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Belt and Road 2013 – 2020: “the roads” of improvements- Lessons for Europe

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Implementing of the BRI in Europe has shown, that the CEE countries, along with the PRC and the EU, should also make an efforts to improve the Sino – European dialogue within initiative. Countries of the Eastern borders of CEE, nevertheless, are also playing an important role in this relation by creating the possible passes through their territories to the logistics of CEE region

Intensification of Dialogue and cooperation

An important starting point for improved coordination of the two policies is greater clarity on the definition of the BRI. The CEE and the EU is not in a position to initiate such studies unilaterally, not least because they would require information from a number of countries along the relevant BRI corridors, as well as from China. However, the EU could encourage their development through the framework of the “Connectivity Platform”. This would require the establishment of an Expert Group to identify key BRI corridors and to collect relevant information from the countries in which they lie.

The analysis of potential future traffic flows suggests that the first study should focus on the New Eurasian Land Bridge Corridor connecting with the North Sea – Baltic Core Network Corridor of the TEN-T. This would require dialogue with other organizations already engaged in the development of rail transport routes in Eurasia, in particular CAREC. It would also require engagement with organizations such as UNIFE, representing manufacturers of rail equipment, with an interest in the promotion and application of EU standards beyond its borders.

Logistics and infrastructure coordination of TEN-T project with Chinese initiative

The analysis of BRI-related traffic flows suggested that the BRI could generate additional rail freight of approximately 3 million TEU (equivalent to 50 – 60 trains per day or 2 – 3 trains per hour each way) between the Far East and the EU by 2040. Subsequently, it was concluded that the most likely TEN-T corridor to be required to accommodate this traffic would be the North SeaBaltic Core Network Corridor.

It is not expected that the BRI changes patterns of shipping traffic materially other than to reduce slightly the volume of freight entering the EU via the North Sea Ports. Any effect might be offset by a growth in the shipment of BRI-generated freight across the North Sea to the UK and Ireland. Nevertheless, it should be noted that maritime trade between China and the EU is already well-established, and that it is not possible to forecast possible changes in related trade patterns as a result of the BRI.

Given these results, and taking account of the uncertainties surrounding the definition and evolution of the BRI, recommendations to address particular constraints or bottlenecks on TEN-T beyond those already highlighted by the corridor studies would be premature. In the absence of greater clarity on the scope and priorities of the BRI, there is a risk that the development of specific investment projects designed to accommodate more traffic on the North Sea – Baltic Core Network Corridor, for example, would prove either inadequate or redundant.

At the same time, the TEN-T Corridor Studies should be reviewed and developed periodically as the work of the “Connectivity Platform” progresses and the BRI is defined more clearly. This would require TEN-T policy to become more outward-looking, with an explicit requirement to take account of major policy initiatives sponsored by countries outside the EU. It could also be facilitated by the development of periodic forecasts of BRI-related traffic, following the model of the European Commission’s Reference Scenario, with forecasts developed under the framework of the “Connectivity Platform” and jointly approved by participating countries.

Improving the SinoEU coordination within EU legislative frameworks

In Europe there is still a number of concerns expressed about the willingness and ability of Chinese investors and contractors to operate within the framework of market rules and standards defined by EU legislation. At the same time, some stakeholders consider that the BRI represents an opportunity to promote EU standards across Eurasia, thereby improving export opportunities for EU-based companies, notably those supplying or constructing transport infrastructure or equipment.

The EC is already alert to these issues, as indicated in the speech given by the President of the Commission in September 2017. This included an outline of European Industrial Policy comprising a number of initiatives of relevance in developing a response to the BRI. In particular:

  • The policy includes an initiative for establishing a modern standardisation system to ensure that the EU remains a global hub for standardisation. This will be particularly important in promoting European Railway Traffic Management System (Hereinafter ERTMS – Auth.) technology, one of the largest beneficiaries of TEN-T funding in the 2007 – 2013 and 2014 – 2020 Multiannual Work Programmes.
  • The policy also includes an initiative to improve the competitiveness of Europe’s export industries and to increase their access to global value chains. This should inform negotiations with China over the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments.

It is recommended that the European Parliament supports the Commission in implementing these initiatives and continue to monitor progress on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. The key issues to consider in the context of the BRI are:

  • the screening of foreign direct investment (FDI);

Thus, the May 2017 EC paper ‘Harmonising Globalisation’confirmed that openness to foreign investment remains a key principle for the EU and a major source of growth. However, it also recognised concerns about foreign investors, notably state-owned enterprises, taking over technology-intensive European companies for strategic reasons, and that EU investors often do not enjoy the same rights to invest in the country from which the investment originates. In September 2017, it issued a draft Regulation (EC 2017/0224 (COD)80) to establish a framework for the Member States, and in certain cases the Commission, to screen FDI in the EU, while allowing Member States to take account of national circumstances.

It is recommended that the European Parliament supports the EC’s proposal, as it would ensure the EU’s ongoing openness to FDI while preventing the capture of key European intellectual property by competitors.

  • the establishment of a level-playing field in public procurement markets;

Underlining the European Commission’s concerns that many foreign public sector procurement markets remain closed, the EC has adopted a proposal for a “Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the access of third-country goods and services to the Union”. However, this proposal, which was adopted by the EC in March 2012, did not complete its first reading, although it was discussed by both the European Parliament and the Council.

More recently, the EC has announced its intention to amend the initial proposal and to present new draft legislation as part of its current work programme.

It is recommended that, subject to careful review of the amendments, the European Parliament supports the proposal, in order to establish reciprocity of access to public procurement markets in the EU and China as soon as possible.

  • export credit guidelines.

Also there areconcerns that China is not bound by the OECD’s guidelines on export credit, providing Chinese companies with an unfair advantage in export markets. Of the ten largest economies in the world, only China (the second largest), India (the seventh largest) and Brazil (the ninth largest) do not participate in the OECD Arrangement on Guidelines for Officially Supported Export Credits.

It is suggested that, in monitoring progress towards a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the European Parliament seeks to ensure that China’s participation in the OECD framework is a key objective of the EU’s negotiating strategy.

Increasing awareness of the initiative in European political and business circles

When analyzing the European media for awareness of the EU political and business elites about the Chinese initiative, it was determined that the level of coverage of the initiative and its main tasks remains unclear. In this regard, an important recommendation is to implement a broader BRI-related information policy of European States.

Improving Trade flows connection

The analysis of the potential effect of the BRI on trade flows conducted for the purpose of this study suggested that a number of changes may take place, at least over the longer term:

  • Some high value goods may transfer to rail, potentially to the benefit of Poland, northern Europe, and landlocked Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria.
  • Some low value goods may transfer from ports in the eastern Mediterranean to ports in the north of the Adriatic Sea and the Tyrrhenian Seas.

It appears likely that the EU can anticipate and mitigate these changes with existing mechanisms. To anticipate the changes, planning of transport infrastructure, and in particular the TEN-T, should take into account forecasts of trade between EU and China, as discussed further below. To mitigate any material effects on ports or regions which may suffer a loss in economic activity, the EU can make use of existing regional and cohesion policies.

A challenge for the EU will be to ensure that capacity, and commercially viable transit times, remain available through Asia and in rail transit countries including Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus. This will require increasing coordination at the operational level between railways across Eurasia, rather than specific legislation.

Finally, bottlenecks may emerge in the EU’s transport networks, including the TEN-T, whether because of steady growth in trade with China and the Far East or, in the case of rail, because of allocation of rail capacity to intra-EU, national, regional or even suburban rail traffic. There may be scope for reviewing planning processes at the EU level, in relation to the TEN-T, and at national, regional and local level (For example, widening of the United Kingdom’s M20 motorway locally around Maidstone, between London and the English Channel, was planned in the mid-1980s. One section was designed and built with five traffic lanes in each direction. The traffic forecasts included an “overlay” of the expected traffic growth associated with Channel Tunnel, which was not yet under construction and which did not open until 1994.), to take explicit account of estimates of trade flows with China and the Far East. The analysis suggests that this may be material not only to rail routes (and in particular those in the North Sea – Baltic Core Network Corridor) but also to ports and the infrastructure supporting them (such as container stacks, warehousing and parking) and connecting them (such as onward road and rail connections).

Pending investment to address rail capacity bottlenecks, it might at first sight appear desirable to have mechanisms to reserve capacity for rail freight traffic between the EU and the Far East. The most effective means of addressing this issue may be for capacity allocators to take into account longer term forecasts of potential demand for infrastructure capacity.

The availability of capacity within the EU would be of limited benefit without sufficient capacity also being available on non-EU transit networks. This suggests that the TEN-T process could be more outward-looking. The TEN-T already provides maps for “neighbouring countries” including Norway, Switzerland, the Balkans and Turkey, as well as Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, but not Russia, which could be included, being a core country of the BRI rail flows. However, studying and sharing information with neighbouring countries will not, in itself, resolve problems of capacity and capacity allocation or prioritisation.

  1. To ensure that Europe remains a global hub for standardisation, EU institutions should foster the establishment of modern standardisation systems, in particular with reference to the ERTMS technology, one of the largest beneficiaries of TEN-T funding in the 2007 – 2013 and 2014 – 2020 multi-annual Programmes.
  2. EU institutions should continue to engage with the Chinese Government to agree possible specific contents of an EU and China Investment Agreement as soon as possible.
  3. The European Parliament and the European Council should support the proposal of the European Commission (EC) to establish a framework for the Member States to screen foreign direct investments in the European Union (EC 2017/0224). This would ensure the EU’s ongoing openness to foreign direct investments while preventing the capture of key European intellectual property by competitors.
  4. The European Parliament and the European Council should support the development of a legislative instrument, based on the European Commission’s COM(2016)34, to guarantee reciprocity of access to public markets in the EU and China by European and Chinese businesses.
  5. Increasing awareness of citizens and media control
  6. Creating a favorable business climate in the CEE countries and the Eastern borders of the region

The CEE countries have relatively recently embarked on a path of independent development and are significantly behind their neighbors in the West. Having passed through a socialist experiment, a series of crises and a systemic transformation in the second half of the twentieth century, the countries of Central – Eastern and South – Eastern Europe came close to solving the problem of creating and improving a social legal state only in the 2000s.

It is worth noting that the CEE region is affected by external factors, such as the economic depression of neighboring regions, inter-ethnic skirmishes and military conflicts. At the same time, the states of the region develop their economies in a special way, sometimes significantly differing from their Western neighbors in their openness.

Before the global financial crisis, this region was one of the most dynamically developing regions in the world. However, at the moment of its height, CEE entered a difficult period, accompanied by many negative consequences – economic downturn, lack of development dynamics, and weakening of the banking sector.

Despite the fact that they managed to overcome the obstacles of the first two crisis decades of the XXI century with varying degrees of success and gained rich, invaluable, and generally significant experience in the struggle for a better future, the business climate and policy for investment flows in the region still remains quite weak.

Thus, the normalization of the business climate in the region , as well as the increasing economic integration of CEE, with an ultimate goal of joining the EU (which seeks the most reforming states), requires adaptation and constructive dialogue between all the partners.

Resolution of conflict situations and disputes in the region

The security of the CEE region deserves special attention. The following conflict zones should be taken into account when resolving inter political tensions in the region.

In almost all countries of CEE, all conflicts have now been resolved. In each case, it is possible to trace a political solution to the conflict (it should be borne in mind that some conflicts may again turn into an armed stage (we are talking not only about the territory of Kosovo, but also about the geopolitical plans of Albania). The conflicts resolution took place either as a result of a military victory by one of the parties and subsequent negotiations, or under pressure from the military forces of NATO, the US and the EU. Thus, only on the territory of Ukraine, which is at the stage of transition to the geopolitical axis of EU democracies, there are clashes that are at the stage of armed confrontation.

The development of the region shows that the crisis due to internal political instability can be resolved through diplomatic channels, but it should be understood that the threats of border conflicts in the Balkans, as well as in the East of Ukraine and terrorism have unpredictable and irreparable consequences. In this regard, the countries of the region should more actively establish inter-state relations through constructive dialogue in order to minimize the occurrence of possible future contradictions.

Strengthening the region’s economic security

The current socio-economic model of the CEE countries, as a result of their long-term adaptation to the EU market conditions, is more focused on external sources of economic growth. Thus, there was a reorientation of industrial production from the domestic market to the external one. The achieved openness of the region’s economies and their involvement in the world economy were primarily due to integration into the production links of European (and partly global) TNCs and subordination to their interests.

The acquisition of Western funds and technologies, on the one hand, led to a general modernization of the economies of these countries, and on the other – made them dependent on supranational capital and associated not only economic, but also political influence.

In the last decade, there has been an increase in the independence of the region –  in the process of economic restructuring and adaptation to EU standards, the countries of the region are beginning to rely more and more on themselves, on their region. In other words, as the share of mutual supplies increases, the region’s reserve independence increases. However, despite significant progress in building economic security in the region, the process of adaptation of CEE economies to EU standards is uneven and requires further strengthening of coordination of energy security, environmental friendliness of production, patenting authorship of technical developments,which will lead them to form a unified policy on an everexpanding range of issues.

Solving the problem of refugees and illegal migration in the CEE region

The problem of refugees has caused the most painful blow to the CEE countries, because in the situation with migrants from Africa and the Middle East, it were the southern border of the EU, in the case of Ukraine – that took on the main flow of labor migrants from the East.

The main recommendations which UNHCR and EC can implement are:

  • to increase quotas for the reception of migrants;
  • to agree on lists of “dangerous” and “safe” states;
  • to establish at all “problematic” EU borders, refugee reception centers that will register migrants;
  • to start an active fight against the criminal structures which are engaged in the transportation of migrants.

Of course, it will be extremely difficult to implement these recommendations in practice, however, their gradual implementation can in the near future eliminate the negative consequences of the crisis and reduce the risk of its inflaming.

Normalization of EUCEERussia relations in the sphere of economic and political relations

Today, the issue of normalization of relations between the countries of the region and Russia is also on the agenda of the European countries. This resolution of this issue is urgent due to, first, to the problems of Russian gas supplies, which have become more complicated after the failure of Russia and Ukraine to reach a consensus on the price of fuel transportation and as a result of the crisis in Russian – Ukrainian relations. All the schemes of the European Union, so-called “diversification”, deprive the region of its former privileged position as the first recipient and further distributor of Russian gas if it is supplied through Ukraine. Attempts by both individual countries and the EU as a whole to block bypasses of Russian supplies increase the uncertainty and concern of these countries about the prospect of providing themselves with a necessary and yet uncontested source of energy, while the leading EU countries themselves in the new conditions benefit from any alignment in resolving the issue of supplies.

The Ukrainian – Russian territorial conflict in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine added to the tension in the EU – CEE – Russian relations in the sphere of economic and political relations, which later served as an extension of the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia.

Thus, it should be understood that cooperation between Russia and Central Europe without finding a solution to the Ukrainian – Russian conflict is doomed to very low rates of development. Therefore, it is necessary to make joint efforts through the policy of “common neighborhood” and “joint Eastern European partnership”.

  • Resolving the issue of how to approach financing, researcher proposed few recommendations.
  • to develop commercially attractive, revenue-generating projects, with a sound financial rationale;
  •  to develop projects of key economic impact with lower financial returns.

Thus, summarizing the approaches of improving the Sino – CEE countries cooperation within BRI, it should be noted that, the geopolitical realities in the region should be considered. Thus, being located on the border of the EU, this region is a geopolitical map of the interests of both Western and Eastern countries. Based on this, it can be concluded that lying along the border of two civilizations, the region, strengthening its economic and infrastructural positions, creates a problem of contact between the geopolitical interests of the EU, the United States, the Russian Federation and, since 2012, the PRC. In order to resolve this conflict of interests, as well as for the peaceful promotion and participation of the region in the BRI initiative, the recommendation to continue pragmatic cooperation with all the subjects of the initiative comes to the fore.

PhD in International Politics, Central China Normal University, Wuhan, the P.R.of China Research Associate , Ukrainian Association of Sinologists

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Belgrade and Pristina: Will a territorial exchange really happen?

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The European Union is dialing up pressure on Serbia and Kosovo in an effort to convince Belgrade and Pristina to sign an agreement on normalizing bilateral relations. This would allow Brussels to seize the initiative in the Balkans from the United States, which has previously managed to get the two sides clinch a similar deal on trade and other economic issues. Moreover, the EU is even ready to break from its previous policy and give a nod to a territorial exchange between Serbs and Albanians, which was categorically rejected, above all by Germany. However, while the Serbian leadership largely welcomes the idea, the Kosovo Albanians’ radically-minded leaders rule out any territorial concessions to Belgrade, thus deepening the Kosovo impasse.

Albin Kurti, the leader of the radical Vetëvendosje (“Self-Determination”) movement, who has regained the Kosovo premiership, categorically rejected the idea of any territorial exchange with Serbia, proposed by the EU’s High Representative for International Affairs Josep Borrell.

“I do not think that we should give anything away.” … “This is pressure from Serbia. They want us to give in,” Kurti said.

That being said, the former Kosovo president, Hashim Thaci, actively lobbied the idea of ​​a territorial exchange, even more than others. Back in August 2018, he and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic reached a preliminary agreement on this when meeting on the sidelines of the European Forum in Alpbach, Austria. Thaci and Vucic voiced their intention to double down on signing a comprehensive deal, and invited the EU to act as its mediator and guarantor.

“We have a small window of opportunity,” Hashim Thaci said at the time. The planned agreement was supposed to be inked in Brussels already in September 2018, with the participation of the EU leadership. However, the whole process immediately hit a snag due to disagreements over border delimitation and opposition protests in both Belgrade and Pristina.

According to the plan, devised by Hashim Thaci, the delimitation issues should be discussed as a “package” and provide for a complex exchange of territories, including both the Serbian-populated North Kosovo communities of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok (roughly one-fifth of the territory of Kosovo), and the southern Serbian communities of Buyanovac, Presevo and, preferably, Medvedja, adjacent to Kosovo, populated mainly by ethnic Albanians. The Kosovar leader argued that a territorial exchange whereby regions with a majority Albanian population would end up in Kosovo, and those with a predominantly Serbian population – in Serbia, would help ease tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

According to the latest census in Serbia, about 90,000 people live on the territory of the three southern Serbian communities: in Presevo, 89 percent are Albanians and 9 percent are Serbs; in Bujanovac, 55 percent are Albanians and 34 percent are Serbs; in Medvedja, 26 percent are Albanians and 67 percent are Serbs. Thus, Albanians already make up the majority of the population of Presevo and Bujanovac. In Medvedja, their share has also been steadily rising.

While President Aleksandar Vucic generally agrees to the partition of Kosovo with the return of control over the province’s northern regions to Belgrade, he is still against the idea of extending the “package” exchange to include the southern Serbian communities of the Presevo Valley.

There is no unity on this issue outside the Balkans too, with Germany and France initially rejecting the idea of territorial exchanges as such, arguing that this could fire up tensions in North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The territorial integrity of the Western Balkan states is already a hard fact and cannot be changed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Austria has been foursquare behind the partition of Kosovo as a means of normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

“If Serbia and Kosovo agree on a border correction, the agreement will have our support,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

The EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn equally favored the upcoming agreement. He urged his EU colleagues not to obstruct the deal between Pristina and Belgrade, even if it involves changing borders. Such an agreement, if it is reached, will be a one-off affair though and “should not be used as an example for solving other problems,” Hahn said at the end of August 2018.

The US administration backed the upcoming deal, with President Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton going on record saying that “Our policy, the US policy, is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments.”

The agreement on the exchange of territories, drawn up in 2018 never came to fruition though. Responsibility for this failure lies with radical nationalist forces in both Belgrade and Pristina, not interested in any compromise solutions that won’t sit well with their own political intentions. While Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is still in power and has not changed his position, Vjos Osmani, who replaced Hashim Thaci as President of Kosovo, is less inclined to accept any compromises with Belgrade.

This situation adds to EU and US headaches with Barack Obama’s de facto foreign policy team, now back in power in Washington, being eager to strengthen the position of the United States in the Balkans through more active military and political activity and pressure (not trade and economic scenarios and proposals, as was the case under Donald Trump). The EU and the US now have two options to choose from – either to ramp up pressure on Serbia in order to force it to recognize Kosovo without any territorial exchanges (which is more to the Joe Biden administration’s liking), or to convince the Kosovar leaders to accept territorial compromises (more preferred by the EU).

And here we should not forget about the Bosnian factor, since any changes to the status and borders of Kosovo will inevitably reflect on the domestic  political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, in particular, on the position of the Bosnian Serbs. When briefing reporters a few days ago, the chairman of the Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, said that in any case he would insist on the implementation of the concept of “peaceful divergence,” that is, the disintegration of the country, which, according to him, is already happening. He stated that the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be maintained, and this is something that has increasingly been discussed by the international community.

“We are waiting for the moment when a peaceful gap becomes real,” Milorad Dodik noted, adding that he was not a warmonger and was only offering a way out of the current situation, which he described as unstable.

The EU too appears ready to “reformat” Bosnia and Herzegovina. When, during a visit to Sarajevo in early March of this year, Slovenian President Borut Pahor informally asked members of that country’s collective leadership whether a “peaceful divergence” was a possibility. Bosnian Muslim Shefik Jaferovic and Croat Zeljko Komšić responded that this was impossible, while Milorad Dodik, for his part, said that it was a likely scenario.

The current situation of “unstable equilibrium” around Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is serious enough to prod all the disputing parties to more actively seek Russia’s mediation. Serbia and Republika Srpska maintain partner relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, the disagreements between the EU and the United States could make the other participants in the discussions more accommodating, including the Kosovar Albanians, who are interested in normalizing relations with Belgrade and implementing large-scale regional projects.

From our partner International Affairs

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A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come

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Internal and international tensions

Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers take their eyes off the ball, investors feel completely safe or international partners express enduring satisfaction. In effect, this is the case also for bits of the region that have joined the European Union in the last decade. Recently, Bulgaria has been the most interesting hearth of, popular outrage, institutional instability and international tensions amongst the latter countries.

Actually, the atmosphere began simmering back in Summer 2020, when thousands of people took to the streets for several weeks. Arguably, the combination of the umpteenth high-echelon corruption scandal involving andthe pandemic-induced recession was only the most immediate cause. Swiftly, dissatisfaction led to vigorous calls for the Prime Minister’s and the Attorney General’s resignation and early election. Even the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, broke with his supposed non-partisanship and joined the protestors gathering vast support. However, the winter suppressed street protests and Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, exploited the pandemic to justify his indifference.

In the meantime, the cabinet embroiled Bulgaria in a dispute which the country had refrained from ever since 1991. The so-called ‘Macedonian question’predates the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, but only then turned into a crisis. Indeed, the hardest-fought issue was that surrounding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, which Greece opposed until the Prespa Agreement. But the newly named Republic of North Macedonia has failed to acknowledge the deep historical and cultural connection with Bulgaria. Eventually, the former’s lack of real cooperation led Sofia to veto the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Thence, scholars have criticised the country’s government while foreign politicians tried to persuade Borisov to lift his veto.

Against the background of such a delicate, multifaceted domestic and international circumstances Bulgaria celebrated regular election on April 4. The country needed everything but being left leaderless, but this is exactly what happened.

Election results: Who to form a cabinet?

The most recent elections speak volume about the difficulty in understanding Bulgarian politics and understanding what the popular sentiment is. For a start, GERB, Borisov’s party, lost about 300,000 votes falling from 33.65%in 2017, to 26.18% this year. Moreover, the nationalist collation United Patriots, GERB’s reliable allies, split up and failed to clear the 4% threshold. Thus, with his 75 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament Borisov had no more a majority and desperately needed a partner.

At the same time, the elections produced an unusually hostile environment for GERB. In fact, a number of new leaders and formations emerged — all of which declared GERB a “most toxic party”. Still, opposing Borisov’s “model”, as they use to say, was not enough to form a government. Neither the protest party There is such a people (ITN) nor the establishment Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) even tried. Therefore, the two smaller protest parties – Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! Bastards Out (ISMV) – and the Muslim Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had to accept new elections in July.

In effect, once the elections results became clear, no one nurtured many hopes for a stable government. The BSP had offered it external, conditional support to an ITN cabinet as the DPS and even GERB did. Perhaps, members of DB and ISMV could have joined the project to ensure wider representation. But all attempts failed in front of ITN’s leader, the showman-turned-politician SlaviTrifonov, display of “political fearfulness”. The ultimate result of these developments was the shortest parliamentin Bulgaria’s two-century history.

What the parliament produced

Without a fully-functioning political government and with a lame-duck Parliament, Bulgaria is traversing a difficult period. The legislature has yet to approve the Recovery and sustainability plan towards which the EU has granted €6bln ($7.3bln). Without these funds, it will be harder for the country’s economy to rebound after the last recession. At the same time, no one is in charge of managing the ongoing feud with the Republic of North Macedonia. Hence, Sofia can neither substantiate its claims and pretences vis-à-vis Skopje nor backtrack and let membership negotiations start. Finally, in the last weeks tensions between Bulgaria and Russia have risen with mutual expulsion of several high-ranking diplomats. In fact, Czech authorities have found out about a “Bulgarian connection” in the incidents allegedly blamed on Russian security services.

On the offense: ITN, DB and ISMV against GERB

Yet, the parliament has found not time to address any of these really pressing issues. As it often happens after the elections, foreign policy has disappearedfrom the order of the day. There was no discussion of either the bilateral relations with Russia nor the North Macedonian issue.

Representative from ITN, DB and ISMV wrapped up the Recovery plan into their wider attempt to publicly discredit GERB. Thus, they refused to let the competent executive official introducing the bill and pretended Borisov himself did it.

Meanwhile, the three parties and the BSP also forced a vote on the cabinet’s resignation. Hence, the government is officially in charge only of managing current affairs: it cannot update the budget or adopt new economic measures. The opposition also blocked the automatic renewal of key concession for Sofia’s airport and some highways to Borisov’s closest allies.

So-called ‘Protest parties’ also formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Borisov governments’ misdeed. However, the legislature will soon dissolve, so nothing will come out of it besides some gossipy kompromat. The only real change is a new electoral law,remedying to some of the previous legal framework’s most evident fallacies. The hope is that it will curb the purchase of votes and other instances of fraud.

Wait-and-see: Borisov’s unkind defence

Borisov’s loyalists in the government, in the Parliament and, more importantly, in the media are repelling this frontal assault vehemently.

Figure 1 Acting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the Parliament “a show” in a video on his Facebook page.

Acting foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva has spoken out against the supposed attempt to make 850,000 GERB voters ‘disappear’. The chair of GERB’s parliamentary group, Desislava Atanasova, accused other parties of having “failed to fulfil society’s interests”. Borisov himself went out for the biggest prey: President Radev.On Facebook he declared

I hope that Radev is not proud [of the result of last year’s protests …]: This parliamentary show costs 19 million [leva, €9.5mln] a day. It is better that they closed it because we would have gone bankrupt.

The opposition motto offers no way forward behind the idea that “What GERB did must be cancelled”. Yet, GERB is not less destructive in its agenda. Currently, Borisov’s clique is challenging both the moratorium of concessionsand the electoral reformin front of the constitutional court. According to many experts, the justices could strike down or rescale at least one of these two measures. Hence, all hopes for a real democratic change will likely evaporate as long as GERB holds the levers of power.

Forecast: A leaderless ship in a stormy sea

Some have been talking about the rebirth of parliamentarism. But partisanship, anger and personal hatred currently dominate Bulgaria’s politics. Thus, a disenchanted observer could only see the dismaying polarisationand personalisation of the mainstream political discourse. At this time, Bulgaria is like a ship whose crew has mutinied, but whose captain refuses to jump off. Fortunately, the peaks of the economic and sanitary crisis seem over — for now. But the international setting conspires against the vessel. A storm is mounting from the East and the West. Winds of reprisal spire from Russia, whereas the EU is increasingly discontent with Bulgaria’s management of the North Macedonian issue. Assuming that the next elections will produce a working government, either the mutineers or the old captain will be just in time to manage the gale. But should this not happen, the country may soon regret the current lull.

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Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave

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With hospitals filling up across the continent, new variants of the virus proliferating and vaccine shortages biting back, Europe can be seen to be under the third wave of the COVID crisis. This wave has been a confused sea across Europe in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and some are declining. Although lockdowns have eased as vaccine drives make headway, the end of state emergency does not undermine the inevitable long-term consequences of the crisis. COVID has brought to the forefront new geopolitical dynamics and created risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the impending health calamity, economic, political and geopolitical challenges are also plenty.

The crisis has held up a mirror to the Western countries as their effectiveness in managing the pandemic has been distorted and has brought about de-Westernisation of the world. As globalisation is under strain, the crisis is bound to redraw the borders between the state and the markets in democracies such as the Member States of the EU. Such an environment is likely to emphasise on national initiatives to the detriment of international cooperation. In a post-COVID world, the EU may have to deal with its geopolitical problems with less external credibility as well as internal solidarity among its member states.  

The potential geopolitical consequences of the virus can be identified by extrapolating those trends that were taking place before the onset of the virus.  Amidst evolving global scenarios, there has been a constant push from the EU to establish itself as a relevant geopolitical actor to realise its global power aspirations. In this context, it becomes important to note the two areas of concern raised by the crisis consist of questions on the internal cohesion of the EU and Europe’s ability to adapt to the increasing rivalry and competition among other global powers. 

The EU as a player derives its identity from its supranationalism. However, with COVID wreaking havoc on the already unequal economy of the Northern and Southern Europe, the downslides of globalisation are being highlighted. This is likely to further embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. This will lead to the fragmentation of the region into its component member-states part, threatening the very identity if the Union. This has been a challenge to the EU as the Union recognizes solidarity as a fundamental principle as per Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. With the EU is facing the increasingly centrifugal ‘member states first’ approach put forward by the European capitals, the European integration project is under threat.

Further, with the pre-existing tensions between US and China, the European Union has been facing heat from both the sides of the Pacific. While the EU has put forward its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in order to constructively engage with the region, it continues to be challenged by America’s confrontational foreign policies and also being apprehensive of China’s refusal to open up their markets at a time of dwindling global economies, China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s growing support towards the populist parties of Europe. The EU has come to perceive China as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance with this perception largely being shaped by China’s revisionist challenge and its alarming nationalist narrative. 

It is important to understand that coronavirus is not here to kill geopolitics. However, the European Union will have to strengthen their efforts towards ensuring that the pandemic does not kill the EU as a geopolitical force. The European Commission must step up its efforts to broker the Multilateral Financial Framework (MFF) among member states which was long pending even before the pandemic struck the continent. It would enable the Union to act collectively in funding recovery efforts in a post-COVID reconstruction of the economies. Further, the EU should focus on shortening their supply chains pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy such that EU’s external dependencies are diversified. The need of the hour is to rebuild an economically sound healthcare Europe while at the same time working towards a more geopolitical Europe. This will require EU to continue investment as a full-spectrum power in military as well as other security capabilities along with assistance and aid to the neighboring countries to rebuild their resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment. 

The EU needs to defend and promote the European model which is struggling to stand amidst the global battle of narratives along with maintaining its strategic autonomy in health, economic and other sectors. At the same time, the Union needs to bolster existing and forge new alliances in order to fill the gap on multilateralism. It needs to locate a strategic edge to resist the external pressures and protect its presence in the global scene and continue being relevant in the changing global order with its extraordinary transcontinental presence of soft power. 

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