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There is no Europe without Russia

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“Leaders remain committed to the vision of a joint humanitarian and economic space from the Atlantic to the Pacific based upon full respect for international law and the OSCE principles.”

If one did not recognize it, this is a quote not from better times in East-West relations but from the Declaration of Minsk of February 12, 2015![1] This vision, to which I myself have been committed since the fall of the Iron Curtain and in particular during my work in the Council of Europe, is still alive[2]. Europe is a strange continent. Strictly speaking indeed, it is not a continent at all, but a mere peninsula tacked onto Asia. Looking at the map, Russia west of the Ural Mountains is either the base or the beginning of this peninsula. But – for its unmistakable cultural identity this peninsula has become an own continent, and Russia is without any doubt an indispensable part of it. Russia belongs to the family of the Slavic peoples which is one of the main linguistic groups in Europe and settling in the main areas of Central, South Eastern and Eastern Europe. Russian Orthodoxy forms an important part of European Christianity. Russian poets, composers, musicians, actors, painters, dancers have contributed to European arts and culture. And for example, St. Petersburg’sHermitage is one of the largest treasures of European arts.

But at the same time the main part of Russia belongs to Asia (although the vast majority of the population lives west of the Ural mountains), the whole territory of Russia is larger than the “rest” of Europe[3], and last but not least Russia is not only the legal successor of the Soviet Union but in many respects also the heir of its traditions including the one that in the times of the bi-polar world of the Cold War she was one of the two super powers. All this creates a special situation with regard to the process of European unification or cooperation.

Notwithstanding these aspects I would like to remind you that it was a Russian, of course at that time representing the Soviet Union who spoke in Strasbourg on July 6, 1989 to the Council of Europe the word of the “common home of Europe”, Mikhail Gorbatchev.[4] Russia made its strategic choice for Europe when applying for membership to the Council of Europe in 1992 and joining the oldest and most comprehensive European organisation in 1996. Only ten years later, from May to October 2006, Russia was leading the organisation by chairing its Committee of Ministers.[5]

Membership to the Council of Europe is not just a formality; it means commitment to the basic principles of the organisation, which transform Europe’s cultural identity to a political identity: pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The honouring of this strong commitment is monitored by the Council in several ways, by the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers, by special bodies like the European Anti-Torture Committee and above all by the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The history of Russia and the Council of Europe is not without tensions and difficulties.

 

I know what I am speaking about. I was just elected President of the political group of the European People’s Party when the Parliamentary Assembly had to vote on the admission of Russia and the issue was very controversial in the group – the result of an indicative vote was just 50 – 50 and the second Chechen crisis or war started just after I took my office as Secretary General of the Council. During the first Chechen war the admission procedure for Russia was suspended and twice the voting rights of the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly were suspended, once because of the second Chechen crisis[6] and now again because of the Crimean crisis[7].

But there was also fruitful cooperation between Council of Europe and Russia, e.g. the setting-up of a human rights mission on the spot in Chechnya and my invitation to the hearing of the State Duma on Chechnya[8].

Russia has not yet finished its transition process which is not an easy task after 70 years of Communist dictatorship.There are still many features inherited from the past. There is an age-old mistrust of the State. The citizens feel suspicions for the State. And the state and its authorities in particular law enforcement agencies feel suspicious for the citizens and the civil society. This is the challenge of strengthening Russia as a modern State. This is also a question of the functioning of the Federation. The organisation of relations between the federal and regional levels of government is not an easy task in a state composed of 89 subjects. It has been an old saying that Russia is big and the Tsar is far away. Russia has to find its own way how to tackle all these challenges within the framework of democracy, rule of law and human rights. This is something which is not always understood in the so-called West including the European partners of Russia. But a strong civil society including vivid religious communities, an emerging middle class and modern grassroots’ political parties will help Russia to finally determine that way.

And there has been – long before the Ukrainian crisis – the question of the relationship of Russia and the European Union and in particular also with NATO. Turning (slowly) towards a political union, comprising 28 member states, already the majority of states in Europe with the majority of the population of the continent, the EU is tempted to consider itself as “Europe” and to act on behalf of Europe. But Europe is still larger, and notwithstanding the fact, that other countries too may join the Union, in particular the countries of South-East-Europe and also former Soviet republics like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are looking for EU-membership, Europe is still larger than the Union[9]. Also countries unwilling or unable to join the Union are part of Europe and have the right to be considered as equal partners in the European political concert. In particular regarding Russia the Union has to find the right policy. I would say it is high time after nearly a quarter of a century since the collapse of the Soviet Union[10]. In the 90ies, when Russia was in economic troubles, the Union had a tendency to patronize Russia, and some decision makers, old suspicions alive, where not unhappy with the situation. After the economic revival of Russia, in particular on the energy sector, old suspicions still alive, they have difficulties to tackle with the new reality. But despite diverging opinions on certain cases like Kosovo (between the majority of EU on one hand and Russia and the minority of EU members on the other!) there is no alternative to close cooperation between the European Union and Russia. I dare to say this being fully aware of the obstacles for closer cooperation because of the Ukrainian crisis.

In particular the Ukrainian crisis is proving the common responsibility of both for stability and peacein Europe. Responsible cooperation will strengthen the voice of Europe in a multi-polar world.

There is a lot of common interest. This is, e.g., the energy market. This is not only a matter of Russia as supplier and Western Europe as consumer. There should be the common interest of promoting renewable energy, climate protection and sustainable agriculture and forestry. In the globalization process, EU-Europe and Russia have quite similar interests towards the USA and the new economic powers as Brazil, China and India. And above all, after two terrible World Wars which devastated large parts of Europe including Western and Southern Russia there must be the common interest to preserve this continent for the future as an area of peace and democratic stability. Not only the Council of Europe to which Russia is a member-country but also the European Union, emerged from the Community for Coal and Steel, is first and foremost a peace project.[11] Russia should have an indispensable role in the peace project of Europe.

NATO, the trans-Atlantic military alliance, in Europe growing faster than the EU, is a more complicated case. NATO was the counterpart of the not any more existing Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. But NATO is not only still existing but expanding to the East including aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance. US’ “European Phased Adaptive Approach” or Missile Defense Umbrella with new missile bases and radar stations closer to the Russian borders creates suspicions on the Russian side and do not facilitate relaxed relations of Russia with NATO and had in my view a negative impact on “European-Russian” relations in general. It is too early to assess to what extend EPAA had an impact on the Russian position towards Ukraine after Maidan. Most of the member states of the European Union are members of NATO and regarding European security policy it is not easy to distinguish between the two communities. While one of the military alliances of the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact, was dismissed, NATO still exists.[12]

European NATO members would therefore be well advised to give priority to genuine European interests including good relations with Russia without tensions.

In my opinion and that may sound today as a total unrealistic utopia, but it is my humble opinion, in the long run and of course after having found common ground and solutions of today’s crisis not even a membership of Russia to NATO should be excluded, turning the European part of NATO into a security system which guarantees peace and stability on the continent.

Currently we see of course a totally different but also ambivalent picture. The main players are sitting together in Minsk being fully aware of their responsibility and agree on a declaration from which I quoted at the beginning. But in Eastern Ukraine or as it is called by some people Novarossiya fighting and killing goes on. Each party is blaming the other not to stick to the Minsk agreement.

A few days ago the tragedy of the Maidan where more than 100 people, protesters as well as policemen, were killed was commemorated[13]. In my humble view no side at this time was without mistakes. The main mistake from the EU as well as from the Russian side was a misinterpretation of the Maidan. At the beginning Maidan was a civil society protest against corruption and mis-governance. The EU association agreement was not in the main focus of the mainly young people who made up the so-called Maidan. If the EU association agreement played a role it was the fact that in the eyes of the people the refusal of Yanukovich to sign the agreement which was adopted by the Verkovna Rada was just another evidence of his anti-democratic attitude. But Brussels made out of the Maidan the Euro-Maidan and Moscow a neo-fascist coup d’état.

What was totally ignored by the European Union in that moment was that Ukraine has not only one, but two big neighbors, EU in the West and Russia in the East, that Ukrainian economy needs good relations and good conditions with both neighbors and finally that Russia has understandable interests in Ukraine, regarding economic relations, the desire to protect the ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine and last but not least strategic interests as the Russian Black Sea Fleet had no alternative to the naval base of Sebastopol.[14] And I do not ignore the religious or spiritual aspect as many Ukrainians obey to the Moscow patriarchate of the Orthodox Church.

What happened in Minsk in February 2015[15] therefore should have happened one year ago before. In my view a sincere tripartite dialogue – European Union, Ukraine and Russian Federation – could have avoided the deterioration which followed the Maidan events. Moves like the attempt of abolishing Russian as the second official language – although even many Ukrainians who do not consider themselves as ethnic Russians have Russian as their mother tongue – and even more serious to declare the agreement on Sebastopol as illegal in connection with open declared NATO aspirations raised the suspicion in Moscow that all this was part of an anti-Russian plot. Russia made mistakes too. To act as a kind of protector of the corrupt president of Ukraine, Yanukovich, was one, to declare the entire new leadership of Ukraine as neo-fascists and not to distinguish between the democratic majority and an extreme right minority was another one. The situation was serious enough to be dealt with at the highest level. It is certainly due to this lack of dialogue that escalation as well as an unwanted automatism took place. It is not the place to assess the events and developments which lead to the annexation of Crimea. That will be done in the future by historians.

But I dare to say as they did not talk to each other both sides have a joint responsibility for the events.

The Russian side justified the admission of Crimea among others with several violations of international law by the “Western” side and in particular with the case of Kosovo. But certainly a violation of international law cannot be healed by previous violations of international law in different cases. And the so-called referendum in Crimea was declared illegal by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to which Russia is a member, to the Commission and to the Council as well.[16] Now both sides have a big dilemma. The European Union cannot accept the violation of international law and the unilateral change of borders under military threat. For Russia it is a fait accompli, State Duma and President adopted the admission of Crimea to the Russian Federation and nobody expects a voluntary Russian withdrawal from the Black Sea peninsula.

It seems that both sides are trapped in the automatism of sanctions and countersanctions, in a kind of an economic war that nobody wants and which will not see a winner on the two sides. Sanctions are the result of an apparent lack of alternatives – as military intervention is of course excluded – but they do not solve the crisis, do not stop civil war in Eastern Ukraine, and do not bring Crimea back to Ukraine. And it is of course not in European interest to allow in Eastern Ukraine a kind of proxy war between “East and West”.

To avoid any kind of proxy war and to escape from the trap of escalation and automatism urgent – joint – steps for building confidence are necessary:

First step, both sides have to use their utmost influence on the parties in Eastern Ukraine to fully stick to the Minsk agreement, sending the message that there is no military solution, imposing an arms embargo on both sides.

Second step would be that EU and Russia agree on a list what has to be solvedthrough negotiations between the two parties, what must be solved inside Ukraine, that means between Kiev and the Donbass, and what must be solved between Ukraine and Russia including the Crimea case.

In a third step, Ukraine – knowing that the EU expects a peaceful solution with protection and promotion of minority rights and the local representatives of Donezk and Lugansk, knowing that Russia is neither supporting secession nor civil war, have to come together to find a sustainable compromise.

Russia and Ukraine should also take care of old and historic economic ties across the Eastern borders of Ukraine as in the times of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union they did not exist. There is a best practices example how to solve such problems arising from new borders. After World War I the Austrian county of Tyrol was divided between Austria and Italy. To foster the economic exchange of both parts of the divided country Austria and Italy agreed after WWII on the “Accordino”[17]. This “little treaty” allowed free exchange of many goods and also duty-free trade for many products in both directions.[18]  

I think that must be doable. It is a well-known saying that any crisis constitutes also a chance. EU and Russia can return not only to normality but to the implementation what I quoted at the beginning from the Minsk Declaration, the vision of a joint humanitarian and economic space from the Atlantic to the Pacific based uponfull respect for international law and the OSCE principles. And what was forgotten in Minsk, respect for the values of the Council of Europe, pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

Let me conclude. Europe and Russia – when did this story begin? In ancient times, when most of today’s peoples came through Russia to Europe? At the end of the Roman Empire when the migration of peoples started in Southern Russia? More than 1100 years ago when Christianity came to Russia? 300 years ago when Peter the Great declared St. Petersburg the new capital of Russia, allegedly as the “window to Europe”?

200 years ago at the Vienna Congress when the new order of Europe after Napoleon was set up by the main powers of Europe including Russia?

Russia was always a part of Europe and Europe’s historical and cultural identity would not be completewithout Russia’s contribution to it.

In the 21st century, after the tragic experiences of the 20th century, we have the chance for the first time to create a peaceful Europe without dividing lines. Regarding Russia, this is of course not a one way street. Both sides have to deliver.

But while Russia has to complete its transition to a member of the European family of democracies, the other part of Europe has to accept the new Russia as a partner with equal rights and equal opportunities.

One may ask whether this would also mean that Russia will become one day a member of the European Union. Who knows? Looking not only to the figures but also to political realities it is for the time being not likely. On the other hand, if Russia will fulfill the criteria and would apply, would “Europe” have the right to reject Russia?[19] In any way there is still a long way off.

However, it applies for the past, for today as well as for the future: There is no Europe without Russia, there is no Russia without Europe.

 


[1] Text of the Minsk declaration on http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Infoservice/Presse/Meldungen/2015/150212_Minsk-Declaration.html

[2] Walter Schwimmer, The European Dream, Continuum, London-New York, 2004

[3] Europe without Russia about 6,92 million sq. km, Russia 17,075 sq. km

[4] In his July 6, 1989 speech before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Gorbachev declared that the philosophy of the “Common European Home” concept rules out the probability of an armed clash.

[5] See Council of Europe – Activity Report 2006, Council of Europe Strasbourg 2007

[6] Report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the credentials of the delegation of the Russian Federation: http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-DocDetails-EN.asp?fileid=8839&lang=EN&search=KjoqfGNvcnB1c19uYW1lX2VuOiJPZmZpY2lhbCBkb2N1bWVudHMifHN1YmplY3Rfc3RyX2VuOiJjaGFsbGVuZ2Ugb2YgY3JlZGVudGlhbHMi

[7]Resolution 1990 (2014) Final version Reconsideration on substantive grounds of the previously ratified credentials of the Russian delegation http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-DocDetails-EN.asp?fileid=21538&lang=EN&search=KjoqfHR5cGVfc3RyX2VuOlJlc29sdXRpb258c3ViamVjdF9zdHJfZW46ImNoYWxsZW5nZSBvZiBjcmVkZW50aWFscyI=

[8]http://reliefweb.int/report/russian-federation/duma-discusses-chechen-situation-pace-lists-new-demands

[9]The government of Iceland just recently withdrew officially the application for EU membership, the people of Norway rejected by referendum membership in the Union and Switzerland refused by referendum even to join the European Economic Area. Armenia recently decided to join the Eurasian Union. Europe’s small countries, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican State, cannot afford the famous four freedoms, in particular not the freedom of movement.

[10] The European Neighborhood Policy, designed first in 2004, is proposed to the 16 of EU’s closest neighbors except Russia. EU-Russian relations are dealt with in the EU-Russia summit; the last European Union-Russia Summit took place in Brussels 28 January 2014.

[11]The first sentence of the preamble of the Statute of the Council of Europe declares that the members are convinced that the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilization; Article 3,1. of the Treaty of the European Union states: “The Union’s aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.”

[12] There is a NATO-Russia Council (NRC) as a mechanism for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision and joint action. Because of the Ukrainian crisis NATO Foreign Ministers “have decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia…”, in a moment when cooperation and consensus-building would be more necessary and important than ever, see http://www.nato.int/nrc-website/en/articles/20140327-announcement/index.html

[13] There are still speculations about the responsibility for the killings on Maidan Square but no credible results of any investigation.

[14] On April 27, 2010, Russia and Ukraine ratified the Russian Ukrainian Naval Base for Gas treaty, extending the Russian Navy’s lease of Crimean facilities for 25 years after 2017 (through 2042) with an option to prolong the lease in 5-year extensions, but orally that was declared “illegal” by the new Ukrainian government after Maidan.

[15] The meeting of President Hollande of France, President Poroshenko of Ukraine, President Putin of Russia and Chancellor Merkel of Germany in Minsk on February 12, 2015.

[16]Venice Commission = European Commission on Democracy through Law. For the Opinion on the “All-Crimean Referendum” see http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD%282014%29002-e

[17] Italian, meaning „small treaty“ (accord = treaty).

[18] Through the Austrian accession to the European Union with its single market the Accordino became obsolete.

[19]Art.49 of the Treaty on European Union: Any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union. The European Parliament and national Parliaments shall be notified of this application. The applicant State shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission and after receiving the assent of the European Parliament, which shall act by an absolute majority of its component members. The conditions of admission and the adjustments to the Treaties on which the Union is founded, which such admission entails, shall be the subject of an agreement between the Member States and the applicant State. This agreement shall be submitted for ratification by all the contracting States in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. The conditions of eligibility agreed upon by the European Council shall be taken into account.

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Why German car giant Volkswagen should drop Turkey

Iveta Cherneva

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War and aggression are not only questions of ethics and humanitarian disaster. They are bad news for business.

The German car giant Volkwagen whose business model is built on consumer appeal had to stop and pause when Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria. A USD 1.4bln Volkswagen investment in a new plant in Turkey is being put on hold by the management, and rightly so.

Unlike business areas more or less immune from consumer pressure – like some financial sectors, for example – car buying is a people thing. It is done by regular people who follow the news and don’t want to stimulate and associate themselves with crimes against humanity and war crimes through their purchases. Investing in a militarily aggressive country simply is bad for an international brand.

As soon as the news hit that Turkey would be starting their military invasion against the Kurds, questions about plans for genocide appeared in the public discourse space. Investing over a billion in such a political climate does not make sense.

By investing into a new plant next to Turkish city Izmir, Volkswagen is not risking security so much. Izmir itself is far removed from Turkey’s southern border — although terrorist attacks in the current environment are generally not out of the question.

The risk question rather lies elsewhere. Business likes stability and predictability. Aggressive economic sanctions which are likely to be imposed on Turkey by the EU and the US would affect many economic and business aspects which the company has to factor in. Two weeks ago the US House of Representatives already voted to impose sanctions on Turkey, which now leaves the Senate to vote on an identical resolution.

Economic sanctions affect negatively the purchasing power of the population. And Volkswagen’s new business would rely greatly on the Turkish client in a market of over 80mln people.

Sanctions also have a psychological “buckle-up” effect on customers in economies “under siege”, whereby clients are less likely to want to splurge on a new car in strenuous times.

Volkswagen is a German but also a European company. Its decision will signal clearly if it lives by the EU values of support for human rights, or it decides to look the other way and put business first.

But is not only about reputational damage, which Volkswagen seems to be concerned with. There are real business counter-arguments which coincide with anti-war concerns.

Dogus Otomotiv, the Turkish distributor of VW vehicles, fell as much as 6.5% in Istanbul trading after the news for the Turkish offensive.

Apart from their effects on the Turkish consumer, economic sanctions will also likely keep Turkey away from international capital markets.

There is also the question of an EU company investing outside the EU, which has raised eyebrows. It is up to the European Commission now to decide whether the Volkswagen deal in Turkey can go forward after a complaint was filed. Turkey offered the German conglomerate a generous 400mln euro subsidy which is a problem when it comes to the EU rules and regulations on competition.

The Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber filed a complaint with the EU competition Commissioner about the deal, on the basis of non-compliance with EU competition rules. Turkey’s plans to subsidize Volkswagen clearly run counter EU rules and the EU Commission can stop the 1bln deal, if it so decides.

In a context where Turkey takes care of 4mln refugees — subject to an agreement with the EU — and often threatens the EU that it would “open the gates”, it is not clear if the Commission would muster the guts to say no, however. In that sense, the German company’s own decision to pull from the deal would be welcome because the Commission itself wouldn’t have to pronounce on the issue and risk angering Turkey.

While some commentators do not believe that Volkswagen would scrap altogether the investment and is only delaying the decision, it is worth remembering that the Syria conflict is a complex, multi-player conflict which has gone on for more than 8 years. Turkey’s entry in Syria is unlikely to end in a month. Erdogan has communicated his intention to stay in Syria until the Kurds back down.

In October it was reported that the Turkish forces are already using chemical weapons on the Kurdish population which potentially makes Turkish President Erdogan a war criminal. For a corporate giant like Volkswagen, giving an economic boost for such a state would mean indirectly supporting war crimes.

As Kurdish forces struck a deal for protection with the Syrian Assad forces, this seems to be anything but a slow-down. Turkey has just thrown a whole lot of wood into the fire.

Volkswagen will find itself “monitoring” the situation for a long time. There is a case for making the sustainable business decision to drop the risky deal altogether, soon.

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The future of Brexit: Where will Boris Johnson’s “fatal strategy” lead Britain to?

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will attempt to negotiate a new deal with the EU on Brexit in the course of early parliamentary elections in the UK scheduled for December 12. If the Conservatives take upper hand, then, according to Johnson, Great Britain will leave the EU no later than January 31.

How will the upcoming elections affect Brexit? How Boris Johnson’s agreement with the European Commission could be assessed? The answers to these questions were provided by the participants in an expert discussion at the Valdai Club.

Stewart Lawson, member of the Board of Directors of the Russian-British Chamber of Commerce, head of UK Business Center in Moscow, Ernst & Young, has said that the current situation in the UK can be described as a scene in a bar where an Englishman, a Scot and an Irishman drink to forget the concept of Brexit “. Lawson made it clear that leaving the European Union without conditions would be a disaster. Nevertheless, the expert said that the UK had managed to avoid a situation in which there would be no deal at all, and also, with the arrival of a new agreement which Boris Johnson has reached with the EU, the situation has improved. “This deal is the best option for now,” – the expert remarked. However, he said, Brexit seems to be a story with no end and what is happening around it now is not even its first chapter yet.

Brexit continues to produce uncertainty, which, Lawson said is a big problem. In his opinion, the persisting uncertainty in connection with the UK leaving the EU affects business. On the one hand, the expert said, although Brexit will set Great Britain free from the US control, on the other hand, it will greatly affect the business climate, which continues to suffer amid the political uncertainty. The expert mentioned Nassim Taleb’s concept of the “black swan” according to which any forecasting may not take into account random, unknown factors. “We live in a world in which there are factors unknown to us. So it is necessary to have sufficiently flexible organizations capable of responding to situations that are in the process of development, ” – Lawson emphasized.

According to Alexander Kramarenko, Director of Development at the Russian International Affairs Council, Boris Johnson’s new agreement on Brexit is a major achievement for the British Prime Minister. Kramarenko attributes the success of Boris Johnson to his choice of a “fatal strategy” which allowed him to keep the stakes high until he won. With the help of this strategy, he managed to “cut open” the agreement on Brexit which had been signed by Theresa May. In addition, the “fatal strategy” has prompted the EU to concede on several issues.

The failure of Theresa May’s strategy is attributed to the fact that the former prime minister was a staunch supporter of a policy which required satisfying both parties, the UK and the EU. It was necessary to look for ways out of the EU instead of trying to stay there. “You cannot leave the EU and at the same time remain in the EU. And her agreement boiled down to just that, ” – Kramarenko said.

According to Theresa May’s agreement, by leaving the EU formally, Great Britain would lose the right to vote. Boris Johnson said that such an agreement perpetuates the “vassal” dependence of Great Britain on the European Union. “For a country with such a history as Great Britain, a position of this kind is not suitable. Either the UK is a member and takes part in all decisions, or it comes out and agrees on  something special. As argued by Boris Johnson, this special agreement is a free trade agreement of varying range of coverage, intensity and depth, but it would be an agreement of sovereign Britain, ” – Kramarenko emphasized.

First and foremost, Johnson’s agreement solves the problem of maintaining the status quo on the land border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The fact is that under the agreement, Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, is to withdraw from the EU, while Ireland remains part of the European Union. Thus, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the establishment of a clear-cut border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would jeopardize the Irish peace process. The EU, the UK and the Irish Government pledged to maintain this border under a deal that ended the civil war in Northern Ireland. The EU insisted that Britain remain in the Customs Union until this situation is settled. This would de facto keep Britain within the EU.

Under a new agreement proposed by Boris Johnson on which he secured the approval of the European Union, the UK will have to leave the EU’s Customs Union, and the customs border between Britain and the EU will pass via the Irish Sea. However, this threatens the unity of the country and could be an important step towards unification of Ireland, the expert believes.

Boris Johnson’s strategy has led to serious concessions from the European Union, Kramarenko said. Exiting the Customs Union will also allow the UK to clinch trade agreements with third countries. Moreover, the provision on “equal conditions of competition” will no longer be valid in the future, since it was moved from the text of the agreement to the Political Declaration, which is not binding.

What creates a major obstacle to Brexit is the current state of the British constitutional system of government, the expert said. “The opposition has deprived the government of the majority, thereby stripping it of the opportunity to rule the country or adopt new laws,” – Kramarenko said. Johnson’s achievement is precisely due to the fact that despite the opposition, he was able to cope with the opponents and postpone the date of Britain’s exit from the EU. “Now there is a significant degree of confidence that Brexit will take place and, perhaps, it will come as a gift for the New Year,” – Kramarenko said.

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Bulgarian far-right to shut down largest human rights NGO in Bulgaria

Iveta Cherneva

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“Why don’t they defend those who get robbed? Why are they only defending those that have trouble with the police? Why are they defending minorities? Do you know how many policemen are being investigated because of them?”

This is what you hear when the Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister, Krasimir Karakachanov and others speak about the human rights organisation, The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. It is the largest and oldest human rights organisation in Bulgaria.

And now it is facing the threat of closure after the deputy prime minister – who is also Bulgaria’s Minister of Defense – called this week for the shutdown of the NGO. Members of his party, the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO) – a Far-Right party participating in the ruling coalition – have filed a request with the Bulgarian Prosecutor General for a review of the activities of the human rights NGO, asking for it to be closed down.

Make no bones about it. This is an attack on our freedom.

This is why I have notified the relevant authorities at the United Nations about what is taking place in Bulgaria. Activities of this type directed against human rights defenders have no place in a rule of law state, let alone an EU state. As a prominent government official, Krasimir Karakachanov has a particular obligation to respect human rights defenders.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticised his and his party’s actions this week. Over 70 Bulgarian NGOs stood by the Helsinki Committee, having sent a public letter of support condemning the attack on the NGO.

While my signal to the UN is currently being looked at, it is worth discussing why the deputy prime minister and others have such a huge problem with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, and organisations of this type.

The concept of human rights – by its very definition – protects citizens against the State and its organs, including policemen. That is one of the issues for Karakachanov. Well, welcome to the 21st century, Minister.

Policemen being investigated for misconduct is something we have to applaud, not something which shows how far things have gone. Bulgaria, with its post-communist baggage, has had a police system which traditionally has gone over and beyond what is allowed by law. Things of course are changing but you’ll always have policemen who abuse their legal limits. It happens in virtually every country. That’s why we need human rights organisations to watch for these things. And that’s a good thing.

When policemen catch an alleged criminal, they don’t get to beat them up or lock them up indefinitely. Period. These are the kind of cases that human rights NGOs like the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee look into. And they, by definition, will be focused on the actions of policemen and the State. That’s the name of the game; that’s what human rights are about. This is a concept that Karakachanov is not comfortable with; why should anyone be allowed to criticise the police forces? This to him is rather unpatriotic.

“Why don’t they instead look at and help the victims of robbery?” Well, human rights are not about the victims of robbery — if only it was that convenient. They protect citizens from their own state when that state violates their rights. Policemen do not get investigated for no reason, without any evidence of wrongdoing. Defending human rights is a very uncomfortable task because – by definition – the NGO has to go against the State. And for some, like Karakachanov, that shouldn’t be done because it leads to punishments for policemen when they step over.

Working for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights where I reviewed human rights complaints from around the world, I learnt that every country violates human rights – only the scale and extent differ. This is why it is crucial to have human rights defenders like the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee who can help victims on the ground. Having international organisations like the UN is not enough.

Let us turn now to the request to the Prosecutor General to look into the activities of the human rights NGO, with a view to closing it down for allegedly “interfering in the judicial system.” Interference with the judicial system is what lawyers and prosecutors both do, by definition. By presenting facts to push their own case, the judicial system is a place of interference. Justice is not static. Of course, human rights defenders advocate for, interfere, push for and defend their clients. This is their job. Karakachanov’s Far-Right party is uncomfortable with such a strong voice for human rights in the process. Prosecution is prosecution; human rights defense is, well, interference.

Next, we should discuss the role of the Prosecutor General who would have to opine on the request for the close down of the NGO. Euronews readers should be told at this point that Bulgaria is facing a scandal with the selection of the next Prosecutor General. Ivan Geshev, who is currently the number two in the Prosecutor’s Office, is nominated to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor. The capital Sofia witnessed protests by thousands of people marching on the streets against Geshev’s selection as chief prosecutor, because among other things, he is the only candidate in the process. That is never a good sign. Questions are also raised about which oligarchic power circles Geshev would be serving.

Geshev, the deputy in the Prosecutor’s Office, is important in this case because his attitude towards this human rights NGO is well known. When he receives the annual report about the human rights situation in Bulgaria penned by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, he famously sends back literary works about the Bulgarian struggle for independence, in my view trying to educate the NGO about being pro-Bulgarian. Of course, criticising the system does not make an NGO anti-Bulgarian. The job of patriots is not to shut up.

A similar reaction has been noted by the current Prosecutor General who will be looking at the case. When he receives the human rights report about the situation in Bulgaria, he simply sends it back. The message by both is clear: they see no value in a report that reviews the shortcomings of the system. And they are the people who will be deciding whether this human rights organisation is closed or not.

Human rights violations are uncomfortable. They push officials to take a look at themselves and their colleagues, often loudly pointing out the injustices. Human rights are not about robberies; if only it was that convenient. Human rights are about what is wrong with the system. And the current top prosecuting duo are not interested in that.

Living in Bulgaria, I don’t want to see the country follow the example of Hungary where human rights NGOs and universities are pushed so hard by the authorities that they have to close and move. That is not the right path to follow.

The closing down of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee would be a blow to Bulgarian leadership and its human rights record. This will be not only a test for the Prosecutor’s office, but for Bulgarians and the EU.

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