European Council on Foreign Relations ECFR conducts research and promotes informed debate across Europe on the development of a coherent and effective European foreign policy. Fri, 27 Nov 2020 13:01:07 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 European Council on Foreign Relations 32 32 Responding to the China challenge: The state of play on investment screening in Europe Fri, 27 Nov 2020 10:42:32 +0000 The European Union is one of the most attractive destinations for foreign direct investment (FDI). As a driver of economic growth and job creation, investment from outside the EU brings great benefit to the European economy. But, under certain conditions, foreign investment can also become a threat to European sovereignty and economic prosperity.

Following growing concerns about the acquisition of strategically important companies across Europe especially by Chinese companies and investors, the EU and member states have been looking hard at how to protect critical infrastructure, industrial innovation, and defence and dual-use technology. While individual member states have been deploying investment screening mechanisms through national legislation for many years, a coordinated pan-European approach to the issue was long lacking. To fill this gap, the EU introduced legislation in March 2019 to establish a framework for screening foreign direct investment at the EU level. The new regulation came into force last month. At the same time, member states are also implementing national legislation in accordance with the framework.

To protect EU strategic interests related to foreign investment, Brussels aims to enhance cooperation and coordination between member states and the European Commission as well as among member states. Member states will now have to notify the commission of cases going through their national screening procedures. They will also have to provide information about the investment upon request. The new framework allows the European Commission and other member states to then issue opinions on proposed investments or takeovers, and raise their concerns, which must then be considered by the member state in which the investment is taking place. While these opinions are not legally binding, the European Commission openly raising concerns in this way could have a strong signalling effect. For a member state to then deliberately go against the EU’s recommendation could have negative consequences for future investment from within the EU.

The new EU regulation is a boost for greater European sovereignty

Although the new regulation is not a centralised EU investment screening tool, it is, nevertheless, a milestone in forging a more comprehensive EU approach towards detecting targeted investments in sensitive sectors and responding to them in a coherent manner. Member states that did not have national investment screening mechanisms in place before are now required by the new legislation to set up a point of contact for FDI in their country. They will have to submit annual reports summarising inward FDI activity. Politically fortified by the effects of the covid-19 crisis, the new EU regulation is, therefore, a boost for greater European sovereignty and one of the few concrete and credible deliverables on the China agenda that the EU has come up with so far.

In order to provide an overview of where individual member states stand, the following chart maps the different national approaches to FDI screening. Currently, 15 member states have national screening mechanisms in place, while five are currently in the process of adopting new mechanisms. Almost all member states are in the process of reviewing or updating their FDI screening mechanisms. ECFR will continue to monitor the developments in each member state and incorporate any changes accordingly.  

Rafael Loss contributed to the research by creating the toolbox and its visualisation.

The data was updated last on 12 November 2020.

Can the Frugals transform the EU? Fri, 27 Nov 2020 10:12:13 +0000 The geopolitical grouping known as the “frugal four” — Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands — has emerged as a key power centre in this year’s negotiations over the EU’s next budget and the covid-19 recovery fund.

However, flying the “frugal” banner now seems like it could become a trap — both for the countries themselves and for the rest of the EU. In this week’s episode, host Mark Leonard is joined by Catharina Sørensen, deputy director of the Danish “Think Tank Europa”, Caroline de Gruyter, ECFR Council Member and Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Daniel Sachs, ECFR Council member and CEO of the board of Sweden-based Proventus AB, and ECFR policy fellow Pawel Zerka. Does “frugality” actually reflect the public sentiment in those countries? How do the citizens really feel about the recovery fund? And how could the leaders of the frugal states reposition their countries as transformative engines for the EU?

Further reading: The transformative five: A new role for the frugal states after the EU recovery deal, by Pawel Zerka and Susi Dennison


The Mirror & the Light (Thomas Cromwell #3), by Hilary Mantel

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Leaving, by Vaclav Havel

The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann

The Joe Biden Experience, The Ezra Klein Show

This podcast was recorded on 25 November 2020.

Why the rule of law matters so much to Austria Fri, 27 Nov 2020 09:04:19 +0000 In this year’s negotiations on the European Union’s 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework and the architecture of the covid-19 recovery fund, Austria confidently stepped into the spotlight and framed the discussion together with the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and occasionally Finland – the so-called ‘frugal states’. What differentiated Austria from the other frugals is its recurring – but to a certain extent guilt-driven – demand for rule of law criteria to be closely linked to the EU’s budget. For Vienna, it is not only a question of where the money goes, but also what the overall situation in the respective member states is. If member states are failing to uphold the rule of law and other democratic principles, it reasons, funds should be withheld from them. But what really lies beneath the Austrian government’s strong determination for the EU to use rule of law mechanisms in case of breaches by member states?

Austria’s focus is not just driven by ideological considerations; it is equally motivated by practical reasons, where geographical location and economic factors play a prominent role. Austria’s overall financial situation is good compared to other EU countries and, according to ECFR’s public opinion research into what role the frugal states could play after the EU recovery deal, 30 per cent of Austrians believe that the EU contributes significantly to their country’s economic prosperity – a figure slightly higher than with the rest of the frugals.

However, its central location and considerable economic dependence on central and eastern Europe mean that Austria’s economy is more vulnerable to cases of corruption and rule of law violations in its neighbourhood. Forty-eight per cent of the general public already doubt the effectiveness of the recovery fund; they are concerned about corruption and how recipient countries would spend the money. This is by far the highest share among the frugal states. For Austria, the rule of law and the vitality of the European single market go hand in hand. However, as ECFR’s Coalition Explorer shows, when it comes to consultations on various European policy matters, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Croatia often turn to Austria. Hence, open dialogue and good neighbourly relations are of utmost importance to Austria, as it does not want to imperil its status in the region. This naturally puts Vienna in a difficult position, as it can be a difficult balancing act to address concerns about neighbours’ democratic principles while maintaining friendly relations with them.

For Austria, the rule of law and the vitality of the European single market go hand in hand

Hungary is a particular case in point: in March this year, during the outbreak of covid-19, the prime minister, Viktor Orban, introduced an emergency law that gave him extensive powers, leading several EU member states to promptly issue a joint statement on the matter. Austria, however, did not add its signature, stating that it preferred to seek a constructive dialogue instead. Its refusal stems partly from its special historical relationship with Hungary, as well as Vienna’s own image as a bridge-builder between east and west. The most decisive factor, however, might have been economic: Austria is the third-largest investor in neighbouring Hungary, which in 2019 was the most important market for Austrian exports across central and eastern Europe, and the fourth most important for Austria in the whole EU. By way of comparison, no central or eastern European country features in Finland’s and Sweden’s top ten export partners; for Denmark and the Netherlands, only Poland makes the top ten. Although current developments with regards to the rule of law are closely monitored by the EU, there remains a residual (political) risk for Austrian investors.

Therefore, while ensuring that Austria remains surrounded by stable democratic countries, Vienna is convinced that a stronger supranational mechanism reinforcing the protection of the rule of law would also benefit the European project as a whole. This is not least because of Austria being confronted with charges of illiberalism not long ago. In 2018, during the previous government, the People’s Party formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, which resulted in political chaos and damaged Austria’s international reputation; a set of circumstances that will not be forgotten easily. Thus, if clear and effective coercive measures regarding the protection of the rule of law were in place on an EU level, Austria would better protect itself and at the same time not be at so much at risk of jeopardising its own relationship for the sake of instructing its neighbours on democratic principles.

Austria has stepped up its engagement on EU matters of late and it would, according to its chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, even be willing to push for a new European treaty in order to strengthen the EU. Kurz has argued that much has changed since the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, and that the EU needs greater subsidiarity and a more proactive stance on issues like migration and the rule of law.

Austria should continue building on its lengthy experience as a bridge-builder, putting more effort into finding common ground with other member states. But it could also take a firmer stance on its neighbours when necessary. This way, Vienna could actively help transform the EU in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Sofia Maria Satanakis has been a research fellow at the AIES since 2013. Her research covers the topic of European Integration, with a special focus on the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).

How Europe can make climate neutrality a reality Thu, 26 Nov 2020 13:15:44 +0000 We stand at a pivotal moment in our history. We are feeling the weight and the sadness of the human tragedy of 2020, but we have not yet felt the full force of the economic fallout from the global health crisis. How we try to bounce back from this crisis will dictate our future on this planet. But there is reason for hope, in spite of the economic pressures.

The pandemic has shown how vulnerable we are to nature’s forces. And, while climate change may act more slowly than a virus, it will prove equally deadly, as we know already from the victims of increasingly severe whether events and from the economic disruption climate change creates. We know that we must stop the growth of greenhouse gases now, achieve a balance between emissions and removals shortly after mid-century, and accelerate their removal them from the atmosphere thereafter. In Europe, we have called this “climate neutrality”. We want to achieve it by 2050 at the latest. We know that Europe alone can only make a dent in this global threat, but we believe we can offer everyone else on our planet a working model of a modern, competitive, prosperous, and climate-neutral economy and society by 2050, in which no one is left behind.

This goal is a huge undertaking, but it does not have to mean economic sacrifice. Europe has a proven record of achieving economic growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2019, EU economies reduced their net greenhouse gas emissions by one-quarter while still increasing their combined GDP by over 60 per cent. The European Union and its member states today have in place all the laws and the measures needed to achieve our current target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030, and in fact overshoot it. Yet, this is not enough. At the rate of change that these laws would bring, Europe would have to further accelerate its efforts after 2030, potentially curbing economic growth.

Europe’s climate goals can help overcome the economic crisis brought about by the pandemic

This is why the European Green Deal makes our 2050 commitment legally binding in the EU Climate Law, and why the European Commission has proposed an ambitious climate target plan for 2030 to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent. The commission’s impact assessment shows that this is achievable and beneficial for Europe. It gives industry adequate time to adapt, to benefit from first-mover advantage, and to avoid carbon lock-in, while stemming the continued damage to the climate that further delay would bring.

At the same time, the huge investment that these goals require are just what Europe needs right now to overcome the economic crisis brought about by the covid-19 pandemic. Just as, in the longer term, frontloading this investment is what Europe needs for our longer-term project.

Much of this investment will come from the private sector, but public funds are needed to support the necessary innovation towards clean technologies; to ensure solidarity towards all those who are less able to manage the transition on their own; and to help citizens and administrations adapt to the disruption that climate change will continue to bring before we can win this fight. The EU is already taking the steps to secure the financial means. The European Parliament and member states reached agreement on an improved EU budget for 2021-2027 and on an extraordinary recovery instrument, NextGenerationEU. This package of more than €1.8 trillion would enable the EU to tackle both today’s crisis and tomorrow’s challenges. Thirty per cent of all EU funds, and 37 per cent of the €672.5 billion of new grants and loans from NextGenerationEU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility, will be dedicated to fighting climate change. The “twin transitions” (green and digital) will also be at the heart of NextGenerationEU. Member states will invest in green jobs and sustainable economic growth. These funds will finance clean technologies such as hydrogen, boost the share of renewables in the energy mix, improve the energy efficiency of buildings supporting the Renovation Wave, and accelerate the rollout of sustainable green transport and infrastructure. The Just Transition Mechanism will mobilise over €100 billion of public and private investment to support those regions most vulnerable to potential negative socio-economic impacts of the transition.

The EU will also revise its entire climate and energy framework, to have in place the laws and measures we require to match our ambitions. Public consultations on revising the EU Emissions Trading System Directive, the Effort Sharing Regulation, the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry Regulation, and the Regulation governing carbon dioxide standards for light-duty vehicles were launched in November 2020, with a view to proposing a full legislative package by June 2021. Carbon pricing, under the Emissions Trading System, currently covering power and industry, could extend to other parts of the economy. The capacity of Europe’s land and forests to sequester carbon from the atmosphere must be strengthened: planting trees, better (and more efficient) farming practices, rewetting wetlands, and promoting greater use of wood products in construction and other sectors. Higher CO2 emissions standards are to be set for the cars and vans on European roads.

Yet, we know our good intentions for a green recovery in Europe will not be enough if we fail to convince others to join us. Not only must we in Europe press ahead with our own ambitious plans for a green transition, but we must bring international partners on board too. Already, the ranks of the “net-zero club” are growing. Japan has followed the EU and has adopted the 2050 climate neutrality goal, and others aim to achieve at least net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 (South Africa and South Korea) or 2060 (China). Canada announced a new law on climate neutrality and Joe Biden has indicated that the United States will move in the same direction. Five years on, there is finally a sense of a global momentum emerging, towards keeping the promise of the Paris Agreement and securing our future on this planet.

Mauro Petriccione is director general for Climate Action at the European Commission.

While the references to legislative acts and policy documents are accurate, the views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission.

The transformative five: A new role for the frugal states after the EU recovery deal Wed, 25 Nov 2020 08:00:00 +0000 Summary
  • The reputation of Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden as ‘frugal states’ does not reflect public sentiment in these countries.
  • Almost eight in ten voters in the frugal states do not believe that the European Union is spending too much money on its covid-19 recovery fund.
  • Their bigger concern appears to be about waste and corruption linked to member states’ use of the fund.
  • Voters in the frugal states have mixed feelings about the recovery fund.
  • More than four in ten of them believe that their country’s influence in the EU has declined in recent years.
  • This perception correlates with their feelings about the recovery deal and the state of the European project more broadly.
  • The governments of the frugal states should reinvent themselves as the ‘transformative five’.
  • This coalition would focus on reducing inefficiency and corruption in the use of recovery funds, harnessing it to shape Europe’s green transition and the future of the European project.


When the history of the European Union in 2020 is written, one of the key developments it will reflect upon is the rise to prominence of the ‘frugal states’. The ‘frugal four’ of Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden are under the spotlight for their staunch opposition to increases in the EU budget. Their leaders – Sebastian Kurz, Mark Rutte, Mette Frederiksen, and Stefan Lofven respectively – even published a manifesto of sorts in an op-ed in the Financial Times in February this year. They argued that, though their commitment to the EU was as strong as that of their peers around the European Council table, they would not allow the bloc’s budget to exceed 1 per cent of its gross national income. And they called for “a system of permanent corrections to protect individual states from having to shoulder excessive budgetary burdens”.

In the following months, as the coronavirus hit, states across the EU felt a growing need for support from the shared budget. The frugal states maintained a firm position and even began to shape the discussion. In summer, Finland took up their cause – even if the country’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, denied having joined the frugals. But, though the frugal states secured national rebates for themselves, the deal on the EU recovery package they helped finalise on 21 July did not adhere to all their principles of financial prudence. In particular, the European Council agreed to large-scale EU borrowing on the markets to finance the fund, and to new EU money, more than 40 per cent of it in the form of grants. Back home, Rutte struggled to find positive words to describe the agreement, refusing to call it ‘historic’ as its supporters elsewhere had.

With such an underwhelming response from their countries’ leaders, citizens of the frugal states could have felt that the recovery deal was not in their interests. Even though the architects of the agreement wanted to bring member states together to ward off the worst effects of covid-19 and spur a green recovery, these voters may have believed that the arrangement did not reflect their vision of the EU’s future.

Such drift would have a profound effect on the nature of the European project. The governments of the frugal states are not only characterised by their risk-aversion in the expenditure of EU resources. They are also key to keeping Europe’s liberal instincts alive. As the European Council on Foreign Relations’ EU Coalition Explorer demonstrates, these states are champions of the EU’s agenda on multilateralism, foreign policy, digital issues, and the rule of law. They have taken on even greater responsibility in these areas since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (Before then, the United Kingdom was traditionally one of the EU’s strongest advocates of much of this agenda, and a more powerful force in the bloc than any of the frugal states individually.)

In October 2020, ECFR commissioned Datapraxis and Dynata to carry out a survey exploring whether voters in the five frugal states feel that, after the deal on the recovery fund, they could still buy into and identify with the European project. The survey also covered France, Germany, and Poland, for the sake of comparison.

Its results show that the frugal states’ adoption of the label of frugality does not reflect public sentiment. Though forming this coalition may have paid off tactically in the negotiations over the recovery fund, their future positioning in the EU should be informed by a more sophisticated understanding of citizens’ opinions on, and feelings about, Europe.

Citizens of the frugal states are not, in fact, frugal in the purest sense of the word. Almost eight in ten respondents in the frugal states did not agree with the statement that, with the recovery fund, the EU is spending too much money. Their bigger concern appears to be about how other member states spend their share of the EU budget, with almost 40 per cent reporting concerns about financial waste and corruption in this.

They have mixed feelings about the recovery deal – with Finland the only frugal state in which as much as 50 per cent of voters express negative emotions about it (anger, frustration, and worry). Nonetheless, at least 29 per cent of the population express positive feelings about the agreement (optimism, relief, and enthusiasm) in all the frugal states. Overall, their perception of changes in their country’s influence in the EU correlates with their views and feelings about the recovery deal – and appears to be crucial to their thinking about where the EU contributes the most to promoting their country’s interests.

This paper analyses the findings of ECFR’s October survey. It argues that, far from the frugal states being lost to the European project after the recovery deal, all is still to play for in making their voters feel that the EU is developing in line with their interests. The right policies and the right messaging can keep them on board. And the ‘frugal five’ can become the ‘transformative five’ – by shaping the EU’s foreign policy, supporting the European Green Deal, strengthening the single market and the rule of law, and contributing to other key areas.

National and European interests

Many EU watchers have debated whether the covid-19 recovery package is an institutional step towards a federal union. But, just beneath the surface, there is another strand of public discourse on the EU that may have greater long-term significance for the European project.

The 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 refugee crisis both triggered a strong nationalist backlash in Europe, with populist parties winning votes by arguing that EU institutions had failed voters. Covid-19 might still lead to gains for populists in the long term. In the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden, populist parties lost some of their appeal during the first wave of the pandemic – but they have recovered since then and are currently on the rise. As things stand, Dutch politician Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) is polling at around 25 per cent of the vote. The Finns Party and the Sweden Democrats can rely on a stable 20 per cent. The radical right is doing less well in Austria and Denmark, but this may be partly because it is regrouping, with rival Eurosceptic initiatives trying to attract voters from more established parties.

But, as ECFR’s survey earlier this year showed, there are good reasons to believe that the crisis of 2020 will not lend as much weight to nationalists’ arguments as did the crises of 2008 and 2015. Populists – and the far right in particular – have tried to pin the blame for the spread of the pandemic on uncontrolled globalisation, and have called for a nation-first response. So far, the power of these arguments has been limited by Europeans’ recognition of the need to pool sovereignty on some issues at the EU level.

Many EU citizens felt vulnerable in the early stages of the covid-19 crisis as their countries turned inwards, with national healthcare systems struggling to find the resources they needed to fight the disease, and lockdowns leading to shortages of essential goods. As ECFR’s polling in April and May this year showed, EU citizens believed that the first step towards dealing with the uncertain international environment was for Europe to rely on itself in securing essential supplies. This sentiment was particularly evident in Germany and France, but extended across all surveyed EU states (which also included Italy, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, and Bulgaria). In a world in which the United States is engaged in a fierce competition with China and has stepped back from global leadership, European voters have shown they want the EU to throw its weight behind international institutions – to help ensure that there will be a level playing field on which to mitigate the global economic and health crisis, to shape the digital future, and to address the climate challenge.

The new survey ECFR conducted in October 2020 suggests that the citizens of the frugal countries are not immune to this trend. Like their counterparts in other member states, they no longer see national sovereignty and European sovereignty as an either/or choice. They recognise the value of the role the EU plays in promoting their country’s interests. And, contrary to stereotypes, this goes well beyond economics. When asked about the areas in which the EU makes the greatest contribution to promoting their country’s interests, respondents to the October survey most often name the freedom to live and work in other countries; the single market; cooperation on security, justice, and counter-terrorism; protection from conflict; and exports. In most frugal states, less than ten per cent of respondents say that the EU does not promote their country’s interests in any area. The exception is Austria, where 14 per cent of respondents hold this view – compared to 16 per cent in France.

Given Scandinavian countries’ international reputation for tackling climate change, it is slightly surprising that so few people in these states recognise the EU’s contribution in this area: just 13 per cent in Sweden, and 15 per cent in Denmark and Finland. These numbers are similar to those in Austria (13 per cent) and the Netherlands (17 per cent), as well as in Germany (17 per cent) and France (16 per cent), with Poland an outlier on this issue (20 per cent). The frugal states’ limited appreciation of the EU’s climate role may stem from a lack of public discussion on the issue – as well as from the EU’s modest material achievements on this front so far.

Strikingly, in the frugal states, supporters of nationalist parties are relatively aligned with other voters in their perception of the top five issues on which the EU promotes their country’s interests. The main difference between nationalists and the rest is that the former – such as supporters of the New Right in Denmark, the Sweden Democrats, and the PVV – have much greater enthusiasm for the EU’s role in controlling borders than other voters in their countries.

In which areas do you think the EU is most likely to promote the interests of your country?

This recognition of the EU’s contribution in the frugal states may go some way to explaining their citizens’ mixed feelings about the EU recovery deal. In these countries, the overall balance of positive and negative feelings about the deal is similar to that in France and Germany – despite the fact that some aspects of the agreement do not align with the supposed priorities of voters in the frugal states.

There are subtle differences within the frugal group on the emotional front. The recovery deal appears to have gone down relatively poorly in Finland, Austria, and the Netherlands. In these countries, between 42 per cent and 50 per cent of voters say that the recovery deal primarily inspires anger, frustration, or worry in them, while less than one-third emphasise optimism, relief, or enthusiasm.

Voters in Sweden and Denmark, by contrast, express positive and negative feelings about the agreement in roughly equal measure. This may be partly because, as non-members of the eurozone, the two countries are less concerned about the systemic effects of the crisis on the common currency. Far fewer voters in Sweden and Denmark feel ‘worried’ about the recovery deal than do those in Finland, the Netherlands, and Austria – where this is the most common sentiment.

Moreover, Sweden and Denmark are traditionally among the most optimistic societies in the EU – and, in the former country, many people tend to respond ‘don’t know’ in polls about Europe. These factors may also help explain their less negative reaction. However, Sweden and Denmark share the rest of the frugal states’ high level of frustration with the recovery deal relative to France, Germany, and Poland.

And, overall, there is a stark contrast between emotional reactions in the frugal states and those in Poland. While the former are net creditors to the EU budget, the latter has historically been among the greatest beneficiaries of European funds and is set to become the fourth-biggest recipient of the recovery grants (after Italy, Spain, and France). In Poland, more than half of respondents express positive feelings – mostly optimism – about the fund, while only 17 per cent express worry, frustration, or anger.

The EU recently agreed to a covid-19 recovery fund worth €750bn on top of its seven-year budget of €1,074bn. Your country is a contributor to the EU budget. What is your dominant reaction to this agreement?

In the frugal states, there is a strong correlation between voters’ emotional reactions to the recovery deal and their political views – such as those on voting intention. Unsurprisingly, negative feelings about the deal predominate among supporters of the populist right (the Sweden Democrats, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Finns Party, the New Right, and the PVV). Anger is one of their main feelings about the deal, and the leading one among supporters of the Finns Party and the Sweden Democrats. But anger is far rarer among supporters of other parties in their countries.

Supporters of ruling parties tend to display the most positive feelings about the recovery deal – which is understandable, given that these parties played a role in negotiating the agreement. In this sense, however, it is all the more surprising that supporters of Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) express more negative feelings about the deal than do their compatriots who favour other mainstream parties (such as the Greens and the left). Supporters of the VVD and the OVP express worry more than any other emotion in response to the agreement.

In comparison to angry and frustrated voters, worried voters are less concerned that the EU is spending too much on the recovery deal, and more appreciative of the deal’s positive effect on economic recovery in the EU. However, voters in all three categories have significant concerns about wasted expenditure.

Which of the following statements about the covid-19 recovery fund do you think is correct?

The frugal states have not been swept up in negative feelings about the recovery package (even if media coverage across Europe in late summer 2020 might have suggested otherwise). This indicates that their citizens – like those of other member states – understand that the EU matters in dealing with global issues that affect their lives, such as trade, conflict, and counter-terrorism. So, although voters in frugal states wanted their national leaders to protect their country’s interests in the recovery fund negotiations, they would not have supported brinkmanship from them that risked collapse of the EU. One of the key challenges governments of the frugal states face is in continuing to protect European and national interests simultaneously.

Regrets, they have a few

This is not to say that voters in the frugal states have no regrets about the EU recovery deal. The 2020 budgetary negotiations were an ambiguous experience for them. The frugal states were largely successful in defending their rebates and pushing down the proportion of grants to loans in the recovery fund. However, their leaders were not hailed as heroes in the domestic press. Though the outcome of the negotiations addressed some of voters’ main concerns, the recovery deal was reported across the EU as a step forward in the integration process – a ‘Hamiltonian moment’. And the inclusion of a borrowing facility in the deal was in direct opposition to some of the frugal states’ objectives, as well as to their interpretation of EU treaties. In addition, the frugal states must recognise that they are unlikely to be as influential in EU negotiations over other matters as they were over the budget.

Do you believe that, in the last 2-3 years, the influence of your country in the EU has declined or increased?

In light of this, one might expect voters in all the frugal countries to express a powerful sense of lost influence in the EU. This is clearly the case in Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. But, in the Netherlands and Austria, voters are split on whether the influence of their country in the EU has increased or decreased during the pandemic. As much as 37 per cent of respondents in Austria believe that their country’s influence grew. This is only just short of the proportion of Germans who hold this view (40 per cent). And it is markedly higher than the corresponding number in France (29 per cent), despite President Emmanuel Macron’s best efforts to challenge traditional French scepticism in the area.

If one assumes that Brexit played a vital role in making the frugal states feel less influential in the EU, then the Scandinavians appear to have coped less well with the situation than their Dutch and Austrian peers have. This may be because their geographic position provides them with fewer opportunities for coalition-building.

Do you believe that, in the last 2-3 years, the influence of your country in the EU has declined or increased?

Usually, the prevailing view among supporters of ruling parties is that their country’s influence has risen. But – surprisingly – this is not the case in Denmark, where those who voted for the Social Democrats recognise the waning power of the country (perhaps due to a recent change of government). Nor is it the case in the Netherlands and Finland, where supporters of the VVP and the Social Democrats respectively are split on the issue.

In ECFR’s surveys, overall perceptions of national influence are usually skewed by the strongly negative attitudes of far-right voters. Yet no ruling party can feel comfortable if only its supporters see their country’s influence as having increased. In this sense, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Macron have good reason to be pleased with the result of the October survey. A generally positive view of national influence in the EU is evident among not just supporters of the ruling Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and La République En Marche! respectively but also the other main pro-European forces in these countries: the Social Democratic Party and the Greens in Germany, and Les Républicains and the Greens in France. There is no similar dynamic in the frugal countries.

National influence and the recovery deal: Citizens’ feelings

Voters’ perceptions of changes in their country’s influence in the EU correlate with their feelings about the recovery deal. In all surveyed countries aside from Poland, differences in voters’ emotional reactions to the recovery deal correlate with differences in their sense of how their country’s influence in the EU is changing. Most of those who see their country’s influence as increasing express positive feelings about the agreement, especially optimism. And most of those who see their country’s influence as declining express negative feelings, particularly worry. Voters in frugal states who perceive a decline in their country’s influence tend to have negative feelings about the recovery deal. This is true of two-thirds of that group in Finland and 60 per cent in Austria. There is a marked sense of anger with the deal among citizens of Germany, Austria, and Finland who see their country’s influence as declining.

The EU recently agreed to a covid-19 recovery fund worth €750bn on top of its seven-year budget of €1,074bn. Your country is a contributor to the EU budget. What is your dominant reaction to this agreement? By whether respondents see the influence of their country in the EU as increasing

France stands slightly apart from the frugal states and Germany – as well as Poland – in being the only country in which voters’ strong sense of relief does not correlate with perceptions of an increase in national influence in the EU. This may be because the pandemic has hit France harder than the other countries in the survey, in both health and economic terms.

National influence and the recovery deal: Citizens’ opinions

In all surveyed countries, voters’ perceptions of changes in their country’s influence correlate with their views about the recovery package. As discussed above, many of them are concerned about waste and corruption linked to recipient states’ use of the fund. The share of respondents who express this concern ranges from 30 per cent in Poland to 48 per cent in Austria.

There are significant differences between surveyed countries in the other concerns that voters express most often. In the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, the second most common concern is that, with the recovery fund, the EU is spending too much money. This perception is also common in Austria, Finland, France, and Poland. But it is not as common as the view that there may be insufficient money in the recovery fund to stop a damaging recession and prepare healthcare systems to combat the pandemic.

Which of the following statements about the covid-19 recovery fund do you think is correct?

This may point to a heightened sense of economic vulnerability in Austria, Finland, France, and Poland – with people in other surveyed countries believing that their economies are relatively resilient. However, the most striking finding of ECFR’s October survey is that, in the frugal states and Germany, the perception that the EU spends too much money is far less common than their reputations would suggest. Between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of voters in these countries do not express this view (these numbers are even higher for Poland and France). Despite their worries about waste and corruption linked to the recovery fund, most Europeans do not say that the EU should spend less.

To be sure, this does not apply to every voter. In all surveyed countries, respondents who perceive a decline in their country’s influence in the EU tend to be more concerned than others about waste and corruption – and about the EU spending too much. And this tendency is particularly marked in the frugal countries. In all five frugal states, the belief that the EU is spending too much is twice as common among voters who perceive a decline in their country’s influence as among those who perceive an increase in it (32 per cent to 16 per cent). The difference between the two groups is considerably smaller in France, Germany, and Poland.

The perception that the EU is spending too much is relatively common among supporters of far-right parties such as the New Right, the PVV, the Finns Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, and the Sweden Democrats. The share of voters who hold this view ranges from 30 per cent to more than 50 per cent across these parties. The perception is also common among supporters of Alternative for Germany, Poland’s Konfederacja, and France’s Rassemblement National. And it is shared by around one-quarter of supporters of centre-right parties such as the Moderate Party in Sweden, the CDU/CSU, the VVD, the National Coalition in Finland, and the OVP. On this, voters’ perceptions of EU spending correlate more with whether the party they support is on the right or left than whether it is in government. Overall, surprisingly few voters say that the EU is spending too much.

At the same time, those who see their country’s influence in the EU as increasing are more likely to believe that, through the recovery deal, the bloc will spark an economic recovery and a green transition. Again, this trend is stronger in the frugal countries than in France, Germany, or Poland. In the five frugal states collectively, the belief that the fund sets EU-wide standards for the economic recovery is twice as common among those who see their country’s influence increasing (29 per cent) as among those who think it is declining (14 per cent). The corresponding numbers for the environmental transition are 17 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. These perceptions are common among supporters of all ruling parties in the frugal countries, aside from the OVP.

Interestingly, in most surveyed countries, at least one-fifth of voters say that the recovery fund could be insufficient to address the crisis. Sweden and Denmark are the only outliers, at 12 per cent each. In the Netherlands and Poland, this perception is relatively common among voters who say that their country’s influence is increasing. Meanwhile, the reverse is true in Finland, where the view that the EU is spending too little money is among the most common answers among those who see the influence of their country as waning. In Germany, France, and Austria, between 21 per cent and 25 per cent of voters say that the EU does not have enough money to address the coronavirus crisis – but this view is equally common among those who believe their country’s influence is increasing and those who see it as declining.

Which of the following statements about the covid-19 reconstruction fund do you think is correct?

All this may point to a link between people’s perception of their country’s position in the EU and whether they think that, with the recovery deal, the EU is either spending too much money or doing the right thing to spur an economic recovery and a green transition. In general, the recovery package receives a more positive reception from those who believe that the influence of their country is increasing (perhaps because this belief boosts their confidence in the deal). In contrast, those who believe that the influence of their country is waning are most likely to believe that the EU is spending too much.

Concerns about waste and corruption, and about a lack of recovery funds, are common among voters irrespective of the changes they perceive in their country’s influence in the EU. As the most widespread concerns across all eight surveyed countries, these areas constitute a promising basis for policy that could win support from not just different parts of the electorate but also different EU member states.

National influence and the recovery deal: The EU’s contributions

In frugal states, voters’ perceptions of changes in their country’s influence also correlate with their views on where the EU makes the greatest contribution to promoting their national interests. However, the correlation is not as strong as that with feelings and opinions about the recovery deal.

Where do you think the EU is most likely to promote the interests of your country?

Overall, there is a greater appreciation of the EU’s role among those who believe their country’s influence is rising than among other voters. This is true in most policy areas covered by ECFR’s October survey. Collectively, citizens of Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden who think their country’s influence is growing tend to be more appreciative than others of the economic opportunities and benefits of the single market (34 per cent), as well as of European cooperation on security, justice, and counter-terrorism (29 per cent). They are, in comparison to those who see their country’s influence in the EU as waning, almost twice as likely to see the fight against climate change – along with support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – as an area in which the EU makes an important contribution. In contrast, in frugal states, just 4 per cent of voters who perceive an increase in their country’s influence in the EU say that the bloc does not promote their national interests in any area. Among those who believe their country’s influence is declining, this figure is 14 per cent.

More importantly, however, voters who believe their country’s influence is declining are still broadly enthusiastic about the EU – for a variety of reasons. In the five frugal countries, 30 per cent of these voters appreciate the freedom to live in and travel to other member states. One in four recognises the economic opportunities and benefits of the single market. And at least 20 per cent believe that the EU makes a valuable contribution to European cooperation on justice, security, and counter-terrorism; the promotion of exports; and protecting them from war and conflict.

In the Netherlands, Sweden, and Austria, there is a greater appreciation for the EU’s role in promoting exports among voters who believe their country’s influence in the EU is declining than among those who believe it is increasing. And, as discussed above, even supporters of right-wing populist parties appreciate the EU’s role in protecting their country’s interests in several policy areas.

This suggests that there is a strong attachment to the EU even among these voters in the frugal states who either perceive a decline in their country’s influence, are voting for Eurosceptic parties, or both. Leaders in these countries should not misread such behaviour as a sign that they would prefer to leave the EU altogether, as the British chose to do. But the fact that so many voters in frugal states feel bad about the recovery deal – and that, in all the frugal countries, more than one-third of voters think their country is losing influence in the bloc – points to another danger for these countries’ sense of ownership of the European project. It will be hard to convince voters in frugal states that their countries are still influential – and that EU membership is worth the price – if national narratives about the bloc continue to focus on narrowly defined economic interests.


There is little doubt that voters in the frugal states regard the recovery package as far from ideal. But ECFR’s survey data indicate that they understand the need for compromise in an organisation of 27 states, and that the benefits of EU membership outweigh its costs. Indeed, their appreciation of the EU’s contribution in some policy areas – from strengthening the single market and the rule of law, to cooperation on security and terrorism, to protecting their countries from war and conflict – suggests that they have an appetite for more Europe. EU institutions would do well to include these areas on their policy agenda and in their communication in the coming years. This could prove especially necessary in the event of longer-term restrictions on free movement across the EU designed to handle the pandemic, which would effectively take away one of the benefits of EU membership that – as ECFR’s data show – voters in the frugal countries (and other member states) prize most highly.

For political leaders in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden, the ‘frugal’ label is no longer tactically useful now that the recovery fund has been finalised. Public sentiment presents them with an opportunity to reposition themselves as an engine of EU transformation. They can do so by focusing on how member states spend EU funds, and by building the kind of EU that their voters want to see.

To become the transformative five, the frugal states first need to convince voters at home that they are influential in EU decision-making and that this process produces outcomes that are in the national interest. One area in which these voters have a strong appetite for progress at the European level is in tackling financial waste and corruption, particularly in the use of EU funds. Most governments in frugal states are already part of the ‘friends of the rule of law’ grouping within the European Council. They should publicise this form of engagement in the national media; be vocal about the EU’s use of its mechanisms to address violations of the rule of law (such as those in Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria); emphasise the importance of judicial independence in relation to systemic threats to democracy; and be particularly vigilant on the disbursement of EU funds in countries where there are breaches of the rule of law.

All these approaches would help them reassert their influence in the EU. They could also be politically beneficial in their national contexts, given that corruption and the rule of law are issues on which the EU can actually make a difference and, in doing so, take the power out of the arguments of European populists. These approaches could provide a ‘win’ in EU politics for the leaders of the frugal states, who could tell their voters that their main concern had been addressed.

For the frugal states, the springboard for such efforts could be the November agreement between the European Council and the European Parliament to link payments from the recovery fund and the multiannual budget to the rule of law. But they should also build on this compromise. For example, they could try to reinforce the authority of the European Court of Justice as the ultimate arbiter of EU law. One possible way to protect the rule of law in the EU would be to condition any payment from the bloc’s budget on judicial independence in member states. Including such a provision – with clear reference to the breach of Article 19 of the Treaty on European Union – could, in the future, become a cornerstone of a possible amendment of the rule of law mechanism. Some of the frugal countries could also exert pressure on Poland and Hungary to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office – although their efforts might be more fruitful if Denmark and Sweden also joined it, as they are currently the only other EU27 members (apart from Ireland) that have not done so yet.

Secondly, the governments of the frugal states should continue to assert themselves in the Council – and, once the Council has made a decision, they should take collective responsibility for it. Given the fine balance in domestic public opinion on the relationship with the EU, they cannot afford to fall into the British trap of blaming Brussels for everything that is hard to swallow at home. This will simply reinforce domestic concerns about their country’s declining influence and scepticism about whether there is a place for it in today’s EU. That said, they should also be careful not to give voters the impression that they can profoundly change the EU – because they cannot. Change is painfully slow in the EU, and leaders of the frugal countries should carefully explain to their domestic audience that this is the nature of the beast.

This leads to the third recommendation for the political leaders of what could become the transformative states. They need to tell a compelling story about how national and European interests align. As ECFR’s data indicate, in these countries, there seems to be a gap between governments and citizens on the appropriate level of frugality. This suggests that some political leaders may have reasons other than democratic pressure for pursuing a hard line on budgetary issues.

Some of the frugal states are already relaxing their long-held positions in response to geopolitical shifts. For example, the Netherlands has revisited its laissez-faire stance on Chinese investment in Europe, and Sweden is pushing forward with ambitious investments in defence. However, frugal states’ narratives about Europe have remained staunchly market-focused, in keeping with stereotypes about voters’ preferences.

Yet these voters seem to want their governments to move away from the fight over higher spending, and to focus on financial waste and corruption. Leaders of frugal governments could, at the very least, discuss this issue with their voters in a more sophisticated way: specifying how much corruption there really is in the EU, which countries suffer from it, who is responsible for it, and what can be done about the problem. The yearly reports of the European Court of Auditors rarely receive public attention in the frugal countries. As a result, some voters might get the impression that the EU maintains a giant scheme of waste and corruption – for which one can blame the ‘Eurocrats’ in Brussels but do little else about.

Given that voters in the frugal states have a strong attachment to the economic aspects of the EU, leaders in these countries should also engage citizens in a narrative about the close relationship between the rule of law, corruption, and the vitality of the single market. The unprecedented problems with the rule of law and corruption in some member states have a bearing on the economic prospects of the frugal states, as they concern the functioning of the single market more broadly. At the same time, problems with the rule of law in some member states may erode the EU’s credibility in markets – which is a crucial issue now that the EU is starting to borrow on a significant scale to pay for the recovery.

The climate agenda also forms part of this picture. Few governments in frugal countries have made a sufficiently strong case to their domestic audience on the need for climate action on the EU level. Voters in these states generally associate international cooperation on climate policy with the United Nations. And governments in frugal states have willingly presented themselves as global – rather than European – leaders in the area. But Brussels has rising ambitions on carbon neutrality and emphasises green investment in the context of both the recovery fund and the upcoming long-term EU budget: taken together, 30 per cent of the fund and the budget have been ring-fenced for climate-related spending. This should help governments in the frugal states make the case at the European Council that climate action should be a key part of the EU’s agenda. These governments have plenty of scope to rebrand the new budget and the recovery fund around efforts to tackle climate change – and their high standards in this area could prove essential to avoiding the risks of ‘greenwashing’ (funding projects that seem valuable to the green transition but that do not measure up on closer inspection).

As the data from ECFR’s October survey show, the frugal states’ partners in the EU need to understand the extent of the compromise on the recovery fund that these countries feel they have made. They also need to recognise that the frugal states may believe that the balance of power in the EU has tipped against them, which could cause them to disengage from EU decision-making. As the EU approaches the final decisions on its next long-term budget, its own resources to pay for the recovery fund, and the workings of rule of law conditionality, proponents of greater EU spending and opponents of rule of law mechanisms alike would do well to remember the concessions the other side has made.


This paper is based on a public opinion poll in eight EU countries carried out for ECFR by Datapraxis and Dynata in late October 2020.

This was an online survey conducted in Austria (n = 1,004), Denmark (n = 997), Finland (n = 1,000), France (n = 1,000), Germany (n = 1,023), Netherlands (n = 1,000), Poland (n = 1,000), and Sweden (n = 1,000). The results are politically and nationally representative samples.

The exact dates of polling were: Austria (16-26 October), Denmark (16-30 October), Finland (16-25 October), France (16-21 October), Germany (16-21 October), Poland (16-25 October), the Netherlands (16-30 October), and Sweden (16-23 October).


This report draws extensively on conversations with, and insights from, many individuals across the wider ECFR family.

In particular, the authors would like to thank Ivan Krastev for his concept of the ‘transformative five’, and Caroline de Gruyter, Ismaël Emelien, Catharina Sorensen, and Daniel Sachs for their valuable comments on earlier drafts. ECFR’s Unlock team – including Mark Leonard, Susanne Baumann, Swantje Green, Andreas Bock, and Jenny Soderstrom – helped us shape the argument, while Piotr Buras had some very useful ideas on what else could be done on the EU’s rule of law issues. Chris Raggett’s editing made the narrative much clearer and livelier compared to the original draft. Philipp Dreyer was, as always, a huge support on data analysis. We would also like to thank the team at Datapraxis for their ongoing collaboration with us in developing and analysing the pan-European surveys, and for carrying out the fieldwork for this survey with Dynata. We are grateful to Think Tank EUROPA for funding the research on Denmark.

Despite all these many and varied forms of input, any errors in the report remain the authors’ own.

About the authors

Susi Dennison is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and director of ECFR’s European Power programme. In this role, she explores issues relating to strategy, cohesion, and politics to achieve a collective EU foreign and security policy. She led ECFR’s European Foreign Policy Scorecard project for five years and, since the beginning of 2019, she has overseen research for ECFR’s Unlock project. Her most recent publications include “Together in trauma: Europeans and the world after covid-19” (June 2020) and “Crisis presidency: How Portuguese leadership can guide the EU into the post-covid era” (October 2020).

Pawel Zerka is a policy fellow with the European Power programme, based in the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Paris office. He is an economist and political scientist with expertise in EU affairs and European public opinion. He is also a member of ECFR’s Rethink: Europe project, supported by Stiftung Mercator, which crafts policy strategies based on data and dialogue. His most recent papers include “Together in trauma: Europeans and the world after covid-19” (June 2020) and “In sickness and in health: European cooperation during the coronavirus crisis” (July 2020).

Military lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh: Reason for Europe to worry Tue, 24 Nov 2020 09:05:46 +0000 In the last decade, it was no secret that Azerbaijan was steadily building up its armed forces. But, despite this, few experts predicted this month’s clear-cut military victory by Azerbaijan over Armenia. Much of this victory is credited to the technical and financial side of the war: Azerbaijan was able to afford more and it had Turkish and Israeli technology that was simply better than what Armenia had to draw on. But the lessons of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war go deeper and are more complex than just questions of technology. And they hold distinct lessons for how well Europe can defend itself.

Lesson 1: Strategy and politics matter

The course of every war is influenced by the specific political circumstances that trigger it – and this war was no exception. Azerbaijan and Turkey were confident in the success of their offensive action, as Russia had from the onset of the war indicated that it had no intention of assisting the Armenians outside of their recognised borders. Russia also saw Azeri military pressure as a tool to weaken the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who headed the 2018 revolution that removed the old regime. Azeri action would, moreover, be likely to lead Armenia accept previously negotiated “peace plans” that would strengthen Moscow’s geopolitical position. This adverse political situation directly translated into military disadvantages on the battlefield for the Armenians.

Knowing Moscow’s tacit acceptance of a military intervention, Turkey based several F-16 fighters in Azerbaijan in October 2020 as a general deterrent. These were later used to sweep the sky of any Armenian ground-attack aircraft that tried to engage in combat. For its part, Armenia had just received eight Su-30 interceptors from Russia this summer, but did not even try to use them to contest the Azeri drones and F-16. The main reason for this was that Russia wanted Armenia not to enter into a direct confrontation with Turkey proper, and so it kept its aircraft on the ground. Russia effectively served air superiority on a diplomatic silver platter to Azerbaijan and Turkey. This proved decisive.

Lesson 2: Computers and networks matter

Like in Syria and Libya, Russian air-defence systems proved to be ineffective against small and slow drones. This has inspired a debate in the West about whether Russian air-defence systems are generally overrated. But this verdict would be premature.

Russia effectively served victory on a diplomatic silver platter to Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Armenia’s most ‘modern’ air-defence systems, the S-300PT and PS series and the 9K37M Buk-M1, were both developed in the 1980s. While the missiles are still potent, their sensors are designed to detect, identifiy and track fast-moving fighters, and their moving-target indicators disregard small, slow drones. Like many 1980s systems, a lot of computing is predetermined by hardware layout, and reprogramming requires an extensive refit of the entire system, which the Armenians had not done. These systems are also incapable of plot-fusion: accumulating and combining raw radar echoes from different radars into one aggregated situation report. Plot-fusion is essential to detecting small and low-observable targets such as advanced drones or stealth aircraft. None of the export versions of Russia’s air-defence systems that it has sold to Syria, Turkey, North Korea, and Iran are capable of plot-fusion. (In the latter two cases, these are disguised as ‘indigenous’ systems like the Raad or Bavar 373.) There is therefore a huge difference in performance between Russian air-defence systems protecting Russian bases in Armenia and Syria and those Russian air-defence systems exported to Armenia and Syria.

Azerbaijan’s drones roamed free because Armenia had no jammer able to interrupt the signals linking the drones to their guidance stations. Only in the last days of the war did Russia use the Krasukha electronic warfare system based at the Armenian city of Gyumri to interdict Azeri deep reconnaissance in Armenia proper. Still, the Azeris also used the Israeli Harop loitering munition, which was able to work under adverse conditions (although at reduced effectiveness) as it does not, unlike drones. require a guidance link. Hence among armies that are likely to prepare to fight wars in the future – not only the US, China, Russia but regional powers such as Turkey, Israel, and South Africa – this experience will certainly prompt further research into artificial intelligence and autonomous lethal weapons systems. Rather than banning this class of ammunition by a prohibitive arms control treaty, as envisioned by Europe, they will experiment with how to make use of the new technologies and best integrate autonomous lethal weapons systems into their combined-arms manoeuvre forces, thereby increasing their operational tempo and effectiveness.

Lesson 3: Fight ‘around’ the enemy’s strength

Before the war, on a tactical level the Armenian army was superior: it had better officers, more motivated soldiers, and a more agile leadership. In all previous wars with Azerbaijan, this proved to be decisive. But Azerbaijan found a way to work around it. This is where the drones came in: they allowed the Azeris to reconnoitre first the Armenian position and then the placement of reserves. Armenian positions then could be extensively shelled with conventional artillery, weakening their defences. Drones then guided the onslaught towards the Armenian reserves, bringing in artillery, multiple-rocket systems with cluster munitions, their own missiles, or using Israeli-made LORA ballistic missiles to destroy bridges or roads linking the reserves with the front. Once the Armenian side was incapable of sending reserves into battle, the Azeri army could move in any number it wished to overwhelm the isolated Armenian positions. This procedure was repeated day after day, chipping one Armenian position away each day and resupplying artillery during the night.

This tactic also worked well in mountainous territory the Armenians thought would be easy to defend. In the mountains, there is only one road connecting the front to the rear, which made it even easier for drones to spot targets. When the battle over Shusha demonstrated that the Armenians would not stand a chance even in this territory, the Armenian army started to disintegrate and Yerevan had no choice than to agree a ceasefire on adverse terms.

In the West, much of the drone discussion has focused on the technical side of drone warfare. But this aspect was less spectacular in this war. The numbers of vehicles claimed to be destroyed are most likely exaggerated – for example, this Azeri-language Sputnik report claims that more tanks were destroyed than the number of tanks Armenia has in active duty. The Azeri tactical use of drones was impressive, as was the way they embedded them in conventional armoured operations to work around the strength of the opponent’s armed forces. This intellectual creativity should probably be assigned to Turkish military advisers, who, by refining Azerbaijan’s way of fighting, contributed as much to Baku’s victory as the delivery of hardware.

Europe should look carefully at the military lessons of this conflict, and not dismiss it as a minor war between poor countries. Since the cold war, most European armies have phased out gun-based self-propelled air-defence systems. Man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) like the Stinger and Igla – the primary short-range air-defence systems in Europe – have little chance of acquiring such small targets like loitering munitions or small drones invisible to the operator. In the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war more MANPADS were destroyed by drones than they could shoot down drones themselves. No European army has a high-resolution sensor-fusion- or plot-fusion-capable armoured air-defence system to protect its own armour. Only France and Germany have (short range) anti-drone jammers and base-protection assets. Most of the EU’s armies – especially those of small and medium-sized member states – would do as miserably as the Armenian army in a modern kinetic war. That should make them think – and worry.

What are we actually fighting about? Germany, France, and the spectre of European autonomy Mon, 23 Nov 2020 11:12:16 +0000 Once again, we are witnessing Franco-German quarrels over “European autonomy”. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) have gone on the offensive, supported by the media which seemed more than happy to facilitate the apparent confrontation.

In the span of a few days, AKK published an opinion piece and gave a keynote speech, while Macron gave a widely read, 10,000-word interview. Their statements were broad in scope, but addressed the issue of European defence capabilities and of European dependences on the United States. Neither side minced their words: in her op-ed, AKK called Europe’s strategic autonomy an “illusion” – which was commonly understood as an attack on Macron, the idea’s most prominent advocate. Macron stated that he “profoundly disagree[d] … with the opinion piece signed by the German Minister of Defence”, and that he considered it to be a “historical misinterpretation”. A day later, AKK appeared somewhat more conciliatory when she emphasised in her speech areas in which she and Macron agreed. But the lines seem to have been drawn.

Of course, arguments and disagreements have always been part of the Franco-German relationship. This is nothing to worry about among allies and can even help to coordinate positions. What is strange about the current discussion, however, is that, despite all the ink that has been spilled on the topic, the actual matter in dispute remains strangely unclear. If one takes a closer look, it becomes clear that AKK is forcefully rejecting something that Macron has not actually proposed. And both sides see the same need for action. So, what are we actually arguing about?

AKK says that the illusionary idea of Europe’s strategic autonomy must come to an end as Europe cannot replace America as a security guarantor. In her opinion, the idea of European autonomy goes too far “if it feeds the illusion that we could guarantee security, stability, and prosperity in Europe without NATO and the US”. The “if” in this sentence is fundamental. Because this is not how Macron defines autonomy. It is true that France, as an independent nuclear power, does not depend on the US and NATO’s nuclear umbrella quite so much. But Macron has always stressed that European defence is complementary to NATO. It is a bold interpretation to say that European autonomy aims to replace the US, or NATO, or suggests that this may be easy or desirable any time soon. Rather, Macron wants to prepare for a situation in which NATO might be unable to act, and the US unable or unwilling to help. This does not mean that he longs for such a situation, let alone wants to create it. This extreme interpretation of European autonomy as a rejection of the US is a strawman.

In the German Ministry of Defence, there seems to be concern that some elements of the German political opposition are a bit too enthusiastic about the idea of European autonomy.

The dispute over the United States’ influence is particularly annoying because the two countries are actually on the same page about what needs to be done: both Germany and France want to bolster European defence. Yes, the reasoning that leads them to this conclusion may be different: whereas France wants to be prepared for the day when the US is no longer able or willing to guarantee European security, Germany wants to strengthen the European pillar of NATO to convince the US to maintain its presence in Europe. But both partners come to the same conclusion: Europe must do more.

The countries are, therefore, not as far from each other as the current discussion makes it seem. Is this conflict based on a simple misunderstanding? That is possible, but seems unlikely given the regular exchanges between Berlin and Paris. Macron and AKK do not have to write op-eds – their staff can simply pick up the phone to clear up misunderstandings.
Is this a deliberate misconstruction, then? It may be that some particularly transatlantic-minded figures in Berlin suspect that Macron does indeed want to weaken NATO. Such suspicion is dangerous and should be addressed openly. It is also possible that AKK – especially with her opinion piece clearly directed at Washington – just wanted to show the Americans that Germany needs them and values their help.

However, AKK’s statements might also have been influenced by a different consideration. Namely, they make more sense if one takes into account German public opinion.

In the German Ministry of Defence, there seems to be concern that some elements of the German political opposition are a bit too enthusiastic about the idea of European autonomy – and not because they want to bolster European defence efforts. Rather, it is precisely the extreme (mis-)interpretation of European autonomy without the US that is attractive to them, as this is a vision that can be sold to parts of the German population. AKK warns that “anti-American sentiment, which has always existed in our country alongside feelings of gratitude and closeness toward our ally, is on the rise and has become a notable force.” And many Germans have always strongly rejected nuclear weapons. Thus, a European autonomy that leads to the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Germany may well find public support in Germany. Which means that Germany and Europe could end up with the worst of both worlds: a Europe without an American (nuclear) umbrella – and without the necessary European capabilities to replace it.

This would also explain why AKK emphasised in her speech that “the costs of strategic autonomy in the sense of complete detachment from the US would be disproportionately higher than the two percent of GDP to which we have committed ourselves in the transatlantic alliance.” France does not care much about the percentage of GPD that German defence spending amounts to – but that number certainly matters to the German taxpayer.

I admit that this might be a favourable analysis of the situation. But I cannot believe that there are such fundamental misunderstandings given regular Franco-German exchanges. Nor do I want to believe that we are seeing a wilful misunderstanding based on fundamental mistrust. We should cut down on these sham debates and focus on what both countries agree on: the need to build greater European capacities.

This article appeared first in German in Der Grand Continent.

Why Europe should push Egypt to release detained human rights activists Mon, 23 Nov 2020 09:42:25 +0000 On 3 November, human rights organisation the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) hosted a meeting of a group of European diplomats at its offices in Cairo. In an apparent campaign of retaliation, the Egyptian authorities have since arrested three of the organisation’s senior staff members, including its director, Gasser Abdel-Razek, on charges of terrorism and spreading false information. The move deals another blow to Egypt’s beleaguered civil society and shows a striking disdain for European governments, which risk looking weak if they fail to respond forcefully to this provocation.

Since Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in 2013, he has overseen an expanding crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the wider political opposition, and civil society. His regime has imprisoned tens of thousands of people on political charges. Many Egyptian human rights organisations have been forced to close or to move their staff out of the country, but some have remained in operation while facing the continual risk of persecution. The EIPR, founded in 2002, has long been one of Egypt’s most dynamic and respected human rights organisations.

The meeting on 3 November involved ambassadors and other senior diplomats from 12 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) and the EU delegation, as well as Canada. The EU and its member states have largely overlooked Sisi’s repression in recent years, valuing Egypt as a partner on migration, security, and regional issues, as well as a customer in large-scale arms sales. European countries issued a number of critical statements as Sisi’s campaign of repression took shape after 2013 but, since then, they have normalised their relations with Egypt. Most recently, European Council president Charles Michel visited Egypt in early November to discuss security cooperation.

Most of the countries represented at the meeting have issued statements expressing concern about the latest arrests. And some, including the UK, have said their foreign ministers have been in touch with their Egyptian counterpart. It is essential that European countries make clear that their relations with Egypt will not continue as normal unless it releases the detained EIPR employees. While Egypt is certain to push back strongly against any criticism (as it already has with France), the regime has shown that it is prepared to give ground on individual cases or pieces of legislation in the face of concerted pressure. One example of this came in 2015, when the authorities arrested and then released EIPR’s founder, Hossam Bahgat.

Clearly, the move against EIPR is intended to signal to civil society that talking to foreign diplomats is out of bounds – and to signal to diplomats that meeting with human rights activists can put them in danger. But, in some ways, the timing of the move is odd. It comes as Egypt prepares for a change of administration in the United States, from a president who has made clear his indifference to human rights violations to one who has vowed to re-establish human rights as a guiding principle of foreign policy.

The EU and its member states have largely overlooked Sisi’s repression in recent years, valuing Egypt as a partner on migration, security, and regional issues, as well as a customer in large-scale arms sales.

Joe Biden warned during his presidential campaign that, if he won the election, there would be no more blank checks for Sisi. And the arrests of EIPR’s leaders have been noticed in Washington: Antony Blinken, reported to be Biden’s choice as secretary of state, said that he was concerned at the arrests and that meeting with diplomats was not a crime. In other ways, Sisi has apparently moved to try to improve relations with the incoming administration. In the days following the election, he announced the release of several imprisoned relatives of Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan. And Egypt has recently signed a large contract with a Washington-based lobbying firm.

Some observers, such as Egyptian human rights activist Bahey Eldin Hassan, believe that the regime could plan to use EIPR staff as negotiating cards to play if the Biden administration threatens to withhold aid. It is also possible that the arrests were undertaken by the security apparatus without any wider strategic plan, given the crude way in which it operates and the lack of accountability for its actions so far. In any case, if European countries do not indicate that these arrests will lead Europeans to adopt greater distance in their relations with Egypt, they will have lost further ground with its authoritarian regime.

Glass half full: The EU’s policy on Belarus Fri, 20 Nov 2020 13:21:54 +0000 The European Union is often criticised, from inside as well as outside the union, for having an ineffective foreign policy – an inability to defend its interests and values in unstable regions, even those in its neighbourhood. Critics often cite the situation in Belarus as one of the most striking confirmations of this in the Eastern Partnership. (The European Council on Foreign Relations has recently published a policy brief by Gustav Gressel and Nicu Popescu on just this topic.)

Over the years, the EU has made many attempts to bring Belarus a little closer to democratic standards of free speech, political choice, and media freedom, while calling on the Belarusian authorities to observe other fundamental human rights. Yet these efforts have had modest results, at best.

Accordingly, many observers predicted that the current political crisis in Belarus would see another terrible failure of EU foreign policy. The country’s presidential election in August was, like others before it, a decorative event with a predetermined result. The Belarusian authorities have continued to take political prisoners – and now there are hundreds of them, not just a few. Police violence and other forms of repression have reached incredible proportions.

However, is the EU’s approach to Belarus really that bad? Arguably, the glass is half full rather than half empty.

A distinctive feature of EU-Belarus relations during President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule has been their cyclical nature. For decades, the parties have been caught in what appears to be a vicious circle of “freeze-thaw-freeze”.

In recent years, the EU has periodically employed the tactics of sanctions, threats, and refusal to cooperate in its dealings with Belarus. Meanwhile, the bloc has also tried to tempt Lukashenka with incentives, using soft power and dialogue to try to convince him to become a political vegetarian. None of these approaches has led to the desired outcome. Yet the reason for this is not a lack of creativity from European policymakers.

Even Russia – which has far greater influence than the EU in Belarus – has poured tens of billions of euros into the Belarusian economy without achieving its aims to establish a single currency or a union government, let alone that to unify the two states. In return, Lukashenka has refused to recognise Russian-backed territorial claims in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea, and has taken control of the local branch of Gazprombank.

The hidden strength of the EU lies in both Lukashenka’s unlimited love of power and Russia’s plans for Belarus.

The explanation for this is simple: both EU and Russian plans for the future of Belarus are fundamentally at odds with Lukashenka’s vision of it. However, the more vulnerable an ageing authoritarian leader becomes, the better the chances that a foreign power will advance its interests in the country he runs.

The current renaissance of civil society in Belarus has been possible thanks to, among other things, the development of the EU’s dialogue with the country in recent years. Lukashenka’s sense of a threat from the east – heightened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea – forced him to more actively diversify his foreign policy, by looking for opportunities to improve relations with the EU and the United States. For this reason, he restrained his repressive state apparatus and provided civil society initiatives with some space to grow.

Over the last few years, Belarusian state bodies have come to see cooperation with Western countries as less toxic as they once did. Belarus became a negotiating platform for the Ukrainian crisis, introduced a limited visa-free regime for EU citizens, and released its few political prisoners.

Yet the events now taking place in Belarus require the EU to take a completely different approach. Naturally, the bloc has imposed sanctions on the Belarusian authorities once again.

The EU does not have simple and effective tools to undermine Russia’s position in Belarus or directly pressure the Lukashenka regime. Paradoxically, the hidden strength of the EU lies in both Lukashenka’s unlimited love of power and Russia’s plans for Belarus.

For many years, Lukashenka played on European fears that Belarus would be absorbed by Russia. But it is he who is primarily interested in preserving the independence of Belarus – without which he will lose his power.

The lack of a dialogue with the EU or the US will make it impossible for Belarus to resist Russia’s onslaught on its sovereignty. As a result, the Belarusian leadership will want to regain its room for manoeuvre on foreign policy. It will likely return to its traditional bargaining around political prisoners, while blackmailing the EU and the US with the spectre of the Russian threat.

The Belarusian authorities will continue to respond to calls for Lukashenka’s resignation and a new election with illusory constitutional reform. And they will simulate a dialogue with civil society groups and demand that Western countries soften their positions.

Will this work once again? It might. However, the current situation looks very different from previous crises.

Before now, the EU had little alternative but to speak to Lukashenka if it wanted to engage with Belarus. But the president has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the Belarusian people. Recent months have been marked by an unprecedented development of civil society, which has defended its place in the political landscape. The people of Belarus have become the EU’s closest ally in the country – in both their shared values and their shared goals.

The personal sanctions that the EU has imposed on several Belarusian officials are symbolic rather than capable of exerting any influence on the political processes. However, the bloc’s use of broader economic instruments – such as the suspension of all cooperation programmes that allocate funds to the Belarusian state, and of any form of lending to the Belarusian economy – would have a much greater effect.

It is important for the EU to set up a mechanism that provides real assistance to victims of state repression: free education for expelled students; jobs or financial aid for those who have been sacked or forced to go on strike; medical rehabilitation for those hurt by the police; and a visa-free regime for all Belarusians. In parallel with this, the bloc should develop a positive agenda for the future, particularly a large-scale programme of financial assistance to Belarus once the country has held a free and fair election.

There is no easy solution to the crisis in Belarus, but rumours of the EU’s failure in the country have been greatly exaggerated.

Europe’s pivot to Africa Fri, 20 Nov 2020 09:31:50 +0000 Almost a year ago, when EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made her first business trip outside the EU, she chose the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa as her destination and took quite a stand .Also this year was supposed to be a “decisive year” in African-European relations: The German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development talked at the beginning of 2020 about a “treaty of the century” which should have been sealed at the AU-EU Summit. However, with the pandemic ongoing, the Summit was postponed, and priorities shifted. Where do we stand now in building a “strategic partnership” between the European and African continent? And can we actually consider it a “strategic” one? What impact has the competition between the US and China on these relations?

In this week’s episode, host Mark Leonard is joined by Faten Aggad, Senior Advisor to the AU High Representative on AU-EU negotiations, Mark Malloch Brown, former deputy secretary‐general of the UN under Kofi Annan and minister of state in the UK foreign office, and ECFR Africa programme director Theodore Murphy to discuss challenges and possible opportunities of the AU-EU relationship.

This podcast was recorded on 9 November 2020.

Further reading:

Trump, Biden, and Europe’s place in the Africa great power competition” by Theodore Murphy