Tuesday 11 December 2018

Forget Brexit, the real European fears for the future lie much further afield

Europe is worried about Trump and Putin - but Brexiting Britain has become an irrelevance, says Dan O'Brien from Riga

GLOBAL FORCES: From left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia last week.
GLOBAL FORCES: From left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia last week.
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

I spent the second half of last week in the Latvian capital at a think-in organised by the European People's Party, the political grouping of European centre-right parties. Their "European Ideas Network" brought together MEPs from that party and a range of non-political analysts to ponder topical matters.

Listening and chatting to politicians in thinking mode can be interesting. Engaging with a large group of politicians from the length and breadth of the continent is always interesting.

Over the course of two days, and in contrast to political discourse in Ireland, Brexit was hardly mentioned. One person said in a conversation over dinner that Britain was already a de facto non-member. More relevant, from an Irish perspective at least, was the rock-solid support for Ireland for whatever position it took on the border. As it is difficult to see how the Irish and British positions can be reconciled, the prospect of Brexit talks failing and a chaotic situation in 300 days' time is increasingly real.

In contrast to the UK, the US was mentioned again and again. Many aspects of Europe's relationship with America were raised. One was that country's ever bigger and more powerful technology companies.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, had appeared before the European Parliament earlier in the week. Manfred Weber, who leads the EPP in the European Parliament and was involved in the (cursory) questioning of Zuckerberg, seemed to get a bit carried away when he told the meeting in Riga that "we have the power to destroy Facebook". He quickly rephrased, but for someone as senior in European politics to speak, or misspeak, in this way is an indication of how strongly many European politicians feel about the technology giants.

This is a source of tension with the US. Many Americans, on both sides of the country's political divide, have long viewed European actions against the tech giants, including the €13bn tax ruling against Apple and Ireland, as an expression of anti-Americanism. They ask - but only rhetorically - if Apple and Facebook were European, would Brussels be quite so interested in regulating them and investigating their tax affairs?

And Americans are not just grumbling. Days after the Apple decision was announced, in August 2016, the US authorities slapped a fine of an almost identical amount on Germany's Deutsche Bank for its role in the financial crisis almost a decade earlier. There is plenty more where that came from, particularly with a capricious, unrestrained and easily-provoked president in the White House.

Retaliatory action is moving up the agenda in another area too - the looming transatlantic trade war. Next Friday the Trump administration intends to hit some European goods going into the American market with new taxes. These tariffs are a clear breach of the rules of the World Trade Organisation. A member that is subject to such tariff impositions is within its rights to impose countermeasures. That is exactly what Brussels has said it would do.

Trump has already warned that he will impose another round of tariffs if Europe retaliates. Brussels, fearful that the US president would exploit any sign of weakness, will likely respond again. A cycle of this kind could damage the huge transatlantic flow of goods to the point of tipping both economies towards recession. Just how serious this could be for Irish jobs was illustrated at the end of last week when the Irish Whiskey Association warned that a trade war could "devastate" the fast-growing drinks industry. Though such warnings from lobby groups should usually be taken with a pinch of salt, this one is accurate. Half of all the whiskey produced on this island is drunk by Americans. It is worth recalling that measures taken in the US in the past (prohibition in the 1920s) destroyed Irish whiskey then.

And it is not only jobs in the drinks industry that are at stake. Ireland has a closer trading relationship with the US than any other EU country. Astonishingly for such a small country, pharmaceuticals made in Ireland outsell those of any other country in the US. These Irish exports could well come into the line of fire if there is a trade war.

Whatever concerns there were about the US, they paled compared to fears about Russia. Lech Walesa, the Polish trade unionist who played a significant role in bringing democracy to eastern Europe, made a guest appearance at the event. Among other things, he made a comment about "pulling the bear's teeth" at the time of the fall of communism.

If teeth were pulled then, they have grown back and are being displayed with the sort of menace that hasn't been seen since the Cold War ended. Fear of Russia was palpable among the Latvian hosts and others from their neighbourhood.

"The EU is about quality of life. Nato is about life," said one local politician on how seriously they see the threat from their giant neighbour and the role of Nato in their defence.

He went on to warn somewhat ominously that "if Ukraine falls, the Baltics will be next''.

As Latvians this year mark the centenary of their independence from Russia, they do not take it for granted. For well over half of the past 100 years the country has been occupied - mostly by the Soviets but also by the Nazis. We in Ireland take our security for granted. Our geography has allowed us to free-ride on the efforts of others. Those who are proud of Ireland's neutrality should spend some time in the Baltics where their giant neighbour has scant regard for the rights of small countries. Neutrality is not a luxury they believe they can afford.

A somewhat dismaying aspect of the conversation was the discussion on populism, including how the EU itself is often an object of populists' ire. MEPs from all the centrist parties tend to be strongly supportive of the European "project" and constantly discuss ways to bring it "closer to the people" (if I had a euro for every time I heard this issue raised in conference rooms and lecture theatres across Europe over the past 20 years I'd be richer than Zuckerberg).

But mainstreamers have struggled to convince voters of the EU's worth. There were no new ideas proposed last week, a week in which the most Eurosceptic government ever to hold power in a large EU country took office in Italy. One wonders how long a political entity that does not have an emotional meaning for citizens can last?

*******

Like the many people who were abroad last week, I was unable to vote in last Friday's referendum. Given how much travel people do these days both for work and pleasure, it is surely past time that postal voting of some form was introduced.

Sunday Independent

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