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Far-Right Vigilantes

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In 2015, Europe faced a dramatic spike in the influx of refugees and illegal immigrants, the biggest since WWII. Migrating to the world’s most developed regions in search of a better life has always been an understandable and natural phenomenon. It cannot be denied that it also has an illegal dimension: some flee poverty without thinking about paperwork, some evade criminal prosecution in their homeland, some want to reunite with their families, and few think about learning the language, culture, laws and history of the host countries. There is another problem: many refugees spontaneously leave their countries in an emergency. The Refugee Convention dictates a favourable attitude to them, as well as providing them with legal and material aid. Refugees would appear to be able to stay in their new country for good: they cannot be deported due to considerations of humanity (with the exception of “compelling reasons of national security”), and once the emergency is over, there is no particular desire to go back to one’s home (even a destroyed one).

Yet pressing issues emerge. Do refugees want to accept the laws and culture of the states that take them in or are they attracted by generous welfare payments? Is a specific individual a refugee or just an illegal immigrant who underhandedly joined the unmanageable flow? Finally, there is the cornerstone of all immigration-related disputes, the rather inconvenient question of whether the natives of host states need all this and, if they do, how many refugees are they ready to take in? And if they are very unhappy with the immigrants’ behaviour, for how long are they willing to bear it and how competent are the authorities in combating it? The events of the migration crisis (and such a powerful flow that cannot be taken in and distributed should already be called a crisis) in Europe demonstrate an increase in ordinary people’s negative attitudes, lack of new solutions to the migration problems, and some countries’ refusal to take in immigrants. Some people are beginning to handle this problem independently and not through talks. The authorities have labelled these vigilantes [1] the far-right.

Has it always been that bad?

In the first half of the 20th century, Europe saw significant migration stemming from raging wars, redefined borders and the collapse of empires. Yet this has all affected the people who have been living in Europe for centuries. In the 1960s-1970s, Western Europe, the engine of economic development, initially encountered migrants from Europe’s own least developed sub-regions. By the early 1990s, the states of Northern Europe that had implemented the Scandinavian “welfare state” model had also become recipient states. There is also a reverse movement: many people from the cold North prefer to move to the sunny South. For instance, British citizens have actively explored France, Spain and Cyprus. The Schengen Agreement is in force, and the EU is beginning to emerge. The European Union expands eastward, and its new members enjoy the benefits of free movement, while their citizens seek their fortune abroad.

The wealthiest part of the European continent also appealed to those who lived outside Europe. It all started with the former colonies: former metropoles needed labour force, their birth rates were falling, and the people of the newly-independent states had no language barrier. For instance, migrants from the Maghreb went to France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and West Germany and, in the 1980s, they also started moving to Italy and Spain. However, back then, there was work waiting for them, and they travelled legally, as labour migrants while, beginning in the 1990s, increasing numbers of people from less prosperous countries wanted to take advantage of the social state.

The Mediterranean was the main route for African immigrants: they crossed it on boats, but such journeys are risky, and there have been casualties. The Italian island of Lampedusa has suffered a lot: since 1998, it has been the main refugee acceptance centre; already in 2003, there were voices in the Italian government proclaiming a migration crisis. Back then, the figures of “over 2,500 refugees” a month seemed scary, while today, it is but a drop in the ocean. And for some people, it is business: smugglers’ assistance costs USD 2,000. Coping with the influx has been hard: Italy reached a secret agreement with Libya on sending refugees back, the EU criticised this step, the camp was overflowing, living conditions were grossly violated, the local population was becoming progressively anti-migrant.

The immigration statistics in the early 2010s were no more optimistic: North Africa and the Middle East were going through the Arab Spring, consisting of numerous protests, some of which resulted in coups d’état and civil wars. Between 2010 and 2013, about 1.3 million people migrated to the EU annually (not including asylum seekers). Yet migrants’ geography was rather diverse, spanning far-away from China, India and the US and nearby Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey. Later, the arrivals’ composition changed significantly, with the Middle East accounting for the majority of migrants. And the increased numbers of refugees in the Mediterranean resulted in a humanitarian disaster, with Italy having to use the military to receive migrants. Ultimately, 150,000 people were rescued.

The population of the states where the Arab Spring raged deserves special mention. These are mostly “young” people, few over 65 years old, and a high proportion of the employable population. For instance, one-third of Egypt’s population is under 14, the elderly accounting for 3–4%. Syria and Lebanon present a similar picture. In the 1970s and 1980s, Arab countries experienced a baby boom and falling mortality, which resulted in a demographic explosion and, today, these generations have grown up and are taking part in revolutions. Young hotheads see war around them, perceive extremist ideas as a clear-choice, “easy,” and “convenient” way of resolving all problems, and join armed groups. Scientific achievements of the civilised world have reduced mortality, while reproductive traditions remain the same, and no one is going to give up on them.

Previously, European states managed to cope with refugee flows, but the numbers of those wishing to settle in the EU without necessarily earning a living create an economic burden and prompt resentment among the local people: many immigrants are not eager to learn the language and find a job. Europeans looked around and saw whole neighbourhoods with an entirely immigrant population; they saw “Islamic patrols” in the UK and Germany. Far-right parties gain electoral support, while politicians currently in power speak about the threat to European values, yet invite more immigrants. Residents of Europe no longer understand whose side their governments are on and whether the governments are going to change the situation for the better.

Tolerance test: meeting the refugees

The worsening of the Syrian crisis reduced financing for refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (at first Syrians fled there), and then a new route via Greece prompted a spike in refugee numbers: a million in 2015, nearly four times more than in 2014. The highest numbers seek asylum in Germany, Hungary, France, Italy, and Sweden. Yet the powerful migrant flow only split the EU states on the asylum issue. Countries began to reinstitute border controls or simply let people travel on to Germany, where refugees wanted to go in the first place. Hungary closed its borders, but physical obstacles did not stop refugees from seeking other routes via Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. North Macedonia and Bulgaria are strengthening their borders. The human flow reaches Austria, and Vienna, too, decided to erect a border fence. EU members quarrel over quotas: Eastern Europe does not want to take in refugees, Italy threatens to send its migrants north, Hungary and Austria continue to tighten border controls. When a common disaster strikes, European unity begins to show serious cracks.

Citizens did not particularly welcome immigrants. The eve of 2016 was particularly odious, when over 1,000 women in the west of Germany were harassed, and later it became known that the perpetrators were immigrants. Most attacks went unsolved, and Chancellor Angela Merkel even cancelled her Davos visit. German citizens responded with a rally, but everything ended in confrontation with the police. In addition to harassment, they were disconcerted by the police hiding information about the perpetrators and the number of victims. The “Refugees welcome” slogan was transformed into “Rapefugees not welcome.” The attitude to migrants in everyday life deteriorated rapidly, the problem lying not only in possible clashes, but in this attitude easily being extended to those who had immigrated to Europe, obtained citizenship and long been part of European society. This is a view of not just of today’s immigrants but all people of non-European origin. The difference in the mindset is significant, and the issue of vast numbers of refugees became a matter of European survival and how Europe would look in the future. The citizens themselves begin to take the immigration agenda into their own hands, even though previously it had been the purview of political parties reflecting, through representation, opinions on a particular issue and building state policies accordingly. If a problem becomes unmanageable, some individuals begin spontaneously participating in certain movements not represented at the top level.

PEGIDA

The movement was founded in Dresden back in late 2014: it started with a social network group criticising Germany’s immigration policy. The first rally was held on 20 October 2014, followed by weekly marches. In December, the number of demonstrators reached 10,000 and, in January 2015, it climbed to 25,000. The protesters’ main slogans were “For the preservation of our culture”; “Against religious fanaticism”; “Against religious wars on German soil.” Germany had never previously had such a rapidly growing anti-immigrant movement. Before, it had been the prerogative of fringe right-wing groups, but now Germany’s middle class was speaking out against the country’s immigration policy. Various types of hoodlums are always around, but their threatening, anti-social behaviour would never have attracted such numbers. Owing to threats against the movement, the rallies were suspended and then resumed in October with 20,000 people attending. The movement’s information activities are concentrated on the Internet since mainstream German media do not broadcast such an agenda, which they immediately dubbed Nazi and chauvinist.

Despite accusations of populism and of attempts to overthrow the system of government, this method of protesting against the failed immigration policy demonstrates Germans’ tremendous self-possession and tolerance. These are not isolated radical groups attacking refugee centres but a regular declaration of will on a pressing issue, even if this declaration is made on the streets rather than through political institutions. Something similar has already happened in recent history: 30 years ago, weekly rallies were held in East Germany but, back then, people were demanding political freedoms. It resulted in the reunification of Germany, which is perceived in a positive light, while such a profoundly negative attitude to refugees is not approved of in Germany, which diligently conducts a policy of overcoming its Nazi past. Now PEGIDA is also accused of “appropriating” this freedom-loving spirit of 1989, and indignation over immigration is mixed with ethnic hatred of Hitler’s Germany. Thus far, German citizens choose rallies and voting: at the 2017 parliamentary elections, the nationalist Alternative for Germany (which cooperates with PEGIDA) came in third. The opposition to taking in higher numbers of immigrants remains high, at 72%.

Soldiers of Odin

This movement emerged a year after PEGIDA in the north of Europe, but it is not as large. In addition to rallies, its members patrol the streets and keep a record of crimes committed by immigrants. The first patrols appeared in Kemi, a border town in Finland where refugees from neighbouring Sweden arrived. As with PEGIDA, its groups coordinate their actions via social networks and expand their patrolling throughout the country. Its founder, Mika Ranta, was previously accused of a hate crime and cooperated with the far-right Nordic Resistance Movement. The patrols’ organisers claim that their objective is to provide voluntary assistance to the Finnish police in stopping crime, irrespective of the perpetrators’ ethnicity (such independent action is not prohibited in Finland). But they do not hide the fact that it was the harassment in Cologne that prompted them to patrol crowded areas (in particular, Soldiers of Odin said that immigrants chase girls near schools). Finnish law enforcement authorities treat such assistance with great caution and view these people not as patrols but far-right racist groups. Even so, the police are very reluctant to publish crime statistics and are very afraid of drawing parallels between increased refugee numbers and increased crime (in Finland’s statistics, natives of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are among the leaders in sexual offences). In response, sales of pepper spray grew, new self-defence classes opened, rallies were held, and street patrols were implemented. That is the only way for citizens to convey their stance both to politicians and to the immigrants themselves. Soldiers of Odin have spread beyond Finland: newly-minted “public order squads” have been spotted primarily in Sweden, Norway and the Baltic states (in Oslo, immigrants responded with patrols of their own).

The Nordic Resistance Movement also deserves a brief mention. It is a radical right-wing organisation that cooperates actively with Soldiers of Odin. In Finland, this cooperation ended in the Resistance being prohibited, since its members, in addition to patrols and rallies, promulgated openly Nazi ideology and attacks on immigrants. Curiously, despite the small number of refugees, it was Finland that generated the anti-immigrant patrol trend. Members of these patrols often have a criminal record of hate crime or statements. Most Finns, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes believe that no more immigrants should be taken in.

Labour and education

Even so, refugees are a specific issue. People fled a humanitarian disaster and Europeans showed mercy to dispossessed people. The host countries responded with educational services since a large number of refugees do not even have a secondary education: 67% of refugees in Norway, 50% in Sweden (and only 4% attend school after being given a residence permit). Only 38.3% of immigrants in Germany have a professional or higher education (and that includes incomplete studies). Germany stands out with the biggest number of initiatives for immigrants in providing language training, seeking housing, providing medical services and scholarships. UNESCO estimates that only a third of sub-Saharan Africans have even an elementary education and only 1% of refugees receive higher education. The education problem is determined not only by a shortage of teachers (Germany needs an additional 42,000 teachers) but also by special requirements for professional training: the multicultural approach entails teaching students of different ages and with diverse linguistic backgrounds in overfilled classrooms. Expenditures on refugees are not perceived in a negative light: German economists see it as stimulating the economy by creating new jobs.

The new far-right base

Vast numbers of new arrivals are hard to assimilate, it is easier for them to move in with their compatriots who arrived earlier, and live on welfare. This prompts discontent among the locals and could cause a recession. This situation is hard to manage, and it can quickly become unmanageable: and vigilant public order squads run the risk of turning into storm troopers who no longer expect help from the police. Attacks on refugee centres and mosques happened before, but they were carried out by fringe groups of local thugs from among local troubled youth. Yet exacerbation of the immigration situation provides fertile soil for extreme right-wing parties that do not look deep into the reasons for immigration, into refugees’ social problems, and lump all people of non-European origin together, no matter what education they have and what work they do. This is the fight for the middle class, educated people with a stable income, who are good at counting their money and do not understand all the subtleties of the increased economic burden caused by refugees. Europe boasts the world’s biggest middle class: 194 million people in 2015. In percentage terms, this class is most visible in Belgium, Italy, the UK, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands and Ireland, with over 50% of these countries’ population considered middle class. In France, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Austria, this figure ranges between 40 and 50%. Yet the middle class prefers a stable income and lack of any radical shifts, while the desire for greater wealth is international.

After WWII, in addition to proscribing ethnic nationalism, civil nationalism was also being erased: European integration created new supra-national institutions and erased borders between states. Taking in refugees from regions far from Europe picked up pace in the 1990s, and it has gradually caused cracks to appear in intra-European relations: less affluent countries have been shifting immigration problems on to the more affluent ones. New EU members, formerly closed states with a small middle class, refuse to assume obligations to take in immigrants who need to be provided with housing, work and education. Naturally, political parties form a communications channel between the public and the authorities, and there are such parties that promote an anti-immigrant agenda. Still, this today translates into Euro-scepticism and nationalism, with each state not only wishing to be free from Brussels’ commands but also projecting the difficulties and privations stemming from taking in refugees on to all representatives of non-European peoples, even if they came earlier and were assimilated. The trouble is, the current immigration crisis in Europe was caused by a sharp, massive influx of people from other cultures and the inability to “digest” this influx rapidly created room for uncompromising rhetoric that is simple and easy to understand. Nationalist parties propose a quick response to any sudden phenomena without looking deeply into its causes and without thinking about the consequences, and their popularity is growing sharply in those states that have suffered most in the immigrant crisis. Even so, elections are held only once in several years whereas ethnic hostility is manifested daily. The increase in anti-immigrant crime shows that ordinary people are not going to wait until new members of parliament take office. The most dangerous thing happening is that people who have never before seen themselves as nationalists are now joining the process of resolving the immigration problem with the help of those very nationalistic bodies (of varying degrees of radicalism and legality). Anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment (and this applies even to immigrants from previous generations) are already represented in Europe’s parliaments, and ratings are growing, but not owing to their own appeal or the appeal of their political programmes. This is an expression of desperation and disappointment with the current immigration policy. This is a protest and a censure vote.

[1] They are persons or groups that, without recourse to legal proceedings, punish those accused of real or imagined offences and, in the vigilantes’ opinion, those who have not been adequately punished by law.

From our partner RIAC

Europe

Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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