Wednesday 28 September 2016

Europeans are authors of their own weakness

Last week, Europe failed on almost every front and paid the price. The next seven days will change the continent

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

Queues outside a branch of the Piraeus Bank in Athens yesterday after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called a referendum on austerity demands
Queues outside a branch of the Piraeus Bank in Athens yesterday after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called a referendum on austerity demands

A century ago, Europe led the world. Things are very different now. The continent has been in an almost uninterrupted decline ever since. Some of the decline has been merely relative - many poorer countries have been lifting themselves out of poverty and becoming more influential in world affairs. But Europe's decline has not all been relative and some of the diminution of its clout and standing globally is self-inflicted.

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Wars aside, none of the self-inflicted setbacks has ever quite matched the fiasco surrounding Greece in the eurozone, which last week reached new depths in terms of the animosity it has generated among the participants. To make matters even worse, events frequently veered towards the absurd and the farcical. It is hard to be European and proud this weekend.

The rest of the world watched goings on in Brussels with a mixture of puzzlement and derision. A small sample of comments by global opinion makers over the course of the week illustrates how bad it has become.

On Tuesday in the Asia Times, that organ's columnist Chan Akya wrote: "The crescendo of deadlines this week will probably come to naught, and quite frankly today's headlines about what the Germans want versus what the Greeks are willing to concede all just represent a boring rehash of discussions conducted in haste with unlimited posturing from all sides albeit without the benefits of logic or common sense."

From east to west, the increasingly derisive view of Europe did not change much. Anne Applebaum, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote on the same day: "Default, bankruptcy, Grexit, crash: If you feel you've read before that these things were about to happen in Greece, that's because you have. Every debate about Greece's financial crisis deteriorates rapidly into a discussion of deadlines: repayments, refinancings, meetings of the International Monetary Fund or the European Central Bank. Until now, these deadlines have always resulted in further delay."

Closer to home, an opinion article by a Georgian think tanker and academic, Ghia Nodia, in the Moscow Times was headlined 'Spineless EU Is Losing Credibility in the East'. As it happens, he was referring not to the Greek crisis but to how Europe deals with his country, Ukraine and Russia. These dealings, he writes, "have lately been characterised by indecision and weakness".

This highlights nicely just one of the enormous challenges Europe faces, but from which it is being distracted owing to the seemingly never-ending Greek crisis. Last week, Nato greatly expanded the size of its rapid reaction force in central and eastern Europe and the US announced the deployment of more armoured units. All of this comes in response to the transformation of relations between Russia and the rest of Europe owing to its role in the conflict in Ukraine.

If Europe's immediate neighbourhood to the east has become much more dangerous, the challenges to the south are mounting by the week. Libya, a failed state with 1,700km of Mediterranean coastline, has become a launch pad for migrants from all of Africa and further afield.

Last week, one of the main issues European leaders had scheduled for discussion was how to handle the crisis, with a proposal by the European Commission on sharing out 40,000 migrants across the 28 members on the table. It may be that the bile emanating from the discussions on Greece poisoned the atmosphere, but not only did the leaders fail to agree, the talks degenerated into a fight. "It was, in fact, one of the most difficult European Councils I can remember - and I have been here almost eight years," was how Donald Tusk, the European Council president, put it with requisite diplomacy. The Italian premier, Matteo Renzi, whose country takes most migrants, was less diplomatic. "If this is Europe, you can keep it!" he told other leaders in exasperation.

Among the many consequences of the influx of migrants were scenes of chaos on the border between France and Italy as the two countries disagreed on who should take the large groups of boat people who had gathered. Similar scenes from Calais, of migrants trying to board trucks bound for Britain, only underscore the failure to get to grips with events in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

For a continent in which many people feel - rightly or wrongly - that there has already been too much immigration, these scenes, along with pictures of many boatloads of refugees in the Mediterranean, will add to the sense that nobody is in control. The surge in support in the Danish election 10 days ago for a hard-line anti-immigration party is only the latest manifestation of how commonplace fears about how borders are controlled.

And the fear factor will only be exacerbated by the scenes from Tunisia on Friday. The murder of Lorna Carty from Meath, along with dozens of others mostly European holiday makers, in a terrorist attack was the result of spillover from the implosion in Syria and Iraq. The beheading of a man in the heart of France by another terrorist on the same day shows yet again just how deeply the virus of Islamist extremism has seeped in European home soil. From the Baltic to the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, Europe's fringes are becoming more dangerous and unstable. But the greatest threat comes from within.

Greece dominated the past week, even more that it has dominated the attention of the bloc from the first months of the current decade more than five years ago. Last Monday night, 19 EU prime ministers and their entourages went to Brussels yet again for another unscheduled crisis meeting on Greece. Because Athens had miscommunicated its proposals (some suspect deliberately) over the previous 24 hours, there was no agreement for them to sign off on.

Forty eight hours later they returned to Brussels for a scheduled meeting. Issues including immigration and Britain's possible departure from the EU were on the agenda. David Cameron found himself bottom of the list of priorities and was told by his counterparts that he would get no changes to the EU's treaties this side of the referendum on his country's membership he has pledged to hold by 2017.

This will make winning a Brexit referendum that bit more difficult. But despite the risk of Britain leaving the EU, it was the much more immediate prospect of Greece's departure that took precedence.

Over the course of the week, matters got progressively worse. On Monday, Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president who was one of the leaders who travelled twice to Brussels, tweeted: "The Greek government still wants to party but the bills have to be paid by somebody else."

Although the frustration and ill-will that exists towards the Greek government is difficult to overstate and mostly not without basis, it can serve no useful purpose for a leader to comment so undiplomatically in this way, and all the more so for one so experienced in European affairs having been a European Commissioner up to last year.

It is perhaps the amount of travelling and summitry that is affecting the judgment of leaders. Enda Kenny made his own contribution to the week's farce by claiming that Ireland has not raised taxes as a means of narrowing this state's huge budget deficits and that Greece should follow Ireland's non-lead. The statement was clearly and simply wrong. More generally, it remains a matter of mystery why the Taoiseach and his finance minster don't stop mouthing off about Greece and stick to bland statements along the lines of "we will do everything to ensure a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached for all concerned".

But the prize for shooting oneself in the foot and making matters even worse than they are must go to the limelight-loving Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He is at the centre of intense negotiations and if Greece does exit the euro, it will result in a calamity for a country that has already suffered hugely.

With the stakes so high, one might think that he would be focused on the talks and thinking about how he might win over some of his counterparts around the negotiating table. Instead, on Friday morning, and despite his enormous workload, he found the time to give a lengthy interview to RTE's Morning Ireland.

For the second time in a week he made Michael Noonon look marginalised and unimportant by telling the Irish nation that its finance minister "was in the dark". This will only further alienate one of the people he has to negotiate with, and as such proves, as if proof were needed, that Varoufakis is more interested in posturing than in working for the people he serves.

Rounding off a disastrous week for Europe, his boss, Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras pushed the nuclear button late on Friday night. Out of the blue, he announced that he would hold a referendum on the deal being offered by the rest of the EU and the IMF. With Greece due to go into default on Tuesday, five days before the proposed referendum, the next seven days look set finally to bring the end game that has been looming for so long.

This can only end in a lose-lose outcome for everyone. There appears no way back now. Europe is about to take a giant step down the path of its own marginalisation.

Sunday Independent

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