1Russia wrestles with Borrell using Catalonia. Finally, the EU’s foreign policy commissioner, Spain’s Josep Borrell, traveled to Moscow in an attempt to calm the EU’s internal waters, stirred by the imminent completion of Nord Stream2. Once there he asked Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for Navalny’s release on the grounds that it was a political trial. The Russian leader reminded him of the imprisonment of the Catalan pro-independence leadership. After the mandatory ritual show of Spanish politicians, Lavrov, with feigned candor, declared that he did not know which of Sánchez’s ministers to believe given that his vice president had declared that the Catalan situation did not allow for talk of full democratic normality in Spain.
It may seem like diplomatic slyness or a display of cynicism but, as always with Russia, there is more to it than that. At least that’s how it seems to be assessed in Puigdemont’s entourage, who is seeking a rapprochement with Moscow. Four months ago recordings were made public in which people from the environment of the former president of the Generalitat asserted that Russia had offered him 10,000 soldiers and debt repayment in case he unilaterally declared independence during the 2017 crisis. Hard to think that at the time it was anything more than a pie in the sky claim: transporting 10,000 troops and their equipment while circumventing NATO defenses is not that easy. But one has to give credit to the hustle. Russia has much to gain by accelerating the EU’s breakdown, and straining the situation in Spain is a strong signal towards France.
2 China hosts a new summit with EU malcontents. The 17+1 summit being held by videoconference this year is a success for China purely by virtue of it taking place. It not only unites 17 European countries apart from Brussels while leaving out Germany and Italy. It has even managed to drag in Baltics, Poles and Czechs, very sensitive to US pressures… who have been neither rare nor discreet in their calls for a boycott of the meeting.
But Xi has a weapon striking at the very waterline of the European Commission:vaccines. Hungary had already made the Commission very nervous by approving the Russian vaccine. But at the end of the day, as seen in Argentina, Russia also does not have sufficient production capacity for countries to abandon the leadership of EU institutions. China does. And that was the message: Serbia, outside the EU, has received more vaccines per capita from China than any EU country from Brussels. The offer: vaccines for all and trade advantages. It doesn’t matter whether France is now moving its nuclear submarines in waters claimed by Beijing in what is considered a full-fledged military provocation, but no national capital today is going to shun its two greatest aspirations: to return to normality with sales on the domestic market and to win some new market, however small, abroad.
What’s this all about?
The accelerating crisis is straining relations within the EU states on a daily basis. Both Russia and China can only benefit if the power of Brussels, i.e. Germany and France, over the other member states is weakened. In one-on-one negotiations, without the authorization of German – and to a lesser extent French – interests, they can win more room for investments and exports. Especially in the center, east and southeast of the continent. And in any case, even if they are not conducive to breakup, displaying their ability to undermine the Commission’s centralizing attempts – for instance the joint purchasing mechanism for vaccines – already provides them with a bargaining chip to use in trade negotiations.
The protectionist side of the European Green Deal
And they’re going to need bargaining chips. The EU is walking resolutely toward green trade protectionism. First battle: the new CO2 tariffs already under discussion by Parliament. The idea is to put a tax on imports of energy-intensive industrial goods from those states judged by the Commission as not developing their own Green Deal fast enough. Russia is the first candidate. But China is concerned about its fertilizer and steel exports. If this were not enough, Brussels is evaluating putting an emissions tax on merchant ships arriving with goods from outside the EU. In other words, a further indirect tax on imports from Asia, Africa and the Americas that would do particular harm to Chinese exports of capital goods and consumer electronics.
The more contradictory the national interests within the EU, the more incentive Brussels has to try to counter them with more outward protectionism – which inevitably triggers its trade rivals – and new moves forward – such as vaccine centralization – that put the Commission and the interests it represents in a weaker position in the face of interference from those same rival states. Far from resolving the contradictions between the various imperialist interests coexisting within the Union, its institutions can only raise them to a higher level, double the stakes, open up new flanks, making the European balances ever more fragile.