Friday, 21 December 2018

Mattis resigns. So should Trump.

Let's forget about whether Trump is senile, clueless or a Manchurian candidate (and these are the only choices). The motive is no longer the point, but the effect for all those of us living at the edges of the US security arrangement. One can only imagine that Erdogan, Putin and Xi are gleeful at the sheer speed with which the US administration is becoming unable to function and ceding power. Were Greece to suffer an attack, one wonders whether the US now even has the decision-making power to come to its aid. This is a big additional step to being worried about the fall of democracy in the free world. One can only hope for impeachment, but this would be bloody and divisive, and the RP would not be healed by the departure of one man. For the foreseeable future, therefore, Europe is on its own. France, Britain and Greece, the only countries with serious defence capabilities, need now to start forming a European army with its own command and control structures. 

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Greece is flogging its productive class to death

Greece has increased its taxes faster than any other developed economy over the past decade. In fact, only a minority of taxpayers carries the vast majority of the income tax burden. A new study found that 19 percent of workers pays 90 percent of income tax, and 4.5 percent of businesses pays 83 percent of corporate tax. This means one thing: the productive private sector is in its death throes. Most workers cannot earn enough to pay tax, and most businesses have very low turnover. It should tell the government that 2.2mn people still employed in the private sector can no longer support 700K public sector workers, a million unemployed and 3mn pensioners, plus children and other dependents. Greek governments have for years flogged a dying horse - no one more cruelly than Syriza. When I report on the travails of the Greeks, I see snide remarks about how they should stop whingeing and grow up etc. What people in better-governed societies may not realise is that a minority of Greeks is working very hard indeed to save the entire economy from collapse, but governments are not elected by them. They are elected by the handout majority. We have taxation without representation. Given demographic trends, other European societies could eventually end up with a similar democratic deficit.


Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Erdogan is building a new Turkish empire

This article was published in The Spectator USA

Last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigned for a new constitution that would change his country’s polity from a parliamentary to a presidential system. When German officials refused to allow his ministers to travel to Germany and woo its million-strong expatriate vote, he called them Nazis. He later also accused the German Chancellor of Nazism for saying that the European Union should reconsider its relations with Turkey – a veiled threat for suspending talks to bring it into the EU. Ankara and Amsterdam withdrew their ambassadors during a spat over the same campaign.

During a disastrous visit to Athens last December, Erdogan demanded the return of ten fugitive officers Erdogan considers plotted against him in a July 2016 army coup that nearly unseated him, even though Greece’s Supreme Court ruled against their extradition. And he called for a revision of the Lausanne Treaty, which has established peace between Greece and Turkey for the last century.

But the worst clash was with the US. Last summer, Congress discussed imposing sanctions on Turkey over its refusal to release an American pastor. Now released, Andrew Brunson had been imprisoned for two years for allegedly plotting against Erdogan. The US is also withholding delivery of F-35 stealth aircraft Turkey has bought because it is unhappy over Turkey’s increasingly close relationship with Russia. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor and Turkey plans to purchase Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles over the objections of NATO.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Greek official blows the whistle on refugee costs

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

A senior Greek official has described the way the government buys migration-related services as "chaos," after Greece's top court ordered an inquiry into the handling of European Union funds paid to Athens to assist with the refugee and migration crisis.

Andreas Iliopoulos, head of Greece’s Reception and Identification Service, which registers undocumented migrants when they enter the country, says Greek and European taxpayers may be subject to fraud because many contracts are awarded directly to Greek firms and non-governmental organisations without going through a competitive bidding process.

“[Fast-track procedures mean] I can go directly to interested parties. I can come to you and make a deal without revealing too much information to others,” said Lieutenant-General Andreas Iliopoulos in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera. “That makes sense when people are landing on the beach and we have to feed them and there are no obvious means of doing so… This happened in 2015, but we can’t claim that in 2018.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

NATO and the EU suffer a setback in former Yugoslav Macedonia

This article was published by The Weekly Standard

The Euro-Atlantic trajectory of the Western Balkans was cast into doubt after a referendum in the former Yugoslav Macedonia backfired over the weekend.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev gambled on the popularity of European Union and NATO entry – which enjoy support of 83 percent and 77 percent of the population respectively – to carry a proposal to change the country’s name to North Macedonia. Greece agreed last June to lift vetoes to the Balkan country joining both bodies if it adopts that name.

While 91.4 percent of voters supported the change, only 36.9 percent of eligible voters turned out, making the referendum legally invalid. The hardline opposition’s call to boycott the vote is widely perceived as having won.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

East Mediterranean gas creates new allies, but deepens old enmities

This article was published by The Weekly Standard.

On January 30, the deepwater drillship Saipem 12000 sent its drill bit into a cavern beneath one-and-a-quarter-miles of water and a mile of rock in the eastern Mediterranean. Italian oil and gas company ENI, which had contracted the ship, announced a week later that the cavern, called Calypso, was “an extended gas column”, estimated at 6-8 trillion cubic feet (tcf). The gas deposit belongs to Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone – an area of water where it has sovereign rights to exploit, manage and conserve natural resources - and seismic studies suggest that it represents only an intimation of the island’s future hydrocarbon wealth.

Over the next three months, ExxonMobil and the Qatar Petroleum Company are to embark on their own exploratory drilling off Cyprus’ southern shore in October. “We know the size of the structures and the possible hydrocarbons in them,” says geologist Konstantinos Nikolaou of the intended drill sites in an allotment called Block 10. “The sum of the deposits may amount to more than Zohr… it is very promising,” he says.

At 30 tcf, Zohr is the eastern Mediterranean’s largest known gas deposit, discovered three years ago offshore Egypt. Egypt plans to be energy self-sufficient by the end of 2018, doing away with oil and gas purchases worth $3bn a year. Similar deposits would make Cyprus not only self-sufficient, but an exporter.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Will a name-change referendum say yes to North Macedonia?

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

On Sunday, just under 1.8 million voters in former Yugoslav Macedonia will vote on whether to change their country’s name to Northern Macedonia. Polls will open at 7am and close at 7pm.

The proposal stems from an agreement last June between the governments in Athens and Skopje, which aims to normalize relations between the two countries.

They have been at odds since the fall of Yugoslavia, when its six republics declared independence. The southernmost has called itself the Republic of Macedonia. Greece objects on the grounds that this implies territorial claims on its northern region of Macedonia.

In return for adding the qualifier “Northern” to its name, Greece will lift its standing veto on its neighbour’s membership in the European Union and NATO.

 The question put to voters is, “Are you in favour of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?”

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Proposal for rapid screenings of refugees at sea draws fire

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Europe’s increasingly hardline refugee policy is raising concerns about the transparency of search and rescue in the Mediterranean, now that all vessels operated by aid organisations have been put out of action.

Panamanian authorities informed Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Sunday that they would revoke the registration of its vessel, the Aquarius, even as it plied the waters with 58 rescued asylum-seekers on board. It was the last non-state search and rescue vessel in operation.

“We’re looking for whatever flag will allow the ship to do its job… We’re in this process [of applying] to all [EU] member states,” Apostolos Veizis, head of MSF programmes in Greece, told Al Jazeera.

“Europe’s policy now is quite clearly pushbacks, border closure and detention,” he added. MSF has publicly blamed Italy for pressing the Panamanian government to revoke the Aquarius’ flag.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Op/Ed: Greece’s Exodus is the beginning of its travails in the desert

On June 22, at three o’clock in the morning, officials in Brussels declared a victory for the Eurozone’s last intensive care patient after eight years of public spending cuts, and cleared Greece to borrow from markets after August 20.

Austerity has brought some important results. Greece balanced its budget, so it is living within its means. Its exports are rising, so it is bringing in much-needed foreign revenue. The assurance of creditworthiness from the International Monetary Fund and the European Stability Mechanism – the sovereign distress fund that now owns most of Greece’s debt - is an important signal to markets. It should mean that Greece can start to rebuild its credit history and refinance its debt.

Other aspects of the deal are less reassuring. Supervision of public spending will persist for the next 40 years, so Greece hasn’t really graduated - it’s on probation. During those two generations, Greece must set aside an average of 2.2 percent of its economy to repay its creditors. This means that it will remain belaboured by austerity policies that presently include uncompetitively high taxes.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Lifeline ship resisted pressure to return refugees to Libya

This article was published by Al Jazeera International. 
Valletta, Malta - As Europe's leaders forged a new common policy on rescuing refugees at sea, one small ship came to embody the battle for the soul of the continent.

The MV Lifeline soared to notoriety this week after it refused to hand over 233 refugees and migrants it rescued to Libyan authorities.

The vessel, operated by German charity Mission Lifeline, picked the refugees up just outside Libya's 12-mile territorial waters on June 21. What followed pitted governments against freelance search-and-rescuers.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Lifeline reaches safe harbour, but Europe heads into migration storm

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

VALLETTA, Malta - As it slowly steamed toward Boilers Wharf to be impounded by Maltese authorities, the MV Lifeline faced disgrace with a note of triumph – two long toots on its horn, signalling pride in its rescue of 233 refugees and migrants between Italy and Libya.

Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, had earlier in the day said the Lifeline would be investigated for not being registered as a search and rescue ship but a pleasure boat, for disobeying Italian authorities co-ordinating rescue operations north of Libyan waters, and for sometimes switching off its transponder in an apparent attempt to conceal its whereabouts.

“It is extremely worrying that there was a vessel intercepting people, carrying people on board, claiming to have a particular registration…and we have it black on white – the Dutch are saying, ‘No, this is not the case.’”

Muscat’s intimation was that the Lifeline was abetting smugglers under the guise of conducting rescue, though he did not openly say this.

Friday, 22 June 2018

After 8 years of austerity, Greece declared fit for markets

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Eurozone extends debt repayment, but strict supervision on spending and reforms will remain for 40 years

Greece will officially graduate from eight years of financial dependence on its Eurozone partners in August, the currency bloc’s finance ministers announced late on Thursday, as they cleared the country to borrow from markets again.

This is not an ordinary moment. This is a magnificent moment,” said European Finance Commissioner Pierre Moscovici. “The Greek crisis ends here in Luxembourg tonight. This has been a long road… We’re talking about eight years of efforts coming to a close for Greece, and it is an important moment for the Eurozone, too. We’re seeing an end to a crisis that had threatened our common currency.”

He said Friday’s decision would “allow Greece to get back on its feet.”

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Greece's Muslims seek reform between civil and religious laws

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

When he died almost a decade ago, Chatidje Molla Sali’s husband willed her a comfortable widowhood: at least a million dollars’ worth of rentable property in the northern Greek province of Thrace, where the couple lived, and in Istanbul, from where he hailed.

That financially secure life has so far eluded her. Molla Sali’s two sisters-in-law contested the will on the grounds that, as a member of Thrace’s Muslim community, their brother was bound by the precepts of Islamic law, under which they, too, should receive a share of his estate.

The Sali dispute has now escalated into a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights and prompted the Greek government to radically alter the law governing its Muslims for the first time since they found themselves outside the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Greek government faces censure over Macedonia deal

 This article was published by Al Jazeera International

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (L) and aides walk to the president's office to announce the Macedonia deal on 12 June

The Greek government faces a vote of no confidence over its deal with the former Yugoslav Macedonia.

The conservative opposition New Democracy party brought the motion on Thursday, saying the deal “is opposed by the overwhelming majority of the Greek people.” The vote is to take place late on Saturday.

To survive, the government needs at least 151 of its 154 MPs to vote against the censure motion in the 300-seat chamber. If it should fail to garner the votes, it would fall and an election would be called.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Severna Makedonja is born

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

All smiles: Greek premier Alexis Tsipras (L) informs president Prokopis Pavlopoulos of the deal on Tuesday.

Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia announced a historic agreement on that country’s future name, ending a 27-year dispute. 

Severna (or Nor180612 thern) Macedonia was one of three names left on the table since talks began in January. Premier Zoran Zaev chose it over Gorna (Upper) Macedonia and Nova (New) Macedonia.

“I believe all greeks can today be proud,” Greek premier Alexis Tsipras said in a five-minute announcement on Tuesday night. “This is a great diplomatic victory and a historic opportunity… not just for our nation but for our entire region. A source of discord that undermined the region’s ability to go forward together is ended, and a window of friendship, cooperation, prosperity and mutual growth opens onto the future.”

Thursday, 7 June 2018

In Macedonia, Greece is torn between history and realpolitik

This article was published by Al Jazeera international.

PELLA, Greece – Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets across the country on Wednesday, to protest against a reportedly imminent deal between Athens and its northern neighbour that would share Macedonian identity between the two peoples.

Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have been in talks since January to establish full diplomatic relations for the first time since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Key to that normalization is finding a name for the country whose government resides in Skopje that Athens can live with.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Europe's trade confrontation with US escalates

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

The European Commission opened trade proceedings against the US a day after it announced tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from its closest allies, Canada, Mexico and the European Union, but restrained its rhetoric.

We’re not in a trade war but we are in a very difficult situation. It could escalate," said Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, adding that the US was “playing a dangerous game.”

This is bad news for European business, the transatlantic relationship and world trade,” said Marcus J Beyrer, Director General of BusinessEurope, an industry lobby group. “The EU needs to remain a strong leader against protectionism and unilateralism in support of rules-based trade,” he added.

Monday, 28 May 2018

In Greek economy’s vicious cycle, workers lose most

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

ATHENS, Greece -- Out of money and out of time, Alexandros Mnimatidis is a product of his generation. He cannot afford to attend the robotics degree he enrolled in because he also needs to work and contribute to his parents’ household budget. But without that degree, it’ll be difficult for him to rise above the retail work he now does for $4.78 an hour. 

“At the present rate,” he says, “it’ll take me another ten years to graduate. I’ll be 35, and at that age it’ll be really difficult to find a job in my area of expertise.”

If he fails to obtain a university education, Mnimatidis may eventually join the ranks of Greece’s working poor – people who cannot improve their socio-economic position, no matter how hard they work.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Greece vs. Turkey: Are we headed for an Intra-NATO War?

This article was published by The Weekly Standard.

Soldiers parade on Greece's national day, March 25.

The Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey hosts one of the world’s highest concentrations of high-tech weaponry. Sixty-seven surface ships and two dozen submarines are deployed on a body of water the size of Lake Superior. The two air forces command 448 fighter jets armed with smart bombs and guided missiles. On land, 832 heavy tanks and more than 2,500 lighter artillery vehicles—as much tank firepower as in all the rest of Europe combined—could rapidly be brought to bear along a Greek-Turkish border only 105 miles long.

These arsenals, built up over decades and constantly modernized, were not merely a boon to U.S. and German defence contractors. Western policymakers wanted to believe that loyalty to NATO’s mission of containing the USSR, rather than regional rivalries, motivated this exemplary level of Greek and Turkish defense spending. After the Soviet Union collapsed, good diplomacy and Turkey’s E.U. aspirations made it possible, most of the time, to overlook the downsides of an arms race between uneasy neighbors. Recently, however, the Aegean has become a dangerously narrow sea.

For decades, Turkish military aircraft have regularly violated Greece’s 10-mile airspace around its islands, on the grounds that Greece’s territorial waters extend only six nautical miles from shore, and that air and sea borders should match. Turkish ships also ignore the territorial waters around a number of small islands whose Greek ownership Turkey questions. These ships and planes are intercepted by their Greek counterparts, and mock dogfights result. Occasionally fatal accidents occur.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Varoufakis launches Greek party

This article was published by Al Jazeera International. 

Yanis Varoufakis

Athens - When Yanis Varoufakis launched the “Democracy in Europe Movement 2025”, or DiEM25, two years ago, he said Europe’s democratic deficit needed to be tackled as a continental problem. His six-month tenure as Greece’s finance minister the previous year convinced him that national government lacked either the guts or the clout to change Europe. “The sovereignty of national parliaments has been dissolved by the Eurozone and the Eurogroup,” he said at the time.

On Monday Varoufakis announced that he is founding a Greek political party. This is in keeping with his promise to bring his transnational movement down to the national level in due course, where elections take place. His goal is to mount a pan-European movement by 2025, that will overturn the European establishment which, in his words, “is becoming ever more toxic, class oriented, powerless and discredited.”

He still draws energy and bile from those formative months in office, when Syriza went up against Greece’s creditors in the Eurozone and lost. Greece ended up signing onto a third bailout loan with further austerity measures.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Has the Greek recovery really arrived?

It's the moment we've been waiting for since bailouts began: The finance ministry says the Greek economy will turn a corner with 2.3pc growth this year, allowing it to make concessions to the beleaguered middle class after it graduates from the current adjustment programme in August. It points to a 19pc increase in exports in January and a small increase in bank lending for the first time in years. Bankruptcies fell last year for the first time since 2007. Interest on Greece's 10-year bond is 3.32pc, versus 6.79pc a year ago.
Not everyone is convinced, however. Consumer confidence improved last year, but did not lead to higher consumption, and has worsened again this year. Many Greeks are worried that Syriza may overspend once Greece graduates from austerity policies. And they are aware that Greece was forecast to grow by 2.7pc last year, but grew 1.4pc.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Europe must process refugees "more creatively"

This interview was published by Al Jazeera International.

(Bold emphasis mine) 
The Greek Asylum Service was one of the last to be founded in the European Union, but quickly became the EU’s testing ground as migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and the Subcontinent surged into Europe in the summer and autumn of 2015.  
Maria Stavropoulou, who founded the Service in 2013 and has just stepped down as its Director, says Europe is still “under the shadow” of those events and is wielding bureaucracy as a deterrent. 
Instead of restricting family reunification and resisting burden-sharing among member states, she believes European Union member states should find creative ways to channel migratory pressures. 
Doing so is a matter of some urgency, she believes, as Turkish asylum applications in Europe have risen sharply, and could form the next major trend in Europe-bound migration.

Photo: Athina 984

Last April, the Greek Asylum Service published a flow chart to help applicants understand the procedure. Officials told us that the process is complicated as a result of the Asylum Procedures Directive of the European Commission, and perhaps this was by design – a sort of bureaucratic deterrent. Do you believe this?

The process did indeed seem very complicated. We used to tell this to the European Commission and I think it’s the accepted wisdom now: If you try to put too many legal or procedural obstacles in the process, hoping to discourage applicants, all you’ll succeed in doing is lengthening the process, because every step becomes an object of legal wrangling. If you make it simple, even at the risk of being over-generous, you reap the benefits in time and efficiency. This is very difficult for someone to understand who doesn’t know the process, but we keep saying this, and as a result the process hasn’t essentially changed since April 2016. It didn’t become simpler, but it also didn’t become more complicated.

Some observers point to other signs of soft deterrent tactics, such as the length of time it took the European Asylum Support Office to rush assistance to the Greek islands; the slowness of family reunification; the rise in returnees to Greece under Dublin; and the restriction of Relocation to a few nationalities. Do these amount to a larger picture of bureaucratic hurdles in your view?

Let’s put ourselves in the refugees’ shoes for a moment. What did they want? For the situation in 2015 to go on forever – an open avenue from Turkey to northern Europe. They saw anything that got in the way of that as a bad thing. We would think the same in their position. But this couldn’t have gone on, for security concerns alone if for no other reason.

On the other hand, is it right that although the flow of refugees is so reduced (it fell almost by half in 2017) Europe continues to have a restrictive policy? As [Chinese dissident artist] Ai Wei Wei says, water always finds a way. You can build a dam, but if the water pressure builds up too much it will collapse. If you construct streams you can channel the pressure. There is truly a restrictive policy. It was evident in the Relocation Scheme, which only really applied to two nationalities, the problems in family reunification where there are increasing restrictions, and the European asylum process is also becoming more difficult. Where will all this lead? I don’t know. I’m not sure that they will help reduce the flows to Europe in the medium and long term.

Why are we seeing, across the EU, a rise in auxiliary protection approvals, versus asylum approvals?

In my view the distinction shouldn’t exist, and from a legal point of view it’s not required. [Auxiliary protection] exists for ulterior motives - because the rights offered under auxiliary protection are fewer in many member states than for full asylum. If you don’t offer family reunification, you do the maths and you figure out that that translates into much fewer refugees from other countries. 

In 2016 and 2017 you found yourself at odds with a lot of EU member states which wanted the Greek Asylum Service to proceed rapidly with tens of thousands of applications. Why did you not yield to that pressure?

Many people expected that something would happen here that hadn’t ever happened anywhere else. Greece was the first country to form teams of asylum caseworkers from other member states, simply because the country couldn’t lift a fivefold [increase in applications] on its own. There was a serious underestimation of what had to happen in the weeks after the [March 2016] EU-Turkey Statement. One proposal was for Greece to recognize Turkey as a safe third country flat out, without restrictions.

An asylum application is not a nationality screening. It’s a narration of why someone is afraid to go back to his country. That can’t happen in three minutes. It’s impossible. A person needs an hour, two hours, three hours, whatever…

Since the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) stepped in to help with Greece’s caseload, it has conducted first instance interviews and submitted them to the Asylum Service with a recommendation for final decisions to be made. Have you been satisfied with how these interviews were conducted?

The case handlers who came in were very uneven in terms of experience and training. There were those whom we wanted with 15 years of experience, who were able to support our staff, which was unavoidably very new, and there were those who were much more inexperienced than our people. On the whole they have certainly helped… but haven’t been as helpful as we had hoped. If nothing else, we sat down with EASO and established how interviews would be done. This has greatly contributed to a common European asylum process. Plus, once they return to their home countries, case handlers were vastly better trained, because it is here, on the [Greek] islands that the European asylum curriculum is really applied. We became a school.

Approximately 1,700 Turkish nationals have sought asylum in Greece in 2017 alone. Is this going to be the new asylum trend?

In 2014, 41 Turkish nationals sought asylum in Greece. In 2015 it was 43. In 2016 it was 189, and last year it was 1,827. Given this sudden increase in Turkish asylum applicants in Greece and all of Europe, one can predict that this rise will continue in 2018.

Does this increase risk introducing political complications in the EU-Turkish relationship?

Anyone who practices refugee law knows that one of its basic principles is that international protection is a humanitarian act, which has to be kept separate from politics. This principle embodies our duty. 

I take it that, like EASO, you agree with the Commission’s proposal for the revision of Dublin rules, i.e. that the provision that applicants should be processed in the EU country in which they first arrived, should be scrapped. Does this stand a realistic chance of being accepted by all 27 members?

I think the European Commission reasoned that two or three countries on Europe’s border cannot become the asylum processing centre for the continent; because that is where we’re headed. In 2017 there was a 46 percent drop in asylum applications in the European Union. In Greece we had an increase, on top of the enormous increase of 2015 and 2016. This means we are already moving towards a situation in which the countries of the south are the main registration countries. Italy and France, too, saw an increase. Of course I recognize that Germany [not an external border country] has a very large number of asylum applicants (though they fell by 76 percent last year). But it can’t all be in the hands of Greece, Italy, Germany and perhaps Spain. That, too, is enormously out of balance. We all need to help. But Holland, a larger and wealthier country than Greece, cannot have one quarter of Greece’s asylum applications. Right now Greece is giving asylum to a number of people. What jobs are these people going to have? How will they be integrated? If Greece can’t protect people – because integration is a part of protection – they simply won’t come to Greece. They’ll find other ways to go elsewhere.

If all EU27 member states don’t agree on a common asylum policy, can you envisage a core Schengen group that will adopt one and move forward with only part of the EU?

I would prefer a pan-European project, but I don’t see the harm in an experimental process to test the system’s limits. There have been successful European projects whose creators couldn’t have imagined how successful they would be at their outset, and now we can’t imagine living without them. But some people have to really believe in this [common asylum policy] to take it forward. We’re still under the shadow of the events of 2015. We haven’t regained our equanimity and we’re still looking to prevent a repeat of it, instead of looking more creatively and positively.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

China ventures into Europe

This article was published by The Weekly Standard.

Over the past five years, The State Grid Corporation of China has come close to performing a feat the European Union’s €13tr economy has failed at for two decades: to create an electricity grid stretching across much of Europe, introducing efficiencies and economies of scale national transmission operators are incapable of. A €4.75bn acquisition spree of stakes in the grids of Greece, Italy, Portugal and – shortly – Spain, has now made China’s State Grid, as it is known, Europe’s leading investor in electricity transmission.[1]  (Table 1).

State Grid’s astonishing foray into what were until recently jealously guarded national assets has been a wake-up call to the European Union. For years, it has been trying to decouple electricity transmission from generation as it broke up old state monopolies. When the Eurozone directed its indebted Mediterranean members to raise money by privatising state companies in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, few imagined that these would be snapped up by a single state-owned company.

Meanwhile, China moved in the opposite direction. State Grid was formed in 2002 as an experiment in state capitalism. The galloping pace of China’s economy over the past two decades helped ensure its growth to the world’s largest utility by revenue (it operates 60 subsidiaries in China alone). Released into the free market world, State Grid has been devastatingly effective. Its ambitions have made it a stakeholder in electricity generation and transmission in Brazil, Australia and the Philippines. Today it has revenues of $315bn and controls assets of almost half a trillion dollars.[2] It is halfway to its goal of buying up to $50bn in assets abroad by 2020.[3]

This clash of economic agendas has also exposed Europe’s private sector to competition from state champions. Last September, the continent’s two largest train manufacturers, France’s Alstom and Germany’s Siemens, announced that they would merge their rail operations[4] in order to fend off competition from another Chinese state giant, the China Railway and Rolling stock Company (CRRC), today the world’s largest manufacturer of rail transit equipment. “A dominant player in Asia has changed global market dynamics,” announced Siemens’ chief executive, Joe Kaeser.

Until the turn of the century, investment between Europe and China was virtually nonexistent. European firms started investing in China in 1992. China entered Europe in earnest with strategic timing - after the 2008 financial crisis drained investment capital from the financial system - and it has moved with speed and purpose. Plotted on a graph, the investment relationship now looks like a pair of crossed swords. Europe’s outbound investment to China peaked at €12bn in 2012, just as China’s took off. Last year, Chinese investments in the EU reached a record €35bn, while EU investments in China fell to €8bn[5]. It is this asymmetrical relationship that is keeping European policymakers up at night, because it is becoming increasingly clear that China has seized a strategic initiative whose economic benefits Europe welcomes, but whose political implications are potentially destructive to Europe’s inchoate political union. 

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Greek-Turkish tension in Aegean reaches highest point in years

The collision of Greek and Turkish coastguard vessels near the flashpoint islet of Imia in the east Aegean has raised tensions between the two countries to levels not seen in years.

“At around 23:40 yesterday [Monday], in the waters east of Imia, within Greek territorial waters, a Turkish vessel performed dangerous manoeuvres in contravention of international rules for the avoidance of collisions and rammed into the portside stern of the Greek naval vessel 090,” read a statement from the Hellenic coastguard on Tuesday.

The coastguard made no other official comment, but certain Greek media quoted government sources as saying that the Turkish vessel had attempted to ram the Greek vessel amidships.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schoinas said on Tuesday that “the Greek ship… is co-funded by the EC and the European Border and Coast Guard, so we’re talking about European taxpayer money.”  

The Turkish government said Greece was distorting the incident. Greek foreign ministry spokesman Alexandros Gennimatas responded, “Along with moderation, Turkey has lost common sense. In addition to violating international law, it also displays ignorance of geography.”

Though uninhabited, Imia has acquired symbolic importance for both countries after they nearly went to war over it in 1996.

Monday night’s incident followed another offshore Cyprus on Sunday, when Turkish navy ships prevented a drilling rig from reaching its intended position. The rig, owned by Italian energy company ENI, was contracted by the Cypriot government to drill exploratory wells.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Has Classical Antiquity Divided Europe?

This review was published by the Times Literary Supplement.

The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity 
Johanna Hanink
23.95 pounds, 310pp
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780674971547

In February 2012, as Greece was negotiating its second bailout loan, I interviewed a retired commander of the Hellenic Air Force whose pension austerity policies had cut by half. He was incensed that Greece’s European partners saw their loans to the country in uncompromisingly financial terms. “Don’t they remember Marathon? Don’t they remember Salamis? Shouldn’t Greece receive some consideration for defending Europe from the Persians?” he asked.

In The Classical Debt, Johanna Hanink, Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University, sets out to answer that question. In practical terms, of course, it is unanswerable. No economist has put a value on Greece’s contribution to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and adjusted for inflation. In any case, Europe and the IMF have already answered: Give unto creditors that which is creditors’.

Why does such a rhetorical question form the basis of a book? No Greek political party has proposed exchanging the financial debt for a cultural one. An overwhelming majority of Greeks and their legislators support repaying the national debt in full. The parties that claim that the debt is somehow illegitimate receive only about 13 percent of the vote.

The only debt swaps ever seriously proposed in eight years of recession are of a purely financial nature. During the Nazi occupation, Germany forcibly extracted a line of credit from the Bank of Greece. A 2013 study by former finance minister Nikos Christodoulakis estimated the loan’s present value using the average interest rates Germany and the US have paid on their ten-year bonds since 1944. He argued that Greece could claim between €10.5bn and €15.87bn euros – an amount roughly equal to Germany’s share of Greece’s first bailout loan. “I think that a very fair compensation and settlement of the issue would be to count one for the other,” Christodoulakis told me. Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis proposed the second debt swap in February 2015, days after he assumed office. He asked European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi to buy up the IMF’s share of Greek debt, so that Greece’s sovereign debt could be brought onto the European continent and the IMF left out of discussions. Neither proposal went any further, but neither is mentioned by Hanink.

The premise of The Classical Debt – whether a cultural debt can be held against a financial one – turns out to be an organising principle around which to have a broader discussion: how classical scholars and early travellers to Greece idealised ancient Athens and created a Philhellenic movement. Hanink teaches courses on these topics and she is at her best in that discussion, as she threads the needle through many of the major characters and moments contributing to the Greek sense of nationhood in 5th century BC Athens and from the 17th century to today.

Hanink ultimately answers the question in an unexpected way: that the West does indeed owe the Greeks a cultural debt, not for defending Europe from barbarians or even for developing the foundations of European thought, but for suffering the West’s disparagement at their failure to live up to an impossible ideal. In the process, she suggests that Western educators take the ancient Greeks off the pedestal scholars put them on, and discuss them not as a miraculous parthenogenesis, but as a culture with its own debts to previous civilisations.

This argument, which acknowledges Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, seems entirely appropriate, especially in view of the fact that the ancient Greeks themselves openly admitted their cultural debts. When Herodotos was asked to glorify Athens in a history of the Greco-Persian Wars, he spent two thirds of his opus on their background – the growth of the Persian Empire, including a chapter on the Egyptians – paying tribute to those whom the Greeks considered civilised, before placing Athens among them.

The territory Hanink ventures onto is heavily mined, as it encompasses the old battlefield between those who believe in Greek genetic and cultural continuity, and those who do not. This has been a fraught debate from the start, because the Greeks’ authenticity was questioned by comparing them at their nadir, hundreds of years after they had lost all self-determination, with their apogee. It was also being posed by travellers from northern Europe who, in Hanink’s words, “were convinced that because of their classical education and personal passion for antiquity, they understood and appreciated Greece better than the Greeks themselves could.” This relationship became further compounded when Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire partly thanks to British, French and Russian support in 1830, and imported a Bavarian king two years later: “Many in Britain, France and Germany also believed that because their countries had safeguarded antiquity for centuries and supported the War of Independence, they had also earned the right to intervene in Greek affairs.” This tour of Philhellenism and Hellenenmity is fascinating, as it reveals not only how proprietary western Europeans have felt (and perhaps still feel) about ancient Greece, but also how their opinion of the modern Greeks is inextricably – and sometimes inversely – linked to their own national self esteem.

Hanink under-reports the Greeks’ deep skepticism about western Europeans, too, who never forgave the Venetians and French for sacking Constantinople in 1204. As recently as 2005, when Pope John Paul visited Athens, they sought an apology for the errant Fourth Crusade. From the Greek point of view it was the Latins, and Catholic western Europe by extension, which had broken European civilisation in two by denouncing the authority of Byzantium and departing from the Eastern Church. Thus weakened the Greeks fell to the Ottomans in 1453. By the time they rejoined Europe, each was unrecognizable to the other.

The last two hundred years, including Greece’s induction into the European Economic Community, can be seen as a slow process of re-acquaintance. Not all of Greece’s bilateral relationships have evolved equally well. The Anglo-Greek relationship is the strongest and healthiest, Lord Elgin’s marble-nicking notwithstanding. Professor Spyros Flogaitis of Athens University expressed this succinctly during a recent discussion about Brexit at the British-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce. The Greek state would be unthinkable without Britain, he said, because it is a product of the Battle of Navarino, in which Admiral Codrington definitively secured Greek independence from the Ottomans, and of Greece’s alliance with Britain in two World Wars. Without Britain in Europe, he went on, Greece is left alone to face the ascendant powers of central Europe, which have only ever been its enemies. (Flogaitis might have added that Britain was foremost in supporting the Greek quest to recreate the Athenian Empire by conquering Asia Minor in 1919-22. And it was Churchill who, at the Yalta Conference in 1945, secured Greece’s exclusion from the Iron Curtain).

Greece’s alignment with the British thalassocracy, itself a classical allusion, ensured that it has remained a recurrent enemy of Germany, and this historic animosity has resurfaced in the ongoing debt crisis with various below-the-belt remarks in populist German media about how far the Greeks have fallen. Do these stem from the 19th century discussion? Perhaps, but the debate over continuity, if it still lives, is in its death throes. Hanink quotes almost exclusively from embarrassed, self-deprecating Greeks who see antiquity as a burden and are happy to deny any relationship with it. The propagators of continuity, on the other hand, are portrayed as the far right Golden Dawn, who are a caricature of Greek nationalism. Neither is representative of mainstream Greek opinion. To most Greeks, continuity is a settled matter, and the reactions of the Greek government to its mauling by certain German politicians and media underline this viewpoint.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made full use of the EU’s crisis of confidence in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave it at a summit of Mediterranean member states last year. The resulting Athens Declaration extolled social values rather than fiscal discipline, and by extension the artistic, cultural and intellectual pedigrees of the southern states. “Europe cannot go on just being technicalities, finances, rules, administration and austerity,” said Italy’s premier, Matteo Renzi. “The Europe of tomorrow must above all be based on profoundly-felt values because this is what has made us great: the social Europe, the Europe of ideas, the Europe of beauty.” Tsipras was even more direct in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde. “We must decide whether we want a European Union or a German Europe,” he said.

Greece has since invested further in its cultural identity. Along with China, it led a group of ten countries in declaring the Ancient Civilisations Forum last April. The Forum’s declaration recognises “civilisation and cultural diplomacy as a soft and smart power”, hails the preservation of cultural heritage as a defence against “terrorism, radicalisation, extremism… and other forms of related intolerance”, and reminds everyone that the Greek world used to desist from hostilities under the Olympic Truce. Most of the ancient civilisations in the Forum had nothing to do with each other, and when they did it usually resulted in violence, but that is not the point. The Greeks are using it to remind the world that their currency is culture, and that China’s ambition to turn Peiraieus into the Mediterranean’s biggest container port shows countries like Germany that the Greeks can use culture to buy respect, while attracting investments from people who don’t dispute their illustrious descent.

The Classical Debt is a fascinating foray into the process by which Europeans moulded their own and modern Greek identity on the basis of ancient Greek ideals, and this shared culture helps explain the antagonism towards the Greeks when their path seems to veer away from that of the rest of Europe; but it is an anachronism to suggest that the recent crisis has revived the debate of previous centuries on Greek descent. Media attacks on the Greeks probably have more to do with the politics of their audience and the political alliances of the last hundred years, than with an outdated and highly subjective view of who the Greeks were, and are.