Europe, The Naive Power

Standing alone against the United States and China, Europe must wake up in 2019. And come together.

Brussels morning
Brussels morning
Nicolas Barré

PARIS — Europe is alone. Alone strategically and militarily, as demonstrated once again by President Trump's end-of-year decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, leaving a large void in the Middle East. Alone economically as well, against two blocs — the United States and China — which, each in its own way, systematically target Europe's industrial forces (aeronautics, automotive, pharmaceuticals, steel, chemicals) and have undertaken the digital colonization of the Old Continent with a dual objective: data control and payment control.

This great lesson of the past year, if not decade, calls for a strategic and political awakening. Does Europe have the capacity to do so? There's no doubt about that. Does it have the means to do so? Whether it's on the military, economic or financial front, the answer is no. Still, this should be the next generation's great project. Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, after all, are powerful mobilizing agents: If we don't wake up now to the provocations of one or to the new roads of expansion of the other, when will we?

Europe must acquire its autonomy in terms of security. "It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in the spring of 2018. "We need a Europe which can defend itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner," Emmanuel Macron said during the 100th-anniversary commemorations of World War I. Sure. But there can be no sovereign security policy at European level if you only devote 1.3% of your GDP to it. Our leaders know this. What are they doing?

Industrial power is key to strategic autonomy. Do we know that?

Faced with two major economic powers who are doing their utmost to protect their vital interests, Europe is a naive power. The evidence for this is abundant. Six European countries — Belgium, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands and perhaps soon Finland — have chosen American combat aircraft (the F35 developed by Lockheed Martin) for their defense rather than European aircraft ... which have no chance of ever being sold to the United States or to countries that are exclusive domain of the U.S., such as Japan or Israel.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II — Photo: U.S. Air Force

Another example is the fact that one of Brussels' first decisions in 2019 could be to ban the merger between Alstom and Siemens, which, if it were to happen, would create a rail champion capable of competing with the two Chinese giants. Industrial power is one of the keys to strategic autonomy. The United States and China know this. Do we?

As for financial sovereignty, the Iranian sanctions case has shown that Europe has none, despite the success of the euro. The dollar's spider web irresistibly brings us back under the influence of the American legal system, again depriving Europe of its autonomy. What are we doing to resist?

Let us hope that, in 2019, Europe will wake up and come together on these issues of sovereignty. And that the peoples of Europe realize that our rivals dream of one thing only: that the populists win the next European elections in May.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!