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Migrants, Euro, Brexit: The EU at Risk

A recent headline on the leading Franch newspaper Le Monde said it all: “Migrants, the Euro, Brexit: The European Union is mortal.” And it’s true, the EU could actually collapse, given one or two more years of really bad decisions by the 28 national governments that make up the membership.

The most immediate threat is Brexit (British+exit), the possible result of the Yes/No referendum on British membership in the EU that is scheduled for 23 June. Prime Minister David Cameron promised this referendum three years ago to placate an anti-EU faction in his own Conservative Party (Cameron himself wants to stay in the EU), but it is coming at a particularly bad time.

Cameron doubtless calculated that the referendum would produce a large majority for staying in, and force the nationalist “Little Englanders” in his own party to shut up for a while. But the vote is actually being held at a time when many English people are upset by the large flow of immigrants into the United Kingdom and blame it on the policy of free movement for EU citizens.

That is only half-true: only half the foreign-born people settling in Britain are EU citizens who come by right. The rest are legal immigrants from other parts of the world, also attracted by the relatively prosperous British economy, and if the locals don’t like it they are free to change Britain’s own laws. But the half-truth that it’s all the EU’s fault has been vigorously promoted by the right-wing papers that dominate the British media scene.

The million-plus wave of refugees and economic migrants that has surged into the EU in the past year feeds the British panic even more, although Britain still controls its own borders and none of those migrants can enter the UK without London’s permission. The result is that the polls now show the “Leave” and “Remain” votes almost neck-and-neck.

The refugees and illegal economic migrants really are a problem for most other EU countries. The vast majority of them enter the EU through Greece and Italy, but they almost all want to travel on to the richer EU countries – which, with the admirable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, want nothing to do with them.

This is rapidly leading to a breakdown of the “Schengen” agreement, by which all the EU members except the United Kingdom and Ireland abolished their border controls with other Schengen countries. New border fences are now springing up everywhere as EU members try to keep the migrants out.

Dissent with EU policies is growing as some Eastern European countries refuse to accept any refugees at all, and ultra-nationalist parties are growing in strength almost everywhere. In Hungary, and now in Poland, they have even come to power.

Then there is the euro, the common currency shared by 19 EU countries including all the big ones except the United Kingdom. It was a bad idea from the start, because a single currency without a single government behind it cannot deal effectively with big issues like debt and inflation. It was bound to end up in crisis as the economies of the member states diverged – and they have.

The EU was transfixed all last year by the threat that Greece would crash out of the euro. The Greek crisis has been put on hold for the moment, but it is clear by now that Italy, Spain and Portugal, at least, would also benefit from leaving the euro zone. This is a currency that has no future, although its demise is not necessarily imminent.

So: three separate problems, none of them likely to be fatal to the EU on its own. The EU survived with separate national currencies for four decades before it adopted the euro; it could do so again, although the transition back would be painful and probably chaotic. The Schengen treaty was a nice idea, but not essential to the Union’s smooth functioning. And Britain’s departure could be nothing more than a spectacular act of self-mutilation.

It’s the fact that all these crises are hitting together that endangers the EU’s very existence. The only immediate and certain consequence of Brexit would be Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom (so that it could stay in the EU), and nobody would have much sympathy for England’s post-Brexit difficulties. But the walk-out of the country with the EU’s second-biggest economy would trigger a political earthquake.

The various populations of the EU are seething with dissatisfaction about immigration and refugees, about the euro, about all the compromises and bureaucracy that must be tolerated to keep a 28-country “community” going. Mini-Trumps are cropping up everywhere, offering radical solutions that usually include an explicit or implicit commitment to leave the Union.

It could snowball. Where Britain (or rather, England) breaks trail, others might follow. We could end up with a severely shrunken EU, back down to the original six members plus a few others, while the countries of Eastern Europe try to get used to being once more the buffer between Russia and the West.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and . (That is…scene”; and “Dissent…power”)

Germany and Refugees

No good deed goes unpunished.

Two months ago Chancellor Angela Merkel amazed the world by opening Germany’s borders to all the genuine refugees (mostly Syrians and Afghans) who could get that far. She must have known her own people well, because ordinary Germans showed extraordinary sympathy and generosity to the new arrivals.

Even when the first estimate of 800,000 refugees coming to Germany this year went up to 1.5 million, the “welcome culture” stayed strong. Only one month ago Merkel’s action still had the approval of half the population, with only 40 percent thinking her policy was wrong.

Now those numbers are reversed, and the voices of dissent are multiplying. Even Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of the state of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union,(CDU), has lost patience, saying that “no society can cope with an influx on this scale.” In fact, he’s theatening to challenge her policy before Germany’s Constitutional Court.

That’s just “compassion fatigue”, you might say, and you would be right. Bavarians have seen 175,000 refugees arrive in their midst in just the past month. That’s almost 1.5 percent of the state’s population in just thirty days. Many of them will move on to other states eventually – but another 175,000 will probably arrive in the coming month.

The scale of the refugee influx into Germany is almost unprecedented in modern European history: one and a half million people in six months (for the refugees only started arriving in large numbers in July). It’s as if the United States, with four times Germany’s population, were taking in one million Syrian and Afghan refugees every month. Americans would never accept that.

What’s surprising is not the fall in support for Merkel’s policy. It’s the fact that it is still so strong, even though no other member of the European Union is being anything like so generous in its refugee policy. (Britain has offered to take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years.) There must be something special about the German response.

There is certainly something special about modern German history, though most people elsewhere have forgotten it or never knew it. Not the Nazis and the war, but what happened at the end of the Second World War and just afterwards. As the Soviet army rolled west across eastern Europe in early 1945, huge numbers of ethnic Germans fled before it.

Hundreds of thousands of them died of cold, hunger and the constant bombing, but between six and eight million made it into what is now Germany before the fighting ended. Almost as many more were expelled from Eastern European countries in the following five years, mostly from Czechoslovakia and the parts of Germany (about a fifth of its current area) that had been given to Poland by the victors.

Between 1945 and 1950 some twelve million German refugees arrived in Germany – a Germany that had been bombed flat and was desperately poor. Even food was scarce in the early post-war years. But the Germans took the refugees in, shared what they had with them, and together they gradually pulled their country out of the hole it had dug for itself.

Germans don’t like to dwell on this period of their country’s history, but it hasn’t been forgotten. Indeed, one-fifth of today’s Germans are those now elderly refugees and their children and grandchildren. Deep down Germans have an understanding of what it is to be a refugee that no other Western Europeans can share.

Does this explain why Merkel did what she did? Nobody can say except herself, and she isn’t saying. She certainly hasn’t been a strong advocate of large-scale immigration in the past.

At a meeting with young CDU party workers in Potsdam five years ago, she said that the idea of creating a multicultural society in Germany had failed utterly: “The concept that we are now living side by side and are happy about it does not work.” Indeed, she even said that Germans had Christian values and “anyone who doesn’t accept that is in the wrong place here.”

But she grew up in the town of Templin in northern Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany. When she was a child and a young woman, that area, not very far from the new Polish border, had a population that was 40 percent refugees.

Does their own refugee heritage explain why half of Germany’s 80 million people still support a policy that, so long as it lasts, will be adding one and a half million more non-German-speaking Muslims to the country’s population each year? Yes, it probably does.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“At a meeting…here”)

Israel: Everybody is a Minority

Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, is an outspoken man, but he knows when to hold his fire.

He condemned the killing of an 18-month-old Palestinian child in an arson attack in the West Bank by suspected Jewish settlers last Friday as “terrorism”, but he did not say that the suspects were from the extreme wing of the “national religious tribe”.

Rivlin has not yet commented publicly on the knife attack on Gay Pride marchers in Jerusalem the previous day that wounded six people (one of whom, 16-year-old Shira Banki, has now died of her wounds). But if and when he does, he will not point out that the killer, Yishai Schlissel, belongs to the extremist fringe of the “Haredi tribe”, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not even recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

It would be wrong to use language that paints all the members of the tribes in question as accomplices in these murders, because they aren’t. Even if some of them sympathize with the actions of the murderer (and some probably do), it would still be a political mistake to alienate them further from the mainstream of Israeli society.

But maybe we should rephrase that last sentence, because in Rivlin’s view there no longer is an Israeli “mainstream”. There once was, when secular Jews, mostly of Eastern European origin, formed the majority of the population and everybody else belonged to “minorities”. But higher birth rates among those minorities have turned the secular Jews into just another minority—and he says they should really all be seen as “tribes”.

He said all this two months ago, in a startlingly frank speech to the Herzliya conference, an annual event where the country’s leaders debate issues of national policy. “In the 1990s,” he told them, “Israeli society comprised…a large secular Zionist majority, and beside it three minority groups: a national-religious minority, an Arab minority, and a Haredi minority.

“Although this pattern remains frozen in the minds of much of the Israeli public, in the press, in the political system, all the while, the reality has totally changed,” he continued. “Today, the first grade classes (in Israeli schools) are composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, about 15 percent national religious, about one quarter Arabs, and close to a quarter Haredim.”

The demographic changes, Rivlin said, have created a “new Israeli order…in which Israeli society is comprised of four population sectors, or, if you will, four principal ‘tribes’, essentially different from each other, and growing closer in size. Whether we like it or not, the make-up of the ‘stakeholders’ of Israeli society, and of the State of Israel, is changing before our eyes.”

The most important implication of this change is that barely half of the children now in Israeli primary schools will grow up to be Zionists. The Arabs will not, of course, but neither will the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe that the Zionist project to recreate Jewish rule in Israel is blasphemous. Only God can do that, by sending the Messiah, and the Zionist attempt to hurry it along by human means is a rebellion against God.

Neither of these “tribes” even serves in the military, once the great unifying Israeli institution. Arabs are not conscripted for military service, and very few volunteer. In practice, the Haredim have been exempt from military service for all of Israel’s history as an independent state, although parliament passed a law last year that seeks to end the exemptions.

The Zionist tribes are also divided between the secular Zionists and the “national religious” tribe. The latter reconcile their Orthodox religious beliefs with the Zionist project by arguing that it was God who inspired the early Zionists in eastern Europe to build a Jewish state in Palestine, even if they did not realize it themselves. Most Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and most of their supporters in Israel proper, belong to this tribe.

All these former minority tribes are to some extent alienated from the secular, liberal-democratic Zionist assumptions that underpin Israel’s current political structure. A few members of each tribe are already so alienated that they turn to violence, like the settlers who attack Palestinian children, the Israeli Arabs who run amok and kill Jews, or the Haredi fanatic who attacked the Gay Pride march.

President Rivlin, “Ruvi” didn’t say that explicitly—it’s too upsetting—but he was pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. The current secular Zionist domination cannot continue; the other tribes must also come to feel safe and welcome in a different kind of Israel. Specifically, in a “one-state” Israel that includes all the territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

Rivlin, though an Orthodox Jew, doesn’t really belong to any of these tribes: his family has lived in Jerusalem for more than two centuries. He doesn’t believe that the “two-state solution”—one country for Jews and one for Palestinian Arabs—is viable any more, if it ever was. So he is driven to the “one-state solution”, which requires reconciliation and cooperation between all the tribes.

It’s so radical that it almost makes sense. It’s just hard to believe that it could actually happen.

Putin Backs Down?

By Gwynne Dyer

Did he just blink? I think he did.

Only one week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said that in the present circumstances he regarded the presidential election scheduled by the Ukrainian government in Kiev for 25 May as “absurd”. Last Wednesday, however, Putin conceded that the election could be “a move in the right direction.”

Putin also said that he was going to pull back the 40,000 Russian troops who have been doing “military exercises” close to Ukraine’s eastern border. He even asked the heavily armed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, who have seized government buildings in a dozen eastern cities, to postpone the referendum on independence or unification with Russia that they had scheduled for this Sunday.

So a lot of people hope that he has decided to call off the confrontation. Maybe he has, but you have to read the fine print.

What Putin actually said about the presidential elections that the government in Kiev has called for the 25th was less than enthusiastic: “I would like to stress that… while they are a move in the right direction, [they] will not decide anything if all the citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after the elections are held.”

Moreover, a “senior source” close to President Putin subsequently said that he would support the Ukrainian presidential elections on 25 May IF talks started between the government in Kiev and the armed separatists in the east, and IF Kiev stopped trying to take the towns they control back by force. That leaves him room to welsh on his promise.

As for Putin’s request that the separatists call off their referendum on independence, they rejected it the next day. Russian agents have been heavily involved in orchestrating the seizure of government buildings in eastern Ukraine from the start, so it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t get the separatists to cancel the referendum if he really tried. And though he has promised to pull his troops back from Ukraine’s border, they have not actually begun to move yet.

So you have to wonder whether he is really going to call off the confrontation. Maybe he is just trying to stave off further Western sanctions while his plans to destabilise the government in Kiev, disrupt the presidential elections, and maybe even take over eastern Ukraine continue to unfold.

Nobody can read Putin’s mind, but there is reason to suppose that his change of tone might be genuine, because he is saying he will do exactly what level-headed strategic advisers in his entourage would be urging him to do. If this confrontation continues down the road it has been travelling recently, it will hurt Russian interests, and even his own political interests, a lot.

Putin has little to gain from a local victory in Ukraine. Seizing the country’s eastern provinces would simply land Moscow with the permanent job of spending a great deal of money to support an industrial museum. And taking control of all of Ukraine might lead to a long counter-insurgency war against Ukrainian nationalists.

The external costs of “victory” would be even higher. Already NATO is moving troops into the Eastern European members of the alliance to reassure the local populations, who live in permanent fear of another Russian take-over. (Previously it did not station foreign troops in those countries, in order not to frighten the Russians.) Even the Swedes and the Finns, who are neutrals, are discussing closer cooperation in defence matters.

The next round of Western sanctions will really hurt the Russian economy, and that would undermine Putin’s political popularity at home. And if it really turns into a new Cold War, Russia would lose far faster than it did last time. The Russian Federation has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and considerably less than half the industrial resources and technological prowess of that former superpower.

It would make sense for Putin to end this confrontation: he has already taken Crimea, and that is victory enough. Russian-speakers are not at risk in Ukraine, and never have been. Ukraine is not going to join NATO or the European Union no matter who wins the elections on 25 May. Neither organisation would let them in. But he can’t just throw his cards on the table and walk away: he has to save face.

That may be enough to explain why his statements and actions this week have been shrouded in a good deal of ambiguity. Alternatively, he may just not be listening to his advisers, or they may be too intimidated to tell him what they really think, in which case he hasn’t really changed course and all this talk is a ploy to gain time.

But Putin has been running Russia for fourteen years, and in all that time he has not made a major strategic error. He is not stupid, and he has shown no signs of being delusional. My guess is that he has decided to shut the confrontation down.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 11. (“Moreover…promise”; “So…unfold”; and “The external…matters”)