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Opinion: Making the case for Europe 2.0

EU Reporter Correspondent

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B1A9DAD842BD76416C77CD9CDCFFD019-mainBy Cristian Gherasim

It is important to remember how recent the entire information revolution is. Fifteen years ago, the Arab world was under the heel of uncontested regimes.  In Tunisia or Egypt, all you could hear and read back then was government propaganda, a daily review of the great deeds of Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali or whoever ruled the roost.

First came satellite TV, then the internet revolution that offered closed societies the chance to see the world around them. But what really broke the state’s monopoly on information was the so-called social networking revolution.  No longer were the strongmen of the day in charge of people’s right to know and voice their opinion. What had been until then a 'one-to-many' system of distributing information, quickly turned into a 'many-to-many' system.

The changes that ensued remain partially unfathomed.   It is not only social media that leaves us reeling at the new ways power spreads out to masses and secrecy disperses. Whistleblowers are now also leading the fight for full disclosure, revealing to the public everything from global surveillance practices to acts of fraud, corruption, military misconduct. A whole world once shrouded in secrecy opens up to every person on the planet. Knowledge, or at the least some of it, is no longer the attribute of the very powerful.  Chastised for breaches of the right to privacy, governments have now to answer to the very people they once kept tabs on. Caught red-handed, regimes are expected to tone down on these practices as citizens quickly learn how to keep an eye on the less than honorable acts of their leaders.

Political power gradually surrenders one of its most coveted traits:  controlling the information flow. The old ways of sending out the message are quickly disbanded. Revolutions began by seizing the radio station or the TV station because that enabled those rebelling against the regime to broadcast their message to the masses – information was flowing from one to many.

With the advent of social media today’s technology engenders a system where no one is in charge of the information.  “Many-to-many”, epitomized by the internet, is the system where everyone is connected but no one is in control. Such a system helps the individual, breaking the system’s monopoly on information and allowing the people to disprove any lies put out by the regime.

Secondly, social networks allow for people to organize in a different way. This has become, for new civic activists the apple of their eye. They feel no longer entrapped by the structured grouping of individuals. Before the emergence of social networking every opposition movement was organized mirroring the very regime it stood against:  coalesced around an elite, with plenty of resources and part of the media on their side as a means of conveying their message and a power structure.

Social movements created through social networking no longer pose this ranking system. Social networking breaks down hierarchies and monopolies in the right to protest. Social activists coming together over the internet create movements faster, with a greater reach and effectiveness.  Such movements tend to last longer than traditional ones as momentum is being constantly created making the mobilization of a large number of people quicker and easier.

Traditionalists still view movements created over the internet as chaotic and disorganized.  The experience of recent years disproves such claims. Movements created with the help of social networks have proven remarkable in their effectiveness to bring about change. The Occupy Gezi protests in Turkey managed to gather over 3.5 million Turks that took part in over 5000 demonstrations across the country, lasting well over seven months. On April 10, 2013 a hashtag on the Turkish twittersphere asked for followers to “stand up”(#ayagakalk). The call came from a small group of activists trying to preserve the Gezi Park in Taksim Square against plans to build a mall in the area. Nobody expected this little incident to turn into the biggest protest in the country’s republican history.

All the important moments of the protests that unfolded were recorded and shared over social networks. What proved remarkable was the speed with which protesters organized on Facebook and Twitter, using social media as a backchannel to disperse their messages. The same role was played by social media in Romania when it came to awakening civil society over environmental issues. With traditional media remaining fairly oblivious to the plight of demonstrators social media became the place where all came together and expressed their woes.

200,000 people protested across Romania and abroad against the project meant to transform Rosia Montana into the biggest cyanide-based gold exploration in Europe. The movement had been active before, for several years, but not as vocal. Its impact and scope have been significantly magnified with the help of social media. The profile of protestors and their social media supporters are quite similar in Turkey and Romania, in that they are dominated by young, well-educated individuals. Compared to the other protests that took place in Bucharest, in the winter of 2012, these protests have different people on board: mostly middle class, tech savvy and younger. Similar to Turkish protestors they are well connected over social networks. Unlike the Arab Spring both of these movements have been kindled by political rather than economic reasons. Rule of law is more important, as well as keeping political promises.

Social media has been a common tool in both cases. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in facilitating the protest but also in promoting the issues on a national and international level. Protestors function according to a non-hierarchical structure, with no official leader. They skillfully kept the public informed and engaged via Facebook.

More that 17 million tweets were sent in the first ten days of the protest in Turkey, through #occupygezi and its Turkish version. Although numbers are lower for #rosiamontana and #unitisalvam due to different reasons including the limited international media attention, the effect of social media was equally significant in the case of Romania, in that there is a lot of social sympathy towards the protesters in the online world. Messages, pictures and videos were very actively diffused through social networks both in Turkey and Romania.

Over the past few years social networks turned into the tip of the sword when it comes to anti-mining activists derailing projects and getting the message across. Not only in Romania, but also in Canada and Peru activists have managed to disrupt projects by harnessing the power of social media. Activist ability to organize has increased tenfold, echoing the political impact that social networks had across the Arab world.

As mentioned, Rosia Montana offers the telling saga of how social media shifted the balance of power when activists started using Facebook to organize demonstrations across the country.

Though the opposition against Rosia Montana started to manifest itself a few years ago, it only gathered momentum once the government showed support for the mine. Activists mobilized quickly on Facebook and within days thousands hit the streets.

What is interesting in this particular case is that mining executives know exactly the impact social media has on forging opinions and seek ways to delude it. When asked what they think about protesters organizing online they cite social networks as the culprits that help stir up social unrest and that in turn emboldens governments in their dealings with the mining companies. The mining company at the centre of protest in Romania also uses Facebook – its Romanian-language page has more than 700,000 'Likes'. The company says that it has the support of local people and mine supporters have staged some of their own protests over the years, though nowhere near the scale of those of their opponents.

It is the widespread access to internet that makes social media such a powerful tool. To be sure, social media is not an organizing tool in every conflict. It is not a silver bullet for getting people always to rally for the right causes, but clearly today’s information technology has the effect of breaking down states and corporations monopoly over the flow of information. Social media can show the world what is going on and prevent dangerous situations. That has got to be good for the individual and bad for dictators.

EU

Companies should be held accountable for their actions, say MEPs

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs want a new EU law to ensure companies are held accountable when their actions harm people and the planet. On 8 March MEPs debated a report by the legal affairs committee on corporate accountability. The report calls on the European Commission to come up with a law obliging EU companies to address aspects of their value chains that could affect human rights (including social, trade union and labour rights), the environment (for example contribution to climate change) and good governance.

Doing the right thing does not give businesses a competitive advantage at the moment. The lack of a joint EU-wide approach on this matter could lead to a disadvantage for those companies that are proactive regarding social and environmental matters, the report said. The rules would apply to all large undertakings in the EU, as well as to publicly listed small and medium-sized enterprises and those that for example share "risky" supply chains with larger companies.

However, MEPs say the binding rules should also go beyond the EU’s borders, meaning that all companies that want to access the EU's internal market, including those established outside the EU, would have to prove that they comply with due diligence obligations related to human rights and the environment.

In addition, the MEPs want the rights of stakeholders or victims in non-EU countries, who are particularly vulnerable, to be better protected. They likewise want a ban on importing products linked to severe human rights violations such as forced or child labour.

“The European Parliament has the chance this week to become a leader in responsible business conduct,” said report author Lara Wolters (S&D, the Netherlands) during the debate.

“For businesses, we’re creating a level playing field and legal clarity. For consumers, we’re ensuring fair products. For workers, we’re enhancing protection. For victims, we’re improving access to justice. And for the environment, we’re taking a step that is very long overdue.”

In February 2020, the Commission published a study which found that only one in three companies in the EU is currently taking some form of due diligence measures while 70% of European businesses support EU-wide due diligence rules.

Read more on how the EU trade policy helps to promote human rights and environmental standards.

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Coming up: Women’s Day, future of EU, investment and health

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs will mark International Women’s Day, vote on EU investment and health programmes, call for greater corporate responsibility and support LGBTIQ rights during the next plenary session.

International Women’s Day

Parliament will mark International Women’s Day today (8 March) with an address by Parliament President David Sassoli and a pre-recorded video message on women’s leadership during Covid crisis from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Find out more about other events surrounding International Women's Day organized by the Parliament.

Boosting investment to help recovery

On Tuesday (9 March), MEPs will vote on the InvestEU programme, which aims to boost strategic and innovative investments to help Europe recover from the current crisis as well as achieve its long-term goals of a green and digital transformation.

New EU health programme

Another important item on Tuesday is EU4Health - MEPs will debate and cast their final vote on the €5.1 billion programme for EU action in the field of health for 2021-2027, aimed at boosting EU readiness for and crisis management of future health threats.

Conference on the Future of Europe

Wednesday (10 March) will bring us closer to the Conference on the Future of Europe when the joint declaration will be signed by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission. The Conference will be an opportunity for Europeans to express their opinions and get involved in setting the EU’s priorities.

Carbon levy on imports

Today (8 March) MEPs will debate ways of combating climate change by preventing so-called carbon leakage. This is when companies transfer production to countries with laxer greenhouse gas emission constraints than the EU. Parliament is expected to call for a carbon levy on imports from such countries. MEPs will vote on it on Wednesday.

Social and environmental accountability for companies

Parliament is expected to call on the European Commission to introduce new rules holding businesses accountable and liable when they harm human rights, the environment or good governance. MEPs want corporate due diligence and corporate accountability rules to also apply to all companies that want to access the EU market. They will debate today and vote on Wednesday.

Support for LGBTIQ rights

MEPs are expected to express their support for LGBTIQ rights by calling for the EU to be an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone. There will be a debate on Wednesday and a vote on Thursday. This is in response to the so-called ‘free of LGBT ideology zones that have been introduced by some local governments in Poland, a move strongly condemned by the European Parliament.

Media freedom in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia

On Wednesday, MEPs will debate recent action by Polish, Hungarian and Slovenian authorities that could put the situation of independent media at risk.

Also on the agenda

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EU, under pressure over vaccine rollouts, considers switch to emergency approvals

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The European Commission said on Tuesday (2 March) that it was considering emergency approvals for COVID-19 vaccines as a faster alternative to more rigorous conditional marketing authorizations which have been used so far, writes Francesco Guarascio, @fraguarascio.

The move would mark a big shift in approach to vaccine approvals, as it would entail using a procedure that the EU had considered dangerous and that before the COVID-19 pandemic had been reserved for exceptional authorization at national level of drugs for terminally ill patients, including cancer treatments.

The potential change comes as the EU executive and the bloc’s drug regulator come under increasing pressure for what some consider slow vaccine approvals, which have contributed to a slower rollout of COVID-19 shots in the 27-nation union, compared to the United States and former EU member Britain.

“We are ready to reflect with the member states on all possible avenues to indeed accelerate the approval of the vaccines,” an EU Commission spokesman told a news conference.

One option could be “an emergency authorisation of vaccines at EU level with shared liability among member states”, the spokesman said, adding that work on this could start very quickly if EU governments supported the idea.

It was not clear whether an EU-wide emergency authorisation procedure, if agreed upon, would entail the same conditions as emergency approvals granted at national level, the commission spokesman told Reuters.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) cannot currently issue emergency approvals but in exceptional circumstances has recommended the compassionate use of drugs before marketing authorisation.

This procedure was used in April to initially authorise doctors to use Gilead’s antiviral drug remdesivir as a treatment against COVID-19. The drug was later given conditional approval by EMA.

National emergency approvals are allowed under EU laws, but they force countries to take full responsibility if something goes wrong with a vaccine, whereas under the more rigorous marketing authorisation, pharmaceutical companies remain liable for their vaccines.

The EU Commission had said that national emergency authorisations should not be used for COVID-19 vaccines, because faster approvals could reduce regulators’ ability to check efficacy and safety data.

This could also boost vaccine hesitancy, which is already high in some countries, EU officials had said.

One senior EU official said the emergency procedure had so far usually been used at national level for terminally ill patients and the EU had instead chosen the lengthier conditional marketing authorisation because with vaccines “we inject healthy people” and the risk was disproportionate.

The change of tack would come after Eastern European countries, including Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, approved Russian and Chinese vaccines with national emergency procedures.

Britain has also used the emergency procedure to approve COVID-19 vaccines.

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