This week's guest editors

Europe’s divisions over war in Iraq have not prevented it agreeing the enlargement of ten new members and an constitutional treaty. What will a continent-wide European Union look like? Which vision of Europe do you want? Start with our interactive visions map, or dip into Europe Prophecies, a rolling diary of stories from the corners of Europe. And if you want to know what's new with the European Constitution, read what Convention members Frans Timmermans and Jens-Peter Bonde have to say - they're living it. Send your own thoughts to openEuropa@openDemocracy.net, or post on the discussion board...

Europe’s elections: why they matter

European Union citizens will cast their votes to elect a new European parliament on 4-7 June 2009. The current opinion-polls indicate that they will do so without much enthusiasm. Indeed, there is every chance that the average turnout will be the lowest ever - it has fallen at every election since the first time that Europeans directly elected their MEPs in 1979, and sank to 45.6% in 2004. But despite the prevailing apathy, this election matters. During its next five-year term, the European parliament will influence what the EU decides in areas as diverse as financial services, trade, climate change, energy security and immigration.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER)

This article is also published on the website of the CER

Also by Hugo Brady in openDemocracy:

"Europe's ‘reform treaty': ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007) - with Katinka Barysch

Why do European elections so often struggle to capture the public imagination? Evidently, voters think the stakes are lower than in national elections - or at any rate less clear. Unlike legislative elections in a member-state, European elections do not, strictly speaking, lead to the formation of a new government. Moreover, the European parliament can often seem distant because few voters know what it - alongside the other two main EU institutions, the commission and the council of ministers - actually does.

Even if they do, the areas where the parliament exercises most influence seem technical and dull. Voters tend to be less interested in arguments such as home versus host regulation of service companies, or the pros and cons of "unbundling" vertically-integrated energy companies, than in the subjects which dominate domestic elections - tax and spending, health and education policy, foreign and defence policy. These are among the issues on which the European parliament has no say.

Politics and institution

The members of the European parliament (MEPs) - who will number 736 after the current election round - are remote from most voters. The party-list system used in most countries means that few electors know the names of their MEPs. European constituencies are huge, making it difficult for any voter to meet an MEP; in national politics members of parliament can more easily hold "surgeries" to meet constituents. Furthermore, the process-heavy, non-adversarial way in which the parliament operates attracts little attention from media and voters. Political groups in the parliament stand out less clearly than in most national assemblies.

Although they are organised on a conventional left-right spectrum, they are composed of MEPs from very different national traditions, which makes them less monolithic. There is also no great difference between the policies proposed by the three biggest groups, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

In addition, the parliament lacks political theatre. Many of its proceedings revolve around consensus-building and horse-trading in specialist committees.

Eurosceptics sometimes argue that these flaws weaken the legitimacy of the European parliament as a representative institution. That argument is unfair, for two reasons.

The first is that the parliament's job is not to replace national assemblies but to complement them, by providing an additional layer of democratic representation in European Union policy.

The second is that the parliament has become a serious actor. During its 2004-09 term, it influenced EU policy in areas as diverse as climate change, energy, the cross-border provision of services, telecoms regulation and the authorisation of chemicals. This trend is set to continue, especially if (depending on the result of Ireland's referendum, likely to be held in October 2009) the Lisbon treaty enters into force. The parliament would then have the power of "co-decision" - an equal say to the council of ministers - over virtually all legislation, instead of around 70% as is now the case. In particular, the Lisbon treaty would give the European parliament much more legislative power on justice and home affairs.

Process and people

The future political balance of the parliament will be largely determined by the outcome of voting in the big six member-states: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. The EPP seems likely to remain the largest political group in the parliament, albeit with a reduced majority (in part because Britain's Conservatives have pledged to leave it). The Party of European Socialists (PES), for its part, should increase its representation, but only a little. When other groupings are taken into account (including the new group that the British Conservatives plan to lead) the centre-right is likely to dominate the EP.

If current opinion-polls are an accurate guide, the centre-left will fail to draw much advantage from the economic crisis. In the largest member-states, centre-left parties are either unpopular incumbents (as in Britain, Germany and Spain), or in opposition and disarray (as in France, Italy and Poland). The great unknown is how well populist fringe groups of the left and right - those who are really opposed to the current political and economic system - will perform. It would still be a major surprise if fringe parties won much more than fifty seats.

The balance of the parties matters for the leadership of the European commission. In June 2009, the European council is due to nominate the commission's next president. European Union leaders are likely to offer José Manuel Barroso, who is affiliated with the EPP, a second five-year term. But if the PES becomes the largest group in the parliament, they will try and insist on one of their own. The newly elected parliament is due to approve the European council's nominee for commission president in July. If the centre-right does end up dominating the parliament, Barroso will be voted in.

In autumn 2009 the parliament will hold hearings on the individual commissioners proposed by governments. These hearings matter. In 2004, the parliament did not like the look of Silvio Berlusconi's nominee, Rocco Buttiglione, on account of his views on gays and women - and it forced Berlusconi to withdraw him.

In January 2010 the parliament will vote to invest the entire team of commissioners. If it is implemented, the Lisbon treaty will make more explicit the need for the appointment of the commission president to "take into account" the results of the European elections. In the long run, whatever happens to that treaty, the commission is likely to become more directly accountable to the parliament. But whether that makes Europeans any more willing to vote for MEPs is another matter.


openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

John Palmer, "Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future" (16 December 2008)

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

Anand Menon, "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test" (5 March 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe between past and future" (9 March 2009)

Is Rasmussen the right man?

President Obama's European tour went remarkably smoothly. Many expected the G20 summit to end in fights over stronger regulations of the global financial system, but despite president Sarkozy's hard-line position the outcome was surprisingly consensual. The US and most West European governments were even able to agree on a common candidate for NATO's new Secretary General, an issue that has led to rather longer arguments in the past.

Europe between past and future

An early sign of how the financial crisis in east-central Europe in February 2009 was being perceived in the west came in a major feature in the Financial Times. The story was not so much in the words as in the accompanying map, which showed the old Comecon countries as an undifferentiated mass. It was as if nothing had changed since the 1980s, when the Soviet Union's own "single market" still kept a swathe of states from the Baltics to the Balkans tightly in its orbit. Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Among Krzysztof Bobinski's articles in openDemocracy:

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

"Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (20 June 2008)

"The Caucasus effect: Europe unblocked" (15 September 2008)

"Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

"Poland: the politics of history" (24 January 2009)

A small matter on its own - but also significant in the very year that the new European Union member-states are celebrating a double anniversary: the twentieth since the peaceful collapse of Soviet communism, and the fifth since the enlargement of the EU to accommodate seven former Soviet-bloc states (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - as well as Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta). The Financial Times's map is a sobering reminder that western Europe's reflexive view of the former "satellites" of Moscow - if indeed it thinks of them at all - is of an anonymous, uniform "other".

The twilight of union

The latest crisis to afflict the enlarged European Union of twenty-seven member-states is bound to test the depth of the union's will to stay together as a forward-looking project: that is, as a post-1989 grouping which accepts and practices the belief that the new members are full partners deserving of a solidarity which will give them a chance to develop.

The impression that this conviction was more fragile than it needs to be deepened in the days leading up to the informal meeting of European Union heads of state and government in Brussels on 1 March 2009. The primary focus of the summit - though it was held under the auspices of the Czech Republic's presidency - seemed to be on solving the problems of the union's major (western) economies, relegating those of the smaller (and newer) states to a lower place on the agenda. Even the widespread scare-stories about the rise of a new "east-west division" (or a new "Berlin wall") implied that the eastern countries were not really part of the same, shared reality. There was little affirmation of the enlarged EU as an achieved whole - the taken-for-granted foundation on which understanding is to be reached and policy developed.

True, a degree of division is rooted in objective post-enlargement conditions. The newer member-states - including Bulgaria and Romania, which joined in 2007 - remain recipients of major aid flows from the EU which will run until 2013, and these can be expected to cushion some of the shock of their financial troubles.

But the financial hurricane that has hit the union's eastern flank also reverberates in the west, as Anand Menon notes in his openDemocracy article (see "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test", 5 March 2009). After all, western-owned banks are in danger of being drained of capital by their crisis-hit owners, and western-owned industries located in the new member-states could become the first to be downsized. The ravaged financial markets themselves at least recognise integration and interdependence - for as the east Europeans see their currencies fall and export-markets vaporise, investors keen to offload their stocks see no difference between the stronger economies in the region and the ones (Latvia and Hungary in particular) where the crisis is biting especially hard.

The turning-point

The retreat from inclusiveness and solidarity evident before and during the Brussels summit is arguably not just a response to immediate events, but part of a wider problem in the European Union's sense of self and direction. Indeed, one response in "deep" Brussels to the financial crisis is to excavate the only half-buried feelings of nostalgia for the days of a smaller, more exclusive and manageable union. The implication is to see the decades when the European Union's precursors were composed of only six or nine or twelve states - when integration seemed to be happening, and additional members seemed no more than a peripheral distraction from that aim - as the equivalent of a golden era.

The proponents of this view have at heart never really accepted the logic of enlargement. They have also internalised a particular - and selectively misleading - narrative of the European Union's history, which argues that the EU was set up as a federalist project to safeguard Europe against the threat of future wars. What this misses is that the creation of the EU was also a response to the Soviet Union's expansionist challenge after 1945, with a design that attempted to make the remilitarisation of West Germany palatable to the French.

The effect of the disappearance of the external threat - with the disintegration in 1989-91 of the Warsaw Pact, the Comecon bloc, and the Soviet Union itself - was to make enlargement to the east the prime response to changing times. The dominant motif that survived the geopolitical convulsion was of a peaceful Europe whose member-states dedicated themselves to working in solidarity with each other towards an "ever-closer union". As enlargement to the east progressed in the 1990s, however, this motif itself began to come under increasing strain. Now, in 2009, it is now set to be severely tested by Europe's share of the global financial crisis.

In this light the current strains were to a degree foreordained by the way the cycle of enlargement - a policy that the EU stumbled into after 1989 as its main policy-tool for relations with its neighbours - has unfolded. The promise of EU membership was dangled before states emerging from Soviet hegemony as an incentive for political and economic reform. The approach worked - to the extent that all sides now accepted that significant reforms in an aspirant member can only be achieved if the membership "carrot" really exists.

There is both "negative" and "positive" evidence for this. Turkey's pro-EU reform efforts have stalled partly because Ankara no longer believes the EU is serious about its membership offer. The reforms in Ukraine are chaotic and half-hearted not just because of the country's internal political divisions but because the EU seems unable to open a real membership perspective for the country. The Balkan countries (including Serbia) are finally gearing up to incorporate the EU's body of law - the acquis communautaire - because all believe they have a chance of joining the EU.

But if enlargement to the east and southeast is becoming the EU's raison d'etre, how long can it go on enlarging? The failures of success, after all, were already apparent in 2005 when voters in France and the Netherlands voted in referendums against the constitutional treaty. A year after the major expansion of 2004, "enlargement fatigue" was becoming widespread in the EU's founding-states.

The rear-view mirror

The twinge of longing for a lost past in "deep" Brussels is paralleled in the revival of nationalist sentiments in several member-states - fuelled by the protectionist temptations that accompany economic dislocation. Even within the framework of the European Union, the member-states - the larger and/or post-imperial ones especially - respond to the pressures of the time by pursuing national strategies that draw on only half-submerged memories of earlier grandeur.

The Austrians are most interested in the territories that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The French are absorbed by the southern Mediterranean and north Africa. The Germans pursue their business-based romance with the Russians, confident that they are the only ones who can handle Moscow. The British, in classic balance-of-power mode, fret about the links between Germany and Russia and look for a policy in the east which could somehow provide a counterweight to this growing alliance. Even the Poles at a certain level "remember" their pre-partition frontier to the east, and focus on support for the states (Ukraine and Belarus) whose territory lies to the west of that line.

The official response to the crisis in the European Union is to reaffirm the need for greater economic and political integration; to hold the single market together; and to maintain the four freedoms - the movement of goods, persons, services and capital - on which the EU is based. This is all very well, but the logic of the foregoing is that neither it nor an impossible return to the past can address the more fundamental issue of the European Union's identity and purpose.

It is clear that a new paradigm is needed for European integration which takes into account post-1989 realities. That must include a genuine recognition that the present new member-states are indeed full-fledged members of the EU. A failure to do this will compound the dangers of the present moment.

In London in the early 1940s, Paul-Henri Spaak - the exiled Belgian foreign minister who was to become one of the architects of post-war European integration - had a conversation with a colleague. Both had just emerged from a meeting about the creation of a federalist European order with the Polish prime minister, General Władysław Sikorski, and other exiled representatives of European governments.

Spaak's colleague remarked that he couldn't summon up much interest in the concerns of the central Europeans. Spaak replied that if we had taken more interest before the war in these concerns, then maybe we wouldn't be in London in the middle of a war which had driven them into exile. The sentiment is worth remembering today. It presents a challenge to the present generation of leaders: look back, to look forward.

   

openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's "reform treaty": ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (21 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

John Palmer, "Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future" (16 December 2008)

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

Anand Menon, "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test" (5 March 2009)

Europe’s eastern crisis: the reality-test

The outcome of the European Union summit in Brussels on 1 March 2009, intended in part to address the crisis afflicting some of the member-states of east-central Europe, was tame. It might be summed up as "pious declarations of solidarity, no hard cash". The response in many policy and media circles has been a mix of surprise and disappointment - tinged in many cases with alarm over the union's future. This is misconceived: for the reality is that the EU cannot deal in any meaningful way with the high-profile problems afflicting some of its members - and, for its own sake, shouldn't try.Anand Menon is professor of West European Politics and Director of the European Research Institute at the University of Birmingham.

His books include (edited with Colin Hay) European Politics  (Oxford University Press, 2007) and Europe: The State of the Union  (Atlantic Books 2008)

True, there is no doubt about the seriousness of the crisis. Hungary and Latvia have already had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Standard & Poor agency has downgraded Latvia's sovereign debt to junk status. The foreign direct investment (FDI) on which these countries have long relied on is drying up. 60% of Hungarian home and car loans are denominated in foreign currencies, with repayments rising exponentially as the florin continues its breakneck devaluation.  

Moreover, the consequences of economic meltdown in the east will not be confined to the east. The three largest Austrian banks have lent the equivalent of almost 70% of Austrian GDP to customers in the region and hence will feel the full force of rising defaults. The Bank for International Settlements calculates that Eurozone banks have some $1.3 trillion in outstanding loans in east-central Europe. The steep devaluations in countries that are in the single market but outside the Eurozone will also make it very hard for Eurozone states to increase their exports and revive their industries.  

But politics does not function on the basis of economic rationality. Why would western publics, reluctant enough to bail out their own banks, consent to rescuing foreign financial institutions? Those who claim that shared membership of the EU implies otherwise are committing what philosophers call a "category error". The EU is not a state but a grouping of states. EU citizens are not united by the kind of "we-feeling" that acts as such a potent cohesive within nation-states. The slogan "British jobs for British workers" used by Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown is indiscriminate in its exclusions - Italians as much as Indians. 

A comparison with the United States is illuminating here. The major fiscal stimulus approved by Congress on 13 February 2009 consisted to a significant degree of cash intended to bail out struggling state governments. Certainly, it only passed after angry political debate. Yet that debate was ideological - pitting proponents of big and small government against each other. It was not a lengthy argument about whether "we" should help "them" but about the best way for Americans to help themselves. 

Between nation and union

The European Union does not work this way. The reluctance of its member-states to contribute to its budget is instructive. This amounts to merely some 1% of European Union GDP (as opposed to around 40% in the average member-state). Those who contribute most to it contest even this paltry sum: indeed, a striking correlation can be tracked between increasing relative contributions and falling enthusiasm for European integration in countries like the Netherlands. Indeed, the EU budget only ever worked at all because Germany for many years bankrolled its partners via what was, to all intents and purposes, a form of delayed war reparations.

The point is that the EU is not an exercise in state-building but in state-strengthening. It is a tool deployed by member-states to allow them to provide for their own populations more effectively than they could by acting individually. Concomitantly, when they feel that they could better help themselves by taking initiatives on their own, they will do so. It is true that many of the bailouts undertaken by west European governments breach the spirit if not the letter of single-market laws. It is also shocking that the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has insisted that a condition of its car-industry rescue-package be guarantees about specifically French jobs.  

Yet such evidence of nation-centred policy and instinct is understandable. Against it, the miracle of European integration is the degree to which member-states have complied and continue to comply with its laws, even in the absence of the kinds of coercive mechanism that allow states to impose their will on their populations.  

The European Union system works on the basis of consensus, not coercion. It has no power to force a member-state to spend money against its will (or, indeed, to save it, as the demise of the stability pact in 2003 illustrated all too clearly). The European commission struggles to ensure respect for the single market at a time when governments are keen to spend money to protect national economies; if member-states decide to bend the rules at a time of economic crisis, there is little the commission can do about it. Its head, José Manuel Barroso, has neither the power nor the legitimacy to take on a Sarkozy.  

Better, then, that he does not try (even assuming he would want to, given that he depends on the French president and fellow heads of state and government to secure a second term). Why raise expectations by promising EU action where none is possible? If the union tried to act boldly instead of tamely, the resultant backlash from populist politicians would merely undermine it still further, eroding its ability to carry out even those limited tasks for which it was created.

The surprise, disappointment and alarm that attend discussion of Europe's eastern crisis are therefore misplaced. It is not the first time that proponents of EU action risk weakening the union with their zeal. They should be careful what they wish for.

 

openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics: 

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's "reform treaty": ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (21 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

John Palmer, "The Czech Republic and Europe: uneasy presidency" (19 January 2009)

Bulgaria and Russia: a cold marriage

The 2009 round of the annual January spat between Ukraine and Russia left Bulgaria with barren gas pipelines and pushed it to the verge of humanitarian crisis and economic collapse. Domestic and industrial consumers watched in dismay as Moscow and Kiev haggled over gas prices and exchanged accusations, while the European Union frantically tried to broker a solution. It seemed impossible to secure alternative supplies. Public opinion blamed the government for lacking emergency plans. To add to the misery, it was freezing outside.

Irina Novakova is the European Union correspondent of the Bulgarian daily newspaper Dnevnik

Also by Irina Novakova in openDemocracy:

"Georgi Markov: the truth that killed" (10 September 2008)

The immediate crisis may be passing after the Russia-Ukraine deal of 19 January takes effect, but its consequences will continue to be felt as Bulgaria is forced to re-examine its controversial relationship with Russia, the country's main energy supplier and long-term partner. It may also become a pivotal event in Bulgaria's already fractious relationship with the European Union, which it joined in January 2007.

The questions the crisis leaves in its wake are multiplying. Will Sofia now make an effort to integrate in the envisaged European energy network? Or, disillusioned by the dearth of quick alternatives, will it move even closer to Russia, diversifying transit routes but not gas sources? Will it commit to invest in green technologies and curb inefficient energy use? Or will it look eastwards for the questionable security of new bilateral deals?

Bulgaria relies on Russia for 96% of its gas - a dependence its government has done nothing to curb. This government, dominated by the descendants of the former communist party, maintains an unabashedly friendly relationship with the Kremlin. The EU observes this Slavic solidarity with mixed feelings: a certain relief that one of its number counterbalances the spiky attitude of (say) Poland and Estonia to the former Soviet hegemon, alongside unease that Bulgarian politicians' closeness to Moscow makes more difficult the EU's search for a coherent line on Russia (with regard to human rights as well as energy policy).

The gas crisis in Bulgaria has a long history. Energy dependence on Russia was a reality even in the 1980s, when the country (then still a Soviet satellite) agreed to finance and build pipelines for the supply of Russian gas and its transit to Greece, Turkey and then-Yugoslavia. In exchange, the USSR offered free gas as "a sign of the ever-deepening cooperation and warm links between the Bulgarian and Soviet nations". The arrangement lasted until the end of 1998, when it was replaced by the first of several opaque contracts with Gazprom subsidiaries.


Also on Bulgarian politics and culture in openDemocracy:

Ilija Trojanow, "Bulgaria's red mafia on Europe's trail" (19 January 2006)

Ilija Trojanow, "Bulgaria: the mafia's dance to Europe" (16 August 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

A closed chapter

Meanwhile, the 1990s were a murky period when shady offshore companies, criminals and former communist bigwigs fought to control lucrative businesses like gas, coal and oil, but also cigarette-smuggling and tourism. They emerged as middlemen between Gazprom and consumers, thus securing Bulgaria's position as an energy satellite. In various configurations, this motley "energy mafia" privatised control over energy-distribution and forged rewarding contracts with the gas-thirsty industries.

Many had the direct support of senior Gazprom figures, apparatchiks of the Soviet secret services, or Russian oligarchs. Some lost their lives in the game to control the pipes. One of those appears to be Andrei Lukanov, former prime minister and powerful Socialist Party member, who was killed in October 1996. Lukanov was reputedly the brain behind several companies who tried to build a "Bulgarian Gazprom" by buying and reselling Russian gas. The scale of his involvement and the precise reasons for his murder are still unknown.

The terms of Bulgaria's present long-term contracts for Russian gas are equally unclear. They were signed by the current government with three Gazprom subsidiaries in 2006, and are blamed for repeated rises in gas- prices in 2007-08. The contracts are secret, but leaked documents show they contain no guarantee for supply and therefore would be of little use if Bulgaria seeks compensations for the recent disruption.

The costly gas spat has revealed the magnitude of Bulgaria's dependence on Russia - but also its frightening lack of alternative sources (the opening of the Nabucco natural-gas pipeline on 27 January 2009 notwithstanding). Bulgaria is the European Union's least energy-efficient country; but unlike Serbia, Slovakia and Romania, it has no access to other gas sources or transit-pipelines, and no interconnection with the networks of its neighbours (such as Turkey). Its only gas storage is relatively small, and was not at full capacity when the crisis started.

Industrial companies and energy-providers did not store oil reserves, although they are obliged to. It turns out that the cost of such insurances would not have been excruciating - between €700 and €900 million ($900-$1,160), which is affordable for Bulgaria and accessible through EU funds. The question why investments were never made remains unanswered. Some blame it on government negligence; others say inaction has been premeditated, since full dependence on Russia still serves political and business interests.

Whatever the answer, Bulgaria's energy picture turns the country into a liability for the EU. The European commission has already promised to bail it out of its complete dependence on Russian gas. Interconnectors to Greece and Romania, a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal, new storage facilities and measures to improve energy efficiency are being planned, as may be a loan for the construction of Bulgaria's second nuclear-power plant, Belene.

A locked future

These are no short-term solutions, though, and the country's government has expressed little interest in moving out of Russia's sphere of energy influence. In the worst days of the January 2009 crisis, the energy minister Peter Dimitrov emphasised the "vital importance" of South Stream, an alternative route for Russian gas. The vaunted Belene nuclear plant is another communist-era project; it is also being built by a Russian firm, with Russian technology, and will most likely use Russian nuclear fuel.

The Sofia government, instead of seeking as a matter of urgency way of escaping the addiction to Russian gas, has repeated its pledge to restart a defunct nuclear reactor at the Kozloduy plant; one of the two there whose closure the EU demanded in 2007 on (controversial) safety grounds. The European commission has long rejected attempts to change this decision, but some Bulgarian politicians see the gas crisis as an opportunity to raise the question again.

Their justification seems feeble - nuclear-produced electricity cannot replace gas in the short term, and Bulgaria continued to export electricity even at the worst of the gas crisis. The European commission seems irritated that Bulgaria's authorities push to reopen the old reactors; Brussels sees the campaign as an attempt to shift the focus from the gas crisis and shady deals with Gazprom, to blaming the EU for keeping the reactors closed. This does not improve Sofia's chances to acquire EU funding to diversify its energy sources.

That the government is trying to divert attention from its relationship with Russia is hardly surprising, considering Bulgaria's reputation as one of Moscow's staunchest allies in the European Union. On the eve of its accession to the union in 2007, the Russian ambassador to the EU expressed hope that Bulgaria would be his country's "Trojan horse" among the twenty-seven member-states - a statement that provoked some anger, but no shock; in September 2008, Russia's foreign minister said that Bulgaria has the same attitude toward his country as it had to its EU and Nato partners.

The gas crisis has led to a half-hearted shift of rhetoric; the authorities in Sofia have admitted that Russia is no longer a reliable gas-supplier and pledged to look elsewhere; on 26 January 2009, they announced a deal with Azerbaijan to import a billion cubic metres of Azeri gas from 2010. But this itself indicates that there is no quick remedy, and that Bulgaria will remain in wedlock with Gazprom for years to come. Whether it will seek a divorce, or at least separation, remains to be seen; the chances of either are not high. The forces responsible for such a radical move would be the same that led Bulgaria to its addiction to Russian gas in the first place. So far, they have shown little interest in finding a cure.  

The Czech Republic and Europe: uneasy presidency

An array of global problems is pressing on the European Union in the first weeks of 2009 - from the crisis of the global financial system and a threatened worldwide economic slump to the fallout of the Gaza war and the annual Russia-Ukraine dispute over energy payments. The union's ability to address all these is shadowed by its continuing internal paralysis over planned reforms to the way the EU works. But what makes these priorities even more challenging for the union is that for the six months beginning on 1 January 2009 its presidency is held by the Czech Republic - a country with a weak and divided government and a state president bent on halting and if possible reversing European integration.

John Palmer is a member of the governing board of the European Policy Centre

Among John Palmer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Europe's enlargement problem" (23 May 2006)

"A commonwealth for Europe" (11 October 2006)

"Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)

"Europe's higher ground" (22 October 2007)

"Slovenia at Europe's helm" (18 December 2007)

"Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future" (16 December 2008)
It is little wonder then that most of the European Union's twenty-six other member-states are anticipating the conduct of the Czechs' EU presidency with extreme nervousness. This is fuelled too by the experience of the French presidency in the second half of 2008, when the hyperactive Nicholas Sarkozy, set a high if not always successful standard of leadership. The French president can be credited with having helped end the brief war between Georgia and Russia, and laying at least some of the foundations for a coordinated international response to the banking crisis and the looming recession.

A difficult task

Mirek Topolanek, the Czech prime minister, gives a convincing impression of a man who wishes he was somewhere else, at some other time. His most immediate concern has been to block attempts by his president, Vaclav Klaus, to hijack the Czechs' European leadership as part of Klaus's Europhobic campaign.

Topolanek is intimidated by Klaus, to the extent that he sought to prove his own credentials by saying that the Lisbon treaty reforming EU governance was "worse" that the existing Nice treaty. The response to this crass expression of a view that no other EU government takes forced Topolanek into an embarrassing u-turn by saying he would vote for the Lisbon treaty when it finally comes to a vote in the Czech parliament .

The Czech presidency made a similarly unconvincing start to its six-month term in relation to the foreign-policy crisis triggered by Israel's brutal war in Gaza. The Czech foreign ministry's initial reaction justified the Israeli intervention by saying that it was a "defensive war". This line changed within hours when the rest of the EU made known its abhorrence at the massively disproportionate Israeli action which in the days after the assault launched on 27 December 2008 inflicted massive damage and destroyed hundreds of Palestinian lives.

The Czechs backtracked by announcing that moves to upgrade Israel's commercial relationship with the EU would be suspended while the fighting continued. At the same time Prague came under pressure from a growing number of international humanitarian-aid organisations to support action against Israel for alleged war crimes.

There is no comparable misjudgment by the Czechs over the bitter Russia-Ukraine gas-supply crisis, resolved at last with an agreement on 18 January 2009. In fact the Czechs helped broker an agreement which should - with a modicum of goodwill by both main parties to the dispute - have resulted in ensuring Russian supplies to a freezing Bulgaria, Serbia and other regional states.  

Indeed, it must be admitted that the unprecedented range and seriousness of the global problems facing the European Union in early 2009, even the most enlightened and capable presidency might be unequal to the task. The EU, after all, must also depend on cooperation from other major global players - and its intense efforts (together with the United Nations) to end the bloodshed in Gaza have been undermined by the vacuum created by the lengthy transfer from the George W Bush to the Barack Obama presidency in the United States. The determination of the Israeli government to use this "dead time" to pursue its strategic goals also exposes the limits of global governance and international law.

A Europe-wide dilemma

It is also increasingly clear that the global financial and economic crisis is too vast for even the strongest of economic powers to be able to offer a certain way of preventing what looks like being the most serious downturn since 1945. The next few months will show whether the EU is ready to take at least some steps of its own: to reform and strengthen financial regulation, and to subdue the destabilising mechanisms and unaccountable forces in the financial sector that have brought the world close to economic disaster.

This would best be done by strengthening the supranational institutions concerned - including the European Central Bank. But, to judge by past performance, some governments may insist on first attempting a cumbersome and ineffective form of inter-governmental cooperation. This is also the best outcome that is likely to emerge from discussions within the EU about a coordinated macroeconomic strategy to limit the ferocity of the recession and lay the foundations for a sustainable recovery.

The paradox is that this chilling economic crisis could (and should) provide a springboard for the EU to move in stages towards a more comprehensive, and socially and environmentally sustainable, economic model. If this important conjuncture is not recognised by the Czech Republic, it certainly will be by the country which will inherit the EU presidency on 1 July 2009: Sweden. The government in Prague is likely to evade this larger agenda and concentrate merely on trying to avoid making a bad situation even worse.

Meanwhile, the European Union as a whole awaits signals from Barack Obama's presidency as to how far the choice of a scientifically literate environmental team will be followed by cooperative engagement in the search for a global agreement regulating carbon-emissions to follow the Kyoto protocol. More generally, there are mixed expectations regarding EU-US foreign-policy relations: support for the new president's desire to see an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq, but scepticism from most EU states (Britain apart) about Washington's belief that a new and enhanced military offensive in Afghanistan will produce anything constructive.

A political chance

The Czech presidency will still be in office when the direct elections to the European parliament take place on 4-7 June 2009. The political parties represented in the parliament are desperate this time round to generate greater voter participation. The very seriousness of the issues facing the EU member-states may itself help create a greater sense than in the past that the European public has the opportunity in the election to make real and influential political choices.

It is unfortunate then that the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty on 12 June 2008 has made it more difficult for European political parties to demonstrate the increasingly important role they have come to play in EU decision-making. If the Lisbon treaty had been in force in June 2009, for example, the European political parties could have asked voters to choose their preferred candidate to become the next president of the European commission. Indeed, this system does not really require a treaty ratification; even now, a more self-confident EU presidency than the Czech Republic's is likely to prove might - even without the treaty - have invited member-states to adopt it (see "Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future", 16 December 2008). 

The second Lisbon treaty referendum in Ireland will take place in autumn 2009, once final agreement has been reached on a range of texts clarifying some of the issues which were exploited by Eurosceptics in the 2008 campaign. These texts will underline that nothing in the treaty requires Ireland to accept conscription into a European army, to give up power to fix its domestic taxation or to accept an obligation to make abortion or prostitution legal. In addition, the European council has agreed not to proceed at present with the Nice treaty (2001-02) provision to reduce the size of the European commission; this - in theory - could have deprived individual states (including Ireland) of being able in future to claim to have at least one commissioner of "their own".

In this difficult period, Ireland is  - like all the other EU states - wrestling with its own domestic economic and political demons. There is not much the Czechs' European presidency can do to help in Ireland - beyond, perhaps, discouraging a return visit to Ireland by the Czech Republic's own head of state, Vaclav Klaus. His official visit to Dublin in November 2008 was notable for his parleys with rightwing campaigners opposed to the Lisbon treaty. The tension between what the European Union needs and what the Czech Republic's leadership offers makes even more testing the severe challenges of the coming months.

 

openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics: 

Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe’s future

There can be no denying the somewhat surreal nature of the efforts being made to persuade the people of the Republic of Ireland to approve the European Union's Lisbon treaty in a second referendum, now likely to be held in October 2009. The clear "no" majority in Ireland's first referendum to approve the treaty on 12 June 2008 came as a shock to most if not all of the other twenty-six EU countries. With ratification now virtually complete in the rest of the EU, the Irish veto has put the whole process of reforming the way the union functions into cold storage.

John Palmer is a member of the governing board of the European Policy Centre

Among John Palmer's articles in openDemocracy:
"Europe's enlargement problem" (23 May 2006)

"A commonwealth for Europe" (11 October 2006

"Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)

"Europe's higher ground" (22 October 2007)

Meanwhile, a number of large-scale issues and events have emerged or become more acute since discussions about a new constitutional treaty for Europe began - global economic crisis, severe threats of climate change, dangerous regional conflicts, challenging geopolitical shifts, prospects for significant change in United States policy under a new president. All are stretching or will stretch to the limit the capacity of the union to react.

The votes and the fears

But if the Irish "no" was a rude awakening, even more so were the reasons the traditionally very pro-European Irish had for rejecting the treaty (see Joseph Curtin & Johnny Ryan, "The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits", 13 June 2008). There is shared agreement on both sides of the argument a number of key issues was decisive in the referendum outcome. These included fears surrounding the possible effects of the treaty:

* that Irish military neutrality might have to be abandoned (and, related to this, that young Irish men and women might in future be conscripted into a "European army")

* that Ireland would lose the right to set its own corporate tax rates

* that Ireland would have to accept "alien" moral values such as abortion rights being imposed on them

* that Ireland would be deprived of the right to have its "own" member of the European commission.

The array of anti-Lisbon-treaty campaigners - ranging from far-right Catholic fundamentalists and neo-conservatives to sections of the far left and the nationalists of Sinn Féin - successfully convinced a majority of Irish voters that some or all of these threats were more or less at the heart of the treaty. Only by rejecting the treaty, the argument ran, could Ireland's neutrality, fiscal autonomy and moral values be protected. Some of the "no" activists added a social tinge, that the Lisbon treaty represented a move away from EU policies that had guaranteed workers' employment rights.

openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski,"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's "reform treaty": ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)

In response, the weak and somewhat perfunctory campaign of the Fianna Fail government of the new taoiseach Brian Cowen - supported by almost all the main opposition parties - protested that none of this was true. They insisted that the Lisbon treaty contained no provisions that in any way threatened Irish neutrality, compromised Irish fiscal autonomy or undermined the state's right to decide its own laws on ethical issues. They also pointed out that the charter of fundamental rights was part of the treaty and would strengthen those campaigning for improved rights for workers or other social groups. Finally they said that the move to reduce the number of commissioners had nothing to do with the Lisbon treaty but had already been agreed by all member-states, including Ireland, when the Nice treaty (2001) had been approved.

These protestations have had little impact on the "no" movement - increasingly led by Declan Ganley, a British-educated multi-millionaire. He now plans to convert his Libertas movement into a political party by linking up with hard-right Eurosceptic parties in other EU countries, to fight the direct elections to the European parliament in June 2009.

The fog of agreement

In addition to their strong if ineffective arguments against the "no" campaigners, the pro-EU parties in Ireland had a fallback position: that if the Irish people refused to believe their claims about the Lisbon treaty, they would get the other EU governments to sign up to a series of clear-cut declarations on the contested issues (among them conscription, tax autonomy, and abortion) to set voters' minds at rest. The "no" campaigners responded in characteristic fashion by raising the stakes, saying they would not accept mere declarations by EU leaders: nothing less than legally binding protocols attached to the Lisbon treaty would suffice.

The trouble is that such legally binding additions to the treaty would necessitate a complete rerun of the protracted and complicated process in each of the other twenty-six European Union countries (see Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary", 21 June 2008).

Thus, when the EU heads of government assembled for their summit in Brussels on 11-12 December 2008, they adopted a way forward that accommodated the particularities of the Irish debate: namely, that legally binding assurances on neutrality, tax and other matters would either be included in the next treaty in 2010 (required to approve Croatia's entry into the EU, and which will have to be ratified by all member-states), or by a further, separate legally binding agreement.

It is a bizarre situation: one where all the governments of the European Union will legally bind themselves not to impose on Ireland measures which none of them ever had the slightest intention of doing in the first place, and for which no provision is made in the Lisbon treaty.

The summit in Brussels agreed to a further move, namely to defer indefinitely plans to introduce a smaller, more effective and more streamlined European commission. This will mean that all member-states in the enlarged union will continue to have a commissioner of "their own". But the fact that members of the commission have to swear an oath that they will not be advocates of the national interest of their country of origin, but rather of the collective European interest, seems to have gone unnoticed. After all, the job of national advocacy is the responsibility of national governments which form the EU's council of ministers.

The core and the periphery

Will these measures work in the sense of helping persuading Irish voters to agree to ratify the treaty in a second referendum? The most recent opinion poll in Ireland shows a swing sufficient to produce a small "yes" majority. But the populist "no" campaigners are confident that they can continue to exploit the fears of people who have read little or nothing of the treaty but who are increasingly sceptical about politicians as a whole and their governments. In the June 2008 vote, the opponents of Lisbon had the great advantage of a slovenly and complacent "yes" campaign. Next time, supporters of Ireland's place at the heart of Europe will have to fight for their political lives.

They have one advantage. There is a growing realisation in Ireland of the possible consequences of a return to power of the Conservative Party in Britain after a 2010 general election - as may still on balance be likely, despite a revival in Labour prime minister Gordon Brown's political fortunes.  If this happens, and in circumstances where the Lisbon treaty is not yet in place, the Conservatives intend to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the European Union. The result may be to detach the United Kingdom - assuming it stays united - from some of the core European Union policies.

Ireland, faced with this prospect, will have some very difficult choices to make between a future as part of a core Europe, or joining a new semi-detached and London-centred periphery. For Ireland to return to the British orbit (and perhaps rejoin the Commonwealth) would be a strange victory for Sinn Fein and other anti-British nationalists. It is a small indication of how the stakes for Ireland, and for the rest of Europe, are about to get even higher.

Europe’s politics of self - and others

It seems that even late in the 21st-century's first decade much of humanity is still living in the turn-of-the-millennium mood that half expects the world to come to an end. We went through it around the year 1,000 CE with all those millenarian sects. This time around, the approach to new year's eve 1999 was filled with febrile predictions of a worldwide computer crash. That didn't happen, but 9/11 kept the atmosphere going. Now, the financial crisis and its end-of-capitalism accompanying score has something of the same feel; and as if that were not enough, the dangers of climate change are an insistent drumbeat behind every public argument.
Krzysztof Bobiński is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Among Krzysztof Bobinski's articles in openDemocracy:

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

"Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (20 June 2008)

The other fears remain, and their admixture (jihadism plus nuclear weapons, or economic recession plus democratic rollback, for example) can make the post-millennial mood-music even darker. But with climate change, the finis mundi phenomenon is real, and demands a different order of coordinated, long-term policy-making. This time it's serious. 

The European Union is doing its best to stave off the great flood by attempting to build its version of Noah's ark - namely, a programmatic document called the "climate action and renewable energy package". The planned content is as ambitious as the timescale for completion (the end of 2008); it is designed to be so virtuous as to convince the rest of the world to match the carbon-emission reduction commitments the EU proposes to make at the climate-change conferences in Poznan (1-12 December 2008) and Copenhagen (30 November-11 December 2009).

In Europe, it can seem that it rains only to pour. It happened that the financial crisis that had for a time looked as if it might be confined to the United States hit Europe hard a few days before the European Union summit in Brussels on 15-16 October 2008. That issue naturally had to share equal billing at the top of the agenda with the scheduled headline matter - reviewing progress on the climate-change package. European leaders thus found themselves facing two system-challenging phenomena at the same time. A difficult challenge at any time, even more when Europe is beset by a permanent agenda of unresolved items (Russia, energy, enlargement).

Two crises for one

It proved easier to make progress on policy towards the financial turmoil. Gordon Brown, the (previously) embattled British prime minister - not known for his affection for the European Union - was able to use some of the credit he had built in launching a domestic bank-bailout plan to offer the assembled leaders advice about how Europe as a whole might face the crisis in the shorter term. Moreover, Brown had long pushed the idea of convening a major conference designed to look at the whole Bretton Woods system of international governance set up in 1944 and ask whether this model - embodied in the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - needs to be reformed in order to match the problems facing a very different world. This suggestion was adopted at the summit by Nicolas Sarkozy (current holder of the EU as well as the French presidency). All in all, this part of the summit was a further triumph for Gordon Brown.

There was somewhat less vision and more difficulty with regard to the climate-change package. Some countries, including Poland and Italy, have come to see this as a European plot aimed at destroying their industry. Indeed, so far has the debate moved that several European voices seem to have forgotten the core purpose of the EU's climate policy - to cut back emissions of CO2, the main cause of anthropogenic global warming. In face of opposition and threats of veto by the two prime ministers - Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Poland's Donald Tusk - the EU leaders stuck to their timetable to approve the package by December; but it seems inevitable that it will be watered down.

Poland's objections centre on the plan to introduce auctions for permits to emit C02 in 2013. The European commission says this will raise electricity prices in the EU by an average of 20%, but Poland - whose generating system is coal-based - says its domestic prices will increase by as much as 100%. Thus, Poland wants the auction scheme to be phased in to give more time for it to cut emissions; yet meanwhile the country is doing very little to conserve energy or put in place alternative, renewable energy sources.

The contrast in the way the two headline issues were discussed at the summit is marked - in terms both of unity (on finance) versus division (on climate change); and of the absence of debate (certainly in the new member-states like Poland) on climate change about the implications for Europe's relations with the rest of the world and the way the world will need to develop in the aftermath of the most pressing current crises.

This paucity of debate is a pity, for much could have been learned about the inevitable coming negotiation between those member-states which want to weaken the package (and the European commission) and those which want to maintain it. In turn, this will be a dress-rehearsal for the conversation the rich post-industrial countries of Europe are bound to have with "the rest" (led by China and India).

In openDemocracy on Europe, climate change, and financial turmoil:

Dieter Helm, "Europe's energy future: in the dark" (16 January 2007)

Mats Engström, "Europe's green power" (26 March 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's next steps" (26 June 2007)

Christoph Neidhart, "The Malthusian energy-trap: old Europe, new China" (13 December 2007)

Avinash Persaud, "Europe's financial crisis: the integration lesson" (7 October 2008)

On the European Union side, the Poles and other recent member-states are saying that they need more time to implement the proposals. Those which have coal-based power systems producing more C02 would have to shift to gas or nuclear-power to make a palpable difference in emissions - but that would either strengthen Russia's hand (as a major gas-supplier) or raise the Chernobyl-spectre (which is still strong in east-central Europe).

The other European states have to consider these circumstances. It needs to get the climate package right - for if it doesn't, how can it conduct a credible negotiation with China and India and the rest? These emerging giants see no reason why they should curtail their growth to mitigate the global-warming problem which was produced by the richer countries.

Together, safer

These dilemmas cannot be evaded at the world climate-change conference in Poznan (December 2008) and Copenhagen (November-December 2009). There was a foretaste in a preparatory conference of environment ministers from more than thirty countries in Warsaw on 13-14 October. The meeting was surprisingly amicable. After all, what links environment ministers is their common dislike and mistrust - not of each other, but of their colleagues from their finance / economy ministries. In addition, they share a belief in the climate-change threat and the need to address it; they are divided only over the question of who is going to pay for cleaning up the damage and how much this will cost.

In Warsaw, delegates from western countries pleaded that funds could not come from their budgets. This explains why they said that emissions-trading schemes (ETS) were the only way to raise money - which means the burden of cost will fall either on the power companies or (more likely) on consumers in the polluting countries. The advanced countries and those which don't pollute (but which are already being hit by changes in the weather) were united in asking why ETS schemes were so difficult to implement. The contrast between the financial crisis and the climatic was invoked conveniently here. "It took a few days to find  billions to prop up the financial system", said one Warsaw attendee, "but when it comes to the fate of poorer countries then the problems mount".

Gordon Brown is quite right to say that the world's governance of its affairs has to change, and that the post-1945 order has changed so much that new actors such as China and India (as well as Brazil, South Africa, and others) have to be given leading roles. The debate about what to do about climate change (including who is to pay) is in its way an extension of the aid debate. But it is no longer simply a moral issue. If the future of the planet (or at least the low- lying bits of it) is at stake, then political leaders will have to start showing a little more leadership and imagination when talking about the future.

The European summit showed that Europe's leaders can show leadership and imagination when it comes to defending the interests of their voters. But there is still a little way to go when it comes to recognising that the problems Europe and the world faces are all interconnected. Maybe the big global-governance conference before the end of 2008 can help them focus on that one. 

Belarus's election paradox

Many people who wished for a better future for Belarus held their breath during the parliamentary election on 28 September 2008 - and groaned with frustration as the results were announced. The fact that not a single member of the opposition managed to get elected to parliament was bad enough; it was no consolation at all that the electoral process was still far from observing democratic norms - the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) registered unreliable counting in 48% of the cases observed, and 35% of their attempts to gain access to counts were refused. Both the outcome and the international observers' verdict suggest that the principal conditions set by the European Union to improve its relations with Belarus have not been met.

The frustrated opposition immediately accused president Lukashenka of vote-rigging. But the election's real story may have been very different: forthe result was arguably the outcome of the cowardly Belarusian bureaucracy covering their backs. 

Natalia Leshchenko is an expert on politics and business in Russia and Belarus           

Also by Natalia Leshchenko in openDemocracy:
"Belarus: the shackles of sovereignty" (3 April 2007)

This election-day was one of the most important such events for Belarus's longstanding president, Alexander Lukashenka. True, he has succeeded in many previous rounds of voting: in 1990, when he was elected as an MP in the first post-independence Belarusian parliament; in 1994, when he became Belarus's first president; in 1996, when he changed the constitution to snatch political power from the legislature and the judiciary; in 2004, when he implemented yet another constitutional change to make it possible for him to be president for life; and in 2006, when he won a third term.

But this was different: for finally there came a voting-day where Lukashenka's primary goal was to prove that Belarus is a democratic state - an unlikely and hardly imaginable task only a couple of years ago. Lukashenka's extraordinary instinct and feel for power made him sure that he had to court Europe. Russia, the long-term ally he had nurtured though assurances of unwavering loyalty, was no longer footing the country's energy bills; the produce of Russia's revived industries were flooding Belarus; the non-competitive output of Minsk's dilapidated state enterprises was filling the country's warehouses. It was time to look west.

Also on Belarusian politics in openDemocracy:

Margot Letain, "Denim and democracy: what Belarusians need" (15 March 2006)

Amy de Wit, " Belarus on the eve" (15 March 2006)

Amy de Wit, " Belarus's contested landslide" (20 March 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, " Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

Margot Letain, " The 'denim revolution': a glass half full" (11 April 2006)

The ice breaks

The roots of the shift lie in early 2007. Russia was busy in pursuit of its own agenda: its businesses seeking to stampede Belarusian industrial assets, the Kremlin expecting good behaviour on its own terms. Lukashenka had come to think that his domestic authority was being circumvented, and that he urgently needed to find a counterbalance to Russia's weight. When the Kremlin punished the Belarusian government for its unwillingness to accept higher oil tariffs with a direct oil cut-off, Lukashenka put out feelers to the European Union. Europe, with its own reasons for being fearful of Russia, proved receptive. The result was a thaw.

The EU demanded an office in Minsk - and received it; it requested too the release of political prisoners - which Lukashenka also obliged with. If the next parliamentary elections proved democratic, the EU promised to lift sanctions against Belarusian officials, paving the way for resumption of inter-governmental cooperation and exchanges and signalling to its investors they could consider Belarus.

Lukashenka's championing of Europe was a bitter twist for the Belarusian opposition, whose members have dedicated their lives to the same cause - expending much harder effort for far less result. Lukashenka built his regime in Belarus on the basis of creating an authentic political system that was "native" to Belarus - both different from western liberal notions, and requiring defence against them (see "Belarus: the shackles of sovereignty", 3 April 2007). The opposition, many of whose figures lost their jobs and faced constant mockery from the state-owned media and the president, committed itself to bringing Belarus to Europe. For all their sincere effort, their achievement has been minute in hostile circumstances; the opposition has become a classical closed-circle of rebels fighting with each other over the minutiae of their cause and becoming ever more detached from the voters.

The dissidents may have received a hearing - and a supporting hand - in the west, but in 2008 as on previous occasions they have been unable to deliver any substantial change. They protested about the nature of the election campaign, noting that that the 7,000-strong counting commissions across the country contained only forty-eight representatives of their representatives. Yet, under pressure to participate in the election - if only to confirm their existence and claims to political representation - they joined in the charade.

Thirteen opposition organisations put forward forty-six out of 265 candidates for the 110-member parliament, to no avail. After this latest emotional roller-coaster, some may find a tiny solace in the fact that their credo - that the Belarusian regime is undemocratic - has again been proven right. Moreover, any potential opposition members of parliament would have been haunted by the questions as to how they managed to succeed, amid inevitable hints about  clandestine betrayal. Now, in the words of one opposition leader, the situation is purely black-and-white again, and a melancholy defeat is all that is left.

The power game

Some of the more perceptive Belarusian analysts argue that Alexander Lukashenka has done himself a major disservice. The absence of at least a few token opponents in the parliament (goes their analysis) undermines the president's claims to democratic legitimacy and erodes the basis for cooperation with Europe - thus strengthening the influence of Russia and undermining his own regime. The logic is sound, but the causes of the strange voting result may not be of Lukashenka's own volition.

The above argument suggests also that the image of Alexander Lukashenka as the primary decision-maker behind any process, development or event in Belarus is taken for granted and never disputed - by supporters and opponents alike. Hence the prevailing assumption - echoed by most commentators in the west - that it was Lukashenka himself who again ordered an opposition-free parliament, either from the desire to make a fool of Europe or from fear that his own authority in the country might slip.

This explanation is questionable on the grounds that Lukashenka has staked an unusually high amount on pleasing Europe, and went to his greatest efforts yet to do that - beyond even the call of duty. This involved letting in international observers, ordering the police to keep away from some 1,000 opposition protesters in Minsk on election eve, and risking the release of his only potential challenger, Alexander Kozulin, from prison to satisfy a European Union demand. In addition, Lukashenka is reportedly paying a hefty bill to a London-based PR agency to improve his image in the west. He has placed enough of a  stake and made too many uncomfortable steps to turn back on the west now - when he hopes to reap the much-needed reward of seeing European Union  sanctions lifted so that he could play off Russia off against Europe in Belarus and further prolong his rule.

In anay case, the existence of a nominal opposition in parliament would be no threat to Lukashenka's authority. It would be at best a powerless minority in a body whose authority is constitutionally limited to rubber-stamping.

The machine mind

A different explanation of the surprisingly harsh and one-sided outcome of the parliamentary vote is more persuasive, if counterintuitive. This is that it was driven not by Lukashenka's order, but by the inertia of the years of his rule: ,both among the population, but more crucially among the very administrative bureaucracy Lukashenka has nurtured.

Over more than a decade, the president overhauled the country's administrative elite in a way that loyalty to the president, rather than professionalism, has become the principal factor in bureaucrats keeping their jobs and moving up the administrative ladder. This has had the effect of injecting a major dose of conservatism into the state administration; disabling the bureaucrats' inclinations for flexibility, initiative, or indeed independent decision-making; and turning them into human cogs unable to affect the processes they are part of.

Now, it seems that such inertia has done the president a huge disservice. The mechanism of conducting elections in a way that kept the opposition out has been tried and tested in at least five national ballots since 1996, and is exacerbated by the personal fear on the part of the heads of electoral commissions about confirming the victory of any opposition members to the electoral commission headquarters. This mentality has now taken on a life of its own - proving more resilient than the president's decree that the elections should be democratic, especially given that the president had always proclaimed the democratic character of any public vote.

It is hardly a result of the president's order, for example, that the local police would try to pull the opposition's electoral leaflets from people's postboxes (as reported from one small town) or that the counting commissions would not want the opposition observers close to voting tables. It is the rigid mentality and fear of the loyal bureaucrats themselves that drives such behaviour. Lukashenka, used to the loyalty of the bureaucracy, most likely did not see the need to deliver a special order that they should support his pro-European effort. But even if Lukashenka has changed his tune, the huge state machine he has created has proved inflexible and static at the very crossing where he wanted it to turn.

The most graceful - and easy - resolution of the current predicament is for the Belarusian authorities to recognise vote-recount appeals submitted by the opposition in thirty-five electoral districts, and eventually let at least some of the opposition members into the parliament. This would be doubly beneficial to the authorities: demonstrating their allegiance to democratic procedural norms and making parliament more legitimate (at least in the eyes of the EU). In fact, the parliament would have been more inclusive if the government had sent an approved list of deputies to the local commissions, instead of letting them operate at their own volition. Now the Belarusian leader has a chance to correct the mistakes of his apparatus by operating in a sincerely democratic way.  

The next step

Until that happens, the European Union's top figures will have to exert themselves to deal with the opposition-free parliament in Minsk. They will certainly feel bitter about a dubious result that potentially leaves them open to criticism about engaging with an autocratic regime. Yet they would be well-advised to take the risk, even if it plays into the hands of an idiosyncratic leader and potentially helps him extend his rule.

After all, Belarus is not just Alexander Lukashenka. It is a country of nearly 10 million people as well: a potential market and investment destination in the European mainland worthy of note, and a nation badly in need of fresh ideas. The implication is that if Europe wants to cooperate with Belarus, and there are good reasons for that, it should engage not with Lukashenka only, but with Belarusians in general. This means at the popular level - creating an interest, a need, and incentives to live the European way, with democracy and a market economy. The result would be that one day, the president will not have to order a staged democratic election, for it would come organically and naturally.

To work at the popular level is a long process, and hard in the face of governmental obstruction. Now that Lukashenka is listening, even if half-heartedly, the European Union is best advised to seize the moment and push for engagement, on as much of its own terms as possible. Belarus has failed to make good on its democratic façade; but the European Union could better help it lay a proper democratic foundation. 

Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict

The headlines about the conflict in the Caucasus in August 2008 have been replaced by news about collapsing financial markets. But the questions raised by the Georgia-Russia war remain high on the agenda of diplomats and international organisations. The European Union has deployed 300 observers to monitor the scheduled withdrawal of Russian troops from the buffer-zones within Georgia proper after 1 October 2008. But for the EU, the fallout of the war of 8-12 August is much greater - which Russian forces have occupied since the end of the main hostilities - is an opportunity to examine the role of the EU in this critical region. What kind of role can and should the union play to contribute to stability and growth in this volatile region just beyond its borders? And what must it do to be taken seriously by a newly assertive Russia?


Katinka Barysch
is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform

Also by Katinka Barysch in openDemocracy:

"Ukraine should not be part of a ‘great game'" (7 December 2004) - with Charles Grant

"Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

"Europe's ‘reform treaty': ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007) - with Hugo Brady

"Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (14 April 2008)

The policy toolbox

These questions in turn raise the issue of the European Union's performance during and immediately after the war itself. The judgments about the EU's reaction to the flare-up of conflict, Russia's incursion into Georgia, and its unilateral recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have varied - from the illustration of a wobbly jelly on the cover of the Economist (4 September 2008) to the earlier assessment of Jean-Dominique Giuliani (president of the Robert Schuman Foundation): "Without the European Union's intervention and rapid reaction on the part of the French president the Russians would already have made Tbilisi theirs".

The reference here is to the diplomatic initiative of Nicolas Sarkozy, who as holder of the EU's current (July-December 2008) presidency visited Moscow and Tbilisi, brokered the initial ceasefire on 12 August 2008, and then pushed hard for Russia to follow the terms. The European Union as a whole followed up at its emergency summit on 1 September - only the third in its history - by sticking together in an unprecedented condemnation of Russian aggression. To signal their willingness to act, they froze negotiations on the EU's new partnership agreement with Russia.

True, the EU's criticism and the threat of stalled treaty negotiations did not sway Russia. It was in any case in Moscow's own interest to withdraw its forces from the self-declared buffer-zone in Georgia and start a programme of damage-limitation in international relations. But Moscow is also used to a squabbling and uncritical EU - and will thus have taken note of the Europeans' relatively strong reaction - relative, because compared with the tough rhetoric of some United States politicians the EU's reaction still looked feeble.

However, those who criticise the EU for this are wrong. The EU cannot at the same time be a mediator in the conflict and take sides. Moreover, its mediating role was all the more effective because it was backed by a growling America that openly backed Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili. The Americans found it easier to be firm and critical precisely because they could rely on the EU to do the actual negotiations.

The European Union has supplemented its high-level diplomacy by attempting to mitigate the consequences of the war on the ground. At their meeting on 15 September, EU foreign ministers authorised the 300-strong observer mission to replace Russian troops in the buffer-zone, and pledged €500 million in aid to help the reconstruction of the devastated Georgian economy.


Among openDemocracy's articles on the fallout of the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008:

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Mary Kaldor, "Sovereignty, status and the humanitarian perspective" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Paul Gillespie, ""The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's post-war promise" (15 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (16 September 2008)

Aviel Roshwald, "Nato, the west and Russia: from peril to progress" (23 September 2008)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war.


However, tension and bitterness persist, not only within the region, but between Russia and the west. There are disagreements about where exactly the EU observers will be allowed to go, and how many Russian soldiers will remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. More widely, many people both inside and outside the European Union look anxiously eastwards in the belief that Russian efforts to control its "near abroad" will not stop at the border of South Ossetia.

This means that the EU needs to continue its debate about what kind of tools it has available to resolve the Caucasus and other other potential conflicts, including increasing the pressure on Russia if necessary.

What not to do

Since the Georgia-Russia war broke out on 8 August 2008, many politicians and commentators have suggested hardline measures against Russia that if implemented would harm European interests without making Russia change its ways. The danger of ill-judged over-reaction or misplaced symbolic gestures is that Russia will end up looking scarier and Europe weaker than is actually the case. The challenge is to act firmly but in ways designed to have a real effect.

To clarify the point, it is worth considering what the European Union should not do. First, economic sanctions are a virtual non-starter, mainly because of a situation of mutual energy-dependence: almost 30% of the gas consumed in the EU comes from Russia, making the EU Russia's biggest and most lucrative market (it is notable in this respect that Moscow has been careful not to mention energy in its angry exchanges with the west). In principle, the EU could try to limit Russian sales of non-energy goods or keep Russian investments out; but in the absence of a United Nations mandate, such steps would violate the EU's own rules for openness and non-discrimination.

The EU cannot completely discard the option of using economic sanctions - in the event of Russian tanks trundling into another neighbouring country, for example. But these would be a means of last resort. Meanwhile, talk of preventing Russia companies from operating in EU countries will only undermine the EU's credibility as a rules-based and open market.

Second, a veto of Russia's World Trade Organisation (WTO) application would contravene the EU's strong interest in persuading Russia to respect international trade rules and submit to the WTO's dispute-settlement procedures. Thus, it should not contemplate using the WTO to make a political point at a time when the organisation is already gravely weakened through the breakdown of the Doha talks. Russia's accession is in any case not an immediate prospect - because of Moscow's increasingly erratic trade policy, the United States's refusal to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment (1974), and vetoes from Georgia and perhaps Ukraine (both now WTO members).

Third, to ban Russians from visiting or working in EU countries is a bad idea. If Russian citizens cannot travel, they may be more prone to believing their government's propaganda about a hostile and hypocritical west. But the EU needs to think carefully too about targeted visa sanctions, for a ban on Russian leaders and top officials would signal a new world in which the Europeans no longer believe that engagement can achieve anything.

The EU could make it harder for Russia's big businessmen to holiday at the Cote d'Azur or do business in London, hoping that they would in turn put pressure on their leaders to change their ways. But many rich Russians have acquired foreign passports, and few will risk falling out with a regime that seems to enjoy a bit of oligarch-bashing from time to time.

In brief, the resort to economic sanctions and visa-bans could slow the modernisation and diversification of Russia's economy and turn its emerging middle class further against the west. These measures may well hurt the possibility of a more liberal camp emerging around the new president, Dmitry Medvedev. The chances of Russia becoming more open and democratic over the medium-to-long-term could diminish further.

The three priorities

It does not have to be "business as usual", however. There are other things the European Union could do that would be effective without being counterproductive. The EU could freeze several of its newer initiatives if Russia proves recalcitrant (over, for example, reducing troop numbers in South Ossetia and Georgia).

The EU could stop preparations for a trade agreement on nuclear-fuels, something the Russians want badly in order to grab a bigger market-share in Europe's (reviving) nuclear sector. It could also suspend Russia's participation in EU research projects and other cooperation programmes. Indeed, a slimming down of the EU's bloated and unfocused Russia agenda could even become a welcome side-product of the current climate.

More fundamentally, however, the EU's reaction to the Georgia war should focus less on punishing Russia and more on seeking to make it change its ways. This effort should start within the EU itself, with a set of well-defined objectives. The tricky part then is to figure out how to achieve these objectives in case of Russian opposition or obstruction.

After Georgia, the EU can no longer pretend that its goals and Russia's are in harmony. That is good - because it forces the Europeans to have a more open and realistic debate about its ties with Russia and to set clearer priorities. These priorities should be:

* stability beyond the EU's eastern borders

* energy security

* international tasks that require Russian help (such as preventing Iran from building a nuclear bomb).

It is in retrospect remarkable that many people claim to have anticipated the war and witnessed preparations for it, yet that it appears to have taken the west by surprise. The implication is that the EU needs to keep a much closer eye on its neighbourhood and get more involved in an effort to forestall further turmoil. This requires it (as my colleague Tomas Valasek has written) to do much more to help resolve the other frozen conflicts that smoulder in the region. It should also intensify its efforts to draw neighbouring countries, notably Ukraine and Moldova, closer to the union.

The test of unity

Many analysts now predict that Russia will try to escalate other "frozen conflicts" in its neighbourhood. That is not inevitable. The chances of making some progress over Nagorno-Karabakh may even have improved now that Turkey and Armenia have used the opportunity of a football match to talk to each other (see Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's post-war promise", 15 September 2008). The presidents of these two countries have also just met their Azerbaijani counterpart in New York.

Russia may well step up its efforts to broker a solution between Moldova and the breakaway region of Transdnistria. This would help it to salvage whatever is left of its own "soft power" in the aftermath of the Georgia war. The EU should demand a bigger role in these negotiations, despite Russia's likely attempt to dictate the rules of any EU engagement in the region.

But while these longstanding conflicts may be edging a bit closer towards a solution, new hotspots could emerge, most notably Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. This is but one of a number of Ukraine-Russia disagreements which the EU can do little directly to resolve: over the stationing of the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, gas prices, mutual travel-bans for politicians, or Moscow handing out passports to Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens. The risk of such disagreements destabilising Ukraine would be less if the country had a functioning and forward-looking government. But if the EU should not overestimate its impact on Ukraine, it can contribute to political stability and economic reform there by giving the country a "membership perspective".

The EU's decision not to do so at the EU-Ukraine summit on 9 September has attracted fire. But to reaffirm the point about effective action, the EU would have been wrong to use the offer of membership - one of its most powerful tools - in a purely symbolic reaction to the Georgia war. The EU's real objective (and Russia's real fear) is a Ukraine that is more democratic, richer and more stable - and better able to withstand Russian meddling. This objective is better served if the EU makes progress towards membership dependent on Kyiv (Kiev) actually implementing political and economic reforms. At present, Ukraine has no effective government, and its leading politicians use ties to the EU and Russia as cards in domestic political games. There is thus little reason to reward Ukraine just yet. The EU's offer to Ukraine needs to be more attractive (more help now, membership later) - but remain conditional.

Another way in which the EU could have a great impact on Russia is if it developed a coherent and effective energy policy. The ingredients of such a policy are well known: internal market liberalisation, more connections between national power and gas markets, clear rules for investment from outside the EU, and a more systematic approach to pipelines and external suppliers. The EU has already stepped up its energy diplomacy in reaction to the Georgia war, for example by sending energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs to Nigeria.

The EU's "strategic energy review" is due in November 2008. This should include some forward-looking proposals: new transparency requirements (it is not acceptable that the European commission and other EU governments learn about new bilateral pipeline deals from the media); better planning for energy emergencies (including plans for improving Europe's strategic gas storage); new financing options for critical infrastructure (in particular the Nabucco pipeline); and allowing the EU to coordinate negotiations with outside suppliers.

The Caucasus conflict may be the shock that the Europeans needed to get their act together on neighbourhood policy, energy and a coherent foreign-policy strategy. But the real test of the EU's effectiveness will come at the level of the individual member-states. A union that is divided, and where the biggest countries seek their own selfish bilateral deals with Russia while smaller ones stubbornly block EU business to draw attention to their concerns will achieve little but derision in Russia. A European Union that unites around clearly defined objectives will stand a much better chance of playing a stabilising role in the neighbourhood and being taken seriously by Russia.

The Caucasus effect: Europe unblocked

The headlines in Poland's main daily newspapers were unanimous. Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Moscow and Tbilisi on 8 September 2008 to seek assurances from the Russians that they would withdraw their troops to the positions they held before the outbreak of war with Georgia on 7-8 August was a failure. "Sarkozy failed to take the Kremlin", declared one; "Russia dictates to Europe", proclaimed another; "Sarkozy defeated. Peace with Georgia possible only on Russia's terms", shouted a third.


Krzysztof Bobiński is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Among Krzysztof Bobinski's articles in openDemocracy:

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

"Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (20 June 2008)

The reaction ran counter to Mikheil Saakashvili's obvious relief at his press conference with Sarkozy and José Manuel Barroso (president of the European commission) that evening at the result the French president had managed to achieve (see Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia", 10 September 2008). A pledge of withdrawal by 1 October and the insertion of observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into the space between the Russians, their South Ossetian and Abkhazian supporters and the Georgians was obviously welcome to Georgia's pressurised president.

But just as attitudes throughout Europe towards Russia are beginning to stiffen, so stereotypes in Poland (and most probably throughout the new European Union member-states and elsewhere in the post-Soviet space) remain strong. Indeed they include more than a touch of Schadenfreude at the dilemmas Sarkozy faces. The local newspapers, the radio and the television talk-show hosts all almost palpably yearn for more evidence of western weakness and gullibility in the face of Russian might and brutal deception. They all seem to want the EU to fail to resolve the crisis, to be seen to be fragile and craven. "We knew all along what they, the Russians, are like and you are still unwilling to believe us", is the near-universal underlying sentiment.

A region moves

This reaction shows that there is still a gulf between the western European way of doing things and perceptions in new member-states such as Poland. But if truth be told, Poland's government (which is not to be confused with the country's president, Lech Kaczynski) has remained remarkably calm and indeed is ready - despite what has happened in Georgia - to continue a dialogue with the Russians.

Indeed, that is only one of the pigs which, quite unexpectedly, has flown across the skies in the five weeks since the end of the major hostilities in Georgia on 12 August. The aftermath of the brutal conflict promises both to be long and to bring significant changes to the EU's relationship with Russia. The most difficult question to answer is whether Moscow will decide that it wants a fruitful relationship with the west or choose a not-so-splendid isolation (see Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap", 19 August 2008).

The signals remain mixed. But there are at least four other developments since the Caucasus events which overturn settled views of what is occurring, and suggest that the Georgia crisis has jolted governments into becoming more imaginative in revising longstanding and seemingly intractable positions.

First, the visit by the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to Warsaw on 11 September 2008, so soon after the Russians had threatened to punish Poland for President Kaczynski's foray to Tbilisi and his public promise to fight for a free Georgia; and indeed, after growls by Russian military leaders that Poland would become a nuclear target if the American anti-missile base was installed there.

Second, who would have expected that Poland would be one of the first to call on the European Union to lift sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko's regime in Belarus? After all, it is Polish NGOs and members of the European parliament (MEPs) who have been most strident in their condemnation of one of Europe's last authoritarians. Not long ago, any mention of detente with Minsk brought instant criticism.

Third, the remarks made almost in passing by the Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb in a speech to Finnish ambassadors and an interview with Die Presse (Austria) to the effect that his country might consider joining Nato. True, Finland's president and prime minister almost immediately scorned the suggestion; but the fact is that Stubb (who played a significant mediating role alongside Sarkozy in the Georgia-Russia conflict) said it and thus challenged an enduring consensus in Helsinki on keeping an equal distance in military terms between Russia and the west.

Fourth, and most amazing of all, Turkey's President Abdullah Gul travelled to Yerevan on the occasion of an Armenia-Turkey football match and met his Armenia counterpart Serzh Sarkisian. The unprecedented visit to Armenia by a Turkish head of state, against the background of the bitter controversy over the issue of the 1915 genocide and the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries, has great political as well as symbolic significance. It reflects how keen Turkey is to help stabilise the situation in the Black Sea, resolve the crisis in the Caucasus and keep Nato warships (its own excepted) at a safe distance in the Mediterranean.


Among openDemocracy's articles on the fallout of the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008:

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Paul Gillespie, ""The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

The Turkish decision over Armenia was taken within the context of Istanbul's wider "Caucasus platform" initiative - which would bring Georgia, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey into an organisation promoting regional cooperation and reconciliation. If this were to succeed, it might help in the search for a solution to the problem of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

A time to look

The Turkish dimension of the Georgia-Russia fallout may have deeper reverberations. Turkey won credit for its bold gesture from both Nicolas Sarkozy (current holder of the European Union presidency) and Olli Rehn (the EU's enlargement commissioner). This raises the possibility that relations between Turkey and the EU might soon emerge from their present doldrums; indeed, given the above shifts in policy and attitude in the past five weeks, is it unthinkable that the French president might begin to reconsider his opposition to Turkey's membership of the EU?

The crisis has also brought Ukraine and its EU membership aspirations into the spotlight. Who would have expected even in early summer 2008 that a British foreign minister would fly urgently to Kyiv (Kiev) and deliver a strident call of support for Ukraine's right to chose its own path, as David Miliband did on 27 August? But the new concern that Russia might pose a risk to Ukraine's independence has seen the EU edging closer to a commitment to the country's eventual membership.

Here, the Turkey and Ukraine situations come together. For it is notable that Turkey's Caucasus platform does not include Ukraine. Since the early 1990s, Ankara has preferred to improve relations with Moscow (the devil the Turks know) rather than with Kyiv (which is more of an unknown quantity). But Turkey knows full well that Ukraine is a major potential source of tension in the Black Sea with its de facto dispute over the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, which erupted during the blessedly short Georgian war. The lease for the port runs out in 2017 when Ukraine looks set to ask the fleet to go.

There is undoubtedly a role for European Union policy in the Black Sea. Romania and Bulgaria are, after all, now EU members and a Black Sea regional-cooperation formula bringing in all the littoral states including Russia could be a useful complement to the Caucasus platform. The EU's regional neighbourhood initiative, the Black Sea Basin Joint Operational Programme, could offer a framework for shared action here (see Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia", 15 September 2008).

The crisis has also given a much needed lease of life to the search for a common EU energy policy. Here, if anywhere, Poland should be taking advantage of the apparent change of heart towards Russia by public opinion in France and Germany, and growing concern in Germany in particular over a dependency on Russian energy supplies.

Thus, the Georgian push into South Ossetia on the night of 7-8 August 2008 and the Russian military response has set in motion a number of processes in Europe, the Black Sea region and even central Asia. A number of long neglected problems (such as Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenia-Turkey dispute, as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia themselves) have come into sharp focus.

Across Europe, attitudes towards Russia have hardened. Any further delays in the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia proper will compound tensions. The European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on 15 September 2008 who confirmed the despatch of 200 EU observers to Georgia under the terms of the 8 September agreement are well aware that this is a stage in a longer process.

But under the surface, the changes which have happened in the month since the height of the Georgia-Russia conflict have been missed by Polish newspapers editors at least. They may also be underestimating Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel's resolve in the face of Russian intransigence over Georgia. Europe since the armed confrontation of August 2008 ended has become a more interesting place. Clear eyes and open minds will be needed if it is to become a safer place too. Clinging to stereotypes does the latter aim no good at all.

The European Union and Russia after Georgia

The European Union has taken a measured route between Vladimir Putin's Moscow and Dick Cheney's Washington in its combination of refusing to impose sanctions on Russia after its military and diplomatic actions in Georgia while firmly setting a test for Moscow over the next two months about its willingness to cooperate with other Europeans.

Paul Gillespie is foreign-policy editor of the Irish Times. He lectures on European politics in the school of politics and international relations, University College Dublin
Also by Paul Gillespie in openDemocracy:

"Ireland's 'no' is EU's opportunity
" (14 June 2001)

"Towards a partnership of equals: European-US relations" (14 October 2001)

"Europe thrives on national debate" (23 October 2002)

"Ireland breaks Europe's democratic code" (24 June 2004)

Instead of the widely canvassed divisions at the emergency summit on 1
September 2008, there was a surprising consensus about how to proceed between harder and softer positions. The crisis emphasises what is at stake in creating a more coherent EU foreign policy; the importance of doing so; and the marked contrast between European Union and United States approaches to European security.

The EU leaders expressed grave "concern" about the conflict, the resulting violence, and the "disproportionate reaction of Russia". They condemned Moscow's "unacceptable" decision to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They stressed the right of "all European states [including Georgia]. .. freely to determine their foreign policy and their alliances" and respect for the legitimate "security interests" of each, Russia included. They pledged large-scale humanitarian aid to Georgia, free-trade agreements, and vowed to pursue an enhanced political agreement with the country under the European Union's "European Neighbourhood Policy" (ENP).

These conclusions built on France's rapid initiative in brokering a six-point ceasefire agreement signed by the Georgian and Russian presidents (Mikheil Saasakshvili and Dmitry Medvedev) to conclude the immediate hostilities. This document has several ambiguous clauses, but it at least provides a benchmark to evaluate the scaling-down of military confrontation and a pledge to monitor it that includes the involvement of unarmed EU observers.

The wider Atlantic

Several commentators have pointed out that Russia was probably more willing to deal with France in its role as holder (for July-December 2008) of the EU presidency, rather than with a smaller state such as the Czech Republic (France's successor in the next six-month period, January-June 2009). The enhanced arrangements provided for in the Lisbon treaty - rejected by Irish voters in the referendum of 12 June 2008 - would have provided for a different negotiating model that guaranteed greater continuity: a more high-profile EU president for a period of between two-and-a-half to five years, along with a foreign-policy "high representative" straddling the inter-governmental council of ministers and the commission.

This new structure would not in itself guarantee a reconciliation between differing national policies and interests across the European Union, nor avoid reproducing existing institutional rivalries between the council and the commission; but they would make the EU more visible as an international actor and - probably - more effective.

Indeed, the EU has over recent years acquired - gradually, pragmatically and often accidentally - many characteristics of an "external strategy" of several layers and a wide remit. This encompasses territorial politics, economics and value-projection at internal, regional and global levels. The Lisbon treaty brings them together into a more coherent framework. Such crises as the Georgia-Russia conflict will increase the imperative in those member-states who have not yet done so to ratify and implement the treaty; this is a political fact that Irish parties and voters should be aware of in coming months, as discussion of what to do after the referendum "no" intensifies.

Also in openDemocracy on Europe, Russia and global politics before and after the crisis over Georgia:

George Schöpflin, "The new Russia: a model state" (27 February 2008)

Joseph Curtin & Johnny Ryan, "The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits" (13 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (21 June 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Mediterranean mirage: Europe's sunken politics" (29 July 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Mary Kaldor, Sovereignty, Status and the Humanitarian perspective" (26 Aug 2008) Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)
Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section for reports, debates and blogs

This development of a more ambitious and coherent European external strategy also means that EU policy will be subject to more criticism for failing to live up to its political or rhetorical promises, or for the hypocrisy of disguising its particular interests in universalist language. That is the price of acting in a more multipolar global setting. But most member-states and voters - aware that their mutual interdependence and shared insecurity on their border regions (southeast Europe, north Africa, the Caucasus) necessitate common action - are prepared to pay this price.

Similarly, most member-states and voters prefer the EU's concentration on "soft power" (based on the attraction and projection of the union's values) rather than "hard power" (based on military action and projection of force) - if it is feasible. That is in contrast to US policy in particular cases and indeed more generally. Thus it is a mistake to assume a simple convergence between EU and US values and interests. There has been much tension between them in the immediate aftermath of the cold war; through the periods of EU and Nato enlargements of the 1990s; followed by the US-led effort to project them both in a global setting, especially in Afghanistan. That effort remains controversial and will continue to be so, whoever wins the US election.


The deeper union

In several major respects the emergent EU strategy is pitched against US policy in a context where US unilateralism is losing its strength. This can be seen through the Georgia events. Washington emphasises that Georgia and Ukraine should be guaranteed Nato membership, but this is resisted (by France and Germany especially) as provocative. Moreover, while Poland and the Baltic states value US security guarantees against a resurgent Russia, they stop short of agreeing this is a new cold war and realise the importance of reaching a long-term deal with Russia on energy, security and political freedoms.

Russian leaders in turn have a real stake in that, and can be expected to respond rationally if they want to avoid a new isolation. The test will come if and when negotiations between the European Union and Russia resume in October, as agreed in Moscow on 8 September following talks between the EU trio of Nicolas Sarkozy, José Manuel Barroso (president of the European commission), and Javier Solana (high representative for foreign policy) and their Russian host, Dmitry Medvedev.

The EU's European Neighbourhood Policy is quite inadequate to this task. It is being extended to encompass an eastern as well as a Mediterranean dimension, but is still predicated too much on an approach characterised as "everything but institutions" by Romano Prodi, when as European commission president he launched the ENP in 2004. This was to avoid extending a future EU membership commitment to associated states. But is has restricted thinking through the ways in which institutionalised cooperation short of membership could be constructed.

Russia demands separate treatment, but there is a great absence of long-term thinking about a coherent relationship between the two strategies and how they should be better resourced. One suggestion worth taking forward is John Palmer's proposal for a United European Commonwealth to include the ENP states and Russia (see Beyond EU Enlargement? Creating a United European Commonwealth, Sussex European Institute, July 2008).

This would replicate the EU's own arrangements for deciding issues of mutual interest through both cooperation and a degree of sovereignty-sharing. The mandate for such an overarching, pan-European community would have to be more limited than that of the EU itself - perhaps focusing on the security, legal, economic, human-rights and energy issues at the heart of the draft EU-Russia agreement now to be made the test of Russia's willingness to cooperate with other Europeans.

The big difference with the current ENP would be that participating countries would take decisions collectively, and not merely be expected to adopt EU policy decisions. Although qualification for membership should be linked to proven observation of the Council of Europe's democratic and legal standards, accession should be open in principle to all countries across the greater Europe - including the Russian Federation.

The opportunity was missed to initiate and reach such a deal over the last eight years; it will be much harder now that the Georgian crisis has hardened attitudes all round.

The longer view

Despite the rhetoric this is not a new cold war. Russia is a regional rather than a global power. In its post-communist persona it lacks an exportable ideology and has a notably reduced power to attract allies (see Martin Wolf, "The return of the Russia the west loves to loathe", Financial Times, 29 August 2008). It is significant that China refused to extend its solidarity over Georgia, notwithstanding the shared authoritarian capitalism between Beijing and Moscow. Instead, Russia behaves as a 19th-century power to reinforce its pride and insert fear into its "near abroad". That is not a sustainable policy, but it is more comprehensible as a transitional one that grows out of the humiliating 1990s. In addition, for all its energy wealth Russia's economy is only about 7% of those of the United States and European Union, and qualitatively less developed.

All this suggests that the EU needs to develop a long-term response that takes full account of political mistakes made by its own members, separately and collectively, in managing relations with Russia during Vladimir Putin's presidency. Its leverage is more political and economic than military; but security looms large in both dimensions.

Why the European Union strengthens Turkish secularism

The question of whether European Union officialdom has taken sides in the ongoing clash between "secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey is of profound current concern.

Europe’s other legitimacy crisis

Europeanising Cyprus

A short time ago, we crossed over to northern Cyprus, with a French colleague, at Ledra Street in Nicosia in order to meet our Turkish Cypriot friend from the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, Fatma Azgin. We sat down at a café and ordered lemonades. Fatma opened her handbag and proudly produced her brand new European passport. Unfortunately, she did not have much time because the next day, her family would cross over to the south in order to take her son to Larnaca airport where he is leaving to do a doctorate at Manchester University - as a European Union student.


Mient Jan Faber is professor of Citizens' Involvement in War Situations at the Free University in Amsterdam. For many years he worked for the Dutch Interchurch Peace Council (IKV) on civil-society initiatives.

Also by Mient Jan Faber in openDemocracy:

"Talking to terrorists in Gaza" (14 February 2005)

"Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (20 May 2007) - with Mary Kaldo
Fatma's passport is a Republic of Cyprus passport in three languages (Greek, Turkish and English). It is the whole island that has joined the European Union even though it is formally represented by the Republic of Cyprus, the government in control in the south. That means that Turkish people living in the north are entitled to claim the benefits of membership, even though that may involve going through the Republic of Cyprus. The membership of Cyprus in the European Union allows Fatma and others like her to break out of the isolation but it also recognises her as a Cypriot and a European. The café owner offered us all extra lemonade because she was so happy to have fellow Europeans in her café.

Fatma's newfound European identity is a bright spot in an otherwise worsening relationship between the EU and Turkey. In Turkey, the process of democratic reform has slowed down. There were high hopes after the victory of the (moderate Islamist) Justice & Development Party (AKP) in the parliamentary elections of 22 July 2007.

The Turkish roadblock

The AKP had already shown its determination to introduce a raft of democratising measures. However since then, little in the way of democratic reform has been achieved, for instance in the field of press freedom. Moreover, the party continues to face attacks from the secularist fundamentalists. Parliament, dominated by the AKP, passed a resolution against banning the headscarf in universities. In response, hardline secularist groups managed to bring a case before the courts under the penal code to ban the AKP and also the DTP (the Kurdish Democratic Society Party) for its alleged relations with the outlawed PKK.

The situation in Turkey is becoming increasingly polarised between Islamic democracy and the secularist-authoritarian inheritance of the Kemalists, in a situation complicated even further by the indictment on 15 July 2008 of eighty-six people charged with planning to overthrow the government on behalf a hardline secularist group called Ergenekon. If the courts uphold the case and declare the AKP illegal, this will deliver a serious blow both to Turkey's democratic hopes and to the negotiations on Turkish membership of the EU. Indeed the deteriorating situation is already contributing to a growing anti-Turkish mood within the EU, which could become worse during the French presidency.


Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance at the London School of Economics (LSE), co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly and governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Her books include New & Old Wars (1999) and Global Civil Society: An Answer to War (2003) Among Mary Kaldor's many articles in openDemocracy:

"Safe democracy" (23 December 2004)

"Parallel politics in Iraq" (22 March 2005) - with Yahia Said

"Iraq: the wrong war" (8 June 2005)

"London lives" (7 July 2005)

"America's Iraq plight: old and new thinking" (13 February 2007)

"How to free hostages" (29 September 2004)

"Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (20 May 2007) - with Mient Jan Faber

"The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens" (9 January 2008)

A solution to the long-running Cyprus problem could, perhaps, break this deadlock - in four ways. First, a Cyprus solution would mean that Turkey would lift its current embargo on all trade that passes through Greek Cypriot ports. This would unfreeze some important parts of the negotiations that have been halted as a consequence of the embargo. Second, the Cyprus problem is one of the rationales along with the Kurdish problem for the dominant role of the military in Turkish politics. Third, solving Cyprus would weaken one of the arguments put forward by those who oppose Turkish membership because of the occupation since July 1974 of part the island by the Turkish military. Fourth, and most important, a solution would mean that Turkish people living in northern Cyprus would be fully included in the European Union and that will demonstrate that the EU, in principle, is not anti-Turkish and remove one of the central arguments of the anti-European hardliners in Turkey.

A new momentum

So what is the prospect for a solution? For more than forty years, there have been efforts to reach an agreement to overcome the partition of the island. There is broad agreement that the solution is a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. Every so often, the talks seem close to fruition and then fail at the last moment. The most recent failure was the Annan plan in 2004 when Cyprus joined the EU. The plan was supported in a referendum in the north but overwhelmingly defeated in the south, thereby allowing only the government of the south to represent Cyprus in the EU.

What has changed is that there are now (after the election in Cyprus of February 2008) governments in both north and south, for the first time, that favour a solution. As a consequence, efforts are already being made to improve the communications between the two halves of the island. Border restrictions have been lifted; crossing is very easy. There is no obvious police presence. Northerners can use Larnaca airport and work in the south. All this has taken place without a single violent incident. Greek and Turkish Cypriots are able to mingle freely. And this in itself has important implications for the peace process. The main rationale for the division of the island is that the north needs Turkish troops to protect them from the Greek Cypriots. That argument still persists but is much weaker than before.

In parallel, with the improvement of everyday life, the preparatory process of negotiations is now taking place with working groups and technical discussions. Unlike previous efforts which were largely the consequence of outside pressures, the current peace process is initiated from within Cyprus.

Despite the new momentum, there is caution both among civil society and within the political class, mainly because they have been disappointed too many times in the past. We were given many reasons for this caution. The negotiators are sometimes caught up in the obsessions and sticking points of the past. Turkish military influence could still be a powerful constraint in the north. The south has a minority government dependent on the support of the rejectionist parties, including the party of the former president Tassos Papadopoulos. Finally, there is a tendency among the political class on both sides to feel comfortable with the status quo. The impression we gained was that there is much more enthusiasm for an agreement within civil society than among politicians and negotiators.

A Cypriot pioneer

Nevertheless, there is no going back. What is happening in Cyprus could be viewed as an example of the way deepening can follow the widening of the EU. If a solution is indeed achieved, then it is important for the future of the EU that it is seen to play a crucial role in promoting a solution.

The EU could do three things. First, the European parliament could offer to host a gathering of civil society in north and south to initiate a sort of democratic convention about the future shape of Cyprus. This could increase pressure on the political classes to reach a solution. Holding it in the European parliament and involving all the guarantor powers especially Turkey, would greatly enhance the visibility and legitimacy of such a convention.

Second, the European Union should make it clear to Turkey that any solution of the Cyprus problem will speed up the negotiations over Turkish membership.

Third, the EU should also consider what kind of security arrangements will be needed after an agreement. The EU brought the conflict inside the union by admitting Cyprus and now it has a responsibility to make sure the islanders are secure. This does not mean security in a traditional sense. Rather it means everyday personal security - freedom from fear and freedom from want. The military threats have disappeared but there remains organised crime, poverty in the north, and ethnic tension. Much of this will be the responsibility of a future Cyprus government. But it will need outside help since many of these new sources of insecurity are transnational. That outside help should come from both the EU and Turkey. At present there are British and Turkish troops on the island. The south wants demilitarisation of the island. Nevertheless, the agreement should include some visible security presence from Turkey and the EU (not necessarily military) to show the commitment of both to peace and stability in Cyprus.

These measures would not only strengthen and Europeanise the peace process in Cyprus. They would also bring Turkey closer to Europe. Let us hope that Fatma is blazing a trail for all other Turks to get a European passport.

Serbia’s climate change

The European Union is surrounded by troubles after the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty on 12 June 2008. But if the union's west Atlantic frontier is unsettled, there are cautious signs of movement on its Balkan fringe. After more than six weeks of negotiations following Serbia's parliamentary election on 11 May 2008, a new government was finally agreed on 24 June; the ratification of former finance minister Mirko Cvetkovic as prime minister will soon be confirmed by the appointment of a cabinet. There is little definitive or irreversible in current Serbian politics, but for pro-European Union observers seeking encouragement in turbulent times this outcome of the prolonged post-election talks offers a glimmer of light for Serbia and Europe alike.

Europe's trance of unreality

There is something unreal and profoundly disturbing about the latest crisis in the European Union. In theory the results of the Irish referendum held on 12 June 2008 are a fatal blow to the Lisbon treaty and the prospects of reforming the European Union. In theory the only logical outcome of the referendum should be either a Europe of "two speeds" or a paralysed Europe. In reality, however, nobody believes that the Irish vote will bury the Lisbon treaty.

Democracy and referenda: a rejoinder to Gisela Stuart

I am grateful to Gisela Stuart for giving me the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about my piece on referenda and democracy.


The third edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly contains a selection of our articles since 2001 on Europe's politics, identity, and future. For details and how to buy, click here

Europe’s coal-mine, Ireland’s canary

The stork stood on one leg in the nest on the barn roof, gazing serenely out over the fields in central Poland. Below, the weekender dachistas chattered over their nibbles and wine in the balmy evening air.

Referenda: democracy vs elites

In his article in openDemocracy following the vote in the Republic of Ireland on the European Union's Lisbon treaty, George Schöpflin makes a confusing case against the use of referendums (see "The referendum: populism vs democracy", 16 January 2008).
Gisela Stuart is a member of parliament for the constituency of Birmingham Edgbaston, England, representing the Labour Party

Also by Gisela Stuart in openDemocracy:

Turkey's judicial-political crisis

Turkey's political and democratic troubles are deepening. The country's domestic problems are grave enough, but an additional complicating factor is that few of its putative friends and partners abroad are able or wish to exert a positive influence on the direction of events.

Europe’s Afghan test

Every mission where the European Union is involved will at some point be hailed as a "test case" for its nascent foreign and defence capabilities. From Chad to Bosnia and Kosovo, there are plenty of such tests to choose from. But of all the current missions, Afghanistan is the most important. An EU failure there would have very serious consequences for the Afghan state and people; and it would imperil the effort to develop a common EU foreign policy at the very time when the Lisbon treaty is meant to signal the arrival of a new global player.

Kosovo: the hour of Europe

In 1991, as Yugoslavia was on the point of imploding, the Luxembourg foreign minister Jacques Poos spoke for many prominent Europeans when he proclaimed that "the hour of Europe has struck". The implication was clear - the then twelve-member European Community had a moral responsibility to intervene so as to prevent an escalation of conflict.

John O' Brennan is a lecturer in European politics and society at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM). Among his books are The Eastern Enlargement of the European Union (Routledge, 2006) and (forthcoming) The EU and the Western Balkans: Stabilization and Democratization through Enlargement (Routledge, 2008)Tragically, no substantive EU political engagement was attempted and Yugoslavia descended into an abyss of fratricidal ethnic cleansing which cost upwards of 250,000 lives. Today, as the government of Hashim Thaci formed after the November 2007 elections in Kosovo prepares to declare independence from Serbia, the future of the western Balkans looms as the most serious geopolitical issue facing the enlarged EU of twenty-seven member-states. How should the EU respond?

Europe, Africa and EPAs: opportunity or car-crash?

Europe's trade policy has the potential to be a powerful instrument for African development. To date it hasn't been. The central element of this policy since 2002 - the establishment of economic partnership agreements (EPAs) - now needs to be rethought.

The “European Union presidency”: a practical compromise

The design of the future presidency of the European Union council is likely to create confusion among European citizens. The inter-governmental conference (IGC) closing in Lisbon on 18-19 October 2007 could have done better on this issue without reopening the fundamentals of the new blueprint. If the notion of the "European Union presidency" is clarified, this could achieve a triple benefit: avoid confusion, increase legitimacy, and help safeguard the EU's founding principle of shared leadership.

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