John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: EU Page 1 of 2

UKRAINE

The desire for free and fair elections, through which politicians can be held to account, is widespread in the former Communist world.  We have seen this with the arrest in Moscow of over 1000 people, demonstrating against the arbitrary disqualification of candidates for local elections in the city of Moscow, including of a candidate who won 27% of the vote in the last  election.

Corrupting elections was part of the armoury of the Soviet state, and it is a habit that has persisted, long after Communism itself has fallen .

 After the more hopeful Yeltsin years, Russia, the biggest Republic of the former Soviet Union, is reverting to Soviet electoral habits. But the second biggest former Soviet Republic, Ukraine, is taking a  very different course.

 Recent free and fair elections in Ukraine are undoubtedly being watched closely by opposition figures in Russia.

 If Ukraine can make a successful democratic transition, it becomes harder for President Putin to argue that Russia must retain a more authoritarian system. Another neighbour of Ukraine, Viktor Orban of Hungary, will also have to take note.

I have recently had the opportunity of spending a week in Ukraine, as one of a large number of international observers of their Parliamentary Election on 21 July.

The consensus among observers was that these Elections, called early by the newly elected President Zelensky, were both free and fair.

 Votes  in Ukraine are cast in secret, and when the polls close, are counted openly, in the local polling stations themselves. From my observation, these tasks were carried out conscientiously and transparently.

This is not to say that Ukrainian democracy is free of problems.

On a per capita basis , Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Even Moldova is slightly better off. The country’s growth rate is well below potential.

The country is at war, a war that has cost 13000 lives so far. In response to Russian armed interference, Ukraine has had to develop a large army of its own, almost from scratch. 

Yet it depends for income, on transit fees for Russian gas, being piped through Ukraine to customers in the EU. Its  public finances are not in good order, it has had to get help from the IMF, and has had to increase fuel prices to its own citizens as part of the IMF programme.

Like many former Communist states, including ones already in the EU, it suffers from endemic corruption.

 Fighting corruption is one of the goals of the new President. He is handicapped in this effort by the lack of a professional non political civil service, and  of an independent, properly resourced, courts system. These deficiencies inhibit foreign direct investment, because investors need to know honest and efficient courts will be there to protect their legal rights, before they put their money at risk

 MPs are immune from legal proceedings while serving as MPs, and this privilege has attracted some people into politics in pursuit of their private interests, rather than the public good. The President has promised to end this immunity, but he has got to get the MPs to vote for this.

While the election itself was free and fair, the television coverage of the campaign was not. Ukrainians rely heavily on television to inform themselves about politics. Television stations tend to be controlled by rival oligarchs, and these oligarchs often are politicians in their own right. Rules requiring balanced coverage during election campaigns are not properly enforced. 

Ukraine has an Association Agreement with the EU, which is described as “the most ambitious the EU has with any non EU member state”. Indeed this agreement may serve as a model for a future UK Agreement with the EU, whenever the tortuous Brexit process in concluded.

But there are clear signs that Ukrainians will not be satisfied , in the long run, with a mere Association Agreement with the EU, however ambitious it may be. Their goal is to be a full voting member state of the EU.  When they signed the EU Association Agreement, they rejected President Putin’s offer to join his proposed Eurasian Union. Indeed it was that rejection that triggered the Russian invasion of Crimea and of parts of eastern Ukraine.  So Ukraine has paid a high price for its EU choice

It also is a very big country, with over 40 million people.

 It may have been a privileged “vassal”, or first daughter, of the Russian Empire in the past. But it has decided to turn its back on  that and has set itself the goal of joining the EU instead, and not in a secondary role. Its leaders are using the goal of EU membership as the spur to get their voters to accept uncomfortable reforms.

But the prospect, however long term,of EU membership for Ukraine is far from simple for the EU.

 In 2001, the EU enlarged itself very quickly and took in many new member states in central and eastern Europe. Some of these countries had unresolved  post Communist problems of the kind still besetting Ukraine…corruption, weak courts, poor public administration, organised crime and oligarchical control of the media.

 The EU is, in its essence, a set of uniform rules, on the basis of which its citizens enjoy freedoms across a whole continent. But, if the enforcement of these rules can be corrupted through weak or politicised courts or by bad administration, these EU wide freedoms cease to mean anything.

 So until the EU is satisfied it has got on top of  the corruption and rule of law problems it already has among  some of its own existing members, like Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, it will be very  slow in admitting new members, like Ukraine, where the same problems are unresolved.

 The EU is in a stronger position to insist of high standards in a country, like Ukraine, which is still looking for membership. It is harder to insist with countries that are already full voting members of the club.  Existing members can and will used their votes in the Council of Ministers to block EU sanctions for rule of law, or related, breaches of EU standards.

 Getting these rule of law issues right will be the number one priority of the new Von der Leyen Commission, even ahead of Brexit.

Until it does that, the EU cannot credibly offer hope of membership to countries like Ukraine, Northern Macedonia and Albania. Without such hope, these countries could turn away from the EU,  and other global players, such as China, Turkey or Russia, could take the EU’s place.

POPULISTS IN THE EUROPEAN ELECTIONS

There is concern about the impact of “populism” on rational decision making in many western democracies.

But there is no agreement on what populism means.

All politics appeal, to some extent, to people’s self interest, and to their preference for advantages being given to themselves, to the area in which they live, or to a group to which they belong.

The concern is not so much about this form of populism, as it is about a populism that seeks to radically overturn the rules of the game by which conventional politics is played out.  As the EU is, above all, a rules based organisation, this form of populism represents a particular threat to the EU.

For example, by proposing to leave the EU, British populists sought to change the rules of UK politics, rules which constrained what the UK could do, so as to protect the UK’s relations with its neighbours.

Polish populists sought to overthrow the rules of Polish politics by undermining the independence of the Polish courts.

Hungarian populists did something similar by dominating the media and by defying EU policies on refugees.

America’s populist President is seeking to overturn the rules of international trade by undermining the WTO and placing new tariffs on imports, and withdrawing from non proliferation and arms control Treaties.

Generally, the existing rules, that populists want to overturn, are portrayed by them as benefitting an “elite” or foreigners, to the disadvantage of “the people”.

By overturning these rules, the people are supposed to be allowed to ”take back control.“

But there is often no underlying consensus about what to do with the control, once it has been taken back. This is most obvious in the case of Brexit. Populists can articulate what they are against, but generally fail to give equivalent detail on what they are for. If everyone pursues national self interest, the conflicting national interests will cancel one another out.

Ray Dalio, the founder of the investment firm Bridgewater has described populism as a

“ political and social phenomenon that arises from the common man being fed up with

1) wealth and opportunity gaps,

2) perceived cultural threats from those with different values in the country and from outsiders,

3) the “establishment elites” in positions of power, and

4) government not working effectively for them. “

These sentiments lead that constituency to put strong leaders in power.

Dalio says that Populist leaders are typically confrontational rather than collaborative, and exclusive rather than inclusive.

As a result, conflicts typically occur between opposing factions (usually the economic and socially left versus the right), both within the country and between countries.

 These conflicts typically become progressively more forceful in self-reinforcing ways.

The results of the European Parliament have revealed some breakthroughs for populists, in France, the UK, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland.

But they have suffered setbacks in Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Denmark and Ireland (Sinn Fein losses).

The centre has held, but its composition has changed. Greens and Liberals have gains while classic Christian Democrat, Social Democrat and Conservative parties have lost some ground, although they remain dominant.

The biggest difficulties will be in EU relations with the UK and Hungary, where radical populists won large mandates.  Once has to ask whether the political culture of these countries is such that they belong in the EU at all.

The problem is Brexit itself, not the backstop.

Brexit, of its nature, means hard barriers between the UK and the EU.

This is because it means the UK having different standards, and, sooner or later, different trade arrangements and tariffs than the EU.  

Whether these barriers are at the geographic boundary, or a few miles away, makes little difference.

These new barriers will bring delays, extra bureaucracy, and eventually bankruptcies, in their wake.

This is what Brexit means, and was always going to mean. Taking back control, by its nature, means more controls

The UK Government says it wants to impose these controls for two reasons.

The first is to be able to control immigration to the UK from the EU.

The truth is that the bulk of the immigration to the UK is not from the EU, but from outside it. EU immigration to the UK will fall off anyway because the population of the EU countries, from whom immigrants have come to the UK, is set to decline.

The second is to be able to make its own trade deals with non EU countries.

This argument is unconvincing. On leaving the EU the UK will lose the trade agreements it ALREADY HAS with the EU, and through the EU, with other countries.

In fact, leaving the EU will mean the UK losing trade agreements with countries that account for 70% of all UK trade. It will need a lot of new agreement to make up for this sudden and dramatic loss!

The backstop would reduce the effect of this, but not remove it altogether, especially if the UK opts for a different VAT regime to the EU.

No Deal

If there is no deal, and no backstop, the European Commission said in a paper published in November, that ;

“Member States, including national authorities, will play a key role in implementing and enforcing EU law vis-à-vis the United Kingdom as a third country. This includes performing the necessary border checks and controls and processing the necessary authorisations and licences.”

The paper does not exempt any of the EU Member State from this requirement.

Indeed if the EU Customs Union and Single Market were to deliberately fail to control any of its borders, it would soon cease to exist, as a Customs Union and a Single Market.

This would not be in Ireland’s interest, to put it mildly.

WHY IS THERE AN IRISH BACKSTOP?

It puzzles many people in Britain that something known as an “Irish backstop” should be at the heart of an increasingly bitter dispute. The dispute is about the Deal the UK Government has made with the EU on the terms for the UK leaving the EU.

Most people understand that, when the UK leaves the EU, the only land boundary between the UK and the EU will be the 300 mile long border in Ireland.

Some do understand that if the UK leaves the EU there will have to be border controls.

After all, leaving the EU was supposed to be about taking back “control”, and, given that countries can only exercise control in their own territory, there is a logical necessity to have controls at the border of a country’s territory,  at its ports and on its land boundary.

This is not something made up by the EU to annoy Brits, but is a logical consequence of Brexit, which is, as we all know, something Britons have chosen for themselves, and not something imposed on them by the EU.

The proposed backstop in Mrs May’s deal with the EU  involves the whole of the UK staying in a close customs arrangement with the EU.

The original idea was that the backstop would be confined to Northern Ireland, but the UK government itself preferred a backstop arrangement that would cover the whole UK, so as to minimize the controls that would otherwise have to be imposed between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The object of the entire exercise is to avoid having to have controls at the 300 crossing points between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Some in Britain think that the UK should be free to leave the EU, and that the UK and Irish governments should then just decide, between themselves, that they were simply not going to have controls on the Irish border.

That would not work because Ireland would still be in the EU, and would be breaking EU rules if it failed to control its portion of the EU land border.

Apart from being illegal, it would be impractical.

The UK, once outside the EU, would immediately go off and try to make trade deals with non EU countries. These would inevitably involve agreeing to different standards, and different tariffs, on goods coming from these non EU countries to the ones that the EU (including Ireland) would be applying to these countries.

So, if there were no controls on the Irish border, goods from these non EU with which the UK had made its own trade deals could enter the EU via Northern Ireland, without complying with EU standards or paying EU tariffs.

That would destroy the EU Single Market, which is based on common rules and tariffs, made, enforced and interpreted in the same way for all 27 EU countries (including Ireland).

TRADE DISCRIMINATION BREAKS WTO RULES

Outside of the EU, under WTO rules, the UK would also have to impose tariffs on its side of the Irish border, unless it wanted to collect NO TARIFFS AT ALL on goods coming into the UK from any country in the world!

This is because of a WTO rule which, says that, in the absence of a broad trade agreement, a country cannot discriminate between WTO member countries in the rate of tariffs it charges on goods coming from those countries (the most favoured nation rule).

So, in the absence of a trade deal with the EU, the UK must charge the same tariffs on Irish goods as it would  charge on goods coming from any WTO members, with whom it has no trade deal, which, on the day it leaves the EU without a deal, would be every WTO country!

If it attempted to discriminate unilaterally, the UK would be bound to be taken to the WTO court by some or all of the WTO countries who would not be getting the same concessions.

The UK is a trading nation. As such, it benefits from a rules based world trading system. So it would not be in the UK’s interest to start breaking WTO rules on the day it left the EU, just to solve a problem that is of its own making.

SAVING LIVES BY GIVING RESPECT TO THE TWO ALLEGIANCES IN IRELAND

The other big reason for having an “Irish” backstop”, and for avoiding a hard border, is about human beings, rather than just about commerce.

For the past four centuries two communities, with different allegiances have lived together, geographically intermingled, in the Irish province of Ulster.

One community feels a sense of allegiance to Britain, its monarch, its historic narrative and its flag. The other feels an allegiance to Ireland and identifies itself with different historic narrative and different symbols. The two communities have different religious allegiances too but the disagreements between them are not primarily about religious matters, they are all about national identity.

For centuries, the contest between these two identities was a zero sum game.  Either the British identity had to win, or the Irish identity had to win. That zero sum approach led to wars, threats of wars, or uprisings in 1641-51, 1689-1691, 1798, 1867, 1911, 1916, 1919-23, 1939, 1956-7, and 1969-1998. These conflicts caused many casualties in Ireland, and in Britain too.

British and Irish political leaders have for the last 40 years been trying to find a different way forward. Rather than a zero sum game, where if one identity won, the other had to lose, these leaders sought to create conditions in which both identities could coexist comfortably together within Northern Ireland, without either of them winning or losing.

The aim was to ensure that neither would feel cut off from their focus of their emotional allegiance. The nationalists would not feel cut off from Dublin, and Unionists would not feel cut off from London or the “mainland” as they would call it.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 achieved this. Crafted between Ireland and the UK, when both were members of the barrier free EU, it created structures to create a comfort zone for both communities.  This was done through establishing three interlocking structures of cooperation, incorporated in an over arching international Treaty, namely

  1. power sharing within Northern Ireland,  
  2. cooperation between North and South and
  3. cooperation between Dublin and London.

On the strength of this Agreement, Ireland changed its constitution to remove a  territorial claim it had on Northern Ireland.

Now, 20 years later, the UK’s decision to leave the EU puts these structures at risk, because, for the reasons I explained earlier, Brexit requires barriers to go up between the UK and Ireland, where previously there was free exchange.

This is why, at a meeting in London, long before the Referendum, I described Brexit as an” unfriendly act”  by the UK vis a vis my country.

The backstop is simply an effort to mitigate the damage. It is a second best option…… and a bad second best at that.

The only option that will not damage the structure of peace, we have so painstakingly built between Ireland and Britain, and within the island of Ireland, would be for the UK to decide to stay in the EU after all.

HIGH NOON IN BUENOS AIRES

The G20 meeting in Argentina, which took place last weekend,  simply postponed a confrontation between the US and China which could prove to be as momentous for Ireland as the Brexit vote in the House of Commons on 12 December.

Will a deal be possible in 90 days time?

The omens are mixed. Some US officials say China is offering nothing concrete to bridge the gap between the countries, just promises. President Trump is particularly sensitive about imports in the wake of thousands of lay offs by General Motors last week, which he blames on import competition.

President Trump has already imposed a 10% tariff on a wide range of Chinese goods in an effort to rebalance trade between the US and China. He has said he will increase the tariff rate from 10% to 25% on 1st January, if he does not get satisfaction from the Chinese.

He has threatened further measures to follow.

His concern is about the alleged theft on US intellectual property by China, Chinese subsidization of exports through state supported companies, and the supposed under valuation of the Chinese currency to boost Chinese exports.

A full fledged trade war could start if matters are not sorted out in the next 90 days.

One might think that a dispute like this might be referred to an arbitrator, who could adjudicate on the facts and the arguments. The WTO dispute panels are there to do this. But the US is refusing to appoint judges to sit on these panels, and President Trump has even threatened to withdraw from the WTO altogether.

A Trade War between the US and China would be very bad news for Ireland.

More than any other EU country, Ireland is dependent on the US as a destination for our exports. If the trade dispute with China hits US growth, the effect of that would be felt in Ireland more than in any other EU country.

As an export oriented country, Ireland has also invested heavily in building an export trade to China. We rely on a growing Chinese middle class to consume our meat and dairy products.

We also depend disproportionately on multinational companies, who use global supply chains, which would be disrupted drastically by a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies.

President Trump feels that China has gained unduly and unfairly from its membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) since 2001. Since then, while still being a state directed economy, China, through its membership of the WTO, has been able to get easy access to the markets of the world under the WTO’s Most Favoured Nation principle (MFN).

MFN requires a WTO member state not to discriminate between countries, and to charge the same tariffs of goods from all WTO members, including China, unless it has a comprehensive trade agreement with that other country (in which case it is allowed to discriminate in favour of that country).  

President Trump’s deeper worry is that China is using the profits it is making from its export industries to build its military and naval strength in the Western Pacific, where the US also has bases and alliances.

The US sees its bases in Korea, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines as defensive. After all, the US has had a military presence in the western Pacific, in the Philippines, since its war with Spain in 1898. But to China, these US bases, ringed across the sea lanes China uses to survive, are a threat.

To break out of its encirclement, China has increased its own military spending substantially. But it is still spending less than a third of the US defence budget.

So this is not a simple trade dispute that can be settled easily.  

China will continue to want to break out of ring of US bases on its eastern flank. Indeed its much publicised “One Belt One Road” initiative, to develop transport links from western China all the way to Europe, could be seen as an attempt to break free of its dependence on the Pacific sea routes, where it confronts the US and which the US could block in the event of confrontation between the two countries. Japan faced a similar situation in 1941.

The growing trade dispute is already having an effect. China’s economy is showing some signs of stress. New car sales there have declined. Corporate borrowing is high and could be hit by a rise in interest rates, which might be forced on China if it needed to revalue its currency to meet one of President Trump’s complaints. The biggest increase in global debt in recent years has been in China. It is an important element in the global banking system. A slowdown in China would affect the rest of the world.

China acknowledges it has a surplus in goods exports to the US, but believes this is compensated by services exports by the US to China, and by the privilege to US enjoys because its currency, the dollar, is the world’s reserve currency.

To an extent, China and the US are talking past one another. The Americans are even complaining about having to translate Chinese trade proposals from Chinese into English!

Given the complexity of the rivalry between the US and China, the best outcome one can hope for in 90 days time is a some form of combination of minor agreements and postponements.

The really important battle for Ireland and for the EU will be that of defending and strengthening the WTO.

Arbitration, rather than confrontation, should be the way to resolve trade disputes.

UKRAINE……A KEY TO EUROPE’S FUTURE

Control over Ukraine’s fertile land and natural resources has been a source of conflict throughout modern history.

The Russian occupation of Crimea, which is part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine, is the first forcible alteration an international boundary in Europe since the end of World two.

In Eastern Ukraine, the conflict between Russian backed militias and the Ukrainian Government led to the shooting down by the militias of a passenger airline full of Dutch holiday makers returning from the Far East.

Ukraine is a democracy, but is afflicted by corruption and by constant tension between its President and its legislature under its US style constitution.

Ukraine looks to the European Union for salvation, but the EU is turning inwards and giving priority to other problems.

In an attempt to understand the challenge, I read “The Gates of Europe” by Serhii Plokhy. It  is a history of Ukraine from the earliest times. Plokhy is a Professor of History in Harvard.

At the outset of the First World War, Ukraine was divided between the Russian and Austro Hungarian Empires. The between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church, which is in communion with Rome but following Eastern rite, are active in Ukraine, and religious divisions have been a source of conflict in the past..

Both Russian and Ukrainian languages are spoken in the country, Russian more in the cities and in the east of the country.

The Ukrainian language is now  promoted as a badge of national identity, as Irish is in Ireland. Thanks to immigration from Russia the country is ethnically diverse, but partly because of high handed Russian actions, even ethnic Russians in Ukraine increasingly identify themselves as Ukrainian.

Plokhy traces the cultural and political influences that shaped the country in the past two millennia.

Ukraine was onn the frontiers of the Roman Empire. It came under the influence of Greeks of the Byzantine Empire from Constantinople, who introduced Christianity to the area in 989 AD

It was from Ukraine that Christianity was introduced to Russia, which partly explains the Russian view that Ukraine should not be separate from Mother Russia.

In 1240, Kiev fell to the Mongols, who ruled the area for 100 years. The Mongols were defeated in 1359 and Ukraine became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was dominated by Poles and Lithuanians. The Grand Duchy’s Catholic religious policy was resented by Orthodox Ukrainians.

From 1590 to 1646, a series of risings by Cossacks (armed bands of native Ukrainians) weakened the Grand Duchy and oriented Ukraine towards Moscow and the Orthodox Church.

The autonomy enjoyed by the Cossacks within the Russian Empire was ended by Catherine the Great in the 1770’s, and that fuelled resentment.

Plokhy describes the tragedy of the First War, when Ukrainians fought on both sides.

At the end of the war, and during the Russian Civil War, Ukraine briefly became an independent state. That independence was ended by the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War.

Plokhy shows how the Jews, who were numerous in Ukraine , became scapegoats.

Under Stalin in the 1930’s, Ukraine suffered a terrible famine because of Communist determination divert food supplies into the cities to help industrial expansion.

During the Second World War, which was fought over the territory of Ukraine, Ukrainian nationalists took up arms for the independence of their own country, against both the Nazis and the Soviets.

The pro independence fighting against the Soviet continued well into the 1950’s, but without any aid from the West.

Ukraine did comparatively well, while Stalin’s successor Khruschev, and his protégé Brezhnev, were   in charge of the Soviet Union.

Under Gorbachev, things got worse for Ukraine, especially in the aftermath of the Chenobyl nuclear disaster which affected 3 million people in Ukraine and where the risks to the population were partially covered up by the regime.

While it was the Baltic states and the Russian Federation, led by Yeltsin, which precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine took full advantage of it, and declared itself independent in 1991.

Interestingly the US, which favoured independence for the Baltic states, opposed it for Ukraine at that time. President Bush senior foresaw the effect Ukrainian independence would have on Russian opinion.

As an independent country, Ukraine shared the economic collapse in most post Soviet states caused by the stress of adjusting from a Communist to a market economy. Unlike Russia , Ukraine does not have vast natural gas reserves, but, also unlike Russia, it has remained a democracy.

This is an important book, because it deals with a country that could become a source of conflict between EU countries and the Russian Federation in the foreseeable future.

Russia feels the Ukraine should be part of its “sphere of influence”, but the EU rejects the notion of “spheres of influence”.  Many in the EU believe Ukraine could eventually be eligible to be an EU member (something that most Ukrainians would like but the Russians would hate).

In some circumstances, Ukrainian membership of the EU could benefit Russia, but nobody in Moscow sees it that way……..at least, not yet.

 

CHINA TRANSFORMED …..A NEW BALANCE OF POWER

china-flag-mapThe economic transformation of China is the most important global economic event of the past forty years. It has changed the balance of power on the Eurasian landmass, in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.

The economic transformation of China happened because, since 1979, there has been lively economic competition within China, something that was not allowed in the Soviet model.  China’s economy grew, while the centralised Soviet system stagnated. This explains why Communism survived in China, but collapsed in the Soviet sphere. China also grew thanks to the opening up of global trade, under successive rounds of trade liberalisation, which allowed China to build a powerful export sector.

Now China is having to transform itself again. Its export led model has reached its limits. Labour costs are rising because the big transfer of labour from farming to industry is over, and the Chinese population is beginning to age. The working age population of China peaked in 2015 and will decline from now on. Chinese exporters are being undercut by lower wage economies like Vietnam.

The Chinese economy has also reached environmental limits. The pollution level in some cities is dreadful, and the air is dangerous to breathe, even on an apparently clear day. I  experienced  this for myself when I visited China in the past fortnight on business.  Environmental losses reduce China’s GDP by 10%.

The proportion of its population living in cities will grow from 20% in 1978, to 50% today, and to 75% by 2030. This will lead to even more pollution, unless the cities are built to a different model. China is devoting a lot of research to this and may soon become an exporter of green technology. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Meanwhile China has an increasing number of well off, high spending, consumers. The Boston Consulting Group recently estimated that what it calls the “upper middle class” ( a group that can afford regular foreign holidays) will rise from 53 million today, to 102 million by 2020. Interestingly it estimates that, by 2020, the upper middle class in will reach 73 million in Indonesia, 32 million in India, and 21 million in Thailand.

At the other end of the scale, China has not got a well developed welfare system. The income gap is very wide. Stress is high. Parents are left looking after grandchildren back in rural China while sons and daughters seek work in the cities. There is a two tier labour market, under which long established city residents qualify for social supports, but recent arrivals in cities do not, and can remain in a precarious situation for years.

Nationalism is very strong in China, and one can foresee a clash between the American nationalism of Donald Trump, and the Chinese nationalism of the Communist party.

Both can exploit suspicion of the other, to rally political support internally.

The United States should be cautious. The abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership, by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, will leave China in the driving seat, as far as trade policy in East Asia is concerned.  It is ironic that China increasingly sees itself as the defender of an open world trading system, while the United States adopts protectionist rhetoric.  Adding a conflict over the status of Taiwan to this mix could have unpredictable results.

If, under Donald Trump, the US moves closer to Russia, the EU may find its interests aligned more with those of China in some fields, like climate change.  This will be reinforced by the anxiety many of the central European members of the EU feel about Russian intentions, and Russia’s view that some of them should properly belong in a Russian sphere of influence, rather than being so closely aligned with Western Europe through the EU. Russian support for west European politicians like Marine le Pen is part of a strategy to undermine the EU.

Historically, China has been a supporter of EU integration, while Russia has been hostile, because it felt itself excluded from pan European security structures.  Russia feels itself hemmed in. Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, can also be seen as attempts to break out of its strategic isolation and gain access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

It is also to break out of its sense of isolation, that China has promoted its “one Belt, One Road” policy to link itself with Western Europe.

As a continuing member of the European Union, it will be in  Ireland’s economic and political interests  to play its full part in building a  balanced structure of peace on the Eurasian land mass, that protects the rights of small states, but  which also one that ensures that no great power feels itself hemmed in, or isolated. For that is how wars start.

 

WHO WILL PROTECT IRISH AND OTHER EU FIRMS DOING BUSINESS IN THE UK AGAINST DISCRIMINATION, AFTER BREXIT?

cropped-European-Union-flag-006-1.jpgMany Irish firms, and firms from other EU states, have extensive investments and trading interests in the UK. Indeed this must one of the most intense investment relationships in the world.

For the past 40 years, these investments have been protected by UK membership of the EU, which allowed firms, who might feel they were being discriminated against, in favour of British owned competitors, to appeal not only to the UK Courts, but also to the European Court of Justice(ECJ)

Yesterday the UK Prime Minister announced that , once the UK leaves the EU, the jurisdiction of the ECJ in the UK would be ended. Thus there will no longer be any, non UK controlled, arbiter to protect Irish or other EU investors in the UK against discriminatory laws by a future UK government. The UK has no written constitution.

Therefore it will be important that there be a robust independent investor protection disputes mechanism, capable of overturning discriminatory decisions that might be taken by the UK courts against the interests of EU owned firms.

 This must take immediate effect the day the UK leaves the EU.

It cannot wait for the longer term trade agreement the EU negotiates with the UK, which may take years to finalise. Investor protection clauses can be controversial, as we have seen with the TTIP negotiation, and are a reduction of “sovereignty” in the abstract sense.

But , given three factors

  • the highly nationalistic tenor of UK politics at the moment,
  • the dramatic ideological trends in the Labour  party, and
  • the likelihood of trade tensions between the UK and the EU,

Irish and other EU firms doing, or intending to do, business in the UK will need a very robust independent investor protection regime.  These three phenomena must be confronted realistically. We must not assume that everything will work out in the end. It may not!

Unless Irish and other European firms have concrete assurances that they will not face discrimination of any kind in  their activities in the UK after Brexit, they may have to commence disinvestment to protect their shareholders’ legitimate interests. The proposed “Great Repeal Bill”, reversing EU law in the UK, will need to scrutinised with immense care by  Irish and other European investors in Britain. Political assurances will not be good enough.

In the present atmosphere of UK politics, it is all too easy to envisage calls for discrimination in favour of UK firms in contracts with UK local authorities, in access to certain public services, and in standards for goods and services. All would be done, of course, in the name of “protecting British jobs”, or “defending British standards”.

If the ECJ is no available to protect Irish and EU firms from discriminatory practices on the UK market, alternatives will have to be agreed with the UK. These alternative mechanisms, investor courts in other words, will have to have the power, like the ECJ, of striking down UK decisions, including UK court decisions,  that they deem to be discriminatory against the interests of an EU investor.

These mechanisms are known as  an Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) or an  investment court system (ICS). They are an instrument of public international law and  grant an investor the right to use dispute settlement proceedings against a country’s government.

Provisions for ISDS are contained in a number of bilateral investment treaties, in certain international trade treaties, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (chapter 11), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (chapters 9 and 28) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (sections 3 and 4). ISDS is also found in international investment agreements, such as the Energy Charter Treaty.

If an investor from one country (the “home state”) invests in another country (the “host state”), both of which have agreed to ISDS, and the host state violates the rights granted to the investor under public international law, then that investor may bring the matter before an arbitral tribunal.

The prospect of having to use such cumbersome procedures will undoubtedly be daunting and difficult for small firms.

This will be particularly difficult for Irish firms who have been used to treating the UK as part of their “home market” since 1966 and the Anglo Irish Free Trade Agreement.

In the aftermath of the original referendum decision, soothing statements were made by British Ministers about the position of Ireland, and about there being no “hard border. But Prime Minister May’s speech to her Party Conference yesterday represents a major shift in position. She is going for a “hard Brexit”, which inevitably means a “hard border”. She offered no assurances to Ireland.

Indeed it is hard to see how the UK could offer special protection to Irish firms investing in the UK that it was not also offering to French or Romanian firms.

The Irish food industry is heavily invested in the UK market. Before it joined the EU, the UK discriminated heavily in favour of UK farmers and against Irish exports. The food industry is far more complex now than it was forty years ago, and the opportunities for discrimination more subtle and more numerous.

The European Union will need to adopt a tough line on investor protection in the forthcoming negotiations and make sure these protections apply in full from the moment the UK leaves, and are not left to a wider long term negotiation.

THE UK NEEDS TO WORK OUT WHAT IT VOTED FOR LAST MONTH

union-jack-1027896_960_720I believe the UK itself needs to prepare a realistic proposal, taking the EU Treaty obligations of others into account, on the future relationship between the EU and the UK that it believes would be in the interest of both the UK and the EU.

That is a process that has to take place in the UK alone and not, at this stage in the other EU countries.

The UK needs to do its home work first. The UK needs to take full ownership of the challenge posed by decision in the referendum that the UK itself decided to have .

My own sense is that a relationship between EU and UK that is limited to trade in goods, and to free travel with passport controls, is easily attainable, if the UK is willing to accept EU goods safety standards.

The question is whether the UK would settle for that.

Services and movement of people are inherently inter related so this would not cover financial services exports from the UK.

On migration, the UK position is made difficult by the fact that the UK long pressed for early EU enlargement, and then, like Ireland, opened itself the migration from the new EU members without availing of the transition period.

Now, without acknowledging its own contribution to the dilemma in which it finds itself, the UK has decided to reverse all this by leaving the EU, as if the EU alone was responsible for the consequences of these UK decisions.

I fear that these contradictions within the thought processes of the UK itself will not be resolved without some sort of crisis.

From what I read, it seems to me that UK leaders are still going around the continent looking to EU leaders to solve the contradictions in the UK’s own thinking for them, which is a bit unfair.

The UK should not try to pick off individual EU states by making them special offers, because that will anger other EU states. The governments of all the 27 remaining EU states have to bring their public opinions with them too

The UK needs an agreement that all the EU states and the elected European Parliament can live with.

Ultimately all EU states are bound by the Treaties, and are required by law to cooperate sincerely with one another to “attain the Union’s objectives”.

The European Court of Justice and the European Commission are obliged to follow the EU Treaties and ensure they are respected by the member states, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission.

The Commission represents the common EU interest, and is particularly attentive to the needs of smaller states. The UK should never give the impression that it would like to bypass the Commission, by going over the Commission’s head to Berlin or Paris.

While the European Council will authorize the negotiations with the UK, it is the Commission that will do the negotiation. The European Council can issue negotiating directives to the Commission, but the European Council acts by unanimity, which leaves a lot of discretion to the Commission.

So the UK needs to come up with a comprehensive proposal that is framed in the context of these Treaties and of the needs of each of the 27 (very different) EU states.

It should probably publish that proposal, in the form of a Green Paper, before triggering Article 50.

THE EU IS ALREADY DEMOCRATIC…..TWO WAYS IN WHICH THAT CAN BE MADE MORE VISIBLE

The-UK-and-EU-flags-010One of the recurring themes in the debate about UK membership on the EU is the (false) claim that the EU is not democratic.

All EU legislation has to be passed by a democratically elected European Parliament and also by a Council of Ministers who represent the democratically elected governments of the 28 EU countries.

It is true that the members of the European Commission are not democratically elected by the people, but their names must be proposed by democratically elected governments of the 28 countries, and the Commission as a whole must be approved by the democratically elected European Parliament.

In many countries, Ministers serve in government who have not, as individuals, been elected directly. Their democratic mandate comes from the elected government of which they are part.

This is not to say the there is no room to improve the democratic legitimacy of the EU, and of its policies. I believe the EU could respond to the UK referendum by further enhancing EU wide democracy.

I make two suggestions to improve the visibility of the democratic character of the EU, and create a genuinely European democratic debate, rather than 28 separate national debates about EU matters

  • The President of the European Commission should be directly elected in a two round election by the entire people of the EU, at the same time as the European Parliament Elections
  • It should be possible for the National Parliament of the 28 to come together to request that the Commission put forward a proposal on a particular matter. National Parliaments( if a minimum number agree) already have a right to petition to delay a piece of EU legislation, so why not give them a positive right to seek the promotion of a piece of legislation (if they can obtain a similar level of support across a number of countries).

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