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Can Italy’s “Government of Change” Change All of Europe?

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March 1st marks nine months to the day since the new Italian “government of change” came to power. Few in Europe would have believed that Italy, one of the EU founding states which had been governed by centrist cabinets for over 30 years, would end up with a coalition of right- and left-wing Eurosceptics, who would be calling for a revision of the fundamental principles of European integration. Even fewer believed that this coalition would hold out for more than six months while continuing to enjoy the support of over 60% of Italians. Today, Paris and Berlin refer to the new Italian government as Europe’s new leprosy, and Brussels is bracing for the European Parliament election this coming May, where the “Third International” represented by Eurosceptics, populists, nationalists, and “sovereigntists” from Poland, Hungary, and France, led by Italian agents provocateur, is expected to stage a European revolution. The Italians are undermining European solidarity from within by questioning the rules of financial discipline, the EU’s ability to tackle migration, and the advisability of sanctions against Russia. They are also damaging the EU’s reputation outside the union’s borders by publicly criticizing Brussels’ helpless policy in Africa and France’s “neo-colonialism”, by openly supporting the protest movement within France, by vetoing the EU’s common stance on Venezuela, and by allowing the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which are not recognized elsewhere in the EU, to open representative offices in Italy. Now, nine months on, it appears that the EU has its own enfant terrible

Nine months in power: migration stemmed but economy in technical recession

The main election slogan of the “government of change” was that Italy should become more independent in resolving its domestic problems and securing its interests in the international arena. The key domestic issues were economic development and migration. The primary foreign issues were ensuring border security and building economic relations with countries outside the EU based on the interests of Italian business. This agenda was largely dictated by actual public demand. According to research, between 2013 and 2017, the share of Italians who view border security and curbing migration as the key national objectives ballooned from 30% to 66%. By the time the new coalition came to power, a majority of Italians disapproved of the migration policy being pursued by the previous center-left government and perceived a direct link between illegal migration and terrorism. The number of persons deported on suspicion of extremism had skyrocketed, from just two in 2002 to 106 in 2018. Polls conducted in 2017 and early 2018 indicated that 82% of the population did not believe that Italy could have any influence whatsoever on the drafting of a common European policy.

Ever since coming to power, the “government of change” has been persistently trying to influence changes to the EU migration policy. On the eve of the June 28–29 EU summit in 2018, Italy stopped allowing ships carrying rescued migrants to enter its ports and issued an ultimatum to Brussels, which included several specific proposals for creating “joint responsibility” for migration within the EU. The demands included a revision of the Dublin agreement; the maximum responsibility of the country of first entry; setting up EU-run migrant reception centers in coastal countries; and revising the rules of migrant resettlement between EU countries, among other things. After the summit, Giuseppe Conte stated: “Italy is no longer alone!” However, after a while it became obvious that the agreements that had been reached were as far from being implemented in practice as they had been in June 2018.

Then, in the autumn of 2018, the new government began to go it alone. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini closed Italian ports to non-governmental organizations, accusing the latter of smuggling people into the country. In addition, the so-called law on security (Decreto Sicurezza) was adopted in October, which revised the rules for granting asylum, the reasons for denying refugee status as well as the rules and terms of detention at refugee reception centers. This independent behavior on the part of the Italian authorities caused outrage not only in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin but also in the UN, as the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the Italian security law failed to comply with international law.

Nevertheless, surveys conducted in late 2018 suggested that the new Italian government had achieved its objective: only 16% of the respondents still believed that immigration posed a key threat to the country, even though 43% were still worried about it. Salvini regularly reports decreasing numbers of newly arrived migrants and growing numbers of those deported. The agency Frontex reports that only 150 migrants arrived in Italy in January 2019, down 96% year-on-year, and that the number of persons deported has already exceeded the number of new arrivals.

The Ipsos statistical survey published in January 2019 indicates that one out of every two Italians (51%) supports the government’s hard line on migrants, including the closure of sea ports, and only 19% of the respondents are not opposed to migrants making landfall in Italy. In fact, 60% of those polled believe that the migration policy is the prerogative of the Italian people and not the EU. That said, society remains split as to the safety law, with 43% supporting Salvini and 38% opposing his move. In addition, 55% of the population sees a difference in the approaches to migration of the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s League, with only 25% considering them to be similar. In other words, Italians tend to mainly attribute the resolution of the migration crisis to Salvini, which certainly boosts the popularity of his party. According to surveys published on February 11, 2019, the League’s approval rating stood at 33.8%, whereas the rating of the Five Star Movement was at 23.3% and continuing on a downward trajectory. Salvini has promised to propose a new migration bill this coming spring, this one dealing with migrant labour and seasonal workers.

In the economic sphere, however, the new government cannot yet boast about any breakthroughs. It came to power at a time when the country’s national debt amounted to a record 132% of GDP. The neoliberal course imposed on the country by EU financial institutions, Paris, and Berlin since 2011 had failed to help Italy overcome the 2008 eurozone crisis, which had effectively stripped Greece of its economic sovereignty. The 2016 and 2017 economic indicators are illustrative of why Italians chose a different course in March 2018 by supporting the Five Star Movement and the League. According to ISTAT, 46.1% of Italians could not afford a week’s leave in 2016; 16.5% could not afford heating in their homes; 14.6% could not afford to buy fish or meat every other day; and 32.4% said they were having difficulties making their monthly salary last until the next paycheck. The intra-regional imbalance that is so characteristic of Italy has also refused to go away. In 2007, the difference in per-capita GDP between the southern and northern provinces stood at EUR 14,255; by 2015, it had grown to EUR 14,905. The unemployment disparity also grew, from 20.1 percentage points in 2007 to 22.5 in 2016. In 2015, 42.7% of those residing in the south of the country were living just above the poverty line.

Italy’s national debt dynamics (as a % of GDP)

Italy’s per-capita GDP (in USD)

GDP dynamics

Budget deficit dynamics

Unemployment

Unemployment in 2018

2017 per-capita GDP by region in current prices (EUR)

Source: ISTAT Statistiche report. Anno 2017. Conti economici territorial. 13 Dicembre 2018.

2011–17 per-capita GDP dynamics by region (EUR 1,000)

Source: ISTAT Statistiche report. Anno 2017. Conti economici territorial. 13 Dicembre 2018.

In this situation, the “government of change”, having garnered the support of about 60% of the electorate, began to revise the fiscal austerity measures imposed by Brussels and implement de-facto Keynesian policies primarily focused on social and economic support for the vulnerable strata of the population as well as for small- and medium-sized businesses. It should be noted that their election promises had been much bolder. In particular, while still forming the yellow-green coalition, the proposal for Italy pulling out from the eurozone was taken off the agenda, and Giuseppe Conte has since repeatedly stated that Italy is not considering this move. This is precisely why Paolo Savona, who had described the euro as “a noose around Italy’s neck”, was never appointed economics minister in the new government. Conte has also repeatedly stressed that Italy is not pondering an “Italexit”.

Despite the significant backwards step taken on the euro and Italy’s presence in the EU, the protracted confrontation with Brussels that run from October through December 2018 resulted in the “government of change” adopting a 2019 budget which still fitted the logic of the coalition’s election promises. Even though Brussels did not allow Italy to set the acceptable budget deficit at 2.4% (the EU demanded 2.04%), the government still allocated financial reserves for introducing a guaranteed basic income for citizens, conducting a pension reform (the so-called Quota 100), and revising the taxation system, even in smaller amounts than originally planned.

It is obvious, however, that these measures of economic support for the population will not yield quick results by way of stimulating economic growth. In addition, society is split on whether the steps that have been taken can contribute to economic development. Surveys indicate that only four out of ten Italians are happy with the planned introduction of the basic income, while 55% do not support this measure.

Meanwhile, Italy is now in a technical recession based on the negative GDP dynamics seen for six months in a row (GDP stood at -0.2% for 4Q 2018). EU officials immediately reacted along the lines of “I told you so!”; in February 2019, they issued an even more pessimistic forecast for Italy’s 2019 GDP, predicting growth of no more than 0.2%, the lowest figure among all EU countries. Pierre Moscovici, the EU European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, promised that Brussels would be closely monitoring Italy’s economic dynamics. He added that the country’s economy was not yet demonstrating any signs of recovery, despite the new government’s measures to support domestic demand. Moscovici also noted that the EU had effectively rescued Italy from an even worse-case scenario by prohibiting it to adopt the original budget, which implied a deficit of 2.4%.

The economic measures introduced by the Italian government at the very end of 2018 were not the main cause of the GDP slowdown in the third and fourth quarters of that year. Rather, it was caused by the economic policies that had been pursued by the previous governments. Nevertheless, the protracted conflict with Brussels over the budget plan and the threat of EU sanctions against Italy for its failure to comply with financial discipline rules certainly played a part in international rating agencies downgrading Italy’s ranking as well as in the increased volatility on financial markets in 2018. One thing is clear: if the economic situation in Italy does not begin to improve soon, this will give Brussels additional leverage in its fight not only against the Italian “sovereighnists” but also against Eurosceptic forces in other countries who are calling for a revision of the EU financial discipline regulations. Within Italy, people are seriously concerned about the economic situation: in late 2018, 55% of the population cited the economic crisis as the main threat to the country. A lack of positive economic changes soon could seriously affect the government coalition’s standing both inside and outside the country.

Whatever the case, the EU will still have to rescue the Italian economy. This is understandable: if the UK leaves, Italy will become the EU’s third largest economy, accounting for 15% of the Union’s total GDP. However, Brussels is growing ever more reluctant to save Rome: the EU has built up too much criticism of Italy over the past nine months: not only over the country’s failure to observe financial discipline and its stern migration policy but also because Italy has been discrediting the EU in the international arena.

Italy in the global arena: massive turmoil

During its first nine months in power, the Italian ‘government of change’ caused Brussels numerous headaches with its ‘sovereign’ foreign policy.

Conte became U.S. President Donald Trump’s greatest supporter in Western Europe. Trump’s first visit to Europe began in Italy. In 2018, Conte and Trump met at the G7 and NATO summits. Trump visited Italy in May, and Conte visited the White House in July. The U.S. president described his Italian counterpart as a “really great guy” who “will do a great job,” adding that “the people of Italy got it right”. It is no secret that the two leaders share a common view on migration: Trump has repeatedly expressed his approval for the border security measures taken by the Italian authorities. Conte supported Trump’s calls in the summer of 2018 for Russia to be accepted back into the G7, although none of the other G7 member states supported the idea. Trump also delegated to Italy the authority to manage the Libyan settlement, which understandably annoyed France, Italy’s long-standing rival in that country. It is no secret that Paris, Berlin, and Brussels view the new Italian government and Trump as the same breed of leprosy, which must be fought at any cost.

Italy’s relations with France had been steadily deteriorating under the yellow-green coalition. Things hit a diplomatic rock bottom on February 7, 2019, when Paris recalled its ambassador from Rome, citing months of “groundless attacks” by the Italian authorities. The last time such a thing had happened between the two countries was back in 1940, when Fascist Italy entered World War II against France and the UK on the side of Nazi Germany. This time around, the last straw came in the form of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio meeting with the leaders of the French yellow vest movement, who continue to protest the national authorities’ policies. France accused Italy of interfering in the country’s domestic affairs, but this came after Rome’s repeated allegations to the effect that France was violating Italy’s own national sovereignty. In March 2018, the actions of French police in an Italian refugee camp in Bardonecchia resulted in a major controversy. The countries continue to attack each other over migration issues. Macron described Italy’s refusal in June 2018 to accept refugees from the vessel Aquarius as “cynical and irresponsible”. Italy, for its part, regularly accuses France of deliberately returning migrants to the border with Italy near the town of ​​Ventimiglia. The ongoing squabbling affects bilateral economic cooperation: for example, Italy has been dragging its feet on a project to build a high-speed motorway between Lyon and Turin. Most importantly, the scandal between the two EU founding states threatens pan-European solidarity on the eve of the European Parliament elections and is damaging the international image of the EU. By publicly accusing France of a “neo-colonial policy” in Africa, and by urging Brussels to intervene, Italy is undermining the EU’s authority as an international actor. Now that even the core EU member states prefer public conflicts to compromises, such behavior may soon catch on elsewhere across the Union, and all the differences that have been resolved quietly up to now may become widely known outside the EU. In addition, with the conflict rhetoric escalating within the EU core, the Paris–Berlin tandem is finding it increasingly difficult to promote its model of European integration as a more appealing option to the existing national-level sovereignty ambitions.

At the February 1, 2019 meeting of the EU foreign ministers, Italy once again demonstrated its special position by refusing to support a proposal to recognize Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela. The proposal was also blocked by Austria, Finland, and Greece. For several days preceding the meeting, Italian politicians and Foreign Ministry representatives had been voicing somewhat differing positions on the recognition of the self-proclaimed Venezuelan president, which reflects the historical complexity of the process involved in formulating a common stance in Italian politics. The final verdict stated that Italy could not recognize someone who had not won a legitimate election as president, but that incumbent President Nicolas Maduro has also lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the Venezuelan people. Therefore, Italy called for holding a runoff election in Venezuela as soon as possible. Thus, Rome once again sabotaged European solidarity in front of the international community.

Brussels perceives Italy’s relations with Russia as another sign of the new government’s deviant behaviour. The new Italian authorities had begun calling for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia even during the election campaign. Then they promised to bring the issue up at the EU summit in June 2018. However, even now, after the December vote to prolong the EU sanctions, Italy has not yet attempted to veto them. This is understandable: both in June and December 2018 Italy had to address much more important issues in terms of the country’s future development than relations with Russia. In the former case it was negotiating with the EU on migration, while in the latter Brussels was deciding on Italy’s 2019 budget. In both instances, Italy could not have possibly used its veto on the sanctions without losing bargaining chips on the other issue. Nevertheless, Conte’s high-profile visit to Moscow on October 24, 2018 resulted in the signing of new agreements on economic cooperation. Prior to Conte’s visit, Salvini had paid a visit to Moscow, where he met with Italian businesspeople operating in Russia. Italy is trying its best to return to the Russian market despite the sanctions, including by actively using the Made with Italy concept, which involves the launching of joint ventures and localization enterprises in Russia. However, these efforts to date have only resulted in mutual trade being restored to half of the pre-sanctions level, and the Italian government is very much annoyed by the fact that France and Germany – consistent supporters of the sanctions – effectively hold a much greater portion of the Russian market. It has been recently reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin will make an official visit to Italy in the first half of 2019 at Conte’s invitation. Should the visit take place prior to the EU parliamentary election, then Russia may well come under criticism for its alleged attempt to once again meddle in the EU’s internal affairs, divide the Union from the inside, and provide support to European pro-sovereignty forces ahead of the polls.

Another topic of extremely high relevance to Rome is energy cooperation with Russia, which supplies 40% of all gas consumed in Italy. Gazprom’s 2018 exports to Italy exceeded the volume supplied to Turkey and ranked only second to deliveries to Germany. The possibility of extending the TurkStream pipeline to Italy via the Balkans will most certainly be discussed in 2019, which could provoke a new confrontation with Brussels, which seeks to reduce dependence on Russian energy while preserving the share of transit via Ukraine.

Italian exports to Russia

Another irritating factor for Brussels is the northern Italian regions’ interaction with the authorities of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DNR and LNR) as well as visits by northern regional delegations to Crimea and Russia’s Krasnodar region. Back in May 2016, the council of the Italian region Veneto, whose capital city is Venice, recognized Crimea as part of Russia. The DNR’s second Italian representative office opened in Verona on February 9 this year (the first was had opened in Turin in 2016), and another Italian delegation is expected to visit the Krasnodar Territory in the spring of 2019.

What to expect from the enfant terrible

Political turbulence and frequent government changes have become integral features of the Second Italian Republic, with both Europe and the world now accustomed to these factors. Little wonder, therefore, that even before the new “government of change” actually came to power, people both in Italy and in the EU started wondering how soon the yellow-green coalition would collapse, the assumption being that a political coalition cemented by a common aversion to the EU could not possibly form a reliable foundation for any long-standing cooperation between the right- and left-wing populist forces.

The coalition partners have indeed been manifesting differences since coming to power, and the Italian media have repeatedly highlighted these discords as possible reasons for a split. The first nine months have in fact resulted in the parties swapping places in terms of popular support: the Five Stars Movement’s approval rating stood at 32% in May 2018 versus 24% for the League, whereas the current situation is exactly the opposite. The ongoing series of regional elections could result in another conflict: in the recent gubernatorial polls in the Abruzzo and Sardinia regions, the League candidate won by a landslide, leaving the Five Stars rival far behind. The leaders of the ruling parties have reportedly disagreed on such issues as budget planning, the introduction of a basic income, the Lyon–Turin highway, refugees, and the security law. However, each time the two parties would make statements emphasizing the government’s unity and their readiness to negotiate on all key issues. By all appearances, Salvini, Di Maio, and Conte all understand that if the coalition collapses, they will not be able to stand against Brussels on their own, which would convince the EU leadership of the sovereignty supporters’ inconsistency, egoism, and inability to reach an agreement even amongst themselves. The coalition’s collapse would bury the idea of a broader, pan-European coalition of Eurosceptics, whose positions in the European Parliament would be weakened. In the meantime, a survey published on February 14 clearly indicates that the coalition of the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists will not secure a majority in the new European Parliament for the first time in EU history and that the “sovereignists,” or Eurosceptics, stand a good chance of securing a combined total of up to 130 seats. In fact, the Five Stars Movement’s share of the vote could prove decisive in forming the new European People’s Nationalist Party plus “sovereignists.” In this situation, the Italian leaders are much more interested in strengthening their coalition than splitting it. Should they succeed, the yellow-green coalition could truly become a “government of change” for all of Europe…

First published in our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager, Research Fellow at Centre for Global Problems Studies, MGIMO-University

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Economic situation is EU citizens’ top concern in light of the coronavirus pandemic

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In a troubled period marked by the coronavirus pandemic, trust in the EU remains stable and Europeans trust the EU to make the right decisions in response to the pandemic in the future. In the new Standard Eurobarometer survey released today, European citizens identify the economic situation, the state of Member States’ public finances and immigration as the three top concerns at EU level. The economic situation is also the main concern at national level, followed by health and unemployment.

In the new Eurobarometer conducted in July and August, concern about the economic situation is reflected in the perception of the current state of the economy. 64% of Europeans think that the situation is ‘bad’ and 42% of Europeans think that their country’s economy will recover from the adverse effects of the coronavirus outbreak ‘in 2023 or later’.

Europeans are divided (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’) regarding the measures taken by the EU to fight the pandemic. However, 62% say they trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future, and 60% remain optimistic about the future of the EU.

Trust and image of the EU

Trust in the European Union has remained stable since autumn 2019 at 43%, despite variations of public perceptions during the pandemic. Trust in national governments and parliaments has increased (40%, +6 percentage points and 36%, +2 respectively).

In 15 Member States, a majority of respondents says they trust the EU, with the highest levels observed in Ireland (73%), Denmark (63%) and Lithuania (59%). The lowest levels of trust in the EU are observed in Italy (28%), France (30%) and Greece (32%).

The proportion of respondents with a positive image of the EU is the same as that with a neutral image (40%). 19% of respondents have a negative image of the EU (-1 percentage points).

In 13 EU Member States, a majority of respondents has a positive image of the EU, with the highest proportions observed in Ireland (71%), Poland and Portugal (both 55%). In 13 other Member States, the EU conjures up a predominantly neutral image for respondents, with the highest proportions observed in Malta (56%), Spain, Latvia and Slovenia (all 48%).

Main concerns at EU and national level

Citizens mentioned the economic situation as the most pressing issue facing the EU – over one-third (35%) of all respondents, a strong increase of 16 percentage points since autumn 2019, and rise from third to first concern. Concern about the economic situation has not been this high since spring 2014.

Europeans are also increasingly concerned about the state of Member States’ public finances (23%, +6 percentage points, the highest level since spring 2015), which moves from fifth to second place on a par with immigration (23%, -13 percentage points), the latter now being at the lowest level since autumn 2014.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, health (22%, new item) is the  fourth most mentioned concern at EU level. The issue of the environment and climate change has lost ground, down 8 percentage points to 20%, followed by unemployment (17%, +5 percentage points).

Similarly, the economic situation (33%, +17 percentage points) has overtaken health as the most important issue at national level, rising from seventh to first position. Although in second position, health has had a notable increase in mentions since autumn 2019 (31%, +9 percentage points), taking it to its highest ever level over the past six years.

Unemployment has also increased considerably in importance (28%, +8 percentage points), followed by rising prices/inflation/cost of living (18%, -2 percentage points), the environment and climate change (14%, -6 percentage points) and government debt (12%, +4 percentage points). Mentions of immigration (11%, -5 percentage points), are at their lowest level for the past six years.

The current economic situation

Since autumn 2019, the proportion of Europeans who think that the current situation of their national economy is ‘good’ (34%, -13 percentage points) has declined considerably, while the proportion of respondents who judge this situation to be ‘bad’ has increased sharply (64%, +14 percentage points).

At national level, a majority of respondents in 10 countries says that the national economic situation is good (down from 15 in autumn 2019). The proportion of respondents who say the situation of their national economy is good ranges from 83% in Luxembourg to 9% in Greece.

The coronavirus pandemic and public opinion in the EU

Europeans are divided on the measures taken by the EU institutions to fight the coronavirus outbreak (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’). However, a majority of respondents in 19 Member States is satisfied with the measures taken by the European Union institutions to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The highest positive figures are found in Ireland (71%); Hungary, Romania and Poland (all 60%). In seven countries, a majority of respondents is ‘not satisfied’, especially in Luxembourg (63%), Italy (58%), Greece and Czechia (both 55%) and Spain (52%). In Austria, equal proportions of respondents are satisfied, and not satisfied (both 47%).

However, more than six Europeans in ten trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future (62%). The most frequently mentioned priorities for the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic are: establish a strategy for facing a similar crisis in the future and develop financial means to find a treatment or vaccine (each 37%). 30% think that developing a European health policy should be a priority.

Europeans’ personal experiences of confinement measures were very diverse. Overall, close to three Europeans in ten say that it was fairly easy to cope with (31%), while a quarter say it was fairly difficult to cope with (25%). Finally, 30% say that it was ‘both easy and difficult to cope with’.

Key policy areas

Asked about the objectives of the European Green Deal, Europeans continue identifying ‘developing renewable energy‘ and ‘fighting against plastic waste and leading on the issue of single-use of plastic’ as the top priorities. More than one third think the top priority should be supporting EU farmers (38%) or promoting the circular economy (36%). Just over three in ten think reducing energy consumption (31%) should be the top priority.

Support for the Economic and Monetary Union and for the euro remains high, with 75% of respondents in the Euro area in favour of the EU’s single currency. In the EU27 as a whole, support for the euro has increased to 67% (+5).

 EU citizenship and European democracy

A majority of people in 26 EU Member States (except Italy) and 70% across the EU feel that they are citizens of the EU. At a national level the highest scores are observed in Ireland and Luxembourg (both 89%), Poland (83%), Slovakia and Germany (both 82%), Lithuania (81%), Hungary, Portugal and Denmark (all 80%).

A majority of Europeans (53%) say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU. The proportion of respondents who are ‘not satisfied’ has increased, by 3 percentage points since autumn 2019 to 43%.

 Optimism for the future of the EU

Finally, in this troubled period, 60% of Europeans say they are optimistic about the future of the EU. The highest scores for optimism are observed in Ireland (81%), Lithuania and Poland (both 75%) and Croatia (74%). The lowest levels of optimism are seen in Greece (44%) and Italy (49%), where pessimism outweighs optimism, and France, where opinion is evenly divided (49% vs 49%).

Background

The ‘Summer 2020 – Standard Eurobarometer’ (EB 93) was conducted face-to-face and exceptionally completed with online interviews between 9 July and 26 August 2020, across the 27 EU Member States, in the United Kingdom and in the candidate countries 26,681 interviews were conducted in the 27 Member States.

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Could the EU Make its ASEAN Breakthrough with the Emerging Indo-Pacific Strategy?

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The Indo-Pacific policy guidelines that was announced by the German Federal Foreign Office last week, is a clear signal from Berlin in becoming a shaper for the international order in the volatile region. Entitled “Germany-Europe-Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together”, the policy guidelines is the second of such document in the European Union (EU) after the Macron administration released its own Indo-Pacific strategy back in August 2019. But considering that Germany is the current president of the EU Council, this policy guidelines has been ever more significant. For one, Berlin has made clear its intention to lead Europe into this new Indo-Pacific charge as the ‘third power’ after the US-led coalition and China ⸺ an aim that is highlighted not just by this German government’s policy guidelines but also, incisively described by the French as the ‘mediating power’.

The release of such document, of course, reverberates different responses from political observers outside of Europe. For instance, Sebastian Strangio sees the German latest move as part of Europe’s reassessment of its approach to China and boldly predicts that other EU nations are to follow suit with their new stand on China. Prominent Filipino expert, Richard Javad Heydarian, meanwhile, is of the view that Germany’s pursuit as the shaper of international order is deliberately focused on the key regions which bear strategic importance to Europe overall. On the other hand, Xin Hua, adopts a pessimistic view on the ability of Europe to influence the Indo-Pacific region. With Berlin’s policy guidelines, the Chinese scholar sees Europe’s reliance on soft power (such as norms diffusion)to influence the Indo-Pacific region, in contrast to the US that projects its hard power in the region through military prowess in the region, will make it less than what it aimed as the shaper of international order.

Be it applause or skepticism, the observers are in the same view that Berlin’s latest move is a drastic shift from its previous ambiguous position on the Indo-Pacific region which has become the hotbed for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision pushed by the US and its military allies such as Japan and Australia. With this policy guidelines in place, it signals the seriousness of the German government in joining the Indo-Pacific region with the rest of the EU, as a third power that is independent from the US camp and China. What is left is the forming of a full European-level Indo-Pacific strategy and its implementation in the years ahead.

The ASEAN Context

In the ASEAN context, Germany’s move has created two questions that are worthy to ponder. First, how will this emerging Indo-Pacific strategy be different to Europe’s current cooperation policy toward ASEAN as a whole? This is the foremost question to ask among ASEAN member states as the German government’s Indo-Pacific policy  guidelines singled out the Southeast Asian bloc as the country’s focused cooperation partner in different areas of cooperation: climate change, marine pollution, rule of law and human rights, culture, education, science, trade and technology. That said, this is not the first time ASEAN appeared as the important partner for the EU.As a matter of fact, two-way cooperation has been ongoing since the establishment of dialogue relations in 1977.

As of 2020, two EU-ASEAN Action Plans have been agreed upon, implemented and in the middle of enforcement. Within the Action Plan (2018-2022) that runs through the year 2022, a myriad of cooperation areas has been outlined, spanning across political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars. In particular, those areas of cooperation identified in Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines are within the trans-regional plan as well. What is new is that Berlin has set security policy as a special focus area for Indo-Pacific cooperation ⸺ a point that is emphasized by the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas in his press release following the announcement of the country’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines. In line with such niche orientation, Germany can readily lead the European initiative to assist ASEAN in the two sub-areas of non-traditional security that do not have substantial cooperation but chiefly important in the coming months and years: cybersecurity and public health security. These two sub-areas will be the best start for the EU’s Indo-Pacific push in the ASEAN region.

Second, how will the EU’s Indo-Pacific approach be different from its current dogmatic approach in its cooperation with ASEAN? By all means, it is no secret that dogmatic adherence to rules and norms remained to be the greatest obstacle for the EU’s full amelioration of ties with ASEAN in the past years. As of today, the EU’s ban of Indonesian and Malaysian imports as well as its unease on Filipino President Duterte and Burmese junta’s human rights records, are the contentious issues that prevented the European bloc to go past its finishing line in negotiating a full free trade pact with ASEAN. From such case alone, it is clear that the European bloc’s normative stance predicated upon Brussels’ strictly defined rules, norms and values on climate change and human rights issues, is in play when comes to international cooperation with ASEAN.

Having said that, Germany’s latest Indo-Pacific policy guidelines do not precisely highlight of its normative stance apart from maintaining the international rules-based order in the volatile region. But on the other hand, Germany’s aim for the EU to become the shaper of such order also sparks an open-ended question of whether its strict adherence to rules, norms and values (as in the present) will continue to be the defining feature of its cooperation with ASEAN. From the Indo-Pacific policy guidelines, this question is yet to be answered by the German government and perhaps, this dilemma is to betackled in the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy. Should a pragmatic approach is adopted by the EU ⸺ as has been recently demonstrated by the conclusion and enforcement of the EU-Vietnam Partnership and Cooperation Agreement despite human rights concern in the ASEAN member state ⸺ it will definitely clear the normative obstacle for the eventual conclusion of a free trade pact with the Southeast Asian bloc. More than that, it stands to facilitate greater cooperation in all areas of partnership between the two regions.

All in all, the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy should need to address these two questions that have surfaced fromthe former’s past and current experiences with ASEAN. While the German government’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines have set new tone to Europe’s engagement with the volatile region, such document has yet to tackle these two difficult questions. Only by tacklingthese two questions will the EU be able to make its much-needed ASEAN breakthroughwith the emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.

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A Recipe For The War

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Authors: Zlatko Hadžidedić, Adnan Idrizbegović*

There is a widespreadview that Germany’s policy towards Bosnia-Herzegovina has always been friendly. Also, that such a policy stimulated the European Union to adopt a positive approach to the Bosnian quest to eventually become a part of the Euro-Atlantic integrations. However, Stefan Schwarz, a renowned German politician, in his recent comment for Deutsche Welle, raised the question of the true nature of Germany’s policy towards Bosnia,from 1992 to the present day.Here we shall try to offer possible answers to this question, so as to present a brief history of that policy.

A history of (un)recognition

Germany officially recognised Bosnia-Herzegovina as an independent state on April 6, 1992.Prior to that, such recognition had been grantedto two other former Yugoslav republics, Slovenia and Croatia,on January 15, 1992. Germany recognised these two states against the advice by Robert Badinter, a jurist delegated by the European Commision to arbitrate in the process of dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, to recognise all Yugoslav republics simultaneously. Under the pressure by Germany, 12 members of the European Community (United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Greece, Austria) recognised Slovenia and Croatia in January 1992. As Washington Post wrote on January 16, 1992,

The German government hailed today’s event as a historic development and immediately opened embassies in the two republics. But France and Britain, which still harbor doubts about the wisdom of early recognition, said they would wait to see if Croatia fulfilled its promises on human rights before carrying out an exchange of ambassadors.

There is a well-known myth, spread by the diplomats of Britain and France, that ‘early recognition’ of Slovenia and Croatia triggered the war in the former Yugoslavia. Such a claim is both absurd and obscene, bearing in mind that Serbia had already waged war against Slovenia and Croatia and was preparing a military attack on Bosnia for several months. However, the question that should be posed here is, why Germany recognised Slovenia and Croatia separately, instead of recognition of all the Yugoslav republics simultaneously, as advised by Badinter and strongly supported by the US? Does that imply that Germany practically left the rest of the republics to their fate, to be occupied and annexed by Serbia, which controled the former Yugoslav army and its resources? Was it a deliberate policy, or simply a reckless decision? In the same article, WP quotes the then German Minister of Foreign Affairs: 

“The German policy on Yugoslavia has proved correct,” said German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. “We’ve said for months that if the Community decided on recognition . . . that would initiate a process of rethinking, above all by the leadership of the Yugoslav army.”

Mr. Genscher probably offered a definite answer to that question. Also, the actual response of the Yugoslav army’s leadership to the German push for separate recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, counted in hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of ethnically cleansed in Croatia and Bosnia, testifies to the ‘correctness’ of such thinking. Yet, was it a momentary miscalculation by Genscher, the then Minister, or a long-term German foreign policy towards Bosnia, already projected to be the ultimate victim of the Yugoslav army’s agression?

An answer to this question is not very difficult to reach if we consider the German policy concerning the initiatives for ethnic partition of Bosnia, disseminated through the channels of the European Community. These proposals may have been initiated and instigated by the British Foreign Office and the French Quai d’Orsay; yet, partition along ethnic lines has always been the only European consensus about Bosnia, a consensus in which Germany participated with all its political will and weight.

Appeasement, from Munich to Lisbon

Prior to the 1992-1995 war, the European Community delegated the British and Portugese diplomats, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, to design a suitable scheme for ethnic partition of Bosnia, and in February 1992 they launched the so-called Lisbon Conference, with the aim of separating Bosnian ethno-religious communities and isolating them into distinct territories. This was the initiation of the process of ethnic partition, adopted in each subsequent plan to end the war in Bosnia. However, at the Lisbon Conference such a ‘solution’ was imposed by Carrington and Cutileiro as the only available when there was no war to end, indeed, no war in sight; and, curiously, it has remained the only concept the European Community, and then the European Union,has ever tried to apply to Bosnia.

Contrary to the foundations of political theory, sovereignty of the Bosnian state was thus divided, and its parts were transferred to the chiefs of three ethnic parties. The EC recognised these usurpers of the state sovereignty, having promoted them into legitimate representatives of their respective ethnic communities. The Carrington-Cutileiro maps were tailored to determine the territorial reach of each of these communities. What remained to be done afterwards was their actual physical separation, and that could only be performed by war, genocide and ethnic cleansing. For, ethnically homogenous territories, as envisaged by Carrington and Cutileiro, could only be created by a mass slaughter and mass expulsion of those who did not fit the prescribed model of ethnic homogeneity. In this way, the European Community created a recipe for the war in Bosnia.Yet, ever since the war broke out, the European diplomats have never ceased claiming that the ‘chaos’ was created by ‘the wild Balkan tribes’, who ‘had always slaughtered each other’. 

No one ever noticed German opposition to the Lisbon principles of ethnic separation and territorial partition, clearly leading to war and bloodshed. Is it, then, possible that German foreign policy was truly surprised by the Lisbon’s bloody outcome? Or the Lisbon Agreement was tailored in the best tradition of the Munich Agreement, as a consensus on another country’s partition between the three leading European powers – Great Britain, France, and Germany –  again,in the name of peace?

Landgrab rewarded

In the following ‘peace plans’ for Bosnia, the European Community was represented by Lord Owen, accompanied by the representatives of the Organization of United Nations, Cyrus Vance and Thorwald Stoltenberg. Although the British diplomacy was clearly dominant in these attempts to find a ‘proper’ model for Bosnia’s ethnic partition, Germany’s Foreign Ministry was always fully present there through its Director of Policy Planning Staff, Wolfgang Ischinger. In the structure of the German Ministry, this position is occuppied by the most senior career diplomat, so that there can beno doubt about Ischinger’s capacity to articulate Germany’s strategic interests. During the process of negotiations under the Vance-Owen and Owen-Stoltenberg plans, Ischinger coordinated German policy towards Bosnia together with Michael Steiner, the head of„SoBos“ (Sonderstab Bosnien), a special Bosnian unit established within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[i]

During the war in Bosnia, from 1992 to 1995, Germany and the European Community never abandoned the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. In 1994,Germany took a more active role in its implementation within the (informal) International Contact Group, consisting of the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the US, where Germany was represented by both Ischinger and Steiner. The Contact Group Plan defined the final model of ethnic separation, having led to the ultimate breakup of the Bosnian territory into two ethnically cleansed and homogenised ‘entities’, tailored in accordance with an arbitrary proportion of 51:49%, which was subsequently implemented in the Dayton Peace Accords. The entire struggle within the Contact Group was fought over the percentage and disposition of territory granted to particular ethnic communities, two of which served as Serbia’s and Croatia’s proxies. The principle of ethnic partition was never put in question. In this process, Germany became the exclusive advocate of Croatian interests, in Croatia’s attempts to cede the south-western part of Bosnia, whereas Britain and France advocated the interests of Serbia in its efforts to cede eastern and western parts of Bosnia. To some people’s surprise, the United States was the sole defender of Bosnia’s territorial integrity within the Contact Group. However, under the pressure by the European Community, the US was forced to make concessions, so as to eventually accept the prescribed 51:49% territorial distribution as an’internal reorganisation’ of Bosnia.

The US thus tacitly accepted the European initiatives to reward the landgrab of Bosnia’s territory, performed by Serbia and Croatia, against the UN Charter and international law. The European Community’s leading powers –Great Britain, France, and Germany – claimed that there was no other option but to accept such a landgrab, because the status quo, caused by the neighbours’ military aggression, could not possibly be altered. To strengthen this argument, the European Community also played the main role in imposing an arms embargo on the ‘warring parties’. This embargo effectively deprived the landlocked Bosnian army of the capacity to purchase weaponry and thus alter the status quo and liberate the country’s territory. Here the EC acted as a whole, again, without any dissent on Germany’s or anyone else’s part. 

Whose responsibility?

The Dayton Peace Accords is commonly perceived as an American political project. The partition of Bosnia is thus being interpreted as a concept that emerged for the first time during the Dayton negotiations, and its authorship is ascribed exclusively to the American negotiator, Richard Holbrooke. However, it is not so. The history of Bosnia’s partition clearly demonstrates that this very concept has persistently been promoted by the European Community, and then by the European Union, from the 1992 Lisbon Conference to the present day. Even the notorious partition proportion of 51:49% was determined by the Contact Group, well before the Dayton Conference. A clear responsibility of the US negotiators is that they caved in to the pressures by the EC within the Contact Group. Still, the consistent striving to impose ethnic partition as the sole appropriate concept for Bosnia should definitely be attributed to its real advocates – the members of the European Community. Since Italy and Yeltsin’s Russia certainly played a minor role in the Contact Group, the lion’s share of responsibility for the final outcome, verified in Dayton, belongs equally to three EC powers, Great Britain, France, and Germany. The fact that the British policy-makers conceived the very principle of ethnic partition, that their French colleagues were so enthusiastic about its implementation, while the Germans accepted it as the best available mode of appeasement, abolishes neither of them of gigantic moral and political responsibility for all the suffering the Bosnians have had to go through.

*Adnan Idrizbegović, Independent Researcher, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina


[i]As consequent advocates of the German foreign policy in the Bosnian episode, both Ischinger and Steiner have continuously enjoyed upward promotion within the ranks of the German foreign policy establishment. Thus Ischinger first took the position of the Ministry’s Political Director under Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, and then of the Staatssekretär (deputy foreign minister) under Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.Ischinger also represented Germany at numerous international and European conferences, including the 1999 G8 and EU summit meetings in Cologne/Germany and the 2000 Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the United Nations, New York. He was also appointed as the European Union Representative in the Troika negotiations on the future of Kosovo in 2007. Since 2019, Ischinger has been co-chairing on the Transatlantic Task Force of the German Marshall Fund and the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung (BKHS) and, finally, has become the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (!). During his mandate in the Contact Group, Steiner was awarded the position of head of the Ministry’s co-ordination unit for multilateral peace efforts. After the war, he served six months (January–July 1997) as a principal deputy to Carl Bildt, the first high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1998, he was selected by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to work as the Chancellor’s foreign and security policy adviser.

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