Today Conservative leader Theresa May becomes the second woman politician in British history tasked with leading Britain into talks to leave the EU after her only rival in the race to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron pulled out unexpectedly. Margaret Thatcher had led her country for three terms, from 1979 to 1990. The Conservative Party leadership race of Andrea Leadsom faced criticism for suggesting Theresa was more qualified to be prime minister because she had children. Maybe she is the candidate of the Queen as David Cameron stepped down after six years over Brexit.
Al Jazeera’s report from London said May was the choice of many in the ruling party. “Of the five people that contested the Conservative Party leadership, many people regarded Theresa May as perhaps the more establishment figure. She has been the home secretary, the interior minister, for the past six years and because of that she has had intimate knowledge of the workings of the government and has had to liaise very closely with her European counterparts on matters of security and immigration. May has much less of a track record in relation to the economics of European Union, and certainly the issue of Britain divorcing itself from the EU is going to be an issue that she is going to have to come to speed with very quickly.
Born in Eastbourne, Sussex, May studied geography at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. From 1977 to 1983, May worked at the Bank of England and from 1985 to 1997 at the Association for Payment Clearing Services, also serving as a councilor for the London Borough of Merton’s Durnsford Ward. After unsuccessful attempts to get elected to the House of Commons in 1992 and 1994, she was elected MP for Maidenhead in the 1997 general election. She went on to be appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party and be sworn of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council in 2002.
Ironically, May was a “Remainer” ahead of the June 23 referendum on EU membership, supporting Britain staying inside the EU. She will now be in charge of Brexit, tasked with uniting a fractured ruling Conservative Party, as well as a divided nation, and steering Britain in fresh waters outside of a declining European Union that has become a byword for economic turmoil. This is a moment for strong, bold leadership from a new prime minister with a reputation for toughness and resolve.
Theresa Mary May (née Brasier; born 1 October 1956), , a 59-year-old clergyman’s daughter and British politician who has been the Home Secretary since 2010, faces major challenges when she takes the reins at 10 Downing Street of London. The new PM will oversee Britain’s exit from the European Union, a two-year process which begins as soon as the new government triggers Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. As Prime Minister, Theresa May will lead a Britain that is once again a truly sovereign nation, free to shape its own destiny and chart a new path as a global force.
Freed of the shackles of the EU, Britain is in a strong position to project power and influence on the world stage, alongside the USA. . As a Member of Parliament for nearly 20 years, May brings a great deal of political experience in a wide range of positions to her new position. She will head the world’s fifth largest economy, with one of the most powerful militaries in the world, and a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council.
For the first time in over 40 years, Britain will be free to negotiate its own free trade deals. Building a free trade area with the United States will be a top priority.
The US-UK Special Relationship will likely be strengthened rather than weakened by Brexit, and offers far greater opportunities for collaboration between London and Washington.
She would follow the example of the Iron Lady before her, who led her nation with great courage, conviction and fortitude, based upon robust conservative principles, and a willingness to always listen to the beating heart of the British people.
“I am honored and humbled to have been chosen by the Conservative Party to become its leader and, therefore, prime minister,” said May in London after she was formally confirmed as the winner of the Conservative leadership contest on Monday afternoon. “During this campaign, my case has been based on three things. First, the need for strong, proven leadership to steer us through what will be difficult and uncertain economic and political times; the need to negotiate the best deal for Britain in leaving the EU; and to forge a new role for ourselves in the world.”
May has portrayed herself as the leader who can unite the country following a bitterly divisive campaign, and a tough negotiator who can stand up to Brussels in what promise to be tortuous talks over Britain’s exit from the European Union. Leadsom’s withdrawal means all the top Brexit campaigners – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Leadsom and outgoing UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage – have now stepped back from leadership roles. “Brexiteers threw rocks through the window, now they’re all running away from the house,” author Salman Rushdie said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, David Cameron has chaired his final cabinet meeting, with some “wonderful tributes” paid to the outgoing PM. Theresa May is preparing to take over from Cameron, who will hand in his resignation to the Queen on Wednesday. Mrs. May had been expecting a nine-week race for the Tory leadership, but rival Andrea Leadsom withdrew on Monday. “After that I expect to go to Buckingham Palace and offer my resignation,” he told reporters outside his office in Downing Street. “So we will have a new prime minister in that building behind me by Wednesday evening.” Sitting around the table at his final cabinet meeting were ministers who had taken opposing sides in the referendum. But this was a time for poignant tributes and thanks. And as the team of cabinet ministers later filed out of Number 10, wondering if they would be back and in what job, one member stayed behind – Theresa May, for half an hour.
Mrs. May, who has pledged to make Brexit a success, will appoint her own ministerial team when she takes office. She says she is “honored and humbled” to be taking over as Conservative Party leader Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said there were some “wonderful tributes” to Cameron led by Mrs. May and Chancellor George Osborne. “There was a feeling across the cabinet of great pride at what David Cameron has achieved over the last six years, sadness that it has ended, in a way, perhaps much quicker than people thought, “But also huge gratitude to him for what’s he achieved for the country and the way he’s changed the Conservative Party,” he said.
Britain has faced the worst political turmoil in generations following June 23’s shock vote to leave the European Union, which prompted Cameron to step down. His party has endured a bitter leadership race, while the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is also facing a challenge to his job.
While May supported Britain staying in the EU, she cut a low profile during the referendum and has insisted she will honour the vote. “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it,” May said on Monday. “We need to unite our country … we need a strong new positive vision for the future of our country, a vision of a country that works not for the privileged few, but that works for every one of us because we’re going to give people more control over their lives. And that’s how, together, we will build a better Britain.”
May wants to begin formal talks to leave the EU by the end of the year at the earliest, despite pressure from Brussels to speed up. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who heads the Eurogroup of his 19 eurozone counterparts, restated calls for the transfer of power to take place as soon as possible.
The pound, which hit a 31-year low in the wake of the Brexit vote, briefly rose after Leadsom, a pro-Brexit figure with no senior ministerial experience, withdrew from contention to be prime minister. As senior MP Angela Eagle formally launched her leadership challenge against Corbyn, Labour suggested a general election would need to be held soon after May takes office. “It is crucial, given the instability caused by the Brexit vote, that the country has a democratically elected prime minister,” said election coordinator Jon Trickett. “I am now putting the whole of the party on a general election footing.”
Quietly, calmly, power is passing from one prime minister to the next. At the back of Downing Street, cardboard boxes were carried to a bright blue removal van, the Cameron family’s possessions heading for a new home. There hasn’t been much time to pack. Theresa May’s accelerated ascent to the premiership has hastened David Cameron’s departure – his hopes of leading a five-year majority conservative government ended after one. When Mrs. May emerged into the sunshine, she walked one way, hesitated, then went the other – looking for her car. At the steps of Number 10 she gave an awkward wave for the cameras – a ritual she will have many chances to practice. As she left to plan her new cabinet, David Cameron made his last official visit as prime minister to a free school in West London. A moment to reflect on what he had achieved and what might have been!
Mrs. May is to appoint a new ministerial team when she takes over the reins today. The swift transition comes after the expected nine-week leadership campaign was truncated to just a couple of days by leading Brexit campaigner Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the contest. Mrs. Leadsom’s surprise announcement meant Mrs. May, who had been the front runner, was the only remaining candidate in the race.
After being formally declared the winner of the contest, Mrs. May praised Cameron for his stewardship of the party and the country and paid tribute to Mrs. Leadsom for her “dignity” in withdrawing her leadership bid. But senior Labour MP Jon Trickett has joined the Lib Dems and Green Party in calling for a snap general election. Trickett, Labour’s general election coordinator and an ally of leader Jeremy Corbyn, said it was “crucial” to have a “democratically elected prime minister” and said he was putting the party on “general election footing”. Mrs May has rejected such demands.
The EU negotiation, controlling immigration and managing the economy were “huge issues” that would challenge Mrs. May’s desire for a “steady as she goes” approach. Former chancellor Ken Clarke – who supported Mrs. May in the final ballot – said the new leader and prime minister needed to “balance the party” in her cabinet appointments. “She’s got a real problem of bringing the warring wings of the party together. She’ll combine her own strong personal opinions about who she wants to work with, with a desire to bring the party together,” he said. But he cautioned that the party’s small parliamentary majority would not make the task “easy”. “To actually get the real head-bangers together on both sides and to see four years of government through will require some political skill… but she’s pragmatic, she’ll want to get on and do things,” he said.
Mrs. May said she had based her leadership bid on the need for “strong, proven leadership”, the ability to unite both party and country and a “positive vision” for Britain’s future. And in a message perhaps designed to reassure Brexit-supporting colleagues, Mrs. May, a Remain campaigner, said: “Brexit means Brexit – and we’re going to make a success of it.”
Cameron, who has been prime minister since 2010, said Mrs. May would have his “full support”, describing her as “strong”, “competent” and “more than able to provide the leadership” the country needs.
David Cameron says he will take Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and then head to Buckingham Palace and officially tender his resignation to the Queen and recommend she sends for Theresa May as his replacement. Mrs. May will then go to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen and receive her invitation to form a government. Theresa May should then be in place as UK prime minister by Wednesday evening – it is not yet clear when the Cameron family will move out of No 10.
Several European media outlets say that with Theresa May’s arrival in Downing Street, British politics may finally be about to enter a calmer period after the turmoil triggered by Brexit referendum. France’s Le Figaro declares that “Theresa May will be the prime minister of Brexit. Deeply divided by the referendum on Europe, the Conservative Party reunites – at least it seems so – behind her and this objective, in a life-saving reflex.” A commentary in the left-wing French paper L’Humanite says Tory heads have been “spinning” ever since the victory of the Brexit camp, but the party can now pick itself up and carry on. The Brussels correspondent Deutsche Welle believes that while Mrs May inherits an unenviable legacy from her predecessor, she is an experienced enough politician to be able to ride out the storm. Barbara Wesel says: “At least Britain and the rest of Europe now get a professional politician, not a fanatic. That is in itself good reason for being a little grateful.” Frankfurter Zeitung’s politics editor, Peter Sturm, takes a similar line, saying the choice of Theresa May provides some clarity for Britain and the European Union. He also cautiously welcomes the fact that she has not so far adopted any “extreme positions”. However, Spiegel Online declares that Mrs. May “is considered to be cool but also to thrive on conflict. She may need this, as Brussels will now lie on the pressure.”
Some European commentators make comparisons between Theresa May and other strong female leaders such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Thomas Kielinger, writing in the German daily Die Welt, says Mrs May shares with both women an aversion to “small talk and media chatter”. The Italian daily Corriere della Sera describes Mrs. May as “a bit of Merkel, a bit of Thatcher” and notes that she “is reputed to be an uncompromising politician”. Riccardo Scarpa, writing for Italy’s Il Tempo, notes that with her declaration “Brexit is Brexit”, Theresa May set out her stall “with the enthusiasm and determination of a woman who has already been dubbed the new Thatcher”. A commentator calls her the Second ‘Iron Lady’- the choice of the London queen.
Gas Without a Fight: Is Turkey Ready to Go to War for Resources in the Mediterranean?
Active exploration of gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean has boosted the region’s importance for the local powers. Most European states depend on imports of energy resources, which means that taking hold of new gas sources is an important element for strengthening their energy security and diversifying their sources of hydrocarbon supplies.
Currently, Greece, Cyprus, France, and Italy are among the main players that have divided up the known and future gas deposits in the Mediterranean among themselves. All these states are EU members. We should add that other EU states also indirectly benefit from new resources, even if they do not have immediate access to gas deposits. They will, however, gain an opportunity to diversify their gas imports and distribute their hydrocarbon dependency among a greater number of suppliers.
The discovery of a new treasure trove of hydrocarbons often produces not only profits, but also additional problems since natural resources frequently turn into a source of conflict. The case of the Eastern Mediterranean is no exception, as another power has staked its claim to a share of the region’s resources, a power that had officially received no piece of the gas “pie” that the European states had divided up among themselves. This power is Turkey, which has decided to actively explore the gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean and has also visibly increased its military presence in the region. Over the last few months, Turkish and Greek warships have been involved in several dangerous incidents, with both parties declaring their readiness to open fire at a pinch. Ankara has also warned that it would “not back down” in a potential confrontation. Like Greece, Turkey has already held military manoeuvres in the region.
Why does Turkey need the gas deposits of the Mediterranean? Today, Ankara is forced to import most of the gas it needs. According to 2016 data, imported gas accounts for 99 per cent of Turkey’s total gas consumption. Most of this gas (over 50 per cent) is purchased from Russia, with Iran, Azerbaijan, Algeria, and Nigeria being among Turkey’s other important suppliers. Multibillion natural resource purchases are a heavy burden on Turkey’s struggling economy. Its GDP has been stagnating since 2017, with a growth of just 0.877 per cent in 2019, compared to over 7 per cent two years ago . These negative trends have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. It has been a particularly painful time for Turkey, as the country has had to deal with the consequences of the lockdown, the partial suspension of economic activities and a sharp drop in tourist flows, which have always been an important source of revenues for Ankara. The timing of the shortened 2020 holiday season could not have been worse for Turkey. According to official data from the Turkish government, by June 2020, Turkey’s GDP had dropped by 9.9 per cent compared with the previous quarter.
It is extremely important under such circumstances that Turkey finds new energy sources: the gas deposits in the Mediterranean will lift the overwhelming burden on the country’s budget and give its weakened economy room to breathe. In such a situation, decreasing dependence on gas imports could be posited as the short-term goal. In the long term, Turkey intends to become a net gas exporter, which will require huge gas deposits, including those outside the Mediterranean.
Fighting for resources fits well into Recep Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy concept that envisions a Turkey that is more willing to engage in confrontation with Western powers. Additionally, the “neo-Ottoman doctrine” entails bolstering Turkey’s regional influence—and gaining new resources in the Mediterranean fits well within this task.
International Legal Conflicts within the Dispute
Ankara’s problem is that the formal provisions of the law of the sea do not allow Turkey to explore and develop potential and known gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. The situation, however, is complicated by the fact that the law of the sea, like any other international legal norms, has understandable problems in terms of compliance. Additionally, the provisions of the law of the sea are very complex, and different states frequently interpret them differently, which is true for both Turkey and Greece. For instance, Turkey is actively exploring gas deposits in the Aegean Sea, although legally it does not have the right to do this: under the law of the sea, virtually all of the Aegean Sea belongs to Greece’s exclusive economic zone due to a chain of Greek islands that are closer to Turkey’s coasts than to continental Greece itself. Ankara, however, insists that the islands should not be taken into account when determining exclusive economic zones, which has created the first international legal conflict in the dispute.
The second conflict pertains to another stretch of the Mediterranean between Italy and Libya. Turkey has staked its claim to this stretch, citing its agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord. The problem is that the GNA does not control all of Libya’s territory, which could put a question mark over the government’s legitimacy. On the other hand, the GNA enjoys international recognition, a fact that Turkey repeatedly stresses.
Another case is connected with gas deposits closer to the coasts of Cyprus. Turkey does not recognize Cyprus; it only recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (it is the only country to do so). Consequently, Ankara views exploring and developing gas deposits in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus as a violation of Turkey’s rights. In the meantime, the colossal Calypso gas deposit that was discovered off the coast of Cyprus in 2018 is one of the main bones of contention in the present energy dispute.
The Role of the European Union and Individual European Stakeholders
From the very outset, Brussels supported Greece and condemned Ankara’s aggressive actions. However, the European Union is not entirely homogeneous in its attitude to the dispute. Firstly, some of its members are locked in a confrontation with Turkey, such as Greece and Cyprus, and their stance in unequivocal. There are stakeholder states, such as France and Italy, two European Mediterranean powers that also have an interest in the region’s gas deposits. Their oil and gas companies, France’s Total, and Italy’s Eni, have already bought shares in the discovered Mediterranean gas reserves and made relevant arrangements with Athens and Nicosia. In the standoff between Greece and Turkey, Paris and Rome are solidly behind Greece. Moreover, France has not limited itself to rhetoric, and has sent warships to the Eastern Mediterranean, thus demonstrating its willingness to support the Hellenic Navy in a critical situation. This is a particularly important step, since it entails a radical shift in the military balance of power within the dispute.
Out of all the EU member states, particular mention should be made of Germany, which has a special connection with Turkey and currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Tellingly, Berlin also sided with Greece, although, unlike France, it has been far more restrained in its conduct. Germany did not send its Navy to the region. Berlin’s principal message is the need for dialogue between the opposing parties and a détente in the conflict. This is Germany’s typical foreign policy stance since it prefers to avoid exerting pressure by force. Additionally, Germany has no additional incentives within the dispute since it stakes no claim to the resources of the Mediterranean.
As for the European Union in general, the overall support for Greece is easy to explain. Brussels proceeds from the official provisions of the law of the sea and, unlike Turkey, it recognizes Cyprus and, consequently, the right of Athens and Nicosia to the gas deposits. In the long term, this new source of gas could help stabilize the European Union and serve as a safety net in the event of a crisis. It was not that long ago that the global financial crisis and the subsequent Eurozone troubles, which hit Greece especially hard, almost resulted in Athens defaulting and withdrawing from the European Union—a fact that could have set a very dangerous precedent and entailed a chain reaction in other Eurozone states with major financial woes (such as Italy). With this is mind, European politicians may very well count on the fact that the revenues from developing the gas fields will help keep the Greek economy on an even keel and insure both Athens and Brussels against possible new economic shocks. We should keep in mind here that the European Union had to establish a financial aid programme and spend significant funds to save Greece from bankruptcy.
Additionally, as we have already mentioned, the new source of gas will allow many EU countries to diversify their energy suppliers and thus to boost their energy security.
How Likely is the Dispute to Turn into a “Hot” Conflict?
Despite several critical incidents, an open conflict over the gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean is not particularly likely, mostly due to the forces being unequal. Turkey has found itself almost completely isolated, and the only agreement Ankara can rely on has been achieved with Libya’s unstable Government of National Accord. On the other side, there is an entire coalition of states, with Greece and France having already held joint military exercises.
France’s military intervention radically changes the balance of power. Turkey’s Navy is larger and stronger than Greece’s (149 warships vs. 116, according to the Global Firepower Index), but significantly smaller than that of France (180 warships). However, it is not only a matter of how many warships each side has. What is important here is their quality: for instance, France has four aircraft carriers, while Turkey has none.
The European Union’s general support for Greece is also important. The idea of imposing sanctions against Turkey was evoked at the most recent EU Foreign Ministers Meeting. Financial penalties could have a major effect on Turkey, given that the European Union is Ankara’s principal trade partner, accounting for 42.4 per cent of its exports and 32.3 per cent of its imports. In such a situation, trade sanctions may prove very painful for Turkey, especially given its stagnating economy and the significant losses it has suffered as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Additionally, the scope of the European Union’s non-military leverage against Turkey is not confined to economic sanctions. In the event of an open conflict between Athens and Ankara, Brussels can strip Turkey of its current benefits in trading with European states. In particular, the question of excluding Turkey from the EU Customs Union may appear on Brussels’ agenda. Additionally, the European Union could take Turkey’s potential EU membership off the table forever and strike Ankara from the list of candidates.
Still, we should not discount the serious obstacles in the way of Brussels imposing sanctions against Turkey and using other measures to apply pressure on Ankara. One such obstacle is Ankara’s geopolitical significance for Washington. Despite all the recent complications in their relations, Turkey remains one of the key U.S. allies in the region and a NATO stronghold in the Middle East.
As for Turkey itself, a “hot” conflict could prove detrimental to the country in several ways at once. First, given the unequal military power, it is extremely unlikely that Turkey would emerge victorious from such a conflict. Second, a war will undermine Turkey’s global standing and its membership in international organizations. Third, Turkey cannot afford in its current economic state to either actively build up its military power (even though its authorities claim the opposite and have announced significant increases in the naval budget, with the construction on aircraft carriers being top of the spending list) or bear the burden of possible sanctions which, given the country’s many connections with the European Union, could prove very painful.
The rhetoric of the Turkish leadership is highly belligerent rhetoric, yet Ankara is very well aware of the real consequences of breaking up with Europe and starting an open conflict with a country that is a member of both the European Union and NATO. It is possible that, instead of instigating a “hot” conflict, Turkey could attempt to use its own instruments of applying non-military pressure, such as the huge number of refugees present on Turkish territory. Since 2016, Brussels and Ankara have had a refugee agreement in place. However, Recep Erdogan has already demonstrated in the past that he is capable of suspending this agreement and “cracking open” the door to Europe for migrants, which would set new crises in motion at the borders to the European Union.
Does the Gas Dispute in the Mediterranean Affect Russia?
Special attention should be paid here to the possible prospects for Russia in the ongoing dispute. Naturally, Russia has a very tangential relation to the confrontation in the Mediterranean, although the outcome of this confrontation may be important for Moscow.
On the one hand, Russia can hardly profit from Turkey gaining its own major sources of gas. Currently, Moscow is the main supplier of gas to the Turkish market. Undoubtedly, Russia is interested in preserving this status quo. The recent launch of the Turkish Stream confirms that Moscow intends to maintain its dominant standing in the Turkish energy resources market.
On the other hand, a new source of gas for European countries could shake Russia’s position in the even more important European market. It is no secret that the EU countries are attempting to diversify their resource suppliers for greater energy security. However, abandoning Russian gas is very difficult since a gas pipeline infrastructure has already been created in Europe, making Russian gas relatively inexpensive. Much will depend on whether Greece, Cyprus, and Israel will succeed in jointly building the EastMed gas pipeline meant to deliver gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece. Theoretically, EastMed could be extended to other European states. It currently has a design capacity of 10 billion cubic metres, which may be increased by tapping the currently unexplored resources of the Eastern Mediterranean. This is a very ambitious and expensive project, but if it does materialize, it could change the situation in the European gas market, since pricewise, it could compete with cheap Russian gas. If there is no pipeline running from the Mediterranean, Mediterranean gas will have a hard time pushing Russia aside in the European market: without the gas pipeline, gas will be shipped as liquefied natural gas (LNG), which will significantly increase its price and make it far less attractive to European countries.
From our partner RIAC
Political will is needed to foster multilateralism in Europe
On July 1st 2020, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered in Vienna, Austria, for the conference “From Victory Day to Corona Disarray: 75 Years of Europe’s Collective Security and Human Rights System”. The conference, jointly organized by four different entities (the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy, Scientific Journal European Perspectives, and Action Platform Culture for Peace) with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe in the wake of its old and new challenges.
The conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from Canada to Australia, and audience physically in the venue while many others attended online – from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century; on the importance of culture for peace and culture of peace – culture, science, arts, sports – as a way to reinforce a collective identity in Europe; on the importance of accelerating on universalism and pan-European Multilateralism while integrating further the Euro-MED within Europe, or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”.
The event itself was probably the largest physical gathering past the early spring lock down to this very day in this part of Europe. No wonder that it marked a launch of the political rethink and recalibration named – Vienna Process.
Among the speakers for the conference’s third panel – which focused on universal and pan-European multilateralism – there was Dr. Franz Fischler, a well-known figure due to his previous postings as Austria’s Federal Minister for Agriculture and Forestry (1989-1994) and as European Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries (1995-2004), besides being currently President of the famous European ForumAlpbach.
Dr. Fischler started his keynote speech by highlighting how the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to fundamentally change Europe – and even the whole world. In doing so, he referred to the paradoxes outlined by Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev in the wake of the pandemic. Contrasting pushes towards re-nationalization and globalization, the partial interruption of democracy but the decreasing appetite for authoritarian government, the mixed response of the European Union to the crisis – in short, a series of conflicting trends are making the future of Europe, as well as that of the whole world, very much uncertain.
It was against this backdrop that Dr. Fischler addressed the central question of the panel: What is fundamentally going to happen in Europe in the times ahead? The former EU Commissioner clarified from the very beginning that those who wish a further deepening of the current multilateral system should not be blinded by excessive optimism. An alternative to the current system does exist – clearly symbolized by the combination of nationalism and populism that we can see in many countries, but also by the problems faced by multilateralism in many fields, most notably trade.
This trend is evident in the case of the European Union too – Dr. Fischler warned. He highlighted that policy tools aimed at stimulating convergence across European countries, such as for instance the EU’s cohesion policies, are becoming increasingly weak, and inequality within the EU is currently on the rise. As a result, traditional goals such as the “ever closer Europe” and the “United States of Europe” do not even seem to be on the agenda anymore.
What can then be done to deepen the EU’s integration process and strengthen Europe’s multilateral system? Towards the end of his speech, Dr. Fischler outlined a few entry points for reform and further cooperation. His suggestions revolved around increasing cooperation on a number of specific issues, ranging from high-tech research to the development of a common European passport. He also proposed that European countries should strengthen their common diplomatic initiatives, including by speaking with a single voice in international institutions, as well as increasing the EU’s soft power. On top of that, deeper institutional and political modifications might be needed for the EU, Dr. Fischler hinted – citing as examples the relaxation of the unanimity voting procedure on some foreign policy issues, as well as an intensification of the EU’s enlargement process.
Closing his highly absorbing speech, Dr. Fischler – champion of multilateralism, and guru of the current EU CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) made clear which ingredient is, in his opinion, the cornerstone for reviving multilateralism in Europe: “All I would like to say is that there are possibilities out there. The question is, as always in these times: is there enough political will?”
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.
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