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Let us make Europe a safe place for environmental human rights defenders

The Brave Women of Kruscica join hands at an event on the third anniversary of the morning they were attacked for refusing to let construction equipment cross the bridge over the Kruščica River. (Photo courtesy of Jakub Hrab/Arnika)

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In 2017 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a group of dedicated grassroots environmental activists staged a 500-day-long protest against the construction of new hydropower dams on the Kruščica river. The fight led by local women, who later came to be known as the Brave Women of Kruščica, met with many obstacles, including physical violence and arrests, but it has not been in vain: it has helped to safeguard access to fresh drinking water for local residents while staving off risks posed by the projects to the habitat of many animal species.

Two years later, in 2019 in the United Kingdom, more than ten years of protests and pressure from environmental campaigners resulted in a government moratorium on fracking, a controversial method of extracting underground gas, offering relief to residents of areas located near extraction sites who feared earth tremors and exposure to other environmental harms linked to potential accidents.

In Spain, almost twenty years of relentless campaigning and a legal battle by Spanish ecologists culminated in October 2020 in victory when the country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that put an end to a vast residential development project threatening a coastal natural park recognised for its protected marine habitats.

And in March 2021 in France, a government decree setting very short buffer distances between human habitat and areas treated with highly toxic pesticides was deemed unconstitutional thanks to the collective efforts of a number of national and regional environmental NGOs, backed by citizen and consumer associations and health organisations.

These are just a handful of real-life examples of how environmental action has benefited the human rights and collective safety of entire communities in Europe. Many other inspiring success stories can be found, including on Voices of Nature, a brand new website set up by the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention. There are countless others around the world. Some make the headlines. Many go unnoticed.

Environmental human rights defenders

The people behind these extremely important efforts are environmental human rights defenders. The term refers to human rights defenders working on environmental issues. Many of them are ordinary citizens who are simply exercising their human rights, or who are forced to act by circumstances or sheer necessity; some of them may fall into this category regardless of whether or not they self-identify as human rights defenders. The interdependence between human rights and the environment has gradually become one of the central pillars of today’s human rights discourse, as I have noted in my 2019 human rights comment entitled “Living in a clean environment: a neglected human rights concern for all of us”. It is now abundantly clear that environmental harm interferes with the enjoyment of basic human rights and freedoms, such as the right to life, to health, to privacy, or freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment. It follows from this that those who act to protect the environment and to prevent environmental degradation, including climate change, contribute to the protection of our human rights.

The critical contribution made by environmental human rights defenders to our societies has not gone unrecognised, as evidenced by, for example, the landmark resolution on environmental human rights defenders adopted in 2019 by the Human Rights Council, and the “Geneva Roadmap” that seeks to aid its effective implementation. Their role has also been acknowledged by the mandate of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, not least in the seminal UN Framework Principles on human rights and the environment. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), together with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Universal Rights Group, have developed a dedicated resource portal and a Defenders Policy in support of environmental defenders. Within the Council of Europe, this year’s 9th Edition of the World Forum for Democracy honours their work by focusing on the topic “Defending the Defenders” as part of its year-long campaign devoted to the complex interplay of democracy and environmental protection. In many places around Europe, national and local authorities have given environmental human rights defenders a seat at the policy table in recognition of their valuable voice, experience, and expertise.

At the same time, governments in Europe often consider environmental defenders and environmental advocacy a nuisance at best, and a threat at worst, and respond to legitimate activism with reprisals. Some simply allow unbridled economic development to take precedence over citizens’ legitimate environmental concerns or allow vested moneyed interests and powerful non-state actors to stifle activism. Environmental defenders’ activities have won them some formidable enemies and in many places around Europe today, speaking out and standing up for the environment or denouncing the effects of climate change carries a hefty price tag.

A rise in attacks and reprisals against environmental defenders

The persecution of environmental human rights defenders in Europe is hardly a new phenomenon. In the 2014 report entitled “A Dangerous Shade of Green”, the NGO ‘Article 19’ documented dozens of examples of killings and violent attacks on environmental activists on the continent; other examples, mostly from countries of the former Soviet Union, can be found in the 2019 report “Dangerous work: Reprisals against environmental activists” by the NGO Crude Accountability. Sadly, however, these attacks and incidents have not abated – if anything, they have grown in intensity. Only recently, over 400 academics researching climate and environmental change published an open letter in which they voiced concern about the increasing criminalisation and silencing of environmental activists around the world, which they see as “a new form of anti-democratic refusal to act on climate.”

Support for the work of human rights defenders, their protection, and the development of an enabling environment for their activities are among the core elements of my mandate as Commissioner for Human Rights. It was with this in mind that last December I convened an online roundtable with environmental human rights defenders from across Europe, including lawyers, campaigners and representatives of both local and international NGOs from several European countries. Their testimonials have laid bare the intensification of oppression and intimidation faced by Europe’s environmental human rights defenders in recent years. As can be seen in the conclusions of the roundtable report, those who bring truth to light on environmental issues and are at the forefront of the fight against climate change are currently facing attacks on all fronts.

Sadly, there are places in Europe today where environmental human rights defenders are beaten, threatened, verbally abused, intimidated, or otherwise prevented from carrying out their legitimate activities in a safe and free manner. To mention but a handful of the most glaring examples: an environmental campaigner from Russia was severely beaten by unknown assailants and hospitalised with skull fractures and a broken nose. In Ukraine, an environmental activist investigating the pollution of a local river, allegedly caused by a nearby waste treatment plant, was found hanged under suspicious circumstances. The fight against illegal logging in Romania’s primeval forests has already claimed the lives of several rangers and has put the lives of some activists at risk. I personally heard the harrowing testimony of an environmental campaigner who described being beaten almost to death in 2015; although his assailants were caught on video and identified by an eyewitness, they have never been brought to justice.

When confronted with reports of violence or intimidation of environmental human rights defenders, law enforcement agencies all too often turn a blind eye. Worryingly, in some European countries, this has become quite commonplace. Government reprisals or the inability or unwillingness of public authorities to guarantee the safety and protection of environmental activists has led some of them to seek refuge elsewhere. A prominent environmental activist and head of one of Russia’s oldest environmental groups had to flee the country after being harassed with numerous spurious judicial proceedings. Several other environmental campaigners who fought against the construction of a motorway through a primeval forest, opposed the illegal exploitation of protected forestland, or advocated more openness about the fallout of a nuclear incident, had to leave Russia out of concern for their own and their families’ safety. An environmental defender from Romania told me about having to relocate abroad after receiving information about a bounty placed on his head by criminals in connection with his environmental work, fearing the law enforcement’s inability to guarantee his protection.

Stigmatisation, surveillance and other restrictions on environmental activism

Violent attacks are hardly the only problem facing environmental defenders today, however. Increasingly, governments view and present environmental organisations as suspicious and pass legislation or measures with the aim of limiting their scope for action. A prime example of such legislation disproportionately affecting legitimate environmental activism are the so-called foreign agent-type laws. Such laws force many environmental defender organisations to either avoid official registration altogether or to discontinue their operations, on pain of heavy fines and other punitive measures, including criminal prosecution, judicial harassment, or dissolution. The first such law, adopted by Russia in 2012, was the subject of my predecessor’s intervention in a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights. Regrettably, this bad example has inspired copycat solutions in other parts of Europe. Similar legislation was adopted in Hungary in 2017 despite criticism from my office – and found to be in breach of EU law in June 2020. In May 2020, Poland’s environment minister announced that similar legislation was under consideration and that a working group had been set up to that end; he also accused some environmental organisations of acting not for the environment’s sake but rather on the instructions of undefined “bigger interests”. In Slovenia, the government inserted in a bill on COVID-19-related economic support a provision limiting the ability of environmental activists to participate in environmental impact assessments; the proposal is currently under constitutional review.

Environmental human rights defenders who took part in the above-mentioned roundtable mentioned various other types of government activities deliberately limiting their scope for action and effectively hampering collective efforts to put an end to the adverse consequences of environmental degradation and climate change. These, in turn, can have a chilling effect on the whole of society. In many Council of Europe member states, environmental human rights defenders are deliberately mocked, ridiculed, scapegoated, marginalised, or even likened to extremists and given derogatory labels, such as ‘(eco-)terrorists’ – including by public officials, media outlets, or even judicial authorities. Some governments and businesses resort to offensive and stigmatising public relations campaigns to isolate environmental campaigners and make attacks on them more justifiable to the general public. Their organisations are also smeared online in an attempt to tarnish their reputation, and activists are regularly cyber-bullied. In some member states, law enforcement agencies disrupt the legitimate activities of environmental organisations by raiding their offices and seizing their equipment, thereby further adding to the stigmatisation in the public eye.  

Worryingly, participation in environmental protests is also increasingly equated with unlawful activity or interpreted as a ground for imposing preventive individual restrictions on freedom of movement or the right to liberty. Rules on public assemblies are sometimes applied selectively to the detriment of protests by environmental groups. Public participation in global environmental summits has often been curtailed and large numbers of environmental activists placed under surveillance. These last measures in particular represent a far-reaching intrusion into the privacy of those targeted, but are difficult to detect and challenge legally, due to their covert nature.

For example, ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in 2015, France imposed surveillance measures on a number of grassroots environmental activists and placed some of them under preventive house arrest. Legislation adopted by Poland ahead of the COP24 conference in 2018 gave broad surveillance powers to the police and secret services to collect personal data about COP24 participants and to prevent spontaneous peaceful assemblies in the city where the summit was being held. In 2019, a court in Moscow sentenced a youth climate activist and solo picketer to six days in detention for his peaceful protest as part of the global “Fridays for the Future” campaign. In the United Kingdom, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – currently before Parliament – has been criticised by environmental activists for its possible negative impact on freedom of assembly and peaceful protests, and for the discouraging effect its provisions would have on people’s participation in environmental demonstrations.

Intimidation and harassment of environmental journalists

Aggressive tactics used against environmental human rights defenders are also frequently extended to investigative journalists, both because of the environmental harm they might uncover and due to their role in helping activists spread the message about their causes. Examples mentioned during the roundtable ranged from a vexatious lawsuit by an oil company against a newspaper to testimonies about threats against journalists interested in covering environmental campaigns. In March this year, in an apparent attempt to cause a road accident, two bolts were removed from the wheel of a car belonging to a French investigative journalist known for her investigations into the agricultural sector; this incident followed previous threats to her and her family and the poisoning of her dog. Another freelance journalist renowned for her investigation into the environmental degradation caused by the discharge of toxic pesticides by the agri-food industry was targeted by groundless defamation lawsuits initiated by powerful business owners. Although these claims were eventually withdrawn, the overall objective of such vexatious lawsuits, otherwise known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs), is to intimidate journalists into abandoning their environmental investigations.

The way forward

The worrying state of affairs described above is untenable. If European governments – both at the central and the local level – are serious about their stated commitments to fighting environmental pollution and climate change, it is high time that they recognised and acted decisively on their responsibilities vis-à-vis environmental human rights defenders and environmental journalists.

First of all, Council of Europe member states must provide a safe and enabling environment for environmental human rights defenders to operate free from violence, intimidation, harassment, or threats. They should adopt a zero-tolerance policy on human rights violations against environmental human rights defenders and environmental journalists; swiftly and firmly condemn any threats or violence against them and their organisations – including by non-state actors; lead full and effective investigations into any threats or violence committed against them, with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice; and provide access to effective remedies for such violations.

Second, we must put an end to the stigmatisation of environmental human rights defenders in Europe, including that emanating from non-state actors and taking place online. Politicians and opinion leaders must refrain from referring to environmental defenders using derogatory terms and from seeking to misrepresent or undermine their work. Instead, they should publicly and firmly support their activities and recognise the fundamental importance of their engagement and their contribution to our societies. They should also repeal legislation that interferes with environmental organisations’ ability to work freely and independently. There can be no room in Europe for foreign agent-type or other laws stifling legitimate civil society activism.

Third, public protests and campaigns are among the most effective — and indeed indispensable — environmental advocacy tools for raising public awareness and effecting change. States should respect freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in relation to environmental matters, and protect the exercise of these rights from interference, including from non-state actors.

Fourth, we must pay due heed to the voice of environmental human rights defenders. Public authorities and private businesses should ensure genuine, effective, and transparent participation of environmental organisations, communities and individuals in decision-making on all policies and projects which may have an environmental impact. States should collect and disseminate environmental information and guarantee procedures that allow concerned individuals to act when confronted with environmental degradation, including the right to receive affordable, effective and timely access to information about environmental issues. In line with my recent written observations to the European Court of Human Rights in a case concerning the negative impact of climate change on human rights, states should also ensure respect for the right to a remedy and remove barriers to access to justice by victims of human rights violations caused by environmental degradation or climate change.

In this regard, I reiterate my call for all Council of Europe member states that have not yet done so to promptly ratify the 1998 Aarhus Convention and the 2010 Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents (Tromsø Convention) and to support their effective implementation. I also invite those states that have already ratified the Aarhus Convention to consider supporting the development of a rapid response mechanism in order to deal with cases of harassment and threats against environmental human rights defenders.

Respect for the rights of environmental human rights defenders is also an obligation of non-state actors. Businesses in Europe should internalise their corporate responsibility to respect human rights, in line with the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework. Against the backdrop of the ongoing push for more stringent rules on corporate due diligence on human rights in Europe, it is now more than ever important for companies to be seen as positive and responsible players, in particular with regard to environmental human rights and those who defend them.

Lastly, Europe needs more environmental human rights defenders. States should strive to ensure public awareness on environmental matters and to educate people from an early age about the need to preserve the environment and how to do so. I was pleased to learn that in Sweden and Finland, for instance, lessons on the environment and its meaning for individuals and societies are integrated in school curricula, at every stage of education. Such initiatives are essential for raising a new generation of environmentally aware and active citizens. The Council of Europe offers valuable educational resources in this area.

We cannot claim to be serious about protecting the environment or combating climate change unless we protect those who put themselves on the line for these goals. I want to pay tribute to the environmental human rights defenders’ selfless work and the sacrifices they make so that we can have a dignified future existence on this planet. Without their vision and courage, the environment we live in is bound to suffer serious harm – along with our human rights and well-being. Defending the defenders is not just a moral and political imperative. At the very least, it should also be a reflex for collective self-preservation.

I will continue to raise concerns regarding the plight of environmental human rights defenders in dialogue with authorities and to speak out whenever they face attacks, reprisals, or undue restrictions. I would also appeal to everyone to stand firm in their defence. As they are increasingly targeted, let us reverse the trend and make Europe a safe place for environmental activism.

Council of Europe

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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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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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Act Urgently to Preserve Biodiversity for Sustainable Future — ADB President

The world must act urgently to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity for the sake of a sustainable future and prosperity, Asian...

Health & Wellness3 hours ago

Stockholm+50: Accelerate action towards a healthy and prosperous planet for all

The United Nations General Assembly agreed on the way forward for plans to host an international meeting at the highest...

Economy5 hours ago

Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

Business at a crossroads Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader,...

Finance6 hours ago

Logistics giant commits to Gothenburg Green City Zone

DB Schenker is collaborating with Business Region Göteborg to scale up electric freight transport as part of the Gothenburg Green...

Finance7 hours ago

Early signs of collective progress as banks work to implement the Principles for Responsible Banking

A new report summarising the progress made by banks who have signed the Principles for Responsible Banking finds that signatories...

EU Politics8 hours ago

Focus on the recovery from the pandemic at the 19th EU Regions Week

The annual European Week of Regions and Cities has shown how the EU and national and regional governments can support...

Tech News9 hours ago

EU Digital COVID Certificate: a global standard with more than 591 million certificates

Commission adopted a report on the EU Digital COVID Certificate  and its implementation across the EU. The report shows that...

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