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Trans-Atlantic relations and the Western Balkans

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

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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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European right politics thwarts the welfare state

Muratcan Isildak

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In the last quarter of the last century, the social state phenomenon in Europe was developing when the left leaders were in power. Starting from the end of the century, the burden brought by the welfare state began to restrict it, starting from Germany. Right-wing governments that came one after another in Europe almost competed with each other in narrowing the social state phenomenon.

Leaders in Europe at the end of the century such as Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Francois Mitterrand, Papandreou paid attention to the social state phenomenon. 

In 1999, the Schröder-Fischer duo in Germany, social democrats and green people started to implement a policy to bring the market to life. They brought aid money to the unemployed, aiming to expand employment. Employment increased with the project named Hartz IV. Thereupon, they started policies that cut social spending.

This trouble that had already started in the Thatcher period in England was continued by the Conservatives during the Cameron period.

In France, Macron decided to change the use of cheap diesel fuel due to environmental problems by the people, who can only move with their own vehicles and benefit from diesel vehicles for this, in 36 thousand centers. However, public transport in France did not allow these people to travel cheaply from one place to another. There were also problems such as stopping by and passing through Paris instead of being able to go directly from one center to another. Therefore, this decision that Macron was trying to make to protect the environment caused serious reactions. The Yellow Vests movement rapidly spread throughout the country. When these events reached important clashes and car burnings in the demonstrations with intense participation in Paris at the end of last week, Macron, who returned from the G20, took back his decision that he did not seem to make any concessions until then by putting the Prime Minister into action.

But at the heart of the matter, it seems that serious measures are not taken against the increasing income inequality in France. The losing function of the social state in France is the most important reason for these resistances. French intellectuals publish reports on this.

Recently, the rise of the right in Sweden has caused many rights given in the name of the social state to be withdrawn one after another. Many of the rights that retirees acquire are no longer in question. Already in Europe, partners of the EU such as Hungary and Bulgaria, the right-wing administrations follow a government far from the social state.

As can be seen, the social state wind that blew in the last quarter of the last century in all of Europe has returned in the first quarter of this century. Social rights are being narrowed one by one. It is unknown how long these attitudes of the right-wing governments will continue.

Those who approach the issue in good faith put forward the fact that this period will end and the social state phenomenon will develop in Europe again with the coming to power of the left and the green with higher votes in the new period.

Let us wait and see what the close future will show us .. 

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The future of Europe depends on its neighborhood – UfM’s Nasser Kamel says

Guido Lanfranchi

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Secretary-General, Dr. Kamel addressing the Vienna Conference while honoring the 25th anniversary of the Euro-MED process.

On July 1st, 2020, the Secretary-General of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), Dr. Nasser Kamel, participated in an international conference discussing the future of Europe. The event under the name FROM VICTORY DAY TO CORONA DISARRAY: 75 YEARS OF EUROPE’S COLLECTIVE SECURITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM was held at the historic setting of the eldest world’s Diplomatic Academy, that of Vienna, Austria. This gathering was organised by four partners; the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES), Media Platform Modern Diplomacy, European Perspectives Scientific Journal, and Action Platform Culture for Peace, with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

In his highly absorbing keynote, Secretary General Dr. Kamel described the impact of the C-19 event as only amplifying the old issues and long-standing challenges within the Euro-Mediterranean theater. To this end, Excellency especially focused on the economic and environmental challenges faced by the Euro-MED. He recommended that sustainability and resilience should be at the core of the post-C-19 recovery, and gave an important piece of advice to European policymakers: if Europe is to become a global power, a positive engagement with its neighborhood – both east and south – will be of paramount importance. Hostilities and confrontation should be replaced by a decisive cooperation on the common future project. And such a project should include all EU/Europe neighbors without prejudices.  

Reflecting on the global impact of C-19, Excellency Kamel stated that the pandemic has pushed the world to a new era, and that the repercussions of this crisis will be extremely far-reaching – not least in terms of economic activity, which is set to dramatically decrease at the global level. As for the Euro-Mediterranean more specifically, the UfM’s Secretary General noted that the region’s existing elements of fragility – most notably the high levels of inequality and the pressing climate change emergency – are set to worsen as a result of the pandemic. To counter the ensuing negative effects, Dr. Kamel advised, resilience must be built through a holistic approach that promotes at the same time an environmental, social, and economic recovery throughout the whole Euro-Mediterranean region.

Secretary General Kamel also touched upon the economic impact of the C-19 in the Euro-Mediterranean region. This impact – he noted – has been markedly uneven, as countries that were more dependent on Asian supply chains, for instance, have been hit harder and faster than others. Starting from this observation, the UfM’s Secretary General delved into the debate about the current economic model and its typical long supply chains. While refusing frontal attacks to globalization as an outdated concept, Dr. Kamel suggested that Euro-Mediterranean countries should increase their resilience and work better to ensure the solidity of their supply chains – for instance though what he called a “proximization”, or regionalization, of these chains. On this issue –he noted– the UfM Secretariat is currently working with relevant partners, including the OECD, as to explore the potential to create regional supply chains – hoping that this could lead to tangible development gains on both shores of the Mediterranean.

Besides the oft-discussed economic issues, the Secretary General’s contribution also sought to highlight the importance of environmental considerations, which risk slipping at the bottom of the agenda in times of economic crisis. Dr. Kamel stressed that the climate crisis is a reality that the Euro-Mediterranean region must inevitably face. A report developed by a large group of scientists from several different countries, supported by both the UfM and the United Nations Environment Programme, has highlighted that the impact of climate change in the Euro-Mediterranean is set to be particularly significant – just to quote one statistic, the region is warming 20% faster than the rest of the world. Hence, Secretary General Kamel stressed, the region’s post-pandemic recovery must be more sustainable – more green, blue, and circular – with a focus on enhancing the resilience of societies on both shores of the Mediterranean.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Kamel decided to stress the interconnectedness of the Euro-Mediterranean region. The European continent is tightly linked to its neighborhood, he noted, both to the east and to the south. Hence, the future of Europe as a relevant economic, political, and geopolitical power depends on how proactive and engaging it will be with its immediate neighborhood – Dr, Kamel said. As for Europe to be prosperous, its neighborhood should be resilient, mindful of the environment, and more economically integrated. At the UfM – Secretary-General assured audience – that is the aim that everyone is hoping, and working, for.

In order to make the gathering more meaningful, the four implementing partners along with many participants have decided to turn this event – a July conference into a lasting process. Named – Vienna Process: Common Future – One Europe, this initiative was largely welcomed as the right foundational step towards a longer-term projection that seeks to establish a permanent forum of periodic gatherings as a space for reflection on the common future by guarding the fundamentals of our European past.

As stated in the closing statement: “past the Brexit the EU Europe becomes smaller and more fragile, while the non-EU Europe grows more detached and disenfranchised”. The prone wish of the organisers and participants is to reverse that trend.  

To this end, the partners are already announced preparing the follow up event in Geneva for early October (to honour the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco Conference). Similar call for a conference comes from Barcelona, Spain which was a birthplace of the EU’s Barcelona Process on detrimental; the strategic Euro-MED dialogue.

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Political Impacts of a Second Wave of Covid-19: Looking at Past Health Crises

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Undoubtedly, a  significant number of  governmental reports, academic articles  and op-eds about the Covid-19 and its likely future impacts in the world societies and economies have already   been   published.   Though   useful   for   planning,   anyone   attempting   to   establish prospective post-pandemic scenarios should – above all – be aware that this effort is filled with uncertainty as the repercussions of any contagious diseases are always dynamic. Namely, its reliance on constant evolving factors, is causing persistent shifts in its impacts principally for those of economic and political nature.

With  this  thought  in  mind,  and  as  the  doubts  shrouding  a  possible  second  wave  of  this pandemic slowly  erode, it seems important to look at historical instances of uncontrollable transmission  of  disease  and  to  understand  how  deeply  it  can  politically  impact  human societies, albeit contextualizing the obvious differences brought by time and different social and technological backgrounds. Still, having these aspects in consideration, it should be noted the common denominator that the current pandemic has with other historical health emergencies: the absence of medical countermeasures that can truly eliminate the disease.

In fact, the failure to produce an “effective, no side effects” Covid-19 vaccine so far, led Governments to implement quarantines, which from the Black Plague to the SARS epidemic, proved to be of the one of the few historically effective methods to slow the spread of disease. A report, published by the WHO in 2006, characterized the use of quarantines in the SARS 2003  epidemic  to  be  “old  fashioned  and  labour  intensive”  although  effective  as  “these measures slowed the virus’ spread, and, in the end, contributed to its containment”. This lesson proves to be of particular importance in a time where the  economic and  social pressure to end lockdowns have succeeded in coercing Governments to ease the implemented containment measures, even if any positive outcomes of the latter are yet to be seen.

As stated by a report of the “Konrad Adenauer Center for International Relations and Security Studies”  (KACIRSS) on  the  diseases’ impact    on political  stability, “a  high level of virulent infectious diseases may even destabilize politically stable and economically strong countries, like European or North-American countries”, making relevant any effort of anticipating the reactions of the masses in the midst of a health emergency, so to contain any negative effects brought by it.

One of the most significant signs of political disruption caused by a pandemic event is the depletion of trust in elected leaders, as they seem unfit to tackle the challenges, which, if uncontained, may constitute as a prequel to a larger erosion of confidence in political institutions. This absence of trust leans on factors such as “high morbidity and mortality rates, a lack of medical knowledge and effective treatment options, and general unfamiliarity with the disease” that unchecked, could lead to higher “destabilizing effect of the disease as the population’s perceived (and real) risk increases.”

Case in point, as the plague in Athens, during the Peloponnesian War, took its toll on its population, historians reported a detrimental effect on  Pericles leadership and other elements of the Athenian society, leading to  anarchy and, ultimately, the  end of its democracy. Similar conclusions  could  be  drafted  from  the  Black  Plague,  which  had  a  significant  impact  on monarchical authority in Europe and  other surrounding regions.

Taking these historical episodes into considerations, as we witnessed statements of political leaders downplaying the full impact of Covid-19, solely to later advocate – sometimes  against scientific advice – a quick resumption of economic activity, it is important for these high dignitaries  to remember that an unprepared society  for  a second wave will likely  not be forgotten  by  its  voters.   Furthermore,   this  sort   of  impact  should  speak  volumes  for governments whose leaderships are near the end of their mandates or are based upon parliamentary coalitions that may no longer be viable within an unstable political context. Worse, in a time where social media and fake news are highly influential, this absence of political trust could be seen as an opportunity for populist political movements, as well as extremist groups, to gain momentum and harvest additional supporters for their causes. To this equation, we need to add profound  financial repercussions that the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to have on international economies and, consequently, in the population’s discontentment, considering possible signs of lockdown fatigue if a return to status quo ante is required.

Consequently, a second Covid-19 wave, converged with an economic downturn, could carry another political effect, namely in terms of a State’s potential political regime change. Already mentioned examples of how the Athens plague undermined its democracy or how the Black Plague may have impacted feudalism in Europe need to serve as a testimony to democratic leaderships of how disease infested societies, if unchecked, may provoke/accelerate structural modifications in political regimes. Hopefully, recent decisions taken by a Central European government, still  a  formal  democracy,  may  constitute  only  a  temporary  exception to the witnessed democratic progresses the world has seen during the past three decades.

Historical epidemic occurrences may also hold valuable lessons for the European Union (EU). Notwithstanding the obvious differences between the Catholic Church of the 14th century and the EU of today, both share the common denominator of being transnational entities with significant  political  influence  on  countries  in  Europe.  Much  has  been  written  on  the detrimental impact that the Black Plague had over the Catholic Church political influence in 14th century Europe, as the members of the clergy were unable to provide any answers to the needs of Europeans faced with rising casualties, causing a “decline in their confidence (…) of the institution of the Church”.

Less than seven centuries later,  polls published by the European Parliament’s Public Opinion Monitoring Unit clearly state that “In Spain, 90% of respondents consider that the EU is helping “a little” or “not at all” to resolve the situation caused by pandemic” while “88% of Italians feel that the other EU countries are not helping Italy and 79% think the same of the EU institutions. Still, a relative majority (42,6%) do not want to leave neither the EU nor the Eurozone”. Given these numbers, it is becoming increasingly discernible that citizens of some Covid-19 hardly stricken  countries  questioned  the  EU’s  lack  of  leadership  or  solidarity  to  support  their Member-States when in dire situations. Doubts could also be raised on the possible political effects of a second Covid-19 wave on the EU – Member-States relationship, if health and financial consequences remain unaddressed.

But even though the real impact of this coronavirus crisis on the Italians’ opinion towards EU remains to be seen, the  apologetic letter written by the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in an attempt to justify the initial paralysis of the European institutions while staring at the Italy’s health system collapse, appears to be a good omen. Furthermore, the  EU  leaders  approval  of a  recovery fund to mitigate  the  deep  financial  and economic impacts of the pandemic are also vital steps, especially if the approved measures are proportionally beneficial to the affected Member-States and particularly their citizens, as otherwise a hypothetical second Covid-19 wave may prove to be more than just another obstacle in the path to Europe’s unity.

Finally,  considering  the  profound  international  impacts  of  Covid-19,  it  is  difficult  not  to envisage on how  terrorists might be inspired by the detrimental effects of disease on societies and how deadly pathogens could provide a significant boost for their propaganda necessities. Even though bioterrorism, and its contributing factors, has been substantially addressed by academia and official reports, it is still important to understand that several of the technical barriers preventing the terrorist use of pathogens have decreased over the last two decades, so new approaches are in dire need.

In  2015,  I  co-authored  an  article  with  Anne-Yolande  Bilala  that  addressed  the  possible beneficial effects brought by the implementation of a “Bioterrorism Prevention Initiative” for the mitigation of this particular threat. Regardless of any merits embedded in this proposal, it would be of crucial importance if initiatives with similar desiderata could see the light of day in a post Covid-19 security context, so to decrease any risks of nonstate actors producing, acquiring and/or disseminating biological agents.

The above mentioned historical events may also provide important lessons, in terms of a future pandemic preparedness, for Governments to grasp, the most notable being that Biodefense  needs to  become  a de  facto  priority, while  adopting  and investing in a more preventive posture towards biological menaces, so to anticipate emergencies of global and catastrophic nature. Case in point, regardless of the  billions of Euros invested on healthcare every year, “global postures remain  primarily response-driven and reactive to a dynamic and volatile  emerging  disease  landscape.  New  epidemics  are  often  met  with  an  emergency response, after-action reviews and a promise to rethink prevention.”

Serving as an additional testimony on the absence of structural changes over the last years, it is also important to remember the already mentioned WHO post-SARS report that concludes that  “communicable  diseases  had  been  given  insufficient  attention,  with  doctors  more interested in high-tech fields such as neurosurgery and molecular biology. Awareness levels were low and infection-control procedures had become slack. In sum, public-health systems were simply not ready for what happened.” A preventive posture to avoid the same scenario would entail, for example, improved synergies between health and military research facilities, and  a  substantial  increase  of  financial  resources  for  the  latter  institutions  as  well  for universities, research centers, and the private sector so to monitor and develop new solutions aiming to tackle emerging diseases.

Finally, the preventive posture could also result in the formalization of a dual-use for national industries. One of the most positive aspects emerging from this pandemic episode was the ability for some industries and services to adapt their assembly lines in order to produce ventilators, masks and other PPE production. Although very commendable, the majority of these  decisions  were ad hoc and solely  based  on goodwill. A  future  proactive/preventive approach, in which Biodefense is a strategic cornerstone, will likely require that local industries– either within a national or regional context – have a pre-designated role for future pandemic episodes.

This “dual-use” purpose would likely require that Governments leverage lessons learned from the current pandemic, in order to anticipate needs, and negotiate with local industries what their future roles could be in a posterior health crisis. Such negotiation would call for exceptional skills in terms of planning, besides constant updates, as some companies may go bankrupt or transfer their facilities to another country. Nonetheless using a long term perspective to define the blueprints for the role of the civil society in a pandemic scenario may prove to be a fruitful exercise, as, when necessary, societies will be better prepared for a next catastrophic biological event.

When looking back in History to find other examples of epidemics, one could argue that the dimension of human fatalities was much larger or that the available scientific know-how to deal with the latter did not give societies sufficient countermeasures to tackle the disease. Both present valid points, but more important than lethality rates is the threat perception of the affected populations, the de facto origin of political instability, which in an age where information instantly travels across the globe and when efficient medical countermeasures against Covid-19 are still lacking, tends to be even more palpable.

As political leadership in democracies has, over the years, become a little more than a voters’ expectations management exercise, political stability in a time of pandemics is likely to be more  dependent  on  how  fast governments  implement  mitigation  measures  coupled  with communication  transparency  by  leaderships  and the  fact-based  science  behind unpopular decisions, instead of finger pointing/social dividing speeches that, ultimately, will only lead to ghastlier public health scenarios and to a widespread of social turmoil.

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