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
Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections
The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.
In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.
Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.
Small numbers, big changes
The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.
This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.
In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.
Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists
On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.
The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.
The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.
Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.
Coronavirus, climate & economy
Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.
Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.
The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.
The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.
New (old) government?
The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.
Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.
Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.
The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.
The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.
From our partner RIAC
EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession
On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.
During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.
However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.
Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”
While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.
The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.
This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”
Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.
In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.
German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy
In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.
The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.
Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.
Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.
According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.
To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.
For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.
As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.
The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.
|Issues Coalitions||Trafic Light||Grand Coalition||Jamaica|
1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.
In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.
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