Or, why reading David Remnick is nearly always a good idea:
I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.
“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”
The draft blog post said to watch out for funny business in Melitopol and Mariupol, Ukraine. Those are the largest settlements along the coast between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, and sit astride the road that runs from Rostov-on-the-Don and the Crimea. Mariupol is the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, with a population of nearly half a million. Melitopol is also a crossroads: east to Russia, south to the Crimea, north to Zaporizhia and west to Kherson.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s daily summary noted:
By early evening there were reports of skirmishes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups in Kharkiv, a tense standoff in Zaporizhia, and the occupation by pro-Russian activists of local government buildings in Makiyivka and Mariupol. Pro-Russian activists were also reportedly moving on the Security Service building in Odessa.
So let’s go with a quick scoreboard from this weekend and last instead.
The buildings that are being occupied are local city halls, police stations and administrative buildings. That most definitely includes any local arsenals.
This weekend has also seen the return of the “little green men,” so called during the occupation of the Crimea because their origins are so mysterious that they must be from Mars. Never mind that they wear Russian uniforms sans insignia, have equipment issued to Russian armed services, and use Russian words that are not generally used by Russian-speaking persons who live in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s acting president has not minced words. In a live televised address, Oleksandr Turchynov spoke of
…war that is being waged against Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The aggressor has not stopped and continues to organize disorders in eastern Ukraine.
This is not a war between Ukrainians. This is an artificially created situation of confrontation aimed at weakening and destroying Ukraine itself.
He also said that a large-scale counter-operation would begin Monday morning. Stay tuned.
Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. ((Check.)) Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. ((Check.)) Not fooling anyone. ((Check.)) In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. ((Check, as of April 14.)) (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) ((Check.)) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…
Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.
Zaporizhia hasn’t seen much in the way of disturbances. Yet.
Also: Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted on Twitter, “After these several weeks, Europe’s M-F, 9-5 foreign policy establishment might perhaps recognise what’s happening next door weekends too.” Maybe all of the little green men and their associated crowds have day jobs, or maybe the powers-that-be on Mars have noticed that Saturday is not a big day for news, and are timing their operations accordingly. It’s not likely that they read John Scalzi’s blog, but he makes a point concerning publicity and next weekend:
But of all the Saturdays in all of the calendar year, the very worst possible Saturday to announce anything is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Because it’s the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, that’s why — the Saturday sandwiched between two major religious holidays, which means the “weekend” that week starts on Thursday and Sunday’s news cycle is swamped by the most important Christian holiday of the year — Christmas is noisier for longer, but Easter is concentrated. If you’re the Pope, Easter Sunday is great for you, news wise. If you’re not the Pope, not. …
If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.
That Western and Orthodox Easter align this year makes the news gap even larger. People in the wider world will not be paying attention next weekend. Don’t be surprised if the little green men are very active indeed.
Last night, I noted that staged takeovers of local government buildings in eastern Ukraine are
one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another).
This morning, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports:
RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service quotes local media as saying around 100 pro-Russians attempting to surround a government administration building in the southern city of Mykolaiv were thwarted after police moved in late last night. There were several injuries in the ensuing clashes, which also pitted the pro-Moscow ranks against members of a pro-Ukrainian group. (From their liveblog 0923, 8 April 2014. Here’s the original report in Ukrainian.)
Mykolaiv is a city of about a half million people, a major shipbuilding center about halfway between the Crimea and Odessa, along the main road between the two.
Let’s hope the police and local authorities in Kherson are equally loyal to Ukraine, and equally alert.
Odessa, of course, is the real prize of the southwest, and not just for the nightlife or the film nostalgia. Odessa is also just a good day’s bicycle ride from breakaway Transnistria. These lands were conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, somewhat after the American Revolution broke but before the French. The Crimean Khanate had left them sparsely settled, and homesteading in “New Russia,” as the region was known, was a major development of the 19th century. Before World War II, it was a significant area of Jewish settlement. In short, the pretexts are there, if Russian forces want to meddle.
The second act of Ukraine’s test has only just begun.
Reports from eastern Ukraine that pro-Russia (perhaps one should write pro-Putin or pro-annexation) protesters have seized local government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk. The protesters in Kharkiv seem to have been driven back. In Luhansk, they seized weapons from a local arsenal and set up barriers in the main streets; Ukrainian police have sealed off access to the town. (As well they might. Parts of Luhansk are less than 10km from the Russian border.)
In Donetsk, they have seized an administration building, proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” called for a referendum on sovereignty on May 11, and asked for Russian troops to come as “temporary peacekeepers.” Temporary until another annexation treaty could be printed out, one presumes.
Here is how the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to these developments:
“If the irresponsible attitude toward the fate of the country, the fate of their own people, on behalf of the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government were to continue, Ukraine would inevitably face ever new difficulties and crises,” ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said today. “Enough finger-pointing at Russia — blaming it for all the troubles of today’s Ukraine. The Ukrainian people need to hear from Kyiv clear answers to all questions. It is time to listen to these legitimate demands.” (As reported by the Radio Free Europe live blog at 1911 today, Kyiv time.)
Key phrases to note: “the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government” and “legitimate demands.” With these words, Moscow is again signalling that it does not recognize the interim Ukrainian government as legitimate. The Kremlin still regards Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine, never mind that he now has about as much chance of holding that office as I do. As for “legitimate demands,” if you — as a government — consider someone who last won 4% of the vote the legitimate spokesperson of a region (as Russia did with Crimea), that is a very elastic reading of the word “legitimate.”
(As I write, the channel “Kharkov antimaidan” on ustream.tv is broadcasting live from the square in front of the administrative building in Kharkiv. It’s about 30 minutes past midnight, local time, and a great many people are milling about on the square. My Russian is not good enough to follow the narration of the POV broadcaster. Sometimes living in the future, as we do now, seems surreal.)
This is one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another). Not quite a month ago, I wrote that if Crimea was the Anschluss, the Kharkiv, Donetsk and eastern Ukraine are the Sudetenland.
Here’s my checklist from last month:
Some real tension, ((check)) mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations ((check)). Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power ((check)). Not fooling anyone ((check)). In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily.
So that’s where we are now.
Ukraine’s acting president canceled a visit to Lithuania and described the eastern Ukraine occupations and unrests as “the second wave in Russia’s special operation against Ukraine.” US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the actions did not appear “spontaneous.” The White House has suggested there is “strong evidence” that some of the pro-Moscow protesters “were paid and not local residents.” The Moscow Times reminds readers that ethnic Ukrainians account for 56.9% of the population in the Donetsk region, 70.7% in the Kharkiv region and 58% in the Luhansk region. (Caveats about ethnic identification in that part of the world duly noted.)
This is a very serious stress test both for Ukraine’s interim government — and don’t forget, they are preparing for a presidential election in less than two months — and for the European state system as it is presently constituted.
How much of a revisionist power has Putin’s Russia become? That’s the most important question hanging over Europe right now, and precious few people know the answer. If indeed anyone at all knows.
The pretexts are all there. Will the Russian government and armed forces take them up and further dismantle a European state?
Russia absorbing Crimea will be the first time since 1945 that a country other than Israel has taken over a part of a neighbouring state and formally annexed it, other than colonial outposts. Some people are maybe not appreciating what a break with international norms that is.
A few of those annexations of colonies were a lot more brutal affairs than Crimea: Ogaden, East Timor, Western Sahara. It’s still a very short list. Iraq and Kuwait was very briefly an exception and was supposed to once and for all end that sort of thing (and end history).
As that empire was pushed out of Eastern Europe, Aksyonov’s father, Valery, became the leader of a group called the Russian Community of Northern Moldova, which campaigned for the rights of ethnic Russians in a country ruled by the Moldovan majority. In 1990, the ethnic tensions in that country erupted into war, and the Russian army came to the rescue of paramilitary groups fighting the forces of the Moldovan government. Two years later, the conflict ended with the de facto secession of a breakaway state called Transnistria, a sliver of land that runs along the Dniestr River.
Today, Transnistria is still a frozen conflict zone on the map of Europe – and a state that Aksyonov reveres. Its independence is not recognized by any member of the United Nations, including Russia. It is the only part of Europe that still uses the insignia of the Soviet Union, and its economy imposes Soviet-style subsistence living on the masses while the politically-connected elite benefit from its unique black market. As an unrecognized state unbound by international law, its customs points are a clearinghouse for contraband, including tobacco, guns and counterfeit liquor. But Aksyonov sees it as a place to be emulated. “Transnistria is a bastion of Russian culture inside Moldova,” he says. “They wanted to preserve their identity. And I fully support them, because I know what kind of pressures they faced.”
Who knew frozen conflicts could be a family business? Of course, “family” and “business” are usually very ordinary words that can take on a very different significance.
He remembers Aksyonov in the 1990s as a member of a criminal syndicate called Salem, which was named for the brand of contraband cigarettes they imported and dealt in bulk. (Other accounts claim the group was named for the cafe where they hung out.) “Aksyonov was a capo for them, an enforcer,” says Los. “He had a group of ten guys that would go around collecting money.” Aksyonov’s nickname in the local underworld, says Los, was the Goblin. “Every gangster had a nickname. I was called Horns because of my surname.” (Translated from Russian, the word los means moose or elk.)
In Crimea, it looks like he’s starting with the banks. Of course. Was ist ein Einbruch in eine Bank gegen die Gründung einer Bank? I do think this fits with my idea that this is about post-Soviets vs. pre-Europeans.
This piece of Galrahn’s has a great title: US Soft Power in Ukraine is Missing Hard Power’s Escalation Control. It then wanders off into generic stuff about how Obama is lacking resolve and a succession of supposed military options, all of which would lead to war with Russia.
But if we were to stick with the title, we might learn something. “Soft power” – influence, the EU as a magnet, that stuff – is very hard to “calibrate” precisely because it deals in influence over people rather than physical force. People may not be impressed for years, but then change their minds and hugely over-deliver. The participation that makes it important also makes it very difficult to use as an instrument of policy. Classical theories of innovation diffusion tell us that “reinvention”, the degree to which users make innovations their own, is a critical factor in whether this or that idea reaches enough early adopters to hit the inflection point into mass adoption. As a result, not only does it work far better than anyone expects when it works, it also goes to new and unpredictable places nobody expects.
Fair enough. It is obviously true that US and European soft power played a role in Euromaidan. They called it Euromaidan, after all. But I have been writing so far in the voice of someone who imagines they controlled the situation, explaining why they failed to control it. Saying that soft power lacks escalation control is another way of saying that you underestimated the agency of Ukrainians. This theme runs through the whole story.
Vladimir Putin, famously, doesn’t believe it’s a nation and openly treats it as a colonial entity. The US imagines that some National Endowment for Democracy money and advice will solve everything in the way they would like it to be solved. The EU sees it as a fairly cynical bargaining process between Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko and wouldn’t have minded Yanukovych sticking around even after all the shooting. Yanukovych, for his part, clearly didn’t think of Ukraine as a nation; he thought he owned it.
Operationally, this was meant to work like so. The conflict could be presented as a divide between (ex-Polish) western Ukrainians and (ex-Soviet) eastern ones. Experts differ. This would permit people to see it as not a proper nation, a conflict that had to be managed, or alternatively a Soviet survival that needed protecting from the IMF. At street level, this would show up as a pro-Yanuk movement big enough to be a potential political majority. But Yanuk was let down by the failure of the supposed “pro-Russian East” to show up. He was counting on it and he may have reassured Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s very influential PR expert, that it was coming when Surkov came to see him.
The problem was, though, that the “pro-Russian east” had already been a disappointment in 2004, and it was even weaker this time. Research on the ground suggests that the idea of a geographical split is misleading – the political divide is generational, and eastern Ukrainian identity does not signal support for Russia and still less for Yanuk. There is even some evidence that the linguistic picture has changed since 2004, with more people, especially young people, opting to speak Ukrainian and to adopt such an identity. This could be described as the transition from a post-Soviet to a pre-European identity. We might make a little leap of faith and argue that the EU missed this too, and the evidence is that Tymoshenko’s polls are horrible.
If the pro-Russian east didn’t show up, who did? There was a big surprise about Ukraine, and there was a big non-surprise. The surprise was the appeal of the European Union as an ideal – who expected that? – and the non-surprise was the emotional force of nationalism. This brings me to Tuesday’s standoff at Belbek airfield, Sevastopol, where Ukrainian Colonel Yuri Mamchuk led an unarmed march of the 204th Aviation Brigade’s ground crew to assert their right to access the runway and maintain the 40 or so MiG-29 aircraft there. You can watch the confrontation, with subtitles, below:
But I prefer this photo, which reminds me of Ilya Repin, perhaps a painting entitled Colonel Mamchuk Defies the Rascally Cossacks:
Face off between Ukraine base commander Col. Yuli Manchur and Russian officer at occupied Belbek airbase pic.twitter.com/6N10wuezef
The imagery here is very important – the red banner is the colours of the Soviet unit whose traditions the 204th inherited, which had no fewer than six Heroes of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians have both appropriated the Second World War heritage, and also posed the question as to who looks like the Germans here. It’s also crucial to note that the people Mamchuk led up to the Russian sentries will have been the cooks and clerks and avionics technicians you need to make an air force work, not some sort of commando elite. This is, I think, what nationhood looks like.
And as a piece of strategic nonviolence, it came close to scuppering the whole Russian plan or non-plan in the Crimea. If the Ukrainians got to use the airfield, they could resupply and indeed relieve their garrisons there. If they could fly their planes, they would evidently discredit any Russian claim to control the air. Starving them out would no longer be an option. Having both Russian and Ukrainian forces present would be very much like the Crimea pre-revolution, and therefore something close to the status quo. The degree to which Russian and Ukrainian forces coexisted there until this month is shown by the fact the 204th is a counter-air wing with the dogfighter variant of the MiG-29, and the Russian air wing up the road is a strike force with the Su-24 bomber. The Ukrainians essentially provided the Black Sea Fleet’s air defence. (SO AWKWARD.)
The upshot was a compromise – the Ukrainians didn’t get to reoccupy the airfield, but they did get to station people there. But this is progress towards the status quo. And today, this Daily Mirror piece mentions that the Ukrainian navy’s helicopters are active in Crimea and that the Mirror journalist saw one resupply the garrison he visited. If this is true, the Ukrainians can hold out a long time.
On Tuesday, both Putin’s odd self-contradictory statement and Kerry’s words in Kyiv were united in tone; they both seemed huffy, calling for OSCE monitors to check on the kids-on-lawn situation. Two old men who found they controlled the situation much less than they thought. It is worth pointing out that historically, Crimeans have usually demanded autonomy or even independence, not integration in Russia.
Sources I used beyond the ones linked in the text:
Why are Catalans taking part in a human chain this Wednesday? The Catalan newspaper Ara has produced a series of questions and answers in English which should explain everything you want to know about why the human chain is taking place today.
What is the ‘Via Catalana’?
The ‘Via Catalana’ (The Catalan Way) is a political demonstration which will take place this September the 11th. Inspired by the Baltic Way — a human chain formed by up to two million people on August 23 1989 across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — its aim is to create a 400 km long chain which will cross Catalonia from north to south. 400.000 people have signed up to take part in the human chain, although organizers hope that the actual turnout will be at least twice that figure. People will be asked to join hands at exactly 17:14 (15:14 GMT). The chain, which runs along highways, roads and city streets, will come to an end at 18:00 (16:00 GMT). If successful, it will be one of Europe’s largest ever demonstrations, following in the footsteps of last year’s march in Barcelona, when up to 1,5 million people walked through the streets of the capital asking for independence, the country’s most massive rally ever. Continue reading →
“This is the only place to hang out here,” says Yavuz Selim, 17. “And everything is very expensive. As students we cannot afford it.” His friends agree. “We are quite bored here. There is nothing to do for us.”…
While the municipality has increased local transport over the past year, the last buses leave at 10pm and many of the families living in Kaya?ehir cannot afford cars.
“We feel isolated from the city centre here,” Yusuf Sari, 16, points out. “A bit cut off, really.” Analysts say this kind of segregation changes the idea of a city – a space where different parts of society coexist – and will create long-term social and economic problems.
“It is very likely that these will end up like the banlieues in France,” said Adanal?. “Spatial isolation and the social concentration of certain segments of society will create discontent. This discontent, too, is isolated from the rest of society. People start to feel that they cannot escape this isolation, which makes matters worse.”
Actually, then, it’s not an urban development but a suburban development, or perhaps more to the point, an anti-urban development. As Jamie Kenny says:
Historically, the whole thing has a 19th century French feel to it, in the sense of government dominated by a pious, provincial bourgeoisie wanting to tame the big city antinomians. But reading about this stuff it’s amazing how well a certain type of – in this case – Islamic piety dovetails with neoliberal concepts of modernization. Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising when you look at places like Dubai, but it’s remarkable how exact the comparisons are. The same basic suspicion of ‘urbanity’ in the widest sense of the word, the dislike for forms of life, commerce and culture perceived to be messy or low prestige, the way in which a form of commercial standardization seems to complement or substitute for a repressive moral code and the way in which the only unthreatening secular activity that the economic, political and in this case religious establishment can imagine is shopping.
They started sinking their teeth into Taksim first by imposing a table ban two years ago: No tables on the streets. This deceptively simple move instantly drained much of the spirit of Taksim, since much of the charm was just walking around in seas of people who felt like your friend simply by virtue of being there, and probably were if you dug deep enough. That shattered the sense of community.
The states of the Deep South are reliably terrible. They are highly unequal, and they get the effects – but they are far off to the top right of the trendline. In a sense, their marginal productivity in terms of inequality is unusually high – for every extra point on the Gini coefficient, they manage to produce a sharply higher degree of suffering than the national average.
On the other hand, there’s the importance of being urban. The more metropolitan the state, the less it suffers from the impact of inequality – New York has the social problems of the average, despite being very unequal.
There are good reasons for this. Big cities tend to be unequal because they have some rich people. This does not preclude having a well-funded school system; in so far as the rich want to live there, it may be possible to squeeze some tax out of them. Further, there are limits to how far you can send the people off to the suburbs for the whole thing to work. It is hard to opt out completely in town. You may take a cab to the bank headquarters, but you’ll still curse in traffic.
Pulling this together, people fight over urbanity because it’s a sort of substitute for equality. In some ways, it’s real equality, as the institutions of the city are often open to all. In others, perhaps more important, it’s potential equality – we can all be the minority, we can all fall into the path of a tube train, the mob is out there.
This draws out different responses. One is an intense identification with the city, which turns out to be a latent coalition across all kinds of groups. Another is a deep horror of the mess of it all. Erdogan, like the mayors who went after Occupy, is constantly whining about needing to clean up and vandals and did you know some of them have dogs? Better to move out to somewhere on the motorway.
I met this response back in 2001, on the scene of a long-term occupation protest. Austrians, or possibly more importantly, Viennese who didn’t want Jörg Haider in government had set up a camp called the Concerned Citizens’ Embassy (BBB in German) outside the prime minister’s office in part of the old imperial citadel. Others held demonstrations marching there every Thursday. I remember vividly that on one of these, people carried a blank banner and pulled a projector on a supermarket trolley, throwing a documentary someone made about the campaign itself up on the banner so we could watch it.
Suddenly, the Fortress Captain – that was his title, the guy in charge of the Hofburg, a school friend of the prime minister – discovered that there was some rubbish lying about, it was ugly, there were rats, he had to clean it up, I quote. This completely circumvented the various legal protections of protest. The rubbish, of course, was us. There was stuff, nobody claimed to own it, and the imperial stormtroopers moved in.
We whined and sued and marched harder, but it was the finish. Anyway. We’ve established the motive. Here’s a piece about the characteristic protest style that goes with it. It doesn’t seem to work. Perhaps because the theory of victory for such a campaign is a flash revolution, like something from 19th century France?
And that reminds me of Pierre Mauroy, who died last week. As French prime minister, he insisted on sticking with European fixed exchange rates, but also on (as he said) holding out on the ridge line at 2 million unemployed. Looking back, it seems unsurprising given the first point that he lost the ridge and resigned. He then set about pulling money towards his home town and power base, Lille, specifically through the Euralille megaproject around the TGV station.
I have never seen a grimmer public space. It seemed to symbolise the combination of Euro-austerity macroeconomics and the effort to build shinier things on top of the city, as two halves of the same project. Similarly, the empty neon of Budapest’s EU-membership centre the last time I was there howled with blankness.
The French Socialists’ internal policy machinery has been activated to express increasing frustration and anger at the constraints of the Eurozone, in the context of rising unemployment and basically no sign of anything improving. Specifically, they’re trying to start a row with the Germans, and somewhat less obviously, Britain. The key quote is here:
“Le projet communautaire est aujourd’hui meurtri par une alliance de circonstance entre les accents thatchériens de l’actuel premier ministre britannique – qui ne conçoit l’Europe qu’à la carte et au rabais – et l’intransigeance égoïste de la chancelière Merkel – qui ne songe à rien d’autre qu’à l’épargne des déposants outre-Rhin, à la balance commerciale enregistrée par Berlin et à son avenir électoral”, écrivent également les dirigeants socialistes pour qui “la France possède aujourd’hui le seul gouvernement sincèrement européen parmi les grands pays de l’Union”.
So, they accuse Angela Merkel of thinking of nothing but German creditors, the German trade surplus, and her party’s prospects, and describe this as intransigent egoism. Well, perhaps they have a point. They blame all this on David Cameron for having a “Thatcherite tone” and only thinking of “Europe a la carte and with a rebate”. And apparently, the French government is the only sincerely European one.
Now I had no idea Merkel was such a poor weak insignificant figure that her policy was dictated by Britain. You may be surprised to learn that this diplomatic triumph is insufficiently publicised in the UK. Further, I clearly remember that the reason for austerity in the UK was meant to be that things were bad in the eurozone and we were going to be like Greece. Don’t just ask the prime minister, ask Sir Mervyn King. It’s as if British politicians tend to blame everything on the EU and French politicians tend to blame everything on the Brits, or something.
However, not only are they right on the actual issues, they have a point about Thatcherite Europe.
Margaret Thatcher was underrated as a European politician. As prime minister, she was very much in favour and deeply engaged in the creation of the Single European Act and therefore of the single market. It is a cliche to say that the Brits only think of the European Union as a single market, but this is ahistorical – in the mid-80s, single market completion was the absolute top priority on the European agenda. If Europe is a project under construction, the single market was the phase that was completed in the 80s. The notion of catching up with Europe, competing with Europe, trading across Europe – all of this was ingrained in Thatcherite style, tone, and rhetoric.
British macro-economic policy in the Thatcher years was also driven by European integration. After giving up on monetarism, the UK government decided to establish a fixed exchange rate with the D-Mark, and later formalised this by joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. In fact, the UK spent as much time under Thatcher tracking the D-Mark as it did targeting the money supply. The notions of “importing credibility” that were used to promote the Euro in the 90s and 00s had an earlier run-out in the UK in the 1980s.
With an open capital account and a currency pegged to the D-Mark at a dramatically high parity, the UK in the late 1980s looks rather like a peripheral European economy of the mid-2000s, with inflows of capital chasing yield, a growing financial sector, a trade deficit, a housing bubble, and a political elite frantically clapping themselves on the back, before the crash.
The UK’s broader foreign and defence policy could have been reduced to the word “NATO”, which is another way of saying that it was focused on Europe. In the early 1980s, UK defence plans were all about the BAOR operational area in Germany and the NATO Northern Flank. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the accident of the Falklands, they would have been much more so, sharply reducing the Navy at the expense of the Army and RAF and the nuclear world. Similarly, Thatcher really didn’t care about the Commonwealth or anything much outside, yes, Europe or the North Atlantic.
I can hear a storm of whataboutery building by now. What about the rebate? What about “give me my money back”?
Well, what about it? A lot of European politicians spent the 1980s ripping into each other over narrowly national interests. (They did in the 70s and 90s and 00s, too.) Were any of the various ferocious defenders of the CAP as it applied to them un-Europeans? Was Helmut Kohl un-European for insisting on reunification, to head right for the reductio ad absurdum? Germany was obviously pretty keen on exporting cars – was Hans-Dietrich Genscher a Eurosceptic, then? This is simply hypocrisy, with a dash of sexism chucked in. (Do we have to quote Mitterrand fancying her again?)
I also think it’s important to distinguish Thatcher, prime minister, from Thatcher, post-prime-ministerial pontificator. Her swing to Euroscepticism was post-1990, post-power, rather like her swing towards the climate-change deniers. It’s worth noting that the Eurosceptics were not passive, either – they deliberately sought to claim the Thatcher myth as a source of legitimacy for their efforts to topple John Major. She also, I think, adopted Euroscepticism as a way of projecting influence in the Tory Party after leaving office. That said, we should surely consider action before 1990 as weightier than words after 1990. And her foundation was very much involved in the Central European transition to a certain idea of democracy – in the EU, in NATO, in the stability pact, eventually in the Euro.
So why isn’t this more obvious? I think the answer is that the European Union has not turned out to be the nice alternative to Thatcherism it was sold as in the 1990s. Ask a Spaniard. No, go ahead.
The policies it delivers – open trade, austeritarian macro-economics, open capital flows, no real redistributive budget, and a permanent war on inflation – are basically nothing Margaret Thatcher would not have welcomed. Even the way she thought tact was something sailing-ships did would fit right in with German newspapers claiming Cyprus is a richer country than Germany. And the EU’s generally sane approach to things like environmental regulation would work for the post-1987, Montreal Protocol and IPCC-championing, “first scientist prime minister” version of Thatcher. It did at the time.
I wonder, in conclusion, if Thatcher can be understood from a European point of view as an ordoliberal politician, rather than a libertarian or just a conservative? Britain has always been more like Germany than it lets on. Thatcher was a European; it’s Europe that’s the problem.