Tag Archives: eurozone

Why British sovereignty would be even weaker after leaving the European Union

Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg (left) meets European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (right). (EEA).
Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg (left) meets European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (right). (EEA).

Chief among the reasons that the ‘Leave’ campaign cites for its campaign to convince British voters to leave the European Union is sovereignty. European_UnionUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Here’s Ambrose-Evans Prichard, with a well-written and thoughtful essay endorsing Brexit last week in The Telegraph:

Stripped of distractions, it comes down to an elemental choice: whether to restore the full self-government of this nation, or to continue living under a higher supranational regime, ruled by a European Council that we do not elect in any meaningful sense, and that the British people can never remove, even when it persists in error.

For some proponents of the ‘Leave’ campaign, sovereignty matters so much that the warnings of a significant short-term disruption to the British economy simply do not matter. In the long run, Brexit’s benefits will come, supporters hope, from the ability of future British policymakers to enact laws and regulations unhindered by the grinding bureaucracy of Brussels and Strasbourg.

That Brexit will lead to such full-throated British sovereignty is not so clear — at least if the United Kingdom wants to leave the European Union while still retaining access to the single market, one of the world’s most integrated free-trade zones.

Britain, contemplating divorce, already has a ‘separation’ with Europe 

It’s not always easy to sort the alphabet soup within the European Union, let alone the rest of Europe that lies outside the technical European Union. But arguably the United Kingdom today enjoys much more freedom than any of the other 27 member-states of the European Union. As British voters consider divorce from Europe, they would do well to consideration that their country is already in something of a separation with Europe.

Today, the United Kingdom is neither a member of the euro currency zone and monetary union, nor (like Ireland) the Schengen zone of free movement. The former means that the United Kingdom still has its own currency, the pound sterling, and the Bank of England controls British monetary policy. The latter means that the United Kingdom retains more control over its borders than even non-EU states like Switzerland and Norway (both party to the Schengen Agreement).  Continue reading Why British sovereignty would be even weaker after leaving the European Union

Polish conservatives prepare to return to power after 8 years

Szydlo
Beata Szydło, who is leading the conservative Law and Justice Party in Poland’s parliamentary elections, could become the country’s third female head of government. (Facebook)

On Sunday, voters in Poland, the pivotal country of eastern and central Europe, will almost certainly vote to eject the governing, center-right Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform), handing an embarrassing defeat to Donald Tusk, the former prime minister who left Polish politics last year to become the president of the European Council.Poland_Flag_Icon

With the conservative, nationalist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) set to return to power after eight years, Poland’s rightward move could undermine Tusk’s European role. More importantly, for a country of nearly 39 million people and a rising economic powerhouse  in the European Union (with the rising clout to match), it could shift European policy to the right on refugee policy. Ever skeptical of Russia, a new conservative government would also agitate for greater European, US and NATO activism to counter Russian president Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and elsewhere.

May’s presidential vote: prelude to a electoral meltdown

In retrospect, the outcome of the October 25 parliamentary elections seems to have been settled five months ago when Polish voters narrowly ousted incumbent president Bronisław Komorowski in favor of 43-year-old Andrzej Duda, a conservative novice in Polish politics and little-known member of the European Parliament.

Former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, a controversial figure on the Polish right, determined earlier this year that he would not seek a rematch against Komorowski, who defeated Kaczyński in 2010 after a tragic airplane crash killed the incumbent, his twin brother Lech Kaczyński, along with dozens of other top Polish officials over Russian airspace. Kaczyński instead, handpicked Duda from relative obscurity to carry the presidential banner.

Komorowski, technically an independent, nevertheless boasted the support of the governing Civic Platform and, until the very end, seemed likely to win reelection. But his wooden style and a lack of engagement did him no favors in a campaign where anti-establishment rage was on the rise. For example, rock singer Paweł Kukiz attracted nearly 21% of the vote as a protest candidate, running an acerbic and populist campaign that won Poland’s youth vote in the first round of the presidential election.

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Komorowski fell narrowly behind on May 10 in the race’s first round, and he lost the May 24 runoff to Duda by a margin of 51.55% to 48.55%.

A kinder, gentler Law and Justice Party?

The youthful conservative Andzrej Duda won Poland's presidency in a surprise upset in May. (Facebook)
The youthful conservative Andzrej Duda won Poland’s presidency in a surprise upset in May. (Facebook)

Duda’s outsider status matched a growing sense that Poland’s strong economic performance hasn’t necessarily filtered through to the entire population, especially in Poland’s east, where traditionally conservative voters have missed the boom that’s developed in the country’s west and in urban centers like Warsaw. Moreover, Duda campaigned hard against Poland’s future accession as a eurozone member. Though Poland is notable for achieving the highest growth rate in the European Union since the 2010-11 eurozone sovereign debt crisis — GDP growth peaked at 4.8% in 2011 and achieved an impressive (by European standards) 3.3% growth rate last year — voters are nevertheless in a mood for change.

Kaczyński quickly learned the lesson of Duda’s success, and his party is running the same strategy for the October parliamentary elections. Instead of personally leading the party’s efforts for the parliamentary elections, Kaczyński turned the campaign over to another newcomer, Beata Szydło, a PiS deputy since 2005, the year that the PiS first took power (in a short-lived, two-year government that Jarosław Kaczyński led as prime minister while his brother held the presidency).

At a June party convention, Kaczyński quickly passed the political baton to Szydło, and Law and Justice held a lead in the parliamentary contest ever since. Like Duda, Szydło has taken a softer center-right tone throughout the campaign, avoiding the controversial topics that might otherwise have dogged Kaczyński.

Barring a complete meltdown, it’s nearly certain that Law and Justice will push Civic Platform out of power for the first time in eight years. The latest IBRiS poll, dated October 19, gives Law and Justice 36% of the vote to just 22% for Civic Platform, followed by the Polish left’s electoral coalition with just 11%.

Economic angst and refugee crisis impede Civic Platform’s reelection

Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz, an ally of European Council president Donald Tusk, faces an uphill fight in Sunday's election. (Facebook)
Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz, an ally of European Council president Donald Tusk, faces an uphill fight in Sunday’s election. (Facebook)

Such a damning defeat will leave Tusk somewhat isolated as European Council president and, potentially, in the awkward position of working against Poland’s soon-to-be government, notwithstanding the fact that Tusk’s election was something of an honor for Poland. Befitting the country’s centrality among the set of central and eastern European states that joined the European Union in 2004, Tusk is the first eastern European to hold one of the top EU offices of state.

Tusk left his government in the hands of Ewa Kopacz, a Tusk loyalist, former health minister and former marshal of the Sejm (akin to a parliamentary speaker), who has struggled in the last 13 months in an increasingly Sisyphean attempt to lead Civic Platform to its third consecutive victory. That may have less to do with the amiable Kopacz than a sense of restlessness over eight years of government by a party viewed increasingly as elitist and out of touch. Nagging scandals have emerged in the past two years, the most damaging of which involved the release of secret recordings of former foreign minister Radek Sikorski, former finance minister Jacek Rostowski and others making crude comments, including about the bilateral relationship with the United States, in Sikorski’s case.

As Law and Justice attacks the fits and starts of a Polish economy that still has some wrinkles to work out, Kopacz has been left promising, with little credibility, that young Polish workers can fare just as well at home as in western Europe. Despite growth, Polish nGDP per capita is just around $13,000, far below wealthier countries like Germany and France.

gdp per capita

In addition, since the May presidential election, the European migrant crisis is now boosting the Polish right, as the number of refugees across the continent surges to numbers unseen since World War II. In the leaders’ debate on Tuesday evening, Szydło boldly attacked EU refugee policy and argued that ‘Poles have the right to be afraid’ of the unknown consequences of accepting so many refugees. Kopacz, for her part, argued that her government successfully negotiated down the number of refugees that the European Commission’s original quota plan entailed.

Whither Kaczyński?

The outspoken former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński has been trying to return to power for eight years. (Facebook)
The outspoken former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński has been trying to return to power for eight years. (Facebook)

The former mayor of Brzeszcze, Szydło is virtually unknown outside of Poland (and perhaps even inside Poland until her elevation earlier this summer), which is somewhat staggering for someone who is set to become the leader of the European Union’s sixth-most populous member:

An ethnography graduate and mother to two sons, the erstwhile PiS backbencher was only recently as unknown as Duda. But she has a reputation for being well-adjusted, hard-working and resilient. But also a little dull…. She doesn’t have to pretend to be down-to-earth — she just is.

Though Kaczyński himself formally nominated Szydło as the Law and Justice prime ministerial candidate, the party founder will surely play an important behind-the-scenes role if the PiS returns to power. So the largest question mark hanging over the coming PiS government is just how much it will be Szydło’s government and not just Kaczyński’s government. Last week, for example, Kaczyński made headlines by suggesting that migrants are bringing ‘all sorts of parasites and protozoa’ to Europe.

For all of Kaczyński’s odd statements, he may turn out to be more distraction than puppetmaster. Duda, for example, has taken a much friendlier line towards Germany than Kaczyński might have liked, and Szydło would be wise to follow Duda in avoiding the confrontational approach with European leaders that Kaczyński deployed a decade ago. Nevertheless, Poland will certainly continue to take a hawkish line against Russia, pushing for greater EU and NATO engagement over Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.

Poland’s voters will elect all 460 deputies of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, and all 100 senators of the upper house, the Senat. The deputies are elected by proportional representation in multi-member constituencies that contain between 7 and 19 representatives, subject in each case to a 5% national threshold. (Senators are elected on a first-past-the-post basis).

For a decade, Polish politics has been a contest between two visions of the ‘right’ — Tusk’s liberal, business-friendly and pro-European variant and Kaczyński’s socially conservative, religious, populist and eurosceptic version. That will remain the case on Sunday, though there are a handful of other parties vying for seats, a handful of which are new to the political scene.

The traditional party of the Polish left, the Democratic Left Alliance, joined forces with four other smaller leftist, centrist and green parties to form the Zjednoczona Lewica (ZL, United Left), under the leadership of Barbara Nowacka. The parties together won 18.8% of the vote in the 2011 election, but polls suggest it will be lucky to win barely 10% in 2015. Though the party boldly advocates taking in as many Syrian and other refugees as possible, the Polish left has long been out of sync with the electorate.

Kukiz, whose own anti-establishment movement took the presidential campaign by storm, seems to have stalled, with support for his ‘Kukiz ’15’ movement fizzling gradually since May, though the group may still win some seats in the Sejm.

The longstanding Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe (Polish People’s Party), a traditional Christian democratic party, and the more libertarian, anti-immigration and anti-European ‘KORWIN’ coalition of the hard-right MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke could also enter the Sejm. Nowoczesna (Modern), a liberal party formed in May by economist Ryszard Petru, is also hoping to cross the 5% threshold.

If all three parties make it — and if Law and Justice fails to win a 231-seat majority, a distinct possibility — Szydło might be forced to include one of them as a partner in a governing coalition.

Why this weekend’s election in Greece doesn’t really matter

meimarakis-tsipras-Photo credit to International Balkan News Agency.

In the televised debate earlier this week, Greece’s recent prime minister Alexis Tsipras dismissed the idea of a grand coalition as ‘unnatural,’ arguing that Greek voters would have to choose between a progressive coalition or a conservative coalition.Greece Flag Icon

Tsipras, however, is wrong.

Greek voters aren’t choosing much of anything at all. Greece is essentially now a fiscal ward of the eurozone’s finance ministers, and the next Greek parliament’s composition will not be much different than the current one, a mix of left-wing and right-wing legislators who committed to implementing the EU-mandated bailout program, despite their misgivings, because the alternative would be much worse.

Whether the recent prime minister Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left), or the opposition leader Vangelis Meimarakis (pictured above, left, with Tsipras), head of conservative  New Democracy (ND, Νέα Δημοκρατία) leads that effort doesn’t actually matter all that much.

In substance, it’s the choice between orange-flavored sorbet or tangerine-flavored sorbet.

Neither leader will truly be in charge of Greece’s fiscal policy, because that is already being set by eurozone finance ministers in Brussels and Berlin. The best that the next prime minister can hope for is some form of debt relief — eurozone leaders will discuss the matter in October, and economists believe that some form of debt relief (even if that just means extending Greece’s repayment period) will be necessary, despite strident political opposition in countries like Germany, Finland and The Netherlands.

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RELATED: Greece to vote in September snap elections

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The election is now a dead heat — polls show that the Tsipras-led rump of SYRIZA is essentially tied with New Democracy. Though the 300-member Hellenic Parliament is generally determined by proportional representation, the winner of Sunday’s election gains a ‘bonus’ of 50 seats, so even a narrow win means a windfall for the first-placed party.

But the question is chiefly one of style and symbolism — and which leader the electorate believes can lead Greece through the bailout in the most efficient and painless manner in light of the constraints any government will face in charting its own fiscal policy course. Continue reading Why this weekend’s election in Greece doesn’t really matter

Greece to vote in September snap elections

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Ballot-worn and crisis-weary Greeks will go to the polls for the third time in nine months in what amounts to a fresh referendum on the country’s third European bailout.Greece Flag Icon

Facing a growing insurgency in his own government as he implements the terms of a new European Union-backed bailout of up to €96 billion, prime minister Alexis Tsipras will dissolve the Hellenic Parliament and call early elections for September 20 — in an autumn where Turkey, just across the Aegean Sea, is also likely to hold snap elections after the apparent failure of coalition talks.

There’s already been a disproportionately large amount of ink spilled on poor Greece in 2015. With the first disbursement of the country’s third bailout accomplished, though, there’s probably no better time for Tsipras to go to the electorate. The early expectation is that Tsipras will survive the elections and govern with a more stable and likely centrist majority. But if you’ve learned anything about Greek politics this year, it’s that you should expect the unexpected twists and turns of a country that’s struggling culturally, economically and politically to exit crisis mode.

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RELATED: Both Greece and Turkey could be headed
for autumn snap elections

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From anti-austerity crusade in January to a third bailout in July 

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Tsipras (pictured above), the leader of SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left), won election in January on a pledge to reduce the terms of Greece’s memorandum and provide relief from the effects of a half-decade of austerity imposed on Greece’s fiscal policy — all without endangering Greek membership in the eurozone. After months of talks, headed by his outspoken one-time finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, it became clear that Greece did not have the political leverage that Tsipras hoped would force a more lenient deal for his country. By the end of June, it was clear that the eurozone’s finance ministers had no appetite for extending Greece’s second bailout program without additional concessions to cut Greece’s still-bloated public sector and to reform its economy.

Tsipras then hastily called a referendum for July 5, campaigning against the latest deal on offer by the Europeans, and the ‘no’ campaign (‘oxi‘) won a stronger-than-expected victory, despite closing Greece’s banks and imposing capital controls that restricted daily ATM withdrawals, at their nadir, to just €60.

Despite the referendum, Tsipras returned to the negotiating table and ultimately accepted a proposal for the third bailout — with terms even tougher than those rejected in the July 5 referendum. Tsipras, who dismissed Varoufakis as his finance minister hours after the referendum, argued that Greece had to choose between two tough choices — austerity tied to yet another bailout program or the insolvency and financial chaos that would result from a disorderly exit from the eurozone. Tsipras essentially admitted at the time that he had no ‘plan B,’ and that his country lacked the foreign reserves to establish a new currency in the event of ‘Grexit.’

Leftist rebels increasingly split from SYRIZA over bailout

SYRIZA, until recently a loose coalition of leftists ranging from mildly anti-austerity centrists to former communists, almost immediately split over whether to accept the third bailout, in spite of the chaotic alternative. In particular, Varoufakis and then-energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, the leader of Left Platform (Αριστερή Πλάτφορμα), have been vocal critics of the deal, and parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou attacked it vociferously in several key votes.

For the past month, however, Tsipras has pushed through the terms of the third bailout with dwindling support from his own party, and opposition MPs have kept his government and the bailout afloat. SYRIZA controls 149 of 300 seats in the parliament, and its junior governing partner, the nationalist right-wing and anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες), control just 13 more seats. But by last week, support from within Tsipras’s coalition dropped to below 120.

Ultimately, Tsipras wants to call snap elections because he can’t function indefinitely with a government that refuses to deliver him a majority. By calling a fresh vote, Tsipras hopes to win a mandate for his new approach and for the new bailout program, though even Tsipras himself has grumbled that its terms will continue to retard Greek GDP growth and employment, keeping Greece stuck in its six-year economic depression.

There are no reliable August polls, but surveys from the summer show that SYRIZA, under Tsipras’s leadership, still commands a massive majority of around 40% compared to just 20% for the center-right opposition, New Democracy (ND, Νέα Δημοκρατία).

But we have no polls that show what might happen if, as seems likely, Left Platform splits formally from SYRIZA. This is a crucial question because the party that wins the most votes in an election also wins a ‘bonus’ of 50 MPs. So if Left Platform steals a significant share of SYRIZA’s voters, another third party — most likely New Democracy — could win the election with a much smaller share of the vote.

Tsipras is a wily campaigner, though, and he should benefit from the fact that for the first six months of his premiership, he engaged in substantial brinksmanship in pursuit of a better deal for Greece.

He failed.

So the challenge for Varoufakis and Left Platform will be to describe how they would otherwise succeed — and how a eurozone exit would make life easier for Greece’s poor and its shrinking middle class. After all, Varoufakis and Lafazanis were key players in Tspiras’s government until July. At some point, voters will realize that the SYRIZA rebels have little more to offer than Greece’s Communist Party (KKE, Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας), which won only 5.5% in the January election. Tspiras, having followed Varoufakis’s advice, brought his country to the edge of Grexit. Tsipras will argue that Left Platform and the Greek Communists offer no solution that will keep Greece in the eurozone, and he’ll have the political scars of the last six months to prove it.

The state of Greece’s center-right and center-left opposition

Ultimately, however, Tsipras’s greatest threat may come from the right, which encompasses not just the traditional Greek right, but the center and the center-left as well. They will argue that Tsipras’s hardball negotiation tactics not only failed, but needlessly disrupted a nascent economic recovery and led to the flight of billions of deposits from Greek banks. And that’s not incorrect. But Tsipras will argue that, unlike his predecessors, conservative Antonis Samaras and leftist George Papandreou, he fought for Greek sovereignty in the face of the eurozone’s unelected officials and tried to reintroduce the democratic voice of the Greek people into the debate over Greece’s economic future.

Moreover, by calling snap elections so soon, Tsipras also hopes he can win a mandate before even more economic pain befalls voters from the additional pension cuts and an increase in Greece’s VAT required under the new bailout.

With former prime minister Antonis Samaras’s resignation after the July referendum, New Democracy has removed one of the most toxic figures in Greek politics from its leadership. But its acting leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, in office for six weeks, hardly seems prepared for the sudden challenge of unseating Tsipras. Nor does Fofi Gennimata, the leader of Greece’s once-dominant center-left party, PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement — Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα). She’s held the PASOK leadership only since June 14.

Theodorakis

Tsipras’s most credible opponent will be centrist Stavros Theodorakis, a former television reporter and commentator who founded To Potami (Το Ποτάμι, which means ‘The River’), a centrist, pro-European party, in February 2014. Theodorakis (pictured above) harshly condemned Tsipras’s decision to call a referendum over extending Greece’s bailout, but he has nevertheless supported Tsipras’s efforts to enact Greece’s new bailout since mid-July. As a more pragmatic and centrist ‘Tsipras 2.0’ is emerging, the distance between him and Theodorakis is shrinking.

If Tsipras wins, that means he will look towards To Potami as a coalition partner in his next government; until then, however, he will be fighting with Theodorakis over the same pool of centrist and center-left voters.

Though the Independent Greeks have backed Tsipras throughout the ups and downs of the last seven months, it’s not clear how such an anti-austerity party will hold onto its support after having embraced a new bailout memorandum. Its leader, defense minister Panos Kammenos, could face an uphill battle in selling the bailout deal. If ANEL collapses, however, it could be to the gain of Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή), a eurosceptic, anti-bailout, anti-immigrant and neo-fascist group that vies with To Potami for third place in the polls, typically with between 5% and 8% support.

The lessons of Newfoundland’s 1948 referendum

newfoundland
Imagine a North America with three, not two, countries north of the Rio Grande — the United States, Canada and… Newfoundland.newfoundlandCanada Flag Icon

Newfoundland!? That’s right. The Canadian outpost in the north Atlantic. Imagine today a proud population of nearly 530,000, now basking in the proceeds of a thriving offshore oil market, growing interest in summer tourism and a historical reliance on fisheries.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds — and if not for the votes of 7,000 Newfoundlanders on this day in 1948, the proudly sovereign country of Newfoundland and Labrador might exist today as a strategic Atlantic hub.

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With an area slightly larger than Bangladesh or Greece, and with a population similar to that of Luxembourg and larger than the populations of Iceland, Belize, Brunei or Malta, the Canadian province today has a GDP per capita of nearly $68,000, in Canadian dollars (as of 2013) — much higher than the Canadian average of nearly $54,000.

On July 22, 1948, nearly 150,000 Newfoundlanders voted in the second of two fiercely contested referenda. They decided, however narrowly, in favor of confederation with Canada. On April 1 of the following year, Newfoundland and Labrador became the 10th Canadian province. The referendum brought to an end 15 years of uncertain status — that’s because in 1934, the essentially independent ‘Dominion of Newfoundland’ reverted back to colonial status after a financial crisis left the country unable to service its debt.

Sound familiar? Relations today between Greece and the rest of the eurozone (most especially Germany) are as strained as ever. With a third bailout effectively ceding control of Greek fiscal policy from prime minister Alexis Tsipras to European authorities, Newfoundland’s example holds instructive lessons on sovereignty and debt. The referendum — and the failure of the pro-independence campaign — also provides a data point for aspiring nations like Scotland and Catalunya.

Nearly 80 years of sovereignty

Newfoundland first won self-rule in 1854, with the introduction of ‘responsible government,’ and it acquired more formal dominion status (equivalent to the dominion status Canada held) in 1907. Continue reading The lessons of Newfoundland’s 1948 referendum

Three ways Europe and Greece could blow their last chance at a debt deal

varoufakiseuclidPhoto credit to EPA/BGNES.

The world woke up to the news Monday morning that outspoken Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis had, at long lost, been dismissed by his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.Greece Flag Icon

Varoufakis (pictured above, right, behind Greece’s new finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos) had become, to say the least, a brake on negotiations with the Eurogroup, even though his widespread popularity and strident anti-austerity boosted Tsipras’s government to a stunning victory in Sunday’s debt negotiations referendum, whereby 61.31% of voters rejected a prior plan offered by Greece’s European creditors.

European officials struggled to reach consensus with Varoufakis, who just last week, in the middle of the rushed referendum campaign, referred to his European ministerial colleagues as ‘terrorists.’ Tsakalotos, an Oxford-trained economist, is expected to take a more mild-mannered approach, and he already supplanted Varoufakis as Greece’s chief negotiator back in April. That was, however, only to the extent anyone could supplant the motorbike-riding, free-wheeling Varoufakis, who gave his final press conference as finance minister Sunday night in a t-shirt.

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RELATED: If Grexit comes,
Greece will have wasted five years in depression

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Varoufakis’s resignation, along with a pledge of national unity across Greece’s mainstream domestic political spectrum, breathed new life into hopes for last-minute talks for a third bailout, allowing the country to reopen its illiquid and perhaps insolvent banks, lift (at least partially) capital controls that have limited daily cash withdrawals to €60, restore liquidity to ATMs that have run out of cash altogether, address Greece’s €1.6 billion default on June 30 to the International Monetary Fund and meet a July 20 deadline to make a €3.5 billion payment to the European Central Bank.

For all the celebration that followed the resounding ‘no’ vote in Sunday’s referendum, the coming Sunday could bring financial austerity far more severe than Greece has known in the past five years, marked by a nearly 30% drop in GDP growth and a 26% unemployment rate. Failure to reach a deal could result in a shortage of cash, food, medicine and so many other necessities to the extent that European leaders are whispering that Greece could require humanitarian aid.

Notwithstanding the dire consequences, a deal is not necessarily likely — or even possible. If they’re lucky, the European Union has five days to prevent Grexit. Here are four reasons why it will be so difficult in the hours ahead.  Continue reading Three ways Europe and Greece could blow their last chance at a debt deal

If Grexit comes, Greece will have wasted five years in depression

oxi

Photo credit to Orestis Panagiotou / EPA.

If you think the past nine days have been tense, just wait.Greece Flag Icon

For all the uncertainty and mistrust that have characterized Greek-EU relations since Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras suddenly announced a snap referendum last Friday, the week ahead promises to reach ever dizzying heights of suspense after Greek voters delivered a strong endorsement to Tsipras by rejecting the terms of the most recent deal on offer from the Eurogroup — over 61% of the electorate voted no (or ‘oxi’). The result, whether Tsipras admits it or not, essentially begins the process by which Greece will eventually leave the eurozone.

There are no winners here.

Tsipras and the far-left SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left) took power after January’s parliamentary elections on the mutually incompatible pledge of keeping Greece in the eurozone while demanding more lenient conditions from the country’s creditors. In so doing, Tspiras miscalculated European goodwill. It wasn’t unreasonable for Tsipras and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to argue that Greece’s debt load is unsustainable. Moreover, even plenty of orthodox economists, including many at the International Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s creditors, admit that years of austerity have exacerbated economic conditions — GDP contraction of nearly 30% since 2008, a 26% unemployment rate and a nearly 50% youth unemployment rate. But the erratic and amateurish approach of the Greek government, capped by Tsipras’s 11th-hour decision to call the July 5th referendum, destroyed what little goodwill remained for his government.

There’s still time — even now — for Greece and the rest of Europe to reach a deal. But the complete lack of trust between Tsipras’s government and the entirety of the rest of the eurozone’s leadership makes it much less likely to happen. The complete breakdown in trust between Tsipras and even sympathetic European leaders must certainly rank among the most troubling casualties of the past nine days. Continue reading If Grexit comes, Greece will have wasted five years in depression

Four sentences that frame the Greek-EU brinksmanship conundrum

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If you don’t have time to read Suffragio‘s latest update on the chances of Greek elections, here’s an easy framework to think about the endgame for Greece and EU leaders:Greece Flag Icon

1. The central dilemma for Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his SYRIZA-led government is that the Greek electorate wants both (a) Tsipras to continue to engage in high-stakes brinkmanship with the European Union and Greece’s lenders to get a better deal on Greek debt and (b) to remain in the eurozone, and this is an untenable position for Greek voters to take, given the facts — even if you believe that the austerity measures taken pursuant to Greece’s two bailouts were unjust and injurious to the Greek economy.

2. The trickiest question now is when Greece and the Eurogroup will reach a ‘brink’ moment where there’s no going back, which could be triggered by any sort of financial, political or other factors.

3. If Tsipras calls fresh snap elections before the ‘brink’ moment, it could make a final deal on Greek debt even harder because Tsipras might easily win a stronger mandate from the Greek electorate, especially if Greek voters don’t fully realize the inconsistencies of point (1) above (and, by the way, Tspiras will have no political incentive to clarify them).

4. If the ‘brink’ moment comes before any fresh elections, Tsipras will have to choose between (a) making a deal with the Eurogroup, which will cause SYRIZA to crumble one way or another (though not necessarily Tsipras if he’s politically talented enough to emerge as the leader of whatever center-left entity emerges from the collateral damage) or (b) returning to the drachma, probably on an involuntary basis when Greece can’t meet its obligations.

Call option 4a the ‘Cyprus 2013’ option.

Call option 4b the ‘British Black Wednesday 1992’ option on steroids.

Both will be painful.

Economist Tyler Cowen, over at Marginal Revolution,  has taken to calling Greece’s new government the ‘Not Very Serious People,’ riffing off a term familiar to Paul Krugman’s readers. But put aside all the smoke over the personalities (of course Wolfgang Schäuble and Yanis Varoufakis hate one another) and the smokescreen over reparations and the possibility of a last-minute loan from Moscow (or Beijing), and what you’re left with is the conclusion that Tsipras and his government have some Very Serious decisions to make soon.

What are the chances of snap elections (again) in Greece?

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It’s a sign that fiscal affairs in Greece are bad when the sensible Plan B to cover the Greek government’s looming shortfall involves loans from Moscow (despite protests to the contrary).Greece Flag Icon

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has dismissed European sanctions against Russia, and he met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this week, signaling to the European Union that Greece is keeping its options open if ongoing debt talks fail. Though Tsipras didn’t seek any financial assistance from Putin, he failed to convince Putin to lift a ban on Greek agricultural exports.

The even more outlandish Plan B involves demanding reparations from Germany for World War II damages, amounting to €278.7 billion. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s just a little more than the €240 billion in financing that Greece has received in the last half-decade under two bailout programs from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Today, Greece’s government, not even three months old, will repay a €460 million portion of its debt to the International Monetary Fund. But that doesn’t mean that all is well in Athens, where last year’s green shoots of economic recovery are now obscured by the uncertainty of a leftist administration that’s engaged in brinksmanship over Greece’s financing and, ultimately, over the wider question of national fiscal sovereignty in today’s eurozone.

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RELATED: EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

RELATED: What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

RELATED: Seven lessons from the Greek election results

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 Why Tsipras can’t (and won’t) make a deal on Berlin’s terms

Without a deal, Tsipras will go down in history as the prime minister who led Greece out of the eurozone, willingly or not. Politically, however, Tspiras can’t agree to any deal that the Eurogroup seems to be offering. That’s increasingly a recipe for Tsipras to call fresh elections early this summer, but there’s no guarantee the results will solve the Greek-EU political quagmire.

Tsipras and his anti-austerity SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) were elected three months ago on a pledge to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s debt with its European lenders and end the harsh austerity measures that have exacerbated Greece’s contracting economy and growing unemployment. But the EU’s leaders, including Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, German chancellor Angela Merkel and, presumably, ECB president Mario Draghi, no longer fear the ‘contagion’ effect of a Greek eurozone exit.  Continue reading What are the chances of snap elections (again) in Greece?

As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal

schaublePhoto credit to Bloomberg News.

If you want to know which side ‘thinks it won’ in today’s temporary deal between Greece and the Eurogroup, you need look no further than the extraordinary statement from German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who essentially spiked the ball in Greece’s face after winning a key concession from its new anti-austerity government that it would honor existing Greek commitments to its creditors in exchange for a four-month extension of its bailout program:Greece Flag Icon

“Being in government is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream,” the conservative veteran said, stressing Athens would get no aid payments until its bailout program was properly completed. “The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters.”

Even if you think the Greek government had little leverage to force the Eurogroup to accept its demands and even if you think today’s temporary deal is at least a step on the path to a stronger Greece within the eurozone, I can’t think of a statement from any European leader more at odds with reality and basic political acumen since the out-of-touch musings of former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 2004 and 2005, when he was in charge of the process to enact a constitution for the European Union, a process that died when France itself rejected the constitution in a referendum.

It’s as if Schäuble (pictured above with Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis) actively wants to feed the notion that Germany dominates European policymaking. His comments might play well in Munich or Stuttgart, but they’ll be poisonous in Madrid and Athens, and cause some amount of indignation in capitals like Paris and Dublin. 

Imagine a different response, whereby German chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a statement that, even while holding steady against concessions to the Greek government, acknowledged Greece’s economic suffering and acknowledged that the Berlin-led bailouts have caused more harm than anticipated — an admission, by the way, that the International Monetary Fund was already making years ago.

A German Europe, and a divided Europe

Greece is in a depression that’s now lasted six years and runs deeper than the Great Depression of the 1930s in either Europe or the United States. Unemployment is rife in Spain, so much so that an untested anti-austerity group, Podemos, now leads polls for the general election later this year. Italy, for now, has placed its trust in its young Tuscan prime minister Matteo Renzi, who seems to have far more commitment to reform than ability to carry it out. Romania and Bulgaria, despite responsible budget policies, are being hollowed out by depopulation and migration to wealthier EU countries.

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RELATED: What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

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Europe’s best and brightest are leaving economically depressed regions and countries, and they’re heading to London. To Amsterdam. To Frankfurt. That’s left national governments responsible for fiscal commitments to social welfare, education and health care. While its most ambitious citizens look abroad for careers, these national governments find their revenues shrinking and their obligations increasing. Continue reading As Schäuble sneers, Greeks agree four-month debt deal

Merkel’s incredibly stupid New Year Grexit bluff

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It’s understandable why German chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t want to cut any deals with Greece — no matter who wins the snap elections later this month.Greece Flag IconGermany Flag Icon

Making concessions, especially to a far-left, anti-austerity figure like potential prime minister Alexis Tspiras, could embolden every recession-weary country from Portugal to Romania to demand relief from Brussels and Berlin, and it could give substantive figures on the European left, including Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, French president François Hollande and even German social democrats in Merkel’s own grand coalition, a platform to doubt the Berlin-dominated approach to fiscal policy throughout the eurozone.

According to Merkel (pictured above, right, with incumbent Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras) and much of the German electorate, the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund has already been too soft on Greece, lowering the interest on over €240 million in bailout funds and extending the repayment schedule.

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RELATED: What to expect from Greece’s January 25 snap elections

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Nevertheless, it’s incredible that Merkel and her aides take such a cavalier attitude to a potential Greek eurozone exit, which they apparently haven’t ruled out in the event that Tsipras’s leftist SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) wins national elections in 18 days. Three years after ECB president Mario Draghi promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the eurozone, Merkel now believes that Greece is expendable, that the eurozone is no longer subject to the domino theory that would make a ‘Grexit’ calamitous and that the eurozone is now governed by a chain theory that suggests a Greece-less eurozone will be rid of its weakest link.

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It may be smart domestic politics in Germany, where the anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) is gaining support on Merkel’s right flank in both state and federal politics, but it’s an incredibly tin-eared intrusion three weeks before Greeks vote. It certainly won’t help the beleaguered coalition government of center-right, pro-bailout prime minister Antonis Samaras, whose New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) narrowly trails SYRIZA in most polls. Greeks already realize that a vote for Tsipras (pictured above) brings with it greater uncertainty, so Samaras has some hope that the electorate will have doubts about handing power to SYRIZA. He certainly doesn’t need Merkel to make that point for him.  Continue reading Merkel’s incredibly stupid New Year Grexit bluff

Photo of the day: Helmut Kohl at Brandenburg Gate

amazingPhoto credit to Andreas Mühe/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn for BILD.

This is perhaps the most haunting photo in world politics in 2014.Germany Flag Icon

Helmut Kohl, who was first elected chancellor of West Germany in 1982 and who left office in 1998 following his final term as the chancellor of a reunified Germany, is today long out of frontline politics and, since a 2008 stroke, has been confined to a wheelchair. He sits alone in this photo for Bild at night in the glow of the Brandenburg Gate, one of many points that divided East Berlin from West Berlin for the better part of 28 years.

It’s astonishing that, with Sunday’s 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which ultimately resulted in the reunification of Germany and became a harbinger of the collapse of the Soviet Union, we’ve almost reached the point where the Berlin Wall has been down longer than it initially stood.

Even as Mikhail Gorbachev, still around as an icon of the revolutionary change of that era (and despised, to this day, in Russia), is warning that Ukraine could spur a new 21st century cold war, Sunday was an opportunity to celebrate the universal desire for freedom. That was as true in 1989 as it is in 2014, when many walls still remain, from Gaza to China’s ‘great firewall.’

For Germany, the reunification of East and West has been very successful in some ways, others not. It’s almost comical today to imagine British prime minister Margaret Thatcher telephoning Gorbachev, frantically and practically begging him to stop German reunification. But when we think about the chiefly German-led European Union of 2014, with its emphasis on tight budgets (instead of GDP and jobs growth) and its peculiarly German reticence as regards debt and inflation (even in the face of growing deflationary pressure), there may have been something to Thatcher’s warnings, after all. Ulrich Beck captures the peculiar problem of German Europe in a new short book, translated earlier this summer into English.

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RELATED: Has the first Ossi chancellor been good or bad
for the former East Germany?

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German reunification is itself something of a cautionary tale about the perils of implementing a currency union in what, in 1990, was most certainly not an optimal currency zone. Though the past 25 years haven’t been horrific for the six eastern German states that once constituted the German Democratic Republic, it’s hard to say that the former GDR has done better than Poland or other former ‘Iron Curtain’ countries. That, in part, may have been due to the effects of conversion of East German currency on a 1:1 ratio with the West German deutsche mark.

Continue reading Photo of the day: Helmut Kohl at Brandenburg Gate

ECB’s Draghi on raising inflation in Europe: ‘We will do exactly that.’

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Italy’s Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, joined Stanley Fischer, the vice chair of the Federal Reserve, in an hour-long program at the Brookings Institution earlier today.European_Union

Draghi addressed at length both the ECB’s steps to confront deflation and the need for EU countries to enact bolder economic reforms in his remarks and in his discussion with Fischer, the former president of Israel’s central bank and a former professor at the University of Chicago who once taught Draghi.

Deflation as Europe’s chief economic threat

DSC00853Draghi stressed that he understands the biggest risk to European Union’s economic recovery is deflation. He noted that the ECB is transitioning from a more passive approach to a much more active ‘QE-style’ approach to the bank’s balance sheet — in part by moving last month to purchase private-sector bonds and asset-backed securities. Even if Draghi’s efforts still fall short of the kind of quantitative easing (e.g., outright asset purchases) that the Federal Reserve introduced to US monetary policy five years ago, Draghi committed himself to lifting the eurozone’s inflation from ‘its excessively low level’:

We will do exactly that.

It’s not exactly ‘whatever it takes,’ but it’s a sign that Draghi realizes the dangers that deflation presents, with the eurozone inflation rate falling to just 0.3%, the lowest level since the height of the eurozone’s existential sovereign debt crisis:

Euroarea-Inflation1

Draghi has been one of the leading voices for a more active ECB approach to boosting inflation to 2% within the next two years, though Germany’s powerful central bank, the Bundesbank, and its president Jens Weidmann (also a member of the ECB’s 24-person governing council), remains skeptical of full-throated quantitative easing.  Continue reading ECB’s Draghi on raising inflation in Europe: ‘We will do exactly that.’

How an independent Scotland could enter the EU

Scottish referendum debate urging yes vote

One of the most vexing questions of the current campaign for Scottish independence is how easily it might be for an independent Scotland to join the European Union.scotlandUnited Kingdom Flag IconEuropean_Union

As a constituent part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has been part of the European Union and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, since 1972, the date of the first EEC enlargement, when Ireland and Denmark also joined.

As such, Scotland has been exempt from several conditions that would be required of an independent country seeking EU membership today. Scotland hasn’t had to join the eurozone or become a member of the Schengen zone, which allows all EU citizens to travel freely throughout 26 of the 28 member states (Ireland and the United Kingdom are the exceptions). It has also received some of the benefit of those rebates that Margaret Thatcher clawed back from Europe in the 1980s.

An independent Scotland might be forced to accept, at least in principle, joining either or both of the the eurozone the Schengen zone as a condition of re-accession to the European Union. The former could complicate the assurances that Scottish first minister Alex Salmond has tried to give that Scotland could continue using the British pound and, like Ireland today, share open borders with what remains of the United Kingdom. Continue reading How an independent Scotland could enter the EU

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 2)

 Across Europe on Monday, officials, voters and everyone else were trying to sort through the consequences of yesterday’s voting, across all 28 member-states, to elect the 751 members of the European Parliament.European_Union

Late Sunday, I began analyzing the results on a state-by-state basis — you can read my take here on what the European election results mean in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain.

This post picks up where that left off, however, with a look at some of the results in Europe’s mid-sized member-states.

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RELATED: A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

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With the count now almost complete, here’s where the Europe-wide parties stand:

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The European People’s Party (EPP), which has been the largest group in the European Parliament since 1999, will continue to be the largest group, but with fewer seats (215) than after any election since 1994.

The second-largest group, the Party of European Socialists (PES) has 188 seats, a slight gain, but not the breakout performance for which it was hoping.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE) will remain the third-largest group, notwithstanding the collapse of two of its constituent parties, the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom and the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) in Germany.

The European Greens have won 53 seats, just two less than before the elections. The Party of the European Left, which had hoped to make strong gains on the strength of its anti-austerity message, gained nine seats to 44.

The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a slightly eurosceptic group of conservative parties, including the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, holds steady at 46 seats — that’s a slight loss of around eight seats. The Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy (MELD) gained six.

The real increase was among the ‘non-inscrits,’ the unaffiliated MEPs, which will rise from around 30 to 104. The bulk of those MEPs include the newly elected eurosceptics that have made such a big splash in the past 24 hours, including Marine Le Pen’s Front national (FN, National Front) in France.

But, in addition to being a pan-European contest with wide-ranging themes that resonate throughout the European Union, the elections are also 28 national contests, and they’ve already claimed resignations of two center-left leaders — Eamon Gilmore, of Ireland’s Labour Party, and Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party).

Here’s a look at how the European elections are affecting nine more mid-sized counties across the European Union: Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.

Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 2)