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31 May 2024

How a supergroup of the right might work

Is a far-right supergroup for real, or just an aspiration that fails then once it is to be implemented? Marine Le Pen, Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán want all so-called sovereignist parties to join forces in such a supergroup to shift the balance of power in favour of the right in the European Parliament. If achieved, it would indeed be a significant shift. According to Euractiv such a supergroup of the Identity Group, European Conservatives and Reformists and several non-aligned parties could gather 160 seats in the upcoming elections. Such a supergroup would be the second largest after the European People’s Party.

But how would it work in practice? A collaboration between the ID and ECR is not such a straightforward matter. Eurosceptic parties and those from the far-right have a very different DNA and history in their national contexts. They are disunited on major EU policy topics, such as the support for Ukraine. Not all of them get along with each other on a personal level. They may have excluded some of the most contentious ones, such as the AfD, that would have made such a supergroup unpalatable for many ECR members. But there are other feuds between national parties, for example between Rassemblement National and Reconquête! in France, or between Romania’s AUR and Hungary’s Fidesz. Differences between the communitarian and economically liberal versions of the far-right are likely to surface.

There are organisational arrangements to deal with such tensions, as Euractiv reminds us. There is, for example, the model the British Conservatives spearheaded when they founded a more eurosceptic subgroup in the EPP called the European Democrats. This subgroup was semi-autonomous inside the EPP from 1999 onwards, until they split away to create the ECR in 2009. The second model is the European Free Alliance inside the Greens group. The EFA is a small number of regional, separatist, and ethnic minority political parties, which share common political objectives and values with the Greens, but run independently and autonomously inside the group.

Even if members do not see eye to eye on matters, there are advantages to be in a group together, be it to get a bigger budget, more speaking time, or even some top jobs in Brussels. Ideological unity or coherent voting has never been a priority anyway for either the ID or the ECR, which have both allowed their MEPs to vote according to their national interests. What the far-right supergroup will have to come up with is some common political objectives when they present their formation act to the president of the European Parliament. The delegations may clash over Ukraine, but could unite on a roll-back of climate change legislation or the delegation of EU powers back to the member states.

31 May 2024

Forming a supergroup on the right

Is a far-right supergroup for real, or just an aspiration that fails then once it is to be implemented? Marine Le Pen, Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán want all so-called sovereignist parties to join forces in such a supergroup to shift the balance of power in favour of the right in the European Parliament. If achieved, it would indeed be a significant shift. According to Euractiv such a supergroup of the Identity Group, European Conservatives and Reformists and several non-aligned parties could gather 160 seats in the upcoming elections. Such a supergroup would be the second largest after the European People’s Party.

But how would it work in practice? A collaboration between the ID and ECR is not such a straightforward matter. Eurosceptic parties and those from the far-right have a very different DNA and history in their national contexts. They are disunited on major EU policy topics, such as the support for Ukraine. Not all of them get along with each other on a personal level. They may have excluded some of the most contentious ones, such as the AfD, that would have made such a supergroup unpalatable for many ECR members. But there are other feuds between national parties, for example between Rassemblement National and Reconquête! in France, or between Romania’s AUR and Hungary’s Fidesz. Differences between the communitarian and economically liberal versions of the far-right are likely to surface.

There are organisational arrangements to deal with such tensions, as Euractiv reminds us. There is, for example, the model the British Conservatives spearheaded when they founded a more eurosceptic subgroup in the EPP called the European Democrats. This subgroup was semi-autonomous inside the EPP from 1999 onwards, until they split away to create the ECR in 2009. The second model is the European Free Alliance inside the Greens group. The EFA is a small number of regional, separatist, and ethnic minority political parties, which share common political objectives and values with the Greens, but run independently and autonomously inside the group.

Even if members do not see eye to eye on matters, there are advantages to be in a group together, be it to get a bigger budget, more speaking time, or even some top jobs in Brussels. Ideological unity or coherent voting has never been a priority anyway for either the ID or the ECR, which have both allowed their MEPs to vote according to their national interests. What the far-right supergroup will have to come up with is some common political objectives when they present their formation act to the president of the European Parliament. The delegations may clash over Ukraine, but could unite on a roll-back of climate change legislation or the delegation of EU powers back to the member states.

30 May 2024

Scholzing, again

The hollowness of European support for Ukraine was on full display yesterday when the German government spokesman sought to clarify Olaf Scholz' surprise remark that Ukraine was entitled to use western weapons to hit targets in Russia. 

The media reported this story with a blue-eyed naiveness. The German government never disputed that it is legitimate under international law for a country under attack to hit the territory of the aggressor. This is why he does not supply medium-range missiles that would enable Ukraine to do just that. It's a question of policy, not the law. 

During the press conference, Steffen Hebestreit, the spokesman of the German government, was confronted with a statement by Scholz in 2023 that weapons can only be used on Ukrainian territory. Hebestreit responded that this was a statement of fact, not an interpretation of the law. That comment caused some confusion amongst reporters. We think that confusion is due to the idea that there has been a change in the German position. Once again, Scholz managed to scholz everybody.   

There may be some movement on this question from the Biden administration. The official US position has been the same as Germany's - that supplied weapons should not be used to hit targets in Russia. Antony Blinken said that when the situation changes, so can the policy. As Russia's insurgence continues, albeit at a slow speed, we may well get to that point. 

International law is not the problem here. It is about the rules of engagement. US policy may change. Scholz won't change.  Even if he did, we struggle to see how this could have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war. 

29 May 2024

Healthy growth

Most of our economic models focus on growth and how to achieve it. Economies and their companies know how to grow, but how to shrink well is still a mystery. Recessions are to be endured and their effects to be lessened. Structural changes are of a different nature.

Structural decline changes the whole economic ecosystem and its benefits may not be tangible for some time. We are reminded of Detroit, a once vibrant metropolitan car producing city that has been in utter decline for decades after plants left to the outskirts, taking with them jobs and people and leaving behind a ghost town. This year the city is seeing a rise in population for the first time in decades, as well as some optimistic growth forecasts for the next years to come.

Germany will have to go through some painful changes too as its engine car industry markets are about to shrink with no clear economic profile yet emerging of what is to replace this industry that had defined Germany’s economic success over the past century.

The digital tech sector is now considered worldwide as the new promising frontier. But these are early stages, and what is sustainable and what is not has yet to emerge. While language-based AI systems are the current state of the art, we doubt that they will be still driving innovation in 10 years time. The funds available to frontier companies in the capital markets are mind boggling. Elon Musk just raised $6bn for his xAI to challenge the market leader OpenAI. This is a bonanza that will play out over the time, competing with other AI models such as those designed for production processes developed in China.

The European market is about to find its niches too. In Q1 2024, European tech companies raised €29.9bn for over 970 deals, with the main focus being on green and transportation technologies. Sweden has been in a leading position, followed by France and Germany. Europe seems like a much more fragmented market, which may be a benefit for survival in the early stages of the innovation cycle. Funds spread over smaller deals spread risks across a wider spectrum, and allow larger companies to emerge more naturally through a selection process in the market. 

28 May 2024

When international law ends

The ICJ ordered Israel to stop its operations in Rafah, and yet, two days later the IDF continued with targeted strikes that caused a deadly incident in a crowded tent camp where people were burned alive. There was predictable outrage inside and outside Israel, but outrage alone won’t change anything. In Rafah, international law is being tested, as well as the political resolve of western nations to demonstrate what its red lines actually mean. Both Hamas and the Israeli government are stuck on a path of violence that comes at the expense of the Palestinian people. There is no way out without outside support.

European governments, as ever, are wasting time, and are mostly focused on discussions with each other. They are coming up with minimal consensus measures. Last week, three European states unilaterally announced that they would recognise the Palestinian state. But without a firm commitment to a two-state solution, these assurances remain empty gestures. Instead, they fuelled an extremist response from the Israeli government. Bezalel Smotrich, Israel's finance minister and a leader of one of the far-right parties in Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, decided to withhold the tax revenue Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian authority in the West Bank. This was in response to  Spain, Ireland and Norway recognising Palestine. What are the Europeans going to do about that? The EU is the main donor to the Palestinians. We are at risk of undermining our own standards.

Instead of taking sides in this conflict, the EU and the US would better off to distinguish between extremism and the legitimate rights of both people. By taking the air out of extremism, we strengthen the moderate factions in both communities and and start diplomacy towards a two-state solution now, not later after the conflict. The fundamental rights of a Palestinian child should be regarded the same as the ones of a Israeli child. If we cannot adhere to this principle, what is the point of all our talk and gestures?

International law so far was not able to deter further violence against Palestinian civilians. The arrest warrants the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court put forward provoked a spectacle surrounding its legitimacy and the way it was presented, instead of accepting that the ICC is holding political decision-makers accountable no matter who they are. Then there was the ICJ’s order to stop Israel’s military action in Rafah. It did not stop the IDF from performing targeted operations there. Even if not intended by the IDF, death and destruction can be expected in a crowded place like Rafah where people who just had fled from the IDF’s advances in the East.

As Dominique Moisi wrote in his Les Echos column, force cannot systematically replace law. And justice cannot cynically be relegated to the rank of dispensable accessories. More worryingly, if Western nations continue to take sides against the ICC and the ICJ, it affects not only the region but the rules-based global order. Thérèse Delpech, a renowned French international relations expert, had warned already in 2005 that we could end up similar to the 20th century, with its descent into international violence and global lawlessness. The 20th century started with a new era of progressive social and technological advances and world peace. Within just a few years, the world was at the brink of a world war, revolutions and human misery. Delpech reminds us that it was the failure of the so-called civilised world to prevent both world wars, the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, and the Cambodian killing fields that made the twentieth century so deadly. It is the responsibility of western nations today to ensure that this century will be different.

24 May 2024

How migrant pacts compromise the EU

The investigative Lighthouse Reports on Europe’s migration pact highlights human rights abuses in African countries that we have deals with. They are a reminder that those unethical pacts not only undermine our own values. They also don't solve the problem.

In a year-long investigation in collaboration with Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde, they found evidence that EU is funding, and in some cases contributing directly, to systematic racial profiling, detention, and expulsion of black communities across at least three North African countries. In Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia, refugees and workers are reportedly apprehended and loaded on buses to be left with nothing to drink or eat in arid desert areas. There are also reports of cases where authorities take migrants to hand them over at the border to human traffickers and gangs that use them to extract ransom money.

The team used testimony of 50 survivors to geolocate their journey and find open source evidence in support of those cases. In Tunesia the team found 13 such incidents between March 2023 and May 2024, where migrants were rounded up and dumped in desert areas usually close to the Libyan or Algerian borders.

The team got information that EU officials and Frontex were well aware of such practices, some told the team that this is part of making migration unattractive.

Then there is the question of funding. The EU has given Tunisia, Mauritania and Morocco more than €400m for migration management. Some of the vehicles that were used in these round-ups in Tunesia were funded by Germany and Italy. Funding such practices could make the European Union liable for human rights violations.

Outsourcing re-enforces unethical behaviour, while it does not prevent migrants from coming.

23 May 2024

Recognising first

Spain, Ireland and Norway announced that they will recognise the state of Palestine in an official ceremony on 28 May. The three countries will be recognising Palestine based on 1967 borders, which includes the West Bank and Gaza, irrespective of the settlements. More EU countries may follow their move, while the majority of EU states continue to consider that this is not the right time.

When is the right time? Under the Oslo peace process, recognition by the western states was to come last, after the two sides agree on a two-state solution. But this agreement never came, while more settlements have been built in the occupied territories since 1993.

Recognising a Palestinian state based on its 1967 borders confirms the sovereign rights of Palestinians to live next to the Israeli state. It is meant to support more moderate voices in Palestine by giving them what they want, a recognition that they have equal rights to exist. Recognition does not end the war in Gaza. Nor does it produce a two-state solution or the modalities that statehood comes with. It offers no solution to the conditions in the West Bank. But it opens the door to a peace process based on mutual rights.

The three European countries spearheaded an effort to reverse the logic of the Oslo peace process as a way to force facts on the ground. Norway was the country that negotiated the outlines of a peace deal that led to the Oslo accords in the early 1990s. Norway’s prime minister said yesterday that in times of war where thousands get killed and injured, recognition of the state of Palestine is to keep alive the idea that there is a political solution for both people to live side by side in peace and security.

The three EU countries join the 139 UN countries that already recognise Palestine as an independent state. Most of them come from the South or the East, while the West mainly followed the logic of the Oslo accord.They are not the first European states though, Sweden already recognised Palestine in 2014, while countries from the former Soviet Union did so in the 1980s.

What will be the political impact of their decision moving forward? The Guardian points out that the European countries’ recognition drive could lead to the erosion of the US ownership of the peace process. The most important message it sends is that Palestinians no longer require Israel’s permission for their fundamental right to self determination, which was at the heart of the US-mediated Oslo process. How far could this divergence from the US go? That depends amongst other things on what the large EU countries will do. Would Labour after winning the UK elections in July be more inclined to recognise Palestine now? That would be a game-changer for Europe and its role in the region.

22 May 2024

Political faultlines over ICC move

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s move to seek arrest warrants against Benjamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant reveals splits amongst EU countries, and between the EU and the US. It will test the universality of international law as described in the statutes of Rome, the legal basis for the ICC. The court’s decision is about accountability for actions already taken. If the warrants were to be issued, politics could take its own course in reaction to this.

France, Ireland and Spain unequivocally supported the ICC, its independence and their fight against impunity. Germany and Austria issued a more ambivalent message, backing its independence but dismissing the legal and moral equivalence the court’s prosecutor seems to suggest by seeking arrests against the two Israeli politicians and three Hamas leaders. Italy too found strong words, calling it absurd and unacceptable to compare Israel to Hamas.

How far would those signatory countries go to defend the Israeli government against the ICC if those warrants are issued? European countries, as signatories of the Rome statutes, would have to arrest Netanyahu and Gallant if they ever set foot on their soil. Depending on the dynamics in Israel and the US, would withdrawing from the ICC become an option for staunch Israeli supporters, especially in those countries deeply implicated in arms deliveries to Israel?

In the US, there is already a bipartisan push against the ICC. Anthony Blinken says he is working with lawmakers on sanctioning the ICC over what is seen as a wrong-headed decision. This comes as Republicans push for a sanctions bill that may come to a vote this week. The Illegitimate Court Counteraction Act would target ICC officials involved with the case by blocking their entry to the US, revoking any current US visas they hold, and prohibiting them from any property transactions within the country - unless the court ceases its cases against protected persons of the United States and its allies. At least 37 lawmakers in the Republican-led House are now co-sponsoring the legislation, according to the BBC.

It would be quite something if the US administration were to help Republicans impose sanctions on ICC officials after having removed Trump-era sanctions against top ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda back in 2021. This is a difficult one to swallow for those Democrats that defend universal human rights. It is a no-brainer for Republicans to support Israel, but not so for the Democrats. A Zeteo poll suggests a majority of Democrats already believing that the IDF is using too much military power in Gaza. Palestine is one of the themes of the identity faction in the Democratic party. And student protests continue through the graduation ceremonies at various elite US universities. The ICC may unite the Israelis behind Netanyahu, but Joe Biden is putting his re-election chances on the line.

21 May 2024

How not to dismantle Russia

When the leaders of the big countries have nothing important to say, the leaders of the small countries fill the void. It was always thus in the EU. We therefore don't blame the formidable Kaja Kallas for speaking her mind on Russia and Ukraine. Her country spends more per capita than any other country in the world on aid for Ukraine. Her own family has suffered from Russian oppression. She has every right to speak up.

Her positions get widely reported in the media. Outsiders, however, should understand that these are absolutely not the position of the Ukraine's western allies. At what appeared to be a casual chat, she declared the split-up of Russia into smaller states as an explicit western war goal. Previously, she tried to construct the biggest straw man that has ever been seen in European politics: if Russia wins the war, she said, there could be up to 30m Ukrainian refugees who would descend all over Europe. If that does not scare us, what else will? 

The west does not have an agreed war goal in Ukraine. But the one thing Americans, and all the large European countries, agree on is that they don't want to send troops to Ukraine, they don't want to erect a no-fly zone, and they don't seek regime change in Russia. 

Olaf Scholz, for example, never says Ukraine must win. He says Russia must not win. He would, we presume, like a settlement on terms that are deemed favourable to Ukraine, though he does not tell us what he means by that. As Germany is the largest European supporter of Ukraine in absolute terms, and likely to become more important as the role of the US diminishes, we would assume that Germany's own war goal will matter. Even with a change of government after the next year's elections, we don't think that the position of Germany would shift fundamentally. Friedrich Merz would be open to sending cruise missiles to Ukraine, but on the big picture, they are all aligned.

Her warnings about refugees is a form a scare-mongering that nobody takes seriously, if only because the most likely outcome of this war is a draw, not a total Russian victory. We hear a lot of warnings that Europe must step up its defences, or Vladimir Putin would invade our countries too. Having vastly underestimated Putin, we are not overestimating him.  

That said, a strong case be made for more defence spending, and for more efficient defence spending. But to frame this debate as a scare story won't get us anywhere.

When Kallas talks about regime change in Russia, she ends up strengthening opponents of Nato in the west. She appears to reaffirms what they always tell us - that Nato is a western conspiracy to take over the world. It falls into the not-helpful category.

20 May 2024

After Raisi

After the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister in a helicopter crash, what will happen next?

Raisi was a loyalist to Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. He was the ultimate regime insider and a prospective successor to Khamenei. The Iranian constitution mandates early elections within 50 days after a president dies. Any possible contender in these snap elections will need the blessings from Khamenei, while the conservatives are likely to defend their grip to power.

This interim means two months where Iran’s focus will be on internal affairs, rather than a next round of attacks on Israel. But what after the elections? If those snap elections produce another conservative president, this will not change Iran’s geopolitical position. Ties with Russia and other allies are likely to deepen, while their battle against Israel will continue. The helicopter accident could even be instrumentalised to whip up anti-Israeli support. Bad weather conditions and old helicopters are mainly held responsible for the crash. But already there are voices out there, like those of the conservative commentator Foad Izadi on the news channel Irinn, who suggested that foul play by Israel cannot be ruled out.

Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, may meet his own moment of truth in Israel after Benny Gantz and Yoav Gallant pressed him publicly to present a post-conflict plan for Gaza. Gantz issued a six-point plan that includes an international civilian governance mechanism for Gaza, and gave Netanyahu an ultimatum on 9 June to present a credible exit plan. If Netanyahu does not, Gantz would pull out with his party, causing the coalition to collapse. Netanyahu himself played down its significance. It is indeed not clear that Gantz will follow through with his threat in June. What it did provoke is a response from the far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who laid out his conditions for the IDF to take complete control over Rafah and establish permanent control over the so-called Philadelphi Corridor along the border with Egypt. He also advocates a military takeover of southern Lebanon if Hezbollah does not withdraw from the border. This would be a military campaign on steroids, in complete denial of US concerns.

For the military, the lack of an exit strategy is a formidable challenge. No exit strategy means the military is to fill the void including new operations in areas that were already been cleared by the military before. Something will have to give, and Netanyahu will eventually have to decide.