The next few weeks may indelibly stain the future of Europe. There are three issues which can irreparably hurt the Old Continent. Starting from Britain in the extreme northwest, this week the country showed that she risks plummeting into a jingoistic abyss. A confrontation with Spain about the Gibraltar Rock has provoked a wave of dangerously extreme patriotic screams in England. A number of Brexiteer politicians and Press commentators went as far as brandishing war against the Iberian country.
Then, it’s Greece in the far southeast. This EU member state may once more fail to implement the terms provided by her third and latest financial support program. This can trigger a major crisis in the Eurozone. In Athens, the government has grave problems to effectively control its tiny parliamentary majority and to convince all the 153 MPs of the SYRIZA-ANEL ruling coalition in a house of 300, to legislate exactly what the creditors demand. Next June, Greece’s EU partners have to lend her around € 7 billion, in order for Athens to pay back maturing old debts of an equal amount on time and avoid a real time bankruptcy.
Is Le Pen’s threat real?
A third risk that may irreparably damage the EU is the French Presidential election results in the first round. The two candidates who will come first and second on 23 April will cross their wills on 7 May. Currently, the polls give a very tiny lead to the centrist Emmanuel Macron, over Marine Le Pen the extreme right and Putin loving leader of the xenophobic and anti-EU National Front political party. The scandal ridden center-right Francois Fillion is already out of the race.
Everybody agrees that Macron will surely beat Le Pen in the second round and move to the Élysée Palace. However, the percentage she musters on 23 April is very crucial. The extreme right leader says she wants France out from the Eurozone and possibly out from the EU itself. If she beats Macron in the first round and largely surpasses the one quarter of the vote the pollsters currently predict for her, then the country has a problem. Let’s take another round of the next three European predicaments and investigate the details a bit deeper.
The EU slams Britain on Gibraltar
The confrontation with Spain started when Britain realized that Spain after the Brexit can use her veto power in relation to every European Union action, which may directly or indirectly regard the Gibraltar Rock. London considers the Rock as British soil and, logically, after the Brexit it will follow mother Britain outside the EU. However, the 30,000 inhabitants of the 2.5 square miles of rock prefer to retain a special relation with the EU, that is with Spain. In this respect, it’s certain that the Iberian country, having never accepted the results of the 2002 referendum with which the Rock became exclusively British soil, is set to create more problems. Spain never accepted the British full sovereignty in the Rock.
Yesterday, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution about the Brexit, overwhelmingly backing the relevant guidelines adopted by the 27 EU leaders in their last summit. The British conservative MEPs tried to insert a paragraph in the resolution, saying that the Gibraltar Rock inhabitants have voted to remain in the EU. The overwhelming majority of the European Parliament though rejected that, and Manfred Weber the head of the conservative EPP group said “leave is leave”. Incidentally, the European Council President, Donald Tusk, has published a rough copy of the text to be approved by the 27 EU leaders in their 29 April meeting. In it, there is a paragraph saying, “after the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar, without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”
The Rock is European
So, indirectly, the EU doesn’t recognize full British sovereignty in the Rock and this veto power bestowed to Spain is tantamount to something like advocating a joint UK and Spanish rule. This joint sovereignty thought was rejected by the Rocks voters back in the 2002 referendum with a 98% majority. When the Tusk document was published last Friday, the English Press and Brexiteer politicians went very close to declaring war to Spain, as mentioned above. Of course the government adopted a calm attitude. Prime Minister’s spokesperson when asked if London is ready to send a naval force to secure the British sovereignty in Gibraltar replied “That isn’t going to happen.”
In any case, the Gibraltar issue has instantly triggered in England jingoistic reactions from the Press and some politicians and in certain cases it reached unbelievable levels. There are articles in Brexiteer Press even comparing the fire power of the British and Spanish naval forces. In view of that, impartial political analysts pointed out that it’s highly probable that similarly jingoistic and aggressive reactions may be triggered in case of other important Brexit issues, like trade or UK financial obligations to the EU.
Of course 10 Downing Street is not expected to follow the extreme chauvinists in such slippery paths, but Theresa May in one way or another will be affected and influenced if that kind of reaction persists. For example, Lord Howard, a high ranking conservative politician and former government minister said that May “would defend Gibraltar the same way that Margaret Thatcher had protected the Falklands”, obviously meaning by declaring war to Spain.
In such an environment, the British PM will certainly be obliged to take account of similar stance by her fellow chauvinist Tory politicians and a belligerent English public opinion. One can easily imagine the devastating repercussions on the Brexit negotiations with the EU, from such a climatic deterioration in London. It may set the entire continent on fire.
It’s Greece again
The next possible risk source is placed in the diametrically opposite corner of Europe. Greece keeps unsuccessfully negotiating with her EU partners and the IMF for months now, about the continuation of the current third financial support program, needed for her to avoid bankruptcy. However, the terms set by the creditors for more loans to the debt stricken economy are becoming everyday all more difficult to fulfill, after seven years of recession and skyrocketing unemployment. The governing coalition of SYRIZA-ANEL comprises 153 deputies in a legislative of 300. Reportedly a good number of them have vowed to reject new deeper cuts in pensions, income tax increases and the demanded removal of the remaining labor protection legislation. Currently, more than half of all new hiring is of the part time kind, but only as far as pay goes.
In case Greece finds it politically impossible to come to terms with her EU creditors and more particularly Germany, Eurozone will find it very difficult to solve the Gordian knot. If MP Tsipras cannot convince his parliamentary group to go along with the demands of the creditors, Greece and together with her the Eurozone will be limbo. Understandably, the spring 2017 situation is not comparable to the summer of 2015 or June 2012. The EU thinks it can now manage a Greek bust, but nobody can tell what the repercussions may be for example to Italy, if Greece runs wild.
The French question
Last but in no way least, the French Presidential elections may also present unpleasant surprises for the entire Continent. The key issue is the percentage of votes Marine Le Pen is to get on 23 April. Most pollsters estimate that at around 25%. If the real time result comes nearer to 30% or God forbid above it, France and of course Europe will have a problem. And this is not Britain or Greece, in the two far away corners of the Old Continent. The Paris-Berlin axis is the founding keystone of the Union and her power house ever since. And unfortunately, it’s now true that Le Pen may be able to put a big question mark on EU’s future in two weeks from now.
The good thing is, though, that after the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016, the other 27 have showed a rare stance for strong unity. This was confirmed again now with their joint position favoring Spain, in her confrontation with Britain on the Gibraltar Rock sovereignty. This unity will be seriously undermined though, if Greece goes wild and Le Pen wins the day on Sunday 23 April.