As the UK is yet again able to take its future into its own hands, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative appears to be emerging as the leading framework set to define the country’s future engagement with the rest of the world.
Although the phrase has recently become more pervasively used in the public domain, it still remains stubbornly ambiguous to many observers on the both sides of the Atlantic.
In order to fully grasp the post-Brexit narrative of Britain—which is crucial to make conscious strategic decisions in an increasingly complex and interconnected world—we should turn to its inception by the British government and its subsequent conceptualization by a number of high government officials as well as through the government’s policies concerning the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, alongside the historical and intellectual origins of Britain’s ‘Global’ thinking.
Setting the governmental agenda for ‘Global Britain’
The phrase ‘Global Britain’ was coined shortly after the historic Brexit referendum, when Prime Minister Theresa May first outlined her vision for the country in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 2 October 2016 and called for “truly global Britain.”
May concluded that “Brexit should not just prompt us to think about our new relationship with the European Union,” but also “make us think of Global Britain, a country with the self-confidence and the freedom to look beyond the continent of Europe and to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world.” She believed that Brexit “was a vote for Britain to stand tall, to believe in ourselves, to forge an ambitious and optimistic new role in the world.”
Interestingly, in the same year on 2 December, PM Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, gave his first major speech at Chatham House tellingly titled Global Britain: UK Foreign Policy in the Era of Brexit, in which he affirmed the government’s intention to pursue a “truly global foreign policy.”
Ever since that time Theresa May has been referring to ‘Global Britain’ in a similar manner in her major speeches, including the January 2017 Lancaster House speech and her speech to the US Republican Party Conference in Philadelphia the same month. May also referred to ‘Global Britain’ in her addresses to the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the UN General Assembly 2017 in New York.
A month later, in a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 2017, Boris Johnson restated his belief in the ‘Global Britain’ brand by expressing the following words:
“We are big enough to do amazing things. We have the ability to project force 7,000 miles, to use our permanent membership of the UN security council to mobilise a collective response to the crisis in North Korea. We contribute 25 % of European aid spending and yet no one seriously complains that we have a sinister national agenda and that is why the phrase global Britain makes sense because if you said Global China or Global Russia or even alas Global America it would not have quite the same flavour.”
Crucially, it is important to mention that at the centre of the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, free trade is its core element—something clearly visible both in Theresa May’s October 2016 speech to the Conservative Party Conference and at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, where she expressed the hope that the UK “will step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world.”
Furthermore, Boris Johnson described the UK’s role of an advocate for global free trade as the country’s “historic post-Brexit function” in his Chatham House speech in 2016. Yet, by that time many, like Professor Richard G. Whitman from the University of Kent, have argued that “we know little more than Global Britain means Global Britain.”
PM Boris Johnson’s announcement in 2020 to increase defence spending by £16.5 billion ($23 billion) over the next four years—dubbed as “the biggest spending boost since the Cold War” and said to be aiming at catching President Joe Biden’s attention—was a strong message in the direction the ‘Global Britain’ policy narrative has been turning towards.
Simultaneously, in 2020 the UK’s foreign aid budget was announced to be cut by £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion), so that in 2021 the UK will not meet the UN-recommended target of spending 0.7 % (decreased to 0.5 %) of its Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the first time since 2013—steps said to be taken in line with the government’s attempt to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
With the commitment to retain the target enshrined in law by the Coalition Government in 2015 and the Conservative Party’s manifesto of 2019, the cut—which was met with strong condemnation both by David Cameron and Tony Blair, who warned the decision would jeopardise Britain’s ‘soft power’ status—resulted in Foreign Office minister James Cleverly’s pledge at the March 2021 UN virtual conference to donate £87 million ($120 million) to Yemen relief efforts in the coming year, which is less than half of the £196.6 million donated in 2020 and around 40 % of the £214 million total donations made in 2020-2021.
Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs, described the UK government’s decision as an attempt to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen” and warned of a long-term damage to the country’s reputation—bearing in mind that British MPs were prevented from having a vote on PM Johnson’s controversial move, which is why he is said to be running the risk of setting an illegal budget.
At the same time the UK government continues to be deeply involved in the Yemen conflict by remaining the leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Once the ban on weapons sales to the Gulf country was lifted London authorised the export of £1.4 billion-worth ($1.9 billion) weaponry to the Saudis between July and September last year, refusing to follow the U.S. moral lead in this regard.
Taking this into consideration it is difficult to imagine how to quote Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, “Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good”—the very slogan repeated by Raab in January last year as part of his three pillars defining the “truly global Britain.”
The organisation argued that in order to be “taken seriously as a future partner, the UK must tread carefully and intentionally remedy the historic power imbalances institutionalised in the UN and Bretton Woods institutions” in its contacts with the Commonwealth and the Global South, warning that “‘Global Britain’ could too easily be (mis)interpreted as ‘Empire 2.0’” if it fails to carry out deliberate action.
September that year, Tradecraft Exchange published a research paper which argued that in prioritising trade negotiations with richer nations, Britain risks falling short on its commitments to tackle global poverty and climate change. Moreover, with the UK engaging in striking trade deals with poorer nations like in the recent case of Kenya, it is evidently doing this to their detriment.
That same month, the UK government decided to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and establish the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The newly published policy paper is said to be the blueprint for the work of this new department.
The document states that “the UK is one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments… where we can have the greatest life-changing impact in the long term.”
It goes on to state that Britain will “maintain our commitment to Africa,” particularly emphasizing importance of its partners in East Africa and Nigeria, “while increasing development efforts in the Indo-Pacific.” Sadly, the very pledge stands in stark contrast to the recent government leaks concerning plans to cut aid to Nigeria by 59 %, South Sudan by 59%, Somalia by 60%, not to mention the DRC (60%), Syria (67%), and Libya (63%).
While the UK’s International Development Committee chair, Sarah Champion MP, commented that “the Integrated Review appears to be more centred towards rubbing shoulders with trading partners than creating a level playing field for the global community to prosper”.
On that note, it is fair to say that the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy puts much less emphasis on development than it does on the other parts constituting its title, while revealing “the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.”
Integrated Review: The Unfortunate Triumph of Form over Strategic Substance
The review published in early March this year, dubbed as “the most radical reassessment of our place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, is said to be “an attempt to put meat on the bones of the ‘Global Britain’ concept,” as Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), argues.
“This was something the Tories banged on about a lot, this was something that Brexit was supposed to be all about, but no one has any idea what it means,” Pantucci added.
The 100-page document—visibly inspired by the Policy Exchange’s Making Global Britain Work (July 24, 2019) and A Very British Tilt (November 22, 2020)—sets a vision for “Global Britain”, in which the country is “tilting” towards the Indo-Pacific region to become a bigger player there, as the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” moves eastwards towards countries such as China, India and Japan.
“The Indo-Pacific is this incredible hub and so is somewhere the UK is looking to have a larger say in […] Where navies go, trade goes, and where trade goes, navies go,” Adm. Tony Radakin, explained.
It is important to note that a similar narrative was seen in the past. The former First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir Philip Jones, argued in his speech delivered at the 2017 DSEI Maritime Conference that “the Asia-Pacific region contains two of the three largest economies in the world and five of the largest 16. If the U.K. does wish to forge new global trading partnerships, this is somewhere we need to be.”
Sir Jones also stated that the new aircraft-carriers, including HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will enable the country to resume its old role in Asia and the Pacific, which was abandoned in 1971 after the UK’s withdrawal of forces from Singapore.
As Richard Reeve already observed in his article, “Global Britain’s post-Brexit identity is a return to neo-mercantilist maritime control,” which is driven by the need to secure new trade and arms deals by establishing a strong ‘Global Britain’ brand through the Royal Navy and aligning the country’s objectives and alliances with those of the U.S.
Reeve warned that such a strategy risks the UK’s involvement “in a potentially very hot Korea-US conflict” and even more dangerous “creeping cold war” between the U.S. and China. Both are burdened with the high risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange.
Furthermore, he reminded his readers of “the UK’s doomed inter-war Singapore Strategy and of the Imperial Russian Navy in 1905,” notably after the Commons Defence Committee was presented that month with evidence that new carriers are unlikely to be able to operate within range of China.
At the time, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s pledge made at the Lowy Institute’s lecture in July 2017 outlined that one of the first tasks of the new carriers will be to conduct freedom of navigation operations around Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea.
Most recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnsons planned dispatch of an aircraft carrier group to the Indo-Pacific in order to face-off China, is viewed by some as a defeatist delusion suggesting “that the best thing we can do is ingratiate ourselves with the Americans,” as senior policy fellow Nick Witney (ECFR) suggests.
Mr Witney, like Professor Anatol Lieven, believes that such strategic theatrics could result in the same disastrous outcome as the invasion of Iraq.
Without the ability to bring substantive change to the table as far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, the UK is said to be “risking of reminding the Chinese of how we treated them in the nineteenth-century Opium Wars,” as argued by Professor Lieven in his recent article.
As far as the British public’s opinion is concerned in their perception of deploying security resources to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, the British Foreign Policy Group’s recent report suggests that only 18% of respondents would be comfortable with this move, while 45 % of them do not want the UK to be drawn into conflicts. Another 35 % believe that the country’s track record of involvement abroad is bad.
Unfortunately, the government’s Integrated Review call to increase the number of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260, which some perceive as violating international law and breaching Article 60 of the NPT, risks the possibility of creating another conflict according to Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University.
“At the NPT Review Conference this August, HMG will have to explain its reversal on nuclear warhead numbers not just to Russia or China but to a sceptical international community,” Sir Adam Thomson, director of the ELN and former diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to NATO between 2014 and 2016, rightly observed, also wondering how this corresponds with the UK’s commitment to the world without nuclear weapons.
Dominic Raab recently announced that he will “rally NATO allies to face down the threat from Russia and ensure it faces real world consequences for hostile activity”–potentially go to the detrimental to U.S. efforts in attempting to “chart a new course” for Moscow, as discussed by David Keene and Dan Negre–despite being more nuanced with respect to China.
As Jo Johnson, the former universities minister and the prime minister’s brother argues, the reason for this ambiguous approach to the Middle Kingdom by the Johnson government is the Conservative Party’s problem with Sinophobia, which is said to be the new Euroscepticism.
“It’s the new political machismo, but it would be economic madness to decouple from China and incredibly destructive of this idea of Global Britain, because there are many countries […] across the Global South who are increasingly interdependent with China. There won’t be a global Britain if we are not engaging with China, and all the other countries enmeshed with it,” Johnson believes.
“The reality is that if we follow a hard Brexit with Chexit [decoupling with China], then Global Britain is going to be an aeroplane that has dropped both engines,” he added.
In fact, it is really difficult to imagine the government succeeding in accomplishing all of these competing goals in a situation where the national debt has already exceeded £2 trillion (and growing), with the pandemic adding an extra burden to the country’s economic condition, which is said to be ‘heading for a new era of austerity.’
Interestingly, ahead of the review last year, security experts giving evidence to the UK lawmakers warned there was often a gap between the ambitions of a wide-ranging policy review and the resources allocated to meet them.
‘Global Britain’: Old Wine in a New Bottle
The mentioned analysis of ‘Global Britain,’ however, would not be full without paying attention to historical and intellectual influences related to the term and associated topics.
“Global Britain,” writes Oliver Turner in his 2019 peer-reviewed article stresses that it “is more than a notion, an idea, or a vision for UK international engagement, and more than the foreign policy blueprint it purports to provide. It is an autobiographical narrative about what Britain is and what it envisions the world and its actors to be.”
Turner informs that the significance of this distinction lies in the fact that narratives seldom stand alone and are often “written to construct particular realities and shape policy choice.”
The academic argues that “Global Britain is principally authored as a ‘painkiller’ in anticipation of domestic trauma following the loss of EU membership, just as the British Commonwealth once was to assuage the loss of empire.” In order to be marketable, Turner believes, it requires “pre-existing knowledges of past imperial ‘successes’ and accepting images of empire among the British public.”
The said narrative has significant consequences, as the ‘Global Britain’ advocates tend to selectively exploit the past to imagine the future and effectively turn history into a “proxy for ideology,” as Robert Saunders from Queen Mary University of London argues.
He further mentions, one of the most famous figures of the British right, Enoch Powell, who argued that “all history is myth” in a sense that “the stories told about the past carried political meanings.”
Saunders continues, believing that the post-war Britain suffered from a special kind of myth known as “the myth of empire,” which caused “grave psychological damage” to the British people.
This manifested itself in a dual way: first, as “a pervasive sense of decline that had sapped the British of self-confidence” and second, “as a longing for empire-substitutes, such as the Commonwealth or the European Community.”
Professor Paul Gilroy (UCL) made similar observation in his book arguing that after the end of World War II, British life has been “dominated by an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, […] the end of the empire and consequent loss of imperial prestige.”
This constant fear of reconciling with the past has managed to produce an extremely unbalanced identity of the nation burdened with a distorted vision of its country, called by Sathnam Sanghera in his latest book titled Empireland, which “recast a coercive military empire as a champion of “free trade”; and, in so doing, established entrepreneurialism, rather than empire, as the golden thread connecting past and present,” as Dr Saunder’s put it.
What is noticeable about the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, in the mentioned sense, is that it takes out the empire—one whose reach stretched from Africa and the Americas to Asia and Australasia, and also Europe if we count the colonisation of Ireland—from the equation leading to its status of “the world’s largest and most powerful trading nation,” as former international trade secretary Dr Liam Fox put it during his Free Trade speech in 2016.
Hence, when advocates of ‘Global Britain’ romanticize the vision of Britain trading across the Commonwealth—which they tend to describe as an association of “some of the world’s oldest and most resilient friendships”—they tend to forget to tell the complete story in what particular circumstances those very “friendships” were established and further sustained through “imperialism of free trade,” as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson explained in their peer-reviewed article of the same title published in The Economic History Review 1953.
To illustrate this in greater detail, it is best to turn to Shashi Tharoor’s insights provided in his book, where he says the following:
“Free trade was, of course, suited to the British as a slogan, since they were the best equipped to profit from it in the nineteenth century, and their guns and laws could always stifle what little competition the indigenes could attempt to mount. A globalization of equals could well have been worth celebrating, but the globalization of Empire was conducted by and above all for the colonizers, and not in the interests of the colonized.”
In other words, what ‘Global Britain’ advocates are doing is “use ‘trade’ as a euphemism for ‘empire’,” as Dr Robert Saunders argues.
What is also significant about the group is the attachment to the idea of ‘Anglosphere,’ which has its intellectual roots in the late 19th century’s Victorian discourses about “Greater Britain.”
Resurrected after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mythology of the “English-speaking peoples’” union served as a counter, and culturally more “natural,” narrative to the one embracing UK’s membership in the EU, as well as the British very own attempt to make sense of the post-Cold War moment.
Furthermore, as Professor Duncan Bell from University of Cambridge argues in his excellent article published in 2017 in the Prospect magazine, “dreams of deep Anglosphere integration, and of political unification, are symptomatic expressions of colonial nostalgia, underwritten by fears about Britain’s declining status.”
Importantly, it was British historian Robert Conquest who most comprehensively articulated—and inspired politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who referred to his idea of the broader alliance between the “English-speaking peoples” in her speech to the English-Speaking Union in December 1999 in New York—the idea of Anglosphere.
What is interesting about Conquest’s “bold charge that existing international bodies had failed,” as Professor Bell mentioned, is its similarity to the current language used by Brexiteers (and Trump supporters).
Echoing the famous historian’s concern, Theresa May told the audience at the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere—you don’t understand what citizenship means.”
The statement with a clear aim to rejuvenate patriotism after the Brexit referendum, which should be understood in the broader context of growing tendency among the Conservative Party voters to lean towards anti-globalism (as it was confirmed in the already mentioned BFPG’s survey published this year), has its roots in the Victorian era, namely in the ‘civic imperialism.’
As Duncan Bell argues in his book, civic imperialism “placed duty, individual and communal virtue, patriotism, disdain of luxury, and the privileging of the common good, at the centre of the political universe.” Bell also continues that “empire and liberty, it was argued, were intimately connected.”
What is visible here is that “the image of 19th century Britain has so far appeared to play an outsized role” in ‘Global Britain’ narrative, as Harvard University’s research paper published this year and titled Finding ‘Global Britain’: political slogan to hard economic policy choices observes.
Since the “conditions which allowed the UK to dominate global industrial production, such as a large lead in industrial productivity and the coercive power of the British Empire, no longer apply,” as the paper concludes, it is still safe to argue, repeating Dean Acheson, that Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role.”
Trapped in hubris, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative seems to be missing the true security challenges while pursuing its “quest for a unique role” in the world, which, like Christopher Hill wrote, is “like the pursuit of the Holy Grail” and can be “a fatal distraction to politicians with responsibilities,” who may find the levelling-up agenda more vital than the search for the long-lost imperial grandeur.
With a clear collapse in trust in the government in terms of its willingness to act in the British public’s interest when foreign policy decisions are concerned, the possible overload of ‘Global Britain’s’ often competing agendas run the high risk of not only turning into nemesis for Britain itself, but the U.S. and the very ‘special relationship’ which London is so desperately trying to preserve.
From our partner RIAC
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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