Macron on Europe: an illiberal discourse

1. The context

European institutions have been governed for decades by a central block composed of so-called Socialist and Popular/Christian Democrat political forces – intertwined with a quite impressive bureaucratic machine and complex network of discreet yet powerful interests. From time to time Liberal politicians – a less numerous but more variegated lot, who have been mostly kept out of the main deals – have also contributed to the European project.

These two central forces are today in crisis. To start, the ‘European Popular Party’ (EPP) faces a sort of civil war. On one side stands a ‘nationalist’ faction led by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who finances billboards attacking the President of the European Commission (the EPP’s most prominent figure) – he is accused of wanting to flood Europe with refugees. On the other side stands said President who seeks allies and support so as to expel the EPP’s Hungarian delegation.

Those in charge avoid taking responsibilities by postponing crucial decisions. This whole soap opera’s next episode will take place soon, on 20 of March, when we will learn whether the request to expel Hungary, which was signed by a significant number of party members (interestingly, including the Portuguese CDS-PP but excluding the Portuguese PSD), is to be accepted. In any case, of course, none of this plays well with the Party’s standing in the European Parliament coming elections, which seems to be severely deteriorating.

Things don’t seem any rosier on the Socialist camp. Excluding Malta and Romania – both of which are domestically in power and both of which, notwithstanding numerous corruption-related scandals, face good electoral perspectives – as well as other rare cases such as Portugal, the Socialists face what can only be called a general crisis. If BREXIT goes forward, it will oust the European Parliament’s potential largest Socialist force.

After facing near demise, the French President has achieved a remarkable upturn in public opinion – a feat accomplished through ceding and backpedalling on unpopular measures, endless (and quite stoic) meetings with anonymous citizens all over the country, and a record-breaking time of attendance in the emblematic Agricultural Salon’s annual reunion.

Trying to maintain balance with a Liberal Party which he seems to wish to absorb rather than integrate, Macron has written a short Manifesto translated in all official EU languages. Through this grand political event the French President seems to announce his will to achieve in Europe what he did in France – pulverize the traditional, central-block party system and replace it with an ‘European Party’ led by him.

2. On misinformation

Quite naturally, the Manifesto begins by promising freedom to the European citizenry. However this is a promise made regarding a subject few Europeans were aware needing to be freed from: Russian influence in European politics.

It is understandable that President Macron, himself the target of an aggressive misinformation campaign by Russian authorities – who placed their bets on every single candidate except him – keeps unpleasant memories from the experience. Yet in truth Russia occupies only second place in misinformation campaigns targeting European audiences. The Iranian authorities not only champion misinformation campaigns but are also very active as regards obtaining political and media influence in Europe, as well as fomenting all kinds of destabilizing dynamics (not least, of the ‘jihadist’ type). Iran is in fact the only country whose very institutions are – finally – included in the list of European Terrorist Organizations.

Even more importantly, it must be understood that misinformation is only one among many warfare strategies. Rambling about Russian misinformation campaigns while staying silent about Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is a quite typical European attitude. European bureaucrats are experts at dissecting reality into small compartments and agencies so as to adapt it to the existing institutional structures – at the risk of impeding any productive understanding of said reality in the first place.

Stalin starved the Ukrainian people so as to impede it to rebel. Putin is no more of a moderate than was Stalin. And the core issue is that Stalin did not stop there, nor does Putin plan to stop on his tracks. Re-establishing the lost empire is but a first step – albeit one that by itself demands the dismembering of the EU. There is nothing indicating that the ambitions in question are not wider still.

No less brutal yet infinitely more sophisticated in their dissimulation tactics, the Iranian organic jihadists are rebuilding their old alliance with the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ and sharing Syrian spoils with Russian interests. Iranian jihadist ambitions encompass nothing less than the whole globe – starting with Damascus, flowing over the Mediterranean, and further along.

Macron’s Epistle also proposes the creation of a ‘European Agency for the Protection of Democracies’. This is the old European bureaucratic machine at work through Macron: for every specific problem an agency, a directive, a council, or a combination of all three. This European Agency of Democracy would join an already existing agency which deals with Fundamental Rights and is based in Vienna.

3. The internet and European Freedom

The strong denouncement of foreign political influence on European political and electoral processes made by President Macron does not specifically point the finger at Russian authorities but at ‘populism’ in general, thus implying that any populist movement – for example that led by Steve Bannon – is backed by Russia. Also it fails to clarify the wider picture, which includes both Russian and Iranian misinformation techniques as but tools of foreign intervention existing side by side with traditional warfare, global terrorism, spying activities, etc.

The internet itself appears, in line with a seemingly established European consensus, as related to a witnessed growth in intolerance: ‘We must banish from the internet, through European legal provisions, all discourses spreading hate and violence, for respect for the individual lies at the basis of our civilization.’

Although the internet has an enormous impact on modern society, I don’t think it’s reasonable to blame it for the hate, violence or other unfortunate dynamics plaguing our societies today. The internet is a vehicle, not a source; attacking its existence per se completely misses the point. The internet made possible for the common citizenry to voice their views instantly across space and time – obviously a considerable revolution in human technology but hardly the source or inventor of human hate and love.

The internet’s impact on the domain of liberty is that once held by traditional media, for so long the collective’s ‘Fourth Power’. Both freedom and proper regulation, until now applied to traditional media alone, must now encompass new information channels – both collectively and individually used and both commercially, politically (imperially) or otherwise inclined.

It is in this context that we must work to prevent misinformation and all pernicious uses of new informational technologies. These technologies clearly allowed for increased freedom and autonomy across human societies. Restricting legal provisions to concerns regarding ‘hate and violence-filled discourses’ is quite simplistic; worse, it reminds one of security patterns typical of authoritarian structures.

Comparing President Macron’s speech about the dangers of the internet to what would be thought were these concerns voiced regarding traditional media can make us gain some perspective. If legislative concerns regarding the ‘Fourth Power’ targeted no other area than ‘hate and violence-filled discourses’, would it not ring as a veiled strategy for attacking freedom of speech?

President Macron’s message can thus be seen not only as elitist but also as illiberal and should be denounced as such.

Brussels, 2019-03-08

(Paulo Casaca)

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