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The outermost regions and the EU: A renewed and strengthened partnership, one year on

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On the occasion of the annual conference of the outermost regions, these nine territories located thousands of kilometres from the European continent, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and Corina Crețu, Commissioner for Regional Policy, are demonstrating that the EU has kept its promise to these regions to help them to hold their own in a globalising world.

The attention paid to the specific needs of these regions in the Commission’s proposals for the next long-term EU budget for the period 2021-2027 is accompanied by initiatives to promote innovation, the circular economy and blue growth.

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said: You know about my attachment to the outermost regions, places where the natural resources and human wealth of our Union are concentratedIt is in those regions, laboratories of excellence and guardians of biodiversity, that the future of Europe begins. One year ago, in French Guiana, we renewed the partnership that unites us. Today, we have once again travelled the distance separating us to bring these regions new pledges of support.

The Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Crețu, added: We can say today that we have kept our promises. In addition to the privileged position accorded to these outermost regions in our proposals for the next EU budget, the initiatives we are presenting today will help to improve the quality of life of local communities and bring economic opportunities for all.

A privileged position within the EU’s long-term budget plans

From cohesion policy to European investment in transport, via research and innovation and, of course, agricultural and fisheries policy, no fewer than 21 sector-specific proposals in the forthcoming EU budget will be taking into account the needs of the outermost regions – translating into financial terms the particular attention given to these regions by the Juncker Commission.

The option of using State aid to support the renewal of the small-vessel fishing fleet, whilst fishing sustainably

The Commission has amended the guidelines for State aid in the fisheries and aquaculture sectors so that new vessels can be bought in these regions, with higher aid rates for small and medium-sized vessels. This decision, which links State aid to respect for the sustainability of fish stocks, is good news for local communities.

Better access to the Juncker Plan and flourishing investment projects

With more than EUR 2.2 billion in additional investment mobilised by the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) in the outermost regions, the Juncker Plan has confirmed its strong overseas commitment. This month, the EFSI has further increased its support for Adie, the French microcredit association, to support entrepreneurship and small local businesses in the French outermost regions. The European Investment Advisory Hub (the “Hub”) has also drawn up plans to improve access to finance for businesses in these regions. The regions are invited to think about which financial instruments would be most effective in meeting their needs, and the Hub will be there to support them.

A new coordination and support role financed by the EU to promote research and innovation in these regions

In line with the undertakings in the new strategy, the Commission has this week launched the FORWARD project, with EUR 4.3 million from Horizon 2020, intended to support innovation in these regions.

Specifically, 24 partners from nine regions (governments, universities or development agencies) will together analyse their innovation systems and mobilise local stakeholders, including industry, around innovation strategies based on their specific strengths and with cohesion policy support. They will also strengthen the ties between their regions and European or international innovation networks, in order to enhance their participation in the future Horizon Europe research programme.

Tailored EU support, with the launch of two task forces in Réunion and the Canary Islands

Following a successful pilot in Réunion in the areas of energy autonomy and transition, this week the Commission will be launching a second task force to improve waste management and promote the circular economy in the Canary Islands. All the parties concerned – the regional and national governments, the Commission and the private sector – will be working together to tackle this major challenge to improve the quality of life in the archipelago.

The position of the outermost regions in the programmes financed by the forthcoming EU budget and these initiatives complement the direct, ongoing dialogue between the Juncker Commission and these nine regions. They symbolise an ever closer partnership at all levels and the Commission’s ongoing support in the field of innovation and sustainable development.

Context

The nine outermost regions of the EU comprise six French overseas territories (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, Réunion and Saint-Martin), two autonomous Portuguese regions (the Azores and Madeira) and one autonomous Spanish community (the Canary Islands).

Despite progress over recent years, these regions face serious challenges: high unemployment, above all among young people, increased vulnerability to climate change, obstacles to growth due to the lack of infrastructure, and a dependence on economic sectors which have not sufficiently incorporated innovative processes.

In order to redouble its efforts and meet these challenges, the Commission last year presented a new strategy for a strengthened partnership between the EU, the regions and their Member States. The strategy was officially launched in French Guiana by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and French President Emmanuel Macron.

This strategy instituted tailored support for these regions, with the Member States, to help them to use their unique assets, create opportunities for their populations and capitalise on globalisation.

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What lies ahead for Meloni’s Italy

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Not many would have predicted that 100 years after Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts marched on Rome, a leader claiming lineage from the same political ideology would ascend to power. Georgia Meloni is on her way to become the first woman Prime Minister of Italy, hailing from a party that emerged out of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). Her rise to power is as dramatic as that of the fascist dictator. Brothers of Italy, which Meloni founded in 2012, recorded a measly 4.3% of vote in the 2018 elections. In the four years since, the party has gained significant ground and is now set to win 26% of the vote in a coalition with Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s  Forza Italia. With the right wing coalition coming to power, major shifts in Italy’s domestic and foreign policy are expected. But taking command at such a turbulent time will be a task easier said than done. Hence, it will be interesting to see what course Meloni’s coalition might take.

As things stand, Italy is edging towards a major economic crisis. The continued war in Ukraine has terribly affected Italy’s economic growth in the post-pandemic era. The rising prices of energy resources and supplies have held back household consumption, slowing the rate of recovery. The economic growth projection for 2022 stands at 2.5% while 2023 is estimated to see a further fall to a mere 1.2%. Italy’s debt crisis has also severely worsened with rising interest rates in the post-pandemic years. The national debt currently stands at about $2.9 trillion which is estimated to rise steadily, touching $3 trillion i.e. around 150% of the GDP by the end of 2023.

In her election campaign, Meloni has addressed these economic woes with a populist vigour. Meloni advocates for a protectionist stance. Her policies include a business-friendly dispensation, steep tax cuts for all, early retirement and amnesties to settle tax disputes. While the right-wing coalition manifesto pledges ambitious spending plans, Meloni has promised to keep the public finances in check. Key to keeping the economy afloat and achieving these targets will be the new government’s efforts to meet the reforms and targets agreed by the Draghi administration and the European Union to obtain the €750 billion Covid recovery and resilience fund. Meloni has already indicated that she will seek some changes to the agreed plans, making it a priority for her new coalition.

While Meloni will become Italy’s first woman Prime Minister, her case presents an example of weaponising women empowerment to further autocracy. Under her leadership, Brothers of Italy has rolled back women’s rights in the localities it governs. These rollbacks include making abortions harder to access. Her party’s slogan – “God, Fatherland, Family” – is reflective of their intentions of leading a patriarchal setup in the guise of a woman leader. With their coalition coming to power, it is likely that Meloni and her party will continue on the route of further cutting back on women’s rights and freedom.

The right-wing parties have stressed on the importance of Christian conservative familial values in their election campaign. This has resulted in vicious attacks on what Meloni calls “the LGBT lobbies” who have “harmed women and family by destroying gender identity.” Last year, Brothers of Italy and Lega blocked ratification of the Zan bill which sought to categorise violence against the LGBTQ+ community as a hate crime. The two parties opposed the bill, calling it unnecessary and against freedom of expression.

Another part of Meloni’s populist rhetoric are her claims of “ethnic substitution.” She has repeatedly claimed that Italian identity is being erased by the globalists and EU officials, who have “conspired” to unleash “uncontrolled mass immigration.” In the past, she has infamously proposed a naval blockade of the Mediterranean to stop migration to Italy. While the coalition has promised stricter border controls, blocking boat landings and establishing EU centres to evaluate asylum applications; they have also assured to regulate legal migration more smoothly, with initiatives to integrate recent immigrants.

Meloni’s stance on the European Union has been the highlight of her election campaign. While she no longer advocates for a complete withdrawal from the organisation, Meloni is vehemently against its current state of operations. “I want a Europe that does fewer things and does them better, with less centralism, more subsidiarity, less bureaucracy, and more politics,” she said. She has pushed for an ‘Italy first’ approach, countering the regional integration of the EU. Addressing a rally in Milan earlier this month, Meloni said, “In Europe they are a bit worried. The fun is over, Italy will start to defend its national interests, as others do.” Meloni has indicated her support for Poland and Hungary in their current ongoing dispute with the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. She has previously made her admiration of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban clear, calling him a ‘democratic leader’ in the face of stark EU criticism over authoritarian measures.

While Meloni and her coalition have been critical of the European Union, it is unlikely that it will lead to drastic changes in the Italian policy towards EU integration. The economic challenges that the new government finds itself in will largely affect its decision making. To obtain a much needed relief fund from the organisation, it is important for the coalition to agree to certain terms proposed by the EU. Hence, while they can be a bit more assertive in their approach, complete rejection of the EU is not on the cards.

However, Italy’s foreign policy is set to see new developments. Meloni has previously condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine, supporting sanctions against Russia and supplying weapons to Ukraine. “It is the tip of the iceberg,” she said, calling the conflict’s objective as “revision of world order.” Meloni has also been critical of China, condemning the country’s “economic expansion measures.” In 2019, Italy became the first major nation to participate in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a programme to expand Beijing’s economic outreach. Meloni has since criticised the pact as a “big mistake,” indicating that Italy will re-evaluate its stance on the pact under her administration. She has also been vocal about the Taiwan issue, calling it an issue of “essential concern for Italy.” She also described Chinese threats against the island “unacceptable,” calling Taiwan and Italy’s relationship a “sincere friendship.”

Giorgia Meloni is not so different from the Trumps and Bolsonaros of our world. She gained popular support on the back of economic failure under the previous administrations and emerged as the clear winner once Mario Draghi resigned following the economic and political turmoil. Meloni fills the void that the centre-left parties have failed to address so far. She has presented herself as a new alternative against an opposition that now seems much distant from the needs and aspirations of the people. Her populist rhetoric has only helped to further fuel her rise to power. Facing economic catastrophe for the longest time, the Italians now demand security and stability. However, her anti-immigration and anti-EU policies do not present an answer to the problems Italy faces. Her populist rhetoric is highly unfortunate and raises the threat for hate crimes in the future. Her authoritarian stance coupled with the ‘Italy first’ rhetoric will not fare well in the future. In deep economic stress, Italy needs to welcome immigrants who can actively contribute to their economy and stabilise the turbulent waters.

Furthermore, Meloni’s election presents a threat to the democratic system in Italy. The right-wing coalition is in a position to negotiate a constitutional amendment that approves the President to be elected directly by the people. Currently, the President is elected by an electoral college which was setup in 1948 as a measure to prevent the future possibility of a government takeover by the fascist forces. While the Presidency is a figurehead role in the country, Brothers of Italy have advocated for a more robust head of state with a popular mandate. This advocacy for “Presidentialism” may have grave repercussions for Italy’s democratic setup, making the President a politically motivated role which will severely affect the system of checks and balances in the present system.

It is difficult to say whether Meloni’s coalition will be able to weather the storm in the coming years but one thing that is certain is that this election is one for the history books where victors are set to write the fate of Italy, once again.

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Smile Diplomacy: From Putin to Macron

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Photo:kremlin.ru

In the world of politics, what should be done when things don’t go according to plan? The answer of Talleyrand, the French politician of the 18th and 19th centuries, was simple: organize a conference!

Perhaps it is due to this lesson from the French politician and diplomat that Vladimir Putin held his conference under the title of “Economic Boom of the East” in the port of Vladivostok, and French President Emmanuel Macron is going to start his conference under the title of “Political Council”, Europe” next month in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

Let’s talk about Putin first. No matter how we look at it, the course of things is not as intended. The war in Ukraine is practically frozen in a north-south line. The pitched battles, the use of heavy artillery, the high casualties, and the ever-increasing logistical problems are more reminiscent of the First World War, or even the Crimean War than modern 21st-century war.

Last week, the first sign of Putin’s desperation to fully win this war appeared. In a short televised address, the Russian president claimed that his goal was to preserve the “Russians” of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In other words, it has moved away from its initial portent of removing Ukraine from the map as an independent country. Is he now calling for a limited deal that would put parts of eastern Ukraine under Russian control forever, if ever? No one knows the answer to this question, except maybe Putin himself. But, surprisingly, neither Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, nor his American and European supporters have shown any attention to this possible retreat of Putin.

Failure in the war is not Putin’s only concern. Contrary to his claim that Western sanctions have not affected the Russian economy, it can be seen that things are not going as planned on that front either. Of course, Russia has been able to find new customers for its oil—customers like India, China, and Turkey, which have reduced their purchases from Iran and Iraq by receiving significant discounts to take advantage of the Russian auction.

However, double-digit inflation, the closure of hundreds of factories, widespread shortages of many goods, a 25 percent drop in viewership of Putin’s state television, and the flight of tens of thousands of middle-class citizens show that the sanctions are having little effect.

The Vladivostok conference was formed with the slogan “The future is from Asia”. Putin’s message was: “Asia builds the future, while the West falls.”

Of course, we heard this slogan in the 1950s, during the last years of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union. Stalin spoke of “Young Asia and the West of Fertut”. Today, Putin plays the same music with notes from the Tsarist Imperial Symphony added.

According to Khmiakov, the Pan-Slavist guru, Russia is a “two-headed eagle”: one head looks to the East and the other to the West.

In the beginning, the double-headed eagle was the symbol of the kings of Hayatele in Asia Minor; But after a few centuries, the Byzantine emperors usurped it. In 1471, Ivan III, Tsar of Russia, married Princess Sophia, the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, and the symbol of the double-headed eagle was assigned to Russia. Today, Putin is bringing this symbol, which was abandoned during the Soviet Union, back to the scene.

However, an eagle facing east is nearsighted. Out of 49 Asian countries, only 17 countries appeared seriously in this game. None of the heads of Asian countries were present at Putin’s show. The highest-ranking foreign personalities were the Prime Ministers of Armenia and Mongolia. General Ming Aung Heliang, the leader of the Myanmar (Burma) coup plotters, was also present. But China was represented by Li Zhangsu, the third leader of the Communist Party. Even the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, did not accept the suffering of a trip to Vladivostok. Major Asian economic powers such as Japan and South Korea, or even Taiwan, were not present.

Putin’s hope is to develop the “Eurasian” bloc, which was formed years ago to compete with the European Union, but it never got anywhere. However, even if the participants in the Vladivostok conference were to join the bloc, they would collectively account for nearly 20 percent of global GDP. Currently, almost all of them are closer to the European Union and the United States than to Russia in terms of foreign trade. Russia’s own share of trade with bloc countries does not exceed 12%.

From any angle, the Vladivostok gathering is one of those shows that are referred to as “posturing” in the diplomatic dictionary. In this show, the host appears as the leader of a large group, but in reality, there is no group. The choice of Vladivostok, which means “ruler or emir of the east”, maybe a coincidental sign of Putin’s illusions to lead Asia.

It is interesting that in Vladivostok there was no mention of the war in Ukraine. None of Putin’s entourage was wearing a T-shirt with the letter Z, and his bulletproof car did not have a Z mark.

The participants of this show undoubtedly know that Moscow is closer to Berlin than Vladivostok and whatever the underbelly of history, Russia’s national and cultural orientation is to the West, not to the East. Alexander Herzen, a 19th-century Russian writer, wrote: “Russia looks to the East to remember what dangers threaten its existence, and looks to the West to find out how to neutralize those dangers.”

Currently, Putin is not the only leader who is trying to polish his political image by playing the conference game. French President Emmanuel Macron is also busy organizing Smile Diplomacy. The Prague conference for the formation of the “Political Council of Europe” is a platform for introducing Macron as a strong European leader. With Britain mired in crisis, Germany governed by a floundering coalition government, and Italy on the brink of an election with uncertain results, Macron hopes to present France as the anchor of Europe’s stormy ship.

Macron’s failure to win an overwhelming majority in the parliamentary elections has limited his possibilities to exert power in the domestic political scene. Therefore, like many politicians in a similar situation, he turns to show his power in the foreign policy scene.

But Macron’s show, many analysts believe, will not have a better result than what Putin achieved in Vladivostok. In a sense, Macron’s show may even be harmful. Trying to prevent Turkey’s participation, under the pretext that a large part of Turkey is located in Asia, can deepen the gap between Western powers and Turkey.

Turkey’s exclusion from the Prague show could help re-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president. Using an anti-Western discourse and being closer to Russia along with claiming to be the leader of the Islamic world, Erdogan is trying to distract Turkey’s public opinion from its failure in economic and social fields. In the last two decades, this is the first time that Erdogan is on the verge of an electoral defeat. Macron’s anti-Turkish stance could be a bitter irony that guarantees Erdogan’s victory.

Macron’s proposal has other disadvantages as well. First, one should ask what is the need for another “conference” in Europe. Aren’t the “European Security and Cooperation Organization” and “Council of Europe” which include all countries of the continent enough? After all, didn’t Britain leave the European Union under the pretext that it does not want Europe to participate in the regulation of London’s policies? Is the “Brexit” government willing to participate in a new grouping, with unknown goals and criteria, after leaving an established union with clear goals?

Currently, a growing trend across Europe, from Poland to France, is to move away from continental groupings. Even the European Union has lost some of its legitimacy and popularity at this time. The growing trend in most European countries is towards limited nationalism within the borders of each country, emphasis on national sovereignty, and striving for self-sufficiency. In other words, the globalism of the past two or three decades is receding and bilateral relations are becoming more acceptable.

You might say that Smile Diplomacy in Vladivostok or Prague wouldn’t hurt anyway. Unfortunately, this assessment of yours is not correct. Smile Diplomacy masks the fact that Russia and Western Europe do not currently have the ability or will to emerge from the crisis caused by war, economic stagnation, inflation, and environmental threats. Smile Diplomacy offers sideshows instead of serious policies.

Dramatic games allow Putin to mask his failure on the battlefield. On the other hand, Macron and other European leaders hide their inability to stop the war in Ukraine with the Prague show. Both sides are still dreaming of “victory”. Unaware that war never has a winner, because in every war both the victor and the vanquished will be losers in the end. Zelensky seems to think that defeat is better than surrender because it at least offers the badge of hero and martyr. On the other hand, Liz Truss, the new British Prime Minister, speaks of “victory”. The demonstrations in Vladivostok and Prague prevent these irresponsible positions from being seriously discussed.

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In a Crisis-Laden World, Serbia Should Think Green

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Countries around the globe are facing persistent economic headwinds. Trade and supply chain disruptions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and extreme weather, have led to surging food and energy prices. Inflation is increasing at an alarming rate in many countries and economic growth is slowing. Policy makers around the world face difficult challenges and complex trade-offs. They need to maintain fiscal sustainability and rebuild economic buffers depleted during the pandemic; but also cater for the needs of the most vulnerable, who feel the impact of higher food and energy prices. As winter is approaching, countries in Europe are scrambling to secure sufficient energy supplies to keep homes warm and factories running. In this challenging context, the urgency of actively expanding renewable sources of energy, pursuing greater resource efficiency, and transitioning away from energy and emission-intensive industries is greater than ever.

Growth outlook

The World Bank expects global economic growth to slow in 2022 to 2.9 percent, from 5.7 percent in 2021. A small and open economy like Serbia will feel the impact of the global slowdown. For Serbia, in 2022, we project an economic growth rate of 3.2 percent, following a 7.4 percent expansion in 2021. Serbia is equally feeling the impact of rising inflation: the NBS expects an inflation of nearly 14 percent in the third quarter of this year.

Higher energy prices have put pressure on current account balances for energy importers around the world. Serbia has also been affected. Its utilities have incurred exceptionally high costs of importing electricity and natural gas on the wholesale markets. While the government has financially supported these companies, it has so far only partially passed these additional costs on to consumers.

Mitigating the impacts of the energy crisis remains the biggest challenge for the new government. Serbia entered the current crisis in a strong macro-fiscal position, but fiscal space is limited. Short-term measures to support households and small and medium enterprises will need to be targeted, time-bound, fully budgeted, and transparent.

Despite the pressures, it is essential that policymakers do not lose sight of structural reforms that would boost Serbia’s potential rate of economic growth over the medium-term, including steps to increase market competition, reform state owned enterprises, raise human capital and productivity, and improve the efficiency of public spending.

Green Serbia

Sustaining long-term growth and resilience also requires putting the ‘green agenda’ at the center of policymaking. The country can do more to increase energy efficiency and lessen the impact of pollution on the health of people and the environment. Staying ‘brown’ runs the risk of slowing down Serbia’s accession to the EU, compromising access to finance, creating trade barriers, limiting the take up of modern technology, and failing to boost productivity. Going ‘green’ would be beneficial on all these fronts. It would also facilitate the structural transformation of the economy through the adoption of new technologies and knowledge. All this will require measures to facilitate a ‘just transition’ for workers and communities who depend on polluting industries for their livelihoods.

Serbia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aiming for a climate neutral world by mid-century. The Government recently published its updated Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by 33.3 percent compared to 1990.  Accompanying plans and strategies are under preparation, but the direction of travel is clear: Serbia urgently needs to boost domestic renewable energy production, increase energy efficiency, and gradually lower dependency on fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, for power generation, heating, and transport.

The World Bank is supporting Serbia’s progress on all these fronts both through financial and technical assistance.

Op-ed originally published in Kurir daily via World Bank

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