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Will the Malthouse compromise work?

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On January 15, the British MPs cast their ballots on the Agreement on the British Withdrawal from the EU, which Theresa May had reached with Brussels – “Plan A”. The government lost the vote. On January 29 they voted on the government ‘s “plan B”. In fact, the Cabinet did not suggest anything new, having added a number of concessions for EU citizens in Britain, and abolishing the registration fee for them. In turn, the MPs proposed more than a dozen amendments, of which the Speaker of the House of Commons, J. Berkow, selected but a few. If we are to  understand the intricate mechanism of British politics, as well as the events to come, we must analyze some. Britain’s exit from the EU, according to the law, is scheduled for March 29, 2019.

Significantly, the deputies are divided not only by party affiliation – they create interparty alliances of Brexiteers and Bremainers. Quite frequently they call into question the “party’s general line”, thereby breaking the party discipline. Hence the amendments which reflect acute disagreements in the leading parties whose leaders maneuver between warring factions in their parties.

The opposition leader in parliament, J. Corbin, has proposed excluding a “catastrophic” exit of Britain from the EU without an agreement. His plan is to consider an alternative scenario – a permanent Customs Union with the EU and the option of participation in the EU Common Market, as well as to adopt a law on a referendum in which people will vote on a deal or a proposal that will gain the majority in parliament.

The main point of the amendment proposed by Conservative D. Greve, the former attorney general, was to put the alternatives to T. May’s plan to vote on March 26: the Labors’ plan, a second referendum, an exit “without a deal”, and the “Norwegian version” of relations with the EU. The amendment was supported by some Labor backbenchers and a number of deputies from other opposition parties (Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru).

The amendment by Caroline Spelman (Conservative) and J. Dromy (Labor) opposed Britain’s withdrawal from the EU “without the Exit Agreement and the Political Declaration” (but gave no details or specify how to achieve that).

The amendment by Labor I. Cooper and Conservative N. Bols suggested postponing Britain’s exit from the EU till December 31, 2019 (that is, to extend Article 50), if the deputies failed to approve the “deal” of the Prime Minister until the end of February. Such a measure would require the consent of Brussels. This amendment was supported by some Tory backbenchers and several deputies from other opposition parties. The Labor leadership also supported the Cooper Amendment, obliging its deputies to vote in its favor, but wished to cut the term of the extension of Article 50.

Labor MPs from constituencies who voted for Brexit were very dissatisfied about the amendment but it enjoyed the support of those in favor of the second referendum and opponents to exit without a deal (from both parties). However, critics from among the Conservatives argued that the amendment would only postpone the decision indefinitely. In fact, the amendment led to the empowerment of parliament to control the Brexit if the transaction did not take place. Journalists described it as a “legislative torpedo”, which deprives the government of the most important power – to formulate the agenda of parliament. As stated in the House of Commons by T. May, the Greve and Cooper amendments represent a “mechanism for usurping the proper role of the executive branch”, which will lead to “far-reaching long-term consequences for the government of the United Kingdom”. She has a good point here.

The opposite point was suggested by the amendment of G. Brady, the head of the 1922 Committee (which brings together Tory backbenchers). As is known, the stumbling block towards the approval of the Agreement with Brussels became so-called “additional guarantees” (backstop) – the provision that the entire territory of the UK will remain in the EU Customs Union until the issue of border regime between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is settled. It is a kind of “safety valve” against the violation of the 1998 Belfast Agreement on the settlement of the conflict in Ulster between Unionists (Protestants) and Irish Republicans (Catholics). The border should be open, while the exit of Britain from the EU implies its closure (Ireland is a member of the EU, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom). The problem is akin to the quadrature of the circle, so  Brexiteers fear that Britain, under the Agreement with the EU, may remain in the EU Customs Union indefinitely long without the right to unilateral exit or the right to conclude trade agreements with third countries. The latter is one of the most important goals of Brexit.

The Brady Amendment proposed replacing “additional guarantees” with the phrase “alternative arrangements to avoid border closure” as an extra clause to the Agreement. Conservative Brexiteers saw the wording as too vague, doing nothing to lift their concerns about the Agreement. Brexiters from the European Studies Group (led by J. Rees-Mogg) opposed the amendment. However, Brexiteer B. Johnson and others were ready to support the Brady Amendment if T. May would be willing to force the EU to “cut open” the Agreement in order to make legally binding changes, which was significant. However, he withdrew his objections.

The Prime Minister advised the faction to vote in favor of this amendment, which would empower it to negotiate with the EU on this issue. Consequently, T. May got off the ground and supported the amendment, which crossed out her agreements with the EU. The party believes that she should have warned Brussels  long ago that “additional guarantees” had no chance to sail through parliament.

Political maneuvering amidst the Conservatives in relation to the Brady Amendment suggested that, by supporting it, the Brexiteers would gain a few weeks, and will then fail the agreement with the EU again – in February.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deputies, whose support is crucial for the minority government of T. May, were ready to vote for the Brady Amendment: according to their logic, refusing to exit without a deal (under the Cooper Amendment) means bringing the exit closer.

Thus, the Conservatives are divided on the issue of the degree of intensity of ties with the EU in case of exit, whereas the Labor are split on whether to withdraw from the EU at all. None of the amendments, if successful, obliged the government to anything but would impose political obligations on the Prime Minister. The exception is the amendment of I. Cooper – if approved and followed by the adoption of the relevant law, the government would be obliged to obey the law.

VOTING RESULTS: J. Corbin’s amendment rejected (327: 296), Greve’s amendment rejected (321: 301), Cooper’s amendment not adopted (321: 298), since several Labor voted against their party’s policy and the pound sterling rate dropped, the Spelman-Dromy Amendment accepted (318: 310), the Brady Amendment adopted (317: 301).

Since T. May opted for siding with the Brexiteers and supported the Brady Amendment, she formally won, but her success was a Pyrrhic victory. The majority in parliament opposed exit without a deal (the Spelman-Dromy Amendment), which weakens London’s negotiating positions with Brussels (not only because of the results of the 2016 referendum, but also because, as it became clear recently, T. May does not want to rule out exit without a deal).

Thus, the chaos in parliament has manifested itself: the deputies voted for two mutually exclusive amendments – against exit without a deal and for adjusting the Agreement (which the EU refuses to do), thereby paving the way for exiting without a deal (exit without a deal is impossible, but the deal is impossible to accept while changing it is not what Brussels is willing to do). The European Commission Chairman stated: “The agreement is not subject to revision. It seems that some expect the remaining 27 member states to give up on the “additional guarantees” and on Ireland, but this is not a game, but the core of EU membership. The border of Ireland is the border of Europe – that is the priority of our union ”.

The recent voting does not close the chapter on Brexit. According to media reports, the warring factions of Brexiteers and Bremainers in the Tory parliamentary faction have reached an agreement – the so-called “Malthouse compromise” (after the name of a deputy). J. Ries-Mogg and S. Baker of the European Studies Group (the Brexiteer stronghold), together with Deputy Minister of Housing K. Malthouse, agreed with the Bremainers that T. May would first go to Brussels to seek a new wording for “additional guarantees”(on the basis of non-existing  barrier-free checks at the border). If the attempt fails, May will request the EU to extend the transition period until December 31, 2021. In exchange, Britain will fulfill its financial obligations and undertakes to respect the rights of EU citizens in the UK. Such an arrangement will enable both sides to prepare for the withdrawal of Britain from the EU on WTO rules in late 2021.

However, this “Plan B” (which served the interests of a fragile peace in the Conservative camp) has already been described by Brussels as a trick.

It appears that J. Blackford, the leader of the Scottish nationalists in the House of Commons, has expressed the hidden desire of the Brexiteers: readiness to sacrifice Northern Ireland. The Conservatives “tore to shreds” the Belfast Agreement, rejecting an open border with Ireland.

According to the Guardian: “A fairly dubious type of a compromise plan that does not offer a compromise … The new Malthouse Doctrine actually has the same misconceptions of hardline Brexteers, but in disguise. The Prime Minister proposes that the backbenchers vote against their agreements with Brussels so that she could return to Brussels to ask what she knows she will be denied.

May, having voted for the Brady Amendment, has de facto spoken out against her own brainchild in order to stay balancing on the edge of confrontation between the two factions in her party and not hold early elections. The Conservatives do not want to allow for even a fraction of a chance for a victory of Labor, led by ultra-leftist J. Corbin, although the leading opposition party in the country is also split.

Against the backdrop of political battles, businesses have expressed extreme frustration over the continuing uncertainty. Voters are furious over the work of the deputies: according to a survey, the percentage of voters who have voiced their outcry in connection with the situation exceeds 70%, regardless of what they think about Brexit, or their place of residence (city, village).

The political crisis continues.

First published in our partner International Affairs

Head of the Center for British Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IE RAS), International Affairs observer

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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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