Tag Archive: EU28

To Brexit or not to Brexit: key issues for the EU Referendum

EU Referendum ahead

The British voter will soon be asked to decide on whether Britain will continue to have a future as part of the European Union (EU) or to exit it (i.e. Brexit or British Exist). The EU referendum’s date has not yet been fixed and must happen by 2017, but is widely speculated that it is going to be to be scheduled for mid-2016.

That question that will be put to the British voter is simple but fundamentally important, namely:

  • Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the EU?

The options are either to:

  • Remain a member of the European Union or
  • Leave the European Union

This is a simple question with simple options, but it nevertheless is a historic referendum that will influence the future of the UK (and that of the EU itself) for generations to come.

Brexit the obvious solution?

I am a British citizen who lived, studied and worked in Britain. My parents, sibling and my closest friends remain in Britain. Nevertheless, during the last 20 years, I have lived and worked in numerous countries of the EU and elsewhere. I am married to a German and my business takes me regularly to different parts of the EU, potential future EU countries and beyond. I understand what the feeling is about the EU and that there is frustration with the way the EU is perceived to be interfering with British sovereignty and especially about the freedom of movement of people, which is widely seen to be adding to the social pressures in the country.

If I were about to cast a vote at the forthcoming EU referendum, I would feel apprehensive about it. If I were to believe what a hostile media and populist politicians stress, my gut reaction might be to vote for Brexit and leave the EU. I might not be greatly enamoured by the current state of the UK economy, the ongoing austerity, the decreasing wages and the job insecurity. I might well be hearing about the number of laws and regulations emanating from “Brussels”, which the shorthand for the EU, with the implication that Britain no longer controls its own borders and sovereignty. I might well be tempted to conclude that the EU is indeed to blame.

Furthermore, I might also be frustrated by my inability to get on to the first rang of the housing ladder while others point to migrants from the EU are taking up the supply of housing that I or my children want to make use of in our own country. This might lead me to concur with those that point to the “uncontrolled” borders and the EU migration caused by the freedom of movement of people. A similar argument is applied to the pressures in the health and education systems, and I might also be concerned about the “swarms” of EU migrants taking-up scarce resources that we are entitled to, since we are the ones who are actually paying the taxes while the others jump the queue and coin the market for social benefits.

In short, if I were to believe all of the above, I might be well disposed to giving “Europe” a bloody nose, just as populist politicians and the media are urging me to. I might vote to leave the EU: Britain was great on its own and can be once again.

The real issues

But the British voters are fair and reasonable. Rather than follow their gut reaction, they will want to balance both sides of the equation and be fair and dispassionate in making this historic decision. They will want answers to the following questions:

  • Is the negative portrayal of the EU and all the criticism connected with it correct?
  • Is it too simplistic to say that the EU is to blame for all the challenges in Britain?
  • Is Britain indeed so tied-up by the EU that it is no longer in charge of its own destiny?
  • Are there only costs to being one of 28 member of the EU?

If something sounds too simple to be true (it’s the EU, stupid!), then perhaps it is really is too good to be true. Simple solutions to complex problems are appealing but can the EU really be the fount of all of Britain’s ills and will the country really be better off immediately upon Brexit?

Looking at it through another lens, the fair-minded British voter might ask whether it is reasonable or not to only see “Europe”, “Brussels” and the “European Union” only in a negative light? Can it really be that Britain is only paying in but getting nought out of the EU? And, if things are not quite so black and white, what exactly are those positives that are so rare to hear about? Are the benefits so abstract that the ordinary voter simply cannot grasp them or related to them?

We all instinctively know that there are two sides to every story but the media and the loudest politicians do not excel at presenting the pros and cons. As a Brit with a foot on both camps, I hear a series of populist myths being peddled again and again. I often smell a red herring when I turn a newspaper pager. I often see the EU being used and abused by those who would attack a straw man.

So in making-up my mind about how to vote at the historic EU referendum, as a Brit, I would want to understand the costs as well as the benefits connected with the most important EU issues, namely:

EU costs
  • Is EU migration a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is EU benefit tourism a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is the housing crisis a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is EU health tourism a good reason for Brexit?
  • Are EU directives and regulations a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is the state of the education system a good reason for Brexit?
  • Is the EU the cause of austerity, low productivity and stagnating wages in the UK?
  • Is the UK paying more than its fair share and getting little out of the EU?
EU benefits
  • Is having the Euro (one currency in 19 countries out of 28) so bad?
  • Is being able to visit, study and work in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is being able to own a second home and retire in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is having common trade arrangements in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is having common environmental standards in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is having common consumer protection in 28 countries so bad?
  • Is reducing the time, stress, cost, etc. across 28 countries so bad?
  • Is the EU undemocratic, out of touch and beyond reform?
Key issues

 

  • Is Britain better or worse off within the EU?
  • Is the EU better or worse off with Britain in the EU?
  • Are you better off with Britain in the EU or not?

Questions and Answers

If I were the average voter, I would want an answer to these questions before casting my vote.

I would also want the answers to be simple, short and to the point but backed-up by evidence.

This is exactly what the AngloDeutsch Blog will seek to do from until the referendum.

This will be a challenge, given my professional and other commitments, but I shall do my best to cover as many of these topics as I can over the next few months, starting with the EU’s freedom of movement of people.

Dr Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU, 13 February 2016


The refugee backlash – pulling-up the European drawbridge

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

2015 was another tumultuous year for Europe. Over a million refugees found their way into the European Union (EU), but already a new dynamic is evident in early 2016: the refugee backlash has begun and Europe is pulling-up the drawbridge on refugees and economic migrants. The broad contours of the dynamic evident can be summarised as follows:

  • The EU countries have accepted too many and cannot continue to absorb refugees at the same rate;
  • Germany was irresponsible in allowing so many refugees;
  • Without proper checks, the refugee will include a radical element that will pose a threat to the EU´s security, as illustrated by the terrifying Paris bombings in November 2015;
  • Once in Germany, or wherever, they will spread to other parts of the EU, so the freedom of movement of people principle may need to be looked at again;
  • Further sexual assaults on women and robberies by young men from “the African or North African region” are to be expected following the shameful New Year’s Eve experiences in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities;
  • The current levels of migration will destroy Europe as we know it; the borders must close, only legitimate applications up to a predetermined cap can be accepted and the rest sent back.

This all seems logical and it plays well as a populist theme. This certainly applies to parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), but it also goes down equally well with the mainstream political parties such as the Conservative Party in the UK and the CDU and especially CSU in Germany. This is without even mentioning the more radical right wing movements that exist throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, shrill criticism of the migration issue and the EU’s apparent inability to manage the situation is particularly evident in the UK, as it gears up for the forthcoming referendum (the exact date of which has not yet been announced) on whether to remain in the EU or not.

It is very difficult to unpack and analyse what is clearly a highly emotive theme, let alone have a sensible debate about it, which is the very reason why certain political parties are making hay with the refugee issue. Previously, their favourite theme was the Eurozone/Greece crisis, now it is migration but the overall gloom and doom narrative does not change very much.

I should stress that there are clearly legitimate public concerns throughout Europe about the migration issue, both within the EU and from outside. However, the use of scare tactics to gain political or other advantage is not something I enjoy witnessing so I aim to address a sub-set of issues, such as Germany’s alleged irresponsible behaviour, the argument that Europe simply cannot cope and the refugee backlash that is in full swing before the first month of 2016 is finished.

The blame game

I will start with Germany’s role in the European refugee crisis. There is certainly a messy situation, but did Germany act irresponsibly in 2015?

Any way you choose to cut it, Germany has played the key role in the refugee crisis. Germany accepted 1.1 million refugees in 2015, a number than could rise further on by the time the counting is official. Germany had in any case been experiencing significant flows of migrants, mainly from the EU. For the last few years this has been running at over 400,000 net migrants per year. Add this up and Germany received at least 1.5 million net migrants last year, which is an astonishing figure. Furthermore, under the German asylum law, refugees may be allowed to bring their family members, resulting in a significant and unquantifiable flow connected with 2015.

By any reasonable criteria Germany has been an incredibly good country to accept so many people. This is not just about the cost involved, which is undoubtedly significant albeit one which Germany is in a position to absorb. Being a good country is first and foremost about the willingness to recognise the human suffering cause by the migration crisis and to try to do something about it, rather than turning a blind eye to it all.

The contrast with many other EU countries could not be greater. Countries such as the UK have agreed to accept 5,000 Syrian refugees per year for the next five years. It has to be borne in mind that even this paltry number was only agreed to following a public outcry from British citizens appalled by their government’s hard heartedness, which bounced Parliament into agreeing to do more.

Germany is not alone in being a good country: about 90% of the refugees have been accepted by three countries out of 28 in the EU: Germany, Sweden and Austria. What about the response of the other 25 countries of the EU?  Following months of unedifying political squabbling, which continues to this day, the best they could come-up with was to agree to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy over the next two years: this is an average of 5,700 per country over two years, though very few of these transfers have actually occurred so far (less than 500 were achieved in 2015 and only 3 out of 10 “hot spots” have opened according to some estimates).

Is “pitiful” too strong a word to summarise the EU’s collective failure in the face of a mass humanitarian crisis? I don’t think so. It is not the first time that the EU has failed miserably to stand up to be counted and it will almost certainly not be the last. It is not as if the refugee crisis was some sudden, unexpected act of god; this is the result of steadily growing pressure and reaching its natural and inevitable conclusion. There was nothing about it that could not have been predicted by the civil servants of the European Commission or of the EU member states.

Germany’s decision to act more or less unilaterally in accepting 1.1 million refugees must be seen in the following context:

  1. This is the worst crisis since WW2: the number of forcibly displaced people, often due to wars, reached almost 60 million worldwide at the end of 2014, including over 14 million refugees. This was an increase of about 25% compared to the previous year and is mostly due civil war, violence and oppression in Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, etc. although other regions, including northern Africa and the Balkans, are also major sources of migrants (IMF, 2016 / The Refugee Surge in Europe: Economic Challenges). This is nothing short of a mass human tragedy, which Europe is neither immune to nor can afford to simply turn its back on. Globalisation entails many new developments, including the capacity of large numbers of people to move in the direction of Europe. It may take time, but sooner or later, it does reach Europe.
  2. This was not a crisis of Germany’s making: it did not chose to invade Iraq in 2003 and played little or no part in setting in chain a series of events which have destabilised parts of the Middle East, in an attempt to bring about democracy through regime change. Of all the European nations it is the UK, France and Italy (together with the USA) that bear the greatest responsibility for any resulting instability in the region. All are now conspicuous for their efforts to obfuscate causality and deny moral or other responsibility (if you break something, you should fix it) to deal with the resulting mess that they helped to set in chain.
  3. The EU failed spectacularly: the utter inability of the EU to find common ground in dealing with the huge volume of people heading towards Europe is what resulted in Germany’s more or less unilateral action. Just as in the Greek/Eurozone crises, it is proving extremely difficult for 28 countries to make decisions quickly and act in unison. This should not be in the least bit surprising. The EU is very far from being a United States of Europe; this simply reflects the fact that the nation-state is alive and well within the EU, despite exaggerated claims of its demise. Each nation retains the ability to follow its own mandate and block changes that it does not agree with. The Central European (Visegrad countries) and Western Balkans states have made their views crystal clear in respect to taking a share of the refugees, but they are not alone. Just as in the case of Greece and the Eurozone, finding a common solution to an unexpected large-scale problem is a slow, messy and costly process. In the end, to misquote slightly the famous words: Europeans Will Always Do the Right Thing — After Exhausting All the Alternatives. The 28 nation states plus the various Candidate Countries (i.e. Western Balkans including Turkey) will find an imperfect compromise and Germany will pay a disproportionate amount of the cost arising. Such is the iron rule of the EU. No other scenario is possible if 28+ nations are to continue to play broadly for the same team. How many other international agreements are you aware of that take a couple of weeks or months to resolve? Climate change agreements? International trade agreements? These things take years or decades, not weeks or months to sort out and are always and everywhere an uneasy compromise. 28+ countries finding a way to deal with the worst humanitarian crisis in 70 years takes time but in 2015, time was of the essence where people are involved, rather than just economics.

Cometh the hour, cometh the country: Germany chose not to sit on its hands but to act in alleviating the growing pressure along the Turkish-Greek-Balkan-Central European corridor.

Refugees in Miratovac, close to the border between Serbia and Macedonia. Photo by Djordje Savic / EPA

Refugees in Miratovac, close to the border between Serbia and Macedonia. Photo by Djordje Savic / EPA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You are free to form your own opinion about whether Germany has acted irresponsibly or not. I personally think that not only has Germany acted incredibly responsibly, but as tax payer and resident of the country, I am proud of living in such a country. No doubt, Germany has already changed as a result and ordinary Germans are deeply unsettled about the implications, an issue which I plan to write about in the future. This is a reflection, among other issues of the fact that the scale of the problem is so great that no country can possibly solve it all on its own – not even Germany.

Europe Cannot Cope! Really?

The next issue is whether Germany and/or Europe have relevant experience and if they can absorb the numbers of refugees.

For a start, I can distinctly remember (since I was part of it) a small, poor, broken European country of 8.5 million absorbing about 1 million people from its former colonies during the mid- to late-1970s. While there are major differences with the current situation (common language, culture, religion, etc.), Portugal was not part of the EU but absorbed those numbers and did not collapse despite its politically chaotic and economically precarious post-colonial situation at the time. In fact, it thrived as a result of the influx. Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that Europe should fling open its doors to all and sundry with no questions asked, but I am saying that Europe is much more robust than many would seem to believe.

After a short-lived spike of international approval for its decision to take on the refugees, Germany has since reaped criticism, direct and indirect, most of which has been leveled at Angela Merkel, the Germany Chancellor. The gist of the argument is that she has gambled Germany’s long term interests for personal hubris: she wanted to cap her career with a Nobel Peace Prize and/or improve Germany’s international image after the Greek crisis. Others of a more analytical bent sought instead to justify Germany’s actions (and presumably the inaction of their own governments) by pointing to Germany’s ageing population structure. It seems to me that almost all 28 EU countries are suffering from the same problem, albeit to varying degrees. Did others facing the same demographic situation jump to take their share of refugees? I don’t think so.

It is certainly true that Germany and many EU countries have a rapidly ageing population structure (fertility of around 1.5, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1) that would greatly benefit from significant immigration of the scale that happened during 2015. But I take issue with the implication that the German authorities naively failed to foresee the likely stresses and strains that would be generated by taking so many refugees in one year (the estimate at the time was 800,000 – 1 million refugees). The reality is that Europe generally and Germany specifically have plenty of experience of large scale refugee crises and indeed of Muslims culture.

Firstly, Germany has a large number of Muslims. According to the 2011 Population Census, there are just under 6.2 million foreigners in Germany and Turks alone accounted for the largest group (1.5 million people or 24.4%). In all, some 2.5 million people are of Turkish origin. It is not as though Germany is not aware of the stresses and strains associated with the religion, gender, education, labour market and other dimensions connected with integrating populations, including Muslims. The same applies to many countries of the EU but unlike others, it still went ahead with what is often described by its critics as its “open door” policy.

Secondly, it was not so long ago that Germany had to respond to a refugee crisis of similar proportion. During the 1990s, a large number of asylum applications were lodged due to crisis in the ex-Yugoslavia, though the peak of that crisis in 1991 (around 700,000) has been exceeded in 2015 (see first Figure below). That said the second Figure below illustrates the point that the numbers were relatively low compared to those of the 1990s, though the diagram does not take the 2015 influx of over a million refugees into consideration. It is probably not a coincidence that then, as now, Germany absorbed the lion’s share of refugees.


IMF graphic 2016

Source: IMF, 2016, p.11

Thirdly, to put things in context, Europe had only absorbed 1 out of the 14 million refuges worldwide in 2014 and this increased to 2 million in 2015. Whoever believes that what has happened in 2015 is the end of the matter and that the EU can simply put-up the fences, close the borders and turn its back on the rest of the world is deluded. A proportion of the 12 million other displaced people are heading our way in 2016 and beyond: the current estimate is that another 1 million will aim for the EU this year and possibly more. The way to end this catastrophe is not by pulling-up the drawbridge to Fortress Europe; if the conflicts in the countries in question are ended and if this is combined with a major reconstruction programme, in time, the human tragedy and the migratory process will also abate. Putting-up fences and closing borders will restrict some of the flow, but will also add to the human desperation without actually dealing with the root cause.

To conclude, in my view Germany did not saunter into the current situation blithely and Mrs Merkel was right in saying “Wir schaffen das.” We can do it: I agree with her. Other, much smaller and poorer countries have in the part or are currently absorbing the same or higher numbers of refugees. Germany knew, more or less, the implications of opening its borders to about a million refugees, even if the general public could not have predicted the exact consequences, including the outrages in Cologne and other cities. It is most unlikely that Europe’s pre-eminent politician would not have sniffed the potential political, social, religious and cultural implications of undertaking such a radical step. The numbers absorbed by Europe are relatively small by comparison with the numbers being absorbed by other countries, including Turkey. If they can do it, so can Europe. Indeed, a cursory reading of European history proves that it has coped with wave after wave of migration.

Refugee backlash

To ask if the refugee backlash is coming would be to pose the wrong question: it is already here.

The mood in Germany and the rest of Europe started turning ugly long before the Paris terrorist attacks and the mass sexual and other crimes in Cologne and other German cities during the New Year’s Eve celebrations that went wrong. Pensioners are up in arms about the way they perceive their country is changing. Parents are concerned about their children’s education as gymnasia are requisitioned as temporary accommodation and class rooms begin to take the strain of absorbing the influx of non-German speakers. House prices and rent levels are being pushed up in an overheating housing market where affordable accommodation is scarce.  Region and local authorities remain deeply concerned about practical matters in addition to shelter, such as state benefits and labour market opportunities for refugees. The issue of integration and whether it is possible to achieve or not, is “the” topic of conversation. This applies to Germany and it applies equally to other EU countries.

Angela Merkel has gone from being Europe’s pre-eminent politician and practically politically unassailable in Germany, to being under siege. Make no mistake about it; she is fighting for her political future.  Yet despite the ratcheting of pressure, even today, she is refusing to put a cap of the number of refugees that will be accepted by Germany in future (the CSU is openly advocating a cap of 200,000 per annum, which itself puts the UK’s response in the shade). There are probably two reasons for this. Firstly, German asylum law is based on individual assessments so caps would not be workable without changing the law (but we know laws can be changed at the drop of a political hat). Secondly, the huge numbers of forcibly displaced people out there (14 million and counting) are desperate and there is no end to their travails in prospect. What would you do in their shoes? Which safe harbour would you try to reach, possibly at the cost of perishing on the way? A cap would be a meaningless promise without a workable EU arrangement.

Mrs Merkel is displaying the hallmark of true leadership: political courage and acknowledging moral duties beyond her nation’s borders. That is the essence of being responsible in a European and global sense, though I recognise fully that many would much rather put national and personal interest before anything else, including in Germany.

Merkel probably expected the rest of Europe, especially the largest countries, most of which have had more than a hand in the unfolding disaster in the Middle East, to take a much greater share of the humanitarian burden. Despite the lessons of Greece, she has miscalculated in relation to most of the EU and is now in the middle of the biggest political crisis that she has ever faced. She also appears to have greatly overestimated the Greek and Turkish capacity to manage their borders.

But she is nothing if not a pragmatic leader. She has recognised that the whirlwind is not just gathering, it is already blowing. A change has already been signaled that 2016 will not be the same as 2015. The scale of the challenge means that Germany cannot shoulder the burden mostly on its own for much longer. All three of the most generous countries have introduced border visa checks (three others have also and many more are threatening to do the same). A closure of national borders has so far been resisted by the EU, but this could change. Sweden has announced that 80,000 of the 160,000 refugees it accepted will be sent back because they are economic migrants, not refugees. The EU has reinforced the message by stating that 60% of the applicants are not refugees at all but economic migrants mainly from the Balkans and North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. It has also threatened to suspend Greece from Schengen for systematic failures in the migrant crisis. In turn Greece is pointing its finger at Turkey for allowing migrants to “swamp” their border and islands.  Reports are piling up that in addition to anti-refugee demonstrations and hostels being set on fire in Germany, violence is erupting in Sweden and other countries.

A common EU approach is the only way forward, combined with a serious and concerted effort to end the conflicts and reconstruct economies, since these are the drivers of mass population displacement. But just like the Greek and Eurozone crises, which are also far from over, it will not happen miraculously or overnight.

So, get ready for a much more hard-nosed European approach to the refugee crisis, with an emphasis on only accepting people from conflict zones (true refugees and asylum seekers) and rejecting all others (i.e. economic migrants). The EU drawbridge is being pulled-up. The wider societal backlash is already underway and those that are leading it will not be pausing to distinguish those that deserve to be helped from those that do not.


#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.

 


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.


British Voters and EUroscepticsm: much ado about nothing?

A Historic Turning Point Coming Up?

British voters are weighing up their options, but a strong element of anti-EU sentiment can be detected. The General Election scheduled for 05 May 2015 may well be turn out to be historic. If the Conservative Party wins, it is committed to holding a straight in/out referendum in 2017 about whether Britain is to remain in the EU or not. Previous posts have discussed the role of the eurosceptic Conservative wing and the role played by the Ukip party in the hardening Conservative and Labour Party stance in relation to the EU and EU-related immigration. Previous posts have also discussed a growing anti-Euro and anti-Islam sentiment in Germany, though it is materially different and not as pervasive as in the UK. No obvious anti-EU sentiment can be detected, which is why this post focuses mainly on Britain.

A reading of opinion polls illustrates that the balance of British public opinion, which has never exactly been EUphoric since joining in 1973, appears to be turning stringently EUrosceptic. The common assumption among quite a few politicians and a large segment of the media seems to be that life would become instantly better if only Britain would jettison membership of the EU, regain “control over its borders”, thus stopping “uncontrolled” migration along with excessive “interference” from Brussels in British affairs. But is this really the case? How much would actually change overnight, as far as the voters’ priorities are concerned?

Voter Priorities (2010-2015)

With the British general election not so far away, it is worth asking: just how much would actually change in people’s lives if the UK were to leave EU in terms of immediately improving life in Britain, based on the issues that matter to voters? To address this thought experiment, I have used the latest Ipsos MORI poll which asks about the top concerns of British voters.

British voter priorities 2010-2015

In January 2015 four issues predominated in terms what is important to voters, namely healthcare (almost half), economy (one-third) followed by asylum and immigration (27%) and education/schools (20%). Europe/EU as an issue is on par with unemployment, which at present is a pretty low rate in the UK (less than 10% note it as being important). A further five issues are of some importance in terms of voting intentions (benefits, taxation, housing, foreign affairs and pensions).

Table 1 shows some change since 2010, but the top four priorities have been fairly consistent. What is noticeable, however, is that whereas economy and education have not changed, both health and immigration have risen significantly in importance to British voters since 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, housing is increasing in importance but remains a secondary priority for British voters.

Voter Priorities and UK vs. EU Responsibilities

On the basis of the voter’s priorities, it is worth asking the question: what exactly are the responsibilities of the British Government and what is affected by the EU? On the basis of this question, it is possible to assess what might change for Britons.

UK EU competencies

Below I discuss these issues briefly, focusing first on the top four voter priorities:

  • Health: The Department of Health is entirely responsible for the NHS in terms of budget, priorities, reforms, etc. The main EU influence is in enabling the citizens of the EU-28 to be fully covered when they go to other EU countries without the need for additional health insurance for work, holidays, study, etc. It also allows people to choose where they wish to be treated, if the services are better or waiting lists are shorter. Health Tourism is an issue concerning non-EU citizens, rather than for EU ones. Nothing dramatic would change tomorrow, if the UK were to leave the EU in terms of quality of care, waiting lists, response rates or any of the other key issues of concern to the British voter. If anything, choice is likely to be reduced and extra costs incurred when British citizens travel to the EU. In terms of EU residents living in the UK and their use of the health service, not much would change. If they are working, they are also paying for the NHS through their National Insurance contributions. Otherwise, they would have to insure themselves privately and still have access to health in Britain. The exception would be if the UK chooses to deport, something that is barely imaginable. Verdict: no change. There are no magical solutions to the problems of the health service in Britain. The trends are neither recent nor connected with membership of the EU.
  • Economy: the UK is entirely in charge of its macro- and micro-economic destiny, since it is not part of the euro and thus not affected by the eurozone rules. The UK can affect its interest rates and implement quantitative easing to its heart’s content. The Stability and Growth Pact does have requirements, such as no budget deficits greater than 3% of GDP, no public debt exceeding 60% of GDP without diminishing by 5% per year on average over 3 years. Verdict: nothing would change. The UK and many other countries have greatly exceeded these limits at a time of serious economic and financial concerns. Britain is 100% in charge of its destiny, unlike Greece, Spain, etc. The Chancellor has already set in train further drastic reductions in public expenditure in the next period of Government. There is nothing about the programme of austerity that the British Government can pin on the EU, which is probably why this has not been tried, unlike for example Greece.
  • Asylum/immigration: as I have previously discussed, there are three elements here. Firstly, the UK is entirely in charge of its asylum policy and can choose who to let in and who to keep out. The same applies to non-EU immigration, which Britain is entirely in charge of. These elements comprised over 68% of immigration (together with Britons returning to the UK). The EU cannot and does not interfere with this but the balance (32%) is EU migrants. Many international companies are based in Britain that require access to the global pool of human resources to maintain their standards and profitability. On balance, basing a decision to leave the EU because of the freedom of movement of people principle and perceptions of “uncontrolled immigration” in the last decade does not appear to be justified. The unemployment rate remains at 5.8% (compared with 6.5% in Germany and 11.4% in the EU), despite a long period of intense economic and financial crisis. A critical issue that affects voter sentiment is net wages, which is determined by the companies located in Britain, as well as the public employers. If Britain were to stop EU and any other form of immigration (it is doubtful that employers would welcome this) the perceived pressures on health, housing and social services would not change since most EU immigrants would presumably remain. The exception is if such a police were to be combined with (forced) repatriation, which is unimaginable at the present time. If so, in theory Britain would have to make allowance for the 1.3 million Britons in other EU countries to return from EU countries to the UK. Verdict: possible short-term gain but likely long-term loss. The change would affect 32% of Immigration (2012 data) at the very most, but asylum and immigration would not end. There would only be perceptible changes, if a policy of terminating EU immigration were to be combined with deportation. I cannot imagine the average British voter wanting this or the consequences of enforcing such a policy.
  • Education/schools: this is entirely the responsibility of the UK and the pressures have been decades in the making. The issue that the EU has concentrated on is harmonizing qualifications and certification to ensure greater scope for freedom of movement of workers. This is advantageous for Britons as well as for others. Verdict: no change. The children of EU migrants make-up a small percentage of all children in schools across the country. If their parents are working here, they are entitled to study in Britain unless the Government and the British electorate wishes to evoke the deportation route.

So in terms of the most important issues to UK voters, there is not a huge amount of immediate gain from Brexit, based on the top four voter priorities. I am not even going to discuss the possible losses which would be the consequence of gaining control over EU immigration. Britain is already in charge of two of the three key elements of immigration, which makes up the majority of immigration. It is an island, which gives it more protection than others in the era of globalisation. The fear that there is uncontrolled immigration from the EU is overdone. When the economic downturn started, many EU migrants simply left the UK of their own accord and the migratory pattern turned towards Germany instead, the only EU country experiencing strong economic growth. When the UK economy started growing again in mid-2014, the immigration trend started reversing (though probably influenced by the A2 countries,namely Romania and Bulgaria). In any case, if the unemployment rate is 5.8% and decreasing, it is worth asking the question: who is employing the EU migrants and benefiting from their contribution to the economy, to tax inflows and to company profits? Might the answer be Britons and Britain? If the real issue is decreasing net wages and benefits in Britain, the question is who is gaining from this development? Might the answer be certain segments of British society?

Below I address the remaining voter priorities:

  • Europe/EU: The issue which the EU insist on is that the freedom of movement of people (as well as goods, services, capital) be maintained, allowing all EU citizens to travel for tourism, study, work and retirement purposes. Many, if not most Britons, enjoy some or all of these freedoms in one way or another. 1.3 million Briton live in other EU countries, and a large number travel, work, study, invest (e.g. second homes and pension funds) or retire in EU countries. This is something which is currently taken for granted at present. I believe the loss will be felt much more rapidly and keenly than most British voters may realise.
  • Unemployment: leaving the EU might result in less European migrants, but it would not put an end to EU immigration or lead to zero unemployment. British-based enterprises compete globally for many skills essential to maintain productivity and innovation. I doubt that there would be a significant reduction in qualified labour coming from the EU.It is not certain that the agricultural, tourism, hospitality, etc. businesses would be able to satisfy their needs simply from UK-based sources. There might be a reduction in less qualified labour and thus in unemployment but this is unlikely to be more one or two percentage points and will lead to other pressures. Verdict: possible short term gain but likely long term loss.
  • Benefits: very few EU migrants claim benefits. Immigrants were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives during 2000-2011. They are also less likely to live in social housing than the UK born population. EU migrants of working age who are not students, not in employment and receive some kind of state benefit, amount to 39,000 or less than 1% of all foreign nationals in the UK and 1% of all EU nationals in the UK.  Recent analysis of 23 out of 27 EU countries shows that there are at least 30,000 Britons claiming unemployment benefit in countries around the EU. In other words 2.5% of Britons in other EU countries are claiming unemployment benefits, roughly the same as EU nationals doing the same in Britain. The numbers are tiny: the political and media coverage of this issue is completely disproportionate. If this is the case, an even smaller sub-set of them are living in Britain for benefit tourism/abuse purposes. Verdict: no change (but one less emotive topic for certain parts of the media and politicians to bang their biased drum about).
  • Taxation: the UK is in entirely in charge of all its taxes, including Corporate Income Tax, Income Tax, Capital Gains Tax and VAT. Verdict: no change.
  • Housing: The UK is entirely in charge of its housing policy, construction, planning system, etc. There would be fewer EU immigrants, which might affect the housing situation in terms of rent levels and house prices. However, this would only be a marginal effect since the trend in housing supply, demand and pricing is a long term trend of over 30 years and any nationality is able to buy property in Britain. I have already referred to the fact that fewer recent immigrants claim benefits and live in social housing than the UK born population. Verdict: no change. I have written the first of my blog posts comparing the British and German housing systems to illustrate aspects of this point.
  • Foreign affairs: in terms of foreign affairs this role is, to some extent, coordinated with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for specific issues. In the main, each EU nation does its own thing and Britain is no different.
  • Pensions: the UK is entirely in charge of the retirement age, contributions, qualifying years, minimum state pension pensions, etc. The EU facilitates freedom of movement of people and capital, so develops rules to ensure that if people work in different countries, that their contributions are acknowledged and count towards their overall pension entitlement. Furthermore, it seeks to ensure, under the same two freedoms, that Britons and others can receive their state pension in any of the EU-28 countries without suffering from arbitrary reductions, cancellations, fees, etc. Since many Britons enjoy their retirement in the sun and have bought second homes in other EU countries (rather more than is the case in terms of EU nationals buying properties in the UK), it would appear that to be well worth remaining in the EU.

EUroscepticism: much ado about nothing?

Ultimately, it is up for each voter to assess their personal gain or loss from staying in or leaving the EU. Based on the analysis above, the anti-EU sentiment is much ado about nothing, as far as the most important issues to voters are concerned, except for the freedom of movement of people. The EU has helped to secure so many rights and opportunities across all 28 nations that it is hard to imagine life without them. It is not simply that not much would change overnight. A moment of reflection on what would be rolled back as a result of leaving the EU, should show just how much we perceive as being normal and do not even actively consider. The fact is that we usually do not miss that which we take for granted… until it is no longer there.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 


Launch of the AngloDeutsch™ Blog

New AngloDeutsch™ Blog Launched

Today, the AngloDeutsch™ Blog was launched. The main reason is that Britain and Germany are countries that are absolutely critical to the future of Europe and the European Union. Yet, there is currently a gap in terms of comparing and contrasting the two countries in terms of various dimensions, such as economics, housing, health, etc. within the overarching context of the EU.

It was not always so. In the same year that Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the Anglo German Foundation (AGF) was established in recognition of the fact that the Germany and Britain could learn a good deal from each other, not least to improve mutual knowledge between the two countries and deepen understanding of modern society and its problems. The AGF undertook policy-oriented comparative research on the Britain, Germany and what is now the European Union (EU). It was valuable to compare and contrast countries that were not only the two largest in the EU, which also exhibit rather different social, political and economic traditions. They are two of the largest EU trading and exporting nations, the people respect each other and, despite the differences, or perhaps because of them, they can learn from each other’s ways of doing things.

In 2009 the Trustees decided to abolish the AGF, the main argument being: “… other organisations at both national and European levels are now carrying this work forward, and the need for a specific institution for this purpose is no longer so compelling.” (Anglo-German Foundation for the Study of Industrial Society,p.3).

British and German Comparisons Growing in Importance

I disagree with this conclusion. Some 40 years on, the reality is that the need for comparative analysis and discussion in relation to Britain, Germany and EU is greater than ever before and it is far from obvious which other institutions are carrying this work forward. I believe that the last Trustees of the AGF would probably be astounded at how dramatically things have evolved since their decision to end the institution.

A number of momentous developments are affecting the socio-economic dynamic in Europe:

  • The recession that started in 2009 has morphed into full-blown global financial and economic crises. The sovereign debt and the commercial banking crisis drag on and the prospect of deflation still looms large in Europe and elsewhere.
  • The Euro and the significant political and financial reform efforts connected with ensuring that it is kept alive has resulted in enormous fissures arising between Britain, Germany and the EU countries. These tensions are, if anything, increasing over time.
  • The political strains of keeping the Euro (and thus the EU) together, not least through various forms of austerity, have taken a massive toll on the credibility of the EU as well as the level of cooperation and trust between nation states, not least the German-British-French axis. This applies doubly so to the so-called „PIIGS“ (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) and the north Europeans, especially Germany, Holland, Austria, Finland, etc.
  • The UK and DE play a critical role in the future of the EU. Germany has become the undisputed albeit reluctant European hegemon, though the jury is still out as to how long this status will last. The decisions and even ruminations of Europe’s preeminent politician, Angela Merkel, reverberate throughout the EU. The same cannot be said of David Cameron (and still less François Hollande) to the same extent. Still, the UK’s role in EU, influential though diminished, remains critical to the future of the EU (independent Sterling, monetary and fiscal policy, insistence on EU reform and devolving powers to the nation state, challenge to the freedom of movement principle, possible in/out referendum on whether to remain in the EU in 2017, etc.).

These stresses and strains are part and parcel of what has become a full-blown crisis of the legitimacy of the “European Project”, as understood since it was formed in 1951 by the Treaty of Rome. A process whose ambition was to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”  (The Shuman Declaration, 9 May 1950) was not and could never have anything short of an economic, social and political project, even if the discourse was principally economic.

This ambition was not merely a Franco-German idea. Immediately after WWII Sir Winston Churchill was one of the first to call for a “United States of Europe” (“We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. ” 1946, p.1). The ambitions of the European Project have always been understood in its wider sense by its founder members, not least Germany, because of its particular historical specificities.  However, this ambition was and remains almost entirely an economic or trade issue in pragmatic Britain.

Longstanding concerns about the legitimacy of the EU, the steady erosion of the powers of the nation state (contrary to the principle of „subsidiarity“), the implications of principle of freedom of movement and indeed of the limits to the notion of „ever closer union“ in the EU have been forced to the foreground by the Euro crisis. These issues must be debated and tackled to maintain legitimacy with the people as well as the governments of all 28 EU nation states.

Britain and Germany at the leading edge of the EU

In this context, the British and German electorates have a critical role to play in the future of their respective countries, as well as that of the “European project”. They are at the nexus of the most important debates connected with the great issues confronting Europe, not least:

  • The future of the Euro and the EU (e.g. EU reform and in/out referendum in 2017).
  • The advent of anti-EU / Euro parties (e.g. the Ukip and AfD).
  • The solutions to the recession / depression, austerity and falling standards of living.
  • The debates on the future of housing, education, poverty, migration, health, ageing, etc.
  • But also the more fun things in life, such as sport and traditions such as Christmas.

Through the AngloDeutsch™ Blog, launched today, focuses mainly but not exclusively on Britain, Germany and the EU, it is hoped that a contribution can be made not only to better understanding in general but also to possible economic and social policy solutions and recommendations. This would be in keeping with the tradition of the now defunct AGF, even if the focus of a blog cannot be on rigorous academic research per se.

Focusing on the British and German perspectives has gained in salience. The target group of this blog is not the academic community, interest groups or indeed the politicians, though it is hoped that they too will get involved and/or be influenced by the AngloDeutsch™ Blog. The target group is anyone who has enough humility to be willing to learn about alternative ways of doing things, discuss different views and maybe implement some of the ideas, taking into consideration the uniqueness and specificity of every nation, region and locality. This aim is illustrated in the Box below.

The AngloDeutsch™ Blog aims to contribute to the policy process in Britain, Germany and the EU more generally by raising comparative economic, social and political issues and by stimulating an exchange of knowledge, views and experience between informed citizens in the two countries, as well as the EU.

 

To kick off the blog, the first few themes covered by the AngloDeutsch™ Blog will include the following:

  • The immigration debate.
  • Christmas traditions (since the blog is launched in December).
  • The housing crisis.
  • The future of the EU.

Other themes will follow as the blog evolves.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.anglodeutsch.eu