According to European media reports, many EU residents continue to perceive the governing bodies of the 28-member bloc, including of the European Commission (EC), as being unable to “leave behind the image of a detached bureaucratic system.” This negative perception was further boosted by the recent elections, which left the European Parliament bitterly “split.” The formation of the new makeup of the European Commission was equally tortuous, in large part “due to the mismatch of political views.” The confusion reached its climax after France, Romania and Hungary had their candidates for European commissioners rejected, formally on the grounds of “a conflict of interest and misuse of public funds.” [i] As a result, the new-look European Commission will hardly be able to get down to work before December 1, instead of November 1, as originally planned.
The European Union is facing a mounting wave of problems and challenges, is increasingly divided and unable to solve them. From the outside, China and the United States are ramping up pressure on Europe, which feels the objective need to restore a constructive dialogue with Russia. From within, the basic foundations of European unity continue to be attacked by “populists and supporters of authoritarianism.” Even countries that formally embrace liberal values, including Germany, France, Spain and the Baltic countries, disagree about the future of the European project. Brexit, the collapse of the coalition government in Italy in August, the far-right Alternative for Germany party finishing in third place in parliamentary elections in Germany reflect the underlying desire by some governing parties and many of their voters to change the rules and institutions of the EU. [ii]
Moreover, there is a dividing line separating the European north and south economically, and a humanitarian, environmental and ideological one running between east and west. Coupled with the ever-growing signs of US hostility, all these challenges objectively pose existential questions to the European establishment about the future of the continent. What course will the EU have to take? Will the “narrow limited view” of the Central and East European countries pare down the ideas of the “pan-European house” to just a set of beautiful slogans, and bring real politics down to the level of “tactical pragmatism,” pandering to the voters’ moods? Or maybe the idea of a “Europe of Nations” will prevail, and the EU will be transformed into a Confederation of independent states, united by a common free-trade zone and “several more supranational functions”? And what kind of a role will the EU be able to play in global politics? Will it achieve strategic autonomy as part of the increasingly amorphous “Western” homogeneity, while preserving its civilizational homogeneity? Or will it have to solve the gargantuan task of creating a full-fledged “power center,” interacting with the rest of the world mainly, if not exclusively, on the principles of “Realpolitik”?
This presents a number of more practical questions, which the Europeans are either unable to answer or just don’t want to hear. Who will venture to bear the difficult and controversial burden of EU leadership? After the UK has left the Union, as it is most likely to do, Germany and France can objectively claim the role of leader (rather a collective one though). [iii]
Overall, Berlin and Paris take a shared view of the concept of the EU moving towards greater federalization. This strategy is primarily aimed at preserving the EU single market and could eventually become instrumental in implementing political decisions. For example, the summer election of a candidate for the head of the European Commission demonstrated a break from the decades-old procedure, turning into a sort of backroom bargaining between the Union’s leading members.
Now that Britain is highly likely to leave the EU, this is apparently giving France and Germany a chance to agree on the distribution of their roles as EU leaders. However, the Franco-German “tandem” is getting increasingly divided. Right now, Paris and Berlin are at odds over giving London a new Brexit delay. Besides, France is holding out for a European army as a real fighting force that could be put to use without any consensual decision by all EU members. Germany, for its part, sees it as a more amorphous structure focused on a coordination of efforts. France favors further integration within the Eurozone, while Germany fears the prospect of continuing to bear the brunt of Europe’s financial and economic woes. Berlin may also regard Paris’ recent bid to regain its role as a global power as a desire to gain additional geopolitical leverage within Europe. Germany, in turn, is torn between mounting domestic policy problems and the need to demonstrate a firm response to new external challenges. At the same time, any abrupt moves by Berlin will almost inevitably revive the Europeans’ historical fears of “German instincts.”
The misbalance of geopolitical forces in Europe has for centuries been a primary cause of continental and global conflicts. According to Anglo-Saxon experts, the German superiority over other European states has been a leading destabilizing factor of the past 150 years, and this is something many in Germany conditionally agree with: “Neither the UK nor France is able to exert pressure on Germany when it comes to laying out the course for the EU.” Only the United States has the necessary political and economic leverage to do so. [iv]
This is exactly why many “small” European countries have traditionally sought closest possible geopolitical ties with the United States, even to the detriment of the pan-European agenda [v], and even outside the formal mechanisms of NATO, in a thinly veiled hint about the desirability of “containing” not only Russia but Germany as well. By extension, London was seen by them as another counterweight, not only to Germany but also to France. Is there any EU structure, either current or hypothetical, capable of providing its members with “political protection against each other,” commensurate with the US one? And who will continue to play the role of the “British counterweight”? Besides, the Eastern European states will hardly embrace the real purpose of the EU reform model, advocated by the leading “old” members of the club with an eye to minimizing the Central and East European member states’ ability to play on the contradictions of world powers.
Finally, the idea of delegating new powers to supranational institutions has always stoked heated debates within the EU. During the past 20-25 years, “EU pressure” has been increasingly rejected by many political forces not only in some Central and East European countries, but also in Austria and Italy [vi], which have seen this as an attempt to restrict their sovereignty. [vii] By the way, it was exactly under this pretext that the United Kingdom decided to leave the Union. As a result, the conflict “with the nationalist leaders of Central Europe, led by Poland and Hungary”
, calls into question the very existence of the EU in the foreseeable future.
Even though the “populist” wave had somehow declined by this fall, as forecasts about the European Parliament falling under the “sovereignists”’ control never materialized and the “populists” left the government in Italy and lost some of the electoral base in Austria, Eurosceptics in Poland have only strengthened their position following national elections. Moreover, “nationalists” ended in second place in regional elections held in two eastern German provinces in September, and Sebastian Kurz, the most likely candidate for Austrian chancellor, makes no secret of his desire to limit the European Union’s sway. Here he is certain to enjoy the backing of some of his colleagues in the Central and East European countries, who are equally unhappy about Brussels’ attempts to call all the shots in the Union. Thus, the growing friction within the EU is more than just a “rise in nationalist sentiment.” The EU is still teetering precariously on the brink of actually moving to a “two-speed Europe,” all the more so now that many “nationalists” and “Eurosceptics” are gravitating towards the idea of a “deep internal transformation” of the EU instead of destroying it altogether, which many of their voters were so wary of.
Fully aware of the impending danger, France and Germany have pitched their own EU reform plans to the Europeans. Emmanuel Macron’s triumphant victory over the “nationalists” at home, coupled with Angela Merkel’s announcement that she would stand down before 2021, almost immediately made the new French president the biggest hope of EU reform supporters. In spring 2019, Macron responded to the growing popularity of sovereignty ideas and increased external pressure on the EU by embarking on a course towards a “sovereign Europe.” He is talking about the need for Europe to play a new role and “strengthen” its position in the new balance of power currently emerging in the world. Macron is also talking about the need for the EU to “guarantee its own security.” These are just some of the several dozen different initiatives that the French leader has proposed to the EU in order to move towards “European sovereignty” and deepen democracy and trust. [ix] Critics fear, however, that Macron’s geopolitical ambitions could further deepen the internal divisions within the European Union.
In August, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas backed the idea of creating, in the wake of the British departure from the EU, a “quintet” of leading nations that would include Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland. According to Maas, these five nations could be “directly involved in the administration of the European Union.” [x] While admitting the objective difficulties on the way of creating such a group, Maas still expressed confidence that the differences in the political priorities of the current leaders of Italy and Poland should not be allowed to prevent the delegation to these countries of greater responsibility for the future of Europe.
According to The Economist, in addition to Germany, France and Spain, the EU’s “top five” could also include the Netherlands and Austria. Along with Italy and Greece, Spain has good ties with the Franco-German “tandem.” The Netherlands, while maintaining a constructive relationship with Paris and Berlin, has simultaneously strengthened its position in the EU by spearheading an informal coalition against continued fiscal centralization within the Union, so actively advocated by Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. This has brought The Hague closer to the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. Finally, Austria has in recent years been a key participant in the debate on migration, and has proved itself as a successful moderator of discussions on issues dividing the EU’s liberal west and conservative east. This past spring, the three countries, the “political heritage of the Habsburgs” of sorts, put together a broad coalition within the EU to outline the bloc’s environmental strategy until 2050, and even managed to bring an initially skeptical Germany over to their side.
It is believed that when fully implemented, the course towards the creation of a European army could be also conducive to greater integration and the streamlining of roles within the EU. In early 2019, Paris and Berlin signed the Aachen Agreement, which, among other things, significantly expands the sphere of their military-strategic cooperation. By bringing Italy on board, the three leading EU powers could provide Europe with basic weapons as well. “The Germans build tanks, the French build planes and the Italians build ships.” And still, a political decision remains far from being taken.” [xi] Some analysts believe that the election of a German candidate to the head of the European Commission could give an additional boost to the idea of giving Europe at least a certain degree of autonomy within NATO. However, during her stint as German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen always welcomed bigger US military presence in Europe.
The strategy of a new expansion has until very recently been another working option for the EU to “regain self-confidence.” In February 2018, Brussels announced a plan for at least some of the six West Balkan states to join the bloc before 2025. According to Brussels, the admission of new members should convince the rest of the need to waive privileges for individual countries, while delegating more powers to the “center.” The idea is to have majority decisions, instead of consensual ones, develop mechanisms for monitoring compliance by member countries and punishing offenders. The ultimate goal is to have “supranational institutions that will gradually take away key functions from the less competent national governments.” [xii] However, during the last EU summit, France, the Netherlands and Denmark opposed the start of accession talks with Albania and Northern Macedonia. Is this a sign of the growing influence by Paris, The Hague and Copenhagen, or maybe this obstructionism reflects their inability to convince the others?
Overall, Brussels still lacks the power and leadership to make sure that a united Europe can actually play a more significant role in global affairs. The Franco-German “tandem” is full of contradictions and compromises, European policy is getting increasingly fractional and fragmented, and the addition of many new members has made the EU less manageable. Moreover, reaching a consensus vital for implementing a concerted policy is getting harder too. The time of “solid” and even temporary alliances within the EU is running out, as coalitions are becoming increasingly situational, threatening to paralyze the Union’s political institutions. The unexpected delay in approving the European Commission’s new lineup showed that the centralization of Europe is fraught with the return of political squabbling and a clash of ideas. Moreover, an increasingly independent European Parliament does not sit well with many national leaders. Thus, the need to overcome existing structural constraints and new challenges, if possible at all, is now a major priority for Brussels. Ultimately, it is up to the EU member states to decide to what extent each of them is willing to make their future dependent on the interests of all other Europeans.
From our partner International Affairs
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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