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Belt and Road in the EU, Central and East Europe : Roads of challenges

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Today at a broader diplomatic and strategic level, the BRI has become a symbol of China’s growing importance in international affairs, changing regional dynamics in geographical areas close to or even within Europe. At the most basic level, the strategic implications of expanding China’s policy in the EU stem not so much from a set of projects with a single link, but from its comprehensive nature.

China-related initiatives, such as the AIIB and the BRI, have already changed the global financial development landscape. Similarly, in the sphere of security relations, there is a need to protect assets and citizens abroad leading to the“securitization” of Chinese BRI participation abroad, which is likely to significantly change China’s role in the regions of European interests. Within Europe, and in conjunction with sub–regional “mini-initiatives” in China, such as CEE 16 + 1, the BRI also contributes to changes in the policy-making landscape in Europe and China.

When analyzing China’s relations with CEE countries in the framework of the BRI initiative, it should be noted that the initiative was put forward with the principle of mutual complementarity of economies, taking into account the differences between China and neighboring countries, as well as taking into account all existing shortcomings in the infrastructure of all prospective participants in this economic project. Such complementarity provides an important basis for long-term business cooperation between China and neighboring countries, and even the creation of the Eurasian Union could not affect the complementarity of the economic systems of China and neighboring countries, because only in the process of joint efforts to create the “Silk Road Economic belt” will it be possible to fully overcome the underdevelopment of infrastructure in this region.

The Chinese government emphasizes that the “One belt, One road” initiative “complements” existing national and European plans (for example, the so-called “Junker plan” or plans promoted by individual EU member States) to develop infrastructure and expand connectivity in Europe and beyond. Most of the ambassadors in European countries note the importance of the BRI and its significance for the development of relations between China and European countries.

Analyzing the role of CEE countries in the implementation of the Chinese “One belt, One road” initiative, it can be noted that the specifics of the region’s countries are the potential for market development and geographical advantages. An important role is played by projects to create continental and Maritime transport routes that can transport goods between China and Europe. In developing cooperation, first of all, it is necessary to focus on market requirements, follow the principle of “first simple – then complex”, avoid political risks, give enterprises a guiding role and take into account the leading role of important projects.

It should also be underlined that in the format of the initiative, there are equal partnerships between all countries, it does not have strict mechanisms, and its structure allows for multi-level, multi-layered cooperation that covers all areas of collaboration, including politics, economy and humanitarian exchanges. This multi-functional format is useful for promoting bilateral relations between China and the CEE countries, and it can also play a stimulating role in the development of China – Europe relations. At the same time , when building ties between within the 16 + 1 format and China – EU cooperation, a number of questions arise that cause concern in the EU government circles about the role played by the PRC in the region.

Today the CEE region is located at the junction of the “Economic Belt of the New Silk Road” and the “Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century”. Both routes connecting the markets of Europe and Asia – sea and land-pass through it; it performs an important function of ensuring the passage of commodity flows. The CEE region has the advantage of location; through it, cargo is sent overland from Western China via Russia or Central Asia to Western Europe. China gains a strategic advantage from redistributing some of its Maritime supplies, reducing the use of the Strait of Malacca. In addition, there are commercial considerations: in terms of time, this overland route speeds up transportation twice as compared to the usual way of delivery by sea with reloading to the railway, and at a price it is much more profitable than air transportation.

The sea route from China to the Greek port of Piraeus for the delivery of goods to the Balkan Peninsula, which lies at the intersection of transit communications in Europe, Asia and Africa, has great prospects. Currently, 80% of cargo from China to Europe goes through the Atlantic ocean to the ports of Northern Europe. The sea route through the Arabian sea and the Suez canal to the Balkans will reduce the transport time by 7 – 10 days: this is the shortest sea route from China to Europe. However, to do this, CEE needs to build transport infrastructure, which the region has a huge need for. This is especially true for the Balkan Peninsula, which has entered a period of stable development after riots and wars that caused serious damage to infrastructure.

The membership of 11 of the 16 CEE countries in the EU is an advantage that provides “system guarantees”. EU members and candidates comply with European laws and standards, which reduces the risks for Chinese investment in infrastructure projects. According to the researcher, continuing economic growth and expanding market demand make the CEE region an ideal “target market”. Thus, political stability has bring results, and in the first decade of the XXI century many Central and Eastern European countries have gone from “transition countries” to European representatives of “new markets”. This is not only a transport corridor on the way to the core of traditional Europe, but also an increasingly important investment and consumer market in itself. It is attractive because the laws there are European, but land and labor are cheaper than in Western Europe.

Based on the analysis of China – CEE relations, it can be seen that cooperation between China, the EU and CEE countries can also contribute to the balanced development of Europe. The bilateral ties between China and CEE for 70 years have laid a solid Foundation for cooperation in the 16+1 format. The relationship is now entering a new era of multilateral cooperation that is not focused on a single European sub-region, but reflects Trans-regional characteristics. Thus, when analyzing the relations between China and the countries of the region, we should not limit ourselves to the regional level, but we should go to the Trans-regional and global scale.

For example, the 16+1 initiative is an inter-regional cooperation in which China focuses on linking its efforts with those of Europe and considers rail links, ports and foreign direct investment as the basis for ensuring balanced development and social cohesion in European countries. For example, the construction of a railway between Hungary and Serbia was far more important for both countries than obtaining short-term economic benefits. It is part of an Express route connecting land and sea from the port of Piraeus across the Balkan Peninsula to the main corridor in Europe. In the future, the Express route will be extended to cover new areas near the three seas that wash the coasts of the CEE countries.

However, the economic relations between China and the CEE countries are still underdeveloped, but they have a great future due to the fact that China is one of the most important investors in Europe. Thus, it is worth noting that before the start of cooperation in the 16+1 format, Chinese investment and trade were not spatially balanced and were concentrated in the North – Western part of Europe. Due to the poorly developed transport infrastructure, trade between China and the CEE countries was carried out through the ports and railways of Germany, Holland and France.

More importantly, China has begun to develop cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries in the field of innovation. This is a very promising direction. At the summit in Dubrovnik in 2019, China and the CEE countries expressed the idea of building a bridge as a sign of strengthening cooperation between China and the EU, which would reflect the great potential of China and Eastern European countries as partners with the same level of development.

The projects that China is able to offer are thought out comprehensively and can be effectively implemented with the participation of state corporations. They will help countries like Croatia achieve their goals faster and more effectively. In short, the 16 + 1 Initiative will help transform this region from a marginal region of Europe to a link between Europe and China.

Cooperation in the 16 + 1 format is sub-regional in nature, but the PPI will help it become a Trans-regional way of developing connectivity on land, in the air, in the ocean, and on the Internet. Now even North Africa and the middle East can become part of this interface. Its results will be systemic in nature.

The goal of China’s cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries is not to continue to use CEE countries as a trade route, but to combine the industrial development needs of these countries with China’s large production capacity, using the potential of Central and Eastern European countries in the Chinese market. If Chinese products are close to the Central European market, it is necessary to ensure the presence of high-tech products from CEE countries in the Chinese markets.

Cooperation between China and CEE countries should reflect the future development trends. The interface includes not only traditional modes of transport, energy, labor and capital, but also digital infrastructure and data flows based on new technologies. There are huge opportunities for expanding cooperation between China, the 5G industry and service businesses. Cooperation with China is also intended to contribute to the economic revival of the Balkan region, the implementation of Internet and smart city projects. Small countries can play the role of connecting links between China and Europe.

However, despite the positive aspect of the development of relations between China and CEE countries within the framework of the BRI initiative, they also continue to face new challenges and problems.

  1. The first challenge is how to balance China and CEE relations with China’s relations with the European Union. China, when developing relations with the CEE countries, now has to think about the concerns of the EU and some Western European countries. They fear that the countries of the Western Balkans that have not yet joined the EU will “choose China and reject the EU”, and the countries that have already joined the EU will “move closer to China and away from Europe”, which will lead to a split in Europe.
  2. The second challenge is how long it will be possible to maintain China’s economic advantages and how to make the development of economic cooperation sustainable. Thus, today the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are showing interest in cooperation with China, and after the financial crisis they wanted to get Chinese capital. However, the indispensability of Chinese investment for CEE is not so high. Mutual complementarity in trade and economic cooperation is increasing, but at the stage of the rise of the EU – China proto-languages is also increasing. When the European and American economies recover after the crisis, there is a risk that Chinese investment in CEE will be in a state of fierce competition with investors from Europe and the United States. This is not only a question of the size and volume of investments, but also their competitiveness, degree of interdependence and attractiveness. In trade, the main partner for the CEE countries is Western Europe – their mutual complementarity and mutual dependence is much greater than with China.
  3. The third challenge is the asymmetry of the strategic needs of the two sides. There are no historical problems between China and the CEE countries, and there is no serious conflict of interests. Nor do they have a strategic mutual need for each other. Thus, in fact, there is not a single important issue where CEE countries need China’s support (the problem of Kosovo is an exception for China and Serbia).
  4. The fourth challenge is the issue of roadssafety, caused by the unstable political situation in the Balkans, as well as the Eastern borders of CEE. Also problematic issues include the strained economic relations between the EU and the Russian Federation, which provoke difficulties in transporting goods across the borders of these countries. Central and Eastern European countries are closely monitoring China’s position on this issue. They are concerned about security and are moving closer to NATO, and the growing level of Sino – Russian relations may arouse suspicion in some EU states. In the construction of the “One belt, One road”, any traditional threats, especially security – challenging geopolitical games, can have an impact on the participants. Therefore, China’s reaction to the violation of international norms becomes an important criterion for psychological judgment in the development of CEE countries ‘ relations with China.

Thus, according to the researcher, China, as a towering large state, should pay attention to not taking a position and not making statements that can give rise to security concerns and distrust in the CEE countries.

  • As a fifth challenge, we should point to the problem of the balance of large States and external pressure on the development of China’s relations with CEE. Thus, after the end of the Cold War, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe became truly subjects of international relations with their own interests. The US does not want the deepening of CEE countries ‘ relations with China to harm their strategic interests in Europe. Russia also allegedly fears that China, relying on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, will penetrate to its Western borders and take its place there. Therefore, in some areas and issues, these countries can put pressure on China and the CEE countries.
  • Wasted or misdirected investment should be considered as a threat as well. Thus, South East Europe Transport Observatory (Hereinafter SEETO – Auth. said that the availability of Chinese funding can be an advantage and an opportunity. While the availability of Chinese funding might pose a threat on the EU financial institutions, which would have to compete with Chinese institutions for clients, alternative sources of financing might represent a positive development for the business sector or the countries accessing such sources (see Map 1 below).

Map 1.: China`s 16+1 grouping built around EU`s newer, poorer members

Source:IMF, FT research

  • The EU is also concerned at the potential dominance of rail transit by Chinese parties. The apparent implication was that this would give China market power over the EU’s trade (For example Apple, Boeing, Google and Microsoft all originated in the USA, but this does not mean that the US Government manipulates access to their products to disadvantage the EU.). A large global economy such as China will almost inevitably gain market power through its economic size and its importance as a trading partner.
  • Another challenge can be new Chinese investments in transit countries. Thus, it is suggested that Chinese companies may begin production not only in north – eastern China but also in transit countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia. This would make EU consumers more accessible to Chinese industry without making Chinese consumers more accessible to EU industry. Nonetheless, consumers in the EU would in principle benefit from wider choice or lower costs. The extent of this effect would, however, depend on the extent to which transit countries, or China itself, were open to inward investment from the EU.
  • Also there is a risk for the EU to ensure that transport infrastructure being developed not only in China but also elsewhere in Asia would meet the EU’s needs. At the same time, a supplier of rail services outside the EU suggested that the focus of the TEN-T has been building the single market, and that it has not been sufficiently outward-looking.

Thus there is an urgent need to upgrade the rail infrastructure in Belarus and Ukraine, which caters for transit traffic to and from the EU. And also conflicting views appeared on whether and how Chinese parties, and particularly contractors, would adapt to, and comply with, EU standards in areas such as construction.

A related concern was that weak legislation in rail transit countries might permit environmental damage. The EU cannot impose higher standards on the construction or operation of railways in non-EU states such as Russia and Kazakhstan. There are, however, a number of mechanisms by which the EU can encourage higher standards:

-through the terms and conditions of EU involvement in financing or supporting infrastructure projects;

-through the supply of products compliant with (high) EU environmental standards; and

-through operating, or encouraging other parties to operate, through rail services using locomotives and other equipment with a high environmental performance.

An institutional stakeholder made the point that EU standards could always be imposed and, in principle, enforced if a project was funded by the EU, but that this was less likely to be possible if the same project was funded by China.

  1. One the the challenges, which causes the emergence of many contradictory and negative opinions about the Chinese initiative in European political and business circles is primarily due to Europe’s low awareness of the project, its main goals and structure. Thus, analysis found the the BRI is generally positively perceived, but differences are marked at the country level with some countries having negative perceptions.

Figure 1.: Media sentiment for most positive countries

Figure 2.: Media sentiment for most negative countries

Source : Bruegel based on https://www.gdeltproject.org/

Figure 1 and Figure 2 above further report the countries with the most positive and negative sentiments towards the BRI. The first impression is that Europe and Asia both extremes of positivity and negativity. That means China`s initiative has particularly penetrated the two regions, but is evaluated very differently by different countries and regions.

Within Europe, BRI members tend to have a much worse view of China`s initiative (especially Bosnia and by Poland), compared to others, especially the Netherlands. Thus, China does not seem to be necessarily improving its image through efforts made through BRI projects or, at lest, not when the way it is perceived in non-BRI countries.

Thus, as a result of the analysis of China – CEE relations in the framework of the BRI project, it can be concluded that there are both positive trends and possible challenges in China – CEE relations and their role in China’s relations with the EU.

While the specific impact of the “integrity” of the BRI on European territory is still limited, new transport corridors are already emerging and their frequency of use is growing rapidly. One is a rail link between China and Western Europe via Poland to Germany and beyond; the other is a North – North corridor between Greece and the Baltic region through Central Europe, and Piraeus as a fast–growing center in the Mediterranean, and actors in Italy are involved in expanding their profile as part of an expanding South – North logistics network. At the same time, cooperation with third countries (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus) remains at very early stages, as the degree of readiness of European companies to participate in Chinese-led infrastructure projects outside Europe remains unclear

Dr. Maria Smotrytska is a senior research sinologist and International Politics specialist of the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists. She is currently the Research Fellow at International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES), Department for Strategic Studies on Asia. PhD in International politics, Central China Normal University (Wuhan, Hubei province, PR China) Contact information : officer[at]ifimes.org SmotrM_S[at]mail.ru

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Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country

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The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.

Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government

Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.

Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.

In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.

Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy

The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.

The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.

At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.

In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.

Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum

Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.

Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.

The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.

In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.

Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.

The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy

Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.

First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.

Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.

In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.

Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid

In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.

Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.

At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.

Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.

Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.

Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power

The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.

P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.

Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.

From our partner RIAC

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Is British Democracy in Danger?

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On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.

Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.

To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.

While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.

Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.

One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.

Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.

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The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security

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2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.

Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.

In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.

On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.

Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.

Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.

In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.

The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.

A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?

As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.

Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.

The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.

Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.

From our partner RIAC

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