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The Covid-19 epidemics and the issue of Italy’s public debt

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How will the E.U. resources be defined in the near future for the coronavirus issue? The issue is, in fact, much more complex than we may think.

 The actual European Funds that are theoretically available are manifold: the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund, the Cohesion Fund and, finally, the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.  All of them have been activated by President Von der Leyen in the initial phase of the COVID-19 spreading to Europe.

 The resources identified by President Von der Leyen for providing support against the epidemics and its economic effects are all drawn from these budget items, which are also those transferred to the States, usually as pre-financing, i.e. as advances on operating expenditure.

 The unspent part of these advances will soon be renamed without any particular bureaucratic problems and these funds will cover at least some past expenses, precisely as from February 1, 2020.

 President Von der Leyen’s proposals affect also the General Regulation of European Funds, which will also enable us to use the Regional Development Fund to finance capital and investment, particularly to improve the efficacy of regional health services.

 In principle, contributions from these Funds will only be used to cover the losses caused by health crises, climate events, environmental accidents or accidents at sea which, however, account for at least 30% of the turnover of the affected company, calculated on the average of the last three previous years.

 For severe diseases and epidemics, this new E.U. system envisages that these Funds can be activated if damage greater than three billion euros or 0.36% of the usual GDP can be proved (well, what next? No end to bad news).

 Hence a total of only 8 billion euros are expected to be made available to all the European economies affected, plus further 29 billion euros as cascading effects of investment already being made.

 Too little, as is evident to us all.

 The 2021-2027 EU budget, however, has not been approved yet. The resources are therefore already scarce and, to tell the truth, completely insufficient for all EU countries. Nevertheless, approximately 850 million euros will be transferred to the Italian regions alone to face the epidemics, in exchange for a not so formal guarantee of “enhancing the managerial approach” to health management – which is already high in Italy – and also to the relationship between spending centres and political authorities.

 However, we are back again to the usual routine of a too little too late approach in the E.U., both for the Italian health spending and for the equally high one of the other countries affected by the epidemics, such as Spain, France and Germany, in the very near future.

 In the German case, however, the public budget cosmetics – which I am surprised is not well known to the international financial markets – will make it possible to turn a plater, i.e. the German public finance, burdened with colossal debt, into a very fast Varenne.

 It will not be with this little money and these post factum bureaucratic criteria that the European Union will rebuild its image in the European productive forces and industrial systems destroyed by the epidemics.

 In the meantime, Prime Minister Conte’s government has already funded – – with 25 billion Euros, mostly as debt instruments- the whole package of measures to face the Covid-19 pandemic.

 The government bonds that can be issued are valid only as from 2020 – as a starting date – but there will be specific “aid” for Air Italy, the Sardinian airline being closed, and the Solidarity Fund for Air Transport and the airport system will anyway have additional 200 million euros available.

 All these measures can be found altogether in the Prime Minister’s Decree, so that we have the feeling that, in the end, with a view to setting again the economy into motion in the productive Northern regions after the epidemics, there will be less money than it is needed just to rebuild the industrial system of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, which – as is well-known to all scholars and experts – have a much shorter time of permanence on the markets than large companies.

 These 25 billion euros – which are clearly too little – also include funds for the publishing sector, given the unavoidable decline in advertising revenue, as well as an anti-spread shield for insurance companies to face the tension recorded on Italy’s public debt bonds. This is a very technical issue on which I will not elaborate in this article.

 As always happens, however, if investors know it, they discount the insurance value on the amount of bonds acquired or on their price.

 It is a painful mystery how, today, we can take a measure like the spread seriously, considering it measures a difference between the ten-year Bund of an ailing country, namely Germany, with the ten-year BTP of an equally ailing country, namely Italy.

 Indeed, I have always had little faith in the average intelligence of private financiers.

 Prime Minister’s Conte government, however, is ready to implement the E.U. changes to the volatility adjustment, which has always had a very discontinuous trend and a very limited effectiveness.

 Thus, by purchasing the tools for estimating the spread parameters, the companies that hold public debt bonds should be in a position to evaluate the functioning of the mass of bonds and calibrate the mix of investment in “paper” instruments, as well as the duration of all the bonds they own. But there is no guarantee in this respect.

 With specific reference to business support, the 25 billion additional public spending will allow to apply for the ordinary wage subsidies or for access to the ordinary allowances, but only for a period of nine weeks.  

 Once again there is not a single word about the companies’ operations to recover market shares, as well as to recover the profit already forecast. All these measures would apply for just nine months, which, even if the pandemic ended immediately, would probably not be enough for the many Italian SMEs affected by the epidemics to recover their place and positioning in the E.U. and international markets which, meanwhile, the others will have already taken.

 The fact that economic intelligence exists has not yet been understood by Italian politicians.

 With specific reference to the healthcare sector, the 25 billion euros – which, as can be seen, are becoming ever less available – also include only 150 million euros for the increase in overtime for the medical and paramedical staff.

 Based on the Decree enacted, the potential of specialized military medical staff will be increased by 320 doctors and nurses, but more money will be invested in local control offices for checks on goods and people.

 Moreover, a total amount of 340 million euros will be available to use the beds in the private healthcare facilities’ intensive care units. What about the already available direct funding for private healthcare facilities?

 It should also be recalled that the Supreme Defence Council has not yet been convened, which would be the minimum in the current situation.

 Once again, too little too late. There is no reliable data on the permanence of the virus and its distribution throughout the country.

 For SMEs, however, the Central Guarantee Fund will have only one billion euros available, which is still too little.

 If we overlap the maps of the infection areas, from the province of Lodi to the Veneto region, we can also have the map of the development area of Italy’s Small and Medium-sized Enterprises in the North.

 They face the international markets “barehanded”, just as Karate or Judo men fight. Whatever happens, the COVID-19 epidemics has put an end to Italy’s particular system of development and industrial organization, precisely in the most productive regions.

 Now for Northern Italy there is a possible future either as a “guaranteed” area or as an area completely dependent on the other countries’ economic cycles. This is the real game at stake. Especially for Germany, which thinks strategically about its economy within the EU.

 The guarantee, however, will in any case be increased up to 5 million euros per company. For those who are still in difficulty, there will also be easy access to the “Gasparini Fund” for the suspension of mortgage payments. Said Fund has been increased with as many as 500 million euros for the whole 2020.

 For the usual nine months after the entry into force of the Decree, access to this Fund will be provided also to the self-employed and freelancers who self-certify – and it will be very easy – a drop in turnover higher than one third which, however, shall be connected with the COVID-19 emergency (although no clear details are provided on how this correlation shall be proved).

 For banks, as well as for the other companies’ creditors, the turning of debt into tax credits is envisaged for a maximum amount of 2 billion euros.

 Hence we are well over the 25 billion euros initially envisaged, as debt instruments, by the Prime Minister’s package of measures, well knowing the debt conditions of many and often excellent SMEs in Northern and Central Italy.

 For restaurants, cafés, gyms, entertainment and culture, as well as transport services, there is an exemption at source of withholding tax payments on income. However, real income support would be needed rather than the usual tax exemptions on income that is no longer there.

 Finally, there is income support for freelancers only to the tune of 500 euros per month. Income support is envisaged also for those who have an active VAT number, as well as for the Made in Italy sector, which has always been the key for the SMEs’ economic penetration abroad. As to the latter, this income support – the amount of which is not specified – will be managed by the Institute for Foreign Trade (ICE). What about SACE for the companies which are already active overseas? In this case, everything is too vague.

 However, there are already all the signs of the E.U. trip.

 In one day the alleged gaffe of current ECB Governor Lagarde has already destroyed the Italian Stock Exchange, which, indeed, is owned by the London Stock Exchange, but the Franco-German banking axis has been speculating for years on the difference between the interest rates paid by Germany and France and the Italian ones.

 This is a real industry. Hence Lagarde’s alleged gaffe can be easily understood.

 Obviously all this is also a prelude to a sale of Italian companies and real estate sector, while it is increasingly likely that the rating agencies will downgrade Italy to junk from the current valuation of its public debt bonds, as a result of the 25 billion euros – albeit insufficient – spent as debt instruments to face the COVID-19 emergency.

 As already mentioned above, while describing President Von der Leyen’s plan, nobody within the E.U. is still outside the old “austerity paradigm”, which works badly even when things go well. Let us not delude ourselves, in the future, about what the Popperian epistemologists called “paradigm shift”.

 Hence de facto industrial stoppage due to the epidemics and E.U. Member States’ subsequent joint speculative action on the Made in Italy companies, as well as downward operations against all listed SMEs. In this regard, we should also recall the 2019 ruling of the Strasbourg Court on insolvent Municipalities, in which it was decided that the whole amount of local debt plus interest shall be taken over directly by the central State.

 This is already a huge blow. Currently there are, in fact, 66 large insolvent Municipalities, with 54 small administrations in the Calabria region and 409 medium and small Municipalities in crisis, for various reasons, as well as 111 insolvent Municipalities in Sicily, all for amounts which are currently difficult to assess but, however, very close to the famous 25 billion euros invested as debt instruments to face the COVID-19 epidemics.

 This is an evident manoeuvre to circumvent our fiscal and economic crisis, which will be used at the right time by our E.U. and non-E.U. competitors.

 Furthermore, if – as many current leaders of the ruling parties maintain – there will be Italy’s access to the European Stability Mechanism, a European Court will judge whether private assets should play their role in the default procedure, in addition to the public ones.

 It should also be recalled that 91% of Italian Municipalities are at risk of landslides and soil crumbling.

 Hence, for all public assets and companies, there would be the classic bankruptcy procedure, which may also involve private assets. Just as happened with Greece.

 And as was the case with Germany in Versailles, at the end of the First World War, thus paving the way for Nazism and the Second World War and, above all, for the European one.

 What about temporary solutions? A double circulation of the old lira, which should be made interchangeable with the euro – something that, in fact, former Prime Minister Monti prohibited in 2012 and that Germany never dreamed of abolishing – or the circulation of forward and futures contracts, as done by Hjalmar Schacht, the Jewish and Freemason brilliant President of the German Central Bank under Hitler’s rule, who invented the MEFO bills to ward off the last blows of Weimar Republic’s hyperinflation.

 With specific reference to public debt, the Bank of Italy speaks about an increase in debt – precisely with additional 9.8 billion new liquid assets of the Treasury, which brings it to 55 billion euros – with a further central government’s debt that has increased by 7.2 billion euros and that of local governments – whose bad financial situation has already been mentioned above – by 0.5 billion euros in 2020.

 For the long-standing theory of Eurobonds, called for by many more or less experienced economists, there is still a key question.

 What if, in fact – as a result of a possible persistence of the COVID-19 epidemics – the investors, skilfully manipulated – and we can well imagine by whom – turned to other bonds, such as BTPs?

 Currently Italy’s public debt is held by 80% of private markets/operators, by 33% of European institutions and central banks and by 20% of “other entities”, namely small and medium savers or other organizations.

 According to the European Commission, with a zero economic growth, at the end of this year the Italian public debt could reach, ceteris paribus, 2,435.7 billion euros out of a total EU-27 debt of 12,814 billion euros.

 If the Italian economy is set again into motion at the end of May, as forecast by Cerved, our companies could recover a level of turnover even 1.5% higher than the one recorded at the beginning of the epidemics.

 In essence, between 2020 and 2021 the COVID-19 epidemics is expected to cost companies 275 billion euros.

Certainly too much, but nothing that cannot be spread by a public debt carefully managed in its main components, if this data is disseminated among international investors. Hence we can definitely expand the range of buyers of our public debt bonds, carefully calibrated and even renewed, to open up to the financial markets in which we have ventured little in recent years: Great Britain, which certainly has a political, strategic and financial interest in opposing the E.U. policies, now that it is no longer a E.U. Member State; the United States, a market in which we have been present with our large companies, but much less with listed SMEs and other excellent companies; obviously China, but even India, not to mention Australia and New Zealand which, thanks to the London Stock Exchange – which knows the Milan Stock Exchange very well – could buy our bonds confidently.

 Hence, we should no longer ask for charity from the E.U. financial markets, which have not shown any interest in our internal and economic situation. We should begin to make high-level propaganda and skilful promotion of Italy’s “image”, not with a tourist-oriented approach but with excellent financial expertise.

 Moreover, there are those who – not heeding danger and experience – propose to turn the European ESM into the E.U. “Economy Ministry”, which could issue the famous Eurobonds or other instruments that, hopefully, would “sell like hot cakes” on the markets.

 Does anyone know that nowadays countries compete, by all means, on their public debt bonds?

 This operation – as debt instruments of the whole EU-27 – could raise the whole E.U.  budget, so as to help the less “fortunate” countries.

 The idea is good, in principle, but it does not take for granted what now seems obvious: the E.U. project to make Italy end up just like Greece – as in slow motion, like in sport events such as football and athletics.

 Moreover, the famous one trillion euro budget for the Green Compact, equal to seven years of the E.U. whole budget, was in fact an advertising idea, but we cannot even imagine where we can get this huge amount of money.

 According to other reliable banking sources, the situation of Italian SMEs in the COVID-19 epidemics phase will have an impact on the working capital of our Small and Medium-sized Enterprises equal to over 18 billion euros, out of an already calculated total of 342 trade receivables and payables.

 Nevertheless, only for the whole 2020, the requirements for SMEs could reach 46 billion euros, including repayments of debt coming due and investment.

 50% of this amount regards companies in Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna.

 Creating debt to set again the economy into motion is of no use in the long run – if not as a stopgap measure. A direct interest-free financing from the Bank of Italy is needed but – and this is going to be tough – also from the ECB, an institution in which experts study the old microeconomics and believe that it is the whole economic theory.

 With a view to solving the COVID-19 crisis, the State Rescue Fund – the well-known ESM – could resort to its “toolbox”, albeit this is very dangerous.

 Within the ESM, there is the possibility to activate the Precautionary Conditioned Credit Line (PCCL), i.e. loans granted quickly to avoid the default, but which are NOT conditional upon a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) of mandatory cuts in public spending and “structural reforms”.

 This would mean a significant increase in unemployment, further compression of the internal market, as well as subsequent and obvious impact, as well as knock-on effects, for Italy’s companies. For an indebted government it is enough to sign a Letter of Intent, which is similar to a MoU, but is less imperative. Hopefully so, although no one has experienced it yet.

 Furthermore, in the case of an Enhanced Conditions Credit Line of the ESM, with MoU-style reinforced guarantees which, I imagine, would be required from Italy, the effects would be directly proportional to the amount of credit granted and the average return time.

 The ESM is therefore a trap and, in the long run, it would create the same disasters it would like to solve.

 Microeconomics is not the whole economic theory. Today there is no soup, like the Marginalists’ one, having the maximum marginal value at the first spoon and the minimum value at the last one. Usually, you finish earlier.

 Another nonsense, albeit very widespread, is the wealth tax called for by the IMF and other scarcely experienced economists.

 The first house owned does not produce income, but an increase in taxation is created immediately during an economic recession and you do not need to be John Maynard Keynes to understand what would happen next.

 Meanwhile, the big financial information agencies say far and wide that “there are 40 billion U.S. dollars of reasons to avoid the Italian public debt”.

 Hence the real and future struggle will also be fought with the careful and authoritative explanation of how the Italian public debt is made, and above all by avoiding the counter-propaganda of some of our scarcely affectionate E.U. friends.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Victor Orban’s eyes may be bigger than his stomach

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When Prime Minister Victor Orban recently spelled out his vision of Hungary’s frontiers, he joined a club of expansionist leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and members of the Indian power elite who define their countries’ borders in civilisational rather than national terms.

Speaking on Romanian territory in the predominantly ethnic Hungarian town of Baile Tusnad in Transylvania, a onetime Austro-Hungarian possession home to a Hungarian minority, Mr. Orban echoed the worldviews of Messrs. Xi and Putin.

Those views are on display in the South China Sea and Ukraine, as well as in statements by the Russian leader about other former Soviet republics.

It’s a worldview also embraced by members of India’s Hindu nationalist elite that endorses a country’s right to expand its internationally recognized borders to lands inhabited by their ethnic kin or territories and waters that historically were theirs.

Unlike the Russian and Chinese leaders, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been careful to avoid public support for the civilisationalist concept of Akhand Bharat embraced by his ideological alma mater.

The concept envisions an India that stretches from Afghanistan to Myanmar and encompasses nuclear-armed Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.

Mr. Modi’s silence hasn’t prevented Mohan Bhagwat, head of the powerful ultra-Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS) or National Volunteer Organization, from recently predicting that Akhand Bharat would become a reality within 15 years.

Mr. Modi has been a member of the RSS since the late 1960s. However, he is believed to have last referred to the Akhand Bharat concept in an interview in 2012 when, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he suggested that “Hindustan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh should rejoin.”

However, in contrast to his more recent silence, Mr. Modi has approached Indian Muslims, the world’s largest minority and its largest Muslim minority, in much the same way that Mr. Orban envisions a racially and religiously pure Hungary.

The Hungarian prime minister sparked outrage in his July speech when he rejected a “mixed-race world” defined as a world “in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe.”

Mr. Orban asserted that mixed-race countries “are no longer nations: They are nothing more than conglomerations of peoples” and are no longer part of what he sees as “the Western world.” Mr. Orban stopped short of identifying those countries, but the United States and Australia would fit the bill. 

Romanians may be more concerned about Mr. Orban’s racial remarks than his territorial ambitions, described by one Romanian Orban watcher as a “little man having pipe dreams.”

Romanians may be right. Mr. Orban’s ability to militarily assert his claims is far more restricted than those of his Russian and Chinese counterparts. Nevertheless, one underestimates at one’s peril.

Mr. Orban shares Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi’s resentment of perceived historical wrongs that need to be rectified irrespective of international law and the consequences of a world whose guardrails are dictated by might rather than the rule of law.

His speech seems to promise to reverse what he sees as an unjust diktat. His revanchism may explain why Russia’s alteration in Ukraine of national boundaries by force doesn’t trouble him.

Mr. Orban left no doubt that his definition of the Hungarian motherland included Transylvania and other regions in the Carpathian Basin beyond Hungary’s borders that ethnic Hungarians populate.

Insisting that the world owed Hungary, which eventually would call in its debt, Mr. Orban asserted that his country was driven by the notion “that more has been taken from us than given to us, that we have submitted invoices that are still unpaid… This is our strongest ambition.”

Mr. Orban implicitly suggested a revision or cancellation of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which deprived Hungary of much of its pre-World War I territory.

Two months earlier, Hungarian President Katalin Novak ruffled diplomatic feathers when she posted a picture of herself climbing a mountain peak in Romania’s Alba County, standing by a disputed milestone painted in Hungarian colours.

At the time, Ms. Novak advised Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu that it was her duty to represent “all Hungarians, regardless of whether they live inside or outside the borders” – a claim Romania rejected.

Mr. Orban’s grievance and racially driven nationalism may be one reason the Hungarian leader has been Europe’s odd man out in refusing to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine fully.

In a break with European Union policy, Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjarto met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on the eve of Mr. Orban’s speech to request additional gas supplies.

In contrast to the EU, which wants to remove Russia as a supplier of its energy, Mr. Orban insisted that “we do not want to stop getting energy from Russia, we simply want to stop getting it exclusively from Russia.”

Mr. Orban’s speech is unlikely to ease the task of Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s regional development minister and a former EU commissioner. Mr. Navracsics arrived in Brussels this week to persuade the EU to release €15 billion in covid recovery funds amid an unprecedented disciplinary process that could lead to the suspension of EU funding because of Hungarian violations of the rule of law.

So far, Mr. Orban’s support of Russia has isolated him in Europe with the de facto demise of the Visegrad 4 or V4 in its current form in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and the threat of an economic recession.

Grouping the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, the Visegrad 4 were united in their opposition to EU migration and rejection of what the Hungarian leader termed Europe’s “internal empire-building attempts,” a reference to the European Commission’s efforts to stop moves that hollow out Central European democracy.

Leaving Mr. Orban isolated, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger has pledged to use his current six-month presidency of the European Council to return the Visegrad 4 to the roots of its founding in 1991 as the four countries emerged from communism: respect for democracy and a commitment to European integration.

If successful, Mr. Heger’s V4 will likely be a V3 with Hungary on the outs.

Said Mateusz Gniazdowski, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies: “Attempts to ideologically use the V4 brand harm mutual trust and don’t contribute to building a strong Central Europe in the EU.”

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The End of History, Delayed: The EU’s Role in Defining the Post-War Order

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While the world is following the dramatic unfolding of the Russian aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Europe needs to start elaborating its vision for the post-war world. While a new Yalta might be needed, we all should realise that a peaceful world order has never existed outside the European Union. This in itself grants the EU the credibility – and responsibility – for arranging the post-war framework that secures the peaceful future of the continent.

By Dr.Maria Alesina and Francesco Cappelletti*

In the interconnected international society, war is not only a horrific and painful but also irrational choice. It is a zero-sum game, which sets into motion the domino effect of global repercussions. However, rational considerations have little to do with what stands behind the ongoing military attack on Ukraine. Russia’s war is not limited to Ukraine or aimed at a regime change to strengthen regional influence (as realists would say), nor does it represent an attempt to reinforce specific strategic interests (as a cognitivist analysis would suggest). It has emerged as something beyond traditional disputes: it is, as a matter of fact, an ideological war against the West. More than anything, it is Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”, although driven not by ideology or religion but by the two conflicting standpoints on human life – as a value and a non-value. This fundamental clash is happening now on the Ukrainian soil, and the battle is as fierce as it can possibly get.

The propaganda-driven “Rus-zism” rhetoric, missing any solid ideological basis or constructive meaning, consists of an overt anti-Western narrative aiming to establish a multi-polar world order and a vaguely defined concept of Russia’s “greatness”, entrenched in the shreds of evidence given by altered revision of events, such as the Great Patriotic War. A war that, in the eyes of the Russian establishment, has never ended. In the anti-Western rhetoric, the corroborating factor is a series of facts, events, convictions, beliefs, interests that support the leitmotif of the inevitability of “blocks”, an enemy, the “others”. A heritage of the Cold War. All this is grounded in the historical super Troika of the Russia’s foreign policy: fear of external threats, dispersed economic and political inefficiency, and focus on securing citizens’ support – by all means, ranging from propaganda to political repressions. This is a sheer exercise in power without purpose, control without vision, projected both internally and externally. This dynamic, although never fully dissipated, has been re-gaining momentum starting with Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference.

Today, in mid-2022, Russian aggression in Ukraine is only growing in atrocities and cynicism. In contrast, the EU politics still remain a palliative medicine, by definition unprepared to dealing with the concept of war. Political crises in several Member States – Italy, France, Estonia, Bulgaria – risk becoming a further destabilizing factor preventing the EU from fully standing up against Putin’s war plans. Meanwhile, the Europeans are becoming increasingly concerned with the upcoming ‘Russian winter’, recession, global food shortages, and a new migration crisis. As much as citizens advocated for support to Ukraine in the beginning, soon they might start demanding peace at any cost – most likely, Ukraine’s cost. This is the trap that Russia is orchestrating.

However, any simple, although desperately needed, ceasefire agreement risks only deepening the problem and postponing the solution. It will be a matter or years, if not months, when Russia restarts its aggression, possibly better prepared the next time around. The somewhat belated understanding of this simple truth should prevent us from re-engaging into the dilemma of prioritizing short-lived comfort and material gain over long-term solutions based on our fundamental, “civilizational” priorities. We need to remember that Europe’s prosperity has resulted from a prolonged period of peace – not vice versa. Those who threaten the peace, by definition threaten our growth and sustainability. Alongside building up its strategic autonomy for the 21st century, Europe must be prepared to do what it takes to secure a new long-term peaceful world order – not simply patch the old one.

Given that the ‘Russian factor’ will not disappear even after the overt military conflict is over, the Cold War II stands in the midst of diplomatic challenges anticipated for the post-war scenario. On the one hand, as Russia has acquired the official status of the world’s villain, dethroning China from this role, it will continue to face some extent of isolation. Regaining any level of trust will require years, and Moscow will struggle to find a credible audience to speak to when trying to redefine its external relations, while having to deal with a prolonged recession and a technological slowdown never experienced since 1991. On the other hand, without being naïve, we cannot expect any substantial regime changes to happen in Moscow. For centuries, the narrative ‘Russia vs. the West’ has constituted the very central axis of the national public discourse, even within the liberally-minded opposition circles. Such long-standing trends do not change quickly, if ever.

Although no notions of trustworthy diplomacy will bring Russia to the international negotiation tables for a long time, the need to guarantee security goes beyond this conflict and its territorial or ideological implications. The only viable solution is to find a way to contain Russia within a binding and comprehensive international framework. This means a pragmatic approach is needed in developing untouchable geopolitical, diplomatic, and security-related boundaries of the new order. The exact same boundaries that kept the first Cold War “cold”, with the difference that this time one of the great powers involved is – to use Kennedy’s word – declining.

The results of the potential Kyiv-Moscow talks will largely depend on the West’s willingness to avoid grey zones in the future security settlements. It is a matter of responsibility, especially for the EU, to provide a forum to assess, judge, clarify, evaluate, measure, and pragmatically set limits of the new post-war security system. While the US is interested, first and foremost, in slowly weakening Russia politically and economically, Europe’s long-term concern consists primarily in preventing its giant neighbour from disrupting the very basic principles of coexistence on the continent. A zero-trust model should be applied to Russia, while a new paradigm for debates should be developed from scratch: there is no more “balance of power” and “deterrence” to fit into the discourse. The world is now divided into nations that either care or not about commonly accepted principles, rights, and, above all, about the value of human life. The end of history, in 2022, is farther away than expected.

*Dr Maria Alesina and Francesco Cappelletti are Policy and Research Officers at the European Liberal Forum. Dr Alesina holds MA degrees in Political Science and EU Studies obtained in Ukraine, Germany and Belgium and a PhD degree in interdisciplinary cultural studies from Ghent University. She specializes in EU foreign, social, and cultural affairs. Francesco Cappelletti holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Florence and MA in World Politics from MGIMO. Member of Center for Cybersecurity in Florence. He focuses on cybersecurity, digitisation, Russian-Western relations and the relation between sustainability and technologies.

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“No longer analyze Asia with European eyes”, says French expert in Bucharest conference

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A 2-day academic hybrid conference organized in Bucharest at mid-July by MEPEI (Middle East Economic and Political Institute) and EuroDefense Romania, two Bucharest-based think-tanks, was the perfect venue to learn about the latest analyses on economic, geopolitical and security topics related to the Middle East and Asia, during which China was mentioned by all speakers as clearly playing a role in today’s international order. Entitled “Middle East in Quest for Security, Stability, and Economic Identity”, the conference was the 8th in a series of international conferences that annually gather well-known experts from all over the world to present their analyses and research on highly debated topics such as terrorism, Middle East, emerging Asian countries, the rising China, to which this year a new topic was added: the conflict in Ukraine.

Interesting ideas derived from the speakers’ presentations.

Adrian Severin, former Romanian minister of foreign affairs and EU parliamentarian, pointed out that “the conflict in Ukraine is actually one between Russia and the West, but economic sanctions never stop wars, and they even may lead to global disaster”. Severin considers it to be more and more difficult for NATO to defend its allies, with so many countries relying on NATO, and on the US, for their national protection, including non-European countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. When it comes to Asia, Severin sees “China to have a first rank role in shaping the world order.”

Teodor Meleșcanu, another former Romanian minister of foreign affairs, stressed that “Asia has the majority of the world’s population and lots and resources, and the future of Asia will assume the future of our civilizations.” Meleșcanu explained that “China wants to stabilize the world and to forge alliances, but not to fight with the West. Chinese trade is not interested in confrontation with Western partners by making alliance with Russia and it’s obvious why – because the West means more than 700 million people whereas Russia means only 114 million.” Meleșcanu suggested that the optimal solution in international relations is to operate with regional organizations in order to have dialogue, not directly with “the big boys in the garden.” Meleșcanu also encourages never-ending dialogue between the US-Russia-China, as the current situation proves it, in order to prevent such events that destabilize the world. He believes that the principles in Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion will always apply, as war does not actually mean conquering territories.  

Lily Ong, host of the Geopolitics360 live show in Singapore, confirmed that regional organizations are vital for dialogue: “Had not it have been for ASEAN, Singapore would have been on the menu, not at the table.”

Foad Izadi from the University of Tehran informed that Iran signed a 25-year agreement with China, and a separate one with Russia, and said “Iran would welcome such 25-year agreements with European countries. It’s Europe’s decision if they really want to follow the US decisions, but the US interests are often not aligned with the European interests”, concluded Izadi.

Vasily Kuznetsov from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow reminded the audience that Russia and the West cooperated very well in Libya, in fighting against ISIS in Syria, and expressed his confusion about Europe’ militarized approach towards Russia.  He stressed that “the current international situation will result into the strengthening of Asian centres of global power and global economics. China, as well as India and the Middle East as a collective actor become new great powers directly linked to each other, without the West.” At the same time, Kuznetsov sees “for China, a dilemma between pragmatic economic interest and global political ambitions, and for India, a choice between regional and global ambitions outside South Asia”, and he wondered whether “China can have a realistic foreign policy in the Middle East which  is facing issues of internal reconfiguration, sovereignty and security.” For the US, Kuznetsov sees the biggest challenge in the effort “to preserve leadership without more engagement, to make American politics more successful and to combine values and pragmatism.”

 “The rise of China is beneficial not only for China but for entire Asia”, believes Yao Jinxiang from China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) in Beijing. “The rise of Asia will rebalance the world.” Yao also stressed that “people are often biased about Asia. Let us not forget that, apart from the wars led by the US in Asia, Asia has been stable with no war for a long time. The self-control of the Asia countries ensures stability. It looks that it’s easier to attract Europe in a war than Asia. Asian countries try to solve problems by consensus. For example, China, Japan and South Korea step back because ASEAN is the leader. On the other hand, China has always been defensive. China does not want to claim hegemony or to replace the US, or another great power.” Yao equally explained the two terms used to refer to the same region: Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific: “Asia-Pacific reflects economic relations, whereas Indo-Pacific rather mirrors the political and military relations”, and he stressed that “China does not want to claim hegemony in this world or to replace the US or another great power. China is only interested in prosperity around the world and it watches carefully the Global Development Index and the Global Security Index”.

Pierre Fournié, French expert on Asia from SUFFREN International think-tank declared the Belt and Road Initiative, formerly One-Belt, One-Road (OBOR), to be “a magnificent project that could be pivotal in Europe” because “trade has always been a peaceful and fruitful relation among countries.” Fournié made clear that the war in Ukraine, inflation, migration, social discontent in Europe and the ongoing reconfiguration of the US society create conditions for Asian nations to become key partners in the post-war reshaping of Europe. “Thus, BRI, or the Indonesian Global Maritime Fulcrum are magnificent assets. Fournié also suggested that ”the current economic model creates tensions, and it’s time for  people to apply mutual aid and to unite to create coo-petition, a term coined by himself, and not competition. He recommended people to “no longer analyze Asia with European eyes.”

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