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EU Elections | Part III - Challenges Old and New

Part III, the final part of a series of specials on the EU Elections written by the members of the Europe Focus Group

From Barcelona to Antwerp with(out) love
by Alicia García Romano

Carles Puidgemont speaks at a rally in Barcelona
Carles Puidgemont speaks at a rally in Barcelona
Last November, Pedro Sánchez embarked on his third term as Spain's Prime Minister amidst intriguing political dynamics. Despite securing a second position in the July 2023 general elections, where PSOE garnered 121 parliamentary seats compared to the conservative Popular Party's 137, Sánchez adeptly managed to mobilise 179 votes for his investiture, surpassing the requisite threshold of 176 votes . In a few months, he transformed electoral adversity into parliamentary achievement. This notable feat was orchestrated through strategic negotiations, culminating in a coalition agreement with Sumar, a far-left coalition incorporating the remnants of the left-wing populist party Podemos, alongside additional accords forged with a coalition of nationalist parties hailing from Galicia, the Basque Country, and Catalonia.

Among the MPs who lent their support to Sánchez's investiture on November 16, a group of seven holds distinct importance. These individuals belong to Junts, a Catalan nationalist party with conservative leanings, whose de facto leadership is carried out by Carles Puigdemont from Brussels. Junts has maintained an unwavering dedication to the cause of Catalan independence from Spain, despite facing legal prosecution from Spanish judicial authorities, including Puigdemont and other key figures within its leadership, for their roles in the procés, a significant catalysing event in Catalonia's pursuit of self-determination between 2012 and 2017.

The final agreement hinged upon the endorsement of an amnesty law aimed at providing relief to approximately 300 politicians and activists advocating for Catalan independence who were involved in the procés. In the end, the agreement was obtained in exchange for Junts' renunciation of the unilateral pathway to independence and its backing of Sánchez's candidacy for Prime Minister.

Said bill was finally approved less than a month ago by Spain’s lower chamber, the Congress of Deputies (Congreso de los Diputados or simply Congreso), by 178 votes in favour to 172 votes against. It was first rejected by Junts in January stating that it could not guarantee certain separatists, including Carles Puigdemont, would be covered by it. In its final version, the bill passed by the Congreso defines terrorism by a 2017 European directive, stipulating that it must involve significant human rights violations. Due to this change, the separatists, including Puigdemont, can no longer be investigated for terrorism as a result of their role in leading an activist group that staged a 2019 raid on Barcelona airport. Furthermore, the bill covers all events related to the Catalan separatist movement since 2011, including the illegal 2017 independence referendum.

With regional elections in Catalonia in a month, the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia (Catalonia’s local government body) Pere Aragonès has announced he plans to hold a new referendum. Sanchez’s cabinet has already stated it will refuse to approve of the proposal. The following weeks, with both regional elections in Catalonia and the European elections fast approaching, will prove to be vital for the near future of both Catalan separatism, and separatism in Europe more broadly.

If the Catalan secessionists manage to successfully carry out a legal referendum to decide its independence, after all, it could serve as a precedent to other separatist movements in Europe, such as the Flemish in Belgium, the Bretons in France, or the South Tyroleans and Venetians in Italy.

Despite having the precedent of the 2018 New Caledonia amnesty bill passed by France, Sanchez’s deal with the Catalan separatists has caused a stir at the European Union. The EPP, in a bid to show support for Nuñez Feijóo, the leader of the EPP’s Spanish member party (the Partido Popular or PP), has made its opposition to the amnesty bill clear, claiming that “it has been drafted by its own beneficiaries” and that “could result in the closure of the investigation into Russian interference” in the Catalan independence process.

Flemish indepentists hold a rally in 2014
Flemish indepentists hold a rally in 2014
In the following weeks, due to the start of the EU electoral campaigns, the amnesty bill could likely become a hot button issue, both in the electoral platforms of pro- and anti-separatist parties across the EU, as well as in the public debate over the European elections. Belgium in particular might prove to be particularly affected - after all, Puidgemont and other catalan independentist leaders found “refuge” in Brussels as MEP’s, while the Flemish separatists of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) have always expressed its sympathy to the Catalan cause (for both political and strategic reasons, an approach that has been called separatism by proxy by experts).

More important than the developments themselves, will be how the next Parliament and Commission will react to them.

Resurgent Liberalism? Czechia & Slovakia at the Crossroads
by Yoan Tropčev

Václav Havel addresses protesters in Prague, 1989
Václav Havel addresses protesters in Prague, 1989
Over 30 years have passed since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, when both nations decided they would follow their own paths to economic transition and European integration. It is, then, somewhat ironic, that they seem to have found themselves walking side by side once more, this time, on the road of liberalism.

The political landscapes in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have shifted significantly as liberal forces have made substantial gains in recent times. The rise of liberal forces in Central Europe is a trend that signifies a response to the populist and nationalist movements that had previously gained ground in these countries. In the Czech Republic, the momentum of liberal forces culminated in the election of Petr Pavel as president in January 2023, signalling a departure from the polarising politics of his predecessor, Miloš Zeman, who was often labelled as pro-Russian and anti-immigrant. Pavel’s presidency is expected to align more with Western values, nurturing the relationship between the Czech Republic and the EU.

In Slovakia, the political atmosphere has also been transforming. The election of Zuzana Čaputová as president in 2019 was a clear sign of the shifting political winds, as she embraced progressive policies, transparency, and the fight against corruption, appealing to the liberal electorate. Her victory was a significant divergence from the growing nationalist sentiments in neighbouring countries and reaffirmed Slovakia's commitment to EU ideals.

The importance of these changes in the heart of Europe should not be understated. They help give direction when it is desperately needed. Despite being some of the most successful former Warsaw pact states, the governments in Prague and Bratislava have often butted heads with Brussels on a fair few issues.

During the migration crisis of 2015-2016, the Visegrad (V4) countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) articulated a very pronounced and distinctive stance on the highly debated issue. The V4’s approach basically stood against the open-door policy attributed to the rest of the union. To this day, the issue of migration remains deeply polarising, keeping the EU from enacting a coherent migrant policy. Another topic of perplexity, especially in the Czech case, is the green transition. Having a large domestic production industry yet having no resources of its own to sustain it, the country has continuously pushed for more leniency on nuclear and gas, which in turn angers big European players like Germany and Spain.

This gives the EU a chance to solve some of the key political issues plaguing it. With the Eurosceptic PIS party losing the last polish parliamentary elections, it appears that Hungary may soon be the only V4 nation championing populism. With more liberal-minded governments, the Czech Republic and Slovakia may align themselves closer with EU institutions on critical policy issues and their increased collaboration can lead to a more unified European voice, both domestically and abroad.

President Čaputová meets President Pavel in Prague, March 2023
President Čaputová meets President Pavel in Prague, March 2023
Economic and military policy could also become better coordinated. Both Czechia and Slovakia have a central position in Europe. There have been ideas from Prague to connect the Elbe, Oder and Danube rivers, improving interconnectivity and bolstering trade between member states. As for Slovakia, it’s border with Ukraine makes it a key area for transport of human and material capital to and from the country.

Nevertheless, although recent years have seen a resurgence of liberal forces in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, illiberal movements remain strong electoral blocs. CNNPrima's electoral simulation models show support for former Czech PM Andrej Babiš's party ANO to remain strong, well above 30%, while the latest slovak parliamentary and presidential elections both saw the victory of parties broadly seen as illiberal: Robert Fico's Smer-SD won the parliamentary elections, while Peter Pellegrini, supported by Fico, won the second round of the presidential election on April 6 2024.

The future remains uncertain. Europe is at a crossroad and there is no guarantee that any decision it takes will have the desired outcome, but sometimes, one does not need to see the whole staircase to take the first step.

Austria's integration issues
by Marcus Harvey Isaksson

In September last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU must prepare to grow to more than 30 members and announced a series of policy reviews to alleviate the process. Pressure has been mounting in recent years for the EU to expand membership as Russian influence in the Western Balkans has increasingly become a major concern.

EU-Western Balkans summit, 13 December 2023
EU-Western Balkans summit, 13 December 2023
With strong cultural and historical ties, Austria has since long been a strong advocate for expanding EU Membership in the region. Austria’s foreign minister Alexander Schallenberger underscored this point in a December interview with the Financial Times, asserting that EU leaders should not favour Ukraine over the Western Balkans when deciding whether to open accession negotiations, stating it would be a “geostrategic disaster” if the commission were looking at the western Balkans “with a magnifying glass and with rose-tinted glasses to Ukraine”. The issue has become a key priority for Austria’s foreign policy, both for symbolic and economic reasons. However, more sceptical member states argue that the EU risks "importing instability" if it relaxes its standards on democracy and corruption to hasten the ascension. Since any advancement must gain the unanimous approval of all existing members, Austria will have to intensify its charm offensive.

In contrast to its expansionary efforts in the Western Balkans, Austria has held a stringent position on deeper integration within the EU. Austria has since long been at the forefront of the EU’s opposition to Bulgaria and Romania’s entry into the Schengen Area, having previously vetoed both countries’ accession in 2022 whilst approving its neighbour Croatia. After 13 years of negotiations, Bulgaria and Romania joined their fellow EU members in the Schengen Area on March 31 2024 after Austria announced last December that it was willing to comply in exchange for tighter security at the EU’s external border. The entry is however only partial, as entry by land will still be subject to border controls, again due to Austria’s veto. This hardline stance can largely be explained by the domestic politics of Austria, which has heavily been shaped by the surge of asylum seekers and refugees crossing the border in recent years.

Austrian party FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl
Austrian party FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl
The ruling conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has capitalised on this and made the issue of fighting illegal immigration a key campaign issue in several elections, which has been reflected in the country’s EU and foreign policy positions. With the upcoming parliamentary elections in Austria later this autumn and the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) becoming the country’s leading political force following their successful state elections last year, EU integration efforts will likely continue to face Austrian opposition.

The country’s unyielding position of neutrality has come under scrutiny following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. While Sweden’s ascension to NATO showed that 200 years of neutrality could be reversed under the right circumstances, such a shift currently seems unlikely for Austria. Rather than a matter of praxis, the position of neutrality was enshrined in Austria’s own constitutional law after gaining full independence from the Allies in 1955.

Moreover, neutrality has become a part of Austrian identity. In a poll from May 2022, the month Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership, only 14% of Austrians favoured doing the same whilst 75% opposed it. Austria’s position seemingly paid off as the country is host to multiple international organisations and played an important role during the Cold War in meddling relations between the East and West. However, following the Russian war in Ukraine, the position has come under pressure. The country's banking sector's close ties with Russia and heavy reliance on Russian natural gas have drawn heightened scrutiny

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer's fruitless solo attempt to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war in April 2022 underscores Austria's unique position among EU leaders, as he remains the only EU leader to travel to Moscow since the invasion began. More recently, Austria has positioned itself more clearly, agreeing to send weapons to Kyiv through the European Defence Agency, authorising the military to the Red Sea, and deepening defence cooperation with its Western European NATO neighbours.

While Austria was prepared to amend its constitutional law for its ascension to the European Union, promising full participation in the blocks mutual defence clause under article 42, it remains to be seen how far the country is willing to go to defend its position of neutrality as the EU is gearing up to bolsters its joint defence cooperation and the war in Ukraine rages on with no end in sight.

Warsaw & Berlin's difficult relationship
by Samuele Nichetti

Tension between Warsaw and Berlin is an issue which has been affecting the very core of European stability and the Union’s well-functioning over the last decade, especially considering Poland’s fast-paced growth. The friction between the two countries can be articulated and developed on three main points: Poland’s reparation claims, the issue of NextGenerationEU funds, and the war in Ukraine. Additionally, while it is true that Germany has been investing heavily in the nation since the end of the Cold war and the liberalisation of the Polish economic and political system in an effort to promote growth and “foster good relations” between the two states, this may well be one of the main causes of tensions

First on the list - reparations. The German invasion of Poland in 1939 caused unbelievable levels of destruction in the country - at the end of the war, between 80 and 90% of Warsaw was destroyed and almost 20% of the Polish population had been killed. After the war ended, the Potsdam conference established that reparations were due to be paid to Poland, but, after pushing Poland to only recognise reparations from East Germany as valid, the Soviet Government put pressure on Warsaw to renounce its claims to reparations in August 1953

Polish President Duda in 2017
Polish President Duda in 2017
Fast-forward sixty years, and in October 2019, then PiS-led Poland notified Germany of its renewed claims for €1.3 billion in reparations - the legal basis for this claim resting on the democratic Polish government’s refusal to recognise the 1953 declaration on reparations as valid, both because it was made under soviet pressure (meaning, it was not a sovereign and independent decision of the Polish government), and because said declaration was only verbal. Moreover, Warsaw added that Germany had never paid back for the damages it caused. Germany promptly responded, arguing the matter to be closed under international law, while also emphasising how the issue had never been raised before since the fall of the Berlin wall

To this day, the dispute remains open, with Tusk’s KO-led government renewing the claim in January 2024. Nevertheless, the Polish government has also recognised that the international and economic situation has changed since 2019 and, given the inherent difficulties in paying such large sums, announced in February 2024 their openness to reparations being provided by means other than money transfers, such as “visible signs” of recognition for “the suffering of Poles”, as Foreign Minister Sikorski put it in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel.

Other than reparations, there is another issue causing tension between the two countries -  the block of recovery funds by the EU. The main reason behind this block is the lack of independence of the judicial system in Poland, which the EU sees as undermining the separation of powers and, as a result, the very democratic status of the country. Germany was one of the main promoters of the NextGenerationEU block, and Poland’s previous ruling party PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or Law and Justice), tried to exploit the crisis to gather support in the lead-up to the 2023 parliamentary elections, accusing Berlin of wanting to turn the EU into a "Fourth Reich".

Tensions over the rule of law, access to EU funds, and reparations have persisted for years, but have recently been exacerbated by further issues over the war in Ukraine, its implications, and EU policy with regards to both Kyiv and Moscow.

Issues started before the beginning of the conflict and were mainly related to Russian natural gas pipelines in Europe. In 2019, Poland sought to reduce its dependency on Russian gas to the point of independence by building Baltic Pipe, a pipeline connecting Poland to Norway’s Europipe II and therefore to the nordic country’s gas supply; Warsaw also warned other EU member states that excessive dependency on Russian-supplied gas would expose the bloc to the risk of being unduly influenced by Moscow’s policy. At the time, however, Germany appeared more worried by Warsaw’s Baltic Pipe project than the risk of Russian influence over the EU: by building the Baltic Pipe, Poland itself could become a natural gas and energy supply hub towards Central and Eastern Europe, gaining economic power, and thereby shifting the balance of equilibria from core Europe to the east side. In the end, the CJEU ruled in favour of Poland, supporting the reduction of capacity resources for the Nord Stream pipeline

But this is not the only question of debate. During the war itself, a number of disagreements and misunderstandings regarding the equipment arose between Poland and Germany. An example is the Patriot system. In 2022, Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles lost track of their target and landed in Poland, killing two people in the border village of Przewodów. Germany proposed to deploy Patriot systems to Poland, which instantly replied that it would be better to provide them to Ukraine to improve their defence capabilities and avoid such accidents in the future. Berlin’s response was that NATO ought to decide, but Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg rebuked Germany’s claim and clarified this decision was entirely up to the member states, leading to a stalemate and increasing diplomatic tensions. Other examples of disputes regarding the supply of weapons to Ukraine include Germany’s unwillingness to authorise the re-sale of Leopard tanks and other German-made systems, by both Poland and other NATO and EU states, to Ukraine.

To a significant extent, these three issues have all been addressed. Covid recovery funds have been unlocked as KO (Koalicja Obywatelska or Civic Coalition, Donald Tusk’s party) came to power, and Germany’s long-standing indecisiveness on Ukraine appears to have subsided and to have been replaced by a more decisively pro-Kyiv approach. Still, the Polish-German relationship is far from perfect - which points to underlying factors behind specific issues

But what are these factors? Two, primarily. Firstly, Poland’s astronomical economic growth over the last thirty years could, if continued, lead to an Eastern Shift of the EU, possibly increasing Warsaw’s influence to Berlin’s detriment. Secondly, it is plausible that Germany still sees Poland as a subordinate state, with lower relevance and which should depend on German investment and respond to German influence

The Eastern Shift can be defined as the eastward move of the centre of gravity of the European Union, which appears to have significantly increased in pace with the war in Ukraine, as Poland and the other states on Europe’s Eastern Flank gained importance. All states in the region increased investment in defence, and have sought to bolster the production capabilities of their domestic defence industries, Poland in particular, and advocated for increasingly stronger sanctions as a key policy tool to weaken the Russian economy and its ability to support the Russian Armed Forces in their invasion of Ukraine

The increased relevance of these states has also been underscored by a greater willingness to raise their voice in the EU, even accusing France and Germany, often considered the core of the Union, of lacking in leadership and realism. EU security decisions are by and large made by the most important nations in the Union, and it's difficult to predict how the growing relevance of the Eastern Flank will affect the EU’s internal balance, but it is evident that Germany has recognised Poland’s rise as more of a threat to Berlin than as an opportunity for Europe.

The growing industrial and, more broadly, economic power of Poland is also a factor that plays into the Warsaw-Berlin relationship and how this affects the EU as a whole. Since the fall of the USSR, Berlin has been the main trader with Warsaw. Germany accounted for 27.59% of Polish exports, and was responsible for 28.21% of Polish imports. The main products sold were related to the electro-machinery industry (approx. 40%), including non-rail vehicles with their components and accessories. German investment in Poland also played a major factor in both increasing Warsaw’s industrial capacity and fostering ties between the two countries. However, Polish-German economic integration has decreased in the post-COVID period. On the one hand, the pandemic led to a reduction in foreign direct investment across the board, while on the other the deterioration of Germany’s economic situation also both allowed and forced Polish industry to become more self-reliant and cease being a subcontractor of German industry.

Macron, Scholz and Tusk in Berlin in late 2023
Macron, Scholz and Tusk in Berlin in late 2023
Decreasing economic dependence on Berlin also allowed Warsaw to become increasingly politically independent and pursue bold foreign policy goals, often in direct opposition to German interests.

It is still too early to talk of a definitive shift in the balance of powers in the EU, but the evolution of the Polish-German relationship and ensuring it remains solid despite underlying disputes will be key to ensure that the European Union can act cohesively and effectively in the international arena. Steps have been made in this direction, but the question is still wide open.


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