Mon | Dec 10, 2018

David Jessop | Is the Caribbean prepared for a much-changed Europe?

Published:Sunday | September 23, 2018 | 12:00 AM
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and British Prime Minister Theresa May wait for the beginning of the plenary session of the informal EU summit in Salzburg, Austria last week.

The Caribbean has always felt confident that it understands the politics and values of Europe. This is largely because of a shared history, a common commitment to democracy and centrist thinking, as well as the European Union's (EU) continuing role in supporting regional development.

Despite this, it would be prudent for governments and parties to consider the implications of the political changes now taking place in almost every EU nation.

At its most obvious, the United Kingdom is set to leave the EU in March 2019.

It is no exaggeration to say that as each day passes, Britain's likely future relationship

with its neighbours and external partners is becoming less certain.

This is not just because the President of the European Union, Donald Tusk, has said in the last few days that the UK's proposed post-Brexit partnership with the EU27 is unworkable in its present form. Rather, it is because even if some form of negotiated post-Brexit deal can be achieved, it is hard to imagine a fractious British Parliament divided on non-party lines and an increasingly divided Brexit-weary electorate agreeing any solution that will not be challenged at a general election or another referendum.

Worse, if the outcome is no deal, and the UK crashes out of the EU early next year, few UK officials or politicians have any convincing explanation as to how the likely chaos will be addressed.

As this column has pointed out before, there are negative implications for the Caribbean whether the outcome is either no deal or some late-stage form of free-trade agreement.

The present breakdown in negotiations suggests that until at least 2020, and probably beyond, trade between the UK and the region will be subject to uncertainty and disruption until EPA-equivalent tariffs, standards, and regulations are in place.

Notwithstanding, other more fundamental political developments are taking place across Europe that are likely to influence decision making in the EU27 and the UK far into the future.

 

ELECTORAL HEADWAY

 

For the last few years, far right and populist political groups have been making substantial electoral headway.

Where once one could reliably predict that electorates in most EU nations would vote for whatever bettered personal circumstances, this has changed.

Across Europe, electorates have become angry with establishment politics and elites. In particular, large groups of marginalised, often older, less-educated workers feel dispossessed by deindustrialisation, migration, and the austerity that followed the 2008 economic crisis. To capitalise on this new populist wave, old and new political parties are seeking to channel voters' frustration into ending centrist consensus politics by electorally weaponising migration and the defence of national culture and identity.

The consequence is that European politics are in flux; EU member states, including Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Austria now have nationalist right-wing governments that actively oppose migration; challenges are emerging to EU values and thinking; and xenophobia, racism, and anti-migrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric have entered the mainstream of EU politics.

 

RISE OF POPULIST PARTIES

 

It is a situation that has been made more complex by the rise of populist parties in almost every EU state. In France, Germany, Holland, and Italy, parties like the Fronte National, Alterativ fur Deutschland, and Liga have won up to 26 per cent of the popular vote, taking seats from centrist parties.

Stepping into this heady and potentially volatile mix is Donald Trump's consigliere, Steve Bannon. Working with EU populist parties and their leaders, he is about to launch a new European force intended to influence future political decisions by the European Parliament and by extension the European Commission and Council, and some EU governments.

The new organisation, 'The Movement', is being established with the objective of initially mounting a concerted attempt at changing the political complexion of the European Parliament when Europe-wide elections take place in May next year.

The new organisation is due to be formally launched in Brussels in late November and is reportedly benefitting from substantial private US and EU funding.

The idea is that by using social media, pan-European databases, and by discrediting facts and rational argument, the new group will seek to exploit economic nationalism, anger against elites, and concern about immigration. Its aim is to establish a large loosely aligned cooperative of radical right-wing parties in the European Parliament able to return greater control to individual European states.

The creation of 'The Movement' and its envisaged role has a significance beyond Europe as the Parliament's composition, political coalitions, and voting patterns now affect Europe's international relations. Today, it can influence, or have the final say on, for example, development policy and the development budget, foreign and security policy, trade agreements, and whatever arrangement the EU reaches with the ACP for a post-Cotonou agreement.

Beyond this, the next European Parliament will play a key role in a likely tense debate about the appointment of the commissioners in the next European Commission, the presidency of the Council, the next EU high representative (foreign minister) and other key posts, all of which come up for renewal in 2019.

All of which is coming at a time when by my count, no more than two anglophone Caribbean governments are making any in-depth effort to cultivate an alternative friendly state in the EU27 such as France or Spain, able to compensate for the absence of the UK's voice post-Brexit.

What also appears to be missing is any long-term analytic view of the relative national and regional importance of future relations with the US, Canada, the UK, the EU 27, China and perhaps Brazil, India and Russia.

That is to say, an analysis that looks at present and future trade in goods and services, investment potential, levels of development assistance, energy and food security, help on key issues such as obtaining funding to support adaption and mitigation of climate change, common values, and the creation of long-term security relationships.

It is possible that somewhere in the Caribbean, a foreign or trade ministry or one of the region's universities is trying to look over the horizon to analyse these trends and where future advantage may lie.

Somehow I doubt it, but it would be good to be proved wrong.

- David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org