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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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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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