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The file of the refugee crisis remains open

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The massive influx of migrants – Arab and African refugees to Europe – is unanimously considered to have triggered this summer the most serious refugee crisis after the Second World War.

However, its causes have not been profoundly analyzed or stated and admitted by the important European political decision-makers involved in this crisis. This is the reason why the public opinions and assessments on the real causes that took migration to this level are often opposed. Until now, the official statements, comments and analyses of the crisis have been very numerous, diverse, contradictory and often inflammatory, having increased tensions while the massive groups of migrants were moving towards the center of Europe.

Starting from the information and videos constantly presented by the international media, we can say that the peoples living on the European territory, which have already entered the era of knowledge with the 21st century – a century of information, are currently dealing with an extremely serious and unprecedented state of insecurity following the world wars. The opposing statements, the irrational augmentations of the armament race including the nuclear one and the threat of using these weapons, the great maneuvers USSR vs. US, the troops of the Warsaw Treaty vs. NATO and vice versa, the Soviet military invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) or the political-military tensions within the international relations have never created such chaos and decisional instability in Europe. As for the crisis in Yugoslavia, it is true that there have been serious military confrontations that caused numerous deaths, but at least they were somehow controlled, being kept within the geographic limits in which they appeared. At the end, due to NATO and the EU’s management, they did not induce a war psychosis that could extend to the entire continent.

At present, the level of the migration is extraordinary – Arab and African refugees form large groups of people including men and women of different ages, including old people and have a heterogeneous structure in ethnicity and in terms of the origin country, social class and profession, possibly even in terms of religion, other than the Islamic one.

The simultaneous and quite immediate mobilization of so many people and the creation of these groups, even the fact that they left their homes and their towns, cannot be considered as being spontaneous decisions. It is true that there has been bombing and war in their towns, as it happened in Syria and Libya, but that could have led to separation and not to the creation of groups. Therefore, their movement in groups of hundreds or thousands of people choosing various routes, optimal to get to the center of Europe, raises a lot of questions about the spontaneous character of this migration. There are currently discussions about the agencies of international tourism as being turned into real “business centers” that offered passports and money. Who is behind all of these and which was the purpose for giving them money? Who do they cooperate with in Europe and in the embarking locations? Conflicts between the rebels had started a long time ago in the migrants’ countries and the high level of insecurity generated this inherent and predictable migration. So the migration that Europe is dealing with at present is not a new phenomenon. It has been known for some time. And even so, it looks like there was nobody to study it in the most profound detail. The intelligence services and the embassies that remained in the region were not aware of how this migration began and developed? While travelling to their destinations, the migrants have had a violent and excessive behavior, especially at border crossings, being determined to achieve the goal they set when embarking in this great adventure. Therefore, there are sufficient reasons for some of them to be looked at with suspicion. In the context of a phenomenon amplified by migrants originating from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq etc, these suspicions indicate that there is a migration mafia operating at present and sending people towards the center of Europe. The assessment can definitely be proved and it is being led be certain hidden interests – geopolitical or demographic ones, including the need for cheap labor, and in my opinion, we cannot rule out the participation of Russia and Germany either from it.

Considering the reactions and administration of this migration by its possible future “hosts”, it seems that its development has surprised the entire Europe, causing chaos and panic in the European countries crossed by the migrants. Confusion existed also at the decisional level of the European countries involved and of the current EU management. It is obvious that the ingravescence of the migrants’ crisis has been accompanied by more intense manipulation, propaganda and informative intoxication. These are the manifestations specific to the informational war initiated by the Russian Federation. Tactically speaking, they were mainly focused on Ukraine and Syria during the last two years. Strategically, as Moscow declared openly and repeatedly they aim at destabilizing the EU and NATO. Within contexts completely different, they have been turned into main targets established in a short-term and medium-term strategy extended in the Eurasian perimeter. Now, the Syrian file, connected to the consequences of the Arab spring file distracts attention from the Russian war on the Ukrainian territory. I am under the impression that the West’s support for Ukraine could not only be “neglected”, but it has already become an important point on the agenda of negotiations with Russia on the fight against the Islamic State and settlement of the situation in Syria.

Premises of instability

All the above-mentioned certainly represent serious premises for instability and insecurity in Europe, favorable to Russia and skillfully used by Kremlin.

In view of the current international geopolitical context, and particularly the European one mentioned above, I am convinced that the current leadership in Kremlin has been constantly practicing an aggressive and blackmailing diplomacy with the US and Western Europe for a long time, using only provocative statements and threats of nuclear attacks on the NATO members as well as direct military operations or hybrid operations.

Correlating Russia’s favorable results in Ukraine, with immediate effects in the explosion of migration towards Europe this summer, we note that Moscow’s strategy has achieved its purpose – the destabilization of the EU. A serious and worrying reality has been created that could affect the future existence of the Union. If until this moment we were talking about it based on gaps in the functioning of the EU or on the unwanted support of skepticism, at present we notice that there is no longer solidarity between its members and the diplomatic and political-military relations have turned to be so tense and serious that even conflicts appeared at the border. The general situation of Europe at present is influenced by the flow of migration, premises have been created that define the maximum state of security threats for a country, which could be compared to what the history of art theory and military strategy calls imminent war.

The management of the migrants’ crisis vs. a new modus operandi

The problem that concerns and worries the entire population of the world refers to the causes that led to this situation of imminent war. In order to do this, I think we should have a clear picture of this phenomenon – the immense flow of migrants towards Europe. To this end, I consider that the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the Borders of the European Union Member States has done its job. Its report – Annual Analysis of Risk – 2015 published in FRONTEX in April 2015 presented centralized data and information about the migrants, information that came from the responsible institutions during the border control operations. At the same time, the report presents an estimation of how the migration could continue on its favorite routes, particularly the ones that converge towards Europe. Thus, there is a special EU structure for migration which presents annual reports on the development of migration in the neighboring regions of the continent with the potential of producing migrants. In this context, it is difficult to understand why the national powers and the high officials leading the EU did not take any preventive measures in order to reduce the tide of migrants to Europe since they had at hand all the necessary details in order to make efficient and appropriate decisions presented in an analysis of risk compared to the previous years.

According to the Report mentioned above, the illegal border-crossing at the EU’s external borders has reached a new record, being registered 280,000 people more than during the previous year. Most of the migrants originated from Syria and they later on asked for asylum in the EU. This significant increase was stimulated by the very high number of legal approvals for entrance in the EU, which led in fact to a new modus operandi. At the same time, the Report informs that since September 2014 the migrants have started to use cargo boats in order to get from Turkey to Italy, near Mersin. This is a multi-million business for the groups of organized crime and it extended in other countries as well. I consider that all this information was known by the intelligence services. An operational communication system might have not functioned between the countries passed through by the migrants’ groups which could have generated opportune and efficient actions for monitoring. However, when the media presented the increasing tendency of deliberate attempts to use commercial ships for the migrants, communication occurred and the International Maritime Organization got directly involved in the maritime transport industry in order to save migrants.

The report also mentions the fact that the record number of illegal migrants imposed the use of important resources for immediate assistance, superior to those used for registration and details regarding the migrants’ origin. Could this be an excuse for the confusion created at the frontiers? The Report also informs that after having been saved, the migrants continued their route to other member countries and “nobody knows where they are within the EU and that is a vulnerability of the EU domestic security”. In my opinion, this is due first of all to the lack of communication with the migrants, both at the borders and during their movement on the territory of the European Union, They should have been identified or their leaders should have been in constant communication with the people authorized to accompany them. The truth – as presented by the international media – indicates a lack of communication between the national structures of the transit countries, responsible and directly involved in the permanent monitoring of the migrant groups. If this communication existed at the lowest level possible, instead of cooperation there were provocations and violent confrontations that could have turned into much more than the so-called “regrettable incidents at the border” as it happened at the border between Hungary and Croatia. The lack of responsible communication appropriate to the modern society was one of the characteristics in the crisis management of the flow of migrants, starting from the location where the groups were created to the movement of the groups at the external border of the EU and on its territory.

Most of the migrants were discovered in the Central Mediterranean region, totaling 170,000 people. In the eastern Mediterranean region were found 50,800 people. It is important to note that the conclusion of the Report regarding the Hungarian leadership according to which at the end of 2014, the number of migrants increased suddenly at the terrestrial border between Hungary and Serbia, which makes the route West Balkan (with 43,357 illegal migrants) become the third most important route for illegal migration towards the EU. Budapest must have known about it at that time, but it did not tell its neighbors about the intention to build the long-disputed fence. Maybe it would have been a solution since the country was the most exposed country, but the situation could have been discussed in advance. The lack of communication cannot be an excuse for the unfriendly tension shown by certain Hungarian officials, going down to the lowest level of behavior and diplomatic decency in relation with the natural demands of the neighbors that expected explanations. Fear could appear in relation to Hungary as well, suspecting that it would deliberately create tense situations with the neighbors. Associated with the distances from the norms and standards of the EU, they must certainly be included in the country’s foreign policy objective of getting close to Moscow. This kind of fear was also induced in our country, emphasized by the famous American historian Larry Watts, who reveals in his works the manner in which the bilateral relations between Hungary and Romania have been established according to coordinates previously set by Moscow. The Russian leaders, regardless of their name and period, have always wanted that relations between our country and Hungary were tense and denigrated in the opinion the West, particularly in the view of Washington. This statement can no longer be argued as long as it is proven with documents, mostly from the archives of the CIA and of the US Department of State. Nevertheless, this is another story that needs to be discussed in detail on another occasion.

The clandestine mechanized migration mentioned in the report published in FRONTEX increased significantly from 599 in 2013 to 3,052 in 2014. Traffic at the Bulgarian border with Turkey increased ten times.                  

In 2014, approximately 9,400 attempts of illegal border-crossing were identified from countries neighboring the EU/Schengen zone. Inter-community movement within the EU indicates an increase from 7,867 in 2013 to 9,968 in 2014 (an increase of 27%). Therefore, for the first time, more illegal documents were discovered during the Schengen-EU travel than during the cross-border control of the people coming from third countries.

The easing of illegal migration remains a significant threat for the foreign borders of the EU. The number of people facilitating migration has increased from 7,252 in 2013 to 10,234 in 2014. The increase was mainly registered in Spain, Italy and Bulgaria. There were approximately 114,000 people banned to enter the EU, which represents an 11% drop as compared to 2013. The drop is a record consequence as compared to 2013, when an important number of Russian citizens were denied entrance because they did not possess a valid visa.  

In 2014 there were 441,780 people found living illegally in the EU, which represents an increase as compared to the previous year. Most of the increase was due to people from Syria and Eritrea which later asked for asylum. A total number of 252,003 people coming from other countries were asked to leave the EU based on an administrative or legal decision, representing a 12% increase as compared to 2013. In 2014 there were 161,309 people who returned to their countries after leaving the EU, a similar figure to 2013.

The perspective of the Report mentions the probability of a high number of illegal border-crossing in the EU as well as the possibility that a high number of immigrants need assistance for search and rescue (as well as international protection) particularly south of the Union’s border on the routes from the East and Central Mediterranean regions. There are also chances that numerous migrants cross the border legally, ask for asylum and be able to continue their travel in the European Union.

Most of the risks come from the use of false documents. The falsification and use of false documents undermines not only border security, but also the domestic security of the European Union.

These risks are common to almost all member countries because they are associated with the flow of people and controls at the border, requesting constantly higher performance in the specialized control expertize. Most of the criminality in this domain implies documents for entrance in the EU and there are indications of using less sophisticated documents such as identity documents or passes.

Generally, any kind of migration, especially the one that got out of control, can be used to organize espionage and terrorism. If we think about the spatial and temporal dimensions of the current flow of migrants towards the heart of Europe, it is clear that there are opportunities for such activities. The temptation is high and must be taken into consideration. If the Report mentions the terrorist threat that could be facilitated by the current migration, it means that the authors have information supporting the statement. The Report mentions the extremists in the Syrian conflict and the radicalization of young Islamists. At the same time, the serious and extended situation in Syria attracted many foreign fighters, including EU citizens that have double citizenship. The criminal actions of ISIL against humanity demand attention according to the level of this threat.

When choosing between xenophobia and humanity, solidarity loses

Europe’s very complex situation with influxes of migrants also evidenced the lack of human solidarity and political will as shown by the different views of the important EU leaders about the integration of the refugees and the inconsistent support of the declared policies. The opinions of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been the informal leader of the EU and initiated the economic exclusive austerity measures, were expected to top the smaller or bigger European opinions referring to the current refugee crisis. Recent history indicates that the personality of this important official did not impose in the decision-making process, as chancellor and leader of an alliance of parties that supports her, but the great German finance and economic interests. This is the only way in which we can explain its inconsistency in the policy for the refugees. Initially, the offer of receiving 800,000 refugees launched the idea that Germany relies on this work force to save its economy. Shortly afterwards, there was strong criticism to this concept and Germany changed its mind. I mention here the opinions of Horst Seehofer, Bavarian State Premier and leader of the Christian-Social Union (CSU). His opinion did not coincide with the position of the governing ally Angela Merkel because he considered this policy “an error”. After this statement, the German newspaper “Bild” said that the Bavarian officials are preparing to “shut down” the border with Austria, which the newspaper called “a significant change of the refugees’ policy”. Indeed, shortly afterwards trains were no longer allowed to travel from Austria to Germany. The German Minister of Internal Affairs, Maiziere, confirmed that Germany will temporarily introduce controls at the border with Austria due to the large number of refugees coming towards Germany.

The magnitude of the migrants’ flow and its unpredictable evolution has brought into discussion the process of assimilation in the European countries. Normally, this assimilation must be in accordance with the capacities of every European country, be it even a member of the European Union. Uncommon for the integrity of the European values that lay at the basis of the Union and later allowed its development was the violent characteristic of discussions which have put forward terms like national quotas, mandatory quotas and volunteer quotas. In my opinion, this view of the migrants annuls from the very start the principle of solidarity and once again negatively influences cohesion within the EU and even its existence. There were serious discussions at all levels and the public comments and statements of the member countries indicate that xenophobic attitudes have reappeared. The determination in accepting or rejecting these unfortunate quotas represents another dark page in Europe’s history, which we could easily call “the Mediterranean drama: assigning national quotas for immigrants”. It would be unwise and even dangerous to say that a European country is xenophobic, particularly in the current context. I will focus only on the quotas, asking one single question to the “inventor” of the operational methodology of this new “mechanism made in the EU” with the purpose of assigning refugees. Therefore, which are the criteria that set the mandatory national quota for every state? I believe it is based on arithmetic as long as the values are thousand or tens of thousand and end with smaller units like 4837. Arithmetical scrupulosity should not make politics look absurd or ridiculous. Even if the software of the computer, be it the most modern one, would round off the quota, our imposed example will be – 4840 (gain of humanism), but the imposed quotas associated with financial sanctions with values probably given by a smart software (values from 0-infinite) bring the whole process close to dictatorship. History proved that the absurd, the incredible and many others belong to dictatorship and not to democracy. Probably the German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel will also reveal the name of the inventor since we are told that “Europe fell into contemp” after the failure of the ministerial reunion in Brussels organized to set the quotas for the refugees in the EU.

Cui (quid) prodest?

After the serious controversies in the EU and following Germany’s decisional instability under the government of Angela Merkel, the other EU members did not hesitate to protect their interests, at any cost. After seeing that “institutional communication of every member country at a domestic level and within the community was locked in the boxes hidden behind armchairs existing at all levels of leadership, including the management of the EU” in the context of the management of the refugees’ crisis, we also note that “the European diplomacy has failed in front of a steel fence” with no exception.             

The unusual statements and the tense situations used by the European diplomacy in international relations setting its entrance into “the era of migration crisis” are arguments that account for my statements above.

According to “NapocaNews”, Laszlo Kover, President of the Hungarian Parliament announced that Hungary refused the request of the United States to accept immigrants in the EU, accusing Washington of being responsible for the conflicts that generated refugees and offered as an example the fence built by the United States at the border with Mexico. The Hungarian official does not understand that his statement according to which “the European crisis is going through a profound intellectual and moral crisis that generates a political crisis” rebounds upon himself after having initiated this uninspired diplomatic dialog with the US. We remind the Hungarian official that the US is a strategic partner for Europe’s security, despite the interests of some nostalgic Germans for the noisy marches on Berlin’s streets that existed in the past. In this context, it is a good idea to republish some information that appeared in “Romania Liberă” quoting AFP, according to which the mayor of Dachau, Florian Hartmann issued a press statement saying that “an add-on of the former Nazi camp in south Germany will be upgraded as shelter for homeless people, including refugees”. The future occupants were described by the mayor as “the weakest members of the society”. According to the Swiss publication “Tribune de Geneve”, “the Dachau project is not unique in Germany”. At the beginning of 2015, the local authorities started a project in order to transform the former add-ons of the camp from Buchenwald (built similarly to the Dachau camp) into shelters for the immigrants.

The “high-level” diplomatic dialogue between Austria – Hungary about the refugees must be mentioned again due to some statements made public by Reuters. In an interview for “Der Spiegel”, the Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann criticized in very strong words the manner in which Hungary manages the crisis of the refugees, saying that “the measures adopted by Viktor Orban’s government remind of the Nazi period” and the packing of people in trains hoping that they would be taken someplace else “reminds of the darkest period from our continent”, referring to the Holocaust practiced by the Nazis during the Second World War. His Excellency Werner Faymann referred directly to his Hungarian counterpart and added that “The Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban acts irresponsibly by calling these refugees immigrants with economic motivation”.                         

In response, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter Szijjarto, made some serious statements about the Austrian officials: “Austria has been carrying out a campaign of lies against Hungary for several weeks…The statements made by Mister Faymann are irresponsible, undignified for a political leader of the 21st century and they impede the identification of solutions to the refugee crisis”.        

Another “small diplomatic calumny” is the confrontation Budapest-Bucharest, generated by the same steel fence that Hungary announced as planned to be built at the Romanian border. The relations France-Hungary, Slovenia-Croatia, Hungary-Croatia, Hungary-Serbia have been characterized by the same violent dialog about the fence. The violent language and the wording used by the official opponents from all sides are much under the representation of their countries. I am one of those who consider that Hungary, like any other EU member country, has the right of establishing its own defensive measures since one of the important travelling routes for the refugees crosses its territory and, fortunately for us, not the Romanian territory. Moreover, I consider that under the strong pressure of the migrants, much more profound than in any other country, Hungary was forced to adopt these measures, since the management of the EU proved to be inexistent. However, the head of the Hungarian diplomacy should have understood that it was not the fence that disturbed, but the lack of communication on this theme with the neighbors of this country.

Diplomacy is an art and the practice of negotiations between the representatives of nations and groups. This definition does not annuls the fact that those involved in this art must be artisans of a quality directly proportionate to the power of the state being represented or compensating what it misses. Any storm in a glass turns into a tsunami. The attitudes and violent statements outside the traditional, common diplomatic framework lead to belligerent positions of the parties. Unfortunately, if it is being manifested in an institutionalized framework accepted by the parts, like the NATO or EU membership, and if it is based on a series of Euro-Atlantic and European values and principles, being often characterized by more or less serious arguments, it proves the deep misunderstanding of the world we are living in and an almost childish reason. The discussion could have another interpretation if the strategic objectives of a party’s foreign policy were directly or indirectly oriented towards another current geopolitical and geostrategic manifestation in Europe. In this context, as the American State Secretary John Kerry said about creating an alliance against ISIL, “Diplomacy becomes crucial”.

 

First published by the INGEPO Consulting’s Geostrategic Pulse    

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Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country

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The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.

Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government

Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.

Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.

In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.

Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy

The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.

The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.

At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.

In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.

Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum

Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.

Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.

The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.

In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.

Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.

The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy

Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.

First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.

Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.

In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.

Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid

In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.

Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.

At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.

Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.

Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.

Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power

The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.

P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.

Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.

From our partner RIAC

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Is British Democracy in Danger?

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On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.

Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.

To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.

While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.

Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.

One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.

Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.

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Europe

The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security

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2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.

Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.

In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.

On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.

Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.

Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.

In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.

The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.

A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?

As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.

Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.

The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.

Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.

From our partner RIAC

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