Though with a knife-edge majority, Great Britain has relinquished its economic and political relationship with the EU. Obviously account shall be taken of the many people who voted in favour of Bremain, since they will not disappear all of a sudden, but also the strategic, military and geopolitical effects of this new UK position shall be assessed.
A position which today seems to be mainly economic and commercial, but which will soon herald wider choices than the mere give-and-take between Great Britain and the European Union.
For sure the British people have never liked the European Union.
In 1975 Margaret Thatcher put strong pressures for the United Kingdom to adhere to the European Union, but the idea of the Iron Lady was to become member with a view to controlling a powerful entity, such as the EU, thus avoiding the creation of an axis between France and Germany to isolate Great Britain – as, indeed, later happened. Also from the commercial viewpoint.
Prime Minister Thatcher decided to adhere to the EU as some businessmen do with potentially dangerous companies of which they buy a significant shareholding so as to better manage them from inside.
It is worth recalling that there was still the Cold War that Great Britain was fighting with great care and intelligence wisdom.
At the time, both Prime Minister Thatcher and the other EU statesmen viewed the European bloc as an economic agreement preventing the USSR from extending its economic, if not military, influence over what the French philosopher, Raymond Aron, called “the great Central European plain.”
The plain that the Warsaw Pact planned to quickly conquer so as to reach the Atlantic and seal the UK into its North Sea.
Without Great Britain, there would be no European nuclear arsenal and the French one would fall immediately into Russian hands.
Furthermore, in her book of 2003, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, Margaret Thatcher did not dismiss the possibility of Brexit as “unthinkable”, but thought that the issue had to be analyzed very carefully.
It had to be assessed in terms of strategic and commercial routes and in terms of UK influence over the EU decision- making process, as well as for assessing the balance between the euro and the pound sterling.
These are the decisive factors of the EU-UK matrix, not others.
Currently the European framework is obviously much more complex than in the 1970s.
It is not true, however, that the Union rescued Europe from the fratricidal wars which scarred it as from Napoleon I onwards. The European Civil War, as the German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte called it.
Conversely peace in Europe was preserved by the military balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
The “economic basis of the war” between Germany and France, from Alsace-Lorraine to the Ruhr region, was an old strategic concept which had already been solved with the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951.
Nevertheless, as from 1980 onwards, it was precisely Margaret Thatcher who put pressures on the EU to “get her money back,” by considering the agreements between the EU and the UK unnecessarily too burdensome for her country.
In her speech delivered in Bruges in 1988, the Conservative Prime Minister spoke clearly against “a European super-State exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
This is the core of the issue: the British people have never wished to turn the economic “contract” among the European Member States into a specifically political contract. They wanted and still want to have a free hand in the global financial framework. Finally they intend to avoid the geopolitical effects of the economic and trade ties established in Brussels.
Great Britain is a State, a great nation, which needs overall global autonomy which, on the contrary, the EU manages according to covertly Franco-German interests that are potentially opposite to the UK ones.
It is not the British leaders’ perception, it is the truth and, however, in politics, perception counts as reality, if not even more.
As is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.
With this choice, Great Britain, which still has the “imperial dominance spirit of Lawrence of Arabia” – as the former Italian President Francesco Cossiga who, however, was a close friend of Margaret Thatcher, called it – is trying to play some cards which, despite the “mists of tomorrow”, are potentially valid.
Firstly, the relationship with the United States, also at economic level, comes back to the fore.
When in 1976 the United States celebrated the bicentennial of their independence (from Great Britain, by the way), a British sailor arrived in the New York port holding a banner with the inscription: “Come back home, guys, we have forgiven you.”
Hence Great Britain still considers itself an empire – currently a British empire of finance and technology, but anyway still an empire.
With a view to becoming again “what it is” – along the lines of Friedrich Nietzsche’s journey of becoming a free spirit – Great Britain just needs to revive and revitalize its special relationship with the United States.
As early as 1958, a Mutual Defense Agreement was signed between the United States and Great Britain regarding the two nuclear arsenals while in 2010, thanks to a subsequent bilateral treaty with the United States, Great Britain had the opportunity of overcoming many of the controls and limits imposed by the Americans on its advanced defense technologies – limits imposed also on NATO members.
Great Britain is the second largest economy of the English-speaking world and the sixth largest world economy. It is the largest US trading partner and a member of the UN Security Council. It hosts the highest number of US military bases abroad and, above all, it is the global financial hub which periodically rescues US banks from their insolvency crises.
Hence it is clear that Brexit can be seen as a major US strategic success and outlines the end of the “third pole” between East and West which sometimes the EU has dreamt of being.
The dollar zone has never liked the euro. Quite the reverse, it has fought it harshly.
For the United States, the European single currency was and still is a strong competitor, as well as a threat to their role as hegemonic global financial power – an insane “Napoleon’s dream”.
Moreover, the idea of bringing the euro to an often forced parity with the US dollar has undermined EU exports, by compelling them to be carried out with a currency having a too “high” value which has restricted the end-markets.
Not to mention the many temptations generated by the euro on world commodity markets: it is true that – among many other assessments and considerations – the United States attacked Saddam Hussein for his still secret choice of trading most of his oil and petroleum products in euros.
It is also true that, in the phases characterized by great international tensions, Iran traded part of its oil and petroleum products in euros, especially on the “stock exchanges” in Kish and in the other islands of the Persian Gulf.
The Brexit effects, however, increase the volatility of the pound sterling against the dollar, with a spread of approximately 15% compared to the pre-referendum values.
Financial analysts’ imbalances which, by now, are mainly trolls, namely IT automatisms.
Certainly Great Britain will not be granted a preferential treatment by the United States in the framework of the TTIP negotiations.
US President Obama has explicitly warned that the UK would be at the “back of the queue” in any trade deal with his country if it chose to leave the EU and would have the same treatment and the same barriers to entry as countries like China, Brazil or India.
Nevertheless Barack Obama is about to leave the US Presidency and, if Donald Trump were to be the next President, he will have every interest in dividing the European competitors and favoring them against the aggressive practices of countries like China and, in the future, India.
Also Hillary Clinton cannot avoid using this leverage offered by Great Britain for the TTIP negotiations.
The British TTIP is a bet on the future which, however, the UK could win by relying on its great financial strength.
Bilateral trade between the United States and the UK is very significant: America is the first destination of UK exports and the United States are the third generator of imports for the UK, after Germany and China.
North America and Great Britain are the largest mutual foreign investors.
A situation which cannot change all of a sudden, in spite of the US discontent and dissatisfaction with Brexit.
Furthermore the British government stated that TTIP could provide to the British economy a surplus of approximately 10 billion pounds a year.
There is the need to recover much of the Brexit cost and rebuild a strategic and military relationship with the United States which the UK sees as the only bulwark against two EU and NATO structural dangers: the EU decision-making weakness in the Middle East and the explicit German polemic against the Atlantic Alliance’s anti-Russian posture, which has been mounting in recent months.
Two dangers that the UK wants to avert: the recovery of German geopolitical autonomy tending to Eurasia and the EU structural weakness faced with Middle East tensions.
In Great Britain’s mind, Germany is always the country of the old definition by Lord Ismay, who was NATO Secretary General from 1952 to 1957: “The Atlantic Alliance’s purpose is to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”.
Great Britain does not want the strategic and economic exchange between France and Germany, in which Germans buy French government bonds massively and, in return, are entitled to the “enhanced and extended protection” of the French military nuclear power.
Great Britain does not even want a euro which, as “a German mark in disguise”, penetrates the major British export expansion areas.
Moreover, considering the EU strategic inanity, Great Britain fears for its corridors to and fro its Asian Commonwealth.
With its operations in Crimea and Ukraine, the Russian Federation blocks and distorts the direct line between Great Britain and India, besides changing the balance of power in Central Asia, where the UK has still strong interests.
Since 2001 to date, Great Britain has deployed its military units in Afghanistan, in the framework of the US Enduring Freedom operation, not only for mere “Atlantic loyalty” as other countries (including Italy) have done, but to still afford the regional strategic viability and role which are essential for it to keep Northern India, the central Asian countries and the routes from Southern China.
Those who think globally, as the decision makers of what was once a great Empire, do not stop doing so all of a sudden.
Unfortunately the EU’s mistakes are known to everybody: an artificially overvalued currency – maybe to compete with the dollar; an insane disconnection between EU foreign and economic policy; the idea of simultaneously controlling 29 countries which are all competing one another, with different tax systems and public spending mechanisms, not to mention the autonomous and conflicting public debt securities markets.
The EU could certainly reform itself by establishing, within the ECB, a single market of government bonds, possibly managed (and not tiered and capped) with the issuance of “European debt securities”.
That Germany does not want, and with good reason.
Moreover the Union could also make the various Member States develop an export plan, with a view to analytically protecting one commodity or the other, without dangerous generalizations (even for us).
From chocolate to wine, up to the hilarious theory of the ”Polish plumber” – popularized by Philippe de Villiers as a symbol of cheap labor coming from Central Europe as a result of the Directive on Services in the Internal Market during the EU Constitution referendum in France in 2005 – in the field of exports, so far Italy has lost and has hence paid for its mistakes related to its “scarce incisiveness” in Europe.
It is worth recalling that the Polish plumber. was supposed to come and work in the EU at the same rates he charged in Krakow. However, the cost of living in this Polish town is very different from the cost of living in the center of Munich.
Abstract free-trade and liberal theories, typical of a bad macroeconomics handbook, mixed with archaic protectionism – this is exactly what the EU has often been.
Hence, following the ideas of General de Gaulle, another great “Eurosceptic”, the issue lies in returning to a Europe of Nations and States where only what is already in common is decided jointly – and it could not be otherwise…
This means European protection from asymmetric shocks, selective penetration of new foreign markets and domestic liberalization of goods and services.
The idea of making the EU be the comptroller of the Member States’ public budgets, with abstract and binding rules, paves the way for a number of exceptions which inhibit the rule, or for a covert economic struggle between EU rich and poor countries.
We have already experienced it in Greece and this could also happen in Italy and Spain.
Furthermore, the EU has insisted on implementing a common “foreign, security and defense policy”, with the obligation to “make the Member States’ civilian and military capacities available to the EU”.
Shall this be done in agreement with NATO? Where is the chain of command of this 29-Member State army? Who develops its plans and sets its goals?
All this is for stabilization, humanitarian and conflict prevention missions, disarmament or military assistance and advice.
And what is the role played by the United Nations, despite all its limits?
In short, as from a certain phase onwards, which we could identify with the 2001 crisis, the European Union has believed to be what it was not and had not been conceived and meant to be.
After all, even the old anti-Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, was not entirely wrong when, from his new English homeland, equated the European Union with his old USSR.
Hence if the EU is able to reform itself not only at organizational, but also at domestic financial level, it will be in a position to keep on selling its merchandise: protection against asymmetric shocks, a strong currency widespread in the world, as well as a free internal market.
Conversely, if it continues to pursue its Napoleon’s dream of “uniting Europe”, it will have to face “one, a hundred, a thousand Brexit” – just to paraphrase Che Guevara’s words.
Furthermore, the issue does not lie in asking – as the Italian politicians do – for “greater budget flexibility” in exchange for abstract reforms which may be suitable for the Finnish people, but not for the Flemish population.
The problem is completely different: to have the possibility of drafting autonomous budgets so as to subsequently check their effects over a period of two years, without prior diktats.
Briefly, a more modest EU will survive very well – even after Brexit.
China “seems” to be moving closer to the Holy See
The two-year provisional agreement which was signed on September 22, 2018 between the holy see and China for the appointment of bishops in China, with the pope having veto power over such appointments, is likely to be renewed by mutual consensus before the accord nears its expiry later this month.
The agreement was initially seen as a clincher for both China and Vatican, especially after diplomatic ties were completely severed in 1951. However, many observers and experts have claimed that, the agreement does more harm than good to the credibility and popularity of the monolithic Catholic institute. Besides the main propaganda campaign of the Chinese to retain unabridged control over bishop nominations, their ultimate goal is to get Vatican to discredit the government in Taiwan to assert its One-China policy. Although, the Vatican has agreed to support China on its One-China policy, it should still be weary and apprehensive of the Chinese politics.
How is Taiwan central to this agreement
Taiwan, a small island in East Asia, which China claims as part of its own territory, considers Vatican as its last partner in Europe. This puts Vatican in a critical situation while China is struggling to maintain cordial relations with the West.
According to Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Remnim University in Beijing, China wants to be seen as an ally of the Pope because it realizes the soft superpower that the Catholic church yields over millions of followers within China and abroad. He says, When the pope speaks, everyone listens.
A logical conclusion thus one can derive from it, is that the Vatican’s endorsement of the One-China policy by discounting Taiwan’s authority to maintain independent diplomatic ties, will generate currency in China’s favour.
Two-years of signing the provisional agreement. What it means for China’s Catholics?
In a bid to renew the agreement, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson stated last week that the interim accord has been implemented successfully. However, the ground scenario provides a different factual story. Even after the deal was signed in 2018, there were several reports of harassment and detention of the underground Catholics and Clergy in China. Many Churches have been shut down, crosses and other religious symbols have disappeared from public spaces. These events have taken place even after the Vatican tabled such concerns during negotiation with China.
This is the direct result of the “Sinicization” policy of the Xi administration, that calls for showcasing loyalty to the state and the Communist Party during religious processions and practice. As per this restrictive policy, people below 18 years of age are strictly barred from entering places of worship and publication of any religious material is only allowed following a close scrutiny.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired cardinal of Honk Kong had expressed wide concerns for this accord. He had described the Vatican’s overtures with China as selling out of the Catholic Church in China. Zen knows that the agreement is largely going to benefit the Chinese authorities and the Communist Party in asserting its policies and international agendas.
It is also essential to highlight that the exact details and terms of the agreement are kept secret between the two parties. This may mean that if any violations of the agreement that may have taken place in the two years it was in place, it would become difficult to prove it in a court of law, owing to the confidentiality. This almost gives China full immunity over its inability to fulfill its obligation under the agreement. Vatican must therefore be cautious about China’s commitment towards the agreement and must device alternate ways to shelter and safeguard its priests and followers in China.
The EU-China angle
2020 was supposed to be the year for refinement of EU-China relations. The pandemic has however forced cancellations of governmental meetings, bilateral programs, and other scheduled events. And on the contrary, it has deepen the cracks between certain EU countries and China because of China’s propaganda campaign and geopolitical policies.
Last year saw a hard stance being adopted by EU legislators and policymakers, which was reflected in the policy paper released by the Federation of German Industries. The paper had described China as a “systemic competitor” and highlighted grave concerns over its international economic practices. The same line of charge was showcased in European Commission’s strategic reflection paper, where it referred to China as a negotiating partner with a need for finding a balance of interests and a systemic rival promoting alternative model of governance.
This position is attributed to China’s unfair and biased foreign policy that limited European companies from major EU countries to venture into the Chinese market. At the same time, China was employing economic tactics to woo smaller European countries to promote investments and improve trade relations with itself. The effect of this has been that many economically weaker countries have started looking towards China for monetary aid and trade related matters rather than cooperating with their fellow EU members. This has led to some kind of frustration and discordance amongst the EU nations.
The tensions might have heightened due to China’s diplomatic missteps, from its infamous wolf warrior diplomacy to its amoralistic mask diplomacy during the Covid outbreak. This will however not completely change the course in the relation between EU-China because there is too much at stake for both sides to risk everything. These instances must however caution Vatican about its handshake with China because, although it may have soft superpower but there’s nothing stopping China from pulling off an economical stunt.
A closer perspective
Taking the EU-China experience and the Sinicization policy collectively into consideration, it will be safe to assume for the Pope and his council of minister to rethink and weigh the merits and demerits of its diplomatic ties with China with utmost seriousness. Even if China promises more stability and monetary benefits in the short run, the Vatican must not forget that the deal indeed puts at risk, the values and principles that it has preached over the decades, to its people and followers globally, the repercussions of which may be beyond repair.
It needs to consider the plight of its brothers and sisters who have unlawfully been punished and detained in China and must push for more humane laws and remedies for them.This can be done by carefully executing a three-level approach. Firstly, the Vatican must put in place a strict mechanism to scrutinize and verify the inflow of investments so as to limit the interference of Chinese money in its decision making. This is similar to the foreign policy introduced by EU last year. Secondly, the Vatican must try to accommodate and align its interests with its European allies so as to strengthen the unity and solidarity in the region. It will also help them to collectively stand up against China if China tries to play hard ball against them, in terms of trade policy or indulges in any human rights violations for that matter. Lastly, the Vatican must push for transparency and openness with respect to the terms of the agreement that it has signed with China. This will allow the Holy See to rightfully claim any damage or remedy if any wrongful act or omission is committed by the Chinese side.
EU acting a “civilian power”: Where & How
Authors: Yang Haoyuan, ZengXixi & Hu Yongheng*
In 1946 when Winston Churchill addressed in Zurich, Switzerland, he called on urgent union of Europe, but not many people took his remarks seriously if not suspicious at all.This was because that economic recovery and social stability of the day were more urgent to the people across Europe. Since then in one decade, Europe has not only witnessed a rapid and robust social-economic reconstruction, but also an increasing integration of sovereign states coming of the age. It is true that throughout this process of the European integration, the United States has played a sort of patron role—at first as a passionate advocate publicly and then a powerful supporter through the Marshal Plan and finally a lead ally of the NATO.
In1963, the United States endorsed a fully cohesive Europe which, whether it functions as a grouping of nation-states or as the European Union, has shared America’s burden in terms of the Atlantic collective security. Yet, this strategic tie is not unconditional, for example, the EU support to the Washington’s policy decision depends upon only if its objectives parallel with America’s own and if it deems that without its contribution the common purposes will not be achieved. The diversions in policy between the two sides of the Atlantic are essentially more philosophical than technical. As a result, American unilateralism which usually comes out of Washington has been challenged by the EU involving three key structural issues: the EU’s self-image; the impact of the EU policy; and the U.S. attitudes toward the different options for European integration. As Henry Kissinger argued, in defining the role of Europe in the future world, the EU depends upon more their historical experiences than abstract concept of universal goodwill as a facilitator of diplomacy, or put it simply that “persuasiveness in negotiations relies primarily on the options the negotiator has available or is perceived to have at his or her disposal.”
Since the beginning of the new century, the EU has become close to an equal to the United States economically, technologically and socially. In terms of soft power, European cultures have long had a wide appeal in the rest of the world, and the sense of a Europe uniting around Brussels has had a strong attraction to East Europe and Turkey as well. Samuel Huntington put it in the 1990s that a cohesive Europe would have the human resources, economic strength, technology, and actual and potential military forces to be the preeminent power of the 21st century. Although the EU has effectively constrained American unilateralism, it is out of the question that the U.S. and the EU would move on the road towards political conflict. Due to this, the EU has vowed to play a new role in the world affairs that might be termed as the “civilian power”.
According to scholar Helene Sjursen, civilian power is defined as playing a primary role in the international system but differing from the traditional great power which has pursued power politics by military means. The EU prefers acting a civilian power since it has committed to economic cooperation and social justice in the age of globalization. Accordingly, the acquisition of military means, or the EU’s ambition to acquire such means, might weaken at least the argument that the EU is a civilian power and could provoke a shift towards a policy more akin to traditional great powers. Despite this, this article opines that the EU has acted a civilian power in the world affairs. For sure, this is not an easy mission to achieve in view of the complexities of the world affairs.
On September 16 of 2020, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed her first annual State of the Union, painting a sober picture of Europe grappling with a pandemic and its deepest recession in its history and calling for EU members to build a stronger health union amid COVID-19. She laid out ambitious goals to make the 27-nation bloc more resilient and united to confront future crises. In order to demonstrate the EU’s resolve and sincerity, she doubled down on the flagship goals sheset out on taking office in 2019: urgent action to tackle climate change and a digital revolution. In addition, von der Leyen unveiled a plan to cut the EU greenhouse gas emissions substantially and vowed to use green bonds to finance its climate goals. She also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States and said the EU would invest 20 percent of a 750 billion euro economic recovery fund in digital projects. Meanwhile, she said that the coronavirus pandemic had underlined the need for closer cooperation since “the people of Europe are still suffering.” It is noted that the competition mentioned involves only the unconventional rather than conventional security issues.
As a matter of fact, solidarity among the 27 member states performed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they refused to share the protective medical kits with the worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus. Also the EU leaders jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies. Yet, since last July,27 member states agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euros on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration. Addressing the EU Parliament, von der Leyen pledged her commission would try to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, promising a biomedical research agency and a global summit. In effect, the EU has all the means and resources at its capacity.
Yet, externally the EU has to deal with the troubled talks with the United Kingdom on the future links after the Brexit divorce is done. All the deals and pacts between the two sides could not be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. Von der Leyen reiterated that “This is a matter of law, trust and good faith… Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”The EU leaders also have the same attitude towards the United States and Russia since Europe is located between the two giants in all terms. Yet, the U.S. under the Trump’s administration has provided the EU with diplomatic rows. In a long run, the EU remains hopeful of improving relations and believes common ground can still be found, despite their current differences. As she reiterated “We must revitalize our most important relationships – we may not agree with the White House, but we must cooperate and build a new transatlantic agenda on trade and other matters.” Regarding the great challenge from Russia, she reiterated her condemnation of Russia over Navalny – though the Russian government has strongly denied any involvement – and said that the EU is on the side of the people of Belarus. They must be free to decide their own future and they are not pieces on someone else’s chessboard. However, the EU leaders seem to forget that the “color revolutions” have caused the disasters across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Under such circumstances, the EU has to deal with China strategically and smartly, which during the first seven months of 2020becomes the top trading partner of the EU, a position previously held by the United States, followed by Britain, Switzerland, and Russia on EU’s main trading partner list in the first seven months. As France has suggested that the EU and China, as the defenders of multilateralism in international order, should set the tone for multilateralism and lead the international society to cement cooperation in areas such as vaccine research and climate change. Yet, it was arguable that von derLeyen defined China a “competitor and a rival” although she previously admitted that the latest video summit between China and the EU was “frank and open”. In fact, she said that progress had been made on a host of key areas and hailed the potential of a fruitful future trading partnership with China although there was still much work to be done. Understandably, as one of the key leading figures of the EU, von der Leyen used her speech to again address the challenges both sides face in working together in the years ahead in spite of their conflicting political ideologies. But this is what she said, “The latest EU-China summit highlights one of the hardest challenges. China is a competitor and rival. We promote very different systems.”
In sum, the EU has several challenges ahead to deal with. First, it must update its long-term climate change goals to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement signed before. Second, the EU must manage the numbers of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe from Asia and Africa. As von der Leyen said that it is of vital importance that the EU’s member states work together to share the burden of taking in migrants and refugees and providing them with the tools for a brighter future. Third, since EU member states have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has much to be done and in its response to the pandemic and continued efforts to cooperate with other nations to find a vaccine. As she called,the EU stepp ed up to lead the global response. With civil society, G20 and the World Health Organization and others the EUhas brought more than 40 countries together to raise $19 billion to finance research on vaccines, tests and treatments for the whole world. This is the EU’s unmatched convening power in action.
Meanwhile, the EU leaders have openly called on China to do more to aid the world’s collective fight against all the challenges mentioned above. As von de Leyen said recently, China has shown willingness to dialogue on climate change and fight against pandemic. She also warned of the dangers of countries not working together on vaccine research, with the U.S. recently announcing its plans to withdraw from the WHO. Both China and the EU share the common ground that vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk, only vaccine cooperation saves lives. We endorse a strong WHO and a strong WTO – but reform of the multilateral system has never been more urgent.
In view of this, it is fair to say that the EU wants to lead reforms of the WHO and WTO. But it is possible only if it works together with other responsible powers including China.
*Yang Hao Yuan from the School of Governance, Technical University of Munich; Zeng Xixi & Hu Yong Heng from SIPA, Jilin University
An occasion for the EU to reaffirm its standing on Security policies and Human Rights
Vice-President of the EU Commission Margaritis Shinas was a keynote speaker at this summer’s Diplomatic Conference in Vienna organised by the International Institute IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy and their partners. High dignitary of the Commission seized the occasion to express the EU’s take on the 75th anniversary of victory over fascism, unfolding health crisis and to it related pressure on human and labour rights, as well as on the Union’s continued efforts towards remaining a ‘rock’ amid the volatile climate.
It is known by now – and acknowledged by the EU Commission VP – that the COVID-19 crisis has had some severe implications for Human Rights and, to a lesser extent, for cooperation outlooks. In the face of the first wave, countries in Europe and elsewhere have adopted different courses of actions in order to manage the health crisis and attempt at containing its threats. Placed in an unprecedented situation, governments have undoubtedly each reacted in ways they deemed most appropriate at the time.
However, the pandemic itself topped with the varied policies have caused notable restrictions on Human Rights. Most notoriously, the right to life and that to health have been challenged in extreme circumstances where, at the peak of the crisis, health institutions were so overflowed that the provision of maximal care to every single individual was compromised. The effective and equal access to healthcare has therefore quickly become a central preoccupation of many governments, drawing on some dramatic first-hand experiences.
On that, I will say that if the global health crisis has been a synonym for many negative impacts, it has also been a precious opportunity to rethink carefully the existing narrative of programmatic and progressive rights – such as the right to health – needing no immediate attention, nor realisation. This narrative held predominantly by some Western democracies ever since the adoption of the UN International Covenants, has been unduly weakening the universal and indivisible stance of Human Rights. Needless to say, in adhering to that dangerous narrative, planning for and prioritizing health access, resources and system capabilities is undermined. This, in turn, contributes to the difficult and insufficient responses of some governments that have been witnessed. May the victims of inadequate infrastructures due to an obsolete distinction between rights serve as a poignant reminder: social, cultural and economic rights need be readily available to all.
Equally interesting is the toll taken on a whole other range of Human Rights – an international system built up in last 75 years on the legacy of victory of antifascist forces in Europe and elsewhere. Numerous individual freedoms have also suffered limitations, often as a direct result of actions taken to promote and ensure the right to life and the right to health for the most vulnerable. Indeed, people’s freedom of movement, that of religion (external dimension), that of assembly and association, as well as their procedural rights – only to name a few – have all been greatly affected during the crisis.
Of course voices have raised their discontent at those restrictions put in place to mitigate the crisis, considered by many to be too incisive and too manifold when cumulated. But despite an apparent clash between two groups of interests protected by different rights, the resolution which has emerged from the approaches followed by most countries is very telling. In fact, a balancing exercise revealed that protecting the right to health and to life of the minority of people ought simply to be considered predominant in comparison to the other individual freedoms and rights of the majority. This reasoning, grounded in solidarity and the protection of minorities and vulnerable persons, is in fact very encouraging in an era of growing individualism combined with overwhelming challenges which will certainly require peoples to unite against them.
Nevertheless, this does not take away from the fact that the full and optimal enjoyment of Human Rights has generally been seriously affected as many interests have been caught in the crossfire of the fight against Coronavirus’ harmful effects. Moreover, the crisis has also created some divides amongst European countries. This is because the sanitary emergency has caused for precarious contexts of resources shortages and sometimes unfruitful cooperation, even shift in alliances.
This has naturally brought about separate criticisms and questioning of the EU cooperation strategy and security arrangements. In that sense, growing expectations are felt for the EU to uphold and promote its fundamental values including the rule of law, solidarity, non-discrimination and antifascist line.
Vice-PresidentSchinas is well aware of that reality and reiterates the EU’s unalterable commitment to peaceful cooperation, human dignity, liberty, equality and solidarity in these troubled times. He further ensures that the most recent security strategies led by the Union do not – and never will – eat away at the protection of fundamental rights. What is more, whilst the EU’s arrangements can be seen as slightly ‘under attack’ currently, the VP feels that rather than seeing this period as a high-stakes test on EU democracies it should be seen as an opportunity to take a bigger stand than ever for the European common values and call for strengthened multilateralism. This necessities constructive reciprocal and respectful active engagement with the EU Mediterranean and eastern European neighbourhood.
All that is because it is not too difficult to imagine that the aftermath of the C-19 crisis can open several paths of new dynamics in international relations. Yet, as it cannot be stressed enough, an upcoming change in the conception of relations between nations could be decisive for numerous other contemporary challenges – namely: migration crisis, armed conflicts, climate change. While one of the paths could consist in an increase in protectionism and nationalist attitudes, another one would involve, on the contrary, a shift towards reinforced cooperation and enhanced solidarity. The latter outward approach, advocated by the EU Vice-President and believed to be the best hope for the future, is one deeply enshrined in the antifascist legacy and the very raison d’être of the Union.
Above all, at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Victory Day, Excellency Schinas reminds us with much humbleness that the journey for safeguarding Human Rights is one that is perpetually underway.
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