On 28th July exactly 100 years ago, Central Europe declared a war to Eastern Europe, an event that marked the official outbreak of World War I. This was a turning point which finally fractured a fragile equilibrium of La Belle Èpoque, and set the Old Continent and the whole world with it into the series of motions that lasted for almost a century, before docking us to our post-modern societies. From WWI to www. Too smooth and too good to be true? Let us use this occasion and briefly examine our post-modernity and some fallacies surrounding it.
In the (Brave New) world of www. where, irrespectively from your current location on the planet, at least 20 intelligence agencies are notifying the incoming call before your phone even rings up, how is it possible to lose jumbo-jet for good? The two huge aviation tragedies affecting same country – Malaysia, are yet another powerful reminders that we are obsessed with a control via confrontation, not at all with the prosperity through human safety. Proof? Look at the WWI-like blame-game over the downing of the plane – a perfect way to derail our most important debate: Which kind of future do we want? Who seats in our cockpit and why do we stubbornly insist on inadequate civilizational navigation?! Consequently, Ukraine today is a far bigger crash site, which is – regrettably enough – well beyond an ill-fated MH 17.
Why in the www. world our media still bears the WWI-like rethorics? The ongoing demonization of President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin in the so-called mainstream media actually serves as a confrontational nostalgia call on the side of West. Hence, this main-scream seems aiming not to alienate, but to invite the current Russian leadership to finally accept confrontation as a modus operandi after a 25 years of pause.
The conclusion these media leaves us with, is somewhat puzzling: the West has democratically decided that the CC + CC has no alternative (more Carbons and Confrontation e.g. in Ukraine, besides and despite the planetary Climate Change). President Putin autocratically still hesitates, and does not rush into the CC. Does it mean that Russia is more democratic and more progressive than it is reported to us, or that the West is more militaristic and more conservative than it loves to portray itself? Neither or either, all or none?
How about our post-modern cooperation? Which kind of neighborhood the European Union and United States have supported around Russia for the last 25 years, that same sort of Russia we are trying to see today. I would even dare say that Russia today is far better than the West (and its past acting) deserves to have. The same attribution would most probably apply to the Arab world. The way Atlantic-Central Europe and the US interacted with the MENA (Middle East–North Africa), and the sort of Islam they supported there yesterday, is the sort of Islam we are getting today in the Christian Europe as well as in the Christian neighborhoods of Iraq.
For the sake of quick Atlantic-Central Europe penetrations into the body and soul of East, all important debates such as that of Slavism, identity, secularism and antifascism have been adviced to Eastern Europe to abandon. By doing so, all the vital merits were simply handed over to Russia to solely deal with it. Why then our sudden shock that once recuperated, Russia returns with a (reloaded) identity which champions antifascism and (pan-)Slavism? After all, the rich but egalitarian, democratic, transparent, antifascist, a non-nation-state determined and secular US has supported everything opposite in Eastern Europe (in the MENA, too). For far too long, in the pretext of fighting the legacies of communism, Americans have tolerated Über-economic, political and socio-demographic neo-Nazism as well as the clerical ethno-fascism in the core sectors of Europe. It is now time to pay for letting the unchecked happen.
The winner takes it all is a Swedish song, not a Swedish table. Clearly, there is no winning without a full share of responsibility.
Europe of Sarajevo 100 years later
The end of the Cold War came abruptly, overnight. Many in the West dream about it, but nobody really saw it coming. The Warsaw Pact, Red Army in DDR, Berlin Wall, Soviet Union, one after the other, vanished rapidly, unexpectedly. There was no ceasefire, no peace conference, no formal treaty and guaranties, no expression of interests and settlement. Only the wonderer-boy face expression of that time Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze who circles around and unconvincingly repeats: “we now better understand each other”. In his luminary work ‘The New Asian Hemisphere’, Mahbubani accurately concludes that Mikhail Gorbachev – not understanding the real success of Western strength and power, handed over the Soviet empire and got nothing in return. Does our history only appear overheated, but is essentially calmly predetermined? Is it directional or conceivable, dialectic and eclectic or cyclical, and therefore cynical?
The Soviet Union was far more of a classic continental military empire (overtly brutal; rigid, authoritative, anti-individual, omnipresent, secretive), while the US was more a financial empire (covertly coercive; hierarchical, yet asocial, exploitive, pervasive, polarizing). Bear of permafrost vs. Fish of the warm seas. Athens vs. Sparta. Phoenicia vs. Rome… Consequently, the Soviets went bankrupt by mid 1980s – they cracked under its own weight, imperially overstretched. So did the Americans – the ‘white man burden’ fractured them already by the Vietnam war, with the Nixon shock only officializing it. However, the US imperium managed to survive and to outlive the Soviets. How? The United States managed its financial capital (or an illusion of it) insofar as to be(come) a debtor empire through the Wall Street guaranties. Titanium-made Sputnik vs. gold mine of printed-paper… Nothing epitomizes this better than the words of the longest serving US Federal Reserve’s boss, Alan Greenspan, who famously said to then French President Jacques Chirac: “True, dollar is our currency, but your problem”. Hegemony vs. hegemoney.
This very nature of power explains why the Americans have missed to take our mankind into completely other direction; towards the non-confrontational, decarbonized, de-monetized/de-financialized and de-psychologized, the self-realizing and green humankind. They had such a chance when, past the Gorbachev’s unconditional surrender of the Soviet bloc, the US – unconstrained as a ‘lonely superpower’ – solely dictated terms of reference. Sadly enough, that was not the first missed opportunity for the US. The very epilogue of the WWII meant a full security guaranty for the US: Geo-economically – 54% of anything manufactured in the world was carrying the Made in USA label, and geostrategically – the US had uninterruptedly enjoyed nearly a decade of the ‘nuclear monopoly’. Up to this very day, the US scores the biggest number of N-tests conducted, the largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry, and it represents the only power ever deploying this ‘ultimate weapon’ on other nation. To complete the irony, Americans enjoy geographic advantage like no other empire ever. Save the US, as Ikenberry notes: “…every major power in the world lives in a crowded geopolitical neighborhood where shifts in power routinely provoke counterbalancing”. The US is blessed with neighboring oceans.
Why the lonely might, an empire by invitation did not evolve into empire of relaxation, a generator of harmony? One of the leading architects of the American foreign policy, Simon Serfaty laments: “The irony is plain for all to see. Ten years after the fiasco in Iraq, the global demand for American power has never been higher, but its credibility rarely lower and its reliability more in doubt…a preponderant power must be right…for its enemies it must be strong, it must inspire trust…” What are we talking about here – the inadequate intensity of our confrontational push or about the false course of our civilizational direction?
Indeed, no successful and enduring empire does merely rely on coercion, be it abroad or at home. However, unable to escape its inner logics and deeply-rooted appeal of confrontational nostalgia, the prevailing archrival is only a winner, rarely a game-changer.Hence, to the above asked question whether our history is dialectic or cyclical, the current Ukrainian events are like a bad-taste déjà vu.
End of the Cold War – such a buzzword, of a diametrically different meaning. East interprets it as the final end of confrontation – beginning of the age of a mutual respect, harmony and understanding. The Westerners have no such an illusion. To them it is the end of war, which only came after the unconditional surrender of East. Another powerful evidence to support our claim: Just 20 years ago, distance between Moscow and NATO troops stationed in Central Europe (e.g. Berlin) was over 1.600 km. Today, it is only 120 km from St. Petersburg.Realities have dramatically changed for the Atlantic-Central Europe block and for Russia, while for Eastern Europe much remains the same–East still serves others as a strategic depth playground.
Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic
Vienna, 28 JUL 2014
Author is professor for international law and global political studies, based in Austria. His recent book Is There Life after Facebook? is published by the New York’s Addleton Academic Publishers. He was born in Sarajevo, place from which the Eastern effectively challenged Central Europe.
Or, by the words of the senior UN diplomat who, contemplating with me over the question whether a middle-power foreign policy is adequate for a great power, recently told me in Geneva: “The difference between Russia and the Soviet Union is that the Federation desperately looks around for respect, but leaves the world responsibilities solely to the US. As known, admiration and respect is earned not given for free.” Clearly, the post-Soviet Russia avoids any strategic global competition with the US. Still, it feels rather insulted with the current strategic global partnership – as both the US and China treat Moscow as a junior partner. Is it possible to (re-)gain a universal respect without any ideological appeal? That could be debated, but one thing is certain; even the mid-size powers such as Brazil, Indonesia or Turkey have moved on from a bandwagoning, reactive, opportune and slow to an emancipating proactive, accurate and extensive foreign policy.
How was a debtor empire born? One of the biggest (nearly schizophrenic) dilemmas of liberalism, ever since David Hume and Adam Smith, was an insight into reality; whether the world is essentially Hobbesian or Kantian. The state will rob you, but in absence of it, the pauperized masses will mob you. The invisible hand of Smith’s followers have found the satisfactory answer – sovereign debt. This ‘invention’ means: relatively strong government of the state, heavily indebted – firstly to local merchants, than to foreigners. With such a mixed blessing, no empire can easily demonetize its legitimacy.
One of the biggest ideological victories of the US is the fact that, only two decades after the Soviet collapse, Russia today has an economy dominated by oil-rich class of billionaires. The assets of this new caste are 20% of country’s GDP –by far the largest share held by the ultra-rich in any major economy. The second largest ideological victory for Americans is reported by the New York Times. It states that the outgoing Chinese President, leader of the country that officially still rests on ideology of oppressed working class, has allegedly accumulated family wealth of 1,7 billion in less than a decade of his rule (‘only’ 1 USD million every second day). Some in the US are not that happy about it, and are wondering – like Fukuyama in his luminary essay – “where is a counter-narrative?” To ease the pain for all balance-seekers: Even if the American ideological triumph might be a clear cut, geopolitically it remains undecided. While Russians were absorbing the shock of loss of their historical empire, the ‘lonely hyper-power’ did not quite know what to do with its colossal gain. The fact that there is no (yet) clear leader of the post-Western world, does not mean that the post-Christian and post-industrial West – as a place and as the geo-economic and ideological model – is unquestionably accepted as it was before.
There are many who would claim that the West was unable to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that the real winner in the superpowers’ playoff is actually the third. It is not only that Asia is resurfacing very self-confident. Deeper and structural, the issue is more subversive as well: One of the most remarkable achievements in the world history of capita-lism is happening last 20 years under the leadership of the largest Communist party on this planet. (While one of the biggest collectivisations à la communism was taking place in the cradles of capitalism –the US and UK financial hubs.) At this point, let us recall what was the epilogue of a lasting ideological confrontation between Byzantium and Sassanid Persia and of their colossal geopolitical overextension? Clearly, it was an appearance of the Third Power Center on a geopolitical and ideolo-gical terrain, which was gradually prevailing from the 7th century onwards. Byzantium and Sassanids corroded and imploded.
Despite the (formal) end of the Cold War, and contrary to all what we celebrate as a technological progress, our Gini coefficients’ distances are far larger than they were two decades ago. Additionally, as the EU was getting closer to Eastern and Russophone Europe, the socio-economic inequalities and politico-cultural exclusions there, were growing wider. The contemporary world (believes it) has unprecedented wealth. Although over the last four decades the global working force has tripled from roughly 1 to 3 billion, the world today holds mass poverty – like never before, especially in underdeveloped Africa and de-industrialized East of Europe. The newly set ‘economic system’ in Eastern Europe in fact reproduces poverty, even among the fortunate ones – people with a job, victims of low wages and long hours. According to the World Bank, total global wealth was $241 trillion in 2013 and is expected to rise to $334 trillion by 2018. The WB defines the UN standard poverty line with a threshold of $1,25/day. Lant Pritchett, a critical WB/IMF developmental economist, advocates a more reasonable bottom-line of $10/day. If his calculations were applied, between 90 and 95% population in the East-Rusophone Europe would be well below dignified life, deep under the poverty line!
Before too long, Washington will have to decide: either containment or accommodation – a viable truce with Moscow or unconditional backing of Russia’s closest neighbours. If Putin finally abandons the non-confrontational course, and regularizes the play on a confrontational nostalgia card, the US-led West might award Moscow by returning Baltics, some central-southern portions of Eastern Europe, along with Central Asia and Caucasus to Russian sphere of influence. If the history of Russo-American confrontations is (noisy or) deep, wide and long, their ability to broker a deal is remarkably extensive, too. Or, as prof. W.R. Mead elaborates: “…In deciding how hard to press Russia over Ukraine, the While House cannot avoid calculating the impact on Russia’s stance on the Syrian war or Iran’s nuclear program.” (Mead, W.R. (2014), The Return of Geopolitics, Foreign Affairs Magazine 93(3) 2014)
Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country
The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.
Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government
Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.
Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.
In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.
Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy
The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.
The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.
At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.
In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.
Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum
Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.
Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.
The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.
In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.
Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.
The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy
Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.
First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.
Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.
In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.
Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid
In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.
Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.
At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.
Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.
Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.
Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power
The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.
P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.
Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.
From our partner RIAC
Is British Democracy in Danger?
On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.
Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.
To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.
While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.
Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.
One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.
Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.
The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security
2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.
In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.
On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.
Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.
Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.
In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.
The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.
A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?
As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.
Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.
The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.
Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.
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