September to December is a time of holidays in the West, but in Greece, it is also a time of “insurgent holidays”: three specific dates on which leftists mobilize for large marches in the streets, youth clash with police, and the post-left anarchist underground organizes campaigns of arson and bombings against targets of capitalism and the state. Greece is of course no stranger to mass demonstrations, and it is a point of pride among many Greeks that they enjoy such a high level of political engagement, from frequent protests to an impressive number of publications and media outlets—all signs of a robust democracy. Despite their frequency, most protests and marches in Greece are peaceful, with newsworthy clashes occasionally occurring on small scales. On these three specific dates, however, there is guaranteed to be violence. This article hopes to give a little background on each of these dates, how they came about, and how they are observed annually.(The specific dates covered here are the 18th of September, the 17th of November, and the 6th of December. For reasons of historical context, they will be discussed in chronological order of their origin-events, rather than in the calendar order in which they occur.)
In 1973 Greece was ruled by a dictatorial government, sometimes called the “junta” or the “Regime of the Colonels,” which had taken power in a coup of right-wing army officers in1967. Less than a year before the country’s return to democracy in 1974, student occupations of university buildings and increasing protest activity turned into a larger anti-junta movement as the leadership was making small moves towards reforms. This led to the events of November 1973, when on the morning of the 14th students of Athens Polytechnic went on strike in protest against the regime. They were joined on the subsequent day by thousands of Greeks that flocked to downtown Athens in support, but on the evening of the 16th government snipers and security forces started shooting at demonstrators, and in the early hours of the 17th an AMX 30 main battle tank crashed through the university gates as students sat atop of them. The number of Greeks killed in the crackdown is disputed, but it is likely around two dozen, with many more injured.
When democracy and the constitution were restored in Greece many of the political parties that had been banned under the junta such as the communist KKE party were re-legitimized and allowed to participate in elections. Since then, the 17th of November has been observed every year by Greeks from a broad swath of political backgrounds (most of which are left-leaning), from teachers’ unions to left-wing political parties, and of course sizeable blocs of anarchists. The latter typically form up in the downtown Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia—home to the Polytechnic and a well-known haven for anarchists—and march towards Parliament in Syntagma Square, where they will clash with the ubiquitous riot police in green fatigues with white helmets, gas masks and shields reading ΑΣΤΥΝΟΜΙΑ, known as the Units for the Reinstatement of Order (MAT). Dozens if not hundreds of arrests are made at demonstrations in cities across Greece, with most of the action taking place in Athens and Thessaloniki. Then in the evening things tend to heat up, with anarchists lobbing volleys of bricks and Molotov cocktails at the MAT, and the MAT responding with incredible volumes of tear gas and crowd-control rounds.
Then there is the way in which the17th of November has historically been observed by Greece’s far- and post-left urban guerrillas. The most infamous of these groups (and one of the originals) takes its very name from the last day of the uprising, the “Revolutionary Organization–17 November,” popularly known as “17N”. 17N was a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization that existed from 1975 until their dismantling in 2002. Their first operation would be on the night of December 23rd, 1975, as three unmasked members followed the CIA’s new Athens Chief of Station, Richard Welch, home from a Christmas party and shot him dead in front of his wife and driver. Along with other students, who were dissatisfied with the return to democracy rather than a complete revolution against capitalism, 17N took their energy from the 1973 uprising and went underground to begin a militant campaign of bombings, robberies, assassinations and rocket attacks. After their capture and dismantling, a new generation of urban guerrillas followed in the footsteps of 17N. Though today’s generation of urban guerrillas tends to be comprised ideologically of left-libertarian and post-left anarchists, most of them still pay homage to 17N the group and refer to the Polytechnic uprising in their communications. The overwhelming historical significance of November 17th, as well as the guaranteed violence at the hands of the police during demonstrations that take place annually, are themselves recurring motivations for acts of terrorism in and around that date every year.
Casual observers of the country will recall that from 2009 through to 2013, Greece seemed to be ceaselessly smoldering with often violent protests that would go from morning into the early hours of the next day. Many will also remember that most of the anger fueling these protests came from the brutal effects of the economic crisis and the harsh austerity measures Greeks faced. However, before the contagion of the economic crisis even reached Greece, another event sparked a nation-wide “uprising,” the scale and intensity of which had not been seen since December 1944, as the country was on the brink of civil war (a war it would fight from 1946-1949, and a likely factor in some of today’s political violence). On the evening of December 6th, 2008, a group of teenagers got into a verbal altercation with two police officers from the Special Guards unit in the Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia, when one of the officers fired his service weapon three times in the teens’ direction, striking and killing 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos.
For the next three weeks there would be daily protests, fires, and clashes with police in which hundreds of thousands participated in cities all across Greece. Demonstrations and riots erupted in dozens of foreign cities as the Greek far- and post-left drew solidarity from all around the world. The destruction in Greece at the end of the three weeks was indescribable. Much of downtown Athens’ high-end shopping street, Ermou, had been burnt to a cinder. The rage was felt by people of all political persuasions. Fatal violence at the hands of the state remains an extremely sensitive issue among Greeks, following seven years under the junta.
Greek scholar, Andreas Kalyvas, notes in his piece, “An Anomaly? Some Reflections on the Greek December 2008,” the unprecedented immigrant participation in what he calls the “insurrection” over those three weeks:
Notwithstanding its limitations, contradictions, and failings, viewed from the perspective of the insurgent immigrant, the 2008 Greek insurrection contains a positive constituent moment: the illegal and extra-institutional reconstitution and expansion of citizenship, membership, and community. It is a radicalization of democracy.
(This author has personally witnessed angry Syrian refugees demonstrating alongside their Greek anarchist allies in Athens and Thessaloniki in 2016—though not on one of the dates discussed in this article.) The 6th of December was an outlier among the three dates covered here, in that its first iteration drew diverse crowds, acting on a diverse set of grievances against the Greek state and their lot in Greek society. Today, it is mostly observed by the far- and extra-parliamentary-left, as well as anarchist groups in Exarcheia.
Likely because of its direct relation to police brutality, December 6thoften (but not always) tends to be the most violent of Greece’s “insurgent holidays”. It is also within the recent memory of many Greeks that take to the streets today, and if they did not participate in the actions of 2008, there is a good chance that they were inspired by them. Police typically deploy in large numbers on the 6th, anticipating mass mobilization. Enraged Greeks will clash with phalanxes of MAT police on the main streets of Athens throughout the day, and in the evening the battle becomes localized to the neighborhood of Exarceia—where Grigoropoulos was murdered. The chirping of radios on MAT officers can be heard down the dimly lit streets, as cascades of Molotovs and other missiles fly at them from fluid groups of anarchists and are answered back by the smoking-trails of projectile gas canisters and blasts of crowd-control munitions.
Perhaps one of the most shocking outcomes of the 2009 economic crisis in Europe was the rise of Greece’s neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, and the seats it won in Parliament, along with the growth of its large street-level cadres—known for roaming about clad in black shirts and assaulting immigrants and leftists with melee weapons. The downfall of this frightening political movement would be the assassination of an anti-fascist rapper named Pavlos Fyssas, also known as “Killah P”. On the night of September 17th, 2013, as he sat watching a football match on the patio of a café in a suburb of Piraeus, a member of Golden Dawn, Giorgos Roupakias, approached him and viciously stabbed him. He died just after midnight on the 18th. The murder was considered a professional hit ordered by Golden Dawn’s leadership. The party founder and chief, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, was sentenced to prison along with some of his party’s most prominent deputies, Golden Dawn having been tried asa criminal organization by the Greek justice system. For the first time since their ascent to Greece’s third-largest political party, this year they failed to win a single seat in Parliament.
The Hellenic Police were said by some witnesses to have stood by and allow Pavlos to be murdered. Anti-fascists immediately took to the streets of Athens and clashed with the MAT throughout the night. The clashes went on into the next day, and a week after the murder up to 10,000 people took part in demonstrations in Athens and Thessaloniki against fascism, people in Athens marching on Golden Dawn’s headquarters. Police broke up the march before it reached its destination and tremendous violence ensued between the MAT and the crowd, with dozens of arrests being made. Anarchists carried out a retaliatory hit on November 1st, 2013, in which two members of Golden Dawn were shot and killed and another injured outside of the party’s office in Neo Iraklio (a suburb of Athens).
In subsequent years demonstrations in memory of Pavlos and against Golden Dawn have lasted as long as three days, with thousands of people participating in Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki. Much of the frustration up until this year, however, has been over the slow pace of the trial to convict key members of Golden Dawn for their role in its criminal activity, and particularly in ordering the hit on Pavlos. Whether the intensity of these annual demonstrations will abate now that the trial has concluded has yet to be seen. Given the tremendous solidarity capital that the left and anti-fascists still draw from this date every year, it is unlikely that demonstrations and some degree of violence between protesters and police will not continue to take place every year on and around September 18th.
As a part of a broader policy to crackdown on what the current ruling party, New Democracy, refers to as a culture of “lawlessness” in Athens and Thessaloniki, the Hellenic Police have been forcefully evicting many of the long-established anarchist squats throughout Greece, including one in Thessaloniki and another on Crete that had both been occupied for nearly twenty years. The government has also been cracking down on Greece’s “insurgent holidays”.
This year, ahead of November 17th, Minister for Citizen Protection, Michalis Chyrsochoidis, declared that the formal state wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the Polytechnic uprising would be canceled as well as any informal gatherings or demonstrations, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that three other major Greek national holidays had been canceled due to the virus as well, and added, “The virus is the enemy and large gatherings are its weapon.” The university rector of Athens Polytechnic declared ahead of the 17th that the campus would be closed and all of its facilities barred to students and the public. Nevertheless, on November 12th, anarchists managed to break into the campus and occupy its main buildings, before the MAT broke into the gates, clashed with them and arrested several people. The anarchists’ intent had been to occupy the campus several days through the 17th. A separate demonstration took place at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki that also led to several arrests. Outraged at the government’s suspension of Greeks’ constitutional right to assemble and protest, the communist KKE party rallied and marched on Parliament. At the end of the day, trucks with high-pressure water cannons were used to disperse average Greeks peacefully assembled in downtown Athens, and several arrests were made throughout the day in Greece’s major cities. There were violent clashes that night between police and anarchists, as there are every year, and a few days later an anarchist cell calling themselves the “Drops of November” claimed a Molotov attack on Sykeon police station in Thessaloniki that took place on the afternoon of the 17th.
Similarly, demonstrations ahead of the December 6th anniversary of Alexis Grigoropoulos’ murder have been banned by the Hellenic Police, and those gathering in violation of the ban could face a fine of between 3,000-5,000 euros. The Minister of Citizen Protection said that he too was prohibiting gatherings, again on the basis of stopping the spread of COVID-19. As of writing this article (December 5th), several people have already been arrested after emerging from the subway station and clashing with police in Syntagma Square. Anarchist groups are calling for action to keep the police from blocking the memorial in Exarcheia where Grigoropoulos was shot, and separate groups such as trade unions are calling for their own demonstrations in memory of the slain boy. If this year’s November 17th was any indication of what Greece’s “insurgent holidays” look like in the time of COVID-19, December 6th will likely be observed with as much intensity as it has been in past years.
Of all of these “insurgent holidays,” November 17th is the most established in national memory and tradition. December 6th is right behind it in terms of enduring significance and the extent to which it will be observed for years to come. Though it is unlikely that the 18th of September will stop being observed now that the Golden Dawn trial has concluded (for the most part), it is possible that the numbers of people drawn to and the intensity of rallies on this day will decline. There is also the likelihood of other such dates emerging in the future, as long as certain segments of Greek society continue to wage war on the government, and on one another.
Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country
The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.
Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government
Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.
Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.
In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.
Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy
The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.
The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.
At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.
In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.
Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum
Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.
Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.
The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.
In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.
Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.
The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy
Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.
First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.
Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.
In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.
Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid
In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.
Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.
At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.
Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.
Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.
Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power
The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.
P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.
Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.
From our partner RIAC
Is British Democracy in Danger?
On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.
Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.
To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.
While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.
Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.
One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.
Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.
The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security
2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.
In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.
On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.
Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.
Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.
In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.
The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.
A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?
As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.
Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.
The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.
Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.
From our partner RIAC
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