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Every Generation Has its Own Wall

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I was fortunate enough to be in West Berlin on that momentous day in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, attending one of those round tables of “young European leaders” that were quite popular at the time. Around two dozen ambitious, energetic and for the most part extremely romantic-minded intellectuals and politicians in their early thirties had come from all corners of the continent to try their hand at being the leaders of the European nations for a day or two.

Of course, we wouldn’t have been worth our salt as young leaders if we had ignored the monumental event that was suddenly unfolding before our very eyes, not far from the Kurfürstendamm, where we were staying at the time. So, on the evening of November 9, having put off the future of Europe for a later date, and somehow finding the necessary tools in our hands, our fine company walked cheerfully past the Berlin Zoological Garden through the Tiergarten towards Brandenburg Gate. There we were immediately blended into the motley crowd of people who had, on a whim, decided to tear the Wall down.

“A Celebration of Disobedience”

In fact, tearing down the symbol of a divided Europe proved much harder than anyone had anticipated. It turned out the East Germans had done a fine job when they built the Wall – the high-strength concrete generously packed with steel reinforcement was a tough match for the home tools with which we had all come out. All our hammers, crowbars and sledgehammers could do was chip miserably away at the powerful reinforced concrete structure. We worked in shifts, changing over every 15 or 20 minutes or so.

This feverish activity brought laughable results, not at all consonant with the magnitude of the event we were living through. It was as if the Wall was mocking the feeble attempts of the ants that had clung to it to inflict at least some visible damage. We could get enough shards for souvenirs, but we were not looking for souvenirs – we were making history! We toiled deep into the night until we finally managed to bore a small hole in the wall, at which point we were eagerly greeted by the folk who had been hacking away at the eastern side of the hated structure just as persistently as we had been at our side. Encouraged by this, we redoubled our efforts.

A latecomer to our attack on totalitarianism had brought a cassette player, and the heavy rhythms of Pink Floyd’s soundtrack, The Wall, boomed out in the direction of the majestic quadriga perched atop the Brandenburg Gate. The sounds flowed through the Wall, reflected off the powerful Doric gate columns, splashed onto the endless and poorly lit Unter den Linden and dissolved into the Berlin night air somewhere near the massive building of the Soviet embassy in East Germany. Pink Floyd unexpectedly turned into a kind of tuning fork for our actions that night, providing the rhythm for the blows of the countless hammers, crowbars and sledgehammers that were scatted over hundreds of metres of concrete wall.

If memory serves me correctly, the weather wasn’t exactly festive that November night. To be honest, it wasn’t much better during the day either: the gloomy Berlin autumn brought low morning clouds, and a sharp rain often accompanied the intense gusts of wind. But that night, as we moved into the main phase of dismantling the Wall, it became even colder and windier and altogether more unpleasant. But this didn’t detract anyone. On the contrary, there was a certain glint in everyone’s eyes, as if we had all knocked back a full glass of old brandy.

I will mention in passing that I don’t recall any groups of drunken East or West Berliners staggering around the city that night, or indeed the day after. It wasn’t until much later that the enthusiastic residents of the city really let loose. And nothing was spared, not even the famous quadriga that adorned the Brandenburg Gate; it took over a year to restore the long-suffering Victoria (nee Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace). It was such a historic moment that the people didn’t even need alcohol, as everyone was on such an emotional high, overcome with a feeling of heartfelt unity and mutual affection.

The fact that I still belonged to the “Soviet Empire” did not seem to bother anyone or even cause them any discomfort whatsoever. On the contrary, I felt like it was my birthday. After all, it was my country that had launched the process of European unification, and nine times out of ten, the magic word Gorbachev would elicit a wide and sincere smile on people’s faces.

It was high time for a celebration. Gone were the fears of the past, the mutual suspicions and grievances. And for us, already fully grown adults, the night of November 9–10 was just as magical as New Year’s or Christmas Eve is for little children, when all the bad can be put in the past and a new life, where everything is good and correct, can begin. A road to a new reality had opened up behind the ruins of the wall – a still unknown and mysterious yet immeasurably attractive united Europe – all to the sounds of Pink Floyd. Not just Europe, but the entire immense world that was shaking off the reinforced concrete fragments of a cursed past now belonged wholly and completely to us!

A Farewell to Illusions

In all honesty, we can’t say that the next 30 years were full only of disappointments and that the alluring picture of European unity turned out to be yet another mirage, a product of a fevered imagination. On general, Europe is more united and freer than it was three decades ago.

In 1989, people my age could not have dreamed that they would someday be able to fly to Paris or London just as easily as they could fly to Leningrad or Kazan. Crossing the border into Europe used to carry an air of mystic ritual, now it is an everyday occurrence. European newspapers such as The Times and Le Monde are no longer located in restricted access areas in public libraries and are freely available to read on the internet. My native city of Moscow has become more European than at any point in its history.

Meanwhile, Berlin has undergone a magical transformation into perhaps the most dynamic capital in Europe. It takes my breath away whenever I have the good fortune to visit the newly rebuilt Pariser Platz or pass through the renovated Brandenburg Gate. I can’t shake the feeling that I am on some massive movie set, so different is the city today from the gloomy reality of 1989. And, of course, the atmosphere around these famous gates today is more readily associated with the Beethoven’s immortal Symphony No. 9 than it is with the somewhat outdated psychedelic rock of Pink Floyd.

The many difficulties that have arisen in the course of the reunification of East and West Berlin have not been fully overcome in the three decades since the Wall came down. The process of integrating the “neue Bundesländer” of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia has proved to be even more difficult and painful. There are still serious differences between the eastern and western parts of the country in terms of culture, way of life and political leanings – suffice it to mention the resounding victories of the right-wing populists from the Alternative for Germany in the east as evidence of the latter. But you have to hand it to the Germans, for today Germany is united not only on paper, but in practice too.

However, what about Europe?

The romantic dream of a united and indivisible Europe has remained just that, a dream. The yellow brick road did not lead to the Emerald City. The metaphysical wall dividing the continent into East and West has not disappeared, although the lines may have changed and acquired different forms. More accurately, the Wall has been replaced with a number of ramshackle fences, ill-kempt hedges and flimsy partitions, most of which can be easily crossed or even torn down completely should one so desire. The thing is, however, that nobody appears to have this desire. Or, at least, the needed commitment, stamina and vision. As the years turn into decades, the prospect of a Greater Europe moves deeper and deeper into an uncertain future, just like the horizon moves further into the distance with each step. And not only for those of us who live east of Poland and the Baltic states, but also for many lucky holders of a European passport.

Why is this the case? Is it indeed fair to say that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”? I don’t think that appeals to Rudyard Kipling are appropriate here. Beautiful lines from poetry and nonsensical geopolitical mantras are of little use when it comes to real life. Incidentally, Kipling’s ballad was about Great Britain and India, not the east and west of Europe. I think the attempts to use “The Ballad of East and West” as a way to justify the failed attempts to unite Europe would have amused its author no end.

Going on my own personal experience of interacting with Europeans across the entire continent from Lisbon to Vladivostok, I would not say that there are fundamentally different or incompatible social structures, cultural archetypes or group identities in this space. And if any fundamental differences do happen to exist, then the boundaries of socio-cultural spaces now lie within individual countries rather than between them.

One way or another, we are all Europeans, and the last three decades have brought us even closer rather than dividing us in our economic, social and cultural relations. This is why the current schism in Europe, in my opinion, is not a historical inevitability, nor has it been caused by the workings of fate. Instead, it is the result of a number of specific subjective missteps, mistakes and omissions on the part of politicians in both the East and the West.

I do not want to get bogged down in detailed analysis of these mistakes and omissions. We are unlikely to get a definite and comprehensive answer to the million-dollar question of “who is to blame?” any time soon. And saying that “everyone is to blame” is just as good as saying no one is to blame. I will confine myself to a single and very general observation. In 1989, my generation was too quick to celebrate, or rather, victory came too easy for us 30 years ago. Victory literally fell into our hands, like a gift of fate or unexpected miracle. It was almost too good to be true.

This is probably why the celebrations that broke out at Brandenburg Gate that night had a distinctive air of the medieval European carnival, complete with masks and pranks, dancing and singing in the streets, a festival atmosphere of liberation, overindulgence and carelessness. Everyone assumed that the fall of the Berlin Wall would signify the end of the most difficult and painful phase of the struggle for a united Europe. And the most complicated, painstaking and, more importantly, technical tasks of building the pan-European house could be put off until later.

Especially because we already had a firm idea of what the plans for this house looked like.

There Ain’t no Such Thing as a Free Lunch

It turned out that the “celebration of disobedience” that took place on November 9, 1989, was not at all the end, but rather the beginning of the long and painful transformation of Europe. The main battles for Europe were still to come. As we all know, the Carnival is always followed by the Great Lent, which none of us in our state of elation wanted to see.

Perhaps the biggest mistake that my generation (those who were around 30 when the Wall came down and who are roughly 60 now) made was that we, that is, many of us, were rather irresponsibly counting on the imminent “end of European history,” the irresistible march of globalization and the impending triumph of European rationalism. The generation of people who were brought up on Friedrich Hegel, Auguste Comte and Karl Marx could not help but be social determinists. We all know that, according to Hegel, “the mole of history digs slowly, but digs well.” This mole undermined the archaic structure that artificially divided the great city and the great country. It was thus with this same sense of logical inevitability that history had to reunite European civilization, which had been similarly divided on artificial grounds.

My generation has been punished for its deterministic way of thinking and its arrogance. And not only in Russia, but also – to one degree or other, and in different ways – in Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom and Greece, as well as in those very same eastern states that have long since become part of a reunified Germany and in other places across the continent. “Freedom and life are earned by those alone who conquer them each day anew,” Goethe put Hegel to shame once again.

And what we perceived as a detailed and precisely measured schematic drawing of European unification (reunification?) turned out to be nothing more than amateur sketches, pencil drawings that were several pages short of a complete project. Europe lacked the very same qualities that Germany had displayed during reunification: political will and determination; the ability to set clear goals and ensure that they are met in a timely fashion; and the foresight to make sure that plans do not exceed capabilities and check this on a regular basis. Artists and visionaries did not turn into designers and engineers, and their place in European construction was taken by entirely different people who pursued more mercantile and particularistic goals.

It is difficult for me to imagine what needs to happen in Europe to restore the atmosphere of those now very distant days of November 1989, and for the idea of European unity to once again acquire flesh and blood. A truly unique opportunity has been missed, unfortunately, forever. As the saying goes, “no man ever steps in the same river twice.” Our sketches and drafts from 30 years ago are unlikely to be of any use today, just like most of the projects and propositions suggested in the 1960s were untenable a quarter of a century later during perestroika.

Today, our children have to start their struggle against the new European walls in different and far more complicated circumstances than those that reigned 30 years ago. And not only because our wonderful slogans of the time have withered and faded, but also because in the three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall our generation has accumulated a mountain of new problems that will be exceptionally difficult to tear down or overcome. And it has to be done in a world where Europe has long since ceased to be seen as a symbol of progress and a source of inspiration.

In any case, the new generation of Europeans will find things much harder than we did. It is entirely possible that the idea of “European reunification” will seem archaic in the emerging globalized world, and the leaders of the new generation will no longer be guided by geographical concepts, but rather by something completely different. Perhaps it is a good thing that our children are more sceptical and cynical and less trusting and romantic than their parents were back in 1989. However, if these “young leaders” turn out to be less ambitious than we were three decades ago, then it means we have done a poor job raising our children.

From our partner RIAC

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Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country

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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

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Is British Democracy in Danger?

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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.

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The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security

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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.

From our partner RIAC

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