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
The Man Who Warned Us First About Climate Change
Among the first to warn us of global warming, he used the term greenhouse gas to describe the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. That was in the 1960s and it was dismissed as a cranky notion. Where he lived, he had a large study lined with books which he actually read; perhaps one reason for the mushrooming of ideas.
The story begins in Corfu, Greece where he was born. His very prominent family was turfed out of the country and settled in France. After early schooling, he was sent to a private boarding school in the UK.
Founded by German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn in 1934, Gordonstoun School was new with new ideas when he attended. An equal emphasis on mind and body, it challenged students mentally and physically, the latter far more than at other such private schools. A strapping boy who was also extremely intelligent, he loved the place — later his son was to hate it. Hahn wrote of him that he would do very well any task assigned to him.
He went on to the naval academy and finished at the top of his class, doing the same at later naval exams and becoming the youngest Lieutenant in the navy. Given command of a ship, he ran it like clockwork but a certain lack of sensitivity to others also came through: the crew were driven ragged and hated serving under him. He loved the navy and always loved the sea; indeed it was a sacrifice to give up his naval career when he married but it was incompatible in his new role for his wife was a very important personage.
Studying in England, I could not fail to notice his frequent presence on newspaper front pages, even though my own interests then did not focus on the news of the day. He seemed to set up awards for all kinds of excellence. He wanted British industry to shine, young people to deliver their best and so on. And of course, he was invariably presenting awards to the winners.
A sportsman, he was also out there playing polo with his team, or at equestrian meets or playing cricket at charity events, or sailing which he clearly loved. His uncle saw India through a hurried independence and a bloody partition. Uncle Dickie, as he was called by the royal children, was a valued presence until killed by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in a senseless bomb attack that lost them public sympathy.
The country’s leaders kept him busy and he was sent to numerous countries representing the queen, most often to former colonies in an era with a rash of newly independent countries. Yes, his name was Philip, titled Prince of Greece and Denmark, and his wife was Queen Elizabeth II.
Prince Philip’s royal bloodline (like the Queen’s) was German — Battenberg the family last name having been changed to Mountbatten during the First World War. His sisters married Germans and remained in Germany during the Second World War. They were not invited to his wedding to a very much in love Princess Elizabeth. He had been the longest serving consort of any British monarch when he died a few days ago.
Prince Philip’s travels were also notorious for gaffes and his eye for attractive females — middle class morality be damned. A definite lacuna in sensitivity was more than evident. Meeting a group of Nigerians resplendent in their long colorful national dress, he remarked, “Ready for bed, are we?” to their embarrassment.
Yet, all in all, a very full life.
Sino-Serbian relations under the “microscope”: China’s footprint In Serbia
Over the years, the Sino-Serbian foreign relations have straightened to a very high level, with China establishing itself as a valuable ally to Serbia. Since the recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Yugoslavia and the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states in 1955, both countries have been on warm relations that soon transformed into a strategic alliance. However, this relationship has given an uneasy feeling to the political elite in the West that sees this relationship as China’s efforts to expand its influence into the Balkan region and undermine the efforts of the EU for stabilization. On the other hand, some may argue that this uneasy feeling that the West is experiencing is due to its own failures of constant neglect and poor leadership towards Serbia, which has taken action in its own hands. Can we really say that the situation in Serbia is about Chinese imperialism, or is it a case that the West failed Serbia over and over again and now sees its diplomatic failures backfiring back to them?
Sino-Serbian relations in retrospective
The relationship between both countries has always been on a warm status, but the potential for an even stronger relationship came during the 1990s in the so-called Yugoslavian Wars. The People’s Republic of China was critical against the U.S and NATO forces bombing campaign in Serbia while it supported the decisions of President Milošević, describing them as vital decisions for preserving the territorial integrity of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, against the Albanian separatists and the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) terrorists. The opposition against NATO intensified after NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Although the West saw it as a mistake, this gave a clear signal to Serbia and China that the Western aggression against them could provide them with the potential of rebuilding their relations in the 21st century, in something more than just strong diplomatic ties.
Under the presidency of Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has seen closer cooperation with China, especially at an economic level. For years now, both countries have cooperated in various industries. Since 2012, Serbia has received at least $10bn of Chinese investment in the country, changing rapidly its economic profile. Serbia is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which allowed Serbia to provide an investment-friendly environment towards China without any EU regulations, making the country the largest economy in the Western Balkans. Also, China has changed the tourism industry in Serbia. Since 2017, Chinese citizens can visit Serbia visa-free. This initiative allowed the country to improve its industry with a rise of at least 36% from Chinese visitors. Also, Serbia as a hub of investments does not only concentrate on tourism. China has invested a tremendous amount of money in its infrastructure and energy sectors and projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway while Chinese firms have acquired various steel plants and coal mines, such as the Smederevo steel plant and a copper mine is in Bor, east of Serbia. These actions by China have kept afloat the Serbian economy while saving more than 10.000 job positions, highlighting the reconstruction of the country and making China the most important trading partner for Serbia in the 21st century.
Politics, the pandemic, and the success of Serbia in the game of geopolitical chess
Apart from close economic ties, both countries share a common interest in the political arena. Since the 1990’s China has been a close political ally of Serbia, supporting its territorial integrity while not recognizing the pseudostate of Kosovo. On the other hand, Serbia has been supportive of China’s decisions to safeguard its interests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, agreeing with the One-China policy that the People’s Republic of China has been advocating for years. The relationship between the two countries has been seen negatively by the West, with the EU being skeptical about China’s intentions in the region. A resolution from the EU parliament on the 2019-2020 Commission report on Serbia expressed the concern over the increased economic ties between the two states, and China’s questionable investments that are lacking transparency, while also pointing out that the investors in Serbia have failed to carry out important environmental assessments. “With this behavior, Serbia, a candidate country for EU accession is jeopardizing its progress”, were the statements from the EU side, that sees the growing influence of China in the region, as a threat to its own interests. However, Serbia is not bowing to the threats of the EU, as it sees the European bloc constantly neglecting Serbia’s needs and undermining its national interests.
With the inclusion of China as a major player in the Balkans, some analysts present an interesting argument that China has overthrown the Russian Federation from the position of the most important ally of Serbia. Historically, Russia and Serbia have seen very close ties, and it’s unlikely that the inclusion of China as an ally to Serbia will jeopardize that. However, news organizations and analysts from the West found an opportunity to provide an environment of division within Serbia. Understandably, Serbia seeks to improve its position in the world, and having more than one powerful allies, especially one that has the fastest growing economy in the world, will benefit the rhetoric of Aleksandar Vučić, who has demonstrated to the Serbian public that the country has drastically changed and it has overcome the previous humiliations and mistreatment from the West. It seems that the West is terrified of the potential growth of Serbia, a country that once was brutally bombarded by U.S and NATO forces, and now has the chance to dominate the geopolitical scene in the Balkans without even being part of the EU. The country represents an open door for China in Europe, allowing the country to fully take advantage of the various infrastructure and energy projects that are presented. Serbia is building a new lasting alliance, and as much as the West wants to undermine this relationship by creating political divisions about who is the biggest ally of Serbia, they miss the big point. The country now has more allies and more influence in the Balkans and feels it’s time not to take the West seriously. For years the EU, in particular, has underestimated Serbia while showing full support for the illegitimate state of Kosovo, and portraying the country as this evil entity and abuser of human rights.
Another important parameter in the evaluation of the current situation in the world. When COVID-19 spread all over the world, we witnessed a phenomenal collapse of our daily lives, with many businesses closing and the governments around the world putting an effort to recover from the virus. Serbia, unlike other countries in Europe, had a successful vaccination campaign and managed to win the geopolitical game of chess, simply by not playing the game. For Serbia, vaccination was never a political game and that’s why they managed to deal with it better. As prime minister Ana Brnabic stated: “Whether vaccines come from China, Russia, the EU or the U.S, we don’t care, as long as they’re safe and we get them as soon as possible. For us, vaccination is a healthcare issue, not a geopolitical matter”. Just by this statement, Serbia managed to understand the dangers of politicizing the vaccines and decided to focus on the health of its citizens, effectively overcoming the growing danger of the virus.
The fight is not over yet, but unlike the EU, Serbia set its priorities straight, and in a way, revealed the failed bureaucratic system of the EU, that chooses politics over the health of its citizens. Although Serbia received both the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm, analysts have focused on the importance of Chinese help. For the simple reason that the help from Russia was expected, because of the historic, cultural, and religious ties between both states. The help from China was something that shifted the balance in Serbia, and the country managed to be in a better position compared to other countries in the Balkans and the EU. Both China and Serbia made it clear from the beginning that they will support each other in these harsh times. A few months ago, the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, was in Beijing, declaring his support in any way possible to China. In his statement, he said: “You didn’t fear NATO bombs, my visit shows we’re not afraid of the virus”; again pointing out the importance of this alliance that dates years back. The EU might be skeptical about China’s intentions, but one thing is for sure; they did not provide help when needed, proving once again that European solidarity is a fairy tale.
The Chinese impact on Serbia: Voices from within the country
Although the government of Aleksandar Vučić has made it very clear to the Serbian public that foreign investments from China are a positive step towards the socio-economic transformation of the country, some people within Serbia have shared their thoughts about whether this can bring a positive or a negative impact for Serbia. Dragan Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade and president of the Freedom & Justice Party in Serbia, expresses his criticism of the political decisions of Aleksandar Vučić. In his view, democracy in Serbia does not exist anymore, and there is only one man to blame, Aleksandar Vučić. Djilas also points out that the growing relationship with China has been transformed into a dependent, one-way relationship, where China acts as a colonizer. “China operates in Serbia, the same way it does in the continent of Africa. It seems that now we have a new Big Brother”, referring to the new status quo, where Russia is not seen as the only powerful ally that Serbia can rely on. For Mr. Djilas, this dependency on China will only jeopardize any potential ascension in the European Union. His point is shared by many within Serbia that see this dichotomy in society that wants to move more on the West yet again it makes agreements and treaties with a non-democratic and autocratic government, and it seems that Aleksandar Vučić follows the same path. “Our struggle is focused on Europe, which should finally realize that we want to establish a free and democratic society and end the denigrating process in Serbia established by Aleksandar Vučić”, were the words of Dragan Djilas, who sees China slowly overtaking his country.
On the other hand, Djordje Terek, an analyst at the Center for International Public Policy in Belgrade, does not see the involvement of China in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia, as a new phenomenon. “China, similarly to Russia, Germany or the U.S., has its own interest in the Western Balkans region and it has been present there for a while”. If we view this statement from a realistic point of view, we can make sense of China’s intentions in Serbia being no different than the intentions of any other country that revolves around the philosophy of realpolitik. Also, there is an interesting mention of Serbia’s new role in the region, especially after the Belgrade Summit. As Terek points out: “Serbia, as a potential EU member state, was given a prominent role within China’s BRI initiative as it was demonstrated at the summit in Belgrade. It is the strategy based on the penetration into the EU market that China centralized around Belgrade. With that being said, Serbia is one of the compelling China’s attributes in the Western Balkans and Europe as well. In 2009, Serbia and China signed a strategic partnership agreement and in 2013, Serbia hosted a 16+1 summit in Belgrade where $900 billion infrastructure projects were promised to the region”.
However, although the government of Aleksandar Vučić is keen to demonstrate how China’s investments have been crucial for Serbia, the European Union is still by far the most crucial contributor in foreign direct investments, comprising at least 70% of FDI in the country. With this remark, some may argue that indeed China is an important ally to Serbia, but the EU is still around, reminding the country that it is still a pending member for EU accession. It seems that the presence of China in Serbia will only be positive if Aleksandar Vučić manages to balance both of his commitments to the EU and China. After all, Serbia still wants to be part of the European Union and not merge with the People’s Republic of China. In some final remarks, Djordje Terek thinks that if the government of Serbia wants any success to come out of this situation it needs to evaluate the situation delicately. “While Serbia has been actively pursuing EU membership, the current state of affairs tells us that Vučić uses the geopolitical window to further deviate from EU integrations, while continuously sitting on two chairs, and only time will show if that will be beneficial for Serbia”.
One other aspect of China’s involvement in Serbia, that has troubled the citizens of the country, are the environmental issues that have emerged since China’s increased investment in the steel factories and the mines in the east of the country. In the area of Bor, where a Chinese company has recently acquired the ownership of a mining facility, there have been reports of increased pollution in the area, with environmental agencies being concerned about the high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air. Besides the air pollution issue, concerns have been raised about the water pollution of the area. Near the mining facility, in the village of Metovnica, locals have seen the impact of the mine activities, in shortage of water and water pollution. For analyst Djordje Terek, this increased pollution in the area rapidly plummeted in the last seven years, potentially making Serbia the global leader in air pollution. “The Chinese investments in the steel factory in Smederevo and the copper mine in Bor, have made the people in the area wear face masks even before the beginning of the pandemic. It seems that the ties of the Serbian government with China is on higher priority rather than the environmental damage”. The mayor of Bor, Aleksandar Milikic, quickly dismissed the allegations of environmental damage and characterized any kind of protest in the area regarding this subject as the work of political actors wishing to benefit from it. As for the people in Bor, they can see the damage to the environment, but many of them point out the positive aspect of the Chinese investments, where people can find a good-paying job at the mines. Given the absence of work in the area in recent years, these investments have more positives than negatives for them.
Whether we would look at the Chinese involvement in Serbia as a positive or a negative thing, one thing is for sure. The geopolitical profile of the country is changing, and Serbia can benefit from the increased investments in its country. However, Aleksandar Vučić must be careful how he handles the situation inside Serbia. The increased protests and the uneasy feeling of its citizens regarding the environment, should not be aspects that are overlooked by the government, Nevertheless, with the global pandemic devastating many countries in Europe and around the world, Serbia has demonstrated its will to improve the healthcare situation in the country by not focusing on the vaccine politics and as a result winning, one might say the political chess game that the West found itself playing. Only time will show if Aleksandar Vučić manages to hold on, on both the West and the East, in a rare situation where Serbia seems to have the upper hand as to how the country must advance now, trying to reshape the international image about Serbia.
Vienna Process: Minilateralism for the future of Europe and its strategic neighbourhood
On the historic date of March 08th – International Women’s Day, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered for the second consecutive summit in Vienna, Austria. This leg of the Vienna Process titled: “Europe – Future – Neighbourhood at 75: Disruptions Recalibration Continuity”. The conference, jointly organized by the Modern Diplomacy, IFIMES and their partners, with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe and its neighbourhood in the wake of its old and new challenges.
Along with the two acting State Presidents, the event was endorsed by the keynote of the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Excellency Olivér Várhelyi. The first, of the three-panel conference, was brilliantly conducted by the OSCE Sec-General (2011-2017), current IFIMES Euro-Med Director, Amb. Lamberto Zannier. Among his speakers was a former Deputy Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Ms. Monika Wohlfeld. Discussing pan-European and regional issues of the southern Europe, this is what Dr.Wohlfeld outlined in her intervention:
The list of global and regional challenges that affect the Euro-Med region is too long to discuss here in depth. Clearly, the region experiences soft and hard security challenges and conflicts over ‘territorial claims, the proliferation of weapons, terrorist activities, illegal migration, ethnic tensions, human rights abuses, climate change, natural resources disputes, especially concerning energy and water, and environmental degradation’. The Covid-19 pandemic lay bare and enhanced many of these challenges, in social, political and economic as well as security realms. The Euro-Med region is also not well equipped to tackle these problems and difficulties in a cooperative and coordinated manner, despite the existence of some common organizations, institutions and agendas.
So how to foster dialogue and a cooperative approach on addressing common challenges in the region? I will focus largely on security in a broad sense and the notion of cooperative security.
The OSCE (or rather its more unstructured predecessor, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe) has in the recent decades been presented as a possible example for co-operative security arrangements in the Mediterranean region. The idea of a Conference on Security and Co-operation in the Mediterranean (CSCM) did not get a lot of traction in the region so far. It has been argued that such a project must succeed and not precede cooperative regional dynamics it seeks and that the conflictual patterns of relations, which exist across the Mediterranean, therefore do not lend themselves to cooperative security frameworks. The absence of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace would preclude parties in the region from applying cooperative security methods that have proved effective in the framework of the CSCE/OSCE.
An additional difficulty is that this possible example for cooperative security arrangements focuses largely on the interaction of states while it is increasingly clear that civil society and its organizations may have a necessary and constructive role to play in this respect.
Nevertheless, the notion of cooperative security framework(s) has been supported by many analysts, not only from the northern shore, but from also southern shore of the Mediterranean. Abdennour Benantar, in his discussion of possible security architectures for the Mediterranean region, analyses the security situation in the region and asks whether the concept of cooperative security, as developed in the European context, could be transposed or applied in the Mediterranean.Benantar argues in favour of creating a regime of security cooperation in the Mediterranean, while taking into account the sub-regional diversity of the Mediterranean region.
One key conclusion of the discussion of CSCM is that not extending existing European models, or exporting models of cooperative security to the Mediterranean region, but rather using such models as sources of inspiration and support to subregional or regional cooperative security efforts is likely to be more successful in establishing cooperative security principles and frameworks in the Mediterranean.
Another key finding is that with multilateralism under pressure globally and regionally, new concepts deserve attention. One such concept is minilateralism or selective and flexible cooperation, currently being developed in the context of the problems faced by multilateralism globally. As Stewart Patrick explains, ‘states increasingly participate in a bewildering array of flexible, ad hoc frameworks whose membership varies based on situational interests, shared values, or relevant capabilities. These institutions are often ‘minilateral’ rather than universal; voluntary rather than legally binding; disaggregated rather than comprehensive; trans-governmental rather than just intergovernmental; regional rather than global; multi-level and multistakeholder rather than state-centric; and ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top down’. Thus, while multilateralism is under pressure, there are possible ways of bottom-up, smaller in terms of numbers of states involved and flexible approaches.
A Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung strategic foresight exercise for the MENA region in 2030 suggests there are opportunities for common approaches and co-operation on long-term challenges that affect all states of the region. Thus, there are key risks and opportunities that might enhance cooperation. ‘With this as a starting point, through building single-issue institutions and multilateral trust, other chapters for cooperation might open up.’
This observation could benefit from being placed in the perspective of the concept of minilateralism, presented above. With multiple, flexible layers of such minilateral cooperation, cooperative security approaches can be introduced into various regional formats in the Mediterranean. They deserve the political and financial support of all state or non-state actors that engage on behalf of multilateralism and cooperative security.
Before closing, few words about the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, which is a regional institution, funded by the governments of Malta, Switzerland and Germany. It trains diplomats and more recently also civil society activists from the Euro-Med region who work and live together for the duration of the Master’s degree, accredited by the University of Malta. The Academy thus functions as a regional confidence-building measure, per se.
In 2009, when this author joined the Academy, a course on security studies has been developed, which emphasizes non-zero sum game approaches, cooperative security and conflict prevention and conflict resolution aspects. Twelve cohorts of students later, using their written assessments of the impact of the course as well as conversations with alumni (many of whom are reaching top jobs in their countries), it changed the way they view security issues and conceptualize solutions to common security challenges.
It could be giving hopes. There is increased emphasis on youth and confidence building in the Euro-Med region, and strong interest and support from Northern African countries in the academic training the Academy provides. However, the pandemic and the economic situation in the region do not bode well for prospects of projects such as the Academy. One very recent positive development I can share though is that the German Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs has renewed its funding for the German Chair for Peace Studies and Conflict Prevention at the Academy for the next two years.
This is the author’s main take on the situation: It will take support, time and patience to advance minilateralism and also multilateralism as a way of addressing common challenges in the Euro-Med region. We need all hands on deck for this, especially during the difficult moments the region experiences currently.
This highly anticipated conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from three continents, and the viewers from Australia to Canada and from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the rethinking and revisiting Europe and its three equally important neighbourhoods: Euro-Med, Eastern and trans-Atlantic (or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”); the socio-political and economic greening; as well as the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials and Code, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century.
 Stephen Calleya, Security Challenges in the Euro-Med area in the 21st Century. Routledge: London, 2013, p. 9-10.
Abdennour Benantar, Quelle architecture de sécurité pour la Méditerranée ?.Critique internationale2015/4 (69), https://www.cairn.info/revue-critique-internationale-2015-4-page-133.htm
IstitutoAffariInternazionali, ‘Towards “Helsinki +40”: The OSCE, the Global Mediterranean, and the Future of Cooperative Security’, Documenti IAI 14 08 – October 2014. https://www.new-med.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/iai14081.pdf
 Stewart M. Patrick, Making Sense of ‘Minilaterialism’: The Pros and Cons of Flexible Co-operation’, CFR Blog, 5 January 2016. https://www.cfr.org/blog/making-sense-minilateralism-pros-and-cons-flexible-cooperation
 Mediterranean Advisory Group, MENA 2030: A Strategic Foresight Exercise. KAS Med Dialogue Series, June 2019, p. 11. https://www.kas.de/documents/282499/282548/MAG+MENA+2030+A+Strategic+Foresight+Exercise.pdf/1ebaaba2-7457-9c67-e7a4-2121326d4c51?version=1.0&t=1562234211698
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