Analyses of the Elcano Royal Institute (ARI) empty_context Copyright (c), 2002-2018 Fundación Real Instituto Elcano Lotus Web Content Management <![CDATA[ Negotiations with North Korea: reviving a stalled process? ]]> 2019-09-13T12:08:10Z

This analysis argues that US-North Korea and inter-Korean diplomacy have stalled in the months since the Hanoi summit, yet negotiations will eventually resume as they are the most realistic way to deal with North Korea’s nuclear programme.


This analysis argues that US-North Korea and inter-Korean diplomacy have stalled in the months since the Hanoi summit, yet negotiations will eventually resume as they are the most realistic way to deal with North Korea’s nuclear programme.


Six months after the Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un, diplomacy between the US and North Korea and, as a result, between both Koreas has stalled. There are now three potential scenarios in the coming months when it comes to diplomacy with Pyongyang: (1) a re-start of the process leading to an interim deal; (2) a continuation of the current diplomatic freeze; and (3) a break-down in the process, leading to renewed tension. None of them can be ruled out as of mid-September, since all of them have advantages and disadvantages for Pyongyang and Washington. Having said that, in the long-term, diplomacy is the most realistic policy to address the North Korean nuclear conundrum. This is due to Pyongyang’s need for a deal with Washington, moves in the US to develop a sustainable engagement process and support for such an approach in South Korea. Therefore, we should expect negotiations to re-start in the future.


Stalled process

Half a year after the no-deal Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un, it is fair to say that the diplomatic process to deal with North Korea has stalled. Neither US-North Korea denuclearisation negotiations nor inter-Korean diplomacy have made any real progress over the past six months. The historic meeting between Trump and Kim in the DMZ in late June, which marked the first time that a sitting US President stepped on North-Korean territory, failed to break the deadlock. As of early September, the international community is still waiting for negotiations with North Korea to resume.

There are also some signs that the situation may have even turned for the worse since the Hanoi summit. Pyongyang has resumed its short-range ballistic missile testing programme. As South Korea and the US carried out their regular joint military manoeuvres, North Korea conducted no less than five rounds of tests. Meanwhile, the Kim government has shunned working-level talks with the US despite the agreement that Trump and Kim supposedly reached during their DMZ meeting. At the same time, North Korea has refused to meet with South Korea in recent months, either officially or unofficially. Further, Pyongyang’s official media have lashed out at President Moon Jae-in’s government in recent weeks.

There are several reasons why the process with North Korea has stalled. To begin with, all signs suggest that Kim was genuinely surprised at Washington’s demands during the Hanoi summit. The North Korean negotiation team seemed not to have a plan B. In the aftermath of the summit, Kim has been busy reshuffling his negotiating team. Plus, there still seem to be internal discussions about what the government might be willing to offer in exchange for potential partial sanctions relief by the US.

On the US side it is still unclear what Washington’s goals are: a comprehensive ‘grand bargain’ including the full denuclearisation of North Korea? An interim deal focusing on a cap and roll-back of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes? Or something else? Likewise, it is also unclear whether the US is willing to take a step-by-step approach or is still clinging to the hope that North Korea will agree to full denuclearisation before getting anything in return. It does not help that the Trump Administration does not speak with a single voice.

Another reason why North Korea has shunned diplomacy in recent months is that it feels cheated by South Korea. The Moon government has repeatedly touted its interest in resuming inter-Korean economic cooperation, starting with the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang Tourist resort. This the first step towards the establishment of a so-called ‘peace economy’ that will support inter-Korean reconciliation through strengthening economic cooperation. However, the Trump Administration has halted any potential substantial economic exchange between the two Koreas by refusing to grant sanction waivers that would allow them to be launched. Pyongyang has thus lashed out at Seoul for not implementing these projects.

A wild card also affecting the resumption of diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula in earnest is Trump’s potential interest in a deal with North Korea. The US President has repeatedly said that he is willing to sign a deal and that he sees a ‘bright future’ ahead for North Korea. There is the possibility, however, that Trump might get distracted by a potential deal with the Taliban ending the Afghanistan War, with China putting an end to its trade war with the US or any other of the multiple foreign policy issues his Administration is working on. In other words, a deal with North Korea is not the only foreign policy ‘success’ that Trump could present to the US electorate before next year’s presidential election.

Three scenarios

There are three possible scenarios in the coming months when it comes to diplomacy with North Korea: (1) a re-start of the process leading to an interim deal; (2) a continuation of the current freeze; and (3) a break-down in the process, leading to renewed tension. As of mid-September and considering recent developments, or the lack thereof, none of them can be ruled out.

The first possible scenario is a resumption of US-North Korea diplomacy resulting in an interim deal. This would build on the unprecedented level of diplomacy witnessed in the Korean Peninsula throughout 2018 and early 2019. A ‘grand bargain’ agreement, essentially meaning the exchange of North Korea’s nuclear programme for normalised relations with the US and a multilateral economic package, cannot be ruled out. However, an interim deal is more likely for two reasons: Pyongyang clearly feels more comfortable with this option and several Trump Administration officials have indicated that the US might be willing to accept it as a first step, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative to North Korea Stephen Biegun. John Bolton’s departure makes this scenario more likely as he was one of the most adamant advocates of a hard line against North Korea amongst Donald Trump’s inner circle.

An interim deal could involve Pyongyang offering the dismantlement of the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex and potentially other nuclear facilities as well, the cessation of all nuclear and missile tests, and the presence of international nuclear inspectors on North Korean soil for verification purposes. In exchange, the US could offer the removal of sanctions affecting the North Korean economy or at least their interruption for a period of time, mutual liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang, and an economic package including aid and investment. The international community, including North Korea’s neighbours and others such as the EU, could be among the main providers of the economic package. It is unlikely that the Trump Administration will agree to substantial US aid being transferred to North Korea.

Implementation of the interim deal would follow a step-by-step process, similar to those followed with the Agreed Framework and Six-Party Talks agreements signed respectively by the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. Pyongyang has made it clear that it is unwilling to take significant steps towards denuclearisation without getting anything in return. This means that an Iran-type deal is out of the question. With North Korea now a de facto nuclear power, the international community will have to accept that there is no incentive for the Kim government to give up its nuclear programme upfront in exchange for a promise of sanctions relief afterwards.

This type of agreement would need serious working-level negotiations, both before a deal is signed and once implementation starts. Under the Trump Administration, however, there have been no sustainable working-level negotiations, with only a short round in the weeks running up to the Hanoi summit. Otherwise, US and North Korean negotiators of different government branches have met from time to time but not regularly. Yet this is not conducive to a sustainable process. Most probably, Kim thinks that he can get a more favourable agreement directly from Trump, even after the failure of the Hanoi summit, reducing the incentives for Pyongyang to start a sustainable working-level process for the time being, despite Washington’s stated preference for this format.

The second possible scenario is that the current diplomatic freeze continues and US-North Korea negotiations do not resume. This would mean that the present state of affairs remains unchanged, with the US and North Korea unable or unwilling to build on the bout of high-level diplomacy of 2018 and early 2019. Under this scenario, neither Washington nor, particularly, Pyongyang would escalate tension to the point seen in 2017. In other words, the Kim government would refrain from conducting further nuclear or ICBM tests and the Trump Administration would desist from threatening to strike North Korea. Considering that Trump did contemplate the latter, which would have resulted in war in the Korean Peninsula, no escalation would at least mean a degree of calm in North-East Asia.

For North Korea, continuation of the current diplomatic freeze would entail waiting until next year’s US presidential election to then decide how to proceed. If Trump continues in power, avoiding escalation would mean that the door for diplomacy remains open. If the Democratic candidate wins, Pyongyang could portray itself as a ‘responsible’ actor while the new government takes a decision on its North-Korea policy. Either way, no escalation allows North Korea to project a more positive image. The added bonus is that Moon’s Democratic Party could tout the benefits of engagement in next year’s National Assembly elections. As a result, Pyongyang’s actions, or inaction in this case, could help to tilt the balance towards Moon’s pro-engagement party.

For Trump the main benefit of a no-escalation scenario is that he can present himself as the stabiliser of the Korean Peninsula. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans think that Trump is the main driving force behind stability in the Korean Peninsula. Short-range ballistic missile tests seem not to have affected this perception negatively, since they are not a direct threat to the US mainland. The Trump Administration can certainly pursue other negotiation processes and to an extent neglect North Korea as long as its nuclear and ICBM programmes are not on the news. If Trump is re-elected he can go back to negotiations with North Korea during his second term.

Ultimately, continuation of the current pause in US-North Korea negotiations would most probably lead to the eventual resumption of negotiations, that is, a return to the first scenario. Clinton, Bush and even Barack Obama, whose Administrations essentially shunned diplomacy with the Kim government for the most part, sought negotiations with North Korea when it became obvious that that would be the only realistic path to address its nuclear programme. Interestingly for Pyongyang, it was towards the end of the Clinton and Bush Administrations’ second terms that it came closest to normalising relations. Thus, both Trump, or his successor, and Kim have an incentive to return to the negotiating table.

The third possible scenario is a break-down of the current negotiation process and a return to heightened US-North Korea tension. It should be remembered that Kim has publicly said that North Korea has given itself a deadline until the end of 2019 to see whether negotiations with the US result in a deal. It is not inconceivable that he could use his 2020 New Year Address, which North Korean leaders traditionally use to set the agenda for the coming year, to announce that Pyongyang will resume its nuclear and ICBM testing programme. In fact, this is a likely scenario if US-North Korea negotiations fall apart and the two governments make each other responsible for the failure.

From a North Korean perspective, this scenario would have its appeal if it were to mean that Trump has to run for re-election in the midst of nuclear and ICMB tests. This would be embarrassing for the US President, who has repeatedly said that he counts Kim as a friend. Furthermore, Trump’s Democratic opponent could accuse the US President of being naïve and having nothing to show for three meetings with Kim. Pyongyang could also resort to insulting the President, as it has done with other members of his Administration, such as Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Verbal attacks would further cement the view that Trump has been fooled by Kim.

From a material point of view, new tests would allow North Korea to continue to improve its nuclear and ICBM programmes. Pyongyang has certainly continued to do so despite the diplomatic process with the US and South Korea. But a question remains as to whether it can successfully mount a miniaturised nuclear warhead on an ICBM capable of reaching the US mainland. With the exception of an unthinkable strike itself, further nuclear and ICBM tests are the only means for Pyongyang to show the international community that it is in possession of such a capability. If and when negotiations with Washington start again, more tests and better capabilities would presumably give Pyongyang a stronger bargaining hand.

It is difficult to see what the benefits of heightened tension would be for the Trump Administration. If the ‘fire and fury’ of 2017 taught any lesson at all it is that the Kim government will not back down from a confrontational approach. Perhaps if Trump wants to raise sanctions on North Korea he might consider that renewed tension is the only way for China and Russia to acquiesce to such a course of action. However, the five new rounds of sanctions approved by the UN Security Council in 2016-17, the toughest ever, have singularly failed to stop North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile capabilities. There is no reason to believe that more sanctions will make any difference.

North Korea would also have much to lose from the resumption of high-intensity brinkmanship. To begin with, this is the only scenario under which China and Russia might decide to allow the international community to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang. Furthermore, Trump has, of course, a strong chance of being re-elected and new tests by North Korea could dent his enthusiasm for talks. Also, Kim has spent 2018 and 2019 presenting himself as a responsible leader, including summits with Moon, Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Lee Hsien Loong and Nguyen Phu Trong. Going back to brinkmanship as his foreign policy of choice would dent the perception that he is a different type of North Korean leader bent on bringing (economic) change to the country.

Long-term outlook

In the long run, the outlook for stability in the Korean Peninsula, steps towards inter-Korean reconciliation, better economic prospects for ordinary North Koreans and a degree of control over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes remain positive. The main reason is that Pyongyang needs an agreement with the US involving sanctions relief and, eventually, normalisation of relations with Washington.

North Korea needs a deal with the US, above all, because the North Korean population has changed and Kim has to attend to its needs if he wants to continue to rule for decades to come. Ordinary North Koreans are better informed about the outside world than they were during the great famine of the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands –if not millions– of the country’s population. They know that South Korea is far better off than their own country and they live in a de facto market economy, independently from a State whose central distribution system collapsed in the 1990s and never recovered. In fact, Kim has pursued a programme of incipient economic reforms since he took power that is reminiscent of China’s in the 1980s and Vietnam’s in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, the Kim government will never be able to bring the necessary investment and expertise to modernise the North Korean economy unless Washington agrees to remove sanctions on Pyongyang. The sanctions essentially forbid almost all trade and investment in North Korea. Removing them will only occur if Pyongyang reaches an agreement involving it taking significant steps towards denuclearisation.

On the US side, Trump’s personalised approach to negotiations with North Korea has overshadowed two interesting developments. First of all, there is a bipartisan move in Congress to make any engagement process with North Korea sustainable, so that it survives the Trump Administration. This includes putting other issues on the discussion table, such as North Korea’s human-rights record, but also ensuring that a new Administration can build on existing negotiations and does not start from zero, as most notably Bush decided to do after Clinton.

Furthermore, there is an acknowledgement among US foreign-policy decision-makers and elites that North Korea is a de facto nuclear power. This line of thought entails that the best that the US can aspire to for the time being is an arms-control deal including a cap and roll-back of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. This does not mean renouncing full denuclearisation as the ultimate goal, but it does involve a more realistic approach to negotiations, with denuclearisation not being a pre-condition for talks or the offer of sanctions relief.

Also underpinning the positive outlook for a deal with North Korea is South Korea’s support for engagement. The Moon government and a large majority of liberal South Koreans back talks and negotiations. So do a significant proportion of conservatives, especially younger ones who do not see North Korea as a threat, as perceived during the Cold War. Furthermore, there is broad agreement in South Korea that a return to the tension of 2017 would be a very negative development. A majority of South Koreans also believe that the pressure on North Korea applied by the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments was counterproductive in terms of supporting inter-Korean reconciliation or Pyongyang’s potential denuclearisation. In the absence of major North Korean provocations for a sustained period of time, engagement will be the policy of choice for South Korea in the years to come.


Developments since the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim strongly suggest that US-North Korea diplomacy has essentially stalled. Six months after the summit, negotiations between the two countries are yet to resume despite a small number of scattered meetings between officials from each of the countries. As a knock-on effect, steps towards inter-Korean reconciliation have also been suspended. It seems that Washington and Pyongyang are yet to find a way to reconcile their priorities so that negotiations can re-start and an agreement can be reached.

Considering the above, there are three possible scenarios for the coming months: (1) a re-start of the process leading to an interim deal; (2) a continuation of the current freeze; and (3) a break-down in the process leading to renewed tensions. None of them can be ruled out as of mid-September. However, negotiations are the only realistic means to address North Korea’s nuclear programme. For once, North Korea needs a deal if Kim is going to successfully implement the economic reform programme that he wants. In addition, there are bipartisan moves in the US to make engagement sustainable. Furthermore, South Korea is supportive of negotiations with North Korea. Therefore, diplomacy will eventually resume.

Ramón Pacheco Pardo
KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Reader in International Relations at King’s College London | @rpachecopardo

<![CDATA[ Strategic autonomy in a new era: a Cold-War risk assessment of China’s involvement in the EU’s 5G networks ]]> 2019-08-06T10:28:56Z

This paper suggests studying the relations between the EU and China through a Cold War analysis framework.


This paper suggests studying the relations between the EU and China through a Cold War analysis framework. It challenges the assumption that the latter has become obsolete in an international system (re)shaped by interdependence. Rather, the Cold War experience can prove to be useful to determine the EU’s position within the emerging Sino-US duopoly and to assess the strategic implications of China’s engagement in the EU’s 5G networks.


China’s sustained rise and worldwide engagement has recently led to a redefinition of EU-China relations. Faced with an emerging Sino-US duopoly –combining top world economic, military and technological investments and capabilities– and with uncertainties related to Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks, the EU would be advised not to overlook the Cold War experience. This paper aims to highlight that asymmetric interdependence in the context of a shifting global economy, combined with the doubtful implications of cross-cultural interdependence in international relations, do not entail changes substantial enough to completely disregard a Cold War framework of analysis. Therefore, strategic caution is advisable, especially if 5G were to affect critical infrastructures. Although positioning between China and the US should not occur at the expense of economic relations or cooperation towards global common goods, it should also be emphasised that contrary to China, the US, forever an economic competitor, remains the EU’s long-term strategic partner.


Introduction: the EU seeks its own path in a new era

The relations between the EU and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have entered a new stage. After more than a decade of scrutiny and calls against China’s protectionist and unfair competition, and faced with its economic rise and increasing worldwide engagement, the EU finally seems to have started a redefinition of its relations with the PRC, no longer merely a developing country but an emerging global power. While half of the member states have endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), there is also increased concern about China’s current and potential engagement within EU infrastructures and strategic sectors, as illustrated by the implementation of an EU screening mechanism of foreign direct investment. In this context, the European Commission has qualified the PRC as an economic partner but also an ‘economic competitor’ and ‘systemic rival’ –promoting alternative models of political, social and economic governance–.

5G and technology as a whole highlight that the EU not only faces a new framework of relations with China, but that globally it will have to position itself within an emerging new Sino-US duopoly, two economic, military, technological and geopolitical leading powers. This is the case regardless of the ups and downs in Sino-US rivalry such as the recent agreement on the sidelines of the G20 summit between Trump and Xi to restart trade talks.

It could be said that this is everything but a new Cold War, and that looking through outdated lenses is pointless, but the Cold War can certainly provide some very useful insights at a time of strategic choices and positioning in relation to both China and the US.

A Cold War spectre? Power politics resilience in an interdependent world

What made the Cold War a unique case was the global and multidimensional confrontation between two economically and ideologically antagonistic closed systems. The confrontation was limited through nuclear deterrence, making war itself ‘improbable [but] peace impossible’. The recent cooling of US-Chinese relations has fostered the revival and diffusion of the concept, raising a debate about whether they are heading towards a new Cold War or not. Critics point at unprecedent levels of interdependence, the absence of a critical military standoff, the existence of areas of common interest and a different distribution of power –multipolarity rather than a renewed bipolarity–. On the opposite side are an increased ideological competition between an illiberal authoritarian China and a liberal democracy, the continuity of irreconcilable ‘focal points’ such as Taiwan and the shaping of a bifurcated technological world.

Today, while China and the US appear to be ideological competitors, they share crucial economic ties and areas of cooperation. But are their differences likely to lead to a different competition framework? According to John Mearsheimer, what might actually occur is the very return of a Cold War structure of competition between two ‘bounded orders’ –US and China-led– within a ‘thin international order’ maintaining arms control and economic cooperation. US-China cooperation can be highlighted but it has recently suffered from several setbacks. The momentum fostered by the 2014 US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 has ground to a halt due to Donald Trump’s backtracking and further cooperation might be jeopardised by current economic tensions. The same goes for higher education and academic cooperation, which the US has started targeting in order to prevent sensitive technology transfers: the duration of Chinese STEM graduate student’s visas has been limited while the US Department of Energy is seeking to cut interpersonal ties with Chinese public programmes. Cooperation in other areas, such as counter-terrorism, remains limited. In its day, Cold War fluctuations between heightened tensions and détente also provided opportunities for cooperation between the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union or USSR). In particular, the two countries managed to establish strategic and non-strategic arms-control agreements: the 1972 Strategic arms limitations talks (SALT 1) and the 1987 Intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) Treaty. While limited, other examples include scientific cooperation, space cooperation, with the Apollo-Soyuz project that started in 1975, and environmental cooperation, with the signing of the Agreement on Cooperation in the field of environmental protection in 1972. Another major milestone was the Antarctic Treaty, signed in December 1959, which demilitarised the continent, suspended territorial claims and paved the way for free and public scientific investigation.

It is also interesting to note that ideological factors might be emphasised in the case of the Soviet Union, yet, except in discourses and perhaps the initial stages of the Cold War, ideology did not prevent it from being a rational actor. Of course, Communism’s power of appeal may appear to be greater than China’s ‘Authoritarian capitalism’, but, to date, the latter still represents a viable alternative to Liberal Democracy. China’s model may not be ‘exportable’ but the country can still foster authoritarianism worldwide by providing a ‘legitimate’ alternative model of development and through direct institutional and economic assistance. Moreover, the appeal of the ‘Chinese model’ (with the prospects of fast economic growth, technological upgrading and poverty reduction) may be further strengthened if China were to successfully overcome the middle-income trap thanks to new drivers of growth. As Francis Fukuyama himself foresaw (even though he was thinking about Russia), China is far from turning into a liberal society. There is almost a consensus that China deeply differed from the USSR when it chose to open its economy. But China’s ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and Authoritarian Capitalism still constrain economic liberalisation while perpetuating protectionism and a statist economic approach. Market features remain secondary, with limited economic liberalisation and openness being subordinate to state planning. And this is not expected to change, since state control is not simply an economic model but also a necessary tool for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to monitor socioeconomic development, its main source of legitimacy. Further marketisation would deprive the CPC of crucial economic levers allowing it to exert a tight control on the course of the Chinese economy. China did not abandon state planning and neither did it turn away from the heavy industry that boosted its development in the 2000s. And it might not have been much more pragmatic than the USRR. The latter was aware of the importance of light industry and a diversified economy, but institutional and structural factors together with its geopolitical competition with the US led soviet leaders to prioritise fast-growing and geopolitically significant sectors, mainly heavy and military industry. Heavy industry provided sustained growth until the 1970s, before economic imbalances led the soviet economy to stagnation. On the other hand, China benefited from a US-led rapprochement –a way to weaken the communist block– but the focus on fast and sustained growth led China to experience similar social, environmental and organisational drawbacks, compounded by institutional factors. For China is not that much different from the USSR in that respect. Although it economically reframed socialist ideology, a main priority remains the continuity of the Communist Party of China. Economic growth, social stability and environmental sustainability are not considered per se, but are mediated through the interests of the ruling party.

What may prove crucial is the issue of interdependence –furthermore, between different ‘cultures’–, although this assumption might not entail fundamental differences. Take as an example the contemporary World Order envisioned by Henry Kissinger. Although acknowledging the multiplicity of conceptions of world orders, the analysis still revolves about the interaction between power and legitimacy, advocating the continued relevance of a classic Balance of Power. Henry Kissinger’s analysis in the old and the new era leads to similar recommendations, highlighting that the integration of historical and cultural differences in international relations do not translate into structurally different parameters. Although such an analysis remains enshrined in realism (and does not exhaust all international relations theory), it still offers a hint that the rules of the game do not radically differ from the past. And they are less likely to do so as both the US and China indeed embrace a realistic vision. Furthermore, cultural differences should not be overestimated and they might not induce greater challenges than Cold War ideological and strategical differences did. Among others, views that China’s international relations differ in the absence of an imperialist record or on the ground of alternative world visions like Tianxia are likely to have a limited relevance. On the one hand, China’s history is far from peaceful. Despite the literature on the ‘demilitarisation’ of Chinese history –no less for ideological than for political reasons– intra and inter-state conflict has occurred since Huaxia territorial consolidation. On the other hand, Tianxia is not only an idealised version of a harmonious past and a benevolent China, but also an ill-suited one to analyse current international relations and China’s foreign policy. Plus, imperial and transcendental concepts are not specific to China or Chinese culture. Excluding merely expansionist nation-states, such as the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British colonial empires, other historical European and Mediterranean empires, including the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, offer similar hierarchical, transcendental and universal views of the international order. On a more contemporaneous note, whatever cultural-induced misunderstanding there might be, they should not conceal the crucial strategic differences faced during the Cold War between the two superpowers on matters as crucial as nuclear deterrence and the use of military power.

Yet it is undeniable that economic-led interdependence establishes a rather different framework than the Cold War. However, the underlying assumption that interdependence rules out a Cold-War analysis should be carefully scrutinised, in order not to replicate the failure and disillusions of liberal theories and beliefs that China’s economic and institutional integration would ‘inevitably’ turn it into a liberal democracy. The issue is that if there is interdependence, it remains uneven and asymmetrical, both structurally and on a sectoral basis. Commercial trade imbalances, or China’s nascent technological leadership, may actually lead to tensions, with a narrowing technology and financial gap between China and the West jeopardising the latter’s position within the global economy. Global interdependence has indeed been a relatively alien feature during the Cold War era, but not in the context of European and World history. At the opening of the 20th century Europe witnessed multidimensional interdependence, with levels of financial integration, trade openness and labour migration as high as those of the 1980s. This did not prevent it from escalating into war. The peace factor in interdependence should not be taken for granted or, for that matter, its continuity. The current US-China trade might entail a reduction of interdependence between the two economies, if not a ‘bipolarisation of globalisation’. Measures like Huawei’s trade ban may very well turn dependency into vulnerability and prompt China’s leaders to seek self-reliance in innovation and digital technologies through protectionist policies. Although this is nowhere near advocating geopolitical confrontation, a peaceful resolution and cooperation must be promoted. There is no doubt that shared economic development and a safe and secure future for the coming generations are far more important issues than great-power competition, especially while climate change threatens to disrupt mankind’s environment. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the Cold War preserved a shaky stability and prevent global confrontation through nuclear deterrence. The period also managed to accommodate state interests to address what was then the main existential threat to the world: nuclear-weapon proliferation. The need for a multilateral response to address a global issue was successfully acknowledged and built around the near universal Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Despite significant failures, mainly the absence of endorsement by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, the agreement thrived to become a ‘highly developed example of International Law’. It could very well be a template for the global climate regime after the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement and the difficulty in managing core economic and strategic state self-interests.

Cold War lessons for the EU: 5G strategic risks and indirect coercion

From a European perspective, EU-China relations offer a different outlook from the Cold War’s East-West antagonism. During the latter, the USSR posed a major threat to Western Europe, which faced the risk of direct military confrontation and periodic fears of both soviet conventional and nuclear superiority, as during the 1977-82 ‘Euromissile crisis’. Moreover, the Soviet Union also threatened European colonial interests as it opposed them and assisted insurgent liberation and communist movements. To date, this is not the case with China. The ‘China threat’ is unevenly distributed across the EU –absent in Greece while relatively salient in Germany– and it remains secondary, framed in economic terms and far beyond the concerns raised by jihadism, an assertive Russia, climate change or even US power and influence. Economic divergences are also significant. Despite protectionist policies and a lack of reciprocal market access, China remains a major trading partner and a ‘strategic market’ for the EU –an inexistent prospect in the case of the USSR– even if the ‘balance of challenges and [economic] opportunities… has [recently] shifted’. Yet, if not perfect, the Cold-War analogy should be considered as a useful framework of analysis to assess and address the current challenges, all the more because Europe is faced with the preservation of its social, environmental and political model, which calls for careful strategic action. Therefore, what lessons can be drawn from the Cold War confrontation?

More specifically, what can the Cold War teach about the strategic implications of China’s potential engagement in the EU’s critical infrastructures, and how should the EU seek strategic autonomy within the Sino-US duopoly? The US has frequently highlighted the risks of Huawei’s involvement in its allies’ infrastructures, without clear supporting evidence but going so far as to issue blackmail-like statements directed against some allies, such as Italy. Why have Huawei’s 5G capabilities become such an issue? First, because 5G is expected to penetrate a wide range of economic and social sectors –many of them of strategic value– and to bolster the development of industry 4.0. This has been due to enhanced connectivity capabilities and network latency for data-intensive and quasi-real-time applications, making it a critical infrastructure in itself, central to the economic competition between China, the EU and the US. Secondly, because of the feared potential risks of collusion between Huawei and the CPC –Huawei’s ownership structure and China’s institutional framework suggest indirect control by the CPC– and the facilitation of Chinese espionage and acts of sabotage. Despite the absence of public evidence that Huawei is installing back doors in its network architecture, concerns arise from ‘technological known unknowns’ and the difficulty of detecting –and addressing– illegitimate data flows. The 5th Annual report by Huawei’s cyber security evaluation centre notes ‘significant risks’ for UK operators while only providing ‘limited assurance’ that the risks raised by already deployed Huawei equipment can be managed. Espionage appears as a mainstream issue but increasing sabotage capabilities would be a different matter. It would be tempting to be reassured by China’s apparent unwillingness to engage in acts of war or equivalent acts. Yet the Cold War shows that the absence of ‘war’ or direct confrontation does not entail an absence of power politics and indirect coercion.

The Cold War was not a direct war between the US and the USSR. Conflicts were limited to proxy wars despite several occasions of the risk of a real war breaking out between the two superpowers. But it was still a Clausewitzian duel between two contenders or a war through means other than direct confrontation, where power politics were partly channelled through nuclear deterrence and military power not only threatened a direct attack but also political blackmail. So even in the absence of a direct war, it was still possible to coerce or gain compliance by using state power. Technology might entail the same logic. Foreign involvement in strategic sectors might pose the risk of the disruption of crucial infrastructures threatening state integrity. It should be pointed out that the latter is the main concern of nuclear doctrines around the globe. The 2014 military doctrine of the Russian Federation maintains a lowered threshold to deter conventional aggression, putting ‘the very existence of the State in jeopardy’. Official Pakistani statements suggest that the country’s nuclear deterrence covers not only conventional aggression but also economic ‘strangulation’ and the disruption of major lines of communication. These examples show that nuclear doctrines encompass security threats of a nature different to the nuclear threat itself, but considered significant from a state security perspective. Technological disruption might be one of these. As a nuclear power, China still lags behind Russia and the US despite a renewed process of nuclear modernisation. China’s nuclear arsenal remains smaller and the country still has to consolidate its second-strike capability. A secondary factor of China’s assertive posture in the South China Sea may be the need for a safe maritime access for its Jin Class/Type 094 nuclear powered ballistic-missile submarines. Hence China’s reaction against US surveillance activities and its deployment in the South China Sea. But China’s deep access to Western infrastructures would be a game changer, offering an indirect non-military but potentially militarised way to threaten core state infrastructure and disrupt military capabilities. This would be a very complex scenario –adding technological deterrents to conventional and nuclear ones– better avoided.

In a new international panorama shaped by the Sino-US duopoly, the EU will not only have to position itself vis-à-vis China, but also the US. The latter now faces a renewed ‘sputnik’ moment with China, adding pressure on the EU to position itself between the two contenders. Mainly, the US has catalysed economic tensions with China, leading to a sort of commercial war. While this move is indeed a way to tackle economic imbalances, it also shows several limitations and adds to recent shortcomings in the US’s new diplomacy, pushing its allies to the edge, such as: the official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, jeopardising Middle-Eastern stability, the implementation of new extraterritorial sanctions, the undermining of the EU’s political and economic interests in Iran and Cuba and action against Central American populations. There is also a significantly apparent disregard for multilateralism, ranging from the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the INF nuclear treaty, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, to criticism of NATO and the WTO. Nevertheless, this scenario of uncertainty should not entail a similar assessment of the US and China at time when the EU finds its strategic position and continues on its quest for strategic autonomy. The latter might be the ideal outcome but significant issues remain, including how to develop it and what to do meanwhile, as it is a goal that will not be reached in the foreseeable future.

Despite the EU’s awareness that 5G is an issue of strategic autonomy and that there are viable European alternatives to Huawei and US operators, mainly Erikson and Nokia. But without addressing market and regulatory fragmentation and with insufficient levels of investment, the EU runs the risk of falling into a trap and lagging behind the Sino-US duopoly. This, again, is nothing new from a European perspective. Back in the 1950s, amid the nuclear competition between the US and Soviet superpowers, military nuclear capabilities were considered a necessity to ensure strategic autonomy. Both the UK and France achieved their objective through divergent courses of action. The UK chose to jump on the US bandwagon, which quickly provided it with nuclear capabilities at the expense of real strategic autonomy. Initially, France had to face an uncooperative US, as the latter did not favour European strategic autonomy, as it does not now, until geopolitics led it to revise its position. Back in the 50s, the US opposed cooperation on nuclear technology, restricted by the Atomic Energy Act and political and administrative reluctance. The French decision to develop a fully independent nuclear force worsened the prospects for cooperation until 1970, when President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger reversed the US position on the assumption –and understanding– that enhanced French nuclear capabilities strengthened the US strategic position itself. Subsequent US assistance encompassed the design of thermonuclear weapons and the development of French MIRved missiles M4. No matter the path, both countries strategically sided with the US, targeting the USSR as their main threat.

Between then and now, two crucial differences remain between the US, the USSR and China. First, the US and the EU shared a broad consensus on how to manage economic competition; neither the USSR nor China shared that consensus. This is not going to change in the foreseeable future as China embraces state capitalism. Moreover, the US is, and always has been the EU’s economic competitors but not a strategic rival. After a period of generous support for reconstruction, motivated by US strategic interests, the US and the EU, like Japan, again became economic competitors during the Cold War but remained strategic allies. That cannot be said about China, despite the so-called ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ announced between the EU and China in 2003. The EU shares more common interests with the US than with China, particularly given their similar political systems and values. On the other hand, China’s illiberal political system, associated with uncertainties regarding China’s ambitions, nurture strategic mistrust. Opposition to China extends to the economic field and its model of statist capitalism, contrary to the principles of a market economy, free trade and public procurement. Last but not least, the US is the EU’s defence partner and ally, while the EU engages in a very limited defence and security cooperation with China. Cooperation prospects face several challenges, including the legacy of the Tiananmen repression and the subsequent European arms embargo against the PRC, and divergent threat perceptions and responses to common security concerns, such as cybersecurity.


The redefinition of EU-China relations is taking place within an emerging Sino-American duopoly that raises renewed security and technological challenges and highlights the issue of the EU’s strategic autonomy. The onset of a US-China commercial war, technological competition and ideological opposition, together with uncertainties regarding global economic interdependence, call for a meaningful recourse to a Cold-War analysis framework. The latter should help to simultaneously grasp both an emerging pattern of bipolar competition and the need for international cooperation to address common challenges and preserve common goods. EU-China relations do indeed offer a different pattern to Western Europe-USSR relations, yet a Cold-War analysis framework would help to cautiously assess current strategic issues, mainly China’s involvement in EU’s 5G telecommunications networks, highlighting the risks of political and technological blackmail that threatens the EU’s interests. The upcoming common EU approach to the security of 5G networks should take this into account.

Therefore, faced with the prospect of a difficult positioning between China and the US, the EU would be well advised to remember its privileged ties with the latter, an ally with whom it shares fundamental political and economic similarities that are absent in EU-China relations. Both the EU and the US share common political systems and values, a strong and long-term security partnership, and similar economic perspectives at odds with China’s political and economic model. This is not to imply that the EU and the US share the same strategic goals and interests, nor that Europe can blindly rely on the US for its security and should sever its economic links with China. This is not about securitising the EU’s economic relationship with China but about drawing attention to the strategic challenges posed by some of its dimensions and the costs that European citizens might have to face in order to overcome these challenges. How much money should the EU spend –o be willing to spend– to guarantee the security of critical infrastructures such as 5G networks?

Mario Esteban
Senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and lecturer at the Autonomous University of Madrid
| @wizma9

Ugo Armanini
Research assistant at the Elcano Royal Institute

<![CDATA[ A strategic look at the position of High Representative and Commission Vice-President ]]> 2019-08-05T11:11:56Z

What is the potential, and which are the shortcomings and possible ways of strengthening the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs (and Vice-President of the European Commission) in order to improve the efficiency and standing of the EU as a global player?

Original version in Spanish: Una mirada estratégica al puesto de alto representante y vicepresidente de la Comisión


What is the potential, and which are the shortcomings and possible ways of strengthening the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs (and Vice-President of the European Commission) in order to improve the efficiency and standing of the EU as a global player?


Ten years have passed since the creation of the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the holder of which also acts as Vice-President of the Commission. It was –and remains– an office with great potential for providing Europe with more cohesion, efficiency and influence, both among its neighbours and on the global stage. There have been major achievements in the intervening period, but the three goals established when the post was designed are yet far from being attained. There are still: (a) shortcomings in the coordination of the various foreign policy dimensions undertaken by the EU as an organisation; (b) numerous instances of fragmentation between the latter and individual member states’ diplomatic efforts that hamper the business of speaking with a single voice in the world; and, in turn, (c) a limited capacity for inserting the EU effectively into an increasingly competitive and fraught international context, thereby revealing the shortcomings of a European foreign policy model that continues to focus on multilateralism and soft power. To help Europe respond to this threefold challenge it would be convenient to rethink and bolster the post of High Representative. The content and importance of the post are not predetermined, since they depend on two factors: (a) the specific powers assigned to it in relation to the other portfolios in the Commission; and (b) the specific personal influence of the individual who holds it. There is a degree of consensus that neither of its first two occupants were as effective as might have been wished on either count, thereby weakening the EU’s external action.

The proposal offered here involves taking advantage of the high political profile of the person nominated to be the High Representative for the 2019-24 legislative term, Josep Borrell, and to combine it with a broadening of his responsibilities as Vice-President of the Commission (as well as some suggestions for improvements in the common foreign and security policy domain). To secure this, now is the time to strike a sort of grand deal whereby the High Representative would refrain from vying with the future President of the Commission over who has the authority to take the initiative on common policies of international scope and, in exchange, obtain new powers over these and the resources allocated to them. It would be a matter of, in those key foreign policy areas where the commissioners have been acting unconnectedly from the High Representative, starting to accept the coordination of the latter (for example, trade and the foreign dimensions of immigration, climate and technology) and in other areas even taking on direct supervision (development, humanitarian aid and defence). In a world where the great powers combine these activities with strategic logic and foreign policy, the EU cannot hope to present itself as a global actor unless it can ensure coherence across its diplomatic efforts, cooperation, trade, progress in security (where the recently launched European Defence Fund stands out) and the foreign dimension of innovation and migration policies.


Since the end of the Cold War, the EU has taken three strategic lines of approach to further its aspiration of gaining global relevance: (a) pursuing its own foreign policy, one that properly connects the international dimension of the so-called EU pillar –where the Commission takes the lead– with the domain of intergovernmental cooperation on diplomatic and military issues known as the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), overseen by the Council; (b) subsuming under a single position (and, if applicable, a single joint course of action too) all the member states’ individual positions; and (c) convincing the international community that, despite its obvious idiosyncrasies that differentiate it from a state, the EU is a good deal more than a run-of-the-mill international organisation and, therefore, may be accepted as a participant comparable on certain occasions to the great world powers.

Only the first of these three major goals is the exclusive responsibility of the EU, because the second requires the cooperation of 28 national capitals, while the third relies on the acquiescence of almost 200 sovereign states. Not surprisingly, the progress that has been made over the years is directly proportionate to this scale of difficulty. Indeed, despite the persistent shortcomings that will be examined in more detail below, significant advances have been made in recent years to ensure that the EU’s foreign policy as such is better coordinated internally and more active. Considerable headway has also been made in terms of ensuring that the member states and the joint institutions act together (climate change, the agreement with Iran and even sanctions against Russia, to name a few cases in point), although there are still many issues where there is either no unanimity (Israel, the status of Kosovo, recognition of the opposition in Venezuela, etc.) or the loudest European voice does not emanate from Brussels but rather Paris, London or Berlin. Lastly, there is still a very long way to go before securing the third goal, that of ensuring that the EU is viewed as a power capable of shaping international politics. Here it is not simply the fact that there are both failures (the 2010 United Nations vote rejecting the idea of the EU speaking to the General Assembly) and successes (for example, the EU being granted full membership of the G7 and G20, and eventually, in May 2011, being allowed to address the UN General Assembly), but rather that the most recent trends in international relations follow a ‘neo-Westphalian’ line, which diverges from the approach hitherto favoured by the EU: one of multilateral governance, free trade and international law.2

So important is it for the EU to improve its role in this increasingly complex (and, in recent times, hostile) setting that it is here where efforts have been made to instigate the main substantive advance in the process towards integration. Following the Single European Act (1986), which ushered in the Internal Market, the Maastricht Treaty (1993), which launched the euro, and the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), which paved the way to the freedom, security and justice area, the great policy contribution of the ill-fated Constitutional Treaty (2004), subsequently reflected in the Lisbon Treaty (2007), comprises external action. It is true that it has been done without the member states making explicit new transfers of sovereignty to the EU, even if the interesting provisions included regarding security and defence are developed, but the institutional innovations that came into force rather more than 10 years ago brought about a significant qualitative change in the vague power arrangements of the CFSP and the international perception of EU policies. The idea (the genesis of which goes back to the 2002 Convention on the Future of Europe) consisted of connecting the two spheres better and hence the decision to formally abandon the notion of pillars, providing the EU with a status as a single legal entity, creating a stable President of the European Council who would share the task of foreign representation with the Commission President and, above all, creating an authentic EU ‘Foreign Affairs Minister’.

Although the job title is different, just such a post has existed since 2009: the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who also acts as the Vice-President of the Commission (HR/VP). It is a post that effectively amalgamates the duties discharged up to that point by three distinct offices: the High Representative for CFSP (which was created in 1999 and for 10 years was held by Javier Solana), the Commissioner for Foreign Relations and the rotating Presidency of the Council. But it was not simply a case of getting rid of the dysfunctional aspects of the old ‘Troika’ and uniting in a single figure the former ‘Mr CFSP’, the coordinator of the EU’s international policies in the Commission and the President of the Council in its Foreign Affairs configuration (separated in 2010 from the General Affairs Council, which would continue with a rotating six-monthly presidency). In addition, new competences were given to the HR/VP, notable among which were oversight of his own new and ambitious diplomatic corps, the capacity to initiate and implement CFSP matters and the responsibility of coordinating EU foreign policy as a whole through the strengthening of his status in the College of Commissioners by virtue of becoming its Vice-President.

Ten years have elapsed and, while it is possible to point to a range of achievements and an incipient positioning on the global stage of the EU in its own right, any assessment made of the post following the performance of its first two holders (Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini) reveals a mixed picture attributable to its rather low political profile and, above all, an inappropriate allocation of its responsibilities, particularly in terms of the coordination of the Commission’s foreign policy. This is why it makes sense to use Josep Borrell’s appointment as the new HR/VP by the European Council to revisit the enormous potential implicit in the post and to place it in the context of the ideas circulating at the heart of the institutions regarding how to deal with the way the office fits into the Commission. Moreover, the current juncture (with the organisational jigsaw of the College of Commissioners for the 2019-24 term still being decided) offers a unique window of opportunity, which can be seized to ensure that the post has a wider remit than it has hitherto enjoyed. As the only job on the Commission (apart from the presidency) to be underwritten by treaty and given that the appointment is made before the other commissioners, there is scope for political autonomy that should not be squandered if the goal is to provide the HR/VP with more resources in order to implement more effective foreign policies in an extremely complex context.

Indeed, the contemporary political landscape has become increasingly fraught, characterised by growing competition between the great powers. Specifically, the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China looks set to become the main focal point of international relations in the decades ahead. And episodes such as the recent tariff spat between the Trump Administration and the Xi Jinping regime in China and the US embargo on the Chinese tech company Huawei throw into sharp relief the close interdependence between different parts of political activity, namely trade policy, industrial and technology policy, and foreign and defence policy. If it is to navigate such a world, it is important that the EU understands each of these areas of competition not in isolation but rather within the framework of broader geostrategic competition, one that looks beyond the ‘trees’ of sectoral policies and sees the ‘wood’ of global competition. This demonstrates the need for greater integration of any EU policies with an international dimension, ideally under the coordination and supervision of the HR/VP. Meanwhile, an international context characterised by the growing geostrategic rivalry between large blocs further underlines the importance of such key EU policy areas as trade, technology, industry and defence not being determined solely by economic considerations, but that they should also be anchored in a strategic vision of foreign policy.

As mentioned above, the pertinent provision of the EU’s regulations since the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect states that the HR/VP shall conduct the CFSP and ensure the consistency of the Union’s external action.3 ‘External action’ is an extremely broad concept. It includes the CFSP, of course, covering diplomacy and issues related to security and defence (CSDP), but also common policies of an external nature such as trade, international cooperation and development, humanitarian aid, enlargement and neighbourhood policies. It should also include the important international aspects of many other policies such as those concerning migration, industry, economy, finance, digitalisation, energy, climate, environment, agriculture, fishing and justice. Bearing in mind the breadth of the EU’s action in its entirety, it is evident that in reality the CFSP constitutes a relatively small part of it.

The HR/VP is appointed by the European Council, by qualified majority voting, with the approval of the President of the Commission.4 His term of office may only be ended by the same procedure. This entails that, politically, the HR/VP is accountable in the first instance to the European Council and the President of the Commission. He is also accountable to the Foreign Affairs Council (which he also chairs) for all matters relating to the execution of the CFSP. The HR/VP has the right to make proposals for the CFSP and as Vice-President contributes to the Commission’s unique right of making proposals for EU policies. The European External Action Service (EEAS) assists the HR/VP in all his functions. Bearing all these factors in mind, it is clear that the treaties bestow a key role on the HR/VP, with the potential to be one of the most influential in the EU. He has ample autonomy, various special prerogatives (for example, the right to attend European Council meetings) and abundant administrative resources, notable among which is, of course, leadership of the EEAS, but also the fact that he can count on two Secretary-Generals (Commission and Council) and an 11-member cabinet, almost twice the size of the commissioners’ teams.5

The problem…

In practice, however, there is a certain perception that the HR/VP plays a somewhat representative and diplomatic role, lacking real power. There are two main reasons for this. The first is the lack of the CFSP’s effectiveness, attributable to such deep-seated problems as the complex decision-making structures, the requirement (and culture) of unanimity in the Council, the strategic differences between member states and the major capitals’ persistent habit of prioritising their role over that of the EU in many instances. Ten years after the Treaty of Lisbon came into force, Foreign Affairs Ministers still jealously guard their exclusive responsibility for foreign policy and tend to view themselves as principals and the HR as an agent. Nor did it help that the coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the main substantial innovation of which was the commitment to a more effective and proactive European foreign policy, coincided with five years of severe economic crisis, which diverted resources and political will to tackle other emergencies.

The second problem, already alluded to, is the insufficient use of the vice-presidential role in the European Commission. Indeed, since the creation of the post in 2010, various of the basic principles mentioned above have been neglected. The first HR/VP (2010-14) devoted her term in office almost exclusively to the CFSP and setting up a diplomatic service as complex as the EEAS from scratch, leaving to one side her role in the common policies overseen by the Commission. The second HR/VP (2014-19) sought to exercise her vice-presidential function better, and certain steps were taken in this regard at the beginning of her term in office,6 paving the way to rather more influence over common policies of a foreign nature –except trade– but with very limited say on the international dimension of the EU’s internal policies. At any event, she continued to maintain a distant relationship with the rest of the Commission, with a certain lack of acceptance of her (and the EEAS’s) authority at the heart of the institution, and in consequence a prioritisation of the CFSP. The result is that in many of the large political dossiers the Commission frequently side-lined the HR/VP and awarded the visibility and credit to other members of the College,7 thereby contributing to the perception of the post’s lack of influence.

… and the solution

The 2019-24 Strategic Agenda approved by the European Council prioritises ‘promoting European interests and values on a global stage’ and to this end being ‘more determined and effective in exerting our influence… giving a clearer priority to European economic, political and security interests, leveraging all policies to that end’. This constitutes the first political framework in the new institutional cycle for embarking upon wide-reaching reform, constructed on a twofold foundation: (1) enhancing the stature of the HR as the VP of the Commission; and (2) improving the way the CFSP operates.

(1) Enhancing the stature of the HR as the VP of the Commission

The priority should be to maximise the potential of the HR’s role as the Vice-President of the Commission. To do this, it is necessary to have an agreement from the outset between the HR/VP and the Commission President, who has ample powers to organise the structure and working methods of the institution. This agreement should be based on a sort of grand bargain, whereby the HR/VP would more explicitly accept his place in the strategic initiative and the hierarchical authority of his superior in the Commission on a day-to-day basis, including the work of the EEAS. In exchange for this, the President would agree to establish more explicitly the HR/VP’s responsibility for coordination in the realm of the Commission’s foreign competences and in the foreign aspects of the EU’s internal policies, placing at his disposal the services and structures necessary for wielding such authority effectively, including access to the Secretary-General of the Commission.8 While this grand bargain would not affect the autonomy of the HR/VP or his special relationship with the Council and the European Council in terms of CFSP and CSDP matters, it would lay the foundations for greater input from the Commission on such questions, thereby underpinning the EU’s overall cohesion as an international player.

To bring about this change in the organisational structure it would be worth considering the possibility of creating geographically-focused commissioners for external action, under the hierarchy of the HR/VP and replacing the current thematic posts (enlargement and neighbourhood, development and humanitarian aid).9 The HR/VP would coordinate their work through project groups, based on the current Commissioners’ Group on External Action but with more flexibility and access to internal policies, given that all Commissioners would have as part of their formal mission the responsibility to coordinate their external action with the HR/VP. 10 At the administrative level, the geographical commissioners would be supported not only by the Secretary-General but also working groups coordinated by the EEAS where all the pertinent directorates-general would be included.11

This model would ensure the HR/VP’s overall control and coordination role, while removing the burden of travel and management (whether involving attendance at high-level meetings or crisis management), enabling him to focus on strategic dossiers and reduce non-attendance of meetings of the College of Commissioners to a minimum.12 The HR/VP would effectively have the power to oversee all the EU’s policies with an international dimension, facilitating the creation of ‘incentive packages’, by being able to use in a coherent manner the entire arsenal of diplomatic, economic and other resources (visas, for example) that may be deployed to attain the EU’s goals and interests in non-member countries.

In the realm of defence, the HR/VP would be responsible not only for the CSDP (and the Military Committee, which is in charge of all the EU’s military missions) but also all the other defence-related policies pursued by the Commission. These policies (such as the European Defence Fund and the Military Mobility policy) fall within the remit of other commissioners, under the Vice-President for Industry Katainen. This is an especially important point, since one of the major threats to the EU’s defence is the lack of connection between the its technological-industrial arm and its political-strategic arm. This was brought to the fore when the Commission launched the European Defence Fund, which is set to spend €13 billion between 2021 and 2027 on supporting research projects in the defence domain and co-funding capabilities.13 This initiative has revitalised the debate about defence in Europe after years of lethargy. By way of illustration, the money the Commission expects to spend on funding defence research is greater than that earmarked by most member states (with the sole exception of France and Germany). This means that virtually all of them will start to structure their defence R&D policy around the Commission’s European Defence Fund. It is important to ensure, however, that the Fund pursues a strategic and not an exclusively industrial or economic approach.

It is true that the EEAS has launched a series of initiatives in recent years geared towards establishing a political-strategic framework that would provide a foundation to the European Defence Fund. Specifically, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) seek to set the parameters of Europe’s strategic ambition and stimulate cooperation processes that equip European countries with the capabilities and structures needed to exercise greater strategic autonomy.14 Such initiatives are of a markedly intergovernmental character however, and their scope raises serious questions, given the persistent discrepancies between member states on issues as fundamental as the role of force in international relations and the threats and geographical areas to be prioritised. Against this background, doubts emerge about the extent to which the Commission’s initiatives in the domain of defence industry policy are truly anchored in a strategic-political vision that is coherent and shared by all member states.

The possibility of setting up a Directorate General for Defence in the Commission (and even a Vice-President and Commissioner for Security and Defence) could aggravate this problem, inasmuch as it could pave the way to a situation of dual leadership, with one Vice-President and Commissioner in charge of the technological-industrial aspects of European defence, and another (the HR/VP) in charge of the political-strategic aspects, thereby creating a recipe for institutional rivalry and political disjointedness. The solution to this problem may involve the previously-mentioned grand bargain between the Commission President and the HR/VP, whereby the latter would submit to the political authority of the Commission in the area of defence industry policy in exchange for overseeing the management of the European Defence Fund, as well as the Commission services earmarked for managing it. It would be quite different if the potential new Commissioner for Security and Defence came clearly under the authority of the HR/VP because, in this case, he or she could even be considered to be an assistant high representative in charge of defence, space and cybersecurity, which would give the HR/VP additional oversight of significant budgetary allocations.15

As a quid pro quo, the HR/VP would need to accept the prospect of giving more space to the Commission, which would be unlikely to give the HR/VP access to its resources without getting something in exchange. Thus, for example, the HR/VP could consult the Commission and seek ratification for his proposals and initiatives prior to submitting them to the Council. In this way, such proposals would have the assurance of the full backing of the Commission and its resources, which in turn would strengthen the HR/VP’s position in the Council.

(2) Improving the way the CFSP operates

With all the developments set out in the preceding section, the HR/VP would underpin his coordination role in the Commission’s external action, but maintain his autonomy in the CFSP, the latter being something that is underwritten by the treaty. It is also necessary to carry out improvements within the domain of the CFSP, however. Solving the deep-seated problems here is an enormously complex challenge requiring profound and detailed reflection, including perhaps reform of the treaties. There are certain steps that the HR/VP could take almost immediately, however, within the prerogatives the treaty bestows upon him:

  • Designing a more functional Foreign Affairs Council. The Council’s agenda could be designed in such a way as to discourage grandiose theoretical debates and focus on practical questions of representation, use of financial instruments and other policies such as incentivisation, the planning of joint initiatives with and between member states, the coordination of multilateral negotiations and positions in international bodies, etc. Instead of rambling, inefficient conclusions, the HR/VP could put forward short, structured conclusions, separating declaratory parts from operational parts.
  • Encouraging the use of qualified majority voting in the CFSP. Invoking the ‘passerelle clause’ of the Treaty16 requires unanimity in the European Council and is, as things currently stand, totally unrealistic. There are, however, parts of the CFSP where qualified majority voting may be used without recourse to this clause, and there is an ever-growing number of capitals interested in extending its use. For example, the HR and the Commission could decide to structure the legal initiatives on sanctions in such a way that the decision to impose sanctions continues to be taken by unanimity, but the names of the people to be sanctioned and the specific economic measures are taken by qualified majority voting.17 In addition, the HR and the Commission could submit themed or regional strategies for the approval of the European Council, in accordance with TEU article 22.1. Once approved, all the Council’s decisions and positions within the framework of these strategies would be by qualified majority voting.18
  • Reforming the EEAS (which currently has some 140 delegations and some 5,600 bureaucrats) to encourage better administrative organisation and coordination, a less theoretical/academic and geographic approach and a more functional, thematic and horizontal orientation, better capacity for making use of the EU instruments in support of the CFSP, and a more coordinated and strategic use of the EU Delegations as sources of information and agents for the promotion of interests.
  • Encouraging coordination with member states’ embassies through the EU Delegations in third-party countries.


The post of High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission contains elements of immense value for advancing towards a European external action characterised by greater cohesion, visibility and influence. In its first 10 years of existence however, the holders of the position have largely wasted its potential. Expectations have been thwarted, partly because of problems inherent to the CFSP but above all because its first two holders were not capable of leveraging the rank and the coordinating functions implicit in the fact of also being Vice-President of the Commission. It is therefore a question of the future HR/VP being able to effectively manage and oversee the entire international dimension of the common policies and having access to the Commission’s financial instruments and services in key areas with a direct impact on his competences and power.

The treaties and organisational structure of the EU are sufficiently flexible to enable the HR/VP to have direct access to the Commission’s instruments. Ultimately this will depend on a political agreement with the new President, which ought to be concluded without delay, before she takes decisions about the structure of the various portfolios; these will create a series of faits accomplis and force the HR/VP into a defensive and reactive position.

If an appropriate arrangement of these coordinating functions is achieved, the 2019-24 legislative term currently getting under way will see not only an exponential increase in the influence of the HR/VP but it could also, much more importantly, have a simultaneous and positive impact on the three strategic goals of European external action set out at the start of this analysis: (1) a real (and not simply theoretical) use of the ‘two hats’ as Vice-President of the Commission and chair of the Council would almost automatically ensure the first goal of the EU itself being better coordinated; (2) greater cohesion between the external work undertaken by both institutions and improvements in the operations of an external service where EU bureaucrats and national diplomats coexist would help to generate dynamics of continuity and trust with the member states, which would reduce and, over the medium term, tend to eliminate the fragmentation of almost 30 foreign policies; and (3) this greater cohesion would bolster the efficacy and visibility of the EU as an international actor.

Ignacio Molina
Senior European Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute
| @_ignaciomolina

Luis Simón
Director of the Elcano Royal Institute’s Office in Brussels and Senior Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute
| @LuisSimn

1 The authors would like to express their gratitude for the very valuable contributions made to this text by three EU official who prefer to remain anonymous owing to their current responsibilities.

2 See L. Simón (2018), The Spectre of a Westphalian Europe, Whitehall Paper, nr 90, Routledge, Abingdon.

3 TEU Article 18.

4 Although the extraordinary European Council meeting of 2 July 2019 has nominated Josep Borrell as the next HR/VP, the official appointment has not yet taken place; this will only occur when the European Parliament gives its blessing to the appointment of the person proposed to preside over the Commission (in principle, the German politician Ursula von der Leyen) and subsequently ratifies the new College of Commissioners.

5 For the importance of having access to this wide-ranging team of cabinet members, see L. Simón, I. Molina, E. Lledó & N. Martín (2019), ‘Hacia un ecosistema de influencia española en Bruselas’, ARI nr 30/2019, Elcano Royal Institute.

6 Her office was relocated to the Berlaymont building, next to the other members of the Commission, and the Commissioners’ Group on External Action, chaired by the HR/VP, to coordinate foreign policies.

7 For example, the agreement with Turkey on migration (First Vice-President Timmermans), the Paris Agreement (Energy Commissioner Arias Cañete), the European Defence Fund (Vice-President Katainen) and the institutional agreement with Switzerland (Enlargement Commissioner Hahn).

8 Especially during the Juncker Commission, the Secretary-General of the Commission has been steadily acquiring power and today constitutes the single lever by which the activity of the entire institution can be controlled.

9 The Trade Commissioner would be retained in any event, owing to the exclusive nature of this post in the treaties. It is important however to emphasise the hybrid character of this portfolio (which above all affects foreign and industrial policy) and therefore to strengthen its links to the HR/VP. This could be achieved by, for example, making the HR/VP the (co-) chair of a project group on trade policy, replacing the current Commissioners’ Group on Trade and Globalisation.

10 Given that the HR/VP would not have the right to appoint or remove geographical commissioners, it would be important to create the necessary mechanisms to ensure that they would be subject to the HR/VP’s authority. One way, already mentioned, would involve creating transversal working groups with representatives from all the Directorates-General (DGs) that have responsibilities in each geographical region (for example, migration, energy, climate for Africa, etc.). This would involve the existing DGs and avoid creating a bureaucratically disruptive structure. Such working groups would be chaired by a geographical commissioner who would in turn come under the hierarchy of the HR/VP.

11 It is worth noting the risk that the creation of geographical commissioners could incur in terms of pigeonholing the UE’s foreign policy, particularly bearing in mind the existing connections between the major regions. In order to offset such risks, it would be necessary to ensure an oversight role for the HR/VP and to create the mechanisms needed to guarantee the geographical commissioners’ hierarchical inferiority to the HR/VP, whose responsibility it would be to ensure the cohesion of the EU’s external action.

12 Even if the replacement of thematic by geographical commissioners were not to take place (either because it is deemed inappropriate or the continued existence of International Cooperation and Development and Enlargement portfolios, in addition to the Trade portfolio, is deemed indispensable) the role could be created within the EEAS of four or five special envoys for the major regions, thereby reducing the travel burden on the HR/VP.

13 See Félix Arteaga & Luis Simón (2019), ‘El Fondo Europeo de Defensa y el futuro de la industria española’, Elcano Policy Paper, January.

14 Pedro Serrano (2019), ‘The bundle of sticks: a stronger European defence to face global challenges’, Working Paper, nr 03/2019, Elcano Royal Institute.

15 Moreover, greater cohesion between the Commission and the EEAS in the defence realm would facilitate the integration of the European Defence Agency (EDA) in the management of European Defence Fund projects, thereby ensuring a greater strategic orientation in the management of the Fund (given the experience of the EDA in this field) as well as greater overall cohesion in the EU’s defence policy.

16 TEU Article 31.3 permits the invocation of qualified majority voting in any part of the CFSP except military or defence decisions, if unanimously agreed by the European Council.

17 TEU Article 31.2, third paragraph.

18 TEU Article 31.2, first paragraph.

<![CDATA[ In virality we trust! The quest for authenticity in digital diplomacy ]]> 2019-07-08T07:05:15Z

Virality in digital diplomacy is the new black. For Ministers of Foreign Affairs and diplomats, being on social media is no longer only about presence and networking, but about standing out through the virality of their messages.


Virality in digital diplomacy is the new black. For Ministers of Foreign Affairs and diplomats, being on social media is no longer only about presence and networking, but about standing out through the virality of their messages.


For Ministers of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and embassies, being on social media is no longer only about presence and networking, but about standing out through the virality of their messages. Virality allows digital diplomats to step out of their immediate ‘bubble’ and reach out to unfamiliar audiences, showcase their position on important policy issues or normative claims, and enhance their social authority in front of their peers or the online public. The challenge for digital diplomacy lies in achieving the proper know-how and technical capacity to make their messages ‘go viral’. This ARI provides some clues and rules to improve the virality in digital diplomacy.

The Studium and the Punctum

Virality in digital diplomacy is the new black, and rightly so, one may add! For Ministers of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and embassies, being on social media is no longer only about presence and networking, but about standing out through the virality of their messages. Creating content that is shared exponentially on social media, in a very short timeframe, with multiple levels of reactions from a mosaic of audiences is, to put is simply, ‘pure gold’ from a communicational perspective.

Virality allows digital diplomats to step out of their immediate ‘bubble’ and reach out to unfamiliar audiences, showcase their position on important policy issues or normative claims, and enhance their social authority in front of their peers or the online public. In the attention-deficit space of the digital medium, virality promises to inject a high-dose of authenticity and engagement, even though, the outcome often has a short-lifespan and generates transient effects. The challenge lies, of course, with the fact that viral content is not that easily to create, especially by MFAs and embassies who generally lack the human, know-how and technical capacity to make their messages ‘go viral’.

As a first step towards addressing this challenge, we need to develop a good theoretical understanding of how virality works in the context of digital diplomacy. Roland Barthes’ reflections on the study of photography may assist us with this task, as they provide some useful clues about how to think analytically about the issue of virality.1 More specifically, Barthes argues that the way in which we make sense of the meaning of a photograph much depends on the distinction we draw between the studium and the punctum aspects of the image. The studium represents the contextual reading of the image that is, the historical, social or cultural details that the picture makes available to the viewer. The punctum, on the other hand, is the ‘out of place’ aspect of the photo that punctuates the studium and ‘pierces’ the viewer with an unexpected arrow of acuity. Put it differently, while the studium tells the viewer what the image is about in a manner that can be similarly understood by many, the punctum disrupts the studium and establishes a personal connection between the viewer and the image.

For example, Barthes finds that the picture taken by a Dutch reporter of a military unit patrolling a street in an unnamed Nicaraguan city during the uprising in 1978-79 (see Image 1) resembles well the duality and co-presence of the studium and punctum. The studium informs us about the gravity of the political situation, the desolation and destruction produced by the insurrection, the casual display of military force, and the bleakness of the future. The punctum, on the other hand, reveals, at least for Barthes, an unexpected contrast between two elements that do not usually belong together, the nuns and the soldiers, which seems to invite the reader to reflect on questions about war and death, violence and religion, destruction and reconstruction. The studium makes available to viewers a particular narrative about a historical situation with the goal to stimulate his/her interest and take notice of the human tragedy unfolding in Nicaragua at that time. However, it is the punctum that makes the photo transcend its state of general interest and connect it more intimately with the viewer by reaching out to Barthes’ subjectivity and rendering the image personally meaningful to him.

Image 1: Koen Wessing, Nicaragua, 1978
Image 1: Koen Wessing, Nicaragua, 1978

Barthes’ reflections on the art of photography carry good analytical value for the study of online virality as well. It offers us a framework for deconstructing viral content into tangible components by which to capture the interplay between the general and the specific, the common and the personal, the informative and the emotional, the inconsequential and the meaningful. Understanding the studium of viral content can give us a better sense of the themes, compositions, formats and approaches that makes certain messages highly popular. Understanding the punctum can reveal us the “out of place” profile of viral messages and their propensity for personalisation and micro-engagement. Drawing on relevant case studies of viral digital diplomacy, the next two sections will integrate the concepts of studium and the punctum into the discussion of two important aspects of online virality: contextual dimensions of viral dissemination (external vs internal) and rules of operation (information, emotions and personalisation).

External vs Internal Virality

A tweet by the former UK Ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, showing him strolling in Cairo, shortly before ending his tenure in Sept 2018, gathered 1.4k Reactions,  1.7k ReTweets and 11k Likes. By contrast, the tweet of the High Commissioner of Cyprus to the UK, Euripides Evriviades, showing him posing in front of the residence of the British Prime Minister as a memento before his departure from the post, garnered only 28 reactions, 25 ReTweets and 294 Likes (see Image 2). The question this example invites us to address is threefold: a) to what extent the virality of the two tweets is comparable?, b) how well each tweet performs relative to other messages produced by the same author? and c) what characteristics of the two tweets explain their virality? The first part of the question concerns itself with the issue of ‘external virality’ (cross-source comparison), the second with the issue of ‘internal virality’ (same source comparison) and the third part with the application of the stadium/punctum framework.

Image 2. Tweets with asymmetrical viral content

ماينفعش امشي من غير ماسلم عليكم

مفيش مع السلامة إنما إلى القاء #منورة_باهلها
🙏🏼👋❤️ 🇪🇬 🇬🇧

— John Casson (@JohnCassonUK) 31 August 2018

No. I am not in the race to become the next PM of #UK. Just had my pic taken as #Cyprus HC, in front of one of the most famous doors in the world. A keepsake of my tenure in 🇬🇧 & in this mega metropolis called London.

— Euripides Evriviades 🇨🇾🇪🇺 (@eevriviades) 12 June 2019

Many would be probably tempted to consider the tweet of Amb. Casson as being decisively more viral in its outlook than that of HC Evriviades given its sizeable lead in quantitative metrics. However, closer scrutiny reveals the two tweets are somewhat similar in terms of online influence once the number of followers is considered (see Table 1). More specifically, Amb. Casson’s tweet has only a small lead in terms of RT, but a stronger presence in terms of likes and reactions. This is so because the number of followers distorts the quality of the virality metrics by amplifying the randomness of the reactions. Put differently, it is clearly impressive when an account with 100 followers generates 1000 RTs, but arguably less so when the same number of RTs come from an account with 1 million followers. Therefore, RT/Likes/Reactions per follower provides a better basis of comparison of the ‘external’ virality of competing accounts.

Table 1. External virality adjusted by the number of followers
  Amb. John Casson HC Euripides Evriviades
Number of followers 1.26M 16.6K
Number of RT per follower 741 664
Number of Likes per follower 114 56
Number of Reactions per follower 900 592

At the same time, it is important to observe the ‘internal’ dimension of virality that is, the extent to which a tweet aligns itself or diverge from the average reach of other messages generated by the same source. For illustration purposes, the average number of RT, Likes and Reactions of a sample of the most recent ten tweets produced by Amb. Casson (28 Aug – 5 Sept, 2018) and HC Evriviades (21-23 June 2019) fall well outside the normal distribution, between 2-3 standard deviations in the case of Amb. Casson and even further in the case of HC Evriviades. In other words, while both Tweets have performed extremely well relative to other tweets posted by the same author, the one posted by HC Evriviades is a clear outlier, especially in terms of Likes and Reactions.

Table 2. Internal virality relative to the average tweet reach in each account
  Amb. John Casson HC Euripides Evriviades
  Average Standard Deviation Average Standard Deviation
RT 370 473 6 6
Likes 3993 3466 24 27
Reactions 420 404 2 1

This brings us back to Barthes’ distinction between the studium and the punctum and its role as an analytical tool for explaining the performance of these two tweets. From a studium perspective, both tweets speak to traditional themes about what it means to be a diplomat. Engaging with people and cultivating issues of common interest in the case of Amb. Casson and building political relationships in the case of HC Evriviades. However, it is not the conventionalism of the stories that makes the difference in terms of the reception by the audience, but the punctum by which the viewer is invited to interpret the message. The casualness and naturalness by which Amb. Casson mingles with regular Egyptian citizens stands in clear contrast with its official position, while the note of subtle humour that HC Evriviades drops in his message acts as a relaxing counterpoint to the solemnity that the 10 Downing Street door conveys as the centre of political power in UK.

The stadium/punctum framework also adds an interesting reflexive angle to the discussion regarding the influence of external vs internal virality. As the audience gradually becomes familiar with the style of the author, internal validity can sustain itself if the punctum constantly refreshes itself. For example, the casualness shown by Amb. Casson in his public interactions can demonstrate its viral value if it continues to surprise the viewer, by engaging, for instance, with unexpected guests, or changing the dynamic of the interaction with the public. In the same way, the light/solemn punctum adopted by HC Evriviades will require creatively updated formats of expression so as to maintain the attention of the audience. From the perspective of external virality, the studium can offer interesting insights about how certain themes of diplomatic reflection travel across space and time. For example, does the idea of direct engagement with the public resonate better in places where the local relationship between citizens and policy-makers is more hierarchical? Similarly, would humour be able to drive viral content in the same way in places where the reputation of power holders is negative?    

Virality Rules

As mentioned elsewhere,2diplomatic communication has been traditionally embedded in a text-oriented culture that has favoured ‘constructive ambiguity’ over precision, politeness over frankness, reason over passion, and confidentiality over transparency. The arrival of digital technologies has infused the public sphere in which diplomacy operates with a set of new elements that have completely rearranged the ‘grammar rules’ of online engagement. Data and algorithms are now the new syntactic units of the new ‘digital language’ to which various combinations of visuals, emotions and cognitive frames are attached to create semantic meaning. This also means that digital content on social media platforms must tailor itself closely to these rules in order to be able to go viral. If so, what exactly are these rules and how the stadium/punctum framework can help us unpack the scope of application of these rules?

Rule 1. Information overload and limited attention contribute to the degradation of the quality of information that goes viral

As shown by Weng et al. the combination of social network structure (the denser, the better) and competition for finite user attention provides a sufficient condition for the emergence of a broad diversity of viral content.3 However, out of the ‘soup’ of contending viral messages, it is more likely that those that come on top expose low-quality information as both the information load and the limited attention lead to low discriminative power. As Qiu et al. point out, viral diversity can coexist with network discriminative power when we have plenty of attention and we are not overloaded with information,4 conditions that are increasingly difficult to meet in the digital medium. In other words, the network structure of social media platforms favours the formation of viral content, but the attention deficit of the users acts as a filter for the quality of the viral content.

Image 3. Tweets with asymmetrical quality of information

“Normally I say 'I'll be back', but now I say: 'I'll be there'" -- Arnold @Schwarzenegger accepts invitation from @antonioguterres to the UN #ClimateAction Summit in September.

— United Nations (@UN) 22 June 2019

With European prosperity and Asian peace and security closely connected, the EU has decided to strengthen its security cooperation in and with Asia. Check out the factsheet

— European External Action Service - EEAS 🇪🇺 (@eu_eeas) 31 May 2019

As suggested in Image 3, Rule 1 carries empirical relevance. The tweet posted by the UN account showing the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, inviting Arnold Schwarzenegger to attend the Climate Action Summit in September 2019 went quickly viral (by internal standards). It has swiftly reached roughly three times the average of Likes and RTs received by the UN account despite the scarcity of the information provided, except for a brief reference to the actor’s ‘I’ll be back” famous line. By contrast, the information rich tweet posted by the European External Action Service (EEAS) outlining EU-Asia security priorities, an important topic in the current geopolitical context, has been hardly noticed by the online public. One important implication of Rule 1 is that the punctum needs to really stand out (via emotional framing of the use of a dynamic format) if the quality of the information reflected by the studium is to stay high and make a significant difference for the audience.

Rule 2. Emotions rule! Content that evokes intense emotions is more likely to go viral

One important school of thought on the psychology of emotions links Paul Ekman and Robert Plutchik’s influential theories of basic emotions to the pleasure,5 arousal and dominance model of environmental perception developed by Mehrabian and Russell6 (see Image 4). It is thus argued that emotions are associated with different degrees of positive (joy, surprise) or negative feelings (anger, disgust, fear, sadness), that they come with different levels of high (joy, anger, fear) or low energy (sadness, disgust) and that they are connected to feelings of control (anger, joy) or inadequacy (fear, sadness). Building on this model, Rule 2 states that messages reflecting high levels of valence, arousal and dominance, such as joy and anger, are more likely to go viral.

Image 4: Affective space spanned by the Valence-Arousal-Dominance model, together with the position of six Basic Emotions.7
Image 4: Affective space spanned by the Valence-Arousal-Dominance model, together with the position of six Basic Emotions

Rule 2 has received empirical support from a few studies. Fan et al. have found, for instance, that angry emotions could spread more quickly and broadly on social media than joy.8 Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan have also found that emotionally charged Twitter messages tend to be retweeted more often and more quickly compared to neutral ones.9 In a controversial experiment conducted on Facebook, Kramer et al. have demonstrated that emotional states can be actually transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without even their awareness.10

Image 5. Tweets with asymmetrical emotional valence

Goaded by #B_Team, @realdonaldTrump hopes to achieve what Alexander, Genghis & other aggressors failed to do. Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone. #EconomicTerrorism & genocidal taunts won't "end Iran". #NeverThreatenAnIranian. Try respect—it works!

— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) 20 May 2019

Mi silla 😉

— Mark Kent (@KentArgentina) 21 June 2019

What is interesting in the case of Rule 2 is that the punctum is not necessarily defined by a particular feature of the message, but by the emotion that transpires from the message. The two tweets in Image 5, posted by the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif (left) and the UK Ambassador to Argentina, Mark Kent (right), illustrate well this point. FM Zarif’s tweet conveys a pugnacious expression of angry defiance, while Amb. Kent relies on the positive emotion of surprise to ‘pierce’ and establish a connection with the viewer. Both emotions enjoy high levels of energy and dominance, which explains the excellent reception by the audience (several times the average of RTs and Likes normally received by the two diplomats). An interesting implication of Rule 2 is the potential constitutive effect of emotion-driven virality on the formation of online audiences: do emotional punctums provide the anchor around which audiences coalesce and if so, at what stage the studium becomes irrelevant for how messages are received by the emotionally primed audience?  

Rule 3. Content that can be easily personalised is more likely to go viral

In a seminal article, later expanded in a book, Bennett and Segerberg make the argument that unlike the top-down mechanisms of content distribution favored by hierarchical organizations, social networking involves co-production and co-distribution based on personalized expression. According to this connective logic, taking public action becomes less an issue of demonstrating support for some generic goals, as noble as they may be, but an act of personal expression and self-validation achieved by sharing ideas online, negotiating meanings and structuring trusted relationships.11 For example, the personalized action frame ‘we are the 99 per cent’ that emerged from the US occupy protests in 2011, or the more recent ‘MeToo” movement, quickly turned viral and traveled the world via personal stories, images and videos shared on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In short, the easier to personalise a message, as Rule 3 states, the lower the barriers for individual identification with social or political goals, the more opportunities for horizontal engagement, and by extension the more likely for such content to be absorbed, reflected upon, and disseminated through the social networks.

Image 6: Tweets with asymmetrical degree of personalization

Twelve Allies founded #NATO in 1949. Today we are 29.
Join us in celebrating the 70th Anniversary of our Alliance.#WeAreNATO

— NATO (@NATO) 1 de abril de 2019

Traute Lafrenz is the last survivor of the White Rose resistance group. She is one of the few people who had the courage to stand up to the Nazis´ crimes. Consul General Heike Fuller presented the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany to Traute Lafrenz today

— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) 3 de mayo de 2019

For MFAs and embassies, personalisation is not necessarily an easy task, as often case their online activities are primarily about projecting and emphasising their own set of policy priorities, approaches, and strategies to addressing various issues on the global agenda. Personalisation would imply exactly the opposite: removing oneself from the “digital spotlight” and identifying themes that can connect with as many individuals as possible. The examples in Image 6 aim to achieve this in slightly different ways.

The #WeAreNATO videoclip produced by NATO for its 70th anniversary in April places the member states at the forefront of the story about the historical evolution of the organisation. Personalisation takes place, in this case, via state representatives who come together to share their commitment to the values of freedom and security projected by the organisation. The viral tweet of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes a different approach. It invites viewers to recall the suffering of those persecuted for fighting for justice and freedom and to identify themselves with the courage demonstrated by one of the last survivors of the resistance movement to the Nazi regime.  

In contrast to Rule 2, personalisation does not primarily focus on emotions but rather on recognition and self-validation. The studium moves back to the centre stage as the repertoire of themes it proposes for discussion needs to offer points of connection by which individuals can express themselves in their own voice through the sharing of similar stories, images and actions. In the case of Rule 3, the punctum emerges not as an anchor by which the viewer is drawn to absorb the message of the studium via subtle contradictions or surprises, but as an invitation to engage as a co-participant in the production of stories connected to the studium that maximise perceptions of self-worth and social recognition.


To conclude, the dynamic environment in which digital diplomacy operates has increased the pressure on MFAs and embassies to become more conscious of the need to better understand how their messages could excel in terms of engagement. Barthes offers us good analytical tools (the studium and the punctum) for unpacking the contextual dimensions of viral dissemination (external vs internal) as well as the role of information, emotions and personalisation in informing the rules of operation of viral engagement.

Corneliu Bjola
Head of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group, University of Oxford (#DigDiploROx) | @CBjola

1 Roland. Barthes, Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography (Hill and Wang, 1981).

2 Corneliu Bjola, Jennifer Cassidy, and Ilan Manor, “Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age”, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 14, no. 1–2 (April 22, 2019): 86.

3 Weng et al., “Competition among Memes in a World with Limited Attention”, Scientific Reports 2, no. 1 (December 29, 2012): 335.

4 Xiaoyan Qiu et al., “Limited Individual Attention and Online Virality of Low-Quality Information”, Nature Human Behaviour 1, no. 7 (July 26, 2017): 5.

5 According to Ekman, human emotions can be grouped in six families (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) while Plutchik eight, which he grouped into four pairs of polar opposites (joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation). Paul Ekman, “An Argument for Basic Emotions,” Cognition and Emotion 6, no. 3–4 (1992): 169–200; Robert Plutchik, “The Nature of Emotions”, American Scientist 89, no. 4 (2001): 344–50.

6 A Mehrabian and J A Russell, An Approach to Environmental Psychology, Cambridge, Mass (M.I.T. Press, 1974).

7 Graph adapted from Sven Buechel and Udo Hahn, “Word Emotion Induction for Multiple Languages as a Deep Multi-Task Learning Problem”, 2018, 1908.

8 Rui Fan et al., “Anger Is More Influential Than Joy: Sentiment Correlation in Weibo”, accessed June 25, 2019,

9 Stefan Stieglitz and Linh Dang-Xuan, “Emotions and Information Diffusion in Social Media—Sentiment of Microblogs and Sharing Behavior”, Journal of Management Information Systems 29, no. 4 (April 8, 2013): 217–48.

10 Adam D I Kramer, Jamie E Guillory, and Jeffrey T Hancock, “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111, no. 24 (June 17, 2014): 8788–90.

11 W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, “The Logic of Connective Action”, Information, Communication & Society 15, no. 5 (June 2012): 752–54.

<![CDATA[ Emerging security challenges in NATO’s southern neighbourhood ]]> 2019-07-03T10:22:24Z

NATO has always had a southern exposure. Today’s strategic environment provides a new context for this traditional question, but also raises fundamental questions of geography, alliance politics and a shared approach to risks.


NATO confronts an increasingly complex and risk-prone environment. A more assertive Russia poses specific challenges and the Alliance has made headway in addressing risks emanating from the east. NATO has been less explicit in addressing risks emanating from the Mediterranean and from the ‘south’ more generally. These risks are real and will make new demands on Alliance strategy in the years ahead.


NATO has always had a southern exposure. Since the early years of the Alliance, the question of how to understand and address challenges emanating from the Mediterranean and beyond has been on the NATO agenda in political and security terms. Today’s strategic environment provides a new context for this traditional question, but also raises fundamental questions of geography, alliance politics and a shared approach to risks. Transatlantic relations and NATO burden-sharing will be elements in the equation as NATO looks south.


The definition of the southern limits of the NATO area of responsibility was a key political issue when Algeria was still part of France and other members retained colonies in Africa and elsewhere. The earliest NATO enlargements were southbound, with Greece and Turkey. During the Cold War, the East-West military balance had a distinct southern dimension, alongside more focused threats on the northern and central flanks. But despite the considerable military assets and infrastructure deployed across NATO’s southern region, the Mediterranean remained a secondary concern in Alliance strategy. The defence of Frankfurt and Athens were never really equivalent strategic priorities. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, challenges in the south were seen as local concerns, or linked to broader questions of global strategy, of interest largely to the US. The experience of two Gulf Wars reinforced this perception, with NATO’s south serving, above all, as a logistical link to the Gulf. Formal NATO strategy continued –and continues– to treat Mediterranean challenges as a fully equivalent part of collective defence. But Alliance politics and the wider strategic debate are another matter.

Today, strategy looking south is experiencing a renaissance. Terrorism is a key part of the equation in both public and elite perception, and this concern is hardly limited to NATO’s southern members. Power projection and crisis management in the face of a very unstable security environment from North Africa to the Levant is another key element. Unease over migration pressures and hard and soft security challenges emanating from the global south are also driving the debate. Yet the sheer scale of the relevant geography, the diversity of risks and their diffuse character, and strategic distractions elsewhere continue to complicate Alliance thinking about the security environment across the ‘southern neighbourhood’ and how to address it.

What south?

The contemporary question of NATO’s southern strategy has provoked a fundamental debate over what, precisely, is meant by the ‘south’. The Mediterranean is the undeniable centre of gravity in this context. Developments across the Mediterranean space, at sea and ashore, touch directly on the security interests of the Alliance as a whole. NATO has a well-established partnership programme, the Mediterranean Dialogue, embracing North Africa and the Levant.1 This initiative, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2019, has evolved significantly over time. It has acquired a more practical orientation with the broad aim of capacity building and encouraging a shared security culture around the Mediterranean. It remains a vehicle for multilateral discussions in a setting that allows for few interactions between, for instance, Israel and the Arab states, or Morocco and Algeria. It could be even more active in this context if political conditions were more permissive.2 The inclusion of Mauritania appears much less eccentric today against the backdrop of mounting security challenges emanating from the Sahel.

But it is increasingly clear that effective consideration of NATO strategy looking south cannot stop at the Mediterranean and its immediate hinterlands. NATO’s southern exposure has broadened in political and practical terms. Beyond the Maghreb, Africa as a whole is now part of the strategic equation and is set to become even more important over time. Migration, spill-overs of terrorism and illicit flows of all kinds have made Africa an integral part of the European and transatlantic security calculus. The US, France and other NATO members now have a substantial military presence across the Sahel and West Africa. The latter is a growing focus of intelligence collection, surveillance and security partnerships. The deployment of new NATO assets, including Global Hawk drones based in Sicily, is clearly oriented towards risks emanating from this quarter. The enlargement of this security space implies closer cooperation with institutions such as the African Union (AU) and the G5-Sahel. Ultimately, countries such as Senegal, Nigeria and South Africa could be significant partners in NATO’s effort to ‘project security’ (a somewhat unfortunate term) southward.

The relevant geography for NATO is potentially even more far-reaching. Analysts and policymakers are focusing more directly on illicit flows around the Atlantic basin. Today, European and North American security interests are directly affected by the substantial flow of drugs and related trafficking from Latin America and the Caribbean across the Atlantic to West Africa, Cape Verde and northward to the Maghreb and across the Mediterranean. This phenomenon is an example of trans-national threat par excellence.

Taking this approach even further, the ‘south’ could imply all those challenges facing NATO outside the confrontation with Russia in the east. It could easily embrace the entire geography from West Africa and its Atlantic approaches to South and even South-East Asia. Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and the Gulf are already part of this southern calculus given the counter-terrorism and maritime security missions in which NATO members have already been engaged. Ultimately, this outlook converges with the steadily growing pressure for the Alliance to address risks generated by the rise of China and instability in the Indo-Pacific. Clearly, there are limits to this immense enlargement of NATO’s operational space. Pressing defence requirements in Europe’s east and disillusionment with the mission in Afghanistan have reduced the appetite of allies for expeditionary strategies.

Operationally, there are obvious limits to NATO’s global engagement. But it is important to distinguish between the idea of NATO action in the global south and the role of the Alliance as a place where wider strategic concerns can be discussed and policies coordinated. In a political sense, NATO’s south can stretch as far as allies agree to take it.

Thinking beyond crisis management

The Alliance has more than enough to deal with even in a limited definition of the south. The range of potential contingencies and missions around the Mediterranean, Africa and the southern Atlantic is substantial. Many of these challenges are of an unconventional or irregular nature, or involve long term political, economic and environmental pressures. But there are also some tangible territorial threats. Turkey faces potential Article V-type contingencies on its eastern and southern borders, and an unstable balance with Russia in the Black Sea. Experience in Libya, Syria and elsewhere encourages a view of Mediterranean security as an ongoing exercise in crisis management. This may be an inadequate template for the future. There will surely be crises requiring a concerted response. Yet the weakening of states around the southern Mediterranean and the prospect of open-ended conflict in places like Libya, raises the spectre of something closer to sustained instability or durable chaos. The regime in Damascus may well be able to secure its position, but will Syria ever return to the pre-civil war status quo? There is a very real possibility that Syria and the Levant will remain unstable and prone to proxy wars for years to come.

A vision of southern security in which instability and conflict is not an aberration but the norm underscores the importance of missions beyond periodic crisis management. In addition to making risks more transparent through better air, maritime and cyber surveillance –current situational awareness–, the Alliance will need to build its capacity for warning. This implies better sharing of longer-term intelligence and analysis of over-the-horizon risks. The NATO Strategic Direction South Hub in Naples can be one vehicle for this task. But the real capacity for warning is likely to come from bringing together the assessments of Alliance members and partners across the south.

New actors, new stakes

At the risk of restating the obvious, the source of the challenge to NATO in the east is clear, even if the dimensions of the security problem are complex, ranging from the nuclear to the conventional, the irregular to the digital and, ultimately, the political. In the south, NATO confronts immense diversity across the spectrum of risk. There are flashpoints, but no clear centre of gravity in security terms.

One of the key developments across this vast space has been the emergence of new actors and the return of some old ones. Russia has a long history of involvement in Mediterranean affairs dating to Czarist times. During the Cold War, Soviet strategy emphasised the cultivation of security relationships around the Middle East and Africa, north and south. The Soviet navy maintained a meaningful presence in the Mediterranean, even with the limited infrastructure available ashore in such places as Syria and Algeria. This presence essentially evaporated for more than a decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Russia is now back, politically and militarily. The Russian intervention in Syria is the most obvious facet of Moscow’s return, alongside a longstanding relationship with Algeria, activism in Libya and a revived security relationship with Egypt. Russia has remained an influential political actor from the Balkans to the Levant. Moscow’s relationship with Ankara has flourished even as Turkish-Western relations have deteriorated (the planned sale of the Russian S-400 air defence system to Turkey is now the central issue in a deeply troubled relationship between Washington and Ankara). In short, Russia is once again a political-military actor of some importance around the Mediterranean and beyond.

Russian activism bridges NATO’s eastern and southern concerns in some tangible ways, not least in terms of Black-Sea security. As in the Baltic, the growing friction between Russia and NATO has led to a heightened risk of military incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, where forces are operating in proximity. The current level of Russian engagement on NATO’s southern periphery may or may not be sustainable over the longer term. But, for the moment at least, Moscow is back.

A transatlantic debate

Emerging challenges and NATO strategy looking south take on special meaning in the context of the current transatlantic security debate. US engagement and transatlantic burden-sharing are likely to play out in distinctive ways on Europe’s southern periphery. As in Eastern Europe, fears of US disengagement across the region have so far proved to be exaggerated. Deterring and defending against a revived Russia –an existential issue for the Alliance in the East– can hardly be contemplated without US nuclear and conventional contributions. For all the sharp rhetoric around Washington’s pointed pursuit of rebalancing in European defence, the US security presence in Europe has increased in recent years. This is evident in the south, too, although the posture is clearly in flux (as seen in the rapid growth and equally rapid reduction in US forces deployed in West Africa and the Sahel). Washington remains a leading diplomatic and security actor from the Maghreb to the Indian Ocean, from the Black Sea to sub-Saharan Africa. To be sure, the US naval presence in the Mediterranean does not resemble its Cold War form, when the Sixth Fleet kept at least one carrier battle-group in the area. The current pattern was set during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when European naval forces took over much of this Mediterranean role through NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour. But the US maintains substantial command, air and rapid deployment assets in and around the Mediterranean. The bulk of the ballistic missile defence capacity is afloat in the region.

The US presence in the south is, however, subject to uncertainty over time. A major crisis in Asia could draw substantial US attention and presence away from Europe’s southern periphery. Indeed, allies are already concerned about the durability of US engagement in the Middle East and North Africa. Persistent crises and calls for intervention in the region are unlikely to be well received by the Trump Administration –or by its possible successors–. The Sahel and the Balkans are already seen as areas for European security leadership. The US strategic class tends to see these as places Europe can reach and should be able to manage in security terms. Calls for European ‘strategic autonomy’ and new EU defence initiatives, if they amount to anything, should be felt first and foremost in the south where European allies already deploy significant forces. As an area where low-intensity maritime, humanitarian and counter-terrorism contingencies abound, this is a particularly promising theatre for NATO-EU cooperation. Operations in the south are also redefining US priorities for bilateral military cooperation in Europe. Today, France is arguably Washington’s leading security partner.


There is an evident asymmetry between the scale and character of NATO’s security challenges in the east and the south. But the Alliance politics in these settings is less clear-cut than is sometimes assumed. To be sure, NATO’s southern members are more inclined to focus on risks emanating from a wider south. Poland and the Baltic states have their own well-founded concerns. But beyond these obvious differences, security perspectives across the Alliance are more nuanced and complex. For most of Western Europe, the risk of terrorism and political violence emanating from the south trumps the fear of Russian aggression. Terrorism below the level of ‘super terrorism’ and uncontrolled migration –both emblematic of challenges emanating from the south– may not pose an existential threat in strict terms, but both can be politically existential for the societies affected.

Some southern members may be characterised as softer on Russia. Growing Russian activism around the Mediterranean, at odds with southern European interests in Libya and elsewhere, may lead to a hardening of attitudes over time. In short, geography may be a declining guide to strategic priorities in a time of trans-regional risks. The contours of the NATO debate about strategy south –a traditional issue in political and defence terms– are changing rapidly under pressure of emerging challenges and evolving ideas about what exactly is meant by the ‘south’. Whatever the geographic parameters, the weight of these southern challenges in Alliance planning is likely to increase as part of a broader, global rise in risk.

Dr Ian Lesser
Vice President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and Executive Director of GMF’s Brussels office | @ian_lesser

1 Founded in 1994, the Mediterranean Dialogue now includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Mauritania.

2 See Ian Lesser, Charlotte Brandsma, Laura Basagni & Bruno Lété (2018), The Future of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue: Perspectives on Security, Strategy and Partnership, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, May.

<![CDATA[ The EU after the elections: a more plural Parliament and Council ]]> 2019-06-26T11:11:55Z

What is the new balance of power in the EU’s institutions following the May 2019 elections?


What is the new balance of power in the EU’s institutions following the May 2019 elections?


The fallout of the May 2019 European elections is only just becoming visible. The European democracy is maturing and in the process many terms are being redefined. In this paper the author analyses the first weeks of European politics following the elections, particularly the higher degree of pluralism and politicisation of Europe’s institutions.


The Europeans have spoken. George Soros, the embattled US-European businessman who has spent billions on pro-democracy projects across the continent, has summed it up best: ‘the silent pro-European majority has spoken’.1 What are the consequences of the end-of-May elections?

There are five top jobs to be filled in by the end of the year: Presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament and of the European Central Bank, as well as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, are in the pool. The leaders in the European Council have decided to agree on them all in a single package that will reflect a variety of balances: geographical, political, institutional, of gender and of the size of member states. There are a number of names in circulation, including those of the Spitzenkandidaten process, especially of the two largest political families: Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, respectively the lead candidates of the European People’s Party (EPP) of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Figure 1. Europe’s election results
Figure 1. Europe’s election results

The election results confirmed many expectations but also threw up a few major surprises. The most important was the improved turnout: some 220 million Europeans, 51% of all those eligible to vote, cast their ballots, the highest number in a generation and a clear sign that the European public is regaining its interest in European affairs.

The high turnout (up 8% since 2014) and the results suggest that the European leadership is regaining its democratic mandate after a number of national referendums in member states organised between 2015 and 2016. All of them –in Greece (on bailout in 2015), Denmark (on opt-outs, 2015), the Netherlands (on the EU-Ukraine trade agreement, 2016) and, most significantly, in the UK on Brexit in 2016– were failures from a European standpoint.

The first feature of the results is the end of the majority of the ‘grand coalition’ between the EPP and the S&D. Even if the political culture of the European Parliament is far more inclusive than in many EU member states dominated by the pro-government majority and opposition logic, the fact that the two largest political groups provided parliamentary stability in the Parliament was significant. Now, the two largest families have been joined by a third, liberal, group generated by a new large French contingent from President Emmanuel Macron’s party. Following its merger with Macron’s Republique en Marche the ALDE group has now even altered its name to Renew Europe (RE).

Seeking a new majority

The three political groups (EPP, S&D and RE) together could control the majority comfortably with around 440 MEPs. The same three political families also dominate the European Council. The three of them are virtually equal, as there is no majority in either of the institutions (Parliament and European Council) without one of them. Only together can they provide an effective functioning of the EU’s governance system.

However, the process of ‘leading candidates’ (Weber, Timmermans, and the liberals Margrethe Vestager and Guy Verhofstadt) pushes the current debate in quite a different direction. On the one hand there is a centre-left coalition ‘against Weber’, consisting of the social-democratic and liberal leaders in the European Council, most notably the French President Emmanuel Macron and the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.2 On the other hand, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel is firmly behind the EPP front candidate, also due to internal German politics, where the CSU outperformed in Bavaria and the CDU underperformed in the rest of the country. One politician said that the appointment of the Bavarian politician is of major significance to the CSU.3 Manfred Weber is working to build a coalition in his favour by extending his talks to the ECR leadership.

With the RE and the S&D claiming the support of the rest of the left-wing groups –the Greens and the GUE/NGL– against Weber, there is the smallest centre-left positive majority in the new Parliament (377 mandates). At the same time there is no majority with the EPP and ECR, even if the centrist group were to converge with it (353 mandates). This is when Weber might try to stretch his support by talking to the new far-right group largely comprised by MEPs elected in Italy (La Lega) and France (Rassemblement National). This, however, would be highly controversial amongst the more-centrist EPP as well as the RE, and hence unlikely.

The future of the EPP remains a mystery since the Hungarian governing party Fidesz, has been suspended due to its direct attacks against the group’s leadership during the European election campaign. Fidesz also stands accused of compromising European values, hence the suspension. Similar problems have arisen with Romania’s governing PSD, which is a member of the Social Democrats in the EU. The PSD leader Liviu Dragnea was recently jailed on corruption charges.4 The liberal Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has also given rise to similar suspicions and there were recently a series of major rallies in Prague demanding his resignation.5

As of mid-June there are eight members of the European Council siding with the EPP (Germany, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia and Romania), six members with the S&D (Spain, Finland, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia and Sweden) and seven (France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovenia) affiliated with the Renew Europe group. The Austrian Chancellor is running a care-taker government. Following the Danish elections, the new Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen (S&D) shall replace the previous liberal PM in the European Council, most likely still in June. The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is associated with GUE/NGL and announced snap elections for 7 July. The EPP is likely to pick up one seat in Athens. The Italian Prime Minister is not affiliated to any of the political families. The President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, an independent, will be replaced by a new leader in July, also non-partisan, Gitanas Nausėda. The Polish and British EUCO members are affiliated with the ECR.

It is very likely that by September there will be nine EPP members (+Greece), seven S&D members (+Denmark) and seven with Renew Europe. The majority in the European Council needed for the appointment of a new Commission President is 21.

Even if a centre-right or centre-left majority in the European Parliament were to be within reach, there is no majority possible in the European Council without all three of the political families. This is the first important message from the European elections: the only viable way forward is a ménage à trois.

The green wave

The elections brought a major surprise in that the two main blocks have been weakened while the two smaller centrist blocks are stronger, with the underlying threat from far-right nationalism. If the EPP and S&D were to become slightly smaller, the Liberals and the Greens would expand their European presence.

The status of the former has been strongly marked by the arrival of President Emmanuel Macron to the group: not only are 21 of the 108 group MEPs French, but the French arrival has led it into being re-named the group’s change into Renew Europe (RE). Dropping the adjective ‘liberal’ is not co-incidental. The new group leader is Dacian Cioloș, a former European Commissioner, who presented his own Romanian party PLUS last year to the world as located in the ‘centre, centre-right area’.6

The Greens were the major surprise in the elections. The party overperformed most visibly in Germany (25 mandates) and in France (12 seats), with a strong showing in less populous states like the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. With no presence on the European Council, the Greens’ strongest mandate comes from the main issue they promote: climate change. The Green parties across Western Europe have shown they enjoy the trust of the general public and the green vote should be interpreted as Europe’s citizens agreeing that climate change is the most pressing issue to be addressed.

Still, the Greens underperformed in the southern and eastern EU. Some commentators point out that the green agenda is not yet shared throughout the EU.7


The other groups lost the elections. The GUE/NGL is much smaller than before with only Germany, France, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus having two or more MEPs.

The groups to the right of the EPP are not as strong as anticipated. There were three groups in the previous Parliament. One of them, the EFDD, is unlikely to continue to exist in the European Parliament due to the problem of gathering MEPs from seven different countries. Effectively two big national parties are lacking a group at the time of writing: the weakened Five Star Movement in Italy and the temporary protest-vote Brexit Party from the UK. Should the Brexiteers have their way, they will depart from the European Parliament before 31 October 2019.

The ECR has also lost its third-place positioning in the European Parliament, currently being the sixth-largest group. Its most significant defeat was in the UK, as Britain’s Conservatives gained only four seats in the new Parliament. The internal group dynamics suggest it will be dominated by Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS).

Open questions regarding the ECR include: will the Five Star Movement join the group? Should Fidesz leave the EPP, will it join the ECR? Will the ECR be included in the next European Parliament’s ordinary committee work?

The new far-right: Identity and Democracy (ID)

Before the elections some predicted that the far-right might obtain as many as 150 MEPs. This turned out to be an overestimate, but it was certainly viewed as a threat. Still, La Lega and Rassemblement National won the elections in Italy and France, respectively. Among their partners are the Finns Party (Finland), Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), the Belgian Vlaams Belang and the Danish People’s Party (DF). All in all, 73 MEPs from nine countries form the group.

EU politics

Politics in member states are usually exercised by various political actors, all based on a political party system and civil society. In the EU, however, there are three level politics. All of them take place at the same time and the final outcome of any process has to include all three levels.

The first level is the traditional party politics with which we are familiar at the national level. This is when the centre-right competes for power and ideas, support and influence, with the centre-left, liberals, greens, far-left or far-right, with single-issue-driven parties or otherwise. This level is best seen in the European Parliament, where the political groups negotiate between themselves all political appointments, agendas and solutions.

The second level of political relations is between member states. National interests and national perspectives, along with differing backgrounds, political culture, finances and history all come to the fore. Geography, size and experience tend to play a role in the interaction between the member states in the Council and the European Council.

The third level of political relations is between institutions. There needs to be a respect for the Parliament in the Council for there is hardly any respect for the member states in the European Parliament.

The many necessary balances

There are many different balances that must be respected in the EU. One is political, between the main political families. As argued above, the most likely compromise should include political figures from three European families: EPP, S&D and Renew Europe.

The second balance to bear in mind is geographical. In the past, the East was represented by the incorporation of Polish politicians: Jerzy Buzek became the President of the European Parliament in 2009 and Donald Tusk of the European Council in 2014. This time the South is callings for representation, linked to the departure of three Italian politicians –Mario Draghi, ECB, Antonio Tajani, European Parliament, and Federica Mogherini, High Representative– from their positions. Northern candidates are also being increasingly considered.

The entire issue is linked with the financial balance between net contributors, countries known for being stringent about their fiscal approach.

In the past a politician from a country outside the Eurozone could not claim the position of European Commission President (or, obviously, the ECB presidency). Size matters, too: compromises should not include politicians from Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland alone. The absence of the larger countries from appointments would safeguard the rights of the smaller.

In addition, there is the need for a gender-balanced approach. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, mentioned that two women should be expected to take leading positions.8

Tusk was formally appointed formateur on 28 May.9 Soon after, however, a system of informal party negotiators was created with two negotiators on behalf of the EPP (Croatia’s Andrej Plenkovič and Latvia’s Krišjānis Kariņš), two on behalf of the S&D (Spain’s Pedro Sánchez and Portugal’s António Costa) and two on behalf of Renew Europe (the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte and Belgium’s Charles Michel).

All of the European Council’s work should be completed before the new European Parliament’s first plenary sitting takes place in Strasbourg on 2 July. Should that be the case, the next balancing act will be necessary: the interinstitutional, affecting the European Parliament. It is not known how the European Parliament –currently in the process of self-organisation– will react to a European Council appointment if the EUCO disregards the Spitzenkandidaten process.

The June 2019 European Council voted for the three candidates of the largest political families, but none of them gained the more than 21 votes necessary, despite Timmermans and the liberal candidate Vestager being supported by the S&D-RE and the Greek PM while the EPP’s Weber was only backed by his party peers.10 Nevertheless, all were rejected at the 20-21 June 2019 European Council.

Should the next European Council be able to put forward a candidate for the Commission Presidency, there is a significant chance it will not be one of the leading candidates. ‘A more moderate EPP candidate’ could be acceptable for the left, according to one member of the European Council,11 and the EPP seems to be pushing for the next Commission President to be from among its ranks.

This is where other options need to be considered, rather than seeking a balance. The new candidate will need to be consensual, gaining the support of the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe: probably an EPP politician who is not Manfred Weber. At the time of writing one name comes to mind, that of Michel Barnier, who as a French citizen and an EPP politician could gather support from both the Berlin and Paris governments.

Still, to seek such an agreement is a matter of European Council internal politics. The candidate needs to win both institutions’ approval. Michel Barnier was not a candidate in the elections. Will the Parliament oppose him on the principle of institutional balance? On a positive note, he is highly respected in the EU for his commitment to the European interest in the negotiations over Brexit with the British government.


The elections to the European Parliament are providing a strong mandate for EU reform. The change people want, however, is not unidimensional. Those who voted for sovereignist parties have a different perspective from their opponents, mostly the green electorate. The anti-Europeans are softening their narrative, also in the context of the new post-Brexit realities. The centre-right and centre-left are seeking stability and maintain the status quo. As Ivan Krastev recently remarked, ‘everybody wants a change, but a different one’.12

Nobody debates the democratic deficit of the European project anymore. This clearly suggests that a major increase in turnout means there is a greater democratic mandate for the EU institutions to act. But the context as to how and on what to act will require some handcrafting, since the many expectations are sometimes contradictory.

The next question to be addressed is not only who should lead the work of the Commission and other institutions, but also how. Will the next Commission be a political one? If so, in what way? The Juncker Commission’s experience has been very telling. There were controversies but the Juncker College was clearly a step up in the politicisation process. Still, not everyone is in favour of the Commission’s increased politicisation. For one thing, it is a challenge for a political Commission to maintain impartiality in certain important areas, such as competition policy; if the motivation for acting is political it is difficult to defend it against the accusations of its independence being compromised.

The new European Commission may not be as liberal-minded as previously, depending on the new majorities in the European Parliament and the European Council. On the one hand, the UK’s departure may have a significant impact on the negotiations at the Council of Ministers. On the other hand, the treaties have been written in such a way that building a social Europe, for example, will be limited if there are no changes in the treaties, while there are still many of areas that could be liberalised.

The agenda of the next European Commission is currently under negotiation. The June European Council adopted the ‘New Strategic Agenda 2019-2014’13 and in the European Parliament there are agenda negotiations involving four groups: EPP, S&D, RE and the Greens. Some have dubbed the policy priority negotiations a coalition-forming process similar to government-forming in countries like Belgium or the Netherlands.14 The process will be finalised with the presentation of the new Commission President. Five and 10 years ago the documents were known as Political Guidelines for the Next European Commission.15

If a political Commission is the reality, then enhancing European democracy is the next challenge. Among the issues debated during the elections was the idea of allowing the European Parliament to present its own legislative proposals, breaking the European Commission’s quasi-monopoly. Another idea for enhancing European democracy is to change the Union’s communication policy. So far it has largely focused on the role of member states being responsible for communicating the ‘EU’ to its citizens. While this might have been largely successful in places like Germany or Belgium, in many other counties that has not been the case. For instance, regarding the Brexit campaign in the UK, President Juncker admitted it was a mistake to entrust the communications policy to the British Prime Minister: ‘It was a mistake not to intervene and not to interfere because we would have been the only ones to destroy the lies which were circulated around. I was wrong to be silent at an important moment’.16

The new European Commission needs a new communications policy with the EU’s citizens. The Union must become a more concrete reality. The stakes are very high for the EU’s citizens and thus they have real alternatives: on security, jobs, the economy, climate and many other vital issues. Their input should not be set aside for a five-year-long halt. There is a need for a new set of instruments to be developed by the European executive and that will be on the agenda of the next European Commission.

Piotr Maciej Kaczyński
Independent expert on EU affairs | @pm_kaczynski

1 George Soros (2019), ‘Europe’s silent majority speaks out’, Project Syndicate, 7/VII/2019.

3 Interviews in Kielce, 9/VI/2019, and in Berlin, 11/VI/2019.

6 ‘Domnul Dragnea n-are dreptul să arunce în aer societatea românească’, PressOne, 17/XII/2018.

7 Ivan Krastev (2019), ‘After the European elections where is the European Union headed?’, Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin, 3/VI/2019.

8Women should fill two EU top jobs, Tusk says’, EU Observer, 29/V/2019.

11 Ibid.

12 Krastev (2019), op. cit.

13A New Strategic Agenda 2019-2024’, European Council, 20/VI/2019.

14 Interview with Professor Steven Van Hecke of KU Leuven, 22/VI/2019.

<![CDATA[ The main economic challenges confronting Spain’s next government ]]> 2019-06-24T12:26:29Z

Spain’s next government faces major economic challenges and to overcome them it needs to regain the reformist momentum that used to characterise the country before political uncertainty set in.


Spain’s next government faces major economic challenges and to overcome them it needs to regain the reformist momentum that used to characterise the country before political uncertainty set in.


The economy has rebounded from a long recession, and the focus now needs to be on a series of challenges on the fiscal front, a pensions system that is unsustainable, unemployment that is still very high, productivity that is low and an education system not providing what Spain needs. Resolving these issues will determine the shape of the economy in the future.



The fragmentation of the political system, with three general elections in the last three and a half years (the same number as between 2004 and 2015), has weakened Spain’s capacity to carry out economic reforms. The country is still living with the 2018 budget as the previous minority Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez was unable in February to garner enough support in parliament for its 2019 budget, as a result of which a snap election was held in April.

The Socialists were the most voted party in that election, but without an absolute majority. Two months on Spain does not have a new government, although Sánchez is expected to be able to form one in July by the skin of his teeth. Whether that government will last the full term of four years is an open question. What is not in doubt is that Spain needs a stable and lasting government, able to implement structural reforms.

The continued political uncertainty comes at a time the economy is slowing down, as it is past the peak in the cycle of growth that began in 2014, following the extended double-dip recession in 2008-13 (see Figure 1). The pre-crisis GDP level was not restored until 2017.

Figure 1. Main indicators of the Spanish economy, 2014-18
  2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Gross domestic product (a) 1.4 3.6 3.2 3.0 2.6
Private consumption (a) 1.5 3.0 2.9 2.5 2.3
Government consumption (a) -0.3 2.0 1.0 1.9 2.1
Exports of goods and services (a) 4.3 4.2 5.2 5.2 2.3
Imports of goods and services (a) 6.6 5.4 2.9 5.6 3.5
Contribution of domestic demand to GDP growth (pp) (a) 1.9 3.9 2.4 2.9 2.9
Contribution of net external demand to GDP growth (pp) (a) -0.5 -0.3 0.8 0.1 -0.3
Unemployment rate (b) 24.4 22.1 19.6 17.2 15.3
Unit labour costs (c) -0.2 0.5 -0.6 0.2 0.8
Consumer price index (end of period) (c) -1.0 0.0 1.6 1.1 1.2
General government fiscal balance (d) -6.0 -5.3 -4.5 -3.1 -2.5
Net international investment position (d) -98.8 -89.5 -85.3 -83.5 -77.1
General government gross debt (d) 100.4 99.3 99.0 98.1 97.1
(a) Annual rate of change.
(b) % of labour force.
(c) Rate of change.
(d) % of GDP.
Source: Bank of Spain.

On the surface, Spain looks to be doing quite well. GDP growth will still be more than 2% this year, higher than the Eurozone average (1.2%) for the fifth year in a row, the unemployment rate is down to below 15% from 26.9% in the first quarter of 2013, the current account has been in surplus since that year, partly due to record exports, inflation has remained at below 2% and the country received US$44 billion of direct foreign investment last year, double that in 2017 and the third-highest amount in the EU. Last year Spain, to the surprise of many, was the largest single contributor to Eurozone growth, ahead of Germany, the bloc’s traditional locomotive.

But there are imbalances that threaten the sustainability of growth, and ones that make Spain vulnerable in the event of another global economic crisis. The next government faces challenges on the fiscal front, in the ailing pensions system, an unemployment rate that is still very high, particularly for young adults, productivity that is low and an economic model that is still disproportionately based on tourism and construction, a sector that is regaining dynamism, a decade after the bursting of a spectacular property bubble, but far from the previous boom due to much reduced public works.

The fiscal challenge

The most immediate issue for the next government is to approve a budget for 2019. Spain was finally released in June from the European Commission’s tutelage (the excessive deficit procedure), as last year’s fiscal deficit came in, for the first time in a decade, at below the EU threshold of 3% of GDP (see Figure 2). The deficit peaked at a whopping 11% in 2009 (surplus of 1.9% in 2007, at the height of the boom). Brussels is keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

Figure 2. Spain’s budget balance, 2013-18 (% of GDP)
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
-7.0 -6.0 -5.3 -4.5 -3.1 -2.5
Source: Bank of Spain.

Initially, Spain was going to cut the deficit to 1.3% of GDP this year and 0.5% in 2020. The Commission forecasts deficits of 2.3% and 2%, respectively. After years of austerity, the pressure to spend more is growing. The previous Socialist government extended the 2018 budget and adopted new spending and revenue measures by royal decree. On the expenditure side, the measures include some additional pension increases and a number of social policy measures. Some measures adopted in the 2018 budget law approved by the previous Popular Party government, such as a pay hike for public sector workers, restoring annual inflation-linked rises in pensions and the tax cut for low-income earners, will have a budgetary impact this year. The capacity for spending more is very limited unless there is a substantial rise in government revenue, due to growth effects and tax increases. Tax cuts are out of the question.

Spain’s government revenue last year accounted for 38.9% of GDP, according to Eurostat, compared with a Eurozone average of 45%, while government spending was 41.3% (45.6% average). Effective tax rates are much lower than nominal ones due to a number of loopholes, but judging by the amounts of unpaid taxes recovered every year, Spain also has a substantial tax fraud and evasion problem. The Tax Agency netted €15 billion last year (see Figure 3). Spain’s tax revenue as a percentage of GDP (33.7%) is well below the EU average of close to 40%, but among the 36 OECD countries it is almost in line with the average (see Figure 4).

Figure 3. Revenue recovered from tax fraud and evasion, 2009-18 (€ billion)
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
8.1 10.0 10.5 11.5 10.9 12.3 15.7 14.9 14.8 15.0
Source: Tax Agency.
Figure 4. Tax revenues as % of GDP, 2017 and 2000
  2017 2000
France 46.2 43.4
Germany 37.5 36.2
Italy 42.4 40.6
Spain 33.7 33.2
UK 33.3 32.9
US 27.1 28.2
OECD average 34.2 33.8
Source: OECD Revenue Statistics.

As well as grappling with a fiscal deficit over the past decade, public debt has also soared –from 36.3% of GDP in 2007 to 97% in 2018–. The debt has hardly declined since 2014 when it stood at 100%. Servicing the debt accounts for a significant chunk of spending and its size makes Spain vulnerable to international interest-rate hikes. Excluding the interest paid on the debt, the State ran a small primary surplus last year equivalent to 0.72% of GDP.

An unsustainable pensions system

There is no shortage of warnings from within Spain (Bank of Spain) and outside (IMF and OECD) that the country’s pensions system is headed toward a crisis unless measures are taken in time to restore its sustainability. In essence, a toxic mix of the retirement of the 1960s baby boomers, high and rising life expectancy (one of the highest in the world at 83 years) and one of the world’s lowest fertility rates (1.25) is making pension reform a pressing issue. The number of deaths has outstripped births since 2015, a major demographic change. Last year there were 56,262 more deaths than births, the highest figure on record. Political parties under the so-called Toledo Pact failed earlier this year to agree any measures on pensions after three years of negotiations.

The reforms approved in 2011 and 2013 made some adjustments that countered the impact of ageing on public spending on pensions, but measures included in last year’s budget delayed the application of a sustainability factor and reintroduced the annual inflation-based revaluation of pensions (eliminated as of 2014 when the annual rise was set at 0.25%, well below inflation, unless the system could afford more). The reform to allow for rising life expectancy in calculating pensions was put back from 2019 to 2023.

In the current context of an ailing social security system, restoring the inflation indexation is largely viewed as an irresponsible and populist measure. The decision was taken by the minority Popular Party government in order to secure support from the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ/PNV) for its 2018 budget. Increasing pensions every year in line with inflation might seem just, but in the context of Spain’s ailing system it adds a significant amount to the pensions bill.

The proportion of the over-66s compared with those aged 16-66 is forecast to double between 2018 and 2050 (see Figure 5). In other words, there will be fewer people of working age to support those who have retired in the pay-as-you-go system. For each person over 66, there will only be two persons aged 16-66. By 2050, Spain will have 15 million pensioners, up from 8.7 million today.

Figure 5.
  1950 1975 2000 2015 2025 2050
France 19.5 24.5 27.3 33.3 40.9 52.3
Germany 16.2 26.5 26.5 34.8 41.4 59.2
Italy 14.3 21.6 29.2 37.8 45.6 72.4
Japan 9.9 12.7 27.3 46.2 54.4


Poland 9.4 17.1 20.1 24.3 36.4 60.8
Spain 12.8 19.0 26.9 30.6 38.6 77.5
UK 17.9 25.5 27.0 31.0 35.9 48.0
OECD 13.9 19.5 22.5 27.9 35.2 53.2
(1) The old-age dependency ratio is defined as the number of individuals aged 65 and over per 100 people of working age defined as those aged between 20 and 64.
Source: United Nations Population Division.

The social security system has been in deficit for a decade and is the main reason for the general government deficit (in 2018 it was 1.41% of GDP, more than half the total deficit). Social security contributions collapsed as a result of the crisis after 2008, when unemployment soared and wages declined in real terms, while pension expenditure, which is much less linked to economic fluctuations, maintained its growth in real terms.

The gap between revenue from contributions and spending on pensions was largely covered until 2016 by running down a special reserve set up in 2000 during Spain’s economic boom. That fund peaked at €66.8 billion in 2011. In 2017 and 2018 the gap was covered by recourse to state loans (€10.2 billion and €13.8 billion, respectively).

The Court of Accounts criticised this method in May 2019 for ‘negatively affecting’ the solvency of the social security system and called for the pensions deficit to be covered by taxes.

Action needs to be taken on the revenue and spending side. The Bank of Spain points out that even if the employment rate grows significantly, in order to maintain the present benefit ratio there would have to be a huge increase in revenue from social security contributions. The number of contributors has been growing but is still around one million below the peak of 20.7 million in 2007.

The first steps to increase the retirement age, a significant aspect of the sustainability of the pension system, were taken in 2011, and will be completed in 2027 when it will be 67 (for workers with less than 38.5 years’ contributions). The age at which people are currently retiring is 63, below the statutory retirement age of 65.5, and there is no clearly upward pattern.

The government needs to implement other measures to reinforce the pensions system, such as making plans taken out by individuals more attractive (the amount that is tax deductible was reduced from €12,000 to €8,000 in 2015). Saving for a rainy day, however, is beyond the means of a large swathe of the working population who barely get by as it is. The household saving rate was at a historically low rate of 4.9% of gross disposable income in 2018, well below the peak of 13.4% in 2009.

There are also severe disincentives to combine work and a full pension. Spain is one of only seven OECD countries that applies limits to the earnings above which combined pension benefits are reduced. The pensions of those who continue working are reduced by 50%, apart from self-employed workers earning less than the minimum wage or hiring at least one worker. Furthermore, workers still in employment and receiving a pension do not earn additional pension entitlements although they pay a special ‘solidarity’ contribution of 8%, which does not apply to those continuing to work and deferring the pension.

Making the pensions system sustainable is a complex and highly important challenge that requires all levels of society to be made fully aware of the problem (not the yet the case) and for sacrifices to be made so that the system does not crack.

The persistently high unemployment rate

Spain’s job creation in the last five years has been one of the most robust in the EU. Close to 3 million jobs were created, but that still left 3.3 million without work in the first quarter of this year. The unemployment rate dropped from a staggering 26.1% in 2013 to 14.7% in the first quarter of this year, double the EU average and the second highest after Greece (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates, April 2019 (%)
Greece 18.5
Spain 13.8
Italy 10.2
EU average 6.4
France 8.7
UK 3.7
Germany 3.2
Source: Eurostat.

Unemployment for those aged between 15 and 24 is particularly acute at more than 30%, and most of these people who do have jobs are on temporary contracts. Overall, around 25% of jobholders are on temporary and thus precarious contracts. The dual system of ‘outsiders’ (those on temporary contracts) and ‘insiders’ (those on permanent contracts) is one of the hallmarks of Spain’s dysfunctional labour market.

Temporary workers were the first to lose their jobs when the financial crisis hit as of 2008, particularly in the construction sector, which shed 1.3 million jobs between 2008 and 2018. The number of housing starts plummeted from a peak of 865,561 in 2006 to around 100,000 last year, underscoring the depth of the shaky foundations upon which the economy was roaring along.

High levels of unemployment by the standards of other developed countries, even when the economy is growing at a brisk pace over a sustained period, have characterised Spain in the last 40 years. Comparisons with the last decade of the Franco regime (1939-75) are not fair because the virtually full employment during the last decade of the dictatorship was made possible by considerable pluriempleo (holding two or more jobs) in order to make ends meet, very low female participation in the labour market and massive emigration for economic reasons (2.75 million between the 1950s and 1973). Apart from the real-estate bubble period (2002-08), Spain’s jobless rate has been at least five percentage points above that in Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the US, 10 points higher in the early 1990s and 15 points in 2013 and 2014. Even in 2007, at the height of the economic boom, Spain’s unemployment rate was a ‘historically low’ 8% (the average rate in the Eurozone), a high level for countries such as Germany and the UK.

Companies complained they could not find qualified workers to fill posts, which led some economists to put Spain’s structural unemployment rate at 8%, regardless of the economic cycle and particularly among women and young people.

Workers emerged from the Franco regime with ironclad job security, and those protections remained. Democracy brought class-based political trade unions but the paternalistic labour legislation was seen as a ‘worker conquest’ and political freedom gave the unions the muscle to exploit Franco’s labour regulations (ordenanzas).

All governments in the past 40 years have adopted labour-market reforms of one sort or another (52 between 1980 and 2015), but the problem of high unemployment has not gone away. The first Socialist government introduced temporary contracts in 1984 as an exceptional measure in order to make the labour market less rigid and more flexible and bring the market’s functioning more into line with the European norm (Spain joined the then EEC in 1986). As this system was maintained, employers were quick to use and abuse these contracts, creating the two-tier system that persists today. In 2012, the Popular Party’s reforms, the deepest so far, allowed companies to opt out of collective pay-setting agreements within industries and to make their own deals with workers. They also gave companies greater discretionary powers to adopt internal measures to limit job losses. Dismissal regulations were also modified, redefining the conditions for fair dismissal. Severance payments in the case of unfair dismissal for those on permanent contracts were reduced from 45 days per year-worked with a maximum of 42 months to 33 days per year with a maximum of 24 months and the requirement of administrative authorisation in the case of collective redundancies eliminated. Compensation for permanent contract termination in the case of redundancies for objective reasons was set at 20 days per year-worked with a maximum of 12 months.

These reforms softened employment protection legislation, though severance pay for permanent workers in relative terms remains among the highest in OECD countries. The reforms, however, have lowered the GDP growth rate needed to create employment, spurring the job creation over the last five years.

Spain’s economic model, heavily based on labour-intensive construction and tourism and not very productive, is also part of the unemployment problem as it does not provide jobs on a sustained basis. Spain has a very high number of small companies: fewer than 1% have more than 50 workers (compared with 3% in Germany). Firms need to be bigger so they have economies of scale, which would enable them to export more successfully, among other things. Tourism, which generates 12% of GDP, is a particularly seasonal industry. The Canary Islands, for example, received 15.6 million tourists in 2018 (seven times the islands’ population) and its unemployment rate was 21% in the first quarter of this year.

The country is also at a greater risk from automation, which would compound the unemployment problem. One quarter of middle-income jobs are at risk compared with an OECD average of one sixth (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Percentage of workers in occupations at high risk of automation, by income class
  Lower income Middle income Upper income
Spain 29 24 15
OECD average 22 18 11
Source: OECD (2019), ‘Under pressure, the squeezed middle class’.

More focus on human capital and less on infrastructure

Spain’s motorways, train services (the high-speed train network is the longest in Europe and the second in the world) and other infrastructure such as the fibre-optic network for high-speed data transmission (it covers three-quarters of the population) are world class. But the same cannot be said for its education system. Too much emphasis has been placed on physical infrastructure and not enough on human capital.

It is an axiom that educational attainment tends to increase employment prospects, and yet almost one in every five people in Spain last year had completed at most a lower secondary education and were not in further education and training, the largest rate in the EU, but down from close to one in three in 2006 when students dropped out of school in droves for a job that was easy to find, particularly in construction. When the massive property bubble burst and unemployment soared many more students had no option but to stay on at school. But Spain’s progress has been nowhere near as stunning as Portugal’s –from 44% in 2000 to 11.8% (see Figure 8)–.

Figure 8. Early leavers from education and training, 2018 and 2006 (% of population aged 18-24)
  2018 2006
Spain 17.9 30.3
Portugal 11.8 38.5
Italy 14.5 20.4
UK 10.7 11.3
EU-28 10.6 15.3
Germany 10.3 13.7
France 8.9 12.4
Source: Eurostat.

Spain has made considerable progress in attainment in the last 40 years and has done better than many other European countries as regards educational mobility: around 40% of adults have a higher level of education than their parents. It also leads in the area of early childhood enrolment rates: 96% of three-year-olds are in education compared with the OECD average of 76%. But, generally speaking, the country is not producing the skills it needs or will need.

Skill demands are more polarised in Spain than in many other OECD countries, with a big share of jobs requiring either very low levels of education or very high levels. The share of all jobs requiring only a primary education is higher in Spain (25%) than in any other OECD country; however, the supply of low-educated workers exceeds demand. At the other end of the labour force, Spain faces high over-qualification and field-of-study mismatch. ‘Rising educational attainment has created a large supply of highly-qualified adults, but many of them are working in jobs for which they are over-qualified’, the OECD noted in a recent report on Spain.

Among the problems of Spain’s education system are endless reforms, which in practice have changed little, learning based excessively on memorisation as opposed to critical thinking, students having to repeat a year if they fail a certain number of subjects (which then demotivates them and leads them to drop out of school at 16), the university entrance requirement to take the teaching course is too low, which means that not always the best quality people become teachers, and a shortage of support personnel and a lack of autonomy for teachers, including the capacity to involve and interact with parents, compared with that, for example, in countries such as Finland and Singapore, among the top countries in the OECD’s PISA tests, which evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students who are nearing the end of their compulsory education.

Teachers in Spain are paid relatively well (above the OECD average) and the average number of students per class is among the lowest (13 compared with 21 in the UK and 22 in France), but the number of support staff per teacher is one of the lowest (one per 11 teachers compared with one for every two teachers in the UK).


The next government has a lot on its plate. Many of the reforms require cross-party support, which in the current climate of minority governments and a parliament fragmented among five main parties (two until 2015) is no easy task. Parties need to put aside their differences for the good of the country.

Bibliographical references

Alain Cuenca & Santiago Lago Peñas (co-directors) (2019), El sector público español: reformas pendientes, Funcas, RIFDE & University of Alcalá.

Economy Ministry (2019), La agenda del cambio: hacia una economía inclusiva y sostenible.

Finance Ministry (2019), Stability Programme Update 2019-2022.

<![CDATA[ Made-to-measure Qur’anic quotations: the incomplete verses of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb ]]> 2019-06-20T12:03:51Z

More than half the Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in its propaganda are faithful reproductions of the text but incomplete or truncated.

Original version in Spanish: Literalidad coránica a medida: las aleyas incompletas de al-Qaeda en el Magreb Islámico


More than half the Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in its propaganda are faithful reproductions of the text but incomplete or truncated.


A digitalised corpus comprising more than 200 official documents released by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) between 2004 –when it still styled itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)– and 2017 enables an evidence-based answer to be given to the question of how religious its rhetoric really is. Moreover, by systematically collating all the Qur’anic quotes that have been recorded –more than 1,200– it emerges that, although the organisation never alters or modifies the Qur’an, enabling all accusations of the sacred texts being manipulated to be definitively rejected, there is a notable use of tailor-made quotation. Despite being unrestricted in terms of both time and space, on more than half of the occasions when AQIM has quoted the Qur’an in its propaganda over the course of the last 14 years – 52.42% of the total – it has done so using incomplete or shortened quotations.


The literal and decontextualised interpretation made of Islam’s sacred texts by the various terrorist organisations adhering to jihadist Salafism is well known, but to what extent is their rhetoric purely religious? Moreover, with the goal of discrediting and undermining the legitimacy of such organisations, it is still argued with a certain frequency that they manipulate and distort religious doctrine. Can such an assertion be verified? If so, bearing in mind the consensual nature regarding the sacredness of the main sources of revelation, it would be relatively simple to devise strategies aimed at exploiting such distortions.

By systematically mapping the more than 1,200 Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) between 2004 –when it still styled itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC in its French acronym)–1 and 2017, this analysis seeks to throw light on some aspects linked to the use of the sacred texts by the terrorist organisation. To this end an extensive monolingual, diachronic and digitalised corpus has been created covering a total of 203 official records released by the group.2 Among these there are 179 audiovisual recordings (more than 65 hours of audio and video), 20 text documents including magazines, books, articles and essays (approximately 800 pages of text) and the complete transcripts of four interviews given by prominent members of the organisation (see Figure 1). The dataset that has been compiled includes all the official audiovisual recordings3 published by the terrorist organisation in the aforementioned timeframe, as well as other official written documents whose content has been judged to be relevant by the author.4 Brief communications, used mainly to claim authorship of successful terrorist operations, panegyrics, opinion articles and other secondary content published on platforms such as Ifriqīyā al-Muslima were not included in the dataset.

Figure 1. Annual distribution of the material used to create the corpus of Qur’anic quotations found in AQIM propaganda, 2004-17
Year Audios and videos Magazines Books and essays Interviews
2004 1 2 - -
2005 1 3 - -
2006 2 3 - -
2007 12 - 1 -
2008 10 - - 1
2009 12 - 1 -
2010 16 - - -
2011 15 - - 1
2012 11 - 2 1
2013 12 - 1 -
2014 10 - - -
2015 21 (37) - 2 -
2016 14 - 2 1
2017 10 (26) - 3 -

Notes: (1) the difference in the number of documents for 2015 arises from the inclusion in brackets of all the documents associated with the ‘غزوة أحد في القرآن ’ series, a collection of lessons delivered by Abu Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi; (2) the difference in the number of documents for 2017 arises from the inclusion in brackets of all the documents associated with the ‘شرح كتاب الصيام من بلوغ المرام ’ series, a collection of lessons delivered by Abu Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi.

Specialised corpuses, such as the one used here, focus on a particular variety or register of language, in this case the jihadist Salafist rhetoric of AQIM. Up until now, the few attempts to analyse jihadist Salafist rhetoric using a quantitative approach have run up against an obstacle that is difficult to overcome, namely the technical challenges inherent in Arabic. Such attempts are outnumbered by various qualitative studies and analyses, mainly since languages other than Arabic started to appear in Islamic State propaganda. However, without wanting to delve too deeply into the debate, Arabic continues to be not only the language used in the bulk of jihadist propaganda but also, of course, the cornerstone on which all ideological and doctrinal debate in this current of thought is founded and erected.

The majority of studies aiming to analyse jihadist rhetoric or narrative, in one way or another, do so on the basis of publications such as Dābiq, Rumiyah and Inspire. These publications, although they have greater impact in the West, have a specific target audience, and this, while they adhere the basic principles of jihadist Salafist ideology, determines their nature and conditions the language used. Moreover, the translations of documents composed in Arabic, including those translated in-houseby the terrorist organisations themselves, show a greater degree of bias given that the process of translating jihadist propaganda is not systematic.

Meanwhile, there are a significant number of studies that use different perspectives to focus on the operations and relations of the militants –mainly munāṣirūn, ‘fanboys’ and official propaganda platforms– on such social media as Twitter and Facebook. This type of research –such as that conducted by J.M. Berger and Charlie Winter, among others–5 has cast light on the way the propaganda dissemination apparatus and the broadcasting of its message on social media works, as well as the number of militants active on the Internet and the central subject matter of each individualised audiovisual product. The present analysis, on the other hand, uses a quantitative approach to focus mainly on the way AQIM uses the Qur’an.

When AQIM quotes the Qur’an

Offering an evidence-based answer to the question of how religious jihadist rhetoric is represents a genuine challenge. The corpus assembled for this analysis is made up of more than 810,000 words; it has been codified in such a way as to enable all the Qur’anic quotations to be extracted from the text for their subsequent classification, focusing on any criteria that are specified. Thus, exactly 1,219 Qur’anic quotations are found in the 203 documents that have been included, but 932 if only those quotations extracted from documents published before the organisation started issuing its publications under the current AQIM name are considered. Although it may not be the most exact way of performing the calculation, these 1,219 quotations account for a total of 27,367 words, or 3.37% of the total corpus. Although they do not form part of the present analysis, if quotations of Hadiths –accounting for 7,014 words of the total corpus– are added to the calculation, a total of 34,381 words would be obtained. Thus, 4.24% of the total AQIM discourse consists entirely of quotations from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the two main sources of revelation and the fundamental core of Islam.

Figure 2. Graphic representation of the purely religious discourse compared to the total (%)
Figure 2. Graphic representation of the purely religious discourse compared to the total (%)
Source: compiled by the author.

That said, the purely religious discourse cannot be reduced solely to the Qur’anic quotations. Although Qur’anic quotations are sometimes introduced to convey a certain patina of religiosity to the discourse in order to justify a particular act or stance, depending on the document, it is normal for the Qur’anic quotations to be accompanied by a contextualised religious explanation. This exercise, which sometimes takes the form of exegesis and is sometimes simply didactic or clarificatory, constitutes a fundamental element of AQIM communication. Using the coding system described above, heat maps such as the one shown below were created to represent the relative weight of the group’s strictly religious discourse in the most faithful way possible.

Figure 3. Heat map of a document from the corpus created with MAXQDA software
Note: the Qur’anic quotations are shown in green; their contextualisation or exegesis in the AQIM propaganda is shown in blue. Source: compiled by the author.

The outcome of mapping all the documents in the corpus offers disparate results depending on the type of document in question, but they confirm that AQIM’s strictly religious discourse does indeed account for a significant fraction of the total. The results fluctuate between 2% and 4% on average for those documents aimed at publicising military capabilities –for example the bulk of the ‘ظلال السيوف ’ series– and more than 50% for documents of a doctrinal or ideological nature. Reducing it all purely to figures and percentages, AQIM quotes the Qur’an once every 665 words, which is to say once in slightly more than every page of running text, and although the distribution is quite some way from being uniform, each mapped document has an average of six Qur’anic quotations.

AQIM’s incomplete āyāt

One fact emerges in a particularly striking way after conducting an exhaustive comparison of all the Qur’anic quotations employed by AQIM in its media output.6 More than half the Qur’anic quotations to which AQIM refers in the mapped documents are partial or incomplete quotations, accounting for 52.42% of the total. Using systematic comparison of the sample of the 1,219 Qur’anic quotations assembled in the corpus with the Qur’an it emerges that 639 quotations are incomplete. This does not mean that the content of the quotations was manipulated (taḥrīf), just that the quotation, whether it was from a single āyah or a set, is incomplete.

As seen in Figure 4, which shows the distribution of the mapped Qur’anic quotations by year, the tendency to cite incomplete āyātconstitutes the norm, with 64.07% being the highest percentage of incomplete quotations used, in 2004, and 35.96% the lowest, in 2010. It should also be noted that the percentage of incomplete quotations fell below 50% of the total in only three years: 2007, 2010 and 2016.

Figure 4. Annual distribution of the Qur’anic quotations in AQIM’s discourse, 2004-17
Figure 4. Annual distribution of the Qur’anic quotations in AQIM’s discourse, 2004-17
Source: compiled by the author.

Reciting incomplete āyāt or verses of the Qur’an is a habitual practice in Islam. Given that the prohibition of this practice does not find support either in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah, the basic principle accepted by the various schools of jurisprudence suggests that it is permitted to quote incomplete āyāt on condition that the meaning is complete. Many āyāt, especially the longest ones such as Qur’an 2:282 –the longest in the Qur’an– encompass various complete and independent ideas and meanings; it is not uncommon therefore to come across incomplete quotations. Indeed, this practice receives a certain amount of support, for example in the following Hadith:

‘Abdullah ibn Masa’ud recalled: the Messenger of Allah, , said: “Whoever recites a letter from the Book of Allah will receive one good deed as ten good deeds like it. I do not say that Alif-Lām-Mīm7 is one letter, but rather Alif is a letter, Lām is a letter and Mīm is a letter”.’ Hadith classified as ṣaḥīḥ, or authentic, Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2910.8

Moreover, the debate about how and to what extent the Qur’an should be quoted, whether in the context of prayer or simply as an authoritative argument in rhetoric, is covered by the hermeneutic Islamic literature, as the following extract demonstrates:

‘As far as reading the Qur’an is concerned, apart from the obligatory prayers, according to Abu Hanifa, it should start with at least one āyah, even if it is short. Ibn Abbas is of the same opinion. He said: “recite what you can of the Qur’an, because nothing in the Qur’an is insignificant”. On the other hand, Abu Yussuf said: “recitation should be no less than a long āyah, such as the Throne Verse [Qur’an 02:255], or at least three short verses, because less than this would go against custom and would not demonstrate how miraculous the Qur’an is”.’9

The Qur’an, which can literally be translated as ‘recitation’, is a complex book and it is of primordial importance to understand its nature. It is not a chronological compilation designed to tell a story, as might be said of the book of Genesis, and therefore it should not be viewed as a sequential narrative. Its verses, or āyāt, are not standard either in length or in meter and according to Muslim tradition the start and end of each one do not relate to the arbitrary decision of men but the dictation of God. Thus, as a general rule, each verse –and sometimes a set of verses– deals with a particular subject; dividing them therefore may lead to the modification of the global meaning and limit or distort the context of the literal revelation.

Responding to whether it is permitted to split a verse into various parts, the erudite Saudi Salafist Muhammad Salah Al-Munajjid (born in Aleppo) stated that it was possible unless it should lead to an inappropriate meaning, but stipulated that it would be preferable to complete the quotation.10 The ulema,11 currently in prison in Saudi Arabia, based his response on the fact that the earliest generations of believers viewed reciting a complete Surah as mustaḥab,12 without stopping, so that it would be appropriate to extend the practice to the āyāt too. He based his conclusion on the following hadith:

‘Jabir ibn Abdullah recalled: we proceeded in the company of the Messenger of Allah, , for the battle of Dhat ar-Riqa. One of the Muslims killed the wife of one of the unbelievers. He (the husband of the woman killed) took an oath saying: “I shall not rest in peace until I kill one of the companions of Muhammad”. He went out following the footsteps of the Prophet, . The Prophet, , encamped at a certain place. He said: “Who will keep watch on us?”. A person from the Muhājirūn and another from the Anṣār responded. He said: “Go to the mouth of the mountain-pass”. When they went to the mouth of the mountain-pass, the man from the Muhājirūn lay down while the man from the Anṣār stood praying. The man (enemy) came to them. When he saw the person he realised that he was the watchman of the Muslims. He shot him with an arrow and hit the target. But he(took the arrow out and) threw it away. He (the enemy) then shot three arrows. Then he (the Muslim) bowed and prostrated and awoke his companion. When he (the enemy) perceived that they (the Muslims) had become aware of his presence, he ran away. When the man from the Muhājirūn saw the (man from the Anṣār) bleeding, he asked him: “Glory be to Allah! Why did you not wake me up the first time when he shot at you?”. He replied: “I was busy reciting a chapter of the Qur’an. I did not like to leave it”.’ Hadith classified as ḥasan, Sunan Abu Dawud.13

Moreover, in his work Al-Itqān fī ʻUlūm al-Qurʼān, considered a fundamental linguistic and stylistic tool for understanding the meanings of the Qur’an, Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti, delving into the correct pronunciation when it came to reciting the Qur’an, referred to the work of Uthman al-Dani, a linguist and exegete from Al-Andalus. The latter quoted a Hadith of al-Hakim,14 who put into the mouth of Zayd ibn Thabit, scribe of the Prophet according to tradition and one of the Anṣār, the following words: ‘The Qur’an was revealed in order to be recited in full’.15

The biased and tendentious use that is made of religion by the jihadist Salafist organisations is well known and, while it is not the aim of this paper to delve into the exegesis of the sacred texts, it does seek to open the way to the construction of counternarratives. Unlike other groups, such as imams, TV preachers, etc., AQIM –like other terrorist organisations– is totally unrestricted in terms of time and space when it comes to creating its message; instead it has the tools needed to design its communication strategy and the content of its message as it sees fit. It does not broadcast live and therefore is not subjected to scrutiny or debate with third parties in real time. Yet even without restrictions when it comes to conveying its message, it chooses to use partial quotations on more than half the occasions when it invokes the Qur’an.

The two verses most frequently used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:36, provide an example of the above phenomenon. There is no particular controversy surrounding these āyāt and there is a broad consensus (ijmāʿ) about their meaning at the core of the Ummah. Verse 217 of the Surah of the Cow is the most used by AQIM: 22 times in all according to the data extracted from the corpus, all of them in an incomplete way. The underlined section of the translation shown below does not appear in any of the 22 quotations used by AQIM in the documents from which the corpus is compiled. Moreover, without going into the matter in detail, it is worth mentioning that āyah 36 of the Surah of Repentance [Qur’an 09:36], a verse that in the opinion of several mufassirūn abrogates Qur’an 02:217 and whose content restricts the possibilities of fighting the infidels during the sacred months only to occasions when the Muslims are attacked first, appears on just three occasions in the AQIM discourse, none of them unedited.

[Qur’an 02:217]: ‘They will question thee concerning the holy month, and fighting in it. Say: “Fighting in it is a heinous thing, but to bar from God’s way, and disbelief in Him, and the Holy Mosque, and to expel its people from it – that is more heinous in God’s sight; and persecution is more heinous than slaying”. They will not cease to fight with you, till they turn you from your religion, if they are able; and whosoever of you turns from his religion, and dies disbelieving – their works have failed in this world and the next; those are the inhabitants of the Fire; therein they shall dwell forever.’16

Verse 39 of the Al-Anfāl Surah (The Spoils of War) is the second most-used verse by AQIM, quoted 21 times in all according to the corpus data, 19 of them in an incomplete way. The underlined section of the translation shown below forms part of the only two complete quotations of this verse that are to be found in the corpus.

[Qur’an 08:39]: ‘Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is God’s entirely; then if they give over, surely God sees the things they do.’17

Figure 5. Illustration of the various formats of the incomplete quotations of the two verses most used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:39
Figure 5. Illustration of the various formats of the incomplete quotations of the two verses most used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:39
Source: compiled by the author.

By means of a systematic collation of the Qur’anic quotations used by AQIM over a 14-year period it may be stated that they do not resort to manipulating the Qur’an or altering its content (taḥrīf) at any time. What have been noted however, albeit only on a handful of occasions, are unintentional errors, failures to observe conventions –mainly in the pronunciation of certain terms, in breach of the rules of the tajwid18 and minor ellipses, all them errors that are common in oral discourse.

However, as became clear at the start of this section, such a systematic comparison does enable a figure to be placed on the number of incomplete quotations; and this, for an organisation that finds the raison d’être for its activities, according to its own interpretation, in the word of God, is undeniably high. It adheres strictly to the text in a literal sense, but in a made-to-measure way. This finding, combined with the manifold possibilities inherent in a contextualised study of each Qur’anic quotation and the way their use develops over time, represents a significant step enabling more in-depth study to be conducted into the religious discourse emanating from jihadist Salafism.


Despite the growing institutional interest in the development of counternarrative tools and the consequent academic steps that have been made in the same direction, the rewards that have been reaped, in light of the militant mobilisation witnessed in recent years, cannot be described as anything other than insufficient. Part of the problem consists in the fact that, in order to create effective counternarratives, it is necessary to have in-depth knowledge of the jihadist Salafist narrative, and this is a field in which, although there are numerous qualitative studies, quantitative or mixed-approach research has barely been conducted, particularly if we confine ourselves to Arabic as the main language for conveying the jihadist Salafist message.

Systematising the analysis of religious discourse by employing automated tools not only enables irrefutable data to be obtained, it should also facilitate the creation of counternarrative strategies and tools of greater efficacy as well as making it possible to finetune those that already exist. The use of analytical techniques based on empirical data makes it possible to produce a reliable picture of the reality of the discourse, contextualise the findings and, consequently, provide a much more precise study of the evolution of various organisations’ narrative over a particular period of time.

This analysis, by means of data extracted from a monolingual, diachronic corpus that is representative of the AQIM discourse –thereby ensuring the consistency of the results obtained– enables the notion that the organisation manipulates or alters the content of the Qur’an to be categorically dismissed. This is simply and plainly false; we may be able to agree that the extremely strict interpretations that are embraced are biased, unjustified, decontextualised and lack the approval of the majority of Muslims, but on no occasion do they breach the limits of exegesis historically accepted by the bulk of Sunni Islam. They flirt with the boundaries of the rules, as it were, but remain within the rules. It goes without saying that the conclusions drawn here cannot necessarily be extrapolated to other jihadist organisations, although they prepare the ground for future comparative studies.

Secondly, and this undoubtedly constitutes the most important conclusion of this study, it has been found that more than half the Qur’anic quotations used by AQIM in its propaganda output during the period under review are incomplete. As mentioned, the biased reading and use that jihadist organisations make of religion is well known, favouring certain passages over the rest, thereby distorting the overall significance of the revealed message. Apart from the overrepresentation of certain verses compared to others and the reliance on the most belligerent form of exegesis, however, one aspect stands out after quantitatively analysing how AQIM quotes the Qur’an and comparing the results with the original source. The terrorist organisation quotes the Qur’an rigorously, but in an incomplete way, shortening more than half the Qur’anic quotations it uses, obviously in a way that suits its agenda: the quotations are faithful, but made-to-measure.

Future contextualised analysis of the way these incomplete quotations are used, as well as research into how their use changes over time, will undoubtedly serve to continue not only in the further acquisition of in-depth knowledge of the religious discourse of jihadist Salafism, but also in making progress towards the creation of new counternarrative strategies and the refinement of those that already exist.

Sergio Altuna Galán
Associate Analyst, Violent Radicalisation and Global Terrorism Programme, Elcano Royal Institute | @wellesbien

1 The year 2004 was chosen as the starting point of the dataset precisely to rule out the possibility of the absorption of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat involving substantial changes in the use of Qur’anic quotations. The same tear also represents the start of Abdelmalek Droukdel’s time as the head of the organisation, which, in January 2007, having merged with al-Qaeda, came to be known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but still under his leadership.

2 A corpus can be defined as a database, an extensive collection of authentic texts that have been compiled and digitalised following a specific set of criteria enabling it to be used as a representative sample of a linguistic reality. See T. McEnery, R. Xiao & Y. Tono (2006), Corpus-Based Language Studies. An Advanced Resource Book, Routledge, London & New York.

3 All the audiovisual documents published by the Media Committee of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (اللجنة الاعلامية للجماعة السلفية للدعوة والقتال ), the Media Committee of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (اللجنة الاعلامية لتنظيم القاعدة ببلاد النغرب الإسلامي ) and the al-Andalus Foundation.

4 The written documents whose inclusion in the corpus has been judged as relevant are all those official documents that include a minimal ideological and doctrinal component.

5 See J.M. Berger & J. Morgan (2015), The ISIS Twitter Census Defining and Describing the Population of ISIS Supporters on Twitter, The Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, The Brookings Institution; and C. Winter (2015), The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy, Quilliam International.

6 For the purposes of comparing data, the author used the materials made available through the Qur’an Digitalisation project run by the King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

7 [Qur’an 02:01].

8 2910 سنن الترمذي، كتاب فضائل القرآن، حديث رقم

9 المحيط البرهاني في الفقه النعماني، كتاب الطهارات - الصلاة، ص. 298. دار الكتب العلمية 2004

10 Islam Q&A, رقم السؤال 206946 .

11 It would be more correct to use ʿAlīm, but in English it is acceptable to use ulema in the singular.

12 Recommended, favoured.

13 سنن أبي داود، كتاب الطهارة، حديث 198

14 Abu Abd-Allah Muhammad ibn Abd-Allah al-Hakim al-Nishapuri, the Persian ulema and respected compiler of Hadiths.

15 جلال الدين السيوطي، الإتقان في علوم القرآن، ص. 129.

16 [Qur’an 02:217]. Translation from Arthur John Arberry.

17 [Qur’an 08:39]. Translation from Arthur John Arberry.

18 Rules governing the recitation of the Qur’an, or tilāwa.

<![CDATA[ What next in export controls? Updating criteria and methodologies in non-proliferation and arms control ]]> 2019-06-17T11:44:17Z

The impact of cumulative innovation in technologies requires policymakers and experts to update the current methodology, concepts and tools for non-proliferation, exports control, restrictive measures, arms control and disarmament mechanisms.


The impact of cumulative innovation in technologies requires policymakers and experts to update the current methodology, concepts and tools for non-proliferation, exports control, restrictive measures, arms control and disarmament mechanisms.


Military and CBRN technologies are evolving rapidly in a cumulative process of innovation, leading to a growing gap between 20th century military assets and modern systems. The accessibility to conventional and CBRN technologies for non-State actors further adds uncertainties to the spectrum of threats that States are likely to face in the years to come. These facts also raise the question of emerging challenges in arms control and non-proliferation policies, in particular for export controls. In a quest to match trade and security interests, policymakers, diplomats and military/technical experts are confronted with a number of specific challenges in multilateral regimes and initiatives: assessing the impact of new technologies on future military capabilities and WMD programmes; preventing a destabilising proliferation of dual-use technologies with military applications; and addressing the resulting conceptual and material outcomes of such an evolutionary process in the methodology for future arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament negotiations.


Cumulative innovation, intensive growth and commercial take-off

Past experience shows that technology usually evolves through a gradual cumulative process, based on a combination of new inventions and innovative uses of existing technologies, rather than revolutionary changes in industrial technology with immediate results. “Cycles of invention – commercial exploitation – innovation” develop gradually and usually take a long time to yield significant results. At an early stage, such innovative technologies have little or no relation with existing operational military equipment, due to a conceptual gap between their original design and their potential use in subsequent designs. The latter use has to be ‘rediscovered’ at a later stage, and many technologies are then gradually adapted to military needs, thus improving operational equipment. Such processes have led in some cases to success, followed by phases of technical progress, or to stagnation and even regression in other cases, eventually becoming commercially irrelevant.

The perception of technological innovation in industrial economies is based on the concept of intensive growth (technology as a factor for improvement) versus extensive growth (labour + capital + resources). The last two decades have already witnessed the emergence of new technologies that have transformed production systems and social habits, leading to important qualitative changes in industrial economies in recent years. Most probably, the take-off phase of an intensive growth based on new technologies is yet to come, but once it starts it is likely to fuel worldwide diffusion of dual-use technologies through global trade and off-shoring, resulting in growing challenges for non-proliferation export controls. One of the major reasons for this spread lies in the necessity for advanced technology firms to write off their often costly research and development (R&D) investments by expanding their markets, which implies promoting exports worldwide. Off-shoring policies help to reduce costs by shifting production, assembly lines or manufacturing of components to factories in countries with lower labour costs. Moreover, foreign direct investments lead to transfers of ownership of firms integrated in the supply chain of important defence contractors. All these factors gradually pave the way for proliferation risks, such as direct access to technology and production processes or ownership of sensitive patents by foreign entities and reverse engineering.

Modern innovation is transforming previously non-listed commercial items into dual-use technologies. In recent history, innovation has mostly been based on new ideas being applied to existing technologies and resources, in a process of gradual improvement over long periods of time. In the Information Age, the cumulative effect of such innovations becomes larger and faster, since each new cycle of innovation delivers a stronger technological impact due to synergies reached in combination with other technologies. Market globalization, intangible technology transfers, and off-shoring policies of private firms are among relevant factors that accelerate technology diffusion worldwide. While these trends are positive in terms of the improvements in productivity, expansion in trade and increase in economic growth, they also represent important challenges for supplier countries, which require adequate regulatory tools to effectively implement export controls.

Such knowledge and technologies may not be listed as controlled items at that stage. However, many dual-use technologies that are not listed as ‘military controlled items’ might be relevant for future WMD or conventional weapons programmes. Export control agencies, through international interaction, determine which weapons, sensitive dual-use technologies, and related materials must be controlled. The same logic is applied to technology-related restrictive measures.1 But innovation often transforms previous non-listed commercial items into present and future dual-use technologies. Technological change through cumulative innovation outpaces our ability to update lists of controlled items in national and multilateral export control mechanisms. This is particularly important in industries operating in the nuclear, chemical, biological, aerospace and military sectors.

While ‘traditional defence sector’ companies have always had a solid security culture, based on specific confidentiality regulations, this may not be the case for some commercial firms from the civilian dual-use sector, which may eventually become suppliers to defence prime contractors. Some of these challenges may lead to a proliferation of sensitive and dual-use technologies, including machine-tools. Commercial and market-oriented companies –especially those producing and supplying dual-use technologies– are more exposed to the risk of unintended sensitive transfers to destinations of concern.

In this regard, the production and availability of technologically advanced components and machine-tools is of particular relevance, since they play a primary role in industry, but also in the construction of advanced military platforms. Some examples of this trend are: software and computers; propulsion systems; video technology; robotics; nanotechnology; autonomous vehicles and remote-controlled systems; and technologies associated with space applications.

New materials, such as carbon fibre and graphene, are also essential in modern industry. New production systems, such as additive manufacturing, are used in different sectors of industry, building objects by adding ultra-thin layers of material one by one: plastic prototypes, ultrasound machines, gas turbines, aeronautics, medical implants, etc. The use of these technologies in the production of military platforms is growing, especially in aeronautics.2 The potential of new technologies in the defence sector is enormous. As a result, the control of all these technologies is becoming not only a commercial advantage for industry, but also a strategic asset.

New technologies, weapons and tools to make weapons: tangible and intangible

Our past experience in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament methodology has been based on hardware, materials and physical platforms accounting and monitoring. The international agreements negotiated in the 20th century established quantitative ceilings to limit military capabilities and determine the rationale of strategic balances. Examples of this approach are the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after the end of World War I; the Naval Treaty of Washington, signed in 1922; or, more recently, the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, since 1990. Other treaties in the second half of the past century established non-proliferation principles, where a quantitative approach to tangible assets was the method to determine compliance, based on measurable materials. Such is the case of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, which rely on a verification and accounting system of safeguards and inspections, implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons respectively. The Arms Trade Treaty follows the same philosophy in its information exchange mechanism: reporting on tangible transfers.

However, the impact of new technologies and intangible assets on conventional and WMD capabilities is likely to grow in the years to come. As an example, due to new trends in information technology, the use of cyber weapons against nuclear, chemical and critical infrastructure may become a threat that will be difficult to assess with current conceptual tools. Therefore, given the extensive use of dual-use applications and intangible assets integrated in modern military systems, the quantitative approach may not be sufficient in the future. The same rationale is applicable to export controls, where software, electronics and other non-lethal technologies determine the capabilities, precision and effectiveness of modern weapons systems.

Some of the risks described above also emerge in the form of intangible technology transfers associated with digital transactions: the transfers of technical data in a non-physical form, including available encryption software, email exchanges of documents related to sensitive information, online consulting, access to cloud-based technologies and other procedures in wireless telecommunications networks. Export control authorities in supplier countries face increasing challenges related to sensitive Intangible Technology Transfers (ITT) due to functional symbiosis of industry and academia, the presence of foreign nationals in domestic high-technology sectors, the mobility of qualified personnel or the access to global information technology networks and digital-electronic methods of intangible transfers.

At the same time, it is necessary to identify industry, research centres, universities and individuals that have access to sensitive technology in order to undertake targeted outreach efforts and, if possible, also promote self-regulation, based on cooperation with export control agencies, including by designing and implementing internal compliance programmes, encouraging appointment of export control points of contact and enhancing codes of conduct. Such measures supplement risk analysis procedures in visa-vetting methods, including profiles following the model used in granting licences for transferring defence and dual-use material, and sensitive areas which could make ITT possible or facilitate them. Furthermore, raising awareness and self-regulation in sensitive suppliers enables them to become the ‘first line of defence’, controlling sensitive technology at the source. This is already being done in many countries through ‘compliance programmes’ and ‘know-your-customer’ policies, but only when such companies are active in supply chains and exports that are already declared sensitive. Finally, these challenges require new tools for enforcement agencies, including national legal frameworks for special investigative techniques in the web in order to monitor electronic transfers of sensitive information, under judicial supervision, in accordance with national legislation.

Innovation and new applications of existing technologies: the conceptual gap

Throughout history there have been cases in which the original design and intended purpose of innovative technologies were used for specific applications, which were entirely different from their use in differing subsequent designs or systems. The latter use had to be ‘rediscovered’ at a later stage, and many of these technologies were gradually adapted both to commercial and military needs, thus improving operational equipment and commercial technologies. In the 18th century the steam engine was initially designed for the textile industry, but it was successfully adapted to trains and vessels in the 19th century. The GPS was designed for military purposes, and a few decades later became commercially available and widely used for civilian applications. Cell phones, specifically designed for wireless communications, have been used as remote-controlled detonators of improvised explosive devices in terrorist attacks. Between the original design and purpose of innovative technologies and their potential ‘rediscovered uses’ there is a conceptual gap,3 due to lack of awareness or purpose to use them in new and different applications.

This conceptual gap can be identified when innovation is not intended or focused on a particular goal at a given time and is conceived by a designer/developer unaware of its full potential. The analysis of a conceptual gap requires an assessment of the innovation process to compare the original purpose of the technology with other potential uses of the same technology as reflected in Figure 1. The need to expand markets and recover R&D investments leads to the search for new applications and functions of existing technologies. In this process, the interaction between designers and end users is essential, since it is often demand from the latter which leads to new findings. In this regard, innovation plays a role in two parallel functions:

  • Existing and new dual-use technologies are used to upgrade existing platforms and systems with new applications. The latter play the role of enablers.
  • New designs of technologies for innovative applications are used to construct new platforms and systems.
Figure 1. The development of conceptual gaps

The conceptual gap is bridged with a deductive and functional approach: a designer or researcher seeks existing technology that is able to perform a functional role that has been previously identified as a need by the end user. In this process there is an issue of particular relevance concerning capabilities for asymmetric warfare. While cases of “reverse engineering” of military and dual-use technologies by state-sponsored entities are widely known in the context of “technology flows” leading to industrial production, the acquisition path of sensitive technologies undertaken by non-state actors usually starts with commercially available items purchased off-the shelf or on the black market. These items are later redesigned and upgraded with other available technologies to produce derivatives – not replicas – adapted to their needs and resources. This product may be of a lower technology standard and performance compared to the original system, but it plays a similar functional role. Many weapons used by non-state actors in asymmetric warfare and terrorism are the result of “reverse designing” derivatives4.

In the context of asymmetric threats, the existence of such conceptual gaps in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) systems requires a specific approach. Often associated, rightly or not, to weapons of mass destruction, CBRN materials are part of a more complex system with production facilities, means of delivery, CBR agents, nuclear devices, explosives, detonators, guidance systems and particular vulnerabilities, eg, to sabotage through cyber-attacks. The outcome of innovative processes is diverted and integrated into existing CBRN devices, in which CBRN materials are part of a more complex system. The complexity of CBRN systems and their enhancement through integration of dual-use conventional technologies are usually ignored when the two –conventional and non-conventional technologies– are defined as separate categories.

Moreover, risk management –based on the safety/security standards implemented in a CBRN facility– is also a relevant factor in export control. If they are not protected, these technologies and materials can be stolen at the facility, diverted to other purposes or used against the receiving State or other countries (including the supplier country). As a result, two elements can be identified as characterising conceptual gaps in CBRN.

First, and from a technological perspective, CBRN systems cannot be conceived as an isolated category. They are integrated in a complex spectrum of technologies, ranging from conventional to CBRN elements, including dual-use technologies. CBRN systems differentiate conceptually from conventional systems due to their fallout and consequences, the legal framework in which they are categorised as well as certain ethical considerations, due to their usual association with WMD. But they are, in effect, integrated in a complex and comprehensive continuum of diverse technologies, where conventional and non-conventional technologies are blended and only then possibly formed into a CBRN weapon. Therefore, controlling the spread of CBRN materials is insufficient for achieving non-proliferation, since complementing conventional or dual-use technologies usable for the weaponisation of these materials need to be regulated, too.

Figure 2. From CBRN material to non-conventional systems
Figure 3. From conventional enablers to CBRN effects

This perspective is particularly important when dealing not only with terrorist threats but also in a hybrid war context: insiders, militia-type agitators and hackers can all use conventional systems to achieve harmful CBRN outcomes as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Risk management in CBRN facilities

Coordination and assessment of information through national prevention-defence-resilience hubs is important for monitoring critical infrastructure and improving situational awareness, enhancing the ability to connect seemingly unrelated events which might be symptoms of a hybrid attack.


The way ahead: measuring intangible assets and anticipating technologies’ potential outcomes

Weapons systems, dual use technologies, technical production systems and their different applications bear not only the legacy of knowledge, but also the traces of evolution in human behaviour. In this regard, the process is characterised by a tempo marked by relevant inventions and industrial highlights, as well as a long-term perspective of evolution where elements of a technical-industrial legacy find new roles assigned by human creativity. In summary, the time is ripe for considering a gradual update of the methodology for non-proliferation, exports control, restrictive measures, arms control and disarmament mechanisms. New concepts and tools will be required to assess the relevance of technologies and capabilities, both conventional and non-conventional, based on tangible and intangible factors.

The impact of cumulative innovation in technologies with potential use in CBRN and conventional weapons programmes, including manufacturing systems, has become a major challenge for policymakers and experts in the security, non-proliferation and disarmament community. In particular, export control authorities and military experts will need to assess the consequences of future innovation on existing controlled platforms.

At the same time, enforcement agencies will need to assess the parameters of compliance in an intangible space. Intangible technology transfers –where traditional customs and enforcement controls cannot be implemented– require a new approach to address new challenges for export controls, such as information transactions where the concept of national boundary either is blurred or simply disappears.

This intellectual exercise will also require a methodology to define the conceptual gaps between the 20th-century designed operational weapons systems and an innovative use of new technological resources or dual-use applications for military purposes. This implies reflecting on possible mechanisms to assess and identify the potential dual use of commercial technologies, which may not be integrated in existing controlled systems at present but might be relevant for future weapon designs and programmes.

Technological observatories, qualitative indicators of capacities based on innovative technologies, as well as new conceptual and impact evaluation models, would be useful regulative tools in this context. Further efforts in this area could include not only an assessment of the transfers to be monitored and the gaps to be bridged, but also a deeper analysis of relevant factors in technological proliferation.

Gonzalo de Salazar
Senior Advisor for Strategic Affairs and Sanctions Policy Coordinator at the Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation

1 Some UNSC resolutions on sanctions use the annexes of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime as technical references for the implementation of restrictive measures.

2 New generations of machine-tools function in combination with advanced programming and simulation software to manufacture flat, mild curvature, complex shapes and high-contour aerospace components. Computer-controlled additive manufacturing machines make lighter parts and components in a faster process, reduce production costs, and yield significant fuel savings for aircraft.

3 Gonzalo de Salazar Serantes (2018), Crimen y conflicto armado, MAEC, Madrid, p.199-201.

4 An example of this process is the ability of some guerrillas to transform commercial UAVs and use them on the battlefield, surface-to-air missiles adapted to surface-to-surface functions or portable rocket launchers based on modified models of self-propelled grenades, built with plastic components using injection moulding machinery, steel and aluminium.

<![CDATA[ From the depths to the surface: conflict drivers in the MENA region ]]> 2019-06-12T05:19:06Z

Failing to acknowledge the 2011 Arab uprisings as a breaking point announcing the need for a regime overhaul in the region, and therefore a long overdue revision of Western policy, would be a mistake with serious adverse consequences. 

Spanish version: De las profundidades a la superficie: catalizadores de conflicto en Oriente Medio y el Magreb.


Failing to acknowledge the 2011 Arab uprisings as a breaking point announcing the need for a regime overhaul in the region, and therefore a long overdue revision of Western policy, would be a mistake with serious adverse consequences. The 2011 uprisings’ strong aftershocks still have the potential to undermine not just individual states but the entire Arab state system.


Dramatic changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after 2011 dictate the need for external actors to forge a new policy approach to address the region’s long-term challenges. In tackling the region’s increasingly intersecting and conflicting politics, aggravated by external interventions, international policy makers should keep their eyes on both old and new conflict drivers, or risk fighting symptoms rather than causes, and thus potentially do more harm.


On the periphery of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), in Algeria and in the Sudan, popular uprisings toppled two of the region’s longest-ruling leaders in April 2019, opening a new chapter in calls for better governance. In constituting a rejection of the status quo, they carry a similarity with the 2011 Arab revolts.1 In Algeria, the prospect of a fifth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika created a sense of national humiliation and pushed citizens to take to the streets. In their view, the 82-year-old and ailing President could not possibly lead reform, and many Algerians saw their country’s potential wasted by interest groups around him.2 In the Sudan, a cut to a government subsidy that trebled the price of bread sparked protests against the 76-year-old President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for almost 30 years. Protests are of course about much more than bread, with anger centred more generally on a police state’s governance failures.3 Today, the outcomes of the political transitions in the two countries remains unclear.

Continued popular activism throughout the region is proof of a people’s enduring aspiration for an end to corruption and for better governance. However, eight years after citizens across the Arab world took to the streets voicing a widespread sense of social injustice, authoritarianism has begun to re-establish itself with a vengeance, bankrolled by Saudi and Emirati cheque-book diplomacy. The regimes that survived the challenge to their rule, instead of re-imagining and reforming themselves to head off further popular protests, are mostly reinforcing the fragile governance structures that have long fed the grievances that prompted the Arab uprisings, including by channelling scarce resources into strengthening their repressive capabilities. Meanwhile, events in the region continue to create new security concerns for external actors.

Although rightly concerned by developments in the region and fearing the impact in the form of refugees/migrants and jihadism, outside actors are generally not helping. Whereas at the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings Western actors had voiced support for the aspirations of the people in the squares, today short-term priorities are producing securitised policies, which dominate their relations with MENA states. Longer-term drivers of conflict, although recognised rhetorically as part of policy, remain on the backburner of policy makers’ agendas.

Today, after all that the region’s people have suffered and lost, mass protests in Algeria and the Sudan seem unlikely to trigger a domino effect similar to that initiated by Tunisia almost a decade ago. Yet they should serve as a clear reminder that unaddressed grievances will spawn popular rebellion sooner or later. Failing to acknowledge the 2011 Arab uprisings as a breaking point announcing the need for a regime overhaul in the region, and therefore a long overdue revision of Western policy, would be a mistake with serious adverse consequences.

Old and new drivers of MENA conflicts

Throughout history, the region has suffered repeated upheavals that either advanced or challenged it, and each of these ‘earthquakes’ has set off its own set of conflicts. At least five separate ‘conflict clusters’ have emerged from the trauma of WWI, the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of colonial rule, as Arab societies are still seeking to overcome the grievances of their founding:4

  • Cluster I: internal conflicts deriving from the creation of the region’s disjointed governing structures (I-A), and challenges to its borders (I-B). Examples of I-A: various military coups (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia); and of I-B: Kurdish insurgencies against their respective central states, and the transnational ambitions of jihadist movements.
  • Cluster II: Israeli-Arab wars and Palestinian uprisings deriving from the 1948 creation of the state of Israel. Examples: in 1967, 1973, 1982, 1988 and on.
  • Cluster III: conflicts stemming from Iran’s outward projection in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and efforts to curb it. Examples: the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and Israel-Hezbollah wars in 1993, 1996 and 2006.
  • Cluster IV: fighting associated with Sunni radicalisation, which was triggered by the Arab states’ defeat in the 1967 war and the 1979 siege of Mecca. Examples: jihadists vs Soviets in Afghanistan, efforts to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, the 9/11 and other jihadist attacks.
  • Cluster V: civil wars triggered by state collapse in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Examples: Libya, Yemen and Syria. Other states may still be standing but are both highly repressive and internally fragile. Examples: Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and possibly also Saudi Arabia.

The Arab uprisings have left the region in disarray and more deeply polarised. Power vacuums resulting from collapsing states, in the absence of regional unity, functioning conflict-resolution mechanisms or a global arbiter, have empowered ambitious non-state actors and invited interventions by regional actors who fear negative implications to their vested interests. External actors compound this situation through interference, often destructive, that invariably is driven by self-interest, even if well-intentioned.

The 2011 uprisings’ strong aftershocks still have the potential to undermine not just individual states but the entire Arab state system. They largely removed previously influential Arab states (Egypt, Iraq and Syria) as significant actors, compelling the Gulf states to step into the breach and launch new interventions across the region.5 Yet, ill-equipped to tackle the region’s challenges, these actors are failing to impose even the outlines of a new order, and instead contribute to the chaos.

Unprecedented levels of intersecting conflict in the MENA region pose difficult challenges to international policymakers. As pre-existing conflict ‘clusters’ intersect, original conflict drivers are obscured by new grievances and objectives. This makes individual conflicts harder to analyse and address and heightens the risk that external assistance has adverse unintended consequences. Syria is in the unique position of seeing all five conflict clusters intersect.6

Tackling the region’s new complexity will require a new approach. Outside actors should identify, acknowledge and accommodate both new but also old conflict drivers, and understand how positive impact in one arena could cause adverse effects in another. They should be wary of unintentionally strengthening local non-state actors pursuing sub-state or transnational agendas, or regional states pursuing sub-state agendas in neighbours in an attempt to keep them weak and to counter adversaries.

The Arab uprisings and their aftermath

To many, the uprisings signalled the need for a change of course in policy towards the MENA region, where a Western ‘stability paradigm’ had long supported inherently fragile authoritarian regimes,7 and where overly securitised policies were overlooking and aggravating deeper drivers of conflict. For a short moment, such a policy shift seemed to be taking place.

In February 2011, at the yearly Munich Security Conference, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that security and ‘the need for democratic development’ had never so clearly converged in the Middle East. Clinton said that the status quo was ‘simply not sustainable’ and that ‘leaders in the region may be able to hold back the tide for a while, but not for long’. To ‘help our partners take systematic steps to usher in a better future where people’s voices are heard, their rights respected, and their aspirations met’ was no longer simply a matter of idealism but a strategic necessity.8

However, this reprioritisation did not take place. The economic and financial crisis of 2008-09, combined with the legacy of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, accelerated the decline of Western primacy in the MENA region. In a more multipolar world, a multiplicity of players made common solutions and political settlements more elusive. Thus, in those instances and fields where Western actors aimed to support the region’s people, competing agendas were at play, resulting in an incoherent response to the uprisings. Expressing support for protesters in Egypt and intervening directly in Libya, Western powers failed to act in Bahrain, not wanting to confront their Gulf allies. Then, in acknowledgement of their limited ability to impose order on the region, they did not intervene in Syria either.

Soon, a counterrevolution led by Saudi Arabia began to reverse the changes set in motion by the uprisings. It helped reinstate the Egyptian military regime; kept monarchies in Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain afloat with large amounts of aid; and funded militias elsewhere. The region’s activists failed to unite around a common vision and to drive out status quo powers that violently resisted change. As regional and non-state armed actors jumped into the power vacuums created by collapsing states, Western actors that initially voiced their support for the aspirations of the region’s citizens began to shift towards more reactive, heavily securitised, approaches. In many cases these realigned them with the ‘same-old’ state forces seeking ‘stability’ and restoration of expired social contracts.

Thus, while the uprisings initially raised hopes of profound social change, they brought disillusion instead, as change proved cosmetic or turned into worse. In the aftermath of the uprisings, instead of re-imagining themselves, the states that remained standing resisted reform and reinforced their repressive apparatus.

Yet, protests in the Sudan and Algeria are the most recent reminder that a deeply felt sense of social injustice persists. Elsewhere, protests expressing frustration with dysfunctional systems of governance have continued sporadically, including in Jordan, Iraq and Tunisia.9 Protests occurred before 2011 as well, which underlines the continuum of unaddressed grievances.

Towards a more positive engagement with the MENA region

Addressing MENA’s persistent governance crisis will not be easy. External actors wishing to support positive change face a region in desperate need of reform yet governed by elites with an existential interest to counteract change whose outcome they cannot control. In almost every MENA country today, the political, economic and social challenges present before the uprisings have worsened, and the political and economic environment post-Arab uprisings is even less conducive to reform.

While some Arab states are making expensive public-relations efforts to attract foreign investment, genuine reform will depend on more inclusive political and economic governance, which utilises the region’s human potential to the fullest. Resource-rich Arab states are in a race against time as they rely on elusive economic growth to redistribute wealth and pre-empt dissent. But for the resource-poor, a more inclusive growth process will be the only viable way forward, lest they face collapse.

In the face of these challenges, Western powers might be tempted to see the re-emergence of ‘the enemy that we know’ as a welcome return of some sort of stability. After all, the dysfunctional but familiar (dis-) order that emerged out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had long underwritten at least relative stability. Without the trigger of the popular uprising in Tunisia, the prevailing conditions could perhaps have endured for a while longer: the way in which reform-resisting regimes in the region muddle through today serves as evidence.

Indeed, although the region-wide uprisings ‘demonstrated the short-sightedness of the ‘stability paradigm’ –the model of Arab governments doing the West’s bidding in return for the West overlooking the suppression of dissent– that had animated US and European policy for a half-century’,10 energy, restricting migration and terrorism continue to top Western policy agendas.

However, failing to see the Arab uprisings as a breaking point warning of the need for a new approach would be a mistake. Just because the region’s collapse is not complete does not mean the remnants will be able to survive for long.

Thus, the question facing external actors today is whether it is in their interest to maintain the current order or to enable its transformation. To the extent that the uprisings represented a final rupture of the social contract in individual MENA societies, and a rejection of the post-WWI order/disorder more broadly, they should serve to refocus outside actors’ attention on the Arab states’ lingering legitimacy crisis. In engaging with the region, they should give priority attention to issues of governance and other deeper drivers of conflict.

Of course, a new social contract can only emerge locally, from within societies, and change must be driven by the region’s citizens. Past lessons serve as evidence of the limited capacity of external actors to impose order on the region and, moreover, Western governments are by no means the sole external actors in the region. Yet, in rethinking their relationship with the MENA region today, they should at the very least seek to become more aware of how their part in the interaction serves to either support or impede change.

External interventions interact with conflict drivers in their various clusters, often compounding them, and overly securitised, short-term policies directed towards individual events in individual conflicts pay insufficient attention to a conflict’s deeper drivers. The idea that authoritarianism can help tackle extremism continues to prove just as misguided today as it has done in the past. Meanwhile, efforts at mediating negotiated settlements to MENA conflicts flounder on these conflicts’ increasingly interconnected nature. The structure of Western governments’ and organisations’ bureaucracies does not help either: they remain compartmentalised in their understanding of, and approach to, the MENA region, having erected internal, artificial barriers that obstruct efforts at finding a collective way out.

It is clear that the last thing the region needs is a refashioning of the old order. Driven by fear of further chaos, Western states risk setting the stage for even greater chaos once their re-found allies breathe their last.

Instead, they should:

  • Rebuild the trust and credibility they have lost with the region’s people as a result of decades of support for postcolonial autocrats and the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Technical cooperation and development aid have the potential to do so, but only when that cooperation is actually based on the values that the international community purports to advance. Today, much aid continues to discredit the providers.
  • Use development cooperation to build up the autonomy of the region and its citizens, instead of perpetuating dependency ties. Donor countries tend to prefer working with and supporting national governments, overlooking local actors. As a result, recipient states too often treat the funds they receive as rents that help them resurrect the dysfunctional characteristics of the current (dis-)order instead of instituting overdue reforms. Encouraging substantial reforms will likely require finding a range of new partners, from local NGOs to local-level governments, and providing new incentives.
  • Beware of the inherent power imbalance of ‘partnerships’ involving a broader set of citizens, as the outside actor still holds the purse and sets the terms. To help build more participatory and representative structures, development cooperation should respond to local priorities, and external actors should be open to speak to all parties, regardless of political or ideological differences (for example, in the case of Islamists enjoying broad popular support).
  • Engage with MENA actors through a coordinated regional and inter-disciplinary approach. Careful inter-agency coordination is instrumental for consistency and for preventing adverse secondary conflicts, including across conflict clusters.
  • Start with an accurate real-time understanding of who and what drives conflicts when designing policy responses and be aware of how policies either help address or instead exacerbate deeper conflict drivers, of the actors they might empower or disempower, and of the grievances this might feed. This requires better independent cross-MENA analysis.


The Arab uprisings underlined the notion that existing conditions in MENA had become unsustainable and announced the region-wide expiry of a socio-economic order that had underwritten relative stability for decades –and with it, the shortcomings of the international system that helped sustain it–. Today, the grievances that led to the near collapse of the regional order persist, and economic trends paint a bleak picture of further decline. Arab states willing or able to only cater to wealthy elites will continue to feed frustrations among the mass of the population, fuelling unrest and outmigration.

At the same time, the 2011 uprisings produced a certain momentum for change, and in some places provided new opportunities. Somehow, new governing structures must emerge, and external actors, if they want to be part of the solution, should be aware that they have long been part of the problem. They need to be aware of how their policies towards the MENA region either help advance or thwart local agendas promoting reform and seek ways in which they may more positively engage with the region.

Joost Hiltermann
Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, International Crisis Group | @JoostHiltermann

Maria Rodríguez Schaap
MENA Programme Assistant, International Crisis Group
| @RodriguezSchaap

1 Jon Alterman (2019), ‘A new Arab Spring?’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 15/IV/2019.

2 International Crisis Group (2019), ‘Post-Bouteflika Algeria: growing protests, signs of repression’, 26/IV/2019.

3 International Crisis Group (2019), ‘Bashir moves Sudan to dangerous new ground’, 26/II/2019.

4 For a detailed account of the five conflict clusters, see Joost Hiltermann (2018), ‘Tackling the MENA region’s intersecting conflicts’, International Crisis Group, 13/II/2018.

5 Reflections five years after the uprisings’, Project on Middle East Political Science, POMEPS studies, 28/III/.

6 The 2011 challenge to the regime (I-A) dragged in Iran and Hizbollah (II and III), as well as Turkey and Qatar (pro-Muslim Brotherhood, IV), which have competed with Saudi Arabia (anti-Brotherhood, IV); the war has fomented intra-Sunni radicalisation (IV), leading to an increasingly sectarian-tinged struggle (III and IV), while the Kurds have been emboldened to demand self-rule (I-B). To top it off, the rise of jihadists provoked military intervention by the US and its Western allies; the threat of Assad falling drew in Russia; and the PKK’s local affiliate’s progress in northern Syria triggered Turkish intervention (related to Ankara and the PKK’s own Cluster I-B conflict inside Turkey). The Syrian war itself is a Cluster V conflict, with an as yet unknown outcome.

8Hilary Clinton’s remarks at the Munich Security Conference’, 5/II/2011, US Department of State.

9 Marc Lynch (2019), ‘Is the next Arab uprising happening in plain sight?’, The Washington Post, ‘Monkey Cage’, 26/II/2019.

10 Hamid, op. cit.