On November 25, leaders of the EU member states approved an agreement on the withdrawal of Great Britain from the Union. The last objections, voiced by Spain, were lifted after Madrid received “assurances from the British government concerning Gibraltar.” Now the British Prime Minister Theresa May will have to secure the approval of the country’s parliament. This may prove to be more difficult than reaching agreement on Brexit with member of the European Union. According to commentators, few, if any in the UK, endorse the agreement in its present version. If backed by the British Parliament, the deal will then have to be favored by a simple majority of the European Parliament. Afterwards, the EU Council will hold a vote, in which the support of at least 20 member countries is required, representing at least 65% of the Union’s population. No endorsement by national parliaments is required. Should the decision receive the approval of all parties involved, the exit procedure will start on March 29, 2019. The transition period will last at least 18 months.
Last week, the text of the Brexit agreement, which is nearly six hundred pages long, was finally approved. Next, British Prime Minister Teresa May eventually succeeded in winning the support of most Cabinet members. At the same time, a number of ministers, including Dominic Raab, who is in charge of exiting the EU, resigned in protest against the final version. Now, the British Parliament is to vote on the bill to achieve agreement with the EU on the terms of the exit in early December. In addition to the text of the Agreement, a Political Declaration has been drafted which briefly describes the main principles of further relations between the UK and the EU, including the positions of the two parties in future negotiations on a trade agreement.
The 17-month negotiations marathon was extremely difficult. Triggered largely by discontent about the so-called “uncontrolled” influx of migrants, Britain’s exit from the EU quickly turned from a “technical” issue into one of the main challenges to the future of the Union. The EU’s position of late has been to “minimize the damage from Brexit”. In early September, when the third round of negotiations between London and Brussels came to a close, most observers said, it fell through. It was only by mid-November that the parties had harmonized their positions on the financial conditions of the exit, the protection of the rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom and the British in Europe, as well as on the “consistency of talks about the future”.
At present, the outcome for the EU looks fairly beneficial. According to The Economist, the British authorities have failed to achieve more than half of their original goals. London’s independence from the EU in matters of trade and customs regulation has been postponed at least until 2021. Until then, the UK will remain within the regulatory procedures of the EU Customs Union and will continue to live by the standards of the EU’s common market and their interpretation by the European Court of Justice. The UK will pay the EU about £ 39 billion in a one-off payment and there might be additional payments in the future. Instead of signing a comprehensive free trade agreement by March 2019, which London had sought to secure so much, a Political Declaration was approved which states the parties’ intention to conclude such an agreement “in the future.”
What can be seen as success for the UK is the cessation of the free movement of people between the UK and the EU. However, the approved version of the Brexit agreement envisages visa-free travel for both Europeans and the British “for tourist or business purposes.” Finally, London managed to secure the preservation of the “transparent” land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. At the same time, it had to be paid for with the de facto retention of Northern Ireland within the EU’s jurisdiction, pending “further arrangements” to be reached during the transition period – that is, until December 2020 at the earliest.
The two leading EU countries – Germany and France – have managed to demonstrate the Union’s strong unity in the face of outgoing Britain. The Brexit Agreement was clinched on Brussels’ terms, which imply de facto payment, in the literal and figurative sense of the word, of a sort of indemnities. Meanwhile, it may turn out that the tough stance of Paris and Berlin on Great Britain will not bring any special political dividends either to Macron, whose reformist ideas are garnering less and less support in the EU, or to Merkel, who announced her intention to resign as chancellor by 2021. Finally, the mounting friction between Brussels and Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, and now, Rome, shows that the deep-seated causes that underlie Britain’s choice of two years ago to vote for leaving the EU, are still there. And the position of Britain’s opponents who are trying, in the name of deepening EU integration, to turn a blind eye to problems for which there can be no politically correct solutions, is triggering ever more irritation on the part of European voters. Meanwhile, there is only 6 months to go before elections to the European Parliament are due to take place.
In turn, Theresa May is convinced that she has succeeded in achieving “the best deal possible.” Finance minister Philip Hammond has described the deal with the EU as “the best option for the British economy.” Meanwhile, this agreement has cost May a lot politically. In addition to resignations among Cabinet members, a number of parliamentarians from the Conservative Party persist in their attempts to raise the issue of confidence in the prime minister. The final document is subject to serious criticism, both by opponents and supporters of Brexit, including a considerable number of outspoken representatives of the Conservative Party. For example, Boris Johnson, one of the trailblazers of Brexit, a former foreign minister, and a favorite in the so far unofficial campaign for the post of prime minister, has voted the version of the Agreement signed with the EU as “a huge mistake.” According to Johnson, by approving the current text of the agreement “Britain will become a satellite state.” In this regard, experts anticipate serious difficulties, up to the rejection of the Agreement, or, at least, a significant delay in terms of passing the text through the British Parliament. A negative result will require the government to submit a new action plan within three weeks, but no later than January 21 of next year.
Teresa May’s major problem is that for success she needs more than the votes of her party. A small majority in parliament is provided by the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). However, many DUP members are extremely dissatisfied with the de facto preservation of EU regulation in Northern Ireland, which is enshrined in the Brexit Agreement. In their opinion, such a “compromise” “undermines the unity of Britain.” In addition, a week ago, not only the majority of opposition MPs, but also several dozen Conservatives came out against the May plan. According to critics, the deal agreed by May forces the UK to continue to follow EU regulations for an unspecified period of time. While doing so, London will not be able to influence decisions taken in Brussels, nor will it be able to withdraw from the Agreement unilaterally. Thus, the likelihood of a negative vote in the House of Commons is estimated as fairly high. Besides, the mounting contradictions within the ruling circles of Great Britain may provoke a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister May before the agreement is submitted to parliament. The loss of confidence in the prime minister would lead either to the arrival at Downing Street of a supporter of a tougher course on the EU, or to early elections. In both cases, the chances of Britain exiting the EU without any agreement will increase significantly.
According to the Times, members of the House of Commons will have to choose between a “bad deal” and two alternatives, which are likely to be even worse. If parliamentarians vote against the May plan, Britain will either leave the EU without any agreement at all – “tough Brexit”, or will hold a second referendum, in the hope that this time the people will vote to maintain membership in the European Union. Both options are extremely risky. ‘Tough Brexit’ can trigger a massive political and socio-economic crisis. “Another referendum will further divide the already divided country, make the population angry over the need for another voting, will further complicate relations with Brussels, and on top of that, it does not guarantee that the result will be different”.
It cannot be ruled out that there are quite a few in Europe who, deep in their hearts, hope for such a development of events. Brexit without an agreement would mean that Britain would have to build legal relations with continental Europe almost from scratch, that is, in such a way which will demonstrate to all potentially “hesitant” members of the EU that attempts to undermine the Union will bring them only huge losses and damages. And another referendum as such would deal a substantial blow to euro-skeptics and “populists” of every description. An even greater effect would be London’s rejection of Brexit. This would seriously strengthen the position of supporters of European integration in the context of their struggle for the posts in the EU executive and legislative branches in 2019.
Thus, chances are still high that London, with or without a “deal”, will have to pay the highest possible price for independence. Against this background, the incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May is rapidly losing popularity, both among voters and within her own party. As the voices of supporters of the “re-referendum” on EU membership are getting louder, the question that arises is whether the success, albeit a compromise, which Downing Street has achieved so far, will be just another Pyrrhic victory, of which the British history has seen so many. Or will Brexit give a new impetus to the development of the United Kingdom? No one can predict now.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections
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
EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession
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.
German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy
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 Coalitions||Trafic Light||Grand Coalition||Jamaica|
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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