BrExit: Europe at 27 and in crisis

It was bound to be emotional as fear and hatred are again and again proven to be powerful forces. But the deed is done. A small, elitist group of conservative, right wing politicians have dragged Britain’s people and with them entire Europe in a crisis. Beyond any economic implications, and there will be plenty regarding growth, investments and labor markets, a leave vote is a shot in the arm for all the anti-european, xenophobic, radical right wing and populist forces. A weakening of Europe’s centrist pro-union core is a values crisis. Since the EU is this continent’s major peace project, at stake are fundamental principles that offered not just prosperity and freedom of movement but also built Europe’s internal and external security for many decades. The man carrying most of the personal and political responsibility for this real and major crisis resigned. Last year David Cameron promised a referendum in order to win elections by convincing eurosceptics and xenophobes to vote for the Conservatives! They did. He won and now he resigned leaving Europe and his own country in a mess. It is exactly such pragmatic mainstream populists and their constant ignoring of social strife in a changing Europe that made this predicament a reality. It is their self interested and ultimately narrow, elites serving decisions that created the problems and frustrations of a public that is never quite listened to. It is on that background of arrogant indifference that hard core populists, xenophobes and assorted extremists are creating havoc  But they are the symptom not the cause. The Brexit is a political and economic suicide by the current elites.

What will come depends unfortunately on the same politicians that appear to have lost contact with a significant part of the society. Europe is torn and this is relay the combined result of the long term, social pressures inducing austerity and a socio economic model that hurts the working class. Migration will continue in Europe and the UK and this has little to do with the EU as such. Immigration is more the result of a former colonial empire and the economic changes impacting labor markets. Europe has some to do with it but that’s far more limited than people imagine. It is neo-liberal reforms promoted by both Conservatives and the New Labor that create a need for migrant workforce. Inequality inside Britain and between Western Europe and the rest of the world also fuels it by making immigrants accept jobs that Brits cannot afford to accept or are not qualified for because the policies needed to help them are not in place. These will largely continue now that UK voted out of the EU. It will be a rude awakening. On Friday the British Pound hit its lowest rate since 1985! It will remain devalued for quite some time. Technically a good news for British manufacturing so let’s see employment rates go sky high. Only that’s not going to materialize. Only higher prices for everything. Britain is not Norway or Switzerland to be ok with that … It si far too polarised and has too many vulnerable people. It will be a sad realization for those most hit by the long term economic and social effects of Brexit that these will likely be felt more by leave voters: elderly, blue collar workers whose wages will lose a lot of value.

For now people have been fooled by lies and unsubstantiated promises. The reality post Brexit will be dire. It is hard to be optimistic that the same european politicians will prove to be more capable in handling this crisis than they were in preventing it in the first place. Pragmatic populism and a belief in the neoliberal model combined to make for a toxic ideological and public opinion mix that mainstream politicians fail to address and even reccognise. UK has been on this path for a long time unfortunately but all Europe is to some degree. UK society will suffer immense changes and not for the good. What will gain in relative competitiveness, it will probably lose in term of access and investment. A lot of big economic and financial players will divest. Its top research  agriculture, fisheries, poor comunities directly benefited from EU funding. Britain has incredible resources of talent and human capital but these were always driven by its diversity and openness. With the inevitable resurgence in Scottish and maybe Irish independence movement it is hard to escape the view that what will remain after the leave vote, to make a sad pun, will be a self ruled England as the Guardian aptly put it. Not all that voted for leave are fearfull, bitter xenophobes, some are desperate people that their lives are changing to fast, others are workers fearing for their jobs. They are bound to have a rude awaikening. Those things will continue unabated and even accelerate.

The question is however how will the UK continue. As for the EU, there is almost certainty that Germany and the other five founding members of the EU will deepen their cooperation and respond to the challenge of populistic, xenophobic fear-mongering with an attempt to shore up Europe. That will most probably be a Europe a la carte, a multi speed Europe. The reality is that a new generation of values based leaders is required in Europe to shore up values and inspire with something else than open markets for businesses and tax havens for the rich and successful  It will require addressing the lies but also creating a new solidarity narrative for Europe based on values not fear. Negative ideologies cannot be addressed with technocratic discourse designed for the markets. Mainstream democratic politicians need to come up with a counter-ideology to save Europe’s soul not just its institutions. Now brace for what is coming as it will be ugly. Brits will discover that for the UK political and economic life outside the European Union is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and quite possibly short in its current make up. For the rest of us the wave of anti european, xenophobic populism will be an even more powerful force to face. This is also true in the US where xenophobic populists like Trump are bound to feel energised. The West is changing and it needs to find ways to accommodate and adapt to such changes by reinventing its values not giving in into its fears. Otherwise the assorted extremists in our ranks will have a field day. Nothing propels to action more than serious crisis. We now have one!

Divided We Fail

A version of this article appeared in Aspenia spring issue, 2016

Divided We Fail
The West is divided and so is Europe. For us Europeans this divide is increasingly visible. It is happening both between our countries and inside our societies. Without the existential pressure of the Cold War, the West appears simply less coherent. This is visible on critical foreign policy issues but also on other key policies like free trade or privacy rights. It risks becoming saliently so on values too.

For two decades the West lived under the illusions of a simple world. One with an unequivocal and unrivaled American economic, military, and political supremacy. Coming as it did after the dangerous but simple divided world of the Cold War, this era was easy to live with. But it was a very special and unusual situation. A world’s superpower is bound to have challengers and competitors, some global some regional.

The West shares a liberal democratic creed based on free societies and economies. Western countries have both common and diverging policy and economic interests. On foreign policy Europe still relies heavily on US strategic might. In such an ideologically shaped geography, the transatlantic relation is bound to play an outsized role in all the debates related to policy and governance.

At the outset of the new millennium, with the fall of the Soviet empire, and the end of its military and ideological grip on a significant part of Europe, the West had to make a clear-cut choice. Either to heed the call for freedom and solidarity of Europe’s Central and Eastern nations, or leave them in a limbo between a declining Russia and the powerful economic and political institutions of the West. Europe and America made their choice. Both the West’s politicians and its businesses (one may only hope its citizens too), chose the former path. NATO and the EU have de facto enlarged the West to the Eastern border of the former Roman Empire. They also undertook a new relationship with the West’s former Cold War foe.

For a while it looked like it is working. It took however little to rock the boat. The joint effects of the financial crisis, an ongoing migration crisis, and a series of conflicts in Europe’s Southern and Eastern flank were important catalysts for divisions. Crises are not the cause of the rift but they create an effective backdrop to show just how divided the West can become.

Unsurprisingly, this divide operates not only between the US and Europe. It is equally serious, if not more, between Europe’s east and west and between atlanticists, unionists and sovereignists of all sorts. Most importantly it is becoming a rift on values and principles.

For the West, having different views or policy preferences inside the transatlantic world is nothing new. For Europe however we see the increasing difference between the old members and the new members as something substantially new in its intensity.

An obvious topic of difference is related to our relations with Russia. Another is how we treat the migrants stemming from largely non-European and non Christian countries around the Mediterranean. Finally a new divide emerges on the role of European Institutions and the future of the EU.

On Russia even the analysis of how we got to the current low point is different. For some this is the result of a mishandling of the post-Cold War period and a serious overlook of Russian strategic interests. For others it is the result of inevitable differences in normative perspective and definitions of national interest rooted in dominant culture.

On migration some claim the differences are grounded in the non-cosmopolitan and isolated nature of Central and Eastern societies. These were captive for half a century – two generations – behind the Iron Curtain while Western Europe was rapidly globalising. This also meant a rapid growth of non-European populations in Western Europe mainly from former colonial territories. Others say Eastern Europe absorbed formal Western institutions and principles but these societies never got the chance of a societal democratic grounding that includes a hefty and healthy dose of self criticism.

On Europe we can see how the overlapping crises are fuelling centrifugal forces. Leaders in Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland are increasingly using anti Brussels rhetoric in their populist spin. Central and Eastern European countries voting against an automatic solidarity clause for relocating asylum seekers – that are pouring in Greece and Italy but aim for countries like Austria, Germany, and Sweden – is no different.

This image of a diverging Central and Eastern Europe is however a dangerous cliche. Western Europe is not that different. Despite the diverging experiences the same clarion voices of anti-european populism are embraced. From anti-system parties to extreme right nationalists, eurosceptics, isolationists , pseudo-sovereignists have come to play a major role. In many cases it is these fringes that set the tone of the debate and decide the central topics. Front National, UKIP, Alternative for Germany (AFD) and many others have become not just political forces in their own right but a weathervane of Europe’s accumulating divisions.

We had an early episode of east-west divides during the debates around the US led Iraq 2003 invasion. Donald Rumsfeld at the time US Secretary of Defence infamously talked about “Old Europe vs New Europe”. This was utterly and publicly dismissed by most European politicians. Except maybe Jacques Chirac uttering “they have missed a good opportunity of shutting up” talking about countries like Romania and Bulgaria that criticised France’s stance on Iraq.

In private, Eastern European leaders were convincing themselves, and their American partners, that the “spirit of freedom” may be ebbing away in bureaucratic, ossified and comfortable west but is alive and kicking in Europe’s east. Battle hardened by the Cold War suffering and their subservient status to the Soviet Union, Eastern European nations were stalwarts of freedom they said. Western Europe got stultified and too ready to sacrifice values for cash said some Eastern politicians.

Another such indicator came during the European Constitutional Treaty negotiations. Conservative forces in Europe’s east were even more radical in their requests than their Western sister parties. And that despite these countries benefiting massively from financial transfers from richer EU countries. It is also telling that the Constitutional Treaty was nixed by a mix of conservative eurosceptic and anti-european sentiments in referenda in Western Europe. Some Europeans feared a “soulless progressive Europe” and interference from Brussels while others feared specifically eastwards enlargement of the EU. Meanwhile other members states were rather pleased to see en enlarging Europe as a solution to “diluting Europe”.

This is not a spat between federalist west and new members keen on their just recently reacquired sovereignty That would be utterly superficial. Yes, after many decades of strictly limited independence in the framework of the Eastern Block and the dominant role of Soviet Union they were keen to express a sense of sovereignty. But the same countries are very keen to have the presence and influence of the US. The same politicians that dismiss liberal ideas associated by most Europeans with America and the West want an increased American military presence in their countries.

This apparent contradiction is rooted in the diverging logic of current political discourse in Europe. It is the same reason Western Europeans are in the thralls of populist nationalist and anti-european forces while mainstream politicians are extolling the “principled and effective ways” of Vladimir Putin as a world leader. The same twisted logic is evident when trying to leverage European membership as a tool for ultra-regionalism and separatism in various EU countries.

The European public feels the deep social and economic problems brought about by globalisation and technological transition. These problems also the result of mainstream pragmatic populists creating an open field for the extreme parties and ideas. A changing economic and social model left the losers of globalisation, privatisation, and enlargement to look for someone to blame. Populists choose to shift the target of the public’s wrath towards Europe and migrants. Moreover, the latter are lumped together regardless if they are Syrian refugees, eastern EU citizens using their right of free movement and work in the EU or economic migrants from the Med or Sub Saharan Africa. Eastern European populists do the same only their targets are often the Roma or possible future migrants who “threaten to dilute the Christian spirit” of their nations.

These contradictions are unfortunately grounded in slipping values. The real problem for Europe is its failure to make its nominal normative orthodoxy resilient to crises. Economic failures combined with governance and political mistakes created a Europe of winners and losers. Increasingly the uncertainty, inequality and sometimes violent uprooting of their lives, work, and lifestyle creates a sense of loss.

European business in search of competitive edge on global markets transferred jobs to Eastern members of the Union. The growth in profitability did not lead to levels of growth or employment that could outweigh the initial job losses specifically in blue collar sectors. In turn, austerity politics have created a number of very angry EU citizens in the east as they did in the west. Unlike in the US, the economies of most European countries are growing very slowly and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

On this background the problems are bound to grow if the political class shows no ambition to address core problems: inequality, the need for a new economic model and the importance of upholding values. Europe and migrants are the scapegoats.

This is true both in Europe’s east and west. Populists, nationalists, assorted crackpot politicians profit and mainstream parties demure. This leads to outright toxic ideologies becoming fashionable again.

Old ghosts are haunting Europe. The ghost of illiberal governance exhorted by the likes of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban is the tip of the iceberg. We have witnessed some of the same power grab and effective ignoring of the democratic checks and balances in Poland. The independence of justice, separation of powers, freedom of media are all under attack.

Angela Merkel’s rapidly dropping public support in the face of the migrants crisis and its handling is one thing. The rise of PEGIDA, AFD, FN, Jobbik and the likes is nothing short of dangerous.

Central and Eastern EU member states refusing the automatic relocation of asylum seekers is one thing. The building by Hungary of concertina razor wire walls at the border with other European states an altogether different one. So is the ominous proliferation of extreme right “citizen militias” in Europe. It is frankly scary to hear mainstream politicians suggest that the Greek coast guard should push the refugees’ shabby vessels back into the Mediterranean. The upending of the Schengen treaty’s provisions, in front of the dual migration and terrorist threat in Europe, is not just a European security governance issue. Backing down from European solutions has become too often the norm.

There is a deeper more sinister element to the divide evident in Europe. This is the power of recycling ideas from the trash can of history. Particularly toxic ones that are revived and made tolerable and even put in practice. The same discourse that fuels Germany’s PEGIDA or AFD is fuelling Poland’s PIS or the new incarnation of Hungary’s FIDESZ and its even more sinister partner Jobbik. This is the underpinning of less than democratic discourse and policy choices. The difference is that, in Europe’s east, these strident populist forces have used system vulnerabilities and governance weaknesses to climb to power. Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Croatia and now Poland are all , if to different degree, falling under the same populist pressure.

The reasons for some of these populists may be electoral and their objectives mainly an economic capture of the state. The effects are no less dangerous. When Jewish professors find notes asking them to leave universities, while WWII politicians that were directly responsible for the holocaust get statues in Budapest, the atmosphere has reached a hideous point.

It is telling that while prim minister Orban congratulated Laszlo Nemes the director of Canes festival winner “Son of Saul” the Hungarian media lambasted the film as sullying the country’s image. The Hungarian social media was alight with comments that the film was “perpetrating the anti-Hungarian myth of the holocaust”.

There are external elements at play too in widening the divides. Europe remains utterly undecided on what role it should play in its region and the world. After the Cold war it wanted a peace dividend. It got one that included not only economic advantages but also decreased military spending. If anything its security dependence on US military might increased in the past decades.

There is a growing number of spats between Europe and US. They cover issues related to global governance, NSA spying, trade , etc. They are not necessarily more serious than those from a decade ago but they happen in a different more stringent environment.

The slow but apparent US military drawdown from Europe over the last two decades left Europe with difficult choices. The US pivot to Asia only accelerated the feeling of a US, increasingly Pacific minded, disengaging from Europe. Without America, Europe is a continental power close to many potential troubled areas and needs different tools. It may believe it also has to accommodate different partners and tolerate their normative choices.

With less of an atlanticist focus, Europe can have a foreign policy that is less pegged to the US one. Thus European countries can both spend less on defence and trade more with less than democratic partners in the region. What is less clear is how is this in any way increasing European security.

Russia’s game is also one that massively influences Europe’s divisions. Russia is not the Soviet Union. However, with fewer and less powerful weapons it got more results. It opened enough to Western influence and capital that it become part of the West’s profit making economy. It also made good lucrative deals that modernised part of its energy and commodities sectors and in the process acquired good friends in Western business circles. At times this influence appeared to extend to governments and entire countries. As business interest and national interest have become transferable terms in Europe the transatlantic commons have shrieked to only a few basic elements.

Russia was quick and effective to exploit these rifts. It used effectively energy deals but also propaganda to shape European debates and public opinions. These Russian efforts go well beyond the caricature of slightly sinister ideological construct focusing on a christian neo-Byzantine Russia dominated Eurasia that has strong values and replaces a decadent West. It involves the media but also sometimes the direct influencing of European political scene. Some of this is done via financial support to parties like Britain First and Front National another is by courting countries like Cyprus and Greece and cultivating leaders with either an illiberal affinity or keen on Russian markets. European and American leaders have called out Russia’s actions in this respect but the issue remains a source of divisions among Western countries.

There is one common thread in Kissinger, Matlock and other US self proclaimed realists and European Russian pragmatists. In fact they share this with the current Russian leaders’ thinking. In their perspective, the interests of lesser powers and even allies are completely secondary to the “pragmatic imperative” of making business with Russia.

This “realist approach“ would allow the “great powers” to make deals that are not taking into account the contrary interest of others. There are quite a few countries in Europe that, while not embracing this as an open policy, sound more than tacitly endorsing a logic of “priority compromises”. A good example relates to some asking for a review of the sanctions imposed by Europe after the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory. This while Russia has shown little interest in actually solving the Ukrainian crisis or using its influence to force the Donetsk rebels in upholding the Minsk II agreement.

This approach is not only outdated but also inoperative in an increasingly multipolar and complexly integrated world. Such a “vision” would rapidly turn against American and European interests. Compromises with Russia are required and possible. Any deal may involve a lot of horse trading inside alliances. Condoning the concept of dependent states with limited sovereignty is however an entirely different thing. This would be the quickest death blow to European common foreign and security policy. This has not escaped either the US or the Russians decision-makers.

The West needs a different sort of realism. The sort that upholds not casts away normative approaches. In theory at least, the US and Russia should have more to gain from even a limited cooperation. The same applies for Europe and not just geopolitically (on issues like Syria, Ukraine, Iran) but also economically.

The short term cost is substantially lower for Russia to act as a spoiler than it is for the US and Europe to compromise on its own and its partners’ objectives. These are sometimes interlinked but not always fully aligned. This concern first and foremost America’s European allies. Unlike in the Cold War the imperative is important but not existential for most. Coupled with the implications of the different normative systems they espouse, this makes a Western-Russian shared perspective difficult to achieve except maybe on very narrow objectives.

This should not deter the US and its European allies to seek a dialogue with Moscow. It is critically important that they do so in perfect sync. Moscow’s bet is that it has done enough to lower the chances that the West is capable of operating in agreement.

The Soviet Union was too grave of a threat (real or perceived) for the West to have deep or systematic divisions on such issues. France was sometimes out of lock step but not even its positions were significantly altering the Western foreign policy framework regarding relations with the Soviet Union. Unlike its predecessor, Russia is effectively engaging Western countries in bilateral relations that are highly lucrative for certain parties in the West. This allows for diverging and segregated interests both between and inside Western countries.

Russia is highly effective at supporting divergent voices in European political spheres. This is particularly true when it comes to nationalist, eurosceptic, ultra right wing parties and circles always dubious about the US and its liberal views and individual rights based normative framework. As a consequence, a solid joint European-US approach is more difficult to achieve on Russia. The first Western reaction to serious issues like the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea or its support for separatist in Eastern Ukraine was in perfect alignment. Keeping that line is a different thing. Both bilaterally and via EU-US and NATO-EU cooperation this can be achieved. If so then a renewed dialogue with Russia should be possible and yield results that are not clashing with the West’s values or its interests.

Madeleine Albright recently said “the Cold War was a piece of cake … then one side was red the other red white and blue … today however addressing inequality is difficult”. And she is right, the task is daunting for the West. To even start it needs to address the deep rifts in its ranks first.

There are a few obvious test cases: Brexit and European institutional reform including the establishment of a working EU common foreign and security policy. A serious review is needed of how EU members treat breaches of fundamental principles. We have done little to address Hungary than came Poland and the others. This needs to stop before it rips Europe’s normative framework apart.

Another test is the Europe’s relation with countries in its neighbourhood especially Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. One cannot use a different metric in the EU and the region when it comes to its partners. Renewing the EU accession dialogue with Turkey in exchange for cooperation on the Syrian refugees is one thing. Not addressing serious questions regarding the nature of the regime, freedom of the press and treatment of minorities as well as Turkey’s foreign policy choices is an altogether different matter.

Only a Europe of values can heal its own rifts and walk in tandem with the US. But in an electoral year we are reminded just how important America’s own choices are. Post 9.11 the prevailing spirit in the West was that divided we fall. And a lot of mistakes were done in taking that unity for granted The West got deeply split on the Iraq invasion and the Bush era legacy.

For Europe, and increasingly for the West, the operating concept is that divided we fail. The construction of a shared normative space requires a fairer more open and more engaged Europe. That in turn requires addressing both the differential in benefits of the Union geographically and a credible and powerful foreign policy vision and tools. Thus, paradoxically maybe, the answer to our current divisions lies with more transatlantic relations and more Europe. It remains to be seen if the new US administration will also play its part.

EU Commission Vice President and foreign policy high representative Federica Mogherini will present this summer a Global European Strategy. Europe’s new neighbourhood policy and strengthening its transatlantic vision through both TTIP and NATO are essential ingredients. Equally important inside Europe is a serious review of our financial dealings. Cutting loopholes for tax avoidance and accepting a review of the financial mechanisms is part of that. So is policy addressing productivity and labor cost differentials to make Europe a tad more equalitarian and fairer to both citizens and states. In parallel, NATO will hold a summit in Warsaw. Its task is to make sure the Alliance offers an effective security umbrella for a Europe whole, free and at peace.

Most important is that we need mainstream politicians that see these emerging rifts for the grave dangers they herald. We need a Europe that its citizens can believe in and the task is daunting. Politicians need to resist both creating a modernised version of the Cold War and a ghettoised Europe of the 1930’s . Finally they need to make a plurality of Europe’s citizens build and share a new common identity. We cannot do this without a recourse to values. We have in recent history abandoned values Europe. It led to tragedies of unspeakable proportion. This is why the West as an idea should not be divided else we fail.

A dangerous escalation and a message for the region

Turkish airfrce downed a Russian SU24 plane on its border with Syria. The Russian plave was engaged in military action against the Turkmen rebels that fight against the Assad regime forces. Several comentary have asked about the implications for NATO this brutal escalation of the Russian Turkish tensions of last couple of months. Only the situation is even more complicated and has relatively little with the dynamic between Russia and NATO. At its core are the radically different perspectives held by Russia and Syria over the Syria.
For Turkey, the Syrian crisis is a fundamental challenge not only to its national security but also to its position in the region. The resounding failure of its “no problems with neighbours” policy, compounded by a deteriorating set of security conditions including heightened terrorist risks in Turkey, has led to a reconsidering of its foreign and security stance. In its attempt to send a message both to its domestic audience and regionally, president Erdogan and his AKP administration developed a new and more blunt foreign policy. Internal and external critics see the mix between conservative islamism and Turkish nationalism that infuses this new policy as part of the problem.
On this background, Turkey has borrowed a page from the Russian foreign policy manual and declared the defence of Turkish speaking or “kin” communities as a Turkish obligation. In this logic, among others, Turkey has established an interdiction zone at its border with Syria. It war planes were flying cursory missions over Syrian airspace defending Turkmen communities and targeting alleged Kurdish terrorist forces allied with PKK like the YPG. This interdiction zone is no longer operational since the beginning of Russian air operations in Syria. Moreover, Russian forces strike predominantly anti-Assad rebel forces in the north and west of Syria and only marginally IS forces. This is changing after the terrorist downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai in Egypt. For Turkey, the Russian airstrikes against Turkmen rebels in Syria’s north not affiliated with the IS is a direct challenge to its policies and objectives. The stakes are high and very complex.
Turkey has refrained from acting directly against Assad’s regime forces. It did however support and helped the inflow of weapons, munitions and specifically a huge number of foreign fighters that joined not only the Free Syrian Army but mainly Jabat al Nusra and ISIS. Turkey was directly accused of “supporting terrorism” by the Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah and increasingly by Russia (as today in the aftermath of the downing of the Russian SU24). In turn, Turkey has protested Russian bombardments against FSA and recent operations against Turkmen communities on the border. These latter Russian operations have meant a repeated breach of the border zone over Syrian airspace that Turkey treats as its responsibility (against Syrian sovereignty) for national security and humanitarian reasons. It is worth noting that Turkish airspace was repeatedly breached by Russian and Syrian planes (the latter have started again flying missions on the Turkish border under a Russian security umbrella). NATO reacted to these provocations particularly as it sees them as part of pattern of Russian breaches of NATO airspace in other regions too from the Baltic to the North Pacific.
Freed from electoral constraints after its landslide victory earlier this month, Turkish president Erdogan appears ready to risk a further steep deterioration of his country’s relations with Russia and president Putin for regional gains. There is a lot at stake given that Turkey is importing 60% of its natural gas consumption from Russia and that it is Russia that builds its nuclear power plants. Russians are also a significant part of the tourists in Turkey’s extensive and profitable resorts on the Mediterranean. In the context of an emerging alliance nominally against ISIS between the West and Russia after the Paris attacks, Ankara fears the implication such an alliance can have over its own agendas. The Kurdish region in Syria’s north, the future negotiations for a solution to the Syrian conflict and the role of the Assad regime, the Sunni-Shia balance in the region (while all three major Sunni cities in the region Damascus, Basra and Bagdad, are under Shia influence) all represent Turkish priorities.
It is conceivable that Russia did not expect this escalation. Beyond any discourse Turkey’s borders and security is directly involved. Until Paris the bloodiest attacks of ISIS outside Syria and Iraq were directed against Turkey including in Ankara. The accusations regarding Turkish support for radical islamists and jihadi groups in Syria are no excuse for breaching its airspace and ignoring Ankara’s rules of engagement in the border region. Howe the situation will evolve depends not only on Russia and Turkey but also on the EU and NATO reactions. The West’s problem is that it needs to navigate between to leaders with regional ambitions and a disposition for grandstanding and a dangerous game of poker. Let’s all remember that this is the first time since 1950’s since a NATO ally airforce downed a Russian military airplane. At the end of this week president Erdogan will meet EU leaders in Brussels. President Hollande will meet with president Putin to discuss the cooperation against ISIS, combating terrorism and finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. The symbolics of this brutal escalation are not lost to the region’s capitals coming just one day after president Putin met with Ayatollah Khamenei to discuss Syria. Russia and Iran are increasingly allied and take a different view on not only the future of the Assad regime but also Syria. For the region this is already getting a big notch messier. For the Russians the Syrian gambit appears to confirm the worse fears o those that warned of a potential dangerous quagmire. For the US president the Syrian conflict just got even more important.

O escaladare periculoasa si un mesaj pentru regiune

Aviatia turca a doborat un avion Suhoi 24 care zbura la granita sa cu Siria. Avionul rusesc participa la actiuni impotriva rebelilor turkmeni care lupta impotriva regimului Assad. Mai multe comentarii au vizat implicatiile pentru NATO ale acestei escaladari dramatice a tensiunilor dintre Turcia si Rusia. Doar ca in fapt e si mai complicat si situatia are relativ putin de-a face cu dinamica NATO Rusia. In fapt e vorba de perspectivele radical diferite ale Rusiei si Turciei in raport cu Siria. Pentru Turcia criza siriana este o provocare fundamentala la adresa securitatii sale dar si a pozitiei Turciei in regiune. Esecul rasunator al politicii “zero problems with nighbours”a dus la o reconsiderare si pe fondul deterirorarii conditiilor de securitate. In incercarea de a transmite atat un mesaj intern cat si unul regional Ankara si maia ales administratia AKP a presedintelui Erdogan au dezvoltat o noua politica externa si de securitate care e mai contondenta. Criticii interni si externi gasesc amestecul intre discursul conservator islamist si nationalismul turc promovate de Ankara ca pe o parte din probleme. Pe acest fond, Turcia a imprumutat o pagina din manualul rusesc de politica externa si a declarat ca apararea securitatii intereselor comunitatilor turcofone sau “inrudite” din afara granitelor este o obligatie a Turciei. In acest sens, Turcia a instaurat unilateral un fel de zona de interdictie aeriana in nordul Siriei. Aceasta viza pe de o parte tintirea fortelor kurde aliate PKK (YPG) si pe de alta apararea comunitatii turkmene din Siria. Aceasta zona de interdictie in care operau avioane turcesti nu mai functioneaza de cand au inceput operatiunile aeriene rusesti. Mai mult, fortele ruse lovesc preponderent in rebeli anti Assad din Siria si doar marginal in fortele ISIS (actiuni in crestere de intensitate insa dupa atacul terorist realizat de SI impotriva unui avion rusesc in Sinai). Pentru Turcia operatiunile de bombardament rusesti indreptate impotriva fortelor turkmene din nordul Siriei, care nu sunt afiliate ISIS, sunt o provocare directa. Miza e foarte complicata. Turcia s-a aratat retinuta sa intervina direct impotriva fortelor siriene ale regimului Assad desi sustine militanti “moderati” si a permis infiltrarea unui numar imens de luptatori straini inclsuiv dintre cei afiliati al Nusra sau ISIS. Este acuzata direct de acest lucru de regimul Assad, de Rusia dar si de Iran si Hezbollah. In schimb, Turcia a protestat fata de bombardamentele rusesti in zona de granita impotriva comunitatii turkmene pe care o sprijina. Aceste operatiuni rusesti au implicat incalcarea zonei de cativa km in spatiul aerian Sirian pe care Turcia o considera ca fiind de responsabilitatea sa (cu incalcarea evidenta a suveranitatii Siriene) din “ratiuni umanitare si de securitate nationala”. In acelasi timp au fost semnalate incalcari ale spatiului aerian Turcesc de avioane rusesti sau siriene (acestea din urma nu mai zburau in nord de teama aviatiei turcesti dar au reluat zborurile odata cu interventia rusa). La acestea a reactionat si NATO care are in vedere aceste “testari” de catre Rusia nu doar in Turcia dar si in zona marii baltice, pacificului de nord etc. Eliberat de temerea alegerilor, presedintele turc Erdogan se simte dispus sa riste deterioarea suplimentara a relatiilor cu Rusia si Putin (60%din gazul Turcesc este importat din Rusia, Rusia construieste centralele nucleare turcesti etc.) pentru a castiga in plan regional. Problema NATO este ca trebuie sa navigheze intre doi lideri cu ambitii regionale si o dispozitie spre un joc de poker si escaladare periculos. In contextul unei aliante emergente intre Vest si Rusia, nominal impotriva ISIS dupa atacul de la Paris, Ankara are temeri legate de implicatiile pe care aceasta alianta poate sa o aiba in privinta propriilor sale agende: chestiunea regiunii Kurde din nordul Siriei, viitoarele negocieri pentru o solutie la conflictul sirian si rolul regimului Assad, echilibrul Sunni-Shia in regiune in conditiile in care cele trei mari centre religioase sunite: Damasc, Basra si Baghdad sunt sunt deja sub influenta shiita etc. In schimb este putin probabil ca Rusia se astepta la acesta escaladare. Dincolo de orice discurs, granita Turciei este direct vizata, cele mai sangeroase atacuri ISIS (pana la Paris) s-au petrecut pe teritoriul Turciei etc. Acuzele de cooperare si sprijin turcesc pentru islamisti radicali nu sunt o scuza pentru incalcarea spatiului aerian turcesc in pofida rules of engagment anuntate de Ankara. Cum o sa evolueze situatia depinde nu doar de Turcia ci si de reactia UE si NATO. Erdogan o sa fie la Bruxelles la sfarsitul acestei saptamani. Presedintele Hollande se va vedea cu Putin pentru a discuta cooperarea impotriva ISIS, combaterea terorismului si solutii pentru conflictul Sirian. Simbolica acestei escaladari brutale la doar o zi dupa ce presedintele Putin a discutat cu Ayatolahul Khamenei a fost notata in toate capitalele regiunii. Pentru presedintele american miza conflictului sirian a devenit si mai importanta.

Cutting through the barbed wire

How quickly we forget our history. And a barbed wire curtain wall being planed between Romania and Hungary, two EU member states, is a poignant example. Romania and Hungary are currently engaged in a diplomatic spat over the Facebook comments of the Romanian Prime minister. Victor Ponta came out harshly deploring the measures taken by Hungary to stem the wave of refugees pouring into the EU. Among other things the Romanian PM said that barbed wire fences between EU countries are not a solution and the measures (walls and soldiers and prison sentences for refugees crossing the frontier illegally) are harking to defunct eras and are incompatible with XXI century European standards including our obligations towards refugees. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry reacted aggressively and critically. The spat risks shifting the public attention from the substantive to the trivial. Significantly however Hungary received the same criticism from Europe’s highest ranking human rights authority the Council of Europe. It is maybe also the time to remember the region’s and in in particular Hungary’s history. PM Orban’s political career beginnings overlap with the removal of barbed wire between communist Hungary and Austria in June 1989. It was Austria’s foreign minister Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart Gyula Horn that symbolically used bolt-cutters to cut the fence. That barbed wire wall was specifically erected to stop Hungarians and other communist countries’ citizens from fleeing towards the safety of a prosperous and free West. Like the hundreds of thousands that fled after the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the subsequent Soviet invasion. Horn will go on to become one of democratic Hungary’s socialist prime ministers, Viktor Orban his nemesis and a leader of Hungary’s increasingly right wing and populist FIDESZ. Putting back barbed wire curtain walls is a sad coda to the post Cold War era. The past quarter of a century saw a united Europe removing borders and barriers based on shared values. Beyond being a counter intuitive symbol barbed wire will not work. Walls and soldiers on borders do not solve the problem of the refugees or the issue of migration to Europe. They are an entirely inadequate tool for managing the migration flow and a in immoral answer to the humanitarian problem embedded in the current wave. The Visegrad countries and Hungary specifically have refused quotas and so did Romania. However Romania has clearly stated that will voluntarily take in refugees to the maximum of its current available centers. It is open to discussing a European level solution. Populism is the most dangerous trap in facing such a complex challenge. Statements with thinly veiled racist undertones on “the risks muslims pose to Europe’s christian heritage” are both cheep fear-mongering and hatred generating. Go it alone national policies in the region are becoming a pattern. Pseudo-sovereignist approaches are the hallmark of new demagogues in Europe’s eastern members. Weakening Europe or bringing it to the lowest common denominator will serve neither the common interests of EU’s citizens nor those of the member states. At stake is not only our moral standing but also our ability to shape equally difficult policies for the task of solving the long term issues Europe faces: peace in Europe’s neighbourhood and immigration and integration. Europe cannot be whole, free and at peace and build barbed wire walls between its member states. That is a moral and practical lesson we should have learned when current politicians were only cutting their political teeth.

Excellent OpEd piece in NYT: “Capitalists, Arise: We Need to Deal With Income Inequality”

Read the OpEd piece linked below from the NYT! Few people know more about suffering under fascism or communism than Peter Gorgescu Chairman Emeritus of Young and Rubicam. He is an immigrant and self made American capitalist with both street creed and a brain. He does have a heart too and puts all these things together in a great opinion editorial in the NYT. I am humbled to have moderated a great Aspen Institute Romania conversation with him and I am proud that he stands as a leading light for progressive capitalism. If only Romania’s own capitalist would heed his example.

An alliance with Russia may serve Europe but not if done Thermidor style

Former high level French civil servant, Jacques Attali, once a close collaborator of the late president Francois Mitterrand penned a bold proposal on its blog hosted by l’Express magazine. He argues that France should reconsider its position vis-a-vis Russia. This proposal is worth discussing. A link is below this commentary. 

Essentially Attali asserts that France and Europe need an alliance with Russia. In principle this is correct. Strategically, economically and of course culturally this makes perfect sense. And it was tried! However an alliance is a project based on shared values or at least well calibrated mutually compatible interests. 

Today, by its own choice, Russia is in the position of an aggressor state towards Ukraine and perceived increasingly so by other european countries. This includes EU and NATO members and a number of Russia’s neighbours. Regardless of its strategic reasons, and there are some that read a “defensive reflex” in its current aggression, this is incompatible with even an interests based alliance. Minimally for a partnership one side needs not be intent on using military force against the other party or parties. Otherwise it is only a temporary ganging. Under current circumstances, Attali’s proposal is entirely theoretical and a long shot.

His argumentation is based on a lot of “ifs and thens”. Some of these, like the difficulties of Ukraine to reform its state, economy and governance are hilarious. In fact many of the governance shortcomings in Ukraine, before and after the Maidan protests, cannot be separated from Russia’s meddling or the numerous corrupt deals that for years were the basis of Russian Ukrainian relations. That does not at all diminishes the Ukraine responsibility but neither makes Russia a positive contributor. Equally so is the issue of Russian minority and Russian speakers’ rights in Ukraine.  Not only is this a false issue, it is also in line with Kremlin’s propaganda claiming Kiev is in the hands of a “fascist junta” hellbent to destroy Russian Ukrainians. This makes Russia’s actions “legitimate” as a defence of nationals leaving abroad. In fact Russia is not defending anybody’s rights. In Fact Russia stokes a civil war, intervenes manu military, invades and annexes sovereign territory and is currently redrawing Europe’s borders through brute force. 

By all means Jacques Attali is right when he says president Putin is not Hitler! He is not. Neither is he Stalin one can argue. President Putin does not base its action on a criminal ideology and the desire to conquer all Europe. But it is equally true that from the perspective of countries like Poland, the Baltic states, Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine , etc. Russia is an aggressor. it is a revisionist power that uses military force to occupy sovereign territories and stokes territorial separatism undermining the state sovereignty of its neighbours.

Maybe the most embracing argument, discreetly inserted in the text, is linked to France’s nuclear deterrence capability. Indeed France is a nuclear power. For this very reason its relationship with NATO is not a must. In fact it was historically complicated and selective. That in turn does not at all stops France to have today a superb military and political cooperation with the Alliance.  Ukraine on the other hand was persuaded by the West to giv up its nuclear deterrence capabilities. And that was a good thing for global peace and security. In turn however Ukraine was to receive security and sovereignty guaranties form the parties to that treaty including Russia. It is thus quite a cynical attitude to raise these issues as an argument rather than an obligation. 

France’s foreign policy focus is naturally oriented more to the South, to the Mediterranean space and Africa. That makes France maybe less attentive to the “details” of Eastern policy and the specifics of Russia’s relations with the region.

There are other elements in Jacques Attali’s blog entry that do not stand up at thorough analysis. Indeed Russia and the EU should be aligned and have a shared, common approach to combating terrorism and in particular the islamic fundamentalist sort. But the failure of the international; community addressing the Syrina crisis has a lot to do with Russia’s choices. Perspectives that link the success of Al Qaida, al Nusra and Daesh to Western policy failures are indeed justified. But Russia’s attitude in face of hundreds of thousands of death in Syria is not just cynical it is irresponsible. As for Europe’s need for  Russian support and competence in combating terrorism Attali’s claim crosses into surrealism.  Russian “military competence in combating terrorism” has left over twenty thousands, mostly civilians dead. And these are Russia’s own citizens! Why not Assad’s “anti-terrorist competencies”? It is hard to see how this is compatible with French views on human rights and republican citizenry! At best case this is a very Jacobin view. Of the Thermidor style!

For all these reasons Attali’s proposal is closer to caricature than objective analysis. Dealing with the deepest crisis in Russia’;s relations in the West requires out of the box thinking. It does involve trying to see things from Russian angle. But that cannot be achieved through such callous proposals. Whatever good arguments there may be in this approach are invalidated by indifference to human suffering, cynicism, illusory thinking and a hefty dose of brushing essential details under the carpet. 

Europe, and to some extent the US, wanted a partnership with Russia. Equally, the West has mede tremendous mistakes in dealing with Russia making a real partnership a difficult objective. Absurd Western policy decisions like the mismanagement of the Yugoslav crisis and invading Iraq gravely strained the relationship. NATO and EU enlargement however do not fall under the same heading. The sovereignty of European nations is not negotiable. Here is the deepest fallacy of Jacques Attali’s proposal. Arguing for a separate way for France, for anything leading to a division in EU and NATO in handling this crisis and the relationship with Russia, is incompatible with the founding values of post WWII Europe.

This proposal appears more like the product of what I call right wing leftist thinking that emerged with Mitterrand and has ultimately led to the Blairist pragmatism. What Attali says is exactly what former president Sarkozy argues for. In fact, it sound a lot like what is being said by the French Front National and Marie le Pen. No wonder the extreme right appears “reasonable”. This is what brings us to a very real and truly embarrassing potential extreme right success in France. This hapens precisely because in this pragmatic drive we renounce all our core values. We give up on the principle of fairness that found the European social model and now we appear ready to compromise on those linked to humanism, identity, sovereignty and the principle of non aggression in affairs between states. 

Let me be clear, this Russia cannot be Europe or France’s ally In turn Russia can be! But is is not up to us or France to propose a change in heading. A reset is possible but not while guns are being fired in anger and civilians are dying. That needs to stop unconditionally. The ball is in the aggressor’s court. To make this change the cost of aggression has to be made higher than the benefits of the alternative. Here is the most valuable point of Jacques Attalis proposal. One that unfortunately remains unexplored. How can Europe, and implicitly France make a reset proposal to Russia without giving up on the founding principles of the continent’s; security. A French contribution can be highly effective but it needs to answer this question first.…/la-russie-doit-etre-notre-alliee/

Mingea e in curtea agresorului iar Europa trebuie sa ramana unita

Fostul inalt functionar francez si apopiat al presedintelui Francois Miterrand Jacques Attali publica pe blogul sau gazduit de publicatia l’Express o propunere ca Franta sa reanalizeze pozitia sa in relatia cu Rusia (link la text in subsol). Merita discutat textul sau.

In estenta el argumenteaza ca Franta si Europa au nevoie de o alianta cu Rusia. De principiu da. Strategic si economic, ca sa nu spunem cultural, e abordare justa. Si s-a incercat! Numai ca o alianta este un deziderat care trebuie bazat pe valori si interese bine calibrate si multual compatibile.

Astazi Rusia este, prin decizie proprie, in postura unui stat agresor. Indiferent de motivatia strategica a Rusiei, si sunt voci dispuse sa citeasca in agresiune o masura “defensiva” explicabila din perspectiva realista, aceasta nu este compatibila cu o alianta. In conditiile actuale, discutia propusa de Attali este total teoretica.

Argumentatia sa e bazata de altfel pe o multitudine de “daca si atunci”. Unele dintre acestea, ca de exemplu incapacitatea autoritatilor de la Kiev sa reformeze statul, sunt si hilare. Acesta capacitate limtata de guvernanta a fost inainte si dupa Miadan direct legata de rolul jucat de Rusia si cercuri economice corupte in aceasta tara. Tot asa este chestiunea drepturilor rusofonilor in Ulkraina. Nu doar ca este falsa dar merge exact in lina propagandei Kremlinului pentru care administratia de la Kiev este formata din “fascisti anti-rusi”. In plus, Rusia nu apara drepturile unor minoritati ci invadeaza manu militari teritorii si nu e prima data in ultimele doua decenii. Da, Atalli are dreptate cand spune ca presedintele Putin nu este Hitler (sau Stalin pot sa adaug). Cert in sensul in care Putin nu are in spate o ideologie criminala si dorinta de cucerire a intregii Europe. Nu mai putin adevart este ca din perspectiva unor tari ca Polonia, Balticele, Georgia, Moldova etc. Rusia este un agresor care sustine ocuparea militara si sepratism teritorial si le submineaza suveranitatea.

Totodata, Franta, a carei obsesie in politica externa este legata de Sud, de spatiul Mediterranean si African, e mai putin interesata de Rusia si Est si deci mai putin atenta la aceste “detalii”.

Cel mai jenant este, sugerat discret, argumentul nuclear! Da Franta are acest instrument disuasiv tocmai de aceea relatia sa cu NATO este etern distanta ptr ca nu e obligatorie, ci potential selectiva. Ceea ce nu impiedica o excelenta cooperare militara si politica astazi. Ukraina in schimb a fost convinsa de SUA si de Vest (just pentru pacea si securitatea mondiala) sa renunte la armamentul sau disuasiv nuclear in schimbul unei garantii de suveranitate si securitate la care tocmai Rusia era parte.

Sunt si alte elemente in textul de blog care nu rezista unei analize serioase. Da Rusia si UE ar trebui sa aiba o aliniere si abordare comuna in materie de lupta antiterorista. Dar esecul gestionarii crizei din Syria se datoreaza si Rusiei! Iar “competenetele armatei Ruse in materie antiterorista” de care vorbeste Atalli au costat peste 20.000 de vieti omenesti dintre cetatenii Federatiei Ruse si continua … de ce nu competentele antiteroriste ale lui Assad?

Din pacate este o caricatura nu o analiza obiectiva ce propune Attali. Argumentele intersante sunt invalidate de indiferenta, cinism, iluzii si ceva maturat sub pres a detaliilor importante care sunt incompatibile cu propunerea! Europa a dorit o alianta cu Rusia. A gresit enorm in relatia cu aceasta tara si decizii aliate au facut ca acest lucru sa fie foarte dificil. Decizii absurde ca invadarea Irak-ului si gestiunea crizei Iugoslave toate au facut foarte dificila relatia cu Rusia. Largirea NATO insa nu face obiectul acestei logici. Suveranitatea tarilor din Europa nu este un principiu negociabil. Aici este cea mai grava fractura a textului lui Jacques Attali. A argumenta nevoia unei despartiri de unitatea UE si NATO si o cale separata pentru Franta e incompatibil cu valorile pe care se fondeaza Europa de dupa razboi.

Acesta propunere pare sa fie produsul intelectual al unor abordari a ceea ce numesc “stanga de dreapta” care a fost atat de draga lui Mitterand. Ce spune Attali este exact ce sustine si fostul presedinte Sarkozy. Si pana la urma suna foarte tare a ceea ce propune FN si Marie le Pen. Ne miram apoi ca extrema dreapta este frecventabila si aproape de un posibil (si rusinos) succes electoral in Franta. Exact din acest motiv! Pentru ca renuntam la toate valorile. De la cele care apara statul social si principiile echitati la cele legate de indentitate si umanism la cele legate de suveranitate si principiul non-agresiunii intre state.

Acesta Rusie nu poate sa fie aliatul Europei sau Frantei. Rusia in schimb da. Asa ca nu noi sau Franta trebuie sa propuna o schimbare de cap, mingea e in curtea agresorului. Iar pentru ca aceasta schimbare sa survina costul agresiunii trebuie sa fie mai mare decat beneficiile alternativei. Aici e poate singurul punct interesant in textul lui Atalli care insa ramane ne-explorat. Cum pot Europa si implicit Franta, fara sa renunte la valorile si principiile care fondeaza securitatea continentului, sa ofere Rusiei perspectiva unui alt model?…/la-russie-doit-etre-notre-alliee/

A note on “Alexis Tsipras and Greece’s Miserable Foreign Policy”


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My friend Jan Techau shared Judy Dempsy’s latest post on Carnegie’s excellent webpage. It is titled “Alexis Tsipras and Greece’s Miserable Foreign Policy”. While I do not share all of Judy’s take on the Greek situation I do share her legitimately critical views on the foreign policy impact of the new extreme left-extreme right coalition government in Greece. What I mainly disagree with is how austerity impacted this. The road Greece was traveling on was a social catastrophe. The Greek society was suffering to a degree that is hard to understand for outsiders. Simply saying that it needed to cut “bloated state sector and services” is both an understatement and a mistake. Some of the country’s serious problems are all of its own making. They have been there and emerged while Europe tolerated the rape of Greece during and after the second world war, a military dictatorship, a corrupt elite that was busy doing business with European banks and corporations and feeding lies to the Greek public. All these have made Western European individuals, corporations and banks very very rich. The price is not payed by corrupt Greek elites but by Greek workers and pensioners. I have seen how Greeks work. Very very hard! The country needs reforms and difficult ones too. But a country cannot be eviscerated for the sake of reforms. It is neither fair nor sustainable. My view is that the austerity model imposed to Greece by Europe and its failed logic are part of the story. The unchallenged neoliberal economic mantra is part of why irrational and dangerous extreme views are suddenly getting traction all over Europe. On the left and on the right, anti-liberal views are pandered by nationalistic rightists and extreme leftist leaders because we sacrificed to much and too easily. Germany is not alone in this and singling out Angela Merkel is stupid. If anything Germany was just sticking to a mantra that it did not invent but was benefiting from. EU as a whole acted based on ideologically charged policies that failed to have their purported effect. Saving the Euro was never the objective. Saving Europe was! Yes the former was and remains instrumental to the latter but not to the price of making the extreme right and left popular and electable to government. The entire economic and political model in Europe is rigged in favour of a few. This needs to change fast if we are to have a real Europe of its citizens. The reason crazy foreign policy ideas can be tabled and risk dividing Europe is not just because irresponsible people have been elected.This happens precisely because the people are loosing trust in the very values Europe is supposedly built upon. Europeans left and right feel tricked and punished by a rigged game. That is the real danger not Tsipras and his right wing defence minister. Their foreign policy may be miserable but so is the life of too many Europeans. We were so busy bailing out banks using pension cuts and and reducing social services to finance it that we forgot that other budget items may be next. People are now not willing to trust our policies based on fundamental values. I share with Judy, and Jan, the view that Europe needs a more robust security and defence posture. We know this in turn requires more spending. NATO needs that! Europe’s frontier needs that! Both increased growth and higher taxes are required to finance that. This will not happen in an austerity driven model. Neither will the public back any such policies. So strap your seat belts for the bumpy road ahead for Europe’s common foreign and security policy and outlook. It is all our own making. AT