The EU’s farmers are the victims of EU expansionism

Would you like to live in Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Probably not. It’s less oppressive than the Soviet Union used to be but it’s hardly a bastion of freedom compared with the UK. Mr Putin isn’t a particularly pleasant man; suspicions persist regarding his involvement in the assassination of the Russian security officer Alexander Litvineneko in London and a number of his opponents within Russia itself have died in mysterious circumstances.

So the idea that the good folk of Ukraine of their own free will want to keep as much distance as possible from this nasty man and align themselves, like the former Warsaw Pact nations, to those bastions of liberty in Western Europe is at first glance a pretty convincing narrative. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

For one thing, a substantial minority of the Ukrainian population would actually prefer the embrace of Mr Putin. There can be no doubt that Russia was heavily involved in Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and its military is working closely with the Russian-speaking groups in the Donbass region, but there is equally no doubt that in these two areas, the majority of the inhabitants feel far more affinity with Moscow than with Kiev, let alone with Paris or Berlin. The vote to re-join Russia in the Crimea was not rigged by the Kremlin and the Russian troops in the east are viewed more as brothers-in-arms than foreign invaders.

Secondly, the EU has gone to great lengths to cultivate Ukrainian support for membership of the Community. Financial aid amounting to over €2 billion has been provided in the last two years alone to prop up the country’s failing economy. Ukraine certainly needs help; the annual inflation rate has consistently topped 50% in the last five months, interest rates stand at 27%, the money supply is shrinking and GDP fell by 17.6% in the first quarter of 2015. Furthermore, the country is rated as the most corrupt in Europe and life expectancy for men is lower now than in 1964. In short, the country is in a terrible mess, so why are we investing so much in it? Altruism? Sadly not. Ukraine is in the forefront of the EU’s desire to expand its sphere of influence and in the process to rub President Putin’s nose in the dirt. There is strong evidence of EU involvement in the coup which ousted former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich in 2014.

There is a distinct lack of logic here. Why is Ukraine being cultivated as a potential EU member whereas Russia is being excluded? Historically, the two nations have been close – indeed, Kiev was the capital of a state regarded by Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians alike as the place from whence their civilisations sprang. It was in Kiev in 988 that Prince Vladimir the Great converted to Orthodox Christianity. The EU has already allowed Greece and Bulgaria, historically Eastern Orthodox, to join the club. If Ukraine is welcome too, why not its Orthodox northern neighbour?

Indeed, the only real justification for our supporting Ukraine is that under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum the UK and US are guarantors (morally, if not legally) of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Our task has not been helped, however, by either the EU’s territorial expansionism or its cold-shouldering of Russia. The deterioration in relationships between the EU and Russia cannot be blamed entirely on its president. It was the EU which backed away from closer trading links a few years back. Basically, the powers-that-be in Brussels just do not want a good relationship with Moscow.

And who is paying the price for their pig-headedness? Not just the people of Ukraine caught up in a war which has largely disappeared from the headlines; Europe’s dairy farmers are suffering as one of their biggest export markets has been closed. When the EU imposed sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin replied by banning imports of dairy products. Russia was one of the EU’s biggest markets for dairy products, accounting for 32 per cent of cheese exports and 24 per cent of butter exports. The net result is that European wholesale milk prices have fallen by 20% and no less than £365 million emergency aid has had to be provided to the EU’s agricultural sector to keep it going. Even this gesture only came about following a demonstration by tractor-driving farmers in Brussels which brought the part of the city in which the EU institutions are located to a grinding halt.

Our farmers are affected as we are part of the EU. However, if we were an independent country, we could keep our nose out of many aspects of this unsavoury regional rivalry which is really of very little strategic interest to us. Norway decided to join the EU and the US in imposing sanctions on Russia, but the decision was made by the Norwegian government. Switzerland initially refused to apply any sanctions, only joining in during August 2014 and again, the decision was taken by the Swiss government. Some EU member states in Eastern Europe have not felt comfortable with the sanctions and view them as counterproductive, notably Hungary and Bulgaria, but they have no scope to lift them unilaterally. Whether our government would pursue a more independent course if we left the EU is very much dependent on who was in power at the time. At least, however, we would have the opportunity to do so.

More stirrings on the Left

The debates in the German Bundestag are, apparently, pretty soporific affairs most of the time but there are a few exceptions to the rule. One such occasion was this remarkable tirade by Sahra Wagenknecht, the economics spokesman and deputy leader of Die Linke, party translated simply as “The Left.” Die Linke’s ideology lies very much to the left of the German Social Democratic Party. It is profoundly anti-capitalistic and the party’s MEPs are part of the Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament, sitting alongside MEPs from, among others, Sinn Féin, Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos.

As this blog has pointed out before, the EU’s handling of the latest Greek bailout has upset many on the Left. Whether they are justified to be so upset is another matter. As Richard North points out, the media’s treatment of Greece as an innocent victim is somewhat one-sided. For years, Greeks have not been very good at paying taxes (or collecting them, for that matter), the public sector is very large and blessed with a very generous retirement package. You do not have to hold right-of-centre views to believe that a smaller, more efficient Greek state might help the country to recover economically or that pumping money unconditionally into a country in such a dire economic state is not money well spent. Indeed, one of the most vocal opponents of any further bailout has been the left-of centre government in Slovakia. “It would be impossible to explain to the public that ‘poor’ Slovakia . . . should compensate Greece,” said Robert Fico, the Slovak Prime Minister last February

Perception, however, is as important as reality – indeed, more so, in some cases – and Dr Wagenknecht puts forward her perception of how badly her country’s leaders have handled the bailout in a remarkably forthright manner. Followers of the UK’s eurosceptic MEPs will note that Frau Merkel’s face wears that same expression as the likes of Hermann van Rompuy or Jean-Claude Juncker when being verbally assaulted by Nigel Farage or Dan Hannan. “Europe is a non-democratic colony controlled by banksters,” she declares. “You are postponing the bankruptcy announcement to avoid admitted that you’ve wasted millions of euros.” Tellingly, she quotes from Paul Krugman, the influential Keynesian economist beloved by many on the Left, whose long-standing criticism of so-called “austerity” has metamorphosised into criticism of the whole EU project, especially the single currency, as a consequence of the latest Greek bailout.

Will we see Die Linke developing an increasingly eurosceptic position? The concept of any even remotely eurosceptic party emerging in Germany seemed like a fantasy a decade ago, but the arrival on the scene of Alternative für Deutschland on the right shows that all things are now possible. With some factions within Greece’s Syriza movement now openly supporting Greek withdrawal from the euro and no fewer than three Guardian columnists – Owen Jones, George Monbiot and Suzanne Moore – publicly proclaiming their willingness to consider voting “No” in a referendum, evidence is pointing to growing disillusion with the EU on the left across several different countries. While Greece, whether rightly or wrongly, has been a catalyst, there is a wider issue here, which Dr Wagenkencht also mentions. In the 1980s, the largest political grouping within the European Parliament was the Socialist group. The most influential Commission president of that era, Jacque Delors, was a socialist. The EU had a strongly socialist feel to it in those days, which Mrs Thatcher disliked as much as its federalism. Fast forward to 2015 and socialists are no longer a majority in the European Parliament. Centre-right governments are in the majority in the EU member states, with Denmark being the latest to eject a socialist administration in a general election earlier this year. Socialists are looking in vain for Delors’ European Social Model and its absence is making them feel less and less comfortable in today’s EU of lobbyists and multinationals with its willingness to reduce workers’ rights and dilute the Social Chapter..

The EU will achieve a remarkable feat if it manages to alienate both left and right. At the moment, right-of-centre withdrawalism is largely confined to the UK, while the mainstream left parties of the PSE group remain solidly behind the European project. It is quite clear, however, that if the widely-reported rumours of a new treaty in the offing, involving closer integration for the Eurozone countries, become reality that it will face considerable opposition, especially from the Left, many of whom have become convinced that a democraticaly-elected socialist government cannot fulfil its mandate from within the Eurozone. Still, that is for the future. For now, in this political quiet season, Dr Wagenknecht’s diatribe, complete with English subtitles, is a treat for anyone who enjoys seeing EU grandees like Merkel and Schäuble being given a thorough lambasting.

A despatch from Athens

There is no shortage of media coverage on Greece’s current financial crisis. This piece, however, paints a different picture from most. It is written by Thanasis Laskaratos of EPAM, the Greek People’s movment. EPAM is a cross-party campaigning organisation, similar to CIB.

Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, announced a referendum on creditor’s bailout demands, and even called for NO. It has been at least 30 years since Greece last held a referendum, so the decision was welcomed by the majority of Greek people.
Two days later the government decided to impose capital controls by shutting banks for a week and imposing limit on cash withdrawals (60,00€ per cardholder, per day).Public officials were paid normally on the 27th and the 28th of June, unlike pensioners, who need to line up at specific banks, open exclusively for them, to withdraw a maximum of 120€. The private sector was equally left at its fate. The ECB embargoed Greece but the government didn’t take any measures whatsoever to calm down the people who were left suddenly without any cash or to find a solution for paying the country’s pensioners.
To ordinary people voting YES equates to staying within the EU and Eurozone and NO equates to the opposite. This is indeed the real meaning of this referendum despite the Greek government’s intentions and efforts to persuade people otherwise. No wonder why the percentage planning to vote NO, although initially standing at 54% at the beginning of the week. has tended to fall these last few days according to the EuObserver newspaper. Unsurprisingly, there is an unprecedented amount of propaganda in favour of YES by just almost all media within the country as well as by a bunch of singers (like Nana Mouskouri), actors, university professors, TV-starlets and other celebrities.
As expected, the tactics of the YES campaign have been characterised by fear and distortion of the truth. There were two big rallies in Athens last weekend – on 29th June by NO supporters and on 30th June by YES supporters. The NO gathering received 8.43 minutes of news coverage as oppposed to 46.83 minutes for the YES gathering. No one in the media wil admit that voting YES means more unemployment, more suicides, more taxes, more homeless people and more misery. They just call it the bail-out program’.
And meanwhile, what has the government done? Besides letting the pensioners line up at the banks – thus causing deliberately panic – it has offered extra guarantees of 1.91 billion Euros to Eurobank and another 4.92 billion euros to Ethniki Bank. So on the one hand, the government is happy to protect bankrupted banks at the taxpayers’ expense, but on the other, when it comes to pensions and salaries the government does nothing.
At the same time Mr. Tsipras has submitted a new proposal to the creditors. The new proposal aims ‘to settle the ESM financing so that the debt becomes sustainable while emphasis is given on the growth perspective’. In other words, Greek taxpayers will pay off the IMF with ESM’s money at at least double the interest rate, thus putting Greece under ESM, a mechanism that works like a super-state which is able to dismantle the entire country.
For all his efforts, Mr. Tsipras really sides with the YES campaign even though he publicly supports NO. IN this , he is just like the communist party, KKE, who suggest spoiling the ballot papers. This coming referendum will make many masks fall down and reveal where the politicians and their parties really stand.
Thanasis has also confirmed a report that the Greek government destroyed its printing presses in the run-up to joining the Euro. If it is forced to return to the Drachma, the banknotes will have to be printed in the UK or France.

Photo by Kristoffer Trolle

More nonsense from Ed Miliband

The latest sparring match in the election campaign has centred on foreign policy. Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of adopting an “inward-looking approach” to foreign policy at a speech at Chatham House on Friday. According to the Labour Leader, the Prime Minister’s leadership has resulted in the “biggest loss of influence for our country in a generation”.

Like a worn-out gramophone record, Miliband will include a criticism of Cameron’s offer of an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU. Recognising the weakness of the economic arguments, he has had to turn to the alleged political arguments against withdrawal. “The Tory view threatens to weaken further our position abroad, a pessimistic isolationism,” claimed Miliband.

This organisation is no cheer leader for David Cameron. His offer of a referendum is better than nothing, but it is quite clear that a Cameron-led government will bend every sinew to obtain an “in” vote. However, Miliband is living in cloud-cuckoo land if he believes that staying in the EU will increase our clout on the world stage.

Several recent articles which have appeared on the internet bring home the hard truth – the EU revolves around Germany. It has the largest population and is by far the largest economy in the Eurozone. The crisis in Greece has underlined how much Germany calls the shots in the Eurozone. Once Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble made it clear that there can be no deviation from the policy of austerity agreed in 2011, the die was cast. The rest of the single currency bloc and Christine Lagarde of the IMF all fell into line:- Greece can expect no realistic easing of credit terms.

There are legitimate grounds for exasperation with Greece. Even the far less confrontational centre right government led by Antonis Samaras, which was ousted by Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing Syriza movement earlier this year, dragged its heels. Given Syriza came to power on an anti-austerity ticket, it was inevitable that Brussels and Frankfurt would quickly find themselves at loggerheads with the new régime in Athens. However, for all the criticisms which can legitimately be made of the immature behaviour of Syriza’s leaders and the party’s ill-judged economic policies, they had a mandate from the Greek electorate.

Is the EU about to undermine this and seek régime change? This is the verdict of at least one analyst who states that “The campaign to bring Greece into line is not just about economics. It is power politics designed to crush any democratic voices that challenge the EU’s reigning economic orthodoxy.” If it fails, Greece may leave the Euro and possibly the EU, which, while financially manageable, would raise all manner of political implications, especially given Athens’ warm relationship with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. However, what if it succeeds?

The writer goes on to say that “Brussels will have definitively exposed its profoundly anti-democratic nature” and that “this will have political repercussions, not only in much bigger peripheral countries like Italy and Spain, also suffering under austerity policies, but in countries like France and Britain that belong to the core of the EU. A German-led exercise of power to crush a democratically elected European government with an iron fist will provoke a strong reaction in France, which sees itself as a bastion of democratic ideals. An off-the-cuff remark by Schäuble at the IMF meeting to the effect that France, too, would probably be happy to have someone force their Parliament to take action provoked a storm of indignation in France cutting across party lines.”

Turning specifically to UK, the article goes on to claim that crushing Greece “could tip the scales in a British election next month deemed too close to call, fuelling eurosceptic opinion that could boost not only the anti-European U.K. Independence Party but the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron, who has pledged to hold a referendum on continued EU membership if re-elected.” Considering Cameron is every inch a Brussels stooge, it would be ironic if he were to benefit from an escalation in the Greek crisis, but at least it would show up Miliband’s claims for the hollow nonsense that they are. Germany rules the roost as far as the EU is concerned. FACT. If we want to have any real influence in the world, we therefore have to throw off its yoke and regain our independence.

Photo by RiotsPanel

An improvement in the Eurozone economy, but its politics remains fragile

The launch of a progamme of quantitative easing by the European Central Bank does seem to have revived business confidence across the Eurozone after a long period of stagnation which saw a sustained fall in bank lending to businesses. Consumers are also now becoming less reluctant to spend, with both retail sales and car registrations up. The weakening Euro is helping Eurozone exporters and with the overall Eurozone annual inflation rate still negative, the increase in the cost of imports (which is the other side of the coin to currency depreciation) does not seem to be causing too many problems. Of course, broad-brush macroeconomic data do not reflect conditions on the ground for some struggling individuals – or indeed, in the case of an 18-country bloc, for some struggling member states – but things are definitely looking up on the economic front after a damaging double-dip recession.

Politically, it is a different story. Greece remains a concern, with still no sign of an imminent agreement with its creditors. The country’s Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis told one national Greek daily yesterday that the option of holding a referendum or snap elections exists “in the back of our minds…in the event of an impasse” in talks with creditors. “There’s no way we would cross the red lines that we have set,” he went on to say. EU politicians want to keep Greece in the Eurozone, but not at any cost. In Germany especially, the behaviour of the new Syriza-;led government, with its talk of claims for war reparations, had not gone down well. Since 2011, when “Grexit” last appeared to be a real possibility, banking reforms have been implemented which, so many across the Eurozone believe, would prevent contagion in the event of Greece going bust and its banks collapsing. It is a small player in the Eurozone. If it were to leave or be forced out, life would go on across the rest of the single currency bloc without anyone losing much sleep.

Fair enough, but an important principle will have been violated. Eurozone membership was meant to be irreversible. Suppose it isn’t. At the moment, no one is talking about any other countries reverting to their national currencies and the remaining PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain) are not in such dire financial straits as Greece, but what if another crisis flared up? In particular, what if Greece with a new drachma, thrived economically outside the single currency bloc and the weaker countries within struggled? This would make Pexit, Spexit or whatever a more attractive possibility, thus undermining the whole project.

That may be for the future. However, in the present, a General Election was held in Finland on Sunday 19th which saw the eurosceptic Finns (formerly True Finns) become the second largest group in the country’s parliament. It is possible that they may be invited into coalition with the winners, the Centre Party. The Finns oppose any further bailouts to Greece, which could make life interesting given the deteriorating economic situation in Athens. They are also not too keen on immigration, like the Sweden Democrats and the Danish People’s Party. Quite how much influence the party’s 38MPs will be able to influence remains to be seen, but the strong showing of a eurosceptic party, even in a country with serious economic issues, is a reminder that unease at the direction of the EU isn’t going to go away any time soon – in this country or elsewhere.

Photo by Matti Mattila

Putin poses us a question

This week’s visit to Moscow by Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s newly-elected Prime Minister, did not go down well in most other European Capital cities. Admittedly, very little of substance was agreed. Russia would not exempt Greece from its trade war with the rest of the EU, so Greek farmers remain shut out from an important export market for their produce. No financial loans to Greece’s stricken economy were agreed either. This is hardly surprising as Russia has been equally affected by capital flight, not to mention to fall in the price of one of its most important exports – oil. It is hardly awash with spare cash to loan to anyone else.

So the fruits of the meeting between Tsipras and Putin amounted little more than a commitment to work more closely together, including on a number of energy projects. Nothing to get hot under the collar about?

Actually, the very fact that Tsipras even went to Moscow when Putin is being demonised as the big baddie by the West meant that he received a lot of flak from a number of European politicians. For instance, Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, warned Athens in advance of the visit not to put at risk the common EU position regarding sanctions towards Russia. However, Tsipras spoke of a new “spring” in the relations between the two countries and stressed that Greece was a “sovereign state” with the right to pursue a “multifaceted foreign policy”, not just what other EU states would like. He also reiterated his opposition to sanctions against Russia. Of course, this may all be bluff, with Greece using the Russian connection to frighten the EU and the IMF into being more flexible.

On the other hand, however, there could be more to this visit than mere posturing by Tsipras. In recent years, Putin has been keen to probe and test the idea of a “common EU position.” Greece looks a likely weak link for some obvious reasons. There is a deep historical bond between the peoples of Russia and those of both Greece and Cyprus, built on their shared Eastern Orthodox faith. In spite of Tsipras’ atheism, he was happy to accept a gift of an ancient Greek icon from Putin, an icon stolen from Greece by a German soldier in the Second World War. Russia has used the religious connections to help establish a naval base in Cyprus, just a short distance from the British base. However, Russia’s tactics go deeper than building ties with co-religionists within the EU. A number of reports in the media claim that the country’s banks have apparently provided financial support for a real mix of EU-critical parties in several member states, including the Front National in France and possibly the far-right Jobbik in Hungary. Russian media happily offer a platform for EU-critical groups, including the withdrawalist movement within the UK. It is very clear that Russia doesn’t like the EU and therefore supports anyone from within the member states with euro-critical leanings.

This poses a question for those of us seeking to withdraw the UK from the clutches of the EU. The old adage that “your enemy’s enemy is your friend” needs considerable qualification. Let’s face it, Russia under Putin is a long way from the small-government, free-speech accountable democracy which we desire to see the UK become once again. While it is economically a pretty minor player and is not driven by an ideology that sought to conquer the world like the old Soviet Union, it has flexed its military muscle in Ukraine and is causing great concern in the Baltic states that it may also seek to take over some of their territory under the pretext of protecting the ethnic Russians. Do withdrawalists really want to cosy up to Russia under its present leader?

EU foreign policy, ineffective as it is, has been built around the premise that Putin is a dangerous man and a threat to peace. The counter argument, as far as Ukraine is concerned, is that the EU, and Germany in particular, has provoked Russia by supporting the removal of the pro-Russian Ukrainian premier Viktor Yanukovich last year. Faced with two thoroughly unpleasant opposing forces, it is all too easy for the UK withdrawalist movement to say “a plague on both your houses” and keep silent over this subject. However, the drumming-up of support for the pro-Western side in Ukraine will be used, if it has not been used already, as a reason why we must stay within the EU. We must, in other words, show solidarity with those the EU likes to characterise as “the good guys” and if we become independent we will be out on a limb with no influence anywhere – the sort of argument that Tony Blair used in his recent speech.

The counter argument is that what goes on in the Ukraine, or even in Estonia, is of little strategic importance to the UK. We rightly are far more interested in talking about trade links with the Commonwealth or China than being sucked in to a conflict between two parties neither of whom we feel much sympathy for. We don’t like Putin, but we don’t feel any enthusiasm for EU meddling in the former Soviet bloc either.

Unfortunately, this isn’t good enough. To counter Europhile arguments, the withdrawalist movement needs to articulate the sort of Europe it wants to see when we leave. What do we think of the prospect of closer links between Russia and the likes of Greece and Cyprus? Would and independent UK really be happy to see the EU fall apart? And if so, what should arise in its place? This last question in particular needs careful consideration. Contrary to what our opponents might think, we do not want to pull up any sort of drawbridge, but more to the point, we aren’t able to do so anyway. The world has become a lot smaller in the age of jet aircraft and the internet. What happens across the channel, and not necessarily only a few miles across the Channel, does affect us one way or other.

We can argue for giving a boost to NATO – one of the most successful organisations to emerge from the deliberations following the Second World War. We could also seek to reinvigorate EFTA as a trade-only alternative to the EU and one that therefore will not go sticking its nose into the affairs of other sovereign states, but this is only a start. A well-articulated vision for Europe and what our role may be in shaping it from outside the EU will be as essential as a sound economic argument if we are to win the argument for withdrawal.

Photo by theglobalpanorama