“To be a man of the West, is to belong to a culture of incomparable originality and power; it is also to be implicated in incomparable crimes.
Brief Preamble by the author: This essay first appeared in Ovi magazine in 2013 as a thematic contribution to the theme of nationalism. This is a slightly revised version. The theme of nationalism has consumed rivers of ink. It is a veritable challenge to even attempt to condense it in a few thousand words in the form of an essay, but, for whatever their worth, here are a few synthesizing thoughts.
Those thoughts have appeared in greater detail in two books I have published lately. One of those books has appeared in the Ovi’s bookshop as an e-book titled Europe beyond the Euro, and the other is titled A New Europe in Search of its Soul (Author-House, 2005). The interested reader may wish to peruse them for a more thorough treatment of the issue.
Iwish to begin with a sharp distinction between nationalism interpreted as patriotism, as loyalty to one’s country and respectful of the patriotism of others for their country, and blind destructive nationalism, characterized by an overzealous almost fanatical regard for one’s country alleged superiority and a misguided dishonorable disregard for others’ countries often considered inferior and resulting in innumerable wars. Even a cursory look at European history will confirm such a confusion.
When nationalism is positive and constructive it calls the individual to self-sacrifice, puts loyalty high on its scale of values, it is proud of the national language, the native soil, the history and culture of the nation and the right of self-governance and determination. This is patriotism in tandem with nationalism. When nationalism is negative however it becomes exaggerated and blind to the fault of one’s nation; it turns into a destructive force leading to attempts by one nation to dominate other nations. Perhaps the best example of this kind of xenophobic destructive nationalism bent only on mere military glory and prowess is Nazi Germany, a nationalism gone crazy. More than patriotism we ought to call this kind of negative nationalism chauvinism and xenophobia. It declares “my country right or wrong.” To use a metaphor, if my mother happens to be a drunk, the best way to help her is to first acknowledge the truth that she is a drunk and then try to help her, while continuing to love her even as a drunk. The chauvinist instead proclaims “my mother, drunk or sober.” This is an important distinction often overlooked by those historians and scholars who collapse the word patriotism into nationalism.
A common language is very important but does not necessarily result in instant nationalism. In Italy, the modern European nation I am most familiar with, there was a common literary language in place since the 12th century, as exemplified in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Petrarch’s Canzoniere and Boccaccio’s Decamerone. Politically, however, we need to wait six more centuries (1860) for Italian national unification to become a reality. The paradox present in Machiavelli’s Prince is this: while he lauds the universalism of the Romans and writes the Prince dressed in a Roman toga, he is also urging, via his political science, the imitation of the foreign nationalism in order to become another united nation. I shall return to this theme of nationalism and universalism, which constitutes the title of the essay, further down in the essay.
To better discern this announced distinction, we need to go back to ancient Greece where there was indeed a common language and culture and yet those were not able by themselves to overcome centrifugal political forces and unify the city states into one country. There was however patriotism and pride in one’s culture, best exhibited by Leonidas’ small force of 300 Spartans confronting the invading oriental Persian “barbarians” at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Those Spartans were sacrificing themselves for a common Greek culture, a culture spread for a short while all the way to India by Alexander the Great. So, paradoxically, the universalism of an empire succeeded where nationalism as we know it failed. In the Roman Empire too we see an empire with Latin as a lingua franca, as a sort of unifying principle beyond military might. That empire lasted a bit longer than surmised, some two thousand years if we remember that the Byzantine empire was the continuation of the Roman empire, and that Greco-Roman civilization continues to be at the basis of our own and to exercise considerable influence on it.
The Goddess Europe on a journey on top of Zeus disguised as a bull
When we come to the Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, another intriguing thing happens. National languages (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German) begin to sprout but it is the Catholic Church and Latin and more broadly speaking Christianity which continues to supply the unifying centripetal cultural factor to the whole continent of Europe. Without understanding that simple historical fact one searches in vain for the roots of European cultural identity. This is indeed something that seems to be either ignored or forgotten by the present day Europeans in search of unity beyond nationalism and sometimes finding it in inanities such as soccer games and common banks and currency, thus ending up with the cart before the horse. When Italian unification was achieved Dazeglio said “now that we have done Italy we need to make the Italians.” Similarly we now have some Europeans proclaiming that “now that we have a European Union we need to find the sources of European identity.” There would be no need to reinvent such a wheel if the Italian historical example had been better pondered.
For full-fledged nationalism to arrive on the stage in Europe we need to wait for the Protestant Reformation which shatters the unity provided by Latin and the Catholic Church. And so a more narrow nationalistic experiences follow the universal experiences of the Empire, the Renaissance, the Catholic Church. The word Catholic, after all, literally means universal. So we have well formed nation states, Spain, England, Portugal, France, fighting each other incessantly either in Europe or all over the globe as they build their imperialistic empires in America, Africa and Asia. Nationalism becomes the fashion and the politically correct way to go. This despite the fact that the elite aristocracy of Europe (in Russia for example) preferred to speak French rather than their native languages. That was a form of effete cultural showmanship and not allegiance to France.
While Christianity barely survived in Spain, it remained the dominant faith in the rest of the European continent to such an extent that the adjectives “European” and “Christian” tended to be confused. What is intriguing in Goff’s thesis is that he designates as Christian Europe only the Western part of the Roman Empire, not Byzantium, the Christian Orthodox Eastern half; nor Greek and Russian Christian Orthodoxy, nor paganism and its vestiges which are somehow regarded as unessential to European unity.
Be that as it may, one begins to wonder if it is purely coincidental that the former Pope Benedict XVI, who had assumed the very name of the patron saint of Europe, the founder of Western monasticism, travelled to Bari, Italy, the land of Saint Nicholas, the linchpin between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, on the very day when the French people voted down the EU Constitution put before them by their elitist politicians and pundits. Food for thought.
What is of interest to us here is the crucial question suggested by Goff’s thesis: in an ultra secularized modern Europe so unfriendly to religion in general, is it conceivable that the Catholic Christendom of the Middle Ages be at least acknowledged as the direct precursor of today’s Europe? The question may result absurd for many Europeans, but if it is, it would itself reveal an intriguing posture vis-à-vis religion on the European continent. It would at the very least raise the suspicion that the grudge against religion is so deep that one is ready to ignore and even deny one’s cultural roots.
Christopher Dawson and the Making of Europe
In 1932 Christopher Dawson published a book titled The Making of Europe which had enormous success and established his reputation as a scholar of incredible range and erudition who could communicate with great clarity and elegance. He had previously written two other books: The Age of the Gods (1928), and Progress and Religion (1929) but this was unique.
The book avoids the conventional burdensome footnotes, bibliographies and theoretical frameworks and reads like a romantic novel, hence its popularity. Indeed, 19th century Romanticism was a corrective to the previous century, the so called age of Enlightenment. It did this by questioning the rationalist conviction that the empirical physical sciences constituted the paradigm of all knowledge and thus reinstated Giambattista Vico’s revaluation of history against the Cartesian depreciation of it as mere gossip.
Vico had observed that the external world of nature is ultimately impenetrable, for the human mind can only attempt to manipulate it within the strict limits set by God who created it. The stream of history, on the other hand, is essentially the world that the human creative spirit has made, and therefore despite its recurring mysteries, it can come to be known by humans in an incomparably deeper sense. Dawson shared this revaluation of history as did Hegel when he declared history the highest form of knowledge: the self-realization of the absolute spirit in time.
And what was the single idea, the keynote of Dawson’s thought as found in The Making of Europe? I was this: religion is the soul of a culture and a society that has lost its spiritual roots is a dying society, however prosperous it may appear externally. The fate of our civilization was endangered not only by the fading of the vision of faith that originally formed it, namely Christianity, but the failure to integrate the world of reason and science with the world of the soul, which has lost the power to express itself through culture. In Dawson’s view this was the tragedy of modern man. Before writing his famous book Dawson had read and pondered deeply the works of Augustine (The City of God) and Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). He was also influenced by Lord Acton’s World History wherein Acton affirms that “religion is the key of history.” He slowly became aware of the continuity of history and of how the coming of Christianity had transformed the dying Roman Empire into a new world.
He spent fourteen years of intensive study before writing his twenty some books among which Enquiries into Religion and Culture (1934), Religion and Culture(1948), Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950), The Crisis of Western Education (1961), The Formation of Christendom (1961). All these books dealt with the life of civilizations. The underlying idea in them was the interaction of religion with culture and subsequently with civilization. Religion is discovered to be the dynamic element in every culture—its life and soul. He discovered that worship, prayer, the rite of sacrifice, and the moral law were common to all religions and so what the object of worship, and that moreover, the destiny of the human race was conditioned not only by material progress but by a divine purpose or providence working through history. Dawson also discovered that “the world religions have been the keystones of the world cultures, so that when they are removed the arch falls and the building is destroyed” (Progress and Religion, p. 140).
As he surveys the two millennia of Christianity Dawson noted four landmarks. The first one is the new element which defines the difference between the new faith and the old mystery religions of Europe: this is the principle of a dynamic and creative spirit that inspires the whole of life. The Christian religion has a power of renewal that has accompanied it through the ages.
The second landmark was the extraordinary development in the fourth century A.D. when Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. After centuries of living on the inherited capital of the Hellenistic culture, this fountainhead seemed to run dry. Yet the achievement of Greece and Rome were not rejected by this new faith. They were merely transformed. Classical learning and the Latin language became fused with the ideals of a Christian society that was founded not on wealth, tyranny and power but on freedom, progress, and social justice. Latin became “not only a perfect vehicle for the expression of thought but also an ark which carried the seed of Hellenic culture through the deluge of barbarism” (The Making of Europe, p. 49).
The third great change of thought, according to Dawson, came about in the 16th century with the Renaissance and the Reformation, which brought an end to medieval unity. The fourth came about after the industrial revolution in the 19th century and led to the 20th century. In one of his last books Dawson, the Crisis of Western Education Dawson calls our own era the age of Frankenstein, “the hero who creates a mechanical monster and then found it had got out of control and threatened his own existence” (p. 189).He had in mind atomic warfare and he argued that if Western society were to gain control over these forces there would have to be a reintegration of faith and culture, and that there is an absolute limit to the progress that can be achieved by perfecting scientific techniques detached from spiritual aims and moral values. This is similar to Einstein assessment of our era as one characterized by perfection of means and confusion of goals.
But let us go back to The Making of Europe which remains Dawson’s best-known book. In it he demonstrates that Christianity has been the spiritual force that created the unity of Western culture, indeed the commonwealth of Europe itself, from the chaotic world of myriad warring tribes. He shows in that book how the Dark Ages, the period between 400 and 1000 A.D., became a dawn witnessing to the conversion of the West, the foundation of Western civilization and the creation of Christian art and liturgy. And he then asked a crucial question: If such a transformation could happen in the age of the barbarians could it not be repeated now? Like the founding fathers of the EU Dawson, after the Second World War was already envisioning a new united Europe. But he soon realized that there was a problem which faced not only Europe but America too and all societies that consider themselves Western.
The problem was this: the disastrous separation of culture from its religious base brought about by the modern barbarians of the mind and assorted nihilists had not been stemmed by the modern educational system which considered the study of religion superfluous and in fact aimed at its liquidation. The unity of thought, which had prevailed in European civilization over a thousand years, was shattered by excessive specialization which allowed the educated elites to see the tree while missing the forest; moreover science, philosophy and theology had long since split apart. Education, rather than being a preparation for life, had become purely utilitarian and vocational. Humanistic studies needed to be resurrected in all schools and not preserved, almost as a relic of the past, in places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities as a sort of frosting on the cake of education. This was urgent since the neo-barbarians had already entered the citadel of learning and were hard at work to destroy it from the inside.
Humanism as integrated with Catholicism was at the forefront of Dawson’s speculation. It was that humanism which produced the medieval unity of the 13th century exemplifying Christian culture par excellence. For the flowering of art in every form reached its zenith in Europe between the 13the and 15th centuries with the poetry of Dante and Petrarch, the fresco painters of the Florentine school Giotto and Fra Angelico, and the sculptures of Michelangelo. It was also the age of saints and mystics, both men and women: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominick, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, just to name a few.
It must be mentioned that Dawson was not advocating a return to the Middle Ages; neither was he commending the external apparatus of medievalism, nor Charlemagne’s so called Holy Roman Empire, but rather “a return to the forgotten world of spiritual reality” to which these centuries bear witness. He was not recommending a nostalgic evasion of the present day cultural dilemmas. He was indeed an intellectual for
The Holy Roman Empire in 1250
whom ideas were important but many of his colleagues noticed a paradox in him: together with the remote facts of history, he knew of the latest current events in remote corners of the world, and understood and spoke several European languages. Indeed, he had the gift of seeing deeper and further than many of his contemporaries because he had the capacity to interpret the present in the light of the events of the past. As he put it: “The more we know of the past, the freer we are to choose the way we will go.”
To conclude, it is a mistake to think of Dawson as an anti-modern. Rather, what he was advocating was a retrieval of spiritual values in a godless and nihilistic world. The reason he was assigned the first Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University was that he had the reputation of being a very broad-minded scholar, able to contemplate opposite ideas and integrate them. He was in short a consummate humanist who understood the universal character of the Church, which belongs neither to East nor to West but stands as a mediator between the two. It was in fact his humanism which led him to conversion to Catholicism as it also happened for G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and David Jones. I hope that this brief sketch of a great and beautiful mind will motivate some readers to a deeper exploration of its ideas. You will not be disappointed.
Jacques Le Groff on the Middle Ages
The middle Ages, after all, encompass no less than one thousand years of European history subdivided in early (500-1000), high (1000-1300), and late (1300-1500). Jacques Le Groff, a well known French cultural anthropologist, is the first one to discard the early middle ages of Charlemagne as precursor of the idea of Europe. He sees them as too consciously Christian with a rather violent ideological program, although he stops short of branding them as “Christian imperialism,” for indeed the confusion between the spiritual and the temporal, properly speaking begins with Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD who adopts Christianity at the official religion of the Roman Empire. Goff, however brands Charlemagne’s empire “the first example of a perverted Europe.” Other “perversions” that he takes notice of, are the empires of Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler.
|The Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century|
So, what’s left are the High Middle Ages, usually viewed by historians as the most creative segment of the medieval millennium. This period of history produced the Italian city states, seen as the precursors of modern democracy, as well as international banking and commerce, considered the foundations of any modern state. Culturally, the High Middle Ages produce Scholasticism which gives Europe the first modern universities (Bologna, Padua, Naples, Paris, Salamanca) with their uniquely European intellectual propensity for critical thinking rooted in skeptical doubt, intellectual freedom, lucidity and clarity. Descartes, who had a penchant for rationally “clear and distinct ideas” devoid of imagination and the poetical, is often seen as the intellectual grandchild of the Scholastics. Thereafter we have the late medieval and the Renaissance periods which, after the disaster of the Black Death, witness an unprecedented era of European global expansion spanning five centuries: from the late 15th century (1492) till the early 20th century.
The New Western Imperialism
In an insightful article in The Scotsman titled How African Aid can be the New Imperialism, Fraser Nelson argues that there is a new Western imperialism on the horizon, echoing the now forgotten 19th century British rationalization for global empire, i.e., “the white man’s burden”: the moral obligation to change the world—allegedly for the better—and redeem it with civilization, the rule of law, and the spread of democracy and market values.
He characterizes this political phenomenon as “history [that] has swung full circle,” since this vision, allegedly for the benefit of its former colonies, does not proceed directly from Washington (where political power now resides) but from London in the person of the former UK’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. His ambition then and now is to become the conscience of the world while George Bush acts as its policeman.
If one were ignorant of the history of Western imperialism one would see absolutely nothing wrong with the above scenario. We would all feel good about ourselves as Westerners, and perhaps even safer. But to talk of “new imperialism” one must have in mind the old one as a reference point. Moreover, to examine such an old Western imperialism one needs to go all the way back to Alexander the Great, then proceed to the Roman Empire, the Carolingian, so called “Holy Roman Empire” of the Middle Ages, the expansionistic global colonialist era of 16th century Renaissance which extends all the way to the 19th century to encompass the Spanish empire, the French empire, the British empire, the Russian empire, the Portuguese empire, the Italian empire, Napoleon’s empire, Frederick the Great’s empire, Charles V’s empire, the Austria-Hungarian empire, Mussolini’s empire, Stalin’s empire, Hitler’s empire.
The list is endless but worth remembering, for as Marx quipped, those who have amnesia about their history risk repeating it; they may find themselves driving the brand new car called the EU, full speed ahead into a future disaster with no rear-view mirror. That is a dangerous operation as both Vico and McLuhan have well taught us. Hence it may prove useful to briefly revisit the phenomenon of imperialism which is unique to the West. In my opinion, two recent books are essential reading for any kind of valid analysis of the phenomenon: Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Europe, and William Pfaff’s The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia.
Le Goff alerts us to the fact that the present geography of the European Union is strangely similar to that of Medieval Catholic Christendom, i.e., the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne which used to encompass at its core France, Germany and Northern Italy. He then argues that although the ancient Greeks originally proposed the distinction between East (Asia) and West (Europe), nobody at the time, and even subsequently during Roman times, called oneself “European,” despite the famous myth of the goddess Europa. If anything, the proud boast was that of “civis Romanus sum.” The unity of the Mediterranean world was Roman through and through. It was broken not so much by the invading northern barbarians, who often were assimilated and proud to also declare themselves Roman citizens, but by the rise of Islam, its conquest of Jerusalem in 638, and its subsequent conquest of North Africa and Spain.
The above mentioned expansionary period gives the designation Europe its full meaning. How so? In this sense: while imperialism and colonization proper begin with Alexander the Great, once, and only once so far, has existed in man’s history the phenomenon of total global dominance, and that dominance has been exercised by Europeans, or those of European descent which of course includes North Americans. As Le Goff points out, although in the 15th century China was the most advanced country in the world, it never expanded beyond its borders and never dreamed that the sun would never set on its possessions. The Moslem world also has lost the impetus and cultural fervor of its medieval period. Such is not the case for Europe.
Europe is different. In the explanation of this difference lies the crux of the enigma. Some have explained it away with technological superiority, i.e., superior guns and ships. Others, depending on their pet ideology, go for social explanations: capitalism, or individualism, considered uniquely European. What is lost sight of, is the fact that 1492 while witnessing the beginning of a rapid European expansionism, also witnessed in Spain the dual destruction of Europe’s largest Jewish community, and of Granada, the last bastion of Moslem culture in Western Europe.
So, from the very beginning of the global expansion, one notices a tendency to exclude certain elements which were already present in the Medieval European cultural identity while retaining others; a club mind-set seems to have been set-up, with the included and the excluded. It all leads to another crucial question of cultural identity: does European mean Christian in any sense? The EU constitution, as presented to the European people obviously does not suggest so, since it does not as much as mention Europe’s Christian heritage aside from some vague references to “spiritual values.” And yet, it cannot be denied that several important features of the modern West, such as universities, corporate towns, representative assemblies, have their roots in the Christian Middle Ages. Why this penchant for historical amnesia?
Napoleon provides the illusion of a unification of Europe but what he provided was really French imperialism with a national foundation. In America a common English does not prevent the colonists from declaring independence from its European colonizing nation and proclaiming their own independent country. Later on, the French and American revolutions advance the idea, popularized by Rousseau’s “Social Contract” and flourishing in the 19th and 20th century, that all the classes within countries comprised the nation. The people have become the nation.
In the 19th century, to men like Mazzini, Garibaldi, Verdi (see his opera Nabucco), nationalism was an ideal worth striving for and even dying for. In mid 19th century both Italy and Germany become unified countries politically, but culturally they both possessed a viable and vibrant culture centuries before. The number of sovereign nations in Europe reached 24 in 1924.
There is no doubt that nationalism played a major role in World War I. Those were the chickens coming home to roost given that the Congress of Vienna of 1815, after the demise of Napoleon, paid little attention to nationalistic aspirations in its division of European territories. Nationalism was certainly in the mind of Woodrow Wilson when he declared at the Treaty of Versailles the principle of self-determination. What you ultimately had there were for multi-national empires limited by the boundaries of their predominant nationality: Austria-Hungary, the German Empire, the Ottoman empire and the Russian empire. Certain historic states simply disappeared from the map while Czechoslovakia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania appeared suddenly and out of nowhere on the map of Europe.
After World War II nationalism spreads to Arab countries, India, the Far East, Africa below the Sahara, on the dovetail of European imperialism. As the UN exemplifies the world is now made up of hundred of nations despite the predictions of nationalism’s disappearance after the second World War. Nationalism in fact goes viral and produces after World War I tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar, Mao, Castro, Amin; they all considered themselves super-patriots. The schizophrenia on the part of Mussolini is almost comical. On one hand he fancied himself a Roman Emperor out to restore the ancient glory of the Romans and establish Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean; on the other hand he was, monkey-like, imitating all the worst features of a narrow negative kind of European nationalism, colonialism and all, as evidenced in the most powerful European nations. Had he remembered the true glory of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance and the Catholic Church he would have known that the core of that glory was not narrow nationalism but universality. Those were all universal movements to which Italy had become accustomed, thus rendering rabid nationalism a straight jacket of sort.
Signing of the EU Constitution in Rome (17 June 2004)
The question thus arises: has this gift of nationalism on the part of Europe to the rest of the world been a positive or negative one? Hard to answer such a question in the light of what we have just explored above. What remains paradoxical in all this is that Europe now claims to have abandoned nationalism forever for a sort of unifying federalism called the EU. Some no longer speak of the European Union but of the United States of Europe where nations govern themselves internally but contribute to a unified political goal and a common cultural identity and in the ideal spirit of solidarity and brotherhood, equality and liberty. But is this a reality as we speak? What about the rabid regionalism of an Umberto Bossi out to declare independence from Italy, not to speak of a rabid neo-nationalism consisting of right-wing political parties from all over Europe and presently within the European Parliament as a sort of Trojan Horse out to destroy the union. The question arises: is this universalism or rather a narrow resurgent nationalism of the worst kind?
Were not egalitè, fraternitè, libertè also the ideals of the French revolution? When things were going well economically, this seemed indeed to be the case in the EU. Now that hard financial times are upon us in the West as a whole, words like solidarity seem to have suddenly disappeared from the vocabulary. What one ears is the cold utilitarian language of the bureaucrat, the banker and the venture capitalist devoid of humanistic criteria, euphemistically characterizing his capitalistic activity, based on social Darwinism, as entrepreneurship, abysmally ignorant of the genuine heritage of European civilization. Which leads one to suspect that once again, just as with Italian unification, the cart has been put before the horse and the European cultural identity continues to be an elusive historical phenomenon. Indeed we live in a Brave New World and as Kierkegaard warned us back in the 19th century: the sickness unto death is to be sick, to have dehumanized itself as a culture and civilization and no longer be aware of it. of his
Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections
The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.
In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.
Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.
Small numbers, big changes
The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.
This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.
In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.
Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists
On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.
The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.
The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.
Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.
Coronavirus, climate & economy
Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.
Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.
The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.
The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.
New (old) government?
The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.
Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.
Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.
The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.
The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.
From our partner RIAC
EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession
On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.
During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.
However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.
Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”
While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.
The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.
This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”
Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.
In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.
German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy
In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.
The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.
Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.
Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.
According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.
To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.
For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.
As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.
The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.
|Issues Coalitions||Trafic Light||Grand Coalition||Jamaica|
1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.
In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.
Shaping US Middle East policy amidst failing states, failed democratization and increased activism
The future of US engagement in the Middle East hangs in the balance. Two decades of forever war in Afghanistan...
Gas doom hanging over Ukraine
The long history of gas transit across independent Ukraine began with Kiev’s initial failure to pay anything for Russian natural...
Safar Barlek of the 21st Century: Erdogan the New Caliph
Since the American’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, it became clear that everyone is holding his breath. That is exactly what Recep...
Analyzing The American Hybrid War on Ethiopia
Ethiopia has come under unprecedented pressure from the U.S. ever since it commenced a military operation in its northern Tigray...
Women Maoists (Naxalbari)
Every now and then, Indian newspapers flash news about Maoist insurgents, including women being killed. They usually avoid mentioning how...
Greenpeace Africa reacts to DRC President’s decision to suspend illegal logging concessions
The President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Félix Tshisekedi, ordered on Friday, October 15th, the suspension of all...
Are we on track to meet the SDG9 industry-related targets by 2030?
A new report published by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Statistical Indicators of Inclusive and Sustainable Industrialization, looks...
Arts & Culture3 days ago
Squid Game, Style influence and Sustainable consumption
East Asia4 days ago
Kishida and Japan-Indonesia Security Relations: The Prospects
Europe4 days ago
German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy
Europe4 days ago
EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession
Americas3 days ago
How Trump can beat Kamala Harris in 2024
Green Planet3 days ago
Climate change and global challenges
Europe4 days ago
Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections
Defense3 days ago
US military presence in the Middle East: The less the better