Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘EU’

Dying for the mistakes of others?

More than 400 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent days.

That sentence gives pause for thought and it should.

With the arrival of spring and better weather, 10,000 people have attempted to get into the EU by making the relatively short – but still perilous – crossing from Libya to Italy in recent days.

But they are often sent across in rickety, unseaworthy vessels by unscrupulous people smugglers who abandon them knowing the Italian navy and coastguard, following established humanitarian practice, will try to save them – if they are spotted in time.

Many come from countries torn by conflict like Syria, Libya and Yemen, or ruled by repressive regimes, like Eritrea.

That is the push factor.

But they are not all asylum seekers and there is the pull factor too.

Most can earn more money in Europe than at home and then they can help support their families back home in Africa and the Middle East.

EU governments are not short of advice on the need to use aid and trade to help develop the economies of their near neighbours to take away the incentive to migrate.

There have been a series of agreements and initiatives since the Barcelona Process was launched in 1996, but so far they have failed to staunch the flow of people.

The continuing differences in income between EU and African and Middle Eastern countries would be enough to ensure people still wanted to make the journey.

But the instability and conflict that followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 has added to the incentive by making life in several countries much worse.

And EU governments have compounded both the push and the pull with actions that ended up both encouraging and enabling more migrants to make the attempt to get in.

Despite having drawn the conclusion in the 1990s that supporting economic development in the MENA region was a long-term solution to cutting the number of migrants, in the 2000s the EU diverted scarce resources and political attention to its eastward expansion and then the Eastern Partnership initiative with, among others, Ukraine, that has ended in the struggle for influence with Russia.

Also, before 2011, the EU supported regimes in countries like Tunisia and Egypt whose repression helped trigger the uprisings of the Arab Spring which spread and ended in the civil war in Syria which has led 3 million people to flee the country as refugees – not to mention the 6 million internally displaced.

In Libya, several EU countries led by Britain and France, intervened militarily in the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi and helped overthrow him, but then they failed to provide the necessary political and economic support which might have preventing the country collapsing into the anarchy the people smugglers are now exploiting to use the country to funnel migrants across the Mediterranean.

So as things stand, EU countries are in a bind partly of their own making.

The migrants keep coming and popular resentment of immigrants in an economically stagnant Europe keeps growing and is fanned by populist parties like the FN in France and UKIP in Britain which attract support away from established parties by calling for a tougher line on immigration and cuts in foreign aid.

Assuming governments still have the will, this means the political room to enable a long-term answer to the problem – supporting economic development in neighbouring countries – is shrinking.

And the attempt by EU governments to discourage migrants last year by scaling down the effort to rescue boats in trouble has proved no deterrent to would-be migrants.

In the short term, it is likely that media coverage and UN criticism of the rising death toll will force those governments to return to helping the Italians rescue more migrants – which is the humane thing to do, but does nothing to help reach a lasting solution.

Beware of Greeks …

A recent re-watching of the movie ‘Troy” got me thinking about the stand off over debt between the modern Greeks and the EU.

The film portrays the Greeks as a vainglorious bunch who have to resort to deceit to take and sack Troy.

Whether or not this is a misreading of Homer, I was left asking myself why, if the Trojans are so guilty of hubris and fated to get their comeuppance, the Greeks needed to employ tricks to win.

But maybe that is the way the Greeks are themselves fated to be portrayed.

Some commentary this week has characterised Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s trip to Moscow as a ploy to put pressure on the rest of the EU to be more receptive to demands to renegotiate his country’s bailout.

The timing of the visit around Orthodox Easter was a gesture to the historic links between Greece and Russia and an unwelcome reminder to Germany in particular that Athens could prove awkward for the EU beyond wanting to ease its debt burden at Berlin’s expense.

But, however justified Mr Tsipras may be in undertaking his Russian visit or calling for Germany to pay reparations for its World War Two occupation of Greece, he may be underestimating the long pedigree of distrust with which his country is perceived going back to the story of Troy and long pedigree of the adage “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

Greece’s EU partners are in no mood to give the Syriza-led government in Athens a win in the debt talks because they have much to lose – whether they are creditor governments like Germany or debtor governments like Spain’s which has implemented deep spending cuts and faces a similarly popular anti-austerity party, Podemos, in elections later this year.

By extension, is it going too far – as this piece does – to suggest that it is in the interest of the supporters of austerity that Syriza fail, and be seen to fail, to deliver on its promise to the Greek electorate, so voters elsewhere don’t follow their example?

If this is so, it isn’t the first time Greece has been held up as a negative example to keep others in line.

In the Italian historian Claudio Pavone’s epic account of the 1943-45 partisan war against the German occupation and its client fascist republican regime in northern Italy, Una guerra civile, he argues the Greek experience was used effectively as a negative example to the Italian resistance.

In Greece, the communist-led resistance against German occupation mutated into a civil war after the Nazi withdrawal in 1944 and fighting broke out between the communists and British forces backing the new government in Athens.

In Italy, the Communists were also a leading force in the resistance, but despite their admiration for their Greek comrades, they didn’t come to blows with the British, Americans and the forces of the new royalist Italian government who were advancing north to push the Germans out of Italy. One of things that held them back was the prospect of civil war “a la Grecque” being used as an effective deterrent by the more right-wing resistance groups.

And the deterrence of the Greek experience seems to retain its potency today.

The brinkmanship being employed by Mr Tsipras and his Syriza colleagues doesn’t seem to be working as the rest of the Eurozone has remained united – and is indulging in brinkmanship of its own, giving Athens six days to come up with acceptable proposals for an extension of funding.

Financial leverage has been added to diplomatic pressure with the European Central Bank restricting the ability of Greece to raise emergency cash while international investors and wealthy Greeks withdraw their money.

In a few short months, things have moved from a position under the previous conservative New Democracy government, which was being praised for restoring confidence in the Greek economy, to the current financial crisis facing the left-wing Syriza administration.

So it looks like the odds are stacked against Athens in the coming days as it plays a hand weakened not only by the mismanagement of Greece’s finances in recent years, but also the historically and culturally ingrained distrust of its European partners.

Germany: risking its post WW2 modest image for little gain

When it came to foreign policy, the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, advised his countrymen to “keep a low profile and achieve something” by which he meant concentrate on the economy and avoid getting involved in disputes.

This week has raised the question – should Germany’s leaders heed Deng’s advice?

On Monday, Chancellor Merkel was in Japan and chose to issue her hosts some of her own advice in dealing with the legacy of Tokyo’s conduct in World War 2 which is still souring relations with its neighbours, especially China and South Korea.

Ms Merkel’s speech reminded us how much Germans pride themselves on coming to terms with the Nazis’ wartime record and reconciling with their neighbours.

As speculation grows that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may use the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to water down previous Japanese apologies to its neighbours, Ms Merkel took it upon herself to urge the Japanese to follow Germany’s example.

Her hosts were polite and did not give away how they felt about Chancellor Merkel’s comments, but shortly after her speech events back home suggest it may have been wiser to avoid the risk of hubris and keep out of the debate about Japan’s wartime past.

On Wednesday, the very public row between Berlin and Athens over debt escalated with a reminder that perhaps Germany’s reconciliation with the victims of Nazi aggression has not been as successful as it thinks.

The new Greek government is trying to renegotiate the terms of its debt to the rest of the EU and IMF and wants to end the 2010 bailout – largely funded by Berlin – negotiated by its predecessor during the Eurocrisis which mandates economic austerity that Athens says kills any chance for growth.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has been using insultingly undiplomatic language to tell his Greek counterpart – with an eye to his own taxpayers – that Berlin has been generous enough already and will not countenance further debt forgiveness.

The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, responded – also with an eye to his political supporters – by reviving claims that Berlin pay reparations for Germany’s harsh wartime occupation.

But instead of trying to emolliate Athens, as German governments of the past might have, the response of Chancellor Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, was dismissive “the question of reparations and compensation is legally and politically closed”.

It is no secret to anyone in Europe that the Eurocrisis means Germany is now the continent’s undisputed political as well as economic leader. Berlin’s traditional policy of hiding its economic strength by letting France take the political lead is no longer viable given current French weakness.

It is also obvious when talking privately to Germans born since 1945 that they are increasingly tired of being reminded of what their grandparents’ generation did and feel others use the Nazi past to justify freeloading on their generosity.

But Germany is now risking undermining its newfound leadership by appearing arrogant and overplaying its hand.

It is not just the Greeks who are beginning to chafe at Berlin’s attitude. There is growing anti-German sentiment in Italy too. Outside the EU, Germany has taken the lead role in pressurising Serbia to accept the secession of Kosovo reviving many Serbs’ historical distrust and resentment of Berlin’s wartime record.

The EU works by consensus and goodwill to build common interests and Germany has prospered since 1945 by pooling sovereignty with its former enemies and appearing unthreatening.

But circumstances change and now demand Berlin take a more active leadership role in Europe because it is the only country economically strong enough to bail out its partners and save the Euro.

However, it is one thing to lead by force majeure and quite another to take people with you.

Germany and the rest of EU face tough enough challenges trying to revive economic growth and ensure the Euro has a future.

If Berlin abandons the modesty that has reassured the rest of the world it no longer harbours the desire to dominate and awakens the ghosts of the past by lecuring others and deliberately reminding its neighbours just how powerful it is, it will make the job of leadership even harder and risk undermining its newfound role before it takes root.


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