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Germany’s bridges to Russia split open Europe

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No western country’s relationship with Russia is more burdened with history than Germany’s. In June will fall the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, prelude to titanic battles and wartime atrocities that still affect Germany’s self-image and weigh heavily on official attitudes to Russia.

None of this serves as an excuse, however, for some ill-judged remarks that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s president, made last week on German-Russian relations. In a newspaper interview, he defended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, intended to deliver Russian gas to Germany across the Baltic Sea, as one of the few bridges between Russia and Europe in an otherwise deteriorating diplomatic and security climate.

Steinmeier went on to say that “for us Germans, there is another dimension” — the more than 20m Soviet people killed in the second world war. “That doesn’t justify any wrongdoing in Russian policy today, but we must not lose sight of the bigger picture,” he said.

The trouble with Steinmeier’s defence of Nord Stream 2 as repayment of a moral debt to Russia is that the president made no mention of other countries laid waste between 1939 and 1945 at Nazi hands. Russia became the legal successor state to the Soviet Union in the UN Security Council after the end of communism in 1991. But Russians are not the sole successor nation in terms of moral debts, as Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin was quick to point out.

Indeed, the list of European countries that could claim to be owed a German moral debt is distressingly long and extends far beyond the borders of the defunct USSR. Without question the former West Germany, and the reunified German state after 1990, have made amends for Nazi crimes with admirable perseverance and a high sense of responsibility. But Steinmeier’s remarks underline how Russia, for many German politicians and business executives, remains a special case.

Germany’s Nord Stream 2 partnership with Russia arouses apprehension in parts of central and eastern Europe where historical memories last for centuries. Poland was wiped off Europe’s map for 123 years because of three partitions between 1772 and 1795 organised chiefly by Prussia and Russia. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 was the prelude to another two-pronged attack on Poland.

Nord Stream 2, a project so close to completion that it may be too late to stop, carries no threat of territorial annexations or military aggression. But to the countries that lie between Germany and Russia, it looks like another arrangement made over their heads and with a scandalous lack of attention paid by Berlin to their concerns.

The implications for the EU may be profound. The professed ambition of the 27-nation bloc is to act like a strategically mature power with a coherent, united foreign and security policy. However, for the Baltic states, Poland and others, the lesson of Nord Stream 2 is not to entrust their freedom to some nebulous concept of EU security when Germany single-mindedly pursues bilateral deals with Russia.

For central and eastern Europeans, the crucial protector of their independence is not the EU but the US. In this way, defence and security can be added to the rule of law, media pluralism and migration as one more area where disputes divide some of the EU’s western European member states from some in central and eastern Europe.

The striking feature of Germany’s engagement with Russia is its broad cross-party support. Chancellor Angela Merkel has kept EU sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and armed intervention in south-eastern Ukraine, but she is supportive of Nord Stream 2. The approach of Armin Laschet, the new leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, seems less nuanced. When Russian president Vladimir Putin was busy seizing Crimea, Laschet criticised what he called “anti-Putin populism” in Germany.

Heiko Maas, Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister, defends Berlin’s dealings with Moscow on the grounds that western countries must take care not to push Russia into closer economic and military co-operation with China. As for the rightwing populist Alternative for Germany and the leftist Die Linke parties, they disagree with the CDU and SPD on most things, but not on reaching out to Russia.

Yet what is the Kremlin giving Germany in return? The Bundestag was the target of a cyber attack in 2015 that the German authorities blamed on Russia. Four years later, an exiled Chechen rebel leader was murdered in Berlin on what prosecutors say were the Russian government’s orders.

In short, the argument that a close economic and energy relationship with Russia brings dividends in European security appears shaky, at least in the Putin era. The question German politicians should ask themselves is not how big their country’s moral debt to Russia is, but whether Nord Stream 2 and other bridges to Russia are achieving any worthwhile results.

tony.barber@ft.com



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FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies

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The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22



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EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel

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Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent Lastminute.com, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.

 





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EU must prepare for ‘era of pandemics’, von der Leyen says

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Europe must prepare its medical sector to cope with an “era of pandemics”, the European Commission president said, as she warned the bloc was still in its most difficult period for Covid-19 vaccine deliveries. 

Ursula von der Leyen told the Financial Times that the EU could not afford to sit still even once Covid-19 has been overcome, as she described her plans for a Europewide fast-reaction system designed to respond more quickly to emerging medical threats. 

“Europe is determined to enlarge its strength in vaccine production,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s an era of pandemics we are entering. If you look at what has been happening over the past few years, I mean from HIV to Ebola to MERS to SARS, these were all epidemics which could be contained, but we should not think it is all over when we’ve overcome Covid-19. The risk is still there.” 

Von der Leyen last month unveiled plans for a biodefence preparedness plan called the HERA Incubator, which will combine researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers and public authorities to monitor emerging threats and work on adapting vaccines. This will become part of a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). 

The concept is an attempt to mirror some of the benefits conferred by America’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is charged with the job of responding rapidly to new health threats.

“The US has a strong advantage by having BARDA . . . this is an infrastructure Europe did not have,” von der Leyen said. “But Europe has to build up to be prepared for whatever comes, and also for the next possible pandemics. This is the HERA incubator.” 

The EU remains within its “most difficult quarter without any question” for vaccine deliveries, she said, cautioning “many, many problems” could always occur within the production process.

Looking towards the second quarter, she pointed out that a second EU contract with BioNTech/Pfizer for their vaccine would kick in, alongside the new jab from Johnson & Johnson, which is expected to be authorised in March.

In an EU summit on Thursday, von der Leyen addressed vaccine production and the threat of virus mutations after a rocky start to the year, when she was hit by complaints from politicians in member states, including Germany, about supply shortfalls. 

Von der Leyen acknowledged to the European Parliament in early February that mistakes had been made in the EU’s vaccination effort, and the campaign remains behind those of the US and UK. Among the difficulties are continued production problems at AstraZeneca’s European facilities. 

Von der Leyen said she was sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses in the second quarter, saying the challenge will shift from vaccine production to national rollouts. As for AstraZeneca’s shipments, she said: “I need to see the proof of the pudding . . . It’s very good that they also delivered from the rest of the world, but they have to honour their contract and we want our fair share.”

Ursula Von der Leyen says she is sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the second quarter © Remo Casilli/Reuters

The good news for the EU is its access to mRNA technology, which is used in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and which scientists believe can be used to rapidly adapt to mutations, said von der Leyen. 

But she also supported French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to share up to 5 per cent of supplies to permit the vaccination of healthcare workers in developing countries.

“We all suffer from the fact that the scaling up was not and is not as rapid as we thought at the beginning. This has a general effect all over the world,” she said. “With production picking up I think we should never forget that only if everybody has access to vaccines will we overcome this virus.”

Von der Leyen added that the EU needed to be particularly concerned about developments in its immediate area. 

“The mutant story is worrying me the most,” she said. “When the virus is still raging in the neighbourhood, the probability that mutants will occur, that will come back, for example, to Europe, is only rising.”



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