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.
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”)
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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7-10. “(Of those…Ukraine”)
23 January 2013
The Little Englanders Win Big
By Gwynne Dyer
The real problem is continental drift: Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is getting further and further away from England. Or at least that is British Prime Minister David Cameron’s line.
Cameron made his long awaited speech promising a referendum on continued British membership in the European Union on 23 January, and he placed the blame squarely on plate tectonics: “People are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent.”
The “frustrated” people in question are English, of course. Hostility to the European Union is mainly an English thing, but that matters a lot in the United Kingdom, where 55 million of the kingdom’s 65 million people live in England.
The Scottish nationalists seeking separation from England in their own referendum take the opposite tack. They promise the Scottish electorate that leaving the UK would NOT mean leaving the European Union (although in fact Scotland would probably have to re-apply for membership). Scottish politicians have to promise to stay in the EU, because otherwise very few Scottish voters would say “yes” to independence. But England is different.
The “Little Englander” glories in the notion of England being unencumbered by foreign ties and commitments. It’s the kind of nationalism that Americans call “isolationism”, and the phrase is now used to describe strongly nationalist, even xenophobic people on the right of English politics. Those people, always present in significant numbers within Cameron’s Conservative Party, have now won the internal party debate.
Every Conservative leader has had to deal with these people. They always managed to contain them in the past, because the European Union is Britain’s biggest trading partner, and it is obviously in Britain’s interest to belong to the organisation that makes the rules for Europe’s “single market”. What has changed is that the long recession and relatively high immigration of recent years have increased the popularity of the extreme right in England.
That doesn’t mean that populist demagogues and neo-fascists are about to win power in the United Kingdom. Far from it: they’d be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote. But it does mean that the Conservatives are losing their more right-wing supporters to the anti-EU, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party.
UKIP could never win an election in Britain, but it could easily steal enough votes from the Conservatives to make them lose the next election. So there has been mounting panic in the Conservative Party, and not just among its instinctively anti-EU members.
Cameron’s promise of a referendum on EU membership is first and foremost an attempt to steal UKIP’s thunder and win back the defecting Conservative voters. He doesn’t really want to leave the EU, but he really does want to win the election that is due in 2015.
His reluctance to be the man who took Britain out of the EU was evident in the way he hedged around his referendum promise. The referendum would not take place until after the next election, and only if the Conservative Party won enough seats in 2015 to form a government on its own. (Its current coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, opposes the whole idea).
Cameron says he will spend the next two years renegotiating the terms of Britain’s EU membership to “repatriate” many powers from Brussels to London, and to make various changes in the way the EU is run. Then, if he is satisfied with the outcome, he will support EU membership in the election and in the subsequent referendum, which will be held by 2017. But he had no satisfactory answer to the hard questions that followed his speech.
What if the 26 other EU members choose not to waste months in talks on changing Britain’s relationship with the EU? What if they do negotiate but refuse to tie themselves up in knots just to ease Cameron’s local political problems? Would he support continued EU membership in the promised referendum if he didn’t have a “new deal” to offer the voters. He simply wouldn’t answer those questions.
There is much that could be done to improve the accountability and efficiency of the European Union, but it is not helpful to open a negotiation with 26 other governments by standing at the exit door and threatening to leave if you do not get your way. The time may well come when Cameron has to answer those questions, and he probably does not know himself which way he would jump.
So for the next four years, all those foreign companies that have been using the United Kingdom as a convenient, English-speaking centre to produce goods and services for the European market will be re-thinking their investment strategies. If the United Kingdom may leave the EU by 2017, is this really the right place to put their money? It will probably be a long dry season for the British economy.
How did an allegedly grown-up country talk itself into this position? It’s an attitude that was summed up in an apocryphal English newspaper headline of the 1930s: “Fog in (the English) Channel; Continent Cut Off.”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 13. (“The Scottish…different”; and “There is…jump”)
14 October 212
Nobel Booby Prize?
By Gwynne Dyer
Maybe they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union because they couldn’t think of anybody else who wouldn’t embarrass them. Nelson Mandela already has one. So does Aung San Suu Kyi. Even Barak Obama has one, though what for is not exactly clear. They even gave it to Henry Kissinger once, but we probably shouldn’t go into that. So who’s left? We’ll just give it to the European Union. Nobody’ll notice that.
But they did notice, and some of them were not amused. “A Nobel prize for the EU at a time Brussels and all of Europe is collapsing in misery? What next? An Oscar for (European Council President Herman) Van Rompuy?” asked Geert Wilders, the Dutch eurosceptic. “Rather than bring peace and harmony, the EU will cause insurgency and violence,” warned Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (which wants Britain to leave the Union).
And France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, asked on its website: “But who will go to Oslo for the EU to receive the Nobel Peace Prize? As trivial as it may seem, the question raises (the legitimacy) of an entity…whose institutional stops and starts and lack of democratic representation are regularly criticised.”
It’s actually not a trivial question at all, because the large EU bureaucracy that is based in Brussels, the EU’s “capital”, was not elected by anybody, and nobody loves it. The member countries are all democracies, but the decisions at the continent-wide level are taken by governmental elites who do not trust their own citizens to vote the right way.
The EU was an elite project from the start, and policy for the 27-member union is still set mostly by politicians and officials, not by citizens. So don’t send a Brussels bureaucrat to Oslo to collect the prize. Send some ordinary citizen, chosen by lot, to represent the 500 million citizens of EU countries who don’t even have a vote on most EU decisions.
However, don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water. The original purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize was to honour people who worked to put an end to the terrible wars that have repeatedly devastated the European continent (and much of the rest of the world as well) over the past four centuries. The EU has made a major contribution to that task, but that is not its greatest achievement.
It has been 67 years since there was a major war in Europe. Indeed, there have been no wars in Europe at all, apart from the various civil wars in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia (which was not a EU member). More importantly, a war between any of the EU’s member countries is now quite unthinkable.
“This started after the (Second World) war – putting together former enemies,” said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in an interview with the BBC. “It started with six countries and we are now 27, another one (Croatia) is going to join us next year and more want to come. So the EU is the most important project for peace in terms of transnational, supernational co-operation.”
That’s a bit over the top. The United Nations surely has more to do with 67 years in which no great powers have fought each other. So do two generations of American and Soviet officials and politicians who showed great restraint and managed to avoid a nuclear war that would have devastated the whole world. You could even give some credit to nuclear weapons themselves, which forced the great powers to behave more prudently than usual.
The great virtue of the European Union, despite its “democratic deficit” at the Brussels level, is that ALL its member countries must be fully democratic, relatively uncorrupt, and fully observant of civil and human rights. Not only has this prevented some members from backsliding into intolerance and authoritarianism in times of great stress; it has also been a huge incentive for prospective members to clean up their act.
Would Greece, Spain and Portugal all have ended up as full democracies after overthrowing their old dictators, and in the latter two cases as relatively honest ones as well, if not for the changes they had to make to qualify for EU membership?
Would the nine ex-Communist countries of Central Europe that emerged from the long night of Soviet tyranny in 1989 have created modern civil societies practically overnight without a great deal of aid from the EU? Would they even have bothered, without the incentive of future EU membership?
Would Turkey have striven so hard to entrench respect for civil rights in the law and force the military to retire to their barracks permanently if it had not been offered the prospect (sadly betrayed) of EU membership?
The Nobel Peace Prize is a misnomer. It should actually be the Nobel Democracy and Human Rights Prize. Occasionally it goes to some person or organisation whose main purpose is building international peace, but much more often it goes to people like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and most recently Liu Xiaobo, whose accomplishment, or at least goal, has been to make their own countries democratic and respectful of human rights.
And if that is the real criterion, then the European Union truly does deserve the prize.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 13. (“It’s actually…way”; “It has been…unthinkable”; and “Would Turkey…membership”)