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November 15, 2016

Is the EU's global strategy paper really our response to Trump?

The council of ministers of foreign affairs is meeting yesterday and today in the shadow of Donald Trump's victory. On the agenda yesterday were Turkey, the Eastern partnership, the Southern neighbourhood and a joint meeting with the ministers of defence. Today, they will discuss cooperation with NATO and the operations under way under the common security and defence policy.

Don't expect any radicalism. The discussion of the "EU Global Strategy" is being hailed as "qualitative leap" in European defence cooperation, but it still falls short of some of the more ambitious proposals in the direction of an EU army. The council conclusions stress the EU's need to "act autonomously" and "enhance its ability to act with partners". In relation with NATO, the Wall Street Journal notes that Brexit offers an opportunity for deeper EU defence cooperation, which the UK traditionally viewed with suspicion as possibly undermining NATO. The council recognises that NATO remains the foundation of collective defence for member states which are part of it, wants "coherence of outcomes" where EU policy and NATO defence planning overlap, and intends to avoid unnecessary duplication. The conclusions introduce a new bit of jargon: the "level of ambition" in relation with the "EU global strategy" priorities. The EU intends to be able to carry out the following missions, which will drive future work in identifying requirements for further action:

  • joint crisis management operations in the regions surrounding the EU;
  • joint air and special operations;
  • civilian and military rapid response, including using the EU Battlegroups;
  • substitution/executive civilian missions;
  • air security operations, including close air support and air surveillance;
  • maritime security or surveillance operations, including longer term in the vicinity of Europe;
  • civilian capacity building and security sector reform missions; and
  • military capacity building including robust force protection.
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November 15, 2016

President Steinmeier

The anointment of Frank-Walter Steinmeier as Germany's next president would normally not matter because the presidency is politically irrelevant. Even the idea of the president as moral authority is passé. But it matters for what it says about the German political system right now. It tells us that CDU/CSU and SPD are planning to continue the grand coalition after the elections (when it will no longer be grand). It also tells us that Angela Merkel is politically a lot weaker than people abroad think.

Merkel hasn't had much luck with her presidential choices. Her first choice after the resignation of Horst Köhler was Christian Wulff, who also had to resign a short while later over a relatively minor influence-peddling scandal relating to his previous job. She had earlier proposed Ursula von der Leyen, now defence minister, but then dumped her in favour of Wulff, causing much resentment. After Wulff's resignation, the SPD proposed Joachim Gauck, initially against Merkel's wishes. But Gauck proved too popular a choice, and Merkel had no real alternative. Now that Gauck is to leave office after five years, she has literally run out of candidates. Von der Leyen does not want to be burnt for a second time. Norbert Lammert, the president of the Bundestag, decided to retire from politics altogether next year. Wolfgang Schäuble also said he does not want the office. As Günter Bannas writes, everybody said no to her. When the SPD proposed Steinmeier, Merkel's initial reaction was to say No, but then she could not find anyone in the CDU willing to be nominated by her - for fear of being dumped later.

Berthold Kohler noted in his commentary in Frankfurter Allgemeine that Steinmeier is the ultimate establishment figure in German politics. The fact the coalition partners agreed on him tells us that they want to continue the grand coalition. The lack of alternatives that characterised the choice of president is not good for the political system in a country in which the populists are on the rise. Kohler makes another point: Steinmeier is extremely pro-Russian, just as Trump and the new leaders of Moldova and Rumania.

Steinmeier's most likely successor as foreign minister is going to be Martin Schulz, who would have to give up his job as president of the European Parliament next year. Schulz is also a potential candidate for the chancellorship (which, of course, he won't win, but the candidacy may raise his profile). Our understanding is that Sigmar Gabriel wants to hang on to the job of SPD chief, so there is a potential source of conflict between the two politicians, who are otherwise regarded as close.

We think this agreement is terrible for German politics. The problem is not Steinmeier as such but the idea that the SPD will want to continue to bind itself into a perma-coalition with the CDU/CSU, which will in the long run weaken both parties and strengthen the exrtremes. The SPD has concluded that it will not be able to win an election as a senior coalition partner, so that this is a second-best way to guarantee access to ministerial limousines. However we fear this will only accelerate the decline of the party, and drive its erstwhile voters to the AfD.

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November 15, 2016

Are journalists to blame?

In the Brexit debates before the referendum we noted a tendency on both sides to blame the media. The Remainers argued that the UK media had been too eurosceptic over the years - though the criticism was muted given their certainty that they would win the referendum anyway. And the Leave campaign criticised the pro-Remain bias of the papers as most newspapers actually came out in favour of EU membership, including the Times and the Daily Telegraph. After the referendum we noted a tendency, especially among economists, to blame the media for the defeat - we presume to deflect away from the incompetent role those doing the blaming played in the referendum defeat.

The media are, of course, far from innocent bystanders, but we should not overestimate their importance either. The Trump phenomenon in the US is the result of a number of factors: a long period of Democrat incumbency, a weak economy, and the relative impoverishment of what turned out to be an electorally critical part of the population. Brexit is the result of more than two decades of alienation from the EU, of failing to join the euro and one of the most awful political campaigns in modern history. If you are incapable of making the case for the EU, then don't blame the media.

In this context we noted a contribution by Wolfgang Blau (@wblau), who makes a converse point. He writes that it is the downfall of continental Europe that it has never developed an English-language media sphere. He writes, correctly, that the most influential EU opinion formers towards Asia and the US are the UK media, not Le Monde, Der Spiegel, or La Stampa. 

We think the observation is correct, as is his conclusion: once Art 50 is triggered, it will get a lot worse. But we don't think that it is possible, as Blau writes, for the media to overcome their limits and form EU-wide media spheres. This is not because it can't be done, but because the EU's national media figures simply have the wrong mindsets (we speak here from first-hand experience). The main obstacle is that the continent's media are nationally-focused, not in what they cover, but in the attitude of their reporting. The journalists always support the home team - just look at the outraged commentary in Frankfurter Allgemeine about Italian fiscal policy, and the symmetric Italian media's hostility towards Berlin.

We note that German journalists, when reporting on Brexit, have a tendency to pick stories that suggest that Brexit will probably not happen, which gives a completely misleading impression and might strengthen the official hard-Brexit-vs-No-Brexit position. We have seen this most recently when the daily newspapers interpreted the recent UK High Court case as implying that Brexit was not going to happen. And, while almost every UK newspaper supported Clinton over Trump, most had commentators who predicted a Trump victory, or who even endorsed Trump. This is unthinkable on the Continent. The downfall of the continent is not a lack of an English-language media sphere, but tunnel vision.

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November 15, 2016

March of the pro-Russians

Bulgaria, an non-eurozone EU member with its currency pegged to the euro, is on the edge of our reservation; while Moldova, having an association agreement with the EU, would normally count as being outside. However, the victories of pro-Russian candidates in the respective presidential elections held this past weekend have geopolitical implications which we cannot ignore. This would be true just on the basis of the two countries' proximity to Ukraine, but is even more so with Trump's election calling into question the US' Russia policy and Europe's security arrangements.

In a post at the LSE's European Politics and Policy blog, Dimitar Bechev gives a more nuanced view than the breathless "Bulgaria turns towards Russia" one sees elsewhere. The point is that, in contrast with the outgoing president Rossen Plevleniev's virulent anti-Russian rhetoric, long-time Prime Minister Boyko Borisov already favoured engagement with Russia. The Bulgarian president-elect Rumen Radev is even similar to Borisov in that the latter is a former chief of police while the former is an air force reserve general. Radev is actually an alumnus of the US' Air War College, and he may therefore attempt to play both his western credentials and his open hand towards Russia. Borisov, meanwhile, has resigned as PM as his party's candidate Tsetska Tsacheva was defeated by Radev. But Borisov is not out of politics. Plevleniev will now appoint a caretaker government, and then shortly after taking office Radev is likely to call new parliamentary elections which Borisov'c party Gerb may be able to win again. The author observes that Radev is not a professional politician and will have to learn the ropes pretty quickly if he doesn't want to be outmanoeuvred by more skilled political operators such as Borisov.

In Moldova, meanwhile, pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon beat pro-EU Maia Sandu. Dodon described his voters' mandate as one of friendship with Russia, neutrality, orthodoxy, and for settling the conflict in Transnistria. This last point is probably the most important. In 1992, after a short war, the then breakaway Soviet republic of Moldova lost control of the region of Transnistria - home to a sizeable Russian and Ukrainian ethnic minorities - between the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border. The region as remained outside Moldovan control since, recognised by the breakaway regions of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia maintains a peace-keeping military presence in the region, and a consulate though without formal recognition. Balkan insight explains Dodon's victory as expressing discontent with the inability of successive pro-EU governments to improve people's lives. Moldova, however, labours under a Russian embargo since signing an association agreement with the EU in 2014. Dodon, while not renouncing the association agreement, hopes to improve relations with Moscow and to resolve the Transnistria situation by granting the region some sort of special status.

It is clear that, in Western as well as Eastern Europe, as long as pro-EU governments' policies don't improve the lot of the population, there is a risk of anti-EU electoral developments. While in the west the result can be rising populism, in the east it is more likely to be pro-Russian politics.

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