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Explainer: The Eastern Partnership post 2020 priorities

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Why is the EU presenting new priorities for the Eastern Partnership beyond 2020?

The Eastern Partnership aims to strengthen and deepen political and economic relations between the European Union, its Member States and the Eastern partner countries and remains a cornerstone of EU’s foreign policy.

As the ‘20 deliverables for 2020′ agenda adopted at the 2017 Summit was running its course, in June 2019 the European Council tasked the European Commission and the High Representative to present a further set of long-term policy objectives beyond 2020. 

The work on the future agenda started with a broad and inclusive consultation conducted in 2019, which concluded with the adoption of the Joint Communication: Eastern Partnership policy beyond 2020: Reinforcing Resilience – an Eastern Partnership that delivers for all  in March 2020, followed by the Council Conclusions on the Eastern Partnership policy beyond 2020 in May.

The Joint Communication identified strengthening resilience as an overarching policy framework, with five long-term policy objectives: i) together for resilient, sustainable and integrated economies; ii) together for accountable institutions, the rule of law and security; iii) together towards environmental and climate resilience; iv) together for a resilient digital transformation; and v) together for resilient, fair and inclusive societies.

At their videoconference in June 2020, the EaP Leaders stated that the proposed framework should form the basis of a new set of post 2020 priorities to be endorsed at the coming Eastern Partnership summit. The shaping of this new agenda took place in an inclusive dialogues with partner countries, Member States and other stakeholders. 

What is in the proposal? What is different/new?

Since its launch in 2009, the Eastern Partnership has delivered concrete, positive results for the partner countries and the EU. Based on these achievements and the results of the broad and extensive consultation conducted in 2019 and 2020, the future priorities for cooperation continue aiming at bringing tangible benefits for people. This will be done through increasing trade, growth and jobs, investing in connectivity, strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law, supporting the green and digital transitions, and promoting fair, gender-equal and inclusive societies. 

A regional economic and investment plan will support post-COVID socio-economic recovery and long-term resilience, taking into account the ‘build back better’ agenda.

Why have you highlighted/selected top ten targets? Are they more important than the other priorities?  

The comprehensive agenda includes a number of priorities structured around five long-term objectives, all of them equally important to strengthen the cooperation between the EU, its Member States and the partner countries. 

In order to maximise impact and visibility on the ground, and taking into account the results of the consultation, a selection of top ten targets has been providing concrete examples of actions within the wider framework of cooperation. The targets range from additional support to SMEs, to the reduction of energy consumption, from increased access to high speed internet to the support to health workers, from additional support to civil society to better tackling hybrid and cyber threats. 

What do you mean by strengthening resilience? How does it link with recovery and reform?

Resilience is multi-dimensional and contributes towards stability, security and prosperity. The EaP policy beyond 2020 focuses on the modernisation and implementation of sustainable reforms, which are key for investing in a resilient economy, democracy, environment and climate, and society. Continued delivery on the reform agenda, alongside the respect for fundamental and shared values, are and will remain the foundations of our partnership. 

In light of the COVID 19 pandemic and its socio-economic fallout, the new agenda aims for increased investment and proposes and economic and investment plan to support a sustainable socio-economic recovery. The investment pillar is grounded in a dedicated pillar on good governance, rule of law, security, and resilient societies, leaving no one behind. These two pillars will enhance the resilience of all partners.

How will the EU help create jobs and opportunities in EaP countries?

To support the creation of job and economic opportunities in partner countries, the EU is proposing to further deepen the economic integration with and among partner countries, and to increase trade, which has nearly doubled between the EU and partners in the last decade. The EU will support the full implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTAs) with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and also encourage enhanced cooperation with non- DCFTA countries, for example through sectoral trade facilitation arrangements of common interest involving all partners.  

How will the new EaP policy address issues of climate change and environmental protection?

Joint work on combating climate change, ensuring more opportunities for greening societies and economies and fostering a circular economy is an integral part of the Eastern Partnership policy framework beyond 2020. The EU will help partner countries to fulfil their nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement and modernise their economies, reducing their carbon footprint and moving towards climate neutrality by 2050, while acknowledging the investment challenges and leaving no one behind. This takes even more relevance in the context of the post COVID 19 recovery efforts, as recently acknowledged by EU and EaP Ministers at the 3rd EaP ministerial meeting on environment and climate change held on 22 June 2021.

How will the new EaP policy address digital transformation?

As indicated in the Strategy on Shaping Europe’s digital future, the digital transformation can enable growth and drive sustainable development for both the EU and partner countries. This is why the EU will invest in the digital transformation of the partner countries, in line with EU legislation and best practice, and aim to extend the benefits of the Digital Single market to them. This will allow for better access to digital infrastructure and services, better public services and administration for citizens, the extension of broadband infrastructures especially in regions and local areas, and a strengthened e-Governance.

How will the new EaP policy address challenges to governance, rule of law and the fight against corruption?

Good governance, democracy, the rule of law and human rights are fundamental values that lie at the heart of the EU’s relationship with partner countries and of the Eastern Partnership itself. They are also preconditions for a functioning market economy and for sustainable growth. In particular, the rule of law is a key factor in ensuring an effective business environment and an important consideration in attracting foreign direct investment.

The EU will keep working together with the governments of partner countries to strengthen the rule of law and anti-corruption mechanisms, as well as the independence, impartiality, efficiency and accountability of justice systems, and to reinforce public administration. The EU remains committed to promote and defend human rights in the region, including through its support to civil society and media. 

There needs to be a renewed commitment to the fundamentals of the partnership and better measure the impact of judicial reforms. In this context, the EU will consider progress in rule of law reforms when deciding on assistance.

How is the EU responding to requests for more security cooperation and overall a more geopolitical approach to the Eastern Partnership? 

We have reaffirmed the strategic importance of the Eastern Partnership, as a specific regional dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), supporting sustainable reform processes and offering close political association as well as economic integration with the EU and tangible impact on people’s lives. The Council in its Conclusions has reaffirmed the joint commitment to building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity and stability.

As outlined in the March 2020 Joint Communication on the EaP future, strengthening resilience will be the key overriding policy framework.  It’s not hard security, which does not fall under EU competence, but strengthening joint governance, economic, environmental, energy and societal resilience, cyber security, fighting crime, reinforcing strategic communications, which all comes into the security envelope. 

We will continue working closely with our Eastern neighbours (in bilateral and regional format – e.g. we hold informal strategic security dialogues with Georgia and Azerbaijan) on tackling terrorism and preventing radicalisation, enhancing cooperation on Security Sector Reform, disrupting organised crime, enhancing cybersecurity and fighting cybercrime, Tackling Chemical, Biological radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats.

The proposed priorities for future cooperation include strengthening security cooperation by working jointly on issues such as hybrid and cyber threats, participation in EU missions within CSDP, and European Peace Facility assistance measures. 

What is the EU doing to counter instability and unresolved conflicts in the region? 

The Eastern Partnership is not a conflict resolution mechanism. Nevertheless, unresolved conflicts continue to hamper development in the region. Under the agreed negotiating formats and processes, the EU is committed to promote the peaceful settlement of these conflicts.  In particular, the EU will pursue efforts to support conflict prevention, confidence building and the facilitation of negotiated peaceful conflict settlements. 

What has the EU done to help EaP countries tackle the COVID 19 pandemic?

As part of the “Team Europe” approach, the EU has delivered a robust response to support partner countries’ efforts in tackling the pandemic, including €1 billion to address immediate short-term needs, boost the resilience of healthcare systems, and support the socio-economic recovery process. In addition, a macro-financial assistance package was adopted for Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova in the form of loans on highly favourable terms to help these countries cover their immediate and urgent financing needs. The Commission has allocated substantial resources for key protective equipment and means of treatment.

Team Europe has mobilised close to €3 billion in support of the COVAX Facility, which remains the priority instrument to ensure equitable and fair access to safe and effective vaccines. All partner countries (except Belarus) participate in the Facility and have received several batches of deliveries. In addition, the Commission is facilitating, through an EU sharing mechanism, the sharing of  vaccines purchased by the Member States under the EU Advanced Purchase Agreements with third countries, directly or through COVAX.. Several Member States have announced direct sharing targeting Eastern partner countries.

To support the roll-out of vaccines, the EU, through a regional programme in cooperation with the World Health Organisation launched on 11 February 2020 and worth €40 million, is providing technical and logistical assistance to the vaccination process in the six partner countries.  The programme will also facilitate the access to vaccines.  

How will the EU help the EaP countries to respond to potential future pandemics? 

The concept of resilience is even more important against the background of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The EU’s programme on vaccine preparedness implemented by the WHO also has a longer term component to strengthen national immunisation systems and improve capacities of the health workforce in the partner countries in vaccine preventable diseases and communication. Beyond this ongoing support, the EU is ready to strengthen health resilience and systems in the partner countries by taking concerted actions to provide affordable medical care and promoting life style changes (healthy living) to reduce the incidence of non-communicable diseases.

How much money will the EU invest?

The implementation of future priorities will be supported through the various EU tools and modalities, including the new ‘Global Europe / NDICI‘ instrument and the Team Europe initiatives bringing together resources and expertise from the EU and its Member States, through the cross-border cooperation programmes and through the partners’ own investments.  Ongoing programming under the new ‘Global Europe’ instrument is in full alignment with the post 2020 EaP policy framework.

The key new element of the Joint Staff Working Document is the economic and investment plan for the Eastern Partnership. By using all available NDICI tools, including the European Fund for Sustainable Development Plus, backed by its External Action Guarantee, it will foster sustainable development and leverage public and private investment. The Economic and Investment Plan will mobilise up to €2,3 billion from the EU budget in grants, blending and guarantees, to stimulate jobs and growth, support connectivity and the green and digital transition. This is expected to leverage potential investments of up the €17 billion to support the post-pandemic recovery and to transform the economies of the Eastern Partnership to make them more sustainable, resilient and integrated. 

What is in the Economic and Investment Plan?

The economic and investment plan for the Eastern Partnership supports the investment pillar presented in the joint staff working document. Transforming the EaP economies to make them more resilient and integrated has become even more urgent in the context of the post-COVID socio-economic recovery.

Investments focus on enhanced transport connectivity; access to finance for SMEs; investments in equity to strengthen competitiveness and integration into EU value chains; support to the digital transition; investment in environment and climate resilience, including energy efficiency; health resilience and human capital development.

EU support under the economic and investment plan should facilitate and leverage public and private investments, by joining the forces of the EU, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, other IFIs; the EU Member States’ development finance institutions (continuing the Team Europe approach); the partner countries’ national, regional and local governments, municipalities where relevant; and private investors.

The European Fund for Sustainable Development will play a critical role in scaling up and leveraging significant volumes of investments. Synergies can also be sought with other financial tools offered by Member States, such as export credits, investment guarantees, etc. The plan will combine actions to be implemented at local, national and regional level, and will be adapted to the specific needs of each partner country (like the economic recovery plan for Moldova, which identifies priority areas for investment). To ensure sustainable impact, the plan also includes investments in innovation and human capital.

Improving the policy and regulatory environment is essential if the investment in the infrastructure is to be effective and to foster sustainable economic and social development.

Why do we have separate country specific flagships?  Which flagships are envisaged for each country

The Economic Investment Plan proposes concrete country flagship initiatives for each of the partner countries. These will contribute to maximise impact and visibility on the ground and concentrate efforts on concrete priority projects that can make a difference to people and businesses in the Eastern Partnership.

EIP: Flagship Initiatives for Armenia Flagship 1: Supporting an innovative and competitive economy: direct support to 30 000 SMEs Flagship 2: Boosting connectivity & socio-economic development: the North-South Corridor Flagship 3: Investing in digital transformation, innovation, science and technology Flagship 4: Building resilience of the Southern regions Flagship 5: Investing in a green Yerevan: energy efficiency and green buses
EIP: Flagship Initiatives for Azerbaijan Flagship 1: Green connectivity: supporting the green port of Baku Flagship 2: Digital connectivity: supporting the digital transport corridor Flagship 3: Supporting an innovative and competitive economy – direct support to 25 000 SMEs Flagship 4: Innovative Rural Development Flagship 5: Smarter and greener cities
EIP: Flagship Initiatives for democratic Belarus (Proposals are indicative and subject to a democratic transition) Flagship 1: Supporting an innovative and competitive economy – direct support to 20 000 SMEs Flagship 2: Improving transport connectivity and facilitating EU-Belarus trade Flagship 3: Boosting innovation and the digital transformation Flagship 4: Supporting a green Belarus – energy efficiency, waste management and infrastructure Flagship 5: Investing in a democratic, transparent and accountable Belarus
EIP: Flagship Initiatives for Georgia Flagship 1: Black Sea Connectivity – Deploying a submarine electricity cable and fibre optic     cable Flagship 2: Transport across the Black Sea – Improving physical connections between Georgia and the EU Flagship 3: Economic Recovery – Supporting 80,000 SMEs to reap the full benefits of the DCFTA Flagship 4: Digital Connectivity for Citizens – Developing high-speed broadband infrastructure for 1,000 rural settlements Flagship 5: Improved Air Quality – Helping over 1 million people in Tbilisi breathe cleaner air
EIP: Flagship Initiatives for the Republic of Moldova Flagship 1: Supporting an innovative and competitive economy – direct support to 50,000 Moldovan SMEs Flagship 2: Boosting EU-Moldova trade – construction of an Inland Freight Terminal in Chisinau Flagship 3: Increasing energy efficiency – expanding the refurbishment of district heating systems in residential buildings (condominiums) in Chisinau and Balti Flagship 4: Improving connectivity – anchoring Moldova in the Trans-European Network for Transport Flagship 5: Investing in Moldova’s human capital and preventing “brain drain” – modernisation of school infrastructure and implementation of the National Education Strategy
EIP: Flagship Initiatives for Ukraine Flagship 1: Supporting an innovative and competitive economy – direct support to 100 000       SMEs Flagship 2: Economic transition for rural areas – assistance to more than 10 000 small farms Flagship 3: Improving connectivity by upgrading border crossing points Flagship 4: Boosting the digital transformation – modernising public IT infrastructure Flagship 5: Increasing energy efficiency – and support for renewable hydrogen

What is in there for Belarus?  How does it link with the Plan for a democratic Belarus presented a few days ago? 

The EU regrets the decision of the Lukashenko regime to suspend its participation in the Eastern Partnership framework. The Eastern Partnership aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the European Union, its Member States and partner countries, with the overall objective of bringing concrete benefits to the citizens of our respective countries. This decision serves only to further isolate Belarus and is yet another demonstration of the regime’s disregard for the Belarusian people, who benefit from the cooperation and various programmes as part of the Eastern Partnership.

The EU remains open to continue working with Belarusian people also within the Eastern Partnership framework and will continue to support the Belarusian people and civil society, as well as their democratic aspirations.

The country flagships for Belarus included in the Economic Investment Plan are fully aligned with the €3 billion comprehensive plan for a democratic Belarus announced in May. The EU offer is conditional to a democratic transition.

How will the new EaP policy address challenges civil society faces?

The Eastern Partnership goes beyond relations with governments. Partnerships with other key stakeholders, such as civil society organisations are equally important.  Working with civil society has become an indispensable element of the Eastern Partnership and plays a vital role in promoting democracy, the rule of law and advancing key reforms.

In this regard, the EaP Civil Society Forum is a unique, multilateral platform for experience-sharing, mutual learning, support and partnership building. The EU will also further develop strategic partnerships with key civil society organisations to strengthen cooperation, build up the leadership skills of civil society activists, and engage with social partners such as trade unions and employers’ organisations. Finally, it will continue to measure CSO space by using the dedicated tool prepared for the Eastern Partnership (CSO meter) and use this as a basis for policy dialogue with the partner countries

Will the EU continue to tackle fake news and disinformation from Russia?

In the wake of growing disinformation against EU values in recent years, the EU has worked to put in place a stronger and more strategic approach to communication. We have strengthened the EU’s communication in partner countries through clear, tailor-made messaging and raising awareness of the positive impact of EU policies and actions to people across the region. Under the new Eastern Partnership framework, there will be a renewed focus on outreach to youth. Strategic communication is crucial for building resilience and is a core duty for policy-makers at the service of citizens.

The EU will also provide training opportunities and capacity building to the partner countries, including on countering hybrid and cyber threats, where appropriate.

What has the EaP delivered in the past 11 years?

Over the past 11 years, the Eastern Partnership has progressed based on common values

mutual interests and commitments, as well as on shared ownership and responsibility. This strategic partnership has matured and evolved with achievements such as Association Agreements (including Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas), a Comprehensive Enhanced Partnership Agreement, Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements, visa liberalisations and Partnership priorities, which are today the cornerstones of our relations and cooperation.

Trade between the EU and Eastern partner countries has nearly doubled in the last decade. The EU is the first trading partner for Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and second biggest for Armenia and Belarus. In the period between 2016 and 2019, trade volumes between the EU and Armenia went up by 27%, by 55% with Azerbaijan, by 40% with Belarus, by 7% with Georgia, by 42% with Moldova and by 50% with Ukraine. Furthermore, over 185,000 small- and medium-sized companies in the Eastern partners have benefitted from EU funding, creating or sustaining 1.65 million jobs.

In the area of transport connectivity, a €20 million technical assistance facility to help implementation of the extension of the Trans-European Transport Network has been set up. The EU’s TENT-T extension foresees 4,800 km of new and rehabilitated roads and railways by 2030, which will open new opportunities for economic development and exchanges between the EU and Eastern partner countries and amongst themselves.

In terms of investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the fund of the Energy Efficiency Partnership (E5P) now covers all partner countries.  It has provided over €164 million in investment grants to 40 projects benefiting 11.7 million people and leveraging a total investment of almost €1.2 billion. Investments include all six countries and range from the provision of energy efficient trolley buses in Tblisi and Batumi to municipal investments in district heating in Lviv or investments to enhance energy efficiency in public buildings in Yerevan.

The Eastern Partnership is also delivering for the youth and researchers. The EU has supported 100 projects supporting civic engagement and entrepreneurship amongst the young people and 25,000 young people in the region have benefitted from EU4Youth grants to support six large-scale projects to boost youth employment, their employability and transition to work and 1,100 researchers from the region benefit from the Marie Curie scheme. Since 2016, 43,000 students and academic staff from the Eastern partner countries have participated in academic exchanges thanks to Erasmus+ and over 54,000 young people were involved in other exchanges, including volunteering. The European School in Tbilisi is in place since September 2018 allowing students across all partner countries to graduate on European studies; a fully-fledged European School should be established by 2023.    

The structured consultation in 2019 confirmed that the Eastern Partnership is robust and delivering concrete benefits to citizens. The results-oriented approach “20 deliverables for 2020” has delivered notably on stronger economy, stronger connectivity and stronger society. However, challenges remain, particularly when it comes to judicial reform, fighting corruption and organised crime. In addition, issues relating to media independence, civil society space, gender equality and non-discrimination, continue to pose serious concerns. Equally, climate mitigation and environment need to be addressed further. The future agenda will continue to prioritise these jointly agreed key reforms. 

What will happen next? When will the implementation start? 

The proposed future agenda will be discussed with Member States, partner countries and other stakeholders in view of its endorsement at the 6th Eastern Partnership summit in December 2021. 

The preparatory work for the implementation of the future agenda has already started and it will continue in the coming months, including on securing the funds to implement the ambitious agenda.   

Why are you proposing to change the EaP multilateral architecture?

The current multilateral architecture was revised and officially adopted at the 2017 EaP Summit (along with the ‘20 deliverables for 2020′), and it has been operational since 2018.

The 2019 consultation on the future of the EaP showed a clear consensus that the current structures were functional and fit for purpose, as well as the importance of the multilateral dimension of the EaP cooperation. However, the architecture would benefit from: (i) further streamlining; (ii) better operational arrangements (e.g. as regards the preparation and follow-up of meetings); and (iii) more flexibility. Some adjustments are required to accommodate the new priorities.

The underlying principle for the proposed revision is to maintain elements that work and make suggestions to address shortcomings. It is expected that this will be further discussed with EU Member States and partner countries in view of its validation at the EaP Summit in 2021.

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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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Europe

German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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