On November 18, 2020, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Russian Federation Géza Andreas von Geyr was giving an open lecture at HSE University.
What is the place and role of the European Union in the modern world? How is the European integration project developing, and what role does Germany play in it? How are relations between the EU and Russia today?
The event was organized jointly by HSE University and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Moscow as part of the Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union and of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, as well as in the framework of the Year of Germany in Russia.
Text of the Lecture
Building Europe’s Future
Prof Kuzminov, Prof Prostakov, Dear Students,
Thanks a lot for the invitation to speak to you today.
I regret that, due to the pandemic, I can´t talk to you face to face—but I enjoy that I can reach out to so many of you online.
I´m especially grateful for the invitation as your university is one of the best and most prestigious in Russia. And it is an excellent venue for a discussion dedicated to Europe.
From the beginning, the HSE has established a strong cooperation with European Universities—and with European Institutions.
The ties in education and science between Russia and Europe go far back in history, they were mutually enriching—and they still are.
That’s why we can say that the DNA of so many universities in Russia is very much European. And we Europeans learned a lot from Russians in the field of science and education as well.
If I take just my country, Germany:
Cooperation and exchange in education and science is one of the most stable and reliable links between our countries—and for me it is one of the most precious:
Because I take it as a strong investment in our common future.
Yes, I´m proud, that today Germany is the top destination for students from the Russian Federation going abroad.
More than 14,000 students and scientists came to Germany in 2019, each of them contributing to building bridges between our countries.
And the other way round Russia is attractive for German students, as its Universities offer great conditions and high standards.
Our scientific cooperation continues to produce excellent results. To mention just two fascinating projects:
Russian and German research centers work together on the European XFEL, the largest X-ray laser in the world, and Russian and German researchers jointly took part in the largest Arctic research expedition ever—“MOSAiC”—which was successfully completed a few weeks ago.
And this bond continues to grow:
We have just concluded a bilateral year of Higher Education Cooperation and Science, and in September, we have started our year of Germany in Russia, which includes a multitude of education and research related events and projects.
(Is the discussion on European-Russian relations adequate?)
What I just mentioned shines a light on only some of the many layers of relations Russian universities and scientific institutions enjoy with European countries.
I´m convinced, if we added them all up, the Euro-Russian dimension would turn out as one of the strongest partnerships in education and science worldwide.
This stands as an example for one part of the European–Russian reality: Things go well—in some areas.
The other one is: we all read and experience that EU-Russian relations are, to put it in diplomatic words: not in the best shape.
Or, to be more precise: On very fundamental, tangible political issues we very much disagree.
I could leave it at that, go on and talk about the need to paint a layered and nuanced picture and that a lot of work will have to be done to solve those problematic issues and to rebuild trust.
But my feeling is that the problem goes deeper.
Something went awry in the way we perceive each other.
Are we still both convinced that good European Russian relations are in our long-term interest?
So, do we give this relationship, be it currently good or bad, the strategic depth it should have?
And even more basic:
Do we still understand each other well enough? Do we explain our views well enough?
Are we attentive enough when listening to each other? And: how do we talk about each other?
I´m convinced that the time has come to reflect well on all of this; if we do not take our time to do that, the very core of our relationship could be seriously harmed.
This is what I have in mind talking to you about Europe today.
To explain and to be ready to understand, in both directions. This is, if you so wish, the essence of diplomacy.
So, what in fact I already started with, is to explain my views, offer some remarks on Europe—and I will do this in the form of answers to questions I often hear.
My remarks will be personal ones, not official positions of my government, nor of the German EU Presidency or Council of Europe Chairmanship.
It´s more a European talking with fellow Europeans. And the other way round, of course, I´m ready to hear your remarks and to learn from you.
And speaking about Europe, I mean of course a wider scope of countries than the 27 member states of the EU.
At the same time the EU as such is not only part of this Europe, it has the essential, decisive role.
It has reached a degree of integration the European continent in modern times has never seen before.
So, the first question is or rather was:
Is the current discussion on European-Russian relations adequate? You have just heard my answer—it is not.
My further remarks will be on the following questions:
Is there a core ratio of European integration? What is the motor keeping Europe alive?
Is the supertanker Europe able to adapt? Is the European model outdated?
Is Europe ready for the globalized future? Which future for European-Russian relations?
Is there a core ratio for European integration?
Sometimes when I follow discussions here in Russia—and not only here—I think that Europe must be a lost cause.
Statements are made creating an image of a continent all but united.
The EU is portrayed as having lost its moral compass, in foreign policy a poodle of the Americans, as if with Brexit European integration had run out of steam and as if migration would put an end to European identities.
So what does European Integration stand for?
This year we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War all over the world, all over Europe, especially here in Russia.
I was deeply moved listening in September to Johannes Brahms´ requiem played and sung in Moscow´s Lutheran cathedral by Russian musicians, conducted by an Israeli maestro, in honor of the many millions who lost their lives in the most terrible of all wars and in the Holocaust, both caused by my country, Germany.
What did not succeed after World War I, was successful after 1945: Countries in the western part of this continent, who through centuries fought wars against each other, decided to integrate step-by-step, so that wars amongst them would no more be possible or indeed thinkable.
The dimension of this is unique: Proud nation states, hundreds of years old, started to merge parts of their sovereignty and handed them over to shared institutions.
A community of European nations was build, of nations committed to democracy, freedom and the rule of law.
Out of this very spirit and rationale evolved what is now the European Union.
And after the fall of the Iron curtain it attracted the countries who finally regained their freedom, including their freedom to choose partners—and this Europe seems to be very attractive, or let´s say convincing to many who wish to partner with or even join it, until today.
Yes, this community succeeded in creating a region of enormous economic prosperity – but first and foremost it is and remains a unique peace project.
It was the peaceful togetherness of democracies and the rule of law that gave the people an unprecedented degree of freedom to seize their economic opportunities—not the other way round.
And the encouraging effects of this reach out far beyond the boundaries of the EU.
This remains relevant today, when we talk about the “who we are” of the European institutions.
The answer to the “why” of European integration is to be found on the countless military cemeteries all over Europe, including here in Russia.
What is the real motor keeping Europe alive?
Last week the Ermitage Museum and a Berlin Museum jointly opened a wonderful exhibition in Saint Petersburg on the Iron Age—with the wisely chosen subtitle: “A Europe without borders”.
Yes, it´s worth recalling, that in former times Europe did not define itself by borders, people were trading their talents and goods across the continent, influencing each other´s development from the Italian Peninsula to the German regions and the Caucasus.
This is part of our common heritage, our common history.
And in a special way this reflection of the past also gives us a hint to how our future could look like: A Europe with boundaries, as we are used to it, is not a given or a must.
Since the 1990s big steps were taken into this direction: Within Europe almost 30 countries introduced the so-called Schengen system, de facto abolishing the boundaries amongst them. From Portugal to Estonia, from Sweden to Greece, people can travel without being controlled. Young people can study, work and live in any place they want.
The Erasmus program has enabled, over the last seven years alone, 2 million students to study and train abroad and thus gain a personal experience of Europe growing together. And by the way: This program explicitly includes Russia.
These are some of the most exciting successes of European integration.
Others are the Euro, a common currency well appreciated in the world, in which most EU members participate.
Or think about the economic powerhouses Germany, France or Italy: despite their national strength, trade agreements with Tokyo or Washington are not negotiated by Berlin, Paris or Rome, but by Brussels alone, in the name of all 27, protecting our joint interests with far more leverage than any of us individually could do.
Think about the Council of Europe with its unique mechanism of protecting human rights and defining human rights standards, accessible for every citizen—next year we´ll celebrate 25 years of Russia´s membership. 2019 alone some thousand Russians turned to the court.
Or recall the mechanisms established in the OSCE on transparency, confidence building and verification where again Russia is member.
Its mechanisms were essential for the overall peaceful end of the Cold War in Europe. Today its instruments serve to at least calming down the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the OSCE is asked to continue giving a framework for negotiations on the future of Nagorno Karabakh and could well help solve the crisis in Belarus.
And, by the way, the OSCE was invited to observe the presidential elections in the USA, as it is in many European countries.
Or more recently, take PESCO, an initiative 25 EU members took for closer cooperation on defense matters: more efficient coordination and joint procurement, thus strengthening European defense.
And I could mention many more areas.
Has Europe established a perfect system? No, there is daily work being done to intensify, to improve, to readjust.
But is European Integration a lost cause? Definitely not, and this is the point I want to make:
What generated European Integration in the first place and pushes it further is its unique way of interacting: it is the culture of compromising.
In fact, European Integration, especially the EU as such, is probably the most efficient compromise machine the world has ever seen.
Every day EU member states meet on different levels on a multitude of issues to discuss, propose, regulate, improve, correct, decide together.
Yes, we all know that there are issues the Union sometimes can´t find a common view on—but compared to the amount of successful coordination and joint decisions those are just very few.
And yes, decision-making might be complicated, sometimes slow, requiring a lot of patience. But let me ask: is there any group of 27 countries constantly defining common policy on almost all areas of politics more quickly and effectively? I don´t think so.
It is the readiness to compromise which is the motor of European Integration.
And compromising becomes possible because all member states are convinced that peace and prosperity are best preserved in togetherness, and because they all are bound to democratic values and the rule of law.
And they can all carry the compromises because they know that in the decision-making process all points of view matter.
Is the supertanker Europe able to adapt?
The culture of compromising is demanding.
We experience this daily, even we EU Ambassadors do when meeting here in Moscow. Searching for common positions is not easy, but fair compromises make the solutions found sustainable.
Again, a deeper look into the EU—why not on the most difficult current crises situations:
Let´s take Corona: when the pandemic emerged, no country on the globe was really prepared, everywhere the search began for an acceptable balance between medical and economic health, and of course first reactions were national and inward-looking.
It took a while until the EU found a common approach, first comments from the outside were full of Schadenfreude/malicious joy—and not willing to recognize the fact that the EU succeeded to maintain the trans-border flow of goods: to the profit of countries inside and outside the Union.
Mocking the EU stopped when the 27 rather soon came up with the decision to support those who suffer bad economic consequences of the pandemic with an unprecedented volume of 750 billion €. All this in addition to the EU budget and national investments for recovery.
Or take the Brexit.
I do well remember EU council meetings I attended right after Great Britain took its decision to leave.
There were many in- and outside the Union who seemed to enjoy that the Union was shaken up by London, and who may have hoped that even more member states would follow.
But: it didn’t take long until member states reconvinced each other that in this globalized world no European country could be more successful on its own than together as a Union. And since then my impression has been that the 27 regained even closer unity than before.
It might be surprising to some how quickly the EU adapted to this fundamentally new situation and how strong the common line for the negotiations with London proves to be.
Think about climate policy and the consensus found on the extremely ambitious, progressive “Green Deal”, proposed last December by the European Commission, which might become a decisive, catalyzing element for the world to stop or at least slow down global warming.
Or take EU Foreign Policy in the last weeks:
The fact that the 27 rather quickly agreed on sanctioning those in Belarus responsible for election fraud and violence against their own people will have been a surprise for some, who
might have hoped that the Union be split—the EU is not and kept a clear position, faithful to standards we agreed upon in the frame of the OSCE.
Do these examples mean that everything is perfect?
No, we constantly have to work on our relations amongst each other, on very practical issues as well as sometimes on the mutual respect we have to pay to each other´s specific national experiences and identities.
But the ability of the supertanker EU to adapt should not be questioned.
Is the European model outdated?
Is Europe, especially the EU a modern place, open to the future? My answer is two-fold:
Europe has the industrial base, the scientific base, the human capital and the necessary open society which allows it to keep up with the other top players in the technological vanguard and in the competition for the top brains.
But we may not rest on our laurels, we have to ensure that we remain at the cutting edge of tomorrow’s technologies, in areas such as digitalization, nanotechnology or biotechnology.
That’s why the EU is intensely working on a Single European Digital Market and on a roadmap called the “Digital Compass”. We are also discussing the issue of Europe’s so-called Digital Sovereignty that to our understanding should pave the way for a rules-based framework for the digital sphere.
Our efforts in climate change I mentioned before, on health the European Commission and the German Presidency last week announced, drawing lessons from the pandemic, to be working on a “Common space of Health”, part of a future European Health Union,
and Foreign policy is definitely a field, where we will have to find a way to better speak with one voice.
Now here comes the second part of my answer:
If we look at all the key challenges, we are faced by globalization—be it climate change, reducing poverty, a fair access of all to the more and more limited natural resources of the planet, establishing rules in the information and cyber space—we see that solutions will only be found in togetherness: across nations, countries and continents.
And I speak about challenges not only as problems.
It´s all the wonderful possibilities a globalized togetherness could offer, providing food and water to all humans, as well as education, medicine, and I would absolutely add: freedom and security.
To assure this, a willingness to open up to the world is needed—at the same time there needs to be a willingness to refrain from the wish or even the political goal to dominate others.
This is another lesson, we Europeans learned from the painful history during the last century on our continent.
A very wise European once said: If any European thinks he could be more than Nr 2—then Europe is in trouble.
So we Europeans know from our tragic past that any policy claiming: “my country first” will not work for us.
This is why we, in the EU, manage to be a community of equals—even if some of us might be economically or militarily stronger or politically more powerful than others.
This is sometimes hard to sell to others, because it does not match traditional lines of international power policy—but this is what defines the strength of our togetherness.
And more than that:
Just think about it the other way round: Because the EU members as Nation States regard and treat each other as equals, we together, since decades, are trained to cherish and to promote both: unity and diversity. Or, in other words: a high degree of tolerance.
A croissant in France, a cappuccino in Italy and a slivovic in Zagreb or Prague—on this small continent we enjoy diversity and our cultures will never melt into one—and that is good.
Diversity is at the core of our history, culture, arts, languages.
At the same time there is something that strongly unites us. And this goes beyond the joint code of legislation:
It´s our understanding of freedom and of the dignity of every single human being.
And here I´m not talking just about the EU.
Think about the Council of Europe with its 47 Members having established a highly sophisticated and intense human rights protection system.
Or think about those many issues covered by the Human Dimension of the OSCE, setting and observing standards to the freedom of press, for free and fair elections and so on.
The best expression for what I mean I found in the title of a book written by a British author some years ago: “dignity of difference”. (Jonathan Sacks)
Without space for difference and diversity no Europe.
Does this mean that just everything is possible? Not at all: the protection of the dignity of each human and of their freedom is defining the limits of freedom.
Is this undisputed? No, it is not, we all witness intense discussions on the balance between freedom and security and these discussions are important as they show the vitality of our democracies.
An example: Chancellor Merkel, during the pandemic underlined – with a view to the necessity to limit rights and freedoms of the citizens – that the virus was a tough challenge to a democratic society (“das Virus ist eine demokratische Zumutung”).
And in many European countries during the different crises of the last decade political forces gained momentum, who argue for exclusion and a very national way. My country, too, is not immune against this.
Currently an extraordinary exhibition of contemporary art is being put together, to be shown next year in Berlin, Paris and Moscow.
It brings together more than 80 of the most prestigious artists from 35 European countries, including Russians, expressing themselves on Europe under the slogan “Diversity United”. I´m very much looking forward to this big European event that will be part of the Year of Germany in Russia and which fits so well with respecting and promoting cultural diversity being one of the core tasks of the Council of Europe.
So, this was my second answer to the question about Europe being modern:
Our globalized future will ask for a high degree of tolerance across continents and cultures—of tolerance, which has for a long time already been a prerequisite for our European Integration.
Is Europe ready for the globalized future?
Europe as such does not claim to be a world power.
But we do have interest in peace, stability and prosperity in the world.
And the world means: a more and more globalized world, where problems and opportunities can quickly bridge any distance and cross any border.
During the last years we all learned a lot about this. Just a few examples concerning Germany:
When a few years ago Europe had to deal with an enormous influx of migrants a German politician, now President of the Federal Parliament, Wolfgang Schäuble, called this a “rendezvous with globalization”.
Or: Just a decade ago nobody in Germany would have thought that our soldiers would be sent to Western Africa, Mali, training Sahel forces to fight Transnational Terror and trying to stabilize that fragile part of the world.
We have understood that, in the globalized reality, what seemed to be far away has become part of our own national and European security interests.
Currently especially climate change and the pandemic demonstrate that global problems need global solutions.
Europe´s answer can and will not be building a fortress that must be shielded from a dangerous outside-world. We know that our own well-being and security depend on the well- being and security of our neighbors.
Of course, we need a Europe that efficiently protects its external borders, and we are making progress on this. But at the same time we will have to intensify opening up to neighbours and beyond, and look for partnerships with like-mindeds.
And we will do this more and more together as EU, as our national interests become more and more identical with our joint European interests.
The rationale for this is rather clear:
The big geostrategic trends and dynamics shift towards Asia and away from Europe.
And the demographic trends describe shrinking societies in Europe, while those in Asia and Africa are growing.
As a consequence we Europeans have the choice between acting more nationally, each one of us becoming more and more irrelevant or to intensify our unity and thus stay relevant together.
This means for our partners, that relations with us will stay bilateral, but at the same time they will—like it or not—become more European.
Which future for European-Russian relations?
Having said all this—where does Russia come in? The simple answer is: on almost all of it.
No country can escape two things: its history and its geography.
In this sense we do already live in what was called “one common European house”. Of course, we all make friends outside, seek best possible relations with neighbors. But moving out—that is not a realistic option for any one of us.
So, back to the questions from the very beginning: How do we think it is best to relate to each other? Do we still follow the rules we agreed upon?
How do we solve problems amongst us?
Do we both still wish to build our future together? And: How do we talk about each other?
Each side has to make up its mind.
I see, as a German and European, the following three perspectives:
Concerning those current very political problems, on which we fundamentally disagree, we have to work very seriously on solutions.
Be it the annexation of the Crimea, the Skripal case, the poisoning of Alexej Navalny, the massive hacking attacks on the German Parliament and the OPCW, and so on:
on all of those issues we have very clear EU positions, and with the so-called “Tiergarten- murder” in Berlin some more might follow.
They all concern issues which are essential to the core of our European self: when international law is harshly violated and Human Rights are harshly violated, when rules we all are bound by are violated, we cannot stay indifferent, we speak out.
An EU or Europe being silent or simply tolerating this, would give up its identity.
And this is not an interference into internal affairs:
The Council of Europe and in particular its Convention on Human Rights guarantee access to a European Court to the citizens of all Member States.
On the OSCE side in the Charter of Paris of 1990 all members are bound to commitments like abiding by common standards of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, refraining from the use of force against each other, respecting territorial integrity and adhering to a concept of joint and indivisible security.
Because of these commitments, violations of basic democratic standards or human rights are no longer a purely internal affair of a member country.
These are standards that all European countries signed up to.
At the same time we have to care about the strategic view on our relations and about areas where we share the interest that cooperation is needed.
Two weeks ago, the EU Delegation and my Embassy organized an expert meeting with the Russian International Affairs Council about this.
Only one single Russian voice pronounced repeatedly a very skeptical position on the future of EU-Russian relations.
All others present, Russians and Europeans, tried to identify areas where and how cooperation could make sense and improve.
Especially on climate change and transnational health we seem to have a common interest in working on common solutions—not to speak about the crises in Libya, Syria, in Ukraine or in the Caucasus, which need pragmatic cooperation and concertation in order to develop solutions.
And about a strategic view on the relations:
From the EU side, there is a strategy and there are intense discussions about it, just a few weeks ago on the level of our Foreign Ministers.
The five principles of this strategy do have a forward-looking approach,
mentioning the possibility of selective engagement on areas of common interest and stating the way out for the toughest of the problems that stand between us, that is Eastern Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Speaking about the Council of Europe, of which Germany is taking over the chairmanship today, my government worked hard in support of readmitting Russia to the parliamentary Assembly one and a half years ago.
And concerning the OSCE, we very much hope for more Russian engagement.
Currently Russia is in favour of using the OSCE Minsk Group instruments for working on the status of Nagorno Karabakh—but is not willing to advocate OSCE mediation in Belarus—why?
And I would ask about strategies the other way round:
Where is Russia, given all that happened since 2014, with a forward looking strategy on European Affairs?
I think we should continue the discussions on these questions. Our relations do need strategic depth and we should both find consensus on that.
What I would propose is reflecting on kind of a destination map.
To me, there seem to be many good reasons for that—and only very few against.
By the way, given comments I sometimes hear here in Russia about the EU: I´m convinced that a strong and powerful EU is in the long run the best partner Russia can find to cope with the challenges coming up by globalization.
The people are close to each other.
In my country there is great affection to Russian culture—and the same is the case all over Europe.
We should do our best to intensify contacts.
Let´s see how the people in Russia think about all this:
The last Levada poll dealing with the EU in Russian public opinion in May 2020 asked Russian citizens whether they consider Russia to be a European country. It brought a split result: 45 % answered yes, 44 % no, the others found it difficult to answer.
One other thing emerged from the Levada poll: The EU is seen positively and considered as an attractive place to study, work and live.
When Levada asked where Russians would like to go if they had to move abroad permanently, three EU countries were among the top-5.
The most appreciated qualities of the EU were a high standard of living, stability, democracy and the rule of law.
82 % said that closer relations with the EU would be in Russia’s interest.
I wonder how a poll would look like if the question is asked how far people in Russia feel European and how far “western”—but this could be a good topic for a future lecture.
These were my remarks on “Building Europe´s future”. I gave you my view on different aspects of Europe,
I expressed my hope for Europe being taken here in Russia for what it is, not perfect, but, as many European politicians put it: The best Europe we have ever had.
And I was trying to show how far Russia is part of all this and could or should be in the future. But this is of course for Russians to decide.
So where are we?
Let me end with the title of a book written on a historical topic a few years ago: “un seul lit pour deux reves”—only one bed for two dreams.
We might have different dreams, but waking up we realize each day that we live together and that we better ought to look for harmony in the daily life of our relationship.
From our partner RIAC
Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections
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
EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession
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.
German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy
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 Coalitions||Trafic Light||Grand Coalition||Jamaica|
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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