The streets of Greece have been raging with marches, violent clashes between police and protesters, and clandestine violence since the right-wing New Democracy party (ND)was again given its electoral mandate in the summer of 2019. In 2020, angry and often violent street demonstrations hit a pitch not seen since 2012, as COVID-19 lockdown measures were used to justify a series of repressive government “law and order” policies aimed at Greece’s robust far- and post-left movements, coming down especially hard on anarchists and the several buildings across the country that they have squatted for nearly two-decades. The violent state evictions of the squats (often housing refugees), as well as the police harassment of people gathering in public, began a slow boil among the youth movements and urban guerrillas, which rolled over the pot once Parliament presented a bill to reintroduce police units to university campuses.
Hellenic Police have been constitutionally forbidden from entering college campuses in Greece since 1975, without rare and express consent from the university rectors. Their expulsion from campus spaces coincided with the same state massacre that gave rise to Greece’s first generation of 20th century revolutionary urban guerrilla groups, who created a legacy of youth “terrorist subculture” spanning subsequent generations, and contributed significantly to the European Union’s most prolific theatre of left-versus-right political violence. One cannot discuss the events of the 1973 massacre, nor today’s generation of urban guerrillas, without mentioning the Revolutionary Organization-17 November (17N), and its chief of operations, Dimitris Koufodinas. At the time of writing this, Koufodinas is near death, on hunger strike since January 8th, 2021. There have been over a dozen covert bombings and arson attacks in solidarity with Koufodinas’s recent hunger strike in Greece alone, with further arsons and banner-drops being claimed throughout Europe in solidarity with the leader of 17N.The current response of the New Democracy-led government is dredging up old grievances, and creating new ones that will surely be fought over for years to come.
Dimitris Koufodinas: Terrorist or Revolutionary Icon?
In 1967 a group of right-wing Hellenic Army officers overthrew the elected government in Greece and established an authoritarian junta, later called the “Regime of the Colonels”. The morning of the coup d’état, on the 21st of April, Athenians woke up to tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in the streets and in Syntagma Square surrounding Parliament. Any trace of democratic values would disappear for the next seven years, as dissident Greeks and suspected enemies of the state were snatched from their homes, tortured and wrongfully imprisoned. Greece would eventually return to a constitutional democracy after the junta’s collapse, following a disastrous pan-Hellenic foreign policy that ended in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the political bifurcation of the island. However, many argue that the junta lost whatever legitimacy it had after the three days of student uprisings in November 1973, culminating in the night of the 17th, in which an AMX-30 main battle tank plowed through the gates of the Polytechnic University, and the ensuing state violence killed dozens of protesters. Naturally, the far- and extra-parliamentary left-wing movements that had been oppressed under the junta were suspicious of the power-sharing structure embedded within the new constitution after the junta’s collapse, and for the latter, any return to democracy that was guided by the “foreign finger” of the US, the UK, and NATO was more or less a controlled return to the unacceptable pre-junta status quo.
Greek youths that had struggled against the regime and witnessed the arrests, injury and deaths of their comrades, who were not satisfied with the Metapolitefsi (“regime change”), decided to take their struggle against the state underground. In 1975, the American CIA’s new Athens chief of station was shot and killed in front of his wife and driver after returning home from a Christmas party. A communique sent to a radical French newspaper claimed the attack in the name of Europe’s newest red urban guerrilla outfit: The Revolutionary Organization—17 November, or simply “17N,” taking their very name from the final night of the junta’s 1973 massacre. This new group then cemented their credibility as a serious threat to the state in 1976 by gunning down high-ranking police officer, Evangelos Mallios, who had been linked to acts of torture under the junta. Contemporaries to 17N also emerged, such as the Revolutionary Peoples’ Struggle (ELA), another militant underground Marxist organization (though despite their lethality, they were criticized by 17N as being unsophisticated in their means and choice of targets). A decent portion of Greek society saw the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist actions of Greece’s left-wing guerillas as understandable, if not fully supportable.17N was popular with some elements of Greek society due to the significance of the targets they hit–ranging from foreign diplomats, to journalists, powerful industrialists and meaningful symbols of the state—as well as their ability to elude authorities for 27 years without a single member being revealed by Greek security forces or their foreign intelligence partners.
17N went dormant after the 1976 Mallios assassination, and then reappeared in 1980 with another high-profile assassination: this time murdering the Deputy Director of Greece’s MAT (“public order,” or riot) police unit, Pantelis Petrou. This hit was followed up with the assassination of an American Navy captain assigned to the Joint US Military Aid Group in Greece (JUSMAAG) that same year. 17N’s campaign of bombings and assassinations continued into the 1980s and early 1990s.In 1996, they launched a mortar attack on the US Embassy in Athens, exacerbating the humiliation felt by the Greek state in their failure to secure the centennial Olympic games that summer amidst fears of domestic terrorism.
The group’s incredible resume, coupled with the fact that none of its members had yet to be captured, gave rise to conspiracy theories in Greece that 17N was controlled by the deep-state (parakratos), or even by the American CIA. But on a June evening in 2002, around the time Greeks would be finishing their Saturday night meals out on the town, then repairing to café patios for drinks and perhaps some live music, a powerful blast shook Greece’s largest international port of Piraeus, just south of Athens. Police found a severely injured man at the scene, whom they had rushed to the hospital. Bombings in Greece are not unusual, and neither was this injured man at the time of his discovery, given the proliferation of urban guerrillas in Athens. However, the contents of his backpack were unique: a .38 caliber revolver and two hand grenades. The man injured in the bungled bombing was Savvas Xiros–the first member of 17N to be revealed by authorities. George Kassimeris best describes the revelations around the arrest in his 2013 article:
Three days later, the chief of police announced that the .38 Smith and Wesson had been identified as the gun stolen from a police officer killed by 17N on Christmas Eve 1984 and was the same weapon subsequently used in the assassination of a ship owner and a prosecutor as well as a number of other incidents involving the group. [George Kassimeris, “Greece: The Persistence of Political Terrorism,” 2013]
Suddenly the group was unmasked. Xiros gave up several members of 17N and a series of arrests followed. In September of 2002, 17N’s operational chief, Dimitris Koufodinas, turned himself into Greek police in Athens. He was handed eleven life-sentences plus 25 years in prison.
The founder of 17N is the lesser-known Alexandros Giotopoulos (his father was Dimitris Giotopoulos, the well-known Greek Trotskyist, who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War). But the group’s effective leader is the photogenic and strategically skilled Dimitris Koufodinas. Allegedly tasked with not only planning and target-selection, Koufodinas is himself accused of carrying out prominent assassinations, most notably that of current Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s brother-in-law and ND politician, Pavlos Bakoyannis, in 1989. (Kostas Bakoyannis, the son of Pavlos, is the current Mayor of Athens.) To this day, Koufodinas has a heroic reputation among segments of Greek society, and among others he is hated as a terrorist.
In many ways Greece suffers from a spoils-system democracy, where it is common for new administrations to sack civil servants, dissolve and create new agencies, appoint friends and benefactors to meaningless positions, rename long-standing agencies, and redistribute the wealth of the state among their political allies. Another feature of this system is the punishment of the opposition’s street-level allies and those accused of political violence, while exonerating those within its own camp charged by the previous administration with comparable offences. The 2015-2019 administration under the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), led by former PM Alexis Tsipras, granted Koufodinas six furloughs (or temporary leaves) from Korydallos Prison, from 2017 until 2019, much to the outrage of right-wing Greeks. His current denial of a transfer back to Korydallos is considered a retaliation by ND for his “favorable” treatment under the SYRIZA administration.
For the majority of his eternal sentence, Koufodinas has been locked away in the bowels of Korydallos, but in 2018 he was transferred to one of the Greek justice system’s agricultural prisons outside of Athens. The fresh ND administration under Kyriakos Mitsotakis then transferred Koufodinas to maximum-security Domokos Prison—a facility that is becoming a quarantined island for Greeks accused of far- and post-left terrorism. He immediately requested to be transferred back to his original cell in Korydallos. Denied this request, Koufodinas began the running 51-day (as of 28 February) hunger strike that has brought people across Europe out into the streets, engaging in direct action and banner drops, showing solidarity with the continent’s most infamous living “red terrorist,” or most famous “revolutionary icon,” depending on who you ask.
This is not Koufodinas’s first hunger strike, though it will very likely be his last revolutionary act. On the 22nd of February, he demanded to have his IV removed, extending his current struggle to include a “thirst strike”. The doctors caring for Koufodinas have been ordered by the state to begin force-feeding him. Should he die, he would be the first person to die of a hunger strike in Europe since the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) member, Bobby Sands, in May 1981. (Though in neighboring Anatolian Turkey, bassist of the outlawed revolutionary communist folk band, Grup Yorum, died in intensive care while on hunger strike in solidarity with his imprisoned wife, following the death of another hunger-striking band mate in April 2020. A female human rights lawyer, Ebru Timtik, also died in 2020 during a hunger strike in an Istanbul prison.)
“Solidarity with Dimitris Koufontinas”
When Koufodinas began his hunger strike on the 8th of January, groups claiming direct action in solidarity with him appeared on social media from Germany to Chile. A group of anarchists displayed a banner in front of the Greek consulate in Berlin, reading, “SOLIDARITY WITH THE FIGHTING HUNGER STRIKER DIMITRIS KOUFONTINAS (17N)—BURN ALL PRISONS.”There have been dozens of Molotov cocktail and incendiary IED attacks carried out in Greece against state and private targets in solidarity with Koufodinas since the beginning of February—one month into his hunger strike.
On the 5th of February, a group calling itself the “Nucleus of Anarchist Attack” set off an incendiary explosive device at one of the entrances to the Evelpidon Court Complex in Athens. This was not the first time that a next-generation outfit ideologically located outside of Marxist-Leninism would attack the court complex in solidarity with the older Koufodinas. Directly after 17N’s dismantling, an emergent group calling themselves Revolutionary Struggle (RS) set off two bombs around the 17N trials in 2003, “timed to explode 15 minutes apart with no advanced notice, designed to kill police responding to the second explosion at the courthouse.”(In 2007 RS answered 17N’s 1996 attack on the US Embassy in Athens by firing a rocket-propelled grenade at the building from a nearby construction site.) On February 10th, 2021, thousands took to the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki in solidarity with Koufodinas, and were met with water cannons and crowd control munitions. Later that evening, incendiary IEDs were detonated outside of a building housing three separate newspapers. In addition to heavy-handed levels of violence used against already-detained demonstrators on the 10th, officers of the MAT unit were filmed sucker punching bystanders, as the crackdown on the protests were married to COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the ND government. Students contiguously protesting the new bill restructuring university admissions and allowing the Hellenic Police to patrol campuses for the first time since 1975 were met with severe violence, and there were over dozens of arrests. On February 12th, ND-aligned newspaper Kathimerini reported, “Greek lawmakers passed legislation on Thursday that allows special police on university campuses as part of education reforms that opponents say threaten academic freedom established after the end of military rule in the 1970s.” Ahead of the parliamentary vote on the university bill, two members of a group calling themselves “Masovka Anarchist Collective” were arrested after entering the office of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and dropping flyers in solidarity with Koufodinas.
On the morning of February 18th, over 60 people were arrested after entering the Health Ministry, dropping flyers and unfurling banners in solidarity with Koufodinas. That same day another gas canister bomb was placed outside of a bank in Thessaloniki, which did not detonate, and a truck was firebombed earlier that morning. A group calling themselves the “Anarchist Cell of Response to Violence” claimed the arson attacks earlier that month targeting the homes of two retired police generals, Christos Kontaridis and Michalis Ladomenou. On the night of the 18th there were arson attacks and an ATM bombing across three boroughs of Athens. Throughout the 19th and the 20thof February, police were photographed beating and arresting people peacefully demonstrating in solidarity with Koufodinas. Early in the morning on February 22nd, assailants used sledgehammers to smash the front of a tax office in the Athens suburb of Psychiko, which authorities suspect was an act of solidarity with Koufodinas.
In Germany, a group calling themselves the “Autonomous Group ‘Sigurd Debus’” claimed an incendiary attack on a Hertz truck in an email to an anarchist blog. They were inspired by a similar December 2020 attack in Greece against Hertz, and ended the claim with: “Hold out, Dimitris! Our struggle is not finished until all prisoners are free!”
A group of anarchists claimed the firebombing of a French diplomatic vehicle in Thessaloniki and demanded the “IMMEDIATE SATISFACTION OF THE REQUESTS OF DIMITRIS KOUFODINAS”. Around 1:00PM on Monday, February 23rd, approximately 50 people shouting slogans threw flyers expressing solidarity with Koufodinas outside the home of Greek President, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, in central Athens. That same day, dozens of students protesting the new campus security law were arrested during clashes with police. Later that evening, the offices of Action 24 TV were attacked with stones and Molotov cocktails; the assailants spray-painted slogans in solidarity with Koufodinas. On the following Tuesday, the Greek Embassy in Berlin was occupied and a banner expressing solidarity with Koufodinas was hung from a fourth-story window, and there was another demonstration in front of President Sakellaropoulou’s home as a Greek prosecutor made the call to begin force-feeding Koufodinas. Police violently dispersed a demonstration against the force-feeding of Koufodinas that afternoon. Forty-two people were also arrested during a symbolic occupation of the Ministry of Culture in solidarity with Koufodinas.
Friday, February 26th was a day of extraordinary violence at the hands of the state–even for Greece–and videos began to emerge on social media of police in riot gear beating and stomping people down the staircases and escalators of the Athens Metro system. Members of the press covering the pro-Koufodinas demonstrations were also filmed being beaten by the riot units. That evening, two gas canister bombs were detonated outside of the Konstantinos Mitsotakis (father of the current Prime Mister) Foundation in Thiseio, Athens. A yet-unknown group also vandalized ND offices on the island of Crete, and painted large pro-Koufodinas slogans on the outer walls of a Mitsotakis family home nearby. Saturday February 27th, supporters of Koufodinas broke into the offices of Sports Minister Lefteris Avgenakis and did some property damage, as well as spray-painted pro-Koufodinas slogans. Earlier Saturday morning, a town hall in the southwestern Athens district of Moschato was attacked with petrol bombs.
New Democracy’s Folly?
As common as these kinds of events are in Greece, the country has seen nothing on the current scale since the early and agonizing days of the global financial crisis, and the crippling impacts of austerity measures imposed upon Greek citizens. This campaign of attacks in solidarity with Koufodinas across Europe is extraordinary, and the response of the Greek state is only throwing fuel on a growing fire.
Scenes of police beating and arresting students protesting the new “university protection laws” will surely harm perceptions of the Mitsotakis administration among centrist Greeks, regardless of their feelings towards Koufodinas. As for Koufodinas himself, the state’s calculation over whether it is less harmful to its own image if they force-feed him or hasten his death has ensured his status as a martyr and pulled ND into a game it is unlikely to win. The Mitsotakis administration seems intent on the impossible combination of taking personal vengeance against Koufodinas, without losing face. It is clear that granting the simple demands of returning him to the cell in Korydallos where he spent over a decade is not an option the administration will consider. If Koufodinas dies during his current hunger strike, the consequences for the state will be felt for years to come, regardless of the ruling party. His death will be commemorated as another of Greece’s “insurgent holidays”.
A young country defined as much by its outward struggles against external powers as it is those inward struggles against itself, the history of modern Greece is naturally one populated by many revolutionary icons. 17N is a group whose mention still evokes strong feelings among Greek society today. This current and perhaps final revolutionary act of its leader, Dimitris Koufodinas, has brought back a storm of past traumas for the victims of 17N, and traumas for the victims of the state violence that inspired 17N to form their organization. The state’s response to the demands of Koufodinas, as well as its response to those demonstrating in solidarity with him, is creating new traumas, and it is ensuring the rootedness of political violence in Greece for yet another generation.
Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country
The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.
Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government
Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.
Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.
In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.
Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy
The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.
The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.
At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.
In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.
Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum
Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.
Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.
The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.
In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.
Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.
The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy
Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.
First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.
Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.
In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.
Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid
In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.
Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.
At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.
Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.
Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.
Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power
The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.
P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.
Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.
From our partner RIAC
Is British Democracy in Danger?
On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.
Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.
To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.
While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.
Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.
One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.
Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.
The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security
2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.
In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.
On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.
Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.
Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.
In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.
The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.
A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?
As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.
Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.
The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.
Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.
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