International attention is centering on the Black Sea region following Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships at the entrance to the Sea of Azov. The incident is in the process of blossoming into a crisis, and there is no sign of it coming to an end anytime soon. Relations between Russia and Ukraine were already at an all-time low before Sunday’s seizure. Now they appear poised to deteriorate even further as the prospect of a larger conflict looms in the distance if the current crisis is not deescalated soon.
On Monday martial law was officially imposed on 10 of the nation’s 27 regions, mainly those with areas bordering Russia. President Petro Poroshenko had issued a decree for a 30-day period of martial law after the seizure. He claims the measure will ‘strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities amid increasing aggression.’ Whether this is the case or not remains to be seen.
International reaction to the crisis has uniformly condemned Russia’s actions. There has also been talk of imposing fresh sanctions on Russia as punishment, however, so far nothing has come of it. Particularly strong condemnations came from the European Union, and the United States. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called Sunday’s incident an ‘Outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory.’ President Trump’s statement was somewhat more subdued, but he indicated he’s not happy what is events in the region. Trump is expected to meet with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 Summit in Buenos Aires later this week. His refusal to openly condemn Russia’s actions now is likely a calculated move not to tip his hand before he sits down with Putin.
Along with the three ships, Russian security forces also took 24 Ukrainian sailors into custody. They are being held on Crimea. A court has ordered two of the sailors to be held for 60 days, according to media reports. Those sailors, as well as the rest, are being treated as criminals, not as prisoners of war. The Ukrainian government is calling for the immediate release of the sailors, and ships, though it seems unlikely that Kiev’s demands will produce the desired results anytime soon. If at all.
Wednesday’s Brexit summit in Brussels ended with no tangible results offered by either the European Union or Great Britain. In fact, there was more than a hint of disappointment in the chamber when British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived with no new proposals. The only thing May offered were hints that Britain might extend the post-Brexit transition phase beyond the proposed 21 months in order to hammer out the details of a future trade relationship between the UK and EU that is amicable to both parties. In other words, London, and Brussels will require more time to make the impending divorce as friendly as possible.
Expectations had been high in the days leading up to the summit. Some observers even framed it as a ‘make or break’ moment for a Brexit deal. Instead, negotiations will continue on with no clear timeline for when it will be time to draft a deal. The transition phase is set to run from March, 2019 until December, 2020. During this period, the UK will continue to honor the rules of the single market, and customs union. It could be extended through the end of 2021 if necessary.
May is likely to deal with some backlash from her party if the transition phase is extended. To many Tory MPs, an extension would be akin to allowing Great Britain to remain in limbo until 2022. In exchange for an extension, Britain would receive nothing in return from the EU. The longer England remains tied to the European Union, the bleaker May’s political fortunes will become.
The French people have spoken. Emanuel Macron will be the Republic of France’s next president. Marine Le Pen’s bid to win the presidency fell well short of the expectations of her and her party. Whereas Le Pen rode a wave of Brexit and Donald Trump inspired populism, Macron’s own political position was made up of a pseudo-socialist cloak that differs little in substance from the current president’s own positions.
What does this mean for France? Macron is portrayed as a centrist and political outsider by the European media. In reality, nothing is farther from the truth. He has held government positions in the past and is an avowed globalist. His policies as president will reflect his pro-European Union slant. He will attempt to bring France closer to the EU and its sphere. At a time when other European nation-states are rethinking their relationships with the EU, expect France to go all in, for lack of a better term. France’s future economic and trade policies will fall in line with what favors the financial policies dictated in Brussels, and, to a lesser extent, Berlin. Macron will also do everything possible to throw a wrench into Brexit negotiations. He’s very much opposed to Britain’s departure from the EU and his position there will have a very negative effect on UK-French relations in the future.
In the security and refugee realm, France will attempt to reach a compromise of sorts between continuing to accept large numbers of refugees and strengthening the borders of France. Francois Hollande made a similar attempt and it ended in near disaster for the Republic. France became no more secure and ISIS-inspired attackers were emboldened by the lack of effective defenses put up by the French government. The string of attacks across France in recent years contributed greatly to Hollande’s plummeting popularity. Marcon needs to accept and understand that his own political fortunes are inextricably tied to his ability to combat terrorism in France.
The aftereffects of the French election will take some time to materialize. It is fair to assume that France and Germany will spearhead an effort to rally the European Union. Despite the recent victories by pro-EU candidates across the continent, the future of the European Union continues to remain unclear. Europe’s populist movement is by no means dead, however, it has suffered a powerful setback. For the moment, Donald Tusk, Angela Merkel, and Jean Claude Juncker can breath a bit easier.
Come Sunday, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and company will likely be in need of a heavyweight infusion of Xanax to calm their jangled nerves. Italy is facing a critical political moment this weekend. As fate would have it, Italy is not alone. Austria is in a similar situation. The primary difference between the two EU members is that Italian voters will be going to the polls to decide on a constitutional referendum while Austrians will be selecting a new president. The results of both events hold potentially far-reaching consequences for the European Union. We discussed Italy yesterday, so this update will be, in large part, a summary of the upcoming election in Austria.
Sunday is a second chance for the Freedom Party and its candidate Norbert Hofer to capture the presidency. He was defeated in a second round runoff by Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Green Party, by a razor thin margin. Hofer and the Freedom Party challenged the results and because absentee ballots had been mishandled, Austria’s Constitutional Court decided that the entire election had to be held again. And so it will be on Sunday.
The significance of this election cannot be undervalued. The president of Austria is mainly a ceremonial post lacking the responsibility of running the day-to-day operations of the government. Yet many Europeans remain very concerned about what a Hofer victory will bring about though. To them Hofer is a far-right wing, anti-establishment candidate cast in the same mold as Donald Trump. Should he win the election on Sunday, it will further solidify the ascendancy of Trump-like politicians across the continent. But a victory by Van der Bellen will not be a sign that the populist, anti-establishment wave has reached its high-water mark. At the most, a Van der Bellen win gives the EU and politicians around Europe time to fortify their positions in preparation for the next electoral swing towards populist candidates.
One year ago, the prospect of a right wing candidate becoming president of a Western European nation-state was nearly impossible to fathom. Now, following Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, the prospect is becoming quite plausible in places like France and Austria. The world is watching and waiting to see how this weekend’s drama plays out. And right now in Brussels, the EU leadership has to be wondering incessantly about what Europe will look like come Monday morning.