Brexit, The End Of European "Soft Power"

Europe has seen its relative economic and military power decline for decades, but its “soft power” has held strong. But even that is now at risk.

Eager to leave
Eager to leave
Nando Sommerfeldt and Holger Zschäpitz

BERLIN â€" We would probably have been content with the status quo here in the Old World. The U.S. and China are by now, economically speaking, significantly superior to us. They also play in a different league on the military front.

All of this could be borne with magnanimity, seeing as the Old World has something in abundance that no other region on the planet has to offer, namely its good reputation. Even as the hard numbers, such as GDP, may be trending in the wrong direction, Europe is still a force to be reckoned with in "soft power."

It is known for its sound educational systems and extremely well developed democratic structures. The entire European Union even won the Nobel Peace Prize four years ago. Its cultural and societal norms are its highly regarded calling card. The entire world still remembers the World Cup that took place in Germany a decade ago, when visitors experienced our German hospitality and friendship.

But what now? Now, Europe is in the process of losing its good reputation. Soccer fans gathering in France these days are showing their ugliest of faces in the Euro 2016 competition. The law enforcement authorities seem to be overtaxed and the world watches in horror as the ugly scenes in Lille and Marseille are broadcast.

But it goes far beyond one sporting event, of course. The continent in general seems to be as divided as never before, as the advance of populist on both the left and right appears to be unstoppable.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash warned of a return of the dark days of the Old World, of a "relapsing into European barbarism," as he recently told the Financial Times.

Proof of the changing winds come in a survey this month by the Pew Research Center, according to which two-thirds of French people hold a negative opinion of the European Union. The French, according to Pew, even outdo the British in their EU pessimism, even as the UK is set to decide this week whether or not they will remain a member of the Union.

The Old World is losing its "soft power," its positive radiance and magnetism, as the support for the so-called "Brexit" becomes the symbol for the fear and rampant populism across the continent.

One last chance

The Portland think tank's "Soft Power Index" this year also found signs of Europe's slide. The U.S. has replaced Britain at the top and Germany has fallen from second to third place. And Canada bumped France down to fifth place.

It was the historian Joseph Nye who developed the "soft power" concept in the early 1990s, showing how nations are able to exert their power beyond their own borders without the use of tanks.

Soft power can be accumulated through a positive image, high standards of living and a kind of cultural magnetism. In the face of fierce global competition, a country can attract talented people on the international job market if it seems likeable, stable and trustworthy. Here in Germany, it was particularly important with the country's historical burden to be able to profit from these factors.

Jonathan McClory, author of the Portland study, says that "in addition to its leading role in foreign policy, Germany is mostly admired for its advanced products, its engineering and its economic system."

Moreover, Berlin’s transformation from a divided capital city to a global center of creativity is something quite remarkable. Still, this year, Germany dropped from second to third-place in the Portland ratings. "The federal government has to get the refugee crisis under control," McClory notes. "The resulting increase in political support of right-wing groups is damaging Germany’s soft power."

This year's leading country is the U.S., which jumped two places in the soft power ranking, with its leading role in technological innovation, digital development, global cultural goods and its world renowned universities.

No other country draws as many foreign students to its shores and most of the digital platforms and the mainstay of the digital avant-garde are of American origin. In fact, the ten largest companies registered at the stock market are American, among them the five technological giants Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.

But the bloody assassination that took place last week in Orlando is just the kind of event that can undermine soft power. And then there is the rise of the likely Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, whose threat to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. and to build a wall at the Mexican border is harming America's reputation as an open-minded country.

Back in Europe, says McClory, "the possibility of a Brexit hangs above Britain's global status like a gigantic question mark."

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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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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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