As one crisis ends another one begins in our divided EU
Published 22/05/2015 | 02:30
You may not have known that the Eastern Partnership is holding an important meeting in Riga, the Latvian capital where, according to the popular limerick, a young lady once went for a ride on a tiger, with unfortunate results.
Come to that, you may not have known that any such thing as an eastern partnership existed. To date, it has not exerted much influence on world affairs. That may change this weekend, after some of the heaviest hitters in Europe have completed their trip to the Baltic.
Of these heavy hitters, by far the most imposing is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Yesterday, before leaving for Riga, she gave a brief outline of the purpose of the meeting and her views on the role of the partnership.
The Ukraine crisis, she said, has made relations with the European Union's eastern members more important. And she insisted that the partnership "is not an instrument of EU expansion directed against anyone, especially not against Russia".
She thereby tried at one and the same time to allay the fears of those easterners and also to address what many would call 'Russian paranoia'.
The eastern members include not only countries like the Baltic states but trans-Caucasian nations like Georgia. Historically, their relations with Russia have been, to say the least, fraught. It is easy to understand their fear that the Bear might swallow them up again.
But what of the poor old Bear himself? Under President Vladimir Putin's iron rule, Russia does a lot of growling and quite a bit of clawing. Some Russian actions are understandable if not laudable. They arise from geography as much as history. Russia fears, above all, "encirclement" by hostile neighbours. That was what prompted Putin to annex Crimea and promote a civil war in Ukraine. These events occurred in a typically Russian manner. The annexation was followed by attacks on Crimea's minority Tatar population, many of whom fled. The fighting in Ukraine was (and still is) exceptionally brutal. In addition, notwithstanding Kremlin denials, Russian troops have taken part.
Early in the crisis, Ms Merkel tried to make peace. She quickly became disillusioned. Presumably she will now launch another effort to reach some sort of settlement. Her prospects cannot be good.
And one of the reasons for the gloomy prospects is that the European Union is itself in crisis.
Evidently it cannot go forward. But neither can it go back. It is locked into political and economic stagnation. It urgently needs strong and imaginative leadership.
The obvious place to look for such leadership is Berlin. Germany is by far the most powerful country in the European Union. It has a strong economy and a strong government.
What has Germany's leader to say? In brief, things we have heard many times before.
Chancellor Merkel wants increased political and fiscal union "which would allow Europe oversight possibilities".
Looked at objectively, fiscal union is not only desirable but necessary. Its absence was a major factor in bringing about the Great Recession from which we still suffer in varying degrees.
Political union is a harder nut to crack, and the mere mention of oversight arouses passions.
Logically, the case for more powers for the European Commission is overwhelming. Progress on this question should go hand in hand with the radical (badly needed and greatly belated) reforms now in the course of planning. But can it be "sold" to the national governments and their populations? Year after year, surveys show the low esteem in which these hold the EU. Feeling is particularly unfavourable in some of the richest and strongest countries.
And on top of all that, British Prime Minister David Cameron sees the Riga meeting as a suitable occasion to promote his campaign for a referendum on Britain's EU membership.
His partners want Britain to stay in the Union. They will willingly concede some of his demands. But others are not negotiable.
The French government insists that there will be no change in the existing EU treaties. That sums up the general view of the issue. It means, crucially, that citizens of all EU countries will retain the right of free movement.
It is hardly conceivable that the EU could surrender on an issue of such fundamental importance. At this early stage, there seems no way to square the circle.
But if Cameron fails on free movement, he could put his own survival at risk. It has been reckoned that between 100 and 150 of his own MPs might oppose him. Astonishing, but the Conservatives have split on Europe in the past.
Astonishing, too, that a party fresh from gaining an overall majority at the general election should let the public see how insecure it feels. I suspect that this insecurity derives in large part from inability to guess what its opponents will do.
We have yet to learn the identity of Ed Miliband's successor as Labour leader. Will he or she challenge Cameron on the issue of Europe? And will such a confrontation enhance or diminish Britain's standing in Europe and the world?
For ourselves in Ireland, this question matters a great deal more than anything that may happen in Riga.