As I am writing this article, Joe Biden has just become the 46th President of the United States. If, from a European perspective, this seems to be some welcomed news, the consequences of this election could be worse than they appear. Indeed, the results were so close that it took more than four days after Election Day to know the name of the new president. The country seems more divided than ever. But what do the results of this election entail? More particularly what are the consequences for Europe and Transatlantic relationships? Why would a Biden presidency be both for the best and the worst from a European point of view and for international relations in general?
On the morning of 12 February of this year, 1260 members of the German Federal Assembly, which includes Bundestag members and state electors, voted to choose the 12th President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Garnering over 900 votes, the clear winner was the Grand Coalition candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister and ran for chancellor under the SPD banner in 2008. He has held public office for over 20 years.
On paper, Steinmeier has all the makings of a tame president; he is well-liked and respected in the international community and within the German government. According to Bild, Steinmeier even has the dubious honor of using the German informal “you” with more members of the Cabinet than any other – high praise for those in the German-speaking world.
However, appearances can be deceiving, and surely the Steinmeier presidency will not be without a backbone. During the last year of his term as foreign minister, Steinmeier spoke out strongly against Russian aggression, the inaction of the international community in the Syrian crisis, and the shortsightedness of the Brexit decision. Most notably, he is a decisive critic of US President Donald Trump and of the nationalist movements taking hold around the world.
From Freedom to Courage
Germany’s current president, Joachim Gauck, has spent most of his term promoting freedom. Gauck, who was an East German resistance leader before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has repeatedly stressed reconciliation and social justice in his speeches. His term has not been without crisis – the floundering euro, Brexit, and the refugee influx, just to name a few – but he has continued to call for openness, tolerance, and a need to cherish the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. Gauck embraced the “Refugees Welcome” movement more than any other German politician and at times was harsh in his criticism of those who were steadfastly anti-refugee.
Steinmeier promises to be a different kind of president. After nearly three decades in the spotlight, he is politically savvy and will likely be less concerned with visiting children’s shelters and more concerned with asserting Germany’s role in the world. If “Freedom” was the motto of the Gauck presidency, it is safe to say that “Courage” will be the that of Steinmeier’s. In his acceptance speech following his election, Steinmeier spoke of two kinds of courage: the courage that Germany can give to others, and the courage that Germans must display in the face of rising unrest in Europe and beyond.
Steinmeier recounted a story of a young Tunisian activist telling him that Germany gave her courage. Germany, which not so very long ago represented the opposite of freedom and justice, now has a place as one of the pillars of modern democracy in the West. Germany gives courage, said Steinmeier, because it is proof that peace comes after war, that reconciliation can follow division. In this sense, Germany must continue to be a symbol of courage for countries in crisis.
But Steinmeier also meant courage in another sense. Three important European elections – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are coming up this year, each with its own populist candidate. In the face of Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Geert Wilders, respectively the leaders of the nationalist waves in these countries, Steinmeier preached patience, tolerance, and above all, a commitment to the core values of Europe.
The “Anti-Trump” President?
Following his election, the German daily Berliner Morgenpost dubbed Steinmeier the “Anti-Trump President” – a title that has since been reprinted everywhere from The Independent to Bloomberg. Whether or not he enjoys the moniker, Steinmeier has certainly been among the strongest critics of the US President, referring to him at one point as a “hate-preacher.” After Trump’s election, Steinemeier issued the following statement as foreign minister: “I think we will have to get used to the idea that US foreign policy will be less predictable for us and we will have to get used to the idea that the US will tend to make more decisions on its own.” He went on to say that working together with the US will be much harder over the next four years and that Europe must stay the course, despite the unsettling results.
In his speech on Sunday, Steinmeier issued a thinly veiled critique on Trump and his populist counterparts in Europe. He called on all Germans to fight against baseless accusations and fear-mongering. “We must have the courage to say what is and what isn’t,” he said, claiming a universal responsibility to differentiate facts from lies. This, too, will likely be a theme of the Steinmeier presidency. Shortly before his candidacy was announced in 2016, the President-elect decried the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and the US and accused Trump and others of “mak[ing] politics with fear.”
Or the “Pro-Russia” President?
Rather than the “Anti-Trump” President, some may dub Frank-Walter Steinmeier the “Pro-Russia” President. As foreign minister, Steinmeier was regularly lampooned by his CDU colleagues for his mild stance toward Russia. He began his second term as foreign minister in late 2013, only a few months before Russia annexed Crimea. Following the annexation, Steinmeier joined his international colleagues in denouncing Russia and supported upping economic sanctions until the conflict was resolved.
However, Steinmeier has relaxed his stance since then and has insisted on a need to keep channels of communication open. Russia is an important actor in two of the most significant global crisis areas: Syria and the Ukraine. Continuing with heavy sanctions and isolation will do nothing to solve these issues, according to Steinmeier. Over the summer, he was also quick to criticize NATO for carrying out exercises in Eastern Europe. He accusedthe organization of “warmongering” and said, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”
Thus far, only Russian news outlets seem to believe that Steinmeier will be a friend to the east, but the differences between he and Gauck are undeniable. As a former citizen of East Germany, Gauck was understandably apprehensive about former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who has worked with the Russia on international issues since his time in the Schroeder administration, will be a welcome change for the Kremlin.
Emphasizing German Leadership
In an interview with television station ZDF following the election, Steinmeier indicated his intention to work closely with both Moscow and Washington. He was very clear that Germany is currently in the midst of a “reorganization of international relations” and that possible unpredictability in the East and the West will mean a greater need for a stable country.
Nevertheless, the role of the German president is not to negotiate with foreign leaders or herald in big changes. The German president is primarily a domestic role; he or she acts as a moral authority, but has very little political power. As the head of government, Steinmeier will be confined to ceremonial tasks like welcoming state visits and approving the Cabinet. The political might in Germany is held by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the parliament, the Bundestag. Despite his limited power, Steinmeier is expected to set a tone for the coming years and it appears as though he will be just as active as his predecessor.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take office on 18 March 18 this year. On September 24, the country will vote for new Bundestag representation and a new government will take office.
The Western Balkan region is an often neglected corner of Europe and rarely attracts media interest from mainstream outlets. The result is that the region is fairly unknown to other Europeans. Is the region comprised of underdeveloped economies or do they have the potential to grow? Are they fragile or stabile states? And most importantly, are the Western Balkan countries ready to join the EU? To find any answers for these questions, it is important to look at Serbia and Albania, the two countries that have significant influence in the region. The stability and progress of the Western Balkans greatly depends on the relationship between these two countries.
Serbia officially became an EU candidate country in 2012, and in 2014 the accession negotiations were opened. The possible accession of Serbia is not without controversy or problems. Serbia was a crucial actor in all the conflicts that tormented the region in the last decade of the 20th century. Nowadays, Serbia’s refusal to acknowledge the independence of Kosovo is perceived as the biggest obstacle to a possible accession to the European Union. Furthermore, the multi-ethnical composition of the Western Balkan region has proven to be a sensitive issue. Neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to over a million Serbs and although Montenegro voted to leave the State Union with Serbia in 2006, the census of 2011 shows that 28.7 of the population still identifies as Serbian. When Serbia would join the EU, this could destabilize its multi-ethnical neighboring countries. Last but not least, Russian influences in Serbia raise questions about Serbia’s loyalty to the European project.
Albania has been an official candidate for accession to the European Union since June 2014. Similar to Serbia, it too has a considerable diaspora in neighboring countries. The country has a significant influence in the region, mostly in Kosovo where the majority of the population is Albanian. In neighboring Macedonia, 25% of the population identifies as Albanian, especially in the border regions of Western Macedonia. Also, there are large Albanian communities in the south of Serbia and in the south-east of Montenegro. Albania is already a member of NATO – it is seen as an important partner in combatting international crime – but also here questions of loyalty to the European project arise. Turkish influences in Albania have been historically strong.
Even though there are considerable cultural differences between Albania and Serbia, the political situation is remarkably similar. Both governments have strong leaders as prime-ministers. Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia and Edi Rama in Albania have both displayed autocratic characteristics during their time in office. According to reports of the EU Commission, both Serbia and Albania have problems with media censorship and with deep-rooted corruption in the state and judiciary. Despite the questionable state of democracy in both countries, Vučić and Rama are pro-European leaders and have repeatedly stressed their countries’ commitment to gain EU membership. For their role in stabilizing the region after the horrifying civil wars in the 1990s, they actually received widespread support from EU Member States. The result of this support is that despite the corruption and autocratic leadership, the Western Balkan region is relatively stable.[i] Proposals for cooperation are heard from both sides. Instead of fueling ethnic tensions for short-term electoral gains, it seems the two countries embarked on a road of reconciliation and cooperation. One example of this new trend is the first visit, after 68 years, of an Albanian prime-minister to the Serbian capital of Belgrade in 2014. The most tangible example of how the reconciliation between Albania and Serbia leads to enhanced regional stability in the Western Balkans, is the relative relaxation of Serbian-Kosovar relations. The Brussels Agreement, which is a direct result of this dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, is a positive step forward for the stabilization of the entire region.
The EU is by far the main economic and political partner of the Western Balkans and as stated above, Vučić and Rama are well known for their pro-European orientation. But the question of EU membership for Serbia and Albania is complicated. On the one hand, the countries’ focus on regional stability, mutual understanding, and tolerance resemble the dominant EU discourse. On the other hand, the autocratic traits of the countries’ leaders strongly resemble the political situation of their allies in Russia and Turkey. Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan are also greatly admired in the Balkan region and as stated above, the political leaders are also not immune to this. Signs of Putinism and Erdoganism are evident in the politics of the Western Balkans.
The EU’s choice to support the Western Balkans’ authoritarian political leaders in an attempt to maintain and advance regional stability is a matter of political necessity in the current context. Yet at the same time that support and external legitimization is stalling the necessary process of further democratization. It can indeed be argued that the EU turning a blind eye towards the rule of law and human rights in these countries empowers authoritarianism. However, in the current circumstances it is a rational thing to do. Although paradoxical, Europe needs strong national leaders to stabilize the Western Balkan region. The price is paid in terms of slow political reforms. The EU leadership should however always be aware that this is a precarious and temporal situation. While autocratic leadership on the short-term might benefit Europe and the Balkan region, on the long-term it might also provide for democratic backsliding and further instability.
[i] This article was written before Serbian-Kosovar relations significantly deteriorated after Serbian provocations in Kosovo.
The Asian Century is a debated concept which posits the idea that the 21st century will be led by the Asian continent from an economic, political, and cultural perspective. Supposedly, the previous 19th and 20th centuries, have been the British (European) and the American centuries respectively. The AsianDevelopmentBank is so confident of such an accomplishment that it published a report in 2011 titled “Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century.”
The implications are plentiful and, unsurprisingly, global. Yet this article aims to move one step beyond the above discussion. Over the past few weeks, several articles have focused on the possibility of a shift of power in Eurasia, from different angles. The first piece, “Black Wind, White Snow: Imagining Eurasia”by Casey Michel was published on TheDiplomat website, which referred to a recently released book reflecting on the Russian concept of “Eurasianism.” The notion was apparently coined, or at least, co-opted by the Kremlin and surrounding bodies as a way to promote and promise a brighter future to the disillusioned post-Cold war generations. The outcome of this attempt at normative construction has been mixed, according to Michel, but an overall aura of pessimism is perceivable across the book, suggesting that the imagined Eurasia may stay in the Kremlin’s mind.
Still, due to its strategic position and regional influence, it is crucial to consider the role of Russia in any potential Eurasian ‘coalition’.
The second and third articles tackle the issue from a more inclusive perspective and, perhaps startlingly, depict two opposite scenarios. The first one is from George Friedman, an expert in intelligence and international geopolitics, who wrote an article for Forbes claiming that the “Last time Eurasian Instability Was This Bad Was Before World War II”, describing several factors to justify such a dire prediction. A few examples are the supposed failure of the European Union, followed by the Russian and Middle Eastern crisis, in addition to the aforementioned slowdown in both China and Japan’s economies. The only exception, according to the author, is India, but that country alone will not be able to stop a ‘grand’ destabilization affecting the whole Eurasian continent.
Such a vision, in my opinion, is rather unconvincing, especially when considering the economic and geopolitical self-interest of the majority of the Eurasian countries. Their goal is, mostly, to pursue peaceful means of gain, being well aware that armed conflicts can bring far more disadvantages than benefits. A notable exception may be North Korea, for obvious reasons.
The last article, which I particularly enjoyed, provides a more optimistic view on the phenomenon. Graham E. Fuller, a former senior CIA official, wrote for TheWorldPost (partner of the renowned HuffingtonPost) an article entitled “The Era of American Global Dominance Is Over.”Such a bold statement from an American citizen may sound preposterous to some. Yet it is another piece covering the position of Eurasia, seen as an increasingly relevant one in this article. The author recognizes that the term itself may remind the readers of a geographical feature more than a political one, Eurasia as a sole, vast landmass. The author sees it as more than that. The central reason why Fuller thinks that the US is failing to deal with Eurasia is its stubbornness in ignoring the mega-continent “rising force” which is attracting more and more nation-states to its sphere. The article then mentions several economic, military and political reasons that support the author’s well-articulated stance. Nonetheless, the recurring theme is that the current century has seen the demise of Western global dominance and that the US should accept it now in order to take advantage of such power shift, while is still happening.
This last article appears to be the most convincing when you look to the latest global developments. A change is indeed happening, and although it does not mean that the US is not going to occupy a predominant position, their position is certain to be less hegemonic.
The above articles may not follow a common pattern and they likely originated from different pitches. Still, they have all been published in the past few days which may be a peculiar coincidence or a hint of an upcoming geopolitical trend. Regardless of that, it is unquestionable that the current European situation may benefit from additional transcontinental collaborations and a more balanced, multipolar power redistribution may benefit all the global players in the long run.