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Will Germany end up as NATO’s “weak link”?

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In a series of recent comments in US and British media, their authors appear increasingly alarmed by the prospects of maintaining the unity of NATO and, on a broader scale, of the West as a whole. Not as a result of US President Donald Trump’s “subversive” actions many Western media outlets and experts like to talk about but, rather, due to Germany’s changing policy. Let’s take a closer look at what has been going on.

The imbalance of geopolitical forces in Europe has for many centuries been a major trigger of continental and global conflicts.

According to US and British experts, the political and economic edge that Germany has enjoyed over other European states during the past 150 years has been a major destabilizing factor – something many German politicians, albeit with some reservations, tend to agree with. German ex-foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel insists that “neither the United Kingdom nor France is able to put pressure on Germany when it comes to plotting a course for the EU.” 

Some experts believe that the United States is the only country that wields enough political and economic influence to do this. However, Donald Trump’s anti-German rhetoric could push Berlin to “distance itself from the transatlantic alliance and focus instead on forging an EU-wide alliance.”

Germany has repeatedly reiterated its status as an independent power center “with a political philosophy all its own.”

The more radical expressions of German “independence” during the 20th century twice ended in disaster. After the end of World War II, Germany adopted a raft of military and geopolitical limitations and restrictions – initially under Allied pressure, and later on mostly a voluntary basis. In the wake of the country’s reunification, Berlin sought to convince the NATO and EU allies that it remained true to its commitments of the previous decades.

However, European and US fears of “German instincts” lingered on.

Meanwhile, memories of the fact that Anglo-Saxons were the main opponents, either open or secret, of the 1989 German reunification are still fresh on the Germans’ minds. Today too, it is US and British analysts who lead the chorus of fears that “the handcuffs that Germans voluntarily put on themselves may just as voluntarily be cast away.” They also wonder how long it will take new generations of Germans to want to make their country a fully sovereign state again.

Well, America does have reasons for concern. Since the early 1990s, the Germans have been talking about “the need for greater equality in relations with the United States,” and Berlin has consistently been working to strengthen the EU’s role as a global player. Including in terms of military capability – a factor that found its way into the 1992 “Fundamentals of German Defense Policy.”

In 1998, many Social Democrats and the Greens who had just won the elections, but had not yet formally taken up government posts, spoke out against the country’s participation in the NATO operation against Yugoslavia. Still, the outgoing government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl supported the allies.

Over the course of the 2000s, the “Atlanticists” were getting more and more reasons to be concerned about the so-called “German Question,” and this is exactly when the idea of a “European army” started getting traction. In 2002, Germany (though backed by France) caused the first major split in NATO, speaking out against the US-led invasion of Iraq. Time magazine then feared that Germany could eventually become a European superpower, mistreat its neighbors and shift towards a “national” policy over a “European” one.

By 2015, the British had concluded that the old imbalance of forces that destabilized Europe following the German unification of 1871, had come to the fore again after Germany reunited again in 1989 and the establishment of the Eurozone made Germany a dominant force in Europe again.

Finally, soon after Donald Trump took office, many members of the European and even US segments of the global Western establishment started mulling the possibility of naming the German Chancellor Angela Merkel the leader of the Western civilization as an alternative to a newly-isolationist America. And it was Merkel who, after the May 2017 NATO summit, the first one attended by Donald Trump, said that Europe could no longer rely on the United States. The outcome of the 2018 NATO summit only added to Europeans’ fears that with the Cold War now over, Washington was now all set to undermine the EU’s global competitiveness. Washington responded by making Germany the butt of wrathful attacks, accusing Berlin of virtually sabotaging NATO’s 2014 decision to increase its members’ defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024. President Trump complained that by failing to honor its commitments to the alliance, Germany, as the leader of the European Union, was setting a bad example for other NATO members.

With all this being said, because Germany in its present state is not in a position to singlehandedly play a leading role internationally, it prioritizes continued European integration and strengthening the EU’s global role. Including in terms of security and defense. Meanwhile, a realization of the fact that without US participation NATO virtually loses its combat capability, is turning Europe into a hostage of America, denying it the chance to act more independently even right here on the continent, let alone in the world. Therefore, the issue of “European sovereignty” is becoming a topmost priority for Brussels, and this is where Germany comes in as a leading proponent of “an independent and strong Europe.”

Washington, for its part, is showing a clear desire to undermine European unity with all the talk going on there about the impending collapse of the European project. Meanwhile, the United States is being advised to push NATO for the role of a new unifier of Europe. Some members of the Intermarium coalition  go even further and are now seeking direct military cooperation with the United States – even outside the framework of NATO’s formal mechanisms – in a bid to “deter” not only Russia, but also Germany. In response, in the fall of 2018 Germany (again together with France) pitched the idea of creating a full-fledged European army. During the Munich Security Conference held earlier this year, Angela Merkel “unequivocally confirmed Germany’s clam to European leadership, and even more importantly, Europe’s bid for “strategic autonomy from the US.”

The problem is, however, that Germany remains torn between the need to address mounting problems at home and the need to demonstrate a firm stand in the face of new foreign policy challenges. On the one hand, Berlin is facing “the most serious” security challenges “since joining NATO and the EU.” From the outside, Europe is coming under increasingly “strong pressure from Russia and China,” and now also from the United States. From within, the very fundamentals of European unity are being challenged by “populists and proponents of authoritarianism.” Even countries still embracing liberal values, including France, Spain and the Baltic states, disagree about the future of the European project. Under the circumstances, Germany objectively needs a more “thorough” defense policy in order to be “taken seriously” both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, any dramatic military buildup could only add to fears of a revival of the “German diktat.”

One way to solve this problem could be a full-fledged implementation of a strategy to create a European army. “The Germans build tanks, the French produce planes and the Italians build ships. However, a political decision is still a long way off.”

The idea of Europe’s greater autonomy within NATO could get a new boost if a German candidate is put at the head of the European Commission. The CDU and the CSU have for the first time ever agreed to nominate a common candidate who has “fairly good chances” of leading the European Union’s executive body.

However, the EU lacks the authority and power it needs to make sure that a united Europe can really become a major global player. Berlin’s “tandem” with Paris is plagued by a maze of incongruities and compromises, which do not really sit well with wide circles of the German political establishment. European politics is becoming increasingly factional and fragmented, and the addition of many new member states has made it even less manageable and harder to reach a consensus on a joint policy, above all in international affairs. Just how and if all these structural constraints can be overcome is probably the hardest task the EU is facing today. As well as its economic powerhouse, Germany. Many German politicians wonder just how much longer Berlin will have to bear the brunt of tackling Europe’s systemic challenges and crises amid a mounting wave of accusations and bad blood from a growing number of its neighbors.  

The intractable dilemma Berlin is facing now is which way to go with the situation being as it is. Support a policy that threatens to further destabilize a project of European integration that is seen as being of paramount importance for Germany’s future? Or go for a course designed to minimize the damage caused by the policy of outside powers that threatens the country’s fundamental interests? Would the latter option necessarily “undermine NATO” or would it gradually erode the alliance’s leading role in European affairs? Paradoxically, the policy being currently pursued by the EU and Germany means that Berlin’s activity or passivity can be equally detrimental to the Pan-European project, potentially resulting in its fragmentation or even disintegration. As is evident from the case of the Nord Stream 2 project, Berlin is capable of standing up to pressure, even from the US, when it comes to defending the country’s vital interests. Ultimately, it is up to the Germans to decide to what extent Germany will be ready to subordinate their interests to those of other countries.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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Any signs of a chill between France and Germany?

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The past few months have seen many signs of growing friction and divisions between the two European superpowers, Germany and France. Before the February vote on changes to the EU Third Energy Package, meant to expand the European Commission’s power to regulate Europe’s electricity and natural gas market, France opposed, until the very last moment, Germany’s position on the issue. In April, Paris and Berlin failed to agree on how much more time Britain should be given to decide on its withdrawal from the EU. During the recent presidential elections in Ukraine, France and Germany supported various candidates. Moreover, they are equally divided on who will be the new head of the European Commission. What is happening in relations between members of the “European tandem”?

During the latter half of 2018, it looked as if relations between the EU’s two powerhouses were reaching a new strategic level. In a joint statement made in Meseberg in June, Berlin and Paris outlined their shared vision of the European Union’s future development. In late August, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas simultaneously spoke out about a new role for Europe to make it “sovereign and strong.” During their informal meeting in Marseille in September, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel agreed on a coordinated response to the main challenges facing Europe and on concerted work on shaping the “agenda for Europe.”

In November, the two leaders spoke in favor of creating a “European army,” “real Pan-European armed forces” capable of defending Europe. And in January of this year, they inked a broader cooperation accord in Aachen, which commentators described as a “new big step” in bringing the two countries closer together. The Treaty of Aachen covers new areas of political cooperation, including common projects and commitments in the fields of defense and international relations.

Just a month later, however, the Franco-German rapprochement hit a snag over two strategic projects worth billions of euros, namely the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and trade relations with the United States. Here the interests of Paris and Berlin differ the most. Underscoring the seriousness of the rift, Emmanuel Macron canceled a planned trip to a security conference in Munich in what many commentators described as a “demonstrative” move. As for the issue of completing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the compromise reached by France and Germany and approved by the European Parliament, imposed on Berlin “a formula that the German government wanted to avoid.”

Regarding the issue of trade relations with the United States, it wasn’t until mid-April that Brussels collectively managed to prevail over France, which had been blocking the start of pertinent negotiations with Washington.  Any delay may cost the German automakers multi-billion dollar fines from the United States. If the French succeed in delaying the start of negotiations, Germany, which is already experiencing a sharp slowdown in economic growth, may end up the loser again.

France’s sudden move left the German media guessing whether Macron’s actions were dictated by his displeasure about Berlin’s “slow response” to his initiatives, or by Donald Trump’s threat to sanction companies involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, including the French concern Engie. Or maybe Macron had resorted to this “show of force” in a bid to strengthen his hand amid the conflict with the “yellow jackets” and growing tensions with Italy?

Indeed, the statement made in Meseberg and the treaty signed in Aachen could have proved too much of a compromise for Macron, if not a serious blow to his ambitions. According to critics, “the Treaty of Aachen dodges the most sensitive topics characteristic of modern Europe.” Including migration and political unification of Europe – something Macron is so eager to accomplish. The treaty makes no mention of a common EU tax and financial policy, while the issue of creating a single economic space is spelled out declaratively at best. Angela Merkel essentially emasculated virtually all of Macron’s initiatives pertaining to the financial and economic reform of the EU and the Eurozone. Emmanuel Macron has been out to become one of the EU’s leaders, or even its sole leader, ever since he became president in 2017. All the more so following Britain’s exit from the bloc and amid the ebbing political authority and the planned resignation by 2021 of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once the informal leader of a united Europe.

The current political situation in France is also calling for more decisive actions by President Macron. To ensure at least a relative success in the upcoming European elections, he needs to enlist the support not only of the traditional left-and right-centrists, but possibly of some representatives of the new European right too. Whether or not Angela Merkel stands down in 2021, or after the elections to the European Parliament (as has been rumored since April), Emmanuel Macron essentially remains the only top-level proponent of greater European integration. (Unless Merkel ultimately moves to the head of the European Commission, of course). With Macron eyeing a second presidential term in 2022, the advancement of the modernization model for France depends directly on the success of the European project. And here any significant changes in the European Union “mainly depend on the position of France’s privileged partner – Germany.”

All this means that Macron needs a breakthrough now that Berlin is going through a “complicated power transit” with Merkel having resigned as the head of the CDU and preparing to hand her post as Federal Chancellor over to a successor. Therefore, she is now taking her time and, according to her successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is holding out for a new vector in the development of the European project as “the common denominator of the distribution of political forces after the elections.” Does this mean that Berlin’s is staking on the success of its candidate in the ongoing struggle for the next president of the European Commission? For the first time ever, the CDU and the CSU have managed to nominate a common candidate who has “good chances” of heading the EU’s executive body.

Meanwhile, Berlin is facing an intractable dilemma. Since 1949, “avoiding by all means situations necessitating a hard choice between France and the United States has been a key principle of German foreign policy.” This approach “survived all governments and coalitions, and was maintained after the reunification of Germany.” Under the present circumstances, however, remaining firmly committed to the transatlantic relationship threatens to further destabilize the European integration project, which is now seen as being key to Germany’s future. Simultaneously, a course aimed at minimizing damage from the policy of external powers that threatens the fundamental German interests might necessitate radical and ambitious geopolitical maneuvers that would almost inevitably revive the Europeans’ and Americans’ historical fears of “German instincts.”

US and British analysts already worry that “the

[geopolitical]

shackles that are voluntarily accepted [by Germany] can be thrown off.” They also wonder how long it will take before new generations of Germans want to restore their country’ full state sovereignty.

In Germany itself, promotion of such slogans have already given the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) the third largest fraction in the Bundestag. A major paradox of the current European and German policy is that Berlin’s activity or passivity is equally detrimental to the Pan-European project and could eventually lead to the EU’s fragmentation and even disintegration.

However, the Franco-German “tandem” is already being dogged with contradictions and compromises, which are highly unpopular among many in the German establishment. The cautious response by many EU members to the latest joint geopolitical initiatives of Berlin and Paris, gave Germany more reasons to fear that Macron’s global ambitions could exacerbate the differences that already exist in the EU. Many in Germany have long suspected Macron of wishing to make the EU instrumental in his foreign policy aspirations.

Some experts still believe that at the end of the day the current chill between Germany and France may turn out to be just a sign of the traditional “propensity for taking independent political decisions.” The sides are sizing each other up to see “who will be setting the rules of the roadmap in the future.”  Also, Paris’s tougher stance towards Berlin may be a tactical ploy, a pre-election maneuver to “hijack” part of the agenda from the “national populists” of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe where many people are not happy about the German “diktat.”

Emmanuel Macron has proved once and again his ability to ride the wave of public discontent with certain issues. His Plan for Europe, published in early March, carefully avoids any mention of France’ and Germany’s leading role in advancing EU reforms.

On the other hand, the foreign policy of the leading European powers has a long history, and long-term geopolitical considerations continue to play a significant role. Germany, for one, has traditionally been looking for a counterweight to the Anglo-Saxons, while France – to German dominance in Europe. As a result, the search by Paris and Berlin for common points of political contact is now turning into intense efforts to find the “lowest common denominator.” The overall impression is that we will only be able to see a greater deal of certainty in relations between the two countries after the results of elections to the European Parliament have been summed up.  The distribution of roles both within the “European tandem” and in the EU as a whole depends on which political forces – pro-Macron or pro-Merkel, the Europeans will vote for.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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Sino-Italian Partnership and European Concern

Mohamad Zreik

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A crucial moment in modern European history is that the European doors opened to Chinese President Xi Jinping in Italy during a reception that is like receiving kings and leaders. Once again China is moving west despite all the American warnings from the Chinese dragon coming from the East, and this time it was Italy’s accession to the One Belt One Road initiative.

The Chinese president said that his country’s relationship with Italy is excellent and that the Sino-Italian common interests are the basis for a fruitful future. The Italian prime minister said that Italy is a key partner in the Belt and Road initiative and that trade between Italy and China should increase. But all this positive atmosphere is met with dissatisfaction and fear by the United States and some Italians, which is totally opposed to dealing with China because it considers it a threat to its national security and therefore to the national security of Italy.

In order to prevent espionage or transfer of experience by the Chinese, it was agreed to establish an oversight authority. In an expression of US rejection of the agreement, White House official Garrett Marquis wrote last week on Twitter that Rome “does not need” to join the “New Silk Road”. In an effort to ease US concerns, Luigi Di Maio said before taking part in an Italian-Chinese economic forum in Rome that the relationship will not go beyond trade, as we remain allies of the United States, and remain in NATO and the European Union.

The Italian economy, which is in a recession, is pushing the Italian government to form an alliance with China. Many European policy experts consider Italy to be a Trojan horse for China in the European region, which will have political implications for the future of the EU and the future of the Italian-American relationship; especially as the Chinese giant Huawei is expected to participate in the launch of the technology “G5” mobile phones in Italy.

China’s opening up is not limited to Italy, but to Europe as a whole. In the last visit by the Chinese president to Europe, he moved from Italy to Monaco and Paris and met President Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to open up to Beijing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has opposed the Sino-Italian rapprochement with signing the agreement to join the Belt and Road Initiative, so that Italy will be the first G7 country to join the initiative.

Beijing is interested in investing in Italian ports, including the port of Trieste on the Adriatic, to boost its exports to Europe. Italy seeks to balance trade with China. According to official data, trade between the two countries grew by 9.2% compared to 2016, reaching 42 billion euros. Italy managed to cut its trade deficit with China by 1.37 billion euros, increasing exports to Beijing by 22.2%, while imports rose to 28.4 billion euros, an increase of 4% compared to 2016.

But the most important issue remains the weak Italian economy, which will survive under Chinese debt, and the Sri Lankan experience proves that China is dealing with countries with economic interests. So, will the European gateway withstand the Chinese economic giant, or will it be a Chinese economic and political region in the future?

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Summit in Berlin: Pressure on Serbs

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On April 29 Summit of the Western Balkans leaders was organized under the initiative of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. In advance, it was known that the whole meeting was organized only and exclusively because of the Kosovo issue. Summit was opened by German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron who pointed out that Western Balkans remains EU priority, adding that this is only an informal discussion, and no final solutions for Kosovo should be expected. The official meeting was followed by a working dinner, that finished late in the evening.

A letter summarizing the pledges of the meeting with a special focus on Serbia – Kosovo dialogue and economic integration of the region, was signed as the event concluded. After the meeting was concluded, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic stated that the talks had been difficult, but nevertheless thanked Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron for their contribution. According to him, it shows their commitment for the Western Balkans, which is important for maintaining peace in Europe. He added that everybody urged Kosovo`s leaders to revoke the tariffs  introduced for Serbian goods .

President of self-proclaimed Kosovo Hashim Thaci also found last night talks difficult, adding that the Summit finished without any tangible results. Frozen conflict between Belgrade and Pristina has to be overcome, Summit‘s participants jointly concluded, said Thaci to the journalists in Berlin. Thaci stated that, even though there will be no border exchange, he will advocate that Preshevo Valley becomes part of Kosovo. Kosovo’s President expressed dissatisfaction because for Kosovo has not been abolished visas, and reminded that Kosovo fulfilled all the requirements for visa liberalization.

Prime Minister of self-proclaimed Kosovo Ramush Haradinaj pointed out that the recognition by Serbia is the first step towards the progress, but not the final one. Haradinaj stressed that it is unacceptable to change the borders, because if the borders change, it would lead to new ethnic divisions and maybe violence.

It is particularly interesting to point out that on the summit in Berlin, Bosnia and Herzegovina was represented by the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina Denis Zvizdic, and if Denis Zvizdic has no legitimacy. Namely, Denis Zvizdic is currently in a technical mandate until the new Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina is elected, while Milorad Dodik, chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite Presidency, is the only legal representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, since Milorad Dodik is a Serb and publicly declares that Kosovo is a southern Serbian province, Denis Zvizdic was called. And Zvizdic, on summit, pointed out that every country in the Balkans has internationally recognized borders and that the basic EU principal is not to change the existing ones. This statement primarily refers to Republika Srpska, which accounts for 49% of Bosnia and Herzegovina and wants to be independent. But Denis Zvizdic, like all other Bosniak politicians, supports an independent Kosovo.

Prime Minister of Croatia Andrej Plenkovic said that the key messages were directed at the attempt to unblock Belgrade – Pristina Dialogue. Together with his Slovenian colleague Marijan Sarec, Plenkovic was the only other leader of an EU country present at the meeting, apart from Merkel and Macron.

Prespa Agreement was once again pointed out as a model for successful resolution of bilateral disputes. Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev emphasized the importance of normalizing the relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and urged the EU to recognize the progress achieved by his country by opening accession negotiations in June.

Concluding Thoughts

The main objective of the summit in Berlin was to send a clear message that the demarcation between Serbia and Kosovo will not be allowed, and to exert additional pressure on the Serbs. At this summit, Germany and France also clearly stated that it was completely unacceptable for them to change the boundaries along ethnic lines. Also, the European Union makes it clear that they want to resolve the Kosovo issue.

However, the fact that there are no representatives of the United States in the negotiations does not reflect the real situation. Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has recently publicly stated that Kosovo has no foreign policy, but that the foreign policy of Kosovo is lead by the United States. The only reason why the United States is not officially present in the negotiations is that it could be a reason for Russia to engage in negotiations.

And the change in the format of negotiations and the entry of Russia into the new format of negotiations would be the strategic interest of Serbia. Unfortunately, the current Serbian government does not open that question. Exactly opposite, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic led secret negotiations with Hashim Thaci and Federica Mogherini, illegally arranging demarcation between Serbia and self-proclaimed Kosovo. Aleksandar Vucic, together with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, has already done a great deal of damage to Serbian interests in Kosovo. Signing the Brussels Agreement,  Vucic and Dacic agreed to the abolition of Serbian institutions in Kosovo. So now there are border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo, in northern Kosovo which is  predominantly inhabited by Serbs now is established Kosovo Police. And Serbian judges  now take an oath to President of self-proclaimed Kosovo Hashim Thaci, who is considered a terrorist in Serbia.

Serbian authorities strongly lobby in Russia that official Moskow accept the plan of demarcation between Serbia and Kosovo. Recently, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic was in Moscow, while the Serbian President recently met in Beijing with the President of Russia. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have repeatedly made clear that Russia supports any agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, which is within the framework of the UN Resolution 1244. That is a very smart position of Russia, supported by an absolute majority of Serbian citizens.

Because if the plan of current Serbian authorities was accepted, that would result in an independent Kosovo, against which is the absolute majority of Serbian citizens. An independent Kosovo would soon be united with Albania, which is a member of the NATO alliance, and Kosovo would automatically become a NATO territory. All this would result in Serbia’s accelerated path to NATO and EU, as well as the introduction of sanctions against Russia.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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