Brexit – the Irish angle

Nigel Dodds, the Deputy  leader of the Democratic Unionist Party who leads the party’s MPs in Westminster, responded  to the recent Queen’s Speech by saying, “Let me make it very clear – I believe when people voted in the European Union referendum to leave the European Union that they voted to leave the single market and customs union. And I believe that Northern Ireland must, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, do likewise.” He added, “We must not get into a situation where we have borders erected between the island of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”

The status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – the only land border between a newly-independent UK and the EU – is  one of three issues which the EU wants to settle before trade talks can begin. Professor Anthony Coughlan, the veteran Irish Anti-EU campaigner, has proposed that the best way of resolving this problem is Irexit – in other words, the Republic of Ireland should leave the EU as well. He argues that is is logically the best thing to do, even though it is “unpalatable” for many in the Republic.  “If one quarter of the Irish people and one fifth of Ireland’s land area are going to leave the EU because they are part of the UK, has the rest of the country any real alternative but to follow, however reluctantly?” he asks.

It is the Republic, not the UK, which will be the big loser from Brexit if it stays in the EU, he argues. “Dublin and London want to maintain the common Anglo-Irish free travel and trade area. But if the Republic opts to stay in the EU when Northern Ireland and Britain leave it, it is the Republic of Ireland, not Britain, that will be putting the common area at risk. London has Dublin over the proverbial barrel on this.  It can bend Dublin to its will if it so wishes.  There is no international law or moral right to a free-movement facility like this between two different sovereign States.”

He also highlights the problems caused by the EU’s desire for closer military integration, a subject which Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, highlighted as a priority three days ago.  “If the Republic remains in the EU when the UK leaves, it means that it will become part of an EU military bloc under German hegemony.  That can hardly be in the security interests of the UK.

As an aside, it is interesting that Professor Coughlan, looking at our current situation from across the Irish Sea, takes a far more measured approach than some of the ridiculous headlines we have seen in the press recently. “The fundamental point to grasp about the post-UK-general-election situation is that Brexit is going to happen, whether under Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn or someone else. The UK is going to cease being an EU Member State.  The only issue still open is how long this will take.” Absolutely. What is more, a recent communication from the European Council on the subject of relocating the EU agencies currently based in the UK (the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Banking Authority (EBA)) says the same thing:- “As the United Kingdom has notified the European Council under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union of its intention to leave the Union, it is necessary to move the two United Kingdom-based Agencies to other locations within the Union’s territory.” Whatever the rhetoric, the EU is gearing up for Brexit.

Yes, we are going to leave, even if the timescale and route of our exit are still uncertain. As far as the impact of Brexit on the Irish Republic is concerned, the next few years will be very interesting. The country has recovered from the Great Recession better than the other so-called “PIIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Unemployment stood at 6.4% and youth unemployment at 12% in April, compared with more than 20% and 45% respectively for Greece. Furthermore, the Irish housing market, which took a battering in the Recession, has recovered. Nonetheless, the country is one of few in the Eurozone which may return to deflation. Given that the €uro has been the  culprit for all of Ireland’s recent economic woes, the chance to escape its straitjacket may become more appealing as Brexit draws nearer.

 

 

On the EU side, there has been some posturing too

Mrs May and some members of her team have gone on record to say “No deal is better than a bad deal”, but realistically, “no deal” was never an option. The worst scenario would have been an incomplete, partial deal and with neither side wanting a cliff-edge scenario in March 2019, even this would not be anyone’s preferred option. For all the dire warnings of Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former Finance Minister, the UK is not Greece.  We would suffer more than EU-27 from a non-deal, but it would not be in the EU’s interests to be obstructive and prevent an agreement being signed.

To prove the point, it is now emerging that some of the tough rhetoric from the EU side which we heard in the immediate post-referendum period has turned out to be little more than posturing. Barely three months ago, it was widely reported that Spain would be given  a right of veto over the final deal with the UK and would have the full support of the other EU member states if it chose to take a tough line over Gibraltar. Recently, however, Alfonso Dastis, Spain’s Foreign Minister,  has stated that his country will not block any Brexit deal and that talks over Gibraltar’s future will be handled on a bilateral basis. “The issue of Gibraltar doesn’t have to be the first, nor the most important point during talks,” he said.

Another example of hot air is the EU’s apparent desire to remove the lucrative €uro clearing business from the City of London to somewhere within the Eurozone.  This would have been a political gesture rather than an economic necessity. After all, most clearing in the Saudi Riyal takes place in London without any heart-searching in Riyadh. Writing in City AM, however, Mark Field, the City of London’s MP claims that “All of the EU politicians and financiers I have spoken to understand that this is a risk not worth taking. They express no desire to prevent euro-denominated trades from being cleared in London and indeed privately rail against the notion that such business might be forcibly moved to Paris.” He also points out that “Most sensible players implicitly understand that if London is undermined, key participants in the financial services industry will move not to Frankfurt, Dublin or Paris but to New York, Singapore or Shanghai.” Absolutely. In or out of the EU, London  will remain Europe’s principal centre for financial services for the foreseeable future.

On the surface, however, it does appear that the EU has turned the corner after its recent problems. Its economy is performing better than at any time since the Great Recession of 2008 and eurosceptic parties in the Netherlands and France failed to make any breakthrough in recent elections. France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, is a strong supporter of the EU and his triumph is encouraging the Eurozone to consider pressing on with further integration. Even Germany’s ever-cautious Angela Merkel recently indicated that she would “consider a common finance minister, if the circumstances are right,” adding “we could also consider a Eurozone budget if it is clear that we are really strengthening the structure of the economy and doing sensible things”. 

Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has also adopted a very upbeat note in his invitation to the EU’s leaders for the next meeting. “It is fair to say that we will meet in a different political context from that of a few months ago, when the anti-EU forces were on the rise. The current developments on the continent seem to indicate that we are slowly turning the corner. In many of our countries, the political parties that have built their strength on anti-EU sentiments are beginning to diminish. We are witnessing the return of the EU rather as a solution, not a problem.”

There is a big “but”, however. A recent survey by Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank, pointed to a wide gap between the opinions of the EU’s “élite” (defined as leading figures from politics, media, business and civil society) and the general public and even the élite is not as optimistic as Mr Tusk’s words would have us believe.  Only 34% of the public feel they have benefitted from the EU, compared with 71% of the élite while a majority of the public (54%) think their country was a better place to live 20 years ago, which in some cases means before their country joined the EU.

The study also finds 48% of the public wants the EU to hand back powers to member states, while only 31% of the élite are keen on this idea. Less than 1 in 4 of the general public support extra powers for the EU and even among the élite, the figure is a mere 37%. What is more, among the élite, almost one in two (46%) thinks that another country will leave the EU within the next decade. The figure for the general public is 58%.

While the groundwork for the survey was undertaken between December 2016 and February 2017 – in other words, before the Dutch and French elections – it still painted a rather fragile picture of the EU, suggesting that Donald Tusk’s comments may be somewhat over-optimistic. To prove the point, less than a week after Macron’s triumph, several members of his cabinet have already quit. If plans for further Eurozone integration do fall foul of public opinion, any revival of enthusiasm for the EU project among the general public may prove short-lived.

None of this reduces the challenges facing the UK government in the Brexit negotiations. Indeed some have argued that a strong EU may be more willing to grant a favourable deal to the UK than one which believes itself to be on the back foot. What we can say is that it is far from certain that the UK’s negotiators will necessarily spend all the next 21 months facing representatives of an organisation which is self-confident or even united.

Photo by D-Stanley

Irexit – no longer totally pie-in-the sky

Professor Anthony Coughlan, the veteran Irish pro-withdrawalist, was invited to make a submission to the Irish Senate’s Special Select Committee on Brexit on 1st June.

Professor Coughlan explained that, in his opinion, the most rational and sensible course for the Irish Government to follow in relation to Brexit is that it should activate the East-West strand of the Good Friday Agreement to concert a joint approach with the UK Government aimed at  Ireland leaving the European Union at or around the same time as the UK and that it should work towards an Ireland/UK agreement and an Ireland/EU agreement oriented to that end.

He also made the point that there are no significant advantages for the Irish republic remaining in the EU when the UK leaves, but rather major disadvantages. He also addressed the implications of Brexit on the border with Northern Ireland and claimed that, in his view, prospects for the eventual reunification of the island of Ireland* would be greatly diminished if Ireland remains in the EU.

Professor Coughlan expects that support for Irexit is likely to grow in the coming two years. Mind you, he may revise his opinion if Brexit goes badly!  We pointed out a couple of months ago that he is no longer the lone voice he appeared to be a few years back. The Irish Republic, formerly a net recipient of EU funding, is now a net donor, while its trade with the UK was the main reason for it joining the EEC together with us in 1973. The EU, in other words, is no longer so attractive as it once was.

The submission can be downloaded here and the second annex (which is longer than the submission)  can be downloaded here.

* It should be pointed out that support for Irish reunification is not confined to Sinn Féin and hard line Republicans. In 1999, the former Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland were replaced Article 3.1 which “recognises that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island” – in other words, an united Ireland still remains a legitimate aspiration for many peace-loving Irishmen, even if we may disagree with them on this, – unless, of course, it was in the context of an application by the Irish Republic to re-join the UK!

Germany will never, ever pay more than now for NATO

This post originally appeared in the Raedwald blog. The author lives in Austria but originally hails from Norfolk.

Many of us will have grown up with the BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) – either as serving soldiers or like myself as army brats. There was a time when Gütersloh, Fallingbostel or Sennelager were more familiar to us than Slough, Reading or Peterborough. The BBC even had a forces radio programme, and knowing at least half a dozen BFPO numbers was par for the course. Well, BAOR disappeared without notice in 1994. The 25,000 remaining troops in Germany became BFG, now down to about 4,000 and scheduled to pull out completely by 2020, almost exactly in line with Brexit.

The change came with the fall of the wall in 1989. Before then, our lads were to play a vital role in forming a heroic but utterly pointless sacrifice in holding up the Soviet advance through Germany to France for about 72 hours. Then we all thought it an essential sacrifice. Now we wonder, why bother? Perhaps France and Germany would be better off under Russian rule. Why shed British blood in their defence?

When Trump abstained from the traditional annual G7 offering of American blood in Germany’s defence last week he too must have felt the same. Germany has been financially raping Europe for thirty years, sitting on a vast pile of gold as she threatens, bullies and manoeuvres others to pay for everything, like some nightmare dining partner endlessly disputing the division of the restaurant bill.

Turkey is now a Salafist terrorist nation and belongs nowhere near NATO. In bullying the Netherlands into ignoring the veto of the Dutch people and extending full EU privileges to Ukraine, the EU has just given Putin another poke with a sharp stick. The UK will find it hard to mobilise even 6,500 troops – we need a standing army of 100,000 to put an adequate force in the field. Germany’s armed forces are to all purposes entirely useless. Amidst the ruins of NATO (and oh yes it’s now finished in all but name*) there’s only France to defend the EU.

Merkel may gamble that she’ll get away with it, and perhaps she will. But without British and American wealth and blood to pay for it. We’re done.

*Also proving the rule that corporations are most likely to fail at the point at which they open a spanking glossy new multi-billion dollar HQ

Macron’s victory may create more problems than it solves

Emmanuel Macron campaigned for – and indeed, won – the French Presidential election on an unashamedly pro-EU platform. His victory was greeted with huge sighs of relief across the Continent. Rather ironically, however, his enthusiasm for the Single Currency and indeed the European project as a whole may have the opposite effect, as John Stepek pointed out in a recent edition of Moneyweek magazine.

At the heart of the problem is that when it comes to further integration within the EU and in particular, the single currency area, it is far easier to talk the talk than walk the walk.

A broad range of economists acknowledge that so many economically divergent nations pushing ahead with a single currency in the 1990s was far from ideal. If a monetary union is to work, fiscal and political union, while not prerequisites, certainly reduce the risk of a catastrophic failure. As it currently stands, the Eurozone is far from being an optimal currency area.

This is exactly the line Macron has been taking. In other words, as Stepek puts it, “He’s one of the rare pro-eurozone politicians who’s actually quite honest about the euro and the eurozone. He is calling openly for a much closer Europe. He reckons that Europe needs a common budget, a common banking system – effectively, a full-blown United States of Europe.”

Any French politician who has made such a proposal in the past has been fobbed off by Berlin with the curt instructions to put their own house in order first. Reforms to France’s generous pension arrangements, bloated public sector and short working week have been often proposed by a number of newly-elected Presidents only to be scuppered by tyre-burning, stone-throwing protesters backed by France’s powerful trade unions.

But just suppose Macron succeeds where his predecessors have come to grief. Even a streamlined French economy will take years to converge with Germany’s and then, what about Italy or Greece? Following Macron’s victory, the headline in the Bild newspaper, which Stepek describes as the rough German equivalent of the Sun, was “How expensive will Macron be for us?”

This is not just the heart of the Eurozone’s problem – it highlights a major stumbling block with the whole European project. Germany has been happy to be a net contributor to the EU’s funds via the EU budget. In some ways, it would be very churlish of the Germans to moan about this. Labour market reforms in the first decade of the 21st Century made German businesses more competitive and the single currency also made German goods relatively cheap in other Eurozone countries. Italy and Spain, habitual devaluers before adopting the Euro, have lost this option. Unable to weaken their currency and thus boost their export markets, businesses in these countries have failed to compete with the Germans.

The unemployment figures bear this out. Only 3.9% of working age Germans are out of work and youth unemployment was a mere 6.7% in March. The corresponding figures for Italy are 11.7% and 34.1%. Spain and Greece are even worse, with overall unemployment at 18.8% and 23.2% respectively and more than two out of every five young people out of work in both countries.

Closer fiscal union means that not only would German taxpayers be paying into the EU budget to rebuild the infrastructure of the former Soviet bloc countries, but they would be liable for the social security and pension benefits of unemployed and retired Greeks, Italians and Spaniards. At the same time, a banking union would increase German liabilities if an Italian bank went bust. In short, it would be all pain for the average German (who is doing very nicely out of the Euro) with very little gain.

But surely the gain would be the big step towards full political integration which has always been the goal of the EU project? We are now getting to the heart of a fundamental flaw in the whole federalist vision. The idea of an United States of Europe may have been appealing in the late 1940s when everyone was keen to find a format which would prevent another world war. The problem is that while certain intellectuals, particularly on the political left, have long had an internationalist outlook, ordinary men and women are far more attached to the concept of nationhood and ethnicity, even though they may not even be aware of how deep that attachment runs.

But the subject of fiscal transfers, along with the related issues of benefits and welfare, can be guaranteed to bring such sentiments out into the open. Even in the United States of America, there is considerable resistance in some states to a European-style welfare state – and significantly, the states in question are the most ethnically diverse. It seems to be hard-wired into our nature that we are more willing to make sacrifices for people who are “one of us” than for people we perceive to be different.

A German, whose public sector employees have to work well into their 60s, is therefore unlikely to take kindly to subsidising the pensions of Greek public sector workers, many of whom used to retire in their 50s. But Greek austerity is biting impossibly hard. At our Annual CIB rally, Ambassador Chrysanthopoulos told us that his own pension had been cut from 3,400 euros per month to 1,200. If the recently announced cut of a further eighteen per cent applies to him, he will be down to under 1,000 euros a month – and he reckons himself lucky! So real hatred for Germany is building up in Greece, as is impatience with Greece in Germany. The German people may yet find the price of European empire too high while poorer Greek households on the most basic social security are currently receiving around 8 euros per household (not per person) per day. So starvation stalks the land – all in the name of building a European superstate.

An extreme example? Perhaps, but it illustrates graphically the challenges which Macron’s election has brought to the surface. How deeply does the average German, Greek, Frenchman, Swede, Pole, etc  – as opposed to an intellectual or a politician – really love the EU? If the depth of love of the rank and file isn’t strong enough to transcend ethnic and cultural divisions or to be willing to endure financial deprivation and extreme hunger, the only question which Macron, Merkel or their successors will need to consider is how the whole EU project can be put peacefully to sleep without a total political and economic catastrophe.

Photo by Lorie Shaull

EU unemployment could be higher than the official figures

A study by the European Central Bank has suggested that the real level of unemployment in the European Union may be higher than the official figures.  If the numbers of underemployed and unemployed people in the Eurozone are added together, it apparently amounts to between 15% and 18% of the total workforce.

France and Italy in particular have not seen the slow recovery within the Eurozone translate into reduced levels of unemployment. Bert Colijn, a senior economist at the Dutch bank ING, estimates that in Italy, the total of the underemployed and unemployed may be as high as 30%.

In total, five million jobs have allegedly been created across the EU since the 2008 financial crisis, but many are part-time or temporary. This means that wage growth is pretty anaemic in many EU member states.

This report, if true, paints a very bleak picture indeed for some EU member states, as the official data is pretty grim. The youth unemployment rate in Greece stood at 48% in January. In Spain, it hit 56.1% in April 2013, but by March 2017, it had fallen to 40.5% – still two in five young people. The figures for Italy and France were 34.1% and 23.7% respectively. By contrast, in Germany, the figure was 6.7% and the overall unemployment rate a mere 3.9%.

These figures highlight the flawed nature of the single currency. The Germans insisted on a “strong” €uro as the price for surrendering the Deutschmark. They have ended up gaining a very profitable export market for their goods on their very doorstep. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean countries are suffering.

Given that, on the one hand the current state of affairs is going to continue to keep unemployment high in these countries while on the other, Germany would have considerable say in any moves towards further integration within the Eurozone, the prospects for their struggling neighbours to the south are unlikely to  improve any time soon.