the credibility of the European Union as an effective actor, at home and on the global stage, but also show the fluid and artificial character of external/internal divisions. External challenges like the refugee flows from the war-torn Middle East, the lingering conflict in Ukraine and the resurgence of a bellicose Russia converge with domestic crises caused by a decade of economic stagnation in much of Europe, the emergence of nativist populism across Europe, and the unpredictable Brexit process.
These external and internal challenges are serious and pose various levels of risk to the security of the European Union. The legitimacy and normative power of the EU on the world stage and at home depend on successfully providing not only effective solutions, but also a sense of security.
The existential threat to Europe is not necessarily the sum of the challenges and crises pressuring it, which in themselves are manageable. The future of the European Union hinges on its ability to manage the culture of insecurity that dominates the European public spaces, which is effectively taking hold of the public agenda.
The challenges and crises that Europe faces are real, but the way the European societies relate to them, through the lens of a dominant culture of insecurity, makes Europe incapable of acting effectively.
This culture of insecurity produces political paralysis, creates societal instability and narrows the policy options available to decision-makers, while at the same time decoupling them from the set of values and principles that define the European identity and its political tradition.
The challenges and crises that Europe faces are real, but the way the European societies relate to them, through the lens of a dominant culture of insecurity, makes Europe incapable of acting effectively, undermining its political institutions and its fundamental values. It forces European nations to look inward instead of outward, narrowing their focus to providing immediate relief to these deep-seated and culturally produced anxieties and fears.
Moreover, this insecurity is being encouraged by foreign rivals through information warfare, and instrumentalised by far-right and far-left domestic parties against the political mainstream, fuelling radicalism, heightening political alienation, and halting progress on important issues.
In order to overcome the various challenges facing Europe, the European Union and its member states must tackle the ideational and material sides of this systemic crisis simultaneously. The problem posed by the culture of insecurity that dominates European public life will not disappear even if all the external and internal challenges are resolved.
The dramatic decrease in the number of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores, basically ending the refugee crisis, has not decreased immigration and identitarian anxieties, as the most recent surveys show. While this culture of insecurity provides some opportunities for enhanced cohesion and solidarity, at least on some issues, it primarily creates political paralysis and undermines European and national political institutions.
Therefore, it is essential that the European institutions and national governments manage this culture of insecurity systematically and through a decentralised but coordinated pan-European strategy aimed at decreasing the sense of insecurity and increasing the sense of hope and trust in political institutions.
The purpose of this article is twofold. First, I focus on the production of insecurity in Europe, drawing attention to how insecurities emerge, become naturalised and are taken for granted, forgetting that these are essentially social artefacts that are culturally produced by our societies (Weldes et al. 1999, 9). The way we conceive the world and the events affecting us are shaped by these ‘taken for granted’ insecurities that permeate our culture and public discourse. Cultures of (in)securities define the way the general public and the elites perceive and respond to challenges and crises, empowering certain actors and policy options while marginalising others.
Second, I suggest several approaches that may provide effective and relatively efficient alternatives to the culture of insecurity that dominates the European public spheres. The most significant approach consists in mixing narratives with policy actions targeting the symbolic references of Europe’s insecurities. These include the promotion of counter-narratives that deploy rejuvenated liberal myths, and of the memory of the past, both as positive and as negative, in conjunction with proactive policy measures to reduce the immediate day-to-day worries about the future.
What is a ‘culture of insecurity’?
‘Culture’ has long been a fundamentally contested concept (Gallie 1956; Cobley 2008) which often awakens passionate debates over its meaning, characteristics, and even its purposefulness. Even so, culture permeates much of the existing scholarship in the social sciences, especially in political science and anthropology.
Moreover, our societies rely on ‘culture’ as an important symbolic tool to justify and describe collective and individual behaviour, historical processes, and even societal and institutional frameworks. Culture represents a system of intersubjective meanings, reinforced by practices and institutions, that human collectivities use to weigh and interpret physical and social reality.
These systems function through meaningful symbols produced, reproduced, and disseminated through discourses, practices, and institutions. In turn, these dictate social acceptability, behaviour, desire, thoughts, and feelings. Culture, as an ideational structure shared by a human collectivity, provides a coherent, consistent, and continuous way of looking at the world, offering the necessary tools for effective and, sometimes, efficient decision-making.
Culture liberates and constrains, creating the tools for comprehending the world but at the same time setting the limits of this comprehension. Moreover, culture plays a determinate role in defining identity, providing ontological security and oftentimes a sense of purpose. The culture(s) of our societies can make us feel secure and strong or insecure and weak, irrespective of the facts on the ground and our actual strength. The events in the physical and social world become meaningful through our social interpretation of them, and this interpretation subsequently defines our response (Berger and Luckmann 1966).
This interpretation is neither pre-given nor universal in nature; it emerges from the constant competition between social narratives and performative practices that dominate the public sphere. This competition produces winners and losers, and the winning interpretative narrative and practices become habitualized and naturalized through mutual acceptance. Therefore, it is important to note that our own insecurities are not the direct product of the challenges we face, but are the result of the dominant interpretation of these challenges, which can be explicit or implicit.
On the production of insecurity
When it comes to the production of insecurity, we can distinguish between two main ways of creating a sense of insecurity in humans: linguistic and practice-based approaches. These two approaches can be performed separately or together, converging or diverging depending on the specific social and political context. Insecurity is not produced only in reaction to exogenous or endogenous social and physical events, but it may also produce these events in a circular process of co-constitution. Even more, these processes are the ones establishing the border between what is conceived as security and insecurity (Bigo and McCluskey 2018, 2-3).
First, the linguistic production of insecurity is realized through so-called processes of securitization. Securitization is a discursive process that transforms nonpolitical or political matters into ‘security’ issues that require extraordinary measures. It represents an extreme form of politicization that justifies extraordinary policies and institutional measures in order to eliminate or alleviate the perceived threat (Buzan et al. 1998, 25).
Such securitisation attempts are undertaken by securitising actors that have the political capital and legitimacy to attract and maintain the attention of a target audience, be it a small elite group in a national government or the general public, which the actor seeks to convince in order to allow for the use of exceptional measures or the reallocation of resources.
The collective securitization of Muslims in the European Union is such an example. Entire religious and ethnic communities have been reframed from benign to collective well-being and security into potentially existential threats (Kaunert and Léonard 2019; Hansen 2011) to European societies in various sectors of life, including public safety, culture and identity, or economic welfare.
Similarly, as Szalai (2017) shows, the refugee crisis that affected Europe starting in 2015 is another well-known case of securitization, which in his words has been a source of ‘enacted melodrama’ performed by the European governments, especially that of Hungary, as a political spectacle that reframed what seemed like a humanitarian crisis into a threatening ‘invasion’ of Europe by non-European, non-Christian immigrants (Szalai 2017; Postelnicescu 2016).
While the linguistic production of insecurity is more typical of those who have political capital, such as politicians and government professionals, it is also possible to engage in securitization from outside the government. Journalists, non-profit actors, and foreign actors are among those with enough resources and access to the public sphere to reframe certain challenges as existential threats to a certain referent object.
Second, the practice-based production of insecurity results through institutional, individual, or collective practices, habitualized procedures, or technologies employed against a target: sometimes with the intention of creating chaos and uncertainty, and at other times to create a perception of security of control. The practices and technologies that seek to produce security can have the side-effect of producing insecurity and co-constituting the security/ insecurity nexus (Pfaff 2010; Bigo 2002, 2014; Huysmans 2002).
In the military field, states are crippled by uncertainties derived from asymmetric information and strategic opacity, always seeking to become relatively invulnerable but always discovering that the pursuit of increased security always causes increased insecurity. This (in)security paradox more often than not produces security dilemmas that spiral into threat and finally war, if states fail to properly signal benign intentions. Similarly, in non-traditional security settings, the pursuit of security often is the catalyst that produces insecurity.
As Didier Bigo shows in his expansive scholarship, European governments’ pursuit of securing Europe’s borders has constituted the threats that these borders are created to protect against. Domestically, the economic and other societal policies and practices that are intended to increase the general welfare are creating the social and identitarian dichotomies that create social conflict and produce deep-seated perceptions of insecurity.
Non-state actors can also produce practice-based insecurities, especially terrorist organizations and radical domestic political movements. Terrorist attacks are practice-based insecurity-inducers that seek to produce fear and uncertainty.
Most terrorist attacks have small material and human consequences, but they produce gigantic insecurities among the target population. This is why some scholars, like Alex Schmid (2006), define terrorism as psychological warfare.
But this is only one side of the coin, because governments that devise counter-terrorist policies and programs also produce insecurity in order to build political support and cohesion around the desired course of action against terrorist organizations (Ahmed 2015). Therefore, it can be said that both state actors and non-state actors produce insecurities for political, strategic, or as a side-effect of other actions or narratives.
When this sense of insecurity becomes systematic, when it is felt by significant segments of society, reframing the public space and changing the social priorities of a collectivity, we can say that a ‘culture of insecurity’ has emerged. The sense of insecurity drives action but can also produce paralysis, which usually requires radical upheavals of the status quo to overcome. It is therefore essential that status quo forces understand the risks – and opportunities – posed by dominant cultures of insecurity.
Producers of insecurity in Europe
The production of insecurity always presupposes the existence of at least two actors’ part in what we may very well call a dialectical transaction. In this transaction, one party tries to inflict upon the other – with or without the acquiescence of the other – fear, anxieties, and a general state of insecurity regarding something the other values.
Generally, an implicit or explicit recognition of a source of insecurity is needed for such a transaction to even be considered by the actors involved. The recipient of the insecurity needs to acquiesce to the dangers posed by the source of insecurity and to develop the emotions, set of beliefs, and behaviour associated with the sense of insecurity. The refusal or even contestation of the insecurity produced may result in the producer failing to achieve the desired outcomes, and may even result in the emergence of counter-interpretations of events and situations.
The production of insecurity can take place through linguistic approaches, which involves convincing an audience about the existential threat posed by something or someone; or through practice-based approaches, like a terrorist attack or the imposition of security-enhancing technologies that themselves constitute the insecurity they seek to prevent.
Both approaches make use of pre-existing myths, interpretations of social reality, and historical & political paradigms that dominate the public space. Nationalism, personal freedom, identity narratives about minorities and non-Europeans provide a framework in which the production of new or resurrected insecurities takes place, and in which these insecurities subsequently compete for attention and dominance of the public space.
In this section, I will discuss the most common producers of insecurity in Europe, in their linguistic and practice-based forms.
Revisionist political groups: producing narratives of insecurity
Far-right and far-left political groups have long traditions of producing anxiety and fear as tools for electoral success. Most European populist parties, both on the right and the left, instrumentalize insecurity as a driver for political success.
When these marginal political groups acquire political power, they transform the production of insecurity into state policy and publicly construct financed campaigns of vilification that seek to reproduce the sense of insecurity, purposefully promoting a culture of insecurity that allows them to remain in power and, even more, to adopt extraordinary measures that undermine checks-and-balances on their own political power.
These vilification campaigns, which are instrumental in promoting a culture of insecurity and which allow revisionist groups to alter the political system to their desires, are building on pre-existing exclusionary conceptions of nationhood.
These ‘us vs. them’ nationalist conceptions are deep-seated and inherent characteristics of national identities, especially in ethnically based forms of nationalism (Smith 1998, 55-56). Revisionist groups make use of century-old identity cleavages and historical myths in order to legitimise and promote their narratives of insecurity, and are effective because they are based on living traditions that are taken for granted.
The vilification and securitization campaigns, both linguistic and practice-based, of Fidesz in Hungary are such an example. Similarly, populist parties across Europe, from the economic insecurity narratives promoted by Alternative for Germany against Germany’s membership of the Eurozone to the anti-immigration propaganda promoted by Mateo Salvini’s Lega Nord, are excellent examples of how marginal political groups produce and use insecurity as electoral tools.
Russia: Enhancing and spreading insecurity
Another source of insecurity in Europe resides in the subversive actions of third-state or state-supported actors. These states, notably Russia, use disinformation, hybrid and information warfare to enhance and spread insecurity (Thomas 2016; Stebbins 2018).
By doing so, they seek to undermine the political status quo and cause chaos in European societies, forcing them to be more inward-looking. The methods used by Russian-backed information warfare rarely produce new insecurities, and usually focus on enhancing already-existing narratives which produce insecurity, spreading them further and targeting vulnerable demographic segments (Rummer 2017; Morgan 2018; Spaulding et al. 2018).
The press as a producer of insecurity
While not usually perceived as a producer of insecurity, mass media represents one of the main producers of insecurity in Europe. Intentionally or not, mass media across the continent produces, disseminates, and enhances the insecurities they seek to explain (Lamour 2018). In this way, the press metamorphosizes from being a simple conduit of knowledge and information into the producer of that knowledge and information, framing facts to induce desired reactions and political outcomes. Emotion sells papers and increases TV audience ratings, creating perverse incentives for news outlets to enhance and promote strong emotional responses, and therefore to frame social events, facts, and even ordinary news in ways that provoke insecurity.
Moreover, the acquisition of media outlets by media moguls, like the Murdoch family in the United Kingdom, transforms these media outlets into tools of securitization for political or ideological purposes. Framing challenges and crises as potentially existential threats allows media outlets to remain relevant in an increasingly decentralized environment, with plenty of information, at the cost of destroying the fiber of society and undermining democratic politics and its liberal tradition.
Security professionals: maintaining purpose by manufacturing insecurity
Finally, a very important social group that produces insecurity is made up of security agencies and security professionals. Governmental security agencies, as bureaucratic organizations, need a reason to exist and to justify their public budget. In order to maintain and increase these budgets, security agencies need to convince legislators and decision-makers that their existence is justified by the emergence or existence of security threats, risks and vulnerabilities which need to be contained, eradicated, or alleviated (Huysmans 2002; Ghincea 2006).
In pursuing these justifications, security agencies seek and define the threats they need to combat, directly or indirectly producing insecurities in society by reframing social and political events. This does not mean that objective.
security challenges do not exist, but the way we relate to them and the way we respond to them is the result of the social interpretation provided by security technocrats and professionals that have an invested interest in justifying their own work and in increasing the budgets available to them (Huysmans 2002). Therefore security professionals, in the pursuit of their own purposefulness, can produce insecurities that reinforce and justify their own work in the eyes of decision makers and the society they seek to serve.
How to overcome the culture of insecurity?
The sense of insecurity that dominates the European public sphere risks undermining the entire European project and dismantling over half a century of progress towards integration. No single, pan-European strategy can be employed in all the member states of the EU, but national strategies can converge at the European level on the most essential aspects that need to be covered, and pan-European coordination should be an endeavour undertaken by EU supranational institutions such as the Commission and the Council.
As stated earlier in this article, an optimal approach to overcoming the culture of insecurity in Europe requires mixing counter-narratives and proactive policy actions that could undermine the existing culture of insecurity and promote a culture of security and hope among the most seriously affected segments of European societies. In this section, I suggest potential approaches that can be used to overcome the culture of insecurity and promote a culture of security that is based on liberal values, political and cultural pluralism.
Counternarrative: promoting the liberal worldview
The European Union and a majority of its member states are engaged in campaigns to combat disinformation and manipulation online. These seem to have been fairly effective in combating ‘fake news’, especially with regard to media literacy, but in my view these efforts have so far been ineffective at undermining the culture of insecurity (see also Levinger 2018, 131-132).
The disinformation and manipulation campaigns promoted by foreign actors tend to enhance and disseminate an already existing sense of insecurity that has been promoted through other means by domestic actors, especially radical political movements, certain media outlets, and even governmental agencies, as I have argued in the previous section.
Therefore, these campaigns against disinformation must be undertaken together with positive campaigns promoting counternarratives that reinforce liberal democracy formed universe formed of mythology, liberal values and principles, and build trust in democratic political institutions. It is not enough to simply signal the falsehoods promoted by revisionist actors, because those that believe such falsehoods are already alienated from the mainstream of society and have no reason to believe such signals.
What is required is a reinforcement of the liberal universe as the single most desirable and achievable option (Tuck and Silverman 2016). Moreover, it is essential for liberal counternarratives to blend offline and online realities, assuring an overlapping between the online experience and real-world feelings and social engagement (Meleagrou-Hitchens 2017).
Learning from rivals
Another important step in the process of overcoming the culture of insecurity is to learn how insecurity is produced and reproduced by those actors that engage in such endeavours. The best sources of learning about how to overcome a culture of insecurity are the very same actors that create this insecurity.
By studying and investigating their methods, approaches, and processes of production, dissemination, and improvement, liberal actors can find ways not only of undermining them, but to use the same methods for the production and promotion of counter-narratives that seek to provide an alternative worldview to that promoted by those who maintain a culture of insecurity.
Practices & policies: words into deeds
An essential component of any strategy that seeks to undermine the culture of insecurity consists in combining security-enhancing linguistic approaches with practice-based approaches. It is not enough to say that we are secure, that everything will be well, and that the future is bright; these words need to be transformed and associated with deeds.
Policies and programs intended to alleviate economic anxieties, reduce segregation, enhance intercultural communication, and promote an inclusionary national identity should be undertaken and effectively promoted by governmental and non-profit organizations.
Words need to be matched by deeds in order to be fully effective, especially because the alienation of vulnerable social groups has occurred in relation to the liberal worldview, which has failed to meet expectations and failed to provide what it promised. Therefore, it is essential that security-enhancing practices are employed together with positive narratives.
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