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There are three existential issues stalking the EU: the eurozone financial crisis, the migration crisis and a (potential) Brexit crisis after the UK’s EU referendum. Each one poses potentially acute but largely distinct challenges. But is there a risk of a “perfect storm” bringing these crises together?
Greece is facing the brunt of two traumas. While the threat of Grexit from the eurozone has receded, hard fiscal decisions remain, especially over pensions. The political consensus in Greece is extremely fragile. And the potential for a nasty backlash will increase if worst-case scenarios on Schengen and migration play out. In the event that northern Europe panics and closes Macedonia’s border (hardly an improbable scenario), the social and political burden on Greece will be immense.
The convergence of these risks was smartly covered by Mujtaba Rahman in a note for the Eurasia group on Monday. Shutting the Macedonia border, he warns, could inflame nationalist sentiment in Greece, badly complicate bailout politics, tempt Greek premier Alexis Tsipras to press for softer terms, and “in a worst case scenario, reintroduce the risk of Greece’s exit from the eurozone”. While Greek politics are fiendishly complicated, Mr Rahman expects “any move by Europe to seal the border will most probably result in early elections”.
This is where the Brexit factor comes in. Greece probably has cash to independently make its way until July, when it owes €3.5bn to the European Central Bank. We can expect political fireworks for some weeks before that ultimate deadline. Migrant flows will also increase. And it all looks uncomfortably close to David Cameron’s plans for Britain to hold a June 23 referendum on EU membership.
Why should this matter in Britain? Europe’s crises have been one of the most important factors in explaining the peaks and troughs in UK support for EU membership. Britain is outside Schengen and the eurozone, but the British public seems highly sensitive to political upheaval on the continent. At its worst, the turmoil tends to cut through.
Downing Street is very much alive to this risk. It partly explains why Mr Cameron issued a striking warning on Monday, saying thousands of refugees stuck in Calais could decamp overnight to Britain if voters decide to leave the EU. Setting aside the merits of the argument – dismissed as “scaremongering” by eurosceptics – the No 10 effort is revealing in itself. Even before the referendum campaign formally begins, Mr Cameron is trying to kill the idea that Brexit is the obvious answer to an escalating European migration crisis. Should events take a bad turn, he knows what unfolds in Greece will resonate in Britain.
What we’re reading
It was always going to be a touch awkward: Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, paid her first visit to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purpose-built 1,100 room presidential palace on Monday. Struggling to make small talk as she toured the corridors, the German chancellor pointed to some Islamic calligraphy hanging on the wall. “Are you able to write like that?” she asked. Mr Erdogan’s deadpan response: “It’s art.”
Did Ms Merkel have any more luck on substance? Politico reckons she walked away empty handed. The Guardian picks up on thepush for a resettlement deal, opening a legal path for migration. Nico Fried takes a very different tack in Sueddeutsche Zeitung, arguing Ms Merkel’s best migration ally is actually Turkey, a country that absorbs even more refugees than Germany, and is also feeling a touch lonely on the world stage. “If humanity is still an EU value, Turkey behaves far more European than many European countries,” he writes. That said, the European spirit didn’t especially shine through in this leaked note of a breathtaking and stormy October meeting between Mr Erdogan and Jean Claude-Juncker, the European Commission president.
Most striking, though, was probably Ms Merkel’s forthright condemnation of Russia’s “appalling” actions in Syria. The WSJ reports that the Syrian regime’s allies are advancing fast on Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city. The gains are putting them within 15 miles of the Turkish border, where tens of thousands of refugees are amassing in search of safety. Following a cabinet meeting, Turkey’s deputy prime minister warned that if the situation deteriorates badly, a wave of up to 600,000 additional refugees could arrive soon.
Monday was a grim day on the markets and the rout seems to begathering pace. Italian bank stocks took another beating (albeit this time in good company). In Italy the blame-game has startedand regulators are feeling the heat. The FT’s James Politi reports on Ignazio Visco, the Bank of Italy governor, running a gauntlet of protestors as he tries to steady the ship and convince Brussels to soften its newly adopted “bail-in” rules that have spooked some Italian investors. Looking more broadly at the plight of European banks, the WSJ concludes the problem is a “chronic profitability crisis”, and argues the central banks of Rome and Frankfurt may be “powerless to stop it”.
Spain’s tortuous negotiations to form a government roll-on into their seventh week. Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez will meet with (outgoing) prime minister Mariano Rajoy, as he tries to find a path to winning a crucial parliamentary confidence vote. But a lot of energy is being devoted to squabbling over dates. Mr Sanchez said Wednesday, Mr Rajoy offered later in the week, neither confirmed. If even the diary is this hard to fix, little wonder Mr Sanchez has said it’s all looking “really difficult”.
François Hollande, the French president and self-styled scourge of tax evaders, was probably dreading this moment. On Monday thetax fraud trial began of Jérôme Cahuzac, a former minister Mr Hollande asked to clampdown on tax fraud. Le Monde has a handy summary of the first day in court.
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