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Europe’s Danse Macabre With the Pandemic and the Vaccine Wars Geoeconomics

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It has not been that long since Europe was experiencing a more relaxed Christmas period only to kick start 2021 with more lockdown restrictions related to the finding of a new variant of the virus, which has been fundamental in reshaping our human existence since early 2020.

The threat posed by the new strain of COVID-19 is only adding fuel to the frustration felt by many across the continent, which only complicates those in Brussels and national governments across the world.

Italy may serve as a good example, as the country’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte decided to hand in his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella on 26 January 2021, after being faced with two confidence votes and losing the governing majority in the Senate due to Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva withdrawal from the coalition on the ground of the alleged mismanagement of the pandemic and recession.

Currently, it is the former President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, who has been tasked by President Mattarella with forming a new government and solving political crisis in Italy.

Another deeply divided EU member state is Spain, where the health minister, Salvador Illa, resigned from his post the same day as Conte – partly out of fear of his fellow citizens, and partly due to personal motives to try his hand as the Socialist party’s candidate in Catalan regional elections taking place in February.

In Holland, tensions over recently introduced night-time curfews led to massive and violent riots sweeping across the country by “virus deniers, political protesters and kids who just saw the chance to go completely wild,” as leading Dutch criminologist, Henk Ferwerda, argues.

“Member States should introduce additional measures to ensure that travel into the EU takes place safely. This concerns those travelling to the EU for essential reasons, EU citizens and long-term residents as well as their family members, and those travelling from countries for which the non-essential travel restriction was lifted,” the European Commission announced in January, in a desperate attempt to curb the further spread of COVID-19-related infections on its territory.

Following the EC’s recommendations, several EU member states have already announced new travel and entry regulations, each of them maintaining its very own standards for entry rights, as well as further measures implemented to curb the spread of the virus.

In order to help travellers to Europe navigate the pandemic, the EU has introduced a traffic light system, where the bloc has been divided into four zones: green, orange, red, and grey.

An interesting point to note is that according to the latest survey done for Oxford University Europe’s Stories research project led by Professor Timothy Garton Ash, 74% of Europeans believe the EU is not worth having without free movement.

By now, although the bloc with its 450 million inhabitants is undoubtedly wielding important economic and political power in the world, it is clear that it is struggling to keep up with others in COVID-19 vaccinations rollouts, as University of Oxford’s global vaccination tracker suggests.

The future seems to be looking even grimmer when we take into account that the EU has a target of vaccinating 70% of its population by the end of August 2021, in addition to the widely publicised political issues and shortage of vaccines in the bloc.

It is clear that the EU is going to have a serious problem with vaccines supply, as Pfizer-BioNTech have announced temporarily halting the deliveries and AstraZeneca informed of reduction of the previously agreed supplies to the bloc by up to 60%.

Bearing in mind that the European Commission signed a contract with the latter in August to secure 300 million doses of the vaccine (with the option to purchase an additional 100 million) on behalf of all member states, the EU’s huge dissatisfaction with the AstraZeneca’s flimsy pretext of putting the blame on “supply chain problems” should not come as a surprise.

After paying more than €300m (£265m or $364m) to help the British-Swedish company to develop the vaccine by the EC, Ursula von der Leyen made clear that the “best-effort” clause invoked by AstraZeneca, referred to the vaccine development period, not when it comes to its supply after referring to the published version of their contract.

Further rubbing salt into to the wounds are statements like the one made by AstraZeneca’s CEO, Pascal Sariot, who has declared with confidence in his recent interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica that “by March, the UK will have vaccinated maybe 28 to 30 million people,” as well as arguing that his company will be able to supply the EU once it fulfils its obligation towards the UK. Unfortunately, the UK refuses to publish details of its supply contract due to national security reasons.

Furthermore, as data gathered by Duke University suggests, AstraZeneca has plenty of orders from countries outside Europe, with the second-biggest deal struck with the U.S. Similarly, Pfizer has also managed to close multiple deals with non-EU countries, including the U.S. and China.

With a more deadly variant of COVID-19, known as the B117 type, in the background, as well as immunisation program’s setbacks and critically low supplies of available vaccines, many European countries were forced to cancel or delay first dose injections to make sure that those already-vaccinated get their second jab within an appropriate timeframe.

Brussels, on its own part, decided on 29 January 2021 to push for more transparency by introducing a new export mechanism, which requires from all vaccine suppliers to notify any intent to export vaccines produced at its territory to countries not exempted by the EU, and equips its members with powers to reject any application detrimental to the bloc’s own supplies. On the other hand, the European Commission has reserved the right to issue binding opinions concerning the very matter.

As it was confirmed, the said mechanism would not impact (along with countries like Switzerland, Norway, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, or Ukraine) humanitarian aid or COVAX, the global initiative intended to distribute vaccines to less fortunate countries around the globe. Nevertheless, it puts in an inconvenient position vis-à-vis Europe countries like UK, U.S., Canada, Russia, or Turkey, as they are not exempted from the EU’s list due to their level of development.

Moreover, as the EU’s trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis informed at the press conference on 29 January 2020, “companies applying for export authorisation will also have to provide information on their exports and export destinations, quantities and so on, for the period covering three months prior to entering into force of this regulation.”

It is perfectly understandable, as opposed to what some critics may argue, that in its race against time (and most certainly the death of European citizens) the EU took extra measures due to the fact that “the protection and safety of our citizens is a priority and the challenges we now face left us with no other choice but to act,” as Dombrovskis stated.

Putting money where its mouth is, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved AstraZeneca’s vaccine on 29 January 2021, which makes it the third vaccine to be cleared for use in the EU’s territory. What more, while the virus definitely knows no boundaries and is further taking its toll around the world, Germany’s Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn argued on 31 January 2021 that vaccines from China (already approved by Serbia) and Russia (already approved by Hungary) could be used in Europe to overcome the current deficit of doses.

“Regardless of the country in which a vaccine is manufactured, if they are safe and effective, they can help cope with the pandemic,” Spahn told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

Although the mentioned move could have potentially caused further frictions between the EU and the U.S., or UK, it is good if we become honest with ourselves about the severity of the current state of pandemic affairs and put (sometimes) blinding realpolitik aside in order to take into account the following objective factors.

Let’s face it, the longer it takes us to bring the pandemic under control, the more lives will be lost.

As of today, according to the Johns Hopkins’ live dashboard, the current global COVID-19-related infection cases have reached 103,523,528 with 2,241,147 deaths.

Knowing that a successful vaccination effort is the only sustainable way to help the economic recovery globally—the aim extremely difficult, as Oxford Economics’ “baseline forecast already assumes the crisis will cut the long-term level of world GDP by around 2%, or USD 2.1 tn” (with a “long-term GDP losses of 5%, or USD 4.9 tn”)—all countries realistically capable of helping themselves (including, despite what Liz Truss disappointingly argues, also the UK) and others should try to resist vaccine nationalism or even vaccine wars. Doing otherwise could cost the West about $4.5 trillion and the global economy $9.2 trillion, as commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce study estimates.

Without any doubt, the current situation and the unquestionable power of big pharma compromises the health of millions around the globe, and will definitely prove to be a litmus test for the integrity of governments but most importantly of human unity.

Having said that, the West (for health-care, economic and security reasons) will be well advised to remember the prophetic wisdom of President Harry S. Truman, in that “selfishness and greed, individual or national, cause most of our troubles.”

From our partner RIAC

London-based foreign affairs analyst and commentator, who is the founder of AK Consultancy and editorial board member at the peer-reviewed Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS) in Prague.

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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure

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Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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The Leaders of the Western World Meet

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The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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Revisiting the Bosnian War

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Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.

The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.

The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till  1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.

While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.

The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’.  The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.

While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.

In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.

The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.

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