Opinion

John Lloyd

Even a billionaire cannot save the EU from itself

John Lloyd
Mar 14, 2014 15:02 UTC

The world’s richest hedge fund manager, George Soros, says Europe’s great project, the European Union, is at risk. Even if it survives it is doomed, he says, to a period of stagnation and fragility, rendering it powerless on a world scene dominated by powerful blocs.

At 83 and insisting that he has retired, Soros still commands attention. He appeared at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London on Wednesday (he is a main funder) where he offered an off-the-cuff judgment that a central bank in an independent Scotland would be a risky endeavor. He generated headlines in a country that is nervous of a breakup of the Union. He dominated the morning’s BBC Today program, required listening for all public figures. He addressed a packed lecture hall at his alma mater, the London School of Economics and attended a meeting at the House of Commons.

Soros’ fame is a mixture of fear, awe, admiration and prejudice. At the same time, his reputation, at least among liberals, is one of generosity and vision. In the past three decades he has invested $8 billion in promoting democracy in the former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, including the former republics of the Soviet Union — and later further afield in Africa, Latin America and Europe.

He’s known in the UK as “the man who broke the Bank of England,” for his massive short selling of the pound in 1992, forcing the UK out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and costing the Bank £3.4 billion in efforts to defend the currency. This would have eventually happened anyway, Soros argues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin blames Soros for stirring up rebellion in Ukraine through his foundation during the “Orange Revolution.” But this would have happened anyway, Soros says.

The retreat of the Eastern partnership

John Lloyd
Mar 12, 2014 14:23 UTC

The Russian bear must be left with meat after its early spring hunt. The hard part is: how much?

The veteran strategist Edward Luttwak argues for a “re-engineering” of Ukraine that would hand Crimea and the Eastern regions to Russia, saving the Western rump for Europe. This would, writes Luttwak, “offer the promise of stability at last, with the major disadvantage of legitimizing Putin’s use of force.”

Unprincipled as it is, a capitulation to Russia may be what the hesitant European Union, rife with part-submerged splits, will settle for.

The coming Slav crash

John Lloyd
Mar 7, 2014 21:37 UTC

Ukraine is not the only crisis to emerge from the former Soviet Union. It’s the most immediate and most immediately dangerous. But beyond the stunning images of boiling demonstrations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, there is a less vivid but as potentially destabilizing danger growing greater by the week. It is the threat of a Slav crash.

The three Slav republics of the former Soviet Union are Russia, with more than 140 million people, Ukraine, with around 47 million, and Belarus, with nearly 10 million. These made up some three quarters of the USSR’s population and were (apart from the tiny Baltic states) the richest regions.

But now they are faltering; Ukraine most obviously. Sergei Voloboev, head of emerging markets at Credit Suisse, said in London this week that the country has a current account deficit of nearly 10 percent and a fiscal deficit of 7.5 percent.

The claims for Russian imperialism

John Lloyd
Mar 4, 2014 19:28 UTC

The more or less liberal, democratic, capitalist countries that make up seven of the Group of Eight (G8) have condemned Russia and are discussing boycotting the June G8 meeting in Sochi. There is even talk of expelling Russia from the group.

This western government consensus against Russia’s actions is based on evidence that prompted the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to say that it is “hard to avoid concluding that Russia does not want peace and does not want a diplomatic solution.”

It is time, since this is what news media in democracies do, to question that consensus. Let’s consider the case for what’s being called Russian neo-imperialism.

Ukraine is Putin’s great test

John Lloyd
Feb 28, 2014 23:22 UTC

To lose Ukraine — as the Russians and the President of Russia Vladimir Putin would see it — would be a huge blow. For Russians, it is part of them; of their history, of their economy and of their kin. If Putin were to “lose” Ukraine it would hurt him with the large part of the Russian population who have supported him and even more with the circle of military and security people who are his closest and most critical colleagues. The specter of being deposed like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, or, even worse, Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, hangs over him.

More than anything else in his 14 years in power, four of these behind the scenes as prime minister, Putin is faced with a test of his own rhetoric. After his return to the presidency in May 2012, his speech has been composed of increasingly bellicose warnings to the West.

“Nobody should have any illusion about the possibility of gaining military superiority over Russia,” Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech last December. “We will never allow this to happen. Russia will respond to all these challenges, political and military.” In the same address, and on other occasions,  Putin has portrayed the West as degenerate. “Euro-Atlantic countries which have moved away from their roots, including Christian values…on the same level (are placed) a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership…this is the path to degradation.”

In Italy, enter the wreckers

John Lloyd
Feb 25, 2014 21:22 UTC

Bologna – As of this week, Matteo Renzi is Italy’s third prime minister in a year. He follows Mario Monti (November 2011-April 2013) and Enrico Letta (April 2013-February 2014). At 39, Renzi is absurdly young by Italian standards, where in politics one’s sixties are seen as an apprenticeship period and one’s seventies are the time of full flowering. Renzi is full of reformist plans, as were his predecessors. He has had no national governing experience, but neither did Silvio Berlusconi when he came to the prime minister’s office in 1994.

The new thing about Renzi, nicknamed the rottamatore — the wrecker — is how he wants to change the ways of doing politics, business and administration in Italy. Another, even newer thing, is that so do his competitors.

There is no viable political force in Italy today that is politically conservative. Each of the leaders of the three major political groups says he wants to overturn the settled order. Each excoriates much of what has been the way of doing politics for much of the post-war period and proposes a leap into a new era.

Ukraine’s important next move

John Lloyd
Feb 21, 2014 15:02 UTC

Ukraine’s people are radicalizing by the hour. The estimates of at least 60 dead, the flow of blood, the images of snipers on both the government and the security side taking aim, the shrouded bodies being blessed by priests, and the incendiary rhetoric all point to a country where tensions, suppressed for decades, could take militant, armed form.

On the Maidan, Kiev’s central square and the main site of the protests, the “right sector” — a group of members of various groups including extreme rightists who sport Nazi symbols, have seized the role of protectors of the opposition. Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Kiev’s Center for Political Studies, says that “people support them not because they share its far-right ideology, but because they view it as the opposition’s army.”

The leader of the Maidan “army,” Dmitro Yarosh, said through a spokesperson that “our group is fully capable of waging a civil war.” Supporters of the group have already called for the people to arm themselves — a call that has allowed President Viktor Yanukovich to brand them as terrorists.

Chattanooga’s union blues

John Lloyd
Feb 18, 2014 19:12 UTC

Last Friday, the workers in a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted 712 to 626 — 89 percent of the eligible workforce — against joining the United Auto Workers after the UAW had spent two years attempting to organize there. The result is larger than the effect on the union or the company. This vote has global importance.

Unions are under pressure all over the western world, battered by a quartet of forces: technological change, a shift away from manufacturing, cuts in the public sector where unions are strongest and, in the past five years, recession. The ties that once bound unions tightly to labor and social democratic parties, especially in Europe, are loosening as both sides sour on the other. Neither can deliver the historic support they once did.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, the postwar consensus that unions were good or at least should be allowed to exist and grow has ended. In Chattanooga, a range of individuals and groups campaigned for a workforce dismissal of the UAW’s bid to represent the workers. One of these, the city’s former mayor and now Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, employed what BloombergBusinessweek has called “borderline dishonesty” in claiming, as the vote began, that a “no” vote would guarantee a new SUV model coming to be built in the plant. This was contradicted rapidly by Frank Fischer, the plant’s CEO, who said no such linkage existed.

Switzerland says ‘We’re full’

John Lloyd
Feb 10, 2014 18:15 UTC

Swiss voters have opted for stiff restrictions on immigrants entering the country — including those from European Union countries. In doing so, they’ve given joy to the burgeoning anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties, a blow to the politicians and officials in Brussels and a blaring warning to center parties on the continent and everywhere.

In Europe, the consensus on immigration has always been fragile — and now it’s being shredded to bits.

The vote was narrow — 50.3 percent of the electorate with a mere 19,000 votes. However, this is Switzerland, where the people’s voice is paramount. Over the next three years, the federal authorities must develop strict immigration curbs designed to sharply reduce the inflow of immigrants who now make up between 23 and 27 percent of the population of eight million, the second-highest proportion in Europe (after Luxembourg).

As the world revolts, the great powers will watch

John Lloyd
Jan 28, 2014 19:20 UTC

Civil wars, those raging and those yet to come, present the largest immediate threat to human societies. Some have similar roots, but there is no overall unifying cause; except, perhaps, a conviction that the conflict is a fight to oblivion. Victory or death.

Syria currently leads in this grisly league. Deaths now total well over 100,000 in the war between the country’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad,and opposition forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported nearly 126,000 dead last month, and said it was probably much higher. More than 2 million Syrians have left their country as refugees, and 4.25 million have fled their homes to other parts of Syria. Last week, a report by three former war crime prosecutors alleged that some 11,000 prisoners had been tortured, many to death, in “industrial scale killing” by the regime of President Assad.

We are watching a relentless horror unfold. The current negotiations between the various factions of the opposition and the Assad government in Montreux may have saved some women and children from the besieged city of Homs, but at the core remains a presently insuperable clash of aims: the regime insists that Assad remain in power, the opposition that he depart immediately. Assad’s forces appear to have the advantage.

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