Imperial Hubris: European Subservience to the United States

July 3, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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Rarely in modern history has a statesman’s words been so at odds with his actions as those of French President Francois Hollande in dealing with US spying on its allies. When Mr Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency (NSA) infrastructure analyst, revealed that the NSA had bugged the European Union’s offices and embassies of several EU member states, tapped into communications cables, and bugged the 2009 meeting of the G20 leaders in the UK, the French president thundered that this was “unacceptable behaviour” among friends and allies. Yet, on suspicion that Mr Snowden may have been on board the Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane, Paris took the unprecedented step of refusing the plane permission to fly over its territory on Tuesday.

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Actions speak louder than words and while European leaders have feigned outrage about the US eavesdropping on the communications of its citizens and bugging of their embassies, they did not want the man who revealed the extent of US espionage to seek asylum in their countries. If Mr Snowden were on the Bolivian president’s plane and if he were to ask for asylum during a refuelling stop, it would have placed the government of a European state in an impossible situation. Since EU-wide laws prohibit the extradition of persons to countries with capital punishment, it would be politically suicidal for any government to deliver him to Washington. Yet, while European leaders were vociferous in denouncing US espionage, none were willing to defy the US on the issue.

What do you think of national security leaker edward snowden pollHence, France, Portugal and Spain took the unprecedented step of revoking pre-arranged flight permissions for President Morales’ plane—an action in which they were subsequently joined by Italy.  When the plane, running low on fuel, finally landed in Vienna’s Schwechat airport, President Morales was prevented from leaving for 13 hours while the Austrians satisfied themselves that Mr. Snowden was not on the plane.

Let us be clear: Mr Snowden is not a spy. He did not steal US secrets at the behest of a foreign power. He did not publish the contents of the espionage. He merely revealed its massive reach, and its sheer illegality and violation of human rights on a planetary scale by tracking the communications of citizens the world over. He is a whistleblower. The UN defines a whistleblowers “as individuals releasing confidential or secret information although they are under an official or other obligation to maintain confidentiality of secrecy.”

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The special UN rapporteur for the freedom of expression in 2004, along with his counterparts in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of American states, the Guardian newspaper reports, enjoined all governments to protect whistleblowers from all “legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions if they act in ‘good faith’”. By revealing the magnitude of US espionage against their citizens and governments, Mr Snowden clearly acted in public interest.

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Indeed, before Mr Snowden’s revelations, the Director of US National Intelligence, Mr James Clapper had testified to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that in March that the NSA did not collect data indiscriminately on millions of Americans—a testimony he was compelled to retract this week on the scarcely credible ground that he had “simply did not think” of the relevant provision in the Patriot Act that permitted the collection of such data. Likewise, President Barack Obama had claimed several times that the NSA was not eavesdropping on phone calls domestically without warrants—a claim that is proven wrong by Mr Snowden’s revelations.

Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, observed that “Americans justify everything by terrorism. The EU and its diplomats are not terrorists.”

Let us also recall that these very same European governments—especially Spain and Portugal—allowed the use of their “airspace and airports for flights associated with CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition [torture] operations” as the Open Society’s Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition investigation uncovered in a report published earlier this year. An ongoing investigation in France is examining whether the government permitted similar CIA flights. Victims can be carried over their airspace to be tortured but whistleblowers who reveal breaches of their citizens’ privacy and of their own sovereignty cannot! And this from member states of the EU that won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”!

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Speaking out against US actions while surreptitiously aiding Washington is, of course, not a novel practice for its European allies. Ten years ago, the then French president Jacques Chirac loudly proclaimed that an assault against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was unacceptable to Paris but when the US assault started Chirac opened French airspace to US military flights—something he had not done as premier for Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. Though Germany also opposed the Iraq war, once it had begun, its foreign minister prayed for the ‘rapid collapse’ of the resistance. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin for a decisive victory for the US ‘for economic and political reasons,’ just as he offered asylum to Mr Snowden on conditions that he knew would be unacceptable.

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The current generation of European leaders have not known a time in their lives when the United States did not dominate their countries—in the economic, political, and perhaps even cultural arenas. For them to symbolically challenge the US is one thing, to challenge it substantively is another thing altogether. Hence, even when their sovereignty was violated with the bugging of their diplomatic missions and EU offices, and when the privacy of their citizens was infringed by the tapping of their phones and digital communications, all they could do was to do all they could to see that Mr Snowden does not seek asylum in their countries even if that meant endangering the lives of President Morales and his entourage. Would they have done that if President Morales was of European descent?

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Reversing the Tide? Southern European People’s Challenge to Neo-Liberalism

September 28, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Earlier this week, confronted by massive street protests and criticism from his coalition’s junior partner, the center-right Portuguese Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, reversed his controversial plan for “financial devaluation.” When tax revenues fell by 3.5 percent in the first seven months of this year–due to unemployment rates spiking to above 15 percent–against a projected increase of 2.6 percent for the year, it became apparent that Lisbon would not be able to meet the budget deficit target of 4.5 percent of GDP imposed by the troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the Interantional Monetary Fund as a condition for disbursing the next tranche of the €78 billion bailout they promised.

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 Passos Coelho’s solution to this dilemma was to cut employer’s social security contribution by 5.75 percent and finance this by increasing workers’ contributions by 7 percent. This would have been tantamount to a currency devaluation by significantly reducing unit labor costs and was heralded as a “potential game changer” by the IMF’s Poul Thompsen.

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In the continued decline of the country’s GDP and high rates of unemployment, this proposal was condemned by members of the prime minister’s own party as well as by the leader of the junior partner in his coalition–the conservative People’s Party–and by many business leaders as well as of course by more than half a million people who marched in Portugal’s cities in the largest demonstrations since the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974.

 

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We are not the children of the revolution.” their posters said, “We are the parents of the next revolution.” Meanwhile, in Spain, the miners of Asturias have been battling the police for months with rocket launchers, and protestors jn Madrid were met with a fusillade of rubber bullets. With over half the youth unemployed, and the government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy planning to implement deeper austerity measures in order to say that these were taken by their own volition rather than imposed by the troika as a condition for a bailout, the right and the left united in opposition. In recognition of this united opposition, the riot police in Madrid hid their identity badges:

A startling example of police culture came in a tweet from José Manuel Sánchez of the Unified Police Union (SUP). “We support them not wearing badges for violent demonstrators,” he said during the demonstration. “Give it to them hard.” Television pictures of baton charges and rubber bullets suggest they did exactly that.

 And in Spain’s second city, a million and a half people led by the provincial government marched for Catalan independence–here it was not merely the demonstrators but the regional legislators who were challenging the post-Franco accord.

 

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 Athens exploded as well in a burst of flames as the unions called a general strike grounding flights, shuttering shops, museums, and monuments, and docking ships for hours as over 200,000 people demonstrated outside parliament protesting the new round of austerity measures the three-month old government of prime minister Antonis Samaras. Though details of the cuts were not made public, it was expected to slash pensions, wages and benefits even more.

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All across Europe, these riots seem a repetition of the ‘anti-IMF’ riots that raged across Latin America and Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. As Ha-Joon Chang writes 

it is ironic to see the European governments inflicting an old-IMF-style programme on their own populations. It is one thing to tell the citizens of some faraway country to go to hell but it is another to do the same to your own citizens, who are supposedly your ultimate sovereigns. Indeed, the European governments are out-IMF-ing the IMF in its austerity drive so much that now the fund itself frequently issues the warning that Europe is going too far, too fast.

Just as the IMF number crunchers did not take into account the people whose livelihoods would be crippled by the savage cuts being proposed by the troika and imposed by their puppets in Athens, Lisbon, Madrid. But as the Gurardian editorialized:

Amid all their talk of haircuts (on debt values) and tranches (of loans), European leaders have barely talked about the people who are bearing the brunt, first of the crisis and then of the throat-clearing that passes for firefighting in Brussels. This is not accidental. The euro project has relied upon draining the politics out of the inherently political: the very existence of a 17-nation economic union without a common treasury is testimony to that.

The protests are now inserting the politics back into the issue–demanding that those who had no part in the financial mess created by the collapse of housing bubbles, bad loans, and high deficits should not bear the price of these costly gambles made by bankers and politicians. it is not merely the question of bad financial regulations–it is the more the question of democracy that is at stake in Europe. The Portuguese reversal of its “financial devaluation” is the first step towards reversing the tide of neo-liberalism! A small step for Portugal, a giant leap for Europe!

Iceland–An Independent People

April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Posted in democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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In the midst of the NATO campaign against Libya and the budget deal between Republicans and the Democrats in the US, a far more historically significant event appears to have fallen off the radar. On April 9, 2011, the people of Iceland voted for the second time to reject a government proposal for Iceland taxpayers to repay some €4 billion to the governments of Britain and the Netherlands which had compensated their domestic depositors in the collapsed online bank, Icesave. Initially, the British and Dutch governments had pressured the Iceland government to agree to repay them over fifteen years at a 5.5 percent annual interest–which was estimated to cost each household in the tiny island nation about €45,000 over the period. This was rejected by 91 percent of the voters in a referendum in March 2010. After subsequent negotiations, London and Amesterdam agreed to lower the interest to 3.2 percent and stretch the repayment period to 30 years between 2016 and 2046. The deal was accepted by a large majority of 44 in favor and 16 opposed in the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, which also rejected a clause to submit the bill to another referendum. Nevertheless, as the President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to sign the bill, it was automatically subject to a referendum wherein it was rejected by almost 60 percent of the voters.

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The Dutch and British governments–which had used anti-terrorist legislation to seize assets of the failed Icelandic banks–have threatened to scupper Iceland’s application to join the European Union and to take the island nation to court. Reykjavik has insisted that the two governments would get most of their money back and the assets of the Landsbanki bank which set up the Icesave operation would be sold and was expected to realize 90 percent of the Icesave debt. What was at issue in the referendum was not whether London and Amsterdam would be compensated or not–but whether private citizens should be expected to shoulder the burden of repayment of a bank’s debt in which they had no hand in incurring and from which they did not benefit. The threat to take Iceland to court is important because it is to frighten off other states which also face indebtedness due to the financial crisis like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. It is simply the question of whether the bankers have to bear the burden of the bad loans they have extended.

Iceland is, in fact, a case study of neo-liberalism gone awry. Before the late 1990s, Iceland’s financial sector had been small and the banks were largely government-owned. In 1998, the two leading parties–the Independence Party and the Centre Party–embarked on a privatization of the banking sector, assigning Landsbanki to grandees of the Independence Party and Kaupthing to the Centre Party. A new private bank, Glitnir, was also set up merging several smaller banks. None of these banks had much experience in international finance, but like South Korean banks a decade earlier, these banks tapped into abundant cheap credit and easy capital mobility. Unlike the South Korean banks, their strong ties to political parties, the merger of commercial and investment banking, and low soveriegn debt meant that they got extremely high grades from the credit ratings agencies and as Robert Wade and Silla Sigurgeirsdottir note: “government policy was now subordinated to their ends.”

With the government relaxing mortgage rules to permit loans up to 90 percent of value, the banks rode the wave–by buying shares in each other they inflated share prices and enticed depositors to shift their savings to shares. In less than 10 years after the privatization of banks, Iceland had the fifth highest GDP in the world, 60 percent higher than that of the United States, and the assets of their banks was valued at 800 percent of Iceland’s GDP. As land prices soared, Icelanders loaded up on lower-interest yen- or Swiss-franc debt.

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By 2006, Iceland’s current account deficit had soared to 20 percent of its GDP. Late in that year, Landsbanki established an online bank, Icesave, to attract deposits from overseas clients and by offering highly attractive interest rates, it raked in millions of pounds from England, and later millions of euros especially from the Netherlands. This was soon copied by the two other banks. These were established as ‘branches’ rather than as ‘subsidiaries‘ which meant that they were to be supervised by the icelandic Central Bank rather than regulators in Britain or the Netherlands. Because of Iceland’s obligations as a member of the European Economic Area to insure bank deposits, no one thought to worry about whether the Icelandic Central Bank had the capacity to oversee the vastly extended operations of the island’s three major banks.

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This happy bubble burst in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed, within a fortnight of which the three big Icelandic banks collapsed and by November of that year the krona had fallen from its pre-crisis level of 70 to the euro to 190 to the euro, so sharply cutting the islanders’ purchasing power that the three McDonald’s franchises were forced to close as the cost of importing ingredients made the price of burgers prohibitive! The country’s stock market lost 98 percent of its value! If ever there was a definition of crisis, this was it. It was the first time in over 30 years that a ‘developed’ state had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

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In the light of all this, Iceland’s voters have had the courage to face up to the crisis. It was the first country to kick out the government which had failed so spectacularly. Unlike its neighbor in the North Atlantic–Ireland which underwrote its own banking collapse and loader every household with €80,000 in debt–Iceland let the three banks go under and they imposed capital controls to prevent the flight of capital. Though unemployment in Iceland today is 7.5 percent in Iceland–up from 2 percent in 2002–but just over half of Ireland’s 13.6 percent. Though the krona lost almost half its value, inflation is down sharply and without having to pay back foreign creditors, its government finances are in much better shape than those of Greece, Ireland, or Portugal.

Eurozone’s Woes

December 4, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Posted in International Relations, Political Economy, world politics | Leave a comment
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The Euro–the single currency adopted by 16 states–has been under siege for over a year beginning with the election of a new government in Greece in September 2009 which sharply revised the country’s public deficit from 6 percent of GDP to 12.7 percent. This led to a loss of confidence in the government’s ability to repay loans and raised the cost of borrowing, creating greater difficulties for the government to repay the 300 billion euro debt bequeathed to it by its predecessor in office. Normally, a government faced with high debts could devalue its currency and thereby increase the competitiveness of its exports and attract both foreign investments and tourists but the adoption of the common currency ruled out this option.

Eventually, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cobbled together a rescue package of €110 billion ($146 billion) in May 2010 in return for Greece implementing very severe austerity measures. European policy makers also set up a European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) to create a safety net of upto €750 billion to preserve financial stability among member states of the common currency.

These floodgates came under renewed threat when German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a statement that in future financial crises, creditors must also share in the losses rather than only the tax-payers. As Ireland was the most indebted economy within the Eurozone, this caused interest rates on Irish bonds to spike causing a further crisis in confidence. Unlike the Greek crisis which was caused by high public deficits, the Irish crisis was caused by a collapse of its housing bubble.

Soon after the introduction of the single currency, weak economic demand in the main Eurozone economies–Germany’s real domestic demand in 2008 was only 5 percent higher than in 1999–fueled an asset price inflation-especially in Ireland and Spain. As the former taoiseach (Prime Minister) Garret Fitzgerald noted, the house construction rate in the Celtic Tiger in the last two decades was six times that of Britain–leading to an extraordinary housing bubble stimulated by the Anglo Irish bank and a host of overseas banks. When the bubble burst, instead of the banks’ creditors sharing the losses, the government assumed their payment obligations, nationalizing the Anglo-irish Bank and creating the National Asset Management Agency to take over large loans from other banks, effectively transforming private debt into public debt.

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The ECB and IMF have once again cobbled together a rescue package of €85 billion ($115 billion) but this has not stopped a massive gap in the bond spreads (an increase in the cost of borrowing for the weaker members of the Eurozone, especially Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) and the fear is that if the crisis spreads to Spain and Italy, two of the largest economies, the EFSF would be inadequate and it would cause an enormous political conundrum: citizens of the stronger states will become increasingly unwilling to bail out the more ‘profligate’ states, and citizens of the latter would be unwilling to put up with increasingly stringent long-term austerity measures.

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Spain is fortunate because a large amount of its government debt is owed to its own banks rather than to overseas banks. At the beginning of 2010, Spain’s public debt was only 53 percent of GDP, about 20 percentage points below that of the Eurozone average and half that of Italy’s. Last year, when the budget deficit stood at 11.1 percent of GDP, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also pushed through an austerity package that led to the government’s deficit falling by 47 percent in the first ten months of 2010. The problem for Spain is its high private debt–especially the heavy borrowing from overseas banks to fund home construction in the years up to 2008, Before the start of the recession, Gilles Moec of the Deutsche Bank estimated that private sector debt was 210 percent of GDP compared to 130 percent for Germany, France, and Italy.

If the extent of the impending crisis have left many to wonder about the future of the euro, the problem surely is not in the common currency. As Philippe Legrain wrote in the Financial Times there is a lot to be said for

enabling capital to flow from one member country to another without exchange-rate risk is a key advantage of the euro. If this were possible globally, emerging economies would not feel compelled to amass huge reserves to protect against crises and could be net recipients of investment instead.

What was the problem was that capital from the stronger members of the Eurozone was channeled to fund asset bubbles in Ireland, Spain, and elsewhere. Tighter regulations of cross-border investments can mitigate this problem. But more importantly, why are lenders coddled in cotton wool while taxpayers are burdened with huge debts they had done nothing to incur? Ordinary Irish citizens, as Paul Krugman, has underlined are:

bearing a burden much larger than the debt — because those spending cuts have caused a severe recession so that in addition to taking on the banks’ debts, the Irish are suffering from plunging incomes and high unemployment.

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Earlier when Iceland and Kazakhstan faced financial crises, creditors shared in the pain. The external debt of Kazakhstan’s banking sector which had stood at 26 percent of GDP when the crisis struck in February 2009 had been cut almost in half by September 2010 by making creditors share in the losses and accepting various combinations of senior and subordinated debt. There is no reason to let banks off the hook. In Iceland, the crisis caused the election of a left-leaning government which also were able to get better terms.

If the current crisis enveloping the Eurozone leads to the election of more left leaning governments, and to a refusal to nationalize private debt and to greater regulations over the economy, it may be the final nail in the neoliberal coffin!

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