With the EU in crisis Commission and other member states should show more solidarity with Greece

 Asylum crisis threatens to weaken EU 

In an interview with the BBC, Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, said that the EU itself was under threat from the crisis posed by pressure of refugee seekers. This on the face of it would seem exaggerated. If some member states are more generous than others in accepting refugees why should that undermine their capacity to work together within the framework of the EU treaties? The Schengen system of borderless travel across most EU member states has already partially broken and could completely break down as member states try to stop or regulate the flows of external migrants. This is a serious blow given the impact of the Schengen agreement on everyday life and symbolism in breaking down barriers. It does not mean that end of the EU, but the fact that people like Mr Valls are talking in these terms is evidence of a deep crisis.

 

At a time of several other difficulties 

The challenge of the asylum seekers is highlighting the differences between and within EU countries and comes on top of several other problems. One of these is the forthcoming UK referendum on whether to stay in the EU, with UK opinion polls suggesting that those likely to vote to stay in or leave are quite evenly divided. A vote to leave would deprive the EU of a major player, which has made a particularly important contribution to the development of the EU’s single market. Furthermore its departure would set a precedent, which would give impetus to anti-EU sentiment on other countries where it is already strong including France, Italy and Poland.

Another major problem is posed by the fact that some of the countries that acceded to the EU in 2004, notably Poland and Hungary have weakened their compliance with political criteria under which they were allowed to join, such as the impartial rule of law, as for example in the packing of Poland’s constitutional court with its own sympathisers by the newly elected Law and Justice government. The attempt by the European Commission to monitor such measures has provoked increased hostility to the EU in Poland and Hungary, and this has become meshed up in hostility to the EU’s strongest country, Germany.

A third problem is the euro zone crisis. Although the threatened departure of Greece from the euro zone was averted last year there are still considerable tensions between countries of the south with high debts and northern countries. Recently there has been an increase in tensions between Italy on the one hand and Germany and the European Commission on the other.

Differences over how to tackle the refugee influx is exacerbating the other differences. There is no simple answer: one policy extreme would mean that the EU abandons any pretence to stand up for human rights of those not already EU residents; the opposite of free entry for all genuine refugees would create unsupportable social and political tensions even in countries like Germany with an initially welcoming attitude. A muddled middle way is the only one that can hope to avoid one or other such consequence.

 

Commission takes wrong approach to Greece

But there are ways in which the EU could do better. In particular the key role of Greece in the crisis should be acknowledged. On January 27th the Commission published a report highly critical of Greece, threatening to expel in from the Schengen zone if it did not do better. This followed a proposal to help Macedonia man its frontier with Greece without consulting the Greek government. Even if the Greek economy were not experiencing the most severe economic crisis any member state has experienced since the early days of the EU, it or any other country would struggle to cope in a humane manner with the huge numbers crossing the sea onto Greek islands. In contrast to the Commission’s attitude a group of academics have put forward islanders that have rescued and helped refugees forward has a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Greece should be praised for what it has done rather than rebuked for what it has not done, and given far more funding to help it manage camps and processing centres to separate refugees from economic migrants and provide migrants in Greece with basic needs in the meantime. It may be that it is will be no longer practical to keep fully open frontiers with Greece given the amount of migrants arriving there, but this should not be portrayed as a punishment but rather as an unavoidable necessity in which Greece needs far more support from its partners.

 

 

Can Spain’s new parties bring new vigour to Spanish politics or will there be deadlock?

 

On January 13th, the new Spanish Parliament, the Cortes, met for the first time following the election of December 20th which gave significant numbers of seats to two completely new parties formed since the previous election, the left wing Podemos (“We can”) and the centre-right anti-corruption Ciudadanos (“Citizens”). The emergence of one, let alone two, new nationwide parties winning substantial numbers of members of parliament, is a rare event in Europe (or outside Europe). The only other example in a large European country this century is the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) in Italy. The formation of new parties, despite making government formation more difficult is in the opinion of InsightEU, a positive development which has the potential to re-invigorate democracy. The ability of the two parties to continue to flourish is therefore important for Spain and indeed for the EU as a whole. To do so they have to steer a difficult passage between being simply a protest party determined not to sully itself with real life compromise and treating the pilloried establishment parties with the modicum of respect needed for any negotations and being sucked into coalitions where they have to share responsibility for government and its inevitable failures and in a worst case scenario come to be seen as complicit in a system which they have been able to do little to change. M5S has avoided the latter but at the cost of remaining essentially a protest movement. But the Italian electoral system has meant that M5S is in any case an opposition party. In Spain the electoral result on December 20th and the refusal of the leader of the established Socialist Party (PSOE) to form a coalition with the party governing Spain until the December 2015 election (and still the provisional government) the right-of-centre Popular Party (PP), mean that the two new parties’ choices will be key to determining whether a government can be formed and win a vote of confidence or whether as must happen if no government is formed within two months of parliament reconvening, another election is called. In the latter event it would be likely that voters would move towards the PP as the largest party and therefore the one most likely to provide a majority government.

 

Sub-plot in Catalonia could prevent progress in Madrid

Pedro Sanchez came back from an early Janurary visit to Portugal extolling the recently formed coalition there between the Portuguese Socialist Party and two parties further to the left including the Portuguese Community Party. Sanchez has called for a left wing coalition in Spain, as was suggested as a likely outcome in our post of December 24th, but this now looks very difficult. The Catalan nationalist parties, which have just formed a new regional government, are set on their demands for a referendum on outright independence. Podemos favours such a referendum but the PSOE has promised to oppose it. Thus a coalition including the PSOE and the Catalan parties is impossible, while one including both the PSOE and Podemos looks very difficult. Not only is there the inevitable mistrust between two parties competing for the left wing vote, but there is also the whole issue of the future survival of Spain as a nation. Moroever, without the Catalan parties, Ciudadanos would have to be included to make a majority in the Cortes.

 

Can Podemos compromise enough to allow for new government?

It is to be hoped that Podemos is willing to modify its position on a referendum in the near term. It would be very unfortunate if a new party formed to combat the injustices of a 21st century economy were to be diverted onto the path of supporting nationalism of a kind little different in essence from the 19th century nationalist movements. There is some right and wrong on both sides of the referendum argument. On the one hand, the Spanish establishment needs to understand that if the majority of Catalans feel over a long period that they are not respected in Spain and are thwarted from fulfilling reasonable expectations as resulted from the constitutional court’s overruling of an agreement with the previous PSOE government for increased devolution, this will undermine the legitimacy of Spain. On the other hand, where pro and anti independence opinion is quite evenly divided and also volatile, a referendum which gave a little over 50% to a pro-independence question on one day but could be different if held a few years earlier or later, is a very flimsy basis on which to overturn the 524 years of unity since the merger of the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile in 1492.

Whatever the pros and cons of the argument for Catalan independence it is almost irrelevant to the issues of inequality and lack of opportunity which affect all parts of Spain (as indeed many other countries).

Ciudadanos appears more willing to take the risks of entering a coalition government than Podemos. A possible way forward, though not one likely to guarantee a government to last the four-year parliamentary term, would be a minority coalition between the PSOE and Ciudadanos backed from outside government by Podemos, in return for meeting the two immediate demands that Podemos has made: a halt to banks repossessing homes from those unable to meet mortgage servicing commitments and free medicines for the elderly. Such demands should be possible to meet without endangering the credibility of Spain’s fiscal policy.