EU Wobbles Amid Conflicting Priorities

Exclusive: The 28-nation European Union was always a tenuous affair, pulling together historic enemies and nations with conflicting economic priorities, but now those stresses a triple-dip recession and differences over Ukraine and immigration are threatening to splinter the EU, writes Andrés Cala.

By Andrés Cala

The European Union views itself as the defender of much that is right in the world standing for human rights, embracing international law, generous with developing nations, protective of the environment, insisting on fiscal probity in economics while maintaining a sturdy social safety net at home. But this self-image of righteousness often conflicts with reality while also spurring divisions among the EU’s 28 nations about which moral imperative should take precedence.

Indeed, one could argue that the EU’s conflicting concepts of righteousness are undermining Europe’s ability to resolve the most serious problems at home and abroad, especially because the Continent’s de facto leader, Germany, is increasingly at odds with its neighbors.

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron talk at the G8 Summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron talk at the G8 Summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For instance, Germany takes a moralistic stance in insisting on fiscal austerity even in the face of high unemployment and human suffering in several EU nations that instead want deficit spending and public investments to spur growth and avert (or minimize) the EU’s third recession since the financial crash of 2008. France, Spain and Italy have been leading this anti-austerity drive, also citing moral arguments about saving Europeans from poverty and despair.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, with the EU’s most powerful military, favors “humanitarian” interventions supposedly on behalf of democracy and human rights in places such as Syria and Ukraine. Yet, while boasting about its commitment to human rights, the UK bristles at the EU’s liberal policies allowing the free flow of EU citizens across traditional national borders, a dispute that has led to speculation about the UK possibly going its own way.

“Britain will always step up,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said recently about the need to address global injustices, “not just because it is morally right, but also because it is the best way of protecting our people and dealing with the instability that threatens our long-term [economic] prosperity.”

But some in Europe question the wisdom and legality of the UK’s interventions in other nations’ affairs, especially given the bloodshed and disorder surrounding the British military’s role in the U.S.-led Afghan and Iraq wars. To the UK’s critics inside the EU, it’s also unclear if Cameron’s hard-line against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad while couched in moral terms might not lead to even worse violence if Sunni extremists from Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State end up the winners in Damascus.

Similarly, the UK’s stern anti-Russian stance over the crisis in Ukraine shared by some other countries in both Europe’s west and east has the prospect of causing more pain for the peoples of Ukraine, Russia and even Europe than any good that might result from prying Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence and pulling it into the EU’s orbit.

Concern over the consequences of possibly overplaying the West’s hand in its showdown with Russia on Ukraine is strongly felt in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel has tried to walk a middle line, harshly critical of Russia in rhetoric but hesitant to engage in a full-scale economic war with a major trading partner that supplies much of the EU’s natural gas.

“I can’t see how [sanctions against Russia] would help us move forward economically,” German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said this month. “It’s right that Angela Merkel [is] focusing on dialogue – and not confrontation as others are. I think it’s totally wrong to react with permanent NATO saber-rattling on the Russian border.”

Moreover, the moral issue of Ukraine is not clear-cut since Germany and the EU contributed to the crisis by giving Ukrainians, especially those in the western provinces, unrealistic expectations about the prospects for easy prosperity if they signed an association agreement with the EU and possibly joined NATO.

Those dangled hopes, in a country of crushing poverty and corrupt politics, spurred on mass demonstrations that destabilized the elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych and ousted him in a coup d’etat in February. That split Ukraine between west and east and opened a chasm that led to secession demands from ethnic Russians, followed by a nasty civil war. Ukraine became the scene of a proxy struggle in a new Cold War between Russia and the U.S./EU.

The possible encroachment of NATO into Ukraine on Russia’s border also crossed a red line drawn long ago by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Soon, the sides were posturing over Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and annexation by Russia as well as arguing about an uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Russian-speaking provinces where Yanukovych had his political base.

“If the West is honest with itself, it has to admit that there were mistakes on its side,” said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a recent interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel.

When asked whether the West shared responsibility in escalating the conflict, he said “Europe and America did not understand the impact of these events, starting with the negotiations about Ukraine’s economic relations with the European Union and culminating in the demonstrations in Kiev. All these, and their impact, should have been the subject of a dialogue with Russia. This does not mean the Russian response was appropriate.”

Russia can live with the fragile status quo of a pro-Western government in Kiev and autonomous ethnic Russian provinces in the east, but the crisis could quickly deteriorate if a shaky cease-fire completely breaks down and the civil war resumes in full. Merkel has warned that if Russia’s military openly intervenes, that would provoke an escalation of sanctions to punish Moscow even if the sanctions would also punish Germany and the EU.

In the event of a full-scale civil war in Ukraine, the U.S. and UK would likely push Germany aside and organize a more hawkish military response, further disrupting the economic situation inside the EU.

These divisions over geopolitics  among countries that historically have pursued sharply different foreign policies have left the EU unable to speak with anything like a single voice, essentially making Europe an indecisive and stagnant player in global affairs.

Germany also is facing a strong EU backlash against its orthodox economic policies which were imposed on the EU to rein in European government debt especially in Mediterranean nations. This strategy initially helped restore faith in the EU’s ability to recover from the financial crisis, but now those policies are being blamed for the region’s economic stagnation.

Many Europeans even blame Merkel’s austerity recipe for tipping Europe back into yet another recession, which is made potentially more dangerous by the prospect of deflation, the decline in consumer prices that can result from weak demand or an insufficient money supply. A similar debt trap hobbled Japan’s once vibrant economy and left it limping for the past two decades.

If deflation is not countered by raising demand or expanding the money supply it can begin a downward spiral of falling profits, declining investments, stunted consumer spending, debt delinquency, unemployment and bankruptcies. Such a crisis could spread quickly through the EU backbone, the 18-member eurozone which shares the euro as a common currency and limits what individual countries can do to address their own economic problems.

But Germany remains strongly opposed to any form of monetary easing, mindful of its catastrophic experience with hyperinflation throughout its history.

Amid this economic malaise, the EU is alarmed by the rise of radical parties, from the left and right, and by a nationalist and euroskeptic resurgence which is blamed on the austerity policies demanded by Germany. France especially has been jolted by the gains of the extreme-right National Front, even if that surge represents more a protest against the traditional parties than a popular commitment to the National Front’s platform.

Further adding to the EU’s uncertainty, Cameron has proposed a 2017 referendum in UK on whether to quit the EU. At this point, Cameron seems to be facing a likely reelection defeat in 2015 after years of economic pain, but his biggest threat may come from the growing anti-European movement within his own Conservative constituency which he is seeking to placate with the promise for a get-out-of-the-EU referendum.

In any case, the future EU looks likely to have a more diverse approach to leadership with Germany’s role diminished by the greater assertiveness from France, Spain, Italy, the UK and other major European countries. And, the European nations will surely continue to express their differences over what the Continent’s moral priorities ought to be.

Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.

4 comments for “EU Wobbles Amid Conflicting Priorities

  1. Abe
    November 21, 2014 at 00:52

    [Populist nationalist Prime Minister Viktor] Orban’s government managed to free Hungary from decades of devastating IMF bondage. In August 2013, the Hungarian Economic Ministry announced that it had, thanks to a “disciplined budget policy,” repaid the remaining €2.2 billion owed to the IMF. No more onerous IMF-forced state privatizations or conditionalities. The head of the Hungarian Central Bank then demanded the IMF close its offices in Budapest. In addition, echoing Iceland, the State Attorney General brought charges against the country’s three previous prime ministers because of the criminal amount of debt into which they plunged the nation. That’s a precedent that surely causes cold sweat in some capitals of the EU or Washington and Wall Street.

    But the real alarm bells rang when Orban and his Fidesz party approved a go-ahead, together with neighboring Austria, of the South Stream Russian pipeline, ignoring EU claims it violated EU rules.


    Next we can expect the National Endowment for Democracy and the usual US Government-backed NGO’s to find an excuse to launch mass opposition protests against Fidesz and Orban for his unforgivable crime of trying to make Hungary’s energy independent of the US-created insanity in Ukraine.

    Hungary’s Viktor Orban: Washington’s New Enemy Image
    By William Engdahl

  2. Abe
    November 20, 2014 at 19:22

    “the moral issue of Ukraine is not clear-cut since Germany and the EU contributed to the crisis by giving Ukrainians, especially those in the western provinces, unrealistic expectations about the prospects for easy prosperity if they signed an association agreement with the EU and possibly joined NATO.

    Those dangled hopes, in a country of crushing poverty and corrupt politics, spurred on mass demonstrations that destabilized the elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych and ousted him in a coup d’etat in February. That split Ukraine between west and east and opened a chasm that led to secession demands from ethnic Russians, followed by a nasty civil war. Ukraine became the scene of a proxy struggle in a new Cold War between Russia and the U.S./EU.”

    Like so many journalists since February 2014, Andrés Cala has attempted to rewrite history in a couple of paragraphs.

    Let’s review what actually happened in Ukraine in mid-February:

    A period of relative calm in the Maidan anti-government demonstrations ended abruptly on 18 February 2014, when protesters and police clashed.

    Some 20,000 Euromaidan protesters in Kiev advanced on Ukraine’s parliament in support of restoring the Constitution of Ukraine to its 2004 form, which had been repealed by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine shortly after Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010. Police blocked their path. The confrontation turned violent. Political commentators suggested that Ukraine was on the brink of a civil war. Some areas, including Lviv Oblast, declared themselves politically independent from the central government.

    On 19 February, the authorities instituted police checkpoints, restrictions on public transportation and school closures in Kiev, which media referred to as a de facto state of emergency. One member of parliament said in an interview that a state of emergency was de facto implemented nationwide as transportation to the capital was paralyzed.

    The 18-19 February violence included numerous sniper shootings which left 28 dead, 10 of whom were police and Berkut troops.

    On 20 February, Minister of Internal Affairs Vitaliy Zakharchenko announced he had signed a decree authorizing the use of live ammunition against protesters. Armed assailants were visible among the largely unarmed protesters. Central Kiev saw the worst violence yet, and the death toll in 48 hours of clashes rose to at least 77.

    The Ukrainian far-right group Right Sector, then occupying the Hotel Ukraine, co-ordinated the 18-20 February sniper attacks on Instytutska Street, but the deaths were blamed on Yanukovich.

    21 February was the most pivotal day in the conflict. It ended with an armed coup d’etat.

    In response to the mounting deaths and injuries, Chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament Volodymyr Rybak announced that he had signed a parliamentary decree, condemning the use of force and urging all institutions (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Cabinet of Ministers, etc.) to cease immediately all military actions against protesters. The Ukrainian parliament also suspended Zakharchenko from his duties.

    Yanukovych, signed a compromise deal with opposition leaders which would implement constitutional changes to hand powers back to parliament and early elections, to be held by December.

    While Yanukovich was attending the negotiations, an impeachment bill was introduced in Ukrainian Parliament, but no details were provided and the Ukrainian parliament did not vote to impeach Yanukovich according to the legal procedure.

    In addition, the Ukrainian Parliament voted for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko in a 310–54 veto-proof vote. The leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” political party, Tymoshenko had been convicted in 2011 of embezzlement and abuse of power, sentenced to seven years in prison and ordered to pay the state $188 million. Her prosecution and conviction were viewed by the European Union as politically biased. The EU, and Germany in particular, had repeatedly called for her release as the primary condition for signing the EU Association Agreement.

    To release Tymoshenko, the members of the Ukrainian Parliament decriminalized the Article on which she was charged and brought it into compliance with Article 19 of the UN Convention against corruption. That could enable immediate release of Tymoshenko through the corresponding court ruling. However, Yanukovych did not have the opportunity to sign the bill into the law.

    During the night of 21 February 2014, Yanukovich left Kiev for Kharkiv to attend a summit of south-eastern regions. Yanukovych claimed that his car was shot at by automatic rifles as he traveled to meet with representatives of local parties in Kharkiv, and that he was forced to move around Ukraine amid fears for the safety of himself and his family.

    Protesters, many of whom were armed, took full control of the government district in central Kiev, including the Parliament, the President’s administration quarters, the cabinet, and the Interior Ministry.

    On 22 February, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from his post, on the grounds that he was unable to fulfill his duties, although the legislative removal lacked the number of votes required by Ukraine’s then-current constitution. Parliament set 25 May as the date for the special election to select his replacement and, two days later, issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of “mass killing of civilians.”

    Also on 22 February 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament with 322 votes adopted a decree based on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights and corresponding decision of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

    On February 23, 2014, while in a parliamentary session, a deputy from Tymoschenko’s “Fatherland” party, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, moved to include in the agenda a bill to repeal the 2012 law “On the principles of the state language policy”. The motion was carried with 86% of the votes in favor–232 deputies in favor vs 37 opposed against the required minimum of 226 of 334 votes. The bill was included in the agenda, immediately put to a vote with no debate and approved with the same 232 voting in favor. The bill would have made Ukrainian the sole state language at all levels.

    This attempt to repeal the 2012 law on state language policy was met with great disdain in Crimea and Southern and Eastern Ukraine, provoking waves of protests against the Maidan installed government ultimately culminating with the Crimean crisis.

    Passage of the repeal bill was met with regret by the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities expressed concern over possible further unrest. The bill was also criticized by the Ambassador for Human Rights of the Russian foreign ministry. The Hungarian foreign ministry expressed serious concerns, noting that the decision “could question the commitment of the new Ukrainian administration towards democracy”.

    After urgently ordering a working group to draft a replacement law on February 27, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed the repeal bill on 28 February. But the intended political damage was done.

    The stage was set for the US/EU armed assault on Russia’s near abroad to be depicted by the mainstream media as a Ukrainian “civil war.”

    Merkel’s darling, Tymoshenko gathered military and defense experts in March. She suggested launching a special headquarters that would elaborate responses to threats coming from Russia.

    In a leaked phone conversation with Nestor Shufrych, former deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Tymoshenko said in reference to the reunification of Crimea with Russia: “It’s about time we grab our guns and go kill those damn Russians together with their leader; and nuke 8 million Russians who are now exiles in Ukraine.”

    In April, Ukrainian security forces launched an “anti-terrorist operation” directed at anti-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine.

    However, EU-favorite Tymoshenko came a distant second behind US-favorite Petro Poroshenko in the 25 May Presidential election in Ukraine. That was when Europe really started getting “wobbly” about Ukraine.

    Much to Washington’s delight, Poroshenko immediately intensified the military operations in eastern Ukraine. That didn’t go so well.

    Malaysian Air Flight 17 “happened” on 17 July, just in time to goad the “wobbly” EU endorse the third round of sanctions against sectors of Russia’s economy.

    No nukes yet, but stay tuned.

    • Abe
      November 21, 2014 at 01:45

      Stating it simply, Germany under Merkel is only “at odds with its neighbors” regarding certain tactics such as who should lead Ukraine, how economic sanctions should be applied against Russia, and the scenario of Ukrainian membership in NATO.

      Nevertheless, Germany remains fully aligned with the EU/NATO long-term strategy of expansion to Russia’s border.

      Tactical “wobbles” aside, as long as the German economy does not collapse, and German cities don’t freeze or suffer nuclear incineration, Merkel is fully “on board” with the EU/NATO program.

  3. incontinent reader
    November 20, 2014 at 18:09

    Excellent article and commentary. Consistent with it is a surprisingly balanced report from Reuters today on Victor Orban and Hungary’s foreign policy approach (“Hungary’s Orban: we’ll choose our own path in ties with Russia”

    Orban’s comments were particularly revealing in their bluntness. My sense is that the countries of the former Eastern bloc are getting fed up with decisions coming from Brussels (and at the direction of the U.S.) that are negatively impacting their economies, and that they are beginning to find their voice.

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