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Mare Nostrum

The last time “Mare Nostrum”(Latin for “Our Sea”) was used as a political slogan in Italy, Mussolini’s fascists were claiming dominance over the entire Mediterranean. This time it’s different. It’s the name of the operation the Italian navy is running to save asylum seekers from drowning on the dangerous voyage in open boats from North Africa to Italy.

In a seaworthy vessel with a working engine and a reliable compass, it’s a ten-hour crossing and not very dangerous at all. In a leaky, massively overcrowded wreck that was scavenged somewhere along the North African coast by the people smugglers and sent off to Italy after a few rudimentary repairs, it can be a death sentence. An estimated 20,000 people went down with their boats before reaching Italy in the past ten years.

The most recent victims, on 23 August, barely made it half a mile off the Libyan coast before their boat sank, leaving 170 people in the water. The Italian navy does not operate in Libyan territorial waters, and the Libyan coast guard station near Qarabouli, east of Tripoli, has no ships of its own. The coast guards borrowed a couple of fishing boats, but only sixteen people were still alive by the time they got there.

The boats usually founder in international waters, however, and then it’s the Italian navy’s job. Operation Mare Nostrum began in October, 2013, and since then over 80,000 people have been pulled from these sea-going death traps (though most were not actually sinking at the time) and safely landed in Italy. Last weekend, the Italian navy rescued almost 4,000 more.

This policy honours Italy’s humanitarian traditions – but since all the people who are saved claim political asylum on coming ashore, setting in motion a legal process that can last for years, the Italian navy is actually increasing Italy’s problem as the first port of call for over half the undocumented immigrants entering the European Union.

Most of them have a good case for claiming asylum: a large majority of the people reaching Italy are refugees from war and tyranny in Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia, with smaller number from various West African countries. Nor do they really want to stay in Italy, which is going through a prolonged economic crisis and has very high unemployment. They would rather move on to more prosperous EU countries further north.

But international law says that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe haven they reach, and in the case of the EU that is almost bound to be Italy, because it is so near to Africa and because the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya means that there is no control over boats leaving the Libyan coast.
Italy is now getting more than half of the EU’s entire refugee flow – probably well over 100,000 this year – and all of those people must stay in Italy. It’s expensive, it’s politically poisonous, and the country’s facilities for looking after these refugees are being overwhelmed. Yet Italy’s’s EU partners seem quite content to leave Italy to bear the burden all by itself.

With almost all of the Fertile Crescent now in a state of war, and new flows of refugees starting as a result of the fighting in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the numbers are going up fast. Five Italian warships are dedicated full-time to Operation Mare Nostrum, and on many occasions in the past few months they have picked up more than a thousand people in one day. This situation cannot last.

Italy has made no threats to stop the rescues and let the refugees drown. “We do not want a sea of death,” said Rear-Admiral Michele Saponaro, who runs the operation from the naval command centre. But Rome is losing patience with its do-nothing EU “partners”, and there is another way to address Italy’s problem.

The Schengen Treaty does not include Britain and Ireland, which opted out, and four new EU members have not yet complied with its terms – but 22 of the EU’s 28 members allow free movement across their borders for legal residents of all the Schengen countries. This includes Italy, of course. So in theory if Italy just gives the asylum seekers an ID card and a document saying they have permanent residence, then they’ll leave for greener pastures.

“We’ll just let them go,” said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano last May. “We want to clearly say to the EU that they either patrol the Mediterranean border with us or we will send all those who ask for asylum in Italy where they really want to go: that is, the rest of Europe, because they don’t want to stay in Italy.”

A previous Italian government briefly made the same threat back in 2011 and then the rift was papered over, but Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s new government seems to mean business. Italy not only wants its partners to contribute money and ships to Operation Mare Nostrum; it also wants them to share the job of looking after the refugees AND NOT LEAVE THEM ALL IN ITALY.

The EU is famously bad at making hard choices, but it’s finally going to have to face up to this one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 9. (“Most…coast”; and “With…last”)

Redemption in Kosovo

“The signs of collusion between the criminal class and the highest political and institutional office holders are too numerous and too serious to be ignored,” concluded the report submitted to the Council of Europe in December, 2010. The name of Hashim Thaci, then prime minister of Kosovo and former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), was mentioned 27 times in 27 pages.

Hashim Thaci is still prime minister of Kosovo. Indeed, he has just been re-elected to the job, although the turnout was a feeble 42 percent. The European Union and NATO, the two organisations that helped the Kosovars free themselves from Serbian rule, seem quite happy about his victory – and even the Serbian government urged the Serbian minority who still live there to vote in Kosovo’s election. So redemption is possible, after all.

Thaci might have turned out to be a mild-mannered accountant if he had been born in a different era, but he came to adulthood just as the independence struggle of the Albanian-speaking majority in Kosovo was coming to the boil. He joined the KLA, and after several rivals suffered unfortunate accidents he emerged as the undisputed leader.

Revolutionary movements need money, especially if they include an armed wing, and since they have no legal sources of income, they must resort to crime. They rob banks; they blackmail people and kidnap them for ransom; they smuggle stuff, including drugs. Whether their cause is good or bad, they have almost all done it: the Taliban, the Irish Republican Army, Boko Haram, ETA, FARC and the KLA.

Hashim Thaci certainly did it all. In fact, you could argue that he overdid it. After NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 forced Slobodan Milosevic’s government to evacuate all the Serbian troops from Kosovo and a United Nations administration backed by NATO peacekeeping troops took over, the time for fighting – and illicit fund-raising methods – was over. But Thaci just kept going.

The KLA was renamed the Kosovo Protection Corps, and used intimidation and occasional assassinations to gain control of almost all the municipal governments in the country. A recent report on corruption in Kosovo by BND, the German intelligence service, noted that “The key players (including…Thaci) are intimately involved in inter-linkages between politics, business, and organised crime structures in Kosovo.”

The Council of Europe report of 2010 says bluntly: “In confidential reports spanning more than a decade, agencies dedicated to combatting drug smuggling in at least five countries have named Hashim Thaci…as having exerted violent control over the trade in heroin and other narcotics. Thaci and [other former KLA members] are consistently named as ‘key players’ in intelligence reports on Kosovo’s mafia-like structures of organised crime.”

That report, commissioned after the chief prosecutor for war crimes at the Hague, Carla Del Ponte, said she had been prevented from investigating senior KLA officials, also contained details about the KLA’s fund-raising methods just after the fighting ended in 2000. The most shocking was the allegation that some Serbian prisoners held by Thaci’s faction of the KLA were killed in order to harvest their organs for sale abroad.

The report found that Thaci’s people held Serb captives in six detention facilities in Albania, and that a “handful” were transferred to Tirana, where they were killed for their kidneys. “As and when the transplant surgeons were confirmed to be in position and ready to operate, the captives were brought out of the ‘safe house’ individually, summarily executed by a KLA gunman, and their corpses transported swiftly to the operating clinic.”

The human rights rapporteur who wrote the Council of Europe report, the Swiss lawyer Dick Marty, subsequently admitted that he had no evidence directly linking Thaci with the organ trafficking, but if you’re the boss, you have to accept at least a share of the blame. So why is this suspected war criminal and big-time crime boss being welcomed as Kosovo’s legitimate leader by all the European countries, including even Serbia?

Two obvious reasons are that he won the election, and that he doesn’t actually face any outstanding criminal charges. But the deeper reason is that Serbia wants to join the European Union.

The European Union wants it too: it’s important to bring the Serbs into the club and not leave them feeling bruised and resentful about the Balkan wars of the 1990s, even if they were largely responsible for them. However, Serbia cannot join the EU until it accepts that the breakaway province of Kosovo is gone forever and recognises its leader as legitimate. The EU does not accept applicants with unresolved border disputes. (Ukraine please note.)

And this also means, by the way, that the EU has to accept Kosovo as a legitimate candidate for membership even under its current leader. Both the EU and Serbia would certainly prefer the prime minister of Kosovo to be somebody a bit more presentable, but the Kosovars keep electing Hashim Thaci, albeit with a small and dwindling turnout of voters. And maybe he really has changed.

Sometimes you just have to put the past behind you, and maybe even some of the present too.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“The KLA…Kosovo” and “The report…clinic””)

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

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European Elections: The Pitchfork-Wielding Populists

“There is no doubt that many populist, Eurosceptic and even nationalistic parties are entering the European Parliament,” said the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, after all the votes in Sunday’s election for the European Union’s parliament had been counted. He did not say that the barbarian hordes were at the EU’s gates – but he probably thought it.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, made the same observation rather more colourfully in the Daily Telegraph on Monday: “From Dublin to Lublin, from Portugal to Pomerania, the pitchfork-wielding populists are converging on…Brussels – drunk on local hooch and chanting nationalist slogans and preparing to give the federalist machinery a good old kicking with their authentically folkloric clogs.” There is much truth in what he says.

It is true that the EU’s parliamentary elections last Sunday produced a large assortment of nationalists, neo-fascists and hard leftists who are united in their dislike for the EU. Together they will account for almost a third of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs), a situation that was unimaginable only five years ago. However, it is not true that this bloc of rejectionist MEPs will paralyse the EU.

One reason is that the mainstream centre-right and centre-left blocs of MEPs still have a majority in the parliament. They will probably create a grand coalition that makes all the key decisions behind closed doors, and then rams them through with little real debate. (Of course, this will further alienate the millions who voted for anti-EU candidates.)

The second reason is that the “pitchfork-wielding populists” will never constitute a single bloc, since they disagree on practically everything apart from their policy on the EU. Some, like the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party, want their countries to leave the EU. Others, like the far-left Syriza Party in Greece, just want to get rid of the common currency, the euro, and end the EU’s policy of enforced austerity.

The Alternative for Germany wants to keep the euro but allow the Mediterranean countries to leave it. Jobbik in Hungary and the Danish People’s Party are viciously anti-immigrant. Germany’s National Democratic Party and Golden Dawn in Greece are neo-Nazi. There is a fringe party for every taste.

The most important reason, however, is that the European Parliament has little authority over the bureaucrats who carry out EU policy and none at all over the national governments that actually decide on the policies. The parliament was created to add a dollop of democracy to the process, but it simply cannot paralyse the EU.
Yet this election has been a great shock, because it has revealed a vast reservoir of hostility to the EU among the populations of half its member states, including some of the biggest ones. In France the anti-EU National Front got more votes than either of the mainstream parties, the Gaullists and the Socialists. In Britain the United Kingdom Independence Party beat both the Conservatives and Labour.

Precisely because the European Parliament has so little real power, however, this was a cost-free protest vote. At least half the people who backed the National Front and UKIP in the EU election will probably go back to voting for the established parties when the next national elections are held in France and Britain, because the outcome of those elections will matter to them.

Nevertheless, it was a very loud protest, and it has badly shaken the European elites who took it for granted that progress towards a more united Europe was inevitable. What they now have to figure out is whether this was just a cry of rage and pain caused by six years of economic crisis and falling living standards, or whether it really is a protest against any further expansion of the “European project” – indeed, even a demand to roll it back.

The pain and rage are real enough: even six years later, few European economies are back up to where they were before the banking crisis exploded in 2008. Unemployment is still high right across the EU, and youth unemployment is catastrophically high in some countries. (In Greece and Spain, almost half of the under-25s have no work.)

If the EU’s current unpopularity is mainly due to a poor economy, then a few years of economic growth and rising incomes should make it go away. Most of the national economies in the EU will grow at least a bit this year, and as the economic situation improves the anger should subside. But what if the whole notion of an ever more united Europe is being rejected by the very people who were supposed to benefit from it?

As in many other parts of the world, the widening gulf between the few rich and the many whose living standards are stagnant or falling has created an incipient revolt against globalisation – and the EU’s centralising tendencies are widely seen as part of that problem. Renewed economic growth will not cure the EU’s malaise if the wealth does not trickle down to the majority.

In that case, there may ultimately have to be a retreat to a much looser form of European union.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“The second…taste”; and “The pain…work”)

Ukraine: The Price Putin Will Pay

Conducting an orderly retreat is the hardest thing not only in war but also in politics, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is now learning. His own desire to avoid humiliation gets in the way of rapid disengagement from a losing battle, which why he waited until two days before last Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential election to say that he would respect the result. And even then he said “respect”, not “recognise”.

The Ukrainian election went well. Petro Poroshenko, a minor-league oligarch with business interests in Russia, won convincingly in the first round, and 60 percent of voters actually showed up at the polls. Even in Donetsk province, where most city centres are occupied by separatist gunmen, seven out of twelve district electoral commissions were able to operate normally. It’s a good start on stabilising the country.

So why didn’t Putin just say “recognise, when that is clearly what he will have to do in the end if Russia and Ukraine are to have peaceful relations? Why prolong the uncertainty about his intentions in the West, where the belief that he is an “expansionist” bent on recreating the Russian/Soviet empire takes deeper root with each passing day? The answer is pride – and Russia will pay a significant price for Putin’s pride.

Last week Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, enlivened his royal tour of Canada by telling an elderly Polish immigrant that Hitler’s relentless take-over of European countries in the 1930s was “not unlike what Putin is doing now”. Prince Charles is well known for saying silly things, but what he said in Canada sounded quite sensible to many people in the West. That is a big problem for Putin.

Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, though completely illegal, was not the first step in his plan for world conquest. That is preposterous: Russia is a relatively poor country of only 140 million people. But it is a regrettable fact of life that the Hitler analogy has a powerful grip on the popular imagination throughout Europe and North America, and Putin’s aimless belligerence has been setting him up in Western minds as the next Hitler.

He was very cross when his tame Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by protesters after he obeyed Putin’s demand to break off trade talks with the European Union. Putin punished Ukraine by annexing Crimea, and he started doing some heavy breathing about Ukraine’s eastern provinces as well.

He encouraged pro-Russian gunmen to seize government buildings in eastern Ukraine and warned that he might intervene militarily if the Ukrainian government used force against them. He moved 40,000 troops up to Ukraine’s eastern border on “exercises”. It was quite pointless, since he could neither annex the eastern provinces nor remove the Ukrainian government without actually invading, but he was VERY cross.

Three months of that, and the damage to his and Russia’s image is starting to pile up. Simple-minded people like Prince Charles talk about a new Hitler. Terrified Poles, Estonians and other Eastern Europeans who used to live under the Soviet yoke fear that they might be next and demand NATO troops on their soil. And clever people in the Western military-industrial complexes see an opportunity to sell more of their wares.

So at last, in early May, Putin sobers up and calls off the fright campaign. He says that the Ukrainian election could be a move “in the right direction.” He publicly urges the pro-Russian gunmen in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces to postpone a planned referendum on union with Russia. He even says that he is withdrawing his troops from Ukraine’s borders.

But he doesn’t really withdraw the troops yet. He doesn’t use his influence to force the separatist gunmen in eastern Ukraine to postpone their referendum, and he doesn’t actually say that he will recognise the Ukrainian election as legitimate. Putin wants to walk away from the game, but it’s too embarrassing to do a complete about-face. So he leaves the pot of fear and suspicion boiling for another three weeks.

FINALLY, only two days before the Ukranian election, Putin says he will “respect” the result, and his tanks start to pull back from Ukraine’s border. Too damned late. There won’t be any more Western sanctions against Russia, but Putin has managed to resurrect the image of Russia as a mortal threat to its neighbours. It will not lie down again soon.

European defence budgets will stop falling, and the integration of the armed forces of the various new NATO members in Eastern Europe will accelerate. Leading-edge technologies like missile defence will get more funding in the United States. Foreign investment in Russia is already declining. And the countries of the European Union will move heaven and earth to cut their dependence on Russian gas exports.

Putin has already turned to China as a new customer for Russian gas, but it will never pay as well as Europe did. He used to be able to play the Europeans and the Chinese off against each other, but that game is over. NATO sees him as a wild card at best, and at worst a real threat. The master strategist has lost his touch.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“So…weeks”)