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“United in Adversity”. On the Importance of European Identity in a Post-Coronavirus World

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The recent COVID-19 pandemic outbreak marked a severe blow to the world system, no government excluded, revealing itself as one, if not the greatest crisis ever faced after World War II. And while some governments coped better than others with the emergency, no one was spared. Besides causing a considerable number of casualties, the virus coincidentally revealed already existing problems, emphasizing the weaknesses and limitations of some of the major governing institutions. More precisely, the virus had a profound impact on the European Union, shedding light on the old dichotomy National vs. European Identity. Alongside the health crisis and the ensuing economic one, Europe is now conjointly faced with an identity emergency.

By initially favoring national lines of conduct to solidarity, the behavior of some EU member states highlighted a lack of confidence in the community’s operate itself. Evidence includes the recent Eurobarometer survey, according to which EU support registered a drop, especially during April. In Italy, for instance, EU support fell by 16%, reaching one of the lowest levels ever registered. Furthermore, conforming to the data, the COVID-19 outbreak is stated to have weakened the Union, with Italy, France, and Germany being the main supporters asserting that Brussels would not have done enough to support their countries during the crisis. Rather than evidencing a novel phenomenon, however, it would be more appropriate to see this as the latest manifestation of a long-standing issue: namely the lack of “Europeanness”, a strong sense of identity binding the EU community together.

If the health emergency represented an unprecedented situation for the European community, the lack of trust in its institutions did not. The existential crisis, as the former president of the commission, Jean-Claude Junker described in 2017, has been going on for a long time. “Never before have I seen such little common ground between our Member States. […] Never before have I heard so many leaders speak only of their domestic problems.” From the 2008 financial crash to the refugee crisis, to the rise of populism and extremism to eventually Brexit, Euroscepticism saw a continuous and consistent surge over the years.

What Defines European Identity?

In its broader sense, identity can be classified by its disruptive element, distinguishing those who are part of the group (“we-feeling” [1] from those who are not; in this case, EU vs. NON-EU. Conversely, with regard to European identity specifically, two intrinsic elements are identified: plurality and individuality. [2] Plurality refers to the sense of belonging to a community that shares a common culture, values, and history, “a nation comprising several” (Montesquieu). Conversely, individuality stems from the strong regional and individual national identities present on European soil. It is from these two intrinsic elements that Europe will generate its own identity, finding its way between the global and the local [3]. The two aspects are not mutually incompatible. In an example given by Halbig, reference is made to the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine, both of which are very strong in terms of regional identity but also very active in terms of European sentiment.

Why is The Development of a Shared Identity so Fundamental?

According to Paul Collier, professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford University, at the root of any economic development lies a sense of identity [4]. Every society presents a dual composition, a power structure, and an identity component. In the absence of the latter, power dissolves into a theatre, meaning directives are less likely to be respected (e.g., different member states’ response to the refugee crisis). When considering the EU, a mismatch between the power structure (supra-national) and the identity component (national) is observed. In order for the Union to work more efficiently, therefore, a move of the identity component, at present almost exclusively national, toward the structure of power is suggested. Such approach does not equate to the erasure of national identity, an essential element at the core of the European Union, as evidenced by its motto “United in Diversity.” Furthermore, as already stated, National and European identities are classified as not exclusive to one another, meaning the presence of one does not exclude that of the other, with the supra-national identity constituting a powerful addition to the national one [5]. While, at the individual level, identity drives behavior, at the supra-national dimension, a sense of belonging to the same community will serve as a prerequisite for further growth, for it will foster future trust and simplify cooperation [6] .

As further proof of the lack of a sense of collective identity, Eurobarometer surveys will now be taken into account. When analyzing the data, particular interest is given to the “Moreno question [7]” section. If the fact that the values collected do not show any particular changes over the last twenty years could, at first glance, be interpreted as a positive variable, it is precisely the lack of growth itself that sets the alarm bell off. Moreover, whilst at the European level values have remained nearly unchanged, at the individual state levels, data shows to have undergone some changes. A significant disparity is registered among different countries, a variable that has changed over time. Among the EU founding members, France and Italy registered a drop in EU identification. Severe variation is also reported on the basis of different socio-economic and demographic factors at an individual level. Those variables include age, level of education, occupation, socio-economic condition, etc. Not very surprisingly, the group more likely to show a higher level of identification with the European Union is composed of young, relatively wealthy, well-educated, eager to travel, work and study abroad people. Namely, those who had had the opportunity to experience free mobility at first hand, along with its benefits.

What are the Processes Through Which Identity is Created?

Before embarking on the policies employed to meet the European challenge, it is necessary to define the processes through which identity is created. In determining the mechanism through which identity is created, two distinct paths are distinguished: information-based and experience-based components [8]. Information-based mechanism rests on the effectiveness of convincing messages as a source of group identification, as well as on the level of accessibility and exposure citizens get from those messages. Messages’ supply will rely on the political elite as well as the media outlets. At the same time, exposure to Europe-related information will be more dependent on the level of attentiveness and interest dedicated by citizens to such type of message. Conversely, experience-based mechanisms lie on the idea of personal contact and direct experiences as a source of identification. Increased contacts and personal connections (e.g., Erasmus exchange program) are said to have an impact on group members’ perceptions.

What are the Problems at the Root of the European Identity Crisis?

To adequately respond to the current crisis due to the European Union’s lack of identification, it is necessary to become more familiar with the underlying problems of this trend. Of particular interest in this respect appears the European Research Project PERCEIVE. The project’s scope lay in the investigation of Cohesion Policy in creating a shared sense of European identity and a broader adherence to Europe’s values among citizens. The policy (2007-2013, 2014-2020) aimed at eradicating inequalities among member states, as well as at the development of a sense of belonging to a shared community. Although the research was explicitly tailored to the European Plan’s success, the identified issues appear to carry a much more general nature. In particular, three major problems were identified.

The first issue to be identified lies in communication. According to findings, one of the reasons why the European Plan proved to be unsuccessful in gaining support for Brussels derived from the way it has, or better, has not, been presented by local governments and media outlets, namely how much coverage was dedicated to EU-related information. When working toward the implementation of a sense of belonging, Europe must thus learn to communicate its policies better. In this regard, communication channels, social media platforms included, appear crucial.

Secondly, it was noted that the allocation of structural funds does not necessarily equate with a rise in EU support, nor with a surge in identification with the community. In this regard, reference is made to Calabria (Italy). Although a large amount of funds was allocated to the region, 34% of the respondents still viewed their country’s EU membership negatively. According to the researches in order for funds to create support, they do not only need to be allocated, but also, they need to be spent well, as well as promoted in relation to the results obtained.

Lastly, the third problem to be identified related to awareness. When asked about the EU Cohesion Plan, less than 50% of EU citizens surveyed were familiar with the EU Cohesion Policy. The finding suggests that being unfamiliar with EU Policies and Initiatives at a broader level, citizens will likely not be aware of the benefits they provide, hence the importance of raising awareness.

What Kind of Initiatives Have Been Employed to Promote a Sense of Identification in the European Community?

In outlining the strategies implemented by Brussels aimed at developing further cohesion between member states, two different identity components need to be further distinguished: civic and cultural [9]. The distinction appears useful as it allows us to distinguish two different lines of action to implement the policies of identification with the European Union.

A European “Civic Identity” would, therefore, refer to the perception to be part of a European political system, defining rules, laws, and rights concerning the individual citizen’s life. When targeting the civic component, European initiatives should thus aim at generating a sense of communal participation in the Union’s decision-making processes, stressing the involvement of one common political system. The primary purpose, more generally, should, therefore, consist in making institutions more efficient and transparent, as well as more accessible to European citizens. The result would lead not only to greater participation in European political life but would also increase citizens’ awareness of the European institutions as well as of the benefits to which they have access. Among the European initiatives that have been undertaken in accordance to these lines are the following: European Parliament’s elections, citizen’s project initiatives and dialogues, a common passport, uniformed license plates, free mobility, free-roaming, MEP (Model European Parliament) and the EU-wide job agency (EURES).

In contrast, “Cultural Identity” is defined as the component, independent from the above-mentioned political perceptions, stemming from the idea that Europeans are closer than non-Europeans due to a rich set of shared values, as well as a shared culture and history. By emphasizing the commonality derived from a shared past between EU members, initiatives will be implemented in order to raise a sense of alignment between citizens of the same group. Examples include Erasmus+, free interrail tickets, town twinning programs, European Capital of Culture, a pan-European TV Channel (Euronews), as well as shared symbols, such as the European Flag, European Anthem, a common motto (“United in Diversity”), and a shared festivity, Europe’s day (9 May).

Reshaping the EU, What Can be Done in Order to Develop a Sense of Identification?

Following the Italian unification in 1861, Massimo d’Azeglio, Italian politician and writer, said, “once Italy was made, now we must make Italians.” And the same logic applies to Europe. Being a relatively young system, not even 70 years old, and undergoing continuous development, in order for Europe to act more efficiently, proper attention must be paid to policies aimed at implementing a shared identity, rather than focusing solely on its economic aspect. In this regard, as already mentioned, the discrepancies recorded in the various Eurobarometer surveys appear of particular interest.

More specifically, as suggested in a recent report published by ECONPOL, “What a feeling?! How to promote European Identity“, experts identified in adults, pensioners, and more generally less socio-economically advantaged people the main targets of a new identity plan. According to surveys, these categories have proved to be the least likely to develop a sense of EU cohesion, hence the need to focus on them. While young, well-educated, and generally wealthy people tend to present higher trust rates, mainly due to the free movement policies allowing students and young professionals to create valuable transnational contacts, staying at home and being exposed to European tourists does not seem to have the same effect. According to experts, in order to create a more inclusive identity, more focus should be put on those people less likely to experience the benefits of their country’s EU membership.

In addition to providing a list of possible targets to be included in a potential new plan for the development of a European identity, several suggestions were presented in the report. These suggestions will be listed below, distinguishing between their civic and cultural dimension.

Among the suggested civic initiatives, we find the creation of supranational party lists. The idea is not entirely new, as several politicians have already proposed such a plan, including the French President Emmanuel Macron. According to scholars, the creation of supranational lists would guarantee a more pronounced loyalty to the party’s key idea, resulting in a greater party accountability. Simultaneously, the existence of transnational parties could generate more public interest and contribute to greater participation in parliamentary elections. Secondly, among the various propositions, the establishment of European embassies is presented. Such offices would provide consular services for all EU citizens, while foreign policy would remain of national competence. Working at a supranational level would hence contribute to the message of a more present and helping Europe. At the same time, their creation would ensure consistent money-saving as well a higher level of efficiency, resulting from the standardization of the procedure. Finally, city assemblies, where citizens could meet to discuss European issues, the content of these meetings then being brought before the EP, are also proposed. This practice, already in use in Ireland, would thus increase the sense of citizen involvement.

Simultaneously, from a cultural point of view, several initiatives are also suggested. Among the most significant ones, we mention the creation of different exchange programs targeting adults (European Waltz), to create an on-the-job experience exchange, as well as pensioners (Pensioners’ Erasmus), to support those eager to learn and get to know more about European countries and their cultures. Concurrently, the creation of an EU Public Service Broadcaster, active in several EU languages, and thus facilitating access, is proposed. The platform would air daily, covering EU-related news as well as all public meeting and hearings of European Institutions. In order to meet its purpose, the broadcast should present a high degree of independence from politics, providing its viewers with objective information.

Conclusion

Rather than being regarded as a threat to one’s identity, fostering European unity should instead be perceived as a benefit. A “community of communities”[10] working together for a common good. If, in accordance with the theory of social constructivism, social processes are at the core of the construction of ideas, then the legitimacy of the European Union itself will also be partly defined by the existence of a strong European identity. As opposed to being merely regarded as a challenge, COVID-19 pandemic provides all the necessary elements to be the turning point Europe needed to reshape its position. Besides addressing health and socio-economic issues, institutions should also focus on fostering a shared EU identity.

On 13 December 1973, the then Nine Member States signed the European Declaration of Identity in Copenhagen. Although the document was drafted almost 50 years ago, some of the directives remain relevant today. When assessing the extent to which the Nine were committed to working together, European unity was praised as the basic necessity to ensure the survival of the civilization they had in common. At the same time, legal, political, and moral national orders were stated to be preserved. (ART 1). Furthermore, to ensure the respect of national identities, diversity was praised as the fundamental element giving the community its peculiarity and dynamism (ART 3). When addressing the current geopolitical issues, the Nine reaffirmed their willingness to act together as a large community. A community that, in order to fulfill its aims, cannot only be economic. (ART 7).

“Although in the past the European countries were individually able to play a major role on the international scene, present international problems are too difficult for any of the Nine to solve alone. International development and the growing concentration of power and responsibility in the hands of a very small number of great powers mean that Europe must unite and speak increasingly with one voice if it wants to make itself heard and play its proper role in the world.” (ART 6)

“Unite and speak increasingly with one voice,” suggesting that in order for a system to function correctly, it needs to be accompanied by a great sense of cohesion and belonging.

1. Easton D. A system analysis of Political Life (1965).

2. Halbig, T.E., (2019) Creating an European Identity, Volume 4 pages 75-79.

3. Chopin T. (2018) Europe and the identity challenge: who are “we”?, Robert Shuman Policy papers.

4. From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development, Paul Collier, Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.

5. Troitino, D.R. (2009) Creation of European Identity in the European Union, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330712624_Creation_of_European_Identity_in_European_Union_Creation_of_European_Identity_in_European_Union.

6. Ciaglia, S., Fuest, C., Heinemann, F. (2019) What a feeling?! How to promote European Identity, ECONPOL.

7. In the near future, do you see yourself as: (1) [nationality] only, (2) [nationality] and European, (3) European and [nationality, (4) European only.

8. Bergabauer, S. (2018) Explaining European Identity Formation.

9.Bruter, M. (2003): Winning Hearts and Minds for Europe. The impact of News and Symbols on Civic and Cultural European Identity.

10. Damaso, M., Davies, L.J., Jablonowski, K., Montgomery S. (2019) Acting European, Identity belonging and the EU of tomorrow.

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The projection of Turkish power in the Eastern Mediterranean

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The recent military conflict between Greece and Turkey over potential gas fields located in disputed waters is linked to a complex historical and political conflict between the two nations, so geographically close, but also culturally and politically distant. The superpowers have problems and alliances linked to the two countries, thus globalizing the conflict. Furthermore, all the countries concerned need the cooperation of Greece and Turkey in various fields such as the refugee crisis.

It is symptomatic of the changing nature of geopolitics, geoeconomics and the aftermath of Covid-19. The frictions reflect Turkey’s strategic rebalancing. The conflict in the eastern Mediterranean is mainly the result of a dispute between Turkey and Greece. Two aspects in particular of this balance of power form an explosive mixture in the Eastern Mediterranean, firstly the conflict stems from the fact that there are no agreed maritime borders between Turkey and Greece. The two countries contest their mutual claims on maritime territories and thus contest their respective rights to search for underwater energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Secondly, Turkish policy in the Middle East has helped lure other powers into maritime conflict.

The rift between Turkey and its eastern Mediterranean neighbors mainly affects Cyprus. While the Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognized as a sovereign state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has only been recognized by Ankara since its establishment in 1974. And above all, it sees the southern part of the island as secessionist. Turkey has longstanding objections to exploration licenses Cyprus offers to international energy companies, including ENI and Total. These licenses are mainly concentrated in the south and southwest of the island. These zones are included in the exclusive economic zone claimed by Cyprus but which, according to Ankara, violates its continental shelf as well as the territorial waters belonging to.

International law currently offers few possibilities for resolving maritime complaints. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that coastal nations are entitled to a 200 mile exclusive economic zone where they can claim the rights to fishing, mining and drilling. But shorter distances in the eastern Mediterranean force states to settle on a negotiated dividing line. Turkey’s position adds further complexity to these issues: Turkey is in fact not a signatory to the UN convention and defends a different interpretation of maritime rights, arguing that the waters adjacent to the Greek Cypriot administration remain an integral part of the continental shelf of Turkey.

The agreement of 27 November 2019 signed between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj defined a maritime border between the two signatories. The agreement was the most important signal of Turkey’s ambitions. The text delineates a 35-kilometer line that will form a maritime border from the southwestern coast of Turkey to the north of Libya, and crosses the areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus. It tilts the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean in favor of Turkey. This disrupts the planned route of the 1,900-kilometer Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline that would carry gas from Israel through Cyprus and Greece to southern Europe. Greece called on the United Nations Security Council and NATO to condemn Turkey’s maritime agreement and for this expelled the Libyan ambassador to Greece. Apparently, as a countermeasure to Turkey’s tactics, Israel, Cyprus and Greece have teamed up to carry out the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline.

It must be said that Ankara has the ambition to be an energy hub for Europe. The Turkish state wishes both to guarantee the Turkish Cypriots a share of future gas revenues and to free Turkey from its dependence on Russian gas supplies. Erdogan had sent his own drilling vessels into disputed waters north-east and west of Cyprus, as well as south of Kastellórizo.

Turkey fears it will be cut off from most of the Aegean Sea and therefore from major sea routes if Greece unilaterally expands its territorial waters and creates new areas of maritime jurisdiction. Erdogan responded by adopting a more assertive line with more aggressive rhetoric. The Turkish government says that as long as talks on maritime disputes are pending and Greece and the Republic of Cyprus continue to do research or drilling, Ankara will too. For their part i Greek officials say Turkey’s new policy is what has reignited the dispute and strained Ankara’s relations with its neighbors. Greeks are increasingly concerned about the safety of hundreds of islands that are very close to Turkey.

Whether it is Turkey or Greece, the two countries are using the migration issue to exert pressure. The situation on the Greek-Turkish borders in fact remains tense and very unstable; the current status quo in the region has all the hallmarks of a hybrid battle. Turkish officials and security forces push migrants to the neighboring country, often even helping them with illegitimate means. Meanwhile, the press and social media are fully used to shape public opinion in favor of interested parties. Propaganda in this context plays a vital role in this conflict. In addition, Ankara also uses its strategic position with the Bosphorus Strait and threatens to close the US Incirlik base to serve its interests.

Turkey has pursued an aggressive and expansive policy in its region for the past decade. This Turkish government approach is steeped in neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism. We find in this approach the ramifications of a much older school of Ottoman imperialist thought. The wave of bellicose maneuvers by the Turkish government can be attributed to the 2016 coup attempt, which gave the Erdogan government carte blanche to implement its long-sought power projection policy.

The government’s strategy to create a sense of successful foreign policy in the country, and thereby destroy most of the opposition parties, involves a discourse that emphasizes national interest. This vague but extremely useful term has had a paralyzing effect on the various opposition factions in the country, as they are unable to formulate a counter-narrative without risking being accused of lack of patrioticism. Very often the analysis of modern Turkey’s foreign policy as neo-Ottoman politics ends with the assertion that Erdogan and his party are nostalgic for the restoration of Ankara’s influence in the ancient regions of the Ottoman Empire.

If we take the example of Libya, one of Turkey’s goals in Libya is to completely control the country’s market and establish economic dependence on Turkey. It should be added that Turkey has signed two memoranda with LNG, one on military support and the other on demarcation at sea. Under the maritime border demarcation agreement, LNG has supported Turkey’s demands on part of the waters of Greece and Cyprus. Furthermore, Ankara intends to exploit any gas reserves on the Libyan coast. Indeed, in exchange for military support, Ankara imposed a treaty on Tripoli to take control of a significant portion of the country’s oil and gas wealth and forced LNG chief Fayez Sarraj to support its territorial claims in neighboring countries. This is a classic example of Turkish imperialist politics.

As a result, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey has engaged in the past two years in a remarkable series of geopolitical foreign interventions from Syria to Libya via Cyprus and more recently alongside Azerbaijan. Some have called it Erdogan’s “New Ottoman Empire” strategy. Yet a collapsing lira and a collapsing national economy threaten to unexpectedly put an end to its great geopolitical ambitions. To date, in 2020, the lira has fallen 34% against the US dollar and 70% over the past five years. While some believe it would increase Turkey’s exports of goods, what it does is expose the entire Turkish banking system and economy to a colossal debt explosion. It can also be noted that at this point Erdogan’s interventions met with unserious sanctions or opposition from the EU. One obvious reason is the high exposure of EU banks to Turkish lending. Spanish, French, British and German banks have invested more than $ 100 billion in Turkey. Spain is the most exposed with 62 billion, followed by France with 29 billion. This means that the EU is walking on eggshells, unwilling to pour more money into Turkey but hesitant to precipitate a collapse on economic sanctions.

The eastern Mediterranean has become a hot spot for the natural gas industry. The discoveries have generated growing interest among several international oil companies and countries. It all started with Noble Energy (based in Texas) which announced the discovery of the Tamar field off the coast of Israel in 2009, with an estimated capacity of 280 billion cubic meters. In the space of two years, Noble Energy announced two further discoveries: the Leviathan field, also off the coast of Israel, in 2010 and the Aphrodite field, in Cypriot waters, in 2011. This has reinforced regional ambitions to make the Eastern Mediterranean a gas exporting region. . These ambitions were also based on two assessments made by the US Geological Survey (USGS) in 2010, which estimated the presence of nearly 9.8 trillion cubic meters of undiscovered technically recoverable gas and over 3.4 billion barrels of petroleum resources in the area. However, the real turning point (for regional energy ambitions) came in 2015 when the Italian Eni announced the discovery of the gigantic Zohr gas field off the coast of Egypt. With its 850 billion cubic meters of estimated average gross resources, the Egyptian offshore field is the largest ever discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. It should be added that these fields have another feature: geographical proximity. Thus was born a regional alliance with a pipeline project that excludes Turkey from the energy dynamic. The presence of natural gas has become an axis of cooperation and rivalry in the region. It can be said that gas is the main motivation behind Erdogan’s maneuvers. Indeed, Turkey’s unique geopolitical situation stems from the fact that it is poor in hydrocarbon reserves while its neighborhood has abundant resources. It is therefore imperative for Ankara to maintain stable energy ties with neighboring energy-rich countries or regions. In line with Turkey’s growing domestic demand, efforts to focus on energy security have become an integral part of the country’s foreign policy over the past two decades. The search for hydrocarbons, in particular natural gas, has become a fundamental geopolitical and geo-economic objective for the country.

The rationale for Turkish natural gas policies can be described by three aspects:

1. Being a country dependent on imports, Turkey’s main objective is to guarantee its access to natural gas supplies to satisfy its internal demand.

2. aims to diversify its current supply structure and counterbalance Russia’s dominant role in its energy portfolio.

3. Turkey aims to strengthen / increase its integration into the regional energy security architecture by promoting its role as an energy transit country and a potential hub for supplying Europe.

At the moment, the Eastern Mediterranean region does not supply gas to Turkey, with the exception of market agreements with Egypt. However, it emerges as a critical point on the Turkish foreign policy agenda, as the region is viewed by Ankara not only through the prism of energy security, but also through the prism of its protracted conflict with Cyprus and in the broader context of competition for regional power in the eastern Mediterranean.

In line with the above, it is possible to identify at least five key factors that explain Turkey’s greater involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean:

1. Turkey looks for potential gas reserves in its waters that could bring economic benefits to the country.

2. Turkey does not want to be excluded from developing a new regional energy agenda and is ready to protect its interests.

3. Turkey intends to be an energy transit country that could strengthen its role as an energy hub and undermine rival projects such as the EastMed pipeline.

4. Turkey intends to involve other countries in the region to support its objectives, as seen in the case of the maritime border agreement with the government of national agreement based in Tripoli in Libya, to promote its position by preventing it from doing so. way for others to gain influence;

5. Turkey intends to demonstrate its capabilities as a military power in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Greek-Turkish crisis is likely to influence the shift in the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean region. It is possible that over time the United States will relocate its military base from Incirlik to one of the military installations in Greece. Athens wishes to modernize and strengthen the army and navy to contain Ankara. Greece, Cyprus, France but also regional actors such as Egypt and Israel do not agree with the Libyan-Turkish synergy. Analyzing the differences in this balance of power, it is clear that Erdogan appears to be in a position of strength. But from this analysis it also emerges that Ankara does not have sufficient capacity to realize its imperialist ambitions .

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Recovery action plan of the Union: On Next Generation EU & a New Independent authority?

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The first address of the European Commission since the pandemic was one highly anticipated by all the citizens of the EU block. On September 16, President Ursula van der Leyden took it upon herself to reveal the EU’s roadmap for a post-Covid world following the approval of the recovery funds last July which constituted a breakthrough and sent a welcome signal in terms of cohesion and solidarity on the part of the 27 members.

Aside from paying tribute to our frontline workforce and praise the courage and human spirit showed by all in the face of virus spread, van der Leyen set out what she called NexGenerationEU; a movement to breathe new life into the EU but also and most importantly to adapt and lead the way into shaping tomorrow’s world. Through her speech, the president highlighted roughly 8 key themes which will be at the centre of this new European era’s agenda for the next 12 months, in accordance with the cardinal principles of trust, tolerance and agility. In other words, the 750 billion recovery funds raised extra-ordinarily will be directed towards the following areas:

1° Economy: the Union members must all breed economies that offer protection, stability and opportunities in the face of the continuous health crisis with a specific wish expressed for a stronger Health union – and thereby an extension of the Union’s competencies on the matter – but also the advent of European minimum wages.

2° Green Revolution: the Union will adopt more radical attitudes towards mitigating climate-change and safeguarding our planet, starting with the ambitious aim of becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 through the EU’s Green Deal. So called ‘lighthouse’ high-impact and hydrogen-based projects will become an additional focus.

3° Technology: Europe has to step up its game and become a digital leader through securing industrial data and using it to support innovation. Delineating the use of AI by regulating the field, creating a secure EU e-identity and ensuring connectivity deployment so as to fully cover rural areas are also high on the list.

4° Vaccine management: The Union praises the open approach followed up until now in facing the virus whilst many others have opted for withdrawal and undercutting of cooperation. Having served as an example regarding vaccines research and funding, the EU must uphold its policy all the way to the finish line and ensure its accessibility for every citizen around the world.

5° Multilateralism: the current international order system needs some rethinking and international institutions need reform in order to de-paralyze crucial decision-making in urgent situations. This starts with the EU taking faster univocal positions on global issues (Honk-Kong, Moscow, Minsk, and Ankara) and systematically and unconditionally calling out any HR abuses whilst building on existing partnerships with EU’s like-minded allies.

6° Trade: Europe will be made out as a figure of fair-trade by pushing for broker agreements on protected areas and putting digital and environmental ethics at the forefront of its negotiations. Global trade will develop in a manner that is just, sustainable, and digitized.

7° Migration: A New Pact on Migration will be put forward imminently as to act on and move forward on this critical issue that has dragged for long enough; in that regard every member state is expecting to share responsibility and involvement including making the necessary compromises to implement adequate and dignifying management. Europe is taking a stand: legal and moral duties arising from Migrants’ precarious situations are not optional.

8° Against hate-inspired behaviours and discriminations: A zero-tolerance policy is reaffirmed by the Union by extending its crime list to all forms of hate crime or speech based on any of the sensitive criteria and dedicating budget to address de facto discriminations in sensitive areas of society. It is high time to reach equal, universal and mutual recognition of family relations within the EU zone.

Granted, the European ‘priorities forecast’ feels on point and leaves us nearly sighing in relief for it had been somewhat longed for. The themes are spot on, catch words are present and the phrasing of each section is nothing short of motivational with the most likely intended effect that the troops will be boosted and spirits lifted subsequently. When looking closer to the tools enunciated for every topical objective, there seems however to be nearly only abstract and remote strategies to get there.

This is because a great number of the decisive steps that the Union wishes to see be taken depend on the participation of various instruments and actors. Not only does it rely for most on the converging interests, capabilities and willingness of nation States (inside and outside the euro zone), but it is also contingent on the many complex layers and bodies of the Union itself. And when a tremendous amount of the proposed initiatives for European reconstruction is reliant on such a far-reaching chain of events, it simply calls into question the likelihood for the said measures and objectives to be attained – or at the very least in which timeframe.

One might then rightfully wonder whether good and strong willpower coupled with comprehensive projections can be enough. And perhaps in the same vein, whether we can afford to wait and let it play out in order to find out? In his recent writing Giles Merritt, founder of the platform ‘friends of Europe’ tends to suggest we most certainly do not have the luxury of waiting it out and not pushing the forward thinking even further. Indeed, according to him, Europe could and should do more. More than a call for action and change that might end up echoing and fading in the depths of the EU’s bureaucracy, the Union would be expected to back up its ambitious intentions with the setting up of an independent planning agency to ‘ensure revolutionary ideas and projects are speedily implemented’, to borrow Merritt’s words.

Whilst van der Leyen’s announcement was promising and efficient in that it sent an important message – the EU is wanting to get in the driver’s seat – only the follow-up with radical motions such as the creation of a readily available tool to implement fast and impactful changes can lend support to a claim that Europe is in a position to resolve current internal and external EU challenges, and more generally to bounce back from conceded decline suffered in the most recent decades.

As a matter of fact, Diplomat Ali Goutali and Professor Anis Bajrektarevic were the firsts to make an analysis in that sense as they articulated their proposal for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) earlier this year. Faced with similar challenges and need for sharper thinking and tools in order to be at the forefront of the economic and technologic challenges ahead, the OIC had relied heavily on its Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation and agenda reform to reinforce its cooperation and innovation capabilities as a global player.

Nevertheless, Goutali and Bajrektarevic already felt months ago that additional steps ought to be taken for the OIC to be able to respond swiftly and reaffirm further its mandate of facilitating common political actions. To that end, it was suggested that a mechanism for policy coordination in critical times – the Rapid Reaction Capacitation – in charge of, primarily, vaccines management and AI applications should be introduced. Furthermore, the stakes behind the urgent need of strengthening our international order through cohesive endeavours are evidently the same for both the EU and the Arab World. That is to permanently leave behind a pseudo-competitive nation-based attitude that is nothing but a relic from the past and has achieved little in the context of the Covid outbreak.

Hence, if such an independent body was to be established, all three authors agree that it could gather the indispensable political power and resources to carry out the desired reforms on multilateralism, cyber and digital infrastructures, Covid recovery measures or geopolitical partnerships. Necessarily streamlined in order to avoid undue blockades, these new regional bodies could be composed of energetic forward thinkers across the private and public sectors empowered to map out and act on adequate strategies for a post-Covid world. This is because we all share the same goal: achieving solidarity not only on paper or as a conceptual motto but in real life and in real time. And after all, didn’t von der Leyen herself concur with that line of thinking as she enjoined Member states to move towards qualified majority voting to avert slow and cumbersome decision-making processes?

It seems pretty clear to me that such discussions in relation to the aggressiveness in actions and potential bureaucratic barriers might raise an old-as-the-world yet still very important questions: Should we, Europe, be ready to risk losing some of the legitimacy or democratic aspects of our political bodies in order to gain in speed and efficiency in times of crisis? And if not, considering the embracement of some of our supra-national entity’s actions is already on shaky grounds, how can we ensure that such bold measures may still be reconciled with maximal legitimacy given our equally urging need for unity?

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Deciphering EU’s new investment deal with China

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The perceived economic gains of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), which the 27-nation European Union recently struck with the People’s Republic of China, come at the cost of disregarding human rights, which the Western bloc is known for, amid clear and irreconcilable systemic differences.

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The closing days of 2020 saw the European Union and China striking a deal known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), thereby concluding seven long years of negotiations, as per the year-end deadline. China is also the EU’s biggest trading partner after the United States, but a strategic and systemic rival too.

The European Commission, Brussels-based executive arm of the EU, primarily led the negotiations on behalf of the bloc. Germany, being the holder the EU Council Presidency and led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s continued push, combined with Beijing’s last-minute concessions, proved instrumental in expediting the process of finalising the CAI before the end of 2020.

However, the deal will still have to wait for a formal ratification by both sides and an approval by the Strasbourg-based EU Parliament, a tougher task, before finally setting it on course to be effective in a couple of years’ time, if not by early 2022.

Better rules, level-playing field for European businesses

The EU, by this deal, aims to widen the access for European companies to lucrative Chinese markets, with billion-plus consumers, on a wide range of sectors, particularly in services such as healthcare, finance, cloud-computing and air travel, among others, that has always been restrictive to foreign players in the past.

The deal could bring in a level playing field in the conduct of European businesses in China wherein Chinese state-owned enterprises will no longer be given preferential treatment through subsidies, thereby promoting fair competition and ensuring transparency in technology transfers. Newer possibilities for the expansion European businesses in China will be opened.

The CAI also promise better rules, investment protection, and an investment dispute settlement mechanism within two years of signing, which will replace all the separate bilateral investment treaties currently signed between China and EU member states. The EU maintains that the main purpose of this new deal is to address the economic imbalance in its relations with China.

However, the most striking aspect of the CAI is that, for the first time, China commits to follow accepted standards on climate and labour aspects, even though in a vague form. And for the EU, the timing of this deal with China is significant as a way of signalling its reengagement with the world in the aftermath of a post-Brexit scenario.

At the same time, the CAI reaffirmed reciprocal access for Chinese companies into European markets, which they always had. So, the deal matters to Europe, more than it matters to China. So, the real question is the extent of compromises which European negotiators had to make to strike the deal with the Asian superpower.

The issue of forced labour in China

Many EU member countries and the US had been apprehensive about the human rights situation in the northern Xinjiang province of China where there have been evidences and investigations on the use of forced labour from the media and elsewhere, which has not been duly factored in while concluding the investment deal.

It has been alleged that in the past several years, the Chinese government has forced over a million Uighur minorities in Xinjiang to perform seasonal labour against their will and are often underpaid. But, the Chinese government has repeatedly denied such allegations.

Many European lawmakers believe that China is not interested in fully complying with international agreements after signing it and is not a responsible and trustable partner. The presence of mass detention camps in this province, as verified by satellite imagery and other documents, is also a human rights concern which the EU was not supposed to ignore, considering its historical commitments to human rights.

US concerns and strategic rivalry

The incoming Biden administration has also raised concerns about the CAI, stating that it would “welcome early consultations” with its European partners on shared concerns surrounding China’s unfair economic practices, hinting at the issue of forced labour and the deal’s lacking on the question of enforcement of human rights.

Being a security and strategic partner of the US and part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), any such deal which EU and its member countries sign with its strategic rival, China, could effectively undermine American-led efforts to counter the strategic and geopolitical threat posed by Beijing’s aggressive and expansionist policies around the world.

It also flies in the face of an incoming Biden administration which is openly committed to mend relations with allies in Europe that had been worsened under Donald Trump. Many experts in the US have felt the EU should’ve waited for a few more weeks until the Biden administration takes charge to form a co-ordinated approach, as it related to their common systemic and strategic rival, China.

Moreover, the deal comes at a time when individual EU members such as Germany and the Netherlands have recently released their own outlook on the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is perceivably aimed at containing China’s rise and to ensure balance of power in the region. Meanwhile, France’s outlook is in existence for two years now.

Way ahead for implementation

The deal has now been reached at the technical level, paving way for a final ratification. But, getting the deal through the European Parliament, which attaches far more significance to human rights concerns than the Commission and the Council, is going to be a tough task, as many European legislators are increasingly sceptical of Chinese intentions and commitments to any deal.

The coming months are going to be crucial with regard to how the European legislators will debate and take forward the deal to the next level.

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