Monday, June 30, 2008

Can the EU thaw frozen conflicts?

by Tomas Valasek

The Czech government floated proposals in May that would see the EU take a more active role in solving frozen conflicts in eastern Europe. The Czechs hold the EU’s rotating presidency next year, so their wish may become reality. But just what exactly can the EU offer? The four conflicts in Europe’s east, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transdniestria, have been ‘frozen’ for so long that even hardened optimists have lost hope.

To investigate, I recently joined a German Marshall Fund-organised trip to one such ‘frozen’ place, Transdniestria. It’s a small, poor region, populated by ethnic Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians. In 1992, it broke away from Moldova, which is only somewhat larger, equally poor, and populated by the same mix of Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians (albeit in somewhat different proportions). The conflict over Transdniestria is a strange one indeed. There are no obvious ethnic cleavages. Its citizens mingle freely. Some 7,000 Transdniestrians study in Moldova, and 30,000 of them hold Moldovan transports. All major Transdniestrian businesses are registered in Moldova, which allows them to use Moldova’s privileged access to Russian and EU markets. The only person to die on the Moldova-Transdniestrian administrative border in recent years, the OSCE says, was a ‘visiting’ prostitute. She died when a patrolman accidentally discharged his rifle during the amorous act.

But there is no such thing as an ‘easy’ frozen conflict, and even Transdniestria, with its lack of obvious differences from Moldova, stubbornly resists re-integration. So what can the EU do to help? It turns out the EU has done much already: it helped bring about the relatively close business relationship that the two constituent parts of Moldova enjoy. But it could do more.

In November 2005 the EU launched a Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM). The Moldovans deem it a massive success. The mission’s 120 customs and border experts trained officials working along the Ukrainian-Moldovan border. The EU-trained force has succeeded in seriously cutting smuggling from Transdniestria to Ukraine, effectively removing the breakaway republic’s major source of income. So Transdniestrian businesses have registered with Moldova in order to gain rights to export to Russia and the EU. This represents the most visible step towards re-integration of Moldova and Transdniestria to date.

More needs to be done to help nudge Transdniestria and Moldova together. In the long run, Moldova’s best hope for re-unification lies in making itself attractive to the Transdniestrians. It needs to become a much freer, more prosperous place. This would erode the authority of Transdniestria’s rulers, and entice the region’s population to support re-unification.

To this end, the Moldovans have launched drastic economic reforms. For example, they have cut corporate taxes to zero to entice foreign investors. But the economy is not picking up nearly as fast as it could. Moldova remains deeply corrupt, which discourages entrepreneurs and investors.

The country is not doing well on the political front either. It is a much freer society than Transdniestria (which is essentially a one-person fiefdom). But Moldova’s president, Vladimir Voronin, also has a serious authoritarian streak. He treats the opposition with disdain and arrogance. Worse, he rigs the system in his favour. His Communist party uses its control of public TV (the only source of news for about 80 per cent of Moldovans) to keep out ‘undesirable’ politicians and analysts. Voronin changed the election law in a way that will make it difficult for the (badly divided) opposition to form effective coalitions against him.

As a result, ordinary Transdniestrians do not see enough difference between Moldova and their own, even more corrupt and authoritarian leadership. Moldova is a freer and happier place than Transdniestria, but not dramatically so. It is not losing the battle for the hearts of the Transdniestrians, but it is not winning it either.

So the EU’s best contribution to solving Moldova’s frozen conflict lies in pressuring Chisinau to clean up corruption and keep society free. The EU has serious influence in Moldova. The country wants to join the European Union, and it has modelled its economic and political reforms after the new EU member-states. When the EU speaks, Moldova has a compelling reason to listen. What Brussels says, and what the Moldovans need to hear more often, is that the faster you grow and the freer you become the greater the chances of accession. Better yet: the freer and richer you become, the more attractive Moldova looks in the eyes of ordinary Transdniestrians. So Moldova would stand a better chance not only of joining the EU, but of joining it as a newly re-united state with Transdniestria.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tough choices to avoid euro-paralysis

by Hugo Brady

The Irish did the wrong thing for the right reasons in their referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Voters rejected an international treaty, the benefits of which did not seem to merit a change to the country's constitution. Their politicians, on the other hand, failed outright. They ran a flaccid campaign and were out-thought and shouted down by a colourful assortment of scaremongers. By polling day, opportunists had convinced 70 per cent of No voters that the Lisbon treaty was wide-open for renegotiation and that Irish sovereignty and identity was in danger under the current text. In addition, the public were promised a No vote would be pro-European and have no negative consequences.

Given that the EU already faced a similar debacle when Ireland rejected the Nice treaty in 2001, commentators think that – as with Nice – the EU will now engage in some standard hand-wringing before graciously accepting an Irish offer to hold a second referendum before May 2009. That course of action is fraught with difficulty and danger, however not least because the Irish may well say No again or deliver a Yes on a turnout lower than before (53 per cent).

For starters, most have forgotten that the Irish held a general election in 2002, providing the government with the popular legitimacy to put the Nice treaty to the people a second time. In addition, the government carried out a wide-ranging reform of how EU matters were debated in public and the Dáil, the Irish parliament. The Irish constitution was changed to exclude future participation in an EU military alliance, a perennial concern of the public. Lastly, Ireland’s EU partners added a declaration that the Nice treaty would not affect Irish neutrality. Now, however, with another general election some years away, a second poll is only a possibility in the unlikely event that the government can get clear and widespread public support for such a move by other means.

Secondly, over the years Ireland has accumulated many specific exemptions and opt-outs from EU policy. A legally binding protocol from the time of the Maastricht treaty prevents any EU law from affecting Ireland’s constitutional position on abortion. In 1997, the country, along with the UK, decided to remain outside the EU’s passport-free travel area and participates in policies on immigration and asylum, on a case-by-case basis only, subject to the approval of the Dáil. The Lisbon treaty would extend that opt-out into crime and justice matters. Even supposing a second referendum is politically possible the list of policies that Ireland can choose to stand aside from is short.

Ironically, a second referendum was the logical position of many in Ireland's No campaign. According to them, a better deal for Ireland and for all Europeans was possible. (See one example, a list of demands from the Sinn Féin party, at They invited voters to make the strategic move of voting down this particular version. Though it may be galling to its EU partners, the Irish government must now partially vindicate this claim by asking for a bi-lateral re-negotiation with the rest of the EU. There is no other way forward, assuming the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and all others ratify.

Two changes could make the Lisbon treaty more palatable to Irish voters. First, the Irish government must negotiate an ‘Ireland in Europe’ protocol with the EU, codifying all existing guarantees and opt-outs on family law and justice issues into one document. (Many voters do not see the continuity between EU treaties and think that old guarantees are over-written by new texts.)The existing understanding on defence from the Nice treaty, plus a new clarification on corporate taxation, could be added as declarative text. The Irish constitution could be further amended with a clause forbidding the state to sign up to future EU tax harmonisation measures without a further referendum. This would be similar to the existing constitutional guarantee on joining an EU military alliance. This protocol should be deemed weighty enough to justify a second referendum, which could be held quite soon.

Second, the clearest institutional issue to emerge from the referendum campaign is public dissatisfaction that there will be no ‘national’ commissioner in Brussels for certain periods under the Lisbon treaty. The member-states should attach a declaration to the treaty, promising to restore the principle that each EU country will be represented in the European Commission from the accession of Croatia in 2010. This would not require a renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty since the principle can be re-inserted into EU law via Croatia’s accession treaty. No country is likely to object to having its own commissioner at all times. Therefore, this will not be a sole concession to Ireland. Whether the EU likes it or not, commissioners have popular legitimacy in many member-states as a link between the EU and their home country. Efficiencies in the Commission will have to be achieved in other ways.

Many will say that ungrateful Ireland has no right to such concessions when all countries have already made sacrifices to negotiate the Lisbon treaty. But since the EU is fundamentally a consensual body and Ireland cannot be made to leave (in any case another referendum would be required), political compromises will have to be made. The reality is that the Irish have already paid a bitter price: the country has lost the goodwill that came with its image as a successful and pro-active EU player. That was more important to its national interest than votes or commissioners.

Equally, the Irish government may be unwilling to damage Ireland and the EU further by risking a second vote. But throughout the referendum campaign, Yes activists and confused voters complained that the Treaty of Lisbon had no selling point or tangible basis on which to make a decision. Now, the extraneous arguments of the No side have created a situation where the public need reassurances that Ireland's EU membership is not leading them in a direction where they do not wish to go. A single document recognising Ireland’s sovereignty in key areas alongside a guarantee of representation on the European Commission for all EU countries would allow pro-campaigners to fight another referendum in terms that matter to voters. It could also be a way for Ireland to re-establish its pro-European consensus.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Humanising China

by Bobo Lo

An extraordinary thing happened to China the other week. Not the Sichuan earthquake, even though that was an enormous, catastrophic event. Nor even the phenomenal popular response to this tragedy. No, the most remarkable development was the recasting of the Chinese people in Western consciousness. In place of the previous image of a homogenous, often demonised, mass of humanity, there emerged a picture of the Chinese as individuals, with real feelings and vulnerabilities.

How did this happen? Certainly, human tragedy on such a vast scale invites sympathy even in the stoniest of hearts, although perhaps not in some Hollywood stars. Yet in the past the western media have assigned little importance to loss of life in the non-western world. The infamous headline ‘Boston man breaks arm, 250,000 Bangladeshis drown’ may be apocryphal, but the attitude behind it is all too common.

What makes the change in western attitudes all the more remarkable is that prior to the earthquake China was having a very bad year in PR terms. Western coverage of Beijing’s response to the Tibetan demonstrations in March was uniformly critical. The Olympic torch relay was a fiasco, in which blame shifted from violent demonstrators and inept security arrangements to Beijing’s excessive pride. More generally, China had become the scapegoat for many of the world’s ills. It was accused of hoovering up natural resources, pushing up oil prices to record levels, swamping the market with cheap (and sometimes toxic) goods, polluting the atmosphere, and supporting vicious regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. Even the Olympics were turning out to be a mixed blessing, with the promotion of a vibrant, technologically advanced nation being undermined by accusations over Tibet and human rights abuses.

The Sichuan earthquake changed everything. Suddenly, China became a victim rather than a perpetrator, the focus of worldwide sympathy instead of an object of fear and loathing. Four factors were critical to this transformation. The first was the Communist leadership’s almost instantaneous response to the crisis. Within hours, Premier Wen Jiabao was on a plane to the worst-hit areas. Within a day, some 100,000 soldiers had been mobilized. The government acted with an urgency lacking in other, more developed countries – most conspicuously the United States after Hurricane Katrina.

Second, the degree of transparency was unprecedented. National and foreign media were given maximum access to the earthquake region. They were also able to report on sensitive subjects, such as the shoddy building standards for schools that contributed to the particularly heavy death toll among the young. The Chinese government recognized from the outset that it had everything to gain from highlighting the scale of the tragedy and from allowing individual human stories to speak for themselves.

Third, the leadership revealed an unusual empathy with the victims. Wen Jiabao – ‘Grandfather Wen’ – not only reached the earthquake zone within hours, but once there acted in a way uncommon in Chinese leaders. He got his hands dirty, whether in helping to dig people out of the rubble or holding a saline drip for one of the injured. The subsequent declaration of three days of national mourning, during which all public and private entertainments were suspended, revealed a finely tuned sense of the national mood. The traditional divide between government and people – ‘the Emperor is far away’ – gave way to a genuine sense of common purpose.

Finally, the humanisation of China benefited from the country’s growing prominence in a globalised world. The Sichuan earthquake brought raw human emotion into our living rooms, proving that some things are truly universal. Who can forget the sight of rows of parents holding up pictures of their only children – the ultimate victims of China’s ‘one-child’ policy? Such images transcend even the starkest of ideological and political differences.

The question now is whether this new image of China can be sustained. What would it take for the Western commentariat to revert to type and indulge in further China-bashing – over Tibet, climate change, Darfur, lost industrial jobs, or democratisation? Probably not much at all. The humanisation of China is a fragile and perhaps transient phenomenon. A swathe of Chinese gold medals at the forthcoming Beijing Olympics could trigger a new wave of Sinophobia. But whatever happens a very different China has emerged, far from the one-dimensional economic machine and totalitarian state of Western imagination. This China is a complex and contradictory entity, but whose resilience in times of crisis speaks of a profound sense of national unity.

Bobo Lo is director of the Russia and China programmes at the Centre for European Reform.