Syria & Greece: Europe’s Crises of Extending & Pretending

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 27 Nov - 4 Dec 2015

Jeremy Warner, Assistant Editor of the Telegraph, tells us an iconic story which somehow encapsulates all the principal crises facing Europe and America:

“Greece is a frontline state; as such it is one of the main portals for migrants into the European Union. Once in, migrants can travel freely, thanks to Schengen, throughout much of the EU until they reach the country where they wish to claim asylum or otherwise work illegally.

Most European states believe that Greece has badly mishandled its responsibilities on border control, and following refusal to accept wider European help in tackling the crisis, the EU is now threatening Greece with expulsion from Schengen. Such action would essentially divorce Greece from the main body of the EU. As with Britain, which is not a member of Schengen, border controls would have to be established to patrol passage from Greece to the rest of the EU.

The EU is able to threaten expulsion because Greece is reluctant to accept limited offers of help, including humanitarian aid and a special mission from Frontex, Europe’s hopelessly inadequate version of a federal borders agency. This refusal is not because Greece believes it needs no aid; it is because it thinks the offer grossly deficient (emphasis added). If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Exactly the same thing happened over Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. Limited relief was offered by the EU, but on terms and conditions which Greece found unacceptable. In the end, it was forced to capitulate, the alternative being expulsion from the Euro”.

What the refugee crisis, and the crisis stemming from Europe’s austerity policies, have in common, as Jeremy Warner has clearly perceived, is that both derive from the practice of extending problems (kicking the can down the road), and in pretending that all is well, even when it is patently obvious that it isn’t.

Those who believe that Greece has the ability to pay off its debts on the basis of the past and present austerity policies are now rarer than hen’s teeth. Yet, the policy keeps being extended, and the pretence maintained that all will be well -- ‘ultimately’.  And when the heralded ‘solution’ stays hovering, well beyond the horizon, the austerity is again extended – but in ever more bizarre ways. We read a report in the Greek Enikonomia, for example, that Greek taxpayers shortly will be forced to declare all cash "under the mattress" or in bank deposit boxes, above Euros 15,000 - as well as jewelry and precious stones (including gold) worth over Euros 30,000, starting in 2016. It all sounds horribly like the bell tolling for an eventual asset confiscation scheme by the government.  Greece’s disaster simply continues to unfold, unendingly.

Similarly, Europe and the US  have pursued doggedly, decades of loose monetary policy (i.e. creating more debt to wash away certain debt problems), but still our economies are said to be quasi “zombies” -  and at the same time, we face the systemic instability arising from this explosion of debt, which is now estimated to total $190 trillion globally, in comparison to a global GDP of only $70 trillion (derivative exposure is estimated at anything up to 20 times global GDP).  In short, there are many more claims on real assets, than assets exist.  Yet printing more money, and maintaining zero or now, negative interest rates, seem destined to be extended infinitely.

It is not that Europeans or Americans cannot not see the dangers arising either from the financial precariousness, or the refugee crisis in Europe, which threatens existentially the European project (Jean-Claude Junker recently mused that if the Schengen agreement fails, then what is the point is there to the existence of the Euro). It is that we seem locked into a pattern of extending and pretending – even as these crises aggravate.

So, too, is the case with Syria. The British parliament has overwhelmingly voted to bomb Syria:  It is said that the decision is all about “degrading ISIS”, but it is obvious that this objective stands in direct tension with Britain’s other, publicly less acknowledged motives: namely to maintain the possibility of ousting President Assad and for regime change (hence the Joint Intelligence Committee’s insistence that it has identified 70,000 “moderates" in Syria (refusing to provide any further details), when even the former British Ambassador to Damascus says that there are, at the upper-most, 5,000 that make up the illusive FSA). In addition, Britain wants to put a wedge between France and Moscow, following President Hollande’s initiative to co-operate with Russia. Additionally, Britain would like to see President Putin cut down to size, and finally, it would like to please its Gulf allies.

This is just another case of extending (the existing meme regime change, by exaggerating the number of “moderates”, and by careful bombing sorties aimed strengthening these ostensible “moderates", at the expense of ISIS), and pretending that the refugee crisis has nothing to with past western ‘regime change’ fiascos; or that a ‘transitional government’ in Syria made up of westernised World Bank, or Goldman Sachs-type technocrats, would have some hope of forging the critical mass of state resources necessary to defeat al-Qaida, ISIS or Ahrar al-Sham, in the subsequent war that inevitably would ensue - were the Syrian state to be de-capitated as Mr Cameron hopes. 

The consequence of espousing the ‘regime must fall’ line, with no credible alternative, and at a moment when Caliphate forces, of one hue or another, wholly dominate the insurgent combatants, is simply to invite a Libya-style outcome, and the anarchy that would follow. It is also about pretending to suggest that paying ‘Dane geld’ to Turkey to stop the refugee flux will solve the problem of refugees. President Erdogan is a part of the problem (its initiator), rather than its solution.

It seems that Europe and America simply do not have the leadership, the will, or the vision to step beyond their ‘extend and pretend’ paradigm, and Europe’s diverse crises will simply deepen and multiply (since they are all interlinked, as Warner notes).  Fortunately, in Syria the British bombing and drone attacks are unlikely to make much practical difference (except for those people likely to die as a consequence). But the British initiative’s real damage comes from its (intentional) aim to muddy the waters of exactly what it is that Europe is being offered.

On the one hand, Europe is being offered the prospect that after defeating the jihadists in Syria (with effective non-jihadist ground forces and air support), open, free, UN-monitored elections will be held, and reforms will be enacted by a new parliament.  President Assad will likely be a candidate, and if so, he, most likely, will win those elections.

And what if President Assad wins?  Is it not the Syrian people’s right to decide – to choose their own leader; their own way of being?  Does Europe think that its refugee crisis is so trivial that it can afford to subordinate finding a genuine solution to it in order to play politics in Syria? Must it be coerced into the Washington consensus (away from Russia)?  What is it to Europe were Bashar Assad to win?  It might actually serve to end the Syrian refugee exodus. 

On the other hand, as things stand, Europe is being enticed towards a de-capitated, disarrayed state, with a very real chance in such a situation, that the Caliphate forces would prevail – and the refugee exodus become a flood. Why should it be hard to choose?  Is it just the desire to humiliate Putin?  Is it just that some egos cannot stand that President Assad remain in power?

The former strategy will most likely prevail in the end, but Britain’s move is likely to make it more complicated and longer; make it less likely that Europe will escape its ‘extend and pretend’ mode, sooner rather than later; and more likely that Europe’s interrelated crises will aggravate to threaten European stability too.  Washington is several thousand miles away from the disintegrating Middle East.  Europe is on its doorstep: Europe and America’s interests are not identical when it comes to Syria.  Europe will have to choose.