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The Looming Brexit Deadline: What to Expect in March 2019?

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On June 23, 2016, an historic vote in the United Kingdom forever changed the course of history.  The UK voted to break away economically and to a lesser degree politically from the ‘constraints’ of Brussels, and the EU. The media frenzy surrounding the Brexit referendum had pundits believing that there was no possible way Brexiteers would get their wish. They were considered a fringe group of extremists, but the media got it wrong. They have gotten it horribly wrong many times since then, more recently with the election of US President Donald J. Trump. But it’s the Brexit issue that lingers and presents the greatest challenges to Europe and the United Kingdom. Come Friday, 29 March 2019 at 11 PM, the UK will be required to leave the EU.

The issue of what to do with Britons living abroad and Europeans living in Britain is an important one. For starters, there are millions of people from both the EU and Britain living outside of their countries. This large expatriate population is already experiencing all manner of financial difficulties through the recent volatility of the GBP. Global transfers from Europe to the UK and the UK to Europe have been increasing in recent years, thanks to the Brexit issue. The list of service providers offering these international money transfers is currently populated by many non-bank financial institutions, Recall that its zenith, the GBP was trading around 1.47/1.48 to the USD. It soon plunged to 31-year lows, and only recently started to claw its way back to those levels. Expatriates can benefit from GBP weakness by sending EUR, USD, JPY, SEK and other currencies back to the UK. This results in boosted performance of the GBP, and has a lag effect on stock portfolios.

The Brexit issue presents as an unprecedented economic and political calamity for Europe, the likes of which it last encountered with the overhyped Grexit (Greek Exit) fears. According to the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, Britain had 2 years from the date it announced its intention to leave the EU for the formal ratification of a Brexit. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is an interesting legal triggering mechanism, and the process got underway in March 2017. With approximately a year to go, the UK government must muster all the support it can to prepare for Brexit. The negotiations have been exceedingly difficult, with both EU and UK officials struggling to come to consensus on any number of issues.

What was the Final Vote Tally in Favour of Brexit in the UK?

According to the BBC, 72.2% of the UK electorate voted in the Brexit referendum. Of that, 51.9% voted to leave the EU, amounting to 17,410,742 votes. The Bremain (Britain remains in the EU) vote amounted to 48.1% or 16,141,241 votes. There were some 26,033 rejected ballots. It is interesting to point out which parts of the UK voted overwhelmingly in favour or against a Brexit. Scotland (62% to remain) was largely against a Brexit, as was Northern Ireland (55.8% to remain). But it was England (53.4% to leave) and Wales (52.5% to leave) with their large populations that swung the needle in favour of a Brexit.

And so, the Brexiteers got their wish and history was made. The areas in the UK overwhelmingly preferring a Brexit included Arun (62.5%), Northumberland (54.1%), Stoke-on-Trent (69.4%), Derby (57.2%), Northampton (58.4%), Cornwall (56.5%), Amber Valley (60.3%), Ashfield (69.8%), Lancaster (51.1%), Luton (56.5%), and many others. The listing of pro-Brexit cities and districts in and across England sent a powerful message to 10 Downing St., and Brussels alike. The British Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron was taken aback by the results, even though he was heading the Tory government. The London Mayor, Boris Johnson was spearheading calls for a Brexit, posing a serious challenge to the PM.

According to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, ‘any member state may decide to withdraw from the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’. Once Article 50 has been triggered, the European Council is officially notified of the UKs desire to leave the EU and it will no longer be bound by EU rules. Of course, there are many complications inherent in the extrication process. These include the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, and vice versa. There are also existing business agreements, financial partnerships, and related deals between UK and EU companies that need to be consolidated, amended, or ratified.

Concerns for the UK Post Brexit

Other challenges to a successful Brexit include passports, travel, work permission, and borders. While the UK was part of the EU, residency requirements for all nationals in the single bloc were easier to understand. Now there is the issue of what to do with people post-Brexit. These are but a handful of the many challenges facing the UK government as it looks to carve out new alliances with Asia and the West, post-Brexit. Of course, one of the most urgent concerns is the UK economy, and the currency. The GBP has whipsawed wildly since the June 23, 2016 referendum. It plunged spectacularly from 1.47/48 prior to the Brexit and hit a 31-year low soon thereafter.

This has far-reaching implications for UK business, listed companies, and UK indices. Every time the GBP weakens, the FTSE 100 index strengthens, and vice versa. This well-established relationship saw the FTSE 100 index rising well above 7,000 as sterling continues to plummet. However, there has been a strong resurgence in the value of GBP, leading many to believe that the separation from the EU will not be as detrimental as once thought. Negotiations began in earnest, and both parties agreed to making significant headway in the Brexit discussions. However, the EU’s head negotiator Michel Barnierand his EU counterpart, David Davis have been at loggerheads many times.

Upcoming Meetings Prior to the Looming Brexit Deadline

According to Davis however, the UK has set March 29, 2019 at 11 PM GMT as the official date that Britain will depart from the EU. Some of the most important dates to remember moving forward include September 24 when elections in Germany will determine what becomes of Chancellor Angela Merkel, and then another meeting in October 2018. The latter is a crucial date to watch, since it is 6 months prior to the official divorce between Britain and the EU.

At that point, details of a final Brexit deal can be ratified. A big part of the reason Britain left was money. The UK was subsidizing Brussels to the tune of billions of pounds, and many UK conservatives commented that foreigners were using up valuable NHS resources and costing Britons a fortune. It’s a difficult predicament to be in, given that the UK is now negotiating to repay the EU a tidy sum in the separation agreement.

It was once thought that £350 million per week was sent by the UK to the EU. This according to Boris Johnson, is precisely what Britain pays the EU. However, the UK’s membership fee with the EU is £17.8 billion. Once the Treasury report was conducted, that figure was actually £375 million weekly, or £19 .5 billion. In November, The Guardian ran an article stating that the UK could pay upwards of £50 billion after UK leaders and EU leaders could not come to consensus. That’s the figure that was needed for heavy hitters like Germany and France to sign off on any new trade deals post-Brexit with the UK. Figures as high as £89 billion have been floated, but UK government ministers are insisting that the true figure will be approximately 50% of that. In any event, these are serious concerns for the UK post-Brexit, given that the burden will be brought to bear on UK workers.

Is the Brexit officially on?

According to Labour and Conservatives, the Brexit issue will move ahead as planned. However, several politicians and parties have threatened to derail any Brexit plans by requesting a snap referendum on the issue. It looks as if Britain will be leaving the EU in March 2019, preferably with a framework for Brexit in place. The British Prime Minister was against a Brexit during her early days, but promised to support a Brexit once she was sworn in. The UK economy has been in all sorts of turmoil since the Brexit saga became priority number one.

The GBP/USD pair is back at parity with pre-Brexit levels, but the GBP remains approximately 15% weaker against the EUR. UK economic growth remains robust, despite reports that the Brexit issue will destroy UK manufacturing and service industries. The purported single market refers to the EU bloc and if Britain leaves, it will no longer enjoy all of the privileges such as no customs duties, tariffs and trade fees. However, there is a customs union in place. The single market is a reference to broader integration and interaction between the EU and the UK.

In summary, it is important to manage personal finances well during this volatile period in Britain’s history. Britons with assets abroad stand to benefit significantly by repatriating their earnings, salaries, wages and so forth back to the UK. If the GBP strengthens, much the same can be said of Europeans living in the UK. Of course, banks will be having a field day with all the money changing hands, and the high spreads, fees and commissions they can charge on unsuspecting clients. After the dust has settled, it’s money transfer companies that will reap the rewards of these actions since they offer the best value to Britons.

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Gas Without a Fight: Is Turkey Ready to Go to War for Resources in the Mediterranean?

Artyom Semyonov

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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.

Turkey’s Motives

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.

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Political will is needed to foster multilateralism in Europe

Guido Lanfranchi

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Dr. Fischler addressing the conference

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?”

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China “seems” to be moving closer to the Holy See

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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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