Archivi tag: Elections

Vote for Europe

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European elections tend not to excite most people. Last time, in 2014, only 42% of eligible voters turned out across the EU and among the under-24-year-olds, it was an abysmal 28%. But this year’s elections may be too important to sit out. While the European news agenda has been overshadowed by Brexit for months (and could continue to be, as the UK prepares to participate in elections it never wanted to be in), the European project is faced with a number of challenges from the outside – dealing with migration, global warming, a collapsing world order – and an existential threat from within: the rise of those who want to take the sledgehammer to over sixty years of European integration and dance on its ruins. If there was ever a time when everyone’s vote mattered, it’s now.

Europe’s enemies are united.

For a number of years now, the rise of right-wing populism could be observed across Europe – France’s Rassemblement National (formerly Front), Germany’s AfD, Italy’s Lega. Their levels of support varied, as did their radicalism, but broadly they pursued the same agenda: anti-immigrant, anti-EU, nationalist, frequently Islamophobic and socially conservative. But while one could almost be resigned to the fact that such narrow-minded loudmouths were now a fixture of the European political landscape, the most recent developments have been most alarming. In several European countries, the far-right is now governing (either alone or in a coalition). In Italy and Austria, coalitions including right-wing parties have shown that they mean what they say – in Italy’s case exemplified by the almost weekly dramas involving refugee rescue ships being denied permission to land and being stranded on the sea for days, actual human beings being used as pawns or bargaining chips. In Hungary and Poland, right-wing governments are busy dismantling the fragile institutions of democracy and civil society that have developed there since the end of communism three decades ago. As of this year, Spain, previously thought of as immune to the appeal of the far-right after decades of Franco’s dictatorship, once again has a far-right force in national politics: the Vox party. And what’s perhaps most troubling of all: the enemies of Europe are all about cross-border cooperation. Fully enjoying the free movement rights the EU affords them, Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache jets to Budapest to meet his pal Viktor Orban, the AfD’s Joerg Meuthen visits his mate Matteo Salvini in Milan, and Marine Le Pen made time to see Santiago Abascal, now leader of 24 Vox MP’s in Spain’s Congress of Deputies, when he was in Perpignan in 2017. With the enemies of European unity so, well, united, so coordinated and integrated, those who believe the future does not lie in a return to narrow-minded thinking and nationalism must stand just as strongly together.

And there are things worth fighting for. The Second World War ended 74 years ago, but peace is not to be taken for granted – indeed, it is often said that Europe has been free of conflict since 1945, but this is not true: into the 1990s, the Troubles in Northern Ireland cost some 3,000 lives. The death toll from Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up in the 1990s is well over one hundred thousand, driven by the very forces of nationalism and hatred that the European project seeks to overcome. And for the past five years, Ukraine has paid a high price for the aggression of its neighbor, Russia. None of this means the European project failed – these were conflicts on the edges of Europe, where the developing European project’s reach was limited, while the central European nations that fought the gruesome wars of the first half of the 20th century and before – France and Germany, for instance – have been united in friendship and cooperation after 1945. What it shows, instead, is that peace is fragile, not guaranteed. The same is true for the increasing number of benefits that the people of Europe have accrued over the decades: the rights to travel, live, work, study and settle across an entire continent. The freedom of barely noticing when you cross a border – one which might have been marked by young men killing each other in trenches a century ago, or maybe one that thirty years ago was shut with walls, fences and armed guards. Compared to the rest of the world – indeed, to the European neighbours who are not yet Union members – this is a privilege that citizens of the EU now acquire by birthright. The risk is that we become complacent about what we have.

None of this means, of course, that everything about the Union’s current state is perfect. The low enthusiasm for participation in European politics can be attributed to Brussels being a major buzzkill: bureaucratism and the rules of the single market are neither what sparks people’s passions, nor what Europe is about at its core. There is much room for progressive critiques of the current model of European integration. If the project of ever-closer union is to be continued, it will at some point inevitably mean that the wealthier member-states commit to supporting the less fortunate ones in a serious way – solidarity cannot end at one’s national borders. Similarly, a Union cannot tout its commitment to human rights and show off its 2012 Nobel Peace Prize while people are drowning in the Mediterranean – or while it is funnelling money to Libya, where thousands of migrants are kept in detention camps under the most awful of conditions, subject to brutal abuse and exploitation, entirely rightless and now caught up in the most recent fighting (a scandal so depressing it ought to be on the agenda of everyone who professes to adhere to Europe’s most-loved values). Things do need to change. But there will be nothing left to reform if we let the enemies of Europe destroy this unique project. Europe has given us peace, it has given us freedom and rights, and it has given us a forum for cooperation – the only way to deal with the large-scale challenges of the future, such as climate change. In a volatile world, with a transatlantic partner we can no longer rely on, an increasingly aggressive Russia and unsolved conflicts in the Middle East, Europe is our best bet. Let’s defend it, and then let’s make it better. To take the first step in that direction, vote in these elections. One hundred percent of our generation will live in this future – so perhaps more than twenty-eight should come out and shape it.

David Zuther

Julian Assange’s seven years on the run

It was a bizarre twist in a story that had already been difficult to untangle: on Thursday morning, officers of the UK’s Metropolitan Police arrived at the London embassy of the Latin American republic of Ecuador to arrest a man who to some is a hero of truth-telling and transparency, and to others a mere fugitive from justice. Julian Assange, who had been holed up in the embassy since 2012, having been granted asylum by Ecuador, was not going to leave voluntarily. So he was dragged out. As he was carried by the policemen to a waiting van, he no longer looked like the fierce, intelligent-looking figure he had been less than a decade ago – he seemed to have aged twenty years, with a long white beard; and he mumbled out pleas to the UK authorities as he was led away. What had happened?

 

The hero

Back in 2010, Assange had a triumph to celebrate. The Australian-born hacker and computer nerd had founded an organization called WikiLeaks in 2006, envisioned as a platform for whistleblowers to safely expose the secrets of the world’s powerful. By getting secrets out in the open, WikiLeaks hoped to transform public debates and bring about positive change. Besides, there is an inherent value in knowing the truth, whether the revelations lead to change or not. In 2010, WikiLeaks could boast of a massive success: from a source inside the U.S. military, it had received hundreds of thousands of secret government documents. The files included reports from the US military on Iraq and Afghanistan, daily dispatches that revealed a reality of the ‘war on terror’ much more grim than American politicians had been willing to admit. A video shot from an Apache combat helicopter in Iraq featured US soldiers firing at, and killing, Iraqi civilians – and boasting about it, as if it were a video game. WikiLeaks also obtained 250,000 diplomatic cables from the State Department, many of them embarrassingly frank assessments of foreign leaders by US embassy staff. It was a bombshell: a small group of passionate cyber-activists had humiliated the US government in front of the entire world.

 

The hunt

But this sort of work also came with a risk: the US government is not an adversary that should be underestimated and the leaks related to sensitive national security topics. Under President Obama, the Department of Justice took a hardline approach to whistleblowers. In May 2010, WikiLeaks’ source was identified as Chelsea Manning, an army analyst stationed in Iraq. Manning was arrested, tried and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison by a military court in 2013. During parts of her detention, she was held in solitary confinement, kept naked and watched almost continuously, allegedly because she was at risk of committing suicide. At the end of his presidency, Obama commuted her sentence, and she was released last May (although she has been jailed again this year for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks).  

But in 2010, Assange, too, felt the noose tightening around him. He went to Sweden, a place he thought would be a staunch defender of the press and freedom of information. And, indeed, in Sweden, he did not get into trouble for running WikiLeaks. But he did get in trouble for something else. Two women he had had sex with had spoken to the police, seeking to have him tested for sexually transmitted diseases, but their description of his behavior alerted the officers. The Swedish police were investigating him on allegations of sexual assault. He left the country, after being told he was allowed to by the Swedish authorities. In December 2010, he turned up in London. By now, the Swedish authorities had decided they wanted to press ahead with their case and issued an arrest warrant for Assange. He contested the decision from London, alleging that it was really just a ploy by the Americans to ruin his reputation and that if he returned to Sweden, he was at risk of extradition to the US, where he could be prosecuted and harshly punished for the leaks. To many of those who continue to support him, those fears are well-founded and justified. Others saw it as a cynical move to conflate his personal legal trouble with the ongoing campaign against WikiLeaks, in this way recasting the allegations against him not as an ordinary criminal investigation but a geopolitical showdown. To some, this will be what makes it more difficult to support him now, at the time when he is in deeper trouble than ever before.

In any case, Assange was not going to leave everything up to the judiciary. When, in the summer of 2012, the UK’s Supreme Court blocked his final appeal against extradition to Sweden, Assange put on a disguise and entered the embassy of Ecuador. He identified himself and asked for asylum. Assange had felt like he was under surveillance for a while, but now no-one could doubt it any longer. The Metropolitan police surrounded the small embassy building. The world’s press descended on him. It felt like a siege. In the embassy, he was safe – because the local authorities lack jurisdiction over foreign embassies, the British police could not simply raid it and arrest him (though the UK did initially threaten to strip the embassy of its diplomatic status). Under Ecuador’s left-wing president Rafael Correa, Assange was granted asylum, and later even made a citizen of the small Latin American country. He was, for now, safe – from Sweden, from extradition, from American high-security prison. But he was not free – the embassy became his prison. He could not leave it because outside, he would be on British soil and vulnerable to being arrested at any moment.

The Ecuadorians soon found him to be a difficult guest. Assange did not go above and beyond to express his gratitude to his hosts. Instead, he increasingly criticized them, accusing them on spying on him (not an entirely unfounded allegation) and even filing a lawsuit. Ecuador, too, became less hospitable, cutting off his internet access at times, exercising control over who was allowed to visit them. And then came the 2016 election.

 

The Russian link

During the 2016 US election campaign, the Democratic party and its candidate, Hillary Clinton, were hit by a series of damaging leaks. Along with other websites, WikiLeaks published e-mails that had been obtained from a hack into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) servers, and Clinton staffers including her campaign chairman, John Podesta. The e-mails proved, among other things, the existence of bias against Hillary’s primary contender for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, within the DNC. The leaks prompted resignations and heightened the tensions in the Democratic party. One man couldn’t get enough of it: Donald Trump, Clinton’s Republican opponent, who asserted that he ‘loved’ WikiLeaks and spoke about it numerous times on the campaign trail (yesterday, he said he was not interested in it). While WikiLeaks published internal documents from the Democratic party, there were no similar leaks about the Republicans or Trump. And in the context of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the election, it was revealed that some in Trump’s orbit – including one-time advisor Roger Stone – sought to establish direct lines of communication with WikiLeaks.

In the aftermath of the election, the US intelligence agencies concluded that the DNC servers had been broken into by hackers working for the Russian government, as part of an alleged campaign to destabilize the US elections and its political system and exploit the deepening divisions in American society. WikiLeaks and Assange have denied that they received the e-mails from Russian agents, and indeed it seems that the Russian intelligence services used intermediaries to pass them on to WikiLeaks. Whether a man of Assange’s intellect and instincts could have been truly ignorant of the documents’ likely origins is an open question – especially as he himself has insisted that what his source is does not matter to him, he merely cares about the truth coming out. It is this approach, among many things, that have led to some of his early supporters to be disillusioned with him. There are those who complain about his personality, his leadership style. There are those outraged that he used WikiLeaks as a shield to avoid facing the allegations against him in Sweden. And there are those dismayed at the fact that when he released the US government papers in 2010, he did not think it was overly important to redact the names of people working for the American government around the world – despite the fact that their being named in the papers could have jeopardized their personal safety. Perhaps this, too, was a reason that Edward Snowden, the employee of the US National Security Agency (NSA) who left the US in 2013 with heaps of secret papers documenting a massive, worldwide surveillance program, did not see WikiLeaks as his natural ally in publishing the documents. Instead, he worked with a filmmaker, Laura Poitras, and other news outlets to carefully select, edit and publish the documents.

Ecuador, too, did not have unlimited patience. With WikiLeaks continuing to undermine governments around the world, Ecuador came under increasing pressure to stop sheltering him. His character and habits irritated embassy staff. Finally, the embassy stay was not going to work forever: if Assange ever fell seriously ill, he could not go to a hospital without facing likely arrest. And then, Ecuador, too, had an election, and a government less sympathetic to Assange came in. So yesterday’s events were, perhaps, bound to occur at some point. It did not make them any less surprising.

Endgame

Yesterday afternoon, news crews from around the world were waiting outside Westminster Magistrates Court in central London, where Assange would appear. Cameramen and reporters shared the sidewalk with a handful of protesters accusing Sweden, the US and the UK of attempting to silence Assange for WikiLeaks’ exposure of US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Immediately after the arrest, the US authorities made an extradition request and revealed an indictment that had been filed in secret last year. In Sweden, one of the two women who had accused Assange of misconduct asked the prosecutor to reopen the case, which had been closed in the meantime. In Court 1, which had to stop admitting spectators because the gallery was full of journalists, Assange appeared in a glass box. His lawyers argued that a judge previously presiding over the proceedings had been biased because her husband had been targeted by WikiLeaks. But the judge, Justice Michael Snow, chastised the defense for making such allegations in front of the press without the judge being able to defend herself. He branded Assange a narcissist and described as ‘laughable’ the idea that he had not received a fair trial. Snow found Assange guilty of the one crime he was charged with under UK law, skipping bail. He faces up to twelve months in prison in the UK, and the sentence will be handed down by a crown court later this year. Justice Snow ordered Assange into custody and scheduled another hearing, on the US extradition request, for May. Assange is accused of assisting Manning in hacking into a secret US government database, a charge which carries up to five years’ imprisonment. For now, he has not been charged with actually publishing the leaked material – in part because, as Justice Department lawyers concluded in the Obama era, they could not charge Assange for publication without also charging media outlets like the New York Times which had also published the papers – and this would have been a massive blow to press freedom. To his lawyers and supporters, of course, Assange’s extradition is still a threat to freedom of information. And then there is still his Swedish case, which could be reopened. Throughout his life as the crusader and provocateur challenging the world’s powerful, he relied on his public image and his determined fans to keep him afloat. But Assange is a complex character, and his actions over the past few years have cost him support. At 4pm yesterday, a white prison van drove Assange out of Westminster magistrates court – into prison in the UK, for now, and into an uncertain future.

David Zuther

Cover picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images