By José Ignacio Torreblanca* – European Council on Foreign Relations
From Putin to Trump, to Viktor Orban and Xi Jinping, several world leaders accuse the Hungarian magnate of wanting to bring them down. In Spain, his main enemy is Vox.
This is the man who brings together the American extreme right and the European extreme left; who connects Vladimir Putin in Russia to Vox in Spain and the Chinese regime to Viktor Orban in Hungary. George Soros, investor and philanthropist, is about to turn 90 years old, but he maintains the bright vision, analytical acuity, and irony which have always characterised him. Some accuse him of wanting to fill Europe with Muslim immigrants in order to dilute the continent’s Christian roots. Others accuse him of wanting to destroy the European Union to impose neoliberal, Anglo-Saxon values. I ask him about this ability to incite fear of global proportions. “I am proud of the enemies I have”, he answers with a smile. “My work and the work of my foundations consists of promoting and reinforcing open societies, so this tells me that we are doing something right”, although he ironically concludes that “the downside is that we have just a little too many enemies right now”.
That is how Soros, a man who, by surviving the Nazi occupation of Hungary, learned almost all the vital lessons that allowed him to live a successful life in the finance world, as well as in the world of philanthropy. Even today, Soros represents the most visible incarnation of the ideals of the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. His foundations are called Open Society in honour of one of the great thinkers on not only the topic of freedom, but also of its fragility and, as such, of the need to defend it tirelessly and continuously. Soros continues to enjoy talking about the two concepts (reflexivity and fallibility) that have made up his life’s philosophy. In Soros’s world, nobody possesses the truth and we must discover it by questioning reality with the help of our principles and values.
I talk with him via video-conference, him in New York, me in Madrid. We met in person a little over a decade ago when, together with Martti Ahtisaari (Nobel Peace Prize), Joschka Fischer, Emma Bonino, Javier Solana, Diego Hidalgo, Ana Palacio and other European figures, he spearheaded the creation of the European Council on Foreign Relations, which is dedicated to achieving a Europe with a single voice, which is united in the defence of its values and principles, and whose office in Madrid I agreed to run. It is just a small part of philanthropic activity that has so far resulted in the donation of $32 billion to related organisations promoting democracy, the protection of human rights, freedom of thought and expression, journalism, justice, refugees, as well as the fight against discrimination towards groups such as the Roma community or LGBT people.
The objective of its first donation, in 1979, was to provide scholarships to young South Africans to enable them to study and overcome the barriers of apartheid. Later, it supported the opposition in Hungary, also with a scholarship programme and with stencil machines to print its samizdat – a purchase that enabled it to make money from the communist regime due to its absurd exchange rate policy. Out of this came a global network of foundations that have largely been present during democratic change processes and social transformations that have occurred since; also, in the construction of a fairer multilateral order, based on rules and on the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
In Spain, the “Soros effect” was formerly an accusation levelled by the left, due to the effect’s role in the devaluation of the British pound and (as a result) of the peseta. This has taken off lately because of the activism of Vox, which has taken on board and adapted the messages and techniques of the extreme right in the US. The result is a cocktail in which agitation in social networks is mixed up; disinformation and fake news spread by digital pseudo-media; analysts who live on the sets of infotainment; and, lastly, pamphlets and libel (Soros: Breaking Spain) in which he is accused not only of financing and supporting the breakaway of Catalonia, but also of having managed to infiltrate Spanish society to such a point as to have, supposedly, under his control or influence such diverse figures as Federico Jiménez Losantos, Carlos Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boyé, and the newspaper El País.
“The only chance for Trump to win is to steal the election by […] introduc[ing] measures that would discourage people from voting by mail.”
The accusation of having supported and financed the breakaway of Catalonia (that Javier Solana, Diego Hidalgo, and Ana Palacio say they are equally “astonished” by) is not new, but it is revealing in terms of the function of these campaigns. An example is Hungary, where Orban has not only encouraged hatred of Soros (whose foundation he received a grant from), organising a referendum around him, but also harassed the Central European University, run by Michael Ignatieff, until it closed. In the case of Spain, not only is there no evidence that Soros supported the breakaway of Catalonia, but, as has been shown, it was Russia that, in collusion with Catalonian separatists and in line with the campaigns that it pursued against other democracies, interfered with its official media, social networks, and other allies like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The objective of all of this was to weaken the position of a key member of the EU and NATO at a time when Russia’s military intervention in the Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea were at the centre of international attention.
During our conversation, I ask him the question again and he confirms unequivocally that “it is completely false that we are promoting nationalism when in reality, we favour international cooperation. Neither I, nor the Open Society Foundation, have adopted any position on the independence of Catalonia. It is a false accusation”.
The ultimate objective of disinformation is not so much that we believe in an alternative truth – truth will always be fragile and easy to dismantle – but that spreading the claim that those in power hide the facts that would give them away makes it impossible for us to know the truth. Due to this, instead of wasting time refuting conspiracy theories, we must insist on the facts. Look, for example, at the accusations against Soros of wanting to weaken or destroy Europe. It does not matter how many times he has shown himself to be, either with words or through work, a passionate defender of European unity. During our conversation, Soros not only recalls that his commitment to European integration can be traced back to the birth of the European institutions themselves (“I watched”, he says, “the development of the European Union from the time of the coal and steel community until it grew into the European Union”), but also that he justifies it insofar as the ideals in which the European integration process is sustained fit perfectly with the open society project that has influenced all of his philanthropic activity.
His commitment to Europe extends to the present time. His latest proposal in the face of a crisis such as covid-19, whose consequences worry him greatly, is that the EU should issue “perpetual bonds” with which to finance economic recovery. The idea has been very well received (“Spain has made a great contribution in explaining its importance”, he acknowledges) because it would enable a lot more resources to be brought together, up to €1 billion, at a tenth of the cost ($5 billion a year), than the issuance of a 30-year debt. I ask him about the revival of the rivalries between north and south and Catholics and Protestants each time Europe is in crisis and he points out something to me that certainly a lot of people in the Netherlands are not aware of: that “perpetual bonds have been used since 1648 when a Dutch water board issued them to pay for repairing a dike.”
If Soros’s enemies are diverse, then it is because the enemies of democracy too are diverse. This explains why his activism does not distinguish between right and left, colours or countries. One of his biggest current worries is related to the role of digital technology. In his recent speeches, he has been as critical of the big digital platforms – which he has accused of operating like monopolies that exploit users’ rights to access their data; he has even called for Mark Zuckerberg to step down from running Facebook – as he has been of the Chinese government. For Soros, “the development of artificial intelligence and the so-called social credit system that China is developing is the ultimate threat to open society.”
I conclude by trying to tempt Soros with a bet: “What are the chances that Trump will get re-elected?”. “No one can accuse Putin or Xi Jinping of not being clever,” he responds ironically, “Trump – also a would-be a dictator – can be accused of not being clever.” “Trump cannot actually win the second term because of the way he mishandled the virus and caused many unnecessary deaths”. He does, however, warn that: “The only chance for him to win is to steal the election by using the virus emergency to introduce measures that would discourage people from voting by mail. That’s his only chance and he’s actually admitted it even if this leads to the postal service going bankrupt.”. Soros leaves with a warning: that we should not allow the coronavirus to be the final blow to our open societies at a time when their enemies are so strong.
*Senior policy fellow and head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a position he has held since the launch of ECFR across Europe in 2007. His topics of focus include populism and euroscepticism in Europe, common foreign security and defence policy, and EU domestic politics and institutional reforms. Torreblanca was previously editorial director of the Spanish daily El Pais. This profile was originally published by Spanish daily El Mundo.