How chaos in Libya spawned a security nightmare in the Mediterranean

By Ioannis Chapsos, Coventry University

Libya has been in a state of chaos ever since the fall of its former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and the situation scarcely seems to be improving. But it’s not just a nightmare on land – Libya is starting to poison the Mediterranean too.

Since a civil war and UN-backed external intervention put an end to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, good order and security have never been restored. Libya remains divided, with continuous clashes between rival militia and two internal “governments”.

The attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi was just one incident in a spiral of unrest.

Italian naval forces are back to conducting search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean on a daily basis in order to cope with a massive surge in migrants trying to cross the sea from North Africa, where Libya is the primary transit point. Thousands have died in recent months alone.

But on April 17, they had a very different task: a Sicilian fishing boat had been seized by armed men, 50 nautical miles north of the Libyan Coast, forcing the Italian Navy to board and retake control of the vessel.

And on top of the nascent piracy problem, Libya’s efforts to police its coast are apparently getting more violent.

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EU policies worsen an already deadly situation for immigrants

Der Spiegel reports: The images and words are so very similar. Back then, the German chancellor said she was “deeply upset” — today she is “appalled.” Back then, the president of the European Commission said he would never forget the dead, and that something had to change — today he claims: “The status quo is not an option.” Back then, Europe’s interior ministers spoke of a horrific event — today it’s an “utter horror.'” The gap between then and now is 19 months. And several thousands of dead in the Mediterranean.

Then was the night of Oct. 3, 2013. A fire broke out on an old cutter that had set out from the Libyan city of Misrata. Near the small Italian island of Lampedusa, more than 500 people went overboard, most of them from Somalia or Eritrea. Not even one-third survived. The coffins in Lampedusa’s airport hangar became a symbol for Europe’s “shame,” as Pope Francis put it.

At a meeting in Luxembourg held after the disaster, EU interior ministers spoke of a “wake-up call” and immediately established a working group. European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström argued that Lampedusa was an “image of the Union that we do not want.” In Berlin, the German government declared that “given a human catastrophe of this size,” it was self-evident that current refugee policies should reexamined. Shortly thereafter, German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to a summit of EU heads of government in Brussels, where “decisive measures” were promised to avoid a repeat of the catastrophe.

And then? Then the catastrophe repeated itself. A dozen times. Between then and now. In the space of a few days in April, 400 people traveling from Africa to Europe drowned in the Mediterranean, then a boat with over 800 refugees capsized — and only 28 survived.

Interior and foreign ministers of the EU member states met once again in Luxembourg this week. But they didn’t create a new working group — after all, they already have one. The president of the European Council convened a special summit that met on Thursday. In Berlin, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière promised that, given recent events, the EU couldn’t simply return to the regular order of business.

The words and images are so very similar. And if you listen to what people are saying, you could be excused for thinking there was no “then.”

Wars, famines, poverty, unscrupulous human traffickers and borders on lock-down — the refugee drama has many sides. It’s not easy to determine who is responsible for the death of so many people and who carries what share of the blame. But any investigation would lead to the capital cities of Europe.

There’s plenty of blame to go around here. People are in dire need, but politicians are instead pulling the brakes on effective measures to help them or, worse, are involved in political deal-making at their expense. Borders have been drawn firmer than ever. And even initiatives with the best intentions have been allowed to peter out. At times it feels as though European governments have simply accepted the fact that Lampedusa will be repeated.

Through their reporting in Brussels and Berlin, the analysis of internal transcripts and interviews with diplomats and government representatives, SPIEGEL’s journalists reconstructed a timeline of policy developments dating from the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy to the most recent catastrophe. [Continue reading…]

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Shell lobbied to undermine EU renewables targets, documents reveal

The Guardian reports: Shell successfully lobbied to undermine European renewable energy targets ahead of a key agreement on emissions cuts reached in October last year, newly released documents reveal.

At the time of the deal European commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, said: “This package is very good news for our fight against climate change.” Adding: “No player in the world is as ambitious as the EU.”

But it now appears that a key part of the agreement – which was championed by the UK government – was proposed by a Shell lobbyist as early as October 2011.

At the 2014 meeting heads of government agreed a 40% overall target for the bloc’s emissions cuts, but in the run up to the deal there had been disagreement between member states about how best to achieve that. The UK and others had resisted binding targets for individual member states on energy efficiency and renewable energy and these did not make it into the final agreement. Proponents of renewable energy say this was a key missed opportunity to give a strong signal to investors that the EU was serious about clean energy. [Continue reading…]

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The EU should stop treating migrants as criminals

Kenan Malik writes: For more than three decades, the European Union has been constructing what critics call “Fortress Europe,” a cordon protected by sea, air and land patrols, and a high-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the European border agency, he observed that the language used was that of “defending Europe against an enemy.”

The decision last year to scrap Mare Nostrum, the Italian-run search-and-rescue program, highlights this strategy. Mare Nostrum was replaced by Operation Triton, smaller in scope and with an entirely different aim — not saving lives but surveillance and border protection. The number of migrants now attempting to reach Europe is little different from that for the same period last year, yet the death toll is about 18 times higher.

When the European Union treats immigration as a problem of criminality, it is not just the traffickers who are targets. In 2004, a German ship rescued 37 African refugees from a dinghy. When the ship entered a Sicilian port, it was seized by the authorities who charged the captain and first officer with aiding illegal immigration. They were acquitted only after a five-year court battle.

Similarly, in 2007, the Italian authorities tried to block two Tunisian fishing boats that had rescued 44 stranded migrants from docking at Lampedusa, an island between Sicily and Tunisia. The captains were charged with assisting illegal immigration. Not until 2011 did an appeals court overturn all the convictions.

Such cases are not aberrations. Treating good Samaritans as common criminals is the inevitable consequence of the European Union’s immigration policy.

The third prong of the strategy is to outsource border controls by paying African states to detain potential migrants. The most notorious of these arrangements was with Libya. In 2010, a year before Britain and France launched airstrikes to help bring down Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the European Union concluded a deal with him, agreeing to pay 50 million euros over three years to turn his security forces into de facto border police. Even before they gained power, the anti-Qaddafi rebels agreed to continue the arrangement.

The European Union has a similar deal with Morocco, and hopes to recruit Egypt and Tunisia, too. In effect, it aims to relocate Europe’s borders to North Africa.

The 10-point plan that the European authorities proposed Monday was in keeping with this failed approach. Most eye-catching was the promise to destroy smugglers’ boats. Not only is this morally dubious — effectively telling migrants “We will wall you into North Africa so that you’re not our problem” — but it also won’t work. One reason for the spike in migrant numbers is the collapse of state authority in the region. Western intervention in Libya exacerbated the chaos, which the proposed military action will only intensify.

At the same time, migrants are forced to clamber into overloaded, unseaworthy boats because other routes into Europe have been blocked off. Destroying smugglers’ boats will merely force people to adopt even more perilous means of making the journey.

So what is to be done? The restoration of a proper search-and-rescue operation is important but insufficient. The European Union should stop treating migrants as criminals, and border control as warfare. It must dismantle Fortress Europe, liberalize immigration policy and open up legal routes for migrants. Some argue this would lead to a flood of immigrants, but current policy is not preventing people from migrating; it is simply killing them, by the boatload. [Continue reading…]

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In the chaos of Libya the business of human trafficking has boomed

Ben Wedeman writes: We are at the beginning of a massive and mounting crisis with no solution in sight. Perhaps that’s incorrect. The migrant crisis that has suddenly drawn hundreds of journalists to Sicily has been brewing for years, but in the past 10 days, with as many as 1,600 deaths in the Mediterranean, suddenly minds are focused — for now.

Almost exactly four years ago, in Libya, I caught, perhaps, a glimpse of what was to come.

It was late at night in the besieged city of Misrata. Hundreds of African migrants were caught between the Libyan civil war (back then some optimistically called it a “revolution”) and the deep blue sea. They had come to Misrata from Ghana, Nigeria and elsewhere, hoping to board rickety boats to cross the sea to Europe.

They had been pinned down under sporadic shelling from government forces, but weren’t welcome by the rebels who controlled the city. They appealed to us to help them escape.

We could do nothing, but they may have eventually found their way out when the fighting subsided.

The fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, which we reporters covered so avidly, was followed by chaos, which we in the news media largely neglected, focused as we journalists were on the next catastrophe, the Syrian civil war. In that chaos, the business of human trafficking has boomed.

And now that boom in human misery is coming in waves to the shores of Italy. The focus today is on those lost at sea. Aware of the tragedy underway, however, Italians are alarmed at the prospect that this year alone as many as a million migrants could arrive in Europe, according to one European Union official.

That is certainly the case in the Sicilian port of Catania, where many migrants arrive. The city’s mayor, Enzo Bianco, insists city residents bear no ill will toward the migrants, but says Catania, and Sicily cannot absorb the ever-growing numbers. The rest of Europe must help carry the burden. [Continue reading…]

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The children risking their lives to reach Europe

Gemma Parkin at Save the Children writes: In 2014, half of the children who arrived in Italy were unaccompanied, but this year the proportion has increased to over two-thirds (68%).

These children are fleeing conflict, extreme poverty and persecution in some of the world’s most bloody conflicts, failed states and repressive regimes including Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. They are not criminals, but victims of some of the modern world’s most major crises.

Many of those children I’ve spoken to were tricked by traffickers and promised jobs as hairdressers, shop assistants and babysitters. Their families were persuaded to pay thousands of pounds to allow them to head to Europe. But once in the hands of traffickers and far from home, they had no rights and no protection.

Libya has for many years been the point of departure for thousands of people fleeing Africa and the Middle East, but the deteriorating situation in the country has allowed human trafficking to flourish. The lack of police, governance or state control in anarchic Libya means traffickers operate with impunity. Combined with recent good weather, the number of people launching off the country’s northern coast has rocketed in recent months.

On the journey across Libya, children face dehydration and malnutrition, kidnapping, detention and extortion, torture, child slavery, trafficking and sexual abuse. Here in Sicily, the Save the Children team met 17-year-old Brahane from Eritrea. He described being forced to board a pick-up truck of 30 people to cross the Sahara desert into Libya. He reported seeing ruthless traffickers spraying migrants with petrol and setting them on fire for “stepping out of line”. [Continue reading…]

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Mediterranean capsized migrants’ boat’s captain charged

BBC News reports: The Tunisian captain of a boat that capsized off Libya on Sunday, killing hundreds of migrants, has been charged with reckless multiple homicide, Italian officials say.

He has also been charged along with a Syrian member of the crew with favouring illegal immigration.

The two were among 27 survivors who arrived in Sicily late on Monday.

A UNHCR spokeswoman has told the BBC the migrants’ boat capsized after merchant vessels came too close to it.

Carlotta Sami of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy was at the Sicilian port of Catania to meet the survivors. Some 800 people are thought to have died in the disaster, she said.

There were nationals of Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Senegal on board, kept in three different layers in the boat. [Continue reading…]

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Italy cracks down on human trafficking

The Daily Beast reports: Mered Medhanie and Ermias Ghermay are businessmen who apparently take pride in their work. Too bad their jobs are heading up two of the most lucrative and deadly human trafficking rings to ever operate in the waters between Libya and Sicily.

They are now Italy’s most wanted men and prosecutors in Palermo are vowing to find them.

On Monday, police in Palermo said overnight Sunday they issued arrest warrants for 24 men, including Medhanie and Ghermay, and were able to pick up 14 of them in Rome, Milan, Bari, and in refugee camps in Sicily.

In a separate investigation based in Catania, Sicily, authorities there have asked for three Egyptian men to be extradited to Italy to face trafficking charges. Among the arrested and wanted were recruitment specialists who infiltrated large refugee camps looking for new clients who either wished to travel further into Europe or who might have family back in Africa who want to come over, too.

Police had pinpointed the 24 men more than a year ago and have been intercepting their telephone conversations, following their moves and studying the trafficking business ever since. Italy has arrested 976 men involved with trafficking in the last year. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised to bring them to justice. This week, he called on European countries to make fighting trafficking a priority, likening it to a “modern slave trade in which people are bought and sold like merchandise.” [Continue reading…]

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Italy ran an operation that saved thousands of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. Why did it stop?

The Washington Post reports: Back in October 2013, more than 300 migrants died near the Italian island of Lampedusa. These men and women had been trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean from Libya to what they saw as a land of opportunity, Europe. Instead, their boat sank and they drowned. The Italian coast guard was only able to save 150 or so passengers on a boat that was carrying around 500.

The Italian public was shocked. Migrants had died in the Mediterranean before, but this was exceptional. Shortly afterwards, the Italian government swung into action and set up Mare Nostrum, a vast search-and-rescue operation aimed at preventing the deaths of the thousands of migrants who make the journey from Africa to Europe every year.

Mare Nostrum – which means “Our Sea” in Latin, the name for the Mediterranean in the Roman era – was a success. With a considerable budget of $12 million a month, it was estimated to have saved more than 130,000 people. It was not only a rescue operation. Italy, a country once known for hard attitudes to migrants, offered medical treatment, shelter and food. Migrants were even offered legal aid that could have helped them gain asylum.

It didn’t last. By October 2014, Mare Nostrum was being wound down. [Continue reading…]

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Risking death in the Mediterranean: the least bad option for so many migrants

Patrick Kingsley reports: Sobbing and shaking, Mohamed Abdallah tries to explain why he still wants to risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable boat. He sits in a migrant detention centre in Zawya, Libya, surrounded by hundreds of fellow asylum seekers who nearly died this week at sea.

They survived only after being intercepted, detained and brought back to shore by Libyan coastguards, ending a week in which they went round in circles, starving and utterly lost. But despite their horror stories, Abdallah, 21, says the journey that his fellow inmates barely withstood – and that killed more than 450 others this week – is his only option.

“I cannot go back to my country,” says Abdallah, who is from Darfur, in Sudan. He left for what is now South Sudan in 2006, after he says his village was destroyed in the Darfur war, his father died, and his sisters raped. But in South Sudan, another war later broke out. So he made his way through the Sahara, a journey that he says killed his brother and cousin, to Libya. And there last year, he was witness to his third civil war in a decade – a war that still drags on, its frontline just a few miles from the camp at Zawya.

“There is a war in my country, there’s no security, no equality, no freedom,” Abdallah says. “But if I stay here, it’s just like my country. There is no security, there is violence. When you work, they take your money.”

He worked in a soap shop, and saved up to pay local smugglers for the boat to Europe. But just as he hoped to complete the payment, he was robbed, and then arrested. The recounting of his ordeal brings out first the tears, and then a conclusion: “I need to go to Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Hundreds more migrants feared drowned in the Mediterranean

The Wall Street Journal reports: As many as 700 migrants are believed to have died in a shipwreck about 70 miles from the Libyan coast, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

According to statements from survivors given to the UNHCR, a fishing boat carrying more than 700 people capsized during the night from Saturday and Sunday.

The 20-meter-long fishing boat, which was heavily overcrowded, launched a distress call during the night, the Italian Coast Guard said. The Italians sent a Portuguese mercantile vessel, the King Jacob, to help the boat, but when the migrants saw the ship approach, they rushed to one side, forcing the boat to capsize. Rescue teams saved 28 people and have recovered 24 bodies so far.

The Italian Coast Guard has dispatched 17 ships, including Maltese vessels, Italian fishing boats and other private vessels, to the area to search for other survivors.

Antonino Iraso, an officer with the Italian tax police, whose ships are involved in the search-and-rescue operation, told Italian television that the effort is now aimed at finding bodies, rather than other survivors. He said that the teams have sighted an oil slick, floating life jackets and fragments of wood in the area where the boat sank.

The route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has become the deadliest migrant route in the world.

If the deaths are confirmed, it would bring to about 1,600 the number of migrants who have died since the start of the year in attempting to make the passage from Libya to Italy. For all of 2014, nearly 3,200 died attempting the passage, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. According to the IOM, if the 700 deaths are confirmed, it would be one of the highest-ever migrant death tolls in a single incident.

Last year, about 170,000 African and Middle Eastern migrants arrived in Italy using that passage, with a total of nearly 300,000 arrivals in all since the start of 2011.

Yesterday, The Observer reported: Anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians across Europe, including Britain, is blocking attempts to introduce large search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean that would save large numbers of migrant lives, a senior UN official has warned.

In comments that reveal the growing frustration within the UN Refugee Agency over Europe’s response to the growing migration crisis in the Mediterranean, Laurens Jolles said political expediency was preventing measures being taken to reduce migrant deaths.

Jolles, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Italy, said: “In many countries in Europe at the moment, the [political] dialogue and the rhetoric is quite extreme and very irresponsible.”

On Friday, Anders Lustgarten wrote: The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming. Last year nearly four thousand bodies were recovered from the Med. Those are just the ones we found. The total number of arrivals in Italy in 2014 went up over 300% from the year before, to more than 170,000. And the EU’s response, driven by the cruellest British government in living memory, was to cut the main rescue operation, Mare Nostrum.

The inevitable result is that 500 people have already died this year. The figure for the equivalent period in 2014 was 15. There are half a million people in Libya waiting to make the crossing. How many more deaths can we stomach?

Migration illustrates one of the signal features of modern life, which is malice by proxy. Like drones and derivatives, migration policy allows the powerful to inflict horrors on the powerless without getting their hands dirty. James Brokenshire, the minister who defended cutting Mare Nostrum on the nauseatingly hypocritical grounds that it encouraged migration, never has to let the deaths his decision helped to cause spoil his expensive lunch with lobbyists. It doesn’t affect him.

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Pope urges world to act after new Mediterranean tragedy

AFP reports: Pope Francis on Sunday, April 19, urged world leaders to respond “decisively” after 700 migrants were feared drowned in the deadliest migrant shipwreck yet in the Mediterranean.

“These are men and women like us, brothers seeking a better life,” the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said in his weekly address, urging leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring.”

Urging the faithful in St Peter’s square to pray for the victims, the pope added: “(They are) hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of war. They are seeking a better life, they are seeking happiness.” [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s war on migrants — while we argue, thousands perish in the Mediterranean

By Heaven Crawley, Coventry University

The latest refugee deaths in the Mediterranean – 700 people drowned when the overcrowded fishing vessel in which they were travelling from North Africa capsized of the coast of Libya follows a similar tragedy last week in which 400 people perished.

In October 2013, more than 360 people – mostly from Eritrea – lost their lives when their boat caught fire and sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. In September 2014 more than 500 migrants were deliberately killed at sea. The attack allegedly occurred after the migrants refused to board a smaller boat in the open water and the traffickers reportedly laughed as they drowned, hacking at the hands of those who tried to cling to the wreckage. Witnesses report that as many as 100 children were on board.

In the absence of official records, or bodies to count, it’s hard to say exactly how many people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) released a report in late September 2014 putting the number at 3,072, accounting for 75% of worldwide migrant deaths. But with so many lost at sea or along the way, the real figure could be far higher.

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The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming

Anders Lustgarten writes: In the desert, the smugglers lace their water with petrol so the smuggled won’t gulp it down and cost more. Sometimes the trucks they’re packed into stall crossing the Sahara; they have to jump out to push, and some are left behind when the trucks drive off again. In transit camps in Libya before the perilous venture across the Blue Desert, they play football, fight, and pool their scanty resources so an even poorer friend can pay his way. One man says his tiny wooden boat was flanked by dolphins as they made the journey, three on each side, like guardian angels, and this was what gave him hope.

These are the people we are allowing to die in the Mediterranean. The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming. Last year nearly four thousand bodies were recovered from the Med. Those are just the ones we found. The total number of arrivals in Italy in 2014 went up over 300% from the year before, to more than 170,000. And the EU’s response, driven by the cruellest British government in living memory, was to cut the main rescue operation, Mare Nostrum.

The inevitable result is that 500 people have already died this year. The figure for the equivalent period in 2014 was 15. There are half a million people in Libya waiting to make the crossing. How many more deaths can we stomach?

Migration illustrates one of the signal features of modern life, which is malice by proxy. Like drones and derivatives, migration policy allows the powerful to inflict horrors on the powerless without getting their hands dirty. [Continue reading…]

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As many as 6,000 Europeans believed to be fighting with jihadist groups in Syria

AFP reports: The number of Europeans fighting with jihadist groups in Syria could exceed 6,000, a top EU official told a French newspaper Monday.

“At the European level, we estimate that 5,000-6,000 individuals have left for Syria,” EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jouriva told Le Figaro in an interview, adding the true number was likely to be far higher due to the difficulty of tracking foreign fighters in the conflict.

“At the time of the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, we decided not to allow ourselves to be guided by fear,” she said, referring to January’s twin Islamist attacks in the French capital and the subsequent deadly shootings on a cultural centre in Denmark.

Focusing on those seeking to leave for Syria to wage jihad, or those returning from the conflict, meant intervening “too late”, she said.

Jouriva said the EU instead wanted to promote prevention as a means of curtailing the steady flow of European nationals, looking at the diverse reasons of why people joined jihadist groups beyond simply religion.

British research had identified “a desire for adventure, boredom, dissatisfaction with their situation in life or a lack of prospects,” in those who had opted to leave their families behind and head for Syria, the commissioner said. [Continue reading…]

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Why we’ve been discussing the Greek ‘bail-out’ in the wrong way

By Stratos Ramoglou, University of Southampton

With another impending international debt deadline, Greece runs the risk of becoming the first OECD country to default on its obligations to the IMF. The country owes €448m – and many are once again raising the “spectre of Grexit” idea, accompanied by damning commentary on Greece’s failure to get successfully through the crisis.

Mainstream accounts of Greece’s economic situation emphasise how the so-called troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) has been aiding Greece by throwing it a much-needed financial lifeline of billions.

All this bail-out money is supposedly helping to keep the country afloat and prevent the Greek economy from going bankrupt. But in spite of all this aid, the Greek economy keeps sinking and Greeks apparently only seek to satisfy a growing appetite for easy money.

These popular accounts are, however, full of misconceptions over the nature of the financial aid Greece is receiving and serve to damage the prospect of a more balanced understanding of the situation – and effectively stymie chances for a more viable solution. Greece emerges as a country morally indebted to the troika’s help, only against the backdrop of a quite dangerous mythology, consisting of a constellation of falsehoods, dogmatic hypotheses and unwholesome oversimplifications.

But where has all the money gone?

The vast majority of the financial lifeline meant to save Greece has never entered the Greek economy. The record loan of €240 billion was mostly channelled directly for debt-servicing purposes. It was primarily meant to prevent – chiefly French and German – financial institutions from suffering losses, by ensuring that European taxpayers bought an (unpayable) debt. This, all in the name of “Greek aid”.

Moreover, Greece’s primary surpluses since 2013 mean that it needs cash only in order to service the massive debt that the bail-out money has kept in place. The Greek state has sufficient money for its domestic needs but cannot simultaneously afford to repay billions of debt at this point – not without turning a blind eye to its most needy citizens.

Still, the nature of the bail-out is overshadowed by deceptive representations which give the impression that the Greek economy is rescued by being the recipient of billions of euros. It would be truly interesting, indeed, to know how many of Europe’s taxpayers know that more than 90% of the €240 billion borrowed by Greece went directly to financial institutions.

[Read more…]

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Vladimir Putin is fighting for political survival — by provoking unrest in Ukraine

John Simpson writes: Mikhail Vanin, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, looks like a shrewd little man, with fuzzy hair and sharp, Putin-like eyes behind rimless glasses. And he has quite a way with words. Speaking to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 21 March, he said: “I don’t think that Danes fully understand the consequences if Denmark joins the American-led missile defence shield . . . If they do, then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles . . .

“It is, of course, your own decision. I just want to remind you that your finances and security will suffer.” I don’t suppose that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of us imagined that we would hear threats of this crudity being uttered in Europe again.

It is a little over a year since the west’s relationship with Russia seemed, if inevitably spiky, at least rational and manageable. Now here is a Russian diplomat publicly warning a small member of Nato and the EU of the possibility of nuclear war. How could things have got this bad in such a short space of time? How could the post-cold war consensus have vanished so utterly?

After Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow Ukrainian government collapsed following the often violent protests of February 2014, Russia started to infiltrate Crimea with its forces as part of a plan that was worked out, we are now told, by Putin himself. They cut off Crimea from mainland Ukraine, annexed it and received the post-dated agreement of a large majority of its inhabitants. After that, the same combination of nasty civilian thugs (one whom I came up against in Crimea had “Rossiya” tattooed across his forehead) and serving soldiers in unmarked uniforms headed to eastern Ukraine. They are still fighting there.

The methodology goes back to the heart of the postwar Soviet era, with a few 21st-century touches. If Moscow’s grip on a country that mattered seemed about to loosen, excuses were found and fraternal forces were assembled to make sure that it didn’t happen – the hard way. Remember Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979 and now Ukraine in 2014. Keeping hold of what they have has always mattered to Russia’s rulers. If they let one part go, the whole structure might start to fall down. Above all, it suggests weakness and there will always be those inside or outside the system who might take advantage of it and bring the rulers down. As we shall see, some Putin-watchers think that this pattern is being repeated. [Continue reading…]

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Right-wing groups find a haven, for a day, in Russia

The New York Times reports: A motley crew of representatives of fringe right-wing political organizations in Europe and the United States used a conference here on Sunday to denounce what they called the degradation of white, Christian traditions in the West. Their hosts used the conference to advance Russia’s effort to lure political allies of any stripe.

Railing against same-sex marriage, immigration, New York financiers, radical Islam and globalization, among other targets, one speaker after another lauded Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin as a pillar of robust, conservative, even manly values.

Mr. Putin has for some time sought international influence by casting Russia as the global guardian of traditional mores. Yet the effort has acquired new urgency, as Moscow seeks to undermine support in Europe for economic sanctions and other policies meant to isolate Moscow over its aggressive actions against Ukraine.

“Putin’s calculation is that Europe should change its attitude toward Ukraine, and it can easily happen when and if internal European problems outweigh Ukrainian events,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist in Moscow.

“They can make friends with everybody who poses a threat to the ruling parties, including radical forces,” he said. “If the radical nationalists are increasing their weight in Europe, they can serve as good allies for the Kremlin.” [Continue reading…]

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