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Conference Geopolitics and History

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Geopolitics is a strange science or, more precisely, a specific “thinking style”. While History reconstructs facts and interpret them ex post, according to the classic and still valid Cicero’s line of “Historia magistra vitae”, in geopolitics the basic rationale is future-oriented and not past-oriented: what shall I do, in History, to reach certain results?

Which are the initial conditions, the limits and the opportunities among those which occur once, as the Machiavellian Fortune, or those regarding the constant material features of a country?

As Giovanni Sartori always said, certainly all social sciences are series of data in which we can see similarities or not. However which data is needed to make a good geopolitical project?

I will try to answer this question: applying history to geopolitics enables those who have the character and the talent to do so to significantly improve the fortunes of their own country or even to change them.

Sometimes even to overturn them. As Italy, after World War II, and Japan, another defeated country, which were both the winners of the post-war period.

In fact, in his address at the 1947 Paris Conference, De Gasperi was right in saying he knew that “only the winners’ personal courtesy” was on his side.

Italy, however, had its Protectorate in Somalia, which ended in 1960.

Was it a serious geopolitical choice?

Certainly so because everyone knew that the colonial phase was almost over and that the geographic and business cycle of the time could do without the colonial system.

It was the geopolitics of trade between industrial countries while, when possible, the Third World played the card of unearned income and rents on raw materials or, in the Pro-Soviet socialist countries, it created “import substitution industries” to reduce our exports and slow down our development.

Later the great Italian development of the 1960s focused on large state-owned enterprises.

Private companies, however, woke up to reality and developed through exports and a fast-growing domestic market

Another lesson that current governments should learn is that there are not fully export-oriented economies, which kill their domestic markets to better compete on the “great international market”. It is nonsense and a crazy idea.

Both markets must develop harmoniously.

I remember it well – I had a first-hand experience in this regard. What was the geostrategic relevance? It was very simple.

The issue lay in competing with our allies without being noticed, by possibly invoking the right reasons of our opening to the Third World, where the “imperialists” that had won the Second World War were not very well-liked.

Without raw materials, but with plenty of labour force available and a perfect Mediterranean positioning, our fate was decided and settled.

The State managed raw materials at affordable prices for companies and the latter triggered internal development off.

At the time, increasing public spending was funded by growth itself.

The risk was well-run because, as great professionals, we tried to avoid the inflationary effects of export-driven growth with different currencies, often deliberately manipulated to create us problems – and I well remember Guido Carli leading, at first, our Exchange Office and later the Bank of Italy.

That ruling class had the highest degree of Italy’s geopolitical perception.

Compared to current times, the clashes between Colombo and Giolitti were a great piece of work between professionals, while today we seem to be in a nursery school.

They knew and we knew that our development mechanism was the one outlined by the State-Market mix, but without cherishing too many illusions about our private enterprises’ level of awareness.

State socialism?

Sometimes so, but it was the only way to grow fast and without too much inflation or too many asymmetric shocks.

If you want speed, you need to have a highly planned economy while, if you are interested in the ability to adapt to markets, you can be carried away by the slowness of the many free random transactions.

We had quietly inherited the public enterprises’ model built by Fascism, including IRI, IFI and the other public companies for restructuring and upgrading enterprises, but we had adapted it to the theory of social personalism – halfway between Emmanuel Mounier, the intellectual of reference for Pope Paul VI and the extraordinary legacy of the “Code of Camaldoli,” the document with which the Catholics were leading the new Republican Italy.

Once again there was a maximum level of geopolitical consistency.

We social Catholics were the only political force massively present in Italy. We represented the true Italy and we had a very good relationship with the United States.

Defending Tradition and our People after a defeat and, in the meantime, preparing economic revenge.

We also turned temporary aid, namely the Marshall Plan – officially known as the European Recovery Program (ERP) – from post-war economic and humanitarian aid, much less relevant than we currently believe, into the first step for reconstructing our whole economy, including the one which bothered our winners.

The perception level of Italy’s place in the world, ranging from Pasquale Saraceno to Ezio Vanoni and, immodestly, myself, was almost at the maximum level.

Hence we had to thank our Anglo-Saxon friends, but we had not to be relegated to be the fifth wheel of their business cycle.

Italy was and had to be master of the Mediterranean and open itself to Eastern European markets, even to the Soviet Union’s, having the largest Communist Party in the world in electoral terms.

It was our idea and we played that card with the image of a young, energetic, free and democratic Italy.

We said to our Allies we could follow them in the “Cold War” – and, indeed, what we did in that field will never be fully told by history – but they had not to annoy us when it came to opening markets to our manufactured products.

And there was that perception even when, with Enrico Mattei, Francesco Cossiga and Bettino Craxi, we upset some plans of our British and American friends.

Politicians devised the great economic and social strategies and even the way to make them be swallowed up and digested by the most recalcitrant among our Western friends.

That was the free geopolitical competition between nations; we were taking our history back after decades of protectionist freezing.

However we protected ourselves very well, even better than our Japanese competitors.

You may say we produced Motta-Alemagna “State panettoni” – and, indeed, we were criticized for that “entrepreneurial State” which was expanding also to less strategic economic sectors. However, if the well-known family brands were lost in comforts, pleasures and debt, what was the fault of the State which recovered factories, equipment and workers and kept on producing excellent cakes?

Nevertheless everything was over with the end of fixed exchange rates in 1971.

Oil became the primary market of the US dollar and, more strictly, of the US economy cycle, while Kissinger made a deal with the Saudis to “manage” the petrodollars coming from the oil price increases following the “Yom Kippur War”.

So America funded the Vietnam War and its failed project of “New Society” – a pocket-size Welfare State in the land of Protestant private enterprise extremism.

We were so accurate in our geopolitical perceptions that while we were close friends of the Arabs in the Middle East, we were also a stable and reliable point of reference for our Israeli friends.

It was not duplicity or double-dealing, but full geopolitical awareness of our limits and our potential.

More importantly, we had to protect our development rate.

The Moro affair, however, marked the end of the First Republic, the era in which Italy – with Andreotti, Craxi, Cossiga, Moro, Ugo La Malfa and the many friends trivially called “secular politicians” – had rebuilt the country precisely on the basis of a perfect geopolitical and strategic knowledge of our new role in the world.

Moro was assassinated and this destabilized our global military and economic security network, inductively leaked from the Red Brigades to our economic and non-economic competitors and enemies.

Hence it was the end of our “secret geopolitics”, as a result of Moro’s death, that stifled and blocked economic growth and our winning production formula.

And what about today?

If there is a ruling class not even understanding the geopolitics basics, this is exactly the current Italian ruling class.

We have sold everything just to make money and go back again into the eternal limbo of secular stagnation, which is a negative Kondratiev cycle for everyone, but especially for those who suffer it due to their competitors.

The entry into the Euro area, which had not to be taken for granted, was carried out by calculating the last six months of the Lira-German Mark ratio, a particularly good time for Italy.

As if, being sixty, we had to jump as in our prime.

No one said anything at the time.

It suited to Germany which, meanwhile, had become Italy’s global competitor. We could complain about it, but we did not.

Thatcher, Mitterrand and Kohl – constantly in touch with Cossiga – in fact accepted the German reunification just because they could take the German Mark hostage – as they had done with aspirin – and called it euro.

The statesmen of that Europe knew it perfectly, whereas our petty politicians take everything for granted. They are selected only for their appearing on TV and are now a prey to the lobbies’ money.

In fact, approximately 40 lobbies operate out in the open in Italy’s Parliament.

Obviously the First Republic’s ruling classes dealt with lobbies but, except for some rare cases, they were not influenced by them.

Too strong was the Party’s control for the worst to happen.

Now, after the ill-conceived privatizations – and that was the real reason for the shift from the First to the Second Republic – the State does no longer organize economic life and the results are before us to be seen.

Private individuals can never be farsighted and organize large companies for many years.

There is no capital, the business owner family is divided and the heirs are not up to expectations.

Pure liberalism and laissez-faire are good for small companies, while for the large and very large ones the State is needed, with its regulatory power, its wealth of capital and its professional managers.

Just as war is too serious a matter to be left to the military, the economy is too important a matter to be left only to capitalists.

Currently it is as if the memory of the First Republic’s geopolitics in a different context had remained, thus producing sometimes grotesque results.

A persisting “American myth”, while today the United States look well beyond Europe they now consider to be ruined, and thus a possible prey.

A sort of tender and comic loyalty to those who use the economic and strategic levers to eliminate us, such as the easy purchases of our companies and the failed economic expansion which, in fact, makes us others’ prey.

We have not even seized the Brexit opportunity.

We have not even our banks any longer. In the period of “Quantitative Easing” started by Mario Draghi, the Bank of Italy’s liabilities in the Euro system slumped: in September they fell to -354 billion euro.

We have no longer our banks – hence the transactions of the European monetary area penalize us, while capital is fleeing our country.

And when the European Quantitative Easing ends – much to Germans’ delight – what will happen to our funds and debt securities, which few actually want under the current conditions?

There is not even a sign that our ruling class has developed a few working assumptions, or at least leading us to think they know what is going on.

The underlying idea seems to be that everything is inevitable and dark, hence we might as well devote ourselves to Twitter, to the media, to appearances on some talk shows – in short, to the “image”, which seems to be particularly important for politicians’ popularity in today’s communication society.

Obviously we record booming foreign investment in small and medium-sized Italian companies – mostly minority shareholdings – but where are the profits going?

In the fashion world, the “Made in Italy” absolute model, the Arabs bought almost everything: Corneliani, Dainese, Tiffany and Gucci by Bahrain, while “Valentino” by Qatar. There are 15,800 French companies operating in Italy, not to mention banks: BNL-Paribas, Crédit Agricole, etc. In the energy sector EDF purchased Edison, but French companies also operate in the public transport sector in some Northern cities and in Tuscany.

Nothing wrong, in principle, but how do we respond to these attacks?

Are we doing at least the same? Not at all.

Currently the Italian penetration into the EU and US production systems is quite good, but not enough yet.

The level of our purchases “outside the area” is certainly not such as to equate what is lost.

According to my calculations, 24% of the total foreign acquisitions in Italy is operated by us externally.

Unicredit has a 9.7% Islamic shareholding, including the Emirates’ Abaar fund and LIA, the old Gaddafi’s bank, now disputed and contended by the two major factions.

The same holds true for BPM, with different percentages and with the agreement between Sanpaolo and Qatar’s National Bank.

Do you believe that all these large and politically significant bargains and business are governed by the relevant Italian authorities?

Not at all, there is only the naive myth of the self-regulating market.

I fear that this applies also to military security and intelligence – everyone can buy anything without the secret services being in a position to say “no”!

We all know that the Italian Stock Exchange is owned by the London Stock Exchange.

The corporate structure of the Italian Stock Exchange, however, also includes a bank from Dubai and another sovereign investment fund from Qatar.

Once again, power flows which operate without control, discernment and often even without most of the ruling class knowing about them.

Will this power structure have some impact on our policies in the Middle East? Will these capital dislocations influence our decisions?

Certainly so, but the flows must be controlled, otherwise they will govern and rule us.

The market is free, but the government has to manage and regulate it anyway.

Nations have not disappeared in the liquid world described by the all-too-famous sociologist Bauman. They have only been relocated. They do so every day, in a context in which there is a non-declared ongoing and creeping war.

It is the clash and confrontation between regions of the world, which occur in many concrete and abstract places.

In fact Europe is bound to lose and be broken up into areas – governments like it or not.

Hence the winner is whoever remains nation.The loser is broken up and becomes “liquid”.

The other pole is the United States, which will become increasingly autonomous and independent from the losing European Union.

In South America and Africa “bubbles” will materialize with homogeneous characteristics by production type, but they will change very quickly. The same will happen to Central and Southern Italy, which will be “attached” to North Africa up to becoming an economically and strategically homogeneous region.

Also Northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia will tend to build a united bloc. Central Germany and France will still play the scene of Kerneuropa’s unity, while Scandinavia, the post-Soviet republics of the old Hanseatic League and the Netherlands will be integrated northwards.

Italy has lost – hence it will be divided, irrespective of laws or Regions.

With a view to further highlighting Italy’s crisis – the crisis of those who have definitely lost the globalization fight – we need to mention the young people leaving the country after graduating, or anyway “trying their luck” and looking for a land of opportunity elsewhere, now that Italy is at the core of all misfortunes.

A dead country cannot give hope to life, namely to young people.

Why should one stay in Italy without any prospects?

Nevertheless the State and families pay generously for youth education and the fruit of their children’s skills are used by other countries, which invested not even a euro in their education and training.

In 2015 the Italians who left the country to live abroad permanently were 107,529. Not all of them are enrolled in the Register of Italians Abroad (AIRE) – hence we may also assume they are twice that number.

36.7% of these 107,529 Italians are young people aged between 18 and 35, who moved to Germany as many of their grandparents had done several years ago, before our great post-war reform.

There is no German motorway or Alpine Swiss flyover not built with the hard work, tears and blood of our children from the South of Italy.

However, 69.2% of those who moved abroad, did so to Europe.

Hence it did not take much to keep them home – the homologies with our EU colleagues are still many.

On average, the college and university years cost 3,000 euro for those who remain at home and over 8,000-9,000 euro for the young people who move to other cities.

The calculation is easily made, considering that in 2014-2015 – the latest years for which data is available – the total number of registered university students is 270,145.

A huge mass of young people and investment that are destroyed in a closed circuit characterized by the death of any hope, slammed doors, underpaid jobs for which there was certainly no need to study, as well as a biological, affective and professional life – if any – which is fulfilled when it is too late.

It is not a problem of money, but rather the knell of any hope in Italy, that you can see in the eyes of the many young people who have excellent diplomas and degrees, which cannot be used to make the country grow and change. Young people who are trapped in a repetitive circle of life with only one thousand euro a month – if any – to survive.

Not to mention how this situation affects pension schemes, which now provide only pocket money for these young people.

A death spiral: young people cannot settle down and give birth to children – hence the State’s fiscal crisis worsens thus leading to ridiculous pensions.

How can a country survive in this way? How long can we still keep an advanced production system in place, when university students have decreased by 20% over the last decade and academics and experts – “les savants”, as Saint Simon called them – leave the country?

Darkness at noon for Italy, as when Jesus Christ died.

How many factories and companies have gone bankrupt, often as a result of oppressive taxation and baroque bureaucracy. How many entrepreneurs have killed themselves to avoid the stigma of bankruptcy – the same stigma of failure looming large over the many young people who cannot find a job?

How many chances of surviving has a country based on this equation: fewer companies, fewer workers, less-skilled jobs and much less generational turnover?

We recorded over 700 suicides for economic reasons.

44% of them were committed by entrepreneurs; 40% by unemployed people and 10.3% by employees.

In the first half of this year they are already 81 (+28%).

Currently Campania has replaced Veneto as the region most affected by this sad record – and we can easily imagine the many issues related to economic lawfulness.

However, the fact that businessmen sometimes attempt suicide or work on the verge of viability – by possibly paying workers and not taxes, otherwise they could not even survive – means only one thing.

It means that social processes are not governed and that they are not managed by efficient authorities. They are allowed to go away as productive “bubbles”, while they should be included in a program – also a public one – to regulate them.

We should never leave the development of the small companies in my beloved Veneto region at the mercy of the German or Austrian cycle fluctuations and, when the former Yugoslav republics are available, we should compete, organize new markets and improve technologies.

We should not let technology and crafts go to Northern Europe, where our models are copied and sold at a lower price.

Work must be protected – certainly in a new way compared to the old tariff barriers – but we can hardly believe that such a sensitive mechanism can be left in the hands of small business owners or their tiny banks.

It was said that the First Republic was suffering from “production gigantism”, but the incompetent Second Republic is floundering in a phase of obsessive dwarfism and, sometimes, narrow-mindedness.

Our large companies – the few ones which have survived – are those who were born as small ones during the First Republic and that – sensitive to international laws and above all to the national interest – we have protected, nurtured, sometimes rescued and often funded.

There is no economy without national planning, especially now that all productive systems compete at the same time in the world.

In fact, when I look to the industrial policy of the latest Italian governments, I just become speechless.

The crisis always kills the smallest companies and Italy is a country that structurally does not protect its SMEs.

Renzi’s government has not even rescued one single small company and it has not implemented any policy to create others.

Scarce tax relief and no bureaucratic streamlining and simplification for the 5,332 new small technology companies set up between 2013 and 2015 while, over the same period, 1,127,167 traditional companies were registered as “new”, of which only 51% are real enterprises, but a mere 4% was created to develop an innovative idea.

Hence this is Italy’s new disastrous geopolitical equation: a few firms, that are still decreasing in number, of which very few ones develop innovation; falling domestic demand and total workforce, while Italy’s economic and social fabric is deteriorating.

A hetero-directed country, without its own memory or culture, forced as any South American banana republic to follow the fads and diktats of those who are winning the ongoing daily war, which is the third world war.

A ridiculous ruling class that presents world leaders with football players’ jerseys and purrs and applauds those who mocks it. A country which pretends to be what it no longer is, namely a great industrial country, our old First World Manufacture.

A non-existent political culture – whereas it is precisely politics which is culture at its finest – while schools become indoctrination centres for the most foolish fads and myths.

A country which does not know that the old alliances are dead, and that it must look for new ones, eastwards, in China, in the new string of pearls of Xi Jinping’s “maritime Silk Road”, or in the new technology society, as done by Israel.

As Leo Longanesi brilliantly said, “the modern grows old and the old comes back into fashion”.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Italy’s Last Unexpected Eurosceptic Friend: Edi Rama and his “Lesson to Europe”

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On March 29, Italian and Albanian media reported the news of the arrival in Italy of a team of 10 physicians and 20 nurses from Tirana to fight the Coronavirus epidemic that has hit the country since the end of February. The medical professionals will work in Italy for one month with their expenses being covered by the Albanian government. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama accompanied the team of experts at the Airport “Nënë Tereza” where he read a speech in Italian that was warmly received by the media and public opinion in the neighbouring country. To many Italians, the words of the Albanian premier sounded as a sincere act of friendship given in return of the assistance provided by Italy to Albania in the last decades and especially in the aftermath of the recent earthquake of last November. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, leader of the opposition Matteo Salvini and chief of the Protezione Civile (Civil defence Corps)Angelo Borrelli expressed their gratitude to Albania through their Social Media and public declarations. The parts of the speech that gained more media attention are those in which he underscores the selfish attitude of the other countries in the Covid-19 crisis:

“(…) It is true that all are closed within their borders and also very rich countries have turned their backs from the others. And maybe it is because we are not rich and [we are not] without memory that we cannot afford not to show Italy that Albanians and Albania will never abandon their friend in a moment of difficulty.”

In the course of last week, the Italian public opinion was strained by Germany’s and Holland’s refusal to share the economic weight of the Coronavirus crisis among EU countries through the emission of the Eurobonds. Some Italian newspapers have defined Edi Rama’s speech as a “lesson” of solidarity that a small country like Albania is giving to rich and big EU countries that cannot put aside individual interests for their collective good. The leading opposition organ Il Giornale which usually promotes anti-immigrant (including anti-Albanian) content, published on March 30th an article by the title “The great lesson of the Albanian premier to the bureaucrats of the UE” in which the author criticizes the attitude of the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen for refusing to back Italy’s demands. The author declared that “the words of Edi Rama are above all a lesson of style to a class of eurocrats that (…) have shown their cynicism and their inadequacy. Italy will certainly not forget the solidarity of Tirana and the egoism of the European Union.” On March 29, the Left-oriented newspaper Open commented the news witha similar heading: “The lesson to the rich Europe from small Albania (…)”. The journalist remarked that the “Albanian premier Edi Rama, with his little big gesture has taught European leaders what it means to be part of Europe”. The same day Il Tempo presented Edi Rama’s speech as a “Lesson from Albania to Europe” stressing that while the EU is trying to find an agreement, Italy applauds Albania. The Italian edition of the Huffington Post in the article “The Albanian Lesson” emphasised the symbolic character of the Albanian assistance to Italy.

Beside the undisputable value that the Albanian medical staff will bring to Italy’s ability to curb the epidemic, the speech pronounced by Edi Rama has above all contributed to bring his and Albania’s popularity to a level that has never been so high in Italy. Edi Rama’s speech momentarily recalibrated the set of ideas through which the majority of Italians are accustomed to look at Albanians. It is hard to imagine that Edi Rama did not foresee the possibility that his words were going to be used in the Italian “internal” debate concerning the attitude of the EU toward their country. Edi Rama’s relation with Brussels has not been so keen after EU’s refusal to open membership negotiations with Albania last October. Put in front of the fact that Albania was not going to access the EU anytime soon, in the last months of 2019 Rama pushed for the constitution of a so-called mini-Schengen with Serbia and Northern Macedonia. On March 24, EU retrieved its decision to keep Albania (and Northern Macedonia) out of membership talks. However, Edi Rama probably did not want to miss the occasion for a little reprisal against the attitude of some EU member states that had damaged his internal and external credibility after turning down Albania from accession talks in October. His words certainly improved his own and Albania’s image in the neighbouring country, but at the same time he endorsed and alimented the endemic anti-EU Italian trends.

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Covid-19: Macron’s conflicting crisis communication

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2020 started in France with a strike from the SNCF national railway workers who were massively protesting against the ongoing reforms of their special pension system. This crisis shortly spread out to an important proportion of the french population, who rallied to this cause and challenged an executive power considered as elitist. Two months later, France is confronted to an unprecedented health crisis of a virus, the covid-19, that originated in china and quickly affected the whole world. Macron is therefore facing a major challenge : bring out of a crisis a country already in crisis, which no longer believes in its president.

First it is to be noted that the government was clearly walking on eggshells since the beginning of the crisis. The 4th march, the government spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye , wrongly stated that drastic measures such as closing schools in France was not necessary and that “French citizens should continue to live normally”.  A few days later, Emmanuel Macron went with his wife to the theatre, in order to encourage the French ” to continue to go out despite the coronavirus pandemic”. He even claimed : “Life goes on. There is no reason, except for the vulnerable populations, to change our habits of going out.”

One week later, the 12th march, the Head of State, spoke to the French for the first time since the beginning of the health crisis, in a completely different tone. “France is facing the most serious health crisis in a century”. It is with these words that Emmanuel Macron positioned himself as the leader of a war of another kind. Among other things, he announced the closure of schools (which was in complete contradiction with the most recent government communication). He also praised the welfare state, words that have hardly been heard in his voice since his election. Then the 14th march Edouard Philippe, the Prime Minister, faced with the accelerated spread of the virus and the number of people hospitalized in intensive care units, announced a reinforcement of the barrier measures of “social distancing”, with the  closure  at  midnight  of all places receiving non-essential public: restaurants, cafés, cinemas, nightclubs. The strict travel restriction for at least 15 days was announced by Macron the 16th march. A fortnight postponed by a fortnight, a concept french citizens quickly understood.

In this context, how can the French population not criticize the executive for not having anticipated this crisis? How can one feel safe when the government itself seems to be lost? In fact, quickly the public opinion stressed that public expectations during this period focused more on “masks, tests and post-crisis concerns” than on any need to see a Head of State play “Georges Clemenceau visiting the trenches”. Regarding the masks, the stocks were soon  empty  and  adding  to  the  government’s  mistake,  the French were lied to at the beginning of the crisis by saying that the masks were useless if we were not sick. Another political absurdity, is the fact that the government has allowed the first round of municipal elections, even though it has repeatedly ordered french people to “stay home.” An executive branch weakened by the former Minister of Health, Agnès Buzyn, who claimed to have warned Édouard Philippe and Emmanuel Macron as early as January of the impossibility of holding municipal elections because of the epidemic.

Today, the Head of State undertook to draw “all the consequences” of the crisis. Consequences that will probably be heavy considering all of the above. A crisis that calls into  question  globalisation,  the  European  Union,  the  welfare  state,  public  services, production chains and much more. It is clear that some things are going to change, that the president is going to have to govern as an economic crisis will severely hit the world.

That being said, if the government will manage to transform a crisis into an opportunity it is probably too early to tell. What’s certain is that he’s going to be held accountable for a faltering communication at a time where the population needs to know precisely what is going on and where are we going.

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Coronavirus Reveals Cracks in European Unity

Christian Wollny

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The European unity and solidarity stand at the precipice now: how can the members trust in each other in times of a greater peril when even during a global epidemic help is forsaken? How to convince Spain to commit to Poland’s protection from Russia, or prevent Italy from deepening its ties with China via the Belt and Road Initiative? The EU appears to be a house divided; the European unity must mean more than just travelling around visa-free. Failing to get their act together, Europeans will fall under approaches of the USA, Russia, and China, all vying for a slice of the European Cake.

Europe must come together politically – now, not after the crisis has passed. Politicians from Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Madrid to Lisbon must unite as quickly as possible, coordinate, show the European people: we stand as one, nobody gets left behind, no one in our common European home. Remember the good of the united Europe, common values, and the most powerful have to move forward together in unison: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have to do more than just emotional appeals or the war rhetoric against the enemy named Corona. Europe must fight the virus with its common strength. This rich, diverse continent with its educated, diverse people must now prove that it is more than an economic community. Political leaders have to lead by example, or else risk losing everything that generations of statesmen and the society have so painstakingly erected: peace, stability, and friendship across a historically war-torn continent. Maybe the real pandemic is friends having been breaking apart along the way?

The EU has long not stepped forward during the ongoing Corona Crisis. While the EU usually maintains supremacy on virtually every other issue, in the case of the Corona Crisis it has been shamefully silent. Surely, health is a national issue; however, one can expect more from the entity that regulates the shape of cucumbers and the lamination of light bulbs.

Yet, in the event of a global pandemic, the EU relegates responsibility to local or regional administrations. While federal states such as Germany have been just as slow to react, leaving the organizational responsibility with local governments (and only recently nationalizing the purchase of medical equipment), other more unitary states such as France have been quicker to react.

Even the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has admitted that the coronavirus has been underestimated by politicians. Besides appeals to member states to not shut down their borders and calls for solidarity, the EU leadership has once again showed its powerlessness during a crisis.

The Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), founded in 2013 precisely for managing a situation like the ongoing pandemic, has failed to provide Italy the help and supplies it urgently requested. European member states can utilize the ERCC to request assistance from other members, but Italy’s latest call in this crisis has remained largely unanswered by its neighbours.

It’s a free-for-all out there. Yet before we conclude the loss of European unity, let’s examine some examples of cracks in the said unity.

Everyone for Themselves?

On March 17, 2020, the EU leadership finally decided to shut down borders, effectively banning entry into the EU for foreigners — a half eternity after nine individual member states had already unilaterally decided to shut down their respective national borders. Among these member states are the Visegrád States (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia), as well as Austria. These states previously had taken unilateral action during the Migrant Crisis of 2015. In reality, this directive facilitates the reintroduction of border controls with ID checks, but implications are far more severe. The free movement of people in Europe is one of the four tenets of the EU, and it has been rendered moot during the Corona Crisis, all under the pretense of fighting the viral epidemic.

The next concern has been how member states interact with each other in handling the crisis, or rather the lack of interaction thereof. France has unilaterally announced an export ban on medical equipment, such as masks and respirators, with Germany following suit. The rationale behind these decisions was to keep medical equipment in the country and prevent opportunists from selling them abroad at unethical prices. For smaller and severely impacted countries, though, this spells a death sentence. While Italy has called upon its European allies for aid in this dark hour, the response has been meager. China, on the other hand, answered the call by sending medical equipment via shipping to Rotterdam, to be transported to Italy through Germany. Germany initially blocked the export of these masks under the guise of its new emergency law, and only after the immense pressure from the European community did it relax the law and let the shipment pass. At the same time, Austria banned entry for Italian nationals unless they prove they are corona-free with a doctor’s note.

Italy is feeling left alone, but Italians have learned to get used to this already during the Migrant Crisis of 2015 and the Financial Crisis of 2009. Yet the Chinese gesture of supplying crucial equipment has left the EU stand in the rain, and it continues to compound this feeling, with ECB’s Christine Lagarde implying that it isn’t the ECB’s responsibility to help Italy. Her comment on how it was not her job to “close the spreads” between 10-year German and Italian bonds caused the largest daily increase on record. The FTSE MIB, the Milanese stock index, dropped significantly. Solidarity may be many things, but not that. In times of crisis, Europe’s bureaucratic machinery is painfully slow.

These three examples are only the latest to prove that the European Union does not stand as united as it likes to believe. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said, “We didn’t need to wait for Brussels to give us any advice,” when he announced the Czech Republic would effectively shut down public life. These cracks in unity are really showing now during a global pandemic, but, truthfully, they have been there from the start and have been widening since then.

A History of Discord

A more historic example of discrepancy in unity was the preferential treatment of the United Kingdom in terms of their financial contributions to the EU budget. The so-called “UK Rebate,” active from 1985 to 2020, ensured that the UK retained the majority of its financial contributions. Many EU member states have repeatedly sought to right this wrong, but to no avail. While certainly not the first injustice to sow discord among the member states, it was a particularly significant issue, showing the duality of treatment between larger and smaller economies in the EU.

The Greek government debt crisis demonstrated that the reversal of the previous example could be true. Greece, with seemingly criminal energy, forged its financial data to gain entry to the EU and its unlimited coffers. Only the impact of the 2009 Global Financial Crisis revealed the scam. The EU with Germany and Merkel at its helm fought tooth and nail to keep Greece solvent and in the union, much to the chagrin of hard-working Northern and Eastern members. When the UK would later declare its desire to leave the EU, it at least seemed like the EU (and again, Germany) felt personally insulted and could not wait for the UK to leave, as a form of punishment or vindication. The result is, however, a higher financial burden for the net paying members as the EU would not be expected to decrease its budget after all.

In 2015, another crisis would once again show the failure of the EU to stand united. As a myriad of migrants entered Greece and Italy illegally, unequivocally claiming asylum and short-circuiting the Dublin II Treaty, the EU remained silent for too long until Germany unilaterally decided to issue an “invitation” and really kick off the crisis. While indeed most of these migrants would (illegally) continue their paths on to Germany and Sweden, Italy and Greece had to deal with the impact of their arrival on their shores. As Germany took in more and more migrants, calls for Eastern European member states to take in their “fair” shares became louder from the very same German officials claiming this Willkommenskultur.

Even in the current time, the strife is evident. The ongoing Turkey-Greece 2020 Refugee Crisis showcases this yet again. Greece is expected to uphold the European law and protect the EU-borders, whilst German commentators decry her actions as “racist” and fascist.” Instead of shaming Erdogan, who unilaterally broke the EU-Turkey refugee deal, the European public hounds Greece. Against what next? Greeks have been very tolerant and welcoming over the years, but the situation on the Greek Isles has reached a tipping point, and again a member state is left alone. The ongoing crisis has been pushed back from the spotlight.

The Breaking of the Fellowship?

These historic examples, combined with the previously mentioned failures to aid during the ongoing epidemic, paint a less than favourable picture of the European Unity. There will be a time after Corona. But what will it look like? How can the EU turn from such distrust and egoism? Surely, national governments own primary allegiance to their electorates, their own citizens, and most governments are steering through this crisis by heavily relying on virologists and immunologists, who often quarrel with differentiating viewpoints. This explanation would work for other alliances, but the EU aims to be more than just an alliance, more than just a union of states. With everyone on the lookout only for themselves, it’s easy to forget these European ideals. Nevertheless, the appeal must now be made: Don’t Forget Europe!

The European unity and solidarity stand at the precipice now: how can the members trust in each other in times of a greater peril when even during a global epidemic help is forsaken? How to convince Spain to commit to Poland’s protection from Russia, or prevent Italy from deepening its ties with China via the Belt and Road Initiative? The EU appears to be a house divided; the European unity must mean more than just travelling around visa-free. Failing to get their act together, Europeans will fall under approaches of the USA, Russia, and China, all vying for a slice of the European Cake.

Europe must come together politically – now, not after the crisis has passed. Politicians from Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Madrid to Lisbon must unite as quickly as possible, coordinate, show the European people: we stand as one, nobody gets left behind, no one in our common European home. Remember the good of the united Europe, common values, and the most powerful have to move forward together in unison: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have to do more than just emotional appeals or the war rhetoric against the enemy named Corona. Europe must fight the virus with its common strength. This rich, diverse continent with its educated, diverse people must now prove that it is more than an economic community. Political leaders have to lead by example, or else risk losing everything that generations of statesmen and the society have so painstakingly erected: peace, stability, and friendship across a historically war-torn continent. Maybe the real pandemic is friends having been breaking apart along the way?

From our partner RIAC

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