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Ukraine Cock-Up

This is what former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, subsequently driven from office by mass protests in Kiev, said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel just one year ago, at the start of the crisis. It was recorded by a Lithuanian television crew, eavesdropping on the conversation with a directional mike, at the European Union summit in Vilnius where Yanukovych announced that he was not going to sign an EU-Ukraine trade deal.

“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” Yanukovych explained to Merkel in Russian (which they both speak fluently). “I would like you to hear me. I was left alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one.”

The Ukrainian president was not overthrown by a “fascist” plot, as Russian propaganda would have us believe, nor was NATO hoping to make Ukraine a member. (Indeed, NATO had repeatedly told the previous Ukrainian government, which was very pro-Western, that under no circumstances could it ever join the Western alliance.)  Exactly one year into the crisis, it’s useful to remember what really happened.

The basic question you have to ask about any international crisis is: conspiracy or cock-up? The Ukrainian crisis definitely falls into the latter category. Nobody planned it, and nobody wanted it. Here’s how they stumbled into it.

Yanukovych inherited the negotiations for a trade deal with the EU from the previous government when he returned to the presidency in 2010. (He was overthrown by the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, after winning a rigged election, but in 2010 he won narrowly but cleanly.) And he didn’t break off the talks with the EU because that would have alienated half the country: the western, mostly Ukrainian-speaking part.

Yanukovych was a typical post-Soviet political figure, deeply corrupt and almost comically greedy – the presidential palace he lived in on the banks of the Dnieper was so lavish it could have been in the Middle East – but he was a competent politician. Almost all his votes had come from the eastern and southern, mostly Russian-speaking parts of the country, but he knew that he couldn’t simply ignore the west.

On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore Moscow either. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin saw the EU as a stalking horse for NATO, and was trying to persuade Yanukovych to join his own “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) instead. Moreover, Russia had huge economic leverage, since it provided most of Ukraine’s energy and bought half of Ukraine’s exports (mainly coal, steel and heavy industrial goods made in eastern Ukraine).
So for three years Yanukovych temporised, trying to get financial guarantees out of the EU that would make up for the economic punishment Putin would inflict if Ukraine signed the trade treaty. The EU wouldn’t budge: there would be no special help for Ukraine. It would just have to take its punishment, Yanukovych was told, but the trade deal would be good for the country in the long term.

Politicians have to live in the short term, however, and in 2012-13 Ukrainian exports to Russia fell by half as Putin turned the screws tighter. Those exports mostly provided income for people in industrial eastern Ukraine, i.e. Yanukovych’s own supporters. The EU had left him “alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one” – so in late 2013 he made his choice: break off the EU talks, and sign up with Putin’s EEU instead.

Did Yanukovych foresee that there would be big demonstrations against him in Kiev, where people had pinned their hopes on association with the EU? Of course he did, but he probably didn’t foresee that the protests would be fuelled by the ham-fisted resort to violence by his own officials. He certainly didn’t foresee that he would ultimately be overthrown – nor did Putin, who had put him in that impossible position.

All the subsequent escalations of the conflict in Ukraine – the Russian annexation of Crimea, the pro-Moscow revolts in the two eastern provinces with the largest ethnic Russian minorities, the direct Russian military intervention that saved those revolts from collapse last August – have been driven by Putin’s determination to reverse his original error.

If Ukraine cannot be brought back into Moscow’s sphere of influence, then Putin’s strategy is to neutralise and paralyse it by maintaining a permanent “frozen conflict” in the east. In coldly rational terms, Ukraine’s best strategy now would be to abandon those two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are basically open-air industrial museums, and leave it to Russia to subsidise them instead.

But it’s not going to do that, because sovereign states never give up territory voluntarily. Realistically, therefore, Kiev’s best option is to strengthen the current ceasefire and let the front lines congeal and stabilise into de facto borders, while maintaining its legal claim to the two provinces. It remains to be seen if Moscow will even let that happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“If Ukraine…happen”)

Merkel’s Counter-Strike

“What we have today is a story based on speculation about what (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel might have said about something (British Prime Minster) David Cameron might say in the future,” said David Davis, a prominent Conservative member of parliament, in London on Sunday. So no big deal, then?

It’s a very big deal: Merkel is pulling the rug out from under Cameron. For all his tough talk about renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership in the European Union, she is saying, he has no cards in his hand.

At the EU summit on 25 October, Cameron said that changing the existing rules that guarantee freedom of movement for workers within the EU would be “at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe.” No, said Angela Merkel, it won’t work: “We have the basic principle of free movement. We won’t meddle with that.”

In other words, if Cameron doesn’t like the membership rules, tough. He can hold a referendum if he wants, and leave the EU if he wins. But there’s no way he can get the other 27 members to change the basic rules of the organisation just to solve his little political problem at home.

In fact, Merkel will even try to ensure that Cameron loses next year’s British election so that there is no referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Being an experienced politician, however, Merkel delivered that part of her message in a deniable way.

It was officials from Merkel’s own office and the German foreign ministry who briefed the newsmagazine Der Spiegel on her plans in that regard. They were not to be quoted by name – and it was left to the rest of us to figure out what her words would do to Cameron’s re-election chances.

Cameron has recently been talking about imposing “quotas” on low-skilled people from other EU countries moving to Britain, in a desperate attempt to get around the EU rules. “Should Cameron persist (in this quota plan), Chancellor Angela Merkel would abandon her efforts to keep Britain in the EU,” Merkel’s officials told Der Spiegel. “With that a point of no return would be reached.” Shape up or ship out.

Merkel has launched a counter-strike that may well bring Cameron down. By making it crystal clear that his “renegotiation” strategy cannot work, she is effectively telling British voters that if they re-elect Cameron’s Conservatives in  the election that is due next May, they will be voting to leave the EU. The election itself becomes a referendum on EU membership – a referendum which she obviously thinks Cameron will lose.

She is probably right. For all the fulmination in the British right-wing press about the country being overrun by immigrants from poorer EU countries, public support for EU membership in Britain is higher than it has been since 1991. It is still only a modest 56 percent, but that is a lot higher than the 44 percent support that the same Ipsos MORI polling organisation found only two years ago.

The truth is that only 13 percent of Britain’s population is “foreign-born”, exactly the same as the immigrant share in the population of the United States or Germany. The immigrants are not taking British jobs: the UK has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. The problem is perceptions – and particularly the perceptions of those who normally vote Conservative.

The right-wing media in Britain, as in most countries, pander to the nationalism and the fear of foreigners that is rampant among the older and the poorer sections of the population. Too many foreigners coming in, living off our taxes and stealing our jobs is a simple (though rarely an accurate) explanation for why this section of the population feels marginalised, so this narrative works well with them.

Britain is pulling in more EU workers than usual because its economy is doing relatively better than Germany, France, Spain, etc. The numbers are not overwhelming, but under EU rules Britain has no right to bar them, so anti-EU nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment have grown into a stronger force than usual – but only on the right.

This would normally be to the advantage of the Conservative Party, whose own right-wing “backwoodsmen” share these views. In normal times, when the grown-ups are in charge, the party harvests these votes each election while never intending to do anything so foolish economically as to actually quit the EU.

Cameron belongs to the grown-up majority in the Conservative Party, and is not personally anti-EU. But the emergence and explosive growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), specifically tailored to appeal to the anti-immigrant-and-EU vote, has panicked the right wing of the Conservative Party.

Cameron has had to move further and further right to placate them and compete with UKIP, so he can no longer afford to be sensible about the EU. Merkel has understood this, and has effectively written him off even though she is a conservative herself. Her strategy now is to force Cameron into an openly anti-EU stance, split the right-wing vote in Britain evenly between the Conservatives and UKIP, and open the way for Labour to win the election.

Because that’s the only way she can see to keep Britain in the European Union.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The truth…everywhere”; and “This would…EU”)

Drowning Refugees

The European Union’s decision-making processes lend new depth to the word “incoherent”, and the current British government’s default mode is nastiness, but they have both outdone themselves this time. The subject at hand is the Italian Navy’s “Mare Nostrum” operation, which has rescued 150,000 refugees and migrants from leaky, overloaded boats in the Mediterranean since it was launched a year ago.

An estimated 3,000 others have drowned since January: you can’t save them all. But the Italian Navy has done an excellent job, with no help at all from other EU countries – which was very unfair, since Italy is simply the nearest part of the European Union to the North African coast that the boats start out from.

Finally, after endless pleas from Italy, the other EU members gathered in Brussels earlier this month and agreed to replace the Italian ships with a joint EU mission code-named Triton. But there was a catch. In fact, there were several.

Triton will only have one-third of the financial resources that Mare Nostrum had. It will have precisely six small ships, two fixed-wing aircraft, and one helicopter, instead of the Italian Navy’s ample supply of ships and aircraft. It will have no search-and-rescue function at all, and it will only operate up to 30 nautical miles (50 km) from Italy’s coasts. Further out, they’ll just have to drown.

It’s quite an efficient way of ensuring that fewer refugees actually reach the EU, but it is so stunningly callous that even the British Foreign Office’s official spokesman felt obliged to spin it as a humanitarian initiative in heavy disguise.

“Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns,” he said, “that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing.” So letting lots of them drown will presumably discourage others and save more lives in the end.

Nobody is actually expected to believe this nonsense. It’s just a “talking point” that lets the speaker deny the obvious fact that the policy is designed to appeal to the wave of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee opinion that has been drummed up by populist politicians and media in Britain and a number of other EU countries. Drowning refugees is good politics.

Enter Admiral Filippo Maria Foffi, commander-in-chief of the Italian Navy, who promptly torpedoed the whole “drown them to save them” argument.

The refugees, fleeing from  Syria, Eritrea or even further afield, travel for up to three months before they reach the shores of North Africa, he said. They suffer hardships that kill up to half of them, and then they board the boats. “If someone is speaking about a ‘pulling factor’, he doesn’t know what he is speaking about.”

Foffi had more to say. He had received no orders from the Italian government to shut down Mare Nostrum, he said, and so long as he did not he would continue the search-and-rescue operations.

What about the recent statement by Angelino Alfano, the leader of a small right-wing party and interior minister in the Italian coalition government, that Mare Nostrum would indeed be closed down? Foffi replied that he received his orders from the prime minister through the defence minister. Responding to some random statement by another minister was “not the way that military men conduct their activities.”

There was clearly a struggle underway within the Italian government about whether to just let the refugees die, or to continue doing search-and-rescue operations alone in the absence of an acceptable substitute paid for by the EU. Officially Mare Nostrum is now closed down, but there is still hope that the Italian Navy may continue at least part of the operation on a less formal basis.

The EU, of course, is acting with its usual combination of cowardice and confusion. The British government is playing dog-whistle politics again: it expects the target audience, those who are being seduced away from their Conservative roots by the anti-immigrant UKIP Party, to understand that it really wants to drown the refugees, not save them.

And lots of other European governments really want to drown the refugees too: the amount of money at stake is not large enough to serve as an alternative explanation for this decision. It may yet be thwarted, at least in part, by admirable Italians like Filippo Maria Foffi, but the EU is really talking about killing people here. Or letting them die, if you prefer, but it comes down to much the same thing.

How long before they start actively killing refugees fleeing from war, hunger and climate change along Europe’s Mediterranean sea frontier (and along Australia’s northern sea frontier, and the US border with Mexico, and probably South Africa’s northern border too)? Ten to fifteen years, at a guess. We’ll all have got used to the principle by then.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11.  (“Nobody…politics”; and “What…activities”)

Scottish Referendum

If the Scots vote “yes” to independence on September 18, as one opinion poll now suggests they will, three things are likely to happen in the following week.

First, David Cameron may cease to be the leader of the Conservative Party and  the prime minister of the United Kingdom. He would be removed by his own Conservative members of parliament, who would hold him responsible for allowing the break-up of a very successful union that has lasted 307 years.

Secondly, the British pound would start to fall against other currencies, not because Scottish independence would necessarily be an economic disaster for the rest of the United Kingdom, but because the markets hate uncertainly.

To prevent a serious decline of the pound, the British government would have to act on its pre-referendum warnings that a post-independence Scottish government could not have any say in managing the currency. Nobody can stop the Scots from using the pound if they want (and the “Yes” campaigners say they will), but they would be using it the same way that Panama and Liberia use the US dollar. No control over interest rates or anything else.

And thirdly, Spain would block automatic membership in the European Union for an independent Scotland (perhaps with support from some other EU members). Maybe Scotland could become a member eventually, but at least it would have to join the end of the queue for membership and go through years of convoluted negotiations. And it would have to accept the euro as its currency.

The Spanish government has already said it would insist on this, because the Spanish province of Catalonia is holding its own (unauthorised) referendum on independence in November. Madrid has veto power, and it is determined to show that breaking up an existing EU country is not easy or painless.

On the other hand, it would not be like South Sudan or East Timor: there would be no bloodshed and no refugees. Some businesses, particularly banks, would move their head offices from Scotland to England, but in five or ten years the Scots would stop blaming England for all their problems and start blaming their own politicians. And the English would simply have forgotten Scotland.

The right question in this situation, therefore, is not “What will happen if…?” Nothing very extreme would happen, although Scotland is unlikely to enjoy the economic and cultural boom that First Minister Alex Salmond, who called the referendum on independence, frequently predicts. The better question is “How did it end up like this?”

How did a country that has shared a monarch with England since the early 1600s, and freely joined a union with the rest of the “United Kingdom” in 1707 (although there was a lot of political jiggery-pokery involved, as was normal at that time), end up on the brink of leaving the Union in 2014?

Scotland shared in Britain’s wars, and Scottish emigrants settled in all of Britain’s colonies. The Scots had their industrial revolution almost as early as England and far ahead of the rest of Europe. They played a large part in managing the British empire, and profited immensely from it.

Post-industrial Scotland has its deprived inner-city areas, just as England does, but the two countries have pretty much the same standard of living. Scotland always kept its own legal and educational systems, and for the past 16 years it has had its own elected parliament and government, with powers comparable to those of a US, Indian or Australian state. So what’s wrong with this picture?

The real grievance that fuels Scotland’s independence movement is the fact that Britain keeps electing governments that are either explicitly Conservative or (like Tony Blair’s three terms in office) conservative in all but name. They take Britain into stupid foreign wars, and they impose austerity on ordinary British people while looking after the rich.

Scots see themselves as being more socially conscious and more egalitarian, and there is some truth in that view. (Only one of Scotland’s 59 members of the British Parliament is a Conservative.) So the “Yes” campaign argues that the only way to avoid perpetual rule by Margaret Thatcher clones in London is to break away and build a separate Scottish state.

That argument is getting a lot of traction in Scotland at the moment, and voting intentions have swung from 61 percent for No and 39 percent for Yes in early August to a knife-edge (49 percent No, 51 percent Yes) in one of this week’s polls. The other recent polls still show a small advantage for the Noes, but it could go either way.

If it goes Yes, then the change is forever, and everybody will just have to live with it. But since Scotland’s current dissatisfaction with the Union is mainly about the political colour of recent British governments, a No to independence might also be permanent. A couple of genuinely left-wing British governments and a strong economic recovery (which is actually happening), and the whole thing might blow over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 11. (“How…picture?”)