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From Russia with Love: Controversy Around the Russian Aid Campaign to Italy

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As Winston Churchill said in the mid-1940s as the end of World War II approached, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” At the time, the British Prime Minister was presumably referring to the Yalta conference and the resulting alliance between him, Stalin, and Roosevelt, the trio that would lead to the founding of the United Nations, thus generating opportunities within a crisis. Although the statement dates back more than 70 years, it continues to be relevant even today. In recent years the Kremlin has not hesitated to make a crisis fruitful, using it to regain its position as a significant player on the global scene (i.e., Libya, Ukraine, Syria). And the global health emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

On March 22, Italy began to receive the first Russian aid, following a telephone call between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A goodwill gesture labeled “From Russia with Love” in honor of one of the most successful films in the 007 sagas. Along with the mission and medical material, however, came a military contingent led by General Sergey Kikot, head of 104 health workers and other assistance personnel.

Although welcomed with great appreciation, the reception of the Russian aid operation has raised several doubts concerning the authenticity of its objectives. In this regard, it is necessary to stress that until the beginning of April, Italy faced the crisis almost entirely on its own.

Initially, Europe and its member states revealed themselves to be reluctant to cooperate. Instead of showing solidarity towards their then most affected member state, the allied governments reacted through the closure of the borders, a move that resulted in the delay of the arrival and exchange of necessary medical equipment on European soil, thus worsening the Italian situation. The apology addressed to the peninsula by EU President Ursula Von Der Leyen is dated April 1 (“Ursula von der Leyen: Scusateci ora l’Europa è con voi”). In the letter addressed to the newspaper “La Repubblica”, the President apologized for the lack of promptness of help from the European community, calling Italy a source of inspiration in the fight against COVID-19 and stressing its importance as a member state of the European Union. Besides, in the letter, it is repeatedly stated that although the European response was initially delayed, Europe is now more united than ever in the fight against the virus. A battle that cannot be won if not together.

Faster in the solidarity response, conversely, proved to be third countries, including not only Russia, but also China, and Cuba. Pending a European response, and just when the number of casualties exceeded that of China, a series of aid from the communist giant arrived in Italy. Between 12 and 18 March, an equipe of medical experts landed in Rome and Milan along with supplies and technical support, including respirators, masks, and protective suits and dressings. Similarly, on March 26, Cuba sent a medical team consisting of 52 healthcare professionals.

While not much has been spoken about the other foreign aid, and although Italy was facing great difficulties and was in definite need of help, the arrival of the Russian contingent has caused quite a few perplexities. Questions were raised concerning the consequences of the Russian aid campaign to Italy. Did the Kremlin expect anything in return? What would be the cost to the Italian government of these disinterested contributions, and what the strategic motives behind the humanitarian mission? Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at Moscow Carnegie Center, in the article “Is the Kremlin using the crisis as an opportunity to score propaganda victories?”, pointed out how, for countries that would like to see the world order turned upside down, this pandemic presents an excellent opportunity.

Prior to discussing the underlying motives at the heart of the Russian aid campaign, it is of interest to observe how the same information has been presented by the two respective governments. While in Russia the press focused on the gratitude shown by the Italian people for the assistance received, in Italy, media appeared more critical, questioning the implications of the campaign.

More specifically, La Stampa, one of the longest-selling and oldest newspapers on the peninsula, expressed its doubts about the matter, in particular through the work of the journalist Jacopo Iacoboni. (“Nella Spedizione dei Russi in Italia, il generale che negò i gas in Siria”, “Militari di Mosca acquartierati nella foresteria dell’esercito italiano, i timori di un’“occupazione” russa in Italia” ). The correspondent voiced his perplexity over the quality of the aid received, pointing out that about 80% of the material was obsolete and not working. The usage of the Aventa-M fan model (at present, there are 150 fans of this type on Italian soil) has, in fact, been suspended in Russia after having caused the death of 6 people, between 9 and 12 of May, for catching fire. In addition, the journalist, given the large number of military presence in the contingent, expressed his fears for the security of the country’s sensitive data, depicting the aid more as a geopolitical move than as an act of solidarity.

The diatribe became more heated when Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashankov intervened, accusing the journalist of russophobia and spreading false information.

Tensions culminated in an appeal to Russian institutions from Rome by Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio and Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini to respect freedom of the press, including the right of criticism, defined as a fundamental value at the base of the country.

On the other hand, the Russian media decided to focus their attention on the appreciation expressed by the Italians. Alongside the news of the mission’s arrival on Italian soil, media reported flags displaying the message “Spasibo Bolshoe” (thank you very much) held by smiling Italians gazing at the camera from their balconies. “Thank you, Russia, we won’t forget” “Dear Merkel, thank you for abandoning us” these the recurrent headlines on the subject (Baltnews, RT, BBC Russia, Rya Novosty, VestyRu, TsarGrad). Among the most well-known personal expression of gratitude, it is worth mentioning the former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s private message to Putin and a video posted by the Italian singer Pupo, in which the singer tries to pronounce a few words and sings in Russian.

From the Russian media, however, the Italian response to Russian aid seems to have found more support than what appears to have actually happened. According to EUvsDISINFO weekly report – “Coronavirus: BBC challenges pro-Kremlin reporting from Italy” – Italians have been portrayed replacing European flags with Russian ones, as proof though only an isolated video was found. Another recurring narrative denounced by the EU taskforce portrays Italian citizens engaged in playing the Russian anthem from their balconies during the lockdown. However, again, only one video to confirm the statement. The video was filmed outside the UGL Workers’ Union, a section of the extreme right-wing Italian political party Casapound.

Let us now turn to the controversies surrounding the interests behind the Russian aid contingent.

Amidst the most commonly discussed assumptions, one wonders whether, as a result of the disinterested aid, Russia does not expect something in return.

A common belief is that the Kremlin, having in Italy its closest ally within the European Union, could count on its help to put pressure on Brussels to review the question of sanctions, imposed following the illegal annexation of Crimea. A strategy that had already been employed in the preceding years with regard to Italy unsuccessfully (Following a unanimous vote held in December 2019, the European Council had extended the sanctions until July 31, 2020). As alleged evidence to this would seem to be the letter dated April 27 from the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Russian Duma, Leonid Slutsky, forwarded to the Italian senators. The letter expressly asks for help on the issue of sanctions. In order to avoid misinterpretation, clarification was promptly provided by the President of the Foreign Commission of Palazzo Madama, the senator of the 5 Star Movement Vito Petrocelli, who stated: “The appeal of my Russian counterpart Leonid Slutsky did not concern at all the European sanctions against Moscow linked to the Ukrainian issue, but the international sanctions that prevent countries such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and others from adequately combating the spread of COVID-19, creating further risks of contagion for the entire planet.” The letter would, therefore, refer to the UN General Assembly decision, which rejected the Russian resolution presented on March 25, also signed, among other countries, by China, Iran, and Venezuela, to suspend the sanctions due to the current health emergency.

Although there was some controversy following the letter’s receipt, it seems, nonetheless, quite far-fetched for the Russian mission to Italy to be solely dictated by the possibility for the latter to provide help concerning the suspension of sanctions against the Kremlin.

In this regard, it is of interest to remark that during its most critical moments (WWII, Cold War), Italy has always sided against Russia. On the contrary, the most probable scenario seems to be the Kremlin’s aim to gain credit with Rome in those areas of friction where bilateral relations prevail, i.e., the energy market and the Libyan question.

Italy is the fourth Russian trade outlet after the Netherlands, China, and Germany, and the fifth source of imports. In this regard, the Italo-Russian Chamber of Commerce (CCIR), founded in 1964, is very operative, bringing together the main Italian companies operating in Russia and vice versa. Russia is also the leading supplier of energy in Italy: from the latter, it purchases oil for about 15% of imports and gas for 30% of total imports. Italy acts, therefore, as the natural bridge between Russia and the European Union. This role, among other things, is witnessed by the massive Italian presence at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, which, in addition to the political presence, sees the participation of all the most significant Italian companies and their chain of small and medium enterprises. Not to mention the investments of the two major Italian banks, Intesa Sanpaolo and Unicredit. Italy and Russia live in a relationship of economic symbiosis, as evidenced by the ever-increasing commercial exchange (EUROSTAT).

Simultaneously, the ongoing instability in Libya presents several challenges for Italy. Among the broad spectrum of interests in ending the Libyan crisis, in addition to energy and security issues, the issue of migration is undoubtedly the most urgent. Indeed, the migratory flow on the Italian coast risks having a significant impact on public opinion and political developments in the country. In this regard, Russia, which is also involved in the country, would thus play a key role in the negotiations to end the conflict.

In addition to whether the bill would have been presented to Italy once the aid had ended, further concern relates to security. Due to the presence of a large military convoy, the motive behind army personnel deployment and not just medical staff was questioned. Widespread speculation was that Moscow, accessing various hospitals’ databases, was engaged in a data-mining mission. Now, that would seem more like a scenario worthy of the Cold War era. What seems more reasonable, especially given that, at the time, Russia was still one of the countries less affected by the virus, is that, in the Kremlin’s perspective, the Italian situation presented itself as an excellent opportunity to gather useful information about COVID-19 and its possible mutations.

Thus, Italy would have represented both a study opportunity to train and test the capabilities of Russian departments specializing in chemical, radiological and biological defense, as well as a chance to examine the data stored in the national health system, collecting all the information needed, in order to gain a better understanding of the virus. To suggest the hypothesis, the fact that Russian convoys, consisting among others of an entire department highly specialized in bacteriological containment operations, were located in Bergamo, Lombardy, the most affected area in Italy.

Even though some have regarded the Russian aid campaign with fear and criticism, including Josep Borrell head of the European Union’s foreign and defense policy, who warned against Chinese and Russian propaganda, the Italian government has been clear about the matter. To reiterate the Italian position and avoid further ambiguity, the foreign minister Luigi di Maio in a recent interview for the newspaper “Il Corriere Della Sera” reported that there was no new geopolitical scenario. In what he described to be a matter of “realpolitik,” he stated, “There is only one country that needs help and the other countries that are giving it.”

A few weeks after the end of the Russian mission (May 7), one wonders whether there will be any consequences on the international geopolitical scene. Nonetheless, when addressing Russia’s attempt to re-establish itself on the international stage, in Italy’s case, it appears erroneous to refer to the mission as of an attempt to penetrate new geopolitical spaces. Russian solidarity should rather be regarded as an effort to maintain a political status quo already considered favorable. From the friendship of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with Vladimir Putin, to Enrico Letta, the only EU leader at the inauguration of the Olympic Games in Sochi, to Matteo Renzi, former Prime Minister, and Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing party “The League”, who openly criticized the European Council for the renewal of sanctions against Russia, to an intense series of agreements and protocols of economic, political and cultural cooperation, Italo-Russian relations appear well-established.

Italy has long stood as the founding country of the EU closest to the Kremlin, and bilateral relations seem to be facilitated by the presence of shared interests based on economic cooperation (CCIR) and the lack of historical political and social issues (Siddi). Relations are determined not only by commercial interests but also by the fruitful cultural and social exchanges between the two countries. Italian institutes of culture are very operative in the Federation, as well as the Dante Alighieri Societies, particularly active in the teaching of the Italian language, along with various cultural and tourist exchange initiatives. Despite the consequences and the underlying motives behind this humanitarian mission remain hence difficult to be predicted, it is nevertheless interesting to stress that a link between the two countries already existed. And although Italy has been part of the western economic and military structure (EU and NATO founding member) since the first post-war period, positive dialogue with the Kremlin has continued and continues to evolve.

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Of Multilateralism And Future To Europe Recalibration

Donald Johnston

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As the key-note panelist at the Modern Diplomacy and IFIMES conference today in Vienna, the former Secretary General of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Europe, and former senior minister in several Canadian governments, just delivered highly anticipated speech.

This panel in addressing the future of Europe is invited to answer this question:

“Is there any alternative to universal and pan-European multilateralism?  For the purpose of my remarks I am interpreting “ universal and pan – European multilateralism’ as moving forward with achieving more EU integration supported by institutions appropriate to a  kind of federal structure in line with the thinking of the Spinelli Group. But it also raises the question of global free trade which I promoted as Secretary General of the OECD and continue to believe must be the word’s future in addressing poverty and opportunity, especially for the worlds developing countries. But it has to be managed in a way sensitive to the challenges of both.

In these brief comments I intend to offer my view on the answer to this fundamental question about the future of Europe.

To begin, I would amend the question by adding the word “good” before “alternative”.

There certainly are alternatives some of which could set Europe on a path back to a collection of independent sovereign states and undo the remarkable progress in building a secure European Union in the post WWII period.

Many years ago when looking at the extraordinary work and vision of statesmen like Jean Monet trying to build a lasting and prosperous European Union, I came across a comment of British Historian H.A.L. Fisher in the preface to his 1936 book, A History of Europe. In part it read as follows:

“[No] question [would be] more pertinent to the future welfare of the world than how the nations of Europe … may best be combined into some stable organization for the pursuit of their common interests and the avoidance of strife.“

Although we appreciate the Marshall Plan’s amazing contribution to the Europe of today, it contributed more to restoring Europe physically while providing humanitarian assistance. Of course, the OEEC which evolved into the OECD in 1961 did provide an important framework and mechanism for economic and social development which continues to this day.

Fisher’s vision of a strong, unified Europe remains very much work in progress and that work really began with Jean Monnet’s initiative to create the European Coal and Steel Commission. I will comment on that in a moment But I remain convinced that Fisher was right, and the great rebuilding of Europe  and the EU after the Second World War must and will endure notwithstanding the barrage of criticisms  from euroskeptics, now emboldened by the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote of June 2016. Admittedly my conviction is based on the EU having strong, visionary leadership, which has not yet fully materialized.

Think of this. Although Greece represents less than 3 per cent of the Euro zone economy, euroskeptics used its financial crisis as ammunition to predict its withdrawal from the eurozone and the possible unravelling of the entire EU. The Greeks rejected that option: there was no Grexit.  Austrians also rejected right-wing populist nationalism in the 2016 Presidential election of Van der Bellen, a strong supporter of the EU.

The support for Brexit in the UK referendum was an unexpected shock for some, but it pleased others who wish to see the EU unravel and claim that the UK attitude reflects views held in other major European countries. I keep hearing and reading that the United Kingdom has rejected the EU, as if it were an overwhelming victory.  Bolstered by misrepresentations and downright lies it was a very slim referendum victory but Brexiters will argue that it was validated by Boris Johnson’s subsequent margin of  electoral victory.page53image34082368

There are also others, especially President Trump who appear to be hostile to the emerging  global role that the European Union is likely to play as it completes its evolution to a unified international force. This has become even more important as the United States under Trump becomes increasingly isolationist and opposed to international multilateralism constructed by visionaries over the past 75 years.

In a stunning commentary in Foreign Affairs (summer 2016), Professor Jakub Grygielof the Catholic University of America, implies that the upside to the EU crisis will be a return to independent sovereign nation-states across Europe. Indeed, that would be an upside for American isolationists. It would remove from US competition the largest unified single market in history and reinstate the possibility of future wars on the continent that this great European experiment was designed to prevent – as it has.

Some of Grygiel’s comments appear designed to create a false impression of the views of Europeans. Here is a cheerful observation to support his thesis: “a Europe of newly assertive nation-states would be preferable to the disjointed, ineffectual, and unpopular EU of today. There’s good reason to believe that European countries would do a better job of checking Russia, managing the migrant crisis, and combating terrorism on their own than they have done under the auspices of the EU.”

Really? What is that “good reason” that escaped the attention of the statesmen and nation builders like Jean Monnet in post-war Europe? Grygiel also says that the EU is ineffectual, which is true in some cases, as it is with many, if not most supranational bodies, including much of the United Nations (UN) activities. And what of the United States itself?

Sadly the world is watching that formerly great republic  floundering in the face of numerous serious challenges both social, economic, even racial, not even capable of effectively addressing the Covid-19 crisis through what is becoming a  dysfunctional government under a Commander in Chief who proudly presents himself as a narcissistic ignorant bully.

And non Europeans, especially Americans, systematically ignore the EU’s successes. One good example being the collective research of 28 networked European countries that produce one-third of the world research’s output – 34 per cent more than the United States and more than China. This was documented at the time of the Brexit debate in New Scientist.  (June 2016). These are the kind of synergies that could be sacrificed should the EU dissolve, and it may already be compromised by the withdrawal of the UK which has much world first class research.

Hopefully the; United Kingdom will stay united and prosper in the post Brexit period. However, there is good reason for concern as the Financial Times Martin Wolfe wrote at the time (June 24,2016). He said:

“David Cameron took a huge gamble and lost. The fear mongering and outright lies of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, The Sunand the Daily Mail have won. The UK, Europe, the West and the world are damaged. The UK is diminished and seems likely soon to be divided. Europe has lost its second-biggest and most outward-looking power. The hinge between the EU and the English-speaking powers has been snapped. This is probably the most disastrous single event in British history since the Second World War.

Yet the UK might not be the last country to suffer such an earthquake. Similar movements of the enraged exist elsewhere – most notably in the US and France. Britain has led the way over the cliff. Others might follow.”

Will others follow the United Kingdom over the cliff? Alina Polyakova and Neil Fligstein, writing in the International New York Times at the time of the Brexit vote( July 2016), relied on polls that suggest that will not happen. They say, “Britain is not, and never has been, a typical member of the European Union, and in no country but Britain do populists and other euroskeptic forces have the 51 percent of votes needed to pull their countries from the union.”

Obviously, those in the UKwho wanted Brexit must have believed it is good for them and presumably for the United Kingdom, even if it means losing Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland. The City of London will also suffer, but no one can estimate what the damage will be until all the terms of exiting are known.

Jacques Delors, who has dedicated much of his life to the European dream both in public office and after retirement through his Paris-based foundation, made the following observation in an inter- view in 2012 with the Handelsblattnewspaper: “If the British cannot support the trend towards more integration in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends, but on a different basis. I could imagine a form such as a European economic area or a free-trade agreement.”

That might be the happiest outcome in the wake of Brexit. The real beneficiaries of Brexit are the remaining EU members inspired by people of the experience and quality of Jacques Delors and members of the Spinelli Group. The latter founded in 2010 as a network of thousands of politicians, individuals, writers, and think tanks looking to revive the momentum toward a federalist structure for the EU.” 

In fact, the Brexit vote and Johnson’s arrival as Prime Minister may have strengthened the resolve of many EU countries and prominent Europeans to accelerate the integration process in line with federalist thinking.

Obviously those having the foresight to realize the importance of greater integration and an emerging federalist model, such as the Spinelli Group, would be blocked by a United Kingdom, were it a member, to have reforms move in the opposite direction, consistent with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech in 1988 where she said,

“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels. Certainly, we want to see Europe more united and with a greater sense of common purpose. But it must be in a way which preserves the different traditions, parliamentary powers and sense of national pride in one’s own country; for these have been the source of Europe’s vitality through the centuries.”

This could hardly be seen as an endorsement of a federalist system of any kind, because decentralization, especially with the preservation of parliamentary powers, meaning full sovereignty, is incompatible with federalism. She could have added that the elements she wished to see preserved have also been the source of bloody European conflicts throughout the last millennium, including three wars between France and Germany in the 70 years between 1870 and 1939!

Consideration should be given to some steps that must be taken to realize the collective potential of the EU as a major global player, which it could never be if its members revert to sovereign nation- state status. Indeed, as other major countries grow in economic clout, it has been pointed out that not even Germany would be in a new G8. Only a united EU could have influence on the global stage.

Skeptics like Professor Grygiel, many of them American, seem blinded by the headlines and glare of current events, failing to place them in a broader historical context. Reviewing the remarkable evolution of Europe since the Second World War, I hope that the long-term success of Europe is inevitable. But as the great American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes once noted, “the mode by which the inevitable comes to pass is effort.” European leadership must now make that effort. It is critical not only for Europe, but for the world today.

A strong, unified Europe is also important for the emergence of global multilateralism and the further evolution of globalization. Since the end of the Cold War we have been living in a world dominated by just one superpower: the United States. Fortunately, that superpower has been a very open market and largely, but not entirely, militarily non-aggressive. Sometimes referred to as the “importer of last resort,” it continued to run current account deficits opposite many trading partners, especially China.

The American economy had enough strength and resilience to emerge slowly but with growing confidence from the global financial crisis of 2007–08. To become a companion economic locomotive, Europe must continue to open its markets, eliminate distorting trade subsidies, and undergo substantial structural reforms in labour, services, and manufacturing markets to stimulate European economic growth. I hope that the results of the Europe 2020 exercise and its follow up will help in that regard.

If that does not happen, the United States might use its economic muscle to focus increasingly on bilateral agreements that are becoming a serious impediment to global free trade.

If Europe had successfully moved to a more centralized and coherent federal model of government it could have reached the objectives adopted by the EU in 2000 (often referred to as the Lisbon Agenda), which was stated in the Lisbon Declaration (24 March 2000) as follows: “The Union has today set itself a new strategic goal for the next decade: to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.”

Well, that failed. A review of progress chaired by the former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok reported in 2004 that the strategy had fallen well short of its objectives. The diagnosis of the problems of broad structural reform was good, but implementation of reforms was seriously lacking. Kok’s review carried much credibility as he had overseen the continuation and completion of the major Dutch structural reforms originally introduced by his more conservative predecessor, Ruud Lubbers. Kok was also a regular participant in many international conferences, and during our discussions it was apparent to me that he was a talented consensus builder.

There is much to be said for  such consensus  builders, who enable intellectual and political opponents to better understand competing views. Strengthening such relations between European political leaders will be important in bringing cohesion and stronger integration to the EU in line with the objectives of the Spinelli Group.

The Lisbon Declaration, now replaced by the Europe 2020 strategy,  has five ambitious objectives related to employment, innovation, education, social inclusion, and climate/energy. The world would benefit greatly from Europe attaining those objectives.

Today only the EU and Japan might to come close to matching the United States in per capita GDP in the coming years.

 Demographic projections show Japan’s population in serious decline, but an expanded EU which should evolve with Turkey as a major player, would have a much greater population and a much larger market than the United States.

The objectives listed above can only be realized when the peoples of Europe achieve a consensus on what kind of legal community they truly wish to be, and so far,  progress to that end has been in fits and starts. The failure of the Lisbon Agenda, the rejection of the proposed constitution in both French and Dutch referenda, and now the exit of the United Kingdom underscore the difficulty of moving toward a flexible federal structure.

The use of the word federal seems to be an anathema for many Europeans. It is worth remembering  that with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community inspired by Jean Monnet in 1951, the French government declared that it would “provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the Federation of Europe.”

Today there does not appear to be any coordinated and broad- based visionary leadership like that of Jean Monnet that led Europe out of the destruction and chaos of the Second World War.

Perhaps the Greek crisis, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, and continuing economic performance under potential will awaken Europeans to the need for a truly federal-type European Union, with strong central government institutions where appropriate, accompanied by the protection of individual nations’ precious linguistic and cultural identities. The genius of federalism is that it can accommodate great diversity in many areas.

What is the way forward? Where is the higher vision to achieve what is imaginable but not yet within reach? I suggest that the answer is to reconcile the various goals of Europeans, what I call the three Ms: minimizing frictions, maximizing synergies, and maintaining sovereignty.

Some believe they can achieve the first two without a dilution of sovereignty. That is not possible. From my Canadian experience with Quebec, however, I know that it is possible to minimize frictions and maximize synergies while maintaining cultures and national identities. In the case of Quebec, the French language, civil law, religion, and culture have been protected since the Quebec Act of 1774, which is one reason why separatist movements have never succeeded.

I see this kind of flexible federal structure, with necessary variations, in Europe’s future. Loss of Europe’s various languages and cultures would alter the character of the continent, moving it in the direction of the United States. The historical evolution and the nature of the “self-willed” peoples of Europe, as Fisher described them, make that path neither feasible nor desirable.

I finish these comments with a quote from a recent letter distributed by Thierry de Montbrial, the founder and head of the prestigious French public policy think tank IFRI.

“But it stands to reason that we in Europe in particular should capitalise on building the Union in order to prove the viability of a third way between the United States, that great democracy which still claims to be a liberal one, and the People’s Republic of China, which still claims to be communist. Most of us want to remain close to American democracy, but we refuse to become its vassals, notably as part of an Atlantic Alliance retrofitted to that end. There is an urgent need to clarify NATO’s truly shared objectives. As for the European Union, despite all the whining in recent weeks, it continues to sail ahead in stormy seas, as it always has…..

If there is one part of the world where multilateralism is making headway despite countless hurdles, it is the European Union. There is still a very long way to go in Europe and, even more so, on a planetary scale. But history is moving in that direction, for the alternative is collective suicide. There is no doubt that global warming, pandemics and more or less intense wars are foreseeable in the world’s near-term future. At least we can hope to limit the damage, which, after all, was the case during the Cold War. Let us be convinced of the European Union’s responsibility in that regard.”

I agree…who cannot?

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Trans-Atlantic relations and the Western Balkans

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Aleksandar Vučić, Hashim Thaci; Photo: European Forum Alpbach / Andrei Pungovschi / Flickr

Authors: John Cappello and Ari Mittleman*

The sudden cancelation of the planned White House meeting between the Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo provides an opportunity to pause and examine where the United States and European allies can most effectively collaborate when approaching the Western Balkans.

The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced that rather than President Donald Trump she will host the leadership from both countries in Brussels.

Regardless of venue, it is in the best interest of the United States and our European allies to consistently devote time and attention to this complex region.

Examples of Moscow and Beijing working to degrade the Western democratic values while advancing their authoritarian vision grow at alarming rates.

As the largest country in the Former Yugoslavia, Serbia is a key to a stable, secure, and peaceful Balkans. Dialogue with and, ultimately, recognition of Kosovo is a must. Washington and Brussels should regularly repeat these sentences as they will only benefit the region.

As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously quipped, “the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” History is happening before our eyes and it begs the question whether Washington and Brussels are looking in the right direction.

The day after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, President George W. Bush recognized the world’s newest country declaring the milestone would “bring peace to a region scarred by war.”

Too often, those who examine the Balkans dwell on the past. The scars of war certainly do take time to heal. However, the very real concerns of everyday citizens – especially the millennial generation born after the war – need to be considered.

Security from armed conflict cannot be overstated, but economic security is equally important.

Looking through younger eyes as they enter the workforce, move into their first home and raise their children is what Balkan politicians too often neglect to do.

A pledge for greater regional economic cooperation is the most important commitment which can come out of the White House meeting.

Improved economic prosperity will provide politicians in the Western Balkans the latitude to make the tough decisions.  Washington and Brussels are well positioned to mentor, promote and invest in this type of collaboration.

Special Envoy Richard Grenell pledged that the White House focus on making economic progress in the region.He suggested that efforts toward a political solution be the purview of Brussels. Innovative economic policy initiatives cannot come soon enough and all free market democracies can play a role.

The median age of Serbia is 41. The World Bank estimates that the population, of seven million, is poised to shrink to 5.8M over the next three decades. This would be a 25% drop from 1990. Countless young Serbs are leaving rural communities and mid-sized towns for Belgrade. Many others leave Belgrade for Berlin, New York and elsewhere abroad.

Kosovo has the youngest population of any European country. Approximately one quarter of citizens are 14 or younger. However, it consistently also has the highest unemployment numbers across all generations.

The everyday lives of young families in the region benefit from the ability for regional cross border freedom to travel, low cost reliable energy, and investments that do not amass multi-generational national debt. Both governments – along with Washington and Brussels –will benefit by looking through this lens.

Last October the leaders of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia met in Novi Sad. With much fanfare, they announced loose details for what was quickly billed a “mini-Schengen”. The Schengen area has been a socio-economic game changer across 26 countries and there is no reason why a variation in the Balkans would not have quantifiable and positive results. Naturally, the devil is in the details and this has been put on hold by the Pandemic. Washington and Brussels should jumpstart this and encourage collaboration between Belgrade, Pristina, Podgorica and Sarajevo.

Just last week, the region moved significantly closer to having more affordable and reliable electricity. A 400 kV transmission line between Kragujevac and Kraljevo was commissioned. The entire project will run from Ukraine to Italy. German financing provided a 15M EUR loan. Brussels can incentivize opportunities for modernizing the electricity grid and do so in a context which opens tenders for American and European firms and dissuades sweetheart deals for Chinese state-owned enterprises.

The day after the Orthodox Christmas President Vucic attended the commissioning of the Turk Stream natural gas pipeline in Istanbul. He was joined by Presidents Putin and Erdogan and Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov. Russia manipulates gas prices playing countries across Eastern Europe against one another. Monopolies are never good.

Washington previously devoted considerable attention to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline which ultimately originates in Azerbaijani waters and will be the first European pipeline to fully bypass Russia. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) working with 16 commercial banks has just dedicated a 1B EUR loan. Assuming an imminent completion of TAP, Brussels must expedite plans to make the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline spur a reality. This would dramatically transform the energy interconnectedness and, therefore, economic security of Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia. It was a 2018 EBRD priority and must remain.

Soon after returning from Washington in March, President Vucic categorically declared, “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairytale on paper. The only ones who can help us in this difficult situation and that is China.”Mask diplomacy has been exhibited most clearly in Serbia.

Beijing presents a broad challenge for Washington and Brussels. While attention has rightfully been focused on 5G development, attention must be much broader. Beijing presents a very practical relationship to countries like Serbia not yet in the EU. Politicians in the region see Chinese overtures through the lens of election timelines and immediate “wins” rather than seamlessly never-ending discussions about opening EU chapters.

What started as Chinese investments in critical infrastructure has now progressed into a much deeper presence across academics, media and cultural activities.

Indeed, even in Croatia, an EU and NATO member, the largest bridge project in Europe is being built by a Chinese state-owned firm. This came at the expense of an Austrian bidder.

Modern roadways and improved transportation hubs cannot be discounted. A previously two-hour trip from Belgrade to Cacak now takes less than 50 minutes.

This is not an argument for Chinese investment, but for pragmatism and understanding that prolonged delay EU enlargement has real consequences in the lives of everyday individuals.

The one meeting President Vucic had with the Trump Administration in March was with the leadership of the new Development Finance Corporation (DFC). Should an investment proceed, it should aim for not only maximum employment ripple effects, but also demand cross border regional collaboration. When it comes to investments in the Balkans, regular open dialogue should occur between the DFC and the EBRD.

As the debate continues about the future of Trans-Atlantic relations and the fallout from the cancelation of a White House Summit, the fact remains that consistent targeted attention to the needs of everyday people in the region has been lacking.

A debate over the academic term “Trans-Atlantic” must not draw lines where EU and NATO borders end. In the end, it is in the interest of all involved to have a Europe whole, free and at peace. This means we must not overlook what is often referred to as the “soft underbelly” of Europe.

With the dust starting to settle after elections in Serbia, a new government in Kosovo, Germany at the helm of the EU Council Presidency and sustained bipartisan interest from Washington – real and meaningful regional socio-economic progress is possible.

*Ari Mittleman, Founder and Publisher of Balkan Insider, lived and worked in Croatia and Montenegro focused on community and economic development initiatives.

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Europe

US troop withdrawal from Germany: Berlin’s first step towards political independence

Slavisha Batko Milacic

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Germany has always been one of Europe’s leading countries on practically all economic performance indices. At present, according to NASDAQ, it occupies fourth place among the world’s top economies (after the USA, China and Japan) with the GDP amounting to 3,86 trillion US dollars. Thanks to its economic potential, Germany has always been attractive as a geopolitical ally and partner.

Following the defeat in the Second World War in 1945 Germany was divided into two zones of occupation –the German Democratic Republic GDR (under the control of the USSR) and the Federative Republic of Germany (under American, French and British control), de facto becoming a division line of entire Europe. Four years after the end of the war, on April 4, 1949, the United States created NATO – a project designed to “foster stability and promote wellbeing in the North Atlantic region”. In fact, the North Atlantic alliance was setup to strengthen American influence in Europe and guarantee its “protection against Soviet influence”. A statement to this effect was made by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s former secretary-general, in his article recently.

Six years later, in 1955, at Washington’s initiative the Federative Republic of Germany was admitted into NATO as part of the second expansion of the alliance, which aggravated the international situation. Such attention to Germany on the part of the USA is attributed to the fact that the White House was determined to embark on a “new occupation” of the country: at that moment the Pentagon viewed it as the main operation base in Europe – German territory provided everything necessary for the creation of a contemporary military infrastructure of the united armed forces of NATO.

According to the German government, at the end of the Cold War there were a maximum number of American soldiers in Germany – more then 200 thousand, which looks like occupation, but under a different name and a convenient pretext. At present, according to reports, 35 to 39 thousand American servicemen are deployed in Germany. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump reported the presence of 52 thousand American servicemen on the territory of Germany, which gives grounds to suspect the intentional suppression of information on the real number of US soldiers deployed in Germany and in Europe as a whole.

Also located on the territory of the Federative Republic of Germany are the headquarters of the main military command of the USA armed Forces – the European and the African divisions, which exercise control of US forces, including assault drones, operating in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Libya. All this makes Germany an in voluntary participant of military operations which are conducted in Central Asia, in the Middle East, and in Africa. Consequently, it’s German cities with American military bases deployed in them that serve as targets of attack for forces with which the US wages an armed struggle for defending their own  national interests.

On his part, Donald Trump at the start of his presidential term embarked on the policy of exerting pressure on the United States European “allies”  demanding more participation in financing NATO operations. A few days ago he signaled readiness to withdraw more than 9 thousand servicemen from Germany allegedly because of Berlin’s failure to meet membership requirements relative to financial payments into the NATO budget (two percent of the national GDP). All this fits well into the US policy of blackmail and pressure on European countries. In the first place, Germany, as the “driver” of European economy. This statement has also been confirmed by NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who said that he has discussed reduction of US military presence in Europe with Donald Trump. However, he said, there has been no final decision on the withdrawal of American troops from the territory of Germany. The presence of US Armed Forces in Europe meets the interest both the United States and united Europe.

Significantly, the German leadership is consistent in defending their position on the issue. German Ambassador to the United States Emily Haber said that US troops in the FR Germany are not for its protect on but for ensuring trans-Atlantic security and position in  the military force in the direction of Africa and  Asia, if  needed. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas describes relations between Washington and Berlin as “complicated”. Through making a good use of political and diplomatic tactics, the German military and political leadership sends a clear message to the White house saying that they do not need American “military care”.

In addition, as experts say, anti-American sentiments are gaining strength in the German society with more and more people calling for a revision of such a cooperation format. In the opinion of German political analysts, at present, relations between Berlin and Washington are at the lowest level in recent years, since President Donald Trump looks at Angela Merkel as his number one political rival in Europe. On their part, representatives of business circles believe that Germany should introduce sanctions against US energy and telecommunication companies and should boost taxes on the supplies of American LNG.

What is clear without any doubt is that the times of political  correctness in German-American relations are gone. Europe is forced to act decisively to protect itself against an overt interference of Washington in the domestic affairs of European states. Germany, being no exception, is taking practical steps to fight against the political dictate of the United States.

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