Challenges Confronting the EU

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Tomas Jermalavicius and Carme Colomina

Tomas Jermalavicius and Carme Colomina

On Monday, June 15, 2015 the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs hosted the first of a two-part panel, entitled “Challenges Confronting the European Union.” Professor Argentieri began the opening remarks by explaining that the incentive for such discussion stems from two types of crises currently being dealt with by the European Union. The first relates to states with a reputation of solidarity facing internal division. This topic was to be explored by two speakers: Carme Colomina discussing Catalonia’s movement for independence from Spain and Mark Shephard discussing the Scottish referendum. The second type of crisis involves riskier problems related to security. The topic was to be explored by Tomas Jermalavicius regarding the Baltic States and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and by Tania Bozaninou regarding austerity and politics in Greece.

The first speaker, Carme Colomina, began her lecture by showing the audience a picture linking the “eastern border issues” to Catalonia. The photograph showed a picture of Putin surrounded by a heart on the wall of a city in the Catalonian town of Lleida, where 30% of the apple exports are sent to Russia. Colomina then detailed the current political context of Spain, discussing the economic crisis, political fragmentation, corruption and the emergence of new political forces and parties. She stated that, regardless of the cultural pride and strong sense of regional identity, Spain and Catalonia are completely interdependent. However, the recent years of “disarray” have amplified the aforementioned factors and furthered the polarization between the region and the state, bringing attention to the desire for secession. Although there have been many grassroots independence movements, culminating on September 11, 2012 in a demonstration by 700,000-1,000,000 people. The Catalonian government has attempted to organize several referenda, however, the Spanish Constitution does not provide for their use. Colomina expressed her opinion that the government may have been better off in allowing a referendum early on in the process, because even though the measure in favor of secession would most likely have failed, the population would have felt heard by its government. The speaker concluded by discussing the idea of a “new political map,” including the rise of the Podemos party and the decline of the two other major political parties, PP and PSOE.

In the next section of the lecture, Professor Argentieri asked Colomina three questions. These questions revealed her thoughts that although the Spanish constitution does not provide for referenda, a likely shift in the elections at the end of this year and the political pressure presented by Podemos regarding this issue, could create a political climate favorable in moving towards a solution for Catalonia. Colomina also expressed concerns regarding how an independent Catalonia would fit into the European Union.

The second speaker, Tomas Jermalavicius, began his lecture on the evolution of Baltic Security with the historical background of the three states beginning after the Second World War. Jermalavicius then discussed three main phases of Baltic Security aspirations. The first phase, from 1991-2004, was a time of preventing socio-economic collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union. During this time, the Baltic states focused on attracting foreign investments, building democratic institutions and functioning market economies, and establishing legitimacy by belonging to the West through their application to NATO and the EU. The second phase, lasting from 2004-2007, was a time of growth for the Baltic states, allowing them to become exemplary member states. Latvia and Lithuania have committed themselves to reaching and maintaining defense spending benchmarks of 2% of their GDPs (as Estonia has already done), meanwhile focusing their energy on leapfrogging the West digitally. Jermalavicius cited the example of his government issued identity card, which includes a chip that can be connected to any computer to access his banking services, medical records, serves as his voting card and many other services. The third phase of Baltic security aspirations took place between 2007 and 2013. The Baltics were severely affected by the global economic crisis, but have recovered quickly and maintain a slow and steady growth rate. The speaker also gave examples of instances during this time period which shattered the states’ sense of security. He mentioned the “Bronze soldier night,” cyber attacks generated by Russia, the Russia-Georgian War of 2008 and the Russia-Ukraine “gas war” of 2009. Jermalavicius mentioned that the Baltics began to feel concerned when their requests for NATO contingency plans for the defense of the region received a very slow and delayed response, despite their mandate for collective defense. He went on to list ongoing violations performed by the Russian government, calling them the “Kremlin’s toolbox.” The list included: a war on historical narratives, attempts at de-legitimizing and isolating the Baltic states, eroding trust in Western institutions, undermining the self-confidence in Baltic societies, threatening the energy supply, espionage, military intimidation, and cross-border violations. Jermalavicius concluded his lecture with a question, “is Russia preparing ground for challenging sovereignty, territorial integrity and constitutional order of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and, thus, challenging NATO and the EU?”

Professor Argentieri, once again, asked the speaker three questions. His answers reflected the notion that the Western states have only recently began to take the Baltic States’ requests seriously, which is reflected in NATO and EU action in that past year. Jermalavicius maintained that, in terms of the Ukrainian conflict, the West is somewhat to blame since it left Ukraine in a “limbo” between the West and Russia and did not properly support that nation during the conflict. Jermalavicius concluded by saying that Russia’s provocations have been limited thus far and that these violations are to be taken seriously. He even went as far as to describe Putin as a “Leningrad thug who does not respect people who make concessions, therefore the West has to show the ability and willingness to use its collective power in order to preserve the European security order.”

Professor Argentieri, once again, asked the speaker three questions. His answers reflected the notion that the Western states have only recently began to take the Baltic States’ requests seriously, which is reflected in NATO and EU action in that past year. Jermalavicius maintained that, in terms of the Ukrainian conflict, the West is somewhat to blame since it left Ukraine in a “limbo” between the West and Russia and did not properly support that nation during the conflict. Jermalavicius concluded by saying that Russia’s provocations have been unlimited thus far and that these violations are to be taken seriously. He even went as far as to describe Putin as a “Leningrad thug who does not respect people who make concessions,” therefore the West has to show the ability and willingness to use its collective power in order to preserve the European security order.

The second part of the panel took place on Monday, June 22 in the Secchia Terrace. After opening remarks from Professor Argentieri and President Pavoncello, the first lecturer, Mark Shephard, a professor from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, began his discussion on Scottish politics and the referendum. Shephard began by discussing the referendum for Scottish Independence, which took place on September 18, 2014. Shephard contrasted media predictions with the actual results of the referendum. In the summer before the referendum, scholarly predictions believed that two-thirds of the population would vote against independence and one-third would vote in favor. However, once the official results were in, only Mark Shephard and Tania Bozaninou 55% of the population voted against independence, leaving many wondering how the polls could have been so wrong to begin with. When looking at social media (Facebook and Twitter, specifically), its use in mobilizing votes was obvious. For many voters, Shephard pointed out, the binary characteristic of this vote meant a difficult choice.

Shephard pointed out that the recently, the Scottish National Party had gained more than 50 seats in Parliament. As he pointed out, some joke that in Scotland “there are more pandas than conservative politicians.” The Labour party, on the other hand, has faced a serious decline. Shephard attributes this decline to several factors, including: less class politics, a decline in traditional industries and union, the disappearance of state housing which, in the past, had served as a sort of patronage for labour votes, and finally, a decline in local government control. The decline of the Labour parties can also be attributed to the overall privatization of jobs in Scotland. Since the introduction of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, there has also been a decline in religion and politics.

In terms of media coverage, the Labour party has lost the rhetoric it once had. Regardless of intense similarities between the Labour and SNPs’ manifestos, the Labour party was still labeled as “red Tories.” In the south of England, the party was viewed as too left wing, Shephard pointed out, due to their policies regarding income tax and school tuition. Shephard then presented several media outlets’ depictions of the SNP and Labour parties, including satirical publications from The Economist and The Sun.

The euphoria for the SNP was caused by its ‘new’ approach, different from the Westminster one, and certainly effective in governing Scotland. The SNP played a double game in which their rhetoric was progressive whereas their policies were regressive, and so they captured votes from the left-wing and the right-wing. The future of Scotland and the UK represents a dilemma for the SNP political life. If they adopt a devolution solution, they are in a position of a “win-win” situation because if an eventual federalist model doesn’t work, they can still blame it on Westminster, but if it does, they can take the credit for it. On the contrary, if Scotland decides to be independent, the weigh of this decision will be carried by the SNP, which will also have to take responsibility for any possible mistake. In fact, the real deal about independence truly revolves on the degree of dependence that will be maintained with both the UK and the EU. A concern has always been also whether or not they will be part of the EU, since the UK is already a member state, and what currency Scotland will adopt. Although, Mark admitted that some Scottish want independence as a matter of principle and do not really worry about eventual economic or political consequences.

As for now, there is a Scottish Bill, which gives more power to Scotland. The SNP wants full fiscal autonomy, but they would still the control of defense and foreign affairs to the UK. Although, the real demand of the SNP is full independence, the Conservatives and the Labourists would be more in favor of a federalist model, rather than an independent Scotland. The UK has an advantage because it has an ‘unwritten’ constitution that can be reformed very easily and wouldn’t present a problem. The real issue is whether or not a federalist model can be a feasible option, given the differences in population and interests that each nation-region has.

The second panelist, Tania Bozaninou, a journalist from To Vima, the largest Greek daily publication, began her timely discussion regarding austerity measures in Greece. Bozaninou began by breaking down the Greek crisis, as to not simply list numbers and statistics. She stated that, since mid-2008, the state’s GDP has shrunk 25%. In effect, Bozaninou explained that salaries have been decreased dramatically for those who are able to maintain employment and that prices have adjusted based on demand. She explained that it is now common to see ordinary people rummaging through trash on the street or, for example, outside a metro station looking for a ticket that is still valid. People have stopped using their buildings’ heating systems and have resorted to simply burning objects in their ovens. They are not concerned with the environmental or health consequences, Bozaninou explained, rather simply with their survival. People have stopped visiting their dentists and some people, who are prescribed daily pills, are now taking them every other day in an attempt to save money.

Another statistic Bozaninou broke down is that unemployment is at 26.6%. This means that 1.3 million Greeks are unemployed, including 50% of the youth. However, most employed Greeks have significantly decreased salaries, are uncertain of when they will be paid, and may not even be paid. Bozaninou cited that 2.3 million Greek households have tax debts and one million households owe money for their electricity bills. In Greece, a quarter of small and medium companies have been shut down since 2008. Taxes for self-employed Greeks have increased nine times and taxes for salaried workers seven times since 2009.

A combination of unemployment and uncertainty lead to the Greek government’s inability to collect taxes. Bozaninou explained that tax evasion is also becoming increasingly common. She explained that if a customer would like a receipt for a service, it will cost 23% more in order to cover the sales tax. Another example she presented was that in the summer of 2014 the Greek Islands had the record numbers of tourists, but paid less taxes than the previous summer.

Bozaninou then discussed herself as an example of “one of the lucky ones” who is still employed. However, she explained, she never knows what day or if she will get paid and every month, her office is faced with a round of layoffs since Greek law only permits the firing of 10% of employees per month. Bozaninou expressed her concerns regarding an agreement between Greece and the European Union, stating, “what they give with one hand, they take with another.” For example, when European states loaned money with contingencies or allowing wealthy Greeks to use tax havens within Europe, namely Luxembourg.

After her presentation, Professor Argentieri took the floor to ask Bozaninou a few questions. The first being, to what extent do the Greek people blame “others” as opposed to themselves and Greek politicians? Bozaninou answered the question honestly, stating that Greeks tend to blame others and do not seem to have enough self-criticism to fix their ongoing problems. The second question: what is the real relevance of those who want to exit the EU(ro)?, was answered with the example of two demonstrations taking place on consecutive days, one in favor of leaving the EU and one in favor of staying. Bozaninous cited polls which said that 7 out of 10 Greeks would prefer to stay in the EU and 56% would rather keep the Euro regardless of harsh austerity measures. The final question was how much does Russia weigh in influencing Greek decisions? Bozaninou explained that Russia does not have any true weight in Russian politics, but that the relationship between the two states is mostly sentimental.

President Pavoncello made some final remarks, sharing a common Italian phrase when referring to Greeks, which is translated as “same face, same race.” Pavoncello drew parallels between the two nations, explaining that the social and political elites, combined with public involvement in corruption has robbed the Greek and Italian youths of their futures. He stated that these countries had clearly lived above their means for too long and are now facing the consequences.