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Fake Referendum: Catalonia

Catalonia, the north-eastern region of Spain (population of 7,5 million), declared independence from Spain last Tuesday evening. It was done quite formally, in the regional parliament in Barcelona, with regional president Carles Puigdemont, members of his cabinet and some leaders of other parties signing the independence document.

Independence was “the people’s will”, Puigdemont said, referring to the 90% “yes” vote in the referendum on October 1. He called on all foreign countries and organisations “to recognise the Catalan republic as an independent and sovereign state”. He seemed not the least perturbed by the low rumble of companies moving their headquarters out of Catalonia, nor indeed by the squadrons of pigs flying overhead.

There were only three little things that detracted from the joy of the occasion. The first was the fact that the Catalan president and his friends had no constitutional authority to separate Catalonia from Spain, or even to hold the referendum. It is a unilateral declaration of independence, and it is highly unlikely that either the national government in Madrid or foreign governments will recognise it as legal.

Indeed, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has “affirmed her backing for the unity of Spain” in a phone call to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The French government has said that a Catalan declaration of independence “would not be recognised” and other members of the European Union (EU) from Ireland to Cyprus have said the same.

Many have separatist movements among their own minorities and they do not want to encourage them.

The second problem is that the referendum in Catalonia was a fake. The mere 43% of the population who voted in it almost exactly equalled the 44% of residents who wanted independence according to the latest opinion poll. The same poll put the number of people who wanted to stay in Spain in the majority, at 48%, as have all other polls in the past few years — but very few of the anti-independence people voted in the referendum.

This was no mere oversight. It lay at the very heart of the separatists’ strategy for declaring independence though only a minority of the population want it. They already knew from an “advisory” referendum two years ago that only pro-independence supporters would vote in it, while supporters of staying in Spain would boycott it. The earlier referendum also delivered a huge majority for independence — on the same low turn-out.

So hold another referendum, but this time say it is for keeps. Separatists will vote yes, anti-independence voters will abstain (because Madrid says it is illegal and urges them not to vote in it). Then use your fake 90% victory to claim that you embody the “people’s will”, and whisk Catalonia out of Spain before they know what hit them.

Which brings us to the third problem: if Puigdemont acts on the October 10 declaration and actually takes Catalonia out of Spain, it is going to be very lonely out there. Not only Madrid but other European governments understand the game the Catalan separatists have been playing.

The EU has made it clear that if Catalonia splits from Spain, the region would cease to be part of the EU and would have to re-apply for membership (which Spain could veto even if everybody else said yes). That has huge implications for the Catalan economy, since two-thirds of Catalonia’s exports go to EU countries.

Like the United Kingdom (which did at least hold an inclusive referendum that the “leavers” won with a 51,9% majority), Catalonia’s economy will go over a cliff-edge if the region leaves the EU without a negotiated deal that preserves most of its existing trading relationship. And that negotiation cannot even begin without Spain’s assent.

Spain also bears much blame for the present mess, since its inflexible constitution forbids independence for any of its regions. (That is why the referendum was illegal.) The present Spanish government made matters worse by getting the Supreme Court to cancel concessions that a previous government had made on further autonomy for Catalonia.

So you can understand the frustration felt by Catalan separatists, but the truth is that they did not have majority support for their independence project and have used illegitimate tactics to get around that inconvenient fact. No wonder Puigdemont has declared that he is “suspending the effects of the declaration of independence” for a few weeks, for more talks with the Madrid government.

The Spanish government is not going to negotiate on the basis of those referendum results and Rajoy has now directly asked Puigdemont whether he has declared independence or not. If he says he has, then Madrid will almost certainly activate Article 155 of the constitution, suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and take direct control of the region.

From there to the first violence against the “Spanish occupation” should not take very long. When you live in a country that has had three civil wars in the past 180 years, you should be more careful.

Ukraine Turns Violent

22 January 2014

Ukraine Turns Violent

By Gwynne Dyer

“The protest mood in Ukraine is at a higher temperature than ever before,” said Vitali Klitschko, the de facto leader of the anti-government protests that have filled central Kiev for the past two months, in an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday. “We only need a small spark for the situation to develop in a way that will be completely out of control for the authorities.”

It’s make-or-break time, because on Wednesday a raft of new laws came into effect that make almost everything the protesters have been doing illegal. The laws, which were rushed through the Ukrainian parliament last week on a show of hands, ban helmets, hard hats and masks at rallies, and impose fines and prison sentences for setting up unauthorised tents, stages or sound systems in public places.

They prescribe jail terms for anybody blockading public buildings, and make it a crime to “slander” public officials (whatever that means). You can also go to jail for handing out pamphlets, and you can get 15 years for being part of a “mass riot” (however the government chooses to define that).

If President Viktor Yanukovych’s government tries to enforce these laws on the tent city of protesters that has filled the “Maidan” (Independence Square) since late November, there will be something like civil war in the heart of the Ukrainian capital. He hasn’t done so yet, but mobile phone users near the violent clashes early Tuesday morning got text messages saying: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass riot.”

Yanukovych is getting desperate, because the protests are no longer just against his abrupt decision not to sign a treaty creating closer trade and political ties between Ukraine and the European Union, and to turn to Russia instead for loans ($15 billion) and discounted gas.

The protests have expanded to take in the dire state of the economy, Yanukovych’s ruthless political tactics, and the sudden wealth of the “Family” of officials and businessmen who support him.

So long as the conflict was about the EU-or-Russia issue, Yanukovych could count on the backing of the Russian-speaking half of the Ukrainian population, in the south and the heavily industrialised east of the country: many people there fear for their jobs if the Ukrainian economy integrates with the EU.

But the poverty and the corruption hurt everybody, whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian. Everybody can get together and protest about that.

Another worry for Yanukovych is the attitude of the oligarchs, the billionaire businessmen like Rinat Ahmetov, Viktor Pinchuk and Igor Kolomoisky who control a large share of the Ukrainian economy. They have not been politically neutered like the oligarchs in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and it’s striking that the televisions stations they own have been covering the demonstrations quite objectively.

The ultimate loyalty of the oligarchs is to their money, of course, but they seem to believe that in the long run their money is safer in EU countries, or at least in a Ukraine that conforms to EU legal standards. So they are not ecstatic about Yaukovych’s decision to turn away from the EU, and they are quite capable of turning away from him. Indeed, that’s exactly what they did during the Orange Revolution of 2004, and they could do it again.

So Yanukovych’s back is to the wall, and he has apparently decided that it’s worth gambling that he can clear the streets by force without triggering a confrontation that spreads far beyond the Maidan. And it will have to be done by force, because the protesters will not just fold their tents and creep off home.

The sudden lurch into violence on the streets on Sunday and Monday nights occurred in this context. The several hundred young men who attacked the riot police with pipes, chains and fire-bombs were originally thought to be “provocateurs” hired by the government to give it a justification for using violence on the mass of peaceful protesters, but lots of them were not.

The core group of fighters were members of a radical ultra-nationalist group called Right Sector that is both anti-Russian and anti-EU. It includes both Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and imagines it can use the current crisis to “destroy the skeleton state” and build a new state on the ruins. Things are indeed spinning out of control.

When Vitali Klitschko arrived on the scene to beg them to remain non-violent, he was attacked with a fire extinguisher – and thousands of ordinary protesters showed up to cheer the young thugs as they attacked the police. There is a serious potential for mass violence here, and that could lead to even worse things.

Viktor Yanukovych, for all his faults, is the legitimately elected president of Ukraine, and he has a majority in parliament. What if, facing overthrow in the streets, he called for “fraternal aid” from Russia to defend democracy in Ukraine?

What if the Russians, who are already claiming that it’s a Western plot – “We have information that much of this is being stimulated from abroad,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday – agree to send him police and military help?

It sounds far-fetched and it would be extremely stupid, but everybody is busily painting themselves into corners and there is a small but real possibility that it could happen. In which case, welcome to the Second Cold War.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 12. (“Another…again”; and “The core…control”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

EU Citizenship: The Gold Standard

2 January 2014

EU Citizenship: The Gold Standard

By Gwynne Dyer

New Year’s Eve is always loud in our part of London, but it quieted down after all the drunks eventually staggered off home – and to our astonishment, it stayed quiet all the next day. We waited and waited for the predicted hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian “benefit tourists” to throng our streets, stealing and begging and applying for Jobseekers’ Allowance (as the dole is now known). But they never showed up.

It’s enough to make you doubt the trustworthiness of the popular press. For months right-wing British politicians and their allies in the tabloid papers have been warning that on January 1st, when citizens of the Balkan countries that joined the European Union seven years ago finally got the right of free movement throughout the EU, Britain would be inundated by poor Romanians and Bulgarians.

The Conservative Party, which dominates Britain’s coalition government, rose to the occasion. Henceforward, the government announced, immigrants will be charged for emergency hospital treatment, and they will have to wait three months before applying for unemployment benefit.

Prime Minister David Cameron even suggested last month that the principle of free movement of EU citizens among the member countries should be changed to curb “mass populations movements” when new members join. It’s too late to impose that rule on Bulgarians and Romanians, who are already EU citizens, he said, but while they are free to come to Britain and look for a job, “There is not freedom to come and claim.”

This is the “benefit tourism” notion: that poor eastern Europeans will move to the United Kingdom not to get a job, but to live off the state, claiming unemployment pay, social housing, and other benefits that should be reserved for honest British workers. Even Cameron has had to admit that there is no “quantitative evidence” that this phenomenon actually exists. Nevertheless, he talks about it constantly as if it did.

But the whole thing is a charade, and Cameron’s “new” restrictions on immigrants don’t actually change anything. In practice, new immigrants to Britain already had to wait three months before gaining access to unemployment benefits, and it is not legally possible for Britain to charge EU citizens for medical care. The Conservative Party in Britain has just been churning out fake solutions to phantom problems.

It is doing so entirely to ward off the challenge from its emerging far-right rival, the anti-EU, anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party, which has been poaching alarming numbers of right-wing Conservative voters. With an election due next year, Cameron is running scared, and has got into a “nastier-than-thou” bidding war with UKIP.

The anti-immigrant voters Cameron is pandering to will not change their minds when the predicted tidal wave of Balkan immigrants does not happen, nor will he change his story. He will simply claim that it was his emergency measures that stopped it. But this tempest in a teapot highlights the sheer power of the principle of free movement within the European Union. It is what makes EU citizenship the gold standard in terms of passports.

Like the United States and the Canadian province of Quebec, several EU countries offer fast-track residence permits to foreigners who will invest a large sum in the local economy: from $400,000 in Greece to $15 million in the United Kingdom. But they still actually have to live in the country in question for up to five years before getting their citizenship and passport, and the average jet-setter wants more for his money.

A US passport is no longer so desirable, because US tax and reporting requirements apply to American citizens no matter where they live in the world, and many countries impose tit-for-tat visa requirements in response to US border controls. Moreover, it’s getting easier to obtain an EU passport.

Last November Malta, the smallest EU member, announced a programme that skips the residence requirement and simply sells Maltese passports to “high-value” individuals who are willing to pay the government 650,000 euros ($885,000). It’s a quite reasonable price for a passport that confers the right to live and work almost anywhere in Europe and also offers a visa waiver for travel to the United States.

There was an outcry by offended Maltese patriots, but they were mollified when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s government raised the price to 1.15 million euros ($1.6 million) a few days ago. So now we know the real value of an EU passport.

Who buys these passports? Mostly rich Chinese: 248 out of 318 residence permits issued by Lisbon in the past three months to people who invested 500,000 euros ($680,000) in Portuguese property went to Chinese nationals. And there is no shortage of potential customers: a Bank of China survey revealed that almost half of the Chinese citizens with assets worth more than 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) are considering moving abroad.

Any EU passport – Portuguese, Latvian, Irish, whatever – gives its holder the right to live anywhere, work anywhere, set up a business anywhere in a community of 28 countries with a total population of more than 500 million people. It is the principle of free movement that makes it so valuable, and no amount of protest by “Little Englanders” on the right of British politics is going to change that.

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Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 13. (“It is…UKIP”; “A US…passport”; and “Who…abroad”)

 

 

Ukraine and the European Union

1 December 2013

Ukraine and the European Union

By Gwynne Dyer

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych had much explaining to do at the summit meeting of the European Union in Vilnius, Lithuania last Thursday. After six years of negotiation on an EU-Ukraine trade pact and political association agreement which was finally due to be signed at Vilnius, he had to explain why he wasn’t going to sign it after all.

“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” says Yanukovych in a private conversation with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel that was broadcast by Lithuanian television. “I would like you to hear me. I was alone for three and a half years (since his election in 2010) in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one.”

So Ukraine is putting the deal on hold indefinitely – and the EU promptly accused Yanukovych of being gutless. “If you blink in front of Russia, you always end up in trouble,” said the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule. “Yanukovych blinked too soon.” At least 10,000 outraged Ukrainians who had reached the same conclusion came out on the streets of Kiev in protest on the following day.

It was starting to look like a rerun of the “Orange Revolution” that had forced Yanukovych out of power after he won a fraudulent election in 2004, so early Saturday morning the riot police attacked the protesters and drove them from the square. But on Sunday the demonstrators were back on Independence Square 100,000 strong, and Yanukovych had to issue a public apology for the attack.

We’ve been here before, haven’t we? The big Russian bully threatens some ex-Soviet country that is now looking west, and the craven local ruler gives in. Pro-democracy demonstrators come out in the streets, and peace, justice and pro-Western policies triumph. Except this time, it’s not like that.

The big Russian bully bit is still true. Moscow has already seen three of its former possessions in Europe – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – join the European Union. It sees the future of the remaining six – Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – as a zero-sum game between Russia and the EU, and it plays hard ball.

Of those six, Azerbaijan and Belarus are dictatorships that have no desire or possibility of making a deal with the EU under their current rulers. The other four have been pursuing trade and association deals (which might eventually lead to EU membership), and Moscow has been trying hard to frighten them out of it and instead force them to join its “Eurasian Union”, an embryonic customs union that bears a curious resemblance to the old Soviet Union .

After secret discussions with Russia in September, Armenia cancelled its association deal with the EU (which was due to be initialled at Vilnius), and joined the Eurasian Union instead. It’s just too dependent on trade with Russia.

Georgia initialled its deal with the EU in Vilnius because it had nothing to lose: since its war with Russia in 2008 it has no trade with its giant neighbour anyway.

Moldova came under extreme pressure when Moscow stopped importing Moldovan wines, the country’s most valuable export, but the Moldovans just sucked it up and initialled the EU deal anyway. The big issue, however, was always Ukraine.

Russia has been turning the screws on Ukraine hard, because with 45 million people and a serious industrial base it is the most important of the ex-Soviet states. Ukraine’s trade in 2012 was almost equally split between Russia and the EU, but over the past year Russian-Ukrainian trade has fallen by a quarter.

“That’s a huge blow to our economy and we can’t ignore it,” Ukraine’s energy minister, Eduard Stavitsky, told the BBC. Stavitsky had asked repeatedly about getting compensation from the EU for the trade with Russia that Ukraine was losing as a punishment for its dalliance with “the West” – but “all we got were declarations that Ukraine would profit from a deal with the EU in the medium to long term.”

Unfortunately, politicians have to live in the short term, and Yanukovych’s problem (and Ukraine’s) is that the country is divided down the middle. His supporters are mostly Russian-speakers who live in the heavily industrialised eastern half of the country – and those are the people who will really suffer if Russia cuts off its trade with Ukraine.

Yanukovych would not have spent three and a half years negotiating a deal with the EU if he had no intention of ever going through with it. Why bother? He was trying to cut a deal that would satisfy the aspirations of pro-EU voters, especially in the nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, without destroying the livelihood of his own supporters in the east.

Either the EU didn’t understand his dilemma, or it didn’t care. It demanded that he choose between east and west, and made no offer to compensate Ukraine for its big short-term losses if it signed a deal with the EU.

So Yanukovych has put the whole thing on indefinite hold, but that doesn’t mean he’ll throw in his lot with the “Eurasian Union” instead. If he can ride out the demos that are currently rocking Kiev, then in the longer term he will probably make a cautious return to talks with the EU.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7-10. “(Of those…Ukraine”)