German elections

Reading time: 6 minutes

In September of this year, German voters will head to the polls to elect a new Bundestag or German Federal Parliament. However, for the first time in 16 years, they will not be able to vote for Angela Merkel, who announced in 2018, she would not run for a fifth consecutive term. Angela Merkel was the first female Chancellor of Germany and has been widely described as the de facto leader of Europe. If the reader wishes to know more about the legacy Merkel leaves behind, both in Germany and the European Union, we have written two articles that discuss this very topic. You can find part one here [Merkel Part 1] and part two here [Merkel Part 2]. So, if Merkel is out, who will be the next Chancellor of Germany? Let us look at the three front-runners.

Main candidates

Figure 1 – Armin Laschet; Source: FR.d; Taken by Federico Gambarini

Armin Laschet is a 60-year-old former layer and journalist. He is currently the State Premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany. Laschet is the current leader of the center-right party, Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), and he will head to the elections under a political alliance between CDU and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU), the latter being a sister party of the CDU that operates in the German state of Bavaria. Angela Merkel was the leader of this political alliance in the elections from 2005 to 2017, so the reader can think of Laschet as her successor.

Figure 2 – Annalena Baerbock; Source: buchreport.de

Annalena Baerbock is a 40-year-old member of the Bundestag, and co-leader of the center-left party alliance called the Greens. In April, the Baerbock was announced as the Greens’ candidate for Chancellor for this year’s federal elections, which was the first time the Greens announced a sole candidate for Germany’s head of government. She has been a member of parliament since 2013 but has never held any public office.

Figure 3 – Olaf Scholz; Source: globsec.org

Olaf Scholz, 62-years-old is the current Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance of Germany. He is the nominee of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) for Chancellor. He has been part of the SDP since 1975 and has had a long political career. He is seen as being part of the more conservative wing of the SDP. Scholz is by far the most experienced candidate of the three.

What do the polls tell us?

As for the time of writing, it is still early to tell who will win the elections in September. The current polls show the Greens of Annalena Baerbock ahead in the polls. Despite her lack of political experience, Baerbock’s smooth nomination process and message of reshaping German politics have resonated with voters. In second in the polls and within the margin of error comes Armin Laschet’s CDU/CSU bloc. The long political battle between the two parties of this alliance to choose the nominee for Chancellor and widespread accusations of corruption against some CDU members of parliament have damaged the image of the bloc in the public sphere. In third, and quite far away from both the Greens and the CDU/CSU block, is Olaf Scholz’s SDP. Despite being either the largest or second largest party in every election since the end of WWII, the SDP has been on a declining trend over the last 16 years and had its worst result since 1932 on the last Federal elections. If the party does not manage to recover, it will have its worst electoral performance since 1887 (134 years ago).

The numbers now show that the winner in September will be either Baerbock or Laschet, however, both parties are polling quite far away from winning an absolute majority in the Bundestag. Therefore, either one will face the challenging task of forming a coalition able to govern Germany until 2026.

Consequences on for the EU

However, the Chancellor of Germany is often described as the de facto leader of Europe, so it is important to understand what type of policies the two favorite candidates defend for the EU.

Figure 4 – Time’s Magazine Cover from January 11th 2020

Both candidates are pro-European, with Laschet recently saying that “in any global problem-solving, we need multilateral solutions, we need a European Germany.” However, their views towards Europe are quite different.

Armin Laschet is one of Merkel’s closest political allies so his policies towards the EU and other European countries will follow in the steps of his predecessor. He is a strong defender of Merkel’s stance on the Covid-19 recovery package and controversial migration policy. He has also defended a closer relationship between Germany and France, and an attempt to improve diplomatic relations between the EU and Russia. In his program, “Impulse 2021”, Laschet states the importance of completing the Single Market, increasing the use of qualified majority voting, and reinforcing the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

On the other hand, the election of Annalena Baerbock could dramatically change the EU and its relationship with the rest of the continent and the rest of the world. First, Baerbock has defended the reform of the German “debt brake” that prohibits the government from having a structural deficit above 0.35% of GDP, saying it leads to low public investment, which in turn, hurts the competitivity of the German economy, additionally it makes it harder for the country to fight global warming. This change in fiscal policy could translate into a less strict approach by Germany towards fiscal responsibility being forced upon highly indebted European countries, such as Italy and Greece. The Greens have also defended making the EU’s recovery package permanent, and that the Stability and Growth Pact is excessive and should be reformed. For the readers who do not know, the Stability and Growth Pact is a set of fiscal rules which state EU countries cannot have budget deficits above 3% of GDP and the national debt cannot surpass 60% of GDP. As of 2021, only 13 of the 27 member states meet both criteria, and Germany is not one of them. Baerbock’s dedicated support for action against global warming will also likely lead to a more climate-focused EU, she has even supported a transatlantic Green Deal. As for Russia, Baerbock defends the suspension of Nord Stream 2, a project set to deliver Russian natural gas to Germany through the Baltic Sea, and defends a tougher stance against Putin’s actions on Ukraine. Regarding China, the Greens see a necessity for Europe to cooperate with the country to fight climate change, however, the party advocates for EU sanctions on China over its treatment of the Uighurs minority. The reader can learn more about China’s violations of human rights against Uighurs in this previous article [Uighurs] we have written about the topic. The Greens have also shown opposition against the EU’s recently concluded Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI) with Beijing and seeks to block Huawei’s participation in Europe’s switch to 5G.  

As already mentioned in this article, it is still too early to know what will happen in this year’s election, and Laschet’s or Baerbock’s ability to change the European Union’s domestic and foreign policy will depend not only on their electoral result but on what sort of coalition they will be able to form to govern Germany. However, there is one thing we know for certain, with Merkel’s exit, come 2022, Germany and the EU will have a new leader.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Rusi, Politico, BBC, CNBC, DW, The Economist, Financial Times, The Times


Francisco Pereira

João Sande e Castro

Pedro Afonso Estorninho

Healthcare Without Borders: Poland’s Abortion Ban and the EU 

Reading time: 6 minutes

On the 22nd of October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland ruled that the present law authorising abortions for malformed foetuses was unconstitutional, banning most abortions performed in the country. Poland already had some of the harshest restrictions on abortion in Europe. This has led Polish women to take advantage of the European Union’s freedom of movement and look for safe abortions in other member states. 

Abortion and Conservatism in Poland 

Formalised by the law of 1956, abortion was legal in Poland during the period of state-socialism, when pregnancy termination was possible based on social grounds. Despite the many protests organised by several women’s organisations, new legislation was adopted in 1993 that severely restricted the possibility of having a legal abortion. In particular, according to Article 4a of the new law, termination of pregnancy is possible only in three specific circumstances: 

1. If the pregnancy constitutes a threat to the life or health of the mother. 

2. If the pre-natal examination or other medical reasons point to a high probability of severe and irreversible damage to the foetus or of an incurable life-threatening disease of the child. 

3. If there is a confirmed suspicion that the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, the termination of pregnancy in this case is allowed, if the woman is less than 12 weeks pregnant. 

Performing an illegal abortion is a criminal offence subject to a fine and/or 10 years imprisonment. 

However, more recently, the governing Law and Justice party has tried to ban abortion as a whole. In March and April of 2016, an initiative to completely ban abortion led to a series of street protests and the mobilisation of women’s organisations. The initiative was eventually voted down. 

Access to contraceptives in Poland is also quite restricted, as in most cases no refunds are available from the National Health Fund and the costs of contraceptives need to be covered privately. Consequently, the use of contraceptives in Poland is one of the lowest in Europe. A recent survey shows that methods such as coitus interruptus or the “natural method” (the so-called “marriage calendar”), which carry no cost, are popular, while modern contraception methods, such as intrauterine devices (IUD), have little use. 

Until 2015, emergency contraception was only available with an adequate prescription. In February 2015, the law was amended so that any person at least 15 years old was free to purchase the pill in a pharmacy, without the need of a prescription. This law was reversed by the current government in March 2016, and again emergency contraception is only available after a prescription. Additionally, pharmacists started to use the so-called “conscience clause” which allows them to refuse sell of contraception in their pharmacies.  

In 2019, a group of MPs from the Law and Justice party referred the abortion law, then in force, to the Constitutional Tribunal. The Tribunal is mostly composed of judges nominated by Law and Justice, after a series of moves by the party to have more control over the judiciary. 

In October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal ruling banned abortion on the grounds of severe health defects of the foetus – which accounted for 98% of all legal terminations in Poland in 2019. One opinion poll suggested 59% of Poles disagreed with the ruling. Abortion is now only possible when a mother’s health is at risk, or in cases of criminal acts. 

With these restrictions, Polish women are turning to the freedom of movement in the European Union – which means that abortions available in one member state are available to all citizens of the EU. A situation that is not new. 

Freedom of Movement and Medical Tourism 

Until 2018, Ireland also had restrictive laws on abortion. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1983 equated the unborn foetus’ life to that of its mother and allowed for abortion only in circumstances where the life of a pregnant woman was at risk. 

Abortion law in Ireland received worldwide attention resulting from the death of Savita Halappanavar, who had been denied an abortion while suffering from a septic miscarriage. This case resulted in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act of 2013, which allowed for abortion when the pregnancy endangers a woman’s life, including through the risk of suicide. 

In 2018, this amendment was replaced by the Health Act 2018, which permitted abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and later in cases of risk to the woman’s life or fatal malformations of the foetus. Abortion services commenced on 1 January 2019. 

Before the Health Act of 2018, women in Ireland seeking abortions often found them abroad, typically in Britain. In 1992, the Attorney General sought to prevent a 13-year-old, who had become pregnant as a result of rape, from obtaining an abortion in England. The Irish Supreme Court ruled in favour of the girl. This case led to the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the Irish constitution, legalising women travelling abroad for abortions. 

After the passage of the thirteenth amendment in 1992, the practice became more common. In 2001, an estimated 7.000 women travelled abroad to obtain an abortion. Statistics showed that 4.149 Irish women had abortions in Britain in 2011, and 3.265 did so in 2016. A study found that in 2014 a total of 5.521 women gave Irish addresses to English and Welsh clinics that provided abortion services. In some cases, women travelling do it with the assistance of the Abortion Support Network – a UK-based charity that helps women in countries such as Poland, Malta and (formerly) Ireland to obtain abortions abroad. 

Abortion is also illegal in Malta, where the practice is a criminal offence punishable with 18 months to three years in prison. It is currently the only country in the European Union to ban abortion in all cases. A key argument against the decriminalization of abortion is to preserve Maltese national identity as rooted in conservative politics, Catholic morality, and family values. 

It is estimated that 300-400 women a year travel out of Malta to perform abortions, mostly to the UK (around 60). As a result of the ongoing pandemic and closing of borders, this has become impossible. The Abortion Support Network saw a dramatic increase in calls to its hotline when borders closed in March of last year. 

Abortion Laws in Europe 

Currently, 24 EU member states allow abortion on request – everyone but Poland, Malta, and Finland. In Finland, a woman can have an abortion with a note from two doctors and a social or financial reason to justify her decision. As mentioned, Malta is the only EU country to prohibit abortion in any case. Poland now has, after Malta, the most restrictive abortion law of any EU member state. 

The European Union follows a principle of subsidiarity as laid down in article 5 of the Treaty of the European Union – meaning that decisions are the responsibility of the member states if the intervention of the EU is not necessary. Additionally, under the principle of proportionality (article 5 as well), the EU must only act when it is necessary to achieve the objectives of the treaties. In 2014, both the European Commission and the EU Parliament stated that Member States are free to choose their own abortion legislation since there exists no right to abortion under the treaties of the EU and other international law. Having this in mind, it seems unlikely that the EU will find legal grounds, or even motivation, to impose an EU abortion law without amending the treaties. 

Future 

With the tightening of abortion restrictions in Poland, and the continued growth of conservative and populist movements in the country, Polish women seeking an abortion will probably have no option in the near future but to travel abroad, by their own means or with the support of organisations. This provides a daunting preview into the tightening of other civil liberties in Poland and in other countries. 


Sources

The Economist, Amnesty International UK, ABC News & The Guardian 


Team

Afonso Monteiro

Hugo Canau

João Sande e Castro

Manuel Barbosa


Portuguese Presidency – Priorities for the EU

Reading time: 4 minutes

On midnight of January 1st of 2021, while most Europeans were celebrating the end of annus horribilis 2020, a team of hundreds of people, divided between Lisbon and Brussels, were taking on the six-months challenge of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. To those readers who are not up to date on how the European machine works, the Council of European Union – not to be mistaken by the not at all confusingly named Council of Europe – has a rotating six-month Presidency among the 27 members of the EU. To avoid further confusion, from now on, we will be referring to the Council of the European Union as simply, the Council.   

The moto of the Portuguese Presidency is “Time to deliver: a fair, green and digital recovery”, and it will be working around the following 3 priorities: 

I. Promoting an European recovery boosted by the green and digital transitions. 

II. Delivering the European Union’s Social Pillar as a key element for ensuring a fair and inclusive green and digital transition. 

III. Strengthening the strategic autonomy of an Europe that is open to the world. 

Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, in front of the logo of the Portuguese Presidency. Picture from Politico. Taken by Antonio Pedro Santos 

According to the Portuguese government, these three priorities will  be achieved under a program focused on five lines of action. The first of which is a Resilient Europe that promotes the Union’s recovery, cohesion, and values. Ensuring the implementation of the new seven-year Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) that came into effect on January 1st is one of the responsibilities of the Presidency that fall under this line of action. You may learn more about the new €1 trillion 2021-2027 MFF on a previously published article titled “European Budget”. On top of the new MFF, Portugal will have to ensure the implementation of the €750 billion NextGenerationEu recovery package that aims at helping member states recover from the economic and social deterioration caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

 In this context, Portugal has invited all 27 member states to a high-level summit in Lisbon focused on the recovery and response to the economic crisis. Besides the goal of guaranteeing the recovery of the EU from the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating impacts on the European Economy, Portugal wants to strength the EU’s coordination in disaster response and enhance its capacity to identity and tackle future infectious diseases. This objective is aimed to be achieved through a reinforcement of the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, which may be used by countries when their own domestic capabilities are overwhelmed by a disaster.  

The European Budget for 2021-2027 and the NextGenerationEu recovery plan. By the Council of the EU 

As for the controversial Pact on Migration and Asylum that was announced by the Commission President Von der Leyen in September of last year, the Portuguese Presidency hopes to bring “the positions of the Member States closer together”. The pact can only become EU law if it is both approved by the Council and the EU parliament. The position of the Portuguese Presidency is to create as much common ground as possible among the member states, however, it has not shown an intent to bring the proposal into law by the end of its presidency. 

The second line of action is a Green Europe that promotes the EU as a leader in climate action. Portugal announced as a “big priority” the approval of the European Climate Law by the end of the mandate. The European Climate Law aims to write into the law the Green Deal’s goals of reducing greenhouse gases in the EU by 55% compared to 1990 levels and achieve net-zero emission by 2050.  

Despite being the 12th country of the European Union in terms of land area, Portugal’s exclusive economic zone is the 3rd largest in the Union. Having this in mind, it is easy to understand that an important target for the country, during the following months, is to highlight the importance of the blue (ocean) economy and its sustainability. A conference on this very subject is expected to be held in June on Azores’ islands.  

The Portuguese Presidency has also committed itself to conclude the negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy with the objective, among other things, of improving the environmental sustainability of the Union’s agricultural sector.  

The third line of action is accelerating the digital transformation in service of citizens and enterprises. Portugal will focus on accelerating the Union’s digital transition as a tool to foster a faster economic recovery, from the covid-19 pandemic, and to bolster European leadership in digital innovation. On January 7th, the Portuguese minister for economic affairs, Pedro Siza Viera, announced Portugal intends to move ahead on negotiations on two legislative packages called the Digital Services Act and the Digital Market Law. The two proposals are protecting European consumers’ rights by increasing regulatory control on major technological platforms, such as Google and Facebook. Although the minister acknowledged he does not expect to reach a complete agreement on these two measures, he hopes to achieve “a consensus that can soon be followed up”. Portugal also plans to upgrade the continent’s digital infrastructure by creating a strategic European Data Entry platform based on submarine cable that will link Europe, South America, and Africa. There is hope that this project could result in a boom of Europe’s telecom industry.  

World map of active (orange) and planned (red) submarine cables. Source Politico EU and TeleGeography 

The fourth line of action is the enhancement and strengthening of the European social model. With the planned high-level Porto Social Summit, the main focus of the Portuguese Presidency appears to be on energising political support for the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights and its action plan. The European Pillar of Social Rights sets out 20 key principles and rights that aspires to an EU that is “fair, inclusive, and full of opportunities”. The action plan by the European Commission turns these principles into actions and it proposes targets to be reached by 2030. The President of the European Foundation for Progressive Studies, Maria João Rodrigues, has said the Porto Social Summit “can be an historic moment” of the EU’s commitment to social rights.  

The 20 principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Source: European Commission 

The fifth and final line of action is promoting an Europe that is open to the world. The Portuguese Presidency will continue the European diplomatic strategy of openness to the world and effective multilateralism. The Portuguese minister of foreign affairs has acknowledged that he hopes to have a free-trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur concluded before the end of the presidency, which shows a synchronisation with the EU’s trade strategy that focuses on the development of new bilateral or plurilateral trade agreements. The 6th EU-African Union Summit demonstrates the interest of Portugal to maintain a strategic dialogue between the two continents to address global challenges such as climate change or peace and security. Lastly, there has been a renewed interest by Portugal to strengthen the dialogue between the EU and both the United States and India. As for the time of writing, there are ongoing negations for a meeting between the EU and the Biden administration, and the prime minister of India has been invited to a meeting with European leaders that will take place this May in Porto.   


Sources

  • 2021portugal.eu 
  • Politico.eu 
  • Observador.pt 
  • Público.pt 
  • Euroactiv.com 
  • Ec.europa.eu 
  • Bellona.org

Authors

Ana Terenas

João Sande e Castro

Francisco Pereira


Ukraine: 21st Century Cold War

Reading time: 6 minutes

The War in Donbass

More than six year have gone by, around five thousand people have died and more than twelve hundred have been wounded. The conflict in the Donbass region has yet to subside. As of July 27th, the 29th attempt at a “full and comprehensive” ceasefire came into effect, with number of attacks and deaths dropping and a renewed hope of the end of this conflict.

To understand its origin, we must take a step back to November 2013, with a heavily indebted and corruption-filled Ukraine in need of help. Both the EU and Russia seek to help, the former promising strong ties in the long-run at a cost of tough conditions in the short-run and the latter offering a seemingly more lenient offer of a $15bn loan to be paid out over the course of several years and the prospect to join the Eurasian Union. Preferring the Russian bailout to an agreement for further integration with the European Union, which many saw as a way out from the deep economic problems, president at-the-time Viktor Yanukovych stirred unrest in the population. This led to protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the “Euromaidan”. In February of the same year, Parliament voted to remove him forthwith.

Viewing these protests as an opportunity and on the pretext that Russian speaking minority was being threatened, Moscow invades Crimea in Spring of 2014. Not long after, pro-Russian separatists seize the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk and declare them independent from the Ukraine. The national army moves to regain the cities, but Russian soldiers covertly join the rebels. Thus, a war is sparked in the Donbass region between the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and the government.

Source: Foreign Policy

In February 2015, both sides settle on a peace agreement called Minsk II, detailing a ceasefire and withdrawal of armed groups and weapons from the border region. Nonetheless, neither side respects the agreement, and 28 failed ceasefires ensue.

Only one question comes to mind: Why did this conflict come to be?

Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine

Since its recognition as an independent state, Russia has attempted to shape Ukraine’s foreign policy choices, using hard power, negative externalities and coercion, while capitalizing on existing energy and trade interdependencies.

There is large debate, as to why Russia seeks to gain control over Ukraine.

Some believe, the geostrategic importance of Ukraine’s gas transit infrastructure has prompted Kremlin’s drive to gain control over it. Until the Crimean invasion, Russia supplied most of Ukraine’s gas, and, though imports have since stopped completely, it still relies heavily on Ukrainian pipelines to pump its gas to customers in Central and Eastern Europe and pays billions in transit fees to Kyiv.

Others argue Moscow seeks to restore Russian hegemony and have it recognized by the Ukrainian people, that the post-Cold War enlargement of NATO, viewed by it with increasing distress, is the major reason for this assertive policy. When intent to bring Ukraine into the organization was made clear, Putin declared it “would be a hostile act towards Russia.”

Finally, comes Putin’s fear of losing power at home. After anti-government protests in 2011 and a steady decline in ratings, Putin claimed U.S. actors were sowing unrest and began to rally his political base by antagonizing them. His intervention in Ukraine propelled scaled ratings above 80%.

Regardless of the cause, its leverage over Kyiv has been exercised for years, via multiple security challenges and interdependencies, especially economic. Russia currently holds a 3bn dollar bond from the Ukrainian government and its heavy industry was, for years, largely dependent on energy imports and low prices from the former. The fear of being in a subordinate position vis-à-vis Russia has defined the evolution of Ukraine’s foreign policy during the past quarter-century.

US and EU policy

Following the Soviet collapse, Washington was the first to recognize Ukraine’s independence: “If we believe in the principle of sovereignty of nations on which our security and the security of our friends and allies depends, we must support Ukraine in its fight against its bullying neighbor. Russian aggression cannot stand.”, Bill Taylor, former US ambassador to Ukraine.

Focused on the denuclearization of the former Soviet Union, priority was set in leading Ukraine to forfeit its nuclear arsenal and in 1994 the US, the UK, and Russia pledged, via the Budapest Referendum, to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in return for it becoming a nonnuclear state. Thereafter, the US has been worked towards safeguarding Kyiv’s independence, in favor of its integration into NATO since 2009 and, in June 2020, announcing a 250 million dollars military aid.

Similarly, the European Union has laid heavy interest in guaranteeing stability, freedom and prosperity in its neighboring regions, by supporting good governance standards and the European rule of law being applied to this area.

Source: giz.de

Energy transit, environmental issues and border security represent the EU’s major concerns in Ukraine, assisting in reforms and cooperating on projects tackling joint problems. The Union is developing tighter cooperation with Ukraine in policy areas, marked by a greater level of interdependencies. Financial bonding examples, majority of which with the purpose of border protection, include projects such as TACIS National Program and Nuclear Safety.

Twenty years later, with the Crimean Annexation, restoring and strengthening Ukraine’s sovereignty reemerged as a top U.S. and EU foreign policy priority, as well as rooting out corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and encouraging privatization of businesses, particularly in the energy sector.

Ukrainian perspective

Before diving into Ukraine’s stance in this conflict, it is important to give some historical context. Since the mid 11th century Ukraine has had a long history of foreign dominance and its subjugation to Russian ruling can be dated as far back as the 18th. In the following centuries, there was a rise in the national cultural identity but only in 1918 did the Ukrainian People’s Republic successfully proclaim independence from the Russian Soviet Republic. This was, however, short-lived and the nation was once again conquered by the Russian Red Army. In 1991, it declares independence, formally recognized by Russia in the 1997 Treaty of Friendship.

The post-soviet era marked, nonetheless, no end to foreign influences as, on the one hand, Euro-Atlantic integration constituted an appealing path but, on the other, Russia still exercised leverage via the above-mentioned interdependencies. The “European Choice” has been a major priority from the onset, every new stage towards closer cooperation has been seen as a step closer to membership status. Nevertheless, maintaining a friendly relationship with Russia came to be a must for its feasibility.

Former president, Leonid Kuchma, summarized this vision of a multivectoralist foreign policy stating: “Being located at the European crossroad, in a complicated system of international axes, being at the same time pivotal for central, western, and southeast Europe, our country cannot afford not to have tight relations with these countries.”

Being located at the European crossroad, in a complicated system of international axes, being at the same time pivotal for central, western, and southeast Europe, our country cannot afford not to have tight relations with these countries.

Leonid Kuchma, former president, summarized vision of a multivectoralist foreign policy

The nation itself is divided regarding the East-West debate. A high number of ethnic minorities, including Belarussian, Hungarian and Russian at 17.3%, and a significant Russian influence on language, with circa 25.7% of the population considering it to be their mother tongue, stirred all but unity regarding foreign vision. Whilst the northwestern region of the county is pro-European integration and has adopted, in part, a strong nationalist position, the southeastern region still tipped heavily in favor of Moscow.

In recent years, however, public support has been galvanized pro-West due to Russia’s more aggressive behavior. The election of Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky have signaled, more than anything, the deep discontent and dissatisfaction with the political establishment and its handling of the conflict. Zelensky campaigned combating corruption and oligarchic economy, it is yet to be seen whether he will be the solution to Ukraine’s deep-rooted problems or another corrupt politician.


Sources: BBC news, The Guardian, CBS news, Vox, The Economist.

Afonso Monteiro

Raquel Novo

Teresa Thomas

Hugo Canau

Maria Mendes

European Budget

Reading time: 6 minutes

What is the EU Budget?

The annual budgets of the European Union (EU) are regulated by the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) – a long-term budget set to plan the application of EU’s money and distribute it among several EU policies in the long-run (five or more years). The 2021-2027 long-term budget has just entered into force and it is the largest in EU’s history. It will provision 1.8 trillion euros of funding to, firstly, help rebuild member states socially and economically, and secondly, build a network of infrastructures that aim at helping younger generations after the pandemic crisis. The long-term EU budget for 2021-2027 differs significantly from the previous one (2014-2020), in part due to the Covid crisis. The EU has created, alongside the MFF, a temporary recovery instrument, NextGenerationEU, to help countries face the economic consequences of the pandemic and lockdowns. This is a 750-billion-euro package financed through common debt.

Graph 1 – The MFF and NextGenerationEU (European Commission)

The Recovery and Resilience Facility (RFF) is responsible for applying most of the funds from the NextGenerationEU programme. It provides financial support for member states to rebuild their economies in the post-pandemic, specifically in green and digital projects. The RFF will support member states by handing out €312.5 billion in grants and €360 billion in loans. The receiving countries will have to negotiate their share of the budget with the EU, which will be allocated following several criteria, such as GDP per capita, unemployment levels and the impact of the pandemic. Before receiving their share of the fund, member states first need to submit their resource allocation plans to be assessed by the European Commission and approved by the European Council.

Besides, the primordial goals of the EU to modernize and digitalize Europe, fight climate change, and give continuity to cohesion policies still dominates a large share of the long-term budget. Horizon Europe (scientific research and innovation programme), the Just Transition Fund (climate transition programme), and the Digital Europe programme, together with the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RFF), account for 50% of the total budget. Policies related to the digital transformation account for 20% of the budget.

Examining the budget by policy areas, this is notably the first budget where new and reinforced priorities have the largest share of the budget (31,9%). These not only include the aforementioned programs like Horizon Europe, Digital Europe, and Just Transition Fund, but also a new EU4Health programme as well as initiatives for young people, like Erasmus+. The Common Agricultural Policy, historically the largest spending area of the Union, maintains its decreasing trend, administration expenses hold steady, and cohesion policies see a small decline.

Graph 2 – Share of the main policy areas in the Multinannual Financial Framework (European Commission)

This budget also includes the largest share ever towards the fight against climate change: 30% of the long-term budget, including the MFF and NextGenerationEU.

To face the common EU debt generated by NextGenerationEU, the European Union intends to establish new sources of revenue, namely a contribution based on non-recycled plastic waste, a new carbon border adjustment mechanism, a digital levy, and the EU Emission Trading System. The Commission will also propose, by 2024, some new source of revenue linked to the corporate sector or financial transactions.

The budget also includes a 5-billion-euro Brexit Adjustment Reserve, to help countries affected by the UK’s exit of EU.

Negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) – 2021-2027

The MFF starts with a proposal by the European Commission, being then discussed by member states on the European Council until there is a unanimous agreement. Lastly, the European Parliament votes to endorse it.

In May 2018, Jean-Claude Juncker, former President of the Commission, unveiled a €1.135 trillion proposal for the EU’s MFF for 2021-2027. It not only “filled the 13-billion-euro annual hole” left by Brexit but was also a significant increase from the previous 2014-2020 MFF’S 959-billion-euro budget (2011 prices). The proposed budget increased the MFF to 1.14% of EU’s GNI, which breached away from the traditional cap of 1% of EU’s GNI.

In July 2020, the President of the EU Council, Charles Michel, presented a MFF 2% lower than the initially proposed, two years prior, by the European Commission. To please the ‘Frugal Four’[1], Charles Michel also proposed the rebates maintenance that have allowed the countries who are net contributors to get some of their membership fee back. Previously, the European Commission and the ‘Friends of Cohesion’[2] had attempted to scale back this mechanism.

The “Frugal Four,” led by the Prime-Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, refused the budget proposed by Michel as it would put the MFF above traditional cap of 1% of the Union’s GNI. These countries believed they should not have to pay for the financial hole left by Brexit.

In May 2020, the European Commission proposed a new MFF with a projected €1.1 trillion in spending for the 2021-2027 period. However, once again, this proposal failed to reach a unanimous agreement in the European Council.

In July 2020, Michel presented a compromised MFF of 1.074 trillion euros, which was lower than both the EU’s Commission proposal and his own proposal from February. He hoped the new reduced MFF would allow for more money to be spent on the EU’s recovery package. This new MFF would be agreed by all member states at the budget summit.

In November 2020, negotiators from the European Parliament and EU ambassadors introduced the Rule of Law mechanism, which would restrict EU countries who do not respect the “EU values” from receiving money from the MFF and from the recovery package. Therefore, both Poland and Hungary are being subjected to EU disciplinary procedures over their governments’ breaches of the rule of law in their countries. For this reason, these two member states threatened to veto the EU budget previously if this mechanism was not dropped.

In early December 2020, both Hungary and Poland agreed to the rule of law mechanism imposed by the European Parliament. However, the EU Commission will refrain from using it until the European Court of Justice has decided if it is legal, which could delay its implementation by many years. The new mechanism would also only be applicable to funds from the MFF 2021-2027 and the recovery package, but not for “for projects committed to under the current budgetary framework”. Lastly, in the case where a member state is facing penalties under this new mechanism, the European Council commits itself to apply it in a fair manner.

On December 16th 2020, with 548 votes in favour, 88 against, and 66 abstentions, the European Parliament approved the MFF, along with the Rule of Law Mechanism. These documents will set up the course of the European economy and EU’s finances, for the next seven years.


[1] Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden (i.e. part of the largest net contributors)

[2] Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Spain, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Italy. (i.e. net-beneficiary)

Sources: EURACTIV, European Council, European Commission, jornal Expresso, Instituto Superior Técnico, Jornal Económico, Politico, TLDR News EU


João Sande e Castro

António Martins

Manuel Barbosa

Pedro Estorninho

The Rise of Far – Right in Europe

Extremist Movements in Europe

The origin of «left» and «right» terms concerning politics dates to the French Revolution, in 1789. One of the main topics debated when writing the new constitution was the amount of power the king would have. Among the present in the National Assembly, those in favor of the king having an absolute veto sat on the right side of the assembly’s president, while those who disagreed sat on the left side.

Nowadays, we use the terms left-wing and right-wing when referring to two broad opposite political points of view. The left is known for having a more socialist economic perspective, while the right commonly defends capitalism and a free-market economy. Throughout the years, both gave impetus to different extremist movements. When it comes to the far-right, although having different facets, this extreme side of the political spectrum is known for supporting nationalist, authoritarian and anti-immigration policies.

The Rise of Far-Right – Nationalism and Globalization

In modern politics, we tend to look at the far-right as a consistent political ideology, while throughout history it has been a quite flexible movement. Even so, there has been a prevalent feature: nationalism, particularly ethno-nationalism. Indeed, the core of the movement idealizes a version of a cultural, national, and historical identity, with the rhetoric that it is constantly under threat and therefore needs to be defended.

From the perspective of many right-extremists, globalization constitutes  a significant threat to this feeling of «national identity». The free movement of goods, capital, services and people, the homogenization of culture, and the loss of economic independence are ways in which far-right movements have framed this holy war between external forces destroying the nation and the heroes defending it. Nationalism is seen by many as the savior that holds together the victims of tough and challenging times. Recently, for instance, Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the Rassemblement National in France, told supporters that globalization was «slowly choking communities to death». She backed up her statement with facts: globalization made many factories relocate from France to other parts of the world where labor was cheaper. This also happened in other European countries and heavily affected the middle class.

According to Arie Kacowicz, an academic expert on international relations, nationalism is one of the main resistors of media-induced globalization. However, there is a paradox: while nationalists often depict globalization, they also earn from it. In other words, changes in technology, for instance, create favorable conditions to the spread of right-extremist values. In fact, right-wings often use online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp so that their followers are constantly bombarded with breaking news and political propaganda. This enables them to connect with each other, creating a mechanism of echo chambers in which their own opinions and points of view are shown over and over.

The Rise of Far-Right – The 2008 Financial Crisis

Since World War II, the extreme-right has been seen with worrying eyes, but the 2008 financial crisis was the alarm buzz for the sleeping giant in the room. Recent years have witnessed an important rise of the far-right, taking over European countries’ political systems until today.

The crisis led to low economic growth, a rise in unemployment and an increase in inequality. It revealed an unexpected unregulated character of the market and main financial institutions, which in turn sparked mistrust of the ruling elites. People faced lower or stagnant incomes, as consequence of severe recession policies, and fewer job opportunities. Moreover, governments were not able to provide welfare redistribution, nor assist the transition to higher welfare. For instance, the British austerity measures ended up raising inequality, affecting the poorest the most, because, as shown by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, “the cuts have fallen in a disproportionate manner”

Indeed, the middle and lower classes were the most affected and found that help from the EU was scarce. As governments were decreasing spending and constrained on borrowing, some countries needed to resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), such as Portugal and Greece. Large economies such as Spain, France and Italy were also largely affected. Italy’s, Portugal’s, and Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio rose and has remained above 100% of GDP until today. This happened, in part, because the European Central Bank (ECB) was unable to act as a lender of last resort, imposing  austerity as one way to “save” European economies. Consequently, households felt hurt and blamed the EU for their newly found precarity. A Eurosceptic sentiment emerged among citizens and nationalistic ideologies were fostered through an increased  support of far-right parties, which constituted alternatives to the governments who faced the crisis. Eminently, most European countries have seen a rise in votes for far-right parties in the last elections.


Debt-to-GDP ratio of Portugal, Greece and Italy

Debt-to-GDP ratio of Portugal, Greece and Italy


18 out of 28 countries in Europe saw a rise in votes for far-right parties comparing the last two elections.

18 out of 28 countries in Europe saw a rise in votes for far-right parties comparing the last two elections.

Electorate’s Profile

According to the Horseshoe Theory, the political spectrum does not form a straight line but rather a horseshoe form. This means that the far right and far left, originally at opposite points of the political spectrum, would be  closer and bending in toward each other. In fact, both left-wing and right-wing extremist parties target similar audiences.

Extreme-right voters are often young millennials or old nationalists who view the current far-right as broken and wish to restore it. Far-right politicians look for people who feel victims of the current government and angry with the state of things, people who feel subject to marginalization and ostracization.

Therefore, both extremist sides make use of populist speeches focusing on insecurities, fears, and emotions. They offer the audience a sense of stability, security and belonging, and provide simple explanations to reduce troubling complexities over complex questions, easily dismissing critical thinking. In their speeches, they create a sense of urgency of change, inciting radical action, sometimes violent, and occasionally leading to “sacrifices for the greater good”.

The Drivers of Right-Wing Extremism

Migration stands as one of the most important topics of European right-wing parties. In a recent poll conducted by the Italian News Portal, Affari Italiani, 65% of Italians said they feel threatened by migration and would feel safer under the more rigid policies of the previous Minister of the Interior, who blocked NGO-backed rescue boats from docking in the country. Additionally, terrorist attacks across Europe, including the recent beheading of a French teacher by a Muslim extremist in Nice, heated the anti-migrant sentiment in Europe. European citizens increasingly resent the EU and its handling of  the refugee crisis, feeling that their well-being and safety are being threatened.

Arising from the consequences of the financial crisis, inequality and mistrust of the ruling elites  also play a role. In Spain, according to the Pew Research Center, people are increasingly unhappy with the country’s political system and are lacking faith that the elected officials are up to the task. Inequality continues to be an issue since redistribution of wealth was not a priority on the agenda during the crisis.

Among European countries, there are several examples which demonstrate rising Euroscepticism. For instance, in the 2017 presidential elections, the French Rassemblement National led by Marine Le Pen, who opposed Emmanuel Macron and advocated for Frexit, reached the second round, only 2,7pp behind Macron. In Spain, the far-right Vox Party gained a lot of media coverage, since founded in 2013, becoming  the third most voted party with 15,1% on the November 2019 General Spanish Elections. Finally, in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats are now on the top of the most recent polls.


Cartoon representing the battle for citizen’s vote between pro-Euro and anti-Euro parties in Europe.

Cartoon representing the battle for citizen’s vote between pro-Euro and anti-Euro parties in Europe.

There are, however, exceptions, like the Italian Movement Five Stars that is now getting closer to supporting the EU, even stating, in 2018, that the “European Union is the Movement’s home”. Another case is Poland’s current government which is considered softly Eurosceptic, believing Europe should help Poland and not the other way around, positioning against a federal Europe.

Conclusion

The right-wing is rising and came to stay. All over Europe, including Portugal, Spain and Scandinavia (countries where social democracy’s fall is not as strong as in the rest of Europe), the far-right is gaining ground against the left-wing parties. Anti-immigration and anti-Euro speeches are the used tool to convince voters. Inequality and discontentment towards democracy also constitute reasons for the people’s increasing support for the right-wing since the crisis.

However, recent polls point out to a decrease in the rise of right-extremist voting intentions. Almost all countries denote a fall regarding right-wing intention of vote, probably due to the current pandemic. People may prefer to vote for parties that can ensure more stability than more revolutionary ones when dealing with the CoVid-19 crisis. All this together raises a question: is the rise of the far-right decelerating or just starting?

Sources

Financial Times, Global Solutions Initiative, G1 Globo, The Guardian, Intereconomics, London School of Economics, New York Times, Pew Research, Politico, RMX, Time

The Fall of Social Democracy in Europe

Historical context

Social Democracy was born in the second half of the 19th century, inspired by labor, socialist and Marxist movements. Germany can be considered its country of origin, with the SPD (established in 1863) as the first social-democratic party. The labor and social-democratic movements were already important even before WWII, with the British Labour Party governance in the 1920s and the French and Spanish Popular Fronts in the 1930s. In post-war Europe, Social Democracy (along with Christian Democracy) was a large contributor to the modern welfare state, frequently switching power with more conservative governments, and maintaining influence in politics even when not governing.

In the 1980s, there was a conservative neoliberal turn and the center-left lost some appeal. Indeed, at the beginning of the 21st century, the Third Way arose, i.e, a shift in leftist parties around the world towards a more moderate, market-friendly economic policies, moving further away from the strong welfare states established after WWII. Nevertheless, social democratic parties managed to be in power until the 2008 crisis. However, since then, they have lost power in most countries and became the opposition (in some cases even losing the position as the biggest opposition party).


Countries where social democracy has failed

The rise of the Third Way was particularly stronger in Europe’s biggest nations. In Germany, this rightward shift of Social Democracy occurred with Gerhard Schröder, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and Germany’s Chancellor between 1998 and 2005. Schröder introduced the Agenda 2010, a series of reforms aimed at cutting German’s welfare system and labor protections, to promote economic growth and reduce unemployment. This clear shift to liberal policies cost the SPD the 2005 election and the party has not led the German Government since.  It has been the junior party in a grand coalition led by Angela Merkel’s CDU since 2013.

The French Socialist Party has suffered an even greater decline. After narrowly being elected in 2012, Socialist president François Hollande failed to bring down unemployment and made several unpopular political moves. In 2017, facing dismal approval ratings, he became the first president in the Fifth Republic not to run for re-election. Among many others, the main reason for the decline in social democracy in France presents a familiar story: with globalization, as factories moved from France to third-world countries, the Socialist Party’s traditional voting base became unemployed, facing economic hardships and thus, started to move to political extremes and populist parties. Regarding the newer generation, it is divided between a more moderate wing, trying to appeal to the center, and a more radical one, seeking to recover the party’s former working-class base. Consequently, since 2017, the Socialists have not managed to attain more than 8% of the votes.

A different shift from social democracy occurred in Greece. In January 2015, Syriza, the radical left-wing party led by Alex Tsipras, characterized by a staunch opposition to austerity measures imposed by Troika, won the Greek legislative elections. Tsipras was elected just as the negotiations started for a new bailout. Unable to reach a compromise with Troika, he held a referendum on the opposed austerity measures, which were refused by 60% of Greeks. However, Tsipras was still unable to negotiate better terms and ended up agreeing to the bailout terms and austerity. The economy was going through a U-turn, taking a complete opposition of policy than the defended one in the beginning. Despite the recent economic improvement, Syriza finished second in the 2019 Greek elections and lost power.

A possible solution to the crisis of social democratic parties would be a shift to the left, unlike the moderate turn in Germany and France. This happened in the British Labour Party with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, who had major support of trade unions and the more left faction of the party. His more leftward stance included opposition to austerity and the renationalization of public utilities and railways. However, with Brexit as the main hot issue in the UK and Corbyn’s non-existent position on this matter, the Labour Party faced a historical defeat in elections.


Countries where Social Democracy is still in place

The most well-known case of Social Democracy’s success in Europe is Portugal. The country is led by a center-left minority government with the support of other left-wing parties. On its first mandate (2015-2019), PS (the Socialist Party) governed Portugal through a coalition with the other left-wing parties, commonly known as Geringonça, to form a “majority” in parliament. Geringonça proved to be a success, leading the country to a stable period of economic growth, which increased confidence in voters, who maintained the left voting tendency. This has also happened in the neighboring country, Spain where Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) has collided to govern with a more radical left party, Podemos. This comes as no surprise in the Iberian Peninsula, as it has a large percentage of working-class voters (traditionally centre-left voters), unlike other European countries.

Another European region where Social Democracy has been able to stay in power is Scandinavia. However, its molds are different from Iberia’s, as it has been struggling not to succumb to Europe’s rightward trend.

Unlike Portugal or Spain, where social democracy has been relatively open to immigration, Denmark’s Social Democratic Party has engaged in an anti-immigration speech, as a way to attract far-right opposition party voters. Some voters supported it and switched their votes, while others did not and left the party. Nevertheless, the trend winded to other left-wing parties, which allowed Mette Frederiksen, the current Danish Prime-Minister, to engage in alliances with the left and form a government.

In Finland, the social democrats won by a small margin with the nationalist right-wing party (the latter having a strong anti-immigration stance) ending up in second place. Still, the Social Democratic Party won the election. Nevertheless, to govern, it had to coalite with four other parties.

In Sweden, after many tries of coalition by the Social Democratic party, it was necessary for the center-left and right to unite with the former to avoid the far-right from taking power. Therefore, while in Denmark and Finland the undecided votes were determined through stances on immigration, in Sweden Social Democracy has been in power mainly due to the fear of far-right movements, encouraging moderate left and right to collide.

Poll results for S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) member parties (March 2019)

Poll results for S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) member parties (March 2019)


Overall, why has social democracy fallen? 

The social-democratic project mainly focuses on the fair redistribution of income and equality of material ends, which has a strong connection with unions and the working class. More eloquently put, it is a fight within capitalism for less unequal capitalism. However, in the last 30 years, there were major ideological changes, caused by technological and cultural forces that shifted production away from big factories and nation-states to other places across the globe. This deeply eroded the power of the working class (the main electorate of this ideology) and thus, the engine of social democracy stalled.

This fall in popularity is complex to explain. Primarily, since 2008, the promise of materialism has been curtailed by austerity and neoliberal measures, which many social democrats were complicit too. Secondly, the globalization led by a now hegemonic neoliberalism made working-class people feel as though they lost control of their lives, regarding economics (negative income effect of immigration on jobs and wages), identity, purpose, and meaning. There was a shift in the electorate: originally a traditional working-class population, most of these social-democratic parties are now composed of progressive, urban, and well-educated electors. With globalization, these parties participated in the de-industrialization that put them at odds with their original electorate. As the latter felt it was left with no political representation, it shifted towards far-right and populist movements that followed narratives such as blaming immigration for the faced economic problems. The austerity and contraction of the welfare state after the Great Recession affected particularly the working middle-class society. This class saw immigration and the refugees’ crisis as the perfect scapegoats, the used narratives by many radical right-wing parties.

Stating that far-right parties and immigration were the main causes of Social Democracy’s fall can be simplistic. It was the lack of political representation and economic instability that played a major role.

Percentage of votes for European Social Democratic parties (base year: 1970)

Percentage of votes for European Social Democratic parties (base year: 1970)


Sources: The Economist, The Guardian, Journal of Democracy, Politico, Washington Post

Belarus: rigged elections and a struggle for national identity

Looking at footage from the recent protests in Belarus, following the August 9th presidential elections, one observes a wavy sea of red and white flags, instead of the official red and green flag. Understanding this discrepancy in symbols is essential to acknowledge what is happening in Belarus because it illustrates a major factor behind the current crisis: the existence of divergent views on how the future of Belarus should look like.

 

Historical context

Before the late 18th century, what is now the territory of Belarus belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, in 1795, after the joint efforts of Prussia, the Habsburg monarchy, and the Russian Empire, the land of modern Belarus was absorbed into the Russian Empire. The Belarrusian state emerged in 1918, only after the Russian monarchy collapsed under the Bolsheviks, and after the Russian forces retreated from the Germans in Minsk, the Belarusian Democratic Republic – or the Belarusian National Republic (BNR) – was created, and independence was declared. Yet, the flags waved by the protesters today are those that were used by the BNR.

However, the Belarusian National Republic was short-lived. Some months later, the government of the BNR[1] was overthrown by Russian Bolshevik forces, and the Belorussian Socialist Soviet Republic (BSSR) arose. In 1921, Belarus was divided in half between Poland and the Bolsheviks and, in 1922, the BSSR became one of the founding members of the Soviet Union. Belarusian intellectuals and national activists faced authoritarianism and political repression in the West by Poland and in the East by the Soviet Union. This, alongside Soviet historic propaganda, stifled the potential development of a Belarusian national identity to a greater extent.

It is no wonder that, in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, 69% of Belarusians described themselves as “Soviet citizens”, while only 24% identified themselves as “citizens of their republic”.

In 1994, in what is considered the only fair elections of the Belarus’ nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Lukashenko was elected the country’s president. Previously to the election, Mr. Lukashenko, a former state farm director, served as chairman of the anti-corruption committee of the Belarusian parliament. Vowing to destroy high-level Belarusian corruption and to forge closer ties with Moscow, he rode on a pro-Soviet sentiment that longed for a Soviet’s golden age as the one experienced in the post-WWII reconstruction period.

 

 

Referendums, fraudulent elections, and Russia

In 1995, a referendum held in Belarus altered the national symbols, changing the BNR flag, which was adopted in 1991, to the red and green flag, the one used by the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. This referendum also increased the power of the president over the legislature and green-lit economic integration with Russia. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) declared that the referendum did not meet the international election standards.

 

 


The flag of the Byelorussian Socialist Soviet Republic. The current flag of Belarus is, essentially, identical, without the hammer and sickle.

The flag of the Byelorussian Socialist Soviet Republic. The current flag of Belarus is, essentially, identical, without the hammer and sickle.

 

In the following year, 1996, Belarus and Russia founded the Union State, creating a customs union and free-movement area between the two nations. Indeed, the Belarusian economy is extremely dependent on Russia, not only as its main exports and imports’ partner but also due to the energy subsidies[2] which make up a very large part of Belarus’s GDP: around 12% in the last two decades. Due to these ties with Russia and Russia’s support, Lukashenko registers a political advantage.

However, recently, these ties have soured somewhat, with Putin pressuring Lukashenko, on the Union State, by denying Belarus access to previous energy discounts until Belarus commits to deepen the ties between the two nations and to increase the scope of the Union State, something that Lukashenko is reluctant to do.

 

 


Russian subsidies as a % of Belarusian GDP

Russian subsidies as a % of Belarusian GDP

 

In 1996, there was another referendum which further increased president Lukashenko’s powers and extended his first term to 2001. Once again, the OSCE stated that it had failed to meet international election standards. The same happened with the 2004 referendum, which removed the president’s two-term limit.

Indeed, every election and referendum since 1994 has been delegitimized by international election fairness organizations, such as the OSCE. They note, among other things, the political suppression and persecution of opposition candidates, the channeling of state-funds to the incumbent’s campaign, the lack of opposition observers at polling stations, strong media bias in favor of the incumbent, among other factors.

“In four PECs [Precinct Election Commission], all of them in Brest region, observers who were able to view ballot boxes closely enough reported multiple ballots emerging from ballot boxes folded together in wads, suggesting ballot stuffing.”

— OSCE’s report on the 2015 presidential election

 

Economic stagnation and the protests

However, the dissatisfaction of Belarusians with president Lukashenko is not limited to social and political issues. An economy with a low level of productivity and inefficient state-owned enterprises, associated with a potential hard hit from the Coronavirus’ pandemic are some of the other causes of dissatisfaction with the current president. The Lukashenko government’s blunder of increasing the average salary by printing money, that led to a devaluation of the currency and high levels of inflation in 2011, also left many wishing for change. Furthermore, Lukashenko’s joking dismissal of the pandemic, advising people to go to saunas and to drink vodka to stay healthy, further decreased his popularity.

And so, the population that identified itself as from the Soviet Union, and who gave power to Lukashenko, was now replaced by a younger generation. The Belorusians of today no longer share the fondness for a Soviet Union they never lived in, and they are turning to the streets in giant protests, showing their discontent towards the dictator. Waving the non-Soviet Belarusian flag, 100.000 people gathered in Minsk to protest against political imprisonments of opposition candidates and election rigging. Almost 7,000 people were arrested during the protests and several allegations of torture and human rights abuses.

 

 

EU’s reaction and Russian interference

On the 9th of August, the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenko won 80% of the vote and was re-elected for his sixth term in office. The opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled the country out of fear of persecution. Not only the EU and the U.S. rejected the election results, but the EU also announced its intentions to impose sanctions on the Belarusian’s government officials.

However, on the 21st of September, Cyprus vetoed the impositions of these sanctions, arguing that penalties against Turkey, relating to the gas conflict in the eastern Mediterranean, should be imposed first. This highlights a major obstacle to the EU’s effectiveness on the world stage, since members are able to veto decisions on important matters to gain leverage on other issues.

Even if the sanctions were levied, skepticism on their effectiveness is still granted, given that almost after every election, since 1996, the EU imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials only to relax them later.

Belarus is a crucial stage for EU-Russia tensions. Putin, so far, has supported Lukashenko because the latter appears to be the best option to keep Belarus close to and dependent on Russia. Given this, Putin has prepared a police force to aid Lukashenko if civil unrest spirals out of control and also provided a loan of $1.5bn. With this, Putin is undoubtedly gaining leverage on Minsk to move forward with Union State integration. Putin’s support for the last dictator of Europe, is bad news for the EU, given its geographical proximity to member-states.

Despite the EU’s ill-timed response, the opposition will continue to grow, and, as Lukashenko is backed by Putin, it is unlikely that the course of Belarus towards democracy is changed.

 


[1] This BNR government went into exile and still exists as an advocate for Belarusian democracy and as the oldest existing government in exile.

[2] Belarus is able to buy very crude oil from Russia, which it then refines and exports.

 


Sources: Aljazeera, Financial Times, NY Times, OSCE, Politico

 

 


Teresa Thomas - Teresa Thomas João Oliveira - João Oliveira
 
Ana Terenas - Ana Terenas João Baptista - João Baptista

 

EU’s Black Sheep: The False Prophets of Poland

Freedom, democracy and the rule of law. These were the three most important principles upon which the European Union was founded, as stated by Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. In May 2004, when Poland and nine other countries accessed the EU, these were the beliefs they sought to comply with, to their people. However, never have these values suffered from such blatant and dangerous violations, as of today. Sixteen years after the largest expansion of the Union, the Polish state constitutes a major threat to the ideals that cement and define Europe. But how have we come to this point? And most importantly, how will this mayhem be turned around?

Context and History

The Polish “European Project” dates back to its notable economic performance in the 1990’s and its desire of convergence and dissociation with the eastern bloc. Years of negotiation led to a national referendum, in which 77% of voters were in favour of Polish accession to the EU. In 2007, charismatic pro-EU politician Donald Tusk became prime-minister, ensuring a somewhat successful ruling alongside his party, Civic Platform. The following years marked a significant period of growth in Poland, with the reinforcement of its infrastructures, schools, industries and highways, the financial support of the EU and remarkable economic development.


Image 1 - Poland’s GDP per capita growth rate (1992-2019), compared with other European counterparts. The Polish growth has been considerably superior.

Image 1 – Poland’s GDP per capita growth rate (1992-2019), compared with other European counterparts. The Polish growth has been considerably superior.

Although the approval rates of the EU were indeed favourable in Poland, the rise of the nationalist, conservative and Eurosceptic party, PiS (Law and Order) was imminent. Founded in 2001 by the Kaczyński twins, two enticing politicians, this party claimed that the Polish government had become representatives of a corrupt and elite institution, submissive to the European Union. This narrative was appealing to a conservative mass of Polish citizens. It is important to highlight Poland’s issues with its independence, as the country has faced numerous attacks and invasions in the past centuries, often having its own sovereignty withdrawn. The impact of all these devastating decades was a collective trauma and insecurity of losing independence and identity. PiS were very successful in portraying this image to the Polish people, promising to retrieve Poland to its fellows citizens. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the moderate coalition was unable to secure a victory, after Tusk, its main figure, left to preside over the European Council. As a result, PiS formed a majority government, following its crushing victory.

After PiS gained control of both houses of parliament, they also took over the presidency, with Andrzej Duda’s victory in 2015, who stands in office as of today. His voter-friendly appearance and posture allows the party to appeal to the more moderate voters, while Kaczyński operates behind the curtains. The next step for the party was to take over the judicial system.

 

Democratic Threats and the European Response

Firstly, Law and Order neutered the constitutional court. What was supposed to be an unbiased judicial body to assess the legislation according to the fundamental laws of the country, was now a servant of the main party, packed with loyalist judges and lacking any sort of independence.


Image 2 - Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS. This politician has been successful for the rise of a nationalist, conservative movement throughout the Polish territory.

Image 2 – Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS. This politician has been successful for the rise of a nationalist, conservative movement throughout the Polish territory.

Following this, the government set a number of laws that threatened the whole independence of the judicial branch. For instance, in 2017, a law was passed that set different retiring ages for male and female Supreme Court judges and giving the minister of justice discretionary power to prolong the mandate of some judges. Furthermore, a Disciplinary Chamber was created to review the decisions of the Supreme Court. Many questioned the independence of this body, whose members were appointed by the government. The Rule of Law was under imminent threat. Political rule reigned amidst Polish Courts, a pattern that followed through the next years, illustrated by various new laws. One of which was a recently appointed act which determined that judges may be punished for implementing a judgement of a supranational court. This represented a flagrant attack on the prevalence of European Law over domestic mandate. A further infringement occurred over a 2018 law that lowered the retiring age of all Supreme Court Judges. It resulted in the dismissal of 27 of the 72 justices, one of which was the President of the institution. The tension between the Supreme Court and the government had risen tremendously as an attempt of judicial takeover was on sight and European action was urgent.

“It is with a heavy heart that we’ve decided to initiate article 7.1”

— Frans Timmerman

These were the words of Frans Timmerman, the then European Commission First VP, in late 2017. The article in question is a punitive clause seeking to discipline countries that breach the core principles of the EU, and if needed to sanction them or even suspend their EU voting rights. The Union viewed the recent laws passed by the Polish government to disrupt the necessary independence of the judicial structure of the nation and an evident violation of the Rule of Law. It was not only a threat to the Polish people, but to the whole foundation of the European Union.


However, the case of Article 7 is still ongoing. Europe seems to be incapable of resolving the rule of law issues in Poland and the main cause of such irresolution is the need of unanimity from the remaining member-states for the European Commission to apply punishments. Poland is being backed by Hungary, another nation dangerously sliding onto autocracy and illiberalism. These two have formed an unofficial partnership which empowers their continuous breaches on democratic values through the need of unanimity vote to implement the punishments the EU seeks to apply. The constant mutual support of the two governments endangers all the values that shape the EU, since every time one ruptures the rule of law, it has the pat-on-the-back-like comfort of the other, which perpetuates the cycle to this day.

Freedom in Peril

The attack on judiciary independence doesn’t stand alone in the repertoire of the government’s attacks on democracy. Despite the democratically legitimacy of both parliamentary elections and a rule marked by intensifying nationalism and strong economic growth, Poland is holding a questionable position on humanitarian and progressive causes. During the refugee migration crisis, Poland was one of the nations who bluntly refused to receive migrants and blocked a deal on the redistribution of refugees within Europe. Kaczyński and PiS have adopted an Islamophobic, anti-immigration stance in their phenotype, despite the ECJ declaring their refusal to be against European Law.



Images 3 and 4 – Throughout the last decade, Poland has been marked by a number of protests from conservative to progressive ones. The most notable ones were the manifestations on Poland’s National Day in 2017, carried out by nationalists and white-supremacist groups.


Moreover, last year Poland declared the creation LGBT free zones, where almost 100 municipalities adopted an unwelcoming stance on the ideology. Whilst the declarations were local and unenforceable, the ruling party has often supported homophobic stances, further enhancing the Christian rhetoric of PiS. Poland is still a considerably homophobic country, as same-sex marriage and civil union are still not permitted. Freedom of press is equally in danger, as a growing tendency to criminalize defamation has pushed the expression of media and news outlets to an increasingly restricted ethos. Poland is the third worst-positioned EU country in the World Press Freedom Index, only behind Greece and Hungary.


Image 5- Map of Poland, with the LGBT ideology-free zones in red. Almost a third of the country territory has declared these statements

Image 5- Map of Poland, with the LGBT ideology-free zones in red. Almost a third of the country territory has declared these statements


Image 6- Poland’s data regarding the 2020 World Press Freedom Index

Image 6- Poland’s data regarding the 2020 World Press Freedom Index

The future is rather unsettling for Poland. If on the one hand, Poles are aware and willing to protest against the undemocratic decisions of the government, on the other, the residing feeling of Polish identity, the Polish family and Polish patriotism is boiling up through the masses, fevered by Kaczyński and his party. The certainty is the following: one must not overlook Poland’s situation. To say this is just a regular right-wing ruling would be an understatement, for we are witnessing the endangerment of European democracy right before our eyes.

Europe must stand its ground and fight the rise of illiberalism, or continue to dig an endless hole of bureaucracy and futile irresolution.


Sources: Financial Times, POLITICO Europe, World Bank, EuroActiv, Deutsche Welle

Teams: Global Politics, European Affairs

European (Dis)Union: North vs South

The health crisis

The current public health crisis, which has put the world on pause, is a test to human beings and to societies in general. It’s one of the biggest challenges faced by humanity since WWII (as stated by Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel) and has put in check all structures of society and their response to the unknown. With that being said, the Coronavirus crisis has also been a test to the European Union (particularly, the Eurozone) and its unity.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the unity has been questioned as there wasn’t a prepared common strategy to deal with it.  Indeed, borders started to shut down individually rather than collectively, which didn’t make much sense as it affected the free movement of people, a key pillar in European unity; Italy, which was the first European country severely affected with the virus, appealed to its neighbours for medical equipment and aid, which was promptly denied, further increasing the division and loss of faith in the EU; the question regarding coronabonds re-woke the mutualised debt discussion in the Eurozone and increased pre-existing tensions, with southern countries strongly defending this mutualised debt instrument to respond to the crisis and others (Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Austria) initially denying it, reopening the old gap between North and South.

Productivity

Indeed, every major crisis becomes a challenge to the EU (more specifically, to the Eurozone) and to its continuity and reinforces core differences between these “two regions”.

One key difference that cannot be ignored is productivity. On average, the “North” is much more productive than the “South”. According to OECD data, in 2018, countries like Germany, Netherlands, or Austria presented a higher GDP per hour than the average GDP per hour in the Eurozone ($59.64/hour); on the other hand, southern Eurozone countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy or Greece had a lower productivity, below the Eurozone’s benchmark. This productivity division exists for a while and has impacted how countries experience economic growth and thus, their position as economic powers in the EU. Over the years, productivity has been increasing in both regions, with North above and the South always below the benchmark.


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This difference has given space for some remarks throughout the EU’s history, with Southern nations being perceived as lazy by some Northern nations (let us remind some unfortunate comments made by former Dutch Finance Minister and president of the Eurogroup, who stated that crisis-hit countries, which were mainly Southern countries, spent their money on “drinks and women”). As shown in the graph, these comments are somewhat unsubstantiated, as Southern European countries work more hours yearly than Northern countries, reducing productivity, a complex and broad concept, often inherent to cultural characteristics. This serves only to further increase tensions between the two regions and further divide the EU, more noticeably in moments of crisis.


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European Debt Crisis

Another moment of division in the Eurozone dates back to 2008, when the Great Recession led to the European Debt crisis, resulting in the collapse of financial institutions and high government debt. This occurred due a high fiscal divergence between the member states, with Northern countries lending intensively to the South, creating an imbalance of capital flows.

 Indeed, in years prior to the crisis, current accounts of the two “regions” were symmetric, with Germany, Austria or Finland experiencing positive values, while Portugal or Greece had negative accounts. Also, capital accounts presented a similar pattern, with the North experiencing much lower values than the South. Instead of promoting structural change in the economy (greater capital accumulation) to converge with the richer countries, the South channelled capital flows from the North to non-tradable goods, i.e., having no export value and created both consumption and investment bubbles (due to low interest rates). Following the 2008 financial crisis, this led to an unbearable situation that culminated in the financial rescue of many southern countries.


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Who is to blame?

From the North’s point of view, the South was living above its means and was not taking essential structural fiscal measures: while Germany was promoting fiscal discipline (surplus over deficit), the South was excessively expanding domestic demand to raise consumption and investment, unprecedentedly. Southern countries argued that this crisis was a double-edged sword, as creditors were lending at their own risk (low interest rates) and thus, they also had some responsibility for the imbalances in the eurozone.

The lack of common analysis on the crisis encouraged division and the financial rescue packages (based on strict conditionality and fiscal consolidation, dictated by the North) generated political and public criticism in the South, as austerity was deteriorating socio-economic structures and life conditions. The South blamed Germany for imposing its domestic preferences, with major protests against austerity, criticizing what they called the “German-run” Europe.

Nevertheless, while Portugal, Greece or Cyprus were tightening their budgets to repay the debt plus interests, with low investment and unemployment was peeking, Northern countries, like Germany or Austria, benefited from the shift of investment from the south, improving borrowing conditions for their companies (for instance, in 2014, Portugal’s yield of its 10 year bonds were at 5.675%, while Germany’s were 1.944%) and hence, promoting their economic growth, further deepening the division.

Coronabonds

In order to respond to this pandemic crisis, eurozone members discussed possible emergency economic solutions for 10 days, reaching a consensus. The coronabonds, a jointly issued bond, was one of the possible solutions, which intensified the friction between “North” and “South”. The eurobonds were mainly defended by Southern countries because it would be less costly to their governments to pay back the debt, also given the considerable amount of debt that they already have, as they would have easy access to credit at low rates. However, countries in the North, led by the Netherlands (and Germany), declined the idea of a eurobond because it would mean that their own taxpayers would be on the hook for the benefit of other countries, who they claim to have lived beyond their means, raising concerns of moral hazard. This divergency is not new; in 2008, in the financial crisis, the idea of eurobonds also emerged and was not applied. Unlike the previous crisis, where one can argue was caused by financial misbehaviour of some countries (endogenous factors), the current crisis is an exogenous shock that doesn’t discriminate based on cultural and fiscal differences, meaning that there should be a common solution rather than trying to blame countries on something that it’s not their own making.

Even though the EU has reached a short-term agreement worth over €500 billion to respond to the crisis, it hasn’t yet agreed on a common economic recovery, which is still a source of division. The real test will be when the economy slowly starts the path to normality. Meanwhile, populist, right-wing forces and eurosceptics observe, with discontent, how this crisis unfolds.

It’s up to the European Union to stay together.


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Sources: Financial Times, Time, Público, OECD, Pordata, Expresso, npr, NAC, Euronews, The balance


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