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Europa Quo Vadis? The EU’s Spiritual Identity

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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A brand new Europe was created after World War II: the European Union. A union based on purely neutral, that is to say, non-ideological, economic, scientific, educational foundations. This leads to a crucial question: are those foundations reliable and solid enough by themselves, or is there something sorely missing? Is the absence of spiritual foundations a sign that a more perfect union transcending nationalism and economic-political considerations will forever elude the European Union?

Some post-modern philosophers attribute the problem of modernity to a mistake made at the beginning of Western culture, to Plato in particular. They assume a continuity between modern rationalism and the principles of reason as formulated by the ancient Greeks. Others draw a distinction between the original principles of rationality and their modern interpretation. They trace the root of that distinction, with its dramatic political implications, to the modern turn toward the human subject as the only source of truth and its consequent pragmatism. This turn was initiated, to be precise, by Renè Descartes, widely considered the father of modern Western philosophy. What some post-modern thinkers reject is not only Enlightenment rationalism, but also the original Greek form of rationality. For them rationality is little more than behavioral
attitudes, a sort of incessant self-correction and perfectibility patterned after the experimentalism and self-correction of science. This is considered progress. In fact, it is branded as a deterministic inevitable sort of progress: the newest is always the best. Allegedly, it does away with disastrous and destructive universalist totalizing ideologies, the grand scheme of things a la Hegel, the grand narrations, often at war with each other. The argument is this: it is better to be more modest in one’s goals and humbly attend to immediate social and economic needs. Welcome Epicurus and Lucretius, away with Plato’s grandiose Forms.

Indeed, Europeans no longer agree on spiritual values; those values that, despite political conflicts, were in place prior to the Enlightenment. It took the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka (who in turn greatly influenced Havel) to dare propose, in the middle of the 20th century, a return to an idea that used to be characteristic of the European tradition since the Greeks but in the 20th century is seen as a scandal and an anachronistic anomaly: the care of the soul by way of a great respect for truth and the intellectual life, holistically conceived.

Plato had claimed that it is through that life that we, as human beings endowed with a soul, partake of the life of the Ideas and share the life of the gods themselves. Later, Christians adopt this notion but change its direction. For Christians, theoria, or contemplation, remains the fundamental principle of any viable culture. Bereft of it, a civilization is left with nothing but a sort of aimless and blind praxis leading to its eventual destruction. Christopher Dawson for one explored and clarified this idea in his famous The Making of Europe.

So, the next question is this: can such a principle as advocated by Plato, play a role in the spiritual unification of Europe? Which is to say, must the commitment to reason abandon a rationalistic universalism to oppose to it an anti-rationalist particularism? To deepen a bit more: is not abstract rationalism and its irrationalist reaction responsible for much of the ominous nihilism which Nietzsche, for one, claimed hovers over Europe like a menacing specter? Has it not, in fact, corrupted the very principle of reason that, up to the Enlightenment, had constituted the core of Europe’s spiritual identity? Has it not turned wisdom against itself?

Prior to World War II, the philosopher who most acutely perceived the spiritual crisis that rationalism has caused in Europe was Edmund Husserl. In a famous lecture delivered in Prague on the very eve of one of the darkest chapters of modern European history, he said this: “I too am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism. That, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that rationality as such is an evil or that in the totality of human existence it is of minor importance. The rationality of which alone we are speaking is rationality in that noble genuine sense, the Greek sense, that became an ideal in the classical period of Greek philosophy.”

All we need to do is give a cursory look at Husserl’s philosophy of phenomenology to be convinced that Husserl regarded modern objectivism as the quintessential expression of this rationalism. It reduces the world, which for the Greeks was a spiritual structure, into an object, and reason into an instrument for manipulating matter. One may ask, how then did Husserl view the spiritual identity of Europe? He advocated that the particular must be fully reintegrated with the universal, an idea that Kierkegaard too had proposed. Husserl says: “Clearly the title Europe designates the unity of a spiritual life and creative activity-
-no matter how inimical the European nations may be toward each other, still they have a special inner affinity of spirit that permeates all of them and transcends their national differences… There is an innate entelechy that thoroughly controls the changes in the European image and directs it toward an ideal image of life and of being. The spirited telos of the European in which is included the particular telos of separate nations and individual persons, has an infinity; it is an infinite idea toward which in secret the collective spiritual becoming, so to speak, strives.” But the question persists: is it possible at this point in its history to
revive the spiritual idea of Europe? An idea that, despite its violent historical conflicts, has kept its people united within an unrestricted diversity?

In his Philosophical Discourse on Modernity Jurgen Habermas attributes the failure of the Enlightenment to the intrusion of foreign elements which derailed its original program of full human emancipation. He finds nothing wrong with the project itself, aside from the fact that it was prematurely abandoned for a romantic return to some form of pseudo-religion, such as the worship of nature in the 19th century, the era of Romanticism. Undoubtedly there is something unfinished about the Enlightenment, but contrary to what Habermas believes, it is not the execution of the project that failed to reach a conclusion but the concept itself. Many question nowadays the very principle of rationality that directed Enlightenment thought. This may sound paradoxical, for indeed it is the adoption of reason by the Greeks and the subsequent synthesis with Christianity as achieved by Augustine and Aquinas that distinguishes European culture from all others and defines its spiritual identity.

To be sure, the real culprit was not reason or rationality but rationalism, which was unknown to the Greeks. Rationalism is a modern invention inaugurated by Descartes and consisting in a separation of the particular from the universal and assigning supremacy to the universal while misguidedly assuming that a rationality constituted by the human mind could function as the same comprehensive principle that it had been for the Greeks. To the contrary, a rationality of purely subjective origin produces mere abstract, empty concepts in theory and pursues limited human objectives in practice, mostly narrowly focused upon economic and political concerns. Einstein had it on target: our era is characterized by perfection of means and confusion of goals. Indeed, in developed societies where economic concerns have become all-important and dominant, the protection of sub-national identities and minority groups are at risk. One place where any obstacle to economic development has been successfully eliminated is the United States, usually mentioned as a model of federalism encompassing many nationalities. Many EU politicians advocate a “United States of Europe.” That may sound progressive, but it remains a chimera given that the nationalistic
and regional identities are still very strong in Europe. Is it even desirable?

It would indeed be a mistake for the EU to imitate the US and attempt a repetition of a mega-nation which would translate into a super-power bent on power and the forcible exportation of democracy (an oxymoron if there ever was one). The price that will have to be paid will be further erosion of Europe’s original spiritual unifying principles, the very roots of its cultural identity. Soccer games heralded as a unifying principle may indeed be emblematic of that mistake. What some Europeans fail to clearly grasp is that what keeps so many ethnic nationalities and groups together in the US is not that we all drink Coca Cola, but a constitution which guarantees certain basic rights transcending nationality and even the very power of the State in as much as they are conceived as inalienable. Those enshrined ideals make “a pluribus unum” possible, as the dollar bill proclaims.

As the recent conflicts in the Balkans have shown only too well, it will prove quite difficult for Europeans with different languages reflecting diverse cultures to create a United States of Europe, nor should they. As it is, all the worst features of American popular culture are imitated, even by those who are anti-Americans, while the best in American culture is largely unknown or ignored. That is not to deny that one of the major achievements of the European Union has been the preventing of a major destructive conflict on the continent at the level of a world war for the last sixty years or so. However, to count on mere political-economic motives to completely free Europe from its past destructive legacies may be a miscalculation.

Calling oneself a Newropean will not do the trick either. It would suffice to take a hard look at the xenophobia that has raised its ugly head and pervades the EU especially its most affluent countries. Superficially it seems directed at immigrants coming from outside Europe but often the real target is a neighboring country, not to speak of the regional independence movements. What seems to be lacking within this economic, political, educational coordination that is the EU is a deeper kind of integration based on an inclusive spiritual idea. How is this to be achieved in a secular democratic society pledged to protect the rights of all its citizens and their diversity? A nostalgic return to the Greek-Christian synthesis and the Christendom of medieval times (at times imposed politically) will not do and is not even desirable. That was a synthesis meant for Europeans Christians (many of them forced to get baptized by their kings who found it politically convenient to switch from paganism to Christianity), not for non-Christians, not to speak of the non-Europeans which are now counted into the millions in Europe.

In any case, it is undeniable that at present no spiritual foundation for a genuine unification exists. The present proposed Constitution which nobody even calls constitution any longer but a compact, mentions a fuzzy kind of spiritual heritage almost as an after-thought. Many Europeans don’t seem to be too concerned about such an absence, if indeed they even perceive it. And yet, some kind of new synthesis is needed. Unfortunately, it will not even be envisioned, never mind implemented, unless Europeans, begin a serious reflection and a debate on the original idea to which Europe owes it cultural unity and identity. That carries
the risk of being perceived as an “Old European,” maybe even an anti-modern and anti-progressive, but I would suggest that without that original idea, which precedes Christianity itself, a crucial novantiqua synthesis will not be perceived either and Europeans may be sadly condemned to repeat their history.

What is this European original foundational spiritual idea that precedes even Christianity? Simply this: a commitment to theoria, the theoretical life which in its Greek etymology means the contemplative or reflective life in all its various aspects: the philosophical, the scientific, the aesthetic; in short the primacy of a holistic life of contemplation. All this sounds strange to modern and post-modern ears accustomed to privilege praxis and a purely pragmatic notion of rationality over and above theory. Marx, for one, expressed such a mind-set in the 11th of the Theses on Feuerbach with this catch-all slogan: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is to change it.” Indeed, but to start with praxis is to put the cart before the horse. Unfortunately, postmodern theories, in an attempt to reject an extreme kind of rationalism, have also rejected the primacy of reason understood holistically and tied to the imaginative, which had ruled Western thought since the Greeks. Precisely the belief in that primacy, together with a common faith that could envision the transcendent, had been one of the spiritual foundations of Europe. It was that kind of devaluation and departure from foundational traditions that Husserl was decrying before World War II.

Here the question naturally arises: is it still possible to revive the ideals behind Europe’s spiritual identity? If this requires returning to a common Christian faith and to a pre-modern concept of reason, it will prove practically impossible. Science demands a more differentiated notion of reason than the one inherent in ancient and medieval thought. As for the common Christian faith that forged such a strong bond among Europe’s peoples, many Europeans have lost it, if they ever had it, and most recent immigrants, many of them Muslims never had it to begin with. This is not to forget that Moslem civilization in Spain during the Middle Ages was more developed and advanced than a Western civilization devastated by the Barbarians.

Does the above reflection intimate perhaps that Europe must be satisfied with a merely political, technical, scientific, and economic integration? Such a spiritually “neutral” union does indeed appear to be “enlightened” in as much as it avoids the unfortunate conflicts of the past. Furthermore, many Europeans today think that social and cultural differences obstruct or slow down the process of economic growth and social progress. Why, then, don’t all Europeans adopt English as the common language for science, business, and technology, leaving French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages to private life?

Again, this may sound strange to post-modern ears, but if the European Union were reduced to a means for smoothing out political and economic transactions among its member states, not only would the individual states, not to speak of regions, gradually lose their identity, they would also be doomed to play a very subordinate role on the world stage in the future. Even today, only a half century after the United States has economically and politically come to dominate the world, its powerful media and commercial enterprises have deeply affected the languages, the communications, and the cultural patterns of Europe. The effect is most visible in the smaller nations. Thus in the Low Countries the language of the news media has become infected with American idioms, bookstores are filled with American publications or translations thereof, television and cinema compete for the most recent American shows or films—all this at the expense of linguistic integrity and respect for indigenous literatures. The result is a general decline of native creativity. What is even more perplexing is that what is being imitated is not the best of American culture (which is there if one takes the trouble to look for it) but the worst and the mediocre.

Be that as it may, whoever controls the economy of another country is likely to control its culture as well, as Benjamin, Adorno and Marx have well taught us. Building a strong economy of one’s own, as Europe is doing at present, is a necessary step to resisting such domination. But that alone may not be sufficient. If the European Union were to be reduced to a mere economic union, its leveling effect on European culture would in the end be comparable to the one the United States has begun to exercise. We are all Americans because we all drink Coke; and we are all Europeans because we all go to soccer games on Sunday!
To the contrary, Europe’s political and economic unification must be accompanied by a strong awareness of a distinctive cultural and spiritual identity. This is the reason why the dispute over Europe’s Christian heritage is so important. In writing the preamble to the EU constitution, the most significant element in the European tradition is erased at the peril of building on political sand, as Kurt Held reminded us in his essay on Europe titled The Origins of Europe with the Greek Discovery of the World,” with the following words: “A
European community grounded only in political and economic cooperation of the member states would lack an intrinsic common bond. It would be built upon sand.”

The American techno-economic model of a political union is not suitable for Europe, especially of a Europe which has forgotten its spiritual roots, even more so than America, and in the past has substituted them with political ideologies. Being a new country, with immigrants from various traditions, the United States had no choice but to build politically on a spiritually and culturally neutral foundation but the separation of Church and State is deceiving. Its spiritual roots remained strong and were in fact a unifying principle. This
base enabled the United States to integrate the economy and the social institutions of its states into a strong and coherent unity that resulted in the most powerful nation in history. But the glue that held the uniform structure together were the ideals of the Enlightenment (ultimately based on a Judeo-Christian ethos) as enshrined in its Constitution. There is a lesson there for Europe to be pondered carefully before embracing anti-Americanism or, even worse, a slavish imitation of all the worst features of American culture.

Contemporary Europeans have preserved their diverse languages, customs, and histories, even at the regional level, and that points to an appreciation for tradition and heritage which is indispensable for a strong cultural identity. But, to reiterate, Europe needs a strong spiritual reintegration as well as a political-economic one. That requires that it assimilate essential parts of its spiritual heritage: the Greek sense of order and measure, the Roman respect for law, the biblical and Christian care for the other person, the humanitas of Renaissance humanism, the ideals of political equality and individual rights of the Enlightenment. The values left by each of these episodes of Western culture are not as transient as the cultures in which they matured. They belong permanently to Europe’s spiritual patrimony and ought to remain constitutive of its unity. None can be imposed in a democratic society. Yet none may be neglected either, the theoretical no more than the practical, the spiritual no less than the aesthetic.

In recent times Europeans, discouraged by the self-made disasters of two world wars, have been too easily inclined to turn their backs on the past, to dismiss it as no longer usable, and to move toward a different future declaring themselves “Newropeans” with a new identity. In that sense they have misguidedly imitated Henry Ford’s notion that “history is bunk.” In the years after World War II, the model of that future was America. In recent years, Europeans have become more conscious of their specific identity and are beginning to intuit that such an identity resides in the past; it stems from a unique past, created by the hundreds of millions of men and women who for three millennia have lived on “that little cape on the continent of Asia” (Paul Valery) between the North Sea and the Mediterranean, between Ireland’s west coast and the Ural Mountains. It has given Europeans, in all their variety, a distinct communal face. This new awareness of cultural identity makes Europeans view the entire continent and its many islands, not only their country of origin, as a common homeland with common purposes. This unity of spirit in a rich variety of expressions must be remembered in forging the new European unity and ought to be mentioned in the EU’s constitution. It ought to be remembered also by North Americans whose cultural roots, for a good many of them, are indeed Europeans; in that sense they too are also Westerners and inheritor of Western civilization, albeit accepting and integrating other experiences such as the African, the Native American, the Latin-American, the Asian. The founding fathers of the European Union must be twisting in their graves and if they could speak they would probably ask: Europa quo vadis? Indeed, a spiritual compass is urgently needed.

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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Dayton Peace Accord 23 Years On: Ensured Peace and Stability in Former Yugoslavia

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For the past twenty-three years life has been comparatively peaceful in the breakaway republics of the former Yugoslavia. The complicated civil war that began in Yugoslavia in 1991 had numerous causes and began to break up along the ethnic lines. The touching stories and the aftermath effects of the breakaway republics of Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and in Kosovo are still unfolding. Though the numbers of deaths in the Bosnia- Herzegovina conflict in former Yugoslavia are not known precisely, most sources agree that the estimates of deaths vary between 150,000 to 200,000 and displaced more than two million people. During the conflict a Srebrenica a North-eastern enclave of Bosnia once declared as a United  Nations  (UN ) safe area” saw one of the worst atrocity since second world war.

It has been estimated that more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were massacred in Srebrenica and it was one of the most brutal ethnic cleansing operations of its kind in modern warfare. The US brokered peace talks revived the a peace process between the three warring factions in Bosnia- Herzegovina. For Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina a United States (US ) -brokered peace deal reached in Dayton on 21st November 1995. In a historic reconciliation bid on 14 December 1995 , the Dayton Peace Accord was signed in Paris, France, between Franjo Tudjman president of the Republic of Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic president of the Federal Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), Alija Izetbegovic, president of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

When conflict in Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia ended, the reconciliation began between ethnically divided region. The US played a crucial role in defining the direction of the Peace process. In 1996, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) -led 60,000 multinational peace enforcement force known as the Implementation Force (IFOR)) was deployed to help preserve the cease-fire and enforce the treaty provisions. Thereafter, the Court was established by Resolution 808 and later, Resolution 827 of the United Nations Security Council, which endorsed to proceed with setting up of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to try crimes against humanity . International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was the first United Nations (UN) war crimes tribunal of its kind since the post-second world war Nuremberg tribunal.

In the late 1990’s, as the political crisis deepened a spiral of violence fuelled the Kosovo crisis between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Yugoslav forces. Unlike the Bosnia- Herzegovina, Kosovo was a province of Serbia, of former Yugoslavia that dates back to 1946, when Kosovo gained autonomy as a province within Serbia. It is estimated that more than 800,000. Kosovos were forced out of Kosovo in search of refuge and as many as 500,000 more were displaced within Kosovo.

Subsequent t hostilities in Kosovo the eleven week air campaign led by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) against Yugoslavia in 1999 the Yugoslavian forces pulled troops out of Kosovo NATO. After the war was over, the United Nations Security Council, under the resolution 1244 (1999) approved to establish an international civil presence in Kosovo, known as the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Nevertheless UNMIK regulation No 1999/24 provided that the Law in Force in Kosovo prior to March 22, 1989 would serve as the applicable law for the duration of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

In this  context reconciliation is a key to national healing of wounds after ending a violent conflict. Healing the wounds of the past and redressing past wrongs is a process through which a society moves from a divided past to a shared future. Over the years in Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and in Kosovo the successful peace building processes had happened. The success of the peace building process was possible because of participation of those concerned, and since appropriate strategies to effectively approach was applied with all relevant actors. The strengthening of institutions for the benefit of all citizens has many important benefits for the peace and stability of former Yugoslavia. Hence, the future looks bright for the Balkan states of Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.

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Hungarian Interest, Ukraine and European Values

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Diplomatic conflicts that have recently arisen between Hungary and its neighboring countries and the European Union as a whole most clearly show the new trend in European politics. This trend is committing to national and  state values of a specific  European country, doubting  the priority of supranational  interests within the European Union. Political analyst Timofey Bordachev believes that “the era of stale politics and the same stale politicians, who make backstage decisions based on the“ lowest common denominator,” are finally coming to an end. Politicians with a new vision of the world order come to power, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, or the new head of the Italian Interior Ministry, leader of the right-wing League of the North Party, Matteo Salvini ”.

It is not the first year that Hungary is trying to protect the interests of its citizens and the state from external influence, to protect the Hungarians in the territory of neighbouring states  by establishing for this  a special position (Commissioner  for the development of the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine), to determine relations with other countries on the basis of their attitude to the rights of Hungarians. This is how conflicts with the European Union arose, after Hungary refused to let migrants into the country, in the same manner, a conflict  arose with Ukraine, which is trying to build a state ideology, based on nationalism, which a priori does not provide for the proper level of realization and protection of the rights of non-titular nations.

In relation to Hungary, Ukraine follows the same policy as in relation to Russia – to initiate various accusations, to call for punishment, to talk about the inconsistency with European values of the Hungarian policy under the leadership of  Orban. Doing so Kiev has its multifaceted interest: cooperation with NATO and the EU, support  for any decisions of Brussels, the anti-Russian course, domestic policy based on the nationalist  ideology. And in all these areas  Hungary poses  a problem for Ukraine. In the description of relations with Hungary  Kiev even  uses the word “annexation“.

Hungary is hardly planning to seize any Ukrainian territory, but on what  grounds Ukraine falsely accuses Hungary of its annexation intentions in relation to Transcarpathia?  The Ukrainian side highlights several positions:

Issuing Hungarian passports  to Ukrainian citizens (ethnic Hungerians)

This  is an old story, it has come to light again recently due to the growth of Ukrainian nationalism. Moreover,  there are concerns about the implementation by Hungary of the “Crimean scenario” in relation to Transcarpathia.

The Hungarian government has created the position of  “Commissioner  for the development of Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region and the program for the development of kindergartens in the Carpathian region”.

Ukraine demanded an explanation. A note of protest was delivered to the Hungarian Charge d’Affaires in Ukraine, and the Foreign ministers of Ukraine and Hungary had a telephone conversation on the problem. Hungary continues to ignore the requirements of Kiev.

Ukraine fears further disintegration processes

At the same time, in Kiev there is no understanding  of the fact that combining the ideology of nationalism with the country’s national diversity and European integration is hardly possible.

Ukrainian experts note the growth of separatism in the Transcarpathian region, as well as the “strange behavior” of the governor, who plays on the side of Hungary. They also complain that “pro-Ukrainian ideology”(?) is not being сonsolidated in Transcarpathia, and this region is not controlled and monitored by  the Ministry of information. In a word, the state is losing control over the territory, which it neither develops nor controls. Such behavior of the governor and the region’s residents may indicate that the state is not sufficiently present in the lives of residents of Transcarpathia, and this a financial and humanitarian drawback they compensate with the help of Hungary, – experts believe.

Apparently, Ukraine is unable to reach an agreement with Hungary as relations are tense. In response to the Ukrainian law on education, adopted in the fall of 2017, which infringes the rights of national minorities, Budapest blocked another, the third, Ukraine-NATO meeting. Ukraine witnessed this embarrassing  situation  in April 2018.  At the same time elections were held in Hungary, in  which Viktor Orban’s party won a majority in the parliament. Such a tough stance of Budapest in relation to the Ukrainian educational policy Kiev considered to be just a sign of electoral populism. However, this was a mistake.

Viktor Orban’s victory in spring 2018 was convincing, and a convincing victory means obvious support of his migration policies as well as his support  for compatriots abroad. The party of Orban – Fides – not only won a majority but a constitutional majority – 133 of the 199 seats  in the National Assembly of Hungary.

There is no doubt  that Hungary has become Ukraine’s another serious opponent in the process of its European integration. And it is unlikely that either  country  will take a step back: there will be presidential elections in Ukraine soon, and in Hungary, the victory won by Orban, apparently, confirms the  approval of his independent  foreign  policy  by  the citizens.  So the conflict is likely to develop.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Belt and Road Alternatives: The European Strategy

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The European Union (EU) has put forward a plan for enhancing connectivity within Asia, which has been dubbed as the Asia Connectivity Strategy.

The EU does not want to give an impression, that the Asia Connectivity Strategy (ACS) is a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet, senior officials of the EU, while commenting on the broad aims and objectives of the project, have categorically stated, that the primary goal of the Asia Connectivity Strategy, is enhancing connectivity (physical and digital) while also ensuring, that local communities benefit from such a project, and environmental and social norms are not flouted (this is a clear allusion to the shortcomings of the BRI). There are no clear details with regard to the budget, and other modalities of the project (EU member countries are likely to give a go ahead for this project, before the Asia-Europe Meeting in October 2018). EU has categorically stated, that it would like to ensure that the ACS is economically sustainable.

Other alternatives to BRI 

It is not just the EU, but even the US, along with Japan and Australia. which are trying to create an alternative vision to the BRI.

The US alternative to the BRI, is being funded by the recently created United States International Development Finance Corporation (USDFC) (an organization which will merge Overseas Private Investment Corporation and other Development Finance Programs) which came into being after the passing of the BUILD  (Better Utilization of Investments leading to Development) Act recently.

It would be pertinent to point out, that the US which has been accused of lacking a cohesive vision to counter China’s BRI has in recent months spoken, on more than one occasion, about greater the dire need for robust connectivity in the Indo-Pacific. In July 2018 US Secretary of State while speaking at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum committed an amount of $113 million for U.S. initiatives to support projects related to digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. The Secretary of State, while speaking about close links between US and Indo-Pacific, also spoke about the need for greater private sector involvement in projects in the Indo-Pacific. Pompeo off late, has also been reaching out pro-actively to a number of countries in South East Asia, and visited Malaysia, Indonesia in August 2018.

It would be pertinent to point out that OPIC  (now part of USFDC) has already signed with the overseas finance development arms of Japan and Australia, and is in talks with India to work jointly. Some of the areas being explored for joint investments are energy, infrastructure.

It is not just the US, even Japan has come with it’s own alternative, Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI), to the BRI.

Potential Appeal of the Asia Connectivity Strategy

So the question then arises, why would countries seeking an alternative to China, not come on board the US’ connectivity initiative. The ‘Asia Connectivity Strategy’ may be especially acceptable to leaders, who do not want to be seen as blindly following US diktats, but who are also uncomfortable with Beijing’s economic policies, and want to avoid falling into what has been dubbed as Beijing’s ‘debt trap’ diplomacy. A perfect example being Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammad who scrapped projects worth 40 Billion USD, and also referred to the rise of a ‘new colonialism’ being promoted by China. The Malaysian PM has not shared a particularly cordial relationship with the US in the past. While addressing the United Nations General Assembly (unga), Mahathir made some interesting points, saying that Malaysians want a Malaysia, which seeks relations based on ‘mutual respect’ and a Malaysia, that is ‘neutral’ and ‘non aligned’

EU itself trying to strike a balance

EU Chief, Jean Claude Juncker, has been pitching for a more pro-active response to Trump’s insular policies, as well as China’s BRI. Given the fact, that EU has taken a divergent stand from US on the Iran issue, and has proposed a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) which will ensure that trade with Iran continues, even before the impending US sanctions to be imposed on Iran in November 2018. The SPV was announced, jointly with Russia and China, on the sidelines of the UNGA.

At the UNGA, French President, Emmanuel Macron disagreed with Trump’s views with regard to Iran, and supported the 2015 Vienna Accord. Said Macron: We know that Iran was on a nuclear military path but what stopped it? The 2015 Vienna accord.”

While it remains to be seen, if the SPV set up by EU works or not, but a number of countries which do not want to be part of the Chinese or American orbit would be attracted towards the EU, in spite of all the problems it is facing, due to it’s capacity to take an independent stand.

Asia Connectivity Strategy is not only about competition

It remains to be seen whether the Asia Connectivity Strategy can gain traction. In terms of connectivity, there may even be strong overlaps with the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’. France, which has strengthened strategic ties with Australia and India, is already seeking to play a pro-active role in the Indo-Pacific.

French President Emmanuel Macron had referred to the need for a strong Paris-Canberra-New Delhi axis, during his Australia visit, as a counter to China’s increasing assertiveness.

Interestingly, while there is a realization, that Asian Connectivity Strategy has a competitive element, and there are some clear differences between EU’s strategy and BRI, there are also some who believe, that there is space for collaboration between the Asia Connectivity Strategy and BRI. This point has been put forward by some policy makers and strategic commentators in EU, as well as sections of the Chinese media. Wang Wen Wen in an article for the Global Times, argues:

‘Asia needs Europe as much as it needs China. Since the EU and China are the two largest economic entities in Eurasia, it is vital that they steward the continent’s economic development agenda. Some programs in the BRI have carried out cooperation with the European side on technology and equipment procurement.’

In conclusion, the Asia Connectivity Strategy is an interesting idea. A lot will depend upon available resources and the response of potential stakeholders. But EU going ahead with such an initiative in spite of numerous problems within is truly laudable.

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October 26-27, 2018,National Academy of Sciences, Armenia. Address: Marshal Bagramyan 24, Yerevan, Armenia. Organizers:“China-Eurasia” Council for Political and Strategic Research,...

South Asia8 hours ago

The “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region

Addressing an event earlier this week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are...

Central Asia10 hours ago

Kazakh court case tests Chinese power

A Kazakh court is set to put to the test China’s ability to impose its will and strongarm Muslim nations...

Reports21 hours ago

Portugal’s post-crisis policies boosted growth and employment

A mix of sound economic and social policies and constructive social dialogue between the government, workers’ and employers’ organizations have...

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