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Towards Strategic Autonomy: The Role of the EU in the Growing China-USA Rivalry

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Following the COVID-19 outbreak, what began as a health crisis soon turned into an economic and social emergency. In view of the growing rivalry between the United States and China, the pandemic poses a threat to the western economic liberal model and risks jeopardizing the world geopolitical order itself. The gap between the two superpowers is such that some media outlets started ironizing about the advent of a possible new Cold War. Be it a new Cold War or anything else you want to call it, one sure thing is that Europe, for the second time around, finds itself squeezed between two powers, risking ending up, once again, as the battleground between the two different blocs.

If the pandemic hit hard on the economic giants, particularly true was for the European Union, where COVID-19’s wave shed light on Brussels’ enormous dependence on the two opposing powers. As of China, a relatively new economic partner, the virus highlighted the extent to which the continent is dependent on areas nowadays considered critical for prosperous growth, i.e., health, technology, AI, and data. Conversely, on the other side, is the American giant, the historical partner, on which Europe relies not only economically, but also in terms of security. Defined as Europe’s “security umbrella” [4], and under NATO alliance, the United States, having troops stationed in many EU states, have proposed themselves as the main guarantor of that security that Europe, over the years, has forgotten to implement.

With the US pushing for decoupling from China and, on the other hand, China lobbying silently for greater economic dependence (FDI, private investment, technology), the growing conflict is putting global cooperation into question. This time, however, as Marie-Pierre Vedrenne (Vice-Chairwoman of Parliament’s Committee on International Trade) stated [5], the EU, which with all its 27 Member States, stands out as the world’s second-largest economy, cannot once again end up being a victim. US unilateralism and Chinese assertiveness triggered a rethinking of the EU’s strategic landscape [6]. To prevent Europe from being swept aside by the opposing powers, in the drafting of a new EU Recovery Plan, particular attention has been paid to what appears to be the key objective for Europe in the coming months, namely, strategic autonomy.

Admittedly, Europe, like many other Western countries, was poorly prepared on many fronts when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the need for a more robust political and economic approach did not arise alongside the virus outbreak in February. It was still November when European Union President Ursula Von Der Leyen started talking about the need for a new European Geopolitical Commission capable of boosting Brussels’ political role in the world arena. Due to the coexistence of nation-states and the single market, cooperation between all 27 states is not always easy to be reached, as shown by the rise in recent years of opposing narratives such as populism and authoritarianism. Indeed, a plan is needed, or Europe will risk, as announced by French President Emmanuel Macron, to disappear geopolitically.

Making America Great Again: the Strain on EU-US Relations

The alliance between the EU and the United States has been going on for quite a long time. The partnership is evidenced by the fact that both blocs are each other’s first exporting partner, with annual trade worth around $1.3 trillion. The alignment is also reinforced by the fact that both blocs share common values, namely democracy, respect for human rights, economy, and political freedom, in line with UN Charter three main pillars (peace and security, human rights, and development). In recent years, however, the relationship between the two has evolved, and not for the better. Under Trump’s administration, Europe is facing a situation where, for the first time, an American president does not share the very idea of the European project (Macron).

Alongside its notorious motto “America First”, Trump’s administration has taken several initiatives which, besides creating tensions in the world order, have put the US-EU partnership at risk. Among the most heated ones were the steel and aluminum tariffs, import tariffs on EU aircraft Airbus, and the threat to impose higher rates on car imports from Europe. Beyond the economic aspect, tensions have also arisen in the field of security. The American President has long called on his Transatlantic allies to respect the rule according to which 2% of member countries’ GDP has to be allocated to NATO defense spending fund. Moreover, by firmly pushing for unilateralism and protectionism, the US presidency has also expressed its intention to withdraw from some of 21st-century key treaties, such as the Paris Emissions Treaty and the Iranian Nuclear Deal. Furthermore, as a result of growing tensions with China, Trump has also recently threatened to permanently cut US founding to the UN health body, WHO. Simultaneously, tensions have escalated after a series of harsh statements — “the Chinese virus” — which have added further strain to the US-China situation.

As far as US-EU relations are concerned, two key points should be borne in mind: security and technology. According to figures, the United States would currently store 92% of Western world data, and, at a time when wars are fought on digital terrain, data access appears crucial. Here the importance of digital innovation for Europe. In contrast to strategic defense, actual defense, i.e., military defense, on the other hand, is far from being achieved in Europe. Not having an army on its own, and due to the significant presence of American troops on EU territory, Europe is unlikely to detach itself from the US “security umbrella”, at least for the near future. This is partly why, instead of talking of pure autonomy, experts have chosen the word “strategic” to underline that independence must be achieved in those areas which, due to the globalized world order, have an impact at a strategic level, such as, for instance, the field of cybersecurity. Apart from its military capacity, Europe remains the world’s second largest economy, and despite the long economic and historical link, should not blindly follow the United States if this doesn’t meet its interests.

From ‘Strategic Partner’ to ‘Systemic Rival’: EU-China Relations

Much more recent, when compared to the opponent’s, EU-China relations began deepening in 2008. As a result of the global financial crisis, many European companies, one of the most affected regions, opened to Chinese capital and investment, creating valuable trade links. Over the years, the relationship significantly developed, resulting in a series of diplomatic initiatives, such as the EU-China Summit, dedicated to strengthening of the cooperation between the two in dealing with global challenges through the rules-based international system.

Historically, in terms of partnerships, Europe has tended to establish closer ties with “like-minded” countries [7] as of the United States. When looking at China, at that time, still considered a developing country, in the 1990s, Transatlantic policymakers saw the advent of the internet on the continent as a factor leading to greater openness and transparency [8]. On the contrary, however, in particular under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the implementation of technology resulted in increased political control and repression (Tibet, Uighur reform camps, Hong Kong). An evolution that has surely not gone unnoticed by European politicians. “Europe has lost its naivety” (Macron). Evidence of this is also provided by the fact that, for the first time, in 2019, EU Strategy Paper on EU-China relations referred to the country as a “systemic rival, promoting a different kind of governance”.

While the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted Europe’s dependence on China’s supply chain (health sector), EU-China trade relations have long been affected by unequal market access. The lack of “competitive neutrality” [9] between the two, evidenced by policies, such as the “Made in China 2025” one, stems from the fact that China in seeking to favor its own national champions, wouldn’t grant in equal measures market access to foreign companies, among which Europeans.

If there is no doubt that the two continents share different set of values and distant rules of governance, further cooperation with China represents both an opportunity and a necessity (Charles Michel) [10], especially in view of a world order becoming every day more polarized. In Europe’s eyes China would simultaneously represent:

Cooperation Partner. Sharing the same objectives on the global scene, both could count on mutual aid in fields such as Climate Change (as of today China stands as the first country in the world for emissions, but at the same time as one of the most committed to the Paris Protocol) and global trade. In this regard, WTO modernization appears fundamental, especially to Europeans, in order to ensure that the current rivalry between the American and Chinese blocs does not result in a trade war.

Negotiation Partner. Although efforts to normalize dialogue between China and Europe are still ongoing, the creation of an annual China-EU summit (the last one taking place via Zoom in June of this year) represents an important step toward ensuring that the interests of both blocs are mutually respected.

Economic Competitor. Especially in critical sectors such as supply chain, technologies, AI and data.

Systemic Rival. Presenting a different form of governance and not acting in accordance with the three pillars established by the United Nations Charter (peace and security, human rights and development) concerning the respect of human rights, for the moment, an alignment like that with the US is still far from being conceivable. As noted by European Deputy Brando Benifei, it isn’t easy to engage in an on ongoing dialogue if you can’t have free debate [11].

Being Europe, the leading exporting country for China, and given current US administration reluctancy to implement multilateralism, it is in the interests of both countries that trade relations continue and that cooperation in critical areas such as climate change and international agreements is intensified. However, to accomplish this, some reforms must be implemented, especially when it comes to a more rules-based trade system. While EU and China are still far from the “like-minded countries” perspective, on the economic ground in order for collaboration to be fruitful for both parties, higher openness must be reached, namely creating a more balanced as well as more reciprocal level playing field.

NextGenerationEU

On May 27th, the European Commission announced its Recovery Plan, setting out the necessary economic steps to “repair and prepare for the next generation”. In order to achieve this, Brussels is prepared to allocate substantial funds: €750 million to boost the 2021–24 EU budget — NextGenerationEU — along with a longer-term reinforced budget in the region of €1.1 trillion for the period 2021-27. This ambitious plan assumes a new evolutionary phase of globalization in which there is a trade-off between the desire to reap the benefits of the free market and the necessity of maintaining the sovereignty and security of new global players [12]. In this context, the EU must too evolve, such that it can continue to promote multilateralism while at the same time being more responsive to its own interests.

Founding elements of the new plan are:

Diversification of supply sources. Through reinforced strategic stockpile building, especially in the health sector, Europe will boost its capacity to handle future crises, while, simultaneously, reducing its over-dependence from other world players such as China and the USA. In this context, of particular importance is RescEU, the European crisis management body, which will be reinforced through the strengthening of emergency response infrastructure, transport capacity and more active emergency teams, thus increasing EU’s resilience;

Relocation of EU strategic activities. The implementation of shorter supply chains to bring them as close as possible to their place of consumption will not only ensure a higher level of strategic autonomy but will also result in a positive impact on the environment. By cutting transport, corporate footprints will be profoundly reduced. Of particular importance, in this context, key markets, which should be kept within the European Union (Borell);

Free trade safeguard. Given today’s globalized world order (in contrast to the bipolar USSR/US situation), full economic benefits are only attainable in an international environment [13]. In order for this goal to be achieved, protectionism needs to be limited, while on the contrary, openness, cooperation, and coordination must be further promoted and implemented. In accordance with this logic, WTO, UN’s trade regulator, appears to be of particular importance;

FDI Strategic Guidance. Several guidelines have been issued by the European Commission to protect its strategic interests with regard to foreign investment. For this to happen, it is essential that relevant information relating to the monitoring of current or future foreign investment is coordinated and shared between the Union member states according to a system based on precise rules;

EU Green Deal. By investing in a greener economy and increasing the circular economic model, the strategy aims to modernize EU buildings and critical infrastructure and provide the EU Member States with affordable, nutritious, safe, and sustainable food. New employment opportunities will additionally be created through initiatives such as Renovation Wave and Just Transition Fund;

Digitalization. As with oil in the 20th century, data in the 21st is increasingly becoming a major currency. As a result, those who control data are more likely to be significant players in the international political economy. Therefore, the EU’s objective is to invest in better connectivity alongside the development of its industrial and technological presence. The investment in data and a more digital economy will also provide additional job opportunities. To achieve this, Europe will need to implement its data sharing legislation, setting out clear rules and strategies to boost cooperation at the European level, together with the capacity to preserve EU infrastructure secure.

Throughout history, financial crises have paved the way for economic coercion, leading states to devalue their strengths and set aside their interests to comply with the coercer’s demands [14]. Stuck between American protectionism and Chinese pressure, Europe risks devaluing its own potential. Standing, as of today still, as the world’s second-largest economy, when trying to face the crisis, Brussels must not succumb to the trap of transforming the current economic depression in a sell-off of its critical infrastructure and technology [15].

In view of what some have called a new Cold War, it is in Europe’s interests to maintain a dialogue with both, acting as a “stabilizer” between the two players, while at the same time developing its structure in those areas likely to provide it with greater strategic autonomy and safeguard its global relevance. As Vice-Chairwoman of Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, Marie-Pierre Vedrenne [16] pointed out, sometimes, it is better to refuse an agreement than to remain tied to an unprofitable one.

1. European Council on Foreign Relations, Hackenbroich J. ”China, America, and how Europe can deal with war by economic means” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_china_america_and_how_europe_can_deal_with_war_by_economic_meansn

2. EC Introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16/04/2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en

3. Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar

4. McKenzie M., Loedel P., “The Promise and Reality of European Security Cooperation” (1998) pg. 72-73

5. Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar

6. Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations “Europe in the face of US-China rivalry” (2020) URL: http://www.egmontinstitute.be/content/uploads/2020/01/200122-Final-ETNC-report-Europe-in-the-Face-of-US-China-Rivalry.pdf?type=pdf

7. Palgrave Studies in European Union Politics, “The European Union and Multilateral Governance” (2012)

8. CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies), Ortega A. “The US-China race and the fate of transatlantic relations. part II: Bridging differing geopolitical views” (2020) URL: https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-china-race-and-fate-transatlantic-relations-0

9. Joint communication of the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council, “EU-China – a Strategic Outlook” (2019), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-eu-china-a-strategic-outlook.pdf

10. EU-China Summit video conference, 22 June 2020, URL: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/international-summit/2020/06/22/

11. Brando Benifei for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar

12. European Council on Foreign Relations, Borrel J. ”The post-coronavirus world is already here” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/the_post_coronavirus_world_is_already_here

13. European Commision introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16.04.2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en

14. European Council on Foreign Relations, Hackenbroich J. ”China, America, and how Europe can deal with war by economic means” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_china_america_and_how_europe_can_deal_with_war_by_economic_meansn

15. EC Introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16/04/2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en

16.Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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Anti-Macron protests underline classism, as corona protesters and gilets jaune join forces

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photo: Alaattin Doğru - Anadolu Agency

I get it. People in France are fed up with the Covid lockdowns and that’s why they are protesting against the new tightening of the Covid rules. But there is much more to the story.

The new anti-Covid rules by French President Macron came in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival where the rich and famous come out to play for 10 days at the French Reviera. I was there, too, in fact when the new set of rules angered so many ordinary French people. But guess what — the rules didn’t apply to us, those gathered for the Cannes red carpets and parties. Celebrities did not have to wear masks on the red carpet. I did not have to put on a mask at the red carpets. I was not checked even once on the mandatory Covid tests which we took every 2 days anyways. No one at the Cannes red carpets, parties or fashion shows was looking at Covid tests at the entrance, and I attended not one or two things. That’s at the time when the rest of France was boiling. Yes, we were treated differently as the Cannes crowd. That was obvious.

Don’t get me wrong — spending tens of thousands of euros to drink champaigne, walk red carpets and hang out with actors, models, designers and influencers is great. But I couldn’t help but notice that the Cannes elite was being held to a very different standard in comparisson to the ordinary French public. Macron exempted the Cannes crowd from the new rules and that smells of classism and elitism. I can see why the gillets gaune, which I wrote about in my book Trump, European security and Turkey (2020), are angry and want to resume their protests which were put an end to with the Covid lockdowns.

In fact, as soon as you move one or two streets away from the craze and snobbery of the Cannes Festival, you see a very different French picture. Actually, the most pleasant conversations I had in Cannes were with the guy that made my pizza at 2am, a couple of gillets jaune on the street, and the taxi driver who lives in Cannes. These were the pleasant, hard-working French people that represent France so much better than the snotty Cannes Film Festival organizers, the French police or the so-overrated snobbery at the Chopard events. 

From the pizza guy in Mozarella Street I learned that he works two jobs and sleeps 3 hours per night. That’s the reality for many normal French people. Yet, he was the nicest and coolest person I met in Cannes. Somehow I wished that he could trade places with some of the rest I met in Cannes who probably don’t deserve to have an easy life and should be taught a lesson. So I get it. I get the struggle of the gillets gaune and all those that are opposed to Macron’s policies. He is increasingly playing with the far right and that might as well mean that he is looking at his sunset. 

I also get the classism that persists in French society — it’s important to be aware of it even if you’re on the receiving end of a lot of glamor, bemefits and good things. All I can tell you is that next time I am in France, I am joining the gillet jaune protests. Now I really get it. 

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