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EU acting a “civilian power”: Where & How

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Authors: Yang Haoyuan, ZengXixi & Hu Yongheng*

In 1946 when Winston Churchill addressed in Zurich, Switzerland, he called on urgent union of Europe, but not many people took his remarks seriously if not suspicious at all.This was because that economic recovery and social stability of the day were more urgent to the people across Europe. Since then in one decade, Europe has not only witnessed a rapid and robust social-economic reconstruction, but also an increasing integration of sovereign states coming of the age. It is true that throughout this process of the European integration, the United States has played a sort of patron role—at first as a passionate advocate publicly and then a powerful supporter through the Marshal Plan and finally a lead ally of the NATO.

In1963, the United States endorsed a fully cohesive Europe which, whether it functions as a grouping of nation-states or as the European Union, has shared America’s burden in terms of the Atlantic collective security. Yet, this strategic tie is not unconditional, for example, the EU support to the Washington’s policy decision depends upon only if its objectives parallel with America’s own and if it deems that without its contribution the common purposes will not be achieved. The diversions in policy between the two sides of the Atlantic are essentially more philosophical than technical. As a result, American unilateralism which usually comes out of Washington has been challenged by the EU involving three key structural issues: the EU’s self-image; the impact of the EU policy; and the U.S. attitudes toward the different options for European integration. As Henry Kissinger argued, in defining the role of Europe in the future world, the EU depends upon more their historical experiences than abstract concept of universal goodwill as a facilitator of diplomacy, or put it simply that “persuasiveness in negotiations relies primarily on the options the negotiator has available or is perceived to have at his or her disposal.”

 Since the beginning of the new century, the EU has become close to an equal to the United States economically, technologically and socially. In terms of soft power, European cultures have long had a wide appeal in the rest of the world, and the sense of a Europe uniting around Brussels has had a strong attraction to East Europe and Turkey as well. Samuel Huntington put it in the 1990s that a cohesive Europe would have the human resources, economic strength, technology, and actual and potential military forces to be the preeminent power of the 21st century. Although the EU has effectively constrained American unilateralism, it is out of the question that the U.S. and the EU would move on the road towards political conflict. Due to this, the EU has vowed to play a new role in the world affairs that might be termed as the “civilian power”.

According to scholar Helene Sjursen, civilian power is defined as playing a primary role in the international system but differing from the traditional great power which has pursued power politics by military means. The EU prefers acting a civilian power since it has committed to economic cooperation and social justice in the age of globalization. Accordingly, the acquisition of military means, or the EU’s ambition to acquire such means, might weaken at least the argument that the EU is a civilian power and could provoke a shift towards a policy more akin to traditional great powers. Despite this, this article opines that the EU has acted a civilian power in the world affairs. For sure, this is not an easy mission to achieve in view of the complexities of the world affairs.

On September 16 of 2020, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed her first annual State of the Union, painting a sober picture of Europe grappling with a pandemic and its deepest recession in its history and calling for EU members to build a stronger health union amid COVID-19. She laid out ambitious goals to make the 27-nation bloc more resilient and united to confront future crises. In order to demonstrate the EU’s resolve and sincerity, she doubled down on the flagship goals sheset out on taking office in 2019: urgent action to tackle climate change and a digital revolution. In addition, von der Leyen unveiled a plan to cut the EU greenhouse gas emissions substantially and vowed to use green bonds to finance its climate goals. She also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States and said the EU would invest 20 percent of a 750 billion euro economic recovery fund in digital projects. Meanwhile, she said that the coronavirus pandemic had underlined the need for closer cooperation since “the people of Europe are still suffering.” It is noted that the competition mentioned involves only the unconventional rather than conventional security issues.

As a matter of fact, solidarity among the 27 member states performed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they refused to share the protective medical kits with the worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus. Also the EU leaders jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies. Yet, since last July,27 member states agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euros on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration. Addressing the EU Parliament, von der Leyen pledged her commission would try to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, promising a biomedical research agency and a global summit. In effect, the EU has all the means and resources at its capacity.

Yet, externally the EU has to deal with the troubled talks with the United Kingdom on the future links after the Brexit divorce is done. All the deals and pacts between the two sides could not be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. Von der Leyen reiterated that “This is a matter of law, trust and good faith… Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”The EU leaders also have the same attitude towards the United States and Russia since Europe is located between the two giants in all terms. Yet, the U.S. under the Trump’s administration has provided the EU with diplomatic rows. In a long run, the EU remains hopeful of improving relations and believes common ground can still be found, despite their current differences. As she reiterated “We must revitalize our most important relationships – we may not agree with the White House, but we must cooperate and build a new transatlantic agenda on trade and other matters.” Regarding the great challenge from Russia, she reiterated her condemnation of Russia over Navalny – though the Russian government has strongly denied any involvement – and said that the EU is on the side of the people of Belarus. They must be free to decide their own future and they are not pieces on someone else’s chessboard. However, the EU leaders seem to forget that the “color revolutions” have caused the disasters across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Under such circumstances, the EU has to deal with China strategically and smartly, which during the first seven months of 2020becomes the top trading partner of the EU, a position previously held by the United States, followed by Britain, Switzerland, and Russia on EU’s main trading partner list in the first seven months. As France has suggested that the EU and China, as the defenders of multilateralism in international order, should set the tone for multilateralism and lead the international society to cement cooperation in areas such as vaccine research and climate change. Yet, it was arguable that von derLeyen defined China a “competitor and a rival” although she previously admitted that the latest video summit between China and the EU was “frank and open”. In fact, she said that progress had been made on a host of key areas and hailed the potential of a fruitful future trading partnership with China although there was still much work to be done. Understandably, as one of the key leading figures of the EU, von der Leyen used her speech to again address the challenges both sides face in working together in the years ahead in spite of their conflicting political ideologies. But this is what she said, “The latest EU-China summit highlights one of the hardest challenges. China is a competitor and rival. We promote very different systems.”

In sum, the EU has several challenges ahead to deal with. First, it must update its long-term climate change goals to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement signed before. Second, the EU must manage the numbers of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe from Asia and Africa. As von der Leyen said that it is of vital importance that the EU’s member states work together to share the burden of taking in migrants and refugees and providing them with the tools for a brighter future. Third, since EU member states have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has much to be done and in its response to the pandemic and continued efforts to cooperate with other nations to find a vaccine. As she called,the EU stepp ed up to lead the global response. With civil society, G20 and the World Health Organization and others the EUhas brought more than 40 countries together to raise $19 billion to finance research on vaccines, tests and treatments for the whole world. This is the EU’s unmatched convening power in action.

Meanwhile, the EU leaders have openly called on China to do more to aid the world’s collective fight against all the challenges mentioned above. As von de Leyen said recently, China has shown willingness to dialogue on climate change and fight against pandemic. She also warned of the dangers of countries not working together on vaccine research, with the U.S. recently announcing its plans to withdraw from the WHO. Both China and the EU share the common ground that vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk, only vaccine cooperation saves lives. We endorse a strong WHO and a strong WTO – but reform of the multilateral system has never been more urgent.

In view of this, it is fair to say that the EU wants to lead reforms of the WHO and WTO. But it is possible only if it works together with other responsible powers including China.

*Yang Hao Yuan from the School of Governance, Technical University of Munich; Zeng Xixi & Hu Yong Heng from SIPA, Jilin University

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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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