The European Council for Foreign Relations stages a Black Coffee Morning event on European Politics after the EU Summit. I have mine white, but from the general tone of the discussion among thinktankers, politicians and journos the prospects for the Eurozone and the EU could be as dark as the stiffest Italian expresso. Some contributors thought it might not survive a year
Discussion centres entirely on the one large existing member whose stubborn pursuit of its national interest is obstructing a long-term viable EU: Germany. France admittedly got a lot of what it wanted out of the summit, retaining the basically intergovernmental approach, but conceded the German demand for a reformed treaty of austerity-inducing financial discipline.
Germany and German politics are overwhelming what matter and, in some ways summit and the drama of the British veto-that-might-not-be-a-veto are sideshow compared with how Europe’s biggest and most economic powerful member decides to play it.
Was Angela Merkel playing a kind of high stakes poker waiting for the right moment to fold ‘em and concede some form of Eurobonds? Or was her government determined to press ahead to a possibly very bitter end? German public debate and perceptions across political spectrum are, unsurprisingly, very different from those in many other places in Europe with little appetite for a Berlin bankrolled Euro bailout after painful and divisive economic restructuring (and the earlier costs of re-unification).
Indeed, some in Germany are apparently toying with the idea of partial break-up of Euro producing perhaps a sharp two-year recession followed by prosperous German-centred ‘small Euro’, which could ‘go global’ playing to Germany’s industrial and export strength. Unlikely, said some: anchoring in EU part of the political DNA of the FRG. Be careful countered others: re-united Germany was different country where old assumptions about how things work are no longer always safe.
The vision of Treaty-bound austerity Union in which a French-German tandem (with the Germany as the senior partner) – European institutions have lost power and influence in the current crisis and may not regain it – would run up against the interests of states normally closely economically and politically aligned with Germany in the EU such as Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Poland and other CEE states (I have the phrase greater ‘Greater Germany’ scribbled down in my notebook – did somebody actually say that?). But none bar Poland – in the remarkable speech by Foreign Minister Sikorski – have actually raised these issues openly.
Seems in some ways as if history has run full circle and we back once again discussing the idea of a form of Mitteleuropa, albeit in the context of the more balanced and more democratic structures of the EU (or whatever it turn into)
And those pesky Brits? Well, those British demands were perhaps rather modest – maybe we should give Nick Clegg some credit (did I really just write that?) and in some ways leaning to greater not less regulation. The consensus view at the ECFR BCM seemed to be – diplomatic and strategy of the UK were just a disaster, although the underlying issue of who (EU or UK) regulates was perhaps the key issue was possibly less easily negotiable
Cameron (rather like Sarkozy) comes out a big short-term winner in domestic politics, but at the more strategic levels the Brits are left needing to improvise ‘creative diplomacy’ to prevent emergence of too starkly Two Speed Europe – perhaps pushing for varied integration, really going against the grain of European politics for more political integration. Underlying British problem is that it wants viable Euro to avoid economic meltdown, but fears the decline in own influence that integration necessary for this will bring.
Perhaps, however, if the politics of Euro rescue were to prove Mission Impossible, integration would painfully rebound, as someone put it, like piece of stretched elastics reverting to something closer to UK vision and/or status quo.
And there was distinct pessimism – reflecting in the dank rainy day visible taking shape outside – as to whether the politics could overcome economic diversity across EU with no underlying European identity or solidarity legitimising redistribution.
We are, it seems, caught in a vicious circle/cycle of technocracy and populism: populist mood of public anger with elites, politicians and distant, illegitimate looking European institutions leads these elites to, as ever, look for quiet, backdoor technocratic workarounds feeding waves of inchoate (and ultimately unfocused and possibly inconsequential) anti-elite politics.
The weather outside was dark, dank cold with storm brewing up for later.
I’m sitting listening to Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. I look up occasionally at the map on the wall and wonder what projection it is. Europe seems big and fat compared to the more politically correct/geographically accurate cartography I usually see.
But that’s kind of appropriate. Schwarzenberg is, after all, speaking to me – and the rest of a Chatham House lunchtime audience –on the record about the role of smaller EU member sin the post-Lisbon Treaty.
It’s interesting to see Schwarzenberg in person. Presentationally, he conforms to the media stereotype of distracted aristocratic anti-politician: he looks tired, sports a crumpled-looking bow tie and speaks at an ambling conversational pace with an unplaceable Central European accent.
I’ve never bought into all the noblesse oblige hype surrounding Prince Schwarzenberg whose TOP09 party is one of the mainstays of the Czech Republic’s centre-right government and may yet become the dominant force on the Czech right. But a couple of minutes listening quickly highlights that he has the state of the EU and European politics carefully and subtly thought through.
The small state angle is a classic Czech motif dating back to Masaryk and beyond, (although as chair William Wallace dry comments the Czech Republic is one of the ‘bigger small countries’ in the Union) but Schwarzenberg uses it to good effect.
Although it had always had a few small members, until the 2004, he argues, the EU had always functioned – and actually functioned quite well – as a big nations’ club. Eastern enlargement had changed all that bring in an influx small new CEE states, most of which lacked the economic wherewithal to join the Euro.
Paradoxically, however, expansion to 27 upped the power of bigger states, who gained from drive to create more workable decision-making structures, which resulted in the Lisbon Treaty.
The need for speedy action in current crisis had upped the power of bigger over small states. Indeed, in some sense the euro crisis had made EU governance a tandem of two big states – read France and Germany. (This, Schwarzenberg noted was kind of appropriate given that Maastricht and the Euro were essentially a Franco-German political compromise intended to anchor and clip the wings of a re-united post-Cold War Germany – the contradiction of introducing a common currency without adequate economic governance had been left unaddressed, setting up the current crisis.
Big states bossing it might be an effective (and necessary) way of running things post-crisis– and the EU had never exactly been run democratically since its foundation – But a big state-driven EU was aggravating an already acute trade-off between efficiency and legitimacy, opening up the democratic deficit (although he didn’t use the term – I have ‘citizenship gap’ in my notebook).
Moreover, the distinct politics of the Euro crisis management being decided by the 17 Eurozone members, splitting the Union into two bloc: although no one had an interest in Euro meltdown, on certain issues the 17 might act as a bloc against the other ten members. As the 17 were likely to adopt steps towards further political/economic governance integration, a two-speed Europe was opening up. As on a motorway, those moving slowly and gradually falling behind might, he suggest, be tempted to turn off at the nearest exit.
So small states needed some new channels to participate (I presume both in their own interests and for the sake of EU legitimacy, although this didn’t get mentioned). But what channels? One would be to operate in flexible informal blocs. Visegrad (despite having one Eurozone state and three non-Euro states) worked well did similar Nordic, Benelux and Baltic groupings. Another was to be useful and effective especially in niche role: the Czech Republic’s special mission was to be a promoter in human rights – its diplomats had been active over Burma, Cuba. Eastern partnership and the Western Balkans (‘a powder keg’) were also spaces to watch.
Rather refreshingly Schwarzenberg offered to grand vision or or clear blueprint offered for EU reform. Just the thought – in response to a question from the Swiss ambassador – that the Union had in the fullness time to find itself way to a Swiss style arrangement, but with member states retaining the trapping of traditional statehood (like national armies) for the sake of legitimacy and as part of a system of checks and balance. Democracy mattered less than balance.
The Q and A also tracked back to the question of a dual EU with discussion of an inner (Euro-)zone and outer core of members with roughly Danish level of integration. Intriguingly, we didn’t get to hear where the thought the Czech Republic should or would end up, although geography and economics ruled out British style debates about more extensive disengagement.
Overall, it was surprisingly sceptical take for a politician associated with the liberal ex-dissident europhile centre of Czech politics. Indeed, in its basic diagnosis, it didn’t seem that far removed from some of views you could hear Václav Klaus express, at least in his more cautious days in 1990s.
Still, I guess we’re all eurosceptics now.
Slovakia, in case you wondered, was not mentioned once.
The decision of the European Consortium for Political Research to stage its biennial (soon to annual) General Conference in Reykjavík has resulted in one of the biggest such events ever, with some 2000 political scientists temporarily boosting the Icelandic capital’s population by around 2%.
And decending through the clouds to Keflavík airport with fields of basalt below, mountainous coastline to the right and the Atlantic ocean to the left, it was not hard to guess why. Iceland also intrigues as a small state with economy nearly wrecked by the financial meltdown, a highly distinct language – the closest thing you are likely to hear to what the Vikings spoke – and cultural scene ranging from crime fiction to sculture and dance music.
The influx of ECPR delegates is, seemingly, almost too much for airport shuttle bus and the capital’s hotels, full to capacity and sometimes overbooked. Arriving at mine, alongside strip of unprepossessing low-rise office blocks and light industrial units that stretch along the sea front, we are asked to move to a hotel in a small town just South of Reykjavik with a jacuzzi and hot tub.
I get a free bus pass and a cup of coffee for compliantly agreeing, but then while waiting for a while for a taxi that never came and a certain
amount of confusion, I’m told I can stay after all. I check in, getting to keep the bus pass, and go out to admire the view of mountains and sea across the bay.
There is a garage with a shop, actually more of a kind general store, and diner serving sandwiches and burgers. I rapidly come to understand the role of the garage as local social centre that had puzzled me so much wartching Night Shift and the importance of the hot dog in Icelandic life. And there are free coffee refills. Too good to be true.
Iceland University is a 20 minutes bus ride away on the other side of town, but our panel, where we are analyising new anti-establishment parties in Central and Eastern Europe using Qualitiative Comparative Analysis is only in the afternoon and before that we have a date at the City Hall.
Iceland’s financial and political shocks have seen the country’s voters turn to some new anti-establishment parties of their own, including the Best Party of actor and comedian – and star of the Night Shift, Jón Gnarr. Starting as a satirical protest , the party’s runaway momentum saw it win last year’s muncipal election and Mr Gnarr (or Jón , as I should say, as he’s that kind of guy, and besides first names are the proper form of address in this country, I think) is now mayor of Rejkjavik, although the realities of office has seen his popularity fall back from 34% to 19%.
We get to speak to the Best Party’s competent and thoughful campaign manager and learn a lot, seeing a lot of unexpected parallels between Best and anti-establishment protest parties we are more familiar with in CEE.
Although mainly reported as a joke party – and having detractors in other parties and the media, who see them as incompetent showmen – we come away the impression of serious political outfit, which has its tactics quite well thought through.
On the plane back we learn more, watching the story of the 2010 election campaign on the in-flight documentaries , Gnarr – The Movie, and learn some more. The party is clearly built around Jon Gnarr, whose deadpan outrageous humour totally floors Iceland’s decent but worthy party politicians.
It is also hilarous. The guy in the next seat on the plane, who is quietly reading an a collection of John Stuart Mill’s writings, seems initially disconcerted as we degenerate into helpless laughter beside him.
Despite time issues – not the least with our presentation – and our panel and paper (on paths to anti-establishment parties’ breakthroughs in Central and Eastern Europe) went well. The other three papers had an interesting mix of approaches and strengths and weaknesses and, I later realised, we probably had the basis for a great workshop, rather than a 90 minute panel. Chair and discussant Carsten Schneider, however, provided a tour de force critique of all four papers in 10-15 minutes.
Some of the other panels were a bit more frustrating, as paper overload killed off any real prospect of audience questions or discussion. Even with the most efficient time-keeping, five papers and two formal slots in a 90 minutes for discussants reduces a room full of well informed specialists from all parts of the world to a cast of dumb onlookers.
I wondered why in one of the biggest political science conference in Europe and one of most wired countries in Europe, no one had thought of a smarter way of doing things than the traditional panel format, which seems to date from another era. If there are time pressures and many speakers , could we not a least tweet questions and comments?
In the evening we are bussed to Reykjavik’s newly opened Harpa concert hall to be formally welcomed by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former professor of political science now in his fourth term as head of state. The President’s plenary lecture stressed that markets and economics should not take precedence over politics and that Iceland was a laboratory both for the dangers of market forces and the way politics and political consensus could avert them.
Iceland’s process of constitutional reform was a model, part of new wave of citizen-driven democratic change driven by the internet and social media, being played out against a background of shifting techtotic plates in global society. India and China were on the rise, while Iceland would become part of the New North.
Here there was plenty of tweeting and Facebook comment from those listening and – as it was intended to – the speech seems to havedown well with the mass ranks of political scientists.
But hang on.
Surely politicians, including long-serving ones such as the President himself (a man of the social democratic left, presiding until 2009 – over centre-right governments), were responsible for the lax regulation, which alloed the insane hubris unleashed by financial sector? Indeed, Ragnar Grímsson is on record pre-crisis as praising the dynamism of the country’s unconventional (and as it turned out dangerous and pointless) financial sector.
Hard not to feel that, while perfectly OK as democratic counterveiling mechanism, his hugely popular stand against the Icesave Laws – rejected twice by voters in presidentially initiated referenda – is not altogether a principled stand against The Markets, but also one against small savers and local authorities in the UK unlucky enough to have their money in duff Icelandic financial institutions and taxpayers like me.
A small country like Iceland clearly cannot pay for massive losses of the crisis in toto – take a Reykjavik bus (and with my free bus pass I took plenty) and you always see a few people, poorly dressed and look worn out and beaten up by life.
On the other hand unemployment, having peaked at 10 per cent, is 7.5% , similar to that in the UK, although low by East or Southern
European standards and the Icesave sums payable after assets sales are, it is reported, relatively small, suggesting that the whole Icesave has just served as convenient safety value for popular anger.
You wonder, however, whether the four-term President might have done his country a favour by perhaps his own political responsibiliy- and the malfunctioning (as elsewhere) of domestic democratic institution – stepping down to allow deeper political renewal, rather than stoking the fires of national grievance.
And is the rise of the internet really akin to the transition from feudalism? And the rise of the Scottish National Party part of the same New North ? I leave the Ragnar Grímsson’s address sceptical and disappointed.
Let’s hope Jón Gnarr runs for President. At least the jokes will be funnier.
On my last day I walk through Reykjavik again. It is the calmest and most peaceful capital city I have ever been in. I decide to hire a bike and cycle along Seabraut taking in a view of mountains and sea.Then I get lost and end in an industrial estate beside a toilet factory.
Cycling around the Icelandic capital is safe and easy. Laws allowing cycling on empty pavements are eminently sensible and cycle paths run beside main roads . The view is mixed but interesting: large villas, blocks of flats small shops, mountains, small residential streets with whimical statues, a broad vista West with mountains and motorways, then mutlicoloured traditional houses.
With quite realising it, I circumnavigated the city and done a Leif Ericson, discovering interesting places I didn’t mean to go to and had never heard of, although admittedly he had a longship while I only have a well used bike in low gear. Appropriately enough, I finish up by the Leif Ericson statute and go for a cup of coffee.
|Sofia, 26 March 2011 Photo: BSP TV|
According to news reports, some 16,000 marched through the streets of Sofia under the auspices of the opposition Socialist Party to protest against unemployment and depleted public services. Allowing for differences in population size, this equates to a march about half the size of the Saturday’s 250, 000 strong trade union sponsored protest in London, but not all bad for a relatively a weak civil society stemming from all the usual post-communist legacies. And a mildly imaginative rouch with the theme of giving Bulgaria’s government a red card (червен картон). A day later there are blockades by car drivers angry about the price of fuel following the next day and demonstration about nuclear power plant construction are also in the pipeline no pun intended). Characteristically, perhaps all three are organised by political parties, rather than civil sociery organisation and, unlike in London, the radical left, marginal in the region at the best of times and workerist, so there are no anarchist casseurs or direct action activists occupying smart shops in Sofia – and Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev is no Ed Milland (although possibly that should be the other way round)
|London, 26 March 2011 Photo: Ben Hall|
In a conversation for Javno.com, Hrelja revealed that HSU will now join the opposition parties in a battle against the Cabinet’s tricks.
“Considering that the Cabinet did not find the calculation to plug the hole in the budget, they later said that they need to tax the entire amount of all of the salaries and pensions that surpass three thousand kuna, we considered the negotiations over. This sort of burden would mean nearly a four times larger burden for workers and pensioners” say sources from HSU. They consider that the latest Cabinet proposal to also be unacceptable, considering that it is considerable less favourable than the one they had already agreed upon.
>So the results of the Euro-elections are in.
Having missed out the chance of TV stardom on the BBC Euro-election results programme – half of SSEES seem to have been rung up by various BBC researchers looking for a pundit on Eastern Europe (in the end they did without one) – I can’t resist a brief bit of instant(ish) analysis.
This may perhaps be because there are few if any centre-left parties in the region can really claim to authentically social democratic. But to my mind the regional disparity seems more to interpretable in terms of CEE’s less post-industrial, fragmented and multi-cultural societies posing less acute strategic dilemma.
The grand narrative of social democratic decline/crisis has been academically well set out in Herbert Kitschelt’s 1994 classic The Transformation of European Social Democracy and put across in more digestable form by academic commentators such as Simon Hix in commentaries on the Euro elections. The basic story is this: social change, globalization and economic restructuring are generating competition pressures in the political arena as the big centre left parties struggle to cope with the break up of helectoral coalitions that underpinned them: Greens eating into their support among left-liberal public sector professionals, the populist far-right (and in some places workerist radical left) making inroads among working class voters in deindustrialized, credit crunched former heartlands.
Central and Eastern Europe’s Greens – never a very strong electoral force – seem again to have bombed entirely. This was in part – but only in part – due to the smaller populations and hence smaller numbers of of MEPs elected in CEE states which raised the effective threshold of votes. But even in a largeish state like the Czech Republic where a mere 5% would have done the trick the Green Party (SZ) failed. The SZ gained miserable 2%, as internicine factional infighting seemed at last to have taken an electoral toll – although cynics will note that the political support of Václav Havel, which always turns out to the kiss of political death for any new party.
To get back to centre-left, CEE social democrats have it a little easier. They face little competition from eco-liberal parties – whose support is small and would probably not have gone to them in the first place – leaving economic populists and anti-establishment novelty parties as the main challenge. There is also perhaps a larger constituency demanding social protection making brusingly pro-welfare positions a safer political bet (at least when campaigning in elections). There is, I suppose, less of ‘core vote’ to fall back – the Czech Social Democrats’ vote, for example, has rollercoasted wildly over the past decades despite the engrained social market preferences of a huge chunk of the Czech population – but in sense the lack of one is perhaps almost an advantage. After all, what you don’t have can’t be eroded.