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Catalonia Again

I’m sitting here trying to write an article about the election in Catalonia on Wednesday, because there’s nothing else to write about. It would be more interesting if the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party for the past 23 years, elects a new leader who is not Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, but the results on that won’t be in until tomorrow.

Apart from that there’s nothing except more stuff about Donald Trump’s Russian links. So it has to be Catalonia – and the problem is that I don’t care what happens in Catalonia.

One more smallish group defined by some tiny distinction of religion or language or history wants to break away from some other, bigger group – ‘Spaniards’, in this case – that is defined by slightly broader and more inclusive distinctions of the same kind, and I simply couldn’t care less.

Maybe, after all the nonsense that happened in the past six months – big demos for independence, an illegal referendum that was designed to provoke the Spanish state into over-reacting (and succeeded), and various pro-independence leaders jailed or going into voluntary exile to avoid arrest – a majority of people in Catalonia will be so fed up with the turmoil that they vote to remain part of Spain. But I don’t think so.

Maybe a majority will be so enraged by Madrid’s blundering over-reaction that they vote for their independence from Spain, and actually get it.

Then most of the larger companies in Catalonia will move their headquarters elsewhere (several thousand have gone already), and they will have a new currency nobody trusts (because they will no longer be in the European Union), and the people running the place will be the single-issue fanatics who managed to put this issue on the agenda in the first place. They don’t seem to have many ideas about what to do next.

As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” But I don’t think the Catalans are going to vote decisively for independence this time either.

Instead, they are going to split their votes in a way that leaves no clear majority for or against independence, and makes it hard even to form a coalition government. (What is happening in Catalonia this month is actually an election, not a referendum, although everybody is treating it like the latter.) So we can look forward to months, years or even decades more of the same.

On a somewhat larger canvas, this is exactly what is happening in the United Kingdom, too. Just as the Catalans complain that they are paying too much tax to the Spanish government, which transfers it to poorer parts of Spain, so the ‘Little Englanders’ complain that the UK pays too much to the European Union (which spends a lot of it raising standards in the poorer parts of eastern Europe).

Just as the Catalans (and especially younger Catalans) are far less different from other Spanish citizens than the separatists imagine, so the English (and especially the young English) are far less different from other Europeans than the Daily Mail-reading older generation of English nationalists imagines. It is the ‘narcissism of small differences’, in Sigmund Freud’s famous phrase.

But just as the Catalan mess is guaranteed to run on for years, now that it has reached this stage of obsessiveness, so will the British mess. If the UK actually leaves the European Union, the British will be much the poorer for it, and the nationalists who foisted it on the rest of the population will spend the next generation blaming the wicked Europeans for their own mistakes.

And if, by chance, the British end up not leaving (rationality doesn’t often win, but occasionally it does), then the country will spend the next generation contending with a non-violent insurgency waged by the disappointed nationalists.

Obviously, not every separatist movement that appeals to nationalism is wrong. The anti-colonial struggles for independence in the 20th century were fully justified and necessary because the injustices were great and the gulf between rulers and ruled was immense. The American war of independence in the 18th century was justified because great questions about human rights and democracy were at stake.

But when all parties concerned subscribe to democratic values, it generally makes more sense to stay together and try to work out the differences. Separatist pro-independence movements in democratic countries tend to be driven by the ambitions of politicians who want to be bigger fish in a smaller pond.

As former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien put it (in a broken half-English sentence calculated to insult his fellow French-Canadians who were the separatist leaders in Quebec), they want to drive up “dans un gros Cadillac avec un flag sur l’hood” (in a big Cadillac with a flag on the hood). Enough said.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But just…nationalists”)

The Irish Border

History never leaves Ireland alone. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the lethal alliance of the Conservative Party in Britain and the Unionist Party, which represented the Protestant minority in Ireland, made it impossible for the British parliament to pass a Home Rule Bill for Ireland.

A Home Rule Bill might have let the two countries take their distance peacefully and gradually, while retaining close links – or maybe not, but it was worth a try. Instead came the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the Irish War of Independence, the partition of the island between the independent Republic and Northern Ireland (part of the UK), the Irish Civil War, and three decades of terrorist war in Northern Ireland that only ended 20 years ago.

Well, the Conservatives and the Unionists are back in coalition now, and another war is brewing on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. At the moment it’s practically an invisible frontier, with no border posts or customs checks, because both the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic belong to the European Union. Brexit, however, will put an end to that, and probably to peace as well.

In principle, Britain flouncing out of the EU shouldn’t hurt anybody except the British themselves, but the UK’s Irish border is a nightmare. Prime Minister Theresa May has sworn a mighty oath that the United Kingdom will leave both the ‘single market’ and the customs union, but that will turn this ‘soft’ frontier into a ‘hard’ EU border with a non-EU country: border guards, customs checks, passports, queues and all the rest.

What made the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 possible was the promise that the border between the two Irelands would practically disappear, which allowed the Catholic nationalists of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to believe that their war had not been just a futile struggle that killed 3,000 people. They could dream that with all the coming and going across an open border, the two parts of Ireland would grow closer and eventually reunite.

Recreate a hard border and they will feel cheated. Not all the militants of the IRA will pick up their guns again, but some almost certainly will. It was very hard to stop the first time, and there is no particular reason why a renewed war couldn’t last another thirty years and kill thousands more.

Presumably Theresa May does not want to see this, and the EU recently offered her a way out. If you must go, they said, then leave the inner Irish border open and put your customs and immigration controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (which are conveniently separated by the Irish Sea).

Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs union and nobody would be stopped at its land border with the Republic. Customs and immigration checks would only happen at Northern Irish ports and airports, when people or goods have crossed or are going to cross the Irish Sea. It makes as much sense as anything can within the context of Brexit – but May has to reject it.

She must reject that offer because she lost her parliamentary majority in the election she needlessly called last June, and remains in power only thanks to the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party – i.e., the hard-line Protestants of Northern Ireland. And the DUP, always terrified that Britain will abandon them, simply will not allow any kind of border, however soft, to be put between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

May cannot defy the DUP on this or her government will fall – and the Conservatives would probably lose the subsequent election, putting her nemesis, the dreaded Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in power.

However, if May insists on leaving the EU customs union, there will have to be a ‘hard’ border – and if there is, says Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, he will veto any negotiations between the EU and the UK on a free trade deal after it leaves the Union.

Theresa May is finally cornered, and the United Kingdom may end up ‘crashing out’ of the EU with no deal at all. The UK can then spend the next decade trying to renegotiate on less favourable terms the 59 trade deals it now enjoys with other countries as a member of the EU – and, more likely than not, dealing with a renewed IRA insurgency in Northern Ireland.

Or May could aim for a deal that keeps the UK in the customs union. Then the border would remain open, and there would be no Irish veto, and a reasonable deal on post-Brexit trade would be possible. But that would split the Conservative Party, and avoiding that is far more important to her than all these other issues.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Northern…it”)

Germany: The Rise of the Right

Angela Merkel’s slogan in her campaign for a fourth term as Chancellor was terminally bland and smug – “For a Germany in which we live well and love living” – but it did the job, sort of. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is back as the largest party, so Merkel gets to form the next coalition government. But the neo-fascists are now in the Bundestag (parliament) too, for the first time since the collapse of Nazi Germany.

It’s not Merkel’s fault, exactly, but the numbers tell the tale. The CDU had its worst result ever, down from 40 percent of the vote at the last election to only 33 percent this time. And it looks like the 7 percent of the vote that the CDU lost went straight to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the neo-fascist party, whose support was up from just under 5 percent last time to 12.6 percent this time.

That makes the AfD the third biggest party in the Bundestag. All the other parties have sworn to have nothing to do with it, so Merkel’s party will have to seek its coalition partners elsewhere. It will take at least a month to make the coalition deal, which will probably link the CDU with the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens, but that is not the big story. The rise of the hard right is.

‘Rise’ is a relative term, of course: only one German in eight actually voted for the AfD. But that is still shocking in a country that thought it had permanently excised all that old Nazi stuff from its politics. And if you look more closely, the AfD’s support was strongest in the same parts of the country that voted strongly for the Nazis in the 1933 election that brought Hitler to power.

The AfD was founded by an economics professor who just wanted Germany to leave the euro currency, but in the past four years it has been taken over anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant ultra-nationalists, and they do sound a little bit like You-Know-Who at times.

Alice Weidel, the AfD’s co-leader, has described Merkel’s government as “pigs” who merely serve as “marionettes of the victorious powers of the Second World War, whose task it is to keep down the German people.” And the party’s other co-leader, Alexander Gauland, said in an election speech last week: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”

That sort of comment might be interesting to debate in a university seminar on German history, but 72 years after Hitler’s death it is still too soon to say out loud in a Europe that was ravaged by German armies in the Second World War. Gauland, Weidel and their AfD colleagues are playing with fire and they are well aware of it.

The truly alarming thing, however, is not the occasional echo of the Nazis in AfD rhetoric. It is the fact that Germany is conforming to a general trend towards the authoritarian, ultra-nationalist right in Western politics.

Each country does it in its own historical style. The pro-Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom last year was actually led by isolationist “Little Englanders”. Their implausible promise of a glorious free-trading future for the UK outside the European Union was just a necessary nod in the direction of economic rationality – but the Brexiteers won because enough people wanted to believe them.

Similarly, Donald Trump fits comfortably into the American tradition: he is channelling American demagogues of the 1930 like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. The economic situation of American workers and the lower middle class today is close enough to that of the 1930s that they responded to his mixture of nationalism, dog-whistle racism and anti-big-business thetoric by voting him into the presidency.

In France, Marine Le Pen appealed to nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the resentment of the long-term unemployed to win almost 34 percent of the vote in last May’s presidential election. She lost, but the more important fact is that one-third of French voters backed the neo-fascist candidate. And now, in German, the AfD.

The common thread that runs through all these events, beyond the racism, nationalism and xenophobia, is economic distress. The economies may be doing well, but a large proportion of the people are not. The gap between the rich and the rest was tolerated when everybody’s income was rising, but that has not been true for thirty years now, and patience among the “losers” has run out.

This is still early days, but the direction of the drift in Western politics is clear, and it is deeply undesirable. The only thing that will stop it is decisive action to narrow the income gap again, but that is very hard to do in the face of the currently dominant economic doctrine.

Houston, we have a problem.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“The AfD…times”; and “That sort…of it”)

Terrorism – A Sense of Proportion

London in March: five dead. Stockholm in April: another five dead. Manchester in May: 22 dead. London again in June, this time on London Bridge: eight dead. Barcelona in August: fourteen dead. Five mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Europe in six months, and all but one (Manchester) carried out using rental trucks. Is it safe to go to Europe any more?

No, of course not. It isn’t safe to live anywhere. You can get killed by a vehicle driven by a non-terrorist, or by falling down the stairs, or even by drowning in the bath. Indeed, you are far likelier to die from any of those causes than from terrorist attacks no matter where you live in the world. But in those other cases your death will not be “news”.

The only part of the world where Islamist terrorism really is a serious threat to people’s lives is the greater Middle East (including Pakistan). There is a kind of civil war between modernisers and cultural conservatives going on in many Muslim-majority countries, and the terrorist threat to ordinary citizens’ lives is ten or twenty times higher than it is in the West. But even there it is far smaller than it looks.

What makes the “terrorist threat” look big in the West is the natural human tendency to be fascinated by violence. The mass media know their audience, and they cannot resist catering to this appetite: that’s why thousands of fictional characters die violently on television and in movies every week.

Violence in real life is even more interesting – especially if there is some possibility, however remote, that it might affect the viewer. So the media reflexively, instinctively inflate the threat, and to people who don’t understand statistics (i.e. almost everybody), terrorism starts to look like a very big deal.

There is no way to avoid this without imposing official controls on media coverage, and it’s not worth paying that price, so we’ll just have to live with the media’s hype. We will also have to live with the terrorism itself, even though it’s generally considered to be political suicide to say this in public.

That’s why Donald Trump thought he could discredit London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, after the London Bridge attack by tweeting “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’”

Trump was deliberately distorting the mayor’s message: Sadiq Khan had actually told Londoners not to be alarmed by “an increased police presence.” But Khan wouldn’t have been wrong if he had told them not get their knickers in a twist because of the occasional terrorist attack. Like most Londoners, he really knows that the attacks will continue for quite a while, and that they are not going to do a lot of damage.

After all, it’s obvious that we’re not going to run out of Islamist extremists any time soon, and that the security services cannot prevent wannabe terrorists from getting their hands on trucks or vans (or knives). So there will probably be lots more low-tech terrorist attacks over the next decade.

Don’t panic. The entire European Union has lost just 62 killed in terrorist attacks so far this year, which is about one person in every eight million. The loss ratio is even lower in the United States: eleven killed in four terrorist attacks so far this year. Four times as many Americans are killed every day in ordinary murders.

So the right response to low-tech terrorism in every Western country is to keep calm and carry on, even knowing that the attacks will probably continue until the present generation of jihadis ages out. (Generational turn-over is what really ends most ideological fashions.)

In the meantime, the priority is not to turn against Muslim communities in the West – because it’s wrong to blame millions of people for the actions of a few hundred gullible, attention-seeking young men, but also because that’s exactly what the Islamic State propagandists want people in the West to do.

Ten or fifteen years ago, Islamist attacks on Western countries had a specific strategic goal: to lure the West into invading Muslim countries, thereby radicalising the local populations and driving them into the arms of the Islamist revolutionaries. The ultimate goal of those revolutionaries was to gain power in their own countries, not to “bring the West to its knees” or some such drivel.

That game is pretty much played out now: the Islamists cannot hope to sucker the West into doing any more large-scale invasions. So why carry on encouraging terrorist attacks in the West?

Because it’s dirt cheap, it promotes the brand, and it might, if they get lucky, cause huge internal conflicts in Western countries with large Muslim populations. So far, to the immense credit of both the majority communities and the Muslim minorities themselves, this has not come to pass.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“That’s…damage”)