Nights of plague
In his latest work translated into English, the Nobel prize for literature winner Orhan Pamuk presents us with an epidemic different from the one we have just experienced and with a Turkey that is different from the one we know today, although the analogy may sometimes become apparent from the reading. Is this pure coincidence? Conjectures on the part of the reader? Or did the Turkish novelist have the same impressions, often fleeting, himself? There is no way of knowing and in fact it is probably better for these questions to remain unanswered.
This historical novel describes everything meticulously: the people, the customs, the cultures, the psychologies, the interiors, the landscapes… distant echoes of a time of transition that would see the fall of the Ottoman Empire, taking a battering from Western modernity and the great European powers. The “sick old man” of Europe suffers pain and the theatre of his fight for survival is not just Istanbul and its palaces. An island of the eastern Mediterranean may also appear. We are back in 1901 on the fictional island of Mingher, where the Pasha Governor, the population, mostly made up of Orthodox “Greeks”, Catholics and Sheiks, Ottoman functionaries and consuls must face the ravages of the plague.
The wealth of details, the minutiae with which the author depicts places and personalities all make this story incredibly likely. The reader cannot believe in it, but wants to. It is a bit like those facing terminal illness who still harbour hopes that they will be cured. But this is just a work of fiction, up to and including the narrator, a woman historian who has studied the history of the island and the correspondence of a sultan Princess recounting the details of the drama to her sister.
But can love take root in the middle of tragedy? Is love made passionately during the nights of plague? Can plague sow the seeds of revolution? You will have to read the book to find out … (Olivier Jehin)
Orhan Pamuk (translated into English from the original Turkish by Ekin Oklap). Nights of plague. Faber. ISBN: 9780735278769. 683 pages. £20,00
Une Europe, des régions
The title of this work (plus a sub-title that is no less evocative) suggests an ambitious and original manifesto. It is nothing of the kind and this is a great shame. The Belgian author, who taught French and history for 30 years before embarking on a writing career, devotes this essay, which is certainly fairly well documented, to a series of European regions selected very much at random. Recalling that institutional Europe is now facing challenges, he offers us a revisit of the patchwork of European regions, with their peculiarities in terms of geography, history, heritage and specific problems. “Instead of considering the nation-states in their identity and their perspective to forge links between them, I decided to base my study on nine regions covering a range of graphical Europe”, explains Goyens, whose choices, made before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, include Saint Petersburg.
Although he takes a number of shortcuts and liberties in interpreting history, the author’s chapter on Wallonia acknowledges – which is not in fact always the case – that the first attacks on the Belgian State came from Wallonia at the very dawn of the 20th century. Later on, depicting the greater Paris region of Ile-de-France, he points out that “France is a country that is greatly centralised, better and for worse”. “This system has the advantage of efficiency, particularly in times of war or crisis. The disadvantage is the divorce between the top and bottom of the State, which leads in turn to misunderstanding, discontent or even revolution. The so-called ‘yellow vests’ saga is a perfect illustration of this”, writes Goyens, adding, with perfect justification: “there is a move to standardise the territory by flattening out local specifics”. In his chapter on Catalonia, a symbolic region in a Spain that also struggles to distance itself from the demons of centralisation, the author criticises the Spanish authorities and argues that the European institutions should establish a legal framework guaranteeing the right to self-determination.
Finally, allow me to recount an act of bravery taken from his pages on Venice: “what, ultimately, is Italy’s genius? Whilst declaring himself proud to be Italian, the citizen distrusts institutions, which he considers inefficient. This results in a sense of creativity and resourcefulness which are, at different levels, two sides of the same character trait (…). In the 1980s, I saw some graffiti on a wall in Milan which read: ‘L’obbligo di produrre aliena la facoltà di creare.’ Unlike his stereotype, the Italian is not lazy, but cannot bear to be subjected to constraints on his productivity. Only independence can free his potential”.
What should the reader take away from all this? The great diversity, which is also a great asset, of the institutional and cultural landscape of Europe. Without question. But that is nothing new. What conclusion does the author draw from it? He makes the case for strengthening the Committee of the Regions (CoR). “If we want Europe to stop being this unwieldy and expensive bureaucratic machine that frequently moves backwards, we need to give the CoR real powers to make politics more transparent and closer to the citizens”, Goyens writes (with a straight face). How would the presence of an elected member of the French Regional Council of the Grand Est or of County Cork bring Europe closer to its citizens? Though the Wallonians all know the name of their minister president, I am not certain that many inhabitants of the Grand Est could tell you the name of their regional president. Can we really make politics more transparent and cut red tape by making the institutional layer cake and its procedures even more complicated? I think the reverse might be true! (OJ)
Jacques Goyens. Une Europe, des régions – Richesses et singularités (available in French only). Academia. ISBN: 978-2-8061-0655-1. 210 pages. €21,00
The New Force Model: NATO’s European Army?
In this analysis note, Sven Biscop recalls how, at the Madrid summit in June of this year, the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance began work to restructure NATO forces under the name New Force Model (NFM). The highly ambitious objective of this reform is to organise the forces into three tiers or levels: the first guaranteeing the availability of 100,000 troops in 10 days; the second, 200,000 additional troops in 10 to 30 days; the third, at least 500,000 more in between one and six months. Additionally, the forces of the first two tiers would be assigned geographical defence plans for which they would have to train.
Biscop also notes that the goal of this organisation is to prevent any attacker from occupying any portion of the territory of an allied state from which it could become difficult to expel in the event of reinforcements, which means that the response must be “immediate and in force”. This presupposes that the counter-offensive cannot rely on reinforcements from the other side of the Atlantic and must be the responsibility of forces present in Europe. Although he acknowledges that since the invasion of Ukraine, American forces in Europe have been increased to 100,000 soldiers, the author also points out that these troops are mainly from staff and logistics rather than combat divisions. He deduces from this that the burden of the first line of defence and conventional deterrence will gradually be placed more and more on European shoulders. This development is, moreover, entirely consistent with the new priority given by the American Grand Strategy to Asia.
“European allies must not lament this development, but rather take ownership of it and assume the increased responsibility that comes with it”, writes the author, who sees it as an opportunity to move away from a system of protectorate to re-establish a “normal alliance” between equal partners, but also to build a European pillar within the Alliance and this European defence force (or European army) the European Union is struggling to create (our translation throughout).
To meet the objectives of the NFM, Europeans would have to make at least 300,000 troops available for joint training and respond to acts of aggression within less than 30 days, on the basis of predetermined geographical sectors. The best solution would therefore be to constitute permanent multinational forces including national brigades that would systematically train together. This work should be able to benefit, in terms of equipment, from investments made by the European Defence Fund as well as the new instrument for European defence industry reinforcement through common procurement (EDIRPA), which is due to be adopted at the end of this year, the author stresses.
Biscop, who believes that EU battlegroups should be consigned to history, points out that the ‘Strategic Compass’ provides for the creation of a rapid deployment capacity (RDC) (on the basis of modified battlegroups) for the expeditionary operations of the EU. To this end, the makes the case for a number of member states each to identify a brigade and assign it to a staff headquarters, such as the European Corps. As in the previous case, these brigades would participate regularly in joint manoeuvres. As NATO also aims to retain an expeditionary force (ARF or Allied Reaction Force) to take over from the NRF, which will be included in the first tier of the NFM, the author suggests that the EU’s RDC and the ARF be considered one and the same force – “a European reaction force” that could be certified by both the EU and NATO and engage on behalf of either of them, under the command of the European Corps, which already has this double certification.
“In terms of command, although most of the forces of the first two tiers would have to be European, it ought to be valid to wonder whether it continues to make sense for the SACEUR always to be an American officer”, writes Biscop, going on to say that “the European Armed Forces are not colonial troops that are only effective when commanded by officers who have come from the metropolis and with equipment that has come from the metropolis. If the Europeans do not move away from this mindset, their deterrence and their defence will never be seen by their adversaries as credible. Appointing a European SACEUR could be precisely the shock needed to make it clear to European leaders that the evolution of the US Grand Strategy is real and that they need to adapt to it”. It is difficult to argue against this point of view. But isn’t it asking rather a lot, perhaps too much, of the Europeans and the Americans alike? (OJ)
Sven Biscop. The New Force Model: NATO’s European Army? Egmont. Policy Brief 285. September 2022. The analysis can be downloaded free of charge from the website of the Institute: http://www.egmontinstitute.be
La surveillance numérique, jusqu’où?
In this article published in Futuribles, Marie Ségur points out that following attacks on American soil, “mass online surveillance has become (…) hugely developed in the United States and, albeit more modestly, in Great Britain, Germany and France” (our translation throughout). The increase in the number of connected devices and the development of social networks and online shopping services have led to ever greater opportunities to harvest personal data. “They are participating in the development of a data economy based on increasingly detailed profiling of Internet users”, the author notes, stressing that the “phenomena of technological expansion and increasing repression therefore feed into each other”.
“Collecting the personal information of Internet users is such a massive thing that guaranteeing one’s own anonymity is getting increasingly difficult”. In view of the exponential increase in surveillance, the author identifies two techniques: (1) obfuscation, which consists of “deliberately producing ambiguous, disordered and false information and adding it to existing data to disrupt surveillance and the collection of personal data” and therefore create a kind of “informational smokescreen in which it is possible to hide”; (2) ‘sousveillance’, the opposite of the concept of surveillance, which consists of “observing from below” those who carry out surveillance and denouncing them, “a practice employed to redress power balances by promoting transparency as a tool to fight businesses and bodies of State abusing their position of power and hiding the real nature of their activities”.
“At the same time, we are seeing the rise of paid tools that allow us to camouflage online activities. The rate of growth of the VPN market is a good example of this. Evaluated at 25.4 billion US dollars in 2019, it could grow to 76 billion US dollars by 2027”, Ségur writes, noting that one third of the world’s Internet users are believed to use these tools. Although “VPNs are used far more in regions with greater restrictions on Internet freedoms (the Middle East, Asia)”, these techniques are still out of the financial reach of certain population groups. The author goes on to conclude that “without any genuine reversal of the balances of power, for instance as a result of legal battles, there is a huge risk that the very concept of privacy or even autonomy will become the new privilege of a minority caste and that collective resistance will fragment will move towards a basis of individualisation”. (OJ)
Marie Ségur. Les mouvements de résistance à la surveillance numérique. Futuribles no. 450. September-October 2022. ISBN: 978-2-8438-7465-9. 152 pages. €22,00