By the time the European Council meets late next week there will probably be new and significant developments in Ukraine. These will include the results of the one-sided and clearly illegitimate referendum about Crimea becoming a part of the Russian Federation.
Ukraine will quite rightly dominate the summit. Because we do not know the exact context in which the summit will hold its discussions it’s very hard for us to make specific proposals – however there is a lot that will not change and there are core principles that must be upheld.
There has been an ongoing attempt by Russia to throw up a cloud of distractions about Ukraine in the last three months but it is absolutely clear that what we are dealing with is a former imperial power which is acting with aggression against a sovereign state.
This is a crisis which has been directly created by a mind-set that Russia has the right to control the destiny of a state which used to be part of the Soviet Union. They hope that the strength of their verbal and commercial counter-attacks will prevent the democratic world from standing up to them.
It is the wish of the strong majority of the Ukrainian people to be part of the European, democratic mainstream.
This has led to Russia’s reaction. First there was the threat to crush the Ukrainian economy if an association agreement were signed with the European Union and now there is the operation to take Ukrainian territory.
Let there be no mistake about this, every single element of Russia’s story for the annexation of the Crimea is illegitimate.
First there is the story that it is acting to defend Russian civilians being suppressed by Kiev. The fact is that the only people who have been beaten off the streets in the last two weeks are Russians protesting against their government in Moscow and Ukrainians supporting their government in Sevastopol.
No evidence whatsoever of the mistreatment of the Russian minority has been produced. The initial claims of over ½ million people fleeing to Russia were so transparently bogus that Moscow has dropped them from its narrative. The only fleeing populations have been Ukrainians and Tartars from the Crimea.
Second there is the statement that there are no Russian troops involved. They seem to believe that by taking markings off uniforms they have the right to sell this nonsense.
All of the vehicles being used to control Crimea have Russian military number plates. These vehicles include light and heavy armour. The weapons available to the pro-annexation troops are standard-issue for Russian troops.
Most conclusively, the warships blockading the Ukranian fleet are Russian warships. Unless Moscow expects us to accept that replica warships to ones in its fleets have appeared and are under the control of local militias, the evidence is absolutely conclusive – Russian troops have invaded and taken control of Ukrainian territory.
Third there is the idea that Viktor Yanukovich is still the legitimate head of State in Kiev and he has asked them for help. It was Mr Yanukovich who is responsible for killing demonstrators on the streets of Kiev. It was he who refused to implement agreements to resolve the crisis and it was he who fled the country. The evidence of the kleptocracy he ran is now so overwhelming that no one is asking for his restoration to office.
Finally there is the claim that there is nothing to hide. If this is the case why are extraordinary steps being taken to prevent any external agency from getting a presence on the ground?
The OSCE is directly charged with being able to monitor these situations quickly. It has groups on constant stand by, ready to go into areas of unrest or conflict and create the basis for a unified international reaction. Yet the OSCE monitoring team has repeatedly been refused access to Crimea by Russian forces.
This has included an incident where an OSCE monitoring team including a colonel of the Irish Army had warning shots fired at it. In addition, a United Nations representative has been subjected to mob intimidation with Russian troops looking on.
There is no point engaging with the Russian position in detail because it is transparent nonsense. It is about trying to engage the international community in a diplomatic dance while it gets on with creating facts on the ground.
You do not have to be a historian to see the uncanny comparison with the tactics of Germany in the late 1930s.
Were the Baltic States and other former-communist states not now members of the European Union and NATO the logic being used by Russia to threaten Ukraine would apply to them as well.
Russia is not Nazi Germany, but it is an increasingly authoritarian state which is a consistent opponent of basic democratic norms and the right of the international community to promote these norms. Its support of the Assad regime in Syria has helped the regime to survive and create a humanitarian catastrophe.
For those who say that this is none of our business and that we should, in fact, only be concerned with business and trade, I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more.
Yes, we cannot charge around the world insisting that everybody we talk and trade with becomes a Western European liberal democracy. This would be naïve and foolish. However if we genuinely believe in the rule of law in international relations, and if we believe in basic human rights, then there are times where we have to speak up and be willing to act with others.
The Russian government is working on the basis that business means too much to European governments for them to do anything meaningful. Prime Minister Tusk said on Monday that he feared that the reliance of Germany on Russian gas and trade was such that it compromised European sovereignty.
If a European country can be torn apart in such an aggressive and dishonest way without real consequences then we should consider repealing all of the founding declarations about the Union’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
Unfortunately the European Union’s response so far has been extremely weak. Strong words at press conferences have been followed with active work to weaken all proposed actions.
It is primarily because of the work of Foreign Ministers Bildt of Sweden, Sikorski of Poland and the three Baltic member states that Europe has not yet disgraced itself.
In particular I want to commend Radek Sikorski for his work. From my time serving on the Foreign Affairs Council with him I know he is a passionate believer in building a prosperous and democratic Europe.
He is also someone who remembers how Europe standing up for its values helped societies suffering under totalitarian regimes in the past.
It is not clear what if anything our government is supporting. The words of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in condemning Russia’s actions have been strong and welcome. I fully support them in this. What is unknown is what the “severe actions” they talk about are.
Are we supporting the minimalist approach of Germany and some other major trading partners of Russia or are we supporting the much tougher approach of others?
Perhaps we are waiting for something to be agreed and whatever that is we will support it?
The present European position is to suspend future actions but leave everything else in place. This is not good enough.
I believe we should, at a minimum, match the measures announced by President Obama. In addition we should make a genuine priority at lifting the reliance of many states on Russian gas.
This gas has been and will be used to support other Russian political objectives and there comes a point where letting things drift on must stop. Instead of adopting the current innocuous draft conclusions on Energy, the summit should adopt more radical ones about liberating Europe from potential energy blackmail.
Given the current situation, it would seem obvious that it is inappropriate for the Irish government to proceed with any direct government-to-government activities in Moscow for St Patrick’s Day.
We can surely not be holding social receptions with people we are simultaneously proposing to sanction? Minister of State White has a busy portfolio and with the large challenges facing his free-GP care proposal and the compulsory health insurance proposal, I think it would be understood if he were to remain in Dublin.
In relation to the new government of Ukraine, let us not forget that the people of that country experienced a false dawn ten years ago. The Orange Revolution did not deliver for the people. There was no real attempt to show respect for civil society and end the rule of wealthy elites.
The European Union should condition its support on the implementation of a programme, which the EU should fund, to increase the role of civil society and bodies which promote transparency and accountability.
We should also insist that financial aid to Ukraine gives it a realistic path to growth. If this requires the restructuring of the debt amassed under the last regime then so be it. Ukraine needs investment and it needs hope – neither of which it can get if it spends years desperately managing these debts.
This summit will formally sign off the latest fiscal and economic oversight documents. This is not a success. The ‘European Semester’ is leaving in place every element of existing economic orthodoxy. Most important it is following the policy of ‘austerity for all’. The position of all European economies has been undermined by this policy.
Many states do not have the opportunity to implement significant extra investment. The idea that all austerity has been avoidable is populist nonsense. However there are economies which are certainly strong enough to follow a more growth-oriented approach which would benefit them and the whole of Europe.
The European recovery remains weak. Growth rates are significantly lower than forecast this time last year. This summit will again sign off on a policy of leaving policy unchanged.
Thankfully ECB President Mario Draghi has not followed the policy of doing as little as possible as late as possible. I welcome his statement that he is willing to implement new measures if he feels deflation is a rising threat.
The various decisions of Mario Draghi in his two years as ECB President have been absolutely central to any progress in Europe and they have been far more significant in helping Ireland than any decision of our government.
This must explain why the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and their parties have ignored him in the lengthy and still ongoing speeches of self-praise the Dáil has been hearing for the last week.
The Annotated Draft Agenda for the summit states that issues around the Single Resolution Mechanism may be discussed though not as a priority item. The existing proposal for the SRM is wholly inadequate and goes nowhere near breaking the link between sovereign and banking debt. The entire package for a watered-down banking union is also delayed. There are reports appearing again about difficulties in Belgium and other members.
While the Taoiseach and his EPP party colleagues were engaging in an extended backslapping session about banking union last week the reality is very different. The essential Bank Resolution Fund which the Taoiseach signed up to will take 10 years to build up its funds. After a decade it will have €55 billion available to it. This has been estimated at only 0.2% of the total asset base of the covered banks.
The Taoiseach and his staff have yet again been briefing journalists that they have everything in hand re banking debt. Only the most gullible could take any of this on face value.
First of all, the government has never said what it is looking for either in terms of the type or level of funding.
Second, it is now well over a year and a half since Ministers Howlin and Noonan gave a giggling press conference where they indulged the idea that €68 billion could be on the way after they had “changed the game”.
19 months later the game has not been changed and the figures that were talked about then are in excess of the entire fund available from the European Union for past, present and future recapitalisation of the entire European financial system.
Finally there is the problem that the June 2012 communique which the Taoiseach likes to tell journalists gave a specific commitment to sort out Ireland did nothing of the sort. The exact text, which is more referred to than read, states:
“The Eurogroup will examine the situation of the Irish financial sector with the view of further improving the sustainability of the well-performing adjustment programme”
It is over three months since the Taoiseach declared the adjustment programme over. He also declared that he and his ministers had already delivered debt sustainability and growth for the economy.
There is no commitment there to transfer to Europe Ireland’s bank-related debt – none whatsoever.
It may be that we can sell them some bank shares – but as we have seen in the last week this is not a problem. It is simply not true that we agreed to wait until the banking union was up and running before looking for debt relief.
What has happened is a permanent campaign to refuse to be straight with the people and to constantly change the briefings about what was agreed.
Minister Noonan, by way of reference to the Fair at Glynn said that he wouldn’t reveal his bottom line. OK, but over a year and a half later the public has a right to at least hear the opening bid.
The Commission’s work on taxation may also be raised. There is nothing in the Treaties that prevent member states from setting tax rates which are different from others. Enough time has been wasted on trying to construct a case to get involved in the corporate taxation issue.
The idea that the German or French economies are suffering because of how Ireland taxes business profits is ridiculous. There are much more important issues which should be taking the time of leaders at this summit.
Climate & Energy
I welcome the fact that the summit will review the area of climate and energy policy. The influence of climate change deniers is thankfully receding rapidly – unfortunately this is being driven by the increasingly severe evidence of man-caused climate change.
Ireland should support the reinvigoration and not the watering down of action on climate change.
The area of competitiveness will also be covered. It appears that there is nothing new on the agenda. A real competiveness agenda would include a proper investment programme.
The people of Ukraine who went onto the streets to demand a European future for their country deserve our support. Some of them paid for their dreams with their lives.
The country as a whole is facing an aggressive invasion from its powerful neighbour. Taoiseach, if you come back from this summit having done only one thing it must be to stand with the people of Ukraine through supporting concrete action to develop their country and rebuff the Russian aggression. You’ve done your photo-ops with Yulia Timoshenko and Vitali Klitschko. It’s time for some concrete action.