A Joint Approach to Mitigating Fake News and Rewarding Sound Journalism in the European Union

Introduction

The global media industry is in severe crisis. This crisis does not have a single cause and cannot be described with one sole characteristic. In fact, the whole system has been continuously disrupted and shaken by several interconnected developments such as the advent of the internet, the rise of online news, and the subsequent issues with financing news and questionable quality due to decreasing incentives to create original content. These developments increasingly put the media industry under heavy pressure; they threaten thousands of jobs as well as the public level of information, which itself is strongly related to the political sentiment and democratic environment of societies. Hence, not only the media, but our overall political system is at stake.

It is time to pull the handbrake and design adequate policies that make the future of the media a brighter one. More concretely, two strategic levers shall be targeted with our policy proposal: First, the further rise of so-called ‘fake news’ must be impeded such that citizens are able to trust their media without questioning the legitimacy and accuracy of information. Second, sound and original journalism must be rewarded to ensure the survival of journalistic talent and the drive for fact-based debates.

In the following, the two broad concepts of ‘fake news’ and financing of journalism are analysed more closely to derive precise issues which shall subsequently be tackled. In order to counter these issues, concrete policy measures are proposed to ensure a consequent and long-lasting amelioration of journalistic content within the European Union. Finally, limitations and concerns are expressed to flesh out the contextual frame for how the European future of the media may be designed by policy means.

“Journalism is what we need to make democracy work” – Walter Cronkite


Problem assessment

Information and (fake) news

Classification

Just as water in the sea and air in the atmosphere, information is a public good. This odd comparison is not based on the virtual infinity of the three goods but on the shared characteristics of being (1) non-rivalrous (consumers do not suffer detrimental consequences if other individuals consume the same good) and (2) non-excludable (individuals cannot be excluded from consuming the good). Moreover, information is a crucial element of political participation and different scholars (e.g. Drago, Nannicini, & Sobbrio 2014; Gentzkow, Shapiro, & Sinkinson 2011; Strömberg 2004) have shown that access to media, and hence to information, increases electoral participation by raising awareness and increasing knowledge about relevant issues at stake.

However, the nature of information has been increasingly challenged over the last years, with ‘fake news’ making headlines and calling for public attention. The term itself became a buzzword and particularly gained wide prominence after potential connections to the infamous Brexit referendum and the 2016 US Presidential Election. So what are these ‘fake news’? According to Allcott and Gentzkow, they are “news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers” (2017, p. 213). More technically, the two economists describe them as “distorted signals uncorrelated with the truth” (p. 212), causing both private and social costs by making it difficult for consumers to assess the true state of affairs. Based on this definition, ‘fake news’ appear to be inevitably negative and bad for society. But is this always the case? Tambini (2017) created six clusters of news that have been labelled as ‘fakes’ in the past: (1) Wrong information distributed with a political goal (e.g. to promote/impair candidates); (2) false information distributed for financial gain; (3) parody and satire; (4) poor journalism based on groundless rumours or claims that were made up; (5) news that is correct but ideologically opposed or that challenges consensus; (6) news that challenges orthodox authority.


Implications

Tambini’s clusters amplify the fact that one cannot easily speak of one kind of ‘fake news’ and that even correct facts and claims can be subject to this allegation. So what counts as the truth and how easily can it be assessed? It certainly depends on the context and data. For example, the claims “more than two million refugees entered our country” (quantitative) and “our president was not born in our country” (objective) could be more easily factually assessed than the claims that “economic future is promising“ (qualitative) or “our president is stubborn” (subjective), which may hardly be subject to falsification. Nevertheless, investigation of this topic is crucial, given the high relevance of media quality on democratic systems and the grave developments in some societies where the majority of citizens lack the capacity to correctly differentiate fake news from verified content (Barthel, Mitchell, and Holcomb 2016). Moreover, it was found that teenagers even reject journalistic objectivity and rather prefer opinionated journalistic content (Marchi 2012). Low media literacy and preferences for partisan opinions are two alarming characteristics. Another key issue, is that citizens increasingly tend to distrust media, and the internet in particular (51% of EU citizens do not trust it) as well as social media platforms (62% of EU citizens do not trust it) (European Commission 2018c).

The main reason why one could term the contemporary period “the age of fake news” is indeed the rise of the internet as a platform for online news and the connected simplicity to share (mis)information at low cost and build ideological ‘echo chambers’ on social media (Williamson 2016). This spread of ideologically-biased views which often find no grounding in facts is a dire situation, especially given that last year 62% of European citizens consumed news online, whereas only 48% did so in 2013 (Eurostat 2017; Eurostat 2018). Moreover, the share of European citizens consuming news to derive insights about European political matters has increased from 26% in 2011 to 42% in 2017. On the contrary, consumption of printed news for such topics has decreased from 47% to just 36% during the same period (European Commission 2018a).


Policy reactions

Unfortunately, fighting ‘fake news’ is not an easy effort and there is a narrow line between impeding the spread of misinformation and undermining the freedom of speech, which should per se allow for the dissemination of opinionated news. However, it is questionable how far originators of fake messages could and would go and at which point public intervention will be inevitable. Let us consider the extreme scenario of ‘news’ that deliberately misinform consumers in the attempt to undermine elections. In the age of cyberpower and information warfare, such a scenario is no longer fantasy and could pose an actual threat to national security.

This short paragraph leads to a quick conclusion: ‘Fake news’ is dangerous, however, free speech must be guaranteed and thus shutting down media outlets and networks spreading misinformation once is not an option. So, what are realistic options and which actors could intervene? For example, the Italian draft law (introduced in February 2017) obliges social media platforms to monitor their news services and imposes monetary fines for individuals spreading ‘fake news’ as well as prison for very serious offenses, e.g. ones that incite crime or violence (Tambini 2017). Another interesting case is China, whose government consequently penalizes the spread of ‘online rumours’ to impede consequent mobilizations of citizens that could pose a threat to the State Party’s approach (Ng 2015). While Italy indirectly intervenes by obliging media platforms and only penalizes grave infringements, China goes a radical judicial way that is highly questionable from a democratic standpoint.

As of today, the EU engages in different media-related projects within the Commission’s Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT), which has a joint section for culture and media. In May, the Commission convoked a multi-stakeholder forum on disinformation, which consisted of a working group of representatives from relevant sectors (e.g. major online platforms and advertising firms as well as academia, media and civil society organisations in the role of fact-checkers). The aim of the working group was to draft a self-regulatory practice code on disinformation for online platforms and the advertising sector; however, it did not consider regulatory instruments that exceed self-governance (European Commission 2018b). Moreover, some dedicated EU organizations have started to work on solutions fighting the rise of ‘fake news’; for example, the East Stratcom Task Force of the European External Action Service (EEAS) has published the EU vs Disinformation campaign that addresses disinformation, in particular that originating from pro-Kremlin activists. Lastly, the Commission supports the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), a non-governmental organization that wants to prevent malicious media developments for which it published the European Charter on Freedom of the Press, another instrument that is purely self-regulatory (ECPMF 2018).

Before elaborating an innovative transnational solution to the rise of ‘fake news’ that augments existing EU efforts, let us consider the second aspect our solution aims to alter: the financing of media.


No money, no reliable news?


Classification

The media industry has been suffering for a long time as a result of declining revenues. The trend towards digitalisation over the last decade has severely affected the industry. This has been to a large extent, a global event. In the US, advertising revenue plummeted from 65 billion dollars at the start of the millennium to 19 billion in 2016 (McLennon and Miles 2018). In Germany, more than 1000 media jobs were cut in 2013 (Cagé 2016). Similarly, in Britain, over 200 regional and local newspapers have closed since 2005 (McLennon and Miles 2018).

The reduction in the media industry’s revenues is having far reaching effects on the output of the industry. Newspapers worldwide are learning to cut costs, forgoing what is seen as unnecessary expenditure. The results of this are manifold. Firstly, in absolute terms, less journalists means less journalistic content gets produced. Without the willingness to invest in specialised reporters, many media outlets are showing an indifference to covering the same breadth of news they once did. Furthermore, media firms are refocusing on covering on the main national news. Many firms now see foreign bureaus, localised coverage and investigative reports as excessive expenditure. As such, the sheer quantity of quality news being produced has been steadily decreasing, with less varied output and less plurality of unbiased journalistic content.

The trend towards online news also has had other harmful effects. Journalism is an industry which requires a large initial investment. It has a high fixed cost with increasing returns to scale. In simpler terms, this means that the news outlets cost largely arise from the quality they invest in the output. Better and more varied content requires higher investment and hence more expenditure. However, costs remain rather static in relation to the size of the market served. In the digital sphere, this strongly disincentives the costly creation of original content. Instead, articles are often replicated ad infinitum from other news sources, often with little or no changes (Cagé 2016).

Furthermore, it is an illusion that the online advertising revenue streams can support media outlets in the long-term, despite the large amount of readership. Advertising revenue online has been steadily decreasing for years. This has been unfortunately timed with a huge increase in advertising supply, as the social media giants expand their portfolios. The combination of this demand and supply dynamic has led to a collapse in the price of advertising, diminishing the revenues of media firms further.


Implications

There are many implications arising from this negative assessment of the media’s fortunes. Firstly, trust in the media is receding, as a multitude of factors diminish the public’s faith in unbiased news. The fall in revenue from advertising online has led to the emergence of questionably ethical practices such as native advertising, which is the use of advertisements as part of the normal user experience. It is often poorly labelled and blurs the line between objective news and paid content. Such native ads now constitute 10% of the New York Times revenues from online advertising, illustrating how even the most prestigious publications are subject to such financial needs. It has been argued that the reliance of publications on practices such as native advertising diminishes public trust in the media (Carr 2013). As we envisage the survival and growth of the media in future years, we must formulate alternative methods for publications to support themselves, without risking the trust they possess with their readership.

This breakdown in trust between media companies and their readership has been accentuated by the increasing power of social media companies in the journalistic world. Companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat now decide who publishes what, to which audience, and how they get paid for it. We have entered a new era where news is filtered through opaque and unregulated algorithms. However, as the social media giants are generating high traffic, many publishers have decided to focus solely on them as a distribution channel (Bell 2016). In essence, this has led to a few unaccountable companies having significant control over the distribution of news. The combination of this unregulated and non-transparent field with the proliferation of fake news online has furthered the distrust which the public has in the media.

The decline of the media’s economic model has undoubtedly led to a reduction in the quality of the news. The media has clearly not adapted to the new economic forces and global trends facing them. The implications of this stretch far past the failure of any singular media entity. Instead, it poses a threat to democracy itself, as its foundation of a well-informed public dissipates. A well-functioning democracy requires a well-informed electorate, who have access to objective unbiased news on which upon to make their electoral decisions. If left unchecked, the decline in the media’s economic model threatens the continued functioning of our political system.


Policy reactions

Public support for the press is widespread around the world. However, these subsidies are often insignificant in the context of their overall revenues. Subsidies as a percentage of gross newspaper revenues are no greater than 10% anywhere, and in general less than 5% (Cagé 2016). When placed in the context of overall net contribution to the economy, media companies generally pay more in taxes than they receive. This contrasts strongly with other participants in the knowledge economy such as research institutions and universities. As such, when formulating our responses to such a crisis in media, we must consider is the media as important to our society as those other participants. The authors of this paper believe so and argue that a greater government intervention into the sector is required.

On a European level, there have been several initiatives to provide quality news about European affairs. The EU has initiated projects wherein they support quality journalism while respecting the editorial independence of the project. In recent times, they have supported a European Data News Hub, created by Agence France-Presse (AFP), Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) and Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA). In addition to this, they have helped support the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) which aims to produce, share and publish data-driven content on European affairs (European Commission 2017).

While this support is important, we believe that Europe needs a solution that goes beyond disparate initiatives. We envisage a plan that will provide a healthy foundation for the flourishing of the media all around Europe. As such, we will detail our bold plan for the renewal of the media in Europe.

Solution: An EU initiative to ensure a bright future for journalism

Project description

In a nutshell, we propose to set up a European body that (1) provides a ‘fact-checking service’ by investigating potential ‘fake news’ and their effect on EU citizens, and (2) evaluates the quality of European journalism on the basis of news samples for the purpose of rewarding outstanding work with dedicated EU funds. This European body will further serve as an accreditation board for the media industry, comprising different kinds of people from society as well as political representatives from the transnational level, i.e., MEPs. The goal is to include all socio-economic classes and political tendencies, thus citizens of different age and social classes as well as politicians of all large parties (those in the European Parliament) must be represented. For simplicity, we shall from now on utilise the imaginative title of European Media Institution (EMI).


Scope of application and responsibilities

The EMI shall become an elementary part of the Commission’s DG CONNECT and complement the existing role with the twofold responsibility of fighting the dissemination of disinformation and allocating dedicated funds for selected media outlets. By adding the two roles, already existing objectives such as the promotion of democratic principles and the support of investigative research could be further augmented.

The EMI will work as an independent ‘single source of truth’ for the following tasks:

  • The legitimacy of publicly disseminated information shall be assessed based on randomly selected media samples as well as news communicated by citizens (every EU citizen may report potential ‘fake news’ via online participation tools).
  • An exhaustive data bank for media outlets shall be set up that classifies media firms into categories based on evaluations and reports of consumers.
  • Media outlets from all EU member states as well as accession states may apply in order to receive potential funding, accreditation (‘EMI seal of quality’) as well as dedicated awards, e.g. journalist of the month.
  • The funding per country shall be based on a fair and objective allocation key which considers the number of inhabitants (of a country), and perceived transparency and freedom of speech (e.g. based on rankings of NGOs).
  • The intrastate allocation of EU funds shall be based on subjective quality of journalism, which will be assessed by the EMI’s jury.
  • The jury shall consist of several hundred people (MEPs will hold 50% of voting rights for funding, a group of media researchers 25% and the public another 25% by participating online).
  • In addition, special funding dedicated to outstanding investigative journalism can be provided to corresponding media outlets – this funding shall be allocated by an independent jury of media researchers, thereby incentivising the proliferation of investigative journalism.
  • A monthly report detailing all known ‘fake news’ media outlets and media outlets spreading misinformation shall be widely published in all EU member states.
  • The EMI will be granted sanction power to fine outlets it finds to be spreading fake news that harm society (based on EMI’s framework for media quality).


Potential shortcomings

Even in the case of perfect objectivity and impartiality, those media outlets, interest groups or political parties who are not satisfied with a specific rating and consequent money allocations could criticize the European media institution as being partial. Although there isn’t always a legitimate reason, such critique has proven to be a natural element whenever public administrations intervene in the media industry. Another key question is whether it will be technically possible to consider social media algorithms, given that they are the root of filter bubbles and hence the reason ‘echo chambers’ exist. Based on this proposal, such an assessment is not technically possible and would demand an enlargement of the EMI.

Another problem noted during the policy formulation phase, was possible dispute settlement mechanisms to be included in the EMI. For example, processes would have to be included in case a media outlet contested its label as ‘poor quality news’, or ‘fake news’. The sheer plurality of voices in the modern-day media would ensure that disputes arise often. The independence and impartiality of such a settlement panel would have to be unquestionable.

Similarly, the granting of MEPs of 50% of the voting rights would also be susceptible to criticism. MEPs operate on a five-year term mandate, and there are ideological shifts in the European parliament with each new election. Ideally, the EMI would be impervious to ideological changes, however, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the rotation of the MEPs operating in the EMI would change its outlook. We hope that the inclusion of academics and public participation in the EMI process will suppress this fear somewhat. Regardless, we consider the impartiality of, and public trust in the EMI to be of paramount importance and would consider adjustments to the proposal to guarantee this.


Concluding remarks

Our analysis has shown that the rise of ‘fake news’ and their direct impact on electoral outcomes as well as the issue of financing journalism are two key deficiencies within a large crisis. Further adequate solutions to this crisis must be found, critical media literacy must be promoted with further means, e.g., a cohesive approach by educational institutions and the media industry could improve the situation. Similarly, we have investigated the funding issues within the media and found that the industry is suffering from a funding crisis. This is reducing the range of news covered, the depth in which they are covered and ultimately, the quality-level of our public discourse. In addition to this, it is contributing to a diminishment of public trust in the media. While both national and EU-level policy solutions exist, we believe these are not enough.

Our plan for the EMI will provide a holistic solution to the current woes affecting the media in Europe. It will provide a source of funding to quality newspapers. It will also act as a barrier against the creation and proliferation of fake news. We envisage that over the long term, it will allow media outlets to work with greater independence, and flourish throughout the EU. Moreover, the Commission should include the role of the media in its upcoming political priorities for the post-electoral agenda of the 2019-2023 period. Within the current 2015-2019 framework, one of the ten priorities regards democratic change, however, it solely focuses on administrative transparency and accountability.

Together, let us all aim to ensure the great future of journalism that European citizens deserve.

Dieser Artikel wurde gemeinsam mit Alexander Crean im Rahmen einer Studienarbeit der Sciences Po Paris verfasst und im Juli 2019 in der 3. Ausgabe der Revue d’affaires publiques veröfffentlicht.


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Germany’s Policy Dilemma – How Economic Interests Question Berlin’s Foreign Policy

Thirty years after its reunification, Germany finds itself back at the crossroads. Geographically positioned in the heart of the European continent, it had been the main stage for decades of bipolar conflict in the post-WWII period. Today, Germany’s role is dissimilar, and the nation’s faith is no longer in the hands of Washington DC or Moscow but in its own. Being part of an increasingly integrated European Union (EU) and a growing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it seeks to redefine its role within the supranational community and the transatlantic security alliance as well as to take a stake in defining the organizations’ future paths. Also, given Germany’s economic accomplishment and growing capabilities, its partners expect higher commitment and additional burden-taking – tasks that Merkel’s administration at least partly was willing to take over the past years. While Berlin is eager to promote multilateral interests and thereby seeks to sustain the liberal international order, it nevertheless increasingly sees its domestic agenda confronted by partners and allies.

Particularly the United States under its current Presidency played a dedicate role over the last months. What had been Berlin’s closest non-European partner for decades became a tough companion under President Trump. Last year, his administration reinforced the threat to impose trade sanctions on European car manufactures, which would resemble a declaration of war to the ‘automotive nation’ of Germany. Previously, the US President raised doubts about the country’s willingness to cooperate in security and continuously condemns Germany for not fulfilling its defense spending obligations within the agreed NATO framework. Such signals question the quality and continuity of the transatlantic relationship dramatically and arguably tear them down back to 2003 levels when Germany opposed the intervention in Iraq.

However, these threats and accusations do not come out of nowhere and are not (only) rooted in individual opposition of Trump vis-à-vis free-trading Germany. Increasingly, Eurasian states outside the supranational community seek economic partnerships with Germany, while some of them come at the risk of allies. Not only the US but also Eastern neighbors are worried about the geopolitical implications of Nord Stream 2, the Russian expansion project that will increase the capacity of the offshore natural gas pipeline Nord Stream. The new pipeline system will circumvent land connections across the Baltic States or Ukraine and directly transport Russian natural gas via the Baltic Sea to Germany. Moreover, the US does not like the idea of letting Huawei participate in the build-up of Germany’s 5G infrastructure, a visibly critical feature of information technology. The implicit geopolitical concerns of the US and other continental allies are obvious, yet the German government keeps on pronouncing that domestic economic interests and foreign policy are two different pairs of shoes that do not contradict another.

But is this a credible approach? The answer certainly depends on a critical assessment of various subordinated issues and interests. How serious are the implications of economic cooperation with Moscow in times of Russian interference in Western elections and the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula? Would it be trouble-free to let a Chinese technology group operate sensible information technology infrastructure despite ongoing allegations of intellectual property (IP) theft and human rights violations? Overall, the situation seems to be more complex than the federal government claims. In order to shed a light on the policy conflict, this essay seeks to examine Germany’s foreign policy and, furthermore, assess the two cases of Nord Stream 2 and Huawei with the diverging interests of actors involved. An assessment of economic and geopolitical aspects will ultimately provide a detailed understanding of the situation and aim to give a policy recommendation to the Chancellery.

Germany’s foreign policy – A swinging pendulum

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, which did not only reunite Germany but seal the Soviet demise, the whole of Germany joined the Western alliances of NATO and what a few years later officially became the EU. The Soviet evil had been defeated and millions of Eastern-Germans had been liberated from an undemocratic regime built on political oppression and a planned economy that only favored a small elite. Capitalism won, socialism lost. Such descriptions of the events – which according to Francis Fukuyama marked the ‘end of history’ – dominated both national and international debates for a while and Germany had seemingly found its final destiny in the West.

However, over the past two decades, German foreign policy has been steered into different directions. Some leaders held sympathetic views about Russia; such as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) who sought to collaborate with the Russian President Vladimir Putin to counterbalance the policies of US President George W. Bush and now spends his twilight years as a board member of Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy firm. Now-President Walter Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel, two former foreign ministers and social-democratic comrades, held similar views based on the continuation of the Neue Ostpolitik, the cooperative foreign policy approach of the social-liberal coalition in the 1970s towards the Soviet Union based on the maxim ‘change through rapprochement’.

Christian-democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel, in contrast, is certainly a ‘Westerner’. After growing up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), she swiftly appreciated the cultural and political system of the West as a strong contrast to what she experienced during her youth. Albeit regularly using her knowledge of the Russian language for exchange with Putin, who equally excels in speaking German, she has been preferring to build rapport with Western leaders. The same attitude holds for the new foreign minister, Heiko Maas, who – by supposedly breaking the social-democratic tradition – decisively prefers West over East and sees Moscow’s current foreign policies very critical. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea, which Germany alongside its Western partners definitively condemns, the dialogue with Russia altered its tone.

However, this does not mean that Germany is now closer to American policies than before. In fact, the relationship with the largest non-European ally experienced a pivotal change after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. The former real estate mogul already relied on anti-Germany propaganda during his campaign and strictly opposes multilateralism, the international order that Germans learned to love after decades and centuries of international conflict and dispute. After eight years of close cooperation with a US President who was supposedly more popular in Germany than at home, the transatlantic collaboration experienced a rough modification. Last summer, Heiko Maas articulated the new transatlantic strategy of the Foreign Office in a Handelsblatt article: He stated that Berlin would aim at building a ‘balanced partnership’ with the US, based on sharing responsibility, boosting the multilateral order, and keeping all channels open.

Such a statement could not have been imaginable ten or twenty years ago. The federal republic never dared to assume such a position vis-à-vis its ‘big brother’, who had the key stake in rebuilding the country after the defeat and destruction of WWII, who safeguarded Western Germany’s security with nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, and who contributed to the reunification like no other nation. The statement clearly emphasizes a new direction. Maas does not seek to imply a bilateral balance between Berlin and DC but desires a closing of ranks with its partners in the EU, which he envisions to become an essential pillar for the liberal international order. Therefore, a joint foreign policy would imply a cohesive approach by all member states, reinforcing common interests and subordinating individual aspirations.

So, does Germany itself follow such an agenda? Especially the Nord Stream 2 case has been criticized as ignoring supranational interests and harming European partners. At the same time, the term ‘keeping all channels open’ in Maas’s contribution leaves space for interpretation. Could Egon Bahr’s Neue Ostpolitik eventually experience a successful comeback? Both Nord Stream 2 and the current discussion concerning Huawei’s stake in Germany’s telecommunications infrastructure indicate such tendencies, or at least, demonstrate an incoherent grand strategy that puts economic interests at the fore and thus subordinates strategic alliance positions.

Nord Stream 2 – New gas, new dependencies?

Nord Stream 2 – as the number indicates – is not the first Russian natural gas-pipeline construct that connects the Russian Narwa Bay and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a German state in the North East of the federal republic, next to Poland and the Baltic Sea. In order to complement the existing eight-year-old pipeline Nord Stream, which already runs at full capacity of 55 billion cubic meters per year and can no longer fully satisfy market demand, the € 9.5 billion expensive construction project concerning two additional pipelines is planned to be finished within the next few months. According to Gazprom, the key shareholder in the operation, the new tubes will ensure a secure and reliable energy supply for Europe. Since the majority of nuclear power plants is gradually switched off and lignite plants become the core target of environmental policies, European countries increasingly import gas from Russia, Azerbaijan, and Qatar. However, this is where the dispute begins.

While the federal government of Germany claims that the new pipelines are necessary to safeguard affordable energy prices, members of the opposition parties – alongside with several European neighbors and partners – argue against it. Rather than importing natural gas from non-European states, they contend, Germany should continue the construction of renewable energy sources based on the policy course of the Energiewende, i.e., the domestic transition from nuclear and lignite energy to sustainable foundations. The opposition party Alliance 90/The Greens, for example, claims that Nord Stream 2 is simply not necessary in economic terms and rather than gambling on small price benefits for final consumers, the federal government should be aware of the increased dependency towards Russia and the geopolitical implications for the whole of Europe. But what are those implications?

On one hand, Eastern European countries that feature land connections for Russian-European gas pipelines would be bypassed as the pipeline would directly cross the Baltic Sea and reach Germany. So far, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine imposed charges on gas transports across their territory. With another underwater channel, these states would lose significant income and relevance for Russia. In theory, Moscow could then literally turn off the gas for Poland and Ukraine without harming Germany. In the light of the current situation in Eastern Ukraine and the ongoing disputes between Kyiv and Moscow, this does not seem to benefit the Ukrainians, which Germany at least diplomatically seeks to support in safeguarding their sovereignty. Concerning Poland’s current nationalistic and EU-skeptical policies, one may expect additional turmoil in Warsaw and an increase in negative perceptions concerning the EU and Germany. In addition, South-Eastern European states such as Greece and Bulgaria are insulted by Germany’s two-faced approach: In 2015, these states had discarded plans for an alternative project, South Stream, in the light of sanctions against Russia.

Brussels is perceptibly aware of these implications and dislikes the idea of having a Russian state-owned enterprise, Gazprom, operate the pipelines and deliver natural gas to the European energy network. Hence, the European Commission tried to force Berlin to halt the project by introducing a new energy regulation in the beginning of 2019. However, Germany sought the support of France in proposing a compromise, which was eventually adopted. With this alternative approach, the regulatory power concerning gas imports is subordinated to the national level. Consequently, the state in which the imported gas joins the EU network from now on has the say over regulatory criteria. As pointed out earlier, this is Germany in the case of Nord Stream 2. If the negotiation had failed, it would have been difficult to continue the Nord Stream 2 project. All member states with a corresponding presence in the Baltic Sea could then have influenced the future of the project, e.g. Denmark, Finland, and Estonia, which see the pipeline just as critical as their follow European countries in the South-East.

Though, Germany’s European partners are not the only ones who condemn the construction. Since the initiation of the project, Germany’s key non-European ally, the United States, disliked the project. Rather than increasing its energy dependency on Russia, Germany should import gas from its allies. Besides this geopolitical claim, Washington DC also has an economic interest: The US increasingly delivers liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the European continent and wants their European gas exports to grow in the future – while the German government is generally open for a new energy cooperation with the US, Nord Stream 2 unsurprisingly hazards this vision.

US diplomats first sought to consult the German government behind closed doors but now the approach has shifted to aggressive, public statements of the President and his representative in Berlin. Beyond the conventional, yet offensive Twitter posts of Donald Trump, former Berlin-based US ambassador Richard Grenell wrote threatening letters to German firms involved in the Nord Stream 2 constructions as well as to the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Peter Altmaier. The German government opposed the allegations in their usual calm manner. However, economic interest groups and key lobbyists aggravated their arguments. The Chairman of the German Chamber of Commerce Abroad (AHK) in Russia, Matthias Schepp stated that ‘Germany is not the 51st state of the US’ and that Berlin should not listen to third-country dictates.

The situation gets even more complex, considering that Gazprom is not building the pipeline itself. Five European utility firms are involved in the project, such as OVM from Austria, the Dutch giant Shell, the French, state-backed energy supplier Engie, as well as the two German firms Uniper (previously a subsidiary of Eon) and Wintershall, a subsidiary of BASF. Uniper, for example, has invested € 950 million into the project for which it receives an interest-based payoff whereby a large share of the payoff has already been realized according to the firm’s spokesman. As of today, there seems to be no doubt that Nord Stream 2 will be stopped before its planned start. The EU agreement concerning the national regulatory authority has dismissed potential involvement of other states and for now, Germany holds the trump card.

The 5G debate – Chinese technology for the ‘country of inventors’?

Another contemporary case that is widely debated among policymakers and analysts around the globe is the set-up of 5G infrastructure, which will allow for the introduction of the latest iteration of world wide web that has been termed a ‘quantum leap’ of internet velocity. Indeed, the new technology streams data roughly a hundred times faster than existing 4G networks, thereby being able to turn the famous aspirations of smart cities and autonomous cars into reality. Germany has commenced the public auction for 5G spectrum mid-March and the four largest telecommunications providers, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefónica, and 1&1 Drillisch have been competing for slices of the latest internet pie.

While the telco firms will operate the infrastructure, they rely on external technology providers who have the capacity to build up the network. The world leader in the development of 5G networks and equipment is Huawei, a Chinese tech giant who currently ranks third in the German smartphone market with a 14 percent market (in February 2019). Moreover, Huawei already started cooperations with the German public sector: the cities of Gelsenkirchen and Duisburg have closed agreements to implement smart city initiatives with Huawei technology. Also, the national railway firm Deutsche Bahn closed a deal with Huawei including the expansion and digitization of its communications network. However, Huawei has been accused of cooperating with the Chinese state in espionage activities, a claim that becomes serious in the light of sensitive public-private infrastructure such as mobile internet.

In fact, Australia, New Zealand, and the US have already banned Chinese technology suppliers from involvement in the 5G networks based on national security reasons. While the three states ultimately accepted to risk short- and eventually long-term technological shortcomings – considering that Huawei & Co. are at the forefront of technological progress – they took decisive action against the allegations of intelligence cooperation with the Chinese government. Although Huawei is a private, not a state-owned corporation, the risk of espionage is inherently given as Beijing introduced an intelligence law in 2017, which obliges all individuals and organizations to cooperate in intelligence gathering. Hence, it is questionable whether Huawei may ultimately be forced to spy upon customers of its infrastructure.

In February 2019, Chancellor Merkel proposed the signing of ‘no-spying agreements’ if the Chinese were interested in participating in the introduction of 5G in Germany. This supposedly naïve approach (considering espionage activities of the NSA on German individuals and even Merkel’s own smartphone in the past) came to the entertainment of many foreign observers and domestic authorities realized that such agreements would simply not be enough. Thus, the German federal agency for security of information technology (BSI) complemented the idea with additional vetting procedures that include analyses and certification processes for all connected hard- and software solutions, including updates.

In contrast to Nord Stream 2, which is, for now, an exclusively German polity, the whole of Europe alongside industrial nations around the world debates the introduction of 5G. Germany’s closest European partner France favors the strategy of letting Huawei participate in parts of the construction without leaving them a significant majority of the network. However, there is no cohesive European approach and every country follows separate plans. In Spring 2019, the British Defense Minister, Gavin Williamson, got sacked as he allegedly leaked confidential information concerning the plan to limit access for Huawei in building up UK’s 5G network. Williamson denied any accusations concerning the leak of information from the National Security Council meeting but May’s rigorous reaction demonstrated the high relevance of the issue.

Few countries dare to jeopardize relations with China, which has developed towards a major trading partner for several European countries, of which Germany is the most significant one for China. In fact, Germany is nowadays the world’s largest recipient of Chinese FDI. Moreover, Germany (together with the Netherlands, Greece, and Italy) marks the European terminus of the Chinese railway belt, the land route of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Although Germany is not dependent on infrastructure investments, it benefits from the project in economic terms. For example, the Ruhr region, which has seen an economic downturn with the demise of mines and the partial phase-out of metal industries, now experiences new growth with novel trade connections to Chinese metropolises.

On the other side of the coin, what is the alternative to Chinese technology? In fact, the main competitor of Huawei in the 5G debate, the American technology firm Cisco, had been involved in the NSA espionage scandals that lastingly impaired trust towards the Americans. Nevertheless, the United States is currently the most vocal critic of Huawei in the 5G debate. Lately, the United States has been increasing bilateral pressure on its European partners, as it perceives Huawei as a severe security threat (which, as previously mentioned, led to the expulsion of the tech firm in the American 5G venture). Based on official diplomatic jargon employed, the US is concerned that Beijing would spy on its key allies and thereby damage the integrity and security of the transatlantic cooperation. Ambassador Richard Grenell even threatened that the US will restrict the sharing of intelligence if Germany uses Huawei technology. However, European detractors could potentially say that Washington DC is afraid of losing its espionage monopoly on Germany and other European nations.

Besides technology firms of the world’s two largest economies, Europe itself features some 5G providers. Notably, the two Scandinavian companies Nokia (from Finland) and Ericsson (from Sweden) have been named alternatives in the prestigious infrastructure project. While espionage certainly is a less critical topic with a provider from a fellow NATO or EU member state, respectively, the two providers seemingly do not stand a chance against Huawei. The Chinese firm is claimed to be more innovative due to the majority of 5G patents which it holds, a circumstance that observers described with a two-year technology advantage. Moreover, it is 30 percent less expensive than its European competitors, which is a large difference considering the enormous scale of the project.

Scenarios for potential action – Quo vadis Germania?

The two cases highlight a sensitive dilemma for Germany and question the future path of the federal republic. Which factors will drive Berlin’s policies in the future? Will it be purely domestic economic interests, thereby seeking new partnerships with China and Russia? Or will it rather be supranational preferences in line with a joint EU foreign policy approach or even NATO interests in the field security affairs? In order to understand the diversity of possible foreign policy directions, two distinct scenarios are created in the following, based on the geographic direction, i.e., the conceptual orientation of Berlin’s future.

Option A: ‘Go East’

While this option may sound a bit obscure or eventually upsetting for many allies, it shall not be interpreted in a wrong way. Germany certainly sees its future within the European Union and NATO; however, it may seek individual moves in new partnerships with Eurasian partners. By the end of the day, it is not only about making money with the East but securing sound relations with key powers of today’s and especially tomorrow’s world. Some historians have been arguing for Germany to take a diplomatic role between the East and the West, as a country that has adopted Western values such as liberal democracy but equally holds traditionally Eastern characteristics such as being an ‘etatist’ society driven by the state (as opposed to the libertarian ‘night-watchman’ state of the US or UK). No other Western country plays a relevant decisive role in EU and NATO agenda-setting while keeping sound relations with Eastern states.

Increasing economic interdependency inherently brings peace rather than conflict, and in a future that is coined by multilateralism and peaceful diplomacy, instead of unilateral protectionism, an easing of West-East ties could be envisioned. The Neue Ostpolitik could eventually make a comeback if it was aligned with the most relevant values and vital interests of NATO and the EU. The ‘change through rapprochement’ policy could, furthermore, become a decisive approach to solve today’s most pressing issues in a multilateral manner. If the international community wants to stand a chance in fighting climate change, China and Russia, two of the largest polluters on Earth, cannot be ignored but must be included in constructive talks. The same holds for improving human rights, gender equality, and many other issues. Besides multilateral efforts via international organizations, close bilateral ties between East and West can, therefore, be a supportive factor.

Option B: ‘Stay West’

As a strict alternative to the open attitude towards the East, Germany could take a closer stand with its allies and restrict from further cooperation. As the analysis of the two cases has shown, plenty of reasons would – from a contemporary perspective – favor Western energy resources and goods over ones stemming from Russia and China. Rather than becoming more liberal and peaceful, Russia became more aggressive and autocratic. No doubt, one may expect that Russia will continue pressuring Kyiv and interfering in Ukrainian polity rather than raising a white flag and respecting the sovereignty of its European neighbor(s). China, on the other hand, evidently stole large amounts of intellectual property from Western enterprises and denies burden-free market entries for foreign economies while investing in key industries of the West. Also, Beijing increasingly seeks global status based on a regional hegemony which threatens the peace in the area.

Consequently, Germany and its fellow partners could turn the tides by imposing similar roles, e.g. on restricted market access – just as the US, Australia, and New Zealand did it in the case of 5G infrastructure. In order to secure a truly independent 5G network, the European Commission could take a decisive role, e.g. in opting for subsidizing research and development efforts of Nokia and Ericsson with European funds. In the light of energy dependency, where a simple ‘turn off’ of gas pipelines does not seem to be a credible policy, Germany should promote a more multilateral system and therefore support the European import of US-LNG to counterbalance potential dependency from the East and symbol unity and attachment to the United States. In the best case and long-run vision, Europe should increasingly seek to self-supply its demand with reliable and risk-free sources, thereby promoting energy autonomy.

Conclusion

In order to follow either of the two outlined paths, Germany’s grand coalition must first get together to define a cohesive grand strategy. As of today, the SPD-led Foreign Office keeps a critical perspective of the East, whereas the CDU-driven Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy sees Russia and China as close and important partners. In the light of current dynamics, it is quite probable that Berlin will follow none of the two approaches but go for a middle way. No doubt, Russian oil and Chinese technology ultimately threaten Germany’s foreign policy goals, at least those outlined by Heiko Maas and his fellow foreign policy makers lately.

However, it is crucial to keep a realistic perspective: the majority of any exports leads to dependencies and Germany, the export nation, is dependent on global trade, particularly in the field of automotive and high-tech. If China would – in a conflict scenario – switch off German mobile internet (or turn off gas in the case of Russia), Germany could potentially switch off its cars on Chinese roads, which make up at least twenty percent of China’s automotive market. Going completely risk-free will be a difficult challenge that would hazard conflicting, yet elementary interests. Nevertheless, a realistic twenty-first century Ostpolitik must be in line with an overarching grand strategy that promotes multilateral engagement and includes interests of key allies and partners.

The case of Nord Stream 2, which has scrupulously ignored vital security interests of several Eastern European states, may ultimately become a role-model for what may go wrong. Both Russia and China undoubtedly have vested interests in Eastern Europe and the European Union must necessarily focus on this region and promote independence from Eastern power politics. The Three-Seas Initiative, a flexible policy platform on the presidential level of Eastern European states, is a step into the right direction and Germany should endorse such initiatives. Moreover, Germany should financially support a modernization of Ukrainian transit pipelines to keep them competitive and increase economic relevance towards East and West.

The Huawei case, on the other hand, demonstrates that rather than following individual, wishy-washy approaches, members of the EU must stick together and define joint security visions and strategies. Supranational cooperation cannot solely be restricted to few, selected domains. If the EU, for example, agrees to further strive for joint military systems and equipment, it should also consider the critical infrastructure of the private life that may potentially be targeted by cyber-attacks. Finding the right amount of commencing additional EU-led initiatives and leaving sensitive policies to domestic authorities has become Brussel’s key challenge in the light of rising EU-skepticism and nationalistic agendas.

What regards to Germany, the keyword for its future strategy is credibility. In her former position as Minister of Defense, Now-President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen summarized Germany’s (military) vision as ‘becoming more European yet staying transatlantic’. I personally sympathize with this vision, which now needs further actions to prove it is meant for real. Germany’s domestic interests and ideas for a foreign policy must be aligned and orchestrated within a grand strategy that is to be defined. The idea of becoming a larger version of Switzerland who does business with all sides and avoids dispute will not be an option. Germany’s fate is existentially connected with the one of Europe and it must stand for the supranational idea and put joint interests at the fore – even if this means sacrificing some domestic gains.

Nudging – (k)eine Methode für grüne Politik?

Wie viel Paternalismus verträgt eine liberale Gesellschaft?

Uns Grünen wird von außen gerne vorgeworfen eine Verbotspartei zu sein. Schließlich wollen wir den Konsum von klimaschädichem Fleisch einschränken, überholte Ölheizungen abschaffen und das unnötige (schnelle) Autofahren verbieten. Das Klischee der Verbotspartei klebt an uns, was wir natürlich nicht mit positiven Gedanken in Verbindung bringen. Vermutlich nutzt der politische Gegner es genau deshalb als taktisches Mittel und das, unabhängig davon, ob wir in der Kommunikation unserer Inhalte über ein Verbot sprechen oder nicht.

Wahrscheinlich sind sich die meisten Menschen über die ethischen, gesundheitlichen und ökologischen Folgen eines hohen Fleischkonsums bewusst, möchten aber nicht zu einem bestimmten Verhalten gezwungen werden und stattdessen selbst entscheiden, was auf dem Teller landet. Das ist ihr gutes Recht und niemand von uns strebt einen bevormundenden Staat an. Dennoch stellt sich die Frage, wie die Politik die Bürger*innen davon überzeugen kann, dass das Verhalten des Individuums auch Verantwortung gegenüber anderen Menschen und der Umwelt tragen sollte. Die Gretchenfrage einer modernen, demokratischen Politik lautet daher: Wie viel Paternalismus verträgt eine liberale Gesellschaft?

In ihrem Buch „Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness“ schlagen die beiden Autoren, Richard Thaler und Cass Sunstein, ein psychologisches Werkzeug zur Umsetzung ebensolcher Ziele vor: Das Nudging, auf Deutsch das Anstupsen. Es beschreibt eine sanfte Beeinflussung unser Wahl, sodass wir uns ohne Zwang für eine bestimmte Option entscheiden. Ein klassisches Beispiel ist die Platzierung von Obst und Gemüse auf dem gut beleuchteten Buffet einer Kantine und die Verbannung von Fast Food und Süßigkeiten in eine abgelegene Ecke. Das ungesunde Essen wird dadurch weder teurer, noch wird es verboten. Doch wer auf dem ersten Anblick einen frischen Apfel sieht, greift eher zu, als wenn dieser gleich neben einem Schokoriegel angeboten wird. Mithilfe von Nudging, das sich als liberalen Paternalismus bezeichnen lässt, wird somit das Verhalten der Menschen beeinflusst. Vor diesem Hintergrund fragt man sich, ob mündige Bürger*innen etwas derartiges brauchen und ob dieser liberale Paternalismus eine freiheitliche Alternative zur Ordungspolitik darstellt.

Vorweg sei erwähnt, dass Menschen nicht rational gestrickt sind. Die in der Wirtschaftswissenschaft gerne genutzte Annahme eines homo oeconomicus, der auf Basis berechnenden Kalküls agiert, trifft selten auf uns Menschen zu. Die Hypothese, Menschen träfen Entscheidungen in ihrem besten Interesse, ist fernab jeder menschlichen Realität. Obwohl man als Allergiker in der Heuschnupfen-Saison weniger Zucker zu sich nehmen sollte, kann dem Kauf von zwei Kugeln Stracciatellaeis beim Anblick einer Eisdiele kaum widerstanden werden. Laut dem Verhaltensforscher Daniel Kahneman lässt sich menschliches Handeln in zwei Systeme unterteilen. Zum einen gibt es laut Kahnemann schnelle, intuitive Aktionen wie den Griff zum klingelnden Handy und zum anderen langsames, kontrolliertes Agieren, das beispielsweise bei der Beantwortung einer komplexen Frage zu beobachten ist. In vielen Alltagssituation hinterfragen wir Kosten und Nutzen unseres Handelns nicht, sondern treffen Entscheidungen aus dem Bauch heraus. Die Entscheidung wird dabei jedoch durch viele Stimuli beeinflusst, beispielsweise die Art und Weise, wie die Optionen platziert sind. Wer auf Nudging setzt, gibt kein bestimmtes Verhalten vor, sondern arbeitet an Nuancen der individuellen Entscheidungsarchitektur.

Im öffentlichen Leben geht es oft um wesentlich sensiblere Themen als das Mittagessen in der Kantine. In genau jenen Bereichen, in denen Regulierung oft als notwendiges Mittel betrachtet wird, etwa im Straßenverkehr oder der Marktwirtschaft, gibt es zweifelsfrei härtere Grenzen zwischen Individualismus und Vorschriften. Heutzutage legen wir selbstverständlich den Anschnallgurt an oder warten an einer roten Ampel, denn wir sind, beziehungsweise wurden überzeugt, dass dies Voraussetzung für allgemeine Sicherheit und Effizienz ist. Ein aktuelles Beispiel, die Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung auf Autobahnen, zeigt, wie sensibel Mensch und Politik gegenüber einer Änderung des Status quo sind. Anstatt die Maßnahme ins Leben zu rufen und damit einen großen Beitrag zu Verkehrssicherheit und Umweltschutz zu leisten, werden neben deutschen Schnellstraßen abschreckende Plakate von Unfallopfern platziert, welche die Folgen von zu hoher Geschwindigkeit symbolisieren – auch eine Form von Nudging.

Über die Sinnhaftigkeit dieser alternativen Maßnahmen lässt sich endlos streiten. Bei beiden Wegen stellt sich die grundlegende Frage: Wer entscheidet; wer ist der Paternalist, der unser Handeln zu lenken versucht? Die Grundvoraussetzung in einer liberalen Demokratie sollte die Legitimation der Handelnden sein, welche im Sinne des Grundgesetzes die Wahl der regierenden Politiker*innen darstellt. Darüber hinaus ist fraglich, inwiefern ein Staat vorbildliches Handeln incentivieren oder erzwingen sollte – eine Gratwanderung zwischen Etatismus und Liberalismus. Genau diese Gratwanderung lässt sich in vielen politischen Entscheidungen von Bündnis 90/Die Grünen betrachten: Das Abwägen zwischen individueller Freiheit und kollektiver Verantwortung ist keine pauschale Entscheidung, sondern Detailarbeit. Insbesondere in den von uns Grünen fokussierten Politikfeldern der Klima- und Umweltpolitik sind angesichts der Klimakrise klare Regeln notwendig. Letztendlich sind einige wenige Restriktionen vielleicht auch besser als viele entscheidungsbeeinflussende Maßnahmen.

Im Zwischenbericht des neuen Grundsatzprogramms von Bündnis 90/Die Grünen heißt es eingangs: „Im Mittelpunkt unserer Politik steht der Mensch in seiner Würde und Freiheit“, was wahrhaftig einen Pfeiler des gesellschaftlichen Liberalismus darstellt. Nicht zuletzt sind wir durch unsere Parteigeschichte und die Rolle von Bündnis 90 als Friedens- und Freiheitsbewegung dem Liberalismus verpflichtet, jedoch nicht auf Kosten der Freiheit anderer oder unserer Umwelt. Wir Grüne stellen uns laufend die Frage, mit welcher Politik sich die Welt verbessern lässt und wie die ökologischen, sozialen und liberalen Leitplanken für eine solche Politik aussehen können. Nudging ist hierfür sicher kein Allzweckmittel, aber das sind pauschale Verbote auch nicht.

Dieser Beitrag wurde am 25. Mai 2020 auf der Website des Netzwerks Sozialliberal veröffentlicht.