Monday 19 February 2018

Brexit way down the pecking order of crises for now

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a final media conference after the EU summit in Brussels. Photo: AP
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a final media conference after the EU summit in Brussels. Photo: AP

Alastair Macdonald

THERE WAS a daunting list of long-running crises on their plates in Brussels – notably migrants crowding in at their southern borders, Russia growling in the east, Britain’s threat to quit and a desperate need to create jobs.

But it was Greece that topped the menu. As Athens lurched toward default, officials were obliged to keep reshuffling the timetable. One quipped it was no longer Britain for dinner but “Greece for dinner”.

Though in the end, Alexis Tsipras got an unscheduled two hours before the meal, pushing David Cameron to a midnight slot after a heated debate on migration.

Plunged into crisis by the global crash in 2008 and unable to devalue its way out of debt due to the euro, Greece is also an element in the complex, interlinked challenges facing the EU – “Grexit”, “Brexit”, Russia and migration. One analyst this week dubbed them the “Four Horsemen” circling the summit.

At a meeting of conservative leaders that included Angela Merkel, frustration with the Greek leftists was clear.

Antonio Lopez-Isturiz, the group’s general secretary, said migration and Britain’s threat to leave were being discussed “with whatever time we have left” after Greece.

Another conservative added: “There is a lot of frustration that this is using up an enormous amount of time and energy that should be dedicated to other very pressing issues.”

Even a fix for Athens will not end much of Europe’s trouble.

Greek economic problems are in part a version writ large of many in the euro zone, including other peripheral states bailed out in recent years but also Italy and even France.

Economic drift in Europe and a fear of seeing Britain’s economy being damaged by EU rules set for the German-led euro zone are among the reasons why Cameron has promised Britons a referendum by 2017 on quitting the bloc unless he can renegotiate terms.

So, too, is immigration, with open borders in Europe raising public concerns that link Africans and people from the Middle East risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean with migration to the west from the EU’s poor, ex-Communist east.

One Greek minister last month threatened to “flood” Europe with migrants by ending attempts to stop them.

Others in Athens have cautioned that a bankrupt Greece could turn to its old Orthodox ally Moscow for help – worrying other Nato members, not least the United States.

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