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Italy vs France: War of elites over “yellow vests” and Libya

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The disputes, which regularly flare up between the current governments of France and Italy are important for Russia, since the ideological rift between President Emmanuel Macron and the ruling Italian coalition of Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio has, among other things, have direct bearing on this country. However, there is more to these disagreements than just different views about the role played by Moscow, which Paris sees as purely negative, and Rome – as causing sympathy and even inspiring hope.

Paris and Rome disagree also about the “yellow vest” protests as well as about a settlement in Libya, where France and Italy are vying for the role of the main peacemaker in the war-torn North African country. Let us take a closer look at the root causes of these disagreements.

Ever since his election in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron, has represented the European Union’s globalist “mainstream” of today’s European Union, blaming the current failures of the Old World on the suddenly increased influence of “nationally oriented” populists and, last but not least, Russian “schemes.”

During his election campaign, Macron brought up the issue of Russia’s “malicious interference” into European politics, accusing the Russian media of “illegally influencing the elections” with its negative coverage of his person.  Since the start of the politically damaging “yellow vest” protests that flared up at the end of 2018, the Macron administration has been trying hard to  blame them down on “Moscow’s hand” allegedly lurking behind both these protests, and also Brexit.

Meanwhile, the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini views Russia’s role as positive and denies having taken “a single ruble” from Putin, despite repeated claims to the contrary by The Financial Times and other European mainstream media outlets.

In January 2019, however, it became clear that there was more than just dissatisfaction with the new “environmental” tax that triggered the “yellow vest” protests. People vented their anger also at the EU’s globalist policy, namely financial austerity, mass immigration to Europe and, above all, the essentially undemocratic nature of the European Union’s present structure, which ignores the “protest” results of elections and referendums (Brexit, the Dutch vote against Ukraine’s association with the EU, the electoral gains achieved by the “anti-system” Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, etc.)

Fully aware of this, the leaders of Italy’s ruling parties openly sided with the “yellow vest” protesters.

“I support honest citizens protesting against a president who governs against his people,” Matteo Salvini, who combines the posts of Deputy Premier and Interior Minister with that of the leader of the Italian League party, said in a statement on January  9, 2019.

In his swipe at President Macron, Salvini was supported by his partner in the ruling coalition, the leader of the Five Stars Movement (M5S), Luigi di Maio, who called on the ”yellow vests” not to “weaken,” and offered French protesters the use of his party’s Rousseau platform to improve organization and “draw up an electoral program.”

“This system (Rousseau) is made for a horizontal and spontaneous movement such as yours and we would be happy if you want to use it,” Di Maio wrote in a post on his party’s blog.

Summing up the conflict simmering behind those provocative statements, the pro-European Commission EU Observer online newspaper wrote: “Macron attacks Salvini as the leader of the EU front, while Salvini acts as the leader of the whole league of forces against the EU. And all this – on the eve of the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.”

The Macron administration sought to present criticism from the “populist” Italian coalition as an unprovoked PR attack by one EU member on another, with European Affairs Minister Natalie Loiseau urging her Italian colleagues to “show respect” for France and emphasizing that France and Italy have always been “neighbors, allies, and friends.”

“France refrains from lecturing Italy. Mr. Salvini and Mr. Di Maio would be better off putting their own house in order,” Loiseau tweeted earlier this month.

“I believe that the main priority for the Italian Cabinet should be the welfare of the Italian people. And I’m not sure that its interest in the yellow vests movement has anything to do with the wellbeing of the Italians,” she added.

Salvini and Di Maio immediately lashed back at these stinging remarks, accusing the French leadership of hypocrisy. And with pretty good reason too, as Macron’s team did tell a lie when it said it had always behaved correctly towards Italy. Most recently, Macron was all too happy to lambaste the Italian “populists’” position on migration issue, while heaping praise on his own political correctness.

As it turned out, however, last summer’s incident with the migrant ship Aquarius, which tried to bring 629 asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East to Italy, was fresh on Matteo Salvini’s mind. When the Italian government denied the Aquarius the right to dock, Emmanuel Macron accused the Italian authorities of irresponsibility and even compared them to “leprosy spreading throughout Europe.” (Notably, the formation by the Five Star Movement and the League of the new Italian coalition government in 2018, shortly before the incident with the Aquarius, caused serious ideological concerns among globalists also because the Italian government’s draft “contract” provided for the immediate lifting of anti-Russian sanctions.)

“Maybe Mrs. Loiseau has forgotten that President Macron once compared us to leprosy when commenting on our government… The French people are asking for change and for recognition,” Matteo Salvini said.

“What hypocrisy!” Luigi Di Maio chimed in, adding that the real leprosy was the policy pursued by the French government, namely its predilection for pursuing a “colonialist” line in Africa, causing an influx of migrants from Africa heading towards Europe and leaving Italy to cope with this problem alone.

All this is adding a new twist to the Franco-Italian conflict that has been dragging on since summer over ways to handle the migrant crisis. While in summer Matteo Salvini accused Emmanuel Macron of hypocrisy over the migration problem, advising him to let in “thousands of migrants, as Italy did” before lecturing Rome on humanism, the sides are now at loggerheads over the entire “European project,” the relations with Russia, the austerity policy, etc. The scale of this conflict is widening now that, according to the EU Observer, Di Maio plans “to bring together left- and rightwing anti-system voters across Europe who are in favor of preserving the union, but are against austerity policies.”

Another important point of contention is primacy in the Libyan settlement. Emmanuel Macron’s May 2018 attempt to bring the leaders of all the main conflicting parties in Libya together in Paris was openly frowned on by Rome, which held an international conference on Libya in Palermo, Sicily that brought together 38 delegations with the list of guests including the Libyan National Army Commander, Khalifa Haftar, the head of the rival government in Tripoli, Faiz Saraj, the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. During the conference, the Italians openly tried to shut the French out of important decisions.

The Palermo meeting was a clear diplomatic victory for Rome, which, unlike Macron, who was quick to announce his success and upcoming peace in Libya through highly improbable early elections, the Italians set themselves more pragmatic tasks in Libya than just achieving immaculate democracy and quick prosperity. Matteo Salvini believes that the first thing to do is to end illegal migration and set up a network of independent and non-corrupt migrant identification centers.

Of course, while contemplating all these factors, Russian observers should avoid looking at the situation from the standpoint of whether the French or the Italians are closer to Russia. What is now happening between the French and Italian elites is an ideological dispute, rather than an interstate conflict. It just so happened that Italy’s position in the dispute is more realistic and better attuned to taking into account Russia’s interests – a position that is now being shared by an ever growing number of voters across the European Union.

Therefore, Russia has every right to take this position closer to heart than that of the globalists, which the current French president happens to epitomize. Because accusations by Macron and his globalist friends of “Russian meddling” will come anyway, Moscow can and should make its opinion heard. In our day and age, a desire to “please everyone” and avoid criticism by sitting on the ideological fence is viewed upon as a sign of weakness.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Deciphering EU’s new investment deal with China

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The perceived economic gains of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), which the 27-nation European Union recently struck with the People’s Republic of China, come at the cost of disregarding human rights, which the Western bloc is known for, amid clear and irreconcilable systemic differences.

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The closing days of 2020 saw the European Union and China striking a deal known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), thereby concluding seven long years of negotiations, as per the year-end deadline. China is also the EU’s biggest trading partner after the United States, but a strategic and systemic rival too.

The European Commission, Brussels-based executive arm of the EU, primarily led the negotiations on behalf of the bloc. Germany, being the holder the EU Council Presidency and led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s continued push, combined with Beijing’s last-minute concessions, proved instrumental in expediting the process of finalising the CAI before the end of 2020.

However, the deal will still have to wait for a formal ratification by both sides and an approval by the Strasbourg-based EU Parliament, a tougher task, before finally setting it on course to be effective in a couple of years’ time, if not by early 2022.

Better rules, level-playing field for European businesses

The EU, by this deal, aims to widen the access for European companies to lucrative Chinese markets, with billion-plus consumers, on a wide range of sectors, particularly in services such as healthcare, finance, cloud-computing and air travel, among others, that has always been restrictive to foreign players in the past.

The deal could bring in a level playing field in the conduct of European businesses in China wherein Chinese state-owned enterprises will no longer be given preferential treatment through subsidies, thereby promoting fair competition and ensuring transparency in technology transfers. Newer possibilities for the expansion European businesses in China will be opened.

The CAI also promise better rules, investment protection, and an investment dispute settlement mechanism within two years of signing, which will replace all the separate bilateral investment treaties currently signed between China and EU member states. The EU maintains that the main purpose of this new deal is to address the economic imbalance in its relations with China.

However, the most striking aspect of the CAI is that, for the first time, China commits to follow accepted standards on climate and labour aspects, even though in a vague form. And for the EU, the timing of this deal with China is significant as a way of signalling its reengagement with the world in the aftermath of a post-Brexit scenario.

At the same time, the CAI reaffirmed reciprocal access for Chinese companies into European markets, which they always had. So, the deal matters to Europe, more than it matters to China. So, the real question is the extent of compromises which European negotiators had to make to strike the deal with the Asian superpower.

The issue of forced labour in China

Many EU member countries and the US had been apprehensive about the human rights situation in the northern Xinjiang province of China where there have been evidences and investigations on the use of forced labour from the media and elsewhere, which has not been duly factored in while concluding the investment deal.

It has been alleged that in the past several years, the Chinese government has forced over a million Uighur minorities in Xinjiang to perform seasonal labour against their will and are often underpaid. But, the Chinese government has repeatedly denied such allegations.

Many European lawmakers believe that China is not interested in fully complying with international agreements after signing it and is not a responsible and trustable partner. The presence of mass detention camps in this province, as verified by satellite imagery and other documents, is also a human rights concern which the EU was not supposed to ignore, considering its historical commitments to human rights.

US concerns and strategic rivalry

The incoming Biden administration has also raised concerns about the CAI, stating that it would “welcome early consultations” with its European partners on shared concerns surrounding China’s unfair economic practices, hinting at the issue of forced labour and the deal’s lacking on the question of enforcement of human rights.

Being a security and strategic partner of the US and part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), any such deal which EU and its member countries sign with its strategic rival, China, could effectively undermine American-led efforts to counter the strategic and geopolitical threat posed by Beijing’s aggressive and expansionist policies around the world.

It also flies in the face of an incoming Biden administration which is openly committed to mend relations with allies in Europe that had been worsened under Donald Trump. Many experts in the US have felt the EU should’ve waited for a few more weeks until the Biden administration takes charge to form a co-ordinated approach, as it related to their common systemic and strategic rival, China.

Moreover, the deal comes at a time when individual EU members such as Germany and the Netherlands have recently released their own outlook on the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is perceivably aimed at containing China’s rise and to ensure balance of power in the region. Meanwhile, France’s outlook is in existence for two years now.

Way ahead for implementation

The deal has now been reached at the technical level, paving way for a final ratification. But, getting the deal through the European Parliament, which attaches far more significance to human rights concerns than the Commission and the Council, is going to be a tough task, as many European legislators are increasingly sceptical of Chinese intentions and commitments to any deal.

The coming months are going to be crucial with regard to how the European legislators will debate and take forward the deal to the next level.

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Hungry for change: An open letter to European governments

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In 2020, the entire world knew what it was to be hungry. Millions of people went without enough to eat, with the most desperate now facing famine. At the same time, isolation took on a new meaning, in which the lonely and most remote were deprived of human contact when they most needed it, while the many victims of Covid-19 were starved of air. For all of us, the human experience fell far short of satisfying even the most basic needs.

The pandemic has provided a taste of a future at the limits of existence, where people are bereft, governments are stymied and economies wither. But it has also fuelled an unprecedented global appetite for change to prevent this from becoming our long-term reality.

For all the obstacles and challenges we face in the weeks and months ahead, I start 2021 with a tremendous sense of optimism and hope that the growling in our stomachs and the yearning in our hearts can become the collective roar of defiance, of determination and of revolution to make this year better than last, and the future brighter than the past.

It starts with food, the most primal form of sustenance. It is food that determines the health and prospects of almost 750 million Europeans and counting. It is food that employs some 10 million in European agriculture alone and offers the promise of economic growth and development. And it is food that we have learned impacts our very ecosystems, down to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we enjoy, come rain or shine.

Even before the pandemic, 2021 was destined to be a “super-year” for food, a year in which food production, consumption and disposal finally received the requisite global attention as the UN convenes the world’s first Food Systems Summit. But with two years’ worth of progress now compressed into the next 12 months, 2021 takes on a renewed significance.

After a year of global paralysis, caused by the shock of Covid-19, we must channel our anxieties, our fear, our hunger,and most of all our energies into action, and wake up to the fact that by transforming food systems to be healthier, more sustainable and inclusive, we can recover from the pandemic and limit the impact of future crises.

The change we need will require all of us to think and act differently because every one of us has a stake and a role in functioning food systems. But now, more than ever, we must look to our national leaders to chart the path forward by uniting farmers, producers, scientists, hauliers, grocers, and consumers, listening to their difficulties and insights, and pledging to improve each aspect of the food system for the betterment of all.

Policymakers must listen to Europe’s 10 million farmers as custodians of the resources that produce our food, and align their needs and challenges with the perspectives of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, doctors and nutritionists to develop national commitments.

We enter 2021 with wind in our sails. More than 50 countries have joined the European Union in engaging with the Food Systems Summit and its five priority pillars, or Action Tracks, which cut across nutrition, poverty, climate change, resilience and sustainability. And more than two dozen countries have appointed a national convenor to host a series of country-level dialogues in the months ahead, a process that will underpin the Summit and set the agenda for the Decade of Action to 2030.

But this is just the beginning. With utmost urgency, I call on all UN Member States to join this global movement for a better, more fulfilling future, starting with the transformation of food systems. I urge governments to provide the platform that opens a conversation and guides countries towards tangible, concrete change. And I encourage everyone with fire in their bellies to get involved with the Food Systems Summit process this year and start the journey of transitioning to more inclusive and sustainable food systems.

The Summit is a “People’s Summit” for everyone, and its success relies on everyone everywhere getting involved through participating in Action Track surveys, joining the online Summit Community, and signing up to become Food Systems Heroes who are committed to improving food systems in their own communities and constituencies.

Too often, we say it is time to act and make a difference, then continue as before. But it would be unforgivable if the world was allowed to forget the lessons of the pandemic in our desperation to return to normal life. All the writing on the wall suggests that our food systems need reform now. Humanity is hungry for this change. It is time to sate our appetite.

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Blank Spot in EU

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The historic exit of the Great Britain from the European Union sparked both opportunities and chaos alike. Whether it comes to sectors within and beyond the orders of Britain, the trade policy with Northern Ireland or the isolated position of the bloc as the pandemic continues to perforate the continent with each passing day. It took a span of 4 years and a combination of referendums, disagreements in the House of Commons, displacement of public office and relentless efforts of the diplomats to bargain and negotiate an exit deal. Despite of the celebrated trade deal in action, much of the uncertainty still looms across Europe. The economic bloc now faces an empty spot of a 28th member post UK-exit and with rilling economic desperation and the Coronavirus spiralling alike, EU seeks a promising role to displace some of the pressure buildup.

The United Kingdom, mainly London, serves as the only unarguable financial rival to the metropolis of New York. Although the financial epicentre casted no qualms over trade post Brexit and even the EU financial markets reported no apparent glitches in trade across borders now subject to custom rules and regulations, the sheer volume of the trade denominated in LIBOR projects a sinister possibility of financial turmoil in the near future. Moreover, the trade deal negotiated, hailed by either parties as a victorious bargain, does little to placate uncertainty in the financial markets which further encourages the need of a solid alliance or partnership to fill the gap and subsequent irregularities faced by the European Union.

Turkey stands as one of the aspirants seeking EU membership. Every European state enjoys the privilege to seek EU membership which is subject to yearly review. Turkey has been a lurking party to seek EU approval since 1987. The opportunities opened up in 2016 after decades of tensions over Turkey’s shady democracy and violent role in dealing with their Kurdish minority, residing on the south-eastern borders of Turkey shared with a war-torn Syria. A refugee deal was signed in 2016 between Turkey and EU to facilitate Syrian refugees amidst the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. The deal served as a defining chapter in improving bilateral relations. Despite of Turkey’s conditions in the refugee deal: demanding a $60 billion grant from EU to pivot the refugee crisis, EU subliminally promised an expedited track for Turkey’s ascension to EU membership. 

However, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and arguably the most powerful political figure in the circles of Europe, always stood against and awry to Turkey’s membership in EU. The talks of Turkish membership were even stalled back in 2019 in the EU parliament and the prospects looked murky. However, as Merkel inches closer to departure from Germany’s political benches after decades of systematic control, Turkey cites the opportunity as a blessing in disguise. Coupled with Germany being at the verge of a severe recession synonymous in scale to the financial crisis of 2009, Germany’s position could actually shift in favour of Turkey ever since UK-exit baffled even the most sage minds of the continent.

The opportunities, however, are not the only blocks paving way for Turkey towards EU. Turkey shares a brutal conflict with Greece, another EU member state that has muddled the chances of Turkey in the EU for decades. Turkey has the longest continental coastline in the East Mediterranean which has been long contested with Greece over the gas reserves found profoundly in the waters of the East Mediterranean. Both countries have overlapping areas and have time and time again rejected each others claims over respective maritime borders and continental shelves. The icy relations between the duo have been hazy due to multitude of other reasons as well. Ranging from disputes over Turkish migrants crossing Greek borders to ships anchoring in the disputed regions without prior alert. The recent turmoil incited when Turkey officially declared Hagia Sophia, a museum in Istanbul and a historic remnant of Greek Orthodox Christian Cathedral, as a mosque which infuriated the Greek patriots.

Turkey’s ascension to membership might be a solution to economic disparity in the region; Turkey serving as a corridor between Europe and Asia and opening channels of economic flourish to EU like Silk Road initiative with China. The ascension could even solve the border disputes with Greece and project a solution to the energy reserves in Mediterranean, solving the divide once and for all. Even with Recab Tayyab Erdogan’s boasting position over improving relations with EU, the extent of ease in bilateral relations is still unclear. As top Turkish Diplomat’s schedule visit to Brussels in a week, and Turkey and Greece are to resume exploratory talks over territorial claims in the Mediterranean on January 25th, glimmers of astounding results are on cards in the arching diplomacy of Europe.

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