Saturday, 8 February 2014

Europe's peripheral worries

I'm worried about Europe - worried about Ukraine, worried about the UK. Worried that Russia's government will drag Ukraine inextricably into its structures, depriving Poland of a buffer zone between the safety of the EU. Worried that Scotland will leave the United Kingdom, and that the resultant Little England will leave the EU.

Yet knowing the way things function - the model of 'muddling through somehow'- the latter worries seem less real. Scottish voters will vote thinking of the economic uncertainties of going solo (ever tried changing a Scottish ten-pound note at a Polish kantor?) and English voters will likewise realise that leaving the EU will not solve the problem of non-European immigration. But Ukraine... big uncertainty.

What will Europe look like in five, ten years time?

The next weeks will prove crucial for Europe's history. They will either mark the start of Cold War II, or else see Putin's world view irrevocably damaged. Once the Sochi games have got under way, will Putin push Yanukovych to spill blood on a massive scale in order to retain Moscow's influence in Ukraine? Or will the Ukrainian nation wrest itself free of the greedy gang that has plundered it into poverty these past two decades?

In the meanwhile, there's little media attention being directed these days at Greece or Spain - it seems that muddling through somehow has triumphed. Voices suggesting that the eurozone is bound to break up, which were strident two years ago, have piped down. The media always like to play up potential conflict and geopolitical cataclysms - it's what drives sales, page-views. The outcome is usually nothing of the kind. Compromise, fudge, a reasonable middle way is the default; nothing bad really happens. In civilised Europe, anyway.

But Syria? Not something that affects us. Egypt? Ditto. Excitable peoples, different culture. A long way from where we live. But Ukraine? It's on our doorstep. A Syrian-style civil war next door to us is unthinkable. Or is it? Yet what's the resolution? Is it binary - Russia or Europe? Or is there any possibility of a middle way - of a Cold War style neutrality, like Finland or Austria, acceptable to Moscow and the West?

We just don't know. The situation is fluid, unsettling. The outcome is far from certain; the muddle-through-somehow option is unlikely this time round. A nation of 46 million people, mired in corruption, without proper governance or institutions, will require trillions of euros and decades of externally steered nation-building to put right. Can the EU afford it? Can it afford not to? The alternative is that Putin extends the borders of his fiefdom to within a few score miles of Rzeszów, Lublin and Bialystok. Not comfortable for Poland. Does this bother the average Frenchman, Spaniard or Eurosceptic Englishman?

It should do. A repeat of 1939-45 is unlikely today. But Syria shows what kind of scenarios are possible. Millions of refugees fleeing across the border into Poland, escaping a vicious civil war. An entrenched kleptocracy fighting for survival against a people that recognise that they have been cheated of the prospects of a decent life by a bandits who've stolen the ultimate loot - an entire state.

Putin's on a knife-edge too. All this is happening as his showcase Olympics unfold to general online hilarity caused by poor execution and corruption. If Ukraine falls to the forces of democracy, Russia could be next. Putin's vision of restoring the USSR requires Ukraine to be with him and not sliding towards the EU.

The EU is fully aware of the costs and dangers of supporting Ukraine's move away from Russia towards European values. But equally, Europe's leaders should be aware of the costs of letting Ukraine slip away into the dark, cold, nightmare of being subsumed into Putin's dream of a Eurasian Union.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the next few weeks will be crucial to Europe's future. Putin is the decisive figure. He'll either force a bloody resolution to the crisis, or lose Ukraine. Whatever happens, Yanukovych will be gone, to replaced by someone that Putin finds more decisive in carrying out his will.

Let's not let the Sochi games distract our attention from Maidan - and let's hope the Ukrainian people can find leaders that will lead them towards a better life based on the rule of law, strong institutions, and decent governance. That's not easy - it will require external help. Not just from the EU or NATO members - but from Australia, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Japan... developed countries with relatively low levels of corruption and strong economies.

This time last year:
Winter returns to Warsaw

This time two years ago:
Babcia vs. Roma action, Centrum
[A classic bit of photo-reportage, if you don't mind me boasting]

This time three years ago:
Reasons to be cheerful

This time four years ago:
Skiing in the Beskid Wyspowy

This time five years ago:
What's to be done about Warsaw's unmade roads?
[answer after five years: 'too little']

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki in the fog
[some lovely photos]


Bob said...

Good post - multitude of issues to consider.

First, only thinking of the Ukraine - if it is assumed that trillions of Euros would need to be pumped in (and I do not doubt that) - the question I would ask is: "what would the same injection of capital do for the countries in the EU?" Looking at it as strictly an ROI basis - where would capital be best deployed?

I am only looking at economics not geopolitical questions. Separate discussion.

Of course putting money into the Ukraine at present would see vast %'s siphoned off by the many corrupt people in the country.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Bob:
Two answers, neither of which deal with your ROI question...

What would be the cost of NOT drawing Ukraine into the EU's orbit?

Money put into Ukraine must be spent in such a way as to avoid the pockets of the current corrupt elite. Build a new administration from scratch, trained in Brussels; build the infrastructure using EU contractors - Skanska, Hochtieff, Mostostal etc.

Infrastructure builds rich countries - that's the ROI. To do it efficiently and quickly.

Alexander said...

No accountant ever signed the annual accounts of the EU !!