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European Parliament Elections: The moment of truth?

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With voters from the 28 EU member states casting ballots on May 23-26 to elect their representatives for the European Parliament, political forces across the bloc have been pitching their programs to the public and trading mutual accusations. Voting begins on Thursday, starting with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and continues over four days. German Chancellor Angela Merkel hails the upcoming vote as “special,” and of “great importance.” However, even though the election campaign is in full swing now, its internal intensity and unpredictability are something mainly the participants and experts are really interested in. What is the balance of forces, public expectations, fears and new trends characterizing the situation ahead of Thursday’s vote – the ninth parliamentary election since the first direct elections were held in 1979?

There are eight factions and political groups in the 751-strong European Parliament.  Eighteen MEPs are independents. According to May 18 opinion polls,: 

– The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) is expected to garner 168-178 seats (minus 43-48 seats)

– The center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is projected to get 151-153 (minus 35-38),

– The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the “En Marche!” movement of French President Emmanuel Macron – 102-104 seats (plus 34-37).

– The EU-sceptics are spearheaded by the Matteo Salvini bloc (European Alliance of Peoples and Nations, EAPN), previously known as “Europe of Nations and Freedoms” (ENF) – between 70 and 82 seats (plus 34-45),

– European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) – between 60 and 61 seats (minus 9-17).

– The group of Euro-sceptics of the 5 Stars Movement and the Brexit Party (formerly Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, EFDD) – between 45 and 49 seats (plus 3-7).

– Moderate euro-sceptics from the “European United Left” – 50-52 (could lose up to 2 seats).

– European Greens/Free European Alliance (Greens/EFA) – 55-56 seats (plus 4-5).

– And, finally, new party candidates and independents can count on 49-52 seats (plus 28).

Centrists are believed to win 395 seats, right-wingers – 208 seats, left-wingers – 123 mandates, with 25 seats expected to go to the independents. According to many experts, pro-European candidates could win about 468 seats, “euro-sceptics”, with their ever-changing ideological “base” – around 256 seats, with the independents expected to end up with 27 seats.  In the 2014 elections “euro-sceptics” accounted for about a third of all MEPs (250 deputies). Five years ago, the opponents of an overcentralized European Union managed to “more than double” their membership in the European Parliament.

The overarching agenda of this week’s vote hasn’t changed for more than six months now, and reflects a rapid decline in the people’s confidence in the traditional European parties and their ability to adequately address the domestic and external challenges the EU is facing today. European voters are worried by the current erosion of their countries’ national independence, Brussels’ migration policy, the economic slowdown and growing social inequality, and what they perceive as unfair distribution of the benefits of globalization. Finally, anti-immigrant rhetoric has strengthened the hand of political forces that until recently had little, if any, chances of challenging the mainstream political parties.

Public trust in the leaders of the traditional political forces that dominated the European Parliament during the past decades has hit the rock bottom, with the future of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which is the largest faction in the European Parliament (217 seats), thrown in doubt by Angela Markel’s announced departure from big-time politics in 2021. During the course of the election campaign, the EPP has failed to find a middle ground amid the ever-heating debates between liberals and nationalists. The EPP leaders’ attempts to avoid taking a clear ideological stand only added to their voters’ disillusionment and even resulted in some of them joining the “euro-sceptics”, liberals or social democrats. Seeing the failure of their efforts to resist the “populists,” the EPP shifted their political agenda to the “right,” grudgingly adopting, though in a softer way, some of the ideas espoused by the “euro-sceptics.”

As for the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES), which has traditionally ranked second in the number of seats they hold in the European Parliament (currently 189), remains torn between the desire to preserve its image of a defender of the “welfare state” and the need to convince voters of its the ability to address the most acute problems now facing Europe. By the end of April, the Social Democrats had managed to appease, at least for now, their voters who blame the party for the migrant crisis of the past few years. In addition, the formal consolidation of the “nationalists,” coupled with the public disappointment with the half-measures proposed by President Macron in response to the “yellow jackets” protests even won the center-leftists several potential seats in the European Parliament.

The election campaign by liberals and “euro-optimists” produced mixed results: on the one hand, they could significantly increase the size of membership in the European Parliament (by 34 seats), and become the third largest faction there. The united liberal faction, Emmanuel Macron is staking on could, under certain circumstances, get a “controlling stake in the EP whose support would be crucial in cobbling together a large pro-European coalition in the EP. On the other hand, Macron’s stated desire to invest the pan-European institutions with a new quality (see his March 5 address to European voters), apparently failed to impress EU voters. Macron’s March 5 address thus could give his supporters just two or three potential seats in the EP. Although apparently succeeding in mobilizing the traditional left-and right-centrists, Emmanuel Macron has hardly managed to win over at least some of the representatives of the new European right. It is highly unlikely that, with the situation developing as it is, the liberals will be able to form a faction in the European Parliament large enough for their leader to claim the post of European Commission President.

Meanwhile, the situation in the euro-sceptic camp is equally paradoxical with Italy’s “nationalist” Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini leading the coalition of opponents of an increasingly centralized European Union. Early this year, Salvini, who is also the leader of the “far-right” League party, floated the idea of “reformatting Europe” by creating an electoral coalition of “sovereignists” and “populists,” including in some countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to Matteo Salvini’s League Party, the coalition of “right-wing populists” includes the Austrian Freedom Party, the French National Rally led by Marine Le Pen, the Alternative for Germany Party, the Finns Party, and the Flemish Interest Party in Belgium, as well as a bevy of smaller parties from Bulgaria, Denmark, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Estonia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s national conservative Fidesz Party is considering joining the coalition in the event of its expulsion from the European People’s Party faction after the elections. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party could also join in. Such a coalition could theoretically pose a challenge, at least to Macron’s “globalists,” but could it possibly turn the European Parliament into a place where “euro-sceptics” would call the shots?

The past month has seen Salvini’s supporters potentially increase their seats in the EP by another 10 to 15, even despite the League’s waning popularity at home. The euro-sceptics’ weak point, however, is the diversity of their political platforms. The opponents or a more centralized EU are a patchwork of nationalists, separatists, populists, and radicals of every hue. They are divided on many things, including the EU policy towards Russia. In addition, becoming a part of “the power pyramid” “inevitably increases internal differentiation, centrifugal tendencies, and even splits.”

Finally, as soon as they come to power, the onetime oppositionists are inevitably confronted with public political responsibilities they are not used to bear, as well as temptations of their newly acquired high status. This is exactly what happened to the Austrian Freedom Party. May 18, it was announced that its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was resigning as the country’s vice-chancellor amid a scandal. The accusations against the Freedom Party leadership over their alleged corruption has resulted in new elections and could undermine the “ultra-right” parties’ chances in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.

Of much attention to observers was the personal struggle waged throughout the election campaign by Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Salvini for riding the wave of public discontent with the establishment – a struggle the euro-sceptic Salvini is very likely to win. However, the most organized “right-wing populists” will hardly be able to prevail over the conservatives and social democrats when it comes to the number of their members serving in the next European Parliament. Therefore, all the “euro-sceptics” and “populists” can hope for is a split in the right-centrists’ camp   after the elections. As for Macron, he can count on fortifying his positions in the new European Parliament.

Finally, the situation around Britain’s exit from the EU also factored in the election campaign, with a delayed Brexit and London’s dithering over a second Brexit referendum adding potential votes to pro-European parties (a potential “plus” of between 18 and 20 mandates) as well as to “populists” and “euro-sceptics” (a combined addition of between 30 and 35 mandates).  Simultaneously, in the pro-European camp, the delayed Brexit has played into the hands of the Social Democrats and liberals, while undermining the chances of the European People’s Party. The endless postponements of Brexit have also undermined public support for the idea of some countries leaving the EU, while adding credence to the idea of just giving individual EU states greater control over the activities of the European bureaucracy.

As a result, public opinion polls released ahead of Thursday’s vote predict the end of the decades-long predominance of the two largest factions – Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, and the formation of an even more fragmented European Parliament. There is a growing danger of European politics returning to the “confrontational model” of the past. If this happens, it would erode the European Parliament’s political weight, further undermine the efficiency of its legislative work, its ability to take quick decisions and coordinate long-term, strategic initiatives, thus diluting their essence.

With all this being said, the “euro-sceptics” could still be able to strengthen their positions and even win over a third of the seats in the EP, which would allow them to block decisions by a qualified majority. However, their potential coalition will be rather shaky, first in view of the UK MEPs’ likely departure and, secondly, due to the need to preserve unity in their own ranks, represented by a growing number of parties and movements critical of the EU. For their part, the pro-European forces have good chances of retaining their formal majority in the EP, but with their three core factions carrying almost equal political weight, this could lead to increased frictions in the way they will be handling hot-button issues. Including who will head the European Commission, and budgetary issues. Therefore, the most likely outcome of this all will be a compromise, half-hearted decisions, fraught with further disorganization of the EU policy and its fragmentation along national and regional lines.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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Europe

Europe tells Biden “no way” to Cold War with China

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Amidst the first big transatlantic tensions for the Biden Administration, a new poll shows that the majority of Europeans see a new Cold War happening between the United States and China, but they don’t see themselves as a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, 62% of Europeans believe that the US is engaged in a new Cold War against China, a new poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations found. Just yesterday US President Joe Biden claimed before the UN General Assembly that there is no such thing and the US is not engaging in a new Cold War. So, Europeans see Biden’s bluff and call him on it.

The study was released on Wednesday by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev at the European Council on Foreign Relations and found that Europeans don’t see themselves as direct participants in the US-China Cold War. This viewpoint is most pronounced in Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Italy, according to the study. The prevailing view, in each of the 12 surveyed EU member states, is one of irrelevance – with respondents in Hungary (91%), Bulgaria (80%), Portugal (79%), and Austria (78%) saying that their country is not in a conflict with Beijing.

Only 15% of Europeans believe that the EU is engaged in a Cold War against China. The percentage is so low that one wonders if there should even be such a question. It is not only not a priority, it is not even a question on the agenda for Europeans. Even at the highest point of EU “hawkishness”, only 33% of Swedes hold the view that their country is currently in a Cold War with China.  Leonard and Krastev warn that if Washington and Brussels are preparing for an all-in generational struggle against China, this runs against the grain of opinion in Europe, and leaders in Washington and Brussels will quickly discover that they “do not have a societal consensus behind them”.

“The European public thinks there is a new cold war – but they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Our polling reveals that a “cold war” framing risks alienating European voters”, Mark Leonard said.

The EU doesn’t have the backing of its citizens to follow the US in its new Cold War pursuit. But unlike the views of the authors of the study, my view is that this is not a transatlantic rift that we actually have to be trying to fix. Biden’s China policy won’t be Europe’s China policy, and that’s that, despite US efforts to persuade Europe to follow, as I’ve argued months ago for the Brussels Report and in Modern Diplomacy.

In March this year, Gallup released a poll that showed that 45% of Americans see China as the greatest US enemy. The poll did not frame the question as Cold War but it can be argued that Joe Biden has some mandate derived from the opinion of American people. That is not the case for Europe at all, to the extent that most of us don’t see “China as an enemy” even as a relevant question.

The US’s China pursuit is already giving horrible for the US results in Europe, as French President Macron withdrew the French Ambassador to the US. The US made a deal already in June, as a part of the trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia, and stabbed France in the back months ago to Macron’s last-minute surprise last week. Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is Macron that is actually arrogant to expect that commitments and deals should mean something: “Back in February, Macron rejected the idea of a U.S.-E.U. common front against China. Now he complains when America pursues its own strategy against China. What’s French for chutzpah?” What Boot does get right is that indeed, there won’t be a joint US-EU front on China, and European citizens also don’t want this, as the recent poll has made clear.

The US saying Europe should follow the US into a Cold War with China over human rights is the same thing as China saying that Europe should start a Cold War with the US over the bad US human rights record. It’s not going to happen. You have to understand that this is how ridiculous the proposition sounds to us, Europeans. Leonard and Krastev urge the EU leadership to “make the case for more assertive policies” towards China around European and national interests rather than a Cold War logic, so that they can sell a strong, united, and compelling case for the future of the Atlantic alliance to European citizens.

I am not sure that I agree, as “more assertive policies” and “cold war” is probably the same thing in the mind of most Europeans and I don’t think that the nuance helps here or matters at all. Leaders like Biden argue anyway that the US is not really pursuing a Cold War. The authors caution EU leaders against adopting a “cold war” framing. You say “framing”, I say “spin”. Should we be in engaging in spins at all to sell unnecessary conflict to EU citizens only to please the US?

Unlike during the first cold war, [Europeans] do not see an immediate, existential threat”, Leonard clarified. European politicians can no longer rely on tensions with China to convince the electorate of the value of transatlantic relations. “Instead, they need to make the case from European interests, showing how a rebalanced alliance can empower and restore sovereignty to European citizens in a dangerous world”, Mark Leonard added. The study shows that there is a growing “disconnect” between the policy ambitions of those in Brussels and how Europeans think. EU citizens should stick to their sentiments and not be convinced to look for conflict where it doesn’t exist, or change what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears in favor of elusive things like the transatlantic partnership, which the US itself doesn’t believe in anyways. And the last thing that should be done is to scare Europeans by convincing them they live in a “dangerous world” and China is the biggest threat or concern.

What the study makes clear is that a Cold War framing against China is likely to repel more EU voters than it attracts, and if there is one thing that politicians know it is that you have to listen to the polls in what your people are telling you instead of engaging in spins. Those that don’t listen in advance get the signs eventually. At the end of the day it’s not important what Biden wants.

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Germany and its Neo-imperial quest

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In January 2021, eight months ago, when rumours about the possibility of appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia occurred for the first time, I published the text under the title ‘Has Germany Lost Its NATO Compass?’. In this text I announced that Schmidt was appointed to help Dragan Čović, the leader of the Croatian HDZ party, to disrupt the constitutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and create precoditions for secession of the Serb- and Croatian-held territories in Bosnia and the country’s final dissolution. I can hardly add anything new to it, except for the fact that Schmidt’s recent statements at the conference of Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft have fully confirmed my claims that his role in Bosnia is to act as Čović’s ally in the latter’s attempts to carve up the Bosnian Constitution.

Schmidt is a person with a heavy burden, the burden of a man who has continuously been promoting Croatian interests, for which the Croatian state decorated him with the medal of “Ante Starčević”, which, in his own words, he “proudly wears” and shares with several Croatian convicted war criminals who participated in the 1992-1995 aggression on Bosnia, whom Schmidt obviously perceives as his ideological brethren. The question is, then, why Germany appointed him as the High Representative in Bosnia? 

Germany’s policy towards Bosnia, exercised mostly through the institutions of the European Union, has continuously been based on the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. The phrases that we can occassionaly hear from the EU, on inviolability of state boundaries in the Balkans, is just a rhetoric adapted to the demands by the United States to keep these boundaries intact. So far, these boundaries have remained intact mainly due to the US efforts to preserve them. However, from the notorious Lisbon Conference in February 1992 to the present day, the European Union has always officially stood behind the idea that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned along ethnic lines. At the Lisbon Conference, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, the official representatives of the then European Community, which has in the meantime been rebranded as the European Union, drew the maps with lines of ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along which the ethnic cleansing was committed, with 100.000 killed and 1,000.000 expelled, so as to make its territory compatible with their maps. Neither Germany nor the European Union have ever distanced themselves from the idea they promoted and imposed at the Lisbon Conference as ‘the only possible solution’ for Bosnia, despite the grave consequences that followed. Nor has this idea ever stopped being a must within their foreign policy circles, as it has recently been demonstrated by the so-called Janša Non-Paper, launched a couple of months ago, which also advocates the final partition and dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a plan is probably a product of the powerful right-wing circles in the European institutions, such as Schmidt’s CSU, rather than a homework of Janez Janša, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, whose party is a part of these circles, albeit a minor one. To be sure, Germany is not the original author of the idea of Bosnia’s partition, this author is Great Britain, which launched it directly through Lord Carrington at the Lisbon Conference. Yet, Germany has never shown a will to distance itself from this idea, nor has it done the European Union. Moreover, the appointment of Schmidt, as a member of those political circles which promote ethnic partition as the only solution for multiethnic countries, testifies to the fact that Germany has decided to fully apply this idea and act as its chief promoter.

In this process, the neighbouring countries, Serbia and Croatia, with their extreme nationalist policies, can only act as the EU’s proxies, in charge for the physical implemenation of Bosnia’s pre-meditated disappearance. All the crimes that Serbia and Croatia committed on the Bosnian soil – from the military aggression, over war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, up to the 30 year-long efforts to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – have always had a direct approval and absolute support of the leading EU countries. During the war and in its aftermath, Great Britain and France were the leaders of the initiatives to impose ethnic partition on the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Germany has taken up their role. In such a context, the increasing aggressiveness of Serbia and Croatia can only be interpreted as a consequence of the EU’s intention to finish with Bosnia for good, and Schmidt has arrived to Bosnia to facilitate that process. Therefore, it is high time for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon any ilussions about the true intentions of the European Union and reject its Trojan Horse in the form of the current High Representative.  

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Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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