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Russia–Germany: Crisis of Political Confidence as a Factor in Asymmetrical Relations

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In 2020, Germany and Russia celebrate several important anniversaries in their bilateral relations, marking events that did much to lay the foundations of the two states’ current cooperation: 65 years since diplomatic relations were established between the Federative Republic of Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 50 years since the Treaty of Moscow was signed, 30 years since the reunification of Germany and the signing of the founding agreements related to this, including Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany and Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Good-Neighbourliness, Partnership and Cooperation. They were signed in August–November. In these months of the anniversary year, the bilateral relations are facing major tests.

Officially, the stages in Russia–Germany relations are measured not in anniversaries but in legislative periods of Germany’s governmental coalitions that formulate their own four-year foreign political agenda. Traditionally, Russia is part of this agenda and Germany’s programme in relation to Russia is determined by the factional makeup of the German Government, the current international situation and the domestic political processes in Russia. The latest coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU bloc and the SPD was concluded for the period between March 2018 and September 2021. It contains statements about Russia violating the European world order (“annexation” of Crimea, intervention in the east of Ukraine), about there being great potential for civil and public dialogue and economic cooperation, about Germany’s commitment to the idea of a common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The coalition members believe that “Germany is sincerely interested in good relations with Russia and in close cooperation with a view to ensuring peace and resolving important international problems” though “Russia’s current politics compel us to be particularly careful and flexibly stable. … The goal of our Russian policy remains: a return to relations based on mutual confidence and a peaceful balance of interests allowing the parties to once again achieve close cooperation.”

Moscow’s relations with Germany are determined by Russia’s foreign policy concepts, the latest of which was adopted on November 30, 2016. Among the EU states, Germany has traditionally been assigned the place of the leading partner and a revitalization of mutually advantageous bilateral relations with that partner is viewed as an important resource for “promoting Russia’s national interests in European and global affairs.”

The first two and a half years of the current German coalition government’s legislative period were marked by a series of events that had a major effect on the political backdrop for the bilateral cooperation. The Salisbury incident of March 4, 2018 (“the Skripal affair”) resulted in the “collective West” states, including Germany, expelling Russian diplomats, adopting new sanctions, with Berlin, particularly the Aussenamt, and developing negative sentiments toward Moscow. This all coincided with the new governmental coalition starting its work on March 14 and Russia’s “new old” president being elected on March 18. Under such difficult circumstances, Russian and German leaders continued their constructive communication largely based in a mostly closed-door meeting held in Sochi in early May 2017. Details of another meeting between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel held in the same city in May 2018, as well as the working discussion of topical questions in Meseberg, were also not revealed to the public, yet they shaped generally positive sentiments that contributed significantly to smoothing out the influence the March events had had on shaping the anti-Russian sentiments in Germany’s political community and media. Regular meetings held in 2018 between heads of various agencies (primarily foreign ministries) were also conducive to positivity.

On August 23, 2019, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin, was killed in Berlin. This also engendered negativity as it resulted in further exacerbation of diplomatic relations and in the expulsion of two Russian diplomats in December 2019. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reciprocated.

On January 11, 2020, Angela Merkel made an unexpected visit to Moscow and discussed topical problems in international relations with Vladimir Putin. At the same time, the two states’ foreign ministers also held a meeting. The German politicians’ visit confirmed that Berlin was ready to continue the constructive dialogue. The coronavirus pandemic that broke out in March pushed most bilateral issues into the background somewhat.

In mid-May, Angela Merkel expressed her highly negative personal opinion concerning the cyberattack on the Bundestag in the spring of 2015, which German special services believed to have been organized by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defence. Even though the experts at the Federal Criminal Police Office confined themselves to stating that “this fact is highly likely,” without providing incontrovertible proof, Berlin adopted this version as “final and incontrovertible.”

On July 1, 2020, Germany assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Its Presidency Programme has only one paragraph on Russia, stating that relations with Russia need to be actively formed on the basis of the EU’s five principles (the 2016 Mogherini principles) and that their implementation needs to be analyzed. On May 27, 2020, the Federal Chancellor delivered a speech at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin focusing a lot on Russia. While emphasizing the objective importance their bilateral relations have for both states, the Chancellor reminded her audience that she had, from the outset, had a critical constructive attitude to the bilateral dialogue and to the importance of respecting the values and recognized international rules that, in her opinion, Russia “has repeatedly violated.” Consequently, Berlin will “speak out” against subsequent breaches of these by Moscow. Simultaneously, within the framework of its value-based approach, Germany sees opportunities for new impetus in the development of bilateral relations, including such areas as climate protection and global healthcare.

The August 20 incident with Alexei Navalny was a litmus test for the true level of anti-Russian sentiments in some parts of Germany’s political community. This time, the paper turned dark purple. “The Salisbury spirit” made a comeback to the public discourse with active support from some EU capitals. There were insistent voices calling for “punishing the Kremlin” by imposing sanctions on, among other things, Nord Stream II, up to and including shutting the project down. Moscow has no success in its attempts to transform those unfounded and harshly formulated demands and accusations into a constructive discussion: Berlin saw a clear violation of its values and legal rules that, in her May speech, the Chancellor referred to as being possible. At the same time, in his message of greetings to Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the 30th anniversary of Germany’s reunification, Vladimir Putin confirmed “Russia’s invariable commitment to dialogue and interaction with German partners on the pressing issues on the bilateral and international agenda.”

Against the backdrop of clearly dubious proof of “the Russian authorities once again using chemical weapons” to eliminate undesirable persons, the ”collective West” continued to apply unprecedented pressure; in October 2013, it prompted Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to make several harsh statements to the effect that Russia could stop communicating with the European Union. Let us note that, officially, the EU put a freeze on the top-level dialogue from the spring of 2014. The same applies to Russia–EU summits and intergovernmental consultations with EU states. Yet, Russia’s working consultations with individual states, primarily Germany and France, continue. The inter-parliamentary dialogue has never stopped. Moreover, the Russian-German High-level Working Group on strategic economic and financial cooperation resumed its meetings in June 2016, while the inter-agency High-Level Working Group on Security Policy resumed its meetings in November 2018. Clearly, neither party is interested in having their communications come to a halt.

Both Brussels and Berlin heard Sergey Lavrov, but it did not prevent them, on October 15, 2020, from imposing EU sanctions on six high-ranking Russian officials and on a research institution. These sanctions had been proposed by the France–Germany tandem. On October 15 2018, the Council of the EU adopted a mechanism for imposing restrictions as part of combating use and proliferation of chemical weapons. This mechanism served as the legal grounds for the sanctions: the EU celebrated the second anniversary of this mechanism in style. On October 22, Brussels imposed sanctions on two Russian citizens for having allegedly participated in organizing a cyberattack on the Bundestag.

On October 17, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas noted that the EU had adopted appropriate sanctions, that Brussels was ready to respond henceforth to “Russia’s unacceptable actions,” while also admitting that no one was interested in cutting off the dialogue with Moscow as this dialogue is required for resolving conflicts, including those in Libya, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere. Nonetheless, on October 26, Andrea Sasse, a German Foreign Ministry spokesperson, responded negatively to Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that a moratorium be imposed on deploying land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in Europe. Agreeing with NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, she believed this initiative did not inspire confidence. On October 27, in an interview with the Croatian newspaper Vecernji List, Sergey Lavrov confirmed his previous statements, saying, “I hope our European colleagues will have the wisdom, vision and pure common sense, so that our dialogue with the European Union and its member states is fully restored on the basis of the principles of neighbourly relations, good faith, predictability and openness.” On October 28, Russia’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs commented on Andrea Sasse’s remarks, pointing out, in particular, that this was “a typical example of a biased and, in fact, knee-jerk reaction, no effort being made to understand what the Russian proposal is about.”

In the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War and the Second World War, the European Union and its member states have begun distorting history, including the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over Nazism. For instance, the resolution the Bundestag adopted on October 9 on bolstering the memory of war victims stipulates creating a new historical and memorial centre about Nazi crimes. The text of the resolution suggests the likelihood of distorting the historical memory and using the centre to instrumentalize insinuations “equating the Soviet Union with the Third Reich when it comes to unleashing the war,” which, from Russia’s point of view, is absolutely impermissible.

As of early November 2020, relations between Russia, Germany and the EU are still based on the “selective engagement” principle, with the European participants having no clearly defined strategic approach to the development of these relations. Germany apparently has no conceptual framework for working in this area and, in its presidency of the Council of the EU, Germany has essentially abandoned its opportunity to spearhead a discussion of the contents of future interaction to which there are no alternatives.

Clearly, Moscow and Berlin will continue their working contacts on political matters, although these contacts will have as their backdrop a profound crisis of confidence crisis and a minimal level of understanding on a series of controversial issues (cyberattacks, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, Alexei Navalny). Yet, that circumstance will not significantly affect the Normandy format or the cooperation on the Syrian, Libyan, Iranian and other tracks.

The paradox of today’s crisis of relations is that it is taking place against the background of decent (despite the effect of the coronavirus pandemic) relations in other areas, such as the economy, culture, science and education. In recent years, these have received an additional impetus to development.

Back in 2014, Russia and Germany’s foreign ministries launched a new format, a Russian-German Cross Year, which was intended to boost bilateral cooperation in specific areas. The first years were dedicated to language and literature, youth exchanges, and regional and municipal cooperation.

The Russian-German Year of Scientific and Educational Partnerships was held in 2018–2020. The events that year bolstered cooperation in inter-university interactions, cutting-edge research and support for young scientists and innovations. Currently, about 1,000 joint university partnerships are functioning, involving 203 German and 233 Russian universities, as well as 33 organizations with other status, and their numbers are constantly rising. Russia is Germany’s ninth-largest partner in this area.

Since July 2017, the German Government has been protecting the principles of European energy security and sovereignty and attempting, for that purpose, to counter the consistent steps taken by the US Administration (and their EU supporters) against Nord Stream II. Yet, that opposition has thus far not been particularly effective. In early 2020, Washington first succeeded in having the construction of the gas pipelines suspended; subsequently, threatening extra-territorial sanctions against the current and future project partners, the US put a question mark over the project being completed/ the pipeline being put into operation. In early August 2020, EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer said that the EU was designing a mechanism that would “also ensure that the EU becomes more resilient to exterritorial sanctions by third countries,” including Washington’s possible economic restrictions against Nord Stream II. The “Communication on Strengthening the EU’s Financial and Economic Sovereignty” is to be ready by the end of 2020.

In June 2019, the economic ministers of both states signed a Memorandum on Partnership for Efficiency based on provisions from the position paper of the Eastern Committee of the German Economy (January 2019) intended for developing cooperation in principal economic areas such as energy, climate protection, nuclear security, outer space, healthcare, support for small- and medium-sized enterprises, further professional training, digitization, agriculture, visa liberalization, etc. In February 2020, in Berlin, Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier and Russia’s Minister for Industry and Trade Denis Manturov agreed to form a joint energy group.

In December 2019, the EU adopted the European Green Deal mandating a transition to a climate-neutral economy for EU member states by 2050; this deal became a challenge for Russia–Germany cooperation. Interaction with Germany on hydrogen energy could be a promising area for cooperation. Even though Germany and the EU’s hydrogen strategies do not mention Russia, there is every objective reason for Russia to find a niche in that sphere. The Eastern Committee of the German Economy and the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce (GRCC) deserve credit for bringing this matter up in their reports in early July 2020. On September 17, the GRCC formed a Hydrogen Initiative Group with a view to determining and promoting Russian and German companies’ pilot projects. On October 12, the Russian Government approved a “roadmap” for developing Russian hydrogen energy, which envisages active involvement by Russia in international cooperation.

The obvious challenges entailed by the Green Deal include introducing carbon tariffs intended to bar imported goods manufacture of which produces considerable СО2 emissions. Many Russian businesses had prepared in advance for this contingency by investing heavily in reducing their emissions, in waste treatment facilities and in circular technologies. Even so, they face an uphill battle as they attempt to convince EU officials that their products meet the European requirements. Today, Brussels mostly believes that all Russia-made goods leave a large carbon footprint.

Actually, Russia is arriving at comprehending, at all levels, that there are no alternatives to environmental thinking and conduct. For several years running, there have been successful Russian-German projects for introducing the most accessible technologies, primarily in the sectors that produce the biggest amounts of СО2. Despite certain difficulties, cooperation has been launched in environmentally friendly waste disposal and processing. Individual regions are becoming increasingly interested in environmental protection measures, building sustainable energy sources, in particular wind farms. Energy-saving technologies are being used in constructing new buildings and facilities. German companies have good opportunities for participating in Russia’s “green” modernization, though this has only just been launched.

Falling global energy prices and the rigid restrictions Germany and Russia have imposed on the movement of capital, services, and manpower have resulted in a decline in mutual trade estimated at up to 25% at the end of 2020. Drops in Russian exports to Germany are several times greater than drops in German exports to Russia since the two states’ economic cooperation is still largely tied to the energy sector, whose economic agents determine a significant part of foreign trade flows and mutual investment flows. Foreign trade is being restructured at a very slow rate owing, among other things, to the inadequate pace of Russian economic reforms and creation of a critical mass of competitive small- and medium-sized businesses. The state is taking steps to support the economic agents’ exports performance and incentive mechanisms are becoming more effective, but this is clearly not enough to achieve a qualitative breakthrough.

Even though the number of German businesses in Russia has fallen by about a third, the German business community remains the biggest and best organized among all foreign communities as it is continuing to invest and lobby its members’ interests. They name bureaucracy and protectionism on the part of the Russian authorities among the most prominent negative factors. In recent months, visa restrictions imposed in connection with the pandemic have become a significant obstacle. The GRCC obtains exceptions and charters special flights, but this does not solve the mobility problem for German top managers and for skilled professionals that assemble and service German-made equipment. The situation will clearly not improve during the second wave of the pandemic.

Russian companies in Germany have recently also faced frequent non-market problems but, unlike their German partners, they do not have such powerful support as that provided by the Eastern Committee and the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce, which can set up a direct dialogue between the country’s leaders and major entrepreneurs.

In conclusion, it is important to remind our readers that the year of Germany in Russia was officially inaugurated in late September. It will feature various events intended to introduce Russians to the culture and cutting-edge economic, educational and scientific achievements of Russia’s principal European partner. This year, Germany itself will experience difficult societal, economic and political developments that will shape electoral sentiment at the 2021 elections to the Bundestag, Landtags and local councils. The elections to the Bundestag will bring a new governmental coalition and a new chancellor and officially introduce a new period in Russia-Germany relations. On the one hand, Germany’s new leadership will assume a harder stance towards the Kremlin. On the other hand, following the initial interaction between the states’ leaders, there will be an opportunity for a joint search for a common denominator in both states’ interests and for ways of gradually emerging from the current crisis of confidence and achieving an understanding on the critical points on strategic issues and areas. Both sides already need to be preparing for this.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D in Economics, Deputy Director of the RAS Institute for Europe, Head of the Country and Regional Researches Department, Head of the German Research Center

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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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