Wednesday, March 26, 2014

From the Crimean referendum to the Scottish referendum: is the EU a modern-day Austria-Hungary?

In a previous article about the Ukraine Crisis, I compared the modern-day EU-Russia confrontation over Ukraine to that a hundred years ago between Austria-Hungary and Russia over Serbia, that followed from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

As obviously illegitimate the Crimean referendum appears, what is beyond doubt is that Crimea only became part of Ukraine as a result of the fall of the USSR; when it was given to the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s, it was only in "Ukraine" on paper, and Russia has obviously felt that way ever since.

In fact, I read a good analogy regarding Russia's relationship towards Ukraine, comparing it to England's toward Scotland. Russians and Ukrainians are often intermarried, with many ethnic Ukrainians even working in the Kremlin; similarly English and Scots intermarry, with many Scots having recently been an integral part of the British government. For Russians then, the idea of Ukraine drifting away from Russian orbit (and Russian culture) would seem as unthinkable to many English people as Scotland breaking away to become part of,the Eurozone. Britain as an idea would simply not longer exist in reality.

For many Russians, Ukraine is more simply, "western Russia", in the same way that in Victorian times many Scots themselves preferred to call themselves "Northern British". This analysis of Russia-Ukraine goes further: if Russians had known back in 1989 what they know was happening to Ukraine now, they would probably have gone to war then to prevent Ukraine from splitting from Russia.

The elephant in the room: self-determination

For many of the EU leaders, Angela Merkel included, Russia annexing Crimea marks an unacceptable changing of borders of the European continent, redrawing the accepted geo-political map from the end of the Cold War.

Except it doesn't. Not by any criteria you could think of.

Such a statement by European leaders includes such appallingly-willing blindness to the reality: Europe's borders have been changing ever since the end of the Cold War, with Europe's happy acquiescence. Czechoslovakia was the first to divide, even though it was far from clear if the decision was forced on their populations or not. Yugoslavia, of course, divided into five parts initially in the early nineties, followed by Kosovo's semi-detached status from 1999 becoming properly independent in 2008; Montenegro was the last to be resolved, separating from Serbia in the mid-2000s.
The real problem for the EU is that in recent years various constituent states of the EU have been trying to kill off any further fracturing of Europe's borders, for the sake of their own selfish desires. Having encouraged non-EU European states to settle issues using peaceful self-determination, they are terrified of having to apply the same principle to themselves.

This explains why the Scots are being treated as the bete noire of Europe's establishment. The EU is terrified of the potential "domino effect".

The EU currently has around half a dozen well-established independence movements to deal with within its constituent states: apart from Scotland's (continually mocked) independence referendum, Catalonia is the well-known for its desire for self-determination from Spain. The Basques have their own self-determination campaign (from Spain, as well as claiming part of France); the Galicians of north-west Spain even have (less well-known) independence movement. The Flemish in Belgium have brought Belgian government affairs intermittently to a standstill in recent years due to their desire for a division of the Belgian state. Just in the last week, even Veneto (the Italian region of Venice, at one time known as the Venetian Republic) had an "online referendum" that gave overwhelming support for independence from the Italian Republic.
Apart from Scotland's senior partner in The UK, England, no EU nation-state is willing to even consider handing over the right to self-determination (or in many cases, even the chance of a legally-binding vote) to any of these people. The reason? That it would violate their constitution.

Why is the EU so appalled and terrified of upsetting the status quo of its internal borders? Yet why does it see fit into interfering into others'?

The 21st century Austria-Hungary?

It should be remembered that the EU is first and foremost a political project. It was initially a free-trade zone from the 1950s onwards, that expanded in the 1980s and 90s into supra-national political and legal entity. The economic transformation was complete with the establishment of the Eurozone, that became fully-functional in 2002. Put into practice, this means that the parliament in Westminster has as much say over some fully-binding EU legal issues that, say, Michigan has over aspects of US federal law.

Austria-Hungary was also a political project, in a manner of speaking. Originally the Hapsburg Empire, by the 1860s, it had been constitutionally modified into the "dual monarchy" of Austria-Hungary. This meant that while the Austrian Emperor was technically its combined ruler, many key decisions (such as national and foreign policy) had to be done by mutual agreement with Hungary. Austria-Hungary had a multi-national parliament (like the EU) that included all national tongues. This invariably led to a chaotic process, but as the parliament's role was mostly advisory, it was easy to play off one side against the other, and for the empire's ruling council to ignore it when necessary.

Skip forward a hundred years, and the modern EU has some unwelcome similarities. Like Austria's, the EU's parliament is an unwieldy multi-national cauldron, which, also like Austria's has little real power; like Austria, the EU has its own (electorally-unaccountable) ruling council, called the European Commission, whose members are chosen at the whim of various European statesmen. It is the European Commission who decide what happens in the EU. Just like it was with the ruling council in Austria-Hungary.

The issue of self-determination within EU member-states now is as prickly an issue as was minority rights within Austria-Hungary. Indeed, it was the partially an impasse between Austria (who were minded to give the Slavs more rights) and the Hungarians (who wanted to preserve their own heightened status at the expense of the Slavs) that led to ethnic Serbians within Austria-Hungary plotting to kill Franz Ferdinand.

In this sense, the EU is little better than the European empires of yesteryear. Things may be dressed up in "democratic clothes", but if the EU uses all of its resources to dampen the wishes of self-determination of some of its peoples, it is no better than an empire. Indeed, it is, by definition, an "empire".

Europe as the new "sick man of Europe"?

Austria-Hungary was once called the "sick man of Europe" (as was the Ottoman Empire) a hundred years ago. It was considered a "doomed empire", though this analysis is retrospective. No-one thought that at the time.

The EU today, especially after the financial crisis, looks in increasingly shaky shape.

Its constitution looks like an awkward instrument of controlling over a wide variety of national and economic interests, as did Austria-Hungary's a hundred years ago. The EU's economy looks geographically top-heavy, relying on Germany in particular, and Northern Europe in general, to off-set the malfunctioning and creaking economies of the South. This is no model for long-term stability. The Euro as a currency was designed as much as a political as an economic project, setting up the "Eurozone" for a disaster in the making. Reaching its first real test, the financial crisis, no-one in their right mind can say that the Euro has truly "worked" as a currency for all of Europe.

The EU's "drive to the east" (as I've mentioned before), looks more like imperial over-stretch, while forgetting the potential problems that bringing in these new territories create. Austria faced a similar dilemma when it annexed the ethnically-mixed Bosnia in the years prior to the First World War, including those ethnic Serbs that would go on to kill Franz Ferdinand. In the same way that Russia and Austria battled for strategic influence over the Balkans a hundred years ago, the EU and Russia are doing the same with Eastern Europe. Reaching the gates of Kiev was a sign of how far Europe's leaders were prepared to go to boost their own vain "sense of destiny", regardless of how that would be interpreted in Moscow.

Europe's leaders cry foul over Crimea's referendum and Ukraine's national integrity, but only do so from the perspective of being an imperial rival to Russia's influence. They can claim no moral high-ground. They cannot even rule their own subjects without stifling their rights; how much longer can the EU continue living as though its problems do not exist?

It was the First World War that killed the multi-national empire that was Austria-Hungary: its many nationalities were given their self-determination, and the empire dismembered. As already mentioned, its minority problem with the ethnic Serbs in Bosnia was an indirect cause of the empire's downfall.
With the rise of nationalism across Europe on the back of the financial crisis, and the EU's support for a Kiev government that includes nationalist extremists, is Ukraine the straw that broke the camel's back, with the EU sowing the seeds of their own demise?

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