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Democracy and the West: History: Theory and Practice

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In the light of the frequent disagreements witnessed nowadays in the transatlantic Western community as concerns the NATO Alliance and its relevancy, especially as it concerns Russia’s intentions toward the Baltic countries, the question arises: does the idea of the West include a community of values and if so which are they?

Could it be that the disagreements arise out of ignorance as to what those common values might be? One of them is undoubtedly the idea of democracy which goes back to the ancient Greeks. Why then the vehement disagreements and misunderstandings? Let us briefly explore the issue searching for historical data, theory and practice.

Geographically speaking it cannot be asserted that Europe as a whole has always been or is now a community of values. During the Cold War any nation in Europe East of the Iron Curtain was designated at East. Those included nations who formerly were historically part of the West; countries such as the three Baltic states, Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary. After the Cold War seven of the eight Eastern European countries would join the EU. Those on the West side of the Iron Curtain were designated as the West. But some, such as Turkey and Greece were not part of the historical West which in Medieval times comprised the land of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. Most of them were democratic and were members of the Atlantic Alliance named NATO. So, at first glance it would appear that democracy was the common glue or the common value. But things are not that simple.

 

What comprises the historical West? It was the part of Europe that throughout the Middle Ages looked to Rome as its spiritual center. That is to say, the old West was the part of Europe that belonged to the Western church. Only that part of Europe, knew of pre-modern forms of power separation, that is to say, the separation of spiritual and temporal power. That part of Europe also experienced, the late medieval and early modern emancipatory movements dubbed the Renaissance and the Reformation, humanism and the Enlightenment. The domain of the Eastern church, that of Byzantium and, later, of Moscow, followed a very different trajectory. It  experienced the subordination of spiritual to temporal power and did not know the  system of reciprocal fealty between lords and vassals known as European feudalism. It knew nothing of the Investiture Controversy, of the revolution of of Gregory VII as the first European revolugion resulting eventually in the victory of the temporal over the spiritual power which took place in Western Europe. This dualism of temporal and spiritual power may be considered the beginning of the West’s spirt of individualism, it planted the seeds of freedom which may be considered the West’s distinguishing characteristic. That distinction, to be sure, is already in nuce in Christ’s reply to the Pharisees: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” That, if anything is, is a rejection of theocracy and the announcement of secularization, or the refusal to concede to religious authority secular powers, considered autonomous. Neverthless, a secular brotherhood without any kind of fatherhood is also incongruous. So, it appears that religion, or more specifically Christianity who posits a God who is our father, is also a glue needed to give substance to the concepts of brotherhood, liberty, and equality. That glue needs to be analyzed, independent of one’s religious beliefs.

Montesquieu, a French Enlightenment thinker, argued that moderate government was far more compatible with Christianity, while a despotic government was more compatible with Islam. “It is a misfortune to human nature when religion is given by a conqueror,” affirmed Montesquieu. Like Christ Montesquieu appeals to the original separation between the spheres of God and the emperor: “We ought not to decide by divine laws what should be decided by human laws; nor determine by human what should be determined by divine laws.” Leaders must be measured by such a yardstick.

 

The modern separation of legislature, executive, and judicial powers developed by Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws continued the process that began with the pre-modern separation of spiritual and temporal, and princely and estate powers. Montesquieu was in fact the first classical thinker to grant the judicial branch the status of an autonomous “third” power. He did not live to see the birth of the country in which his views on the separation of powers would appear: the United States of America. In the Federalist Papers, a series of articles by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison drafted at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, Montesquieu was by far the most cited author. To be sure Montesquieu himself had drawn from the ancient Greek historian  Polybius,  of the second century- B.C. who had promoted the concept of a mixed constitution. Polybius saw in the Roman Republic an ideal combination of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic virtues—a combination, so he believed, that shielded Rome from the dangers inherent in the pure forms of monarchy as well as pure forms of aristocracy or democracy. This idea would be called in the US “checks and balances,” as first mentioned by John Adams in 1787 in the preface to his A Defense of the Contitutions of Government of the United States; that is to say, all parts of the government would keep an eye on each other to prevent abuses and corruption.

 

The Constitution was followed by the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, which appeared in 1791. Hence the claim of the United States that it is the birth nation of individual rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights from June 12, 1776, began its catalogue of basic rights, the first comprehensive catalogue of its kind, with these words: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Three weeks later, on July 4, 1776, the delegates of the Constitutional Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.

 

The declaration combines a concept of human rights with a consequent principle of popular sovereignty to form a single but momentous sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain un-alienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” With this sentence, the Declaration of Independence brought together millennia worth of experience and insights, making self-evident truths into a project to change the
world and the American Revolution into history’s first modern revolution. Like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and many of the other signers, Jefferson drew on an intellectual tradition shared by natural rights philosophers since the Stoics, by the teachings of more recent thinkers such as Locke and Montesquieu, and by the general Americans’ ideas about the necessity of religious and political tolerance. But the question persists: why had the idea of inalienable rights arisen in America at the level of constitutional articles? Could religious freedom as a human inalienable right be the roots of the idea rather than the French Revolution? Here too things are not so simple as invoking the French Revolution as the beginning of individual rights.

 

To be sure, most of the fathers of the US Declaration of Independence were not pious observing Christians like the Puritans but they believed in the likelihood of a God, or some higher being, capable of reward and punishment, though not all of them believed in the divinity of Jesus or in the Trinity. Properly speaking they  were deists and not opposed in principle to the ideas of the champions of religious freedom such Roger Williams and William Penn. What obtained in America was something unique: a sort of marriage between the secular Enlightenment and extensive reading of the classics on constitutional law and religious freedom. This was indeed uniquely American, not French, not European. Consequently the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that inalienable rights are bestowed on individuals “by their Creator,” thus expressing more than a mere credo that enlightened deists and devout Christians could agree on. For indeed the very idea of an individual dignity common to all originates from the Judeo-Christian belief in one God who created human beings in His image and who loves all as his children.

 

Historically, therefore, the declaration of the equality of all individuals before the law presupposes the equality of all individuals before God. There is indeed an historical link between Christian religion and the Western idea of freedom which could develop because there existed in the historical West a tradition separating spiritual and worldly temporal power looking askance at state religions. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote in his 1952 The Irony of American History that the two major religious and moral traditions that shaped early American life—the Calvinism of New England (Puritanism) and the deism of Virginia—arrived at conspicuously similar conclusions about the meaning of America’s national character and the intended purpose of the United States: “Whether our nation interprets its spiritual heritage through Massachusetts or Virginia we came into existence with the sense of being a ‘separated’ nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind.” A new beginning for mankind, indeed it must felt that way in the Athens of four centuries BC.

 

This identification of the roots of the rights of individual citizens in Puritanism and Deism contradicted of course France’s assertion that it alone was the original pioneer of individual rights. Indeed, it is historically undeniable that the American declarations of rights passed by Virginia and other former British colonies in North America had done much to shape the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted by the National Constituent Assembly on August 26, 1789 during the French Revolution. The idea of passing such a declaration before writing a constitution was first proposed on August 11 by Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought for the American revolution, with the active assistance of Thomas Jefferson who was at the time US ambassador to France.

 

During his trip to America at the beginning of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised to observe that in the United States two otherwise sharply opposed elements had interpenetrated and connected with one another in a marvelous way: the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. Even today, parts of American society tend to derive political freedom from religion, underestimating the contributions of the Enlightenment to human rights, the constitutional state, and democracy. In Europe, by contrast, there is a tendency to neglect the fact that Western values and Enlightenment ideas are embedded in their own tradition, one depending just as much on Jewish and Christian values as on ancient ones. Both views are one-sided and require correction: they must recall what connects the “old” European West with its “new” American counterpart. This may go a long way in explaining the current misunderstandings mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Knowledge of the historical record may go a long way in correcting those biases.

 

After the Declaration of Independence, over four decades elapsed before the United States as a whole became comfortable with the concept of democracy, no longer perceiving it to contradict their deliberately chosen representative system. Political progress seemed assured but slavery, for its part, existed for nine decades of US history and its eradication in the south required nothing less than a bloody civil war in 1860. It took another hundred years before an energetic and successful movement (The Civil Rights movement) arose against the racial discrimination of the slaves’ descendents.
2007

As mentioned, Europe tends to neglect that Western ideas depend on Jewish and Christian values. There is an unfortunate tendency to forget what connects the “old” European West with its “new” American counterpart. The Declarations of the Rights of Man of the late 18th century were the result of transatlantic collaboration. Together, both sides laid the groundwork for the political project of the West. To forget that fact is to end up in anti-Americanism which is usually a caricature of that the US is all about, or anti-Europeanism, disparagingly dubbed “Old Europe” at times.

The American revolution was modern history’s first revolution but it was not connected to the defeat of any particular class and so there were never any antidemocratic sentiments after independence. The revolution was never against the principles of traditional English constitutional law, but rather it was a protest against their infringement by England. That was not the case with the French Revolution which because of the excesses of the Jacobins  produced an anti-revolutionary right-wing. In Great Britain, it took 30 years for a parliamentary monarchy to establish itself after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  In Germany it took Nazi dictatorship, and Germany’s second defeat on the 20th-century global stage to undercut the antidemocratic biases still harbored by elites and large portions of the general population. Moreover, when the opportunity to learn from the failed Weimar Republic and to create a functional parliamentary democracy finally came after 1945, not all Germans were able to take advantage of it—just those who lived in the western occupation zones, the future Federal Republic of Germany. The other Germans belonged to the East or the Soviet dominated part of Europe, hardly democratic.

 

When Germany was finally reunifies it promptly joined the Atlantic alliance. Moreover, eight East European states, which had been under Communist rule, joined the European Union.  In some way the reunification of the West was accomplished. All the countries that had belonged to the West were back in the West after 1989. As Willy Brandt put it a day after the fall of the Berlin Wall: “now what belonged together could finally grow together.” Indeed, with the reunification, what “belonged together” could finally “grow together” but as mentioned above this was not a mere European political phenomenon, it was based on common values which were transatlantic and even global.

 

After World War I, democracy was not able to take firm root in most countries of Eastern Europe, including Germany. In West Germany, it took four decades after the end of World War II before a public figure like the philosopher Jürgen Habermas could declare  that “The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the major intellectual accomplishment of the postwar era, of which my generation in particular can be proud.”

 

It was this “unreserved opening to the political culture of the West” that would become the criterion used by the European Union to measure both its members and those nations that wanted to become members. For a country to open itself to the political culture of the West, it does not need to be a part of the historical political West. This was the case neither with Greece, which joined the European Union in 1981, nor with Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007). But values and political cultures have their history; those who profess the Western values embodied by the 1993 Copenhagen criteria for EU membership must know that history and accept its legitimacy. The political culture of the West is pluralistic, which means that it must tolerate and foster a culture of debate and free speech. A pluralistic democracy depends, practically in its very existence, on political differences being dealt with peacefully. In that sense an authoritarian country like Russia which partly European geographically speaking, is hardly Western. In fact what Putin emphasized in his search for the lost greater Russia is that Russian civilization is different from decadent Western civilization, and it is in fact superior to it.

 

A pluralistic democracy thus requires both: on the one hand, a non-controversial sector of state and society, a “codex of values generally accepted as valid,” on the other, a controversial sector that needs regular deliberation and approval. The question we asked at the outset of this analysis returns: can the West be considered a community of values, but one in which the political consequences of those values remain—indeed, must remain—in dispute? After all, it can hardly be denied, unless one is hopelessly afflicted by historical amnesia that Western values are the product of a transatlantic experience and viewpoints that are subject to change.

 

The common grounds of the West become especially noticeable in comparison with other societies and cultures. The European Union and the United States do not need to invent a common foe to remain together. It would be enough to know the history of democracy and the history of its religious tenets. And then all that would remain to be done is to defend the values and institutions of the West against all threats and attacks; even promote them around the globe. But there is a caveat here: a policy that aims to spread Western values and forms of life by force and coercion or by CIA covert operations is doomed to fail. The United States, Great Britain, and France were successful in helping West Germany rebuild a democracy because they were able to tap into the free, constitutional, and democratic traditions that German history had already brought forth. On the other hand a country like Iraq simply lacks the historical experience necessary to become a Jeffersonian democracy while one like Turkey, on the other hand, may possess enough of it to be able to perfect it.

 

What we need to keep in mind is that democracy is much more than majority rule. A Western- type democracy is predicated on a pluralistic civil society that agrees to adhere to inalienable human rights and the rule of law. The laws referred to are both written and unwritten and include the the nomoi ágraphoi of the ancient Greeks and the norms of Christian and Enlightenment natural rights. Sadly, what we have today in the EU Parliament are parliamentarians on the extreme right who have been elected democratically but basically envision a non democratic future. That is an abuse of democracy and free speech. Indeed, time and again, the West has blatantly violated the very values it claims to profess. The West cannot afford to not forget its history of racism, colonialism, and imperialism, and the sad consequences of that history—not if it wants to stand by its professed values with any kind of credibility. Some US founding fathers, by retaining slaves, did not help their democratic cause. To profess ideals and values only in theory and not in practice is to run the risk of being branded a hypocrite.

 

Today Western achievements like the constitutional state, the separation of powers, and democracy have already been adopted by many non-Western societies. At this point in history the West no longer dominates the world. It merely represents one form of life and political culture among many. However, the claim of inalienable human rights remains a universal value. Since it would be contradiction to implement those rights by force, the West can do nothing better than adhere to its own values, promote them, and, where possible, to oppose their most crass violations with all means, including humanitarian intervention and perhaps even military intervention. Consequently, the West must strongly support the reform of the United Nations and the reworking of its charter. Yet, as mentioned above, the West is far from having sufficient unity and insight into the importance and cohesive power of non-material interests to take decisive action. If NATO is there merely to defend economic interests it would indeed be an irrelevant institutions. The West can certainly learn from its own history; perhaps the non-Western parts of the world can also learn from that history. But the project of the West on human rights remains incomplete; it can be perfected and advanced not by empty slogans but by building a community of values which are taken seriously and are not a cover-up for crass political-economic agendas. Those values are not geographical; they are not  valid because they are European, or American, or Australian, or Canadian, but because they are universal. They can historically be characterized as Western but doing so only increases the responsibility of Western countries to lend them validity by their loyalty to them.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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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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