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Catalonia declares independence: Spain dissolves Catalan parliament, sacks its president Puigdemont

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The Spanish political crisis unfolds along the expected lines. Reaction followed action. Power struggle in Spain is taking a new twist.

As Catalan leaders held an independence referendum, defying a ruling by the Constitutional Court which had declared it illegal, Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy has abruptly dissolved the Catalan parliament and calling snap local elections after MPs there voted to declare independence.

Rajoy has also fired Catalan leader President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet. Rajoy also announced the sacking of the Catalan police chief. He said the unprecedented imposition of direct rule on Catalonia was essential to “recover normality”.

The head of the local police force has also been removed, Rajoy said, although whether the 17,000-strong Mossos d’Esquadra will take orders from Madrid remains to be seen. Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero and two independence leaders were questioned by a judge in Madrid. They were not charged but the independence leaders were detained.

People of Catalonia have voted 1 October for independence.  The final results from the 1 October referendum in the wealthy north-eastern region suggested 90% of the 2.3 million people who voted had backed independence. Turnout was 43%. 90% were in favour of independence. Others boycotted the vote after the court ruling. A motion declaring independence was approved on Friday with 70 in favour, 10 against, and two abstentions in the 135-seat chamber. Several opposition MPs supporting the Madrid rule boycotted the vote.

Thousands celebrated the declaration of independence on the streets of Barcelona, Catalonia’s regional capital. As the outcome of the vote became clear, people popped open cava, the local sparkling wine. The same crowds that cheered each Yes vote from Catalan MPs were reportedly booing Rajoy as he made his announcement. There have been pro-unity demonstrations too, with protesters in Barcelona waving Spanish flags and denouncing Catalan independence.

In Madrid many people have begun flying the Spanish national flag from their windows and balconies, to show their support for keeping the country united. There is some sympathy for the Catalan cause, mostly because of the police crackdown during the referendum. But far louder are calls to prosecute those pushing for independence. It’s a move which many Spaniards, like their government, are convinced was illegal.

On Friday the Spanish Senate granted President Mariano Rajoy’s government the power to impose direct rule on Catalonia, and after an emergency cabinet meeting Rajoy spelled out what that would entail. “The president Carles Puigdemont had the opportunity to return to legality and to call elections,” he said. “It is what the majority of the Catalonian people asked for – but he didn’t want to do it. So the government of Spain is taking the necessary measures to return to legality.” Regional elections, including in Catalonia, arescheduled for 21 December.

After the 1 October referendum, Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence but delayed implementation to allow talks with the Spanish government. He ignored warnings by the Madrid government to cancel the move, prompting Rajoy to first announce his plans to remove Catalan leaders and impose direct rule.

Having been sacked by the federal government in Madrid, Puigdemont has urged supporters to “maintain the momentum” in a peaceful manner. Freedom seeking separatists say the move means they no longer fall under Spanish jurisdiction. But the Spanish Constitutional Court is likely to declare it illegal, while the EU, the USA, the UK, Germany and France all expressed support for Spanish unity.

Spain’s prime minister may have hoped warning Catalonia against declaring independence would be enough. Now that Catalonia has declared independence President Mariano Rajoy has to follow through on his pledge to impose direct rule, knowing this is highly risky. Mariano Rajoy argues that Catalan separatists left him no choice. He had to act, to return the region to “legality”, as Madrid puts it. But actually doing that will be complex and highly fraught. It’s why Rajoy called for calm in Spain, after the Catalan vote for independence. He is acting with broad, cross-party support though, and public backing.

Meanwhile Spanish prosecutors say they will file charges of “rebellion” against Puigdemont next week

Can Catalonia be a soverign nation?

Catalonia looks like it has already got many of the trappings of a state. A parliament, fags, an able leader Carles Puigdemont. The region has its own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. It has its own broadcast regulator, and even boasts a series of foreign “missions” – mini embassies that promote trade and investment in Catalonia around the world. Catalonia delivers some public services already – schools and healthcare, for example. There’d be much more to set up in the event of independence, though. Border control, customs, international relations, defence, central bank, Inland revenue, air traffic control, etc.. All of these are currently run by Madrid. There won’t be any problems for Catalonia to launch all these infrastructures.

Catalonia is certainly rich compared with other parts of Spain. It is home to just 16% of the Spanish population, but 19% of its GDP and more than a quarter of Spain’s foreign exports. It punches above its weight in terms of tourism too – 18 million of Spain’s 75 million tourists chose Catalonia as their primary destination last year, easily the most visited region.

In Spanish “Madrid nos roba” is a popular secessionist slogan – “Madrid is robbing us.” The received wisdom is that comparatively wealthy Catalonia pays in more than it gets out of the Spanish state.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest, most distinctive regions with a high degree of autonomy. But many Catalans feel they pay more to Madrid than they get back, and there are historical grievances, too, in particular Catalonia’s treatment under the dictatorship of General Franco. Catalans are divided on the question of independence – an opinion poll earlier this year said 41% were in favour and 49% were opposed to independence.

Carles Puigdemont assumed the office of President of Catalonia in January 2016.He leads the Catalan government. There are 12 ministers, with portfolios including education, health, culture, home affairs and welfare. The Catalan government employs 28,677 people, comprising civil servants and other staff.

Six parties are represented in Catalonia’s 135-seat regional parliament. Three of them are pro-independence. Elections were held on 27 September 2015 and “Together for Yes” (JxSí), a coalition of two parties and civic organisations, focused on achieving independence from Spain, won the largest number of seats – 62. It was short of an absolute majority and required support from the pro-independence, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), with 10 seats, to form the government.

The second largest party in the parliament, with 25 seats, is the liberal anti-nationalist Citizens-Party of the Citizenry (Cs). The Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC-PSOE), with 16 seats, and the People’s Party of Catalonia (PPC), the Catalan affiliate of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party, with 11 seats, also oppose independence. Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQP), a left wing-green coalition, which won 11 seats, is in favour of self-determination for the Catalan people.

The Catalan parliament, where separatist MPs make up the majority, officially declared independence while the Spanish Senate was meeting to discuss the issue in Madrid on 27 October. Catalan MPs opposed to independence boycotted the vote. The motion called for the transfer of legal power from Spain – a democratic monarchy – to an independent “republic of Catalonia”. That means they no longer recognize the Spanish constitution. Within hours, Madrid had responded.

Tarragona has one of Europe’s largest chemical hubs. Barcelona is one of the EU’s top 20 ports by weight of goods handled. About a third of the working population has some form of tertiary education. It’s also true that Catalans pay more in taxes than is spent on their region. In 2014, the last year the Spanish government has figures for, Catalans paid nearly €10bn (£8.9bn) more in taxes than reached their region in public spending. Would an independent Catalonia get the difference back?

Some have argued that even if Catalonia gained a tax boost from independence that might get swallowed up by having to create new public institutions and run them without the same economies of scale.

Perhaps of greater concern is Catalonia’s public debt. The Catalan government owes €77bn (£68bn) at the last count, or 35.4% of Catalonia’s GDP. Of that, €52bn is owed to the Spanish government. In 2012, the Spanish government set up a special fund to provide cash to the regions, who were unable to borrow money on the international markets after the financial crisis. Catalonia has been by far the biggest beneficiary of this scheme, taking €67bn since it began.

Not only would Catalonia lose access to that scheme, but it would raise the question of how much debt Catalonia would be willing to repay after independence. That question would surely cast a shadow over any negotiations. And on top of the sum owed by the regional government – would Madrid expect Barcelona to shoulder a share of the Spanish national debt?

Economic pressure could slow the process of cessation from Spain  Catalonia is a major economic factor now. It accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s economic output, but Catalonia also has a huge pile of debt and owes €52bn (£47bn; $61bn) to the Spanish government.

Even though Madrid has powerful economic levers, Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions. On 5 October a business exodus from Catalonia began. The banks Caixa and Sabadell, along with several utility companies, decided to move their legal headquarters out of Catalonia. Spain has made it easier for businesses to leave and more than 1,600 companies have now copied the banks’ move.

Foreign affairs, the armed forces and fiscal policy are the sole responsibility of the Spanish government. The division of powers between the central government in Madrid and the regional government in Barcelona is not as clear-cut as it is in some other countries with devolved authorities such as Germany or the UK.

In the UK, for example, the government in Westminster cannot interfere in Scottish education policy because education is fully devolved. But in Spain, the Spanish constitution takes precedence if there is a clash with any region – something that the Catalan government resents.

Is there still room for compromise?

Not exactly, and neither side appears in the mood for it now.  Puigdemont urged international mediation – but there is no sign of that, as Madrid does not want it. The EU – traditionally wary of secessionist movements – sees the crisis as an internal matter for Spain.

In practice, for any region it is very hard to achieve independence under international law. Kosovo discovered that – even though it had a strong case on human rights grounds.

Amid speculation that the Catalan parliament might unilaterally declare independence, some of the region’s banks decided to move their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain. Meanwhile, the government in Madrid says any such declaration would have no effect.

The independence movement was galvanized by a 2010 Spanish Constitutional Court ruling which many Catalans saw as a humiliation. The Spanish government could still make a gesture to appease Catalan separatists and calm the situation. That ruling struck down some key parts of Catalonia’s 2006 autonomy statute. The court refused to recognize Catalonia as a nation within Spain; ruled that the Catalan language should not take precedence over Spanish in the region; and overruled measures giving Catalonia more financial autonomy.

The court acted after Rajoy’s Popular Party asked it to. Now, to defuse this crisis, Madrid could reinstate the elements of autonomy that were taken from Catalonia.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy held a press conference, declaring the rule of law would be restored in Catalonia and announcing Madrid was assuming direct control of the region. He also said the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet had been dismissed, while a snap election has been called for the region on 21 December.

Spain’s Senate had already voted to trigger Article 155 of the 1978 constitution – for the first time in Spanish history. It enables Madrid to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy.

Spain’s Constitutional Court is expected to rule the Catalan independence declaration illegal. The court had already outlawed the vote itself, which took place on 1 October. It is not clear how quickly or effectively Spain can reassert central control over Catalonia. But Article 155 gives the Madrid government authority to act immediately.

As Catalans are deeply divided over independence, Madrid can expect some significant support for its actions in the region. The conservative Rajoy government has the backing of the opposition Socialists (PSOE) in this crisis.

There was widespread anger over the tough methods of Spanish police on polling day. There was video of them dragging some voters away from ballot boxes and hitting them with batons. The volatile atmosphere in Barcelona could explode if Spain adopts such strong-arm tactics to impose its will now.

Catalexit?

The economic uncertainty created by the prospect of independence has already led to two banks deciding to move their head offices out of the region. At least part of that uncertainty is over Catalonia’s relationship with Europe. Two-thirds of Catalonia’s foreign exports go to the EU. It would need to reapply to become a member if it seceded from Spain – it wouldn’t get in automatically or immediately. And it would require all EU members to agree – including Spain.

Some in the pro-independence camp feel that Catalonia could settle for single-market membership without joining the EU. Catalans may well be happy to pay for access, and continue to accept free movement of EU citizens across the region’s borders. But if Spain chose to, it could make life difficult for an independent Catalonia.

There is also the question of currency. In 2015, the governor of the Bank of Spain warned Catalans independence would cause the region to drop out of the euro automatically, losing access to the European Central Bank.

Normally, new EU member states must apply to join the euro.

They have to meet certain criteria, such as their debt not being too large a percentage of their gross domestic product (GDP). Even if they meet those criteria, a qualified majority of eurozone countries has to approve their entry. In theory, that means even if Catalonia became a new EU member state, it may well take time to rejoin the eurozone – and Spain and its allies could block that. In practice, we just don’t know what would happen.

Nobody has ever declared independence from a member of the eurozone then asked to rejoin as a new country. Could Catalonia use the euro without joining the eurozone? It does happen.

Some countries such as San Marino and Vatican City do so with the euro zone’s blessing, since they’re too small to ever become EU member states. Others, such as Kosovo and Montenegro, use the euro without the EU’s blessing, and so don’t have access to the European Central Bank. Again, whether either solution would be practical in Catalonia remains to be seen.

Observation

It is the biggest political crisis in Spain for 40 years. Nothing has been seen like it since the end of General Franco’s dictatorship. The disputed Catalan independence referendum on 1 October was the trigger, but mutual hostility had been brewing for years. So how could events unfold in Catalonia now?

Parliament in Catalonia has declared independence while the Spanish senate has approved a government proposal to reassert control over the region after its disputed independence referendum. After dismissing the Catalan government and president, The Spanish government put its national media company and police force under the control of Madrid, .

Spain is divided into 17 regions, each with directly elected authorities. Catalonia, in the north-east of the country, has one of the greatest levels of self-government in Spain. It has its own parliament, government and president, police force and public broadcaster.

Catalans have a range of powers in many policy areas from culture and environment to communications, transportation, commerce and public safety.

Spain could opt for incremental steps to suspend Catalonia’s autonomous powers, to avoid a huge backlash. The constitution does not specify a time frame for “temporary” direct rule.

With tensions so high it is likely that the separatists will organize strikes, boycotts and more mass rallies in response to Madrid’s actions. Their aim will be to put pressure on Madrid to negotiate.

Now that the region would eventually secede, the world focus is concentrated on whether Catalonia would be able to stand on its own two feet. None has rejected the scenario that Catalonia would be able to be strong nation.

Hopefully Spain would adopt a neutral position to let Catalonia cede from it without nay bloodshed and further complications and become an independent nation to be eligible for entry into EU.

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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Anti-Macron protests underline classism, as corona protesters and gilets jaune join forces

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photo: Alaattin Doğru - Anadolu Agency

I get it. People in France are fed up with the Covid lockdowns and that’s why they are protesting against the new tightening of the Covid rules. But there is much more to the story.

The new anti-Covid rules by French President Macron came in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival where the rich and famous come out to play for 10 days at the French Reviera. I was there, too, in fact when the new set of rules angered so many ordinary French people. But guess what — the rules didn’t apply to us, those gathered for the Cannes red carpets and parties. Celebrities did not have to wear masks on the red carpet. I did not have to put on a mask at the red carpets. I was not checked even once on the mandatory Covid tests which we took every 2 days anyways. No one at the Cannes red carpets, parties or fashion shows was looking at Covid tests at the entrance, and I attended not one or two things. That’s at the time when the rest of France was boiling. Yes, we were treated differently as the Cannes crowd. That was obvious.

Don’t get me wrong — spending tens of thousands of euros to drink champaigne, walk red carpets and hang out with actors, models, designers and influencers is great. But I couldn’t help but notice that the Cannes elite was being held to a very different standard in comparisson to the ordinary French public. Macron exempted the Cannes crowd from the new rules and that smells of classism and elitism. I can see why the gillets gaune, which I wrote about in my book Trump, European security and Turkey (2020), are angry and want to resume their protests which were put an end to with the Covid lockdowns.

In fact, as soon as you move one or two streets away from the craze and snobbery of the Cannes Festival, you see a very different French picture. Actually, the most pleasant conversations I had in Cannes were with the guy that made my pizza at 2am, a couple of gillets jaune on the street, and the taxi driver who lives in Cannes. These were the pleasant, hard-working French people that represent France so much better than the snotty Cannes Film Festival organizers, the French police or the so-overrated snobbery at the Chopard events. 

From the pizza guy in Mozarella Street I learned that he works two jobs and sleeps 3 hours per night. That’s the reality for many normal French people. Yet, he was the nicest and coolest person I met in Cannes. Somehow I wished that he could trade places with some of the rest I met in Cannes who probably don’t deserve to have an easy life and should be taught a lesson. So I get it. I get the struggle of the gillets gaune and all those that are opposed to Macron’s policies. He is increasingly playing with the far right and that might as well mean that he is looking at his sunset. 

I also get the classism that persists in French society — it’s important to be aware of it even if you’re on the receiving end of a lot of glamor, bemefits and good things. All I can tell you is that next time I am in France, I am joining the gillet jaune protests. Now I really get it. 

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