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Saturday, 25 March 2017

The European Union is 60 years old today. Is that a reason for a party? Or is the music for its planned funeral service simply playing too loud at this moment?!

Today the European Union  established in 1993 as a much more interconnected successor, upon its predecessors the European Community and earlier the European Economic Community – became alltogether 60 years old.

It is an understatement to state that this is a historical moment in time indeed. 

This union of European countries started so modestly 66 years ago (1951), with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community – founded by West-Germany, Italy, France and the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). However, after the official formation of the EEC on 25 March 1957, the Union grew slowly, but surely into a pan-European powerhouse of 28 countries: the largest economic block in the world. 

That one of these countries – The United Kingdom  has decided to leave the Union within a few years, based upon its own motives and emotions, does not diminish the enormous success of the EU after 60 years. One can hardly overstate the enormous influence of the EU and its predecessors on the initially empoverished, shell-shocked and war-torn Europe, that was still heavily coping with the consequences of the Second World War and the formation of the Eastern Block and the Warsaw Pact afterwards.

Instead of the allied countries taking revenge upon the Germans (i.e. the West-Germans), like had happened at the end of the Great War when the victors of the war penalized Germany with vast compensations that the Germans were unable to pay, the Germans were offered a helping hand to rebuild their country. 

And in return the Germans took the whole Western Europe by the hand on the road to economic success and prosperity. The formation of the ECSC and later the EEC helped to weave the West-Germans into a comforting cocoon of economic cooperation, longlasting peace and deepening friendship with countries like France, Italy, Spain and – to a lesser degree – the United Kingdom. 

All involved countries understood that the next World War could very well be the last one for the human race and a stable Europe would tremendously help to prevent this from happening. This was, is and always will be the main raison d'etre for the sheer existence of the European Union, whatever else 'emotionless, technocrat free market addicts' tell you.

The West-Germans were at last offered the possibility to reunite their country again with East-Germany in the early Nineties, after this country had abolished socialism and Russia (in fact the Soviet Union) gave its blessing. 

Then on many occasions – the emerging Germany acted as a ‘postillion d’amour’ between the Western European countries and the former Eastern Block, that had to cope with the sudden and overwhelming end of the socialist era in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. And Germany, aware of its difficult past and special responsibility, played this extremely important role with confidence and dedication.

In the Nineties, the Schengen zone with its open borders and its virtually passport-free traveling made the cooperation and friendship between the European countries even more palpable for the people of Europe. Consequently, it seemed no less than logical that all Eastern European countries tried to participate in the European Union, even though the annoyed protests of Russia – who saw their sphere of influence in Eastern Europe crumble and on top of that thought of the NATO and the EU as two birds of the same feather – became louder and more violent over the years.

And finally the introduction of the cash Euro in 2002 became the Magnum Opus of this unprecedent bond between independent countries and the success story that it had become for almost all participants. Few people doubted at the time that the EU would grow into an ever-closer Union, akin but not equal to the United States.

At least, that was until in 2005 the intented Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe crashed and burned, due to the popular rejections of a.o. France and The Netherlands via national referendums (quote from Wikipedia:

The Treaty was signed on 29 October 2004 by representatives of the then 25 member states of the European Union. It was later ratified by 18 member states, which included referendums endorsing it in Spain and Luxembourg. However the rejection of the document by French and Dutch voters in May and June 2005 brought the ratification process to an end.

Following a period of reflection, the Treaty of Lisbon was created to )the Constitutional Treaty. This contained many of the changes that were originally placed in the Constitutional Treaty but was formulated as amendments to the existing treaties. Signed on 13 December 2007, the Lisbon Treaty entered into force on 1 December 2009.

This rejection sent shockwaves through the European institutes (European Council, European Commission and European Parliament) and left the leading politicians in shock and awe, totally flabbergasted by the unimaginable event that had happened.

This event in 2005 was an unmistakable signal that the feelings of the European people towards the progress of the European Union were shifting considerably. And even though the EU was bonded closer together via the (slightly diluted) Treaty of Lisbon that replaced the European Constitution, it felt never the same anymore as before. More and more, a significant part of the European people started to see the EU as a faceless and hardly democratic monstrosity, that was moving in a direction they didn’t like.

Also people were increasingly worried about the structural stability of the Euro, in the light of participating countries like Greece and Italy, that did not share the North-European, “Calvinist” ideas about fiscal frugality and sensible government policies.

And then came what turned out to be “the perfect storm” for the European Union: the American mortgage crisis (i.e. Lehman Brothers), which evolved into the European Credit Crisis: a crisis that started at the end of 2008 and lasted in fact until today, as many European countries are still very much struggling with the effects of this devastating crisis.

Especially Greece and to a lesser degree Italy, Ireland, Spain and Portugal (i.e. the so-called PIIGS countries) were hit mid-ship by the sudden, ubiquitous loss of confidence in the financial world and the urgent need for the European governments to first save their large banks and afterwards themselves, as the value of their sovereign bonds started dropping like a rock in a ravine.

Massive debt waves, massive tax increases, massive (youth) unemployment of almost 50%(!) in Spain and Greece and massive loss of confidence among the grassroots anywhere in Europe were the very palpable results of this crisis. 
And then there was a European Union that was indecisive and utterly divided about anything; this nearly sealed the economic doom for the weakest countries Greece and Italy. 

Instead of taking decisive actions and firm decisions, the European Council started to muddle through the crisis in a tortoise-like velocity: from one endless executive meeting to another executive meeting and with only small (i.e. almost Pyrrhic) results to celebrate, which were nevertheless celebrated as enormous political victories by the leading national politicians, until nobody believed them anymore.

The modus operandi on press conferences and in their own political arenas of the leading national politicians in Europe increasingly became: “European successes are our own successes and European failures are to blame on the nameless and faceless bureaucrats within the EU”. Especially the European Commission became the perfect bureaucrat “patsy” for everything being wrong in Europe.

And now the EU has become sixty years old; in exactly the same week that British Prime Minister Theresa May will deliver her Article 50 bidding, which will inevitably lead to a “Brexit” of the United Kingdom… How symbolic!

On top of that, while the populist party PVV (i.e. Party for Freedom) in The Netherlands has increased its number of seats in Dutch parliament, but not at all with the landslide victory that populists hoped for and others feared, the French could still choose for the populist path of Marine Le Pen’s Front National: a path that would definitely set the country up for a Frexit from the EU.

And Germany has its own populist problems to cope with, with the Alternative für Deutschland of Frauke Petry as a dark horse in the coming elections for the Bundeskanzler position. A party, which is also adamantly against the European Union as we know it.

Undeniably the “elephant in the room” is the ongoing refugee crisis, emerging from the Arab Spring turning into an unpleasantly chilling winter, with countless deaths in countries like Libya and Syria, as well as the emergence of new, extremely dangerous Arab terrorist groups, like IS (Islamic State).

Especially the massive influx of refugees has turned into a fission fungus within the European Union, as ‘everybody wants to help the refugees safely land and live in another country than his own’.

Greece and Italy are stuck with tens of thousands of refugees that have nowhere to go, as other European countries “drag their feet” in helping them and rather look the other way, by erecting large walls, fences and new borders to stop refugees from entering their OWN country. "Solidarity is very good, as long as it does not cost us anything!"

Turkey, the increasingly dictatorially led country at the brink of Europe and the Arab world, suddenly became the hero of Europe in 2016, when it was lured into a lucrative deal to host massive amounts of refugees from Syria, in exchange for vast payments of aid money. What Turkey did with those refugees? We didn’t want to know... at all! 

"Child labour? Dehumanizing lving circumstances for refugees? That is bad..., that is very bad... Oh dear..., how sad..., never mind!"

With the economic crisis (i.e. now the enduring Greek and Italian Euro crisis), the refugee crisis and the populist crisis in Europe – leading to the Brexit and perhaps a Frexit – as a complex of hardly dissolvable crises, it is unclear whether we should celebrate the European birthday or mourn its upcoming funeral. It seems that the funeral music is already playing loudly in the wake of its inevitable demise.

Will the EU survive a Frexit? Or the ongoing refugee crisis? Can it deal with the increasingly hostile aspirations of Turkey, China and Russia… and even the Trump-led United States? Will the unwilling Eastern European countries cause an implosion of the Union? Will it last for another five years? Or will it fall apart with a massive bang that sets the whole world in flames?!

It is a very awkward situation on the EU’s sixtieth birthday… and one that might not be dissolvable very easy.

But look at things from the other side: with the USA, Russia, Turkey and China as increasingly aggressive and hostile countries with their own economic agenda that is diametrically different from that of the EU, there is every reason to be thankful for the sheer existence of the EU.

In spite of the fact that the EU is not so democratic, so transparant, so well-led and so decisive as everybody hoped and prayed for, it is still a formidable economic block without a match anywhere else in the world. 

And under the wings of the EU, its member-states could build up economic prosperity, safety and justice for all its citizens, while corruption and nepotism were mostly taken down under the ever watchful eyes of the European Commission and its vast staff of civil servants.

On top of that: the EU has proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that it has mastered the art of muddling through the crisis like no-one else before. Already in the early days of 2011, pundits saw the end of the Euro coming for Greece and Ireland, but this end actually never happened. “Ireland?” you probably say now: “Did they ever have a euro problem?! I totally forgot about that!”.

The EU always managed to find the smallest loophole in order to escape from the most acute existential crises and to muddle through the endlessly continuing economic crisis even further, with all EU members aboard and intact.

And even though Greece is still in big trouble, it is very much a member of the Euro-zone and the signals that the country is going to leave it, became hardly stronger than in those early days of the euro crisis. 

And last, but not least: there isn't a crisis so big that the European Council, Parliament and Commission can't solve it (or postpone it) more or less, with endless meetings and seemingly pointless conclusions. That seems an utter weakness, but could really be a strength in disguise of the EU.

So, let us celebrate this beautiful day of 60 years Europe, in all its imperfections and knowing there is still a helluva lot of work to do. And let us not forget, that without the EU the chances for this longlasting peace and prosperity in Europe, would have been much, much dimmer.

And to end with a bombshell: let us watch how the United Kingdom will manage itself outside the protective wings of the EU, on its solo mission to greener pastures and a brighter future. It will be one of the biggest sociological experiments in human history, of which the outcome is very much uncertain!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Will 2017 be the year that the new strong men of Europe, Russia, Turkey and the United States finally shake off the remains of their “veil of civilization”?

The cocktail consisting of the enduring, global economic crisis and the societal unrest that it causes, in combination with the soaring wave of nationalism hitting the globe since a decade and the mounting, almost ubiquitous need for ‘strong, decisive politicians’ is an extremely poisonous one.

Next to the ‘usual suspects’ consisting of whole and half dictators in the Middle-East, the Far East and in the former Soviet Union (i.e. Russia itself, according to many, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Chechnya to name a few), this cocktail yielded a bunch of authoritarian leaders within the EU itself. 

People such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, who is an autocratic leader and a  declared opponent of the free press. And in Poland the shadow-leader of the country, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the PiS (i.e. Law and Justice party), who made the country turn into an extremely conservative direction, in which minorities come more and more under jeopardy. These are leaders that couple a undeniable amount of xenophobia and populism with self-reverance and an allergy for (inter)national criticism.

On top of that, there is the Brexit in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Theresa May has been morphing from a initially EU-friendly and moderately conservative politician into the terminator-in-chief of the British EU membership: at any price and cost and in the toughest variety possible. And this Brexit itself might be followed by a split off of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the UK, as they see more future for themselves as independent countries within the EU than within the UK. 

This might cause yet another political implosion within the European continent, after the unfortunately events in the Balkan countries (i.e. former Yugoslavia) and the quest for independence of Catalunya in Spain.

And last, but not least, this poisonous cocktail yielded of course Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. A president, whose seemingly erratic and sometimes straight-away racist, undemocratic and xenophobe presidency is causing more and more commotion at home and abroad – this even includes the Kremlin, where ‘dictator-ish’ Russian President Vladimir Putin is scratching himself behind his ears, whether he did not get much more than where he bargained for, with this rogue 'leader of the free world'.

Trump is adamantly against the to his eyes “hostile mainstream press and media”, who he started to shut out from the White House press briefings, and by his appointment of ex-Breitbart editor-in-chief Steve Bannon – an extremist-right wing  swashbuckler and prominent producer of fake news – as a member of the National Security Council, he created a formerly unheard of precedent regarding the American security situation. 

Even among the GOP senators and congressmen, who genuinely hate the Democrats’ guts, the clamor about this loose cannon Trump is getting louder and louder.

But that’s not all…

The Netherlands, Germany and France are on the brink of national elections in which the question is not so much whether their populist politicians Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom), Frauke Petri (Alternative für Deutschland) and Marine Le Pen (Front National) will do well, but HOW well they will do and what their (devastating) influence on national politics and the European Union will be.

And the only thing that the existing, moderate parties in these countries can seemingly do is adjust their visions and points-of-view to their populist counterparts, in order to not lose all their grassroots to these more extremist views, that seem to become more and more in vogue in these countries. 
The whole situation is akin to a pressure cooker with the safety valve being stuck.

The latest event in this range of ubiquitous societal tensions within the Western societies and the mounting global acrimony is the diplomatic war between Turkey at one hand and Germany and The Netherlands at the other.

Riding on the wave of the Turkish nationalist-religious outbursts in Turkey, that soared after the failed coup d'etat, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has organized a national referendum in order to change the Turkish constitution. 

This change is planned to give President Erdoğan nearly absolute power as president and to prolong his reign well into the Twenties of this century, when he turns 75. In order to secure his nearly certain victory in the referendum, Erdoğan does not only mobilize his domestic grassroots, but also the vast amounts of Turkish citizens in Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands.

Initially Erdoğan planned to administer a speech himself in these countries, but he very reluctantly withdrew these plans, only to send his Minister of Foreign Affairs instead to do this job. This led to a strong reaction of disapprovement among the leadership of The Netherlands and Germany, who remembered all too well the mounting tensions within their Turkish community shortly after the failed coup d’etat in The Netherlands, allegedly organized by the grassroots of religious leader-in-exile Fetullah Gülen.

Especially in The Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte – under fierce pressure of his most feared opponent Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom) – felt the urgent need to stop this Turkish hunt for favourable referendum votes on Dutch soil at all cost, in an attempt to show that “in his country he is the boss and not Recep Erdoğan, for crying out loud”.

So when Mark Rutte learned that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stepped on a plane to keep his speech in The Netherlands in spite of the urgent request to not do so, he took the drastical step to personally withdraw the landing rights of this Turkish airplane, thus effectively stopping the Foreign Ministers of landing at Dutch shores. Whether this hardly precedented step by the Dutch Prime Minister was legal and appropriate in this situation did not matter too much, in this international match of diplomatic sharpshooting.

The Turkish goverment reacted to this step as being bitten by a snake: both Erdoğan and Cavusoglu called the Dutch government “a bunch of fascists and nazi remains” and warned that this step would have fierce consequences for The Netherlands… both for Dutch diplomats and the Dutch tourists, who just cautiously started to return to the Turkish beaches and all-inclusive hotels as a summer holiday destination.

And this was not the end of it: not even close. Turkey sent their female Minister of Family Affairs Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya by car(!) from Germany on a mission to The Netherlands, to show that President Recep Erdoğan would bend for nobody in his struggle for a favourable referendum outcome. 

“Who the hell thought this clown Mark Rutte of this teeny-weeny country at the North Sea that he was, that he tried to stop the undisputed leader of the most powerful country in the Middle East?! Captain America? Superman? Get out of my way, you darn SOB!” That were probably Erdoğan most intimate thoughts, I presume.

But PM Rutte did not plan to give in to this Turkish attempt to brutally overpower the desires of the Dutch government by stealth. He sent a police force to the Turkish consulate, where they caught the escort of the Turkish Minister before she could give her speech to the large numbers of Dutch-Turkish citizens who all wanted to hear it. The Turkish minister was expelled as ‘an unwanted visitor’ of The Netherlands and she was escorted to the German border, whereafter she soon returned to Turkey.

The Turkish outrage was now complete and President Erdoğan warned the Dutch government that he would take “strong countermeasures against this outrageous treatment of the Turkish political officials”.

The fact that this political situation between Turkey and The Netherlands got out of hand so quickly and in this formerly unheard of manner – irrespective of with whom you sympathize in this very awkward political situation – shows how messed up the current political conundrum in the world has become.

Turkish President Erdoğan feels so powerful and mighty at his hometurf and he sees his own leadership for Turkey as so righteous and “God-given” that he thinks he can brutally overpower the strong and crystal-clear desires of the Dutch and German government, by sending his ministers in spite of the strongest demands to do not so.

And PM Mark Rutte of The Netherlands feels so weak in the wake of the elections for the new Dutch cabinet – in which he hopes to become PM for the third time in a row in spite of the mounting populism – that he took the risk of breaching Dutch constitutional laws (i.e. of free speech and free association) and causing an international incident with Turkey, in order to make his point clear.

Whatever the outcome of this peculiar international incident might be, it makes very clear once more to these eyes that the boundaries of international diplomacy are about to be stretched substantially in 2017 and that the world is not becoming more safe in the process.

Irrespective of whether the populists might eventually win or lose in Germany, France and The Netherlands and how these European countries might be governed in the aftermath of the general elections, 2017 could become the year that the strong men of Europe, Russia, Turkey and the United States finally take off the remains of their “veil of civilization”! And that is a very worrisome prospect for our own safety and that of our children and loved ones.