Gesture Politics and the European Parliament
A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.
Parliamentary Privilege to Pry- Members of the European Parliament have little power but have licence to meddle.
At the time of writing, I do not know the results of the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament (EP). Writing about the elections for the April 2014 issue of Echelon, my researches showed that, although real power in the EU lies with the European Commission and the European Central Bank, this does not deter the EP as a body, or members as individuals or groups, interfering on a global scale and having an opinion about everything under the sun.
Back in October 2011, GOSL refused Paul Murphy, an MEP representing Dublin, a visa to visit Sri Lanka. He wanted to teach Sri Lanka about democracy. “The whole of the working class, poor farmers and poor people, Sinhala and Tamil, are victims of this repressive government in my opinion.” As well as complaining that he was refused a visa, he raised the issue of an Irish citizen, Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram, whom he said had been held prisoner by the Sri Lankan authorities without charge for four years.
Soon after Paul Murphy’s fulminations against GOSL, I had dinner at the Gallery Café with a delegation from the Irish Development Authority. They were keen to improve business relationships with Sri Lanka in order to further Ireland’s recovery from the economic crisis.
At the time GOSL refused Murphy a visa, he had been an MEP for only eight months and was 28 years old. Murphy was already supporting striking Kazakh oil workers, trade unionists in Columbia, Syrian revolutionaries, Bahraini and Chinese dissidents, oppressed Palestinians (he took part in the flotilla to Gaza); he protested against a high speed rail link in Italy.
Murphy certainly has no mandate from the Irish people to take on the entire world’s problems. Mind you, he does not have a mandate from the Irish people to address domestic issues either. He has no electoral mandate at all. How many people voted for Paul Murphy? None. Joe Higgins of the Irish Socialist Party handed the Dublin EP seat to Murphy when he was elected to the Irish national parliament.
I read recently in the Somaliland Sun (I read it constantly) that the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the EP has scolded the government of Ethiopia accusing it of using humanitarian aid as a political tool. The MEPs said that the EU should use sanctions against Ethiopia to stop human rights abuses against Ethiopian and Ogaden civilians. This may be a worthy cause, but the comment thread in the Somaliland Sun shows that this is a more complex situation than MEPs think.
In April 2014, an EP delegation planned to visit Morocco to assess the human rights situation there but the government refused them entry.
The EP, in its last plenary session before the May 2014 elections, adopted a resolution expressing its concern on the latest developments in Syria. The resolution specifically condemns the attack against the Armenian town of Kessab. The resolution also takes note of the rich diversity of ethnic and religious communities in Syria and expresses concern about the Al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front capturing a number of Christian and Kurdish villages on the Turkish border. Some MEPs wanted the resolution to mention Turkey’s role in the attack against Kessab and in doing so raise again the issue of the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915. This may not be the best way of handling the complexities of Turkish-EU relationships.
On April 3, the EP passed a resolution expressing grave concern over the human rights situation in Iran and the “continued, systemic violation of fundamental rights” in the country, and called on the members of the EU to “mainstream human rights in all of its relations with Iran.” The resolution claimed that the presidential election in Iran in July 2013 did not conform to European standards. Whatever about EP opinion, world opinion generally regarded the election of Hassan Rouhani as a positive step.
The Iranian government was not too pleased about this. An Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman described the resolution as “unfounded and unacceptable” and other senior figures accused the EP of “blatant intervention in Iran’s internal affairs” and called on the Iranian government to reject the EP’s idea of establishing an office in Tehran.
Is it sensible for a body that has little democratic legitimacy, no army, and no tax-raising capability to conduct foreign policy through gesture politics? There is no common EU interest when it comes to foreign policy.
European politicians grandstanded on the Ukraine crisis. This was destabilising rather than helpful. The EU won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Nevertheless, it is not a force for peace if it pursues interventions divorced from differing national interests based in different histories, economies, geography and territorial relationships. If Ukraine were in NATO, EU countries and the West would be obliged to go to war over the Crimea. What European would want to die for Sevastopol?’ Many Russians would be prepared to die for the Crimea.
It was bizarre and rather alarming that Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, could blithely admit to Putin’s face that Ukraine’s membership of NATO could be “part of the process”. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has long been recognised as impossible on geopolitical grounds. Ukraine was considered too close, historically and economically, to Russia, and home to strategically important Russian military bases. Putin told Rompuy that he was playing geopolitics.
Russia has effectively integrated Europe into its system of crony capitalism and corruption. Most European capitals, especially London, depend on vast amounts of Russian money for their financial systems to thrive. Ukrainian membership of NATO and sanctions against Russia would not be good news for the City of London.
In a non-binding resolution (aren’t they all?), the EP called on the EU authorities to impose immediate sanctions on Russian energy providers in the European market. The EP called for a freeze on the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline, which serves to ensure the supply of Russian gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. All the countries along its line – Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Italy – want South Stream because they know that it is the best way of guaranteeing cheap gas supplies.
At a time when a new president of Iran is thawing relations between his country and the US, is it wise for a powerless body to irritate the Iranians? Iran has the world’s second largest natural gas reserves after Russia – about 15.8% of world’s total reserves. Iran is one of the few countries capable of supplying much larger amounts of natural gas in the future. Iran’s overall gas exports in 2009/10 reached a record high of 6.8 billion cubic meters, increasing 44% over the previous year. Is this a good time to be annoying Iran as well as Russia?
I am against sin. I would not argue that the EP should ignore human rights violations but there is a danger that the EP’s meddling could be counter-productive and destabilising. Doing business with dodgy regimes might be more effective than isolating them through