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German MPs have no clue to what happened to the “Berlin patient”

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The German government was quick to accuse Moscow of using a poisonous substance (“chemical weapon”) against Alexei Navalny, which resulted in additional sanctions being imposed on Russia, and the completion of Nord Stream 2 called into question. However, inconsistencies in Berlin’s version have raised doubts about the credibility of accusations brought against Russia among several deputies of the Bundestag and the parliamentary faction of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is in opposition to the policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government.

The government’s 76 answers to MPs’ queries raised even more questions

In their foreword to the government’s answers, the deputies provided the following timeline of events: on August 20, 2020, Alexei Navalny fell violently sick while on a plane from Tomsk to Moscow, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny was rushed to a hospital and put in a coma. Subsequent tests confirmed the doctors’ initial diagnosis about the natural causes of the patient’s condition. On August 22, Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment at Berlin’s Charité hospital. During a news conference held at the clinic two days later, on August 24, it was announced that Alexei Navalny had been poisoned.

Additional studies at a German military toxicology lab, and a little later (September 5 and 6) also in France and Sweden, confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned allegedly with a substance from the “Novichok” group of nerve agents.

“We have high expectations of the Russian government to solve this serious crime,” Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on September 6, adding that “if the [Russian] government has nothing to do with the attack, then it is in its own interest to back this up with facts.”

Moscow has argued, however, that it is unable to conduct a comprehensive investigation and open a criminal case as long as the German government keeps withholding the data necessary for such a probe. Since doctors in Omsk did not find any poisonous substances in Navalny’s body, Russia has no grounds for opening a criminal case, and a pre-investigation check is being completed by the transport department of the Interior Ministry in the Siberian Federal District.

On September 17, 2020 (almost a month later), Navalny’s team announced that he had been poisoned in his hotel room in Tomsk after drinking from a bottle of water, which he could have taken to Berlin. However, during the next four weeks it was believed that “Novichok” had most likely been added to the tea that Navalny drank at the airport in Tomsk.

The German MPs also pointed to “confirmed facts that “Novichok” is available not only to the state, but to private individuals as well. It has been proven that already in the mid-1990s, some criminal groups in various countries possessed nerve agents from the “Novichok” group. In January 1997, The Washington Times quoted a US chemical weapons expert as providing detailed information on the various poisons of the “Novichok” family. And in 2018, the US Army admitted to producing different versions “Novichok.”

Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, England, said that the “owner” of the toxin would be hard to find. He added that while in the case of the Skripals’ poisoning his laboratory was able to find traces of “Novichok,” the involvement of government agencies  in the poisoning was “presumptive” and the “owner” could not be established.

The Bundestag deputies believe that not only Germany and Russia, but Europe as a whole would benefit from finding the truth about Navalny’s poisoning, and that there are questions that Germany, just like Russia, has to answer.

The questions asked were intended to clarify:

  1. to what extent the German government is following the terms of the OPCW Convention, under which “states are obliged to give each other legal assistance and to act vigorously to clarify various issues through exchange of information and bilateral consultations,”
  2. how the identified trace amounts of degradation products of a chemical compound resembling a cholinesterase inhibitor got into the body of Navalny in Russia, and not later,
  3. to clarify the biomaterials whose samples were taken for analysis, so that they can be compared with similar ones taken in Russia, and establish a specific formula for the identified inhibitor biomarkers in order to determine the country of origin of the synthesized chemical agent.

The deputies’ concerns are fairly understandable, because answers to the above questions can either prove or disprove the legitimacy of the German government’s accusations against the Russian authorities. The answers were simply shocking:

I. Legal assistance. The German government confirmed that it had received four requests for legal assistance from the Russian Federation in the preliminary investigation of Navalny’s case, which the government sent to the relevant authorities for further processing after the initial verification (response 26). The federal government kept mum about the government’s failure to provide any clear response to these requests for a whole three months;

– despite the significance of Navalny’s case, Berlin explained the 8-day delay in accepting the August 27, 2020 request by the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office for the provision of legal assistance from the German Ministry of Justice by the need to conduct a standard procedure for verifying compliance with legal norms, thus failing to provide any substantive answer (answer No. 28);

– Russia’s request for legal assistance, dated September 11, 2020, which included a permission for Russian investigators to come to Germany and meet with Alexei Navalny or with German doctors and experts, went equally unanswered (replies 26 and 29);

– all of Moscow’s requests for cooperation between the German and Russian chemical laboratories to compare the results of the obtained analyzes, were also rejected on the grounds that since the Russian authorities have their own biomaterials of Alexei Navalny, they can study them themselves (answers 22, 40 and 67 );

– the German government did not exchange information with the Russian doctors who had provided first aid to Navalny (answer 9).

II. Method and place of the alleged poisoning. It turned out that, according to its own admission, the German government, has no reliable information about the fundamental facts of the use of chemical weapons, namely:

– about the subsequent discovery of similar symptoms in the medical personnel who accompanied Navalny on the plane (Question: Were the accompanying persons examined for possible poisoning, given that there should have been traces of “Novichok” on Navalny’s body?) (answers 4, 6);

– about the methods of delivery and the persons who delivered the victim’s personal effects with traces of “Novichok” and the bottle of water,  allegedly poisoned with “Novichok” (answers 5, 15, 16, 38);

– about the initial condition (liquid or powder) of the applied substance (answer 41);

– about the reason why the expert opinion of Navalny’s attending physician was not made public during the September 24 news conference at the Charité clinic, where the fact of Navalny’s poisoning was announced (answer 21);

– about how the poisonous substance got into Alexei Navalny’s body: via the respiratory tract, skin or orally (answer 36);

– about why the long delay between Navalny’s alleged contact with “Novichok” in the hotel and its onset on the plane, while a chemical warfare agent is designed to instantly destroy enemy manpower (answer 67);

III. Biomaterial research. When asked directly about the nature of the biomaterials tested: blood, urine, samples from a bottle of water, or otherwise, the German government describes them as just “biomedical materials” (answers 47 and 48);

– the German government explains its refusal to disclose the composition of the discovered compound “Novichok” by the allegedly “high risk of information leakage” (answer 75), although even Wikipedia provides the structural formula and a method of synthesizing this toxic substance. We believe that the “risk of information leakage” boils down to the fact that disclosure of the composition of the found substance can reveal to specialists its country of origin, since chemical laboratories in different countries are able to determine this.

Failing to get any answers to leading questions, the MPs decided to put their questions “head-on” (questions 55-69), and, as a result, learned the following:

– traces of “Novichok” could only be found on a bottle of water, but not in Navalny’s body;

– the poison was on the bottle, not in the water, because otherwise, Alexei Navalny would not have survived;

– Alexei Navalny was in contact with the poisoned bottle while already on the plane flying from Omsk to Berlin. Maria Pevchikh was on the same plane and she carried the bottle onboard. Still, she was never interrogated in Germany;

– no fingerprints were taken from the bottle, which could prove that Navalny had touched it;

– the bottle of water was listed as the (alleged) source of poisoning only four weeks after the (alleged) poisoning.

The German federal government had no answers to these questions either. As a result, the most obvious version was not verified, and charges were immediately brought against the Russian authorities.

LEADS

Here we’ll try to consider different versions of what happened, based on the known facts and the answers provided by the German government.

Let’s start with the most implausible one, which is still being actively forced on the ordinary people in the West: “the dictator Putin is challenging the democratic countries by demonstrably using banned weapons of mass destruction against the opposition leader.” This immediately brings to mind the defamatory campaigns waged against Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad, accusing the former of being ready to use, and the latter of using chemical weapons. In both cases, the Western media portrayed these two leaders as “merciless” and even “crazy,” capable of acting against their own personal interests and the interests of their countries. In February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell held up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presented “evidence” of Iraq’s alleged WMD programs to the UN Security Council, while knowing full well that it was a lie. The same with the shameless staging of “mass chlorine poisoning” in Syria to name just a few…

By using the same defamatory tactic against the Russian leader, the collective West may be looking for “justification” for a possible pushback, including a motion to deprive Russia of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

This version has too many pitfalls, however. Why should Putin want to raise a scandal exactly when the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was all but over?; why allow Navalny’s evacuation to Germany, even though there were enough legal grounds to the contrary amid a pandemic and an ongoing criminal case against Navalny (over insulting a WWII veteran)? And why keep sending requests for cooperation in the investigation of the incident?

Germany’s refusal to cooperate and clarify the circumstances, which the lawmakers pointed to in their questions, is apparently an attempt by  the government to present to the public only one handpicked version of what happened. Indeed, this version could be immediately disputed by a) the absence of Navalny’s fingerprints on the bottle of water containing a poisonous substance that was allegedly found in Navalny’s hotel room in Tomsk; b) comparison of test results in Russia and Germany; c) disclosure of the formula of the detected poisonous substance. This is obviously why the German government failed to do this.

Another thing that German officials remain silent about is how Navalny learned about the alleged mining of the Omsk airport before the plane landed there, while he was already on his hospital bed at Charité. The Russian Interior Ministry hadn’t released the information about the false alarm that could have prevented the plane’s emergency landing in Omsk and provision of medical assistance to Navalny. According to the Ministry, the anonymous message about the bomb came via an online mail service, whose servers are in Germany.  The German authorities still refused to help identify the owner of the email address from where the warning about the bomb allegedly ticking at Omsk airport had come.

According to another version, Navalny’s poisoning was organized by certain elements in Russia’s ruling elite and the oligarchy, unhappy about Putin’s performance and seeking to discredit him in the West. That what had remained of the “Novichok” that was used to kill the banker Ivan Kivelidi in the 1990s, could have now been used to poison the Skripals and Navalny.

However, according to Western sources, NATO countries have also been able to synthesize or had access to “Novichok”’s analogues. In a joint report , the German newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, and public broadcasters NDR and WDR said, citing their sources, that the country’s intelligence agency BND had obtained a sample of the “Novichok” nerve agent from a Russian scientist. The sample was analyzed in Sweden, and the chemical formula was then passed on to the German government and the military. The BND declined to comment on the report, which said that the BND informed the US and British intelligence agencies about that and small quantities of the poison were later produced in several NATO countries to test Western defenses, test equipment and antidotes.

During the 1990s, US specialists were working in Uzbekistan to scrap the production facilities of the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GNIIOKhT), where the nerve agent “Novichok” was produced and tested in Soviet times. This means that the Americans also had access to the technology used in the production of this agent, The New York Times wrote in 1999. The same is reported by Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan. Therefore, representatives of the intelligence agencies, trying hard to give Russia a bad name in the world, should by no means be excluded from the list of possible poisoners. To rule this out, the German government should have provided substantive answers to the questions posed by the Bundestag deputies. Otherwise, one gets the impression that what is being kept under wraps is precisely what can shed light on the whole situation, and Berlin’s reluctance to cooperate with Russian law enforcement agencies smacks of a deliberate provocation.

Finally, the most trivial explanation cannot be discarded either: what if Navalny really fell sick on the plane, necessitating an emergency landing and hospitalization? He is put in a coma and medical tests reveal no traces of any poisonous substances. Meanwhile, the Western special services spring into action and decide to use this opportunity to discredit Russia: they arrange for taking Navalny out to Germany in order to find any traces of “Novichok” (exactly the type of poison they need to demonize the Russian regime). To do this, they order Maria Pevchikh, who, most likely (or “highly likely”) is associated with Western intelligence, to take out from Navalny’s hotel room some evidence of poisoning. Unsuspicious of this, (although it should have been after the Skripals’ affair), Russia agrees to the evacuation. During the flight or upon arrival in Germany, they mark a bottle of water, clothes and some biomaterials (which for some reason are hidden) with small amounts of a cholinesterase inhibitor, pointing to the presence of a new analogue of a poisonous substance from the “Novichok” group.

At the same time, as follows from the federal government’s answers to the questions from Bundestag deputies about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, without knowing for sure that the bottle of water was actually used by Navalny and that the biomaterials and their analysis are identical to the samples taken in Russia, the German government continues to blame the Russian leadership for poisoning the opposition activist.

Small wonder that the German government does not respond or gives formal replies to four requests from the Russian Prosecutor’s Office, refuses to  cooperate and disclose the formula of the discovered inhibitor under the ridiculous pretext that: “given the high risks of information leakage, the Federal Government did not disclose any details about the substance used” (answer to question 75). While accusing Russia of a deliberate crime, the German government is actually hiding evidence from the alleged “criminal” under the pretext that learning about the “murder weapon” he might want to use it again. If Germany fears that this weapon could be used by other countries and entities, then the transfer of related information can be made extremely confidential. If you really want to get at the truth, you have to exchange information, including of the analyzes of the composition of biomaterials, since, according to Article IX of the OPCW Convention, the participating States “shall consult and cooperate, directly among themselves … on any matter which may be raised relating to the object and purpose, or the implementation of the provisions, of this Convention … States Parties should, whenever possible, first make every effort to clarify and resolve, through exchange of information and consultations among themselves, any matter which may cause doubt about compliance with this Convention … A State Party which receives a request from another State Party for clarification of any matter which the requesting State Party believes causes such a doubt or concern shall provide the requesting State Party as soon as possible, but in any case not later than 10 days after the request, with information sufficient to answer the doubt or concern raised along with an explanation of how the information provided resolves the matter.”

How the US and Britain opposed the inclusion of “Novichok” in the OPCW Convention

During the 1990s and 2000s, the United States and Britain made sure that a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons, and their alleged predecessors, was not put on the list of substances banned by  the OPCW Convention.

In the autumn of 2018, the US and Netherlands proposed to include in the Convention only two families of toxic substances from the “Novichok” group. Russia then proposed to add five such chemicals to the list, but the Western countries rejected the initiative.

In September 2019, Russia came up with a revised proposal where the 5th group of chemicals objected to by the United States and its allies was no longer mentioned.

As a result, the parties reached a compromise and in November 2019, the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention approved the proposals put forward by Russia and the “troika” of Western countries to include four hazardous chemicals of the “Novichok” family on the Convention’s list.  However, the substance used in Navalny’s alleged poisoning was notably missing from the amended list.

List 1 of the Convention, which now includes “Novichok,” features chemicals that can be used in the production of chemical weapons or constitute a weapon per se. According to the Convention, a country that produces more than 100 grams of such substances a year must declare it to the OPCW. In addition, a state is allowed to have maximum one ton of such substances. This list includes mustard gas and ricin, among others.

Almost simultaneously with the inclusion in the Convention’s list of chemical compounds of the “Novichok” family, articles by Western scientists about the synthesis and research of this group’s substance began to appear in the press. For example, an article by Steven Harvey provides data on obtaining (using independently developed methods) preparations of the “Novichok” group (A230, A232 and A234) of very high purity (over 95%). This means that the West had been actively developing chemical warfare agents before, albeit secretly. This explains why the United States and Britain rejected the idea of adding to the list a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons, before including the five chemicals of the “Novichok” group.

This conclusion is also confirmed by the former Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who was the first to announce the creation of a new chemical warfare agent. In a recent interview with “Echo of Moscow” radio , he said that “a team in England and another one in the United States analyzed the hydrolysis of these “Novichoks,” which is thousands of times slower than that of all the known organophosphate toxic substances. This means that its traces remain in the human body for a very long time and do not disappear – that’s my conclusion.” In other words, it is possible to subject a person to a deliberately small non-lethal dose of such a substance, being fully confident that even three weeks later biomarkers indicating the use of “Novichok” will be detected, just like in the cases of the Skripals and Navalny. Those who planned both operations did not intend to kill, but only to embed material evidence to discredit Russia.

They will certainly try to deny this and say that Russian experts could have synthesized and reveal such properties in some analogue of “Novichok,” and use it for criminal ends.

Theoretically, such a version can’t be ruled out, but it should be considered on an equal basis with others. To identify the real organizers of these incidents, we need to work together and find answers to the questions asked by the German MPs, compare the results of Navalny’s analyzes taken in Russia and Germany, and reveal the formulas of poisonous substances found in the biomaterials of the Skripals and Navalny. Germany, just like the UK before it, refuses to cooperate in such an investigation, which could mean that they have something to hide. As they say in Russia, “No one shouts ‘thief!’ louder the thief himself.”

Opponents stick to a completely opposite version, however, arguing that the reason why neither case ended in death is because the Russian “spooks” used a minimum amount of the substance to make sure that its residue in the victims’ bodies could not be determined after a while. They also say that because the physical and chemical properties of the chemical substance were not taken into account, they erred with the dose and, as a result, the victims remained alive and the markers were found. This version holds no water, because if they wanted to hide the murder weapon, then why use an untested substance again, instead of some tried-and-true one harking back to the Medici era, or arrange an accident, just like they have occasionally done also in the West? Moreover, why let the patient be urgently taken out to Germany (the flight that would take Navalny to Berlin was delayed by several hours, but not because it was being held up by Moscow, but because the German pilots had to rest)?

Germany’s accusations against Russia over the alleged poisoning of Navalny, as well as Britain’s over the Skripals’ poisoning rest on the assumption that “Novichoks” could have allegedly been produced only at certain military facilities to be found only in Russia. However, this is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. In his 1995 article, and later in a book that came out in the US in 2008, Vil Mirzayanov revealed “Novichok”’s chemical formula. In the book, Mirzayanov wrote that “chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version “Novichok-5” are common organophosphorus compounds that can be produced at commercial chemical plants making fertilizers, pesticides, etc.”

Czech President Milos Zeman admitted that in 2017, Czech chemists synthesized compounds of the “Novichok” family of nerve agents.

From a scientific standpoint, no laboratory, be it the Bundeswehr in Germany or Porton Down in the UK, is able to identify chemical compounds as analogues of the “Novichok” family if it has no compound of the same class available. They can determine that it fits Mirzayanov’s formula, but since he published the formula 20 years ago, this can by no means serve as proof of its Russian origin – just the opposite. If Porton Down can synthesize this chemical agent, so can many others, and not only in Russia. Moreover, as the same Mirzayanov said in his recent interview with Echo of Moscow: “Not a single substance, including “Novichok,” is 100% pure … chromatography mass spectrometry can be used to analyze the semi-products from which the final substance is obtained to determine the country and laboratory of origin of this toxic substance.”

The refusal by Germany and Britain to provide their samples of “Novichok” and to perform a comparative analysis of biomedical samples taken from the victims is evidence of their fear that this would point a finger at laboratories that could have actually synthesized the said chemical agents.

From our partner International Affairs

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Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country

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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.

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Is British Democracy in Danger?

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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.

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Europe

The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security

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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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