A political puzzle 9

The Washington Post and the EU are finding it hard to understand the behavior of the newly elected far-left government of Greece.

It is doing things that could possibly be interpreted as signs that it feels friendlier towards Russia and China than to its fellow members the EU. But no one wants to jump to conclusions. It’s strange and puzzling, as the Washington Post reports it:

[Greece] is complicating Western efforts to take a tough line against Moscow amid an escalating Russian-backed insurgency in southeastern Ukraine.

The new dynamic was on display Thursday, with European foreign ministers gathered for an emergency meeting in Brussels to consider fresh sanctions against Moscow just days after shelling killed 30 civilians in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. But amid Greece’s doubts, the ministers could agree only to extend existing sanctions while deferring any decision on new ones after hours of emotional debate.

“The discussion was open, frank and heated,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said in an interview.

Take note of that “heated”.

Although Greece is just one of 28 members of both the European Union and NATO, both organizations operate on a principle of unanimous consent, meaning any member can block policy with a simple veto.

After years of Russian support for populists on the far right and far left in an attempt to undermine European unity, the election of Syriza gives Moscow a potentially critical spoiler at the heart of Western decision-making.

The prospect of a Russian beachhead inside Western alliances has stirred Cold War-style fears within European defense ministries this week. “If you can’t sit down in a NATO meeting in Brussels, dive into the intelligence and be sure that it’s not going straight back to the Kremlin, that’s a pretty significant and shocking development for the alliance,” said Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank.

But just how far Greece’s new government will go in hewing to a pro-Russian line remains unclear. …

The threat of disruption to Europe’s Russia policy, some officials said, may be a mere tactic ahead of broader and, for Greece, more important negotiations to come over the terms of the country’s mammoth debt. Syriza has demanded that the country’s $284 billion bailout agreements be renegotiated, with a significant portion of the total forgiven and austerity restrictions lifted. …

In other words, members of the EU suspect that Greece may be blackmailing it: “Save our economy, or you may find you have big problems with Russia.” But they don’t want to think about that. They prefer to feel bewildered. So what, they wonder, is Greece playing at?

Before the party’s victory Sunday, Syriza’s leadership was outspoken in defending Russia against Western criticism. Last spring, Tsipras visited Moscow and met with Kremlin associates. Western sanctions, he said, were counterproductive.

“I’m sure the E.U. should conduct dialogue and seek peaceful ways out of the conflict together with Moscow and not impose sanctions on Russia,” Tsipras told the state-owned daily newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Since Sunday, Syriza has doubled down in its backing for Russia.

Tsipras had been in office for only hours Monday when he welcomed his first foreign visitor, the Russian ambassador.

The second was the Chinese ambassador.

Greece objected vehemently when European Council President Donald Tusk on Tuesday issued a statement condemning Moscow for the shelling of Mariupol [in the Ukraine] and asking European foreign ministers to draw up new sanctions. …

For Syriza, challenging the EU stance on Russia reflects an ideology “that says we have to be skeptical of certain things our European partners do because the EU is a capitalist, neoliberal enterprise,” said Spyros Economides, an international relations professor at the London School of Economics. For Russia, he said, support for Syriza is more “a marriage of convenience”.

Some Russian officials have responded to Syriza’s triumph with undisguised glee.

“Syriza’s victory will be a breakthrough and will destroy Europe’s liberal consensus,” Mikhail Emelyanov, head of the Russian Duma’s committee on economic policy, told the state news service RIA Novosti. …

But say it is not so! It seems as if … but no … surely not … we simply cannot be sure ….

“You have a lot of people asking themselves whether Greece is going to play the role of the Trojan horse,” said Ben Nimmo, a European security analyst and former NATO official. “But nobody really knows. … ”

A baffled EU. Unable to interpret the signs with any conviction. Lost in a cloud of unknowing.

A kaleidoscopic shift of the political pattern of Europe 2

New political parties have been rising in many European countries to oppose established policies of both leftist and conservative governments, particularly policies towards the European Union and immigration.

Most of the new parties are on the Right, but recently some have been formed – or have quite suddenly grown from being inconsequential groupings into forces to be reckoned with  – on the Left.

The newly aggressive parties of the Left are mainly in the South, in countries at the receiving end of EU subsidies, angry that the subsidies are not substantial enough.

The new parties of the Right are mainly in the North, in countries at the paying end of the system, angry that they have to subsidize the failing economies of the South.

That sections of the Left should see how badly Europe needs a strategy for survival, should find fault with the EU, and object to unending immigration of dependents into their already hard-pressed welfare states, is a startling development. It means that new political patterns of alignment and opposition are emerging.

In the following article, which we quote from Gatestone, Peter Martino writes about the new parties’ concern with the adverse economic effects of EU membership. He only touches on immigration as a factor in the intensifying discontent which prompts the formation of new political organizations, movements and agendas, but it is in fact quite as hot an issue.

Last week, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won a landmark victory in the Rochester & Strood by-election. With this win, UKIP secured its second Member of Parliament. The UKIP candidate, Mark Reckless, won 42.1% of the votes, thrashing the Conservatives (34.8%), Labour (16.8%) and the Liberal Democrats (0.9%). It was the first time ever that UKIP stood in Rochester & Strood. The party won votes from all the major parties. The Conservatives lost 14.4% of the votes, Labour 11.7% and the Liberal Democrats a whopping 15.5%.

UKIP is expected to do very well in the British general elections next May. Last month, a poll predicted the party could win up to 25% of the vote in these elections. In the 2010 general elections, the party had only 3.1%.

UKIP stands for the preservation of the Britain’s national identity. It opposes the European Union (EU) and wants Britain to remain a sovereign nation rather than become a state of a federal Europe. The party is also critical of mass immigration, in particular from Eastern Europe. Though Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, carefully avoids the issue of Islam, the party has also become the refuge of voters who worry about Islamization. Above all, however, the party embodies the dissatisfaction of the electorate with the traditional political establishment.

As such, UKIP is part of a broad trend that can currently be perceived all over Western Europe.

In Spain, a poll this week said that Podemos, a brand new party that was established only nine months ago, is currently the largest party in the country with 28.3% of the vote. The governing conservative Partido Popular of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy would finish second with 26.3% and the Socialist Party would get only 20.1%. Three years ago, in the November 2011 general elections, the Partido Popular won 44.6% of the votes.

Unlike UKIP, Podemos is a party that clearly belongs to the left of the political spectrum. Podemos (the Spanish for We can) was founded by “anti-capitalist” academics and trade unionists who want to “oppose the dominating EU politics from the left”. Unlike UKIP, Podemos does not want to abolish the EU. On the contrary, since Spain is receiving billions of euros in EU subsidies, a majority of the Spaniards clearly want their country to remain an EU member state.

However, the party opposes the austerity policies that the EU is imposing on Spain as a prerequisite for the continuation of the flow of EU subsidies. Both the Spanish Socialist Party and Prime Minister Rajoy’s Partido Popular are perceived by voters as implementing the same set of EU-prescribed policies.

In this regard, Podemos does resemble UKIP, which also accuses the British political establishment of simply implementing EU mandated policies. In Britain’s case, the dissatisfaction with the EU stems mostly from British taxpayers having to pay billions to the EU, which are then transferred to countries in the south of Europe [such as Spain -ed], where governments use them to fund welfare programs. In this sense, the rise of leftist tax-and-spend parties (or rather tax-other-countries-and-spend parties), such as Podemos, reinforces the rise of parties such as UKIP in the north of Europe.

Indeed, all along the Mediterranean, parties opposing the EU-mandated austerity policies are growing spectacularly.

One of the keynote speakers at Podemos’ recent first-ever party congress was Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s neo-communist party Syriza. In last May’s European elections, Syriza became Greece’s biggest party with 26.5% of the votes, ahead of the governing Nea Demokratia party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Syriza draws on the same kind of sentiments as Podemos and is popular for exactly the same reasons.

The same is true of Italy’s Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, which, with 21.2% of the vote, became the country’s second largest party in last May’s European elections.

And the same is even true for the Front National of Marine Le Pen in France. Ms Le Pen claims that without the euro, the EU’s common currency, there would be “no need for austerity”. Drawing on anti-EU sentiments, the Front National became the largest French party in last May’s European elections with 24.8% of the vote.

The popularity of these parties is still rising. A recent poll in France revealed that Marine Le Pen might win the next French presidential elections, not just in the first round, but also in the decisive second round. It is the first time ever that the FN leads in a presidential poll against France’s two major parties, the Socialist PS and the Center-Right UMP.

In the countries to the north, however, the popularity of the parties opposing the EU subsidization of the southern countries is rising equally spectacularly.

In the Netherlands, the anti-establishment Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders is currently the biggest party in the polls. Wilders has consistently opposed the bailing out of countries such as Greece and Spain with Dutch taxpayers’ money.

In neighboring Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party established last year to oppose eurozone bailouts, is shaking up politics with its astonishing wins in recent state elections.

In Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (SD), opposing both immigration and the EU, won 13% of the vote in last September’s general elections, but their popularity keeps rising. Last week, an SD spokesman said the party is currently expected to win up to 18% of the vote.

All across Europe, the electorate is deeply dissatisfied and disillusioned with both the Conservative and the Social-Democrat parties of the political establishment. Voters no longer see much difference between the traditional political protagonists, who are perceived as imposing an EU agenda that, for various reasons, is seen as bad for the country.

In Europe judging by the polls, political landslides are on the way.