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European Parliament

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European Elections: The Pitchfork-Wielding Populists

“There is no doubt that many populist, Eurosceptic and even nationalistic parties are entering the European Parliament,” said the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, after all the votes in Sunday’s election for the European Union’s parliament had been counted. He did not say that the barbarian hordes were at the EU’s gates – but he probably thought it.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, made the same observation rather more colourfully in the Daily Telegraph on Monday: “From Dublin to Lublin, from Portugal to Pomerania, the pitchfork-wielding populists are converging on…Brussels – drunk on local hooch and chanting nationalist slogans and preparing to give the federalist machinery a good old kicking with their authentically folkloric clogs.” There is much truth in what he says.

It is true that the EU’s parliamentary elections last Sunday produced a large assortment of nationalists, neo-fascists and hard leftists who are united in their dislike for the EU. Together they will account for almost a third of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs), a situation that was unimaginable only five years ago. However, it is not true that this bloc of rejectionist MEPs will paralyse the EU.

One reason is that the mainstream centre-right and centre-left blocs of MEPs still have a majority in the parliament. They will probably create a grand coalition that makes all the key decisions behind closed doors, and then rams them through with little real debate. (Of course, this will further alienate the millions who voted for anti-EU candidates.)

The second reason is that the “pitchfork-wielding populists” will never constitute a single bloc, since they disagree on practically everything apart from their policy on the EU. Some, like the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party, want their countries to leave the EU. Others, like the far-left Syriza Party in Greece, just want to get rid of the common currency, the euro, and end the EU’s policy of enforced austerity.

The Alternative for Germany wants to keep the euro but allow the Mediterranean countries to leave it. Jobbik in Hungary and the Danish People’s Party are viciously anti-immigrant. Germany’s National Democratic Party and Golden Dawn in Greece are neo-Nazi. There is a fringe party for every taste.

The most important reason, however, is that the European Parliament has little authority over the bureaucrats who carry out EU policy and none at all over the national governments that actually decide on the policies. The parliament was created to add a dollop of democracy to the process, but it simply cannot paralyse the EU.
Yet this election has been a great shock, because it has revealed a vast reservoir of hostility to the EU among the populations of half its member states, including some of the biggest ones. In France the anti-EU National Front got more votes than either of the mainstream parties, the Gaullists and the Socialists. In Britain the United Kingdom Independence Party beat both the Conservatives and Labour.

Precisely because the European Parliament has so little real power, however, this was a cost-free protest vote. At least half the people who backed the National Front and UKIP in the EU election will probably go back to voting for the established parties when the next national elections are held in France and Britain, because the outcome of those elections will matter to them.

Nevertheless, it was a very loud protest, and it has badly shaken the European elites who took it for granted that progress towards a more united Europe was inevitable. What they now have to figure out is whether this was just a cry of rage and pain caused by six years of economic crisis and falling living standards, or whether it really is a protest against any further expansion of the “European project” – indeed, even a demand to roll it back.

The pain and rage are real enough: even six years later, few European economies are back up to where they were before the banking crisis exploded in 2008. Unemployment is still high right across the EU, and youth unemployment is catastrophically high in some countries. (In Greece and Spain, almost half of the under-25s have no work.)

If the EU’s current unpopularity is mainly due to a poor economy, then a few years of economic growth and rising incomes should make it go away. Most of the national economies in the EU will grow at least a bit this year, and as the economic situation improves the anger should subside. But what if the whole notion of an ever more united Europe is being rejected by the very people who were supposed to benefit from it?

As in many other parts of the world, the widening gulf between the few rich and the many whose living standards are stagnant or falling has created an incipient revolt against globalisation – and the EU’s centralising tendencies are widely seen as part of that problem. Renewed economic growth will not cure the EU’s malaise if the wealth does not trickle down to the majority.

In that case, there may ultimately have to be a retreat to a much looser form of European union.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“The second…taste”; and “The pain…work”)

The Third Option

22 April 2013

The Third Option

By Gwynne Dyer

There are, we are told, only two options. Either we stop burning fossil fuels before our carbon dioxide emissions drive the planet’s average temperature up a full 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), in which case we will push the world into the biggest-ever recession. Or we continue to burn fossil fuels and push the planet into runaway warming, with lethal consequences for a large part of the human race.

The 2008 bank crash that triggered the recent recession was caused mainly by reckless investment that created a “bubble” in house prices. When the bubble burst, hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of investments suddenly became worthless. The losses were so great that they nearly brought the whole banking system down.

This time the problem is a “carbon bubble”. The market valuation of the world’s 200 biggest oil, gas and coal companies is about $4 trillion, a figure based on the assumed value of their confirmed reserves that are still in the ground. Or, more precisely, a figure based on the assumption that they will eventually be able to sell all of those reserves to customers who want to burn them.

On the strength of that assumption, the fossil fuel companies have been able to take on $1.5 trillion of debt, and last year alone they spent $647 billion in the search for even more oil, gas and coal reserves. But what if they will never be able to sell all of their reserves? What if the need to avoid runaway warming forces governments to curb the burning of fossil fuels, so that much of those reserves has to stay underground forever?

This is the focus of a new report titled “Unburnable Carbon 2013″. The report’s authors, the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics and the Carbon Tracker Initiative, have the support of organisations like the HSBC and Citi banks, the Standard and Poor’s rating agency, and the International Energy Agency.

Their conclusion is that if we are to have a 50 percent chance of stopping the warming before +2 degrees, then at least two-thirds of the currently listed fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground permanently. If they cannot be burned, then they have no economic value. Therefore, the market valuation of the fossil fuel companies is three times higher than it should be.

The report assumes that rationality will prevail, and that at some point a limit will be imposed on the burning of fossil fuels. In this new reality, the debt burden of the fossil fuel companies becomes unsustainable and there is a financial meltdown that dwarfs 2008. Global warming is held to +2 degrees, but at the cost of the Mother of All Recessions.

The other option is that no controls are imposed on burning fossil fuels, and the carbon bubble does not burst until the warming breaks through the two-degree limit and triggers the natural feedbacks that will carry us inexorably up to +6 degrees C. That implies mass death and possibly civilisational collapse by the end of the century, but the fossil fuel reserves will retain their assumed value for the meantime and there will be no financial crash.

This is the scenario that the market is betting on, and at the moment most of the evidence supports that wager. The ideological and commercial interests that oppose action on climate change have triumphed in the United States and Canada, and without the Americans decisive action is hard to imagine.

The denial campaign has not explicitly defeated science elsewhere, but four years of recession in Europe have had much the same effect, sapping the will of governments to spend money fighting climate change. Last week, for example, the European Parliament refused to fund a scheme to rescue the carbon emissions trading scheme, once the centrepiece of the EU’s climate strategy.

In big, rapidly developing countries like China and India, the race for growth takes priority over cutting carbon emissions. And just when you think things couldn’t get worse, along comes shale gas to expand the fossil fuel reserves even further.

It’s a grim choice: either financial meltdown if we act decisively to halt climate change, or physical meltdown if we don’t. But there is, unfortunately, a third alternative. In fact, it’s the likeliest outcome by far.

First we go on growing our emissions at the current rate (3 percent per year) for the next couple of decades, and the fossil fuel industry thrives. Then, when it’s already too late and we have crossed the +2 degree limit, the actual warming (which always lags the growth in emissions by a decade or more) frightens us into taking action at last.

So we lurch into a crash programme to cut fossil fuel use – and suddenly the market wakes up to the fact that a lot of those reserves will have to stay in the ground forever. If you liked the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in 2008, you’ll positively love this one.

It’s not either Disaster A or Disaster B. It’s first one and then the other, interlocking and mutually reinforcing. And Disaster B will mean there’s no money left to do anything about Disaster A.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 11. (“This is…further”)



The Parliament of Man

27 April 2007

The Parliament of Man

By Gwynne Dyer

“For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonders there would be, “Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales… “Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”

Alfred Tennyson, 1842

One hundred and sixty-five years later, Tennyson would be impressed by the amount of air travel, and he would be encouraged by the steep decline in wars among the great powers. (They still attack small countries from time to time, but at least they don’t fight each other, which is when the mass deaths happen.) He would, however, be astonished that nothing has yet been done to make international society democratic.

There is already a world administration of sorts, in the form of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and so on, but it is all in the hands of governments — and some governments are much more equal than others, so none of the global institutions ever acts against the will of the powerful. (Occasionally they refuse to approve some deed of the powerful, as the UN did briefly over the US invasion of Iraq, but that is all.) And nowhere in all the layers of bureaucrats and diplomats is there any direct representation of ordinary people.

And so, only sixty-two years after the foundation of the UN, the Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) launches this week in five continents. It has the signatures of 377 members of national parliaments from seventy countries, six former foreign ministers/secretaries, and various other international luminaries like Vaclav Havel, Guenther Grass and former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But it also has a few little problems.

One is a distinct lack of Americans: only nine of those signatories are from the United States. The well-known American allergy to international institutions that might infringe on the absolute sovereignty of the United States extends, in this case, to a body that could have no such impact because it would have no legislative or executive power. And that is precisely the problem: what is the point of this hypothetical world parliament, given that it would have no power over the UN Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, or any of the other real decision-making centres?

The Campaign, whose headquarters is in Germany, explains that the UNPA “is envisaged as a first practical step towards the long-term goal of a world parliament,” but it would not even be elected in the first phase of its existence. Members from various national parliaments would be chosen, by whatever means each country saw fit, to sit together at the UN for a few weeks a year. It is the feeblest of symbolic gestures, and you wonder why they even bother.

European enthusiasts point out that when the European Parliament was first set up in 1958 its members were chosen by the national parliaments of member-states, and it had little control over the decisions of the European Union. As at the UN, those remained in the hands of national governments and of the international institutions that they directly controlled. But in 1979 they started electing members of the European Parliament directly, which gave it real democratic legitimacy and little by little, it has gained some degree of control over what happens in Brussels.

It would take a very long time indeed for the same sort of evolution to occur at the UN level, where even the number of members each country gets would be the subject of fierce disputes. Would China really have as many members as the hundred smallest countries combined, which is what its population entitles it to? Would America settle for one-third as many members as India (assuming it agreed to be represented at all)? Obviously not, but what would be the right numbers?

At best, the supporters of the UNPA would have to work their way through all those problems, and accept that for the next twenty or fifty years what they have created will be a debating chamber and nothing more. Is it worth all the effort for that damp squib of a result?

Yes, certainly. It would be open to individual countries to start electing their own members of the UNPA from the start, so that it had more democratic legitimacy. And although real power might take generations to arrive, from the very start a parliament of this sort would provide a very different perspective on the world — and a more realistic one — than the pious debates of the General Assembly and the hard-ball great-power politics of the Security Council. It would be very interesting at least, and maybe quite instructive.

So tell Lord Tennyson to come back in another hundred years, and maybe we’ll have something to show him.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“One is a…centres”)

NOTE TO TRANSLATORS: If you can find a translation of Tennyson’s poem (“Locksley Hall”, l. 117) and it works, by all means use it. Otherwise, just omit the poem, the first subsequent paragraph (“One hundred and sixty-five…”) and the last paragraph (“So tell…), and begin the article with the paragraph below instead:

“As everybody knows, democracy stops at the national frontier. Once you get into the space between countries, it is all about power. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.”