Two political developments threaten Europe: A no-deal Brexit that would certainly hurt the British economy but would also be painful on the continent, and an out-of-control deficit in Italy. Taken separately, Europe could handle the issues. But the problem is that they come together.
The power of Eurosceptic politicians is definitely on the increase across Europe. It has always been so in the Visegrad group of countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) where populists are firmly in government, running increasingly “illiberal democracies”. Hungary’s battle against philanthropist George Soros is a good illustration of what is wrong in those countries.
Yet the threat to Europe seems relatively minor. After all, those countries were always on the periphery of Europe. They were latecomers to the European Union and, because of the Soviet legacy, it surprises no one that the bulk of their population is apparently not attached to democratic values.
What is new is that traditionally liberal West European democracies are now also following in the populist footsteps of Visegrad countries. It first happened in the UK with the June 2016 decision to leave the EU.
The Brexit referendum was astonishingly mismanaged from the start with no requirement to ensure that a real majority had voted Brexit (they hadn’t) and no control over fake news (notably over supposed migrant invasions or Boris Johnson’s famously false promise of regaining £350 million pounds from Brussels).
Yet Conservatives ignored the democratic failures of that referendum and were quick to jump on the bandwagon of Brexit, claiming that it was the sacrosanct “will of the people” and had to be honoured at all costs.
Since June 2018, the UK is no longer alone on that path. Italy joined it when two populist politicians, Di Maio, the Five Star Movement leader and Salvini, the Lega leader came together to form a government. The alliance looked fragile from the start, the two are unlikely bedfellows.
The Five Star Movement is a leftist populism colored by some socialist fantasies (like the Reddito di Cittadinanza, citizens’ income). The Lega is extreme right, with neo-Nazi tendencies – but the government is holding up surprisingly well, even though the balance of power has totally shifted, putting Salvini firmly in the driver seat. Not only did Salvini win a hefty 34% at the European parliament elections in May, but the latest polls in June show he’s ahead by another two points, around 36% against Di Maio’s paltry 16%, a further one percent drop.
Let’s take a closer look at what is happening in the UK and Italy, the two major battlegrounds where the future of Europe is now being played.
The 2019 European Parliament elections mark a real watershed for Europe. We are in new territory. European politics will never be the same again. Where there was at best indifference to the dream of a United States of Europe, there is now enthusiasm. And interest in reforming the European institutions to make them work better and bring them closer to the people.
Paradoxically, this upsurge in “more Europe” (to use Merkel’s term) is the result of the populist-nationalist- sovereignist parties’ own campaigns across Europe. With an explicit agenda to undermine European institutions and turn the clock back to the 1960’s – to a De Gaulle vision of a “Europe of Nations” stunningly unsuited to a globalized world, whether one likes globalization or not – they scared people into voting against them. Europeanists, already shocked by the Brexit mess, could not allow them into the control room of either the EU Parliament or the EU Commission.
Populists are both winners and losers in this election: they gained votes but not enough to get into that control room. They are certainly here to stay but they also hit a glass ceiling that they are not likely to ever break through. Because, policy-wise, they bet on the wrong horse: migration instead of climate change. And on migration, they are not able to offer a solution. It is a divisive issue for everyone, populists included. While climate change concerns everyone and the solution exists: Containing greenhouse gas emissions and working towards a sustainable circular economy is something everyone can embrace.
My latest article on Impakter, just published, about AI and how we should organize our future with sentient machines. Should we build them to feel pain and other emotions? What is the point of it? What are the dangers?
What is the role of pain in our lives? Pain, we can all agree, is unpleasant, both physically and emotionally. Pain acts as an alarm when faced with danger. Pain can be excruciating, tragic, the forerunner of death. In short, when we feel pain, we feel more alive than ever. Now that robots play an increasing role in our society, should we design robots as sentient machines with the ability to feel pain?
Robots are everywhere in manufacturing, in agriculture, in transport and distribution, in communications, in the home. And they appear not just as androids like the famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov visualized 75 years ago, but in a vast range of devices, from autonomous vacuum cleaners to whole factory production lines and military drones.
Arguably, it might make sense to endow some of them with the capacity to feel pain in situations where it could help the machine foresee a threat and save itself from possible damage. But should it be endowed with merely a series of physical reactions demonstrating pain or should it feel it as an emotion the way we humans feel it?
When a machine feels pain, will it cry?
Or an equally valid question: should it cry?
The question of whether robots should feel pain may sound futile, but it’s not. With advances in computing power, particularly with quantum computing just around the corner, we are close to being able to create robots with General Artificial Intelligence. Not just a specific ability like beating human champions at difficult games like chess and Go, but a “general” intelligence that could lead soon to the dreaded Singularity, the point where Artificial Intelligence will surpass human intelligence.
In short, we are headed towards a world where science fiction meets reality, where our planet hosts two types of “sentient machines”, us and the robots.
It’s become conventional wisdom that technological progress destroys jobs but also creates new ones balancing out the loss after a painful period of adjustment. Painful for those out of a job who are too old or unable to learn new skills. It’s also conventional wisdom that with the tech revolution unleashed by Silicon Valley, this time will be different. That the jobs destroyed by Artificial Intelligence (AI), by computers and robots, will never be replaced. Tech entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Altman in the lead, and a growing number of politicians and social scientists, are however confident that they have a solution: Universal Basic Income (UBI).
Is UBI really a solution? And how serious is the disruption caused by automation of tasks and are most jobs left for humans only the low-paid ones in personal services? Is there another, better solution?
Here, I will argue that the disruption is not likely to be as devastating as predicted in most current studies with scary titles like “How The Robots Will Take Away Your Jobs and Kill The Economy”. And in any case, there’s another, better solution than UBI: Supplementary income to top up the difference and make non-automated jobs pay better. Call it: Utility-Added Income (UAI) – because it would recognize the utility (the value, the usefulness) to the whole community of jobs that are undervalued by the market in an AI-filled world, like personal services, nurses, care-givers, teachers.
So, in an AI-filled world, are we facing a devastating disruption in the job market, with permanent unemployment for the majority of humans? To be fair, not all tech titans and artificial intelligence experts think a tech Armageddon is around the corner.
One famous scientist, Fai Ku Lee, thinks otherwise. He developed the world’s first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system as his Ph.D thesis at Carnegie Mellon. This is a man worth listening to, he knows what he’s talking about, he once worked for Apple and Google and is now a successful Chinese venture capitalist based in Beijing, helping China become a leader in AI. He is also a best selling author and in the closing section of his latest book, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, he explains how creativity and compassion are the key to creating lasting and non-replacement jobs in an AI-filled future.
The Explosion in UBI Experiments
Fai Ku Lee’s reassuring words notwithstanding, people are in a panic. There is a plethora of UBI experiments around the world, as this map (updated to 3 April 2019) illustrates:
In the U.S., UBI research is fast becoming serious business. Four Stanford graduate researchers are currently setting up a platform to map UBI research that should come online soon in 2019. The aim, as they explain, is “to provide pertinent summaries of articles, research papers, books produced on UBI to date, highlighting important findings from each and ensuring that core areas such as health, crime, stigma, childhood poverty and gender equity are covered”.
Unquestionably, even if some people like Fai Ku Lee see a silver lining in the AI revolution, most experts do not and the world is on a UBI research binge.
The most advanced experiments are in Finland and Kenya. Let’s take a look at both. Note that I’m not including here the “redditto di cittadinanza” (citizen’s income) that the populist Italian government started distributing last month because it hasn’t been set up as a UBI experiment with a control group. It’s merely political pork to fill a 5 Star Movement electoral promise. But even the best of UBI experiments have not given satisfactory results, and here’s why.
What’s Wrong with UBI Experiments
To find out what’s wrong with UBI and what my proposed solution is, please go to Impakter, click here. If you have a minute to write a comment either here or on Impakter, please do, I’d love to hear what you think!
Soon after Notre Dame in Paris went up in flames, teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, in a speech to the European Parliament, said she did not want to diminish the Notre-Dame fire, but wished there was an equal outpouring of funding support to combat issues such as climate change.
The outpouring of funding to rebuild Notre Dame was indeed impressive. Within 24 hours of the blaze, French luxury tycoons had pledged donations in the hundreds of million Euros: François-Henri Pinault (Kering) came through with €100 million; his crosstown rival Bernard Arnault (LVMH) with €200 million; the Meyer Bettencourt family (Oreal) with €200 million.
Add to that the €100 million announced by Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné
Is Greta Thunberg right? Is there not enough to fight climate change? I thought I’d investigate the question and if you’re curious and want to get the answer, read the rest of my article on Impakter, click here.
My latest article on Impakter Magazine announcing the birth of our sister publication IMPAKTER ITALIA and reproducing one of their articles on Libya:
When Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted by a blitzkrieg in 2011, three European countries played a key role, the UK, France and Italy. With America “leading from behind”, a polite way to say that America provided only military support while the Europeans called all the political shots.
This time, as Libya descends again in the chaos of war, the situation is different. With the UK in the grip of Brexit, only two European powers remain in play, France and Italy. But they are embroiled in a series of diplomatic spats, and their rivalry in Libya has deep roots, as Impakter Italia explains in a recent article reproduced here. Impakter Italia, launched with an editorial on April 13, 2019 is Impakter’s sister publication in Italy, sharing a common vision and mission.
First, a quick update on the current situation. Libya today is divided between two rival governments: one in the eastern city of Tobruk backed by strongman Khalifa Haftar and an internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Haftar has forged close ties with a branch of Salafists, called Madkhalists, using their fighters and incorporating their conservative ideology in the parts of eastern Libya he controls, including a ban on women travelling without a male guardian.
On 4 April, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was in Tripoli to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for mid-April, Haftar audaciously launched an assault on the Libyan capital with his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA was pushed back at Checkpoint 27 – also called “Gate 27” – on the coastal road between Tripoli and Zawiya, some 45 kilometres west of the Libyan capital. 120 LNA fighters were taken prisoners.
But the setback was only temporary and the battles rage on, with the outcome still uncertain as Haftar is pushing forward:
Last week, while Notre Dame was burning in Paris, Italian Prime Minister Conte was sounding the alarm in Rome about an impending humanitarian crisis in Libya.
“We are very worried about the Libyan crisis”, he said, “we have always worked and will continue to work to avert a humanitarian crisis that can expose us to the risk of the arrival of foreign fighters in our country.” He was referring to the reported 400 ISIS prisoners in Libya that could now escape as war is spreading. And he concluded: “We absolutely must avoid escalation”.
Yet Italy cannot solve the problem alone.
Populist leader and Interior Minister Salvini insists that his policy of keeping Italian ports closed to ships bringing in refugees is working. The Italian Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Danilo Toninelli, disagrees: “If thousands of asylum seekers arrive, the closed ports policy is not enough,” he said at Radio Anch’io, explaining that “other European ports will have to be opened” and “a redistribution of migrants will be needed “. Therefore, the minister underlined, “the approach must be international”. He meant: European.
How to avoid the threat to Europe – a new wave of migrants and possible terrorists among them – is going to require a concerted European action. But for now, that is not happening. Diplomatic tension between France and Italy has not abated and France has just announced that it will continue for another six months its policy of closed borders with Italy. Not exactly an example of European cooperation.
To help understand how two major EU member countries, like Italy and France, that should work closely together, yet do not do so, Eduardo Lubrano’s article on Impakter Italia throws much needed light:
Eight years after Gaddafi’s death, Libya is still in the midst of a civil war. On the one hand the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan national army (NLA). On the other hand, the legitimate government, supported by the UN, in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
Let’s be clear, Artificial Intelligence, in particular in its latest development, deep learning that mimics the way the human mind works, first emerged in America. This gave the U.S. a huge head start over the rest of the world – including China, putting the U.S. firmly in the lead of the race for AI.
IWhat Americans didn’t develop at home, they bought from Europe. In this respect, two British firms stand out with groundbreaking contributions to AI development: ARM and DeepMind.
While all eyes are trained on the AI race between China and America, is there a role left for Europe?
From the start of the digital revolution, and in spite of America’s lead, Europe has always had a fundamental role in digital research, a role often overlooked and even downplayed by the media mesmerized by Silicon Valley fireworks.
But the fireworks are dying down and getting messy now while China is on the rise.
America’s AI Roots in Europe
Let’s take a closer look at ARM and DeepMind, the two British firms that played a fundamental role in sustaining America’s lead in electronics.
I have been remiss, mea culpa: I let three weeks go by without keeping you updated on my latest articles, all published by Impakter Magazine – every Thursday, noontime (i.e. the time in Italy, where I live). As my followers know, I’ve been working there as a Senior Editor since the Magazine launched in 2014.
And it’s been a bumpy, exhilarating ride! Last year, our traffic grew by 120% and now we get about 500k visitors regularly reading articles about Culture, Society, Style and Philanthropy. And I’m about to reach the goal of one million readers soon – I will let you know when that happens!
So, since I’m so late in posting the opening of my articles, I thought I’d share them with you one by one, starting with the opening and link to the article most recently published on Impakter:
Green New Dealers: What Next?
When Republicans in the Senate rejected consideration of the Green New Deal on March 26, Trump had a curious reaction. He expressed hope the GND wouldn’t die because, as he’d said in an interview on Fox Business, he wants to campaign against it, expecting an easy win:
“You look at this Green New Deal — it’s the most preposterous thing. Now I don’t want to knock it too much right now because I really hope they keep going forward with it, frankly, because I think it’s going to be very easy to beat.”
Easy to beat? That depends. It depends on who the politicians are backing it and how much real support the Green New Deal has from the American people. Turns out the Green New Deal has plenty of support from the people
There is a new party rising across Europe, a party shaped by Millennials who want a voice in their future: Volt Europa. The name says it all: Volt Europa, jolt Europe. An electrical charge to shake it out of its lethargy, give it new energy.
Volt is, of course, the international unit to measure the force of electric current. It’s a nice easy name that stays the same with the same meaning across Europe and all its languages and cultures. And, in the words of the party leaders on their website, “it fully represents our fast and efficient team”.
So who is this team and what does this party aim to do?
Volt Europa had an extraordinary start: in less than two years, it acquired over 20,000 adherents and it is active in 32 European countries with more than 300 teams. It is mostly a party of young people but it has attracted all ages, including older citizens horrified by what is happening to Europe these days. The oldest is a 92 year-old Netherlands citizen. Even more extraordinary: over 70% of its adherents have never been involved in politics before.
That means Volt is not a rehash of a dying party or a new current in a traditional party. It’s a totally new entity, a pan-European party aiming to have subsidiary parties in every EU member country. As Kai Kotzian, a 43-year-old Volt candidate for the European Parliament in Germany recently told the Frankfurter Wochenblatt: “Our perspective is different from that of other parties. We are not just looking at what’s good for Germany, but what’s good for the entire European Union. Since there is no European electoral law, in order to form a cross-European party, we had to found one in each country so we could vote.”
The first national Volt party was created in Germany in March 2018, now Volt has 12 parties at the national level. It covers all the EU members and beyond, including Switzerland, Serbia and Albania.
Among new parties with a pan-European vocation, Volt stands in a “leftist” centre. To its left, you have Dem 25, the party founded by the former Greek finance minister Varoufakis. To its right, you have The Movement founded by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser and extreme right Breitbart News editor.
Bannon’s Movement, however, is paradoxical as a “pan-European” party. Its avowed aim is to weaken the EU, and if possible, destroy the European dream of a United Europe. Bannon plans to pull together all the European populist parties for a big win at the European Parliament elections. Not an easy task as populist parties are clearly nationalistic and often at odds with populists from other countries.
Volt, in contrast, is truly pan-European and committed to building up and strengthening Europe, standing on a “progressive” middle ground. It fights for sustainable growth and social justice. But it’s not as far to the left as Varoufakis’s Dem 25. Also, unlike Dem 25, Volt has no founding father image, like Varoufakis. Or, to compare it with the Five Star Movement, like comedian Beppe Grillo.
Volt is not a vertical, hierarchical structure. And it shares with the Five Star Movement a propensity to give a lot of weight – and a voice – to its base, using digital communication, social networks and participatory methods to develop its political platform.
Volt Europa’s Political Message
Volt Europa’s immediate goal: Win in the upcoming European Parliament Elections. Candidates were announced in 11 countries at a meeting in Amsterdam on 27-28 October 2019 – among them Italy, France, Germany and Spain. The hope is to obtain at least 25 deputies in 7 countries which would enable Volt to register as an autonomous parliamentary group.
The long-term goal: Reform Europe and give it a voice in the concert of nations. And the “reform” has nothing to do with populism’s backward, nostalgic message of restoring sovereignty and going back to Charles de Gaulle’s “Europe of Nations”. On the contrary. It is forward-looking, ultra-liberal and progressive, much like Macron’s plan to reform Europe or Carlo Calenda’s.
More Europe is good. A reformed Europe that works is better. Volt’s Amsterdam Declaration adopted in October 2018 makes for inspiring reading. This is indeed groundbreaking: Volt will campaign across Europe on a single common platform.
Did you notice something new here? Yes, there’s an announcement: IMPAKTER Up is launching! That’s an amazing new app for startups with socially responsible aims – “social good companies” – to match them with investors committed to a sustainable future.
Yes, our planet needs to be saved from rapacious, voracious capitalism!
My latest article on Impakter, updated 24 February 2019 with the news that Salvini is taking funds from Russia. Here is the opening:
Italy has a surprising weakness for populism à la Trump. It began over twenty-five years ago with Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party and is still going strong with the extreme-right populist Lega leader Matteo Salvini. Berlusconi and Salvini share the same worldview with Trump: a visceral attachment to national sovereignty (my country first!), a rejection of multilateralism and international cooperation in any form, and a determined anti-immigration and pro-business stance.
As to the Italian fascination with Trump, it is unique in the group of advanced, politically mature European countries that constitute the core of the European Union. Compared to fellow citizens in Spain, France and Germany, Italians are three to four times as likely to have “a lot or some confidence in the U.S. President”, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center survey (October 2018):
Trump does slightly better in the UK (28%), no doubt as a result of Brexit and Britain’s continuing “special friendship” with the United States. And, predictably, he does best in Europe’s most “illiberal democracies”: Poland (35%) and Hungary (31%).
Admittedly, Italy’s fatal attraction for strongmen is nothing new. Setting aside Mussolini and fascism and turning to modern times, we have Silvio Berlusconi, the TV mogul. Berlusconi has shaped Italian politics, opening the door to extreme right parties that were once banned because of their fascist roots. To understand how it happened and see where Salvini’s populism could lead Italy, it helps to look at his legacy.
Berlusconi’s Legacy: A Brilliant Start, Broken Promises and a Humiliating End
Much as Macron did with his party “La République En Marche”, Berlusconi created a party literally overnight, Forza Italia (“Go Italy” – note the nationalistic touch and the reference to Italy’s passion for football).
The start was even more explosive than Macron’s. Founded in December 1993, the party quickly gained a relative majority and won general elections three months later. That was the result of a skillful use of media campaign techniques on Berlusconi’s Mediaset, a near monopoly in commercial TV. The party’s earliest officials were Publitalia executives, the advertising arm of his business empire.
Forza Italia always was – and still is – Berlusconi’s “personal party”. And he proceeded to lord it over Italy, both as the head of the center-right coalition and serving as Prime Minister for a total of nine years. Considered the most influential politician since Mussolini, there is no question that he has shaped Italy’s politics and economy over two decades – unfortunately leaving the economy in shambles.
Yet he had vowed he would make his compatriots rich. Many believed him, seeing how rich he was himself. But Italy’s economic growth rate remained abysmal throughout. In 2010, only Haiti and Zimbabwe fared worse than Italy. Likewise, he couldn’t deliver on his promise to reform the slow and inefficient justice system, as his efforts at reform turned out to be personal moves to defend himself and his assets from prosecution. As to immigration, he was the first politician to tighten immigration rules in Italy and establish a special relationship with Libya to discourage inflows of migrants across the Mediterranean.
The most damaging result of the Berlusconi years was the return in mainstream politics of extreme right anti-establishment political parties, brought in and rehabilitated as Forza Italia’s partners: Umberto Bossi’s Lega (then called Lega Nord as it was both anti-Rome and anti-Southern Italy) and Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance with deep roots in fascism.
2011, the height of the Euro crisis, was a turning point. In April, Berlusconi was put on trial, accused of paying an underage prostitute. By November, he was forced out of office. He left Italy in financial disarray, with an estimated debt of €1.9 trillion. He always claimed it was a “EU plot” by Brussels bureaucrats.
On 1 August 2013, he was convicted of tax fraud, banned from office and condemned to four years in jail that were commuted to “community service” due to his age (he was 77). In November of that year, the Senate expelled him from Parliament and he vowed to follow the example of Beppe Grillo, the comedian and founder of the 5 Star Movement, who was able to lead his party in spite of not being a member of Parliament Grillo has made it a principle in his party that anyone with a criminal conviction cannot hold a public office – himself included, since he was convicted of manslaughter in a car accident in 1981.
Today, at 82, Berlusconi is still in politics. Forza Italia has lost its luster and the Lega, that used to be his junior partner, is well ahead in the polls.
In the photo: Salvini and Berlusconi. That day, 7 January 2018, Berlusconi, Salvini and Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia, agreed on the distribution of electoral colleges Source: La Stampa, photo LaPresse
Is Salvini, Berlusconi’s heir, Italy’s Trump?
On 21 February, the Italian newspaper L’Espresso published shocking news: That Salvini’s party the Lega is likely to be secretly financed by Putin, to the tune of €3 million, with the goal of giving it a boost in the upcoming European Parliament elections and more generally spread discontent in Europe. This is of course not the first time that news emerge of Russian funding extreme-right, anti-establishment populist parties with the purpose of destabilizing Europe – notably Marine Le Pen in France is said to have received some €11 million from her friend Putin.
Yet the last ten days had been a turning point for Salvini with several wins. On 10 February, his party, the Lega, came first in local elections in the Abruzzo region, with 27,4% – a number oddly close to the one in the above-mentioned Pew survey rating Trump, suggesting that this could be indicative of the core support for any populist in Italy.