Tag Archives: EU

“The Rock” Caught In A Hard Place

Flags of Gibraltar. Photo by Olivier Bruchez via Flickr, Creative Commons

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 8, 2017

Legend has it that as long as the five troops of 300 Barbary Apes continue to live in Gibraltar, the 6.7 square kilometre peninsular on Spain’s southern tip will remain British.

But as the reality of Britain’s exit from the European Union begins to bite, the future of Gibraltar, British territory since it was ceded by Spain in 1713, is now up in the air along with those of Scotland, Northern Ireland and perhaps even Wales.

A monkey in Gibraltar. Photo by Simone A. Bertinotti via Flickr, Creative Commons

Gibraltar’s 32,000 people find themselves in a similar position to the Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh. While the vast majority of them want to remain British – 99 per cent in a 2002 referendum – they also voted 96 per cent in last June’s referendum against Brexit and in favour of remaining in the EU.

The question of Gibraltar shot to the surface this week after the EU parliament adopted rules and guidelines governing the process of Britain leaving the 28-member organization after more than 40 years. The long list of EU non-negotiable starting points is the observation that any deal it strikes with Britain will not apply to Gibraltar, unless Spain agrees to it.

This almost offhand remark by the EU parliament brought a bellicose response from London. Michael Howard, the former leader of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party, noted threateningly that it is the anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War. “Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country (Argentina), and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” Howard said.

Prime Minister May tried to play down the notion that Britain’s departure from the EU might be the trumpet call for a war with Spain over Gibraltar. But she left the whole issue up in the air by saying that London’s policy towards Gibraltar will not change. That policy is that Gibraltar is British territory and will be defended as such.

However, the handing of a veto to Spain on the Gibraltar issue by the European Parliament underlines what a weak position the Westminster government is in as it begins the process of extricating Britain from the EU. Brussels controls the timetable and the agenda of the negotiations, and there’s not much May’s government can do about it.

The European Parliament’s resolution says Britons are going to be lucky to leave the EU with the clothes on their backs. There won’t be much else.

Theresa May clearly understands she is playing against an opponent whose hand is and always will be a royal flush. She struck a conciliatory tone in her letter to the EU at the end of last month in which she invoked Article 50, the so-far unused instrument by which countries can seek to leave the EU.

But her blandishments fell on stony ground. Brussels is not and cannot be swayed by sweet words when its prime objective in this whole Brexit exercise is to make Britain’s departure as difficult and painful as possible so that other recalcitrant EU members don’t follow the British example.

Thus May is pushed into the unenviable position of having to manage the reaction of pro-Brexit voters. The 52 per cent of voters who backed leaving the EU are going to have their expectations of immediate liberation from Brussels foiled. They are also going to soon realize that the fables they’ve been fed by leading Brexiteers, as well as May, that Britain’s promised bright future as a buccaneering global trader will not look half as enticing by the time the country finally cuts the last ties with Brussels.

She could yet be forced to hold an election to try to win a mandate – she has none now, not even from the Conservative Party she leads – to bolster her position with British voters and against Brussels.

That recourse has some attractions because of the almost total political impotence of the opposition Labour Party under its leader Jeremy Corbyn, who usually seems like a lost time traveller from the 1960s. But a British election at this juncture would inevitably become a replay of June’s referendum. There are signs that many people who voted for Brexit then have had second thoughts. There are several senatorial figures in the Conservative Party who think voters were hoodwinked in the first referendum and should be given a second go. These figures include former Prime Minister John Major, Thatcher-era minister Michael Heseltine, and Chris Patten — the last British governor of Hong Kong, former EU foreign affairs commissioner, and now a member of the House of Lords. All are adept at lobbing political hand grenades into the room and then watching the explosion from a safe distance.

While Theresa May is aiming for a clear break with the EU, she was also looking for an amicable divorce in which talks could begin on the future broad relationship even as it was being decided who gets custody of the Labrador, the Volvo and the children.

That is not to be. The template passed by 516 votes to 133 by the European Parliament stomps resolutely on May’s hopes.

First, the EU resolution says loudly and clearly that no talks on the future trade and political relationship between Britain and the EU can begin until after the United Kingdom has left the organization. More than that, the resolution says it would be a breech of EU law for London to start any negotiations on trade agreements with third countries before it has left the EU.

So, no chatting with the Trump administration, such as it is, or Canada, Australia, New Zealand or anyone else about post-Brexit trade treaties. And even more than that, it would also be illegal for Britain to hold similar trade talks with other EU members. And as Britain will remain subject to the European Court of Justice during this process, Brussels has a veto on any “illegal” actions by London.

In other words, the British ship of state has to drift off into the stormy Atlantic before there can be any discussion of future visits to European ports. So far, the British economy has defied predictions and weathered the uncertainties raised by the Brexit vote. However, it is difficult to imagine that markets will be able to maintain the same level of confidence when the British government is unable to begin effectively laying the foundations for the future.

The EU resolution is equally mean-spirited about what happens during the course of the Brexit negotiations. It sees this as a two-stage process, with the first stage aimed at reaching an agreement on “transitional arrangements.” Only when Brussels decides that “substantial progress” – whatever that means — has been made towards agreeing transitional arrangements will the clock start ticking on the timing of Britain’s departure. These transitional arrangements “must not last longer than three years,” says the resolution.

Negotiations with London will be led by Brussels’ negotiator Michel Barnier, but the European Parliament will have a veto on the final agreement, as will the parliaments of the 27 remaining members of the EU, which must endorse the final pact.

And that brings the focus back to Gibraltar. An Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and the territory was ceded to Britain “in perpetuity” under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Possession of “The Rock” gave and gives the Royal Navy control over the entry to the Mediterranean, though Gibraltar now is more important as a financial centre and tourist hotspot.

With its vibrant economy, Gibraltar attracts people from neighbouring, poorer parts of Spain. About 10,000 people from the Spanish district of Campo de Gibraltar travel to and from jobs in Gibraltar each day. That commute is easy while Britain is in the EU, with its free movement of labour and lack of border restrictions. But even though the European Parliament has put fair treatment for Britons living and working in the EU and the same for Europeans working in Britain at the top of its priorities for Brexit, there is no telling at the moment what may happen to Gibraltar’s Spanish workers.

That’s a complication for the Madrid government, which, like most Spanish governments since 1704, would like to get Gibraltar back. There are other difficulties, like the over 300,000 registered Britons living in Spain, many of them on the Costa del Sol. However, the true figure may be much higher, close to 800,000 according to research broadcast by the BBC in 2005. Many, and probably most of these people, have no intention of abandoning their cheap and cheerful sun, sea, sand, and sangria life-style. And there’s a small hardcore of residents of what the British tabloids sometimes call the Costa del Crime, who fled to Spain to avoid British Justice and who have no intention of testing the statute of limitations.

Another problem for Spain is its separatist-inclined Catalans and Basques. Last year the Catalan regional parliament defied the national constitutional court and voted to draft a roadmap towards independence. The Catalans and the Basques have been encouraged by the experience of the Scots.

In a referendum in 2014, the Scots voted by 55 per cent to stay part of the United Kingdom. But in last year’s Brexit referendum 62 per cent voted to stay in the EU. This has led Scottish leader, Nicola Sturgeon, to demand a new referendum on separation. Theresa May will probably have to accede to this request, but she is determined to put it off until after Britain has left the EU. If Scotland then votes to leave the United Kingdom, which it could well do, this would mean the Scottish parliament will have to apply to join the EU, with all the rigmarole that entails.

This has given Spanish Prime Minister, Alfonso Dastis, an opportunity to be mischievous. Although Spain has always opposed Scottish independence from the United Kingdom because it would encourage the Catalans and Basques, Dastis said last weekend Spain will not veto Scottish membership of the EU if independence comes “legally and constitutionally.”

How the Barbary Apes came to Gibraltar is a matter of conjecture and debate. They could have come as pets when most of the Iberian peninsular was an Arab Moorish colony. But the association of the apes – in reality macaque monkeys – with British possession of Gibraltar has been an important piece of propaganda over the years. Winston Churchill understood the morale-boosting value of propaganda better than most.

The apes were under the care of the British army and navy garrisons from 1915 until 1991, when responsibility was handed to the local natural history society. But during the Second World War, the Barbary Ape population of Gibraltar shrunk to just seven individuals. Churchill considered it essential that the myth of the monkeys and British control of Gibraltar not be tested, so he ordered that means be found to replenish the population. After the allies gained control of the old French North African colonies of Algeria and Morocco, relatives of the Gibraltar apes were found and transported to join their distant cousins.

The five troops are now so fecund that there are more apes than the terrain can support, and there is talk of sending some of them back to their ancestral homeland in North Africa.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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European leaders renew fraying Union’s vows on 60th anniversary

European Union leaders pose for a family photo during a meeting on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, in Rome, Italy March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

By Alastair Macdonald and Jan Strupczewski 
March 25, 2017

ROME (Reuters) – Europeans must contain their squabbling and carping about the EU if the Union is to survive, leaders warned on Saturday as they marked the 60th anniversary of its founding in Rome by signing a formal declaration of unity.

Four days before Prime Minister Theresa May, absent from the ceremony in the Italian capital, delivers an unprecedented blow to the bloc’s growth by filing Britain’s formal exit papers, her fellow leaders hailed 60 years of peace and prosperity and pledged to deepen a unity frayed by regional and global crises.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks back during the EU leaders meeting on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, in Rome, Italy March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

But days of wrangling about the wording of a 1,000-word Rome Declaration, May’s impending Brexit confirmation and tens of thousands of protesters gathering beyond the tight police cordon around the Campidoglio palace offered a more sober reminder of the challenges of holding the 27 nations to a common course.

“We have stopped in our tracks and this has caused a crisis of rejection by public opinion,” said their host, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, noting Britons’ repudiation of the EU.

He said the failure to push the project forward during a decade of economic slump had fuelled a re-emergence of “blinkered nationalism”. Rome offered a fresh start: “The Union is starting up again … and has a vision for the next 10 years,” he said.

Others, however, are wary of such enthusiasm for giving up more national sovereignty — and also of others in the Union moving faster with integration. Poland’s nationalist government has led protests against a “multispeed Europe”, which it fears would consign the poor ex-communist east to second-class status.

Leaders hailed the visionary “war generation” of leaders from old foes France and Germany who signed the Treaty of Rome in the same room on March 25, 1957, along with Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; some offered personal memories of their own generation’s debts to the expanding European Union.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU chief executive, recalled how his father in Luxembourg was forced into the German army in World War Two; Donald Tusk, the summit chair born in Gdansk a month after the Treaty was signed, remembered growing up in the ruins of war and yearning for freedom behind the Iron Curtain.

“That really was a two-speed Europe,” he said in a pointed dig at his domestic foes now ruling in Warsaw, who have tried to block a push by the western powers to deepen their integration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc’s dominant leader who faces a re-election test in September, stressed the Union must also address the complaints of generations for whom war is fading into history. “We will in the future have to concern ourselves above all with the issue of jobs,” she told reporters.

Demonstrators take part in a Unite for Europe march, as they head towards Parliament Square, in central London, Britain March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

“UNITED, OR NOT AT ALL”

Fearing that the departure of its second-biggest economy and major global power could prompt the unravelling of the bloc, many leaders argue that only forward motion can revive popular support for the EU by generating economic and security benefits.

(front L to R) French President Francois Hollande, Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pose for a family photo during a meeting on the 60th anniversary of theTreaty of Rome, in Rome, Italy March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

“Today we renew our vows and reaffirm our commitment to an undivided and indivisible Union,” Juncker told them, urging the bloc not to get bogged down in details that alienated voters.

Tusk, too, warned against the impression the EU was about petty regulations: “Why should we lose our trust in the purpose of unity today? Is it only because it has become our reality? Or because we have become bored or tired of it?” he asked.

Merkel said leaders wanted to respond to people’s concerns, about the economy, welfare, migration and defence with “a protective Europe” that offered assurances on their wellbeing.

All 27 national leaders, along with the heads of Brussels institutions, signed a declaration which concluded: “We have united for the better. Europe is our common future.”

They promised to listen to citizens. But locked away behind rings of armed police, the leaders may hear little of what thousands of protesters have to say on Saturday.

Addressing right-wing supporters of the Fratelli d’Italia movement, its leader Giorgia Meloni denounced a “great EU deception”. “The real enemies of Europe,” she said, “Are the bankers, usurers and technocrats.” The Union, she added, must be replaced by a new alliance of “free and sovereign countries”.

But for Maximilien De-Wyse, 26, from the northern French city of Lille, that was the wrong answer. Taking part in a pro-EU march in Rome, he recalled his Polish immigrant grandparents and said: “It is only united that we can save peace.”

Copyright Reuters 2017

(Additional reporting by Isla Binnie, Andreas Rinke and Crispian Balmer; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Helen Popper)

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Will 2017 bring surprises for European integration?

 

By Lionel Page
February, 2017

Marcel Aymé character "Dutilleul," the Walker Through Walls/Le Passe-Muraille Photo Deborah Jones © 2015

The elections of 2017 in France and Germany could bring surprises, argues Lionel Page. Above, a sculpture of writer Marcel Aymé character’s “Dutilleul,” the Walker Through Walls/Le Passe-Muraille, in Paris, France.  Photo by Deborah Jones © 2015

There can be little doubt that this year’s elections in Germany and France may determine the future of the European Union.

For nearly a decade now, the EU has been facing unprecedented challenges, from the euro crisis and the influx of migrants to Brexit and the rise of nationalism. On their own, any one of these crises could threaten the cohesion of the union; together they represent an existential threat.

But the tide could yet turn. Depending on the outcomes of the French and German elections, 2017 could actually be the start a more integrated and unified Europe.

The rise of Emmanuel Macron

France is facing one of its most fascinating election in recent history. Former prime minister François Fillon, a traditional conservative, looked likely to win power. But an embarrassing corruption scandal involving the employment of his wife Penelope has significantly dented his chances.

The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, is highly unlikely to make it far. Having won the socialist primary on a very left-wing platform, it will be difficult for him to reach beyond his core group of supporters.

Leading the polls is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, who is running on a populist, eurosceptic, anti-immigrant platform. Le Pen is projected to win the first round of voting on April 23, but she is most likely to be knocked out in the second round, where 50% of voters are required to win.

The man who defeats Le Pen in the May 7 second round may not come from either of France’s main parties. Emmanuel Macron is now one of the favourites to win the elections.

Macron’s political success has come incredibly fast. An unknown three years ago, he is now on track of possibly becoming the youngest president of the Fifth Republic, at age 39.

As a minister, Macron was vocally pro-business, in conflict with the classical tenets of the French left: he defended Uber, the opening of shops on Sunday and the reduction of the costs to terminate labour contracts. He became very popular with the French public while finding himself at loggerheads with many figures of the ruling Socialist party.

In August 2016 he quit the government and launched a presidential bid as an independent. Half a year later, he has transformed his initial political start-up into a political movement, En Marche (Forward), with political rallies that attract thousands.

His strength comes from the match between his discourse and French voters’ desire for change. His left-liberal political position would not be unusual in many Northern European countries, but in France it is a novelty. Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the French left has not adapted to economic modernity. Facing the competition of a strong Communist Party in postwar France, the Socialist Party maintained a traditionally anti-capitalist position. This ideological position has often been disconnected from social-liberal policies adopted once in government.

By seizing on these contradictions and crossing the left-right divide, Macron has thrived. His novel political platform is characterised by an economic liberalism blended with concern for social justice and political and cultural liberalism.

Young, charismatic and intellectual, Macron has attracted people from both the left and the right, and drawn a lot of newcomers to politics. At the same time, political space has opened for him. Both Fillon and Hamon are hard-line candidates, leaving an spot in the centre for Macron.

A Macron victory would have important consequences for the EU. Unlike most French politicians, who are either shy integrationists or vocal eurosceptics, he is strongly pro-EU; his supporters cheer for Europe in political meetings.

In January, he wrote in the Financial Times that it was time for Europeans to become sovereign. This stance could end French opposition to deeper political integration.

The election of Marine Le Pen would lead to the unravelling of the EU, but if France chooses Macron, the union will get a significant boost from one of its core members.

Germany: a new hope for the SPD

The other key country in holding the EU together is of course Germany, which goes to the polls on September 24. Angela Merkel, of the Christian Democratic Union, is running for her fourth term as chancellor.

Hoping to dislodge Merkel from the Bundestag is Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In January, the none-too-popular Sigmar Gabriel made way for Schulz to become the part’s lead candidate.

Schulz is a rarity in European politics, having made his career in the EU before vying for a top national position. A member of the European Parliament since 1994, Schulz was its president from 2012 to January 2017.

There, he helped stage a political coup that dramatically shifted the balance of EU institutions, transferring power from the Head of States (Council) to the Parliament, and through it to European voters.

In 2010, the Party of European Socialists decided to name a leading candidate to become the president of the European Commission in case of victory at the 2014 European elections, and chose Schulz. But the European elections in May 2014 did not deliver a clear majority.

Schulz could have tried to form a majority on the left, but he instead supported a cross-bench motion from the European Parliament stating that conservative candidate Jean-Claude Juncker was the winner of the election and that he had to be nominated.

Schulz understood the political game he was facing. The Council wanted to keep nominating the president, and the lack of a clear majority gave it the opportunity to propose another candidate. Schulz’s decision to withdraw gave the Parliament the upper hand instead.

At the time, Merkel seemed to indicate that she would not support Juncker. She faced a storm of criticism in the German media and was accused of betraying the democratic promise of the election. Soon after, she caved and endorsed Juncker.

Martin Schulz’s key role in this manoeuvre indicates that as chancellor he would probably leverage Germany’s power to further EU integration. It would mark a substantial change compared to Merkel, whose approach has been to take as few steps as necessary and to protect German finances before all.

Deeper integration

Could Macron or Schulz have an impact on European integration? Most likely.

Many factors in the current context are pushing in that direction. Politically, the lack of accountability and transparency of decisions at the European level is feeding a rise of nationalism; that threatens many European governments.

Geopolitically, we are witnessing both a resurgence of Russian military threat and a withdrawal and unpredictability of the US ally under Trump. Economically, crises are clearly calling for better coordination.

But the hurdles to further integration are lower than we think. Brexit will remove from the EU the country most opposed to closer political union. Among the remaining countries, Europeans are often said to be against further integration. But this statement confuses a criticism of current institutions with a criticism of integration.

Eurobameter studies show year after year that EU citizens support more integration in matters where nations cannot be the solution, such as defence. They also support more democracy at the European level, such as the election of the president of the European Commission.

A deeper political union may actually be closer than it seems. Without any treaty change required, the European Commission presidential nomination process has the potential to radically change the nature of European politics by creating a pan-European debate about European policies.

The only thing needed for a leap towards further political integration is for the French and German heads of state to support it. This year may just deliver that.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Lionel Page is a Professor in Economics at Queensland University of Technology. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Greeks slide deeper into poverty

Retired teacher and volunteer Eva Agkisalaki clears tables at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Retired teacher and volunteer Eva Agkisalaki clears tables at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Alkis Konstantinidis, Reuters
February, 2017

An elderly woman searches through donated clothes at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis             SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

An elderly woman searches through donated clothes at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis.

Greek pensioner Dimitra says she never imagined a life reduced to food handouts: some rice, two bags of pasta, a packet of chickpeas, some dates and a tin of milk for the month.

At 73, Dimitra – who herself once helped the hard-up as a Red Cross food server – is among a growing number of Greeks barely getting by. After seven years of bailouts that poured billions of euros into their country, poverty isn’t getting any better; it’s getting worse like nowhere else in the EU.

“It had never even crossed my mind,” she said, declining to give her last name because of the stigma still attached to accepting handouts in Greece. “I lived frugally. I’ve never even been on holiday. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Now more than half of her 332 euro ($350) monthly income goes to renting a tiny Athens apartment. The rest: bills.

The global financial crisis and its fallout forced four euro zone countries to turn to international lenders. Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus all went through rescues and are back out, their economies growing again. But Greece, the first into a bailout in 2010, has needed three.

Rescue funds from the European Union and International Monetary Fund saved Greece from bankruptcy, but the austerity and reform policies the lenders attached as conditions have helped to turn recession into a depression.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose leftist-led government is lagging in opinion polls, has tried to make the plight of Greeks a rallying cry in the latest round of drawn-out negotiations with the lenders blocking the release of more aid.

“We must all be careful towards a country that has been pillaged and people who have made, and are continuing to make, so many sacrifices in the name of Europe,” he said this month.

People line up as they wait to enter a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis            SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

People line up as they wait to enter a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis 

Much of the vast sums in aid money has simply been in the form of new debt used to repay old borrowings. But regardless of who is to blame for the collapse in living standards, poverty figures from the EU statistics agency are startling.

Greece isn’t the poorest member of the EU; poverty rates are higher in Bulgaria and Romania. But Greece isn’t far behind in third place, with Eurostat data showing 22.2 percent of the population were “severely materially deprived” in 2015.

And whereas the figures have dropped sharply in the post-communist Balkan states – by almost a third in Romania’s case – the Greek rate has almost doubled since 2008, the year the global crisis erupted. Overall, the EU level fell from 8.5 percent to 8.1 percent over the period.

The reality of such statistics becomes clear at places like the food bank run by the Athens municipality where Dimitra collects her monthly handouts.

Here, dozens more Greeks waited solemnly with a ticket in hand to get their share. All are registered as living below the poverty line of about 370 euros a month.

“The needs are huge,” said Eleni Katsouli, a municipal official in charge of the centre.

People eat at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis            SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.    TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

People eat at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis 

Figures for the food bank, which serves central Athens, show a similar trend on a local scale to the wider Eurostat data. About 11,000 families – or 26,000 people – are registered there, up from just 2,500 in 2012 and 6,000 in 2014, Katsouli said. About 5,000 are children.

Many of the shelves and refrigerators in its stock room stood empty. What they give away depends on what sponsors – themselves often struggling businesses – can donate.

“We’re worried because we don’t know if we’ll be able to meet these people’s needs,” Katsouli said. “There are families with young children and on some days we haven’t even got milk to give them.”

International organisations, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have urged the government to prioritise tackling poverty and inequality.

Poverty stricken area of Perama is seen near Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis             SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

Poverty stricken area of Perama is seen near Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis 

Unemployment has slipped from a peak of 28 percent of the workforce to 23 percent but the rate remains the highest in the EU. Since the crisis began, the economy has shrunk by a quarter and thousands of businesses have closed for good.

Hopes are high the economy can pick up this year but data last week showed it contracted again from October to December after two straight quarters of growth.

Better living standards seem as far away as ever. Over 75 percent of households suffered a significant income reduction last year, a survey by business confederation GSEVEE and Marc pollsters found. A third had at least one unemployed member and 40 percent said they had to cut back on food spending.

The Greek Ombudsman says a growing number of people struggle to pay utility bills. In a no-frills Athens neighbourhood, a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church serves 400 meals a day over four sittings in under two hours.

“Everyone is going through hard times – all of Greece is,” said Eva Agkisalaki, 61, a former teacher who volunteers there.

An elderly man sells chestnuts in front of the parliament during a demonstration to demand tax reductions and compensation in Athens, Greece, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis            SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

An elderly man sells chestnuts in front of the parliament during a demonstration to demand tax reductions and compensation in Athens, Greece, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis 

Agkisalaki did not qualify for a pension because her contract ended when the retirement age was lifted to 67 under the bailout programme and she could not find work, she said. Part of her husband’s pension, cut to 600 euros from 980 also under reforms demanded by the international lenders, goes to her son and daughter’s families.

In return for volunteering, Agkisalaki receives handouts from the soup kitchen which she shares among her unemployed daughter and her son.

“We’re vegetating,” she said between setting a long wooden table for the next meal of bean soup, bread, an egg, a slice of pizza and an apple. “We just exist. Most Greeks just exist.”

Evangelia Konsta, who oversees the centre and whose business supplies the meat, said the number of people eating at the soup kitchen has more than doubled in two years and the church often also helps cover people’s electricity or water bills too.

“Things are getting worse, they’re not getting better and that’s reflected in people’s needs,” Konsta said. “There are people who haven’t even got 1 euro.”

Across Athens, the number of Greeks sleeping rough is a testament to that. Volunteers drive a van with two washing machines and two dryers to neighbourhoods where the homeless gather to help them clean up.

“You see the same faces, but also new ones,” said Fanis Tsonas, co-founder of the Ithaca mobile laundry, as destitute men and women brought bags of laundry.

Few are hopeful of better days.

“I don’t think there’s one person who’s not afraid of the future,” said Dimitra, the pensioner, clutching her plastic bag of rationed goods.

Copyright Reuters 2017

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Britain needs election to clear Brexit fog

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
November 4, 2016

British Prime Minister Theresa May at a European Council meeting in Brussels in October, with Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, left. Photo by prime minister's office.

British Prime Minister Theresa May at a European Council meeting in Brussels in October, with Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, left. Photo by prime minister’s office.

At the heart of Britain’s Brexit drama is a fundamental problem of political legitimacy. None of the main players now in leading roles has any mandate to have their voices heard.

This central void loomed large this week as Britain’s High Court ruled that Prime Minister Theresa May does not have the right to start the process of taking the country out of the European Union by government executive action – “the royal prerogative.” She must, said the court, get approval from parliament before triggering Article 50, the section of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that begins two years of negotiations on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal.

The ruling has created turmoil, not least because a majority of the 650 members of the House of Commons favours Britain staying in the EU. However, it is now unlikely that MPs would overturn the referendum result. For most of them, dumping Brexit would mean going against the will of the majority of their constituents. What they may try to do is insert qualifications into the negotiations to cushion Britain’s departure, and attempt to pave the way for a solid economic relationship with the EU post Brexit.

May’s government hopes to avoid parliament being able to meddle in the Brexit process and says it will appeal the judgement to the Supreme Court. In all likelihood that will throw out the window her planned timetable to begin negotiating Britain’s departure before the end of next March.

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The High Court’s decision gives every imaginable opponent of Brexit and those who just enjoy obstructionism — from the pro-EU regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to recalcitrant bodies like the House of Lords — the opportunity and justification to hobble or stall the process.

The announcement by the Welsh Assembly on Friday that it will seek to intervene in the appeal to the Supreme Court is just an early gust in the wind storm to come.

More than that, the High Court’s decision, and whatever ingredients the Supreme Court may add to the complex political stew, makes it more than ever necessary that May call an election before going much further down the Brexit path. She needs a clear and unassailable mandate from the public to see this process through and wherever it turns out to lead.

At the moment she has nothing, not even a clear mandate from the Conservative Party, whose majority government she leads. May is Prime Minister because after the fratricidal political chaos following the June 23 referendum she was the last person standing.

Former Prime Minister and Tory leader David Cameron resigned in tacit acknowledgement he made a foolish decision to demand the referendum as an attempt to call the bluff of the anti-EU Conservatives among his own backbenchers. Even more stupidly, he didn’t include in the enabling legislation a high threshold for approval of what is a major constitutional change for Britain. And more than that, he ran a feeble “remain” campaign. He deserved the 52 per cent to 48 per cent defeat in the referendum vote.

The two leading Tory supporters of Brexit, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who lusted to succeed Cameron, managed to knife each other in the back. Other candidates, such as Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox, tripped over their own shoe laces and withdrew. May, a tepid supporter of Britain remaining in the EU, got the nod from the party as the only leadership candidate left.

In public and in private, May and her close advisers say they don’t want a snap election, and plan on governing until 2020. No doubt part of the reasoning behind that posture is the commendable desire to present a façade of political stability, especially at a time when the British economy is riven by uncertainty and it is unclear what attitude European negotiators will take to the details of Britain’s withdrawal.

Many of the Tory backbenchers don’t want a snap election either. About half them campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, only to have their constituents vote for Brexit. An early election puts these Tory seats at risk.

But the High Court’s decision – whether or not it is upheld by the Supreme Court – has seriously dented the aura of competence and Thatcheresque I’m-in-charge that has sustained Theresa May and gone some way to calming market fears.

She has a very good chance of benefiting from a snap election. At the moment the Tories have a majority of only 15 seats in the 650-seat house. Recent polls indicate she could increase that majority to 44 seats. The Conservatives’ popularity among voters is the highest it has been since the Falklands War in 1982.

Part of that popularity is the gift of her opponents’ folly.

The main opposition Labour Party is in such disarray that many British commentators are saying the disease is terminal. The main symptom is the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who entered politics on the loony, Trotskyist left wing of the Labour Party in the 1960s and who has seen no reason to change his views since.

Corbyn won the leadership after Labour’s defeat in the 2015 election by dint of a piece of democracy taken to a mad extreme. In 2014, the party replaced the old system by which a leader was selected by weighted ballots giving the parliamentary party, general party membership and affiliated trades unions each a third of the vote. The new system threw leadership selection open to all party members, including those who signed up and voted on-line in return for a small fee. (There are rumours that something called “Tories for Corbyn” invested heavily in on-line memberships, though this is unproven.) The result was that nearly 60 per cent of the over 500,000 “registered” party members voted for Corbyn.

The result appalled the Labour Party caucus. In June, a motion of no confidence in Corbyn was passed by the 212 Labour members of parliament after about two-thirds of the shadow cabinet resigned in disgust. However, what might be called social media democracy again came to Corbyn’s rescue. In another leadership contest at the end of September Corbyn won nearly 62 per cent of the vote.

Despite this, polls and pundits, to say nothing of most of Corbyn’s colleagues in parliament, consider the Labour Party unelectable with him as leader.

The prospects are slightly brighter among Liberal Democrats, who until last year’s election were in coalition with the Tories. The Lib-Dems took a drubbing in that election and were reduced from 57 seats to only eight, mostly to the benefit of the Tories. However, some Conservative MPs in southern Britain are reporting signs of a Lib-Dem revival, but at this point it is more of an irritant than a threat.

It is inevitable that a re-run of Brexit would be the central issue of a snap election. It would be a bitter campaign. There are signs that some people are having buyer’s remorse at having supported Brexit in the referendum, especially as the economic cost of leaving the EU, to say nothing of the end of easy travel to Europe, sinks in. But the core vote remains strong that Britain should regain sovereign powers that have been handed Brussels.

Even though the referendum vote for Brexit was decisive, it was still close enough to portray a country that is sharply divided. Theresa May has tried to avoid exciting that division, largely by playing her cards close to her chest since assuming the leadership. She has uttered a few opaque phrases – such as “Brexit means Brexit” – but given no firm indications on how she will approach negotiations with the other 27 EU members or what her objectives are. Even less apparent is what sort of economic and legal relationship she will seek with the EU when those negotiations begin after Britain’s departure.

In an election campaign she could not avoid being far more open about where she sees Britain going and how.

There is a delightful irony that several of the Brexiteers, who championed leaving the EU on the grounds that it is eroding the sovereignty of the British parliament, are now complaining about the High Court ruling. They argue that as the British voters spoke clearly in the referendum, the government should now launch Brexit through Article 50, and that there is no need for parliament to be involved further.

The contorted logic that parliament has no business getting involved in a matter essential to the sovereignty of parliament is intriguing, to say the least. And it also tends to confirm the more fundamental argument that there are seldom if ever any justifications for referenda in parliamentary democracies.

 

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

~~~

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Brexit will save the European project

 

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
July 8th, 2016

By Diliff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35972521

The hemicycle of the European Parliament. Photo: Diliff/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

When the dust of history settles, the moment angry Britons voted to quit the European Union will stand out as the moment that saved the 28-nation project.

Two weeks after the referendum produced a 52 per cent majority in favour of Brexit, the chaotic aftermath in British politics is beginning to settle down. The resignation of Conservative leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, and the hasty running for cover of the two men most responsible for the Brexit support, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, has cleaned the political slate.

A contest for a new Tory leader and prime minister is under way. Conservative Party members will decide by early September between Home Secretary Theresa May and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom. May is the favourite, and she would come to the leadership with a record of favouring Britain staying in the EU, but having refrained from getting involved in the nastiness of the campaign.

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A taxi driver holds a Union flag, as he celebrates following the result of the EU referendum, in central London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

A taxi driver holds a Union flag, as he celebrates following the result of the EU referendum, in central London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

In all likelihood she, or Leadsom if that’s the way the wheel turns, would want to fight and win an election to get a popular mandate before turning to the negotiations with Europe. The opposition Labour Party, led by the deeply unpopular Jeremy Corbyn, is in such internal turmoil that it seems unlikely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the Tories.

But while this is playing out in Britain, the world on the other side of the Channel has not been frozen in aspic. The first reaction to the Brexit result among the most devoted advocates of ever deeper and wider European integration was anger and spite. Pompous nabobs like European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker – the epitome of everything that is wrong with the way the EU is currently staffed and works – hit out with spite and bile. He drummed his little feet and demanded that Britain immediately start the Brexit process by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would trigger a two-year period of negotiations to decide the terms of Britain’s withdrawal and its future relationship with the EU.

Elected European leaders, however, have a more sanguine view of the Brexit vote and its implications for all of them. “There is no need to be nasty,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who when all is said and done is the only EU leader who counts. “We must work together to achieve the right outcome.”

It is deciding what that right outcome is that will now consume European leaders. Brexit is concentrating the minds like the prospect of being hanged in the morning. It has taken the shock of losing the EU’s second largest economy and crucial member of the union’s political and security apparatus to finally clarify the choices and, hopefully, shunt aside the organization’s passion for obfuscation and prevarication.

The basic choice is reasonably clear. Does the EU press ahead and even accelerate integration by Brussels taking power over sectors like foreign and security policy? Or should the EU listen to what the majority of British voters said about being detached from the undemocratic tyranny of Brussels Eurocrats, feeling powerless in the face of economically and culturally disruptive integration, and wanting powers returned to their national government?

The EU and its economic community forebears put in place after the Second World War have always had an ideological, indeed, messianic drive. The idea was and is that economic and, more recently, political integration will make impossible continuation of the saga of wars between nations that dogged Europe for centuries.

For the true believers of this mission — the half-crazed evangelicals – there is only one response to any setback. It is to pursue integration with ever more haste and fervour.

It is this passion that gave birth to the common currency, the euro, used by 19 of the 28 EU members. It made absolutely no sense to try to impose a common currency on economies as disparate as Germany and Greece – or, in general, those across the northern and southern politico-economic divide. It removed the ability of governments to manage the basic levers of their economies such as interest rates and money supply, with the predictable results of the crises in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

But the creation of the euro was a political move more than an economic one, as was the introduction of the free movement of labour in the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. This did not become a real concern until the accession to the EU of several of the old East Bloc satellites of the Soviet Union in 2004. With utterly predictable good sense, the liberated Eastern Europeans hopped on trains, buses and planes for the EU country that offered them the best opportunities. Hence, the small British country town of Boston in Lincolnshire has become an outpost of Poland.

The feeling among many EU citizens that they no longer have any say about their neighbours and neighbourhoods came to an explosive crisis with the arrival of millions of refugees from the Middle East and Africa in the last two years.

The impulse to meet obstacles by intensifying the EU project remains strong among true believers, however. There was evidence of this in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote on June 23. The foreign ministers of France and Germany, Jean-Marc Ayrault and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, met and drew up a nine-page memorandum. A copy of the memo was leaked to Poland’s TVN broadcaster, which promptly aired the contents.

The paper is titled “A Strong Europe in a World of Uncertainties,” and one of the key passages says: “Germany and France have a responsibility to strengthen solidarity and cohesion within the European Union” despite “different degrees of ambition towards further integration among the member states.”

Neither minister, it must be said, speaks for his leader or any other of the EU heads of government. Most government leaders are well aware that further integration is deeply unpopular among Europe’s citizens. A Pew Global Attitudes Survey from early June shows that Britons are far from alone or unique in their dislike of the EU now and anxiety about the prospects of “ever closer union.”

In all major EU member states voters either think integration has already gone too far or are vehemently opposed to “ever closer union.” In Sweden, for example, 47 per cent want sovereign powers returned from Brussels to Stockholm and 38 per cent think integration has gone far enough. In the Netherlands 44 per cent want powers returned, in Germany it’s 43 per cent and in France 39 per cent. Support for further integration is in a minority – often a very small minority – everywhere.

As they look at the fall-out from Brexit across the EU, leaders are carefully watching public support for their own Eurosceptic political parties. The National Front in France, Germany’s AfD, Italy’s Five Star Movement, the True Finns, the Swedish Democrats, the People’s Party of Freedom and Democracy in Holland are all feeling a gust of wind under their wings from the Brexit slipstream.

Brexit has set the EU political barometer for changing weather. Brussels and the EU potentates ought now to be acutely aware that they continue to avoid the creation of a more democratic, looser, trade-focussed union at their peril. When Britain does come to the negotiating table and the process of drawing up a new relationship begins, the context will be much more broad than just London’s future relationship with Brussels. With any luck it will involve a stringent redefinition of the nature of the EU itself.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Related on F&O:

 

‘Explosive shock’ as Britain votes to leave EU, Cameron quits, by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton  Report

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks after Britain voted to leave the European Union, outside Number 10 Downing Street in London, Britain June 24, 2016.   REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron speaks after Britain voted to leave the European Union, outside Number 10 Downing Street in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

 Britain has voted to leave the European Union, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and dealing the biggest blow since World War Two to the European project of forging greater unity.

Brexit Factbox: Who, where, when why – and what next, by Alastair MacDonald, Report

In England’s Mean and Truculent Land, by Jonathan Manthorpe, F&O International Affairs columnist

Britain’s departure from the EU will be a journey across new territory full of terrors and treacherous terrain. Among the many stupidities in Cameron’s management of the referendum was allowing a simple majority for victory.

An American “Brexit” revolt? Not likely, by Tom Regan, F&O Summoning Orenda columnist

Immediately after the Brexit vote, to take Britain out of the European Union, the hyperventilating United States  media found umpteen different ways to say “It could happen here.” This American media chorus is wrong.

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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European Union’s role in Ukraine mayhem: analysis

Europe is culpable for the violence in Ukraine, writes international affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe in his new column. Excerpt:

European leaders should not congratulate themselves too heartily for mediating the compromise agreement that, with luck, will end the demonstrations and appalling violence on the streets of Ukraine’s capital Kiev and other major cities.

It is, after all, sins of commission and omission by Brussels that have played a large part in stirring up the political chaos in Ukraine as its people try to decide if their future should be with the European Union (EU) or their old political overlord in the Soviet Union, Russia.

The EU’s first sin is that since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been confronted with this stark, either-or choice.

Many of the 28 member states, and especially the administrative priesthood in Brussels, have no doubt that the virtues of EU membership are obvious. EU politicians and officials often display an irritating and sometimes destructive assumption that joining their club is the only rational action for neighbouring countries.

All too frequently in Brussels displays little understanding, and often naïve ignorance of the conflicting economic and political pressures felt by countries considering EU membership, particularly those that were part of the Soviet Union.

Log in to read the column, Europe carries blame for the Ukrainian violence.*

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