Tag Archives: European Union

A euro for your thoughts


by Sol Sanders

The European Union has entered a multifaceted and what promises to be an extended crisis.

It will reshape European politics and its outcome will have far-reaching effects on the world economy and international politics. Resolution of the crisis will come with even more difficulty since the Europeans for the first time since the end of World War II cannot count on a strong role of Washington as mediator and mentor.

First off, it is important to remember that despite all the propaganda to the contrary about newly arriving power centers – and the weaknesses exposed by its current troubles – Europe remains the force in world affairs unmatched except by the U.S. Its more than half a billion population with almost a quarter of the world’s total economic activity, enormous cultural diversity and heritage, with infinitely fecund research and technological innovation, and with a diminished but technologically powerful military, still dominates the world scene.

When we speak of “Europe”, of course, we are lumping in a set of complicated relationships as well as groupings. The geographic Europe is everything west of the Urals in mid-Russia, but for the moment Russia has excluded itself from the European family. That’s in part because the European Union now includes all the countries of Western Europe except Norway and Switzerland, and more recently central, northern and parts of eastern Europe for a total of 28 countries [with four more former Yugoslav states soon to join].

The EU institutions include the European Commission, the Brussels-based appointed executive, the Council of the European Union, its upper house of parliament composed of executives of member states, the directly elected European Parliament, the lower legislative house, the Court of Justice, the European Central Bank and the Court of Auditors. At least theoretically, these countries now have a common market and are moving toward a standardized legal system. A separate treaty removes passport controls among all the countries [including Norway] with the exception of the U.K.

Eighteen of these countries – with the exclusion of the U.K., Denmark, Sweden and Poland – are part of the Erozone, using the Euro as their currency. [Seven additional states are obliged under their treaty obligations to join the common currency at a later date.] Since the international crisis of 2007-08, the European Central Bank has become a mini-International Monetary Fund. It has taken on a role of handing out emergency Euro loans to some of its members in deep trouble and is helping to work out individual national economic reform agendas. Through it purchase of national government bonds – Germany has blocked Eurobonds – it also indirectly helps direct the finances of the individual members.

Rather suddenly, a series of problems have grown acute, testing to their limits these and older European institutions in a way not seen since the onset of The Great Depression and the resultant collapse of much of Europe into authoritarianism. These developments put into question whether national interests can be subsumed in a superstate which has become the aim of many of the proponents of further European economic and political integration. Or whether, as an alternative, national and regional sentiments within some older nation-states will scotch this movement, or, indeed, reverse the whole effort.

The problems are, of course, interrelated and will require new efforts at international collaboration as well as mobilization of resources to move on to another stage whatever that may be. It’s no wonder then that any attempt to describe the ideological and more practical conflicts of the various constituents looks like a cat’s cradle of connections which alas! are not likely to fall apart as quickly as success at that old string game.

Putin’s challenge After more than a half century with sometimes bitter but relatively minor wars, Europe is faced with the continuing threat of naked aggression by a major power, Russia. An unstable Moscow regime glories in its inability to assimilate politically to the European consensus. But unlike its autarchic Soviet predecessor for which many of its leaders [and unhappily its citizens] have deep nostalgia, Putin’s Russia is not only directly intertwined with the world economy but virtually totally dependent on its sale of fossil fuels to the rest of Europe. [Recent feints to the East to China are just that with so-called trumpeted agreements falling far short of their ballyhoo.]

Using methods that could have been copied from the aggressive pre-World War II Fascist and Communist dictatorships, Moscow bluffs at least temporarily have overwhelmed European [and American] leadership. Neither Brussels, the national capitals, nor Washington have found an adequate response thereby inviting further aggression from Putin’s ad hoc agenda to restore what he claims is Moscow’s hegemony in Eastern and Central Europe if not a superpower. The fact that Ukraine has become the focal point for the conflict is symptomatic, for it is the irresistible attraction of participation in the European movement toward integration which draws Kviv away from its traditional domination by Moscow.

Democracy quotient The EU’s original deadly fault – top-down imposition of a new regulatory regime on self-governing societies – has finally climaxed in the candidacy of a new president of the Brussels bureaucracy. Tiny Luxembourg’s former prime minister, the lackluster politician Jean-Claude Juncker, has by happenstance become the nominee of the European parliament for the presidency of the EU on the claim that his party now has a majority in that assembly. That claim, reinforced by the lack of other major alternate contenders, in effect would establish parliamentary supremacy against what has been a tradition of hand-picked appointed Brussels bureaucracts..

But Juncker’s advocacy of more “federalism” – further political as well as economic integration – challenges London’s opposition to a stronger federal union at the same time its most ardent advocate is Germany. Furthermore, a clutch of anti-EU parties – some of them proto-fascist – now hold a fourth of the seats in the European parliament.

Britexit The sweep of anti-EU skeptics of the British delegation in a just completed Europe-wide election for the European parliament threatens to increase the growing minority in the U.K. who want to leave the EU. Conservative Prime Minister James Cameron, increasingly threatened by an anti-EU, anti-immigration, nationalist swell on the right, has promised a 2017 referendum on leaving EU membership. At the moment, British public opinion remains divided with apparently a small majority for remaining in the EU, but continuing as a limited partner. However beleaguered is its sterling currenmcy, most Brits count themselves lucky they stayed out of the Euro and thereby reinforcing the role of The City as perhaps the foremost international financial center.

Germany, a proponent of further integration, nevertheless makes preventing the departure of the British, its main ally in opposition to French and other EU partners’ statism, its highest if contradictory priority. Britain’s exit would, of course, have enormous repercussions inside the EU beyond its role as the main opponent of further bureaucratization, feeding skepticism which exists in Scandinavia, for example, and may even be growing in Germany where it has been a dogma of the post-World War II regime.

Economic malaise The European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi’s imposition of a negative interest rate – that is, the national central banks’ deposits into the Euro would be charged interest – is a groundbreaking effort to stimulate growth Theoretically, it would force the central banks to loose their lending policies. It is an attempt to counter the austerity policies throughout most of bankrupt southern Europe’s economies and the resultant high unemployment of low growth rates and increasing political instability.

Draghi’s policies are bitterly opposed by Germany with its paranoia about inflation from the deadly post-World War I expeience. Meanwhile, as by far the largest EU economy it continues to maintain a budget surplus through its “beggar your neighbor” trade policies. [Germany rolled up the highest trade surplus in the world at $270 billion in 2013 despite the fact that 60% of its exports went to other EU partners. [If Germans sanctimoniously blame their souther partners’ priofligacy for their situation, it was German-financed exports that in large part brought on the disaster.]

Germany’ situation is almost unique in the region. Its per capita income is 23% above the EU average with more than a fifth of the federation’s gross development product. That it is inimitable to Draghi’s grand strategy sets up an enormous conflict inside the EU at a moment of economic crisis.

Nor is it at all clear that Draghi’s effort will help given that the bulk of the Euro’s transactions still remain in national budgets, most of them already in deficit. That, of course, is the long term argument for further integration, welding differing financial strategies into a whole behind the Euro. But Berlin’s notorious historical incapacity to lead a democratic alliance contradicts Germany’s hegemonic economic role inside the EU, another reason why its effort to keep Britain inside the union is consered by many,m even in Germany, so critical.

This welter of crosscurrents takes place at a time of a growing perception – probably realistic — among European leaders that the U.S. is retreating from world politics and when the world engine of growth, the American economy, is sputtering.

Any of these various issues and contradictions could at any moment flare up into the kind of crisis that would feed popular sentiment and the 24-hour media, overshadowing the general confusion of these more complex economic and political issues. That question of unexpected events now dominates the European and ultimately, the world scene.

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Living with ambiguity


An old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, has become a bromide. I suspect those old Chinese savants were smarter: Confucius [and his St. Paul, Mencius] codified rules and ceremonies for all princes for all eternity, undoubtedly suspecting, rightfully, all eras would have many if not most of the same difficulties. [What would the old boy have thought of Beijing leaders using his dogma, once trashed when they were Marxists, now in the service of Chinese “soft power” and espionage “institutes” around the world?]

These are, indeed, “interesting times”. Although our media and intellectuals increasingly try to entice us into believing the digital revolution has made all things knowable [after all we have google, Wikipedia and algorithms!], the world political economy is fraught with unpredictability. Wherefore, we resort to an even more ancient Indian piece of wisdom: “Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones, for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable, and hard to go by, say the wise.” [Katha Upanishad – 1.3.14.]

Nowhere are ambiguities so manifest as in the current European geopolitical scramble. Furthermore, unlike earlier post-World War II European crises, the current debacle completely stymies Washington. While the U.S. is still the major world power looked to for leadership — if no more than for new fads – it has no remedies. It was all very well for Pres. Barack Obama to reassure the Europeans [and ourselves] they have the wherewithal if only they had the political will, but it was more than a little bit of hypocrisy. Not only is Washington not able to present a model of its own efficacy in solving debt problems, but quietly, the Fed joined other central banks a few weeks ago to extend short-term dollar loans to European banks virtually cut off from dollar credit — and not by those Occupy Wall Streeters.

The Fed moved because it is hard to exaggerate implications of any breakdown in the U.S.-EU economic relationship. In effect, North Atlantic trade represents virtual integration. Even with the economic downturn, more than a trillion dollars worth of goods traversed the Ocean in 2010; another $250 billion in services. Last year Europe invested another $100 billion in the U.S.; Americans put another $70 billion in Europe. A staggering $2.7 trillion was swapped in our markets.

Furthermore, Mr. Obama’s prescription is easier said than effected in societies increasingly dependent on nanny governments to sort their problems. European private initiative, never of the American intensity, has atrophied. [The European Union Commission at the moment is in hot pursuit of highly debated standards for bottled water!]

Nor will a pampered electorate go quietly to new temporary consumption restraints. Even now opposition to ending the French 35-hour work week could well become a major issue in next year’s presidential campaign. Firing some of every third Greek who works for government [and who notoriously does not pay his taxes] reawakened old postwar Communist-rightist confrontation. Even the recent boost given German exports, Berlin’s economic deus ex machina, was, ironically, the cheaper Euro. But a depreciating Euro hardly seems adequate for Europe’s legendary powerhouse as Germany’s population declines and ages rapidly, its labor force narrows, and there is more and more questioning of integration of four million Turkish Muslim “guest workers” who came in the 1960s — and stayed.

From day-to-day, it becomes increasingly clear the reserves of Euro governments and the banking system cannot cover the growing sovereign and commercial deficits of 17 members of the common currency. Credit has evaporated as lenders perceive their exposure more endangered by the moment, not only to whopping “haircuts” – “voluntary” discounts of outstanding debt — but by a growing possibility the debtors may not be able to amortize even those discounted tabs as their economies spiral downward under the eight of severe austerity and social disintegration. Nor is it certain “technocratic” governments in Greece and Italy can manage essentially political decisions.

For Americans, the question of the hour – carefully not asked by our talking heads — is whether this European financial “malaise”, with a continuing failure of the Europeans to address it more than sequentially, will spread to the U.S.? Do our bankers with all their handheld devices really know what their actual exposure is – or will we be treated to new surprises as we were in 2007-08?

That Atlantic bridge could be in for even heavier if snarled traffic.

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Crises – but which is the one?


Clichés come in at least two varieties: those sayings artfully worded, however empty of logic. Others trotted out because they do represent universal truths, vetted over centuries. One of the latter: “history does not travel in a straight line”. Afterward, reinforced with additional retrieved facts and by fads, we concoct a simple, “logical” timeline.

For those of us who lived through long decades of The Cold War, we look back to mistaken views of a world scene played out on many stages. Then as now, drama tended to overshadow more important currents.

Relevant, perhaps, was the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. A Soviet satellite state, incidentally Bloc leader under benighted central planning, attempted escape from Moscow’s grip. It, too, began with youngsters in a square. In part, alas! they were emboldened then too by Washington’s support for “liberation”. But when the brave stood against Communist tanks, the U.S. blinked, fearing nuclear war.

Almost simultaneously, Egypt’s military dictator Abdul Gamal Nasser used the pretext of the Eisenhower Administration’s refusal to build the Aswan Dam megaproject  to “nationalize” the Suez Canal, for a century an immensely profitable Anglo-French commercial entity. To regain control, London and Paris used another pretext, warding off but actually colluding in an Israeli Sinai occupation to insure its own passage through the essential waterway.

U.S. Sec. of State John Foster Dulles adamantly forced America’s allies to relent. NATO Sec.-Gen. Belgian statesman Jean-Paul Spaak, an unsung hero of the epoch, literally in tears, beseeched Dulles: we have sinned but grab this opportunity to secure Europe’s lifeline to Mideast oil. Dulles, forever the moralist, refused “to reward aggression”. Nasser got the Canal, reinforced pan-Arabism sweeping the region, allied with Moscow to bedevil the West until his death. But his legacy was a mess of pottage, dismally failing to produce that long-awaited Arab renaissance, leaving a further discredited secularism for the benefit of his Moslem Brotherhood enemies.

Contradicting another cliché, history does not repeat itself, no more than the same water runs under the same bridge as the stream flows on. Nevertheless, while our attention is focused on increasingly bloody events in Araby, perhaps again more important happenings may germinate the kernel of world history elsewhere:

·        The German parliament has just laid down the law to a more than willing Chancellor Angela Merkel: it will not accept a “Europeanization” of the Euro’s financial debacle. With Greece near civil war trying to impose austerity, its southern tier debtor neighbors – facing rapidly increasing borrowing costs – move inexorably toward new “bail-outs”. No all-Europe institutions or mechanisms can meet those costs. Now the Bundestag has closed the door at least temporarily on Eurobonds [with Germany as prime guarantor] which might repeat might have been an “out”. The Euro as we knew it is doomed. Can “the European project” – the effort to create a stable continent shorn of its age-old capacity for intra-European violence — survive it?

·        A huge, new wave of Muslim refugees from Tunisia, Egypt, now Libya [accompanied by “transiting” Black Africans] is flooding Italy and Europe. They come as Chancellor Merkel, French Pres. Nicolas Sarkozy, and even U.K. Prime Minister David William Donald Cameron [the youngest British leader in 200 years], publicly declare “multiculturalism” dead. Failed Western assimilation of new workers in otherwise declining populations has led to indigestible, economically deprived enclaves abetting bankruptcy for “welfare states” created in the postwar prosperity.

·        The Europeans, as the U.S., finds itself in the grip of a growing threat to physical security from totalitarian Islam but bemused by intellectual confusion reminiscent of the1930s seduction of intellectuals by the Leninist road to utopia. When the Catholic Church’s scholarly leader, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, attempted to renew the dialogue between Christianity [and Judaism] with Islam – a 1500-year-old debate – at Regensburg in Sept. 2006, he was howled down by the politically correct. Yet native Europeans, their government – and their economies –are assaulted daily by immigrants who want to continue non-European lifestyles including some of the world’s most barbarous customs, exploiting modern Europe’s tolerance and freedom.

·        China, which within a generation has turned itself into “the world factory”, is being drawn into shaky collaborative international financial arrangements but at only a snailspace. Beijing uses its export of “capital” – slave labor and increasingly stolen technology – to blackmail its trading partners. It expands exponentially a military machine against fictitious enemies. Using largely American and EU debt, Beijing is spurring threatening worldwide inflation, uneconomically pursuing raw materials– and increasing worldwide food shortages which it has helped to create by neglect of its agriculture. Its unlimited infrastructure expansion and claptrap financial structure including unprecedented payments surpluses – now pressured by Washington’s “quantitative easing” in its effort to reflate the world’s engine, the American economy – promises a bubble bursting at any moment.

Therefore, as dramatic and seemingly all encompassing as current Arab world happenings would appear, when this period is looked back upon, it could be other contemporary world crises were more important. We, of course, will never know – which, should, inspire a little humility [admittedly not seen in this unavoidably brief review].

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