General Election

Brexit means hard Brexit: the UK is running out of options

The 8th of June 2017 is a landmark that I shall always remember. Against all expectations, the British General Election delivered a hung Parliament as well as a bloody nose for the incumbent Conservative government. Their expectation of a 100+ majority in Parliament is in ruins and, with this unexpected development, the tide of history may have turned but it is far from clear. Perversely, it could well be that Brexit means Brexit has been superseded by Brexit means hard Brexit.

Since the EU Referendum on 23 June 2016, the Conservative government under the leadership of Prime Minister Theresa May has been marching remorselessly towards “hard” Brexit. This means not just leaving the European Union (EU), as required by the referendum outcome, but also exiting the European Single Market, the European Customs Union and the European Court of Justice to boot. By contrast, keeping all three yet still exiting the EU would be “soft” Brexit and would carry the least amount of risk for the UK and the EU-27 countries.

Although the option of hard Brexit was never part of the referendum (it was a straight “in” or “out” choice), this is exactly what a Conservative Government stuffed to the gills with Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, David Davies, Liam Fox, etc. has been working towards. Mrs Theresa May, a former (albeit reluctant) Remainer, quickly became the conductor-in-chief of this process. A hard Brexit would have been difficult to achieve with a small majority in Parliament, so Mrs May decided to ask the country for a mandate for hard Brexit (having previously strenuously denied the need for another General Election), the terms of which was hardwired into the Conservative manifesto.

The expectation among the political establishment and media pundits alike, was that the Conservative Party would increase its working majority from 13 to possible as many as 100-200, some predicting the evisceration of Jeremy Corbyn´s Labour, the second largest party in the country. With a predicted crushing majority and thus a crystal-clear mandate from the electorate, hard Brexit would have been as good as guaranteed. Theresa May´s political calculation was that the House of Commons would no longer be an obstacle to the process and that the House of Lords would not dare to stand in the way of the will of the electorate. Traditionally, the Salisbury Doctrine/Convention dictates that the House of Lords does not oppose the second or third reading of any government legislation promised in an election manifesto. The previous General Election in 2015 had enshrined a commitment to hold an EU Referendum but given no guidance on the type of Brexit to follow, no doubt assuming that this just would not happen. Obviously, the Conservative government was not sufficiently convinced that it was capable of ramming the necessary Brexit legislation through Parliament, so it felt the need to go back to the country for a hard Brexit mandate.

But it turns out that the British electorate had other ideas and decided not to give any party any meaningful mandate at all. Instead of rubber-stamping a one-way ticket to hard Brexit, it delivered an enigma. A hung Parliament means that instead of a majority of 12, the Tories have no majority at all (317 seats, 13 fewer than before), even with its unexpected gains in Scotland, where the number of Conservative MPs increased from 1 to 13. Interestingly, since the Scots are extremely pro-Remain, these new Scottish Tories are unlikely to toe the party line and support hard Brexit. Indeed, it is conceivable that their leader, Ruth Davidson, could seek to defy the Conservative´s plans for a hard Brexit and even create a separate party.

If that was not bad enough, the only way the Tories can cobble together a slim majority in Parliament is via some sort of coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland. The Eurosceptic DUP is willing to enter into a confidence and supply arrangement and Theresa May announced on 09 June 2017 her opportunistic intention to form a new government with support from the DUP, the potential King Makers.

There are only two flies in Theresa May´s DUP soup:

  • This goes against the grain of most Tories, since the DUP are considered to be a sectarian, nationalistic, militantly Protestant party which is known to be anti-same sex marriage, anti-abortion, in favour of creationist teaching at schools, etc. In other words, “taking back control” from Brussels apparently means passing it straight off to a bunch of swivel eyed-loons (as term applied by David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister to Conservative activists) from Belfast. Moreover, the DUP will insist upon a soft border in Ireland, which effectively means that the Conservative mantra of hard Brexit/”no deal is better than a bad deal” is impossible to maintain with the DUP on-board. In any case, it is still far from clear that any sort of agreement can be reached between the two parties;
  • Everyone, except for the Mrs May and her new government, which is actually pretty much the old government except for the addition to the charming, dependable and loyal Mr Michael Gove, is warning that it is not credible for the Conservatives to enter into either a formal coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement without endangering the Good Friday Agreement. Under the terms of the latter, the UK government must demonstrate “rigorous impartiality” but, as has been pointed out by several people, including IRA representatives and various former Conservative Prime Ministers, it is far from clear how this could work if the Conservative government were to invited the DUP to prop it-up in gaining a working majority in Parliament. You can bet your bottom Euro, sorry Pound Sterling, that DUP support will come at the price of a pound of flesh (politically and financially) to the Conservative party. Undeterred, Mrs May(hem) ploughs on in her cynical determination to create the most shamefully incoherent British government that I can recall. It is far from clear that she will succeed, in which case she will (surely) have no choice but to resign post-haste.

Clearly, the general election result threw a huge spanner into the Brexit works.

With one fell swoop, all the certainties of the past year have been overturned, starting with whether there will be a working majority in Parliament, let alone a workable one with the new Scottish Tories and the DUP in a rudderless boat. Moreover, the certainty that the country was heading straight for hard Brexit has been blown out of the water. By far the most likely course correction to be set, assuming the Tories manage to cobble together a working government, is for the DUP and the new Scottish Tories (together with the majority of the rest of the Conservative MPs, Labour and the Lords) to push for a soft Brexit. Rather than the General Election eviscerating the Labour Party as a political force, it is a reinvigorated party, despite defeat. Instead the most likely bet is that adjusting the course from hard to soft Brexit will be the catalyst for a schism in the Conservative party.

Hallelujah; a deliberately engineered and catastrophic hard Brexit is off the cards.

But do not rejoice too soon.

None of this necessarily means that hard Brexit will not occur. The chances of a deliberately engineered hard Brexit may have gone but is still remains the most likely witting or unwitting outcome, rather than soft Brexit. The reason that hard Brexit will probably occur, regardless of a hung parliament and the new political dynamic, is not hard to divine.

The 2-year deadline post invocation of Article 50 is ticking away and the UK has just fritted away 3 months of it holding a totally unnecessary General Election that has delivered an outcome that has totally muddied the Brexit waters.

Even the 2-year period is not what it seems; all commentators agree that, in reality, only 14-18 months are available for “negotiations”, followed by at least 6-8 months of ratifications by 28 governments, as well as others, such as EU Parliament and regional governments.

Moreover, whereas the EU-27 have been ready for negotiations for months, the UK is not even close to being prepared for hard, soft or any other type of Brexit. So far, there has been little but empty bluster of the “Brexit means Brexit”, “Red, Blue and White Brexit” and “No deal is better than a bad deal” variety emanating from the British government. Even a General Election ostensibly about the biggest challenge facing the country since the Second World War, namely Brexit, brought precious little debate let alone any more clarity about the government´s intentions.

The EU´s Guidelines for Brexit Negotiations have been submitted to the UK, the UK has not yet reciprocated, though the “talks about talks” started on 19 June 2017. The only thing that exists is the UK´s official letter triggering Article 50, which is vague and is effectively superseded by the new reality since the General Election. Following the one-day talks about talks, the Brexit Minister, Mr David Davies, promptly caved in to the EU´s demands, for example to settle the broad terms of the “separation” (i.e. citizens’ rights, financial settlement and the Irish border) before trying to negotiate a future trade deal. The key plank of the UK´s negotiations has been removed before the real negotiations even start.

This reinforces the point that while the 27-EU countries have agreed a unified negotiating position in a relatively short period of time, the UK government has not been able to agree a negotiating position of any description one year since the EU referendum. This speaks volumes about the parlous state that Britain finds itself in as the negotiations starts. There is not a single good omen that bodes well for the UK. The best Brexit cards are firmly in the EU´s hands, starting with the fact that time is on their hands. All the waffle, bluster and wishful thinking will be remorselessly blown away by the more experienced EU team.

This parlous state of affairs is not in the least bit surprising. Although the Brexit game has been in play for a year, the only strategy there ever was, namely hard Brexit, has been scotched by the electorate. A coalition / supply and confidence arrangement has not yet been negotiated and may fail to materialise.

The Conservative party is in total disarray and is increasingly split. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Philip Hammond has recently stated the failure of talks would be “very, very bad” for Britain in direct contravention of what the Conservative party has been claiming (“no deal is better than a bad deal”) for the last year.  Whichever way the Brexit cookie crumbles, the mother of all internal wars will break-out within the Conservative ranks if they start back-pedalling towards soft Brexit.

To add fuel to the fire, the Grenfell Tower fire fall-out is occupying much of Theresa May´s attention and could lead to her downfall. If she came across as being wooden and robotic (the Maybot) during the General Election, she now comes across as callous and heartless on top. If Grenfell Tower does not do it, her own party will topple her sooner rather than later: May is not just damaged goods, she is toxic political goods. The steady stream of concessions since the General Elections will not save her. A downfall is only a matter of time for a leader who is patently neither a strong nor a stable leader. Everyone can see that the reality is in direct contravention of the facile PR.

What a mess for a country (previously) admired for its pragmatism to find itself in.

The real danger is not that the imminent implosion of the Conservative party. It is that the EU has been deprived of a meaningful negotiating counterpart, let alone one that can deliver whatever is negotiated and agreed. This is as far removed from a “strong and stable” leadership as it is possible to imagine and poses major risks for the UK as well as the EU-27.

One option is for the British government to withdraw Article 50, but this will not happen. Both leading parties are committed to some form of Brexit in response to the EU referendum. There is no way to close Pandora´s Box without holding another referendum and that is an option that neither major party is willing to countenance at the moment. Voter fatigue is palpable in the UK and a general election is in the air. At this rate, the UK is in danger or rivalling Italy and Greece for the title of re-elections champion. But even if this option were somehow to occur, it would still be to Britain´s disadvantage. Senior EU members are on record that nothing will ever be the same again for Britain, not least its generous EU rebate and the opt-outs that it now enjoys. There may be a way to row back from Brexit, an option left open by Germany and France, but it would come at a heavy political price in the UK, apart from the sheer humiliation of such a U-turn.

Another option is for the UK government to accept the Norway option (European Economic Area), which means leaving the EU yet being part of the common market, making a financial contribution to the EU and accepting freedom of movement of people. At the moment, it is hard to see how either the Conservatives or Labour could square this with the sentiment of the UK electorate, where the continuing desire to stop EU immigration remains a red line. It is interesting that here, too, Mr Hammond is querying Mrs May´s target of reducing new migration to the tens rather than hundreds of thousands by wondering whether post-Brexit immigration controls would apply to EU workers who are highly skilled and highly paid.

If it proves impossible to opt for a ready-made solution (e.g. withdraw from Brexit or Norway Option) and a fragmented government cannot negotiate an alternative within the 2-year timeline for Brexit, the UK will automatically crash out of everything connected with the EU. Unless the EU-27 unanimously agree to an extension of the 2-year separation period (assuming the UK requests it), the economy and much else will fall off the cliff and experience the most brutal possible form of hard Brexit.

No one seriously wants to witness the latter scenario, other than hard-core Eurosceptics. But at the moment, it appears not only that Brexit means Brexit, but that, actually, Brexit means hard Brexit.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2017, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


The Return of the Greek Drachma … err Drama!

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

Greece is widely considered to be the cradle of democracy. The theatre of ancient Greece is also considered to be the fountainhead of the Western dramatic tradition, and it shows. The earliest Greek dramas emerged during the 6th Century BC and the term “drama” is derived from the Greek word for action (to do or to act). Indeed, the three main dramatic genres, namely tragedy, comedy and satire (tragicomedy or burlesque), emerged from Athens.

It is just as well that drama is a Greek invention because in the last five months, a mixture of “comedy” and “satyr” is exactly what the Syriza-led government has been serving-up on the European Union (EU) stage. For the final act, it is quite possible that “tragedy” will complete the fascinating yet frightening performance that is unfolding before our eyes. The end product of the Greek drama could well be a return to the Greek drachma.

Greek Drama: paving the way for the drachma?

Dramatic structure refers to the framework of a dramatic work such as a play or a film.  According to Gustav Freytag, dramas can divided into five parts or acts (also called Freytag’s pyramid), as illustrated below.

Freytag's Pyramid and the Greek Drama

I would like to take the liberty of applying Freytag’s pyramid to modern-day Greece, as far as the Eurozone crisis and its future in the EU are concerned. Bear with me.

Act 1. Exposition

This introduces important background information to the audience such as the setting before the main plot in the form of flashbacks, characters’ thoughts, background details, etc.

The first Act of the latest instalment of the Greek drama started during the General Election of January 2015. The Syriza party, indeed almost all Greek parties, told more or less the same narrative and provided the same broad analysis of the background to the plight of Greece and the Greeks. The plot can be summarised as follows: the Greek troubles are the result of the Euro and EU, the Troika (ECB, IMF and EC) has imposed unbearable burdens on the Greek people, resulting in a collapse of GDP, reduction in income and pensions (internal devaluation), very high levels of unemployment, etc. This has all been done in the name of austerity, which has principally served to rescue German and French banks, as well as the Eurozone as a whole but Greece itself. The Greek people have suffered enough. Austerity must end and Greece must regain its self-respect.

Interestingly, the above exposition concentrated almost entirely on the period post-2009, when Greece was rescued from bankruptcy by the EU. The first Act makes clear that the protagonist (Greece) has been treated very badly by the main antagonist in the drama, the Troika / EU / Eurozone / Banks but that enough is enough. The protagonist´s exposition somehow leaves out the decades of corruption, mismanagement, clientelism and sheer incompetence of generation upon generation of Greek leaders that necessitated a rescue by the rest of the Eurozone in 2009 in the first place. But such is the nature of dramatic plots. It is not convenient to set out the background in painful detail, including the fact that Greece had the chance to exit the EU but chose instead to remain and be part of the euro while taking the painful internal devaluation that it implied and which countries in a similar position have also gone through. The previous government signed-up to the bailout conditionality but clearly the mood has changed after five years of painful austerity.

A key aspect of the exposition was the election manifesto. As I have previously discussed, the Syriza programme did prioritise an end to austerity, however, any reading of its pledges would lead to the conclusion that it was both contradictory and unrealistic.

It called for Greece to remain in the EU and Eurozone yet basically roll back the commitments made by the previous government as part of the conditionality for the bailouts, while at the same time calling for an end to privatisation, restoration of lost state jobs, raising of minimum incomes and pensions, free health provision and much else beside. That is all very well during a general election, except for two minor issues: Greece is broke and the only way this can be done is if others pay for it in the short, medium and possibly long-term, yet permanent bailouts are forbidden by various EU treaties for a very good reason.

The EU rescue packages were designed to stop Greece from becoming bankrupt as a result of its own decisions made over a period of decades and did indeed manage to keep them in the Eurozone and the EU, something which the Greek people have always insisted upon. They were designed primarily to buy Greece time to regain competitiveness through reforms agreed to by the previous government. Five years later, this is all interpreted as no more or less than national humiliation, bullying and dictatorship on the part of the EU, with Germany and the Troika singled out for special attention. This was a cracking opening Act in the play.

Act 2. Rising Action

The rising action is a series of events that begin immediately after the exposition (introduction) and builds up to the climax. The entire plot depends on these events to set-up the climax and the satisfactory resolution of the story.

A series of events took place immediately after the election, which set the course for the current Greek drama.

As I have previously discussed, instead of picking a mainstream coalition partner, Syriza chose the Independent Greeks Party which was committed to revoke the agreements between Greece, EU and the Troika, prosecute those who negotiated them, repudiate part of Greece’s debt and require German war reparations for the invasion and occupation of Greece during WWII. Syriza selected this party over other moderate alternative partners. This was widely interpreted and an immediate slap in the face for Germany, by far the most important contributor to past, present and future EU bailouts. Not a good start to negotiations, but great drama.

Syriza then took it as read that being elected actually gave it a mandate to end  austerity in Greece. Under a scenario where Greece would leave the Eurozone and possibly the EU, this would have been correct. Just because they were elected on the basis of a contradictory and unrealistic manifesto, does not give a country the right to implement it unless it assumes responsibility for the costs associated with such a manifesto. Clearly, all the other Eurozone countries would need to pay for a Greek programme that they had absolutely no control over. But if they are to agree a further bail out, they naturally have to approve the basis or conditionality associated with further funds, since they have their own electorates to consider. Instead, Syriza chose to act as if the other countries owed it to Greece to agree their programme by virtue of their electoral mandate.

Furthermore, Syriza and the Independent Greeks Party made a series of important appointments based on political dues to take-on the Troika, rather than selecting experienced and diplomatic negotiators, steeped in the EU way of doing things.

A critical decision was the appointment of the unelected Yanis Varoufakis as the Finance Minister. A bike riding, fiery blogger with a penchant for game theory who describes himself as a “libertarian Marxist” was not necessarily an inspired choice for dealing with 27 other EU Finance Ministers. While he may be a highly regarded economist, he has almost no political experience, except for a period during 2004 – 2006, when he served as an economic adviser to George Papandreou.

Alexis Tsipras, the other main character in the play, can hardly be considered a mature politicians himself, having first been elected to the Greek Parliament in 2009. But initially both Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis were widely fêted by the European media for being a contrast to the previous government – young, handsome, tieless, bike riding (Varoufakis), living in a modest neighbourhood (Tsipras), etc. The media throughout Europe loved this and the message that the Greeks were going to take on the austerity camp in the EU. But it was not only the media and the population of various countries that appreciated the rising action in the Greek drama. Many political parties, such as Podemos and other populist movements, saw the Syriza as a white knight in shining armour riding to slay the austerity dragon and reclaim its democracy from the clutches of the dreaded Troika.

Indeed, many economists and politicians in the EU were actually in tune with the message that after five tortuous years, the emphasis had to change. Instead of unrelenting austerity, collapsing GDP, falling incomes and standards, increasing poverty, deflationary pressures, the emphasis simply had to shift to investment, growth and employment. This had to be combined with flexibility in the bailout programme’s target of a surplus of 4.5% of GDP, so that it could be redeployed to achieve Syriza’s programme objectives.

Therefore, a series of events and individuals came together in the second part of the play that created the basis for the next Act in the political drama.

Act 3. Climax

The climax is the turning point. If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the plot will begin to unfold in his or her favour. If a tragedy, things will go from good to bad or bad to worse for the protagonist, often revealing their weaknesses.

However, although the media, general public, economists and politicians were generally well disposed to the Syriza agenda for easing austerity and focusing on growth, the next  set of events gradually but systematically turned against the Greek government, leading to a crescendo of criticism and recrimination.

The talk of war reparations, right at the beginning of the term of government did not go down too well in Germany. Yet Tsipras and Nikos Paraskevopoulos (Justice Minister) kept banging this particular drum to the tune of € 341 billion in compensation (about the same as the overall Greek debts), knowing full well that this would goad German public opinion at a critical time in Greece’s negotiations. This was naïve to say the least and resulted in a general feeling on the part of the Germans of being blackmailed.  Just to add a bit fuel to the fire, Panos Kammenos (Defence Minister, Independent Greeks) seemed to consider it appropriate to threaten to send Islamist fundamentalists to Germany from among tens of thousands of migrants currently in Greece in revenge for the austerity measures he felt had been imposed on Greece by the Germans. That turned up the heat nicely, not least because other people had been under the impression that the Greeks had chosen to remain in the EU and Euro, sign-up to be bailout and take the bitter medicine of internal devaluation.

The choice of Varoufakis to negotiate the EU bailout was a little unfortunate. Varoufakis may well be a brilliant economist and he may well know more about the ins and outs of the financial crisis than all the other 27 EU Ministers of Finance put together. However, lecturing to them from the off was never going to be a winning strategy. From the beginning there was a fundamental personality and ideology clash between himself and Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful, experienced and prickly German Minister of Finance, who wasted no time in making it clear to the Greek negotiators that their programme was unrealistic, their promises to their electorate had been misleading and that there would still be conditionality in negotiating EU bailouts.

The basic assumption which characterised the Greek position from day one was that they had the Eurozone countries by the balls and that they simply had to squeeze long and hard enough for their demands would be acceded to. In other words, the basis of negotiations, perhaps informed by game theory,  was that the Eurozone countries feared a Greek default and the contagion that would follow, and that this had the potential to deal a mortal blow to the Euro and the EU project.

But the EU finance ministers did not seem to be cowed by this threat, which I consider to be the worlds´s biggest game of chicken. Greece’s most natural allies in the anti-austerity movement, namely Italy and France, were quickly put off by the strident tones and lack of willingness to compromise. The Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish and Cypriots who were also following the internal devaluation route proved to be even more resistant to backing the Greek cause, no doubt fearful of similar populist movements in their own countries. And the northern group of EU countries, especially Germany, Finland, Slovakia, etc. and others were anxious of the consequences of capitulating to Greece’s insistent demands. As I previously wrote, moral hazard is the main reason why Syriza could not and will not force an EU capitulation. If the Greeks could manage to drive a coach and horses through the bailout terms and conditions, would others be tempted to follow their lead and would this be sustainable for the rest of the Eurozone?

The demand for 50% debt relief was denied, though everyone recognises that the current level of state indebtedness (180% of GDP and rising) is not sustainable and will need to be tackled at some point in the future, during calmer global economic times. There certainly was recognition of the need to allow Greece to use more of its primary budget surplus over the next few years. But Greece’s steely determination to avoid as conditionality to the extent possible in the future Eurozone rescue package, whilst simultaneously dismantling the few reforms implemented so far, such as rolling back privatisation, reemployment of former public employees and raising wages and pensions which it can ill afford, only served to harden opinion against Greece. The consequence after five months of intense negotiations and diplomacy is that remarkably little agreement exists on the overall package of reforms necessary to secure the latest tranche of the EU bailout worth Euro 7.2 billion.

It is tempting to conclude that the single most notable Greek achievement appears to have been the rebranding of the “Troika” into the “Institutions”.  This would be unfair, but everyone has noted the Greek government’s populist tendencies. Progress has been made on the reform programme, but there appear to be insurmountable sticking points, such as the primary surplus targets, VAT reform, privatization targets, minimum wage levels and pension reforms. These are all issues which impinge directly upon the country’s fiscal base and thus its debt sustainability, which is why both sides are sticking grimly to their guns.

Within a few months, the almost complete inability to make progress on these sticking points has raised tensions to critical levels. The resulting lack of confidence and trust means that several high-profile individuals no longer negotiate directly. Varoufakis has been removed from the Greek negotiating team for his abrasiveness and style. Schäuble has been side-lined because of his prickly relationship with Varoufakis and his conclusion that the way forward is a “velvet Grexit”.  Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission and one of the key remaining Greek allies, has expressed his anger and frustration at Tsipras’ misrepresentation of the EU proposals. Many others have vented their frustration with the main protagonists of the Greek drama. The IMF has packed its bags and gone back to Washington saying it was pointless to stay while the two sides remain so far apart. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor recently said that Europe and Germany will not let themselves be blackmailed or let the exaggerated electoral pledges of a partly communist government be paid for by German workers.

These almost unprecedented accusations and counter-accusations serve to harden positions and will make it ever more difficult to achieve compromise in the coming days. Instead of seeking common ground, the Greek Prime Minister reacted by accusing the IMF of “criminal responsibility” for the situation and that its creditors were seeking to “pillage”, “humiliate” and “asphyxiate” his country. For good measure, he added that if Greece fails, it will be the beginning of the end of the Eurozone.

As if that was not enough, others are raising the stakes. Germany’s EU Commissioner, Guenther Oettinger argues that Greece could face a “state of emergency” on 01 July 2015 and Josef Kollar, the vice chairman of Slovakia’s Finance Committee, accused the Greek prime minister of “swindling the whole world” and that “Politics should … be based on economic reality. And in reality, the drachma would be a rescue for Greece.”

The climax was reached in the third Act: there are open rifts and recriminations, the likelihood of Grexit is openly talked about, emergency measures and being discussed and a return to the Greek drachma is widely speculated upon.

Act 4. Falling action

During the falling action phase, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action may contain a moment of final suspense, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.

During mid-late June 2015, we enter the 4th and penultimate Act of the Greek drama. Nothing less than the future of Greece in the Eurozone is at stake. Unless Greece honours the € 1.5 billion repayment due to the IMF on 30 June, it is likely to default. Yannis Stournaras, the Governor of the Bank of Greece, has pitched-in to confirm that his country does not have enough funds to pay the IMF and sketch a less than reassuring scenario of the likely consequences of default.

The only solution is to resolve the critical sticking points in the little time that is left. In the past, I would have bet my bottom dollar in the EU’s ability to manage this. Today, following all the posturing and bickering, I am doubtful that the remaining issues can be resolved and a possible EU rescue package can be approved by the Eurozone governments in time for the IMF payment on 30 June 2015.  At the same time, the game theorists among the Fine Young Radicals remain convinced that the EU will shrink from pressing the euro Armageddon button and Greece will win take the prize.

Freytag’s pyramid predicts that the falling action may contain a moment of final suspense, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt. There is only one politician with the stature to change the entrenched dynamics, and I certainly do not refer to either Mr Cameron or Mr Hollande, whose lack of leadership and vision is palpable. A last-minute intervention by Mrs Angela Merkel is the only hope for a compromise that satisfies all parties sufficiently to get a deal done but, as usual, she is keeping her cards close to her chest until there is no alternative but to act. But perhaps the situation is already past the point of acting.

At the moment, it is far from clear whether the protagonist or the antagonist will win the day. But in a way, it does not really matter because we have already entered uncharted territory where there will only be losers in this Greek tragedy.

Act 5. Dénouement

The comedy ends with a dénouement in which the protagonist is better off than at the story’s outset. The tragedy ends with a catastrophe, in which the protagonist is worse off than before.

And so we enter the final Act, but it is not clear whether this drama is a comedy, a tragedy or a mixture of the two.

It is still possible for the conflict to be resolved, reducing the tension and stress in Greece and Europe. If this happens, Tsipras, Varoufakis and the rest will be fêted for their high stakes brinkmanship and other countries will undoubtedly try to replicate the methodology deployed by the Greek government. But will this end happily for the Greeks and for Europe? I very much doubt it. There may be a rolling back from the reforms that the Troika/Institutions have been seeking so as to raise Greece´s own competitiveness, but this will only make it harder and take longer for Greece to regain economic traction compared with its neighbours. There may be further debt relief, but even if the level of indebtedness is scaled back to the supposedly sustainable level of 120% of GDP, the Greek economy would still need to perform well consistently for a stretch of time so as to avoid its debts mounting-up rapidly. There may also be implementation of many of the measures that the Syriza has been insisting upon and which are the source of the stalemate, but these will come at the expense of the Eurozone countries for the foreseeable future, many of which are significantly poorer than Greece and resent having to subsidise the Greeks’ minimum wages, pensions, etc. The seeds of doubt about the merits of continuing Eurozone membership have already been sown and will start germinating. If other countries such as Spain and Portugal follow the Greek model (moral hazard), several of the net EU contributors, not least Germany, may conclude that the limits of the EU and Eurozone have not only been reached but surpassed. As for the Greeks themselves, they may be in greater control of their own destiny but the reforms that have been so elusive in the past will still need to be implemented, which is not a given. Whatever happens, the Greek citizens will realise that austerity will not, in fact, have been stopped. Furthermore, unless the economy starts performing much more strongly, the latest tranche of the EU bailout will not last long. But after the extreme stress and friction of negotiating this agreement, there may not be much enthusiasm for another full bailout. The game theorists must realise that this is a consequence of their winner-takes-all and at-all-costs strategy. Grexit will remain a possibility. Or perhaps the Syriza government will begin to collect tax revenues vigorously, introduce effective reforms exceeding all expectations and pull the country back from the brink. The past is not necessarily a predictor of the future, but I doubt this will happen without strong and timely global growth to lift all boats, including the Greek one.

But it is possible, indeed likely, based on the latest statements emanating from all sides, that this Greek tragedy will end in catastrophe – yet another word of Greece origin. If Greece does not make the IMF repayment due on 01 July 2015, it is quite possible that a political rabbit will be pulled out of the bag and default will be averted. Angela Merkel is apparently fond of the saying: where there is a will, there is a way. But based on the current situation, sooner rather than later, the country will run out of money. At that point, all hell will break loose, despite all the warm and comforting reassurances from politicians that firewalls are in place to avoid contagion that would wreak havoc across Europe and possibly other parts of the world.

As I wrote in a separate blog post: Eastern Europe went through variants of shock therapy in the 1990s and the Russians, Poles and all the others will confirm that very little was predicted by economic theory, that recovery took much longer than anticipated and that they have absolutely no desire to ever experience such wanton destruction again. I would not wish this upon Greece or any other nation. I would much rather another round of muddling through in the classical European way instead of the destructive, unpredictable catharsis that is being floated. But I also know that many would disagree and not just in Greece.”

Having reflected on the last five months since the election of the Greek government, I am tending to the conclusion that the Greek drama may well end in a dénouement / catastrophe / catharsis resulting from the Fine Young Radicals’ refusal to compromise. They will take the hit, re-establish the drachma or something similar and do their best to move forward. Greece will then be fully in charge of its monetary policy, its currency, its dignity and everything else that its people, in an act of mass amnesia, believe Germany and the other Eurozone countries have taken away from them in the last five years. Of course, they cannot then expect further EU bailouts, will have to live within their own financial means and will rely on their own politicians to navigate the process of regaining international competitiveness.

Hold on! For a second I almost forgot that this is precisely the scenario that the Greek citizens have been bending over backwards and executing double somersaults to avoid. For otherwise they would surely have voted to exit the Euro/Eurozone/EU in one of their previous two general elections, rather than willingly go through the latest acts of this excruciating Greek drama.

Perhaps it really is true that we cannot have it both ways… even in the EU.


Britain’s post-election reform priorities: a stony path ahead

In my last post, I predicted the outcome of the British General Election and the post-election reform priorities that the resulting British government would pursue. Now that the election outcome is clear, it is worth reviewing how accurate my pre-election predictions were and whether it is time for me to eat my hat. It also presents an opportunity to reflect on some of the key reform priorities in the next few of years. It is clear to me that Britain will emerge transformed, while also impacting directly on the future of the European Union (EU).

The future is blue

In advance of the General Election, unlike the vast majority of polls and media pundits who were convinced that there would be a hung parliament, I wrote: “My main prediction is that the Conservatives will win more seats than any other political party, even if the polls suggest that the election might be a close call. I also predict that the Conservatives will gain an overall majority.” For someone who normally lets his heart rule his head at election time, this was bull’s-eye!  Just reflect on what.

The pollsters are taking the heat and the leading newspapers and other media commentators are reflecting on how they could have got things so badly wrong in advance of the exit polls on election night. But this is not the first time that the opinion polls have been badly out of kilter with reality (Neil Kinnock anyone?) and it will certainly not be the last.

The blame game starts

The blame lies fully and squarely with the Labour Party’s inadequacies during the General Election. This was not an election that was won by the Conservatives whatever their post-election euphoria may suggest. The fact is that too few voters trusted the Labour Party to do better than the previous government. I wrote in my post“The main reasons for this prediction are all to do with Labour, rather than the Conservatives or their policy initiatives… Many voters will switch to the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives and/or UKIP in England… Large segments of the general public neither relate to nor trust either Ed Miliband or any of the current crop of Labour leaders.” These are the core challenges that Red Ed’s successor will have to grapple with, with the changes in Scotland and the attractiveness of UKIP to former Labour voters at the heart of it (but see below).

Hail the Scots

On Scotland and the Scottish Nationalist Party, I wrote: “The clear winner is going to be the Scottish National Party (SNP) and with this development, the dynamics of Westminster-based politics will change dramatically, especially for the Labour Party.” I added that: “Labour is going to be decimated in Scotland and the other political parties will have almost no influence there.” There are only three non-SNP members of parliament in Scotland out of 59. This is a stunning development and is one of the three critical issues in terms of the future of the UK (see the other two below), something that is already acknowledged by the new Conservative government.

The British bulldog bites… itself

In terms of UKIP, I wrote: “… the UKIP vote, though significantly understated in the opinion polls, nevertheless does not seem to be as much of a threat to the Conservatives as previously anticipated. This is as much to do with the current electoral system as UKIP’s almost wilful self-destruction through incompetence.” This prediction was spot-on. The party gained almost 4 million votes, mostly in England, yet managed only to win one seat. As I have previously written, I consider them to be an anti-immigration verging on racist (and homophobic) party, which is dangerously fanning the flames of angry nativism, as the only remaining UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, famously put it. But we cannot fail to recognise that the first-past-the-post system can have seriously negative repercussions for democracy – imagine the dismay of the 4 million voters who voted for UKIP and have one MP for their efforts.

Nigel Farage did the right thing by resigning for UKIP’s disastrous performance. He then did the wrong thing by un-resigning immediately afterwards. This takes UKIP beyond the “almost” into the “wilful self-destruction through incompetence” territory. The key issue is whether Farage can emerge phoenix-like from the resulting ashes. Even if he does re-emerge victorious from the unedifying in-fighting, he will not remain unscathed and neither will UKIP as a party. The thin patina of “being different from the rest of the political herd” has worn off and voters will take notice. This is not to imply that UKIP will not be a powerful force to reckon with, especially in relation to the forthcoming EU referendum. It will play a crucial role with or without Nigel Farage as their leader; indeed, UKIP might be even more powerful without him. Despite his “I am just an ordinary guy downing his pint and puffing his fag” routine, his impulsive style of leadership may prove to be difficult to convert into a coherent and consistent campaign against remaining in the EU. Others might well do better.

Reinventing the Brand

I wrote very little about the LibDems – it has been clear for quite a while that it was a party in meltdown. They are in many ways the party with the most realistic reform package and I would have considered voting for them (were it not the for 15 year rule which robs me and others of our democratic rights). I only wrote: “… the LibDems would have to perform much better than anticipated to have a chance of running the country” in another coalition government, that is. As expected, the LibDems have taken the brunt of the political punishment meted out by the voters while the Conservatives have taken the prize of running the country on their own. This was hard and unjust in my view, but such are voters and such is politics. The LibDems face a bigger challenge than the Labour Party, namely of reinventing themselves (once again) and re-establishing the trust of the voters.

I also discussed the two main post-election reform priorities for the new British government (I could have added the Scotland issue as a third, but did not). Judging by the political pronouncements made and the media reporting so far, both predictions appear to be on-track to be implemented.

To leave or not to leave… that is the question

The Conservative Party’s promise of holding a straight in/out EU referendum has been the subject of various posts in this blog. The Conservatives remain committed to holding the referendum by the end of 2017 at the latest. In my previous post I floated the possibility of it being held in 2016 in the context of a coalition with UKIP: “… the political price to be paid to UKIP will be a Conservatives campaign to leave the EU and to hold the in/out referendum in 2016, rather than 2017.” Now a referendum in 2016 is an increasingly realistic scenario, rather than 2017. It is increasingly clear, now that the election is over, that it might destabilise the government and the economy to have an ongoing debate for two years on the pros and cons of Brexit. I have little doubt about the economic, social, environmental and political benefits of continuing EU membership. To my mind, Britain would emerge a vastly diminished nation from a no vote.

My prediction was that: “The outcome of the EU referendum will be a narrow “yes” majority to remain in the EU.” I did not predict this because of an economic study or other. If you were to hold the referendum today, I think the majority of Brits would choose to leave. I predicted a small majority for remaining in the EU principally because: “If the Conservatives are able to form a majority Government, as the traditional party of business, it will ultimately side with remaining in the EU, whatever the pressures of UKIP or the antics of its noisy Eurosceptic wing. After all, the Conservative policy of offering an EU referendum in 2017 was a strategic move calculated to defang UKIP and yet placate the more rabid anti-EU Tories; it was not a decision to leave the EU per se.” I stand by that assessment.

I also predicted that: “The political price to be paid for campaigning to remain in the EU is that this will prove to be the second and final term of office for David Cameron as the Prime Minister and possibly as an MP.” Upon stepping into 10 Downing Street he immediately announced that he will not contest a third term as Prime Minister. Perhaps my gut feeling is not so outlandish that: “Their shambolic position on the EU reflects the fact that David Cameron and other senior members of the Conservative Party, on balance, favour remaining in the EU.” With a sound majority, Cameron can face-down the Eurosceptic wing and finally lance the Conservative Party’s long-festering EU boil.

Regardless of whether the Conservative Party has the balls to declare its position on the EU or not (as opposed to allowing MPs to follow their own convictions), I maintain my prediction that: “The SNP, LibDems and Labour will campaign in favour of remaining in the EU. Moreover, the business sector will make its views in an increasingly vocal and forcible manner and the wider pro-EU voice will be more pronounced than has been the case hitherto.” UKIP and other Eurosceptics have been kicking the hell out of the EC and EU football with little or no opposition. As I have previously argued, far too few prominent Britons have stood up to be counted in this debate so far. Such a state of affairs could not be imaginable in any of the 27 other EU countries. This is finally changing and the pro-EU cavalry is beginning to rally around. But the counter-charge is long overdue and forthcoming battle will be a close run thing.

Death by a thousand cuts

As someone who has lived and/or worked in around 35 countries, I can state what most Britons take for granted or have forgotten. Britain is a marvellous country in part because it has a welfare state courtesy of the famous Beveridge Report of 1942, which sought to counteract the “five giants” namely Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Since 1945, the welfare state has become established and was for a long period of time the model for others. But it is apparent that the welfare state has experienced a long drawn-out decline and no longer performs adequately against the five giants despite energetic efforts to reform it and ensure financial sustainability.

With some sadness I wrote: “The last prediction is that the squeeze on the public sector is set to continue for the next few years and it will further transform Britain and its welfare state, resulting in a more divided and fragmented society.”  There is no doubt about the need to reform the welfare state. The concern is that the agenda is driven almost entirely by the Government‘s austerity agenda, resulting in predefined targets of how much to cut so as to balance the national budget by a certain deadline. This does not amount to a serious attempt to reform the welfare state.

Furthermore, the evidence is that the working poor and non-working segments of the British population were not the cause of the economic and financial crisis that plagues Britain and most other European countries. (As an aside, neither was it the EU, the euro, the Labour Party, the EU or non-EU immigrants, the asylum seekers and any of the other convenient scapegoats that keep being bandied around by the politicians and large segments of the British media). But in reality it is the working-poor, the unemployed and other benefit recipients, including the disabled and vulnerable in society that have paid disproportionately the price of austerity, compared with the wealthy (who have done rather nicely during the same period), the retired (who have maintained their standards) and the middle-income families (segments of which are certainly feeling the pinch, but not nearly to the same extent).

In this context, I predicted that this trend is set to continue: “The Conservative Party does not deny that further cuts in the order of GBP 12 billion  in social expenditure are in the pipeline, even if it is rather coy about how exactly this will be achieved. If the last Parliament was anything to go by, the brunt of the cuts will continue to be borne by the more vulnerable members of society, while corporations and the wealthy are spared.”

Somewhat gloomily, I also predicted that: “… some of the things that Britons are most concerned about such a shelter (sufficient, affordable and good quality housing), health (NHS, access and quality) and education (primary, secondary and tertiary) will continue to experience gradual deterioration… Instead, the (EU and non-EU) migrants will continue to act as the lightning rod for people’s frustration with a slowly crumbling system, while those that have been running these very systems for decades or generations are largely spared the British citzens’ ire.” I certainly hope that this prediction misses its target by a proverbial country mile.

What is already apparent is that the Chancellor, Mr George Osborne, is not wasting his time in continuing the process of financial and fiscal reform, otherwise known as austerity (but see Paul Krugman’s piece on The Austerity Delusion). He has announced that there will be a further Budget on 8 July 2015 to set out how the Conservatives will eliminate the gaping national deficit. He stressed that it will be a budget for “working people” but the centrepiece will be how £12bn can be shed from Britain’s welfare bill. It is almost certain that this Budget will usher in a fresh wave of austerity measures that will presumably not be so good for the “non-working people” of Britain.

Just to be clear, there are 33 million (78%) economically active people (16-64 years of age) in the UK, of which 1.8 million or 5.5% are unemployed. There are a further 9 million economically inactive (22%) people. If you are part of this group of 27.5%, this is clearly not going to be a Budget designed to make you happy. Since very few of these people will fall into the category of “skivers”, “benefits cheats” and similar (something which the government is well aware of despite the rhetoric deployed), it is hard to see any justification for yet another assault on their already low or precarious standards of living. Why can the cuts not fall proportionately on the wealthy, profitable businesses and others that have high incomes instead, other than for the usual sordid short-term, partisan politics with a small “p”?

Britain is not is the same category as Greece. I have always been convinced that Britain is one of the wealthiest, fairest and most compassionate societies that I have come across, something which makes me proud to be a Brit. After the next five years, following the Budget of 8 July 2015, I might well have grounds for revisiting that impression.

As I wrote in my previous post, I would have gladly eaten my hat for getting these predictions wrong. Sadly, it appears as if the great majority of them have either been correct or are on-track to be realised in the next term of government. Britain will emerge from it a poorer nation in almost every sense.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Predicting the British General Election Result and the next few years

A humorous but apt Danish proverb is that “Prediction is difficult, especially when dealing with the future.” As the politicians finally stop pushing the merits of their policies and the British voters reflect on which way to cast their vote on 07 May 2015 general election, I will hazard some predictions about the likely general election result, as well as the political priorities that are likely to be pursued in the next few years in Britain. Most if not all of the predictions will probably come back to haunt me, but here goes nothing…

And the winner is…

My main prediction is that the Conservatives will win more seats than any other political party, even if the polls suggest that the election might be a close call. I also predict that the Conservatives will gain an overall majority, rather than a hung parliament. The main reasons for this prediction are all to do with Labour, rather than the Conservatives or their policy initiatives:

  • Labour is going to be decimated in Scotland and the other political parties will have almost no influence there. The clear winner is going to be the Scottish National Party (SNP) and with this development, the dynamics of Westminster-based politics will change dramatically, especially for the Labour Party.
  • The British public, including many traditional Labour voters, remain extremely sceptical about the final Blair / Brown years, which they blame a lot of the issues confronting society, not least being drawn into recent wars, immigration trends and the state of the economy. Many voters will switch to the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives and/or UKIP in England.
  • Large segments of the general public neither relate to nor trust either Ed Miliband or any of the current crop of Labour leaders. In this respect, I cannot help but experience a sense of déjà vu in respect to the Michael Foot / Neil Kinnock era which bodes ill for the Labour Party.

The Conservatives will profit from the above and will form the next government. This is particularly the case because the UKIP vote, though significantly understated in the opinion polls, nevertheless does not seem to be as much of a threat to the Conservatives as previously anticipated. This is as much to do with the current electoral system as UKIP’s almost wilful self-destruction through incompetence combined with persistent gaffes by its candidates that undermine the message that it is neither anti-immigration nor racist. Despite it all, UKIP retains strong support in parts of England.

My other two predictions concern the issue of austerity and its implications on British society, as well as the future of Britain in the European Union.

EU Referendum: plus ça change…

Regarding the in-out EU referendum scheduled for 2017, the Conservative Party will finally have to break cover and clarify whether it belongs to the yes or no camp. If the Conservatives are able to form a majority Government, as the traditional party of business, it will ultimately side with remaining in the EU, whatever the pressures of UKIP or the antics of its noisy Eurosceptic wing. After all, the Conservative policy of offering an EU referendum in 2017 was a strategic move calculated to defang UKIP and yet placate the more rabid anti-EU Tories; it was not a decision to leave the EU per se.

Their shambolic position on the EU reflects the fact that David Cameron and other senior members of the Conservative Party, on balance, favour remaining in the EU.  The political price to be paid for campaigning to remain in the EU is that this will prove to be the second and final term of office for David Cameron as the Prime Minister and possibly as an MP. The SNP, LibDems and Labour will campaign in favour of remaining in the EU. Moreover, the business sector will make its views in an increasingly vocal and forcible manner and the wider pro-EU voice will be more pronounced than has been the case hitherto. Unlike the present time where few speak up, others, such as art, culture and sport personalities will do likewise as a means of counteracting what will remain, in the main, a strongly anti-EU media.

Should a coalition Government arise, the LibDems would have to perform much better than anticipated to have a chance of running the country. The other possible coalition partner to the Conservatives, despite protestations to the contrary, is UKIP. If the latter coalition government were to emerge, the political price to be paid to UKIP will be a Conservatives campaign to leave the EU and to hold the in/out referendum in 2016, rather than 2017. A combination of the Conservatives and UKIP running to leave the EU would be a disaster for Britain (as well as the remaining EU countries already battered by the travails of Greece and holding the Eurozone together), which would be very hard to counteract, especially with the majority of the British media supporting their position. Britain would come to regret the likely outcome in the medium to long-term.

Under any scenario involving a referendum, the EU will have to show flexibility and do whatever it takes in to facilitate the UK remaining in the EU. As I have previously argued, there will not be fundamental EU treaty amendments for the sake of keeping Britain in the EU boat, such as a reform of the freedom of movement or the other three fundamental freedoms of movement, namely of capital, services (which is extremely underdeveloped) and goods. However, the EC and the EU will be more flexible in areas such as benefit entitlement in the EU area, which in any case is almost entirely determined by nation states, rather than EU directives and regulations.

If the referendum were to be held today, I believe the outcome would be an outright rejection  of the EU. The great majority of British media is extremely anti-EU and anti-immigration and would contribute to a no vote. However, there could be up to two years for business, society and voters to reflect on the not insignificant advantages of being part of the EU, as well as the potential consequences of Britain going it alone in an increasingly globalised world. A re-orientation towards the old and new Commonwealth and North America is no longer adequate to guarantee current, let alone future prosperity. An emphasis on trade at the exclusion of everything else that the EU brings simply does not cut the mustard in the modern era, where problems such as environmental issues and tax agreements require regional or global responses, rather than national ones. Turning our back on 27 other next door neighbours around us in Europe is simply not sustainable in an economic, social, political or any other sense.

I retain great faith in the capacity of the British public to eventually do the right thing. The following Winston Churchill quotation springs readily to mind: “The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” Substitute “Brits” for “Americans” and you get the gist of what I mean. The outcome of the EU referendum will be a narrow “yes” majority to remain in the EU. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Austerity ad nauseam

The last prediction is that the squeeze on the public sector is set to continue for the next few years and it will further transform Britain and its welfare state, resulting in a more divided and fragmented society. There will be a repeat of the pattern set in the previous Parliament, namely a dramatic public expenditure squeeze in the first two years, followed by a gradual let-up as the term of office peters out and politicians look to be re-elected.

The Conservative Party does not deny that further cuts in the order of GBP 12 billion  in social expenditure are in the pipeline, even if it is rather coy about how exactly this will be achieved. If the last Parliament was anything to go by, the brunt of the cuts will continue to be borne by the more vulnerable members of society, while corporations and the wealthy are spared.

There will continue to be a lot of talk about benefit scroungers (British and EU) to justify the cuts which will fall disproportionately on the working poor and non-working segments of British society. The austerity agenda continues to offer handy political cover for a significant reduction in the size of the state and the social and welfare infrastructure, including local government. This is set to continue, spreading more deeply to areas such as police, judiciary, military, etc. since the other options have been largely exhausted. The alternative would be to put the squeeze (e.g. means testing benefits of various sorts, higher taxes, etc.) on the middle classes, the retired and the wealthy; this will not happen if the Conservatives hope to be re-elected thereafter.

In the meantime, some of the things that Britons are most concerned about such a shelter (sufficient, affordable and good quality housing), health (NHS, access and quality) and education (primary, secondary and tertiary) will continue to experience gradual deterioration. These are simply not great priorities for the Conservatives. Their traditional supporters are capable of by-passing any current or future shortcomings in state provision and directly accessing the highest quality services that money can provide, though the phenomenon of the “squeezed middle” will ensure that political capital and financial resources will still be devoted to these fundamental themes.

Instead, the (EU and non-EU) migrants will continue to act as the lightning rod for people’s frustration with a slowly crumbling system, while those that have been running these very systems for decades or generations are largely spared the British citzens’ ire. After all, if housing is unaffordable and private renting is insecure, the normal response in a modern wealthy country would be to stimulate significant additional supply and/or ensure that appropriate protections are enacted. This will not happen. If there are not enough school places or hospital beds, then public investment should deliver greater supply while still maintaining standards. This is highly unlikely to happen either. Yet it is Westminster that is responsible for recognising, responding to and securing these changes over the medium term, not individual citizens looking to access these services, regardless of their nationality, race or creed.

We shall know the result of the general election soon enough. I sincerely hope that most of the above predictions prove to be wrong, in which case I will gladly eat my hat.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Britain has taken away my right to vote (and I want it back)

With the British General Election due on 07 May 2015, I tried to register to vote as a Brit living in Germany. Imagine my shock at discovering that not only has my right to vote been taken away from me, but I will never again be entitled to vote in any future British election. Britain has just withdrawn my fundamental democratic right without a warning or right to appeal against it.

Gobsmacked? Join the club, because so am I. In what is supposed to be one of the oldest parliamentary democracies, Parliament has withdrawn what I always believed to be one of my most fundamental rights for the rest of my life.

You are perhaps thinking that I must have done something to have lost my democratic rights. I have lost my right to vote because Parliament has determined that I have lived too long away from the UK. This is otherwise known as the “15 Year Rule” whereby British citizens automatically lose their democratic right to vote in British elections; they simply fall into the grey Zone that I now find myself in. By virtue of being in a European Union country, I am at least eligible to vote in German local, regional and European elections, but not their national elections, since I am not a German citizen. As of today, I know that I shall never again be able to vote in any election in Britain unless I return to the UK, when my rights would be restored.

So it is worth asking why is this the case? Is there something logical and reasonable about the 15 Year Rule or is it an arbitrary decision taken by Parliament which deprives people of their democratic right to vote?

The main rationale for the 15 Year Rule appears to be to limit the vote to only those who are affected by decisions made in Westminster or who have retained ties with the UK. If so, there are serious problems with this line of argument.

Is this a throwback to a long gone colonial era where people migrated to some distant land, lost complete touch with their country of origin and never returned to the UK? If so, Parliament is woefully out of touch with the world of today.

Who is to say that I am no longer affected by the decisions made by Parliament? For example, I have and continue to contribute to the UK State Pension and the decisions made by Parliament will certainly affect me until the day I die. Secondly who is to say that I have now lost my ties with the UK? My parents, my brother and my oldest and closest friends live in the UK. With globalisation, cheaper international travel and the ICT revolution, they are ever more accessible to me than ever before, even though I may not be physically in the UK. I believe I am at least as well informed and in touch with social, political and economic developments in the UK than the average voter, so why should I be penalised in this arbitrary manner? Does living across the Channel in “Europe” automatically mean that I have lost touch with Britain after a predetermined period of time? And who can decide whether the cut-off point should be 1, 5, 15, 25, 50 years or the day I die?

I do not accept at all that a 15 Year Rule or indeed any other time or other restriction should apply, especially in today´s day and age where the internet and international travel have shrunk space while increasing accessibility to almost everything. It is not only the apparently arbitrary nature of the rule that I object to; it also appears to be punitive and anti-democratic to force people like me into a grey zone where I shall never again be eligible to vote in any future British election unless I return to the UK.

The supposition that my links, connections and interests to and in the UK are somehow automatically lost after 15 years spent abroad is neither logical nor defensible. It amounts to little more than a hypothesis which cannot be proven, except at the individual level. It is equally arbitrary to automatically return all my democratic rights if and when I choose to return to the UK. I could then immediately leave again and be eligible to vote for another 15 years and keep doing the same thing over and over again. But why should I resort to doing this?

On the other hand, Article 25 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that: “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, … without unreasonable restrictions: (a) to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” The 15 Year rule would appear to be amount to an “unreasonable restriction” and thus to contravene this Covenant, which Britain has signed and ratified.

The situation becomes even more interesting when one examines the data on overseas voters. Firstly, the problem is very well-known to government (see “Voter engagement in the UK, Fourth Report of Session 2014–15“, 2014). Secondly, a mere 15,818 such overseas voters are actually registered to vote, which is remarkably few. Thirdly and most interestingly, there are actually a staggering 4.7 – 5.5 million potential overseas voters, only 1% of whom are currently registered to vote in the UK. The total number of eligible electors in 2014 was 45 million, so about 5 million amounts to potentially over 10% of the electorate. It is not known how many of the 99% are, like me, artificially debarred from voting by the 15 Year Rule, but it must be a significant number.

The current situation is an anti-democratic disgrace. The House of Commons report “Voter engagement in the UK, Fourth Report of Session 2014–15” stressed that something had to be done about overseas voters by the 2015 General Election:

“Although British citizens are only entitled to register to vote for UK elections if they were resident in the UK in the previous 15 years, it is clear that only a very small percentage of those who are likely to be eligible to register to vote are actually on the electoral register. It is not acceptable that such a small proportion of this franchise is registered to vote” (Paragraph 90)

However, it failed to make a recommendation about the 15 Year Rule itself. As far as I can see, the Government has simply ignored both issues. It is interesting to note that Germany used to have a 25 Year Rule, which was a much longer period of time than the current UK rule. However, the exclusion from the right to vote of German citizens residing outside the Member States of the Council of Europe who had departed from the Federal Republic of Germany more than 25 years previously was deleted in 2008, and with good reason.

With about 5 million votes at stake, many of which are affected by the 15 Year Rule, it is more than clear that it must be replaced by something logical, proportionate and democratic. At the very least, British citizens living in EU countries should be excluded from the 15 Year Rule. This would be a very partial improvement. The whole thing must be scrapped for all overseas voters.

Perhaps starting an ePetition after the General Election is over would be the way forward.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU