Chlorinated chickens and hormone beef – this is what comes to mind when many Europeans hear the words Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP). As negotiations continue between the European Union and the United States to lower trade barriers,hundreds of associations are mobilized all over Europe to prevent their conclusion. But who are these new actors in the EU political arena, and what amount of influence do they really yield ?
Sometimes, fiction has a way of catching up with reality. In the 2008 American movie Untraceable, a serial killer sets up a website called KillWithMe.com to broadcast his sophisticated killings: the more people watch the stream, the faster the victim dies. After each collective murder, and despite police warnings, the website grows in popularity.
To be honest, this was not a great movie, but it made me think. In a society increasingly influenced by our Internet activities, every single one of our clicks has consequences. Those who watched and spread the video of the gruesome death by fire of a Jordanian pilot at the hands of the Islamic state should reflect on what they indirectly support.
The Web has come to play a crucial role in the strategy of terrorist groups. It is their tool to recruit and radicalize members as well as to continuously remind the world of their presence and activities. After 9/11, Al Qaeda leader Bin Laden regularly published videos meant to prove he was still alive and out of US reach while calling for new followers to pick up his fight against the West.
Yet social networks have taken this a step further. We can so easily peek into the daily life of these radical fighters, and into the horror they put on display. Twitter and Facebook have become part of the communication strategy of these groups all over the world, from the Talibans in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab. While their accounts may be regularly shut down by the platforms, their successive versions invariably attract thousands of followers. They set trends and spread ideas through cleverly worded tweets and hashtags.
The Islamic State (Daesh, ISIL – they have many accepted names) is very much part of that game – its members have a high presence on all social platforms, especially on Twitter : the Telegraph reported that during their invasion of the Iraqi city of Mosul last November its militants published over 40,000 tweets in a single day. And their work is paying off: tweet aggregators such as Recorded Future have found hundreds of thousands of tweets, pictures and videos mentioning the radical group. They want to engage the attention of the online community, and have arguably succeeded with the launch of their latest “execution show”.
Since last summer, the world has watched on, powerless, as the jihadists beheaded one victim after the other. Syrian soldiers, American or British journalists, a French tourist, humanitarian workers, two Japanese citizens – each execution comes with its set of unacceptable demands to prevent the next one. They even star in the role of the executioner a recurrent character we have nicknamed “Jihadist John ” because of his alleged British accent.
These videos we see in our social feeds are all we remember, the horror is always just one click away. By pressing play, we let the terrorists into our homes, we give them power and legitimacy as identified enemies. Yet something urges us to watch on, or sometimes media such as the American TV channel Fox News makes that decision for us by broadcasting the video. We are right there standing next to the executioner, helpless to stop him, maybe trembling with fear but still fascinated by the scene.
The fact is that ISIL jihadists want us there. Before the execution of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, they even sent out tweets asking for suggestions on how to kill him. I do not know if fire was the most popular suggestion, but by watching these videos, we are in a very real way killing with them.
Here are five quotes reacting in very different ways to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France.
” We must in the days to come, make sure that this pain transforms itself into concrete actions, … With the pain, we have already begun to work on the response. “Frederica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (January 8, 2015)
“ If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. ” Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic Church (January 15, 2015)
” Our composure is that of a country that has not faced a fundamental test of this kind yet. But when push comes to shove, we have stuck together until now. I am confident that this would also be true in the case of a terrorist attack. “ German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (January 12, 2015)
“ I think we are at risk because there are a group of people who believe in this fanatical death cult of Islamist extremism. You can’t appease them; they hate our democracy, our freedom, our freedom of expression, our way of life. It would be wrong to think there are a set of behaviours we could adopt to make us safer.” David Cameron, British Prime Minister (January 14, 2015)
” Immigration and cultural questions related to that must be discussed in a much more open, honest and straightforward manner than until now. I hope that a composed, calm analysis of the recent events will guide European leaders and Brussels towards a tough policy restricting immigration ” Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban (January 11, 2015)
France is still licking its wounds after the end of the manhunt of the suspected perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack that took place on January 7. Four more people lost their lives in yesterday’s hostage takings, in addition to the deaths of the three suspects.
Meanwhile at EU-level, the reactions are already cascading, and one of the unintended victims might very well be EU privacy.
In recent years, the European Union has been the stage of a crucial debate on the importance of an individual’s privacy when confronted to national security or economic concerns. One of the most famous illustrations of this debate involved the development of a so-called right to be forgotten (or right to erasure) for European netizens, first in the upcoming Data Protection regulation, then in a ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) last May.
Yet privacy is likely to become much more difficult to defend when faced with the trauma of terrorist attacks. Several prominent EU officials, such as European Council President Donald Tusk, have already asked for progress on the EU passenger and name record (PNR) draft directive, which has been on hold in the European Parliament for the last three years after being voted down by one of its commitees in 2011. The proposal would give access to the Member States’ police to the details of any passenger traveling in the European Union.
In mid-2014, the CJEU had already struck down a EU directive on data retention on the grounds that invading the privacy of people that were not suspected of any crime was in breach of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Charter.
“We need to talk about the problems investigators are having in connecting the dots and the information that is already there instead of passing new measures for the blanket collection of data from everyone,” German Green MEP Jan Phillip Albrecht said on January 9 about the PNR draft directive to the EU Observer.
Albrecht is also one of the most prominent MEPs involved in the development of the aforementioned EU Data Protection regulation.
Some dates to watch out for in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack for further EU developments :
* January 19, 2015 : Foreign Affairs Council
* January 28, 201 : Home Affairs Council
As I look back on this horrendous day for freedom of expression around the world, I still have difficulties sorting through my emotions. I distinctly remember, for example, the moment at which I got the news : 12 people dead at the headquarters of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo after it was attacked by gunmen with assault weapons.
At first, I just could not believe it. It kind of felt like an episode of the TV show Homeland, but then I realized that it really had happened here, in Paris, less than a mile away from my very office. Denial was over and that is when confusion and disgust started to set into my system. What can we expect from the future when confronted with such violence and intolerance ? Of course, I truly feel for the families of the victims, who have to endure the media torture on top of their pain. Tweets on the topic keep popping on my newsfeed, and only echo the dark feelings that are shooting through me and in the end it’s the French satyrical news website LeGorafi (kind of like the Onion in the US) that maybe managed to sum up in three words how I felt in that moment : “monde de merde” (litterally, crappy world, but this could be a reference to the French translation of F**k my life (“Vie de Merde)”, and could therefore be translated as “F**k the world”).
As the hours went by, I guess I also felt more and more powerless. Here I was sitting in front of my screen, unable to focus on my daily work and sharing pictures and twitchy statuses about the attack (in other words, doing nothing of consequence). I was hitching for action, anything that would allow me to get rid of a bit of the frustation building up as I receive controversial reactions to the attack in my inbox. Fortunately, the whole office had understood that our work was done for the day. By 5PM, a group of my colleagues and myself were heading out to a rally at Place de la République to support the victims’ families and freedom of expression.
As we got out of the metro, we did not know what to expect. We emerged from the depths of the underground not too far from the statue that towers in the center of the huge square, and tens of thousand of people were already crowding the place. Above all, the relative silence was striking, almost solemn. I had never been such an event. People spoke in hushed voices and cautiously observed the mass surrounding them. Every now and then, someone would scream “Liberté”
(Freedom), and five others would respond “d’expression” (of speech). Or the crowd would start clapping hard, while crooning the word “Charlie, Charlie”. Here and there, there were big signs on which the most famous satires of the magazine had been reproduced, or else the now iconic hashtag #JesuisCharlie (I am Charlie). Hours went by, and the ranks of the supporters got tighter and tighter as new people kept arriving. At some point, I listened to the conversation of a nearby group of young people discussing their fear of a new attack, while realizing that despite that fear, they just HAD to be part of tonight’s rally.
So far nobody has had the time to use this tragedy for another purpose, and there is one thing above all that I will remember : today’s symbol is not a French flag, but a simple pencil. Today, it was not only France that was under attack, but freedom of speech in the whole world, and that is why the crowd held up pencils and pens towards the sky.
Forget about hate, I’ll bring freshly sharpened pencils in front of the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo!
We are now halfway through the 2014 European elections, and no matter which way things go, we will have to own up to our choices (or the lack thereof) for the next five years. Yet on Thursday, British and Dutch citizens went to the voting booths in record-low numbers (less than 35% in the Netherlands).
The European Parliament arguably has more power than ever in influencing the workings of the Union and is the only directly-elected institution within it. Yet EU citizens care less and less at every election.
No matter whether you are pro-EU or eurosceptic, the Union and its member states are at a turning point: the aftermath of the economic crisis, the negotiations surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States of America, the diplomatic crisis with Russia, the digital transition undergone by our society, and, most importantly, the repositioning of European member states within the global order…
Part of the answer will happen through the European Union. For better or worse, its institutions have changed the lives of hundreds of millions of European citizens through the internal opening of its borders, its agricultural policies, its fight for civil rights, etc. Whether it is to take apart, or to make it stronger, citizens must take it upon themselves to show up at the booth to make their preference is taken into account.
This year in particular, the votes gathered by European parties should actually impact the election of the President of the EU Commission as a result of the 2010 Lisbon Treaty. Critics pointed to statements from Angela Merkel and Herman Van Rompuy indicating the European Council may present an outside candidate for the post (such as Frenchwoman Christine Lagarde), but few have talked of the reaction of the future eurodeputies: parties such as ALDE, the EPP or the S&D indicated they would shut down the European Parliament if they were imposed an outsider, yet stressing again the growing importance of the elected body.
People often complain the European Union is not democratic enough, but how can we believe they really do want to participate in its decision making if they pass out on the EP elections? Go vote if you haven’t done so already.
Party candidates for the EU Commission Presidency
*EPP – center-right: Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg)
*S&D – center-left: Martin Schulz (Germany)
*ALDE – liberals: Guy Verhofstadt (Belgium)
*Greens: Ska Keller/José Bové (Germany & France)
*European Left: Alexis Tsipras (Greece)