November 19, 2017
This week, we look at major agreements reached in European defence and the European Social Pillar. Our Populist Watch explores the links between Russia, Populism and the Cyber threat.
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Leaping Forwards: the EU in Motion
This week the European Union has made significant progress in several areas. On Monday 23 out of 28 countries agreed to bolster defence cooperation. Federica Mogherini called this decision a “historic step” for the European defence project. The agreement, known as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), launches a program of joint military investment and project development. Countries have committed themselves to increase their military budgets, which will be monitored by the European Council. They will work together on strategic defence projects, funded by the European Defence Fund. Moreover, countries will cooperate to improve military mobility. Unsurprisingly, neither Great Britain nor Denmark will take part, the latter having obtained a so-called “opt-out” in relation to security and defence matters. However, diplomats expect that when the PESCO is officially launched during the next EU summit, all other countries apart from these two countries and Malta will sign up.
The timing of this agreement is of no surprise. The geopolitical uncertainty – including the perceived treat of Russia and the instability in the Middle East and Northern Africa – are propelling this renewed emphasis on security. The EU is not alone in this: this week, NATO agreed to establish new military commands in order to better protect Europe. Earlier this year, the EU already made some progress, creating a “Military Headquarters” in Brussels. Great Britain has long opposed increased security and defence cooperation, as it saw NATO as the primary organ for such matters. Britain’s impeding departure of the Union, however, means it can no longer veto further military integration. France and Germany are especially eager to seize this opportunity to strengthen the Union in order to show EU citizens they are adequately protected.
In another respect, this was a successful week. Yesterday EU leaders gathered in Gothenburg, Sweden, to discuss the Social Pillar of the European project, another response to reassure citizens and show them that the Union is about more than economic matters and big banks. Indeed, European Leaders agreed “it’s time to put people first”. The Social Pillar does not impose any obligations on the EU countries, but rather formulates a set of principles with the intention to guide future policies and European welfare programs.
In other words, a lot is going on. The EU is in motion! In respect of the Brexit negotiations, however, there is no reason for optimism. After another round of negotiations, hardly any developments have been made. The EU has given Theresa May two weeks to act on the divorce bill and Ireland, because otherwise the talks cannot enter the second phase. Meanwhile, chief negotiator for Britain, David Davis, has begun an offensive, warning not to put “politics before prosperity” and arguing the EU should compromise too. In any case, a deal is better than no deal at all. Perhaps it is time for the British to take a leap of faith in order see what they will get in return… time is running out!
Europe’s Week in Links
- German politics stalled: The German coalition talks between Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Liberal Party and the Green Party are caught in heavy weather. Migration and climate policy are among the most thorny issues. Merkel even missed out on the Social Summit in Gothenburg to continue the talks, which not everyone appreciated…
- EU economies on the rise: Growth forecasts all over the European Union are good. Indeed, the Union seems finally to overcome the crises years. All over the Union? Well… except for the one country leaving of course.
- Poland and the Rule of Law: Worrying messages from Poland, as massive manifestations by extreme-right groups took place during the Polish Independence Day. Protesters argued for a “White Europe”. In the meantime, the European Parliament decided to raise the alarm about the independence of the Polish judiciary.
One striking feature of populist parties is their common admiration for one man: Vladmir Putin. Indeed, not only Trump is often said to be an admirer of Putin, the same goes for populist leaders such as Le Pen, leader of the French Front National, Nigel Farage, former leader of UKIP, and several other of Europe’s populist leaders. Sometimes, this admiration even leads to cooperation. Among the prime examples are Le Pen being able to borrow from Russian banks and Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, signing a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. These links between Putin and populist parties make many feeling uncomfortable. How can it be that this man can have such standing even after invading Crimea, the ongoing human rights abuses in Russia and the role of Russia in the war in eastern Ukraine?
More recently a new dimension has been added to this already complicated picture of relations between leading figures and Russia. On the other side of the Atlantic, investigations into the involvement of Russian officials in the U.S. Presidential elections 2016 are still on-going. Although Trump still seems to deny any allegations aimed at Putin, U.S. intelligence service paint a different picture. Facebook has revealed that up to 126 million American citizens may have been exposed to elections posts disseminated by Russian-linked agents. They used Facebook’s advertisements system to purchase the spread of such messages, which had the aim to inflame conflict within the American electorate.
In Europe there are also suspicions of Russian involvement in politics. This week, Theresa May warned Russia about their interference in elections and the spreading of fake news. She accused Russia of electoral “meddling”, spreading fake news and of hacking activities. Although May later denied that she was talking about Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum, U.K. researchers believe that Russian fake accounts did try to influence public opinion. They found more than 400 Twitter accounts, indirectly linked to the Russian government, tweeting about Brexit. On the exact same day, the governments of Spain and The Netherlands raised similar concerns, accusing Russia of trying to influence the recent Dutch elections and to fuel the Catalonian crises.
Although populist parties are not responsible for Russian interference, they are likely to be its main beneficiaries. Indeed, Russia’s strategy seems to be to exploit the ‘weaknesses’ in Western Democracies by working together with anti-establishment parties, most notably populist parties. The links between populism, Russia and online election interference warrant closer investigation.