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Greece has become the EU’s third protectorate

by Jan Zielonka, August 14, 2015, OpenDemocracy
The EU looks increasingly like an empire, having just created its third protectorate in the Balkans. Greece will effectively be run by the EU the way Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina already are.

The EU looks, walks and talks like an empire. After extending its borders into Central and Eastern Europe, the EU has just created its third protectorate in the Balkans. From now on Greece will effectively be run by the EU the way Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina already are.

Empire is not a synonym of evil despite some bad historical connotations, especially from the colonial era. Power can be exercised in noble ways, and peripheries often prefer to be “conquered” than abandoned. However, the EU’s ambition to run dysfunctional countries by decree is doomed to fail and will represent yet another blow to the project of European integration. Formal involvement of the UN or the IMF in running the protectorates will not exonerate the EU.

Enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe has been successful because it empowered local actors. Fragile states were asked to adopt EU laws and regulations, but they were not ruled by “guys in black suits” from outside. The EU’s Balkan protectorates are not empowered but subjugated. Over the past several years Kosovo’s and Bosnia-Herzegovina were de facto governed by European officials. European institutions and EU members were by far the largest donors to these countries. They had their peacekeepers and police forces on the ground there. Most of the laws and institutions in these countries were set up and run under EU supervision. EU officials frequently intervened in detailed economic and fiscal provisions related to tax, customs or privatization. For instance, in Bosnia-Herzegovina the EU once created a ‘Bulldozer Committee’ to push through simplification of tax codes and boost public revenues with a country value added tax.

Emerging details of the bailout agreement for Greece envisage the same pattern of external rule. According to the prepared document cited by The Guardian “The [Greek] government commits to consult and agree with the European commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund on all actions relevant for the achievement of the objectives of the memorandum of understanding before these are finalised and legally adopted.” The EU conditionality will be updated on a quarterly basis, and each EU review will be fully specified “in detail and timeline.” The document stipulates that: “No unilateral fiscal or other policy actions will be taken by the [Greek] authorities. All measures, legislative or otherwise, taken during the programme period, which may have an impact on banks’ operations, solvency, liquidity or asset quality should be taken in close consultation [with the troika].”

Why have Mrs. Merkel, Mr. Dijsselbloem and Mr. Juncker embraced these policies? Protectorates are by their nature utterly inefficient. Parachuted external envoys do not understand local culture, have no access to local networks, and apply solutions ill-suited to local environments. Cheating is the rule of the game in protectorates. The metropolis cannot admit its failure, and it therefore pretends that things are moving forward. The periphery cannot do without external help, but implementing imposed policies is not practical either. Even the most euro-enthusiastic observers stop short of arguing that EU policies in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and now Greece are successful, but an exit strategy is feared even more than an ongoing stalemate.

Protectorates are also difficult to legitimate. This has something to do with their inefficiency, but chiefly with their political nature. Since local peripheral actors do not “own” policies designed in Brussels or Berlin they can hardly be held accountable for their failure. In fact, their political fortunes largely depend on relations with the officials from the metropolis rather than with their own electorate.

Citizens in the periphery know that changing their local authorities will not change the imposed policies and may even cause retaliatory measures from Brussels. Legitimization is also opaque in the EU’s metropolis. EU citizens may want to see their money being spent more effectively, but they only have instruments to discipline their own national politicians, and not the EU as such. Involvement of the UN or the IMF blurs the responsibility even further; much of the energy in the Balkan protectorates has been invested in squabbles between imperial institutions.

The Balkan protectorates have been created in emergency situations and the EU has not jumped into the region eagerly. In this sense, the EU may well be seen as an empire by default, but this can hardly justify the faulty arrangement. All three protectorates represent fertile ground for a different kind of predatory behaviour, economic and political, with little prospect for turning them into functional states and economies. (I am not even talking about genuine democracy here.) Above all, they make a mockery of the European ideal.

The EU was supposed to get rid of power politics and generate integration of its different parts. The Balkan protectorates represent the opposite values and they undermine the EU’s credentials if not the EU’s very rationale.


Editor’s Note: OffGuardian does not endorse the author’s view on the nobility of imperial projects past and present.

9 Comments

  1. Simon says

    Empire is the opposite of democracy. Empire is never good. To fight one empire by wanting to become another empire is what caused the First World War.

    The only solution to Empire is democratisation, not more empire. Local communities must be able to affect the decisions that affect them.

    Let’s not fool ourselves that sponging to an empire is the solution to anything.

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  2. Frank says

    Yes, it should be understood that the EU is a geopolitical project as well as an economic one. With the ratification of the Lisbon Agreement (2007) – incidentally, over the heads of the Dutch electorate that rejected it the first time around (2005) – EU defence and security policy became aligned with NATO. Which in essence meant dual membership of NATO and the EU was to become mandatory. Even those states not formally members of the EU – Sweden, Finland – became de facto members as subsequent events have clearly demonstrated. There is no longer a Euro project as was formerly understood. A North Atlantic project under US control has replaced it. The hegemonism of the US is clearly visible behind the disappearance of any European project in favour of a return to Uber-Atlanticism. That a military alliance with a non-European country outside the Union has been integrated de facto into the ‘European Constitution’ constitutes an unparalleled anomaly.

    Thus the spread of the EU/NATO imperial bloc is characterised by an unending expansion – including Ukraine and Georgia. Why? Because that is the nature of bureaucracies in general and the military/political imperial bloc in particular.

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  3. Empire IS A SYNONYM OF EVIL *** BECAUSE *** OF HISTORICAL FACTS. RE: “Empire is not a synonym of evil despite some bad historical connotations … ” — what kind of CRAP IS THIS?

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  4. It is unclear how the author determines dysfunctional or fragile countries aside from an EU, IMF perspective. Given both institutions actively undermine and destroy sovereign states, the authors evaluation seems manufactured.

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  5. The author’s misunderstanding of imperialism is evidenced in the judgement that EU expansion eastwards was a “success” in contrast to the establishment of these three protectorates.
    In fact the EU has been consistent- eastern europe has been annexed and transformed into a low wage, non union playground for the corporations, banks included. What differs is that in the east behind the smokescreen of ‘democracy, freedom and anti-communism’ neo-fascist regimes, alliances between emigres, gladio types and the more agile of the Soviet era authoritarians ushered in a transition era which now seems to be solidifying into the sorts of regimes enjoyed by Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, in which crude nationalism and racial bigotry fill the ideological gap left by the evaporation of the ‘democracy and freedom’ cargo cults. The last time we saw this movie it starred Pilsudski, Horthy et al, this cast is different but the script is the same.
    The big difference is that NATO- the EU on parade- now provides the glue as the peoples of the east wake up to the realisation that capitalism is every bit as bad as the Stalinists taught them. One imagines that, as the crimson mists clear from eyes of former Yugoslavs, this is a realisation shared by Bosnians and Kossovars, of every variety of ethnicity.
    As to Greece, saved from itself and its people’s determination to resist imperialism, for the umpteenth time since 1943, in Syriza’s post referendum betrayal (only months after PASOK’s surrender of the same weapon), the wheel there is very much in spin, while the geopolitical trends are all turning against the EU, western Europe and its American colony where imperial HQ is currently located.

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