Europe retaliates and the transatlantic split widens

US President Donald J. Trump meeting EU leaders
Source image via EPA

The European Union (EU) retaliatory tariffs on a series of American goods, including peanut butter, motorcycles, bourbon, orange juice, sweetcorn and others, kicked in on June 22. The imposed duties on American products are worth $3.3bn in a tit-for-tat response by Brussels to the Trump administration’s unilateral imposition of tariffs on aluminum (10%) and steel (25%) back on March 23.

The EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, said that “the rules of international trade, which we have developed over the years hand in hand with our American partners, cannot be violated without a reaction from our side.” She argued that the EU was “left with no other choice” to impose tariffs on US products. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said that the decision by the US to impose tariffs “goes against all logic and history.” In addition to the immediate tariffs, the EU seized the World Trade Organization (WTO) to challenge the US measures.

The US under President Trump is not at its first spike of tariffs on targeted foreign goods based on national security ground. Aside from the steel and aluminum tariffs, the US imposed a 20-30% tariff on washing machines and solar panels last year. It is as well discussed to impose a 25% tariff on over 800 Chinese goods. Trump seems to believe that the world is taking advantage of the US and that free trade is not being fair to the US. His sole argument is based on the reading of the US trade balance. If there is a trade deficit, the US is losing; if there is a surplus, the US is winning. Trade policies are more complex than what it is being portrayed in a tweet. The world, in particular US allies, has already responded to US ensuing the tariffs on steel and aluminum as listed in the table below.

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Source: Amy Cheng, Humza Jilani, Keith Johnson, Amy Mackinnon. 2018. “State of the Trade Wars Tracking U.S. President Donald Trump’s tariffs — and the retaliatory measures other countries are taking.” Foreign Policy. June 21. (here)

Tariffs on auto imports?

In a very trumpian fashion, the American president went on on Friday by threatening to impose a 20% tariff on all U.S. imports of European Union-assembled cars. His message, via twitter, read “If these Tariffs and Barriers are not soon broken down and removed, we will be placing a 20% Tariff on all of their cars coming into the U.S. Build them here!” The threat of imposing tariffs on cars is not new as a month ago he instructed the Department of Commerce, led by Wilbur Ross, to launch a probe into whether auto imports pose a national security threat.

Trump and his associates have used overtime the Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 in order to increase tariffs on ground of national security. The same rationale will potentially be used for tariffs on auto imports. The justification and connection between national security and tariffs was made by Wilbur Ross during a recent interview, wherein he said “National security is broadly defined to include the economy, to include the impact on employment, to include a very big variety of things.” He continued claiming that “Economic security is military security. And without economic security, you can’t have military security.” However, most of the tariffs are affecting traditional US allies, which happen to be NATO members and closely working on defense and security cooperation. Mr. Ross’s justification does hold any serious ground and is simply trying to hide basic protectionist policies being national security.

Congress could regain the control of decision-making on tariffs if the Republican establishment, holding the majority in the House and Senate, were committed to free trade and sound economic and trade policies. Earlier in June, republican and democrat lawmakers mentioned a plan to introduce a legislation that would force President Donald Trump to obtain Congress’ approval before imposing tariffs on national security grounds. Until the midterm elections, it is difficult to imagine the approval of such legislation by the Congress.

The current rates of tariffs for imports between the US and the EU are divided into two categories: for cars, 2.5% US import tax compared to 10% EU import tax; and for light trucks and SUVs: 25% US import tax compared to 10% EU import tax. The American president always focuses on the tariffs for cars and never on light trucks. He has been picking on Germany and its successful automobile industry. But he has failed to recognize the investments made by the three leading german companies in building assembly plants in South Carolina (BMW and Daimler), Alabama (Daimler), and Tennessee (Volkswagen). In 2017, 38% of 854,000 cars build in the US were sold in the US and over 500,000 were exported. With regards to employment, 116,500 jobs in US were connected to german auto-makers: 36,500 working at auto-maker plants and 80,000 as suppliers.

What would the impacts be for the US if the US president were to impose such tariffs? The Peterson Institute recently released a report on the potential impacts of a 25% proposed tariffs in auto imports. The report argues that the production in the industry could drop by 1.5% and that it could cause 195,000 US workers to lose their jobs over a 1-to-3 year period. In case of retaliation in-kind with tariffs by foreign countries on the same products, production would fall 4%, 624,000 US jobs would be lost, and 5% of the workforce in the auto and parts industries would be displaced. The ripple effects of such tariffs could have disastrous consequences for states hosting assembly plants in the long-term. The latest risk assessment by Airbus addressed to the UK government regarding the uncertain future around Brexit should be carefully read by US lawmakers and Trump associates when deciding on imposing tariffs or not. Multinational corporations hold quite a strong leverage in the decision-making process of trade policies.

Rocky transatlantic relations

Again, as argued in previous analyses, the future of transatlantic relations appears unstable and rocky. Several points shall be addressed reflecting on US treatment of historical allies and the future of the liberal order. First, The Trump administration has demonstrated over and over its decision to split with and humiliate America’s traditional allies. The message addressed by the American president and members of his cabinet, in particular Peter Navarro, towards the Canadian prime minister post-G7 meeting as well as the continuous undermining of the German chancellor illustrate Trump’s modus operandi. Per Wess Mitchell, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, the Trump administration is implementing a “strategic renovation” with traditional allies. President Trump has made a point to undermine his German counterpart, Angela Merkel. She was one of the closest partners of President Obama, is leading the most stable and largest European economy, and has not shied away to defend the liberal order. The appointment of Mr. Grenell as US Ambassador to Germany, who has broken protocol on two occasions, confirms it. Mr. Grenell in an interview with Breitbart said “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.” The Trump administration is seeking to undermine and destabilize the German chancellor.

http_com.ft.imagepublish.upp-prod-us.s3.amazonawsBy looking at the trends and rhetorics (which can shift very quickly as demonstrated by the change of position by Trump towards the North Korean dictator), a trade war is quite an eventuality. For the EU, trade has been the core dimension of its external policy and international presence. The EU sees multilateralism and free trade as one of its most successful policies. Furthermore, the EU is at a crossroad with the continuous rise of populist forces gaining traction in core EU countries, such as recently Italy. The EU ought to defend its interests and cannot cave in to foreign pressures, otherwise it would play in the hands of the Orban, Salvini and Le Pen of Europe. And last, the European market is one of the richest, largest, developed and influential in the world. By the weight of its market, the EU shall not shy away from direct confrontation with the US. As per Charlemagne of The Economist, the EU has three strategies in hand to chose from: capitulation, resilience, and containment. Resilience is the most likely strategy at this period of time.

Lastly, the main issue with regards to trade is China, and it has remains unaddressed. Both the US and the EU agree with the fact that China, since joining the WTO in 2002, has not played by the rules. The US could have worked with the EU and utilized the common procedures and processes, the international trading system. However, Trump said it on the campaign trail, and is now doing it while in office, the rules-based global trading system is being portrayed as the cause of American demise. Trump wants a trade approach based on bilateral deal-making, transactional relations and only fair for the US. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council said in Canada, “the rules-based international order is being challenged, quite surprisingly… by its main architect and guarantor, the US.” For instance, Trump refused to sign the G-7 communiqué. For the EU, the liberal order and rules-based trading system are critical for its functioning. Cecilia Malmstrom said this clearly, “The E.U. has a responsibility to stand up for open global trade.”

The American president seems more at ease surrounded by dictators and authoritarian leaders than with traditional American allies. The affronts to the liberal order and America’s allies are beginning to add up considering his policy choice to leave the TPP, Paris deal, the Iran deal, relocate the US embassy in Jerusalem, and unilateral imposition of tariffs. Europe knows that Trump is temporary, but his continuous attacks on the liberal order will not only undermine the US position in the world but lead to a highly unstable multipolar order. “Trump’s preference for a divide-and-rule strategy produces a game” writes Javier Solana “that will create only losers.” Europe knows it, the US may have a serious headache post-Trump.

(COPYRIGHT 2018 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

 

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The stamp of America First on US foreign policy

Donald Trump
Credit: AP

What if the implementation of the tenets of America First onto US foreign policy was for real? What if Donald Trump had been consistent on telling Americans and the world, that he was serious on taking the US out of the liberal order? and, ultimately on bringing the US status down from being the centerpiece of the liberal order to a simple superpower?

Since 2017, it seems that Trump and his advisors/implementers have been working on cutting all the strings attached around the US in terms of commitments, engagements, responsibilities and duties to transform the US from the ‘indispensable’ power into a simple sovereign power. After years of trying to grasp the logic of Trump’s foreign policy, it appears to be the most likely hypothesis at this point of time.

For two years, foreign policy experts and American allies have been trying to understand the logic of Trump’s approach to foreign policy. And based on the structures, heritage, norms and values of the post-World War two order, Trump’s decisions are incomprehensible. For instance, the departure of the US from the Paris climate deal, the different rounds of tariffs and quotas (washing machines, solar panels, aluminum and steel, and potentially car tariffs), the withdrawal from the Iran deal, the visceral despite for the European Union and deep support for Brexit, the departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the lingering NAFTA talks, and lately the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem are all a direct affront to the trust of allies. These radical shifts are not increasing American security, not advancing American interests and undermining global security.

What does that tell us? Donald Trump wants nothing to do with the liberal order and believes that the US can be better off alone dealing on bilateral basis and imposing its weight and will onto others. Trump and his administration may appear to see a success in this approach considering the limited response by the Europeans (still at awe by the permanent affront of the liberal order), and a mild reaction by China (so far).

Donald Trump believes, as a large segment of the American electorate, that the US has no business in playing the role of the world policeman. The international institutions, designed post-1945s, making the liberal order are in fact limiting the American sovereignty and national interests. The multilateral system orchestrated via the United Nations system, the World Trade Organization, and the multitude of regimes undermines the way the US can act. In December, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, wrote “these omissions [of the liberal elements in Trump’s NSS] undercut global perceptions of American leadership; worse, they hinder our ability to rally the world to our cause when blithely dismiss the aspirations of others.” Barry Posen summarizes it into the argument that Trump’s grand strategy is “primacy without a purpose.”

This approach and shaping of American foreign policy are extremely dangerous for the US and the world at large. Donald Trump inherited a strong economy and a relatively stable global order. The US is not involved in any major crises, at the exception of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Donald Trump did not have to save the American and world economy the way his predecessor needed to respond. These domestic and geopolitical realities have in fact created an illusion for this administration that has not proven itself in addressing any critical crises. The Trump administration feels almighty when it has in simple terms only been in cruise-control mode. Most of the crises faced by the Trump administration are in fact self-inflicted, as proven by the sudden cancellation by Donald Trump of the upcoming Singapore summit between the US and North Korea.

If Donald Trump continues on this trend and truly takes the US out of the order designed by the Americans and Europeans post-1945, he will not only launch the US into a motion of de-credibility of the US, weaken the liberal order, and simply downgrade the US into a regular superpower. Here are the dangers of such trend: first, history has taught us that multipolarity is greatly instable. The probability of war at a regional and global scale would increase. Second, the challenges ahead are becoming more global and complex to solve than ever before. The case of climate change, nuclear and chemical proliferation, free-trade, pandemics, mass migration, and stability of the financial system all require a imagesnetwork of institutions and regimes as a platform of discussion and interaction among states. These multilateral platforms permit to align interests, deepen cooperation and coordination and design mechanisms to implement and enforce agreements and policies. One country, as economically and militarily powerful as the US today, cannot solve any of these issues alone. Third, in his quest to greatness (almost like Don Quixote) Donald Trump will simply undermine the status, influence and power of the US and downgrade it to a superpower. Ironically, a long-term decline in influence and power will require the US to increase its alliances to balance its progressive global decline. That is the story of past hegemons. Fourth, this abrasive style may alienate once and for all American allies. The comments by President Donald Tusk at the recent EU summit in Bulgaria speak volume about the state of transatlantic relations. He said “We are witnessing today a new phenomenon: the capricious assertiveness of the American administration. Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, some could even think, ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?’”

The US foreign policy under this Trumpian paradigm is due to a lack of understanding of the past 70 years and world history, the arrogance of inheritance of such power, and ideology. Furthermore, the Republican establishment in power and control of the Congress (House and Senate) seems to agree with the current direction of US foreign policy considering the lack of opposition (at the exception of Senator McCain). The decline of the US has been projected for quite sometime and it certainly won’t occur overnight. However, the trends these last years of this administration confirm to American allies and the world that analyzing Trump’s foreign policy decisions based on past paradigms will lead to more confusion than understanding. Trump’s America first is for real and could have lasting negative impacts on the US, world affairs and global security.

(COPYRIGHT 2018 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

The unreliability of American foreign policy under the Trump administration

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PHOTO: MARTIN H. SIMON/ZUMA PRESS

On May 8, commonly known as Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), the American President, Donald Trump announced his decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran deal.  The US departure from the deal is a blow to the transatlantic community, multilateralism, and the non-nuclear proliferation regime. On V-E Day, the US president directly told his European counterparts that the word of the United States is unreliable, and that any commitment/deal made by the United States is effectively worthless. One caveat, in foreign policy, credibility is as important as interests.

Trump’s foreign policy has been in the making for now over a year. Early on, experts, including myself have framed Trump’s approach to world affairs as transactional. That was in the first 6-month of his presidency when he was still under tutelage of the traditional American foreign policy establishment. In year 2 of his mandate, Trump is now surrounded by his choosing, that includes John Bolton, as national security advisor, and Mike Pompeo, as US Secretary of State. Both opposed to the Iran deal. James Goldgeier is correct when emphasizing that “Bolton and Pompeo joining the team left [US Secretary of Defense] Mattis isolated in arguing the Iran deal was working.” Year 2 is about the implementation of the pledges made on the campaign trail. One major pledge and a driving force behind Trump’s foreign policy has been erasing Obama’s legacy.

President Obama understood that American foreign policy and interests can better be served via multilateralism and diplomacy. Obama had learnt the mistakes of foreign p071415ps-0184interventions made by his predecessor and favored in fact the used of targeted operations (for better or worst). Under his two mandates, President Obama managed to finalize the COP-21 agreement, the JCPOA, rebuild transatlantic relations (one attempt was the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and solidifying the US position in Asia with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). President Obama’s accomplishments had united the right and the Republican party and fuelled the message of candidate Trump on the campaign trail based on some sort of anti-globalist and anti-foreign policy elite defending the liberal order.

Once elected, President Trump did not wait too long before leaving the Paris climate deal, retrieving the US seat from the negotiation of the TPP, putting tariffs and quotas on aluminum and steel, moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and finally leaving the Iran deal. On the climate deal, the international community responded by reaffirming its commitment to meeting the goals defined in Paris without the US, one of the largest polluters. It was a disappointment for European allies. But many were not surprised considering the perceptions and rhetoric on climate change in the American political debate. The US withdrawal from the Paris climate deal sent the initial signal to Europe and the world about US foreign policy under Trump. But the successions of policy rebuttals are now building up in increasing tensions and discomfort between the two sides of the Atlantic. On the Iran deal, both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been intensively lobbying the US president to reconsider its decision.

President Trump’s argument was that the Iran deal was one of the worst deals ever and that it did not do enough to address Iran’s ballistic program and curb Iranian foreign policy in the region. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial sums up very well the voice of the anti-Iran deal advocates. The Trump administration expects that by re-implementing the sanctions it would put so much pressure on the regime that it will ultimately bring it to collapse. President Trump and national security advisor Bolton are in fact hoping for regime change. When President Macron prepared his visit to the US a couple weeks ago, he talked on Fox News about not having a Plan B with regards to the Iran deal. The US neither has a Plan B today, nor one for tomorrow if the Iranian regime further radicalizes or even collapses.

From Europe’s point of view, the exit of the US from the Iran deal implies several dimensions: first, it undermines European commitment to multilateralism and more importantly the rules-based order, the centerpiece of European foreign policy. The Iranian nuclear deal is a “key element of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture.” It embodies a success for European diplomacy, which has been the main driver over 12 years of negotiations beginning with HR Javier Solana (E3+1). The Iran deal represents “the foremost proof of their [European] capacity to act coherently and effectively.”

Second, it creates a considerable financial and economic dilemma under the current circumstances. With the US departure and re-imposition of US sanctions, European companies could be in violation of such sanctions. It comes at the time when of the Trump administration unilaterally increased tariffs and quotas on aluminum and steel and the Europeans are currently receiving a temporary exemption. As mentioned by EU chief foreign policy Frederica Mogherini, “the European Union is determined to act in accordance with its security interests and to protect its economic investments.” French, British and German officials must now navigate some tricky waters as EU companies, such as Airbus, Danone, Renault, Total and Sanofi, could be facing penalties under US sanctions. The US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, told “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operation immediately.” The lack of understanding of diplomatic protocol by the American diplomat is quite telling.

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Third, there are considerable geopolitical ramifications in a highly volatile region. The nuclear deal has played a role in maintaining a certain level of stability (at least status-quo). The Europeans are seeking to maintain the deal and are committed to “work collectively on a broader framework” covering Iran’s nuclear activity, ballistic missile program and seeking for greater stability in the Middle East.

Fourth, it demonstrates one more time the lack of willingness by European powers to assume their European sovereignty in advancing and defending European interests. President Macron in his acceptance speech of the Prix Charlemagne, asked this criticalMacron-PrixCharlemagne question: “Are we accepting the rule of the other or the tyranny of the events or are we making a choice by ourselves of a deep autonomy and yes, of a European sovereignty?”  The US-EU relations are deep and have evolved over time. Since the 1950s, Washington has called on Europeans to build up their power and influence, and Europe has struggled with such task. Now with the current administration, the EU and Europeans are facing a complex conundrum: developing a tough and united position against the Trump administration without damaging its relationship with the United States.

On V-E day, a day of commorancy of transatlantic unity defeating Nazism and fascism, the American president made a case for an America first, America alone (at the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia), and for undermining the interest of the international community. The case made by President Trump and some of his foreign policy allies, like Senator Marco Rubio, is that the Iran deal was a political agreement signed by President Obama and not by Congress (which is true). For instance, Senator Rubio emphasized in a tweet that the deal was “not a binding agreement under US law b/c never submitted for Senate approval. It is a political agreement made by the previous administration.” This is a dangerous game to start playing and to justify major diplomatic shifts.

Now the concept of ‘America First’ may play very well with a specific segment of the American electorate, however, it is not effective with the international community. Reciprocity is a core dimension of international relations. Under the liberal order, the US has certainly advanced its interests, while having positive and beneficial outcomes for American allies. In the case of the Iran deal, the Paris agreement, the tariffs/quotas, American allies are obvious losers. President Trump wants to keep his promises to his base, but what about his European counterparts? How can a European leader defend transatlantic cohesion under the terms and conditions advanced by this administration?France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said EU states would propose sanctions-blocking measures to the European Commission. He even asked “Do we accept the vassalization of Europe in commercial matters? The answer is no.”

President Trump mentioned in withdrawal speech that his action sends a critical message that “the United States no longer makes empty threats.” We will see on this point as so far US interventions abroad under President Trump have been so limited and frivolous. Trump is making unilateral decisions with lasting consequences without any grasp of the issues and policy outcomes. In year 2, President Trump is continuously isolating the US by proving that American commitments are in fact empty promises.

(COPYRIGHT 2018 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

Thoughts on populism and post-Italian elections

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Credit: The Financial Times

Despite the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of France less than a year ago, the populist wave has maintained a strong footprint and influence over European politics. The outcomes of the recent legislative election in Italy confirm that a core EU member state and Eurozone’s third largest economy has chosen a populist movement, the Five Star Movement (M5S), and an extreme right party, Northern League, to lead Italian politics for the upcoming years.

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The story behind the results of the Italian election of March 4, 2018 is shaped by a series of factors: migration (influx of over 750,000 migrants since 2011 from Sub-Saharan Africa), frustrations towards the EU and Eurozone governance, ethno-nationalism (especially for Northern Italy), stagnating economy and increase of poverty (11.1% unemployment rate and 37.8% youth unemployment rate), and disillusionment with Italian political establishment. In addition, the results highlight the division between several Italies: in the North, the Northern League gained the most voices; in the South, M5S was the big winner; and in the middle, a faction of center left.

In the upcoming weeks, party leaders will be working on building a coalition in order to gain a majority. It was projected to see a coalition between Forza Italia and the Northern League, but in recent days Party leader Matteo Salvini expressed openness to join a coalition with M5S and other parties, at the exception of the Democratic Party. “The choice of speakers for the lower house of parliament and the Senate, due after March 23,” writes Giada Zampano of Politico “will provide the first hint as to possible alliances before parties consult with President Sergio Mattarella about forming a new government.” Mathematically, no future government can be formed without either M5S and/or the Northern League.

Here is my discussion with eTBS This Morning‘s host, Alex Jensen, on the populist wave over Europe in light of the Italian election, and the transatlantic link between European and American populist movements: audio file here or on iTunes here.

(COPYRIGHT 2018 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

The Iranian Dossier – France’s Position

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Shortly after the decision by the Trump administration to refuse to certify the Iran deal, and “instead tasked Congress with determining whether to take punitive action,” I was invited by the Program in Arms Control and Domestic and International Security (ACDIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to provide an analysis on the French and European position regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan fo Action (JCPOA).

Concerns that Iran may seek to develop its own nuclear arsenal once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) expires in 2025 are legitimate. But how can one make an informed decision to decertify the deal when so far Iran has complied with the terms of the 2015 agreement signed under the UN auspice?

Politically speaking, Donald Trump, against the recommendations of his top advisors decertified the deal after having already recertified it at two previous occasions. While this decision may appeal a Trumpian base that perceives multilateral and diplomatic efforts as a form of weakness undermining American grandeur, a divide between the US and the Europeans is apparent regarding the survival of the Iranian nuclear deal. European counterparts, especially France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Union (known as the E3/EU), have not shied away from expressing their opposition to such unilateral decision by the White House.

To read the rest of the analysis, click here

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

The Disintegration of Europe?

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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.

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@ European Commission

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.
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@ Roland Brückner

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.

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).