Tuesday, September 15, 2015

EU refugeesand the accumulating EU crises

Angela Merkel earned herself some good press in the world by announcing that Germany would accept a large number of refugees in the current crisis. A crisis which has been in motion for years but has reached a newly acute phase. (See this example of Merkel's good press: Jonathan Freedland, Mama Merkel has consigned the ‘ugly German’ to history The Guardian 09/11/2015)

Even former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, one of Merkel's biggest bogeymen, had some good words for Germany on the refugee crisis (On German Moral Leadership Yanis Varoufakis 09/14/2015; Die moralische Nation FAZ 13.09.2015):

This summer we, Europeans, faced major challenges to our integrity and soul. The inflow of refugees tested our humanity and our rationality felt the strain of needing to make hard choices. Most European nations, and their governments, failed the test of history spectacularly. Closing borders down, stopping trains on their tracks, treating people in need as an existentialist threat, indulging in bickering at the level of the European Union as to who will bear a lesser part of the burden – all in all, Europe behaved abominably leading the Italian Prime Minister to utter in desperation: “If this is Europe, I do not want to be part of it.”

One country stood out, showing moral leadership on this issue: Germany. The sight of thousands of Germans welcoming wretched refugees who had been turned away in several other European countries was one to savour and one to extract considerable hope from. Hope that Europe’s soul has not been lost entirely. Chancellor Merkel’s relaxed leadership on the matter, even the magnanimous attitude of otherwise misanthropic German tabloids to the inflowing refugees, made amends for Europe’s failure to rise up to this humanitarian crisis.
But he hasn't forgotten Merkel's very different approach to the Greek debt crisis:

This is not the place to recount the vagaries of Greece’s never-ending crisis. And nor is there a need since its underlying cause has nothing to do with Greece: the real reason Greece has been imploding, while Berlin and the troika are insisting on a ‘reform’ program that pushes the country deeper into a black hole and keeps it hopelessly unreformed, is that the German government has not yet decided what it wants to do with the Eurozone.

Berlin knows well that, as it is, the Eurozone is non-viable. It needs major reforms. It needs mechanisms for recycling surpluses from the regions where they amass to the regions in deficit. Alas, Berlin has not formed an opinion, yet, on what these reforms should be, what form of European political union it wants, or how to convince Paris to go along with its priorities. So, while the Franco-German elephants tussle, little Greece is being squashed, awaiting the outcome of this interminable clash. In the process, millions of Greeks languish in desperation, hundreds of thousands of educated young men and women flee the country, and the oligarchy is having a field day exploiting the political impasse caused by last July’s surrender of our government. [my emphasis]

The continuing story, though, also sheds light on the deterioration and failures of the EU as an institution. In surprise move Sunday, Germany stopped train traffic for several hours between Austria and Germany. A large number of immigrants are coming into Austria via Hungary. They also instituted border checks at the German border, a very significant practical and symbolic action that at least temporarily suspends the normal functioning of what is known as the Schengen treaties or the Schengen system, which has been in place for years in which travelers have to show passports only in the first participating country they enter. For reasons not really clear to me, she also shut down all train traffic between Austria and Germany for a few hours starting Sunday. Hungary's authoritarian-leaning government, whose continuing democratic qualifications as a member in good standing of the EU should be doubtful, praised Germany for that.

The current refugee crisis is looking like another way-station on the road to the EU's stagnation and/or end. They couldn't deal with the financial crisis without impoverishing whole countries. They've largely ignored Hungary's authoritarian turn because securing democratic institutions is in practice a secondary priority for the German-dominated EU - which also engaged in more-or-less direct "regime change" in Greece and Italy over the euro crisis. The refugee crisis has actually been dragging on for years now, it just got more acute recently. And the EU couldn't find a way to handle that without resorting to nationalist measures.

Britain, as it often does, is thumbing its nose at its EU "partners" over the refugee crisis. France is advocating escalating the military action in the Middle East that's been driving the refugee crisis for years. And the Trump-like politicians all over are using the crisis to promote more xenophobia and nationalist hatred. It's great to see examples of decent people providing assistance to refugees. But the EU's collective failure in this latest crisis ain't a pretty picture.

Ska Keller, a German Green Member of the European Parliament and a key Green leader there, warns, "Wenn die EU-Mitgliedsstaaten keine gemeinsame Antwort auf die Flüchtlingskrise finden, treiben sie die EU selbst in die Krise." ("If the EU member states don't find a common answer to the refugee crisis, they are driving the EU itself into crisis.")

Luke Harding reports in Refugee crisis: Germany reinstates controls at Austrian border The Guardian 09/13/2015:

All trains between Austria and Bavaria, the principal conduit through which 450,000 refugees have arrived in Germany this year, ceased at 5pm Berlin time [Sunday]. Only EU citizens and others with valid documents would be allowed to pass through Germany’s borders, [German Interior Minister Thomas] de Maizière said.

The decision means that Germany has effectively exited temporarily from the Schengen system. It is likely to lead to chaotic scenes on the Austrian-German border, as tens of thousands of refugees try to enter Germany by any means possible and set up camp next to it.

German police began patrolling road crossing points with Austria at 5.30pm on Sunday. These checks may be rolled out to the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed the details in a conference call on Saturday with her Social Democrat coalition partners. The Czech Republic said separately that it would boost controls on its border with Austria.

The emergency measures are designed to give respite to Germany’s federal states who are responsible for looking after refugees. There is also discussion inside the government about sending troops to the road and rail borders with Austria to reinforce security, Der Spiegel reported.
As mentioned above, Hungary's rightwing, authoritarian government praises Merkel's government's action: "Hungary’s president Viktor Orbán welcomed the decision and said it would protect 'German and European values'. He and other east European leaders are insisting they will not accept a plan set out last week by the European commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker for mandatory refugee quotas."

This has become yet another problem with which the EU needed to deal in a substantive way. But instead, they followed Merkel's general approach of doing just enough to get by, or "extend and pretend" as it became known in the ongoing Greek crisis.

Wolfgang Münchau warns of the failure of the EU on the refugee crisis in Wiedereinführung von Grenzkontrollen: Europa ist auf dem Weg zurück zu Nationalstaaten Spiegel Online 14.09.2015. He notes that the national border controls are likely to spread. And probably won't go away quickly. This compromises the not insubstantial economic benefits of freer traffic within the Schengen area. He believes it will accelerate the nationalism that Germany has promoted during the euro crisis. And he notes that the lack of a common European foreign policy that could play a far more active role in Middle Eastern affairs also contributes to the refugee crisis.

Stated that broadly, I agree even with the last point. But creating "safe zones" like Republican front-runner Donald Trump is advocating would be part of escalating the civil war in Syria. And that raises every prospect of increasing the refugee flow and spreading further political chaos in the Middle East.

Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times echoes these grim presentments (The crises that threaten to unravel the EU 09/14/2015):

For the first time in decades, some of the fundamental achievements and tenets of the EU are under threat. These include the single currency, open borders, free movement of labour and the notion that membership is forever.
That refers to German Finance Minister Wolfgang's Schäuble's proposal to kick Greece out of the eurozone for a temporary basis.

Rather than rising to these challenges, the EU is creaking under the strain. Its 28 members are arguing bitterl
y and seem incapable of framing effective responses to their common problems.

These arguments are also taking place against an ominous backdrop. Large parts of the EU remain sunk in a semi-depression with high unemployment and unsustainable public finances. The problems of an imploding Middle East are crowding in on Europe, in the form of hundreds of thousands of refugees. And the political fringes are on the rise — with the latest evidence being the election of a far-left eurosceptic candidate to lead Britain’s Labour party.
What qualifies as "far-left" in the EU these days is advocacy for basic Keynesian macroeconomics instead of Merkel's and Schäuble's disastrous Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economics.

He also notes how the restored national border controls could increase the nationalist trend with the EU:

Question marks over open borders will easily shade into wider issues about access to welfare systems and labour markets. That is because EU countries are realising that — in a border-free single market — a unilateral change of asylum rules by Germany has implications for the immigration policies of all member states. Once migrants get citizenship in one EU country, they have the right to move to any other, to work there and to claim benefits. But if free movement of people and labour come into question, so does the EU’s single market — its central achievement. [my emphasis]

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