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Who will lead the EU?

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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”

[viii]

, 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

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Why German car giant Volkswagen should drop Turkey

Iveta Cherneva

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War and aggression are not only questions of ethics and humanitarian disaster. They are bad news for business.

The German car giant Volkwagen whose business model is built on consumer appeal had to stop and pause when Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria. A USD 1.4bln Volkswagen investment in a new plant in Turkey is being put on hold by the management, and rightly so.

Unlike business areas more or less immune from consumer pressure – like some financial sectors, for example – car buying is a people thing. It is done by regular people who follow the news and don’t want to stimulate and associate themselves with crimes against humanity and war crimes through their purchases. Investing in a militarily aggressive country simply is bad for an international brand.

As soon as the news hit that Turkey would be starting their military invasion against the Kurds, questions about plans for genocide appeared in the public discourse space. Investing over a billion in such a political climate does not make sense.

By investing into a new plant next to Turkish city Izmir, Volkswagen is not risking security so much. Izmir itself is far removed from Turkey’s southern border — although terrorist attacks in the current environment are generally not out of the question.

The risk question rather lies elsewhere. Business likes stability and predictability. Aggressive economic sanctions which are likely to be imposed on Turkey by the EU and the US would affect many economic and business aspects which the company has to factor in. Two weeks ago the US House of Representatives already voted to impose sanctions on Turkey, which now leaves the Senate to vote on an identical resolution.

Economic sanctions affect negatively the purchasing power of the population. And Volkswagen’s new business would rely greatly on the Turkish client in a market of over 80mln people.

Sanctions also have a psychological “buckle-up” effect on customers in economies “under siege”, whereby clients are less likely to want to splurge on a new car in strenuous times.

Volkswagen is a German but also a European company. Its decision will signal clearly if it lives by the EU values of support for human rights, or it decides to look the other way and put business first.

But is not only about reputational damage, which Volkswagen seems to be concerned with. There are real business counter-arguments which coincide with anti-war concerns.

Dogus Otomotiv, the Turkish distributor of VW vehicles, fell as much as 6.5% in Istanbul trading after the news for the Turkish offensive.

Apart from their effects on the Turkish consumer, economic sanctions will also likely keep Turkey away from international capital markets.

There is also the question of an EU company investing outside the EU, which has raised eyebrows. It is up to the European Commission now to decide whether the Volkswagen deal in Turkey can go forward after a complaint was filed. Turkey offered the German conglomerate a generous 400mln euro subsidy which is a problem when it comes to the EU rules and regulations on competition.

The Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber filed a complaint with the EU competition Commissioner about the deal, on the basis of non-compliance with EU competition rules. Turkey’s plans to subsidize Volkswagen clearly run counter EU rules and the EU Commission can stop the 1bln deal, if it so decides.

In a context where Turkey takes care of 4mln refugees — subject to an agreement with the EU — and often threatens the EU that it would “open the gates”, it is not clear if the Commission would muster the guts to say no, however. In that sense, the German company’s own decision to pull from the deal would be welcome because the Commission itself wouldn’t have to pronounce on the issue and risk angering Turkey.

While some commentators do not believe that Volkswagen would scrap altogether the investment and is only delaying the decision, it is worth remembering that the Syria conflict is a complex, multi-player conflict which has gone on for more than 8 years. Turkey’s entry in Syria is unlikely to end in a month. Erdogan has communicated his intention to stay in Syria until the Kurds back down.

In October it was reported that the Turkish forces are already using chemical weapons on the Kurdish population which potentially makes Turkish President Erdogan a war criminal. For a corporate giant like Volkswagen, giving an economic boost for such a state would mean indirectly supporting war crimes.

As Kurdish forces struck a deal for protection with the Syrian Assad forces, this seems to be anything but a slow-down. Turkey has just thrown a whole lot of wood into the fire.

Volkswagen will find itself “monitoring” the situation for a long time. There is a case for making the sustainable business decision to drop the risky deal altogether, soon.

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The future of Brexit: Where will Boris Johnson’s “fatal strategy” lead Britain to?

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will attempt to negotiate a new deal with the EU on Brexit in the course of early parliamentary elections in the UK scheduled for December 12. If the Conservatives take upper hand, then, according to Johnson, Great Britain will leave the EU no later than January 31.

How will the upcoming elections affect Brexit? How Boris Johnson’s agreement with the European Commission could be assessed? The answers to these questions were provided by the participants in an expert discussion at the Valdai Club.

Stewart Lawson, member of the Board of Directors of the Russian-British Chamber of Commerce, head of UK Business Center in Moscow, Ernst & Young, has said that the current situation in the UK can be described as a scene in a bar where an Englishman, a Scot and an Irishman drink to forget the concept of Brexit “. Lawson made it clear that leaving the European Union without conditions would be a disaster. Nevertheless, the expert said that the UK had managed to avoid a situation in which there would be no deal at all, and also, with the arrival of a new agreement which Boris Johnson has reached with the EU, the situation has improved. “This deal is the best option for now,” – the expert remarked. However, he said, Brexit seems to be a story with no end and what is happening around it now is not even its first chapter yet.

Brexit continues to produce uncertainty, which, Lawson said is a big problem. In his opinion, the persisting uncertainty in connection with the UK leaving the EU affects business. On the one hand, the expert said, although Brexit will set Great Britain free from the US control, on the other hand, it will greatly affect the business climate, which continues to suffer amid the political uncertainty. The expert mentioned Nassim Taleb’s concept of the “black swan” according to which any forecasting may not take into account random, unknown factors. “We live in a world in which there are factors unknown to us. So it is necessary to have sufficiently flexible organizations capable of responding to situations that are in the process of development, ” – Lawson emphasized.

According to Alexander Kramarenko, Director of Development at the Russian International Affairs Council, Boris Johnson’s new agreement on Brexit is a major achievement for the British Prime Minister. Kramarenko attributes the success of Boris Johnson to his choice of a “fatal strategy” which allowed him to keep the stakes high until he won. With the help of this strategy, he managed to “cut open” the agreement on Brexit which had been signed by Theresa May. In addition, the “fatal strategy” has prompted the EU to concede on several issues.

The failure of Theresa May’s strategy is attributed to the fact that the former prime minister was a staunch supporter of a policy which required satisfying both parties, the UK and the EU. It was necessary to look for ways out of the EU instead of trying to stay there. “You cannot leave the EU and at the same time remain in the EU. And her agreement boiled down to just that, ” – Kramarenko said.

According to Theresa May’s agreement, by leaving the EU formally, Great Britain would lose the right to vote. Boris Johnson said that such an agreement perpetuates the “vassal” dependence of Great Britain on the European Union. “For a country with such a history as Great Britain, a position of this kind is not suitable. Either the UK is a member and takes part in all decisions, or it comes out and agrees on  something special. As argued by Boris Johnson, this special agreement is a free trade agreement of varying range of coverage, intensity and depth, but it would be an agreement of sovereign Britain, ” – Kramarenko emphasized.

First and foremost, Johnson’s agreement solves the problem of maintaining the status quo on the land border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The fact is that under the agreement, Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, is to withdraw from the EU, while Ireland remains part of the European Union. Thus, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the establishment of a clear-cut border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would jeopardize the Irish peace process. The EU, the UK and the Irish Government pledged to maintain this border under a deal that ended the civil war in Northern Ireland. The EU insisted that Britain remain in the Customs Union until this situation is settled. This would de facto keep Britain within the EU.

Under a new agreement proposed by Boris Johnson on which he secured the approval of the European Union, the UK will have to leave the EU’s Customs Union, and the customs border between Britain and the EU will pass via the Irish Sea. However, this threatens the unity of the country and could be an important step towards unification of Ireland, the expert believes.

Boris Johnson’s strategy has led to serious concessions from the European Union, Kramarenko said. Exiting the Customs Union will also allow the UK to clinch trade agreements with third countries. Moreover, the provision on “equal conditions of competition” will no longer be valid in the future, since it was moved from the text of the agreement to the Political Declaration, which is not binding.

What creates a major obstacle to Brexit is the current state of the British constitutional system of government, the expert said. “The opposition has deprived the government of the majority, thereby stripping it of the opportunity to rule the country or adopt new laws,” – Kramarenko said. Johnson’s achievement is precisely due to the fact that despite the opposition, he was able to cope with the opponents and postpone the date of Britain’s exit from the EU. “Now there is a significant degree of confidence that Brexit will take place and, perhaps, it will come as a gift for the New Year,” – Kramarenko said.

From our partner International Affairs

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Bulgarian far-right to shut down largest human rights NGO in Bulgaria

Iveta Cherneva

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“Why don’t they defend those who get robbed? Why are they only defending those that have trouble with the police? Why are they defending minorities? Do you know how many policemen are being investigated because of them?”

This is what you hear when the Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister, Krasimir Karakachanov and others speak about the human rights organisation, The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. It is the largest and oldest human rights organisation in Bulgaria.

And now it is facing the threat of closure after the deputy prime minister – who is also Bulgaria’s Minister of Defense – called this week for the shutdown of the NGO. Members of his party, the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO) – a Far-Right party participating in the ruling coalition – have filed a request with the Bulgarian Prosecutor General for a review of the activities of the human rights NGO, asking for it to be closed down.

Make no bones about it. This is an attack on our freedom.

This is why I have notified the relevant authorities at the United Nations about what is taking place in Bulgaria. Activities of this type directed against human rights defenders have no place in a rule of law state, let alone an EU state. As a prominent government official, Krasimir Karakachanov has a particular obligation to respect human rights defenders.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticised his and his party’s actions this week. Over 70 Bulgarian NGOs stood by the Helsinki Committee, having sent a public letter of support condemning the attack on the NGO.

While my signal to the UN is currently being looked at, it is worth discussing why the deputy prime minister and others have such a huge problem with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, and organisations of this type.

The concept of human rights – by its very definition – protects citizens against the State and its organs, including policemen. That is one of the issues for Karakachanov. Well, welcome to the 21st century, Minister.

Policemen being investigated for misconduct is something we have to applaud, not something which shows how far things have gone. Bulgaria, with its post-communist baggage, has had a police system which traditionally has gone over and beyond what is allowed by law. Things of course are changing but you’ll always have policemen who abuse their legal limits. It happens in virtually every country. That’s why we need human rights organisations to watch for these things. And that’s a good thing.

When policemen catch an alleged criminal, they don’t get to beat them up or lock them up indefinitely. Period. These are the kind of cases that human rights NGOs like the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee look into. And they, by definition, will be focused on the actions of policemen and the State. That’s the name of the game; that’s what human rights are about. This is a concept that Karakachanov is not comfortable with; why should anyone be allowed to criticise the police forces? This to him is rather unpatriotic.

“Why don’t they instead look at and help the victims of robbery?” Well, human rights are not about the victims of robbery — if only it was that convenient. They protect citizens from their own state when that state violates their rights. Policemen do not get investigated for no reason, without any evidence of wrongdoing. Defending human rights is a very uncomfortable task because – by definition – the NGO has to go against the State. And for some, like Karakachanov, that shouldn’t be done because it leads to punishments for policemen when they step over.

Working for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights where I reviewed human rights complaints from around the world, I learnt that every country violates human rights – only the scale and extent differ. This is why it is crucial to have human rights defenders like the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee who can help victims on the ground. Having international organisations like the UN is not enough.

Let us turn now to the request to the Prosecutor General to look into the activities of the human rights NGO, with a view to closing it down for allegedly “interfering in the judicial system.” Interference with the judicial system is what lawyers and prosecutors both do, by definition. By presenting facts to push their own case, the judicial system is a place of interference. Justice is not static. Of course, human rights defenders advocate for, interfere, push for and defend their clients. This is their job. Karakachanov’s Far-Right party is uncomfortable with such a strong voice for human rights in the process. Prosecution is prosecution; human rights defense is, well, interference.

Next, we should discuss the role of the Prosecutor General who would have to opine on the request for the close down of the NGO. Euronews readers should be told at this point that Bulgaria is facing a scandal with the selection of the next Prosecutor General. Ivan Geshev, who is currently the number two in the Prosecutor’s Office, is nominated to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor. The capital Sofia witnessed protests by thousands of people marching on the streets against Geshev’s selection as chief prosecutor, because among other things, he is the only candidate in the process. That is never a good sign. Questions are also raised about which oligarchic power circles Geshev would be serving.

Geshev, the deputy in the Prosecutor’s Office, is important in this case because his attitude towards this human rights NGO is well known. When he receives the annual report about the human rights situation in Bulgaria penned by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, he famously sends back literary works about the Bulgarian struggle for independence, in my view trying to educate the NGO about being pro-Bulgarian. Of course, criticising the system does not make an NGO anti-Bulgarian. The job of patriots is not to shut up.

A similar reaction has been noted by the current Prosecutor General who will be looking at the case. When he receives the human rights report about the situation in Bulgaria, he simply sends it back. The message by both is clear: they see no value in a report that reviews the shortcomings of the system. And they are the people who will be deciding whether this human rights organisation is closed or not.

Human rights violations are uncomfortable. They push officials to take a look at themselves and their colleagues, often loudly pointing out the injustices. Human rights are not about robberies; if only it was that convenient. Human rights are about what is wrong with the system. And the current top prosecuting duo are not interested in that.

Living in Bulgaria, I don’t want to see the country follow the example of Hungary where human rights NGOs and universities are pushed so hard by the authorities that they have to close and move. That is not the right path to follow.

The closing down of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee would be a blow to Bulgarian leadership and its human rights record. This will be not only a test for the Prosecutor’s office, but for Bulgarians and the EU.

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