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Hard truths about Europe’s soft power

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In the run-up to last December’s EU summit on defence, Britain’s top general publicly warned that the UK risks being left with “hollowed out” armed forces. He said too little of the much-reduced British defence budget is being spent on personnel, too much on “exquisite” equipment bought for the wrong reasons. “We must be careful” he commented “that the defence budget is not disproportionately used to support the British defence industry.”

We in Britain have of course heard of that sort of thing happening on the Continent. Spanish and Italian defence programmes, for example, have long been significantly funded, and therefore shaped, by industry and technology ministries. But in the UK we have always prided ourselves on being rather more serious about defence, believing that every pound of our national defence budget is spent simply and solely to achieve maximum ‘bang for the buck’. So General Sir Nick Houghton’s ruminations were unsettling.

We Britons are also keen to dissociate ourselves from the prevalent European cast of mind that a U.S. Defense Secretary identified in 2010 as one of “demilitarisation”. But here again, General Houghton’s remarks were disquieting, as he mused about risk-aversion in wider society and how this could affect the British armed forces’ “courageous instinct”. It was certainly a shock when last summer the British Parliament voted against a government plan to bomb Syria. And though the UK cannot, given its euroscepticism, be expected to throw its troops into EU operations, it still felt a bit odd to watch the French sending military units first to Mali, and then the Central African Republic, whilst British soldiers sat at home. Can it be that the spores of German pacifism are floating across the North Sea, like so much Dutch Elm disease?

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We in Europe may be post-modern, but the rest of the world is not – including all those ‘swing voters’ whose preferences will determine which of the new contenders for global leadership carries most weight

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So Britain, it seems, is not that different from almost everyone else in Europe in having rather lost its way on defence. The transition from ‘keeping the Soviet Union at bay’ to ‘contributing to global security and tackling new threats at source’, as set out in the EU’s 2003 European Security Strategy, was easy enough. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, the ‘liberal interventionism’ rationale for our armed forces no longer works. Russian re-armament (and Vladimir Putin’s belligerence) hardly provide a satisfying alternative narrative, given the continuing one-to-three disparity between Russian defence spending and that of the EU states taken together, and the derelict state into which Russia’s military has fallen over two decades of neglect. So just what, the question nags with increasing insistence, are European armed forces actually for?

Not that EU national leaders, tackling defence for the first time in five years at last December’s European Council meeting, betrayed much uncertainty. “Defence matters” they insisted in the opening lines of their Conclusions. But beyond pro forma references to the “security of European citizens” and the need for the EU and member states to “exercise greater responsibilities… if they want to contribute to maintaining peace and security”, no clues were offered as to why it matters.

This is not a trivial point, in light of all the evidence (unused battlegroups, under-staffed training missions, unaddressed capability gaps) that most of the EU’s member states really don’t much want to contribute to maintaining peace and security – or even to maintaining effective armed forces. Using the defence budget to support industrial or regional jobs, or straightforwardly political rather than military objectives seems increasingly to be the European norm.

The temptation to misapply defence budgets in these ways is understandable, especially in the midst of recession. But it cannot be healthy in democracies to assert one thing and practice another; and such oblique methods of funding economic objectives are unlikely to be the most efficient. Implicit in this behaviour, moreover, is a set of assumptions about the world around us, and our position in it, which when unpacked should give us pause. This general European lack of seriousness about defence pre-supposes that we can rest easy in the apparent absence of military threat for the foreseeable future. It further pre-supposes either that the notions of European ‘power and influence’ on the global stage are irrelevant/distasteful/outdated, or that in the modern age effective armed forces have no part to play in maintaining such power.

None of this looks safe. Time and again, as when we have found ourselves astonished by invasions of the Falkland Islands or Kuwait, or by the Arab Spring, we discover that the ‘foreseeable future’ can amount to as little as a few days. Worse, an attitude of ‘no threats, so no defence needed’ overlooks the vital deterrent purpose of armed forces. Threats are not like weather events – they are backed by human calculation (something we almost wilfully obscure by broadening our concept of ‘security’ to include pandemics and climate change). And human calculation is crucially affected by perceptions of the other party’s will to resist, or at any rate stand up to bullying. In short, an evident lack of seriousness about defence risks turning the potential threat into actuality.

As for European aspirations to be a ‘global player’, proactively promoting our interests and distinctive values, the economic crisis has inevitably done great damage. Witness the mercantilisation of our diplomacy, with Europe’s national leaders jostling in Beijing and the Gulf for investment and export orders. The U.S. ‘pivots to Asia’, but Europeans refuse to view the other side of the globe as more than an enormous market. Germany sells arms as though they were nothing but expensive machine tools; British Conservatives evoke Singapore as the model of their national ambition. Yet even ‘realists’ should reflect that simply ceding global leadership to hungrier and more determined new powers is no way, ultimately, to achieve even the most basic aim of enabling our children to make a living – that Europe’s continuing prosperity depends on a continuing ability to demand that trade be fair as well as free, to maintain access to raw materials, and to insist on minimum environmental and social standards in global economic activity.

So power and influence in the wider world are vital if we are adequately to protect our interests, never mind promoting our values, at a time when most of the rest of the world seems more interested in the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism than in any Western norms. The democracies amongst the new powers may be somewhat more concerned for human rights: but Brazil and India as much as China evince a ‘neo-Westphalian’ view of international affairs, focussing on national sovereignty and non-interference rather than on any ‘rules-based world’.

Which of course is a big part of why military power has an essential part to play if Europe is not to find itself shunted to the margins of global affairs. We in Europe may be post-modern, but the rest of the world is not – including all those ‘swing voters’ whose preferences will determine which of the new contenders for global leadership carries most weight. Across the Middle East, through Africa, to East and South-East Asia, national leaders are either military men, or at least preoccupied on a day-to-day basis with military issues which may well be matters of government or even state survival. They want arms, and they also want training, and advice, and intelligence, and the reassurance that can come from working with partners who understand military affairs, and who will from time to time demonstrate their military reach and presence.

This is not a matter of sending gun-boats, or subscribing to Frederick the Great’s dictum that ‘diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments’. It is a matter of understanding that effective armed forces can and should have a role to play, not just in ‘countering threats’ but as instruments of state-craft. European leaders have had their heads in the sand about this for too long, too ready to hide behind the 2003 Strategy – a triumph in its day, but now the product of a bygone era. It is high time for a first-principles European re-evaluation of how the world has changed, and will continue to change (demographic projections, for example, are both dependable and worrying for Europeans), and to flush out those old assumptions guiding Europe’s foreign policy which no longer hold true. A glance at Europe’s own neighbourhood is enough to explode the notion that ‘soft power’ is all it takes. And what policy should we now substitute for the happy but evaporated hope that new powers could be house-trained to become ‘responsible stakeholders’ in an international system designed by the West?

 

To the credit of the European Council’s president, Herman Van Rompuy, last December’s defence discussion opened the door to this sort of debate when national leaders agreed to ‘assess the impact of changes in the global environment’ and to consider ‘the challenges and opportunities arising for the Union’. It is to be hoped that later this year the successor to Catherine Ashton will choose to exploit this opening to the full. Without a fundamental rethink of Europe’s external strategy it will not just be Europe’s armed forces that can expect to be hollowed out, but Europe’s interests and values too.

 

First published by the Europe’s World, article re-posted per author’s permission

Europe

Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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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

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

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.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

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 CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

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.

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