Europe's Crisis Is More Than Economic - It's Existential

Where to now?
Where to now?
Stefan Kornelius


MUNICH - Last month, for a moment, crisis-plagued European nations seemed to have reason to rejoice: Germany’s Constitutional Court had cleared the way for the European Stability Mechanism, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced its plan for potentially unlimited purchases of government bonds in crisis countries, and the EU Commission laid out a new regime of pan-European banking supervision.

Finally!...something positive was happening to halt the continent's cycle of decline.

The high didn’t even last two weeks. Enraged citizens demonstrated in the streets of Spain and Greece; in Frankfurt, top ECB honchos had a very public falling out; and Berlin rewrote the footnotes to the bailout plan. European countries had managed to catapult themselves out of one crisis circuit into another.

And that’s the way things have been going for two-and-a-half years: incredibly tense phases relieved by some short-lived moments of hope when next steps are planned. The whole thing has been about gaining extra time. There’s only one certainty: this crisis is dangerous and it’s going to be long-lasting.

The very life security of millions of citizens is at stake here. For some, it’s about holding on to modest affluence. For others, it’s about sheer survival, savings, political radicalization, extremism -- even life or death.

Germans have a tendency to play all this down – not surprising in a country that mostly feels that the crisis is an abstraction. In Spain, on the other hand, there can be no doubt as to why Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is fighting the crisis so defensively: overnight, Spain too has become a crisis state.

Its government is trying with all its might to avoid outside intervention, to avoid being put under international supervision. But the massive austerity measures it has imposed on its citizens have yielded one extortionate threat of secession after another. The national debt crisis is threatening the cohesion of the country as Catalan regional leader Artur Mas tries to mask his own deficiencies with a policy of secession that has turned regional elections -- called early -- into a referendum on whether Catalonia should split from Madrid.

Similar dramas are playing out in many other places in Europe right now. The crisis is making players in supposedly safe regions want to withdraw. Catalans feel safe in Catalonia. South Tyrol (Italy) is starting to perceive Rome as a burden. And in Germany, the majority favors throwing the Greeks out of the euro zone. The countries of Europe are not growing together – on the contrary, splitting off into little egotistic cells is the pattern taking hold.

There is no single interpretation for Europe’s existential crisis. In more than two years, it hasn’t managed to get the 17 euro nations to perform a joint analysis of the reasons for the crisis and a unified strategy to fight it – which is why the ECB’s decision this summer to buy up potentially unlimited amounts of government bonds from crisis nations has particular significance.

Something just ain't right

Before this ECB development, crisis countries barely had any other option but to follow German rescue logic: brutal budget cuts, reforms to ensure more competitiveness, and ceding sovereign rights to a greater European authority.

Mario Draghi’s offer deviated from this course. The questions now are: who will get money to rescue its banks? How much bank supervision is needed before the money can flow? Can the ECB only get involved if a crisis country has accepted the harsh austerity measures of the bailout plan? And what happens if the country fails to implement those measures -- does that mean the ECB pulls financing?

All of this is markedly imbalanced. The ECB has turned itself into a political player, and opened what amounts to a new – and busy – market that has slightly wounded Germans ascertaining that their own apparently feared power isn’t going to work all that well anymore. Relationships have shifted. Suddenly creditors are brought up short in front of their own weaknesses, and debtors don’t have quite so much to lose anymore.

Germany’s new loneliness is palpable. The president of its national bank didn’t make any friends through his opposition to Draghi. And after the Helsinki meeting of European finance ministers in late September, the German minister found himself teaming up with Finnish and Dutch counterparts in a move to redefine the terms for recapitalization of problem banks.

On the other side of all this are the crisis nations that are most certainly – and wrongly – imagining that they have the support of a silent France. But its president, François Hollande, has already proved to be a disappointment as far as the crisis goes. Indeed his indifference encourages centrifugal forces, while his own inclination to austerity measures isn’t exactly exemplary.

Can Europe follow Germany, will it turn out the way Germans imagine? It’s not likely: German plans for getting European finances and budgets in order will at least for now not appeal to a more southern-oriented, state-led, and munificent majority. And in a Europe like that, Germany could well start to feel used, and become vulnerable to the arguments of isolationists and nationalists.

No, this crisis-ridden Europe is no fountain of harmony. This Europe is marked by very different mentalities that show how the economic and social policies of the continent are in the process of tearing it apart.

So Europe's fans may rave about the wonderful diversity to be found within the Union – but danger lurks within. Europe could very well end up overwhelming its citizens, so those in the drivers’ seat will have to know not only how to recognize that reality but to avoid it. This crisis has huge power, and could in no time at all destroy everything that it has taken decades to build.

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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".

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