EPP MEP Ramona Mănescu points out that Romania is one of the major targets of Russia’s manipulation campaigns
EPP MEP Ramona Mănescu draws attention, in a post on her Facebook page, that Romania is “one of the major targets targeted by Russia’s orchestrated manipulation campaigns.”
Ramona Mănescu’s message comes as social media company Facebook, removing 364 pages and accounts engaged in suspicious online activities that were connected to a network with origins in Russia. These fake accounts and pages, covering various areas of activity, from sport, economy, weather to politicians and travelers, aimed to spread information in the Baltic, Caucasus, Central Asia and Central and Eastern European countries, informs the Romanian MEP.
In this context, Ramona Mănescu welcomes the efforts made in Brussels against the anti-misinformation campaign, saying that “we finally see the effects of the legislation promoted by the European Union to combat misinformation and false news.”
She also believes that “Romania it urgently needs to develop its own mechanisms of protection, reaction and prevention against these hybrid-related attacks.
We recall that last year, the European Commission announced its action plan on misinformation, which includes the code of practice against misinformation, a voluntary framework aimed at eliminating the spread of false news. Signatories of the code include companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. The measures were taken in particular for the 2019 European Parliament elections and over 50 presidential elections, national or local / regional elections taking place in the Member States by 2020.
Threats affecting democracy in any Member State can harm the Union as a whole. Moreover, misinformation often targets the European institutions and their representatives and aims to undermine the European project. That is why Brussels, Member States and their private partners, especially IT companies, need to step up their efforts to ensure free and fair democratic processes.
“Open World Program”: How a US Congress body brings together future leaders from Eastern Europe to build knowledge-based democracy (Interview)
Interview conducted by Robert Lupițu
During their working visit to Romania last week, Ms. Jane Sargus and Ms. Maura Shelden, the ladies who run the Congressional Office for International Leadership (COIL), an agency of the US Congress, sat down for an interview with CaleaEuropeană.ro, to discuss their Open World Program where they bring together current and future Eastern European leaders in America and build a network of professionals on knowledge-based democracy.
After almost 25 years of existence and more than 30.000 people from Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries selected, out of which two thirds were Russians before the war in Ukraine started, the program is shifting with a more special focus in countries like Romania, Poland, Hungary, the Baltics, Republic Moldova and in the Western Balkans, while also tailoring its approach on helping Ukraine.
“Seeing the possibility of success for Romania is just thrilling, and I truly believe Romania is choosing that and we’re there to help. So we support Romania’s effort to achieve what is self determined to be success, and that is what our agency does. We also do it because Congress wants to see us achieve success in the same range for the same reasons”, said Jane Sargus, Executive Director of COIL, while also adding that they are present for Moldova’s needs as well.
When it comes to Ukraine, Maura Shelden, Deputy Executive Director of COIL, emphasised that their program as changed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea according to the Ukrainian needs, citing the creation of a Ministry for Veteran Affairs, a national cemetery or medical delegations like battlefield medics and rehabilitation doctors.
“We’ve only recently started in Romania, Poland and Hungary. These are brand new. For 23 years we were doing post-Soviet countries, but now we have programs in Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, the Baltics. Now, Congress want us to be working in these border countries, not only just to support Ukraine, but to support the border countries of Ukraine”, Jane Sargus concluded.
CaleaEuropeană.ro: Good afternoon! We have together with us Ms. Jane Sargus, Executive Director of the Congressional Office for International Leadership within the US Congress, and Ms. Maura Shelden, Deputy Executive Director of the Congressional Office for International Leadership. You run a Congressional agency designed to bring talented and future leaders together to the United States for sharing experiences and building networks in a democratic fashion. Firstly, how would you describe your activity for those who read us and have not heard until now about the program?
Jane Sargus: I would say that we are a program that is destined to provide access and an opportunity for these emerging leaders from the countries we work in, to come to the United States and to share best practices, to be partners in future projects, to see America from the inside of a home, not a hotel room. And who will become part of a growing network of a young generation of leaders who are already started being leaders or are on that path to be leaders. These people are the future of the world and we really care about providing them with our brand of knowledge-based democracy, interaction with American professionals who do the work they do, and an opportunity to have best practices traded. It’s definitely two ways. Every delegation that comes to the United States will have opportunities to talk about their work and what they do and then how Americans can benefit from that. But definitely everybody benefits from the exchange of information. Because, as we tell Congress. we show America warts and all. It’s a program where we don’t try to hide anything. We try to share what we think are the best things we can do, but also the challenges that we have in the US that compare with challenges over here.
CaleaEuropeană.ro: Your program has almost 25 years of existence. You brought together more than 31,000 current and future leaders from Eastern Europe and from Eurasia. How does Open World Program work? From the candidacy, application, selection process until the end of the program and, of course, follow up and alumni community?
Jane Sargus: Good question. There are lots of pieces to that. So, the program is not an open application program. A person becomes a candidate for the program because they’re nominated by who we consider a trusted source. For example, we always work with our embassies in country, but we also work with American Councils in country. Together they become the source of our nominations. However, American Councils reaches out to NGOs and other government offices and says can you help us nominate? And so those people are part of a network of nominators. Nominators are really important because they are in the position to know who that emerging leader is. They work with them, they’ve seen them, they met them, they know who they are. The second part of your question had to do with becoming a nominated candidate. Well, those nominating organizations submit names. American Councils manages the whole nomination and then the vetting process. By the time it gets to the embassy for visa issuance, which is a J-1 Visa, all the candidates have been looked at and determined whether or not they’re eligible. We hardly ever get ineligible candidates because of the sources that we get our nominations from, but I suppose it could happen. After that, there is the beginning of the communication, so a delegation is five people from Romania with one facilitator. Facilitators, like Eliza (n.r. – Eliza Chirilă Pop, Country Director at American Councils for International Education – Romania), who know American culture has been there. Sometimes they are former flex students who end up becoming our facilitators, but people who can help bridge the distance between American culture and Romanian culture, because there are going to be vast differences.
That group of six people comes to Washington DC for two days. They meet with members of Congress, we have speakers on a variety of topics, but sometimes it could be just a leadership topic, or how American government is formed and what it looks like. They spend two days with that. Meeting with members of Congress is our way of engaging our bosses in the program. The program needs engagement with members who, in the end, decide whether or not we get funding for another year. So, this is an important process and it’s one of the things that makes it a congressional program. But truly, we also engage them because their constituents are the host families that keep our delegates in the host city.
Maura Shelden: I just wanted to mention that in between the nomination and the vetting, they do fill out an application where the nominator states why the person would benefit from the Open World Program and what they would manage to give back from that, back to Romania, and the applicants themselves have an opportunity to write a short essay about their motivation for being on the overall program. The vetting takes place either at the embassy or in Washington amongst ourselves and you’ll often see there’s too many great qualified people and so you make one group because some common themes emerge and then you save the other ones for maybe the next group. So it’s really not about calling people out, but rather sorting them into the right travel dates with like minded people.
Jane Sargus: We never have a shortage of wonderful candidates. We can also be reactive to the shifting political landscape when something changes like February 24, 2022. That day changed everything. Suspending our Russia program definitely created a gap of 1/3 of our capacity.
CaleaEuropeană.ro: And how does alumni community work, in order for future and current leaders to stay in touch?
Jane Sargus: There are a couple of different ways but primarily we have our own alumni program. Usually, working with the embassy and or American Councils we have access to the alumni and certainly American Councils knows where all our folks are. We can fund certain kinds of events in any of our countries, usually with the help of the US Embassy. So, we can do an agreement that they will host an alumni event on our behalf in country. And that is important for a couple of reasons. Number one, the alum can see each other again, the group that traveled together, will be seeing each other again, but they’re also going to be meeting people who traveled after them from Romania. That means the network has an opportunity to multiply immediately. That’s what our program does. We introduce these leaders to each other and it has worked. It has been successful. (…) A large portion of the 30,000 alums we have right now are sadly in Russia and they are Russians. We are not in contact with them. But we are very actively in touch with everyone else, if we can.
CaleaEuropeană.ro: By 2020, Open World Program had hosted its 20,000th Russian delegate. It is a program that tried to bridge the gap between the democratic societies and Russia. However, Russia continues to sink in a more autocratic regime with its brutal and aggressive and war against Ukraine. Why do you think it was not possible to have a more open and democratic Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, from the point of view of having this experience with a lot of Russians delegates in the last 25 years? Do you see a future in reconnecting with these people, depending, of course, on how this unlawful war will end?
Jane Sargus: You’ve asked the $64,000 question. Two parts: part one and part two. Regards to part two, when we will re-engage remains to be seen. We don’t know how this will play out. In the end, isn’t the question whether or not Russians are willing to engage in knowledge-based democracy and not if we decide to renew the program. It really depends on how Russia sees itself going forward. And if they’re not interested in knowledge-based democracy, which is basically all we’re doing, how we do engage is a tough ask.
On the first part of your question, I am not a Russia scholar. I would say that our impact in Russia, with the Russians that we have, might have been construed as being more an individual than a social impact. An individual impact is good. And it translates into a social impact. But at least initially, I would say we were very successful at the individual impact level. It’s a hard question, because I don’t know what our Russian alumni are thinking now. I have no idea. They’re not communicating with us. There’s probably a great deal of fear being in touch with the American government, it could be very dangerous for people, they support the war, they know the US does not. Who knows? It could be 100 reasons.
Maura Shelden: Whether the 20,000 delegates that came from Russia have changed their values because of the Open World Program or not, is moot at this point, because their president will not allow them the freedom to fully express themselves. There’s no free media. And now there’s even less and less contact with the outside world because of their president. Have you ever read Mikhail Bulgakov, the Ukrainian – Russian writer? He says that manuscripts don’t burn, meaning you can burn my books or censor my books, but the story is still out there and people know the story. To me, when it comes to Open World alumni from Russia, I think manuscripts don’t burn. They had this experience.
CaleaEuropeană.ro: And the story is still there. After more than two decades since launching this program, we have almost all Eastern and Central Europe countries in NATO and the EU. Others try to follow the same path, while they also struggle for survival, and I mean, of course, Ukraine and Moldova. What did we do well in building democracies and resilient societies in this amount of time and what do you think are the lessons learned and needs to do better, from the angle of your program, of course?
Jane Sargus: We look to each country’s attitude towards moving forward on the program. So the country that we work in is the decider of its future. Our program doesn’t change anyone’s future. Our program provides an opportunity. If you want change, if you are that emerging leader to meet, grow, develop and establish contacts, partnerships and a network that will help you get there.
CaleaEuropeană.ro: And countries like Ukraine and Moldova are countries that want to follow the path that they chose to.
Janes Sargus: That they chose to. We’re not saying to Moldova you have to do this. We just provide opportunities, because once the program expanded beyond Russia, to all the post-Soviet states, it was still the same thing, an opportunity to provide you with what accountable governance governance looks like. That’s really it in a nutshell. You participate in our program and you see how laws work and how laws are made. We don’t decide that that country will be westward facing, they decide. They’re obviously on a path of self determination. But the success of our program could very well depend on that attitude. And the fact is, with very few exceptions, we are in countries that want change, that have a growing cohort of young leaders who want change, or a growing cohort of leaders who want to see a younger generation come up, move on and help lead in the future. Those are a country’s decision to do on a civic program.
Maura Shelden: That’s why we’re sitting in this room. We’re here listening. Right now you’re listening to us, but we spend our time listening to Romanians, Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians. That’s why we came. And then, because of that nomination system, Romania and other countries have the opportunity to find their best and their brightest. It’s not for us to choose. It’s your country’s choice.
Janes Sargus: That’s the American version of democracy.
CaleaEuropeană.ro: The last question is a package one. Romania is both NATO and EU member, has a strategic partnership with United States and has chosen its path. A democratic one, very clearly. The Republic of Moldova and Ukraine also want to do that. These countries represent a very good field of your program and help build more leaders. What can you say about your plans towards Romania, firstly, and also towards Moldova, which is very important for Romania, and Ukraine, which is fighting for its liberty?
Jane Sargus: I’m hearing from a variety of sources that Romania seeks to shore up its ability to lead a country forward towards deeper into the EU. That’s what I’m hearing that the leaders here want. I hear that from the NGOs, I hear that from the government and I hear it at the embassy. This a country that has no problem recognizing what it needs, and doesn’t even mind sharing it, which I think is the first step to really achieving your goals. If you are not trying to hide your deficiencies, as a country, that means you’re trying to work out with them and create capacity or find success in some way. In Romania there are many sectors that we could be working in. If I had all the money in the world, it would be incredible, because there’s no shortage of things, delegations and young people that would benefit mightily. We’re going to do our best under all circumstances. But I can see that there’s a lot to do. For me, that’s a very exciting prospect because we all want success. Seeing the possibility of success for Romania is just thrilling, and I truly believe Romania is choosing that and we’re there to help. So we support Romania’s effort to achieve what is self determined to be success, and that is what our agency does. We also do it because Congress wants to see us achieve success in the same range for the same reasons.
Moldova has been one of our countries for a number of years. We’re very close to Moldova, we see a lot what our work has to do. Moldova suffers a lot. When we were there last May, there was a great deal of tension and nervousness and fear, obviously, because they’re so close and they probably think they’re next. We’ve talked, listened and said what does Moldova need, how can we help you? And it is not just little civil society programs or anything like that. It’s a much stronger program to help them with cybersecurity, help them with border issues. But we listen, like Maura said, we listen, you tell us what you think your country needs, we will support that.
Maura Shelden: With Ukraine, our program changed according to their needs in 2014, with the initial invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. We found ourselves working very closely with the Ukrainians. They’ve established the Ministry of Veterans Affairs, they were establishing NGOs that could assist veterans returning into the community. There haven’t been that type of support for vets. Really, up until that point, it was just family by family dealing on their own with with some of the traumas that veterans bring back to their homes. We worked with the parliament, we worked with the ministries and civil society organizations to really tackle that issue. After February 24, 2022, we do a lot of medical delegations like battlefield medics and rehabilitation doctors, the treatment of burns and other wounds found in the battlefield. We do lots of parliamentary delegations and parliamentary staff so that they are writing the legislation they need to keep moving forward and to seal any cracks that there might be where Russia has previously sort of seeped into. The dedication to the Ukraine program is stronger than ever, and we still bring large amounts of Ukrainians, including men from Ukraine, despite the fact that they’re under martial law. We have alumni at the highest levels of government, and so their men are allowed permission to take part in these 10 day programs. And they always returned. Sometimes they return straight to the battlefield. We have a good reputation and that’s why we have the honor of creating programs for Ukrainians.
Jane Sargus: The programs that Maura talked about came from Ukrainians. They said we need our own Department of Veterans Affairs, we need our own national cemetery. They came to us and asked us to do certain things. (…) It is really our chance to support a program that helps Ukrainians and that’s what we do. We’re not trying to help ourselves in that sense. What has happened is that Congress likes the outcomes. Congress is our boss. They like what we’re doing. Therefore they keep us in business, and they weigh in very much on where we go. That’s why we’ve only recently started in Romania, Poland and Hungary. These are brand new. For 23 years we were doing post-Soviet countries, but now we have programs in Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, the Baltics. Now, Congress want us to be working in these border countries, not only just to support Ukraine, but to support the border countries of Ukraine.
Maura Shelden: Because it’s both. Security right now relies on a safe and free Ukraine and until that, this whole region is unstable and we help in our civilian manner to support other initiatives. But what we can do is engage at the grassroots level on behalf of Congress.
MEP Vasile Blaga: An EU-US trade war would come at the worst possible time, but “the EU must remain attractive to green energy investment”
MEP Vasile Blaga (PNL, EPP) welcomed on Tuesday the European Commission’s plan to counter US anti-inflation policies, stressing that a trade war between the EU and the US would come at the worst possible time.
”It is probably hard enough for the European Union to give up strict single market policies, but the new economic logic into which Russia’s attack on Ukraine has thrown us all requires radical measures. And it is good that, albeit belatedly, the European Union is considering measures to keep innovation and production of renewable energy products in Europe. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in the US last year, with a $367 billion package of subsidies to boost manufacturing in the US, risks relocating much of the EU’s production or new investment in green energy. A trade war between the US and the EU would come at the worst possible time, given Russia’s aggression against Ukraine which should unite us all”, said Vasile Blaga.
The European Union is preparing a plan to relax state aid to support investment in green sectors. The aid also includes making it easier for companies to access tax credits.
The draft also includes an extension of the ”exemption” scheme, which allows differentiated state aid to certain sectors without prior approval from the Commission, making it easier for Member States to subsidise green hydrogen or biofuel production capacity.
“Everything is still in a planning stage, things are still under discussion. The European Union must also come up with a solution to prevent possible imbalances in the single market caused by the different financial possibilities of member states. The EU must also consider a financing component in the new plan”, said Vasile Blaga.
Vasile Blaga considers that the result of the Austrian elections is more likely to hinder than help Romania in its efforts to join Schengen: Diplomatic efforts must continue
MEP Vasile Blaga (PNL, EPP), member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, said in an assessment submitted to CaleaEuropeană.ro that the results of the Austrian elections regarding Schengen enlargement ”are not optimistic” and that they ”rather hinder us than help us”.
”I see an unusual enthusiasm about the Austrian election result. The electoral decline of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP), Chancellor Nehammer’s party, is only relevant to Austria’s domestic politics. As for the consequences of the result on Schengen enlargement, they are not optimistic. It should be noted that the percentages lost by Nehammer’s party are taken up by the extreme right (FPO – Freedom Party) whose anti-migration discourse will probably become even more radical in the coming period”, said Blaga.
According to him, ”the election result shows us a trend in Austrian society, a response to a migration crisis situation which, of course, has no direct connection with Romania”.
Despite this, ”in the current context, the Austrian election result is more hindering than helpful”, mentioned the MEP.
”In my opinion, we need to focus less on the outcome of the Austrian elections and instead continue our diplomatic efforts. The Schengen issue must not die out, it must be kept alive, the diplomatic efforts must continue. Similarly, in the European Parliament, all delegations of Romanian MEPs must act and communicate in unison and permanently on the subject of Romania and Bulgaria’s integration into the Schengen area”, appealed Vasile Blaga.
The Austrian People’s Party (OVP), the ruling conservatives) lost its absolute majority in Sunday’s regional elections in Austria’s largest Land, falling by around 10 percentage points, while the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) achieved its best result ever.
The OVP, affected by corruption investigations as well as global crises, reached 39.8% – its worst result since 1945 – and lost its absolute majority in the Lower Austrian parliament and probably also in the regional government. By contrast, the FPO achieved 24.5%, its best result ever in the eastern province.
The Netherlands and Austria expressed last week, during a meeting between Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Chancellor Karl Nehammer, their desire to jointly seek solutions in the fight against illegal migration during the special EU summit in February, as the two countries are currently arguing against the expansion of the Schengen area.
If Austria shows no signs of reconsidering its position, the Netherlands seems to be sending a double message. During his visit to Romania, Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra met several officials in Bucharest, including his counterpart Bogdan Aurescu, Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă and President Klaus Iohannis, assuring them of his country’s support for Schengen accession of Romania.
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