Thursday 16 July 2015

Too much Europe could end in tears

The left are calling for Greek debt write-offs. This is stupid. The debt is the only leverage we have on Greece in order for it to clean up its act. If there is a hole in Greek finances it's because so much has been embezzled. What Greece needs is a corruption task force to find out where the money has been going and take it back. One might start by looking at the 900 or so Greek shipping families. The theft is of gargantuan proportions. A write-off would effectively enrich a small group of oligarchs without consequence - and any subsequent bailouts would likely suffer the same fate. But the EU risks similar with its bailout conditions.

The danger for the EU is that its insistence on various privatisations is that public assets will be sold off for a song, sometimes to the lowest bidder, run into the ground and consequently will rack up yet more state debt. We've seen this in both Poland and Ukraine. The system of governance is not mature or clean enough to handle such transfers. One can sympathise to some extent with Greek reluctance given the precedents for Western backed firesales. Privatise in haste, repent at leisure.

This is actually my chief complaint about the EU's association agreement terms for Ukraine. Ukrainians make Greeks look like petty crooks when it comes to grand larceny. At least the Greeks have some half way competent record keeping that might lend some clue as to where the money is going. We cannot expect such broken countries to be able to adequately handle such sell-offs. We got a good deal from our privatisation because it was planned over many years, handled (for the most part) responsibly and to (more or less) respectable bidders. The chances of that being the case for Ukraine are nil.

Moves by the EU to embrace Ukraine as part of the EU family will probably result in similar crunches to Greece. Too much, too soon and without the proper supervision. The terms have been set, they've been told what to do, but barring a few token arrests, there is scant evidence that anti-corruption reforms are happening. Will the EU then point to these token reforms as it did with Greece and claim a mandate for "more Europe"? Cooking the books for political purposes is not unprecedented for the EU.

Moreover, the establishment of a regulatory regime suchas the EU's takes years, if not decades. We in Britain needed little time to adapt because we are a mature economy with established systems that only need tweaks, but for Eastern Europe, with agriculture still in the dark ages, with a large gift economy, neither fiscally or intellectually equipped for regulatory compliance, we risk alienating the people as farms are sold off to foreign firms who can meet regulatory challenges. In Poland this has been viewed as a corporate landgrab - and not unjustifiably.

That will see a major resurgence of communist parties as domestic workers are displaced and replaced with cheaper foreign (often illegal) labour - without effective immigration policing. Basically Ukip on stilts. Euroscepticism is growing in Poland and so is anti-immigrant sentiment. Similarly EU cultural reforms will not be welcomed in the rural outbacks. Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, the head of the ultra-conservative Catholic radio station Radio Maryja considers the EU to be pure evil: abortion, euthanasia and gay parades. "In the west, I detect mostly the power of Satan," he said on air in 2002. The crass parade of beautiful people recruited into the police, patrolling Kiev in Toyota Prius's is provocative. Possibly deliberately so.

This is not to say that reforms should not take place, rather that it should be done slowly and carefully according to a long term plan with adequate supervision (and with some of that democracy stuff preferably). In most respects, Ukraine has been told what to do but the EU has not been forthcoming with much in the way of technical assistance. They pour in money but that quickly finds its way into the hands of oligarchs and thieves. Subsidiarity is fine when dealing with modern first world economies, but not with systemically shattered nations and especially not one presently engaged in civil war.  

One thing we see from Greece is that it's not just corruption at the top. It's endemic to the culture. It's been there for decades and it's getting worse. It is not going to get better spontaneously and only by a supreme effort of will and outside intervention is anything going to happen.

Greece has some systems which are sufficiently mature to cope with privatisation, but outside Kiev, Ukraine has very little going for it. A Western backed elite steaming ahead with political, economic and cultural reforms without the necessary democratic mandate is not going to succeed in bringing people along with it - and they may well look to Putin.

As to Greece, it will swallow the bitter pill, but EU maladministration of reforms may well produce the opposite to what is hoped - with the collapse of the few systems that actually work. This above all is the main reason to be sceptical of the EU.

Sadly, Eurosceptics presently make shallow arguments, calling the EU a bully and openly want it to fail in its aims - opposing it for its own sake. I don't. I do want to see a modern, democratic and prosperous Greece and Ukraine. The EU is possibly the only actor who can bring that about, but not with hasty "integration" and dogmatic Europeanism. The EU is very good at producing trade frameworks but in most respects fails to follow through. It has abandoned its efforts in Libya, it has shown little solidarity with Ukraine and will likely alienate Greece unless greater attention is paid to the shape reforms take.

One actor that is largely missing from all of this is the United Kingdom. We had little influence in all of the above. For sure, it was RAF Tornado's doing the donkey work in Libya, but diplomatically, the EU commission was in the lead and with Ukraine it was largely German, Polish and American officials. Similarly with Greece, we are bystanders. We have become an insular, inward looking little England, not because we are Eurosceptics but because we are in the EU, having delegated foreign policy, foreign affairs and law of substance to external entities. Now more than ever we need to be seen at the global top table to demand that the EU does the job properly instead of the ill conceived, half baked and incomplete efforts we see today. Especially where asylum and international development are concerned.

Never have we held less influence in the world from a regulatory and political perspective at a time when the world needs a strong and assertive Britain, promoting its own values and chastising the EU for its short-sightedness and hubris. We'd like to see the EU succeed in its aims, but at this point it needs to shit or get off the pot.

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