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Catalan Referendum, Despite the Racket, Unlikely to Provide Clarity (9/27)

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ryan barnes photo 2By Ryan Barnes, Washington DC

Seized ballots, police raids, counter protests – Catalan separatists and the Spanish state are hurtling toward the proposed October 1st referendum on independence in Catalonia. The political truce in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Catalonia has been short-lived. The centuries-old tussle between Barcelona and Madrid has taken on a new dynamic with the Catalan regional government’s initiative to hold a vote on seceding from Spain.

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Angela Merkel wins again - but faces the challenge of her political life (9/26)

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markusziener2015By Markus Ziener, Berlin

As Angela Merkel rose to speak during a debate, she was cut short by a representative of the new right-wing party AfD. “I think it is my turn, with all respect,” Jörg Meuthen, Speaker of the Alternative für Deutschland, shot back. Merkel, visibly irritated over the call to order, caved in. Meuthen then continued to speak - and all of a sudden the German chancellor looked reduced to only one of many party leaders that had gathered around a table in a TV studio. Merkel, for years the undisputed Chancellor and political leader, had just suffered a put-down. And with that, it seems, also some of her gloriole dimmed.

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Article 7: The European Union’s “Nuclear Option” (8/11)

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By: Joseph Bebel, Washington D.C.

In early July, members of the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) introduced three controversial bills that would subjugate Poland’s legal system to increased political control. PiS Party Leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski justified the actions as necessary to  purge the “sick” judiciary of supposed Communist influence.  Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans decried the proposed legislation as a clear and “systemic threat to the rule of law” in Poland. Timmermans even went so far as to say that to threaten that the Commission is “coming very close to triggering Article 7,” which would suspend Poland’s voting rights in the bloc.

While President Andrezj Duda proceeded to veto two of the three proposed bills,  saying the controversial reforms would not “increase the sense of security and justice” in the nation, he did sign into law the third bill that allows the justice minister to appoint judges to lower courts. 

Kaczynski retorted that the vetoes “will quickly be forgotten” as PiS will “forge ahead” in its “cleanup” plans. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo further added that despite the setbacks, PiS would continue its process of “repairing the state.” European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker cautioned that if PiS continues to undermine the Polish judiciary, the Commission would have “no other choice” but to trigger Article 7.

So what is Article 7 and why is its potential exercise so dire?  Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty is a process whereby the EU can punish member states who fail to live up to basic tenets of the EU.  The measure allows for a qualified majority of EU member states to suspend another member’s voting rights in the case of a serious violation of EU values.[1] Article 7 is often referred to as the “nuclear option,” and it has never been invoked. 

While voting rights can be stripped with a qualified majority vote, unanimity is needed to establish the existence of a serious breach before voting rights can be revoked. According to Article 7, the European Council “acting on unanimity…may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach” of EU “values referred to in Article 2” of the Lisbon Treaty. Those values included in Article 2 are “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.” Once the unanimous vote passes, then the European Parliament must uphold the decision by a two-thirds majority. 

In the case of Poland, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promised to veto any attempt to establish such a breach, thus stymying further action by the European Council on Poland’s voting rights.  

Orban himself has been accused of instigating a “serious deterioration” of the rule of law in Hungary. In May, a resolution from the European Parliament called for the use of Article 7 after the Prime Minister supported a contentious law cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs. In turn, Poland  has vowed that it would veto any attempt to use Article 7 against Hungary.  

Despite the seemingly difficult achievement of unanimity in using Article 7, another factor may be  important in preventing the actual use of the mechanism. Scholars R. Daniel Kelemen and Michael Blauberger point to a “lack of political will to intervene” as the real reason for why Article 7 will never be actually used. Perhaps that is why Article 7 is referred to as the “nuclear option,” because it is considered a deterrent to use only as a threat. 

The EU has implemented a new rule of law procedure that further raises the threshold for using Article 7. Sometimes termed the “pre-Article 7 procedure,” the mechanism follows a three-step process of assessment, recommendation, and monitoring by the European Commission. If this lengthy process fails in reforming the member state, only then will the Commission turn to Article 7.   

However, the EU does have other options in dealing with member states, such as Poland, that are judged to be in breach of Article 2. The Commission has already initiated an “infringement proceeding” against Poland for its attempt to weaken the rule of law because of its actions against the judiciary. 

On July 29th, a Letter of  Formal Notice was sent by the Commission giving Poland one month to reply. If the Polish government fails to reply or if the response is deemed unsatisfactory, the Commission will then issue a Reasoned Opinion. If Warsaw continues to breach the EU's fundamental values,   the case will then be sent to the European Court of Justice, with the Commission seeking for a penalty payment from the defiant nation.

Article 7

Other enforcement options open to the EU include diplomatic sanctions or revoking funding. In 2000, the EU first considered sanctioning the far-right Austrian Freedom Party government of Jorg Haider in an effort to “diplomatically isolate” the nation. While official EU sanctions were never imposed, a number of the other 14 member states employed bilateral diplomatic sanctions that eventually pushed the government to comply with EU values. 

Revocation of EU funding has yet to be linked to preservation of the rule of law. However, European leaders have backed making all future funds “conditional on recipient countries’ adherence to the rule of law.”

[1] EU’s qualified majority is based on the “double majority” rule where 16 of the 28 member states must vote in favor of a motion and those supporting states must represent 65 percent of the total EU population.

Joseph Bebel is an Editorial Assistant at the European Institute.

 
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“Three Seas Initiative” for Eastern Europe (8/2)

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By: Joseph Bebel, Washington D.C.

In early July, Poland welcomed European and American officials to a summit of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) in Warsaw. The main goal of the summit was to begin plans for the implementation of the initiative that hopes to increase cooperation on trade, energy, and infrastructure between the EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe. U.S. President Donald Trump was the keynote speaker at the summit and was joined by representatives from Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, and a handful of other Eastern European nations. In his remarks, President Trump declaredthe U.S. the “strongest ally and steadfast partner” of the initiative.

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Volatile Energy Resources in the Eastern Mediterranean (7/25)

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By: Joseph Bebel, Washington, D.C.

Reunification remains a distant hope for the nation of Cyprus. But the recent collapse of reunification talks was particularly disappointing for those who hoped exploitation of new energy finds in the Eastern Mediterranean would push the island nation towards reconciliation. Cypriot Minister Neoklis Sylikotis had hoped that newly found resources would serve as “a catalyst for reunification.” However, as Professor Hubert Faussman from the Universtiy of Nicosia noted, instead the peace talks “became a victim” of the recently discovered resources.

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Central Europe’s Multispeed Dilemma (6/12)

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By Joseph Bebel, Washington DC

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, the European Commission published a white paper on the future of Europe. The document detailed five scenarios for moving the European Union forward in its future integration efforts. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker framed the paper as a starting point “for a united Europe of 27 to shape a vision for its future.” The white paper begins the process for EU27 to determine a coherent course of action before European Parliamentary elections in June 2019.

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Brexit and the Pressures of Devolution (4/28)

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By Konstantin Veit, Washington, DC
 
According to a draft text of European Council summit minutes seen by The Guardian newspaper, at this weekend’s first Brexit summit, the EU 27 will consider including Northern Ireland in the bloc, pending Irish unification. “The European Council acknowledges that, in accordance with international law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union (in the event of Irish unification).” For Dublin, which has been pressing for the inclusion of the so-called “GDR clause,” a reference to the integration of the former East Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is a clear victory.
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History Shudders, but Paris Shrugs (4/24)

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WalterNicklen2015By Walter Nicklin, Paris

Cool and sunny.  That’s the weather in Paris the morning after the first round of the Presidential elections.  That also seems to capture the mood: cool and sunny.  Among the normal crowds along the Seine as well as the outer arrondissements, there is no sense of “morning-after” shock, as had been the post-Presidential-election case in the United States last November.   For unlike in the U.S., the national polls pretty much predicted what would happen. 

With ballots still being counted, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen were the clear winners in a crowded field of 11 Presidential candidates.

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Progress on the Greek Bailout (4/7)

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katerinasokou.2016By Katerina Sokou, Washington DC
 
“White smoke” indicating agreement from the Malta Eurogroup Meeting of Eurozone Finance Ministers on the Greek bailout program negotiations  brought some smiles to the government faces  in Athens, together with the hope that the ongoing review can be completed and bailout funds disbursed after months of wrangling with and among its creditors. The Greek government hailed the decision to allow technical teams from the EU and, significantly from the IMF, to return to Athens to reach a staff-level agreement, even while warning that the agreement “will sadden the Greek people.” In exchange for the bailout, Greece has agreed to more taxes and pension cuts over and above the measures already taken.
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Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Challenger (2/17)

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By Konstantin Veit, Washington DC

On January 29, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) nominated the former President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz to be the party’s leader for German legislative elections in September. Since then, the political landscape in Germany has shifted considerably and Chancellor Angela Merkel fourth term no longer seems inevitable.

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Unexpected Elections in Northern Ireland in the Shadow of Brexit (2/10)

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By Konstantin Veit, Washington, DC

United Kingdom’s smallest constituent unit, Northern Ireland, has scheduled Legislative Assembly elections for March 2. How did that come about?

For a decade, the devolved government of Northern Ireland was formed by the nationalist Sinn Féin party and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The country’s snap elections follow the resignation of then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) in early January.

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U.S.-German Relations: Trump’s Trade Advisor Takes Aim at Germany (2/2)

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By Konstantin Veit, Washington, DC

Earlier this week Peter Navarro, Donald Trump’s top trade adviser and head of the new National Trade Council in an email interview with the Financial Times, accused Germany of using a “grossly undervalued” euro to “exploit” its EU and U.S. trading partners. Furthermore, Navarro told the FT that Germany was a main obstacle to a future Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the potentially transformative U.S.-EU trade agreement being negotiated by the Obama administration and which is now off the table.

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“Democratic Backsliding” in Poland and Hungary (8/4)

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By Claire Swinko, Washington

Poland, an EU member country with a rich post-Soviet era history of upholding democratic values, has come under fire in recent months for its “democratic backsliding”— the so-called reversion toward authoritarianism based on non-democratic values and lack of respect for the rule of law and basic fundamental freedoms. 

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EU Announces “Open Skies” Arbitration Action Against U.S. Over Norwegian Airlines (7/29)

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By Brian Beary, Washington
 
Europe’s patience finally ran out. After waiting more than two years for U.S. authorities to give a fly permit to an Irish-based subsidiary of low-cost Norwegian airlines, the EU Commission has told Washington that it will launch arbitration proceedings against it for breaching the 2007 EU-U.S. Open Skies agreement. “I find it regrettable that this is the outcome,” EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc wrote in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Bulc said that formal notification that the agreement’s arbitration clause was being invoked would be made “in the coming weeks.”
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The Message from France (7/22)

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By Michael D. Mosettig

For two top officials of a beleaguered French government, their mission to Washington had multiple purposes: to reassert their country's central role in the war against the ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorist networks and to reassure opinion leaders that the European Union can rebound from the shock of Brexit.

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Why Italy’s Municipal Elections Matter (6/20)

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By Alexander Privitera, Executive Director of The European Institute

The success of the populist “Five Star Movement” in the local elections in Italy should not be exaggerated. However, it would be a mistake for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi or Europeans to ignore the warning shot that came from the vote on Sunday. This was the first electoral test on the bumpy road to the crucial referendum on constitutional changes in the fall. If Italians reject Renzi’s institutional reforms he can pack up and leave. The vote on Sunday has started to clarify a few important questions:

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Swiss Voters Reject Proposal for Guaranteed Income for All (6/9)

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By Claire Swinko, European Affairs

Earlier this week Swiss voters overwhelmingly (77%) rejected a referendum initiative to provide a universal basic income to its citizens regardless of employment status. While the measure called for a constitutional amendment that would introduce a UBI and guarantee “a humane existence and participation in public life for the whole population”, nearly all major political parties and the government opposed both the idea of a referendum and its substance. However, proponents gained the requisite 100,000 signatures in accordance with Swiss law, suggesting a basic monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs to adults who have legally lived in the country for a minimum of five years, and 640 Swiss francs to children under 18 years of age. Opponents claimed the proposal, if enacted, would cost 25 billion Swiss francs per year and even the measure’s proponents conceded that it could consume about a third of the country’s GDP.

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Hopeful Words on Ukrainian Economy from Ousted Finance Minister (4/21)

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By Ben Antenore, European Affairs

Only hours before speaking publicly in Washington D.C. about the progress made in reforming Ukraine’s economy since she took office as Minister of Finance two and a half years ago, Natalie Jaresko learned she was out of a job. For many in the West, Natalie Jaresko’s departure from government is troubling. She was one of the last reformers standing in President Poroshenko’s cabinet after the well-publicized resignations of Economics Minister Aivaras Abromavičius and Deputy Prosecutor General Vitaliy Kasko earlier in the year. Her replacement is former McKinsey consultant Oleksandr Danilyuk who, according to Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council, has a history of blocking Jaresko’s reforms.

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Wales and the British EU Debate (4/13)

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By Lucas Leblanc, Intern at the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington DC.

What does a recent three-month immersion at Wales’ National Assembly, the democratically-elected body founded to represent and govern Wales in 1998, teach a graduate in international relations from a U.S. university? To appreciate rugby, without a doubt, but also to better understand how the current debate on Britain’s membership in the EU relates to the country’s recent constitutional evolution, one in which Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the city of London gained greater levels of elected self-government in a process known as devolution.

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Dutch Voters Reject EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (4/8)

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By Bill Marmon, Managing Editor European Affairs

Although the voter turnout was low and the result not binding, the resounding (61 percent to 38 percent) rejection by Dutch voters this week of the trade and cooperation agreement between Ukraine and the European Union was an embarrassment to supporters of European solidarity.

The referendum, organized by Euroskeptics, is non-binding since the Dutch parliament has already approved the Association Agreement with Ukraine—the same agreement that sparked the Maidan violence and government upheaval in Ukraine two years ago when the former prime minister refused to sign the agreement. But since the turnout this week of 32.2 percent was just above the 30 percent required for validity, it is likely that the Dutch parliament will reconsider the issue.

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