Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Three months since Russia started its invasion of Ukraine, thousands of civilian life its lost, and millions of refugees have left the country devastated by war. In the thick of a massive military build-up and clashes in the eastern region of the country, international organizations in the country are monitoring and reporting the horrors of the war.
Following the press conference of Club de Madrid in Press Club Brussels Europe on the implications of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine for the future of Democracy in the region, in Europe, and the world, Brussels Morning Newspaper had an exclusive interview with Mr.Danlio Turk, the former President of Slovenia and the current President of Club de Madrid, to speak about how the world can provide the “victims a voice in the war” and how it’s important to listen to the humanitarian stories and document all the hardships that people are going through.
Lieven Taillie (LT). Where does your interest in human rights issues come from?
Danilo Türk (DT). That interest was developed in the years 1970 and 1980s. It started when I was studying law and I saw that human rights are actually the most appropriate foundation for any legal system. That was a kind of a more theoretical discovery that I came to in the 1970s at the time the socialist constitution had a different conception of law, but I thought human rights are fundamental and one can construct on the basis of the individual in the society the whole edifice of constitutional law and everything else quite easily.
So that was my approach and this quite easily proved to be correct at the time of the transition in the 1980s and eventually developed into the independence of Slovenia in 1991. It was a kind of natural growth and also coincided with big social transformations in Eastern Europe and in Latin America which were all about human rights in the 1980s. Human rights became a very important driving force of political change which was not the case before. Human rights were always there and they were always a matter of critical reflection of societies but they became a strong mobilizing factor in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. If you remember the Helsinki final act there is only a little part of the text, a very small portion on human rights, but that became a very powerful tool, mobilizing instruments in actually transforming the society that needed change and when people take ownership of such ideas like human rights they become very powerful. So human rights were first of all a kind of a legal idea but they became also a powerful driver of change in the 80s and 90s and I was very much part of that. I also worked as an expert for the UN and I continued in other areas subsequently.
LT. You mentioned that taking ownership is a key element. The system in the eighties was ripe for a transition. Are we again in such a time? And what do you mean when saying there’s a need to rediscover power? Is it not rather: Politics is back?
DT. Sure, politics is about power. The drivers of change today maybe not be exactly the same as they were in the 1980s. So human rights are there and have an important role in organizing societies in general but they may not be the most important driver of change today. In the 1980s talking about freedom of expression or freedom of assembly was really a very powerful factor in mobilizing people. Nowadays things are different and mobilizing factors are different. The question is how does one understand the transformation of today. Is it possible to understand that transformation with a positive view of a transformation in the future?
In order to achieve that I think mastering new technologies would be really critical. Mastering the information technologies where once again human rights are fundamental but they are not enough. If you take eg. social media, obviously this has to do with freedom of expression but how does one manage and organize that freedom of expression through social media for the purpose of serious change? You probably need several ingredients there. One of them is more than ever qualitative journalism because people will need quality commentary. Not so much news persé because news is all over the place but quality commentary and good understanding are important. The other thing is organization. How are societies organizing this new technological era?
Because right now we see in the US everything is organized around the media platforms and the social media world is based on what the tech giants do. So it is really profit-driven and not necessarily helpful to foster a social transformation. In China, it is more state-centered and again that might not be the ideal thing. In Europe, we have not yet figured out how we want to organize the spaces which are now open to new technologies and which need to be organized anyhow for the purpose of social transformation.
LT. Are we thus in a crisis of representative democracy?
DT. I would not say crisis but insufficiency. We have representative democracies but there is not enough democracy. You need not only elections every 4 years whereby representatives could take care of everything within those 4 years. The situation is much more dynamic nowadays. That requires a much more constant involvement of the citizens in the decision-making processes. That’s not easy to do because for decades now the prevailing concept of citizenship was actually related to consumerism. Citizens became consumers. At least in transition societies such as Slovenia the consumerist faction, consumerist ideology has become very strong and what people cared about was goods.
LT. So if I understand you well, have people moved away from what democracy originally stands for, away from being responsible citizens?
DT. We have to move from that consumerist phase which I think is slowly fading anyway into a more sophisticated citizen phase. More and more people, in particular young people, care about the environment, and about things that now mobilize civil society and that’s a very important aspect of the growth of citizenship in a more sophisticated way, beyond the current electoral system.
That doesn’t mean people want to live uncomfortably. They would like to live comfortably but live comfortably with better coordination with nature and better responsibility for the future. I think among young people this is quite strongly present everywhere and in the mobilization of civil society today, at least as far as I can see in Slovenia, it has been largely around these environmental issues, not in a narrow sense but in a broader sense. Really strong interest in dealing with global warming, with mitigation and adaptation. This is an interesting new development that I believe offers a new sense of direction.
LT. A new sense of direction but in how far the war in Ukraine risks bringing to a standstill or even relapse this evolution towards a greener and more civic society?
I am sure the war in Ukraine is complicating politics in Europe across the board. This is a major factor of politics nowadays and there will be efforts to use this war in Ukraine for political purposes which can be quite diverse if you listen to Prime Minister Orban in Hungary who declared himself as a victor visavis Zelenski. This is a use of the war in Ukraine for purposes that are purely Hungarian. Nobody shares this type of mentality in Europe but that is typical for Orban. There are other ways of using this war in Ukraine than this, which is mainly for domestic use and that is a complicating factor. People become afraid of war in their own country and then obviously they pay less attention to items that are really important in the transition. One critical aspect is the green transformation. How does one handle the energy situation so that actually the war in Ukraine helps expedite the transformation to a green and circular economy, which is needed anyway.
Is this going to succeed? Well, it is going to depend on political actors. It is not going to happen automatically.
LT. How do you evaluate in this reasoning the action of the European Commission to trigger the conditionality mechanism with respect to rule of law against Hungary?
DT. Yes, I find it a necessary step. It is necessary for the credibility of the EU. The EU must demonstrate its true commitment to European values. This is not a rhetorical instrument. European values are the real essence of European existence and they include obviously
rule of law and democratic principles, so they have to be taken very seriously and for that reason, it was important that the EC demonstrated its commitment and its seriousness about it.
LT. You advance two levels of importance in your reasoning on democracies: the national on the one hand and the community on the other. Is the EU important at the community level? Could you clarify that a bit?
DT. I think the national level is the responsibility of national actors at the national level. They have to understand that Europe is not going to do its job. The democratic forces within countries have to do their job. Nobody else is going to do that in their place. That is important to a country like Slovenia, which sometimes relied on the EU beyond what was realistic. They can’t expect the EU to fix anything. The EU can help, the EU can develop standards and those standards are helpful to political national forces to figure out and work out appropriate solutions. So there is an interplay. These are not two separate layers but it must be clear we in Slovenia and in any country of the EU have to fight our political battles ourselves and also in that process for ourselves be guided and respectful of European standards.
LT. Coming back to Hungary, there is the responsibility of the national politicians but what is the responsibility of the citizens?
DT. Hungary is now strongly influenced by nationalistic ideology and that helps Orban a lot. That is a problem for Hungary and for the EU. I think the tension that has arisen from that will remain and will have to be managed both in Hungary and the EU. I don’t know how that will go on in the future but I clearly see tension continuing.
LT. Is a change of context needed in order to find a way to respond to certain expectations? Coming back to working methods as those of Jean Monnet?
DT. I think the European project has succeeded since Jean Monnet by being pragmatic. The Customs Union and the Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) were practical arrangements.
The more ambitious political performance actually came later. Those pragmatic beginnings were really very instrumental in securing peace and creating a base on which more ambitious and politically demanding ways could be explored and agreed upon.
Today we have an EU which has a strong political role but it is not a state. Not something that can replace the statehood of a state. This kind of tension that we now see between Hungary and the EU must have been expected. This is not an illogical consequence. It is part of the process.
LT. What do you think about Macron speech about European sovereignty?
I think this is more of a slogan, a vision than reality. On European sovereignty, one has to be quite skeptical. European sovereignty is an idea, a slogan, a metaphor, but it is not real right now. And let us just remember the effort with the constitution of Europe in 2005. It was rejected by the citizens of France and the Netherlands. Two original members!
LT. De Gaulle is believed to have once said the only 2 real nations in Europe were France and the Netherlands…Omitting the UK. What do you think?
DT. He was probably right. De Gaulle had of course a very skeptical view of the UK. And that was not new. And as we have seen in Brexit, that skepticism was not entirely artificial.
LT. Is the real problem in sovereignty being perceived as one and indivisible?
DT. No. It can be divided into segments and the process of developing segments of sovereignty that belong to the EU institutions will grow. I see this as a growth project. It is not going to happen in one go, one move, simply and quickly, it will happen through crises. Truly and that has always been the case. I remember in my younger days I was watching German TV and in the 60s they had a show called ‘ Einer wird Gewinnen’ (EWG). It was a quiz show led by Hans Joachim Kulenkampff* , a german actor and tv personality. In one of these shows, he once said: Yes we know the EWG problemen sind Ewige Problemen. EWG stands in German also for Europaische WirtschaftsGemeinschaft, the German term for the EEC.
That I remember from that era. Of course, nothing is eternal but many things are long term and I see European integration as a long-term process and unfortunately it can’t be shortened by a kind of trick or something, a constitutional moment and I think the experience of 2005 has to be kept in mind. One did not expect such a negative reaction in France and in the Netherlands but it is from there that the objections came and of course, there are other places with other objections, so much more patient work is needed.
LT. The EU is nevertheless unique in that sovereignty is pooled and transferred to the European level from the states, and is that not precisely the reason. Why it is difficult to be given a place in dealing with the rest of the world?
DT. Yes, I think it is a unique place in the world in that sense but I don’t think it is misunderstood for that reason. I’ve worked in my UN years a lot with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union (AU) and I know that they have always looked at the EU as an experiment. There are certain things they would like to do like the EU and there were other things they could not do and didn’t want to do like the EU. I was sometimes quite amused that when I went to ASEAN meetings, they told me: well you know, we are very serious about ASEAN. We have more meetings in ASEAN than the EU has! But of course, ASEAN is based on different principles than those of the EU. ASEAN is essentially a consultant and coordinating mechanism and the ASEAN countries talk a lot among themselves and respect their national sovereignty very carefully. They are different creatures but they always looked at the EU and made comparisons. Not in an idealistic way but looking at it as an interesting experience some of which they can bring to their space. And in the AU we see similar tendencies and practices. They always look at the EU as a source of experience, some of which can be helpful in the AU context. Right now and during the pandemic they were quite proud they could show their coordination of health care ministers didn’t work so badly. Actually, the EU health coordination led to more disappointment than we have seen in Africa. The African ministers were actually quite good in the early stages of the pandemic to figure out how to coordinate their policies. I don’t want to make unnecessary comparisons but what I am saying is that these are different models, and experiences, they can still learn from each other.
LT. Does multilateralism still have a future in your eyes?
Or sure, it has a very long future and there will be much more of it because it is imposed by reality. Reality requires multilateral approaches. These realities are everything. Political, economically, logical, cultural, and environmentally… All these realities force states to cooperate and find new models of multilateralism. We are not at the end of the process at all. We are somewhere at the end of the initiation. This is the end of the beginning. As Churchill said on another occasion in a different context.