Sunday, February 1, 2015

EU sanctions meeting

by Alexander Mercouris

As Eric Kraus has pointed out there is complete confusion in the media today about how to spin the latest EU sanctions decision.  Did Syriza fold as per Reuters and Bloomberg.  Or did the meeting expose growing splits within the EU as per the Financial Times and the London Times.

The best answer is that nothing definite was decided at the latest EU Council meeting but Syriza did manage to put a marker down.

I go back to my piece about Syriza for Russia Insider (  Whether one likes the fact or not, for Syriza relations with Russia are not the priority.  Syriza does not agree with the sanctions, but its overriding priority is Greece's own economic crisis.

Given that this is so, it is simply unrealistic to expect a very young government in the very first days of its existence to provoke a crisis within the European Union that pitches it against the Commission, Germany, Britain and France, risking a deeper crisis in Greece and putting in jeopardy its own existence, on an issue that for Greeks is of only peripheral importance.  

What Syriza did on Thursday was all that in the circumstances it could realistically do: apply a soft brake on the sanctions train.  

The European Council meeting was convened by Mogherini, the EU's "foreign minister", following demands from the EU hardliners led by Donald Tusk (who now nominally chairs the European Council when it meets at heads of government level) who have been calling for a strong EU response to the breakdown of the ceasefire and the ongoing NAF offensive, which has resulted in the capture of Donetsk airport and the gradual encirclement of the Debratselvo pocket.  It also took place against a drumbeat of orchestrated hysteria following the shelling in Mariupol.  Prior to the meeting Tusk said that he was not interested in a meeting that was purely declamatory.

That however is what Tusk got.  What came out of the meeting was essentially declamatory.  

The Greeks insisted on a belligerent paragraph directed against Russia being removed from the text of the final EU statement and postponed any further decision on further sanctions to a European Council meeting on 12th February 2015, which will take place at heads of government level.  In return they agreed to an extension of the limited sanctions against specific Russian companies and individuals that came into force in March, but not for a full year (as the hardliners apparently wanted) but only for 6 months (to September 2015).  

These sanctions are a serious matter for the individuals concerned, but they are not critical for Russia. 

This is not the outcome that either the Russians or the EU hardliners led by Tusk had wanted, but it gives time and space for Syriza to sort out its own position and make whatever alliances within the EU it can, both on the critical debt question and on the less critical question of sanctions.  

The next test will come at the European Council meeting on 12th February 2015 which Tsipras himself will attend.  As of now it is looking unlikely that the EU will impose further significant sanctions on Russia at that meeting.  Syriza is opposed to such sanctions but more importantly some of the other EU states are not keen on them either.  They now known that one EU government - that of Greece - is strongly of that view, which is likely to make their opposition still stronger.  To what extent more sanctions can be prevented at the meeting on 12th February 2015 will depend on the extent to which Syriza is able to play on the doubts of these other EU states.  Significantly Syriza did manage to play successfully on these doubts at the meeting on Thursday, when it received the discrete support of several other EU states.

The big test however will be when the sectoral sanctions come up for renewal in July.  That is the key decision upon which the future of the sanctions ultimately depends.

I would add that by July - and even more by September when the sanctions that were extended on Thursday come up for renewal - we will also have a better idea of the prospects for a Podemos victory in Spain.  

If Podemos does win in Spain, then the entire calculus changes with Syriza having one of the big EU countries as an ally.  I hardly need say that Spain carries immeasurably more weight within the EU than does Greece.  A Podemos government in Spain can afford to go it alone on sanctions and defy the other big powers in the EU.  A Syriza government cannot.

In my opinion Thursday's decision was the best that could be expected in the circumstances.  As I said the big decisions are still to come.  It would be of no benefit to Russia, Greece or Syriza if Syriza had provoked a crisis in the EU on Thursday on a question of extending the least important sanctions, which caused a dramatic escalation of the economic crisis in Greece, which in turn meant that Syriza was either swept from power in Greece or was unable to make independent decisions when the big decisions come up in July.  

I would finish by again repeating what I said before in my Russia Insider piece and here.  

Greece is a small and economically very weak country.  For its people the sanctions are not the priority.  The economic crisis is.  That is why they voted for Syriza:  to solve the economic crisis, not to get the sanctions on Russia lifted.  On the sanctions issue people should not expect more from Syriza than it promised or can realistically deliver.