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The Fate of the Gray Area in Europe

Emil Avdaliani

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There is a considerable territory between Russia and the European heartland. It runs from the Scandinavian peninsula in the north to the Black Sea in the south. These lands include Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the South Caucasus states, and can be provisionally called a “gray zone”: lands where Russia and Western/Central European states have clashed militarily for hundreds of years.

If we look at the history of last several centuries, those clashes were often conditioned by military goals: Russia did not want Western states be influential along its borders or Western states, fearing Russia’s size, tried to prevent the Slavic state’s domination over Central Europe.

However, though these military confrontations are indeed important, they overshadow economic developments on the ground in the “gray zone”.

Let us for a minute take a look at the global context. European civilization, once it attained economic and most of all technological superiority, started to export it to other continents via the oceans. France, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal and others did little to extend their influence to the “gray area”. There was the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 or the Crimean War (1853-1856) when the western Europeans were operating along the Russian borders, but their interest was mostly military – to contain Russia – rather than the spread of economic influence.

For the westerners, the lands which today constitute that gray zone were not interesting economically and were very hard to reach geographically. Moreover, their geopolitical focus was elsewhere, across the oceans, in Africa and Asia. As a result, Russia, for centuries, was able to operate quite successfully from Finland to the Black and Caspian seas.

Only with the creation of unified Germany, did Russia see a real economic threat to its western territories. And this matters a great deal, as in the long term Germany’s economic power will make a difference.

But with the two world wars, where western Europe, along with Germany, lost its pre-eminence, they started to think about unifying Europe. There was also a change in the geopolitical outlook: moving eastward. This involved systematic attempts to spread economic influence in the gray area, particularly seen since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Western European economic influence was soon reaching deep into what Moscow considers as its sphere of influence.

While these days many Russian politicians and their western counterparts view the battle in the “gray zone” a military one, on the ground it is economy which matters. As long as direct military conflict is unlikely to happen, populations even in the most pro-Russian countries, such as Belarus, are starting to gradually move away from the Russian world.

In summary, the late 20th century, the world saw a fundamental change in Europe’s geopolitical outlook. For centuries, the continent had been extending outwards via the oceans, to various territories in Africa and Asia. Little if anything was done to attain economic predominance in Eastern Europe, where the border with Russia was. This process is now reversed: it is clear that the only geographic avenue for Europe’s projection of power is in the Easternmost parts of the continent: the very gray area I mentioned above. There might be troubles along the way, such as we see nowadays, when talks on enlargement of the European Union are effectively stalled.

However, it is likely to be only short-lived: in an age when the US still dominates the world’s ocean, the only route for Europe to gain larger economic and military say lies eastwards – the route which is also geographically convenient as it passes over the East European plain to the Ural mountains.

This explains why Russia is unable to withstand the European pressure. Poor economic capabilities minimize Russia’s chances to retain even culturally close Ukraine. Some signs of Moscow’s inability to control Belarus are also visible.

From this perspective, there are historic opportunities for Georgia. For centuries, Georgian kings were active in searching for European economic and military support for the country. Most of those attempts failed, beaten back by western European disinterest. But with this geopolitical reorientation in Europe, there are a lot of opportunities for having European economic and military structures spread to Georgia. This will take years if not decades, but it is important to view the whole process from a long-term perspective.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Political will is needed to foster multilateralism in Europe

Guido Lanfranchi

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Dr. Fischler addressing the conference

On July 1st 2020, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered in Vienna, Austria, for the conference “From Victory Day to Corona Disarray: 75 Years of Europe’s Collective Security and Human Rights System”. The conference, jointly organized by four different entities (the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy, Scientific Journal European Perspectives, and Action Platform Culture for Peace) with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe in the wake of its old and new challenges.

The conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from Canada to Australia, and audience physically in the venue while many others attended online – from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century; on the importance of culture for peace and culture of peace – culture, science, arts, sports – as a way to reinforce a collective identity in Europe; on the importance of accelerating on universalism and pan-European Multilateralism while integrating further the Euro-MED within Europe, or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”.

The event itself was probably the largest physical gathering past the early spring lock down to this very day in this part of Europe. No wonder that it marked a launch of the political rethink and recalibration named – Vienna Process.

Among the speakers for the conference’s third panel – which focused on universal and pan-European multilateralism – there was Dr. Franz Fischler, a well-known figure due to his previous postings as Austria’s Federal Minister for Agriculture and Forestry (1989-1994) and as European Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries (1995-2004), besides being currently President of the famous European ForumAlpbach.

Dr. Fischler started his keynote speech by highlighting how the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to fundamentally change Europe – and even the whole world. In doing so, he referred to the paradoxes outlined by Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev in the wake of the pandemic. Contrasting pushes towards re-nationalization and globalization, the partial interruption of democracy but the decreasing appetite for authoritarian government, the mixed response of the European Union to the crisis – in short, a series of conflicting trends are making the future of Europe, as well as that of the whole world, very much uncertain.

It was against this backdrop that Dr. Fischler addressed the central question of the panel: What is fundamentally going to happen in Europe in the times ahead? The former EU Commissioner clarified from the very beginning that those who wish a further deepening of the current multilateral system should not be blinded by excessive optimism. An alternative to the current system does exist – clearly symbolized by the combination of nationalism and populism that we can see in many countries, but also by the problems faced by multilateralism in many fields, most notably trade.

This trend is evident in the case of the European Union too – Dr. Fischler warned. He highlighted that policy tools aimed at stimulating convergence across European countries, such as for instance the EU’s cohesion policies, are becoming increasingly weak, and inequality within the EU is currently on the rise. As a result, traditional goals such as the “ever closer Europe” and the “United States of Europe” do not even seem to be on the agenda anymore.

What can then be done to deepen the EU’s integration process and strengthen Europe’s multilateral system? Towards the end of his speech, Dr. Fischler outlined a few entry points for reform and further cooperation. His suggestions revolved around increasing cooperation on a number of specific issues, ranging from high-tech research to the development of a common European passport. He also proposed that European countries should strengthen their common diplomatic initiatives, including by speaking with a single voice in international institutions, as well as increasing the EU’s soft power. On top of that, deeper institutional and political modifications might be needed for the EU, Dr. Fischler hinted – citing as examples the relaxation of the unanimity voting procedure on some foreign policy issues, as well as an intensification of the EU’s enlargement process.

Closing his highly absorbing speech, Dr. Fischler – champion of multilateralism, and guru of the current EU CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) made clear which ingredient is, in his opinion, the cornerstone for reviving multilateralism in Europe: “All I would like to say is that there are possibilities out there. The question is, as always in these times: is there enough political will?”

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China “seems” to be moving closer to the Holy See

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The two-year provisional agreement which was signed on September 22, 2018 between the holy see and China for the appointment of bishops in China, with the pope having veto power over such appointments, is likely to be renewed by mutual consensus before the accord nears its expiry later this month.

The agreement was initially seen as a clincher for both China and Vatican, especially after diplomatic ties were completely severed in 1951. However, many observers and experts have claimed that, the agreement does more harm than good to the credibility and popularity of the monolithic Catholic institute. Besides the main propaganda campaign of the Chinese to retain unabridged control over bishop nominations, their ultimate goal is to get Vatican to discredit the government in Taiwan to assert its One-China policy. Although, the Vatican has agreed to support China on its One-China policy, it should still be weary and apprehensive of the Chinese politics.

How is Taiwan central to this agreement

Taiwan, a small island in East Asia, which China claims as part of its own territory, considers Vatican as its last partner in Europe. This puts Vatican in a critical situation while China is struggling to maintain cordial relations with the West.

According to Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Remnim University in Beijing, China wants to be seen as an ally of the Pope because it realizes the soft superpower that the Catholic church yields over millions of followers within China and abroad. He says, When the pope speaks, everyone listens.

A logical conclusion thus one can derive from it, is that the Vatican’s endorsement of the One-China policy by discounting Taiwan’s authority to maintain independent diplomatic ties, will generate currency in China’s favour.

Two-years of signing the provisional agreement. What it means for China’s Catholics?

In a bid to renew the agreement, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson stated last week that the interim accord has been implemented successfully. However, the ground scenario provides a different factual story. Even after the deal was signed in 2018, there were several reports of harassment and detention of the underground Catholics and Clergy in China. Many Churches have been shut down, crosses and other religious symbols have disappeared from public spaces. These events have taken place even after the Vatican tabled such concerns during negotiation with China.

This is the direct result of the “Sinicization” policy of the Xi administration, that calls for showcasing loyalty to the state and the Communist Party during religious processions and practice. As per this restrictive policy, people below 18 years of age are strictly barred from entering places of worship and publication of any religious material is only allowed following a close scrutiny.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired cardinal of Honk Kong had expressed wide concerns for this accord. He had described the Vatican’s overtures with China as selling out of the Catholic Church in China. Zen knows that the agreement is largely going to benefit the Chinese authorities and the Communist Party in asserting its policies and international agendas.

It is also essential to highlight that the exact details and terms of the agreement are kept secret between the two parties. This may mean that if any violations of the agreement that may have taken place in the two years it was in place, it would become difficult to prove it in a court of law, owing to the confidentiality. This almost gives China full immunity over its inability to fulfill its obligation under the agreement. Vatican must therefore be cautious about China’s commitment towards the agreement and must device alternate ways to shelter and safeguard its priests and followers in China.

The EU-China angle

2020 was supposed to be the year for refinement of EU-China relations. The pandemic has however forced cancellations of governmental meetings, bilateral programs, and other scheduled events. And on the contrary, it has deepen the cracks between certain EU countries and China because of China’s propaganda campaign and geopolitical policies.

Last year saw a hard stance being adopted by EU legislators and policymakers, which was reflected in the policy paper released by the Federation of German Industries. The paper had described China as a “systemic competitor” and highlighted grave concerns over its international economic practices. The same line of charge was showcased in European Commission’s strategic reflection paper, where it referred to China as a negotiating partner with a need for finding a balance of interests and a systemic rival promoting alternative model of governance.

This position is attributed to China’s unfair and biased foreign policy that limited European companies from major EU countries to venture into the Chinese market. At the same time, China was employing economic tactics to woo smaller European countries to promote investments and improve trade relations with itself. The effect of this has been that many economically weaker countries have started looking towards China for monetary aid and trade related matters rather than cooperating with their fellow EU members. This has led to some kind of frustration and discordance amongst the EU nations.

The tensions might have heightened due to China’s diplomatic missteps, from its infamous wolf warrior diplomacy to its amoralistic mask diplomacy during the Covid outbreak. This will however not completely change the course in the relation between EU-China because there is too much at stake for both sides to risk everything. These instances must however caution Vatican about its handshake with China because, although it may have soft superpower but there’s nothing stopping China from pulling off an economical stunt.

A closer perspective

Taking the EU-China experience and the Sinicization policy collectively into consideration, it will be safe to assume for the Pope and his council of minister to rethink and weigh the merits and demerits of its diplomatic ties with China with utmost seriousness. Even if China promises more stability and monetary benefits in the short run, the Vatican must not forget that the deal indeed puts at risk, the values and principles that it has preached over the decades, to its people and followers globally, the repercussions of which may be beyond repair.

It needs to consider the plight of its brothers and sisters who have unlawfully been punished and detained in China and must push for more humane laws and remedies for them.This can be done by carefully executing a three-level approach. Firstly, the Vatican must put in place a strict mechanism to scrutinize and verify the inflow of investments so as to limit the interference of Chinese money in its decision making. This is similar to the foreign policy introduced by EU last year. Secondly, the Vatican must try to accommodate and align its interests with its European allies so as to strengthen the unity and solidarity in the region. It will also help them to collectively stand up against China if China tries to play hard ball against them, in terms of trade policy or indulges in any human rights violations for that matter. Lastly, the Vatican must push for transparency and openness with respect to the terms of the agreement that it has signed with China. This will allow the Holy See to rightfully claim any damage or remedy if any wrongful act or omission is committed by the Chinese side.

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EU acting a “civilian power”: Where & How

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Authors: Yang Haoyuan, ZengXixi & Hu Yongheng*

In 1946 when Winston Churchill addressed in Zurich, Switzerland, he called on urgent union of Europe, but not many people took his remarks seriously if not suspicious at all.This was because that economic recovery and social stability of the day were more urgent to the people across Europe. Since then in one decade, Europe has not only witnessed a rapid and robust social-economic reconstruction, but also an increasing integration of sovereign states coming of the age. It is true that throughout this process of the European integration, the United States has played a sort of patron role—at first as a passionate advocate publicly and then a powerful supporter through the Marshal Plan and finally a lead ally of the NATO.

In1963, the United States endorsed a fully cohesive Europe which, whether it functions as a grouping of nation-states or as the European Union, has shared America’s burden in terms of the Atlantic collective security. Yet, this strategic tie is not unconditional, for example, the EU support to the Washington’s policy decision depends upon only if its objectives parallel with America’s own and if it deems that without its contribution the common purposes will not be achieved. The diversions in policy between the two sides of the Atlantic are essentially more philosophical than technical. As a result, American unilateralism which usually comes out of Washington has been challenged by the EU involving three key structural issues: the EU’s self-image; the impact of the EU policy; and the U.S. attitudes toward the different options for European integration. As Henry Kissinger argued, in defining the role of Europe in the future world, the EU depends upon more their historical experiences than abstract concept of universal goodwill as a facilitator of diplomacy, or put it simply that “persuasiveness in negotiations relies primarily on the options the negotiator has available or is perceived to have at his or her disposal.”

 Since the beginning of the new century, the EU has become close to an equal to the United States economically, technologically and socially. In terms of soft power, European cultures have long had a wide appeal in the rest of the world, and the sense of a Europe uniting around Brussels has had a strong attraction to East Europe and Turkey as well. Samuel Huntington put it in the 1990s that a cohesive Europe would have the human resources, economic strength, technology, and actual and potential military forces to be the preeminent power of the 21st century. Although the EU has effectively constrained American unilateralism, it is out of the question that the U.S. and the EU would move on the road towards political conflict. Due to this, the EU has vowed to play a new role in the world affairs that might be termed as the “civilian power”.

According to scholar Helene Sjursen, civilian power is defined as playing a primary role in the international system but differing from the traditional great power which has pursued power politics by military means. The EU prefers acting a civilian power since it has committed to economic cooperation and social justice in the age of globalization. Accordingly, the acquisition of military means, or the EU’s ambition to acquire such means, might weaken at least the argument that the EU is a civilian power and could provoke a shift towards a policy more akin to traditional great powers. Despite this, this article opines that the EU has acted a civilian power in the world affairs. For sure, this is not an easy mission to achieve in view of the complexities of the world affairs.

On September 16 of 2020, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed her first annual State of the Union, painting a sober picture of Europe grappling with a pandemic and its deepest recession in its history and calling for EU members to build a stronger health union amid COVID-19. She laid out ambitious goals to make the 27-nation bloc more resilient and united to confront future crises. In order to demonstrate the EU’s resolve and sincerity, she doubled down on the flagship goals sheset out on taking office in 2019: urgent action to tackle climate change and a digital revolution. In addition, von der Leyen unveiled a plan to cut the EU greenhouse gas emissions substantially and vowed to use green bonds to finance its climate goals. She also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States and said the EU would invest 20 percent of a 750 billion euro economic recovery fund in digital projects. Meanwhile, she said that the coronavirus pandemic had underlined the need for closer cooperation since “the people of Europe are still suffering.” It is noted that the competition mentioned involves only the unconventional rather than conventional security issues.

As a matter of fact, solidarity among the 27 member states performed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they refused to share the protective medical kits with the worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus. Also the EU leaders jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies. Yet, since last July,27 member states agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euros on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration. Addressing the EU Parliament, von der Leyen pledged her commission would try to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, promising a biomedical research agency and a global summit. In effect, the EU has all the means and resources at its capacity.

Yet, externally the EU has to deal with the troubled talks with the United Kingdom on the future links after the Brexit divorce is done. All the deals and pacts between the two sides could not be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. Von der Leyen reiterated that “This is a matter of law, trust and good faith… Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”The EU leaders also have the same attitude towards the United States and Russia since Europe is located between the two giants in all terms. Yet, the U.S. under the Trump’s administration has provided the EU with diplomatic rows. In a long run, the EU remains hopeful of improving relations and believes common ground can still be found, despite their current differences. As she reiterated “We must revitalize our most important relationships – we may not agree with the White House, but we must cooperate and build a new transatlantic agenda on trade and other matters.” Regarding the great challenge from Russia, she reiterated her condemnation of Russia over Navalny – though the Russian government has strongly denied any involvement – and said that the EU is on the side of the people of Belarus. They must be free to decide their own future and they are not pieces on someone else’s chessboard. However, the EU leaders seem to forget that the “color revolutions” have caused the disasters across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Under such circumstances, the EU has to deal with China strategically and smartly, which during the first seven months of 2020becomes the top trading partner of the EU, a position previously held by the United States, followed by Britain, Switzerland, and Russia on EU’s main trading partner list in the first seven months. As France has suggested that the EU and China, as the defenders of multilateralism in international order, should set the tone for multilateralism and lead the international society to cement cooperation in areas such as vaccine research and climate change. Yet, it was arguable that von derLeyen defined China a “competitor and a rival” although she previously admitted that the latest video summit between China and the EU was “frank and open”. In fact, she said that progress had been made on a host of key areas and hailed the potential of a fruitful future trading partnership with China although there was still much work to be done. Understandably, as one of the key leading figures of the EU, von der Leyen used her speech to again address the challenges both sides face in working together in the years ahead in spite of their conflicting political ideologies. But this is what she said, “The latest EU-China summit highlights one of the hardest challenges. China is a competitor and rival. We promote very different systems.”

In sum, the EU has several challenges ahead to deal with. First, it must update its long-term climate change goals to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement signed before. Second, the EU must manage the numbers of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe from Asia and Africa. As von der Leyen said that it is of vital importance that the EU’s member states work together to share the burden of taking in migrants and refugees and providing them with the tools for a brighter future. Third, since EU member states have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has much to be done and in its response to the pandemic and continued efforts to cooperate with other nations to find a vaccine. As she called,the EU stepp ed up to lead the global response. With civil society, G20 and the World Health Organization and others the EUhas brought more than 40 countries together to raise $19 billion to finance research on vaccines, tests and treatments for the whole world. This is the EU’s unmatched convening power in action.

Meanwhile, the EU leaders have openly called on China to do more to aid the world’s collective fight against all the challenges mentioned above. As von de Leyen said recently, China has shown willingness to dialogue on climate change and fight against pandemic. She also warned of the dangers of countries not working together on vaccine research, with the U.S. recently announcing its plans to withdraw from the WHO. Both China and the EU share the common ground that vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk, only vaccine cooperation saves lives. We endorse a strong WHO and a strong WTO – but reform of the multilateral system has never been more urgent.

In view of this, it is fair to say that the EU wants to lead reforms of the WHO and WTO. But it is possible only if it works together with other responsible powers including China.

*Yang Hao Yuan from the School of Governance, Technical University of Munich; Zeng Xixi & Hu Yong Heng from SIPA, Jilin University

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