Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Italy on March 21–23, 2019 was marked by the signing of a memorandum on Italy’s joining the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Despite the fact that 13 other EU countries have signed similar memorandums with China, the significance of Italy’s decision cannot be overstated, as it is the first G7 country and the first founding member of the European Union to officially confirm its readiness to participate in Silk Road projects.
Ever since Undersecretary of State at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development Michele Geraci announced the imminent signing of the document on March 5, 2019, warnings have flooded in from Brussels and Washington about the possible consequences of such a rash step. On March 6, U.S. National Security Council Spokesman Garrett Marquis said that the actions of the Italian government would end up harming Italy’s global reputation in the long term. Similar statements could be heard coming out of Brussels. On the eve of Xi Jinping’s visit, President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani said that Italy was committing a grave mistake and that “selling ‘Made in Italy’ does not have to mean giving up your sovereignty to the Chinese.” As European leaders try desperately to form a common line of defence against China’s penetration into strategic sectors of the European economy in the run-up to the EU–China Summit on April 9, Italy is again showing no signs of European solidarity.
“I am convinced that Italy must respect its Atlantic allies and always fulfil its obligations. However, it may also choose how and where to go. We need to make a choice consciously and responsibly,” Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Luigi Di Maio said in the Five Star Movement blog in response to the alarmist signals coming from the United States. “I hope that the League adheres to the same principles, because I have seen various positions over the past few days, some of them shaped by what other countries want and not for the benefit of Italy.” “Today,” the Deputy Prime Minister continues, “the idea of ‘Made in Italy’ wins. With the Belt and Road Initiative, Italy has made the decision to be more sovereign… It is not a political union with China, but rather a business opportunity. The United States remains our main ally, and NATO continues to be our home. But the Belt and Road Initiative is a step forward for Italy.”
According to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s participation in the Silk Road project is completely in line with the country’s membership in NATO and the European Union, since it is not a political union, but simply the possibility of trade and economic cooperation. What is more, by interacting with Beijing, Rome is determined to get its new partner to adopt European standards and norms in the bilateral relationship.
“The main task is to help Italian companies develop and expand exports to China comparable to that of France and Germany… Clearly, Italian security is of paramount importance to us, which is why we will analyse and assess extremely carefully what is going on in sectors that are of strategic importance for Italy and its allies – telecommunications, energy, ports and infrastructure. The security of the Italians comes first, followed by economic interests,” claims the League, so as not to scare its alarmist-minded electorate.
“I want to control the strategic sectors, to ensure national security. Because the keys to the house should belong to the Italian people,” Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini stresses. Minister of Foreign Affairs Enzo Moavero Milanesi has traditionally tempered the discourse, assuring Italy’s European partners that it will act in line with EU documents and decisions, with the understanding that issues of security are a priority for all EU member countries. But the leader of Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, does not share the enthusiasm of the current government, calling China a “communist and totalitarian” country “that seeks both economic superiority and political hegemony.” A fierce discussion is raging in the Italian media about the benefits and risks of the new partnership with China.
The idea of building up cooperation with China is not new. Paolo Gentiloni’s cabinet worked actively on developing ties with the country. Italy’s new “government of change” contains at least two people who actively support deepening cooperation with China, namely Minister of Economy and Finances Giovanni Tria and Undersecretary of State at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development Michele Geraci.
When he was still a student at the University of Rome, Giovanni Tria studied the success of the Chinese economy, and in the late 1970s he had the opportunity to observe the initial results of the economic transformation in Beijing first hand. His first official visit as Minister of Economy and Finances was to China. Michele Geraci is very familiar with China, having lived there for over ten years. According to Giovanni Tria, the new stage of relations between Italy and China will not only provide them with new opportunities to expand cooperation in sectors of mutual interest, but will also allow Italy to become a champion of developing cooperation between the European Union and China in addressing the key issues of globalization and international cooperation. In other words, Italy wants to significantly increase its role in the dialogue between the European and China, taking the initiative and positioning itself as a driving engine in the process. Despite the fact that 13 EU countries have already signed similar memorandums with China (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia), they are, as far as Italy is concerned, peripheral countries that carry little weight in the EU economy and are incapable of becoming drivers of EU–China cooperation. Unlike Italy, which after Brexit will be the third largest economy in the European Union and which, moreover, is one of its founding members.
Geraci also acknowledges the desire to take the initiative in the dialogue, emphasizing that it is a matter of tactics: “Italy should feel more free than the other 27 EU member countries. China prefers bilateral cooperation and does not like to wait for the approval of the EU, which often takes a long time. That’s why we need to take the initiative… The does not mean circumventing Europe, but rather leading it and showing it the way forward.” According to Geraci, Italy has much to learn from China: how to achieve GDP growth of 9.5 per cent; how to save 900,000 people from poverty; how to increase the income of the rural population from $130 per capita to $13,000 per capita; how to effectively control internal migration, which makes up 15–20 million people per year in China, etc. Italy, for its part, should become the main European terminal of the Maritime Silk Route. However, in order to avoid becoming a “terminal to nowhere,” Italy must help China build the land section of the Silk Road, including in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
According to Geraci, the Italian government faces two main tasks in terms of ensuring the country’s economic interests: attracting investments (and if willing investors can be found, the relevant agreements need to be put in place as soon as possible) and increasing exports (where small and medium-sized enterprises need help to start exporting their goods to China). To be sure, China has invested heavily in Italy, although mostly in the form of mergers and acquisitions and the purchase of shares, rather than setting up new projects and enterprises. Accordingly, the government’s task is to reorient the flow of investments in such a way that they help create jobs and increase productivity and, consequently, GDP. Geraci complains that Italian investments have created 50,000–60,000 jobs, while just 2000–2500 have been created in Italy. According to him, China should have a vested interest in this because, in addition to its favourable geographic location, Italy has another important asset, namely, “know-how.”
The Realities of Economic Cooperation: The Balance is not in Italy’s Favour
China is one of Italy’s key foreign trade partners. In 2018, China accounted for 3 per cent of Italy’s total exports, which amounted to approximately 13.7 billion euros. China ranks fourth in terms of Italy’s exports, behind the European Union (55.5 per cent), the United States (9.1 per cent) and Switzerland (4.6 per cent). In terms of Italy’s imports, China is second only to the European Union (7.1 per cent of the country’s total imports). China is the first destination market for Italian exports in the Asia Pacific, and eighth overall. However, the trade balance began to tip in China’s favour in 2001. Despite the fact that the trade balance increased by 7 per cent in 2007, and by a further 9.2 per cent in 2016–2017, it was still not in favour of Italy. As of year-end 2018, Italian exports to China totalled 13.2 billion euros, while imports from China amounted to 30.8 billion euros. Italy is the third-largest importer of Chinese goods in the European Union, behind Germany and the United Kingdom, and the fourth-largest exporter Behind Germany, the United Kingdom and France. Italy’s share in the Chinese market stands at 1.1 per cent, compared to 1.4 per cent for France and 5.4 per cent for Germany.
Italy wants to significantly increase its role in the dialogue between the European and China, taking the initiative and positioning itself as a driving engine in the process.
In 2000–2018, Italy was among the main targets of China’s purchases” alongside the United Kingdom and Germany, with Italy attracting 15.3 billion euros, compared to the United Kingdom’s 22.2 billion and Germany’s 46.9 billion. China is the United Kingdom’s second-largest importer and exporter and the largest importer and exporter for Germany. According to analysts at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Brexit could have a positive effect on these dynamics for the European Union, given the fact that the United Kingdom can no longer act as an entry point for investments into the EU markets.
Chinese capital is already penetrating into Italian infrastructure facilities. For example, China’s COSCO Shipping has owned 40 per cent of the shares in the Vado Ligure terminal on Italian Riviera since 2016, with another 9.9 per cent of shares in this terminal belonging to the Port of Qingdao in China. Chinese investors are also interested in the ports of Genoa and Savona, where an agreement is expected to be signed with Chinese Communications Construction Company (CCCC). There is talk about the implementation of the “Trihub” project in Trieste on the Adriatic coast. China Merchants Group is expected to invest in the project. The giant CCCC intends to make a huge financial outlay (approximately 1.3 billion euros) on the construction of the Port of Venice. Remaining in the Adriatic, China Merchant Group invested 10 million euros in the Port of Ravenna in 2018. Chinese have become shareholders in recent years in a number of companies that are key for the Italian economy, including FCA Italy S.p.A., Telecom Italia, Enel, Generali, Ansaldo Energia, Cdp Reti, among others. In 2015, China National Chemical purchased Pirelli, one of the world’s largest tyre manufacturers. More recently, the famous Italian brand Candy was purchased by the Chinese giant Haier. However, the number of Chinese “purchases” in the European Union has started to drop over the past two years, which may be due to the latter’s suspicious attitude towards Chinese capital in the context of the trade wars between Washington and Beijing.
It is not so easy for Italian products to break into the Chinese market, however. For example, recent studies carried out by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) show that in 2018, imports of agricultural products from China exceeded exports to China by 35 per cent. One reason for this is that Italian apples, pears and grapes cannot make it onto the Chinese market because of the ongoing trade barriers that are designed to protect national production.
On the whole, however, the history of economic cooperation between Italy and China in recent years has clearly not favoured Italy. Despite the fact that the actual volumes have increased, Italian exports to China went down in 2018, and Rome is clearly not in the economic position to dictate terms to Beijing. According to the European Commission’s most recent forecasts of GDP growth in the EU countries for 2019, Italy is expected to have the worst growth rate of all 28 member states, at just 0.2 per cent, while incoming investments will not increase until 2021.
Connectivity Italian Style: Naivety or Sober Calculation?
On the one hand, Italy’s approach to the Belt and Road Imitative and the prospects for cooperation with China may seem somewhat naïve and even rather bold. According to some experts, the difficult economic situation in the country may make it dependent on Chinese investments, while the experience of Greece and Sri Lanka is confirmation of the fear that the facilities constructed may eventually fall into the hands of the primary investor. The economic situation in Pakistan clearly demonstrates the risk of becoming dependent on China economically. In summer 2018, the new government of Malaysia expressed its dissatisfaction with the terms of its deal on the Silk Road Economic Belt. The experience of Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) countries that signed memorandums on the Silk Road Economic Belt over five years ago shows that exports to China have not increased several times over. What is more, the transport routes did not connect the EAEU as countries of the Union had hoped. And the thousands of new jobs that had been promised to the citizens of Central Asian states never materialized.
The lack of transparent rules of the game. Dumping. The use of “grey” practices by Chinese companies. The absence of guaranteed reciprocity in commerce and investment. The use of business standards that are alien to those in the west. The prevalence of discriminatory practices against foreign companies entering the Chinese market. This is just a small list of the risks that come hand in hand with Chinese investments. And it would seem that the Italians are all too aware of this. So, what exactly is Rome hoping for?
In the run-up to the President of the People’s Republic of China visit, a number of Italian media outlets speculated that the purpose of the trip may be to take on a part Italy’s national debt. However, Minister of Economy and Finances Giovanni Tria stated that this was not the case, and that the Chinese investors were there to assess the prospects of purchasing Italian government bonds on the same terms as other foreign investors. In addition, according to Tria, the financial situation in the country had stabilized since the budget had been approved by the European Commission.
Judging by the words of Tria and Geraci, it can be assumed that Italy hopes to reclaim its position as a “protagonist” in determining the European Union’s foreign economic and political priorities. However, the take-it-or-leave-it approach taken by the Italian leadership in its decision to sign a memorandum with Beijing is unlikely to elicit enthusiasm in Brussels about the Italian initiative. What is more, given the desire of Paris and Berlin to form a single EU position on the global stage, the Italian government’s attempt to “run ahead of the train” will hardly be seen as a blessing for the European Union as a whole. And the fact that the Italian government recently backtracked on its decision regarding new rules of the game for foreign investors by not supporting the European Union’s consolidated position on Chinese investments and Huawei effectively reduces the country’s chances of becoming a driver of cooperation with China to zero.
It would seem, however, that Italy was left with no choice, and Brussels certainly shares a portion of the blame for this. The economic situation in the country really is difficult. Meanwhile, the Italian government is openly described as a “leprosy” in Paris and Berlin, and not as a third party in the “tandem” that is constructing a new Europe. Brussels predicts a deepening of the recession, offering no way out of the economic deadlock. Economic cooperation with Russia cannot be intensified because of the sanctions and the risk of an open confrontation with Brussels and Washington if they are ignored. This is why the new partnership with China is the only opportunity available to Italy on which Brussels has not yet defined a categorical position, be it positive or negative. So, Italy has to seize the opportunity while there is still a chance and hope that Washington will put forward a better option at the last minute…
First published in our partner RIAC
Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country
The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.
Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government
Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.
Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.
In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.
Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy
The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.
The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.
At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.
In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.
Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum
Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.
Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.
The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.
In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.
Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.
The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy
Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.
First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.
Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.
In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.
Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid
In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.
Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.
At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.
Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.
Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.
Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power
The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.
P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.
Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.
From our partner RIAC
Is British Democracy in Danger?
On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.
Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.
To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.
While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.
Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.
One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.
Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.
The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security
2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.
In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.
On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.
Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.
Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.
In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.
The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.
A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?
As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.
Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.
The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.
Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.
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