Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Quo Vadis Europa?

https://www.eurodiaconia.org/2019/05/weekly-editorial-together-we-can-shape-the-future-of-europe/#:~:text=Looking%20around%20you,%20what%20do%20you%20think%20is%20the%20most
For the past decade Europe has shown an incredible resilience to consecutive waves of crises. After the Eurozone one, came the refugee and the Syria crisis, then Brexit and now we face a global pandemic, which unquestionably has tested our unity once again.

And while it is easy to focus on the numerous fiascos, the nationalist drama, the chauvinist attitudes of various member states, the loss of appetite for further integration or expansion, the EU is becoming slowly but surely, more functioning and united, albeit the many tantrums and under the belt accusations, sidelining and smearing campaigns, or the sliding towards authoritarianism of some members.

And that is because, mainly the two driving forced of the block, France and Germany, have finally realized that if the block fragments further, it will be bad for everyone on the continent. The French President in particular Emmanuel Macron has long called for "More Europe" and tried to reform his own country, despite the numerous protests that erupted. He has managed to convince the German Chancellor about a U-turn on corona bonds, was one of the few European politicians that openly called for a European army and even tried to re-approach Russia. No wonder he faced a backlash back home.

However there many issues that need to be worked on, in order for Europe to fulfil its potential and not only financial ones. And they exist in every member state.

If we look towards the Central and Eastern Europe, we got a number of countries sliding backwards to what they tried to escape from in the past, authoritarianism. The most disappointing of them is Poland, which not only turned euro-skeptic from being a very enthusiastic member, but both on a national or local level, it trashes core European values nowadays.

The establishment of LGBT free zones in some of its municipalities resemble with first steps to fascism, plus in addition it plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, scrapping the protection from domestic violence for many individuals.

As a society, they have a long way to go in order to mature and accept that LGBT individuals can be an asset to any country, as they often are highly creative, educated and since they do not have the burden of child bearing, they can contribute massively in their society.

Blocking them from expressing their sexuality openly, can only force them to flee to another country, where they can have their unions recognized and be themselves. Who will lose out? The Polish society of course, but they cannot see this just yet, blinded by religious conservative fundamentalism.

The EU rightly decided to withhold funds towards Polish towns that abide by these laws, however their elites found another trick: enter US Army bases and their cash, fleeing from Germany. It is peculiar to see that Poland is so fixated to erase its Soviet past and have a clean break from Russia, that is keen in becoming another power's lap-dog, this time America's.

Naturally the US under Trump, is not a beacon of freedom anymore, whilst itself in a crisis within, both financially and socially. They are more than happy to befriend Poland, although the country increasingly resembles Russia, which the Americans despise; or do they?

The Germans on the other hand, protest on local level on the US army withdrawal, obviously miffed about the loss of income and revenue from the American troops. It is hard to wean from decades of cash injections, however it is time to grow up as a nation and a continent. Have they ever really thought on what do they have to give back to USA, for its "protection" and cash handouts?

Besides, this move is a clear evidence of a change of a status quo: Germany and America are drifting apart, and the US is trying to punish or black mail the Germans on their "disobedience" and lack of willingness to contribute more to NATO's budget. Yet, the German leadership does not seem that bothered, as of now.

They are happy to fill the US gap, on the Greek-Turkish negotiations over the Aegean dispute, acting as a deal broker between the two rivals, which are apparently NATO allies. The two nations have been at odds over the potential oil exploration in the Aegean, with the Turks openly and without shame, challenging Greece's AOZ.

While the rest of Europe only watches, finally Germany decided to calm things down. If Turkey was Russia and Greece Ukraine, no doubt Europe would be up in arms, however for Greece different rules apply. Understandably Germany has huge interests in Turkey, just as USA does. But what does this say about the validity of NATO, if two of its members are constantly on the brink of war?

Instead of sanctioning Turkey as they do Russia, Europe leaves Greece and Cyprus to deal with Mr Erdogan's antics by themselves. France only offered its support, with the "kind" offer of two frigates ships that Greece must buy, in order to gain France's support. Talking about friends with benefits eh?

Elsewhere in Europe, we got Hungary and its ongoing clash with the EU. Happy to get the funds, forget about the obligations. Make no mistake, the country together with Poland and the Czech Republic, will do a Sweden and avoid euro membership for as long as they can. But that is not all that is troublesome with Hungary.

The country's attitude to freedom of the press worries and bothers the rest of Europe and rightly so. If the state is able to mute what it is being written and controls the press, then how can anyone criticize the government and any of its politicians. Things such as these happen only in Russia right? Wrong. Europe has its own troubles with press freedom and it gets worse.

The firing of Szabolcs Dull, the editor-in-chief of Hungary’s biggest independent news website, Index, in the beginning of July has political interference written all over it, according to Human Rights Watch. Hungary slides, Slovenia too as well as Malta, and Greece is not doing better either.

The Greek public is increasingly relying on social media and blogs for its information, being fed up with mainstream politics and media. But then they are seriously exposed to propaganda and misinformation with worrying results. Increase of hate crimes and racism is being noted, as numerous blogs fuel xenophobia.

We are used to blame the Far-Right, or our favorite scapegoat the Russians for all the misinformation campaigns, however we never look towards the Western part of our shores. The British made this mistake and let the likes of Rupert Murdoch pour bile against the EU for decades, with the obvious result of Brexit.

They are still blaming the Russians, yet they ignore the media mogul's role in their national disaster, or that of the election of Donald Trump in their close allies, the USA. Murdoch's media outlets actively contributed to both outcomes, but the British elites were either unwilling or powerless to stop him and provide counter information.

Perhaps they allowed him to achieve what they wanted for them, or they were so fearful of meddling with the country's press and appear or be accused by his newspapers of acting like Orban and Hungary, that they preferred to let a foreigner decide the future of the country. Either way, we are witnessing the two extremes in Europe when it comes to press freedom; either total control by the state, or by a media mogul through uncontrolled media liberty.

However one cannot blame the likes of Murdoch, without point a few fingers to the collective European governments, who systematically misrepresented to their citizens what the EU is doing for them and how it works.

For decades the "Frugal Nations" of four or five, presented themselves together with Germany and whilst hiding behind Britain, as the ones who are milked by the corrupt and lazy South. The truth is far from it and if we dig further, we will see that they are the ones actually milking the periphery of EU states.

As seen by this graph, the Frugal nations, together with those annoying cherry-pickers of the North and Switzerland, are the biggest beneficiaries from the Single Market.

No wonder the latter do not want to join the EU completely, as they will have to contribute more, thus lessen their benefits, plus of course the Frugals wish to keep things as they are and avoid further integration.

If the EU or the euro-zone become federal, thus allowing debt mutualisation in the block, they will not only lose the advantage they enjoy in the Single Market, but their top ratings from the financial agencies, thus weakening their borrowing capacity.

It is easier to blame and portray the peripheral states as lazy and corrupt, and offload the euro-zone's debt on them, while they can borrow with cheaper rates when they lend to the indebted South at a higher rate, thus making a profit out of their "partners". Does anyone still fall for their bluff and believe their nonsense in Europe? Well only if they are intellectually challenged.

In addition, many face the rise of the Far-Right in their own countries, so to appease their voters and keep the Right-wingers at bay, they put all the blame on other EU nations, for everything that is wrong in the block.

I cannot recall Europe being worried about the rise of the Greek Golden Dawn party as much, when it came to prominence after the harsh bail-out Greece had to accept by it partners and the Troika. Yet now the Frugals turn their internal political problems, intoEuropean ones. Not that the South or the Eastern countries, do not need necessary reforms and modernization.

But the whole of the EU needs it and that includes the Netherlands or every of Frugal nations. They can start by admitting to their citizens how much they gain from their EU membership in cash figures, not only stating how much they pay. And if they could scrap their tax haven status, see the Netherlands, then that will also be a very welcome bonus.

Regarding the South, I can only speak for Greece as I have never lived in another country apart from my native and Ireland. Greece has changed massively since I was growing up in the '80s and I moved to Ireland in 2004. It is not what it used to be, so to keep using it as a scapegoat and excuse for all that is wrong in the EU is unfair and outrageous.

Yes, it still has work to do, but usually its European partners demand more selling of its resources as a condition for any appraisal, not much concern exists on how it tackles its bureaucracy and red tape. So one could wonder on what are Greece's European partner's true intentions.

Even when they were threatening Greece to be kicked out of the euro and the negotiations about its bail-out were in full, heated mode, France and Germany tried to sell arms to Greece, albeit it being bankrupted.

They accused it of lying about its figures and statistics to enter the euro-zone, while it is something that all member states do and it is highly unlikely that the EU Commission was not aware of it. Ireland cooked its books for example in 2015 and presented to Brussels that its economy grew by 30% because of tax evasion practices.

Its GDP per capita surged and debt fell dramatically. The Commission accepted those figures but warned them that they would have to become net contributors to the EU budget and why would reject the Irish numbers, as it would bring more money into the block's cashiers. However as the Irish economy relies on false numbers, those who will pick up the bill again, are the Irish tax payers and if things go wrong, the European tax payers in the case of Ireland needing another bail-out in the future.

Yet, only Greece was shamed by Europe for doing what Ireland repeatedly does and understandably all other EU member states, with the blessings of the EU Commission and other financial institutions.

It is not a lie to say that the Greek elites waste or mismanage the money they receive from the EU, as a compensation and to balance the trade deficit that Greece suffers from its participation in the Single Market, as shown in the above table.

But it is also true that a lot of this cash, end up back in European banks in the forms of debt repayments, or Europe's companies especially those who sell arms and their governments. So if European tax payers want Greece to come clean about its misuse of funds, they have often no other place to look, from their own political and financial elites for explanations.

No wonder then, when the Greeks tried to get rid of the two establishment parties at the heist of the euro-zone crisis, PASOK and the New Democracy, it was the EU and the big European powers that threatened the Greeks not to vote for Syriza but to continue voting for the politicians who apparently lied about the country's finances.

And we got to admit, that if we wish to prohibit governments from abusing EU funds, then we need a EU body that will invest and distribute them directly in the regions or sectors needed, something that most nations reject as it will mean closer integration and a Federal Europe. Especially the citizens from richer countries. Few are ready for such development in our continent, although the movement is growing.

To conclude, unless the above issues are properly addressed and dealt with, together with numerous others that I would like to at some stage include, Europe will never reach its potential or overcome its impasse. It will be condemned in going in circles; for how long, depends from all of us. Our media and governments may sell us one side of the picture, it is however up to us to inform and educate ourselves and make appropriate decisions about our- shared hopefully-future. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

When will Europe uniformly learn to live with Covid-19?

https://www.rte.ie/news/2020/0619/1148353-eu-covid19/
pic: RTE News
Since the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Europe, the continent found itself in yet another uncharted territory and utter chaos. Misinformation, panic, conspiracy theories, scaremongering, confusion, financial demise, EU infighting and divisions on how to deal with the economic fallout or recover from it.

Each country took it upon itself to lay a roadmap and safeguard its citizens from the new virus. Some became a good example, others faced harsh criticism on their decisions, while the UK and Sweden were seen illogical and bold in their approach. The truth is, nobody really knows what they are doing and how could they; we have never seen anything like this in Europe before.

Soon enough though, apart from the unnecessary daily death counts and new cases updates, served by our media who are cashing in big time by our uncertainty and fear, another harsh reality became apparent; that of the economic crisis and disaster following the Covid-19 outbreak.

Many industries like that of tourism, aviation, hospitality and catering, as well as that of music and show business, realized that their future was bleak. People were told not to go out and socialize, travel or attend events. Shops and retail outlets were closed for months, some permanently.

If we had to be informed about the daily number of businesses closing or people losing their jobs, due to Covid-19, the impact of the outbreak would certainly feel more dramatic and bleak, at least mentally.

As result, the EU and all European governments realized that they had no option but to start re-opening the economy, since the pressure from businesses and industries, SMEs but also citizens themselves which felt the emotional and mental impact of the virus, was mounting.

Many countries that rely heavily on tourism, particularly those in south Europe, fearing the economic consequences of having to close their countries and suspend one of their major industries' function, pushed for a pan-European solution.

What followed next, became another embarrassing tug of war between north and south, the rich nations of the EU and those most affected like Italy and Spain. Understandably, the Mediterranean region not only had to close their borders and economy for 3 months, but they will also see very few tourists during the summer season due to the pandemic. This is a recipe for disaster, however their sentiments were not shared by their northern partners like the Netherlands.

The group of countries the latter has formed, the Frugal 4, insisted on loans that had to be repaid and not on grants to deal with the economic impact, citing the lack of responsible financial practices by the South. Of course, they conveniently do not admit to their citizens how they can get loans with lower rates by the markets, then lend at a higher rate to their EU partners and actually make a profit out of them, strengthening their economies further, to the detriment of their borrowers.

Eventually the EU Commission and the Franco-German leadership had to intervene and strike a balanced compromise and deal, which has been hailed a huge success and a way forward for the block. The Covid-19 Recovery Fund has been finally agreed by our leaders, awaiting approval by our parliaments.

The Commission also kept encouraging the block's member states, to maintain open borders between them, allowing trade and the free movement, in order to strengthen the economic recovery. After dealing with the financial consequences of the virus, it is time to work on the social ones.

However, there is little appetite for traveling this summer in Europe, after months of scaremongering, false reports and misinformation. In addition, many also face loss of income upon their return, if they have to self-isolate after traveling abroad with no reimbursement or paid leave arrangements in place.

Thus, holidaying in the EU still looks something only for the brave, those working from home or the ones that have no other option. And that is because we have created an open society, with no borders. Many of us work, live or study in a member state other than our own, with family back home, older parents that are often sick or other obligations.

How can Europe go on with closed borders or a crippled freedom of movement and for how long? Instead, it should finally decide to act collectively and uniformly plus get used to living with our new reality, while maintaining as much of our previous routine and living standards as possible.

Make face masks compulsory across the EU to allow travel. Enforce common social distancing practices across the block and decide how to deal with new outbreaks that will inevitably occur sporadically. Perhaps instead of closing off a whole country, we could only see localized lock downs.

The time of wild partying and clubbing holidays should now be suspended, as when people get dunk in cramped spaces it is undoubtedly a recipe for disaster. But that does not mean that more family styled holidays should be avoided, if the tourists keep the same practices in the country they are visiting as if they were back home; wearing masks, social distancing and respecting local practices like queuing and opening hours.

We should have the same chances of contracting Covid-19 at home or abroad within the EU, if we observe the same precautionary measures. Medical testing should become the norm at borders and in tourist hot spots. The existing EU Health Card should be put forward, to help dealing with new cases while holidaying in the block, just in any other ailment while traveling in the EU.

Covid-19 certainly poses new challenges and tests our abilities to cope and act in unity. But we should not allow it to divide us or retract to our national borders. Our strength is our freedom and openness, so if we were to alter they way we live for the long term, then we would not only be defeated by a virus; we would fail in proving to ourselves and to the world the purpose of the society we have created.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Can NATO membership be separated from EU aspirations?

https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_spending_to_defend_nato_and_the_eus_new_budget
Growing up in Greece, I often came across the widespread slogan from the country's Communist Party (KKE); "EEC and NATO, the same syndicate".

Back then, I was slightly dismissive about it, not wanting to side with neither dominant ideology of Greek politics; left or right.

However, one cannot fail to notice that in recent years, this is very much the case.

Following the 2004 big-bang EU enlargement, we also had a NATO expansion to the East. Many of the new member states in either block, have been former USSR republics, or belonged to the Warsaw Pact. Excluding Cyprus and Malta, all continental central and Eastern European new members, have joined both organizations.

Something that we did not necessarily witnessed in previous EU enlargements. When Ireland and then later Austria, Sweden or Finland joined the union, they were not encouraged to become a member of the NATO alliance. In fact, none of them ever joined.

Since 2004 though, the trend of a joined EU/NATO membership for all Europe's eastern nations prevails. The problem is, that many have strong ties with Russia still, or are considered to be in the Russian sphere of influence, by the Russian elites.

In addition, some of them-like Ukraine, have a substantial Russian and Russian-speaking population. So if Europe is serious about engulfing and including these countries in its institutions, how will this affect its relations with its biggest neighbor and a key trade partner?

Both NATO and the EEC, later to be reformed into the EU that we know today, were born after the disastrous WW2. In order to keep the Soviet threat and influence out of Western Europe, our leaders aligned our nations with USA and Canada, forming one of the world's most formidable blocks and military alliances.

The EEC however, was formed out of a vision and idea, to permanently unite our continent, integrating it to a certain extend, that it could never go to war with itself again. Since its creation and step by step, Europe has morphed into a kind of confederation.

It has taken some very bold actions to integrate its members' economies with the creation of the euro and the single market. It has become the world's biggest trade block, although it lacks the political uniformity still, to become a serious world power.

Yet, not all are as rosy as expected in both organizations. The EU has just lost one of its oldest members-the UK, and it seems reluctant to continue integrating, constantly bickering with itself and among its members; sadly, it is always about money.

On the other hand, many do not see the point of NATO anymore. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the alliance tries to redefine itself and justify its purpose. Even the French President Emmanuel Macron has stated last year, that the alliance is becoming "brain-dead".

So what is the point of keep expanding it, since Europe does not face any military threats nowadays. If it is just to annoy Russia, it is a very petty excuse.

I am aware that many of the former USSR and Warsaw Pact members, are wary about Russian influence in their countries and they need support to limit it. But there is a difference between becoming more independent from your former ruler, than giving in to Russo-phobia and hysteria.

Besides, a number of them lately, have failed to maintain their pro-European momentum and core EU values, opting to slide back-oh the irony- to a more authoritarian government. Their anti-Russian sentiment, is masking perhaps a blind nationalism together with financial interests.

In order to gain the favor and some cash from the US, in exchange for military and arms sales and the establishment of expensive missiles and defense systems, many Eastern European countries are rushing to join NATO.

Make no mistake, USA accounts for over one third of the global arms exports by itself. In addition, other NATO members, like France and Germany, also rely heavily on sales from the same industry. Limiting military expenditure in Europe, would seriously harm their economies and no president of theirs, will ever actively seek such goal in his/her term.

However, even the USA itself is lately tired of financing and "protecting" countries that not even its President can name. So all the expansion efforts seem meaningless, unless we still think that Russia is out to destroy Europe.

It is no secret the two sides have been increasingly at loggerheads over a number of issues: Ukraine, Georgia, espionage, oil and gas prices and pipes, Syria. It is slightly ridiculous at this stage and the blame falls in both sides.

Both Russia and the US-with the still weak and patronizing European governments, fail to accept that the world has changed and does not, plus it should not evolve around their bickering anymore. It is not viable for countries to have to chose either, instead of establishing constructive relations with both, to a certain extend.

Yet the Russians desperately want to maintain their "sphere of influence" and restore their status as a super power. The West has exactly the same complex and seeks to keep Russia down, preventing it from ever recovering fully financially, attacking its economy with sanctions, slandering and engaging in anti-Russian propaganda and establishing missiles across their European borders.

Is it any wonder why then Russia, turns up its espionage and misinformation efforts, attacking Europe anyway it can? If we keep pointing our weapons towards Russia, they will do the same to us. In addition, no one in the West is realizing that the more we push Russian away, China will be more than happy to welcome it.

Russia will never go away geographically, it will always be on our doorstep. And if we ever decide to allow Ukraine in the EU, it is not wise to keep aggravating our relationship with Moscow. Ukraine can join the EU, but perhaps they should refrain from joining NATO altogether and opt for a more Finnish approach to the West.

They can act as a buffer zone between the two "spheres of influence", or even better, a bridge. In addition, as it has been already suggested by President Macron, Europe should form its own military defense mechanism, which although will maintain its ties with USA and Canada, it will become more autonomous.

New EU member states, such as Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia, won't be required to join NATO, just as Sweden or Austria have not, thus keeping US missiles and interests away from Russia, partially appeasing them.

It remains to be seen then, if the Russians will be happy with such arrangements and engage to an updated relationship with Europe. If they insist on keeping Ukraine and other countries away from a new EU, then the blame will be entirely theirs from then on.

The time of bullying countries into our "sphere" is bygone, we are heading towards a new reality; that of a multipolar, global economy with no left-right division lines, rather nationalist/isolationist versus a more open, globalized society and economy.

If any nation state is to make any impact and increase its influence, it will have to rely on diplomacy, trade and openness, rather military, missiles, espionage and cold war practices. And that is something that all three-Europe, USA and Russia must consider.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

“Europe should reflect on racial inequality too”.

https://www.phillymag.com/news/2020/05/31/philadelphia-anti-racism-riot-george-floyd/
Philly Mag

Since the 25th of May and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the African American who succumbed whilst in police custody, yet another round of race inequality related violence and protests has erupted across the US.

One by one, most major American cities saw marches, riots and even looting and destruction of private and public property. The death of one man, revisited an ongoing issue in the US society, that of deep-rooted racial inequality and discrimination.

Soon enough the movement saw support in European cities and the world. Similar marches in support of George Floyd, against US police brutality and for racial equality and justice, were held across our continent.

One would think why Europeans would be mobilized, to protest police abuse of power in another country. However, we must never forget how Europe aspires to become a society similar to that of USA, plus in addition that our continent is already by large a multiracial continent.

Europe was modeled and inspired by its closest ally, the US after WW2. One by one, European nations saw an influx of immigrants, both from within and outside our continent. The most developed and rich countries, like France and Britain, have become multiracial since the ‘50s.

This trend continues until today, with all EU nations having a proportion of their citizens originating from another continent. But if the US, a nation that was established as a multiracial, multi-ethnic society a bit over than two centuries ago, still struggles to solve its own racial inequality issues, what chance does Europe has in succeeding where America fails?

Additionally, Europe is still comprised by nation states and its citizens’ sense of nationhood based on ethnic background, is much more prominent than in the US. And if we look at how we still struggle to fully integrate our own native ethnic minorities, like the Roma people, the future for Europe’s social equality does not look bright either.

It is time to acknowledge our own race problem. Are we conforming to the image and standards we are trying to promote to the world, or are we floundering? Perhaps European societies are also highly hypocritical about and towards their migrant communities.

We are happy to have someone serve us at a restaurant or clean after us in a hotel, look after our needs in a hospital or work to build our homes and collect our food in the fields. However, what happens to these people if they lose their jobs, they get sick and in need of a friend or social security?  

Europe is not unacquainted to immigrant ghettos. Most European capitals have them and we witnessed a fair share of violence in the past. But we do not like to openly discuss about it.
Largely it is because of our politicians’ lack of will and action, yet the responsibility also falls on each one of us. How we treat our migrants, is not only under the state’s authority and control.

We can also be the employers, colleagues, customers, the roommates, schoolmates, or neighbors to every George Floyd, across Europe. How we treat or interact with them, or how do we protest when we see an injustice being done upon them, will make a huge difference in their lives.

We should be doing some soul searching too, to establish if we are seriously ready to live in a multiracial society, or we just tolerate it because it is socially unacceptable not to. Perhaps we have allowed Europe to become multi-ethnic, just out of a complex for the crimes committed in our colonial past, or simply out of need of cheap labor.

But we do not wish to truly reform the laws of our countries, nor our mentality and attitude towards migrants, to ensure social justice and integration for all. If that is the case, then incidents like what is happening in the US right now, will also become a European norm.

That is why this is a great chance for our continent to ponder on its future and make sure it learns from America’s failures. Either that is police criminality against migrants, lack of jobs and educational opportunities, inequality of income and social exclusion.

Another issue that we must observe, is how these protests are being held or portrayed by the media. Scenes of looting, damage of private property and violence towards policemen or individuals of another race, are highly disturbing.

One may accuse the media or the US government of trying to dilute the seriousness or intentions of such protests, however there is no excuse for grasping such opportunity to steal from a private vendor.

I cannot recall, Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks condoning the theft of three pairs of expensive shoes, to justify their cause. They must have been way angrier or in despair than the modern civil rights activists, they were campaigning during the ‘50s, when America was still a largely segregated and unequal society.

However, they kept their cause dignified. It is the responsibility of each and one of the protesters, to remind themselves that this is not the time for pettiness and opportunism, they do not do any justice to the memory of George Floyd. Plus, they are damaging their reputation as a movement. 

Europe is watching and the future of all people of color, ethnic minorities, and immigrant communities on both sides of the Atlantic, could be affected by the outcome of such civil unrest movement.

If they fail to make any difference again this time or allow their government to portray them as anarchists and looters, then both America and in extend Europe, will see the perpetuation of stereotyping of black people; and this time, they will have a share of the responsibility.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

“Α Frugal Europe is self-defeating and perpetuates a disappointing trend.”


https://www.ft.com/content/7faae690-4e65-11ea-95a0-43d18ec715f5
On the 19th of May, the French President Emmanuel Macron, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, jointly announced a 500 billion-euro Covid-19 aid package.

The initiative got the EU Commission’s support and approval, with its President Ursula von der Leyen announcing a 750 billion-euro aid package two days ago, 500 of those being grants and only 250 being made available as loans, after the “Frugal Four’s” objections.

The group of the four nations, comprised by the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Austria, have been mobilized to block Macron’s and Merkel’s proposal, since its announcement last week.

They fear that it will open the door to debt mutualization, plus they object to offer help “for free” as they see it. From their point of view, financial help should be attached to terms and conditions, payback with an interest of course.

What we can get from their stance is that the UK was not the only member state acting as a roadblock to closer European integration. Now that is gone, the cover of many states that were hiding behind British euro-skepticism is being blown away.

Their interests are not for the common good, rather their own and only. Debt mutualization is inevitable when sharing a single currency, the euro. That was the plan, that is what the EU’s forefathers dreamed and aimed, a single currency that would lead to a European Federation.

Additionally, the current crisis was not caused by any national mismanagement, or corruption and it has affected everyone equally. Even Germany and the Netherlands will benefit from the 500 billion grants, as they have been badly affected by the corona virus outbreak.

If these countries, two of which are euro members already and one-Sweden, which is obliged to join by their accession treaty, yet they are dragging their feet for 30 years, are not happy with this goal, or just do not share it any longer, they can follow Britain and leave.

In the past they blamed Greece, now they have a problem with Italy and Spain, in the future if they can continue with this demeanor, who they will have to blame? Most likely it will be Bulgaria and Croatia, two countries about to join the euro within the next 2-3 years.

Bulgaria has already been blocked by the Netherlands from joining the Schengen area, so the Dutch are not making themselves too popular these days in EU. They are scapegoating weaker nations to excuse their financial nationalism and self-serving interests.

Ten years ago, their finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem acted like a Spanish Inquisitor towards Greece, demanding the country to open its financial books and records, for the Troika to examine. 

Greece ended up even more indebted with consecutive bailouts, and together with Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus they were forced to bear the burden of saving the European banks, which mainly were German and French, and bailing out the euro-zone.

Europe’s periphery in other words, became fiscal dumping ground for euro-zone banks’ debt. Now the Dutch refuse to share the debt burden, while previously they were happy forcing others to do so.

Perhaps we could also now demand them to allow us to have a close look into their finances, and see how many millions in lost taxes from other countries they earn, while acting as a tax haven and then we will see who’s money it is to give.

The justification for their actions back then was that Greece lied about its debt to enter the euro-zone. Well I am sorry, it is highly unlikely that the rest of European leadership did not know about this already and in addition, that Greece is the only nation that acted in such manner.

Alternatively, we could ask every member to allow EU institutions to scrutinize closer their finances, as they should. However, I am sure it will not be Greece objecting to this, rather Germany, the Netherlands and other richer EU member states. And usually, it is the prosperous nations that break EU laws first.

Maybe it is about time for European leaders. to tell the truth to their citizens about EU budget fees and the benefits of their membership for their countries. When Greece joined, in fact whenever one less developed country becomes a member, richer nations buy up most of their resources and assets.

Since the ‘80s and Greece’s admission, most of the country’s industries have passed into German, French and other countries’ hands. So, while the Netherlands like to get all the benefits of EU membership and maintain access to other members’ markets, they do not like to share the profits that they make.

And not only that, but they accuse them of being corrupt and like to belittle them in their press with derogatory articles in magazines, like one published recently. The latest cover of Elsevier Weekblad, a Dutch economically liberal and socially conservative magazine, has stirred controversy across Europe.

https://www.elsevierweekblad.nl/economie/achtergrond/2020/05/geen-stuiver-extra-naar-zuid-europa-207225w/
With a cover that resembles a Nazi propaganda press release, it portrays once again dark-haired people relaxing and enjoying wine and a coffee, while blond individuals working hard. The image is accompanied by a title against the 500 billion deal, while stating “No more money to South Europe”. This is preposterous and outrageous; we have been in this position too many times. 

Ten years ago, we had the Germans portraying the Greeks, together with all the PIGS countries in same manner and as a response, Greek and Spanish media were portraying German officials as Nazis, which was the lowest point Europe has reached since WW 2.

That is not what the founding fathers of the EU have envisioned. What they wanted was to unite our continent, for states to share wealth and resources and enjoy similar standards in wealth, freedom, and social rights.

The Macron-Merkel proposal should have been welcomed and treated as a long-delayed landmark in European unification. It is something long overdue, since sharing the same currency requires inevitable and eventual deeper fiscal integration.

To start a war with Europe’s south once again has no justification. Greece and Portugal have done their homework, Italy is a G8 nation, a net contributor to the EU budget and a main world economy. Much more than the Netherlands. The Dutch cannot treat them the way the treated the Greeks and similarly, why should they any other member state.

Besides, why they bother only about Italy and not their frugal buddies the Danish, or any other from this group and their mishaps? I do not remember them complaining about the Danske Bank scandal as much, where Russian money were laundered and siphoned into Denmark and the UK primarily, through the bank's Baltic branches in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. 

There is not as much mistrust in that direction, only towards the southern states, even though Russian money have been flowing into Europe since the euro-zone crisis and not only the Danish did not lose their reputation, but Europeans cry foul whenever there is Russian meddling in Europe. Perhaps if we stopped harboring their dirty money, we could achieve more in dealing with their oligarchs. 

In the future, we will all need to compromise and realize that we are entering a world in which Europe cannot rely on anyone but itself, a much different reality. We need to collectively utilize our resources and help every country in Europe to reach the same living and economic standards.

 Going around in circles and blocking or postponing decisions that should have been implemented decades ago since the launching of the euro, is short-sighted and defeatist. And the Dutch together with the “Frugal” collaborators, are so disappointing right now. 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

“Corona-bonds: it is make-or-break time for Europe now.”


https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-27/europe-s-leaders-are-at-loggerheads-over-coronabonds-map
Last week, nine EU member states issued a joined letter to the EU Council President Charles Michel, calling for the issuance of a joined European debt mechanism, or the “corona-bonds “as they are named.

These countries include Italy, Spain and France, who are among the worse hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, together with Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, Slovenia and Luxembourg.

The call was made as these nations are struggling with the spread of the virus, plus its economic consequences and anticipated outcome. The notion was once again rejected by the “frugal” states of the north, notably Germany and the Netherlands, plus their allies.

As expected, the EU has found itself in another unity test and identity angst. The Portuguese Prime Minister lashed out at the Dutch Minister of Finance over comments he made, suggesting that Brussels should investigate countries like Spain, for not having a budgetary margin to fight the pandemic.

It is evident that the EU cannot and should not continue like this. If the “frugal” states mistrust the southern ones that much, then there is absolutely no reason to remain in the same union.

All peripheral economies, with the insistence of Germany, had to go through brutal reforms, humiliating austerity with massive unemployment, social and economic dismantlement, even loss of life ten years ago; suicides skyrocketed in Greece, the poster-child of the euro-zone economic crisis.

So, for now to have Netherlands, pointing the finger once again towards Spain is simply unacceptable and disrespectful. The peripheral countries did what they were expected to do, they fixed their banking sector, dealt with their debt, modernized their economies, sold out their national assets and even endured the humiliation of belonging to the “PIGS” group during the last crisis.

What excuse does the Netherlands now have to ask for more? None really, apart from acting like an egotistical, self-serving party. It is great to be one of Europe’s tax havens, either within its European land borders, or via its overseas territories, gaining unfair advantage against its fellow Europeans, yet then accuse them of being corrupt and lazy, worthy of never-ending supervision, while themselves as a nation refuse to abandon their own practices.
  
Greece for example used to have its own thriving industry, only to see it relocate to other developing nations due to globalization or be bought from bigger European multinationals, eventually becoming sold or closed off. Many Greek companies relocated to Benelux countries, in order to obtain tax relief there.

Our farmers must bury their crops, so that Greece can buy the same goods from countries like Turkey or Egypt. All due to EU trade deals and agreements. So why then the “frugal” states object when we get compensation for the policies they pushed, due to their stronger influence in the EU? Perhaps they would like to relocate some of their factories back to us, so we can regain some of our jobs lost and keep our workers here, instead of them going and “stealing their jobs”.

In addition, the question of “Euro-bonds” is not new. It was brought up ten years ago and it was rejected again by Germany and the Netherlands. Sadly, then it was Greece alone who was crying out for them, as a help to deal with the economic crisis. But Spain’s conservative government did not side with Greece, so perhaps now they get to taste the consequences.

The Euro-bonds are a necessity. If the euro-zone remains a currency union only, countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece will always be at disadvantage. Germany might insist on ESM, however that does not solve the problem, but only brushing its surface, until the next crisis comes.

It suits the Germans, as after accumulating most of the wealth, all they must do is spare a fraction of it via ESM, plus maintain the image of the savior of Europe. Obviously, the Germans and the Dutch are reluctant to share their wealth.

But unfortunately, then they should follow the British out of the EU. They cannot have their cake and eat it. The euro was modeled after the German mark; thus, it is more compatible to the German economy and those with a similar one.

The weaker euro-zone nations are unable to devalue their currency in order to stimulate their economy, plus they must also overspend in order to keep up and share the same currency with the much stronger economic powerhouse that is Germany.

If we examine how they are forced to overspend, we will find out that usually it is by buying luxury goods such as cars and military equipment, from Germany itself. In this way, they are helping to sustain its economy and empower it even further. The situation goes in circles and it is unworkable. 

The only way forward, is if we either proceed in making Europe a more federal entity or listen to the Euro-skeptics and revert to a trade block. The Germans must make up their mind of what type of Europe they want and stop holding everyone else as hostages, to a project that mainly benefits themselves.

The United States, Brazil, Russia, India and other federal states, have a more harmonized fiscal policy, although indeed some of their states or regions are more affluent. That does not stop them from transferring wealth or sharing debt, since they share a single currency and thus, they abide to a more centralized fiscal policy.

In Europe on the other hand we opted for maintaining our national governments and grant them with most decision-making powers, so that they opt-out or block any policy they do not agree with, even if this comes to the detriment of the overall EU itself.

It is time for all of us to rethink of what kind of Europe do we want and our role in it. It is unacceptable for a handful rich nations to opt for all the benefits, while rejecting the responsibilities that come with EU membership. It is even more outrageous, when they scapegoat their fellow member states, in order to excuse their stance to their voters.

Something that worked many times before, when European governments were branding their colonial subjects as savages, other cultures as inferior and their ethnic minorities as the enemy from within, worthy to be managed and ruled because they were unable to do it by themselves, or even be exterminated.

As the Portuguese Prime Minister stated out already, the COVID-19 outbreak is not of the southern nations’ making and it affects all countries in Europe, as it will ultimately have an impact on the collective European economy. To deal with it, we will need finally to show solidarity, otherwise start thinking about our mutual divorce, whether this is the dismantling of the euro-zone, or the EU itself.

The British perhaps foresaw this and did well to abandon ship early. The Danes too decided to opt out from the euro and the Swedes, although obliged to join by their Treaty of Accession in 1994, have also managed to stay out of it.

The eastern and central new EU entries have mixed reactions to their membership, with Poland going from one of the most enthusiastic members, to one of the more Euro-skeptic. Together with the Czechs and the Hungarians, they are staunchly opposing their euro membership and perhaps they too, are wise.
  
If all they see from how the euro-zone is managed, why would they want to join and be scorned by arrogant Dutch ministers, or have their fiscal policies dictated by another EU member state?

If we are to continue with our “European dream,” we must make up our minds and either give EU institutions full authority and capacity to decide our collective future, or since we are so fond of our national governments, keep them and accept the consequences.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

“Traveling through Europe during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Salzburg, Austria, 2020.

Little did I know, when I was booking my holidays for this March, how things would have turned out across Europe. 

During the past months, I was informed that my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, so I after an agreement with my sister I arranged back in November to travel to Greece and sort a few issues that arose from this development.

I like to book my trips as early as possible and since a week in Greece would not exactly be holiday time, on my return I opted to visit Salzburg in Austria for two days, to clear my head from the overload of responsibilities I had to arrange.

But as the time for my trip was approaching, things across Europe have been dramatically changing. By March the 7th and my flight to Thessaloniki from Dublin, via Gatwick airport in the United Kingdom, Italy was going on lock-down as the death toll from COVID-19 was rising.

There was not for one moment an option for me to cancel my trip to Greece, as the family matters were quite pressing. However, I was getting really stressed about flying through so many borders, so on my last day at work I had a discussion with my manage, about all options available, should I become stranded in Greece or elsewhere in Europe.

Just the previous week, Greece had its first corona virus case in my hometown of Thessaloniki, but by the 7th of March, more cases have been reported. Ireland also had its first case and people started getting worried.

I got myself a few masks and boarded my flight. On my way down to Greece, there was no obvious panic, especially in Dublin and Gatwick airports. Both countries had still to adopt any precautionary measures and things were quite normal. Only a handful of people wore face masks and all retail shops in those airports were open.

During my stay in Greece, it got to a point that I had to stop listening to the news. Apart from the stress on learning about my father’s condition and all the options we could be faced after his inevitable passing, each day I was bombarded by new cases and deaths soaring across Europe.

One country after another started announcing lock-downs, like Poland, Spain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden and many more. I then started really to get worried about my Austrian break and the possibility of me becoming stranded there was real.
  
On Friday the 13th me and my siblings, together with my partner, decided to rent a car and travel in nearby cities in Greece to get away from all the doom and gloom. But it was not to last. We had a great time together, yet by the time we had to return home, I got two calls that interrupted the evening.

People in Greece, although the government had placed partial lock-down and most cafes, restaurants and bars were closed, were still out and about for walks as the days were bright and the temperature at 20-21 degrees. The spirits were up and the mood positive.

However I soon had to deal the fact that I was flying to Salzburg on Sunday and in one of the two calls I received on Friday, the hotel I have booked my two nights accommodation informed me that it was closing down due to the outbreak. The Austrian government decided to proceed with a lock-down, so all hotels, shops, bars, restaurants and cafes were to be closed.

In a second call, my manager informed me that things in Ireland turned for the worse, so he advised me to seek medical advice by my GP, before I return to work. The thing was, I was returning in Ireland on the 17th of March and the St. Patrick’s Day bank holiday. Thus, although the famous parade had been long cancelled, it was doubtful if I could find a doctor available.

At my sister’s home I started weighing my options. I thought to cancel my trip to Austria but as country after country was announcing lock down measures, I was equally afraid to risk it. Flights were being cancelled, airplanes grounded, and it was a real mess. Most alternatives were too pricey or not available on the dates I was seeking.

So, I took a leap of faith and maintained my schedule, however I still needed to find an alternative accommodation. Searching through various websites, very few hotels were still open and those who advertised room still, could also cancel by Sunday. I decided to book a room-to-let in the center of Salzburg and hope for the best.

On Saturday my head was buzzing, and my mind was troubled by all this. What upset me the most, was the constant bad news, the increasing measures and death toll together with doomsday and frantic reporting and misreporting by the media.

For example Austria had closed its borders with Italy and Switzerland, but not to any other countries, yet in various media websites they listed the country as in a complete lock-down situation, something that was valid only for its region of Tirol, close to the Italian border.

At least the weather in Greece was still great and people were going for walks in the promenade under the sunshine, despite the Greek government’s warnings. A risky behavior, however, a much-needed walk under some good weather uplifted my spirits.
  
Salzburg, Austria, March 2020.
On Sunday I arrived at the airport and everything looked normal, however after passing through the security checks and a just before boarding, Turkish Airlines cancelled the flight to Istanbul, therefor my trip to Salzburg from there was doomed.

I ended up having to reschedule anyway, but this time fast. What made the whole procedure more stressful, were the dubious rumors among other fellow travelers about the situation. Some claimed that this was a result of the weather, others of the tension between the Greek and Turkish borders, some were saying that Greece is going into a lock-down and all flights will be cancelled. A complete and utter chaos.

When I managed to speak to an airline representative, she managed to find me alternative flights with Aegean Airlines and Lufthansa via Frankfurt to Salzburg. I quickly accepted any offer, as I was panicking at that stage that I would be left in Greece in a lock-down and not be able to fly out of the country as of next day, as many travelers were circulating.

That of course was another false rumor, as Greece proceeded with such measures a week later. Meanwhile I enjoyed a business class trip from Thessaloniki to Frankfurt and I arrived late in Salzburg on the same day. Partially I was glad I was out of Greece, but really worried of the prospect being stuck in Austria.

I got to my room, yet as my hosts were observing the lock-down by letter, nobody was there to greet me or advise me. They left instructions of how to get access to the room, in a beautiful 600-year-old building in the historic center, by text. I had paid for the room online, so technically they needed not be there. In fact, I never met them. They left maps of the city and books for their guests to read on a chest drawer, so that was most welcomed.

The next morning, I awoke in a city in an absolute lock-down. Nothing was open apart from one tobacco and tourist gift shop, plus a few boulangeries, selling sandwiches, pastries, pies and bread rolls to go. The city felt deserted, although the weather was excellent. There were numerous patrols by the police, checking people and their business as they were driving by.

Not that there were many who braved to be walking in town. Few and mostly tourists like me, some older people walking their dogs or trying to get to a pharmacy, with few younger professionals still out. People were avoiding each other, almost with a look of guilt, fear, surprise or suspicion, keeping the government advice or “social distancing” at two meters.

Queues outside the few pharmacies still open were also kept with as much distance from each other, and the beautiful old city of Salzburg looked as if hit by a plague. So empty and quiet, with all shops and major attractions such as the city’s castle, closed. Still amazing though, under the spring sun. 

I have spent a full day walking through the old town, up and down the castle road, the river Salzach and beyond, while taking photographs. Finding something to eat was a challenge. I had to find the few supermarkets that were open in the old town, carefully tucked away in old historic buildings, camouflaging themselves as if not to disturb the medieval baroque essence of Salzburg.

Sandwiches and chocolates kept me going through the day, but by nightfall I was starving. I went out looking for food, but nothing was open at that time, not even a tobacco shop. Luckily, I observed some take away delivery guys on bicycles.

I kept one of the brands in my mind and returned to my room to order online. Chinese dinner it was that night. The delivery man, just left the package outside my door and rang my bell, not even waiting for me to come down and hand deliver it. He waited from a short distance to check if I had got my delivery, before he wished me good night while cycling away.

The next day, I woke up again, packed, had a shower and left my room at 9:30 in the morning. My flight was at two, but I wished to walk about and take a few more pictures of this beautiful city, as I was exploring the other side of the river. I also wanted to leave early for the airport, as I had no clue if there were still any taxes or buses to take me there or if in fact my flight would still happen.

Some locals at one of the shops I bought a few snacks warned me that as of tomorrow, Wednesday the 18th, Austria would go in complete lock-down, banning all flights from or to the country. I felt so lucky and positive at that stage. As if they were waiting for me to leave. Here I was the last day that the country kept its airports open, trying to find a way to leave.

They also explained to me, why the police were patrolling. From the previous day, Austria introduced a fine for everyone walking out in larger numbers, unless they were family or living together. That would explain the suspicious looks and distance kept by locals, except for a few “servus” I got, from a couple of polite, mumbling locals.

Around past 11:00 I managed to find a taxi waiting by the river. Without any hesitation I approached it and after asking the driver if he was free, I got in. He was an older man, slightly sick and he was coughing. I could not help it but becoming worried and the ride to the airport became a bit long; I just wanted to arrive at the airport as soon as possible.

Salzburg, Austria, 2020.
During this short trip though, as I kept my face towards the window to avoid any floating germs (yes, I got that paranoid after all this constant cautioning from the media), I really enjoyed the Salzburg suburbia and surrounding mountain views.

I arrived at an empty airport that seem abandoned. After wiping my hands with disinfecting gel, I went straight to the security checks. I was too early and very few people were also waiting, for the last flight out of that airport, to London Gatwick.

Again, rumors were circulating among other travelers, of the possibility of the flight being cancelled and all of us becoming stranded in Austria. This time, I chose not to listen. I had a positive vibe, that all would go well. As the time passed, more travelers to London arrived and the flight was on-time.

From there my trip to Dublin was swift and easy. London had still to put any precautions at its airports, with all restaurants and shops still open, contrary to Salzburg that the only bar-restaurant and duty-free shop were closed. 

However, I still got a call from my partner, saying that Ireland introduced a 14-day quarantine from everyone, arriving from everywhere outside the country, since Sunday. He had to self-isolate and that meant that so should I.

The confirmation came later by text by one of my colleagues and manager. I arrived in Dublin and saw a slightly different picture than that in Austria. Cafes and fast-food outlets, tourist shops and some hotels even where still open.

They remained so until the end of the week, when the country tightened its COVID-19 response strategy. It remains to be seen if it was wise, or they should have followed Austria and Greece sooner.
So here I am, 6 days into quarantine, still healthy but home, writing this article. I do not know what tomorrow will bring, or how long this situation will last.

But if I had to take one lesson from all this experience, is not to panic ever. Stay focused and deal with each situation. Do not watch the news often or read articles on social media platforms. Follow the guidelines, but not suspend your lives, stay active and healthy.

Try not to listen to rumors circulating by others on social media or in your circles. No one has ever done this before; things change by the day and they may not be as bad as people make them to be. Stay informed, positive and aware and we will get through this.