Category Archives: Europe

Overcoming Democracy: Italy’s Online Experiment

A political earthquake struck Italy this summer as alliances shifted between bitter rivals in the country’s complicated multiparty system. Power plays, miscalculations and surprise deals made for juicy media headlines, but the most important lesson for the world may lie in the way one particular populist party allows technocrats to substitute technological farce for representative democracy. Though the crisis for government control made global headlines, the internal dynamics are somewhat difficult for outsiders to understand. In his 2015 book The Italians, author John Hopper observed that the turbulent surface of Italian politics may be by design. “[in Italian politics] issues remain arguable, and thus negotiable.” he wrote. “Imprecision is, on the whole, highly prized. Definition and categorization are, by contrast, suspect. For things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.”

In August, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League Party created the most recent “turbulent surface” by making moves to bring down the coalition government in hopes he would then win a snap election. Despite his soaring popularity, an unlikely coalition led by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement thwarted his attempt to gain control. 5-Star and its center-left former rival, the Democratic Party (PD), looked past their differences to freeze Salvini out completely. However temporary, sidelining Salvini and the League was a surprising outcome considering the rise of right-wing parties and leaders in Europe over the past few years. Many of these parties, including Salvini’s, have both overt or revealed links to Russia and its strongman president Vladimir Putin.

The “Non-Party” 5-Star Movement

Far from being a typical political party, the 5-Star Movement is a self-styled “anti-party” group that European journalist Darren Loucaides said “tapped deeply into one of the most powerful forces in Italian politics: disgust with Italian politics. Rather than offer an ideology or platform, Five Star offered a wholesale rebuke of the country’s entrenched, highly paid, careerist political class—left, right, and center.” A grassroots, populist movement, 5-Star emulated the profane style of its famous comedian co-founder, Bepe Grillo, calling some of its early events V-Days, a play on both the 2005 dystopian film “V for Vendetta” and a popular Italian vulgarity. Initially, the five stars in the group’s name referred to its policy priorities: sustainable transportation and development, public water, universal internet access, and environmentalism. Over the past 15 years however, that platform has expanded to include term limits, preventing those with criminal convictions from running for office, and now also a Universal Basic Income concept similar to the one making headlines in the 2020 US Presidential Race thanks to candidate Andrew Yang. Not so flatteringly, 5-Star has also been connected to anti-vaccination laws, the Brexit campaign, and American political operative Steve Bannon.


“When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the 5 Star Movement, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so.”


Though Grillo was the public face of the movement for years, the man that truly orchestrated its rise to power was an unknown Italian entrepreneur and political activist named Gianroberto Casaleggio. Casaleggio used Grillo’s fame, straightforward internet blogs, and the Meetup.com platform to create a “grand techno-utopian project…an online voting and debate portal.” Casaleggio hoped to make the elected Italian Parliament obsolete, putting the power to legislate in the hands of the Italian people through their computers and smart devices. As Louciades wrote in Wired, as early as 2001 Casaleggio surmised technology would fundamentally change governments and politics, creating greater transparency and political accountability to the will of the people. He envisioned “interactive leaders” that deal directly with the masses, bypassing the media and its role as an interpreter. In Casaleggio’s view, a natural consequence of cutting out the media middleman would be the “imminent demise of journalism.” Society would be able to see politics as it truly is, not the “virtual reality” the media creates. He did not mince words: “Overcoming representative democracy” he said, “is therefore inevitable.”

Philosophers and Technocrats

Casaleggio named his direct democracy platform after the eighteenth century Enlightenment author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and set its launch date for April 13th, 2016. Unfortunately for Casaleggio, he died two days before its debut and would never know how Rousseau became central to the rise of the 5-Star Movement in Italian politics. Rousseau creates democracy without the use of intermediaries or the centuries-old political caste by allowing members to vote for candidates, create referendums on party decisions, propose and debate laws, and participate in fund-raising. As the internet and smart devices make the world ever more interconnected, the potential for these tools to facilitate direct democracy could mean drastic change for governance and politics. An idealist may believe that these systems, when integrated with blockchain or online-banking style security, could empower more voters and bring participation levels to new highs. A skeptic would counter that replacing representative democracy with internet-enabled direct democracy actually creates opportunities for coercion, cybercrime, and consolidation of political power in the hands of a few powerful technocrats.

Ironically, the 5-Star Movement has been roundly criticized for pioneering this technique though it directly contradicts their populist aims. When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the Movement, in part to cut the middlemen out of Italian politics, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so. However, with power and information strictly controlled by a small group of technocrats at Milan-based Casaleggio Associates, 5-Star stands accused of silencing dissent. Italian author Silvia Mazzini compared Beppe Grillo to a populist dictator, ushering in new party members then threatening to ostracize or punish them if they do not support his ideas. Despite espousing a desire to empower the common citizen, Casaleggio Associates hand-picks candidates for the Rousseau elections without any transparency whatsoever. There are however, more obvious problems using Rousseau as a mechanism for direct democracy. In July 2019 there were only 100,000 active members on the platform, a tiny fraction of the 10.7 million Italians that voted for the 5-Star Movement in the 2018 general election. These are underwhelming numbers, even in a country where one out of four people still lack access to the internet.

The Future of Online Voting and Direct Democracy

Though access and participation are problematic, security is perhaps a bigger concern. Rousseau suffered several high profile cyber attacks in the run up to elections in 2017 and 2018. Hackers stole members’ information and even published phone numbers and passwords of party leaders in what was probably an attempt to intimidate voters and candidates. In response, the Italian data protection authority fined Casaleggio Associates for failing to fix several security flaws in their system. Italy is hardly the only nation experimenting with risky technology in the democratic process. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center released a report that, among other things, concluded “mobile and internet voting technologies are not presently secure enough for large-scale applications. Nevertheless, nations like Ukraine are “moving forward with integrating blockchain-based online voting into their national election systems in efforts to increase security and prevent voter fraud.”

Italy is the first large western republic to utilize an internet-based technological platform that purports to expand democracy on a national scale. As other republics around the world grapple with new wave populism featuring interactive leaders that use social media to bypass traditional filters, the integrity of democratic voting processes becomes a paramount concern. Italy’s ongoing experiment with Rousseau demonstrates that the security vulnerabilities of online platforms and limitations on participation, access, and transparency inherent in these technologies can make some voters more equal than others. The world will do well to look deeper and decide if this is truly an expansion of democracy or actually, as Gianroberto Casaleggio predicted, “democracy overcome.”


Wilhelm JaredJared Wilhelm is a Foreign Area Officer and former Naval Aviator who lives in Italy. He is a member of the Military Writer’s Guild, was named a 2014 Olmsted Scholar, and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and the U.S. Naval War College. His views are his own and do not represent the views or position of any other entity. He has previously published numerous articles on democracy around the world, including Some More Equal than Others.

A Tale of Two Armies: Defending NATO

During the NATO Summit in Brussels earlier this year, the President of the United States, leader of one of the founding member states of the Alliance, stunned the world when he reportedly declared – in a meeting of the heads of state and government – that the USA would “go it alone” if the Allies failed to increase defense spending. With Alliance unity considered a lynchpin of security in Europe, the mere perception of cracks in its armor could make 70 years of peace vulnerable to collapse. In response, some European Union (EU) members are reviving an old idea and seeking to reverse Europe’s reliance for its security on the United States by creating another military apparatus: the European Army. To some, the concept is a fool’s errand. It runs counter to NATO and is at odds with the EU’s purpose. More importantly, it is harmful to the relationship between Europe and the United States.

Fundamentals

“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”

– Robert Schuman

In 1946, as Europe struggled to rebuild after the Second World War, a young State Department official named George Kennan wrote there could be “no permanent peaceful coexistence” with the Soviet Union. With those few words, Kennan summarized the political reality that would dominate American strategic thinking for the next 50 years. Thereafter, the looming Soviet threat forced western European nations toward greater military and economic integration and inspired support from the United States which otherwise would have retreated into its traditional isolationism. Announcing his plan for the recovery of Europe, George Marshall, then US Secretary of State, claimed the “remedy [to prevent further deterioration] lies in…restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole.” As Nicolaus Mills explains, “the genius of the Marshall Plan was that it enabled the countries of Western Europe to look upon one another not as rivals competing in a zero-sum game but as partners with a chance to gain from each other through liberalized trade and interchangeable currencies made reliable by American backing.” European security, at least in the American view, began with sound economic fundamentals.

Unfortunately, the USSR remained undeterred and continued to spread Communist influence throughout Eastern Europe. On April 4th, 1949, as a result of this seemingly uncontested expansion, twelve European nations and the United States ratified the Washington Treaty establishing NATO as a mechanism to deter and repel Soviet aggression. Accordingly, European countries began integrating their economies through a series of treaties that provided a formal construct for their collective economic interests. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC), among others, fostered a cooperative international environment whereby each nation could better control its destiny. Perhaps by design, they also formed the foundations of what would become the European Union.

Senior British and French officers during NATO exercise in West Germany (1950)
Senior British and French officers during NATO exercise in West Germany (1950) Source Credit: Imperial War Museum

Concerned about the overwhelming combat power of the Red Army in 1950, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) contended “the appropriate and early rearming of Western Germany is of fundamental importance to the defense of Western Europe against the USSR.” France vehemently opposed this idea and offered an alternative. Designed to stop German rearmament, the French Plan, designed by Defense Minister René Pleven, called for a highly integrated European Army. The UK worried Pleven’s “European Defense Community” (EDC) might weaken NATO, but did not refuse the treaty outright. The American government, an early advocate for rearming Germany, questioned the logic of Pleven’s proposal. The US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, claimed the EDC was “hastily conceived without serious military advice… unrealistic and undesirable.” In the eyes of western officials, the Pleven Plan, and ultimately the EDC, would result in “duplication, confusion and divided responsibility.” Though several European nations agreed to the terms contained within the Treaty Establishing the European Defense Community on May 27, 1952, the French Parliament refused to ratify it. The EDC collapsed and the allies quickly integrated the Federal Republic of Germany into NATO, allowing West Germany to rearm under a “collective self-defense” organization. France’s concern for German rearmament subsided, and with it, the push for an army outside NATO became a great taboo of the Cold War.

The European Army Reemerges

2018 NATO Summit
2018 NATO Summit Source Credit: Express.co.uk

Contemporary politics and a shaky transatlantic relationship are the rationales behind the European Army’s recent resurgence. US President Trump’s demand for NATO allies to pay their “fair share and meet their financial obligations” enflames Europe’s desire to extricate itself from the US-dominated security relationship. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, expressed this sentiment in a 2015 interview saying, “A joint EU army would show the world that there would never again be a war between EU countries… such an army would also help us to form common foreign and security policies and allow Europe to take on responsibility in the world… a common European army would convey a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending our European values.”

It is therefore unsurprising the EU began developing a joint military investment strategy exclusive of NATO and the United States in November 2017. Under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement, EU members agreed to leverage their combined economies of scale while not explicitly adhering to NATO’s defense spending goal of two-percent gross domestic product (GDP). Responding to US concerns that an increase in EU defense spending could distract from NATO activities, the European Council President, Donald Tusk, warned the United States to “appreciate [its] allies, after all [it doesn’t] have that many.” The rhetorical back-and-forth between western nations continues to drive the United States and its European allies farther apart and provides fodder for some to demand a robust, Europe-only, military apparatus. In late August, French President Emmanuel Macron verbalized this idea, telling European ambassadors “Europe [could] no longer entrust its security to the United States alone. It’s up to us to guarantee our security.”

A Tale Not Worth Retelling

Overt discussion of an extra-NATO military organization is no longer the great taboo it was during the Cold War, but the European Army generates more questions than it answers. The stated aim of the European Union was to end “the frequent and bloody wars between neighbors” by creating a common economic and financial market for European nations. It was never intended to compete with NATO as a provider of multi-lateral military power. The logic the UK used to protest the EDC in the 1950s is still applicable today; that a vote for the European Army dilutes NATO’s resources, degrades its unity of effort, and convolutes the EU’s purpose. With over 70 years of experience working through common funding, command-and-control, training, standardization, doctrine, and capability development, NATO remains the gold standard of collective defense. By contrast, Europe has not developed protocols for controlling the European Army, resolving conflicts between member states, or even disputes between those member states and the EU itself.

European leaders should recognize the dangers of moving forward with their own military unless their long-term goal is to mitigate US influence over European military spending. Perhaps goaded by spite for the current US Administration, Europe is on the brink of a major strategic error. In this tale of two armies, an untested and unfunded European Army is not only a poor substitute for NATO, but it is also a threat to the viability of the Alliance and the security of Europe.


Major Steve “SWAP” Nolan is a US Air Force Weapons Officer, C17 Instructor Pilot, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) graduate, and is currently serving as the Director of Operations for the 21st Airlift Squadron, California. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management and three Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Operations Management with a focus on Air Mobility Logistics, and Military Strategy. Steve recently published an article discussing how the US Air Force can improve its talent management practices and is currently working on another article based on his SAASS thesis: Triggers, Traps, and Mackinder’s Maps – The Russian Bear, NATO, and the Near Abroad.

Death of Brexit: Return from the Right

The 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) was the surprising outcome of a national plebiscite. Initially dismissed as a long shot by many political scientists, there is now a degree of consensus that the result reflects a delayed response to the effects of globalization in general and to the 2007-2009 Great Recession in particular. The problem is very real as large groups of blue-collar workers see their opportunities decreasing and their jobs moving to cheaper labour markets in Asia and elsewhere. As the dust settles on the referendum, the question remains whether Brexit is really the cure for the malaise that led to it or whether more sober voices in the United Kingdom will drive alternative solutions.

Project Fear Redux

In the campaign before the vote, the Remain argument relentlessly focused on the likely economic consequences of Brexit, arguing that living standards would fall and jobs would be lost as investment dried up. Brexit campaigners labelled this “Project Fear” and mocked the professional economists that issued warnings as “know-nothings”. For a time, it seemed the Brexiteers were right.

After Brexit day in June 2016, the United Kingdom’s economy continued to prosper and showed little evidence of damage other than an immediate 12-15% fall in the value of the British Pound relative to both the US Dollar and the Euro. In fact, in 2016 the UK’s economy remained one of the best performing of the G7 large Advanced Economies, growing at 1.8%. It was as if the ship had hit an iceberg but nothing had changed up on deck. Though Brexiteers continued to ridicule the “know-nothings”, by the end of 2017 a very different story was emerging.

The United Kingdom is now one of the slowest growing of the G7 Advanced Economies, likely to register only a 1.5% growth rate for 2017. Investment is down and inflation is now over 3%; the highest in the G7. Inflation adjusted wages and consumer confidence are also falling with particularly dramatic decreases in car sales, down over 12% year on year in October 2017 according to the Financial Times. As the threat of Brexit grows imminent, the International Monetary Fund is very clear about Brexit’s increasingly negative effects on the United Kingdom’s economy. More worrying, the British Government cut its own economic growth forecasts for 2018 to 2022 more heavily than it has for any other five-year period in the last 40 years. Private forecasts are also broadly of the same view.

It is now abundantly clear that the so called “know-nothings” were not so much wrong as simply guilty of underestimating the strong forward momentum of the British economy at the time. A sharp fall in the exchange rate following the June 2016 referendum, combined with the Bank of England’s accommodative decision to cut the UK Base Rate from 0.5% to 0.25%, certainly aided the economy’s short-lived momentum. If the central bank did this with the intention of softening the blow, it did not last long. Project Fear it seems, is making a comeback.

The Will of the People

At this point, avoiding Brexit will not be easy. Any reversal of Brexit depends upon a significant and sustained shift in public opinion. Without it, Parliament is highly unlikely to vote down the Government’s impending deal, due in late 2018, that will set the terms for the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) in March 2019. The earlier deal with the EU in December 2017 provided proof—if it were required—that the UK is being out-negotiated by a much better prepared team in Brussels. Indeed, on all main points of agreement so far, the UK has accepted the EU’s demands; something many Brexit supporters are starting to see as a sign of the UK’s weak negotiating position.

brexit
British Prime Minister Teresa May meets with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photo credit: https://www.voanews.com/a/eu-brexit-talk-next-phase/4154812.html

However, Britain’s poor negotiating performance in the halls of the European Commission in Brussels will not turn the tide alone. This will only happen when ordinary men and women begin to suffer from Brexit’s negative consequences. Given the way the economy is now slowing, it seems the average Briton is in for some very poor economic news over the course of 2018. In the initial referendum, 48.5% voted to remain in the EU but polls suggest the British are changing their minds. The most recent poll taken just before Christmas shows 53% now wish to remain in the EU, with a noticeable shift by middle and working class women concerned about potential impacts on jobs and family finances.

As this national change of heart accelerates in response to bad economic news, calls for a second referendum will become louder. The Government can and probably will ignore them initially but once the polls start showing 60% in support of a second referendum and/or a desire to stay in the EU, the dam will break. Just as “the will of the people” was used by the pro-Brexit media to bludgeon the current Government into a Brexit-at-any-cost policy, so too will public opinion embolden Parliament to stop the Government on this reckless path.

Different Solutions

Addressing the challenges of globalization, the Great Recession, and the loss of secure jobs for average to low-skilled workers remains a critical policy challenge for all Western governments. And whilst the populist spasm that resulted in Brexit is understandable, it is surely not the solution. The alternative to the low tax and small government mantra of right wing populism is likely to be a centre left agenda comprising more state intervention and investment in public services such as healthcare and education. Experimentation with more radical ideas such as a citizens’ basic income may also become more widespread, especially as artificial intelligence and other job destroying technology washes over the economy.

All this favours Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, which is committed to a more radical, anti-globalization agenda than the current Brexit-supporting Tory Party. With the British anti-globalization fight thus championed from the left rather than the right, it is possible the same phenomenon could take place in the United States, reversing the rightward trend occurring in politics there since 2012. If events in the UK continue this way—a prospect which seems likely—the death of Brexit could mean a return from the right. This effect will be felt not just in London, but in Washington too, producing a global impact that will make an increasing number of British voters very proud indeed.


Adam Pharaoh is a former Auto (Volvo & GM) and Pharma (J&J) industry executive that now runs Pharaoh & Company SPRL, a consultancy on Strategy and Organisational challenges, mainly in Europe and Asia. He is a close observer of UK and EU politics and contributes regularly to debates in The Financial Times. He lives in Brussels.

For more on Brexit from The Affiliate Network, please see:

The Sky is not Falling on the European Union by Victor Angelo

The Spark to Redefine “Europe” by Nick Avila

With or Without the EU: Brexit and Security by Victor Perez-Sañudo