One week from today Greece goes to the polls to elect a new parliament, in a surprise election after the previous parliament failed to agree on a president. Once again, the election has all of Europe on edge. The leftist and anti-austerity party Syriza is leading in the polls, and the fear is that their victory could lead to a Greek exit from the EU. So what does Syriza want? Will their plan work? And will the Greeks vote for them? Continue reading
This week’s news has been dominated by the search for the missing Air Asia flight QZ8501, which disappeared in waters off Indonesia last Saturday. Sadly for the relatives, parts of the plane have been found, and divers are now searching for wreckage. However, this week has also seen strange events in other parts of the world. From Syria to the Mediterranean to New York City, here are three events that stood out this week. Continue reading
Last week I looked back at the predictions I’d made for 2014. While I got a few right, I’d failed to predict the violent events of the year, from Iraq to Ukraine to Crimea. So where will these trends take us in 2015? Let’s take a look at what might hit the headlines in the year to come. Continue reading
This coming week Europeans will be able to vote on their representatives for the European Parliament – the Dutch vote is on Thursday the 22nd of May. This is the only body of the EU that Europeans can actually vote for, so this is the EU’s big chance to show that it is a democratic institution. The well-known problem with these elections is the low voter turnout; in 2009 only 43% of EU citizens bothered to vote. So how does this parliament work? Who’s in it? And what’s different about this year’s elections?
Next Thursday voters will recognise all the parties on the ballot as mostly the same parties that are in their own national parliaments. So in the Netherlands this includes the big parties like the VVD (liberals) and CDA (Christian Democrats). However, the European elections use a proportional representation system, meaning small parties have a better chance of getting in. If a party gets 10% of the Dutch vote they get 10% of the Dutch seats.
Once the elections have taken place in each country, the winners can go to the European Parliament. Each EU member state is given a certain number of the 751 seats based on their population. Germany has the most at 99, the Netherlands has 25, and Malta has 5. Of course if each national party worked by itself, the Parliament would be complete chaos. That’s why parties with similar ideologies will work together to form a bigger European Party.
The biggest party is the centre-right European People’s Party – including Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Dutch CDU. Their main opponent is the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, which includes most of the Social Democrat and Labour parties in Europe. The remainder of the parliament is filled with neoliberals, communists and everyone in between.
This election however, a different party is looking like making a big impact – the Eurosceptics. These are the parties that want the EU to be downsized, even to the point of nonexistence. In Southern Europe many of their supporters are people who see the EU as an undemocratic organisation imposing austerity, and in Northern Europe their supporters are voters afraid of immigration and who see the EU as taking their money to give to the southerners. The European Union is worried that if they get too much support they will be able to form a big enough European Party to bring the Parliament’s work to a halt.
However, this cooperation might not be as likely as it seems. The Eurosceptic parties are also the far-right parties, and they are already squabbling over who will be associated with who. The UK Independence Party is trying to stay away from the Dutch PVV and the French Front National, to avoid being labelled as racists. The PVV and the FN are moving economically to the left to steal voters from the far-left, which makes it harder for them to cooperate with Eurosceptic conservatives. And the German Eurosceptic party AfD is steering clear of the whole mess, wanting to be seen as a legitimate political option. If all these parties managed to cooperate they could form a threat to the workings of the EU – but if they can’t, they’ll remain extremist voices on the sidelines.
Everyone can agree that the European Parliament isn’t the most exciting of organisations, and that these aren’t the most thrilling elections. However, it’s the one chance we get to have a say in the running of the organisation that has so much influence on our own countries. And this year there is one more pressing reason to vote – to stop the far-right. If taking seats away from the PVV isn’t a good enough reason to vote, then I’m not sure what is.
In the last few days, Russian troops have invaded Ukraine. Putting it as a clear statement like that shows clearly how dangerous the situation has become. It hasn’t come as a dramatic crossing of the border, but as a steady trickle of uniformed men taking over government buildings and transport nodes in Crimea. On Friday the airports were taken over; yesterday there were soldiers with heavy machine gun outside the Crimean parliament. Today Russian soldiers have surrounded Ukrainian army bases. Events have been moving so fast that the media has had trouble keeping up, let alone Western politicians. So what’s going on in this ethnically Russian region of Crimea? What is the endgame for the Russians? And why on earth are they taking such a risk?
If you’re wondering what’s so special about Crimea, here is a good explanation of why it was this region that is the focus of Russian attention.
It’s hard to say what exactly is going on in Crimea at the moment, are events are moving so fast and in such confusing ways. Focussing on actual events would be fairly useless, as within 24 hours this post would be outdated, so I’ll focus on the why’s and how’s of the situation. But the situation as of today is that either Russian soldiers or Russian controlled militias are in control of Crimea to a good extent. The Russian parliament has given Putin the green light to use the army on the territory of Ukraine “until the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that country”. In other words, until Russia has got what it wants. But what does it want?
The main factor behind this is that Putin is angry. What he would most like is to go back to the deal set up between Yanukovich and the opposition last month. That deal however fell through immediately, and the opposition took advantage of that to take over the country. This completely removed any Russian influence on the government. Putin’s also furious with the EU and US for consistently supporting the protesters and that is a fair thing to be frustrated about. If a Russian politician had gone to New York to give a speech at Occupy Wall Street the US would have thought that was outrageous. But his response to this anger has been to jump straight to almost the most violent response he can take.
This response though has been both subtle and extremely transparent. Everyone thought that it was a possibility that the Russians would intervene in Crimea, which is why no one expected them to do it. It was almost too obvious. Every step they took was such an obvious next step towards invasion that nobody believed they’d actually do it. But at the same time the method of invasion has been subtle. Instead of sending in uniformed Russian troops, they used militias and Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms. This meant they could claim that the Crimeans were doing it themselves, in the same way protesters in Kyiv took over government buildings. The Russian government then continued to say that they were not involved, while doing exactly the opposite, meaning the West had no clue how to react. Only now are Russian soldiers becoming openly involved.
So what will happen now? It’s impossible to say. This is the most dangerous situation in Europe since the end of the Cold War, and if Russian soldiers cross into Eastern Ukraine things could very quickly get out of hand. It seems most likely that Russia is trying to destabilise Ukraine, to keep them weak and prevent a strong EU allied state being set up on their doorstep. But this just as well could be the beginning of a full invasion of Eastern Ukraine. No one knows for sure, maybe not even Putin.
The problem is that the Russian government is not acting in the way you’d expect a rational government to do. The relationship with the West is at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War and Russia has lost the goodwill of the world built up (at the cost of 50 billion dollars!) at Sochi. The risks of these actions are tremendous, and it’s hard to see what the gains are. But Putin seems to be acting out of a nationalist mindset in which the outside world’s opinion is unimportant, and strength is the only thing that matters. The new Ukrainian government, made up of a mix of revolutionaries and politicians, is lacking in strength and will have to work hard for unity. This makes it almost impossible to say what will happen in the next few days. But it’s highly unlikely that it will be anything good for anyone involved.
On Wednesday I will post with an update on the situation, and a look at how the West has reacted and what else it can do.
Last week saw the most violent events in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. Almost 100 people were killed in Kyiv, with many of them being shot by police snipers. After a day of horrific violence last Thursday, a deal was made to end the conflict. But just 24 hours later President Yanukovich was gone, protesters were in control, and parliament had voted in a new interim President. So how exactly did everything take place so fast? And with Ukraine divided and uncertain, what will happen next?
For an overview of the reasons for the protests, see my post from last month: Protests in Ukraine – A fight for the future
After the deal was signed to end the violence, it seemed for a few short hours that that would be the end of things for a while. In many ways that would have been a more politically unifying option for Ukraine than what’s happened now. While it left Yanukovich still in power after so many deaths, it at least kept the Eastern provinces and Crimea involved in politics. These are the supporters of Yanukovich, and the provinces that lean closer to Russia. With Yanukovich as President until election, they would have had someone in power who represented them. But events overtook the deal.
On Saturday Yanukovich was nowhere to be found, and there was no security around all government buildings. It’s actually still unclear why he not only left for Kharkiv at such a moment, but took away all the security. Revolutions are always full of this sort of confusion. But in any case, by the end of the day the opposition was in control of the country. Ordinary Ukrainians were wandering through Yanukovich’s palace of a house, which was now guarded by protesters to stop looting. It shows how corrupt he was that he could afford all this in his 4 years as president of a poor country.
So what’s the situation now?
At the moment there’s a clear divide between parliament and ex-President. Parliament is on the side of the revolution. It has ordered the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, and elected one of her allies Oleksandr Turchynov acting President. Yanukovich has been deposed, and today parliament recommended he be sent to the International Criminal Court. Parliament has the strong support of Kyiv and the Western provinces, as well as the ministries. Even the Interior Ministry, the ones who employ the feared riot police Berkut, have switched over to the revolution.
On the other side there is Yanukovich. He’s now a fugitive, and losing support even in the East of the country. Sources say he tried to leave the country through the airport in his hometown of Donetsk, but his bribes were refused by border guards. Still however, the East and Crimea do not support the revolution. They see the Western Ukrainian protesters as fascists, something that goes back to the early days of the Second World War. Many Western Ukrainians supported the Nazis for a short while, seeing them as an escape from Stalin, until the Nazis showed how brutal they could be.
This divide is a huge problem for the new government. It’s not quite as simple as is portrayed in the media, with the West wanting Europe and the East wanting Russia. Most Easterners are proud to be Ukrainian. But they feel no allegiance to the new government, and they suspect (probably correctly) that the government feels little allegiance to them. In the eyes of the East the revolution was a coup. It’s still very unclear what the Eastern provinces will do, and whatever choice they make will have a huge impact on the country.
Winners and losers
The big loser in this is Russia. Ukraine has indicated they will now sign the EU trade deal that started this whole thing off back in November, which leaves Russia back where they started. They see the new government as illegitimate, and are absolutely furious at the turn this revolution took on Saturday. Any reports of Russia considering a military intervention to ‘protect’ the Crimea or the East are highly unlikely though. This would destroy the relationship with the US and EU, and isolate Russia completely, as well as risking a more widespread war.
The big winner in this is the EU, seeing as Ukraine looks like it will join the trade pact after all. The deal between Yanukovich and the opposition, even if it did fall through, was a triumph of negotiation, especially for Poland and its representative. Finally, with all the problems the EU’s been having, seeing Ukrainians fighting for their place in Europe will make Brussels feel a bit better about the future.
At the moment making predictions for the coming days and weeks is wild guessing. It’s still unclear what the response of the East and Russia will be. The new government will have to work hard to stay united, with at least four very different leaders who might want to run for President. Ukraine’s economy is in deep trouble, and hard decisions will need to be made. But for the moment, these are the few days after every revolution when people are living in the moment, and realising what they’ve done. Hopefully the new leaders of Ukraine will find strength for the difficult days ahead.
On Sunday the Swiss public voted in a referendum to reimpose quotas on the number of people from EU countries allowed to work in Switzerland, thus making it much harder for Europeans to work in the country. The law passed with just 19,516 votes, but because of the Swiss system the quotas have to become law. Swiss politicians and business leaders are extremely disappointed, pointing to the political and economic consequences. But what will these consequences be? And what does this vote say about Switzerland?
Firstly, the vote is going to cause a lot of headaches for the Swiss government. In Europe we often forget that Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU, though it has made a deal with the EU which means it’s a part of the “common market”. This “common market means four things:
- Free movement of goods – a company can sell its goods in any country without extra tax
- Free movement of capital – Money can go across borders at no cost
- Free movement of services – Anyone can sell their services throughout the EU
- Free movement of people – Any EU citizen can live or work anywhere in the EU
What Switzerland has done with this referendum is reject parts of these last two aspects. According to the treaty the Swiss have with the EU, this can now mean that all other agreements will also be ended. This means Swiss companies selling chocolate to Germany will now have to pay customs duty, and sending money to a Swiss bank account will carry costs. And this is no idle threat. The German Finance Minister said the vote would “cause a host of difficulties for Switzerland”. Swiss businesses fear losing their workers, and Swiss working in EU countries could find themselves being sent home. It’s no wonder therefore that Swiss businesses were so against the new quotas.
But if this vote will cause such problems for Switzerland, why on earth would they vote for it? Switzerland is a small mountainous country, with a national identity going back for centuries. This national identity is despite the division of the country along linguistic lines: French, German, Italian and Romansh. These divisions were also seen in the referendum, with the French speakers voting against quotas, and the Germans and Italians for. However, Switzerland also has a foreign population of 23%, the highest in Europe after Luxembourg. For the traditional Swiss, these foreigners are contributing to overcrowding, and driving Swiss salaries down.
There is also the unfortunate fact that the Swiss are known for a certain xenophobia. Years of mountain isolation has created a unique and inwards facing culture. There was outrage recently about segregation of asylum seekers to keep them away from the public (still less harsh than Australia’s policy). There has also been fairly obvious racism present in some anti-immigration advertisements by the Swiss People’s Party, the main supporter of the quotas (see photo above). This xenophobia has contributed to support for quotas on EU workers.
Finally, this vote will also boost the cause of nationalist parties across the EU, in countries like the Netherlands, the UK and France. These opponents of the EU will point to this decision as an example of what can be done about the regulations imposed by the EU. Brussels will be under increased pressure about the most basic principles of the entire European project.
While I’m a passionate supporter of the rights of immigrants, and the importance of opening borders, in the case of countries like Switzerland I can see where their reasoning is coming from. Small countries with little history of immigration will often feel at risk of being ‘swamped’, even if this fear isn’t very realistic, and sometimes even based in racism. However, Switzerland needs to realise that they can’t have it all; being in the EU means free movement of people. It will be interesting to see how the Swiss deal with the consequences of their decision.