Why Central and Eastern Europe should be cheering on Nord Stream 2

Though the US has prioritized its relationship with Germany, the gas pipeline could still prove beneficial to the region.

Why Central and Eastern Europe should be cheering on Nord Stream 2

Dr. John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of “Coalition of the unWilling and unAble: European Realignment and the Future of American Geopolitics.”

By reaching an agreement on the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Washington appears to have favored its relationship with Berlin at the expense of its allies and partners to the east. Unsurprisingly, Central and Eastern European countries have been rattled by the move. Their concerns are valid. But paradoxically, the agreement could ultimately strengthen security in the region.

The agreement announced by U.S. and German negotiators last month marks the end of American efforts to block the pipeline. From Washington’s perspective, it amounts to a successful salvage operation: It’s likely Nord Stream 2 would have been completed despite American obstructionism. And by allowing the pipeline to be completed, the U.S. obtained some important commitments from Germany and took a major step toward restoring their relationship.

In exchange, Germany has committed to investing in alternative energy infrastructure in Ukraine, reimbursing the country for lost gas transit fees, helping Kyiv negotiate an extension of its gas transit contract with Moscow and pursuing sanctions against Russia if it uses oil and gas exports to Ukraine as political leverage.

Despite these commitments, Central and Eastern European allies are justifiably angered by the agreement. With good reason, they view Nord Stream 2 as a geopolitical weapon rather than a “purely commercial” project, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin maintains. Poland and the Baltic countries remain convinced the pipeline will facilitate even more aggressive behavior from Russia. And Kyiv fears that lack of Russian gas transiting its territory en route to high-paying customers in Europe will embolden Moscow.

It’s easy to see why Central and Eastern European governments think the United States has favored its relationship with Germany over them. And to some degree, they aren’t far off the mark.

Over the last decade, Germany has become the lynchpin of American security and foreign policy in Europe. Politically and economically, Germany is first among equals in Europe, with greater soft power than France, the United Kingdom, Italy or any other European country.

Despite the pandemic-induced recession, Germany supersedes all its neighbors in terms of long-term economic growth prospects. Policy choices made over the last decade and the willingness of German businesses to embrace — more so than virtually all other countries in Europe — advanced information technology, roboticization and other aspects of the fourth industrial revolution have placed it on a trajectory of improving productivity over the next decade.

Of course, Germany’s military capabilities and capacity still pale in comparison to France and the U.K. But this is likely to change over time as Berlin continues to expand its defense budget, while Paris and London face comparatively more challenging fiscal circumstances.

More importantly, however, for Washington, the Nord Stream 2 agreement removes a major impediment to an ever-closer international security partnership with Berlin.

The great power competition unfolding between the U.S. on the one hand and Russia and China on the other is most likely to manifest itself in hybrid terms — involving political, diplomatic, economic, informational and military challenges, below the level of tanks crossing borders. That means that a close partnership between Washington and Berlin is likely to pay long-term dividends to the benefit of not only Germany and the U.S. but Central and Eastern Europe as well.

These countries, compelled by geography to navigate a path between Germany and Russia, need Germany firmly grounded in the West — and the Nord Stream 2 arrangement will help make sure it remains so. The alternative, Washington’s unilateral sanctions on German businesses, only strengthened the voices of those in Berlin who favor a more ambivalent German policy toward great power competition — one that pursues an equal distance between the U.S. and Russia.

Furthermore, Russia is likely to never make use of Nord Stream 2’s full capacity; climate change and long-term trends in energy consumption across Europe away from fossil fuels and toward renewables will make sure of that. Over time, declining Russian gas sales in Europe will eventually reduce Ukraine’s role as an energy transit country in any case.

The Nord Stream 2 agreement won’t end Berlin’s pursuit of a special relationship with Moscow. Its political elites remain convinced that European security can only be achieved with Russia, not against it, and that interdependence with Russia benefits the West. But the agreement nonetheless represents a win for Washington, insofar as it has garnered commitments from Berlin that otherwise wouldn’t have been made.

And ultimately, as long as it helps ensure the powerful country to their West remains firmly anchored there, Central and Eastern European countries will also benefit from this agreement.

Source : Politico EU More   

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5 ways the EU’s democracy crisis could end

From exits for Hungary and Poland to a more populist union, how Europe might deal with its deep divisions.

5 ways the EU’s democracy crisis could end

Europe’s rule-of-law headache is turning into a serious migraine — but no one seems to have a remedy.

Years of clashes that pit EU institutions and many member countries against Poland and Hungary have grown even more severe in recent months. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has faced widespread condemnation over anti-LGBTQ+ legislation while Polish authorities have effectively declared they don’t accept the supremacy of EU law.

But various efforts by Brussels — from legal action to threats to cut off funding — have failed to prompt a change of course in Warsaw or Budapest. Instead, the gulf between the two rebel member countries and the EU’s political core over the bloc’s values seems to be growing even wider. All of which prompts a fundamental question: How does this end?

Here are five possible scenarios:

1. Poland and Hungary back off

If Brussels intensifies pressure or imposes significant financial sanctions, it might force Warsaw and Budapest to back off from some of their controversial policies. 

The European Commission has already delayed approval of Poland and Hungary’s post-pandemic economic plans, in a signal they will have to bring some concessions to the table in order to access billions of euros in EU recovery funding.

“It’s evident that one of the reasons why the Commission is delaying this decision … is the rule of law. The Commission is not going to say it publicly, but it uses the endorsement of this plan as a way to pressure Poland to make changes in its rule-of-law policy,” said Jakub Jaraczewski, a research coordinator at Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO.

Separately, if Poland refuses to comply with rulings by the EU’s Court of Justice, it could face significant fines. 

Jaraczewski said that the more moderate part of the ruling coalition — which includes Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki — might not be willing to lose the money and face the ultimate clash with the Commission. There’s a possibility the government would reverse at least its stance on a disciplinary chamber for judges, which is now the main bone of contention. 

Morawiecki has already hinted in recent interviews that the controversial disciplinary chamber “needs reforms.”

However, both governments have made battles with Brussels a core part of their political identity and it’s unclear how much (if at all) they would be willing to change course — and risk losing support from their base.

2. New bosses in Budapest and Warsaw

If the ruling parties in Poland and Hungary lose power in elections in the coming years, that would almost certainly defuse tension with Brussels and other EU governments.

Hungarians are set to go to the polls in spring 2022, while Poland is expected to hold its own parliamentary election in 2023. 

The ruling Fidesz party in Hungary and the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland face opposition forces that are broadly pro-EU and have pledged to return to respecting democratic norms if elected.

HUNGARY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS



For more polling data from across Europe visit Poll of Polls.

“The most important division line in both Poland and Hungary is increasingly the relationship towards Brussels and the European Union,” said Péter Krekó, executive director at the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute. If opposition forces win, the new governments would “definitely” take “steps to re-establish the independence of the institutions,” he said.  

In Hungary, a diverse six-party coalition has come together to try to defeat Orbán. In Poland, the opposition has just got heavyweight leadership with the return of former European Council President and ex-Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Meanwhile, Poland’s controversial judicial reforms and internal divisions have created tensions within the ruling coalition — making the alliance a shaky one and raising the possibility of an early election. 

However, both PiS and Fidesz have proved extremely adept at winning elections and wielding power. Both also enjoy large amounts of favorable coverage from state media and other friendly outlets. In Hungary, polls put Fidesz neck and neck with the opposition alliance; in Poland, the opposition has been gaining support but PiS has a 10-point lead.

POLAND NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS



For more polling data from across Europe visit Poll of Polls.

The two parties also face alliances that could easily become divided in the months and years to come. In other words: Don’t count either government out.

That said, if even one of the two lost power, it would have a major impact on the other. The alliance between Hungary and Poland could crumble. The breakdown of the illiberal coalition would change the dynamics in the Council of the EU, where at the moment each government effectively protects the other from potential sanctions through veto power.

3. Muddling on

The EU could remain locked in repeated spats with Budapest and Warsaw, launching infringement proceedings and holding regular hearings about the situation in the two countries without a real endgame. 

Many pro-democracy advocates have placed their hopes on a new mechanism that allows the EU to cut funding to member countries over rule-of-law violations that impact the bloc’s financial interests. But it remains unclear how the instrument would be implemented — and whether it could place sufficient pressure on the governments in Hungary and Poland to make fundamental changes in their behavior. 

French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the situation in Hungary, is pushing for the upcoming French presidency of the Council of the EU to pursue “recommendations” for Hungary — a procedure under Article 7 of the EU treaties that allows four-fifths of member states to issue a warning to another member over rule-of-law concerns before pursuing sanctions. 

“I think that would be a big step,” said Delbos-Corfield. While acknowledging that “it will not change the everyday life of Hungarian people,” she said that “these recommendations would isolate Orbán even more.” 

In Poland, there are fears in opposition ranks that Warsaw will suggest a fudge to break the impasse with Brussels that would resolve some problems on paper but not in practice — and the European Commission will accept it in a spirit of compromise.

“Poland will offer some sort of watered-down solution — the disciplinary chamber [of the Supreme Court] will get suspended but the revised law would water down the system rather than annul what’s wrong,” said Barbara Grabowska-Moroz, a research fellow at Central European University’s Democracy Institute.

4. Polexit and Hexit

In theory, Poland and Hungary could quit the EU or at least be politically pushed toward the exit by other member countries — even if the chances of either of those outcomes right now seem remote.

Surveys have repeatedly shown that citizens of both Hungary and Poland back EU membership. Only 39 percent of Poles and 28 percent of Hungarians believe their countries could better face the future outside the EU, according to a winter 2020-2021 Eurobarometer study. Both governments have also benefitted greatly from EU funds, and Poland’s Morawiecki has repeatedly said he has no intention of leaving.

A decision to withdraw from the bloc would be “political suicide” for PiS, said Jaraczewski at Democracy Reporting International.

Rather than leaving completely, it’s more likely that Poland would become “a dead tooth in the EU’s mouth,” he said. “It would function, it would take part in some actions, but it would exclude itself from the legal system,” he said. “Poland would become more similar to an associated country, such as Norway or Liechtenstein and the others, than a member state that fully respects the EU law.”

In Hungary, members of the governing party have expressed mixed views on EU membership.

Earlier this summer, László Kövér, speaker of Hungary’s National Assembly and one of the founding members of Fidesz, said that if a referendum on EU membership took place now, he would vote against joining the bloc. 

Hungary’s finance minister, Mihály Varga, said in an interview this week that if the question arose in 2021, he would vote in favor of membership. “But,” he told television channel ATV, “by the end of the decade, when according to our calculations we will already be net payers to the EU, the question could get a new perspective.”

Some of Orbán’s opponents believe he doesn’t want to leave the EU — but could weaken and fracture the bloc more deeply by staying within it.

“As the main danger, I see the disintegration of the EU: the kind of divisive populist policy that Orbán is pursuing is leading to the disintegration of the EU community,” said Bernadett Szél, an independent opposition member of the Hungarian parliament.

Analysts say that while the Hungarian population is pro-EU and Orbán understands the benefits of membership, increasingly Euroskeptic rhetoric could have unpredictable consequences.

“David Cameron did not want the U.K. to leave,” said Krekó. “When you start to play with fire, it is hard to control.” 

5. Fidesz and friends: A more populist EU

Fidesz and Law and Justice could stay in power — while friendly far-right parties gain power in big EU countries such as Italy and France, moving the bloc away from concerns about democracy and rule of law.

Orbán and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński have both invested in building good relations with populist parties across the bloc, and have argued that the EU should be primarily an economic project — with less political integration. 

“The moralistic overactivity that we have seen in recent years in the EU institutions has resulted in a dangerous tendency to impose an ideological monopoly,” 16 European right-wing populist parties — including Fidesz, PiS, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy  — said in a joint statement last month. 

While the pandemic has put populists on the back foot in much of Europe, two right-wing populist parties are riding high in the polls in Italy, each scoring around 20 percent. And Le Pen is currently projected to take 44 percent of the vote in a run-off with French President Emmanuel Macron, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.

While a Le Pen presidency is often seen as a long shot, it can’t be ruled out. And Orbán, for one, has increasingly aligned himself with a vision of the Continent that fits with hers.

“The phrase ‘an ever closer union’ must be struck from the text of the Treaties of the EU at the first available opportunity,” the Hungarian prime minister said in a June speech.

Source : Politico EU More   

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