While many people in the West still have trouble pointing to Romania on a world map, His Royal Highness Prince Charles of Wales has been working for over a decade to promote the still slightly obscure homeland of his great-grandmother (Queen Mary, the consort of George V). The Prince jokes that he has “a bit of a stake in the country,” as “genealogy shows [he is] descended from Vlad the Impaler.” Charles first visited Romania in 1998 and has since bought several properties in Transylvania—two of which will soon be available for rent to anyone who can afford the low price of 150 Romanian Lei (or about 40 US dollars) per night. So far, the prince has invested over 21,000 US$ into the two small old wooden houses that he undoubtedly bought as embodiments of what he sees as Romania’s greatest asset: its tradition. This is reflected in plans to make the houses as faithful to “traditional” peasant life as possible, with straw beds and costumes for the tourists so they can dress up like the Romanian peasants with whom Charles has fallen in love.
Seated on a bench covered with rugs in a clearing surrounded by trees and over-grown grass, Charles explained in an interview last year that his attraction to Romania was the country’s preservation of natural landscape and of old architecture. He lamented the western tendency to destroy the old and replace it by the fleetingly new and praised Romania’s “remarkable heritage.” The prince told of his fascination with Romanian craftsmanship and the pervasive small family farms, which he saw as not only a cultural but also an economic asset. It is to this that Charles attributes the “astonishing landscape and astonishing biodiversity” of Romania and it is in these assets that he sees the future prosperity of the country. For him, Romania has preserved a “traditional” way of life that “feeds the soul.” While this is something that the Romanian Ministry of Tourism has also recently promoted and that some Romanians have also begun extolling, virtually nothing has been said about the potentially adverse effects of such a way of thinking.
In a country that has long struggled to be seen as “modern” and to establish equal footing with west European nations, an excessive insistence upon an “ancient” and static way of life might end up preserving Romania in western consciousness as a “backward” region. Leaving aside the fact that culture has never been static and that “traditions” are everywhere perpetually in flux, advertising Romania as a cultural fossil might also end up hurting the progress that the country has made towards closing the real and perceived gap between it and the West. Capitalizing upon nature and promoting small-scale farming and craftsmanship can certainly create jobs and be sustainable both economically and environmentally. This is something that those western nations that Charles has accused of too hurriedly giving in to “short-lived fashion” are also beginning to realize. However, moving forward, all those involved in this sort of preservation in Romania must be careful to promote conservation without falling into the trap of stagnation. If not, Romania runs the risk of never overcoming its peripheral position in Europe.
A recent study conducted by France Strategie, a research center under the authority of the French Prime Minister, brings attention to one of the consequences of the ongoing European debt crisis: the gap between rich and poor EU Member States has widened since the crisis began in 2009, with poor countries of the EU South becoming even poorer than the countries of central and northern EU.
During this period, the employment rate in Germany (for the working-age population aged 20 to 64 years) increased from 74 percent to 77 percent. The same is the case for Austria and Luxembourg. However, on the other side of the continent, the situation is reversed. In Greece, the employment rate fell from 66 to 53 percent, in Spain from 68.5 to 58.6 percent. At the end of 2014, the unemployment rate in the EU ranged from 5 percent in Germany to 25.7 percent in Greece.*
The number of poor has also dramatically increased in the EU South during this period. In Greece, the number of poor has increased from 3 to 3.9 million people (30 percent of the population), in Spain from 11.1 million to 12.6 million, and in Italy from 15 million to 17.3 million.
Eastern Europe, a region that managed to avoid the debt crisis, is doing better in recent years. In most of the member states of the Eastern EU, the unemployment rate has stagnated and poverty has been reduced. Namely, in the period from 2008 to 2013, the number of poor in Poland was reduced from 11.5 to 9.7 million people and in Romania from 9.4 to 8.6 million.
France is the “golden mean”. The employment rate has increased, but only from 69.6 to 70.4 percent, while the number of poor increased slightly, from 11.1 to 11.2 million.
The study suggests that reducing the level of economic inequality between the EU North and South, which was recorded between 2000 and 2008, was not viable. In particular, during this period, wages and social expenditure increased in Spain, Portugal and Greece without a simultaneous increase in productivity. The competitiveness of these countries has been degraded, which was one of the main triggers for the development of the crisis.
So far, the solution for the crisis was sought through a combination of austerity measures and structural reforms (mostly in the labor market and pension insurance). However, austerity policies seemed to be aggravating already bad economic conditions. Also, the expenditure cuts that were made in health and education from 2008 to 2012 resulted in expenses per child in Greece falling by 7 percent and in Spain by 4 percent. At the same time, the number of Greeks who needed medical treatment or exams and did not have health insurance went up from 5.4 percent to 8 percent. In addition, the countries of the EU South have also been exposed to a large outflow of labor and human capital, which also prevents significant economic recovery.
Overall, the EU objectives adopted in 2010 for the period until 2020 in terms of poverty reduction and employment growth are very unlikely to be achieved, which is disappointing, given that the rise of the standard of living and economic convergence was one of the main objectives of the EU creation.
*Unemployment rate is calculated as a percentage by dividing the number of unemployed individuals by all individuals currently in the labor force. Employment rate is calculated in this example as a share of the entire working population and not only of the labor force.
By James Krotz
Coming amid the now year-long conflict in Ukraine, the Republic of Poland has announced a 10 year long defense spending increase, with a price tag of 42 billion (USD). The move is surprising, but not altogether unprecedented. With Russian aggression plaguing the eastern third of Ukraine, Poland’s direct neighbor, the Poles can hardly be blamed for increasing defense spending so drastically. After spending nearly 60 years under the thumb of Moscow, Poland’s wish is to remain oriented towards the West, and retain its membership in the EU and NATO.
After the fall of Polish communism in 1989, the democratically elected government was quick to establish good relations with all its neighbors. However, relations with the West were far easier than with its volatile neighbors to the east, Belarus and Ukraine. An unstable Ukraine and a Russian-aligned Belarus remain the gravest foreign policy threats of contemporary Poland.
The defense spending increase will have several facets, although it remains in step with the trend of the Polish military since its admittance into NATO in 1999; that of lean and rapidly-deployable armed forces. The most expensive purchase will be that of 70 multi-role helicopters. The contract has yet to be awarded but has seen interest from U.S.-maker Sikorsky, European consortium Airbus Helicopters, based in France, and the Anglo-Italian AgustaWestland. Among other updates will be combat drones, a missile shield, updated anti-aircraft installations, and even two new submarines. The decision of the contracts made by the Polish Ministry of Defense will be a highly political one. It will tip Poland’s hand in whether or not the country will remain a loyal Atlanticist, as it has done since the Afghan War in 2001, or orient more towards an independent European security apparatus, advocated by powerful EU countries like France and Germany. In any case, the spending increase will bring Poland past the 2% of GDP marker that NATO requests all members spend on defense. Currently, only 4 NATO nations meet the marker.
In this researchers opinion, it would behoove other Central European and Baltic nations to follow suit, and it remains to be seen if Poland will take a stronger stance against Russian revisionism. Russia continues to violate NATO airspace with impunity, with more than 100 aircraft intercepts in the past year, up 300% from 2013. If more NATO countries choose to continue trends of paltry defense spending, then perhaps Poland could seize initiative and form a working alliance of geopolitically threatened countries to strengthen European resolve. Perhaps an organization like the Visegrad Four could serve this purpose.
In any case, I personally applaud Poland’s realist approach to Russian aggression in a Europe that seems unwilling to commit to a hard power strategy and urge the United States to stand firm with our Polish allies.
Rebecca L. Spang is the author of Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2015) and a faculty member at Indiana University, where she directs the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies and is the Acting Director of the Institute for European Studies. Her first book, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture was also published by Harvard.
Read her op-ed for HNN (History News Network) on the Eurocrisis and the French Revolution here.
Timothy Hellwig, the author of Globalization and Mass Politics, explores how globalization affects the world economy and perception of the economic crisis.
For months now, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been embroiled in a resurgent geopolitical conflict with Russia over events in Ukraine. Beginning in March, when Russian-speaking separatists in the Crimea region of Ukraine voted in referendum to join the Russian Federation, NATO and Western leaders called the referendum “a breach of international laws and norms“, citing the Russian use of “little green men”, or off-duty Russian soldiers being unofficially deployed to Crimea to incite rebellion and fight Ukrainian forces. With the annexation of Crimea a forgone conclusion, Western leaders have continued their strong rhetoric and defensive posturing amid the continuing rebellion of Ukraine’s eastern provinces, especially surrounding the cities of Donetsk, Mariupol, and Luhansk. Sanctions leveled against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his benefactors in the private sector, coupled with the ruble and energy export prices in freefall, have taken a toll on the Russian economy. The ruble is now worth roughly half of what it was a year ago. Despite the economic downturn, Russian sponsoring of the Ukrainian rebels in the form of money, equipment and alleged reinforcements is ongoing. Surely such open disdain for Western punishment would meet with greater solidarity within the ranks of NATO. However, new forces seek to undermine NATO’s legitimacy, and they have nothing to do with the Russian military.
A rash of Putin-style authoritarianism is underway in two key NATO allied states; Turkey and Hungary. For NATO to continue to be the bulwark of liberal democratic values that it has professed to be since its 1949 founding, it may have to quash dissension within its own ranks.
President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has tightened his grip on power, ordering Turkish police to raid media outlets affiliated with his political opponents. This clamping down on free speech is seen by many in the West as less than ideal, but Turkey remains THE crucial NATO ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). “Turkey’s strategic geography dictates that its allies continue giving it some leeway … People simply can’t afford to ignore Turkey, whatever the policies of President Erdogan,” said Fadi Hakura, Turkey analyst at the London think-tank Chatham House. This may be the case, but the trampling of free speech, a major critique of the Putin regime, undermines NATO legitimacy in its dealings with Russia. Hypocrisy breeds illegitimacy. And especially given Turkey’s prime geographic location, not only when confronting ISIS, but Russia as well, its sure to be an ally that needs to have a strong voice at the NATO table.
While the geographic location of Hungary is not quite as strategic in the conflict with Russia or ISIS as Turkey’s, a pro-Russian state that is quite literally the center of Europe is nonetheless alarming to NATO officials. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, now in his third term, has consolidated power over his rightist Fidesz Party, created a ruling class of oligarchs, and most alarmingly, expanded ties with Moscow. He even praised “illiberal democracies like Russia, Turkey, Singapore and China.” Orban, who at the time of the fall of Communism was an anti-communist activist, has alarmed his Western allies and other countries in eastern Europe, including the staunchly pro-West Poland and the Czech Republic. While Hungary’s recent orientation towards authoritarianism is alarming, Orban also enjoys none of the political capital enjoyed by Erdogan. Western European leaders in NATO and the EU could exercise some geopolitical clout and lean on Orban to orient him back towards the West. The right amount of rhetoric in favor of his opposition could pressure the Hungarian electorate to lean on Parliament to oust Orban as Prime Minister in favor of a pro-Western candidate. However, with little hard power to back up their rhetoric, it is unlikely Europe will do so without U.S. leadership.
In the post–Cold War era, NATO leaders repeatedly stress the organization’s commitment to democracy and human rights. It would be more than a tad embarrassing to have a Putin-style autocracy emerge in NATO’s ranks. Given the rapid backsliding into authoritarianism in both Hungary and Turkey, a major intra-alliance crisis appears imminent. Much as they might like to, civilian and military leaders in Europe and NATO’s cheerleaders in the United States will not be able to wish away that problem.
By James Krotz
From Murmansk in the north to Crimea in the south, Russian army, navy and air forces remain on alert along Russia’s western border, despite the 50% drop in the value of the ruble in recent weeks. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is under intense pressure due to the state of the Russian economy, has showed no signs of decreasing Russia’s military presences, decreasing pressure on NATO, or coming to the table for talks with EU and American diplomats to ease sanctions in return for more docile foreign policy.
In fact, the economic crisis, which is reaching its crescendo due to the collapse of banks, the halving of Russia’s purchasing power, and oil prices in free fall, makes Putin all the more unpredictable. Time and again throughout history, unfavorable domestic conditions have often led authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian leaders to manufacture foreign policy crises abroad to distract the populace from domestic issues. This “diversionary foreign policy” could prove dangerous for European countries, especially Ukraine, who is already embroiled in a rebellion in its eastern provinces, instigated by Putin and the Russian-speaking minority.
With the protracted decline of the ruble, coupled with increased naval presence in Murmansk, near Finland, Sevastopol in Crimea, and continuing violence in east Ukrainian villages, the evidence is becoming more and more convincing. European leaders and NATO members should wake up and smell the blintzes, because the violence that they’re so sure will never again spread to their continent may just be warming up with the weather.