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A Clear View Eastwards: Russia and Germany

Source: regnum.ru

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Politik ist, wenn man Gottes Schritt durch die Weltgeschichte hört, dann zuspringt und versucht, einen Zipfel seines Mantels zu fassen.”[1]Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898)

Specialist in geopolitical issues, doctorate from Sorbonne Nouvelle University;

speaker and guest lecturer on geopolitical, economic and political issues related to China, the EU and the United States, focusing on Jacques Ancel’s geopolitical vision of “the identity of the heart”.

Author of articles published on moderndiplomacy.eu and worldscientific.com, and author of the book Les relations Chine-Europe à croisées des chemins, published by L’Harmattan, Paris.

Katjais the descendant of ancestors who lived inEast and West Prussia. Her family on her mother’s side had to flee from Königsberg in East Prussia in January 1945 and, on her father’s side, from Schneidemühl in West Prussia. She increasingly connects the topics of identities and bordersin her geopolitical views.

A very personal view: seeing Prussia without complexes – family roots and core identity

Roots, earth and homeland – these are difficult topics for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but I and other members of my generation are much more relaxed about our family histories. Experiencing home and family roots on my trip to my parents’ birthplaces in Prussia – and thus my return to my own family roots – made me realise that identity is more than what is written in my passport. Identity is complex and has many layers that need to be uncovered. As a result, revealing family roots, protecting them and living one’s identity of the heart without prejudice is the source of life’s harmony – a harmony that is needed now more than ever.

My Prussian roots are the core of my identity. Walking through the streets of my parents’ hometowns –Schneidemühl and Königsberg– I discovered the vastness, openness and beauty of my homeland in East and West Prussia. I unearthed the deepest part of my family history and, at the same time, German history. With that uninhibited view of my Prussian roots, new perspectives for seeing the world have finally been revealed.

National players versus transnational players

Our world is going through a decisive moment in its history. Not only are relations between China and the rest of the world disrupting the geopolitical order, but numerous economic, political and social crises are causing a widespread feeling of insecurity and powerlessness in light of current events and their complexity. The world and therefore we, humankind, have lost our compass.

Beyond the relations, whether cooperative or conflictual, between the European Union (EU), China and Russia, we should question the durability of power –values versus mercantilism, democracy versus dictatorship, capitalism versus communism, and the growing geopolitical clout of transnational players, whose sphere of influence is increasingly gaining ground against national players, the nation-states. Neither the EU, China, the US nor Russia is an isolated paradise, and no country can claim to know the absolute truth. Violence, increased global competition (for natural resources, food, water, etc.) and, above all, international terrorism are forcing us to face up to current realities, to abandon any ideology driving various ideas, such as the European project, socialism with Chinese characteristics, the Russian state order, and the ideology prevalent in the United States, which styles itself leader of the free world (Banik 2016, 2019).

In fact, the conflict between different ideologies distracts our attention from the real battle that has been going on for a long time. The battle for world domination is not the one between different states, e.g. the US and China, or between different political systems, democracy and dictatorship, but the struggle between national players–the nation-states –and the transnational players– the international organisations, such as the EU institutions; the World Trade Organisation (WTO);groups and associations representing various interests and industries; lobbyists; and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Due to globalisation, these transnational players often act across borders and beyond any national legal framework, and are thus conquering geopolitical space without waging war in the traditional sense. We have to reconcile all our differences, ideologies and clichés and move towards a new and more humane global governance, living our identities, creating “nations of the heart” in keeping with the geopolitical vision of Jacques Ancel (Ancel 1938; Banik 2016).

Everything is geopolitical

Geopolitics is the study of the relationship between space and power. It is a multidisciplinary reflection that encompasses economic, political, cultural, historical and social dimensions. The term “space” refers to land, sea and cyberspace (Banik 2016). Jacques Ancel’s geopolitics provide a vision that complements German geopolitics, specifically that of Friedrich Ratzel (1869–1904), who sees states as organisms “determined by the people and the territory”, “kein Staatohne Boden”(Ratzel 1941).

Klaus Haushofer (1869–1946) added the topics of living space and pan-ideas to this German geopolitical concept. In other words, he emphasised the potential solidarity of a population scattered around the world in order to justify the extension of a people’s living space. Complementary and not in opposition to Ratzel’s perception of the world, Jacques Ancel focused on the human being as creator – of global governance and identities and, subsequently, of borders.

More precisely, this means “human groups that reach a harmonious balance and end up recognising borders due to a common memory, history, culture and language”. It is a“nation of the heart in itself, not rational(Ancel 1938, Gauchon 2011, Banik 2020).

Man creates borders. Today, this human dimension and the use of human values and identities are decisive elements in our ever changing world. According to Ancel, the concept of nation-ideas or a nation of the heart is the crucial element for achieving a more humane and harmonious global governance in the future. It is therefore imperative that we revitalise Ancel’s geopolitical views. The world is not rational. Human beings are guided by their feelings. Consequently, we are all either victims or perpetrators of propaganda.

According to Ancel, internal factors, i.e. human factors, must also be taken into account. The process of transnationalisation and deterritorialisation inevitably brings us back to the issues of borders, identities and nationalities. Nationality is defined as the legal bond that connects an individual to a country or territory (Gauchon 2011, Banik 2020). As with the return to my family roots, we should be aware that every identity is made up of various layers and primarily determined by human factors.

The cruel question today is how to ensure a peaceful return to our roots, to our sources and to achieving a balance of power. How to create a new governance based on cooperation, one that is more equitable and stable, more in harmony. How can we be unique and identity-based within unity?

According to Ancel, “human groups (that) reach a balance in harmony thus end up recognising borders deriving from a common memory, history, culture and language. It is therefore important to create strategic alliances, alliances of proximity, and overcome ideologies by leaving propaganda behind.

One answer – which would be in Germany’s interest in particular, but also in the EU’s – is the peaceful integration of Russia by creating a great pan-European space, while at the same time taking advantage of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) as a link encompassing the Eurasian region.

But first, let us accept the following realities:

No change in political system through trade

China has never given up communism. The “red forces” are still shaping the strategy behind its domestic and foreign policy. The communist identity is the source and thus the root that determines the solidity and solidarity of Chinese society and, subsequently, its economic strength. China continues to pursue its “China first” strategy, which includes its determination to have more economic independence.

“Les États n’ont pas d’amis, ils n’ont que des intérêts”[2]

We need to break out of the EU’s post-war narrative. There are no real common European policies, no single voice is possible for the EU, which is a union of shared interests. Economic intersections and interests exist, shared by some member countries. The important thing is to recognise the presence of these different political, economic and strategic interests, to respect and cultivate them. The future of Europe lies in the strength it derives from being a union of European nation-states.

No global supremacy by one country, no rivalry of political systems

The world’s various ideological propagandas are fuelling the conflicts and thus diverting us from the real source of struggle. That is, the competition for world supremacy between nation-states and transnational forces, including international institutions and organisations, all of which stem from the post-war narrative. It is a narrative that makes us believe that only the nation and identity arethe unique cause of all wars.

Nothing is unlimited and nothing can be controlled

Our prosperity and global economic growth are neither linear nor unlimited. Thus, our planet’s natural resources are limited. Although globalisation has created prosperity for a very large part of the world’s population, it has, at the same time, created regions of winners and losers. Poverty and inequity persist; injustice is growing as a result. Transnational forces are increasing their spheres of influence, often acting beyond national laws and consequently increasing injustice.

No enemies, no rivals

The illusion of having enemies must be overcome. Neither China nor Russia is an enemy or ideological rival. All political, economic and social challenges are global. Strategic cooperation is the only solution.

Globalisation reinforces the need to return to one’s roots

The flows of globalization do not erase borders, countries, regions, territories or places” (Zajec 2016). On the contrary, the more the world is linked, the more the debate about identities and borders plays a key role in any geopolitical concept. In the whirlwind of globalisation, we need to remain ourselves, to have roots and a cultural base in order to ensure a harmonious societal solidity.

Let’s stay vigilant

We must stop propaganda based on ideology and disseminated through media, along with political moralism, political correctness and the purging of language. We are all unique. We all have deep within us an identity of the heart that is unique toeach of us. And this identity is free and beyond all judgements.

The cruel challenge is how to ensure a peaceful return to our roots, to our sources and the logic of geography. How to create a more equitable and stable governance based on cooperation – how to be unique and identity-based within unity without being divisive. The solution is to allow the strength of geographical proximity to prevail, the creation of strategic alliances in order to achieve “a balance in harmony, due to a common memory, history, culture and language”, in keeping with Ancel.

Russia and the big pan-European house

According to this logic, the priority for Europe should be the reintegration of Russia into the big Pan-European house. Especially for Europe, Russia is an important link for connecting the Eurasian region with China in order to create a new global political order.

Germany holds the key to integrating Russia. According to Ancels logic of “regained harmony, the fixed national consciousness, and, even without borders, the Nation [that] exists”. The path to this harmony leads us to an uninhibited view of our own history and thus a reconciliation of the past. A path that I have chosen by uncovering my family roots.

Russians, Poles and Germans have a common history. This history is a strength and not a weakness. According to Jacques Ancel’s vision, these three countries are at the crossroads of arbitrary borders and borders of civilisation.

Ancel differentiates mainly between two characteristics. On the one hand, there are so-called arbitrary borders. These are more tense, more strategic borders stemming from military pretensions. Treaties draw these borders, which are temporal and purely based on the national interests of the different states.

The borders of civilisations, on the other hand, are more permanent. These borders are based on a common memory, history and language created by a human group in balance. The borders of civilisations are “nevertheless more complicated because they are subject to numerous political and commercial interpretations”. Even if the commercial justifications are aimed at “clearing a path” and not “enclosing” as the military justifications do (Ancel 1938, Banik 2020), for Russia, Poland and Germany, reconciliation of the past means “clearing a path in harmony” towards the strength offered by their common history.

The balance of power

And what are the tools for establishing this new policy of global cooperation and peace based on the principle of non-interference? For the most part, we already have them at our disposal. At the human level: listening, communicating, respecting the interests of others without judging them and, above all, building trust.

At the institutional level, we simply need to reactivate the spirit of trust that led to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe of November 1990 and, finally, the NATO-Russia Council of 2002 (Teltschik, 2019), thereby avoiding any re-creation of two blocs but pursuing instead the path towards a new multipolar global governance.

The window of opportunity has been wide open since the Charter of Paris was signed on 21 November 1990 (Teltschik, 2019). Indeed, in the spirit of cooperation, this charter was endorsed by 34 countries, including the Warsaw Pact countries. In the context of German reunification and the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev thoroughly supported this vision of the “common European home”.  Yet this opportunity was not seized, as mistrust prevailed.

Ultimately, it is the Russians and Chinese who share the same vision of “a strategic balance of power in which no country interferes in the internal affairs of other countries”(Habahbeh, 2020). According to Russia, the US is acting outside its own sphere of influence. However, the geopolitical approach of the US is still reflective of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s vision, meaning it does not accept that a region will be dominated by a single country (Brzezinski, 1998).

The US is still pursuing its containment strategy mainly in Europe and Asia in order to hinder the spread of communism. The propaganda around “democratisation” and “defence of the liberal world order” are used to justify the US’s extension of its sphere of influence, particularly in the Eurasian region. On the other hand, Russians are exercising control over their sphere of influence through “the desire to protect Russian identity and broader Slavic identity through their belief that they have the right to regional dominance for divine and ethnic purposes”. (Habahbeh, 2020). Thus, the geopolitical conflict between these two powers is a conflict between the “ideology of the liberal world” and the “moral ideology”.

Oblast Kaliningrad-Königsberg: at the heart of German-Russian cooperation

The BRI is a spatial security device that can be used as a means of strategic cooperation between Germany, Europe, Russia and China.

Although the BRI is, according to China, a “geostrategic-military” initiative, since it combines civilian and military interests under the topic of “security”, it is a vehicle that conceptually encompasses the intertwined interests of political and economic actors in China, but also in all the other participating countries (Banik, Lüdert 2020). The BRI vision thus mobilises the Chinese nation by safeguarding China’s unity, stability and harmony at the national level and beyond (Banik, 2019). It is an ideology for maintaining internal order.

This undoubtedly “China first” approach,  however, should not hinder Europe and especially Germany from using the infrastructure project to strengthen economic relations and the geopolitical link between Russia and Germany. Eurasia is a region of high importance, both economically and geopolitically. Moreover, it is precisely the Kaliningrad enclave, formerly Königsberg, that is at the heart of German-Russian cooperation. The oblast Kaliningrad lies between Poland and Lithuania and has an important port of strategic interest in the Baltic Sea, since it is accessible even in winter. This is a key hub for goods arriving by rail via the BRI, destined for shipment by sea to Germany and Scandinavia.

Since 2011, the EU and Russia have signed agreements to facilitate border movements and exempt goods in transit between Kaliningrad and Lithuania from customs duties. Basically, the oblast is a highly significant link between Russia and the EU.

BRI: Trans-Eurasian Railway Routes

Source: http://rtsb.group/belt-and-road-initiative/

Although resources transiting through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad are relatively new, the number of trains and thus the volume of freight is constantly increasing. The big advantage is that the busy border crossing between Poland and Belarus at Brest is avoided.

As a result, RZD, the Russian railway company, has recorded a strong increase in the flow of intermodal freight between China and Europe since 2019. Intermodal traffic amounted to 387,900 TEU between January and September 2020, “more than of 1.6 times the same period in 2019” (Railway Journal 2020). In particular, maritime transport from the port of Kaliningrad has increased more than tenfold compared to 2019, reaching about 6,900 TEU in September 2020 alone (Railfreight, 2019).In this context, it is important to highlight the regular maritime service between the port of Kaliningrad and the port of Hamburg.

Revealing roots and back to our origins

Returning to one’s family roots is not a dead end in the past, but, on the contrary, a valuable opportunity for considering future cooperation between Russia and Germany, cooperation that goes beyond ideologies and judgements.

A border is, according to Ancel, “a political isobar which fixes, for a certain time, the balance between two pressures: mass balance and balance of forces” (Ancel 1938).The real problem is not related to the question of borders. Borders will always exist, even in the globalised world. “There are no border problems. There are only problems of Nation”(Ancel 1938).

The world is at a crossroads. It is therefore necessary to lay aside ideologies and preconceived ideas. It is up to us, humankind, to think “out of the box” by living up to our identities while respecting the uniqueness of countries, cultures and identities.

As we have already seen, Jacques Ancel focuses on the human being as creator. The important thing is to recognise and calmly accept the feeling of belonging to a country, to a region– that is, the need for identity. And identity is much more complex than what is written in a passport. The identity of the heart goes beyond any ideology. The identity of the heart has deep roots and requires no justification or explanation.

Ancel’s geopolitical vision should be revitalised since “one does not revise borders, except by force, one changes minds”(Ancel 1938; Lomnica 1938 foreword).

Thus, with my uninhibited view of my Prussian roots, new perspectives are being created, especially for the strengthening of German-Russian cooperation.

                                                                          Back to the roots

 ………to be continued

Author’s Note: The paper was previously published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

References (selected works)

  • Acte final d’Helsinki (1975): OSCE, www.osce.org
  • Ancel, Jacques (1938):  Géographies des frontières, Gallimard, Paris
  • préface de André Siegfried, avant-propos de Tatranská Lomnica.
  • Banik, Katja (2016): Les relations Chine-Europe: à la croisée des chemins,L’Harmattan, Paris.
  • Banik, Katja (2019):  Europe, China and the G-zero world, China and the World: Ancient and Modern Silk Road, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1–9, World Scientific Publishing Company.
  • Banik, Katja (2019):  Europe and China in a globalized world. The geopolitical impacts of Beltand Road, www.worldsientific.com 
  • Banik, Katja, Jan Lüdert (2020): Assessing Securization: China’s Belt and Road Initiative, E-International Relations, www.e-ir.info
  • Boniface, Pascal (2017): La Géopolitique, Eyrolles, Paris.
  • Brown, Kerry (2019): China’s rise: The three key things everyone needs to know, TEDx Thessaloniki.
  • Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1998): The Grand Chess Board, Paperback.
  • Charte de Paris (1990): www.osce.org
  • Conseil OTAN-Russie (2002): NATO, www.nato.int
  • Eurotransport.de (2020): https://www.eurotransport.de/artikel/mukran-als-drehkreuz-nach-china-neue-seidenstrasse-startet-in-ruegen-russland-rotterdam-schiene-gueterbahn-11172438.html
  • Foucher, Michel (2019) : L’Europe doit venir au monde,www.diploweb.com
  • Gauchon, Huissoud (2008): Les 100 mots de la géopolitique, Presse Universitaires de France, Paris.
  • Habahbeh, Lawrence (2020): A state of flux in the World Order, https://diplomatist.com/2020/05/07/a-state-of-flux-in-the-world-order/, dipolomatist.com
  • Marshall, Tim (2015):  Prisoners of Geography, Elliot and Thompson Ldt., London.
  • Nida-Rümelin (2017): Über Grenzen Denken: Eine Ethik der Migration, Körber-Stiftung, Hamburg.
  • Overholt, William (2018): China and America: The Age of Geoeconomics.
  • Railfreight(2019):
  • https://www.railfreight.com/beltandroad/2018/06/27/utlc-celebrates-1000th-train-on-new-silk-road-in-kaliningrad/
  • Rail Journal (2020) https://www.railjournal.com/freight/rzd-exceeds-2019-china-europe-freight-figures/
  • Ratzel, Friedrich (1941): Erdenmacht und Völkerschicksal, Alfred Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart.
  • Teltschik, Horst (2019): Russisches Roulette: vom kalten Krieg zum kalten Frieden, CH Beck, München.
  • Zajec, Olivier (2016) : Introduction à l’analyse géopolitique, Éditions du Rocher, Monaco.

[1]“Politics is hearing God striding through history and leaping to grasp a corner of his cloak”inTeltschik (2019).

[2]States have no friends, they only have interests”, Charles de Gaulle (1967).

Author, speaker and guest lecturer on current geopolitical, economic and political issues related to China, EU and the US, focus on Jacques Ancel’s geopolitical vision “identity of heart”. Author at worldscientific.com, at moderndiplomacy.eu and book author at éditions L'Harmattan, Paris. As a member of the successor generation of the displaced population - her family had to flee on her mother's side from Königsberg in East Prussia in January 1945 and on her father's side from Schneidemühl in West Prussia - Katja increasingly connects the topics of identities and borders in her geopolitical views. Personal website: www.katjabanik.com

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Europe

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.

From our partner RIAC

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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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