State of the Disunion as 60th anniversary celebrations approach

No doubt there were huge sighs of relief in Brussels that fewer Dutch voters than expected supported Geert Wilders’ anti-establishment PVV in the country’s recent General Election and that the VVD (Liberal) party, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte gained the most seats.

A few days before the European Union’s 27 remaining members meet to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of  Treaty of Rome, they can breathe more easily – at least for now. However, Mr Wilders was never going to become Prime Minister due to the multiplicity of political parties in the Netherlands, virtually all of which ruled out going into coalition with his party. If the PVV had become the largest party in the Dutch Parliament, it would have nonetheless emboldened anti-EU parties in France and Germany, where elections are also due later this year.

Even so, next weekend’s festivities cannot disguise the harsh fact that the EU is becalmed, with no clear sense of direction. Eurosceptic parties may not yet be on the verge of forming governments in Western Europe, but their support is growing steadily. In response, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, has recently published a white paper offering five different future scenarios for the bloc’s future.

In a nutshell, these range from pressing on with ever closer union (Scenario 5) at one extreme to a reduction to nothing more than a Single Market (Scenario 2) at the other. The other three options are a two-speed Europe (Scenario 3), with some countries integrating faster than others, “Doing less more efficiently” (Scenario 4) and “Carrying on” (Scenario 1).

The ever-closer union option is unlikely to gain much favour in Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Hungary. The current Polish government is a supporter of repatriating power from Brussels and the recent reappointment of Donald Tusk, a member of Poland’s biggest opposition party, as President of the European Council against the wishes of Poland’s government, is not going to improve relations between Warsaw and Brussels. Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski said that his country will “play a very rough game” in the European Union.

Hungary has no appetite for interference in its internal affairs by Brussels. The European Commission has criticised the construction of a razor wire fence on the border with Serbia, but Hungary has ignored the criticism and pressed on regardless.

Then there are Greece’s problems. Our friends in EPAM, a Greek Eurosceptic organisation, are organising protests against austerity outside several Greek embassies, including one in London, on Saturday 25th March. The organisation claims that austerity has bitten so deep into Greece’s fabric that lives are being lost as the country’s health service has reached the point of collapse. One article recently brought to our attention claims that “The country is rotting inside the EU and the eurozone. The Greek people have crashed economically. Greek cities, because of massive illegal immigration, look less like cities in Europe and more like cities in Afghanistan. Banks have begun the mass-confiscation of residences. The people are on the verge of revolt.

Of course, it is the Euro, one of the EU’s flagship policies, which has put Greece into its current straitjacket. Until recently, however, support for both the Euro and EU membership was remarkably strong. Almost two years ago, at the height of the last financial crisis, over 69% supported remaining within the Eurozone, with 56% wanting to keep the single currency even if it meant harsh austerity measures being imposed.

Such statistics act as a reality check to those of us in the UK whose dislike of the EU is so intense that we find it hard to figure out why other countries are not preparing to follow us out of the exit door.  We have never been keen on pooled sovereignty and for us, the EU’s “Ring of death” flag is a badge of shame. Across the Channel, things are viewed differently. Member states which suffered years of Soviet rule or military dictatorships view EU membership as a symbol break with a past they are all too keen to forget. While not all the EU’s leading lights are such gushing  federalists as the Belgian MEP and former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt,  there are still plenty of enthusiasts for the project. For instance the Spanish MEP  Esteban González Pons who called Brexit “selfish”, claimed that the EU was the “only alternative” in an increasingly globalised world and expressed the hope that one day, we would one day “come home”  – re-join the EU in other words.

Such sentiment seems almost laughable given that others in the EU clearly view  Brexit as a great opportunity to press on with closer union now the pesky foot-dragging Brits are going their own way.  We will no doubt hear much about how wonderful the EU is during next weekend’s celebrations, but once the festivities are over, the leaders of EU-27 will have to look long and hard at Mr Juncker’s five options for the EU’s future and coming to a consensus isn’t gong to be easy. Geert Wilders may not have achieved the breakthrough for which he hoped, which in turn has made Marine le Pen’s already difficult path to the Elysée Palace even harder, but the EU has only won a short-term reprieve.  A big fireworks display in Rome cannot disguise the fact that it faces a serious identity crisis which it shows little sign of being able to resolve.

Photo by Christopher Lotito

Outrageous – or a denial of harsh reality?

collapsing building photoPresident

President Trump’s choice of Ted Malloch, a former Oxford Academic who speaks French and German fluently, to be the next US ambassador to the EU, has not gone down well in Brussels.

On the face of it, the trilingual Malloch appears very well qualified for the job. He is an experienced diplomat who served at an ambassadorial level in Geneva as deputy to the executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe. He also sits on the Institute of Economic Affairs’ academic advisory council.

Professor Malloch’s sin is to have given a harsh analysis of the current political climate.  “Davos-man is dead,” he declares. “Read the obituary. It is framed in the US election and all that Trump represents. The post-Berlin Wall globalisation consensus is over. Going around telling the locals that they are racists for opposing migration does not help. They are not racists, they are nationalists – and the reality is that just like homeowners they want to feel and see the benefits of home ownership or being a national. Building the country is now Trump’s political and economic imperative.”

More cuttingly, he also said “No longer do we need to have ultimate allegiance paid to corrupt international organisations.” The gist of his argument is that the West is going through  a seismic change on a par with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its attendant Marxist-Leninist ideology in 1989-91.

He could be right, although only time will tell whether his optimism is justified. After all, there have been plenty of false dawns in the past. Think of the like of Wordsworth’s early euphoria  about the French revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive“) or Francis Fukuyama’s book “The end of History and the Last Man”  which naively predicted in the wake of the collapse of the USSR that liberal democracy would spread effortlessly across the world.

But whether or not we are living at a time when the tectonic plates are shifting, Malloch’s comments about international organisations – and the EU in particular – have infuriated the leaders of the main political groupings in the European Parliament. Several have gone as far as to call for his nomination to be withdrawn.  Manfred Weber of the Christian Democrat grouping and Guy Verhofstadt, who heads up ALDE, the liberals, wrote a letter to the EU Council President Donald Tusk saying that his “statements reveal outrageous malevolence regarding the values that define this European Union.”

Malloch’s strongest and most controversial criticism of the EU was his boast that “I had in a previous career a diplomatic post where I helped to bring down the Soviet Union, so maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming.” This has particularly upset the Germans, who are every bit as keen as Messrs Verhofstadt and Weber to block his appointment. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Foreign Minister, recenly visited America and reportedly told his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson, “We are the new kids on the block.” He counterposed “a confident and ‘strong Europe'” to the new US president’s “America first” Readers may recall that Barack Obama’s last port of call on his last foreign trip before handing over the reins of office was Germany. Several commentators highlighted the symbolism of this act – a “handing over of the torch” – a recognition by Obama that Mrs Merkel in Berlin rather than his successor in the White House would be the standard-bearer for the particular “liberal” values he espoused.

But are the values of Obama and Mrs Merkel the values of the EU as a whole?  In answering this question, one can see why Malloch’s criticisms have evoked such anger among the EU’s élite. Look eastwards from Brussels to Budapest or Bratislava and you will find, in Peter Oborne’s words, countries that are “more bigoted than Trump’s America.”

Now whether or not you think that Trump’s America is bigoted (and many people clearly do not) or whether you support Viktor Orban’s plans to build a massive fence and his claim that migrants are “a poison” that Hungary “won’t swallow” – or indeed, whatever your views about the statement by the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico that Islam had “no place” in his country – it is indisputable that these men do not hold the same values as Barack Obama and, more importantly, Angela Merkel.

Poland is another headache for the EU. Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the country’s de facto leader, has called for EU members to challenge what he called German dominance. “Merkel is the absolute No. 1 in the EU and that is not a healthy situation,” he said. The governing Law & Justice (PiS) Party, which he leads, has been accused of breaking the rule of law and the country faces the withdrawal of its voting rights if it fails to conform. Since coming to power, PiS has passed laws giving it powers to appoint the heads of the state TV and radio stations and has interfered in the operations of the Polish supreme court. The party is also socially conservative, with close links to the Roman Catholic Church. It also supports returning power from Brussels to the member states – diametrically opposed to the “ever closer union” of the Treaty of Rome.

Can the EU really hold together when member states take such polarised positions over the issues which Professor Malloch claims are currently re-shaping the Western world? One person who has his doubts is Paul Magnette, the Minister-President of Wallonia, the French speaking part of Belgium. In a stark about-turn from the usual expansionist federalism of  most Western European politicians, M. Magnette has stated that the departure of further member states  from the EU would be “desirable”. Slovakia isn’t  on his list, but Hungary definitely is, along with Poland,  Bulgaria and Romania. Will we have to get our tongues round “Polxit, Hungrexit, Romaxit and Bulgxit” before long?

Ironically, it’s the economic issues rather than the ideological divergence which concern M. Magnette. The workers have migrated west while the money has move east – a far from ideal situation. He feels that a peeling-off of some member states is the only road to renewal. His observations about students’ views on the EU contrast starkly and surprisingly with the UK’s Europhile “snowflakes” who paraded themselves all over our newspapers in the wake of the Brexit vote.  “When I speak to students”, he said, “Europe doesn’t mean anything any more. On the contrary, it symbolises the losers of globalisation,  the cause of all (their) problems.”
Europhiles on both sides of the Channel insist that any talk of the EU disintegrating is wishful thinking on the part of British Leave voters who hate the EU. “It is here to stay” claims Miguel Otero-Iglesias. But when a senior Belgian politician warns that it is going to disintegrate, it is possible that Professor Malloch’s forthright euroscpticism may be nothing more or less than a statement of harsh and uncomfortable reality.

Money down the drain

Recent visitors to Spain have noticed the excellent motorway system the country has recently built – indeed, it almost seems a case of overkill, as a lot of them seem to be empty. It’s the same with Spain’s airports. The country has a staggering 47 state-run airports. Does a country with less than 75% of the population of the UK need so many?

The answer according to the Spanish government is no, and two and half years ago, they started to close them down. Indeed, some of them never really opened. Not a single flight has ever landed at the International Airport of the Murcia Region, which cost 266 million euros.

How has Spain, which has been through such a tough time recently, found the money for these grandiose projects? The answer is that it hasn’t. You and I, the European taxpayers, have footed the bill for these white elephants.

The auditors of the European Union have finally woken up to this waste. They recently declared that more than £100 million of European Union funding to build airports has been “wasted” and an additional £165m was “poor value for money”. Nine of the 20 airports across the EU they studied were “not needed at all”.

Unsurprisingly, the European Commission claims that the auditors are not presenting the full picture. “It is a completely unrepresentative sample of Europe’s airports,” said a spokesman.

Perhaps, but the busy airports like London Heathrow or Amsterdam’s Schipol were not built with EU funds.

Furthermore, infrastructure spending in Spain and Portugal has always been viewed as an investment worth making in order to have a “dry run” for the bigger infrastructure improvements needed by the former Soviet bloc countries. These have already started and no surprise, airports in Poland and Estonia were also mentioned by the auditors. In Poland, according to Euractiv, over 100 million euros has been spent on thre “ghost” airports.

Anyone who visited Central and Eastern Europe during or immediately after the Days of the Warsaw Pact would agree that the infrastructure of those countries was inadequate, but are these white elephants really good value for our money? Tony Blair defended his decision to give up Mrs Thatcher’s hard-won rebate in 2005, saying that we must “transfer wealth from rich countries to poor countries”, and that we were, “investing in Eastern Europe.”

The British people are remarkably generous in supporting worthy causes, voluntarily giving millions of pounds in relief aid following last year’s typhoon in the Philippines, for instance, but we have no choice about this international compulsory wealth redistribution. We were never consulted as to whether we wanted to support the worthy cause of improving the infrastructure of Eastern Europe. It was certainly not included in Labour’s 2005 election manifesto. Even if the money had been spent wisely, our own government urgently needs it to reduce our national deficit. Given it has been spent very badly, Blair’s arguments nine years ago look more vacuous than ever.