Could the greatest threat to the unity and future of the European Union come from within the member states? For a long time, the concerns were coming from capitals seeking to leave the block, economic difficulties or even foreign pressures. With the 2016 Brexit vote, the national decision to exit the EU has in fact proven to foster unity among the member states on maintaining the integrity of the Union. But with the 2014 Scottish referendum (calls for a second referendum are being advanced), the movements within the nation-states to seek for greater regional autonomy, influence, and power from the national capital have been relentless.
The Catalan crisis is an illustration of a region seeking for independence from its state. The fraught relations between Madrid and Barcelona are real (read past analyses here and here). The crisis continues to escalate. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared that Madrid, the central government, would remove the region’s secessionist leaders. PM Rajoy announced the use of the Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, a radical step and an unprecedented event, which will dismiss the Catalan Cabinet, see Madrid assume all the powers of the regional executive, curb the role of the regional parliament and call for new regional election in the coming six-months. The central government does not seem keen at the moment to seek for mediation, but rather continues down the road of confrontation.
In addition, over the weekend, two wealthy Italian regions, Lombardy and Veneto, voted in non-binding referendums in favor of greater autonomy and seeking more power from Rome. These referendums, promoted by the Northern League ruling both regions, are not calls for secession from Rome, but instead a call for greater say and influence on issues of tax distribution and financial independence on several areas such as security, immigration and education.
Both Northern Italian regions contribute to a significant share of the Italian economy, with 20 percent for Lombardy and 10 percent for Veneto. Despite a significant share of Italian GDP, last summer Veneto received a €17bn rescue deal to address the banking crisis.
Even though it is too early to talk of a full fragmentation of some member states and the European Union, several trends and observations shall be advanced in order to rationalize and explain these forces at play. Prior to looking at a series of questions, which could contribute to the development of a series of hypotheses, one ought to recognize the complexities and particularities of each secessionist movements and the unique histories of the member states within the EU and their relationships with Brussels. These hypotheses try to identify commonalities between the recent movements in order to comprehend the reemergence of these regional forces.
Are wealthy regions done with solidarity via financial redistributions to other regions/states? Should the EU or the state be blamed for it?
Are these referendums informed by a conscious desire to guarantee cultural and linguistic survival, authenticity and uniqueness in a globalized world? This feeling is very much represented in Catalonia (despite being a major global touristic destination), in Nice and Corsica (France), and so forth.
Is the EU perceived as the enemy? In some regions of the EU, the EU or Brussels and in particular the Commission, are perceived as the actor promoting economic liberalism and ultimately undermining a certain savoir vivre. But in the recent case of Catalonia, the EU is called upon to mediate in domestic politics and national matters. Even further, there are some cases of desire to join the Union as a full member, which is a fantasy considering the responses of most European capitals and support to PM Rajoy.
The regional calculus takes for granted the core responsibility of the nation-state: national security and survival of the state. War and peace are forgotten concepts in Western Europe, which is quite ironic considering the state of European peripheries from the East (Ukraine) to the Mediterranean basin.
Are referendums the way to proceed in order engage with the central government? Do referendums serve the interests of the majority or only of the few?
Do these separatist movements inform us of a higher desire of activism and democratic inclusion? Meaning, there is a feeling of deposition to control civic life and influence the making of the nation. By scaling down from the national capital to the regional capital, there is a belief that one can have a greater say and influence in shaping the policy-making process and therefore the policy outputs. This democratic argument was very much present in the Brexit vote. These movements represent to some extent the end of centralized nation-states. But does this feeling of democratic inclusion at a lower level illustrate a narrow understanding of the world? It is not certain that an hypothetical sovereign Catalan state can, on its own, weather global forces from flow of capital to people.
Lastly, could we go even further and see these regional forces as the success of the European Union emphasizing that the state is now unable to fulfil the need of national citizens. In the case of Catalonia, the EU flag has been flown along the regional symbols. However, it is not certain that other regions would feel the same way. But if this were the case, the current EU would not be suited for the move towards a federation of regions considering that it is currently a Union of Sovereign States.
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With the election of President Macron in May and the guaranteed re-election of Angela Merkel, the European Union and the state of European affairs were supposed to return to the positive. Unfortunately, a series of recent events have exposed deep problems in Europe with the rise of AfD in Germany, the call for independence by Catalonia, the UK-EU tensions over the terms of Brexit, the election of Sebastian Kurz in Austria, and the recent assassination of a Maltese journalist. These recent events, prior to the European Council meeting on October 19/20 in Brussels, display domestic tensions and the need for greater unity at the EU level. But both seems incompatible at the moment.
Despite winning a fourth-term as Chancellor (past analyses here and here), Angela Merkel has yet to finalize the structure of her government. The strong results by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), extreme right party, was a response to Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik towards refugees since 2015. AfD capitalized on the fear associated to immigration and the perceived undermining of German identity. Chancellor Merkel is working on the coalition talk. On Sunday, Merkel’s CDU lost an election in the northern state of Lower Saxony to the SPD, which could affect her upcoming coalition talks. With the decision by SPD not to enter in a coalition with the CDU, Ms. Merkel will have to move towards the option of a Jamaica Coalition (with the pro-liberal and green party). The talks to form a coalition will be difficult considering the differences of policies and options on fundamental issues from immigration, EU reforms, taxation policies and environmental protection.
In the case of the UK-EU relationship as part of the Brexit negotiations, the current tension is centered around the financial obligations of the UK, or the net contributions of the UK to the EU’s budget in 2019 and 2020.
@ Olivier Hoslet/EPA
Until an agreement on the UK financial obligations is set, the EU is not willing to move forward regarding the terms and type of relationship between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. Prime Minister May changed the tone with her recent speech in Florence and confirmed that the UK will “honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership.” But the EU is expecting more concrete terms coming from the British leader. At home, PM May is facing a difficult front from the hard brexiters, framing the financial obligations as a ‘divorce bill,’ and members of her own party. She appears to have lost credibility domestically affecting her ability to shape a common position, and her European counterparts are concerned about her ability to stir the negotiations and ultimately deliver. Until the question of financial contributions is settled, PM May will not be able to move forward and discuss the terms of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. As reported by the Guardian, European leaders are the ones overruling EU chief negotiator, Mr. Barnier, whom suggested opening talks about the transition phase. But it appears that some European capitals are not ready to respond to May’s call. Ultimately, “the problem is not in the commission so you will not find the solution in the commission.” Therefore, the upcoming European Council will be critical for PM May to make a her case with as many EU leaders as possible.
On Sunday, Sebastian Kurz became one of the youngest elected leaders, at 31, as the Chancellor of Austria. Mr. Kurz, leader of the conservative right wing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), won the national election with 31 percent of the vote. The Social Democratic Party of Austria, which currently governs in coalition with People’s
Party, received 26.7 percent, while the Freedom Party, extreme-right, had 27.4 percent. Traditionally, the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party govern in a coalition, but this time, Kurz may be forming a coalition with the extreme-right taking the country back to 2000 when Jörg Haider led the country triggering political sanctions by the EU. Austria is one of the wealthiest EU countries with one of the lowest unemployment level and highest standard of living. But during the 2015-16 migration crisis, Austria took part of Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik welcoming a considerable number of refugees. During his tenure as Foreign Minister, Mr. Kurz, was behind the drive to seal the Western Balkan route in 2016 and was critical. The theme of the election, as it was the case in the other western countries, was identity, in particular anti-immigration and anti-Islamization. For instance, he has been calling for effective defence of the EU’s external borders, a stop to illegal immigration and curbs on foreigners’ access to welfare payments. “Anti-immigration populism and nationalism” wrote Steven Erlanger and James Kanter of the New York Times “are challenging the European Union’s commitment to open borders for trade and immigration.” In the coming days, Kurz will be building his coalition, but a move to the extreme-right appears as the new normal for Austria.
The continuous tension between Madrid and Catalonia represents a considerable crisis in one of the largest Eurozone economies (read two recent analyses here and here). After a referendum, considered by Carles Puigdemont, as a victory towards the independence of Catalonia from Spain, he has failed to call for it during his address to Catalan lawmakers on October 10. PM Rajoy asked Mr. Puigdemont to clarify his address by tomorrow (October 19). In case of a failure to comply, Madrid may use its emergency powers to take administrative control of the region by invoking the article 155 sending the country into a deeper political crisis. The tensions between Madrid and Catalonia continue to escalate despite a recent call by Mr. Puigdemont asking PM Rajoy to initiate a negotiation in order to find a solution.
Last but not least, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Maltese journalist, was assassinated on Monday in a car bombing in the smallest EU member state, Malta. She had made a name for herself exposing ramping corruption at every levels of the Maltese society and political arena. During the Panama Papers’ scandal, she exposed the link between politicians and shell companies. More recently, she uncovered financial dealings between family members of Azerbaijan’s president and Malta’s prime minister, forcing snap elections. Her assassination is latest attempt to undermining freedom of press and expression in Europe and it requires proper response and inquiry by the Maltese government and the European Union.
All these recent issues illustrate considerable challenges for the future unity of the bloc, but as well expose major systemic and domestic failures. These issues related to ethno-nationalism, populism, secessionist desires are ramping and require stronger domestic initiatives to shrink economic and social inequalities, address sub-national identity and cultural fears, and bring back a certain civility in the political discourse. At the EU level, these crises illustrate the a growing disconnect between Brussels and the capitals. Fascinating enough the EU is being criticized for being too little integrated on issues of migration and being too passive on questions of regional secession, but the EU does always not have a mandate to dictate policies and rules in certain areas of political life.
Each selected case exposes the undermining of core EU values from freedom of expression, to maintaining democratic values, inclusion, and ultimately the centrality of the rule of law. Austria is another piece of the European populist puzzle and highlight the shift toward the extreme-right. Hungary and Poland are the examples of the undermining of EU values and a clear shift towards non-democratic regimes. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has championed what is refered as “illiberal democracy.” Austria illustrates that the East-West divide continues to widen. Populism is vibrant and spreading throughout Europe and it is shacking the democratic foundations of EU countries and the EU.
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Let’s get straight to the point: self-determination of peoples. It is a very laudable theoretical concept. All peoples should have the right to choose the nation they wish to belong to, especially when they have a distinctive culture and a different language, as well as political and economic viability to build an independent state. And we, Europeans, ex-colonialists, field with guilt for our ancestors’ acts, tend to favor the rebels, independently of the justice and the consequences of their cause.
Historical Rationales for Independence
But there is also the other side of the story: in his most recent book, Michael Walzer uses three case studies of the past, India, Algeria and Israel, whose legitimate claims of independence where much more consubstantiated, to prove that “liberation movements” do not represent the expression of the majority will (people are much more concerned in surviving and moving ahead with their lives in troubled times), but the position of a separatist elite who builds a narrative and does everything they can to convince the population that their intentions are fairer and their view of history is much more accurate than the one the status quo power has been trying to impose.
In practice the paths towards independence are sinuous and trapped. They are played in a dangerous arena where almost everything is admissible for the cause of independence. It is an opportunistic and dirty game where the two sides are waiting for a weakness of the rival. It generates violence. In more extreme cases, it generates civil war. In the most extreme cases, it generated ethnic cleansing. At the regional level it generates instability. Very often it is contagious to sleeping separatisms that start to reevaluate their possibilities. Of course, we think, nothing of this kind is going to happen in Catalonia. After all, it is the 21st century, and this is Europe. But let me remind you of two things: on the one hand, the two sides of the conflict, Barcelona, and Madrid, have already reached extremes that we never thought possible in a democratic context. On the other hand, the last few years have demonstrated that nationalisms, of the emotional, ideological, centrist, and extremist kinds are not a relic of the 19th century. They are alive and kicking. Remember that history does not repeat itself but it rimes. Nationalisms are back, now in a context, different from the past. And we, in Europe, are ill prepared to deal with them.
The Catalan Case
How did we get here? The Catalonian separatism has a long lineage. The national day of the region, September 11, is related to the events of 1714, when Barcelona lost its autonomy to Spain in that War of Succession. In the 20th century, the mores and the language were trampled violently by the bloody Civil War and then by Franco’s regime, trying with particular roughness, to dissolve the Catalonian culture. The collective memory of these events has been passed along generations, as the testimonies from Barcelona, since the mock referendum of October 1, published in the international press, have been claiming. The nationalist feeling was partially placated (ironically) by the 1978
Constitution, that inscribed the right to regional autonomies in the context of the “indissociable unity of the Spanish nation”. But, albeit Catalonia’s acceptance of the founding text of Spanish democracy, the relationship between Madrid and Barcelona was always ambiguous. The Generalitat has always tried to find ways to further autonomy, while the central government has always been keen on protecting its powers. But for considerable period, the regional government was in the hands of moderates. First, a right-wing coalition, the CiU was ahead of it (1978-2003) and then it was replaced by its left-wing equivalent, a coalition led by the PSC, the Catalonian branch of the PSOE (2002-2010). The radical separatists were relayed to the margins, namely ERC, a leftist republican party that tried an independence coup a couple of years before the civil war and the several anarcho-unionist groups, also very active before the war.
However, minority ideas tend to fall asleep but never die. And the Catalonian separatism woke up due to three main factors: first, the economic crisis of 2008, that generated a feeling of injustice as Barcelona profits (around 20 percent of the Spanish GDP) were redistributed to the poorer provinces; second, the judicial process moved by Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party, between 2006 and 2010, that resulted in the removal by the Supreme Court of the status of “nation” (ambiguous) that had been approved in a legal local referendum. The SC alleged reasons of unconstitutionality and the PP claimed reasons of balance between unitarists and regionalists; and third, the political change in the composition of the regional government, that started to be ruled by the coalition “Together for Yes” (to the independence) that mixes, since 2015, the CDC of Carles Puigdemont, a right liberal party that became separatist as a result of the policies of the central government; the ERC, the republican independentist party of the 1930’s; and the CUP a left wing separatist movement composed by several small radical groups. Together they have qualified majority at the Generalitat, even though their only commonality is the independence of the autonomous region.
The Volatility of Nationalist Separatism
This change went relatively unnoticed, but aligns with the similar rise/growth of diverse populist movements across Europe (old nationalisms, new times). But this particular one has a different element: the nationalist separatism is a much more sensitive issue, more emotional, and capable of mobilizing passions. Which usually is a Molotov cocktail in politics.
The events that have been succeeding since October 1st are the culmination of all these tendencies: painful collective memories politicized by a coalition reaching the regional parliament thanks to protest votes against Madrid’s policies; all this in combination with a disastrous management of the Catalonian issue by the central government (including the King Felipe VI). Plus, Barcelona took advantage of the weakness of the chief of central government, Mariano Rajoy, who needed two general elections and almost a year to form a minority government.
This was the context of last Sunday’s referendum in Catalonia. Madrid had the law on its side. It forbidden the public consultation for reasons of unconstitutionality, but the Generalitat was more astute: it disobeyed, and dragged to disobedience more than two million citizens. Nothing was legal in the referendum: plastic ballot boxes, aleatory vote sites, on-line electoral lists of doubtful accurateness, and a very low affluence (around 42 percent) that indicates, according to specialists, that the unitarians simply did not bother to vote, considering the consultation bogus. These arguments would have been more than enough for Rajoy, with the support of Felipe VI, to declare the nullity of the act and move on. As it already happened in the past.
But Madrid lost its mind. So, it sent 12,000 civilian guards to preclude the voting. In this counter-information war, we know that the national police used force against the population (although we do not know how often), we saw mossos d’esquadra (the Catalonian regional police) crying and, according to hospital records, there were almost 900 injured (even though we ignore the extensiveness of the wounds). What remains from October 1st is the image of the Catalonian people enduring the police intervention against them in the name of independence. TV cameras from around the world captured enough images of disproportional violence to leave Madrid’s international image in the mud and to revolt thousands of Catalans that so far had been happy with the status quo. Rajoy, they say, is an “independentists’ maker”. And in fact, he is. In 24 hours he did more for the independence cause than all separatists together. In democracy, when one has the law and at least part of the legitimacy on their side the use of force against the population (who possibly believed in the goodness of the idea of independence) has two consequences: one loses the morality battle and the support of the population. The independentists won a double victory: they opened a larger gap between then and Spain (and Europe), very difficult to get over and they won the sympathy of the “international public opinion”. If this concept, popularized by Jürgen Habermas during the demonstrations against the Iraq war, is vague and imprecise, its practical effect is well known.
And now what? There are three possible scenarios. For now, the most likely is a growing tension between the parts, as Carles Puigdemont is likely to declare independence unilaterally this week and Mariano Rajoy has threatened to use all means at his disposal to stop him. It is difficult to predict the endgame of escalation. In politics there are few things as dangerous as separatist nationalism for reasons described above but too important to forget: internal violence, regional instability, and domino effect. Europe is full of separatist movements that might see the Catalan moment as an opportunity put forward their claims for self-determination and autonomy.
The second scenario is that Madrid and Barcelona overcome their differences and start to negotiate (as the population ask them to do this weekend in very large demonstrations). However, the possibilities are scarce and the conflict already reached a high point and depending on Puigdemont’s call a potential point of no-return.
Which take us to the third scenario: bringing in an external referee, a mediator. The successive crisis of the European Union almost made us forget that the main goal of its creation was to avoid that war would return to the continent. And it does not matter how critical each of us might be, the truth is this goal has been fulfilled (except for the Balkans that were Europe but not EU). We reached a critical point where Brussels should refashion its peace-making credentials. Pretending Catalonia is none of the EU competency is the sort of decision that did not pay off in several situations in the past. Let’s hope that Europe is willing to mediate, if called upon, this internal crisis, because peace in the continent must be one of the main values that unites member-states. And lastly, if something goes really wrong in Catalonia, a Pandora Box will be opened challenging the integrity of member states. The Catalan crisis could have greater unforeseen and unwanted consequences on the integrity of the EU than a bad Brexit.
Diana Soller is a research follow at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations (Lisbon) and a weekly columnist at the daily Portuguese newspaper Observador.
Has populism disappeared from Europe? Is the European Union finally perceived as a constructive actor in Europe? Where are the reflections on regional crises affecting the unity of the EU and the security of the member states (MS)? All these questions seem to have disappeared from the national and European agendas since the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of France. Unfortunately, the malaise within each MS of the Union remains unchanged and ought to be analyzed.
On the question of the European Union, the debate about the role of the Commission will re-emerge with the next appointment of the President in 2019 and the next rounds of trade agreement with Japan. One core lesson that is often forgotten is the centrality of the MS in the decision-making process of the EU. The integration of the Union, either deepening or widening, cannot occur without the agreement and consent of the MS. If European technocrats and experts on the EU are aware of this fact, a wide majority of Europeans still tends to be unaware or even doubt this reality. Many cases in recent years, beginning with the Greek debt crisis leading to a referendum opposing the terms of the bailouts, which was then rejected by Prime Minister Tsipras, followed by the Austrian elections in May/November 2016, then the Brexit vote in June 2016, and the radicalization of new MS like Poland and Hungary, illustrate this popular opposition against the integration process and the EU at large.
The commonalities among all these cases are: regain of national sovereignty, protection of national identity, and quest to increase national power over European forces. The argument has usually been MS versus the EU. However, opening up the black-box of each MS, one can identify a much more nuance and complex picture. Within each MS, a division between cosmopolitanism (usually cities) versus nationalism (usually rural and post-industrial regions) is dividing countries politically and culturally speaking. The domestic split existed before 2016, but the financial crisis leading to an anemic economic growth across the Union exacerbated the split.
However, since the ‘positive’ outcomes of the Dutch and French elections, one could be fooled believing that the cultural-identity split dividing MS and the Union has disappeared. For many the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of French presidency stopped the populist wave. Such statement is certainly false considering the current domestic tensions in Poland with the push for constitutional reforms undermining the independence of the judiciary and in Hungary with the continuous anti-democratic efforts. The response of the Commission to potentially trigger Article 7 to sanction Poland is the proper approach enforcing the Copenhagen Criteria. However, the lack of clear support by Paris and Berlin to sanction Warsaw sends a mix message of unity and support of the rule of law in the EU.
The current Brexit negotiations are as well an important matter for the future of the EU and the relationship with the UK. Even though the departure of the UK from the Union is a disappointing event, it is an important historical lesson for Europeans. At this point, it would be a mistake for the EU to appear weak in the negotiations by not reaching a complete departure of the UK from the Union; Brexit ought to occur. In the UK, there are already surges of unhappiness towards the ruling class with the recent domestic talks of a potential remaining of the UK in the Union. It would play against the EU to keep the UK at this point of time. Despite a close majority of pro-Brexit votes winning the non-binding referendum, the EU needs to move along and finalize the exit of the UK. In addition, the EU needs to remain strong in enforcing rule of law and global norms. If the rumors of ongoing US-UK negotiations, as advanced by the American president, regarding a comprehensive trade agreement between the UK-US to kick in as soon the exit is completed, were to be true, the EU needs to escalate the matter. It is in the interest of the EU to enforce its global standing as the trade negotiator for the 28 Member States. The credibility of the EU as global actor is at play and should not be undermined by neither the UK nor the US. The 27 remaining MS need to support such action in case ongoing trade talks between London and Washington were to be accurate.
The domestic political tensions have distracted from the broader question of furthering the integration of the EU. The Eurozone crisis has highlighted the limitation of an integration à la carte and incomplete integration process in fiscal and economic matters. President Macron was in recent time the most pro-European candidate centering his agenda around the need to foster EU integration. Now in power, President Macron may back down from its EU centric agenda. But the EU needs to maintain the momentum in pushing for deepening the integration process in fiscal and economic issues as well as in defense policies.
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The transatlantic forces at play are under stress. The domestic forces in the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and most part of Europe need to be reckoned with. The two players of the special relationship are embroiled in domestic turmoil between the Brexit negotiations and major rebuttal of long-standing policies in the US, which could have considerable impacts on the structure of Euro-Atlantic community.
The situation in France seems to be relatively stable since the election of President Macron and his victory in the ensuing legislative elections mid-June. If President Macron has demonstrated being a savvy political tactician, far from the neophyte status he received, he now needs to revitalize the French economy, reform the labor laws, reinvigorate the European agenda and integration process all under the threat of terrorism. But Macron’s election was framed as a blockade against the growth of populist forces in the Euro-Atlantic community. A return of France on the European and global stage certainly plays in favor of transatlantic relations. Now, the next chapter will certainly be the German elections in September.
So far, this year has been critical for transatlantic relations. A series of issues, from climate change to trade and defense, excluding the current Brexit negotiations, allow the world to reflect on the current challenges and potential ensuing consequences of such radical shift by Washington.
First, climate change is a priority considering global reach and impacts of a degrading environment. The US and its European partners are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases requiring them to lead the way in addressing environmental challenges. The 2015 Paris deal, formally known as the COP-21, sets out a global action place by limiting global warming to below 2°C and is the first legally binding climate deal. The agreement came into force on 4 November 2016 with at least 55 countries ratifying it. But on 1 June 2016, President Trump announced that the US would withdrawal from the agreement. In his address in the Rose Garden, he claimed that ‘the Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” The global reaction and especially from European counterparts was negative and critical. The issue of climate change will be back on the table for upcoming G-20 meeting.
Second, tree-trade has become a dirty word. In the European context, free and regulated trade among the 28 member states has permitted an unprecedented growth first contributing to the growth the 28 national economies. The world led by the US since the end of World War two was very much regulated around the notion that free-trade among states advantaged the US and the world, even though it certainly creates winners and losers. Aside from economic arguments, trade is one element of a state’s foreign policy arsenal, especially for an economic power like the US. The unplugging of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 12 pacific nations, which never counted China, in the very early days of the Trump administration is playing in favor of Beijing. By this decision, the US is playing in the hands of China. In a recent op-ed, Thomas Friedman wrote that “Beijing is now quietly encouraging everyone in the neighborhood to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, China’s free-trade competitor to TPP, which, unlike TPP, lacks environmental or labor standards; China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and its One Belt, One Road development project.” With regards to Europe, the future of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is uncertain.
The last aspect to be highlighted is the question of defense and security. Historically the pillar of this realm at the transatlantic level has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Again, the narratives on the campaign trail were that NATO was an ‘obsolete’ organization costing money to American taxpayers to finance the security and defense of free-riding European nations. Such narrative has remained in the US since Trump’s election. President Trump’s address at the NATO Summit in May, which was supposed to confirm his support and clarify his views of the alliance, failed to address the concerns of his European counterparts. The questions of free-riding and underspending by Europeans is not new and have been a frustration for past administrations. For instance, Secretary Gates’ comments in 2011 were deeply critical of the lack of political and financial willingness by his European partners.
These issues are central considering a series of factors. First, historically, the members of the Euro-Atlantic community, have agreed on shared values, institutions and norms making the liberal world order. A rebuttal of the Paris deal, the TPP (free-trade overall) and the defense alliance sends a message to the world that American longstanding commitment to global agreements is not reliable any longer. Second, the short-termism and transactional view of the foreign affairs demonstrate a total lack of overall strategy. The current administration seems to hide this lacuna by hiding behind the word of isolationism, which is not the case. Third, the Europeans, especially the Mercron couple (Merkel-Macron) between Berlin and Paris, ought to continue engaging Washington and pushing ahead long-established agenda and common policies. The responses in the US by major states, cities, universities and the public at large, regarding the withdrawal by the Trump administration from the Paris deal, illustrate deep transatlantic commonalities that need to be protected and deepened regardless of the rhetorics.
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If reelected, David Cameron, British Prime Minister, promised to organize a referendum on British membership with the European Union (EU). With his reelection in May 2015, David Cameron is now working on the details of the referendum scheduled to eventually take place between autumn 2016 and winter 2017. Initially the government had designed the following question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” The response would have been ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. But in early September, the Electoral Commission argued that such question was biased and gave an advantage to the ‘Yes’ camp. Ultimately, a new question was drafted and now read “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Citizens will have to choose between “Remain a member of the European Union” and “Leave the European Union.”
Aside from political, economic and social considerations, the British referendum on its future inside the European club is an excellent thing for Britain and the other 27 Member States. The reason is simple. Since Cameron’s reappointment, the question of the EU has been ever present in European and world press. Cameron is in fact offering a gift to the EU and his 27 partners as for a very long time – or even for the first time in European history – Europeans and their leaders will have to finally reflect on the meaning of a EU membership, the role of the EU, and the concept of Europeanness.
Since the 2007 financial crisis, the EU has become synonymous with oppression, incomprehension, and in short the enemy of national sovereignty and regional diversity. These ideas are not new and have always been shared throughout European history. But the degree of integration occurring right after the Cold War with the first stone laid by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 created a complex problem for governments. Integration has led to a double process of deepening (institutionally) and widening (enlargement). The degree of integration attained today requires more Europe for more cohesion in economic, financial, fiscal, immigration, security and defense policies. But Member States, for many different reasons, are reticent in moving towards deeper integration.
The United Kingdom, like Denmark, is an interesting Member State as it is neither a founding nor a ‘fully integrated’ member considering its opt-out clauses. With the collapse of the financial markets, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has driven its country based on highly conservative and ideological policies. He has been focusing on cutting British debt by slashing most of government spending from social policies to defense. In addition, he has sought to attract to the ultra-nationalist base, led by the UKIP party, and one way was to put British membership to EU on the table. As illustrated below, British public opinion is closely divided in either remaining in the Union or leaving it.
Over the next two years, the press, leaders, and European citizens will have to finally reflect on the EU organized around two questions: what has the EU done for us, Europeans? What can we – Europeans – do for the EU? The first question is historically redundant as Member States are always trying to denigrate the massive contribution of the EU in the quality of life, which includes a ‘perpetual continental peace,’ of its Members and citizens. For instance, Spain, Portugal and Greece all highly beneficed from their membership in terms of development. In a matter of a decade, the standard of living in these countries was considerably increased. Certainly the Eurozone crisis has caused great harm in these countries, but all cannot be blamed on the euro. National governments ought to receive their share of the blame.
The second question is the most interesting of the two, as it will lead to a bottom-up reflection. What can European citizens and countries provide and offer to the EU? Member States and their citizenry ought to finally see how their contributions are necessary in order to grow and shape the EU of the 21st century. Most European citizens complain about the lack of connection between Brussels and themselves. European citizens are not doing enough in order to have their voices been heard when one reflects on the degree of abstention at the latest European elections. Being opposed to specific EU policies is one thing, contributing to European civic life is another. By asking the second question, European citizens will re-discover the sense of togetherness, identity, Europeanness, and the ‘we’ in European.
David Cameron is facing a very tricky battle head, but the history of Britain inside the Union is quite complex. Back in 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle opposed to the inclusion of Britain within the European Economic Community (EEC). His rationale was that de Gaulle “accused Britain of a ‘deep-seated hostility’ towards European construction.” De Gaulle was not totally wrong and understood the complexity of a British inclusion within the Union. Once in, Britain has played an important role in the integration of the common market, defense policy, and foreign policy.
China and the US have expressed their opposition to a Brexit and are worrying about the negative consequences of Britain’s departure from the Union and global markets. In addition, European diplomats, civil servants and the national capitals have all expressed some degree of frustration with London as no clear points of negotiation for reforming the EU-Britain relationship have been sent to Brussels. Aside from broad wishes – limitation of movement of labor and people, greater power for national parliaments, limiting the growth of the single market in favor of Eurozone members, reduction of social benefits for EU nationals – and calling for Treaty change, Brussels has yet to receive very clear and implementable demands. Cameron has his back in the corner and is now managing to survive a very complex domestic debate. Until 2017, the EU will be at the heart of political debate around the world. Politically speaking, David Cameron does not want his legacy to be remembered as the PM whom could not keep Britain in the Union.
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
Three years ago I wrote a piece beginning by: “It all started in the aftermath of World War II and in the emotional and material rumbles of Europe. The visionary great men of Europe — Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer —understood that peace in Europe would only be possible through deep economic integration, strengthening an irreversible degree of cooperation between Western European powers.” This was in mid-October of 2012, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union (EU). The rationale behind the prize was that the EU was a process permitting to make war unthinkable and allow for economic growth. This was a proud moment for Europeans, even though most of them did not pay much attention, and for Europeanists.
Radicalization of Domestic Politics
Today it is with real sadness to realize that in less than three years the survival of the EU appears in direct jeopardy and on the brink of implosion. Domestically, nationalism is ramping through either the rise of extreme-right wing parties, like the Front National in France, UKIP in Britain, Golden Dawn in Greece, or more recently through the
reemergence of extreme leftist parties like Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the newly elected Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. In addition, the narratives and actions demonstrated by the Obrán government in Hungary talking of a Christian Europe is affecting the overall normative message of EU (read a previous analysis here). These movements demonstrate a radicalization of the political debate directly informed by a highly emotional and confused electorate witnessing a continuous and unstoppable decline of their socio-economic condition.
Directly related to the rise of European nationalism is the financial crisis, which has spilled over to the Eurozone. The euro crisis has left the 17 Eurozone economies, at the exception of Germany, into a state of economic lethargy. In the case of Greece, the country has been on the brink of default for years and its future does not look promising based on the reports produced by the International Monetary Fund, a member of the Troika. In the case of France, still an economic pillar of the Eurozone, the succession from right to left has demonstrated the inabilities of traditional political parties to build confidence, implement meaningful structural reform, and lower inequalities. Part of the problem is the divide between a common currency and national fiscal policies.
Regionally, the lingering war in Ukraine is a direct illustration that war on the European continent continues to live on. A last minute cancelation by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych of a bilateral agreement between Ukraine and the EU in November 2013 sent off Ukraine into one of its darkest periods. Two years later, Ukraine lost a piece of its territory, Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in spring 2014 after a quickly organized referendum (read here an analysis on Russian influence over Europe). Since the annexation of Crimea, not only as Ukraine lost the peninsula, which is never mentioned by
the 28 EU Member States, but the war in the Eastern border of Ukraine has severely affected the political, economic and stability of Ukraine. The only instrument implemented by the EU, which has been very successful, is a series of sanctions against Russia. But unity among the 28 on keeping and deepening the sanctions is slowly disappearing in favor of national gains.
The second serious regional crisis is the current migration crisis. After the 2007 Arab Spring, many in the West and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were hopeful for a democratic transition of many countries under long-term dictatorships like in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya. The time of euphoria quickly turned sour for Arabs and Westerners, witnessing either the reemergence of authoritarian regimes (Egypt), their survival (Syria) or simply collapse of the state (Libya). Since then, the EU, which has not done enough with its American counterparts in assisting in the transition of these states, is seeing an unprecedented number of refugees fleeing their homes, which have become war zones like in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and so forth. The mass of refugees seeking for asylum in the richest EU countries is not new, but the current mass of refugees is unprecedented and is underlining the weaknesses of the EU (institutional) and dismantling European solidarity.
A Crisis for Ages – The Migration Nightmare
If the Eurozone crisis, or at least a Greek default, were framed as the event that could kill the Euro and ultimately the Union as whole, these were the good old days. The migration crisis is directly threatening the future of the Union. If Germany and Sweden have been the good Samaritans in welcoming refugees (in 2015, it is estimated that Germany could welcome between 800,000 and 1,000,000 asylum seekers), Chancellor Merkel with her Minister of Interior, Thomas de Maizière, have reinstalled border control at the frontier with Austria. This move by Germany has started a snowball effects with other EU Member States implementing similar measures. The closing of borders to control the movement of people is a direct violation of the Treaties. The border-free Schengen agreement is one of the most successful and visible symbols of the European Union. It is too some extent a sacrosanct dimension of the EU.
European Integration in Danger?
The European integration process is a complex story of crises and adequate responses through policy changes and bargaining power. The period of the empty chair, the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, the war in Kosovo, the divide between old and new Europe around the Iraq crisis, the no to the 2007 Constitutional Treaty and the Eurozone crisis have all been serious crises, but yet manageable for the European leaders. It appeared that European actors understood the need to solidify the Union and put aside differences in order to solve a crisis. The migration crisis is showing the worst of Europeans and their leaders, and European solidarity remains to be seen. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission, called for courage in remaining altogether and implementing meaningful measures like quotas. With a weakening Euro, as the Eurozone crisis has yet to be solved, the Schengen agreement under attack, a possible Brexit in 2016/17, the EU appears to move towards an ‘ever-lesser Europe.’ Yes, once upon a time, the EU was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).