Cracks show even as Euro­pean Union tries to grow

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY JA­SON WALSH AND NIKO­LIA APOS­TOLOU

DUBLIN | Ri­ots in Athens. Bor­der con­trols in Den­mark. Grow­ing na­tion­al­ism in the Nether­lands and France.

The Euro­pean Union is look­ing any­thing but united these days. As trou­bles per­sist and grow, EU lead­ers are push­ing for fur­ther en­large­ment, with coun­tries such as Croa­tia and Ice­land ea­gerly lin­ing up to join.

“Europe wants to show that it can re­peat the suc­cess sto­ries of the en­large­ments in 2004 and 2007,” said Al­mut Moeller, who spe­cial­izes in EU in­te­gra­tion is­sues at the Ger­man Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions in Ber­lin.

“[EU lead­ers] want to show they can use the union’s trans­for­ma­tive power to bring peace and sta­bil­ity. And even though it isn’t al­ways work­ing beau­ti­fully, mem­ber­ship is quite an in­ter­est­ing prospect for Croa­tia and oth­ers be­cause they know that be­ing part of a big eco­nomic bloc brings tremen­dous ben­e­fits.”

Still, as Europe’s eco­nomic cri­sis deep­ens, clashes last month be­tween po­lice and pro­test­ers demon­strat­ing against Greek aus­ter­ity mea­sures hint at a deeper cri­sis — one of po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy. Greece has in­sti­tuted deep cuts in pub­lic ser­vices in ex­change for bil­lions of dol­lars in bailout funds from EU mem­ber states, spark­ing protests and crit­i­cism of Greek fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity.

What’s more, Den­mark’s plan an­nounced last week to in­crease cus­toms checks at its borders has drawn fierce op­po­si­tion from Ger­many, which ar­gues that the Dan­ish ini­tia­tive vi­o­lates one of the EU’s found­ing prin­ci­ples: the un­en­cum­bered move­ment of peo­ple and goods among the 27 mem­ber states.

All for one?

Anti-EU sen­ti­ment is on the rise across the Con­ti­nent.

A poll con­ducted by the Foun­da­tion for Euro­pean Pro­gres­sive Stud­ies found that more than 40 per­cent of Euro­pean civil ser­vants said join­ing the EU had pro­duced a neg­a­tive ef­fect for their coun­tries in the past 10 years.

In ad­di­tion, Euro­pean lead­ers and in­sti­tu­tions in­creas­ingly are viewed as aloof and out of touch by those hit by aus­ter­ity mea­sures in Greece, as well as those pay­ing for bailouts in coun­tries such as Ger­many and France, an­a­lysts say.

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel has been crit­i­cized by fel­low EU mem­bers for hedg­ing on fi­nan­cial bailout mea­sures and cas­ti­gat­ing the Spa­niards, Greeks and Por­tuguese for the length of their va­ca­tions and their re­tire­ment age.

But Mrs. Merkel was play­ing to an elec­torate that is los­ing en­thu­si­asm for the “Euro­pean pro­ject” and now be­lieves Ger­many is acting as “Europe’s wal­let.” Polls show that 60 per­cent of Ger­mans op­pose fur­ther fi­nan- cial help for Greece.

“Peo­ple don’t make the con­nec­tion be­tween the fact that Ger­many is do­ing so well eco­nom­i­cally and be­ing part of the eu­ro­zone,” Mr. Moeller said. “That is the fail­ure of [the Ger­man] gov­ern­ment, for not only fail­ing to ex­plain this but also go­ing along with the pub­lic mood of bash­ing the Greeks for be­ing lazy.”

Greeks say their fu­ture is gloomy and un­cer­tain. Af­ter two years in re­ces­sion, the coun­try’s econ­omy is weighed down by corruption, tax eva­sion, in­ef­fi­cient bu­reau­cracy and ris­ing un- em­ploy­ment. Greek of­fi­cials al­ready have in­creased taxes and cut the min­i­mum wage.

“Even though I’m gen­er­ally an op­ti­mistic per­son, I can’t see any­thing pos­i­tive com­ing in the fu­ture,” said Mar­ios Theod­wrou, a shop owner in Syn­tagma Square in Athens, the heart of protests last month against the Greek gov­ern­ment.

Greeks also crit­i­cize the help they have re­ceived from fel­low Euro­peans.

“Euro­peans have given money to Greece, but they did it be­cause they had their own agenda,” said Elen Tsourounaki-Peck, 35, of Athens. “The Greek cri­sis is a sys­temic cri­sis, but above all a Euro­pean cri­sis. When the Euro­pean lead­ers were sum­moned to deal with it, they were in­de­ci­sive and ap­peared [to cater] to vested in­ter­ests.”

EU of­fi­cials say the na­tions must stick to­gether and ride out the po­lit­i­cal crises as well as the worst re­ces­sion since the 1930s. Some also say the Con­ti­nent is at a po­lit­i­cal cross­roads.

“I think it has reached a point where it’s ei­ther more or less Europe,” said Ge­orge Mag­nus, an econ­o­mist with Swiss fi­nan- cial ser­vices com­pany UBS. “The sta­tus quo can’t con­tinue.”

Mr. Mag­nus said it is not fair to pin the blame for the cri­sis on trou­bled countr ies such as Greece or Ire­land, as many Ger­mans have.

“It’s im­por­tant that coun­tries should be self-dis­ci­plined, but there is a need for a sys­temic un­der­stand­ing,” he said. “You can hang peo­ple out to dry, but if the Ir­ish or Greeks bor­rowed too much, that means some­body had to lend them too much. The eu­ro­zone will not be able to func­tion if lead­ers don’t ad­dress this ques­tion.”

Like Greece, Ire­land and Por­tu­gal have ap­plied for bailout funds.

But un­like in Greece, few in Ire­land are protest­ing in the streets, even as the Ir­ish gov­ern­ment has im­ple­mented harsh aus­ter­ity mea­sures in­clud­ing tax in­creases, cuts to pub­lic ser­vices and a widely un­pop­u­lar raid on pen­sions.

On June 19, a few dozen ac­tivists held a protest in Dublin against the aus­ter­ity mea­sures. On the same day, though, 3,701 peo­ple turned up dressed as the char­ac­ter from “Where’s Waldo?” to break the world re-

“Pop­ulist par­ties have been able to por­tray their na­tional po­lit­i­cal classes as part of the out-of-touch EU elite,” said Ga­van Tit­ley, a so­ci­ol­ogy lec­turer at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Ire­land at Maynooth and for­merly a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Helsinki in Fin­land. “For ex­am­ple, in the last three opin­ion polls, the True Finns were the largest party in the coun­try.”

cord for the largest num­ber of Wal­dos in the same place.

Still, the Ir­ish un­em­ploy­ment rate is 14.2 per­cent and em­i­gra­tion is wide­spread and grow­ing.

Too big to fail

Lor­can Roche Kelly, chief Europe strate­gist at the global eco­nomic anal­y­sis firm Trend Macrolyt­ics in Dublin, said there is lit­tle doubt that Ire­land’s and other coun­tries’ re­la­tion­ships with the EU are chang­ing, but that the bloc will stay in­tact in the long run.

“It’s fash­ion­able to say the EU will break up and the euro is fin- ished,” Mr. Kelly said. “The euro is not fin­ished. There is so much po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal in­volved in this pro­ject that it can­not fail and it will not fail.”

Re­gard­less of the power pol­i­tics, EU cred­i­bil­ity is look­ing thread­bare as op­po­si­tion sen­ti­ment grows at the polls. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far­right Na­tional Front party; Geert Wilders, head of the Nether­lands’ Free­dom Party; and the far-right True Finns Party in Fin­land have made sig­nif­i­cant gains among vot­ers.

“Pop­ulist par­ties have been able to por­tray their na­tional po­lit­i­cal classes as part of the out-of-touch EU elite,” said Ga­van Tit­ley, a so­ci­ol­ogy lec­turer at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Ire­land at Maynooth and for­merly a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Helsinki in Fin­land. “For ex­am­ple, in the last three opin­ion polls, the True Finns were the largest party in the coun­try.”

The EU is do­ing it­self few fa­vors by push­ing through un­pop­u­lar aus­ter­ity plans, Mr. Tit­ley said, not­ing the pres­sure that EU lead­ers placed on Greek lawmakers to ap­prove aus­ter­ity leg­is­la­tion.

“The spec­ta­cle of Greek pro­test­ers be­ing tear-gassed while [EU eco­nomic com­mis­sioner] Ollie Rehn says, ‘You need to sign this,’ is go­ing to have con­se­quences,” Mr. Tit­ley said.

In a Euro­barom­e­ter poll com­mis­sioned by the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, 42 per­cent of Euro­peans said they were dis­sat­is­fied with the trans­parency of the EU ad­min­is­tra­tion and 9 per­cent said they were sat­is­fied; 35 per­cent said they were un­happy with the ef­fec­tive­ness of the EU ad­min­is­tra­tion.

While some in cer­tain mem­ber states want to leave the EU or at least rene­go­ti­ate the terms of the union, other Euro­pean coun­tries re­main on the out­side peer­ing in with long­ing.

Fiercely in­de­pen­dent Ice­land is on the fast track to mem­ber­ship, and Croa­tia’s pend­ing mem­ber­ship was ap­proved in late June. Oth­ers in­clud­ing Ser­bia, Mon­tene­gro, Mace­do­nia and Tur­key wait in the wings.

For­mer Croa­t­ian pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Vesna Pu­sic, now a re­searcher who mon­i­tors the EU ac­ces­sion talks, said mem­ber­ship is vi­tal for the for­mer Soviet repub­lic.

“It’s a good thing, though there are, of course, prob­lems with the EU,” Ms. Pu­sic said. “But this is about val­i­da­tion. Here, [ EU mem­ber­ship] is seen as some­thing good. Peo­ple pri­mar­ily think of how it will help to grow the econ­omy.”

Else­where, some won­der about that.

“The Euro­peans have helped [us],” said Onoufrios Dovletis, 26, of Athens. “I don’t think we should leave the eu­ro­zone. We shouldn’t have joined from the very be­gin­ning.”

Niko­lia Apos­tolou re­ported from Athens, and Jabeen Bhatti con­trib­uted from Ber­lin.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

What’s be­come of the old coun­try? An el­derly man watches the smoke of tear gas dur­ing clashes at the Athens’ main Syn­tagma square on June 29. Greece’s lawmakers ap­proved a key aus­ter­ity bill on June 29 to avert de­fault next month, de­spite a sec­ond day of ri­ot­ing on the streets of Athens that left dozens of po­lice and pro­test­ers in­jured.

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