Monthly Archives: June 2014

Europe: The Sky’s Not Falling

Europe: The Sky’s Not Falling

Foreign Policy In Focus

June 6, 2014

 

 

Now that the dust has settled from the recent elections for the European Parliament it is time to take a deep breath and see what really happened. No, Britain is not about to toss its immigrant population into the sea. No, France’s Marine Le Pen is not about to march on the Elysee Palace. And, as repulsive as the thugs of Hungary’s Jobbik Party and Greece’s New Dawn are, it was the continent’s left to whom the laurels went in last month’s poll.

 

Parties that targeted unemployment, austerity and the growing wealth gap in Europe did well, and the dramatic breakthrough of right wing racist and xenophobic parties in France, Britain, and Denmark had less to do with a neo-Nazi surge than with the inability or unwillingness of the opposition in those countries to offer a viable alternative to a half decade of economic misery. Indeed, if there was a message in the May 25 EU elections, it was that those who trumpeted austerity as the panacea for economic crisis were punished.

 

Hence Britain’s Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition took a drubbing, France’s ruling Socialists were blitzed, and German Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s lost eight seats, while her Social Democratic opponents picked up four.

 

Among the 28 European Union (EU) member countries, 751 seats in the parliament were up for election.

 

In contrast, where there was a clear choice between economic democracy, on one hand, and “let’s blame it on the immigrants and Roma,” on the other—as in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and most of Central and Eastern Europe—voters went left. As Srecko Horvat, Croatian philosopher and author of “What Does Europe Want?,” commented in the wake of the election, “The European left is back in the game.”

 

“Earthquake” was the metaphor most used in describing the triumphs of Marine Le Pen’s National Front (NF) in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain, and Denmark’s Danish People’s Party. But, if there was a result that shifted the foundations of Europe, it was the victory of Greece’s Syriza Party and the “out of nowhere” appearance of Podemos—“we can”—in Spain.

 

Syriza emerged from the wreckage inflicted on the Greek economy by the so-called “Troika”—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. For the price of a bailout—most of it siphoned off by big European banks—the Greek government instituted massive layoffs, huge cuts in pensions, health care, and education, and privatized government-owned property. The jobless rate rocketed to 28 percent—over 50% for young people—and millions of Greeks were impoverished. While Greece’s creditors did well, the austerity did nothing to turn the depressed economy around.

 

Syriza took 26.5 percent of the vote May 25 to become the biggest party in Greece. That figure translated into a general election would net the party 130 seats in the 300 seat Greek parliament. In contrast, the two governing parties that oversaw the austerity program lost over 10 percentage points between them.

 

Much of the media focused on the neo-Nazi New Dawn Party, which won 9.4 percent of the vote—a 2.4 percent jump over their 2012 showing. New Dawn will send three representatives to the European Parliament, where the Greek left will swamp their representatives.

 

Another rightwing Greek party, the Popular Orthodox Rally lost voters.

 

While Syriza focused on the Greek domestic crisis, it also consciously attached itself to other left anti-austerity movements throughout the continent. “What happened in Greece is not a success story but a social tragedy that shouldn’t be repeated anywhere in Europe,” Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras said during a debate among candidates for the post of European Commission president.

 

That “anywhere in Europe” resonated in other countries entrapped in the Troika austerity formula or struggling to emerge from stagnant economies and long-tern unemployment. Beside Greece, the most conspicuous example was Podemos in Spain.

 

Podemos came out of the massive anti-austerity rallies that paralyzed Madrid and other Spanish cities in 2011, and which impelled similar demonstrations in Europe and the U.S., including the Occupy Wall Street movement. Podemos, says its leader Pablo Iglesias, is “citizens doing politics. If the citizens don’t get involved in politics others will. And that opens the door to their robbing you of democracy, your rights, and your wallet.”

 

The Spanish party consciously modeled itself on Syriza, not only in program, but also in its grassroots, bottoms-up organizing tactics. While Podemos has only been in existence four months, it took 8 percent of the vote nationwide and 11 percent in Madrid. Added to the success of left parties in Catalonia, Valencia, and the Basque Region, plus the votes for the Spanish Green Party and the Socialist Party, Spain’s ruling rightwing Popular Party is suddenly a decidedly minority organization.

 

That pattern was repeated in several other countries.

 

In Ireland the two parties that oversaw the austerity program—Fine Gael and Labour—dropped 16.5% and 12.5% respectively from the 2011 general election, while left and independent parties, like Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party and People Before Profits cornered 45% percent of the vote. The anti-austerity Portuguese Socialist Party defeated the center-right coalition that has overseen the Troika’s recipe for Lisbon, and the Portuguese Communist Party took 12.7 percent of the vote.

 

Italy saw the leftist Democratic Party emerge as the number one political force in the country with 40 percent of the vote, while Beppo Grillo’s angry and iconoclastic, but program-light, Five Star Movement took a beating, coming in at 21.2 percent. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing Forza Italia took third at 16.8 percent. A Syriza look alike, “L’Aitra Europa” (the “Other Europe”), garnered a respectable 4 percent and three seats in the European Parliament after only a few months campaigning. In contrast, the much older and established racist Northern League lost four seats and took an anemic 6.2 percent of the vote.

 

In Slovenia the United Left won 5.9 percent of the vote, which in a general election would have given the party six seats in parliament.

 

The extreme right Party for Freedom in the Netherlands lost two seats, and the rightwing Finns Party dropped from the 19 percent it scored in 2011 to 13 percent.

 

Not that it was all sweetness and light.

 

Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik took 14.7 percent of the vote, but that was an almost 6 percent drop from what the Party received in last month’s general elections. Poland’s reactionary Congress of the New Right jumped from 1 percent in the 2011 general elections to 7 percent, and Lithuania’s conservative Order and Justice Party scored 14.3%. The anti-immigrant New Flemish Alliance won in Belgium, and Austria’s Freedom Party came in third, with 19.7 percent of the vote. However, right wing parties like Ataka in Bulgaria, the Greater Romanian Party, and the Slovak National Party all lost voters.

 

The right won parliamentary seats in 10 out of the 28 EU countries, and increased their representation in six of those countries, but also lost seats in seven other countries.

 

The triumphs of the NF in France and the UKID are certainly worrisome. Both ran virulent, anti-immigrant campaigns, and the NF has long been associated with anti-Semitism and anti-Roma ideology. It would be a mistake, however, to assume everyone who voted for both parties share their penchant for ethnic hatred. Some of that support was indeed racist, but the parties also tapped into voter anger over the economic policies of the EU that have kept both countries locked into near recession conditions.

 

The “traditional” left—the Socialist Party in France and the Labour Party in the UK—have gone along with some of the troika’s austerity measures, and have also been sotto voce about immigrant bashing. The absence of a serious left critique of EU policies in both countries let many people surrender to their dark side and buy the fable that immigrants have swamped the job market and plundered social services. Especially since many of the rightist parties opportunistically adopted anti-austerity planks.

 

In Denmark, for instance, the center-right Venstre Party campaigned on denying welfare benefits to immigrants, hardly a platform to contrast itself with the far-right Danish People’s Party.

 

Politically the continent has rejected the troika’s strategy, much as Latin America did in 2000. “We are opposed to everlasting austerity as a means for fiscal rebalancing on both pragmatic and ideological grounds,” says Syriza’s Tsipras. “The subjugation of democratic process to the markets was the reason why we have the crisis today…we predicted from the onset…that austerity-based policies would backfire.”

 

The trick now will be to pull the various left forces together to hammer out an alternative. Podemos’ Iglesias has declared that the Spanish party intended to work “with other parties from Southern Europe to say that we don’t want to be a colony of Germany and the troika.”

 

Syriza has already proposed a European summit modeled on the 1953 London Debt Agreement that canceled 50 percent of Germany’s World War II debt and spread out payments on the rest over 30 years.

 

As for the so-called “earthquake” on the right: the neo-Nazis and immigrant bashers will make a lot of noise, but they offer nothing but hate as an economic solution. The left has a better one, and they are back.

 

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Marching On Moscow

 

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

May 27, 2014

 

British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery had three laws of war:

One, never march on Moscow;

Two, never get in a land war in Asia;

Three, never march on Moscow.

So why are the U.S., the European Union (EU), and NATO on the road to the Russian capital? And exactly what are they hoping to accomplish?

 

Like all battlefields on the Eastern front, this one is complicated.

 

For beginners, there are multiple armies marching eastward, and they are not exactly on the same page. In military parlance that is called divided command, and it generally ends in debacle. In addition, a lot of their weapons are of doubtful quality and might even end up backfiring. And lastly, like all great crisis, there is a sticker price on this one that is liable to give even fire breathers pause.

 

There are actual armies involved. NATO has deployed troops, aircraft and naval forces in the region, and the Russians have parked 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border. But with the exception of the horrendous deaths of over 40 demonstrators in Odessa, the crisis has been a remarkably calm affair. The Russians took over the Crimea virtually without a shot, and while there is a worrisome increase of violent incidents in the south and east, they are hardly up to the French and German invasions in 1812 and 1941, respectively.

 

Which doesn’t mean things couldn’t turn dangerous, a reason why it is important to know the agendas of the players involved.

 

For the Russians this is about national interest and security, and the broken promises and missed opportunities when Germany was reunified in 1990. At the time, the Western powers promised they would not drive NATO eastward. Instead, they vacuumed up members of the old Soviet Warsaw Pact and recruited former Soviet republics into a military alliance that was specifically created to confront Russia.

 

All talk of Putin recreating the old Soviet Empire is just silliness, which there is a lot of out there these days. A perfect example was the New York Times’ embarrassingly thin story about Putin’s personal wealth that rested on the fact he wore expensive watches.

 

There is some silliness on the Russian side as well. Yes, the overthrow of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych was a coup—what else do you call an armed uprising that causes an elected president to flee? —but it wasn’t just ex-Nazis and fascists. There was genuine mass anger at the corruption of the Yanukovych government.

 

At the same time, two of the groups that spearheaded the coup—and who currently control seven ministries in the Western Ukraine government—celebrate those who fought with Waffen SS divisions during World War II. The Germans killed some 25 million Russians during that war, so if they are a bit cranky about people who hold celebrations honoring the vilest divisions of an evil army, one can hardly fault them.

 

The Americans and the Europeans have long had their eye on Ukraine, though their interests are not identical because their economic relations are different.

 

Russia supplies the EU with 30 percent of its energy needs; for countries like Finland and Slovakia, that reaches 100 percent. U.S. trade with Russia was a modest $26 billion in 2012, while for the EU that figure reached $370 billion. More than that, several large European energy giants, including BP, Austria’s OMV, ENI, Royal Dutch Shell, and Norway’s Statoil, are heavily invested in Russian gas and oil. If oil and gas are combined, Russia is the largest energy exporter in the world.

 

For Europe, Russia is also a growing consumer market of 144 million people, where retail spending has grown 20 percent a year between 2000 and 2012. . Any attempt to ratchet up sanctions will have to confront the fact that isolating Russia is not in the interests of some very powerful business interests in Europe—and even a few in the U.S., like Chevron, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil.

 

Russia is the world’s eighth largest economy, and one that is well integrated into the world’s economy, particularly in Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Council. The Council includes not only Russia and China, but also most of Central Asia’s countries, with observer status from Iran, Pakistan and India

 

The emerging BRICS countries—Brazil, India, China and South Africa (Russia makes up the “R”)—did not support the recent UN resolution condemning Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea and would certainly not join any sanctions regime. The Russians and Chinese inked a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal, and bilateral trade between the two countries is set to reach $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion by 2020. Russia and Iran are reportedly negotiating a $10 billion energy deal as well.

 

So far, sanctions have targeted individuals, although Washington and the EU have threatened to up the ante and ban Russia from using the Swift system of international banking. That would make transferring money very difficult. It has certainly crippled Iran’s finances. But Swift, as Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times points out, is a double-edged sword. “Cutting Russia out of Swift would cause chaos in Moscow in the short term,” but in the long term “it might hasten the day when Russia, and more significantly, China, establish alternative systems for moving money between international banks.” According to Rachman, China and Russia have already discussed such a system.

 

The EU’s army is all for rhetorical condemnation of Russia, but when it comes to increasing sanctions, its command is divided. Those countries with significant investments in Russia—Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria and Greece— oppose cranking up the sanctions. German Chancellor Andrea Merkel must juggle her desire to support the U.S. with polls showing that the average German really doesn’t want to march east: been there, done that. The Swedes and the Poles are fire-breathers, but their stance is as much about trying to offset German power in the EU as for any concern over Ukrainians.

 

In short the EU looks like one of those combined armies of Austrian-Hungarians, Russians, and Prussians that Napoleon made his reputation beating up on.

 

For the Americans this is about expanding NATO and opening up a market of 46 million people in the heart of Eastern Europe. The key to that is getting the 28 members of the alliance to finally pull their own. The U.S. currently foots 75 percent of NATO’s bills, and is caught between a shrinking military budget at home and a strategy of expanding the U.S.’s military presence in Asia, the so-called “pivot.”

 

NATO members are supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on the military, but very few countries—Britain, Estonia and Greece—actually clear that bar. Nor is there any groundswell to do so in European economies still plagued with low growth and high unemployment. Yes, yes, get the Russkies, but not at our expense.

 

“Sanctions will not help anybody, they would not just hurt Russia, but also Germany and Europe as a whole,” says Rainer Seele, chair of Wintershell, and energy company owned by the German chemical giant BASF.

 

However, NATO is pushing hard. U.S. General and NATO commander Gen. Phillip Breedlove recently called for beefing up NATO forces on the Russian border. But for all the talk about a new Russian threat, NATO is not going to war over Ukraine, anymore than it did over Georgia in 2008. A few neo-conservatives and hawks, like U.S. Senator John McCain, might make noises about intervention, but it will be a very lonely venture if they try.

 

In the end the solution is diplomatic. It has to take into account Russia’s legitimate security interests and recognize that Ukraine is neither Russian nor Western European, but a country divided, dependent on both. The simplest way to deal with that is through a system of federal states. It is the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. to oppose such a power arrangement when its own system is based on the same formula (as are many other countries in Europe, including Germany).

 

Polls show that Ukrainians in the East and South do not trust the Kiev government, but they also show that a solid majority wants a united country. That could shift if the Kiev government decides to use force. Once bodies start piling up, negotiations and compromise tend to vanish, and the possibility of civil war becomes real.

 

Moscow made a proposal last summer that the EU, Russia, and the U.S. should jointly develop a plan to save the Ukrainian economy. The EU and the U.S. dismissed that proposal, and the current crisis is a direct result of that rejection. The parties need to return to that plan,

 

In spite of the tensions, events in Ukraine are trending toward a political resolution and the May 25 presidential elections may produce a candidate willing to compromise. The Russians are re-deploying those 40,000 troops, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that “We want Ukraine to be whole within its current borders, but whole with full respect for the regions.” Translation: no NATO.

 

The dangers are many here: that the Kiev government tries to settle the conflict by force of arms; that NATO does something seriously provocative; that the Russians lose their cool. As Carl von Clausewitz once noted: “Against stupidity, no amount of planning will prevail.”

 

But the ducks are lining up. The sanctions will not force Russia to compromise its security and may end up harming the EU and the U.S. The commanders of the armies facing Moscow are divided on measures and means. Neither side in the Ukraine is capable of defeating the other. It is time to stop the bombast and cut a deal, particularly since Washington will need Moscow’s help in Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.

 

Oh, and marching on Moscow? Really? Monty wasn’t the quickest calf in the pasture but he had that one figured out as a bad idea.

 

 

 

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