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Will the EU split into the East and the West?

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On March 1, 2018 the European Parliament has adopted a resolution initiating a disciplinary procedure against Poland. Warsaw is accused of violating a number of fundamental democratic principles of the EU. If the Polish government does not agree to make concessions, the country may for a time be deprived of the right to vote in the European Council.

The problem is that to implement such a decision, the consent of all EU member-states is needed. Meanwhile, Hungary, against which charges of the same kind have been brought, can block sanctions against Warsaw.

According to many observers the increased tensions within the EU reflect not just the “growth of nationalistic sentiments” across Europe. Analysts, as well as high-level politicians, including French President E. Macron, are already openly talking about the EU’s moving towards “Europe of two speeds”. How serious is the threat of increasing contradictions between Europe’s east and west?

The “right”, “anti-liberal” turn has been observed in Europe for the last 20-25 years and not only in the new EU members but throughout the continent. According to the BBC  in 2000 the average share of those who voted in the European countries for “populists” was 8%, at present it is about 25%. Michael Abramowitz and Nate Schenkkan of The Foreign Affairs note that now Islamophobia, “persecution of NGOs”, stiff rejection of EU policies  and fear of migration  play a key role in strengthening the positions of conservative and nationalist politicians -“populists” not only in Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic. Similar ideas are spreading rapidly in the political discourse of almost every European country. More and more often “populists” are becoming potential partners in forming coalition governments. Thus, many political forces in Central and Eastern Europe, are increasingly rejecting the “EU pressure” because it is associated with sovereignty restrictions.

The embodiment of these trends was a series of political upheavals that occurred in Europe in 2017. First, both system-forming parties – the Socialists and the Republicans – suffered a crushing defeat in the French presidential and parliamentary elections. Then  to the unexpected surprise of most observers the “most serious political crisis since the unification” began in Germany – negotiations for the creation of the ruling coalition lasted more than 6 months, ending only in March 2018. Finally, in December 2017, a new government was formed in Austria, which included the conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party. Clearly there is no talk about Vienna’s withdrawal from the EU. Nevertheless, the new Austrian ruling coalition has its own idea of the ways of reforming the EU – a very different one from the approaches of Germany and France. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz does not conceal his desire to limit the EU’s spheres of influence. Some commentators say that by this he strongly resembles some of his colleagues in Central and Eastern Europe, also dissatisfied with attempts to centralize power, undertaken by Brussels.

The highlight of the clash between different concepts of the European Union’s future was the judicial proceedings initiated by the European Commission against Poland “for political interference in its justice system” on December 20th, 2017.

In these conditions, on the one hand, both the new cabinet of Merkel as well as the French president who is facing ever greater resistance to his ambitious reform plans have even more serious doubts regarding the ability to “initiate the process of renewal of the European Union”. On the other hand, “the events which happened in the end of 2017 in Brussels, Budapest, Warsaw, Prague and Vienna are the unambiguous alarming evidence that the EU encounters an existential dilemma in confronting the nationalist leaders of Central Europe led by Poland and Hungary“. Meanwhile, the Euro zone crisis and the Brexit remain on the agenda. As a result, the well-known Russian expert Fyodor Lukyanov says: Europe turns to itself, and “the future of the continent” has not been so vague from the middle of the 20th century. ”

Political contradictions are closely intertwined with the economic ones. The work of well-known economists Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman published in 2017 bluntly call Eastern European nations “foreign-owned countries”. On the one hand, a stable inflow of investment provides economic growth and high employment. On the other hand, such a high dependence on foreign capital in the economy is fraught with serious shocks, in case a country, for some reason, loses its investment attractiveness. As historical examples show, the “flight” of foreign investors, as a rule, provokes a surge of unemployment, a deep decline in the economy,  collapse of the banking system.

Meanwhile, after the UK leaves the European Union the annual budget of the EU will decrease by at least 10 billion euros. In this regard, the issue of decreasing subsidies to member countries, which will primarily affect the poorest countries, is being actively discussed. This “foreshadows yet another clash of the east and west of Europe.” Moreover, “some countries were told that their rejection of liberal values might be the reason to reduce their subsidies”. In response, the leading countries of Central and Eastern Europe “unequivocally say to Brussels: we are not your colonies”. In these conditions, “the Battles of Eastern and Western Europe threatens to slow down, or even completely slash to zero, a decade and a half of integration processes, and in a broader sense raises the question: is the EU united on the basis of common economic interests or common values?”

At the same time, the issue of Poland, Czech Republic or Hungary leaving the EU is not on the agenda. There are no objective reasons for this. The current CEE leaders largely owe their popularity to high rates of economic growth, the key factors of which are EU subsidies and foreign investments. Membership in the European Union is very beneficial for Eastern Europeans, as they receive more from Brussels than they give. Especially when it comes to issues of political and economic security. Formal belonging to the “West”, one of the main symbols of which is Schengen, is also very important for the overwhelming majority of citizens of these states from the psychological and philosophical point of view. The EU will also not give up Eastern European members, since the economic benefits of investing in growing economies, as well as export earnings to Central and Eastern Europe, are one of the main sources of growth for the whole Union. In addition, the experience of recent years has shown that with the problems of “Romanian corruption”, “Hungarian authoritarianism”, “Polish attacks on courts” and border disputes, like the Slovenian-Croatian one, “it is much easier to fight when the country is already included in pan-European structures,” Maxim Samorukov of the Russian Carnegie Center says.

The problem is that Brussels seems to have chosen a strategy that is very risky in the current circumstances, designed to “restore  the Union’s  self-confidence” – through a new expansion. In February 2018, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, announced the strategy of joining the EU (until 2025) of at least some of the six states of the Western Balkans. According to Brussels’s plan the admission of new members should convince the rest  to abandon the privileges of individual countries and delegate more authority to the “center.” The question is about taking decisions not by consensus but by the majority, as well as about developing mechanisms for monitoring compliance with common rules by member-states and punishing violators. The ultimate goal is “supranational institutions that will gradually take away key functions from the least competent national governments“.

However, experts at the American think tank Stratfor say that “the enthusiasm for the EU enlargement has largely dried up”. Besides, the Eastern European capitals are hardly to like the real goal of the EU reform, for which the leading “old” members of the club advocate – to minimize the chances of the CEE countries to play on the contradictions between the world powers. And even if those who believe that “at the heart of all such games there is always a desire to knock out as many financial preferences as possible from the European Union are right,” the population of Central and Eastern Europe is experiencing a growing anxiety and irritation as a result of realization that, if such trends continue in the politics of Brussels, the dreams of “life as in the West,” under whose auspices people often had to give up their national interests, will never come true. Meanwhile, to succeed in global competition, there is a need to limit or even reduce the “main achievement of the European” welfare society “- its social systems. This is increasingly spoken about in the old EU members.

Only time will tell whether the trends analyzed above are long-term.

If most of the CEE countries will not get rid of the “restricted, one-sided point of view”, according to which their national interests do not go beyond their state borders, then the ideas of the “all-European home” will remain only beautiful slogans for both the society and a large part of the ruling class. The real policy will remain at the level of “tactical pragmatism”, which will focus on those slogans and ideas, which at the moment are most in demand by voters. Even if it is a question of EU-scepticism and national populism. Probably, in the center and the east of the EU, a “new Eastern bloc” will be formed – led by the countries of the Visegrad Group (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia), but not limited to it. The countries of this “bloc” will promote the idea of the “Europe of Nations”: the transformation of the European Union into a confederation of independent states, united by a common free trade zone and “a few  supranational functions.”

Thus, tensions between the east and the west of the European Union threaten to become its main headache in the coming years. “Pessimists predict the emergence of situational alliances within the EU that threaten to paralyze the work of its political institutions,” the BBC said. Thus, the initiative to expel Russian diplomats in connection with the “Skripal affair” in the end of March 2018, among other EU member states, was not supported by Austria and Slovakia. On the whole we can assume that the evolution of the future European order has only just started and will continue for several decades.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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