Meanwhile, what of the union which we’re leaving?

Amidst all the kerfuffle of the Labour Party conference and the German General Election, a most important speech has rather slipped off many people’s radar.

France’s President Macron set out his vision of the future of the EU in a speech lasting nearly two hours.  It echoed in many ways the vision articulated by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, in his “state of the Union” address earlier this month.  More Europe, inevitably, is the way forward, said M. Macron, at least in as many words.  “At the beginning of the next decade, Europe must have a joint intervention force, a common defence budget and a joint doctrine for action,” he said, adding “The Europe that we know is too weak, too slow, too inefficient, but Europe alone can give us the ability to act in the world faced with big contemporary challenges.”

The most bizarre statement, however, was his assertion that “”In a few years, if it so wishes, Britain could regain the place that belongs to it.”

At the moment, there is much wishful thinking going on in remainiac circles, even though 75% of the electorate, so we were told at last Monday’s Labour Euro Safeguards Campaign fringe meeting, just wants the government to “get on with it.” I believe that Brexit will happen, for reasons stated in this piece, and  therefore at the very earliest, it is likely to be the middle of the next decade at the earliest before the UK electorate could ever be asked if it wants to re-join.  By this time, Macron hopes that the EU will have been re-launched – to be more precise, possibly in 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympic Games. It’s hard to see any enthusiasm for re-joining an EU re-launched according to the Macron/Juncker vision. as it consists of a beefing up of every aspect of EU which we will be the most delighted to leave behind.

Macron advocated a European rapid reaction force, a European common Asylum policy, a European carbon tax, Europe-wide lists for candidates in the 2019 European parliamentary elections  and deeper €urozone integration.

Given that the UK would not be guaranteed its opt-outs from the Single Currency or Schengen and would also lose the Fontainebleau rebate negotiated by Mrs Thatcher, it is hard to see what the appeal of re-joining could possibly be.

But let’s not jump the gun. Before M. Macron’s speech ever gets translated into policy, it will face a number of hurdles. Eurozone economic data points to an improving picture across the 19-nation bloc, but political differences, which could pit north against south and east against west are still lurking beneath the surface. Juncker stated in his speech that some from of treaty change will be necessary. If this change means closer integration, as it probably will, it will face a rough ride in Hungary and Poland for starters. Angela Merkel’s less than resounding election victory means that any talk of debt mutualisation within the €urozone will face a very rough ride in the German Parliament. It’s not just AfD who don’t like the idea – some in her own party are none too keen either. Without €urobonds, however, closer integration across the single currency area will make little progress.

Furthermore, even before Mrs Merkel has sorted out her coalition, the forthcoming election in the Czech Republic is likely to provide a further harsh dose of reality for federalist dreamers like Juncker and Macron. It is widely expected that Andrej Babis, a billionaire who heads up ANO, a strongly Eurosceptic party, could become the next Prime Minister. Mr Babis has said, “We don’t want the euro here, it gives Brussels another area for meddling” and only one third of his countrymen view the EU as a good thing.  Czech opposition to accepting refugees is likely further to intensify. Indeed, in a recent Europe-wide survey, the Czech Republic stood out  as the only other member state apart from the UK which would vote to leave altogether in the event of an independence referendum being held.

Macron is none too popular in Italy either, whose press cynically refer to him as “Micron” or “le petit Napoléon.” The country faces a general election next year which could see an assortment of eurosecptic parties win a majority of the vote.

While no one should expect the EU to implode any time soon – or indeed, any other member state to secede, it is quite obvious that even reviving the Franco-German integrationist engine is going to be hard enough for M. Macron given the weakened position of the German Chancellor. It will be child’s play, however, compared with encouraging some other member states to get on board.  The gap between the Macron/Juncker vision of the EU’s future and the predominant vision in Warsaw, Budapest and – even before its general election – Prague,  shows no sign of narrowing.

Lessons from recent history at the Labour Euro Safeguards Campaign fringe event

With a Conservative government fully engrossed in the Brexit negotiations and dominating the newspaper headlines, Labour’s take on Brexit has received comparatively little coverage beyond the divisions among its MPs in the recent vote on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and complaints that the party leadership stifled any debate or vote on its Brexit policy during its party conference.

Yesterday evening, the Labour Euro Safeguards Campaign held a fringe meeting in which a pro-Brexit position was articulated as clearly as in any Tory  – or even UKIP – gathering. In the chair was John Mills, a long-standing member of CIB’s Committee. The speakers were not as advertised, with Kate Hoey and Brendan Chilton being unavailable, although Tom Bewick, a Labour Councillor from Brighton & Hove City council who chaired the local  vote.leave group last year, was a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Kelvin Hopkins MP, the first speaker, informed the meeting that he had led Luton’s “No” campaign in the 1975 referendum. It is all too easy to forget that, in the history of euroscepticism in our country, Labour has a longer and in some ways, a far more distinguished record than the Conservatives.

The claim that Brexit was dreamed up by a set of public schoolboys who thought that “ruling Britain was their prerogative; they didn’t want outsiders muscling in,” as suggested by Simon Kuper in the Financial Times is revisionism pure and simple.  Tony Benn, Kelvin Hopkins, Nigel Spearing and, indeed John Mills himself were all campaigning for the UK to leave the EU when the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg were still at prep school.

Labour Brexiteers have different emphases from their Tory counterparts. Yesterday, several speakers pointed out that their party’s 2017 General election manifesto contained a number of re-nationalisation pledges that would not be possible to honour if we had voted to remain in the EU. No one mentioned Jacques Delors, but as far as LESC and its supporters are concerned, his “Social Europe” is dead and buried. The EU, we were told, is a neo-Liberal project committed to eroding workers’ rights and responsible for the hollowing out of UK’s industrial base.  More than that, the EU is anti-democratic and would not allow a democratically-elected socialist government to implement its agenda, as evidenced by the savage treatment meted out to Greece.

There was no enthusiasm for remaining in the Single Market, in spite of the ambivalence of Labour’s shadow Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer. Free movement of people, said one speaker from the floor, dehumanised human beings, treating them as mere commodities. There was no love lost for free movement of capital either, which was blamed for the economic decline in some poorer member states, notably (again) Greece.

The meeting recognised that many young Corbyn enthusiasts were strongly pro-EU, but felt that they could be won round by pointing out that the socialist agenda set out in the manifesto – which they enthusiastically supported – can only be implemented from outside the EU. Likewise, the leaders of many trade unions, who predominantly supported remaining in the EU, were not behaving logically considering that workers’ rights were better likely to be protected in an independent UK compared with the EU whose supreme court, the European Court of Justice, had sided with the employers rather than trade unions in the Laval and Viking Ferry disputes.

Both platform speakers and audience members recognised the challenges they faced in putting forward pro-Brexit arguments to fellow party members, with several people admitting that their stance has lost them friends. What is more, as one speaker pointed out, more people voted to leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else, so does Labour respect democracy or not? It’s not just ordinary party members who have faced criticism for raising this important issue. Caroline Flint, a former Europe minister, was heckled in Parliament for taking this stance. She represents a strongly pro-Brexit constituency and said “Since the result, I have argued leave and remain supporters should bury our difference and get on with it.”  Even if some of her parliamentary colleagues did not like her words, her principled stance was strongly endorsed by the speakers at yesterday’s meeting.

The timing of this meeting was particularly interesting coming less than 24 hours after the announcement of the result of Germany’s General Election. The headline story has been the success of Alternative für Deutschland, but another equally important development was the very poor showing of the German Socialist party, the SPD, who won a mere 20.5% of the vote. This comes in the wake of Benoît Hamon, the candidate from the equivalent party in France, the PS, polling a mere 6.36% in the first round of France’s Presidential election. In the second of the two General Elections held in Greece in 2015, PASOK, the socialist party, came fourth with only 6.3% of the vote. In each of these countries,  new left-wing parties of a more eurosceptic and radically socialist nature are making significant inroads into the traditional vote of the mainstream social democratic parties.

This hasn’t happened in the UK, but the leftward shift in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has brought a surge of new members into the party. Last night’s meeting highlighted the common factor in this growing sense of alienation among traditional left-wing voters across Europe towards the historic socialist parties – the EU. How could a man like Martin Schulz, the former leader of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, have campaigned so fervently for TTIP, the now abandoned EU-US trade deal?  TTIP was widely criticised on the left for the power it handed to multinationals, so to repeat, why were the socialists supporting this deal? The answer is simple:- Europe’s “mainstream” socialist parties, including our own Labour Party in the years from Kinnock to Miliband, saw commitment to the EU project as a far greater priority than fighting for workers’ rights – or indeed, preserving our national democracies.

Add to this the depressing effects of mass migration from Eastern Europe on the wages of the working classes in the more affluent western European nations (including the UK) and it is unsurprising that white working classes have started to look elsewhere when casting their ballot.

The white working classes were instrumental too in securing the Brexit vote.  Last year’s Leave campaign was in many ways an unlikely and at times, awkward coalition, if coalition it can be called, but the distinctive feature of the UK is the substantial right-of-centre “Thatcherite” support for withdrawal, which has no parallel in any other EU member state. This unique combination of hatred of the EU on both the left and the right of the political spectrum was necessary to clinch the vote. Left and right have differing visions of what a post-Brexit UK should look like, but last night’s meeting was a healthy reminder that without a willingness to put aside these ideological differences and work together to secure our independence,  such debates about the future shape of our country would not have been possible at all.

Reopening a can of worms?

At the moment, the papers, especially those of a remoaner persuasion, are full of positive news about the Eurozone economy.  In spite of the European Central bank’s programme of quantitative easing, which tends to reduce the value of a given currency, the €uro hit its highest level against Sterling since 2009 on 23rd August. The Eurozone manufacturing sector is doing well, with even the French economy showing signs of improving after a rather stagnant period.

So all looks rather hunky-dory across the water – or does it? As we have pointed out before, a number of underlying tensions lurk beneath the seemingly calm EU waters. Emmanuel Macron, the EU’s new blue-eyed boy, has not only seen a sharp fall in his popularity ratings in his native France, but looks likely to stir up West-East tensions following an attack on “social dumping” – the reduction in wages caused by the arrival in the west of large numbers of migrants from the former Soviet Bloc countries.  This desire to control the level of East to West migration is viewed by these countries as a form of protectionism incompatible with the Single Market.

Then the North-South divide could be rekindled soon if a recent statement by Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is anything to go by.  The Spanish government is keen to press ahead with closer fiscal and monetary integration within the 19-nation single currency bloc, calling for  Eurobonds, a  European Monetary Fund and a common Eurozone budget.

This move has the support of Germany’s Chancellor Merkel but not of many of her countrymen, who fear they will end up subsidising the weaker economies of Club Med. Luis de Guindos, Spain’s Finance Minister, said that Brexit, along with the election of President Trump, has pushed the EU and the Eurozone closer together, but given that this proposed deepening of integration within the Eurozone would require treaty change and thus reopen a can of worms, the net result could be the opposite.

Besides the hostility among the German public to Eurobonds, there is also the issue of countries outside the Single Currency Area. Poland, which has historically looked to the UK to be the spokesman for the non-Eurozone group, is concerned that closer integration among single currency users would lead to the formalising of a two-speed EU, which it has long opposed. Technically, all member states apart from Denmark (and, of course, the UK) are required to adopt the €uro after meeting certain criteria, but there is no enthusiasm to adopt the Euro in Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic and given the tensions between these countries and Brussels over migration quotas, amendments to existing treaties – or indeed, a successor to the Lisbon treaty – is likely further to fuel tensions.

So while the improved performance of the Eurozone may perhaps take something of the sting out of the North-South divide which, after all, is primarily about economics, we need to remind ourselves that the EU has always been a political project. A drive to closer integration which leaves some member states on the outside could have highly unpredictable consequences.

 

Ambassador Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos on US/Russia tensions

Anyone attending our annual rally last April will have heard the former Greek Ambassador Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos describe in graphic detail the problems his country still faces.

Those who appreciated his speech may be interested in his comments about the current tensions  between Russia and the USA. Click on this link and you will be able to follow his take on the current tit-for-tat, which provides a welcome contrast from the reporting in the mainstream media. The Ambassador’s comments begin about four minutes into the video clip.  He is very critical of what he sees as an unnecessary move by the new US administration and makes the very valid point that modern Russia is poles apart from the old Soviet Union, but some people don’t seem to have woken up to this reality.

 

Photo by FolsomNatural

North v South, East v West

Cast your eyes no further east than Berlin, Vienna or Rome and all looks pretty rosy in the EU’s garden. Apart from the shock of Brexit, most of the critical votes during the past year have gone the Establishment’s way. Even before our referendum, the Austrians set the scene by choosing a former Green party leader as President rather than Norbert Hofer of strongly eurosceptic FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria). Now this year, the Dutch and French elections have not seen any breakthrough for eurosceptic parties and looking to the future, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is losing support, with Angela Merkel looking unassailable while Italy’s Five Star Movement does not now look likely to make any sort of breakthrough when the country goes to the polls. It too may have peaked.

Meanwhile, the economic news looks positive. The €urozone is enjoying a decent recovery with deflation beaten and business confidence returning. After almost a decade of one problem after another, the EU does appear on the surface to have turned a corner. Frexit, Iexit and other variations on the same theme don’t take up many column inches now.

In actual fact, one other country would vote to leave the EU if granted a referendum – the Czech Republic. At the beginning of July, the Spectator Magazine published an interesting report on the state EU in collaboration with Project 28, a polling organisation.  47% of Czechs would vote to leave as opposed to 43% who want to stay. The country  is very much an outlier, however, as the next most anti-EU country, Greece, would vote to stay in by 54% to 39%.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and the picture isn’t so positive. Some 41% of Italians, 32% of French an 28% of Germans do not think that the EU in its present form will still exist in 10 years’ time. What is behind this sentiment? – or to put it another way, what are the most likely causes of conflict within the EU, causing it to splinter?

Firstly, the €urozone’s overall improved economic performance conceals real problems within individual countries. Youth unemployment is still over 40% in Spain and 45% in Greece. Italy recently bailed out two of its banks and, along with Spain, the overall indebtedness of its country’s banks increases while the net credit of German banks is also increasing. Such imbalances within the Single Currency area have the potential to cause problems if uncorrected. Furthermore, any push for closer political and economic integration within the €urozone would risk reopening old wounds when they have not had long to heal. Club Med is still resentful of Germany, whereas German taxpayers will not want to subsidise what they regard as the profligate and lazy southern countries.

More destabilising than the north-south divisions, however, are the east-west tensions. The Spectator claims that Hungarians have little appetite for “Hexit”, with only 15% of voters wanting to leave the EU. Viktor Orbán, the country’s leader, is a frequent critic of Brussels, however, He is no enthusiast of further integration and according to a piece in the Guardian, “he doesn’t want to leave the EU; he wants to subvert it, which is far more dangerous.”

The refugee crisis has inflamed East-West tensions. Hungary’s initial opposition to accepting large numbers of immigrants was worded roughly along the lines of “we’re not ready to accept immigrants; our country is still rebuilding itself after years of subjection to the Soviet Union. Come back in 20 years’ time and maybe we’ll be able to handle the sort of multicultural society you have in the West.” Now the rhetoric has hardened. Orbán doesn’t want multiculturalism now or ever and has announced that his country will offer a home  for “Germans, Dutch, French and Italians, terrified politicians and journalists who here in Hungary want to find the Europe they have lost in their homelands.” In the same speech, he also attacked political correctness while elsewhere, he claimed that Europe’s Christian identity was under threat from Moslem migration.

It is quite clear that there is a vast difference between his vision of the EU’s future and that of Macron and Merkel. “In 1990,  Europe was our future, now we are Europe’s future,” he said on another occasion. Meanwhile, according to one blog, in the Czech Republic, the country’s parliament has voted to enshrine in its Constitution (subject to Senate approval) the right for its citizens to carry arms. The reason for this seemingly drastic measure seems to be a concern about the possible problems which migrants might cause. The blogger wasn’t able to provide too many sources of information and any extra detail about this surprising development would be welcomed.

Such attitudes are light years away from the pathetic defeatism of Sweden’s former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who said that his countrymen were “boring”, going on to rubbish his own country to an incredible degree, claiming that “only barbarism is genuinely Swedish.” Well, the Swedish Vikings were a pretty rough lot a thousand years ago, but since then, European civilisation, including Sweden , has much of which to be proud. Is he unaware of the heroic efforts of Sweden’s king Gustav II Adolf who played a huge part in saving Europe from barbarism in the Thirty Years’ War? Or the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus whose categorisation of plants into different genres is still the basis of botany today?

It is quite unbelievable for any western leader to be so dismissive of  his country, but although perhaps the worst, he is far from unique. Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe claims that the entire continent is “weighed down with a guilt for its past.”  While his arguments are persuasive, they hardly apply to the former Soviet bloc countries like Hungary and Poland who are proudly patriotic and defensive of their culture after years of subjection to the sterile ideology of Marxism-Leninism. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of guilt in the utterances of Mr Orbán nor indeed, in those of Poland’s most influential politician Jarosław Kaczyński.

Furthermore, we are not talking about a straight west-east split. I am sure that many people living in Western Europe probably sympathise far more with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic than with their own guilt-ridden political leaders. It is these leaders, however, who will be trying to drive European integration forward and if it is on their multicultural, self-loathing politically-correct terms, then Hexit, Czexit, Polexit may be on our lips sooner than you can say Jack Robinson.

 

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.