Obama, Crimea and the TTIP pill

obama EU US Summit

From left to right: Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Barack Obama, President of USA and Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council (EC Audiovisual Services)

It was two days ago, Wednesday 26 March, that the President of the USA paid us a visit here in Brussels and caused a congestion chaos in the Belgian capital. The reason of his visit was to sell. To sell ideas about freedom, NATO membership ‘upgrades’ and a bit of shale gas. As sales are inherently opportunistic, the timing for President Obama was just perfect. Putin had illegally annexed Crimea and the entire world, including the EU, is against it. Could there be a better ‘opportunity’ for the American President to take the lead in a diplomatic campaign to isolate Russia economically and accelerate significantly the discussions with his EU counterparts on TTIP (Transantlantic Trade and Investment Partnership)?

For a start what is very interesting is to take a look into the semantics of Obama’s speech in Brussels last Wednesday. Usually when the American President gives speeches, you always have the impression that the best political scientists from Yale, Harvard and Princeton get locked inside a room and compete who is going to write the President’s speech better. Reality is not too far from that I presume.

Gloriously starting with the old time classics joke about Belgium, the country of “beer and chocolate” he wanted to create laughter and positive mood in the audience: “I have to admit it is easy to love a country famous for chocolate and beer”. And then knowing well that he is given a big time slot and that most of people will not stand to listen to his entire speech but read about it in the American partisan media, he took it from the beginning. And when I say beginning, I mean the very beginning of human nature, exactly like a PhD student writing his thesis would do, from the basics of sociology. It goes like that: “Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state, the best means to resolve the inevitable conflicts between states”.

Right after that, President Obama ‘instructed’ us about the ‘bad’ human tendency to see one-self as superior to the other. Despite the arguments that most social psychologists would have on that he said that “…this alternative vision roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others and that individual identity must be defined by us versus them, or that national greatness must flow not by what people stand for, but what they are against” and then by reviewing human history he sees that “and even — even among the most civilized of societies on the surface, we saw a descent into barbarism”.

Further, the American President, like a great specialist in political communication he stands on a semantic controversy to underline how the US have helped Europe during WWII, the “Holocaust” and the “Marshall Plan”. Then he seeks to stimulate the emotions of the average European and talks about specific examples from “Hungary” to the “Velvet Revolution” and “East Berlin”. Later he refers to the “hundreds of millions of Europeans” that came stronger after the war and live in peace and prosperity thanks to the collaboration with the US; “The people of Europe, hundreds of millions of citizens, east, west, north, south, are more secure and more prosperous because we stood together for the ideals we shared”.

What is more, right after that the American President leaves Europe in his speech and takes us to Africa and India and how Europe and the US collaborated for the freedom of the world; “After the second world war people from Africa to India threw off the yoke of colonialism to secure their independence. In the United States citizens took Freedom Rides and endured beatings to put an end to segregation and to secure their civil rights. As the Iron Curtain fell here in Europe, the iron fist of apartheid was unclenched and Nelson Mandela emerged upright, proud, from prison to lead a multiracial democracy; Latin American nations rejected dictatorship and built new democracies; and Asian nations showed that development and democracy could go hand in hand”.

He immediately comes back to Europe and the Balkans of the 90’s and the ‘friendly bombs’ to emphasise the American help to resolve that European issue; “Even here in Europe we’ve seen ethnic cleansing in the Balkans that shocked the conscience. The difficulties of integration and globalization, recently amplified by the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, strained the European project and stirred the rise of a politics that too often targets immigrants or gays or those who seem somehow different”.

After this creative and well studied introduction, tedious for many, President Obama last Wednesday came to the point, or the big ‘opportunity’, Crimea. “So I come here today to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world, because the contest of ideas continues for your generation. And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine today.” This is the place that the whole world was waiting for; to find out how the US together with the EU will face the Russian threat and ‘punish’ the illegal annexation of Crimea. President Obama first stressed how the world cannot turn its back to what happens now in Ukraine; “To be honest, if we define our interests narrowly, if we applied a coldhearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way. Our economy is not deeply integrated with Ukraine’s. Our people and our homeland face no direct threat from the invasion of Crimea. Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation. But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard, not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.”

Later he admired the courage of the Ukrainians to gather at Maidan and protest against their corrupted government;”These Ukrainians rejected a government that was stealing from the people instead of serving them, and are reaching for the same ideals that allow us to be here today.” Then, he ‘played’ with the emotion of fear and he claimed that “None of us can know for certain what the coming days will bring in Ukraine”, but at the same time he is confident that Europe and the US united will be able to stand up to the rights of peoples for freedom.

Moreover, the American leader recaps further the sanctions that have been already imposed by the US and the EU against Russia, “not to keep Russia down” as his posits, but because “the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up.” … “Over the last several days, the United States, Europe and our partners around the world have been united in defence of these ideals and united in support of the Ukrainian people. Together, we’ve condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rejected the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum. Together, we have isolated Russia politically, suspending it from the G-8 nations and downgrading our bilateral ties. Together, we are imposing costs through sanctions that have left a mark on Russia and those accountable for its actions.”

Further, Obama carries on by unveiling to us that the repercussions if Russia maintains its threatening stance will be pure economical, “And if the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together, we will ensure that this isolation deepens. Sanctions will expand, and the toll on Russia’s economy, as well as its standing in the world, will only increase.” Moreover, later he stresses the obvious, that neither the EU nor the US would like to start a World War III against Russia and the peer, “Make no mistake, neither the United States nor Europe has any interest in controlling Ukraine.We have sent no troops there. What we want is for the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions, just like other free people around the world.”

Finally, President Obama, even though before he had told us that “none of us can know for certain what the coming days will bring in Ukraine”, he seemed pretty convinced towards the end of his speech that everything will be sorted out smoothly and promptly with diplomacy, “ I believe that for both Ukraine and Russia, a stable peace will come through de-escalation, a direct dialogue between Russia and the government of Ukraine and the international community, monitors who can ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, a process of constitutional reform within Ukraine and free and fair elections this spring.”

Crimea, the big ‘opportunity’ for the TTIP

The leaders last Wednesday, after making this beautiful intro about Crimea, Ukraine and blocking accounts of Putin’s oligarch friends, they soon cut to the chase, the TTIP. This immense trade collaboration has been launched as a debate for quite some time now, and is expected to be concluded by the end of 2014. Given the complexity of the TTIP, touching from shale gas, to GMOs, data privacy and Hollywood movies, the debate has been strong and there seem to be some significant obstacles, at least from a thinking part of the European side. Hence, it is of strategic importance to escalate the debate and bring it on the table with the first opportunity. What better ‘gift’ could Mr Barroso and Mr Obama ask for, if not the Crimea evolutions?

Consequently, after the tedious intros finished, Mr Obama embarked on the topic of energy and how Europe should take measures against its over-dependence on Russia, which accounts for the 1/3 of European energy sources. He told the reporters in Brussels that ““It is useful for Europe to look at its own energy assets as well as how the United States can supply additional energy assets”… “The truth of the matter is that just as there’s no easy, free, simple way to defend ourselves, there’s no perfect, free, ideal cheap energy sources,” Obama said. “Every possible energy source has some inconveniences or downsides.” …“The question is whether through our energy ministers and at the highest levels we’re able to find ways in which we can accelerate this process of diversification and this is something we’re very much committed to,”… “It’s not something that can happen overnight but what I think this entire crisis has pointed to is the need for us to get moving now, with the sense of urgency.” Moreover, the EU ambassador to Washington Jose Vale de Almeida quoted Obama: “You cannot just rely on other people’s energy, even if it has some costs, some downside”.

Apart from selling shale gas this week in Europe, the American President also tried to sell a bit of NATO membership upgrades. Obama last Wednesday also met NATO top representatives and he stressed that NATO is the most important organisation for the US national security. He also encouraged a more ‘active’ contribution of European member states to NATO. “Everybody’s going to have to make sure they’re engaged and involved, and I think that will help build confidence in some of those border states”, the American President said. Moreover, referring to the Russian threat he added that all NATO members will have utmost protection. However, as the American President puts it very clearly, “freedom isn’t free”, referring to the great need of the EU to ‘chip in’ further.

All in all, Crimea is just a “wicked game of political chess’, but in fact what is behind is pure business. Call it TTIP, NATO contributions or Shale Gas, the message is more than clear; Putin has been a bad boy, let’s isolate him temporarily economically, show to the world that we are too sensitive for freedom and engage further into better economical relations between the EU and the US. And don’t get me wrong; Crimea annexation is preposterous and illegal, we need to support Ukraine as European country out of this mess, but the way the whole thing is being served by Presidents and Commissioners is way too blunt and populist. We do show empathy to Ukraine and how a part of it is stolen by Russia but at the same time we are not stupid to see exactly how the whole issue is being sold to us in order to ‘swallow’ the TTIP pill easier.

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