Politics

#ThisIsaCoup´s Germany Bashing is “Over the Top”

Quite a few people have taken to twitter under hashtag #ThisIsACoup to air their view that Greece has been bullied and coerced into an unjust and undemocratic agreement by the other Eurozone members, with the finger being pointing directly at Germany.

#ThisIsNOTaCoup

At least part of the reason for the popularity of hashtag #ThisIsACoup is that prominent commentators such as Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist, have helped to legitimise it and propel the hashtag #ThisIsACoup to the global audience. Krugman wrote in his New York Times blog“The trending hashtag #ThisIsACoup is exactly right.” This was part of his campaign to encourage Greece to exit the Euro.

 I have shown that hashtag #ThisIsACoup is exactly wrong and on two counts. Firstly, “this is a coup” literally implies a great compliment to the Eurozone countries (a coup), which Krugman and the rest presumably did not mean. What they actually meant is hashtag #ThisIsACoupD’état. But here too they have got it completely wrong because the bailout agreement on offer has none of the defining characteristics of a coup d’état either.

I am not arguing that the Euro summit agreement is all fine and well. It most certainly is not and makes unrealistic demands of Greece given the almost non-existing willingness or capacity to reform. I am simply saying that referring to it as a coup d’état (or indeed comparing the agreement terms to the Versailles Treaty, which some commentators have taken to doing) is emotional claptrap directed at one country rather than the 19 that signed the agreement, Greece included.

 #ButItCertainlyISGermanyBashing

In this post I would like address the content being posted on hashtag #ThisIsACoup. This particular bandwagon is not only ill-informed but it is deteriorating into a full-on Germany bashing movement.

Have a look at a selection of photos on offer to get the general gist of what is going on.

Germany Bashing 1

This is a sub-set of the kinds of images being posted. Some of them are funny but the vast majority are simply misleading or spiteful. The tweets are laced with references to Nazism, Fourth Reich and other stuffpointing towards Germany´s true intentions, namely of subjugating Europe through the back door.

Which planet have these people been living on since 1945?

Germans are entitled to feel offended by what is going on. Make no mistake: this is not restricted to the Twittersphere. A reading of comments posted in many national newspaper articles relating to the Eurozone crisis reveals a rising level of enmity towards Germany and its supposedly true intentions towards Europe via the mechanism of the Euro.

As a Briton living and working in Germany, with a German family, friends, family and colleagues, I find this sort of thing, often under the guise of “humour”, unacceptable.

This is unfair. It is wrong. This is  Germany bashing.

If it has not yet been understood those in question, please reflect on the unequivocal fact that that vast majority of Germans would never have opted for the Euro if they had been given a choice and would gladly return to their beloved Deutschmark tomorrow if they could. The Greek tragicomedy is only adding fuel to this particular fire. But I guess whatever I say will never not cut much ice with some people.

Debt relief has already happened and will continue to happen

Now, having got that off my chest, I would like to turn to the rest of Paul Krugman´s quotation, since it appears to legitimise much of what is going on in hashtag #ThisIsACoup namely: “This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief.”

I would like to start with the end bit: no hope of relief. It must be noted that Krugman wrote this before the finalisation of the bailout negotiations, so he was not aware of the fact that, for the first time publicly, “hope of relief” has been finessed into the agreement (“… including financing needs, debt sustainability and possible bridge financing.”). We all know there is no such thing as money for nothing; and so do the Greeks. Incidentally, Krugman also fails to acknowledge that there has already been very significant debt reduction in the first two bailouts for Greece. There will almost certainly be further debt reductions in the third bailout.

As for the final part of the quotation, “This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness,” I suggest that the Nobel laureate actually looks are the terms of the bailout to justify his view. I do not see it, thought I do agree that many of the things in the Euro summit agreement will never be realised, just as they were barely realised in the first two bailouts and/or were reversed once Syriza assumed power.

Germany Bashing 2National sovereignty is a 19-way street

The “complete destruction of national sovereignty” part is a red herring. In a representative democracy, the Greeks elect their government and their government makes decisions in relation to spending, taxation, etc. Parliament does not have to agree to anything it does not wish to do. In the meantime, the Greek Parliament has voted to accept the draft agreement. Two general elections and multiple Parliamentary votes later, the Greek government continues to ratify bailout conditionality. The debate about national sovereignty cannot be about Greece and Greece only. In the Eurozone there are another 18 nations whose taxes are increased and/or expenditure is potentially curtailed as a result of bailout after bailout to help Greece get its own house in order. There is a duty and responsibility towards the sovereignty of 19 nations, not only one.

If a country runs out of money through its own actions and inactions and needs to get it from another 18 countries with no end in sight, then then that country can expect reforms. But remember, these are the things which everyone agrees (including the Greeks themselves) it has systematically avoided doing for decades. Ask other states that have gone broke (but do not have the benefit of a Eurozone sugar daddy) whether they have had to implement painful reforms or not and for how long they have had to do it for in order to get back to normalcy.

Greece is under tremendous pressure to accept the bailout and some of the conditionality is questionable, such as connected with the privatisation fund. This reflects the lack of progress made in the other two bailouts as well as the breakdown in trust as a result of the negotiation tactics deployed in the last six months, rather than pure vindictiveness. At the end of the day, Tsipras and the Greek government must decide what, on balance makes most sense for their country. If the conditionality is vindictive and humiliating, there is an obvious option for them. If the future is truly brighter outside the Euro then it is the duty and responsibility of the Greek Parliament to go in the direction advocated by Krugman and others. But this is something which they have steadfastly refused to do so far to many economists´ dismay and disbelief.

As an aside, Paul Krugman is reported to have said that in pushing for a Greek exit he may have “overestimated the competence of the Greek government” and that it didn’t even occur to him that Greece would make a stand against the rest of the Eurozone countries without having made a plan for an exit from the euro if things went wrong. Perhaps he will also come to agree that the latest bailout agreement may be better than the alternative after all.

He who pays the piper calls the tune

At the end of the day, the country which makes by far the biggest contribution to the bailouts and thus potentially incurs by far the greatest loss associated with the Greek bailouts is entitled to not just a vote but to a significant say in the matter. Failure to do so would be irresponsible in relation to its own tax payers and a failure in democracy vis-a-vis its own electorate.

Every country must look after its own national interests. Consider Britain steadfastly refusing to contribute a penny to the Euro bailouts but offering to show solidarity towards Greece in the form of “humanitarian and medical aid,” should the country choose to exit the Euro and default. Britain is doing what it considers acceptable to its own electorate, as are all 19 Eurozone countries. What about Greece? Its approach is the epitome of following its own national interests. Why not Germany?

Get real: Greece´s sovereignty is not the only one in question; 19 countries are affected by the crisis. As the biggest contributor, Germany is entitled to a significant voice in the decision making-process (just as Italy, France, etc. and the Troika/Institutions are – but Britain is not). Some may not like it, but that is the reality.

Grow up: WWII ended 70 years ago; there comes a point when it is just plain silly to keep rolling out the tired old war clichés.

Stop the “over the top” (pun intended) Germany bashing.

 


If #ThisIsACoup then #MoneyGrowsOnTrees

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

It seems as if a great number of people, and not just in the Eurozone and the European Union (EU); have taken to Twitter to express their view that Greece has been bullied and coerced into an unjust and undemocratic agreement by the other Eurozone members and by Germany in particular.

Prominent bloggers and commentators such as Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist, have helped to legitimate and propel the hashtag #ThisIsACoup to the global audience. He wrote in his New York Times blog that:

“The trending hashtag #ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief.”

Partly as a result, the hashtag #ThisIsACoup, was trending in Greece, France, Germany, Britain and indeed globally as Twitters claimed that Greece was being stripped of its sovereignty as illustrated below.

#ThisIsACoupGLobalTrend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it is worth examining what the hashtag #ThisIsACoup really means.

There are two meanings of the word “coup” according to Dictionary.com, with a third connected with the word:

  1. a highly successful, unexpected stroke, act, or move; a clever action or accomplishment.
  2. (among the Plains Indians of North America) a brave or reckless deed performed in battle by a single warrior, as touching or striking an enemy warrior without sustaining injury oneself.
  3. coup d’état.

Strictly speaking, it would appear as if the hashtag #ThisIsACoup is actually praising the bailout agreement that Greece and the Eurozone have come up with as “a highly successful, unexpected stroke, act, or move; a clever action or accomplishment.” However, if you read the thread, it is clear that the vast majority of people on have actually understood the Twitter hashtag #ThisIsACoup as the exact opposite. And took the opportunity to engage in a bit of Germany bashing while they were about it.

As an aside, what is not being reported is that there is also a hashtag #ThisIsNOTaCoup where quite a few people are arguing the opposite. Although I do agree with this particular hashtag, they are also missing the point.

This takes us to the third meaning, namely of a “coup d’état” which is, of course, what the hashtag #ThisIsACoup does not say but presumably actually meant to say.

So let us examine this option. The same source (Dictionary.com) defines a coup d’état as: “a sudden and decisive action in politics, especially one resulting in a change of government illegally or by force.” Furthermore, it identifies various synonyms for coup d’état, including “overthrow, rebellion, revolution, uprising.”

It seems as if the vast majority of people actually were talking about the hashtag #ThisIsACoupD’état rather than #ThisIsACoup. But let us examine if this makes any sense, despite its obvious popularity:

  1. A sudden and decisive action in politics: really? I could have sworn that what has happened is the very opposite of this. The Greek crisis has been at least five long years in the making, there have been two bail outs already and an excruciatingly drawn out process of six months since Syriza came to power. Sorry, but the Twitters seem to be backing the wrong horse again, Nobel Laureate included.
  2. Resulting in a change of government illegally or by force: Really? Again, I could have sworn that the process has been the opposite of this. It seems to me as if the people of Greece have not only elected the political party (Syriza) which the “Eurocrats” did not want but also reinforced the point by offering up the referendum result that the Eurozone was hoping to avoid. Has there been a change in Government in Greece since the January general election? Has anything been done illegally or by force? I don´t think so. In fact, if anything is being done illegally it is that many of the other 18 members of the Eurozone, Germany included, are actually doing somersaults to keep Greece in the Euro despite the sentiment of their own electorates. There are 19 countries and democracies to take into consideration in the Eurozone, not just Greece. And this is before even mentioning the fact that transfer union is illegal, as are debt write offs and permanent bailouts in the Eurozone. Yet effectively all three are being done in one way or another in order to assist Greece.
  3. As for the synonyms “overthrow, rebellion, revolution, uprising,” do these really apply? I am not convinced. There has not been an overthrow or revolution of any kind and the Greek parliament will have its chance to reject the whole potential bailout package if they so wish. If there has been a rebellion/uprising, it is on the part of Syriza in relation to its approach to austerity, its debts and the conditionality which previous Greek governments have signed up to  and unorthodox manner by which it has carried out the negotiations with the rest of the Eurozone countries. This is not something that has been done to the Greeks, except for the Eurozone´s insistence that they deliver on their reform commitments (this time around) before getting their hands on the bailout cash. After all, money does not grow on trees. As I have previously argued, the Greeks have had two general elections and one referendum to leave the Euro and/or the EU. They have resolutely stuck to the current path of remaining in the Euro and the EU. If anyone is advocating a coup d’état, it is the commentators that are shrilly insisting that the Greek government rejects its electorate´s views in two general elections and leave the Euro as soon as possible. If the same wish to argue that the Greek Referendum was a vote to leave the Euro, let them try to make that case but they will get nowhere since the question was so convoluted as to be meaningless. It could not possibly be construed as a desire to leave the Euro and no one is claiming that.

So please, you Twitters out there, do get your facts right instead of blindly following the herd instinct.

If you meant that “this is a coup”, then you have actually been lavishing praise on the Eurozone members and the agreement that was reached at the eleventh hour.

I think it is a flawed agreement but better than none.

And it you actually meant that “this is a coup d’état” (which is clearly not what the hashtag actually says), you have also  got it completely wrong.

Either way the hashtag #ThisIsACoup that has been globally trending is misleading to put it mildly.


To Grexit, or not to Grexit, that is the question

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

And so, amazingly and beyond most Europeans’ wildest imagination, it has come to the single most important Referendum since the beginning of the Eurozone, indeed since the very beginning of the European Union (EU) “project”. The Greek nation is voting in a historic referendum that will shape its future, as well as that of the 18 other nations of the Eurozone and the 28 nations on the EU.

As a Briton, I belong to one of the 9 countries that are not part to the Eurozone, but I live and am based in Germany, so I am contributing to the various bailouts. My views of the historic vote the Greeks are casting are shaped by both sets of experiences, which is valuable, since Greece may soon be one of the 9, following a probable default, probable exit from the Euro and possible exist from the EU, the so-called Grexit.

Let me start by saying that I fully understand the Greek’s anger and frustration with the current situation. Unemployment of around 25%, youth unemployment of 60%, wage reductions, pension reductions, poverty reaching unprecedented levels, pensioners desperate to get some money and all the rest of it. Whatever you may think about Germany and the Germans, you will surely be aware of the suffering of the German civilian population after two world wars, hyperinflation, devaluation, two periods of devastation in the last century. The Britons have also gone through traumas. So have the Irish, Portuguese, Spaniards and Cypriots to varying degrees at the same time as the Greeks. No one wants to see this whole sorry situation drag on endlessly.

I am tired of and increasingly frustrated with all the accusations, bickering, tantrums and all the rest that all our politicians have been guilty of since January 2015, reaching a crescendo in the last two weeks. At a historical turning point in European history, it is sad and worrying to see just how divided Europe is. This does not bode well for Greece, the other 18 countries in the Euro or the 28 nations of the EU, not mention the large number of countries that aspire to join the EU in the future. Only one country will be quietly satisfied observing that is going on: Russia.

There have been all sorts of claims and arguments from politicians and economists, many of them totally contradictory. I am just an interested observer who is contributing through my taxes to the bailouts, who may be affected by a possible Euro collapse and who will be affected by the future shape of Europe resulting from today’s referendum. I would like to highlight some issues that Greeks may or may not be considering in casting their vote, but which are probably impossible to pay adequate attention to. given the chaotic and febrile situation, as well as the compressed timescale for this critical referendum:

  1. Europe is not to blame for Greece’s woes. This is first and foremost Greece’s own responsibility.
  2. The EU is not to blame for the Greeks’ troubles. Greek governments have consistently promised more than they could deliver and its citizens have knowingly voted them in one after the other, including the current Syriza. If what politicians are offering sounds too good to be true, it probably is and in other countries, the electorate generally acts accordingly.
  3. The Euro is not the reason why Greece needs bailouts. Greek government, Greek businesses and Greeks individually have lived beyond their means for decades and then used the historically low interest rates generated by (fraudulently) joining the Eurozone to over-borrow even more than previously. But we know full well that what is borrowed must eventually be repaid – and so do they.
  4. Greece has systematically lost competitiveness through its own actions and inactions. Generation upon generation of politician has borrowed too much, created too many public sector jobs, feathered the nests of their supporters through unaffordable perks such as early retirement, failed to collect the taxes due from certain segments of society, refused to implement needed reforms and again and again paid itself too much. In the 10 years until the crisis, the Greeks awarded themselves a 100% increase in wages, not to mention anything about early retirement or other perks. The loss of Greek competitiveness is not due to the EU, the Euro, the banks, the capitalists, the oligarchs, the politicians etc. They have collectively failed to maintain or improve their own competitiveness. The last 5 years have reinforced an entrenched the pattern and austerity has made the pre-existing situtation a lot worse, which is the main criticism which is justifiable. But the last five years were not the cause.
  5. The German, French and other banks are not to blame for the Greeks´ ills. These and other banks saw the opportunity to expand their business in this and other similar countries (as have Greek banks in the whole of the Balkans region) and lent according to the regulatory principles of the Greek Central Bank, according to the contracts that the Greek government, businesses and individuals signed. All three took the money that was lent and did not concern themselves unduly about its origin, though this has become an issue when it comes to payback. The banks naturally want to be repaid the huge sums involved otherwise they go bust, meaning losses for all the individuals that save with them, businesses that bank with them, shareholders that invest in them and others. They are no different from the Greek banks operating in Greece, the Balkans and elsewhere. If the banks (including Greek ones) had not been rescued or propped up, the consequences for the Greeks and for us in the Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries would have been disastrous. The Eurozone has acted correctly in avoiding this scenario. All the talk of paying French and German banks but failing to mention all the others, including Greek banks is hypocrisy. This has happened in all countries where it had to happen, including Britain, Ireland and the United States. If push comes to shove and governments have to make a similar choice again, the same pattern will be repeated because the alternative is worse.
  6. Greece has been the whipping boy for the Eurozone, but not the only one. The fact is that the Eurozone could easily have suffered “contagion” if Greece had defaulted at the time of the first and second bailouts. Furthermore the vast majority (around 90%) of the bailout has gone to the banks rather than the people of Greece. However, this was neither premeditated nor designed to impoverish, punish or humiliate the Greek people. I have already discussed the likely consequences of allowing a Lehman-style ”letting go” of the commercial banking sector. The failsafe mechanisms were simply not in place at the time (who knows if they really are this time around). The Eurozone was doing whatever was necessary to stop a doomsday scenario in Greece and potentially the other weak countries, as well as the whole of the Eurozone area. They succeeded, but at an even greater cost to Greece. But Greece chose to remain in the EU and the Euro. It did not have to.
  7. The Eurozone is not responsible for past, present or future Greek prosperity. There is no transfer union in the EU and it is not possible to have permanent bail outs of one nation by any other nation. Therefore Greece does not have an automatic right to be bailed out by anyone and certainly not on an on-going basis. Solidarity stretches only so far and cuts both ways. The Greeks should reflect on the fact that many of the nations bailing them out are notably poorer than them. If Greece is being bailing out, it is not to create a long-term dependency culture, but to help it to help itself and to be economically sustainable as soon as possible. Greece is entirely responsible for its present and future prosperity, not others.
  8. Greece has chosen so far to remain in the EU and Euro and must live with the consequences. Greece has held two national elections at which its electorate has categorically insisted upon remaining in the EU and the Eurozone. There is a price to be paid for this decision on their part and that price is called “internal devaluation”. The way that the Greek nation can regain competitiveness and eventually stand on its own two feet, is to reduce wages and other costs to levels which are compatible with their economic performance. The other option is to leave the Euro, but this is exactly what Greeks have insisted upon avoiding so far. The decision today enables the country to choose its own path for the third time. If they choose the same path as the rest of the Eurozone countries, then they have to abide by the implications. Please, let us not have any more accusation of blackmail, terrorism, humiliation of the Greek nation and all the rest of it.
  9. No one is taking sovereignty away from the Greeks. The Eurozone does not owe Greece anything and certainly not on a permanent basis (which is actually illegal in the EU and rightly so). So far Greece has chosen to remain in the Euro and swallow the bitter pill of internal devaluation that goes with the bailouts. The bailouts involve clear conditionality and the other Eurozone governments will only provide further tranches of funds if they accept the conditions/reforms connected with the bailouts. No one can or should get money for nothing. The conditionality is designed to enable Greece to get back on its own two feet as soon as possible, including priority reforms which previous Greek governments have systematically failed to implement over decades. Most people are totally unwilling to pay for a free Greek (Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Maltese) lunch and certainly not for ever. And the same applies to these countries in reverse. Greece has a duty and responsibility, to itself as well as the Eurozone countries, to reform and regain its competitiveness as soon as possible. The conditionality is not for the benefit of the other countries, except in the sense that they and their electorates / taxpayers wish fervently not have to have to continue to bail out other countries.
  10. No one has twisted Greece’s arm and forced it to take the bailouts and accept the associated conditionality. Greece asked for the bailouts arising directly from its own actions over decades. Its politicians signed-up to the money and the conditionality. If it takes the cash but fails to deliver on the conditionality, shit happens. But as the popular saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” EU voters in other countries will not allow further bailouts that fail to deliver the promises of reform for ever. Our politicians know this and they are not suicidal. They have a responsibility towards the Greek citizen by virtue of Greece being part of the Eurozone. However, they have a much greater responsibility towards their own electorates and to fulfil their own mandates. This will always trump Greece in a democratic environment comprising 28 nation states, and rightly so.
  11. The last general election resulted in a Syriza majority despite the electorate knowing full well that its programme was both contradictory and unaffordable without continuing bailouts from the Eurozone countries, debt relief and a cancellation of numerous conditions attached with the present bailout agreement. The nightmarish last five months have been the direct consequence of the mandate that the Greek people have given Syriza to end austerity. This is pie in the sky. This will not happen for a decade, regardless of whether Syriza is able to extract all the concessions it wants and certainly regardless of whether Greece remains part of Euro/EU or not. The mandate to end austerity in Greece is pure political opportunism on the part of Syriza: it amounts to a populist policy that cannot be delivered. Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis know this full well and so does the Greek electorate.
  12. Mr Tsipras and Mr Varoufakis cannot deliver the mandate they have asked for. They have assumed that the risk arising from Greek default is so high that the Eurozone countries would agree to whatever they demanded and have acted accordingly. They have deliberately and consistently gambled over the last five months with the future of Greece, as well as that of the rest of the Eurozone (and beyond – Britain, take note). I resent this stratagem on the part of the Greek government and I feel indignant about it both on the part of the ordinary Greeks and other Eurozone citizens. Game theory is all very well when it comes to econometric modelling, but not when the future wellbeing of 19 countries is at stake. Newsflash for Mr Varoufakis: we are not a mathematical model comprising 10 million Greek voters and a further 325 million rest-of-Eurozone variables to be number crunched until your previously desired statistical outcome is eventually delivered. The sad reality is that all that the Fine Your Radicals have manage to achieve so far, other than plunging Greece into unneeded and unwanted chaos, it to manage to rename the hated “Troika” to the equally detested “Institutions.” Game theory at its best? We are real people, not some gigantic theoretical experiment. The Greeks are facing enormous stress which goes well beyond any spurious mandate that Syriza believes it has managed to extract from a deeply traumatised nation.
  13. Greece has broken the EU way of doing things and the current state of the country is the result. The only way that it is possible for 19 counties to make decisions on such issues as the future of Greece and the Euro (and possibly the EU) is through compromise. Neither Mr Varoufakis nor Mr Tsipras have proved to be willing or able to play the game according to the established rules. The game theory assumption is that when push comes to shove, the Eurozone countries will back down and agree to more or less whatever Greece wishes. Newsflash for Mr Varoufakis: this hardball strategy, which plays fast and loose with the lives of 350 million people, not just that of the Greeks, has failed. The resulting fall-out is a complete and utter lack of trust on a scale never previously witnessed in Europe (not even during Margaret Thatcher’s period as British Prime Minister) since the end of the Cold War period. It does not serve Greece’s interests. It does not serve Eurozone interests. It does not serve EU interests. And it does not serve global interests.
  14. The current chaos in Greece only serves Russian interests. The geographers out there would agree that Greece is undoubted located at a pivotal geo-political position in Europe. The USA, EU and Greece know this, and so does Russia. Mr Tsipras´ attentive and persistent courting of Russia has been deliberate and has not failed to grab our attention. Europe is at a turning point and Russia, despite the ongoing economic weaknesses due primarily to low petrochemical prices, is resurgent. This is game theory with serious global implications which go potentially beyond mere economics and finance. The obvious and explicit threat is that Greece will turn its back on Europe and fall straight into the arms of mother Russian. Good luck with that. Greece is part of the European Union and Greeks feel European. There is nothing in the mandate that the Greek that citizens have given to Syriza to justify this approach and it can only entrench feelings against Syriza in the first instance and the Greek nation thereafter.
  15. Austerity cannot and will not be stopped tomorrow or any time soon. What the Greek or any other politicians imply, say or promise count for nothing as far as austerity is concerned. Not much will change, regardless of whether Greece votes Oxi (yes) or Nai (no). The choice is between “shock therapy” by defaulting and leaving the Euro or “muddling through” with EU bailouts. Neither option is quick nor palatable, though the shock therapy route does offer the promise of regaining competitiveness faster than the “muddle through” option, since Greece would then be totally in charge of its own currency and its own monetary policy, instead of the Euro straitjacket. However, there is no guarantee that its politicians will be able to agree, implement or maintain the long-term reforms necessary to achieve greater and faster economic dynamism than the current path. Presumably this lack of confidence in their own politicians is the reason why the Greeks are bending over backwards to remain in the Euro and the EU, rather than to entrust their own leaders with their future. The chaotic last 6 months are not a good omen: who can blame them?
  16. A flip-flopping government has run out of credibility, friends and trust. The negotiating position of Greece fluctuated over time but unilaterally pulling out of negotiations at a critical time, calling a snap referendum, the decision by Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis to solicit a “no” vote, not to mention the increasingly bellicose language used, means that there is no longer any trust in the current Greek government. How Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis can imagine that Greece’s negotiating position will be strengthened by a “no” vote is beyond me but this must obviously be the conclusion that their game theorising has led them to. The main counterparts in the whole process, not least IMF, EC and the principal contributor to the bailouts, Germany, have stated that they will not be able to work with Mr Varoufakis while remaining a vague about whether the same applies to Syriza.
  17. The EU cannot achieve regime change, only the Greek people can. The Institutions/Troika can say whatever they like (and they are, presumably because of their exasperation) but only the Greek people can decide on their own future and which party will lead them. The rest of Europe will have to like or lump it: that is the nature of democracy. But what exactly are the Greeks deciding on in this referendum? Do the people understand the convoluted question? Do they have enough time to consider the options properly? Even if the answer is “yes” twice over, is there an EU bailout on offer to vote on? The answer is “no”. The only thing that the voters are deciding on is whether they want to be part of the Euro or not. Already, with funds running low, there are chaotic and heart-rending scenes that are nothing to be proud of, either in Greece, the Eurozone or the rest of the EU. If this goes on, whatever the announcements by the Syriza government that they have stock-piled food and medicines (when did they do this and why did they do so, unless they did not expect their negotiations to succeed?), we shall all be diminished and the Greek people will indeed be desperate. Who knows what kind of chaos will break out? Has this really been factored in by Syriza? I very much doubt it. I suspect that they are just winging it.
  18. Neither option will be palatable to Greek people: it is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. A yes vote could mean easier negotiations with Syriza since they will then have another mandate (but they already have the mandate of remaining in the Eurozone) to negotiate the terms of the bailouts. This will be awkward but not impossible to roll up the sleeves and find a workable compromise this time around. We expect no less from our politicians. But a resignation by Syriza is the more likely outcome based on their intransigent approach in the last five months. There would be another general election, with the possibility of an even more radical government coming to power and the crisis being drawn-out even longer. Or it could mean a “traditional” government that will agree debt relief, combined with an acceptable bailout programme and conditionality. Either way, the Greeks cannot expect higher minimum wages, pensions, etc. than exist in the various countries that are contributing to keeping their economy afloat but do not enjoy the same level of benefits. This is not feasible and will not be agreed to. Living within their means has to be the way forward, even with the significant debt relief combined with serious investment for growth and development that I sincerely hope will be hammered out next time round.
  19. The present is bleak, but the future could be worse. No European, indeed no human being, can look upon the scenes in Greece with aloofness. My parents are pensioners and I would not wish this sort of thing upon them or any other person. However, should the Greeks choose the “no” path, followed by default and introduction of a new Drachma, they will have delivered themselves into an unpredictable roller-coaster ride which will test the nation well beyond the limits of anything they have endured so far. There is plenty of not-so-distant experience of “shock therapy” in most of Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia. Whatever the alluring promises on the part of duplicitous politicians or contradictory prize-winning economists, the bloody reality will result in economic and human carnage in the short-term. This will, hopefully, quickly be followed by much more rapid recovery and prosperity than possible under the current “muddling through” option within the Euro. But don’t bet on it: economic theory and reality are usually out of sync, as the last five years should have once gain proved.
  20. A last word on the matter. Good luck to the Greeks today. I would not like to be in their shoes and I can only hope that they will make the right decision for Greece, as well as for the rest of us.

 

 


The Queen of the Referendum: Elizabeth II in Germany

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

Queen Elizabeth II has just completed a four-day state visit to Germany, included a visit to the Bergen-Belsen prisoner of war and concentration camps (where Anne Frank wrote her famous diary and died shortly before liberation), met the President Joachim Gauk and the Chancellor Angela Merkel, and visited Berlin and Frankfurt. The German people went bananas about the state visit – it was almost as if Germany had become the 54th member of the Commonwealth!

The Royal Family is very popular among ordinary Germans despite the recent history of two World Wars. Royal marriages, divorces and births are followed closely and there is an obvious affection for the Queen. The pomp and ceremony, including the flag waving, are just not part of the culture in modern Germany, though it is noticeable that they have become a lot more at ease about waving the German flag since the football World Cup was staged in Germany in 2006. Partly because the Germans are much more buttoned-up about the whole concept of patriotism, the Royal visit was an occasion to dress up, go mad and just enjoy the state visit. English flags were still a lot more visible than German ones.

Queen Elizabeth in Germany 2015

Picture: John MacDougall/Pool Photo via Associated Press

Of course, there are strong connections between the British Royal Family and Germany, going back quite some time. But even in terms of the present, few realise that Prince Philip is a member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and that he was partly educated in Germany. But at the end of the day what matters is quite simply that Germans admire the Queen’s charm and sheer will-power; it is a rare sight for an 89 going 90 year-old to perform her role so competently. A rapidly ageing nation such as Germany certainly knows how to appreciate this.

The royal couple’s first visit to Germany was actually back in 1965. It was an important state occasion, involving a marathon 11 cities and it is a generally acknowledged that it helped heal the wounds of World War II. As in the case of the first visit, the fifth and quite possibly last one, also drew large, enthusiastic crowds and generated significant media coverage.

Rex

Rex

Picture: Rex

Neither Mr David Cameron nor Mrs Angela Merkel would have had one-tenth of the pulling power of the Queen, let alone one-hundredth of her influence in terms of building positive international relations between the people of Germany and the UK citizens. And, let us face it, after the on-going centrifugal forces generated by a possible Grexit, not to mention a possible Brexit, as well as the austerity drive which, rightly or wrongly, is associated with the EU and Germany, Europe can certainly do with a lot more of this sort of thing – it is a precious glue binding two nations together.

However, what has been the most significant aspect of the official state visit is actually the speech she gave, which is not normally reported (other than the Opening of Parliament Speech). The Queen’s speech was widely discussed and reported in the British media. What she said was:

“The United Kingdom has always been closely involved in its continent… Even when our main focus was elsewhere in the world, our people played a key part in Europe.”

Blink and you would have missed what all the fuss is about, not least because the crucial word uttered only contained three letters, namely the reference to the UK and “its” continent. The Queen could easily have chosen the word which would normally have been used in the sentence, namely “the” rather than “its”, but for whatever reason chose to do otherwise.

It is very easy, indeed dangerous, to over- or mis-interpret the supposed meaning of a single word. Nevertheless, given the febrile discussions in the UK about the forthcoming referendum on whether to remain or exit the EU, the Queen’s speech is being widely regarded as an indication that the Queen favours continuing UK membership of the EU.

But the greater controversy concerned the speech delivered in Berlin on Wednesday, where she warned of the “dangers” of division in Europe and the need to “guard against it”. What she said was:

“We have witnessed how quickly things can change for the better. But we know that we must work hard to maintain the benefits of the postwar world… We know that division in Europe is dangerous and that we must guard against it in the west as well as in the east of our continent.”

This part of the speech, which could be read at different levels, is what has caused consternation among Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party as well as UKIP. The main reason is that it could be interpreted as being for the EU status quo and such speeches are normally done in conjunction with government officials. In other words, the suggestion is that the Queen is uttering that which Mr Cameron shirks saying himself.

Despite the protestations emanating from Buckingham Palace and Downing Street that the Queen was not setting out a position in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, the speech resonates. The sentences chosen by the Queen made it clear that Britain is part of the European continent, that it is not a matter of “us and them”, as some would wish to portray things and that Europe (EU?) should remain united (though the Greeks appear to be doing their best to do the opposite).

The Queen is supposed to be above politics but this is clearly nonsense. After all, she opens parliament. She appoints the Prime Minister and meets with him or her on a weekly basis. Not only does the Queen have a mostly ceremonial role in the Parliament of the whole of the UK, she also has formal responsibilities within the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is therefore naive to maintain that she is a neutral observer and that and the Royal Family is above politics.

Yet this is precisely what Buckingham Palace maintains and the average Brit is happy to believe, despite the recent “Black Spider” memo letters written by Charles, Prince of Wales, to the British government ministers and politicians over the years. Despite the British monarchy being supposedly politically neutral, the letters sent by Charles may be interpreted as an attempt to exert influence over British government ministers on a wide-ranging set of issues including farming, genetic modification, global warming, social deprivation, planning and architecture. If this is the case with Charles’ private letters, surely the Queen is able to influence politics, not to mention her subjects.

If she is really trying to influence British voters to vote in favour of remaining in the EU in the forthcoming referendum on the matter, I would agree fully with her instincts. But the fact remains that she would not be politically neutral and neither should Bucking Palace, Downing Street nor anyone else pretend otherwise.

Besides, this would not be the first time that the Queen has waded into referendums and possibly influenced their outcome. The most recent example of this was in September 2014. Shortly before the voting day on the Scottish referendum, the English Establishment, not least Downing Street, was panicked by the exit polls suggesting that there would be a majority in favour of Scotland becoming independent, into using every means possible to sway the vote in favour of Union.

By all accounts, the Queen was encouraged by Downing Street to speak out on the issue. Her views on the matter had been made clear in her silver jubilee address to a joint session of parliament in 1977, when she said:

“I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom.”

In the end, the plea issued by Buckingham Palace, with perfect timing, was to urge voters in Scotland to “think very carefully” about the referendum in an apparently spontaneous response to someone in the crowd. Needless-to-say, this too was widely reported by the media shortly before the vote.

Like the words “its continent,” dangers of “division in Europe” and the need to “guard against it”, small things can make a significant difference in a country where her subjects revere the Queen. It is widely assumed that the urge to “think very carefully” was sufficient to influence swing voters during the Scottish referendum, resulting in a last-minute surge in favour of retaining the Union. That said, it is far from clear that the outcome of that particular referendum in favour of of retaining the Union will be the last word on the matter, as far as the Scottish National Party and the Scottish people are concerned.

When it comes to the most profound issues facing the UK and its future, I believe that the Queen is not quite as politically impartial and Buckingham Palace would suggest. I suspect that Elizabeth II may well turn out to be, among other things, the Queen of the Referendum.


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


The Housing Crisis and the Main Political Parties´ Solutions

Britain has had a housing issue over a period of decades which has morphed into a full blown housing crisis. So it is worth asking the question: just how do the leading political parties aim to solve the housing crisis, an issue which has been extensively discussed in the media and which directly affects people´s quality of live? This question focuses mainly on Britain, though the German situation is also touched upon.

Is there a housing crisis?

In Britain, no one seriously questions the fact that there is not only a real housing crisis in Britain, but that it is the worst it has been in a generation. In fact the worst situation in a generation does not really capture the issue since the current levels of house building in Britain are actually the lowest in peacetime since the 1920s. Unlike frequent hints and suggestions to the contrary, this is not first and foremost due to an increase in migration from the European Union (EU), which started in 2004, peaked in 2009 and been running at lower levels since. This is not to suggest that net positive annual migration does not impact on housing demand and thus ultimately on house prices. It is to argue that a full-blown housing crisis has taken decades to reach the current level, rather than being a consequence of 11 years of migration from the new accession and other EU countries. Rather, it is the direct consequence of neglect by the leading political parties over generations.

Demand for housing is not simply about migration, it is also about the overall population growth, as well as other factors such as regional migratory patterns, trend towards smaller households and various many other factors. To argue, as the media, the politicians and many ordinary people increasingly have, that the current housing crisis is due to migration in general and/or so-called „uncontrolled“ EU migration in particular is quite simply pie in the sky.

The other key factor, of course, is supply of housing and here, we see the real problem which has resulted in the current housing crisis. Unlike Germany, where demand and supply are responsive to one another (albeit it with a time lag that is caused by investors, the construction industry and the planning system taking time to react to the changing circumstances), the same does not apply to Britain and has not done so for decades. Quite simply not enough housing is constructed to meet demand. At its core, this is fundamentally the cause of the housing crisis in Britain, though there are numerous factors which deliver this unsatisfactory outcome.

Of course, one could discuss the effects of certain policies which have affected the housing policy dynamic, the most important one being the Right-to-Buy policy, which since 1980 has resulted in 1,5 million homes being sold at discount. However, this does not affect demand and supply situation. People still need to live somewhere, regardless of whether a former council owned property is now owned by the last former tenant or not.

What are the solutions to the British housing crisis?

It is safe to say that one of the two leading parties is likely to lead whichever government comes into power after 07 May 2015. So it is worth asking the question of what they are proposing in their election manifestos to solve this major social and economic ill which affects the younger generations in particular (but not only). These are, of course, also the ones which either do not vote or tend to vote proportionately less than their parents´ and grandparents´ generation.

The answer in terms of what they are proposing is, sadly but perhaps predictably, not that much.

  • Labour Party: promises that 200,000 houses will be built annually by 2020, meaning that the numbers will be a lot lower until then. Given that annual construction is currently running at half that number, this is a realistic target but there is little detail on how this will actually be achieved, let alone ensuring that such housing is affordable.
  • Conservative Party: the supply of housing is not uppermost in the manifesto, since the emphasis is on privatising whatever social housing is left, namely the stock that is used by 1.3 million families living in housing associations. There will also be a requirement for local authorities to sell the most valuable properties from what remains of their housing stock (210,000 or 5%). The sales will be reinvested in new housing supposedly resulting in a larger number of new houses built, compared with those sold. The plan is to create 200,000 Starter Homes over the course of the next five years, which will be sold at a 20% discount to for first time buyers under the age of 40.

Is the end of the housing crisis in sight?

Any way you view the election promises of the two leading parties, the numbers simply do not add up. Even if it were possible to achieve the targets set by 2020, which is in itself doubtful (for example, the Conservative manifesto more or less rules out construction of Green Belt land and the Labour manifesto does not even mention it, referring only to the Lyons Review), neither party is seriously promoting serious, long-term solutions to the housing crisis. Housing is first and foremost a numbers game; the supply has to exceed demand and it needs to be maintained over decades in order to deliver not only sufficient, affordable homes, but also an increase in standards and quality over time.

The proposed solutions are not going to do much for the large numbers of people, especially those under the age of 35, who are currently having to live with their parents or paying high rents for low quality private rented housing. The proposed solutions represent yet another missed opportunity to think long-term and prioritise investment in what is a basic human necessity, as well as something which greatly influences our quality of life. The contrast with other European countries, such as Germany, could not be greater as illustrated in a previous post comparing the German and British housing systems.

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


Europe is a litmus test: Britain and a possible EU Referendum

As expected, a key battleground of the British General Election due on 07 May 2015 concerns whether Britain should remain in or out of European Union (EU). The position of the main political parties is now clear namely that Labour, the LibDems and the SNP are all fighting the election on the basis that they wish to remain in the EU, whereas the Conservatives are fighting on the basis that if re-elected, they wish to hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in or leave the EU. The Ukip party´s position is to leave the EU as soon as possible, preferably before 2017.  The manifesto positions are summarised here.

I have written about this the possible Referendum in 2017 before (British Voters and EUroscepticsm: much ado about nothing?), namely that it does not actually rank highly in the the average British voter´s list of priorities.  When the Ipsos MORI poll of January 2015 asked British voters about their top concerns, four issues predominated: healthcare (almost half of voters), economy (one-third) followed by asylum and immigration (one-quarter) and education/schools (one-fifth). Europe/EU as an issue is on par with unemployment, which at present is very low in the UK. Indeed, less than 10% of potential voters consider it to be of importance in their list of priorities. The same post also examined the full list of British voter priorities and concluded that they had very little to do with the EU, since they the vast majority of them, with the exception of EU immigration are largely or entirely the responsibility of the British government. In other words, voting for the Conservatives in order to have a referendum resulting in leaving the EU would change precious little in relation to the state of the NHS, the economy, the education system, the housing system and much else besides. The responsibly for these rests squarely with the British government, not with the EU.

There is, in my view, little or no point to quote research and studies regarding the economic and other consequences of leaving the EU. The fact is that both sides of the debate use the assumptions that best suit the conclusions that they they wish to arrive at. Ultimately, each voter will have to weigh up the pros and cons of staying and leaving the EU. The British voter had to do so in 1975 and chose to join the EU. I shall trust them to arrive at an appropriate conclusion in 2017, should the Conservatives regain power after the General Election.

I would note, however, that the Ukip has been simplifying the pros and cons of leaving the EU and, as I have previously discussed, have made strenuous efforts to conflate the issue of migration, use of the NHS, etc. with the EU which also underplaying the consequences of leaving the EU as soon as possible. By contrast the Conservatives have understood perfectly the consequences of leaving the EU but have simply pandered to their Eurosceptical wing while at the same time seeking to stop the hemorrhage of support in their traditional voters which have, until recent months, been increasingly warming to the dubious charms of the Ukip party.

The Labour party, unlike the LibDems and the SNP, initially gave the impression of sitting on the fence on this issue but have ultimately decided to stay in the EU, while reforming the EU budget and ensuring EU migration does not lead to workers’ wages being undercut.

On 07 April 2015, a leading British political figure waded into the debate and, for a change, it was not to denounce the EU, EU immigration, benefit scroungers and all the rest of the anti-EU rhetoric that has become common place in recent British politics. The person in question has this to say about the possible EU referendum, should the Conservatives be returned to power following the General Election:

“For me Europe is an important litmus test. I believe passionately that leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world, do significant damage to our economy and, less obviously but just as important to our future, would go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation. It would be a momentous decision….

A decision to exit Europe would say a lot about us [United Kingdom] and none of it good: that an adventurous country has become a timid one; that one with global ambitions has opted to be a parochial bystander; that a country known for its openness to the world shuts the open door nearest to it; that a nation which has built its history on confidence towards others defines itself by resentment to others; that, with all the challenges of the world crowding in upon us, demanding strong and clear leadership, instead of saying ‘here’s where the world should go’, we say ‘count us out’. “

At last, a notable politician has the courage to stand up and be counted in relation to the importance of the EU to the UK and vice versa. The speech by this politician has been prominently reported but alas has also been widely dismissed for the simple reason that it was said by none other than Mr Tony Blair (Europe – a very good reason to vote Labour, 07 April 2015).

This is a terrible pity. Tony Blair has gone from being the darling of the left and the person that brought about Cool Britannia to achieving political pariah status in the years since he resigned in favour of Gordon Brown. The main reason for this is that he was he was blown off course by 9/11 and committed British troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Of course, many seem to find his ability to amass a personal fortune since leaving public office galling, though it is entirely his right to do so and simply mirrors what other ex-Prime Ministers have done.

Personally, I believe that because of the so-called special relationship with the USA, almost any other British Prime Minister would have made the very same decisions that he did at the time and that, just like Margaret Thatcher before him, not only has he defined British politics since 1997 but his legacy continues to do so today.

I admire his capacity to communicate and I respect his political courage for making this speech on the UK and Europe.

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