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Returning to Europe’s news of the week, there’s been a lot of media attention concerning an export agreement between Russia and Ukraine...
Indeed : Ukraine, before the war, was a key wheat exporter, especially to countries in the Middle East and Africa which were already in a food crisis aggravated by the Covid pandemic. In July, an agreement was negotiated between Russia and Ukraine to ensure that ships carrying these agricultural goods could resume their journey. Initially planned for a period of three months, this agreement has come to an end.
Has this agreement been extended?
Well, Russia had initially announced that it was withdrawing from the agreement, prompting widespread condemnations from the EU, the US and the UN, but has since announced on 2 November that it will rejoin the agreement, although it stressed that it could withdraw again if it deemed it necessary.
What are the ramifications of such a decision?
Russia's return to the agreement is welcome news: without its participation, exports could have once again come to a halt, as wheat cargoes would have had to sail without guarantees of their own safety.
However, as the recent diplomatic crisis has shown, a future Russian reversal of the deal is still on the horizon, which could have dramatic consequences: worsening hunger in countries dependent on Ukrainian exports, growing resentment of the populations of these countries who are sensitive to Russian anti-Western diplomatic messages and weakening of global food supply chains... Europe will have to think very quickly about alternatives to the current agreement if it wishes to avoid these difficulties, given the precarious nature of its relations with Russia.
Speaking of geopolitics and trade, there has been some controversy in Germany over the port of Hamburg...
Exactly : German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, to the displeasure of many European citizens and members of his own coalition, negotiated a deal with the Chinese company Cosco by selling 24.9% of the Hamburg port infrastructure.
What reaction did this provoke in the international political community?
So many have warned that this deal poses a significant threat to Europe's strategic autonomy - the deal has even caused a rift in the Franco-German friendship. As Scholz travels to China to see Xi Jinping on a diplomatic visit from the 3rd to the 4th of November, EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton has warned that European leaders should be cautious about partnerships with China, which ultimately remains a rival to Europe.
Beyond these extra-European diplomatic struggles, have there been any geopolitical developments on the continent itself?
It's true that with Russian and Chinese trade deals monopolising the political discourse, we tend to forget about many actors that could soon play a key role in the current conflict, namely the Western Balkan countries that are candidates for EU membership.
And could you explain to us the stakes that these candidate countries represent in the current conflict?
Well, the problems with the Western Balkan candidate countries go back to the Thessaloniki summit in 2003, where the EU promised that if these countries undertook serious reforms, they could potentially become members of the European Union. Despite successful reforms in many of these countries, these promises continue to ring hollow.
Now, patience is running out in these countries and two trends are beginning to emerge: Kosovo, for example, remains determined to join the EU and has therefore maintained its allegiance to the West in the current conflict. However, Serbia and Northern Macedonia in particular are playing a diplomatic tightrope walker, seeking to curry favour with both Russia and the EU. Russia, well aware of this dynamic, could very well target these countries as potential allies to enlist if the conflict continues.
And finally, as far as the environment is concerned, the war in Ukraine is of growing concern to environmental activists...
Indeed - the Kiev-based NGO Ecoaction has sounded the alarm on the environmental consequences of the war in Ukraine. Given the heavy industrialisation of the eastern Ukrainian regions, the Russian onslaught has caused significant damage in terms of water and air pollution that could very well spread beyond national borders and affect us in the long term. The war, beyond the risk it poses in terms of trade and geopolitical alliances, could have dramatic ecological consequences that need to be addressed quickly.
Euan Walker and Laurence Aubron.