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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”)

Poland: A Pause on the March to Autocracy

Zofia Romaszewska, now in her 80s, was jailed during the years of martial law in Poland in the early 1980s. She is a national hero for her human rights activities in the 1980s and is now one of President Andrzej Duda’s advisers. Last week she persuaded him to veto the government’s new laws on the courts.

She told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state (under Communist rule) where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” And President Duda actually listened to her.

This came as a complete surprise, because Duda was a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party and is widely seen as a puppet of its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. On Monday, however, he rejected new laws giving the justice minister the power to fire judges he doesn’t like – including, potentially, the entire Supreme Court – and choose the new judges who take their places.

“As president I don’t feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice,” Duda said in a statement – or rather, an under-statement – on national television. His action has greatly encouraged the hundreds of thousands of people who have been demonstrating in cities all over Poland against the new laws, but there are still many who doubt his sincerity.

Poland is sharply divided between the populists, socially conservative, deeply Catholic, and ultra-nationalist, who form the present government, and the opposition whom they label “the system” or “the elite”. This system allegedly includes both the liberals who led Solidarity’s resistance to Communist rule, and the crypto-Communists who supposedly still exist and are now in league with the liberals.

The whole thing is a paranoid fantasy, but it has a firm hold on many people’s minds in a national culture that wallows in victimhood and self-pity. The Law and Justice government, elected in late 2015 with an absolute majority in parliament, denounces the opposition parties as corrupt traitors under foreign influence, and they in turn mistrust everything the
government says and does – including President Duda’s change of heart.

He’s just playing for time, they think. He’ll get the demonstrators to go home and then he’ll sign some slightly altered version of the laws stripping the judges of their independence. And maybe they are right. Nobody will know for sure until they see the government’s response to his veto.

This is not just about Poland. It is about whether the EU will tolerate an undemocratic government in its midst, and the evidence isn’t in yet.

As soon as it won office twenty months ago, the Law and Justice Party turned the state-owned broadcaster, previously politically neutral, into the propaganda arm of the ruling party. It also destroyed the independence of the civil service, replacing the professionals with its own party loyalists. But when it turned on the courts it started for face real push-back from the EU.

The EU is probably the only reason that the former Communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe almost all became democracies. They desperately wanted to be members of the EU as a safeguard against renewed Russian interference in their affairs – and the EU insists that all its members be democratic.

Not only that, but it carefully defines how democratic states should behave, and a basic principle is the separation of powers: the courts must not be under government control. When the Law and Justice Party introduced laws started taking away the judges’ independence, it ran head-on into the EU’s rules for membership.

Senior EU officials were openly talking about stripping Poland of its voting rights in the Council of Ministers (the closest thing to an EU government) until Duda said he would veto the new laws. If it turns out that he is only playing for time and will soon sign quite similar laws, the confrontation will resume – and the EU might even resort to financial measures against Poland.

Poland is by far the biggest beneficiary of transfers from the EU budget to poorer member countries: in the budgetary period 2014-2020, it is scheduled to get $96 billion. Some or all of that money might stop coming if Poland were no longer a member in good standing.

The Polish government cannot plausibly threaten to quit the European Union: 75 percent of Poles see EU membership as a vital counter-balance to the looming presence of Russia to their east. The EU holds all the best cards in this game, if it chooses to play them.
But will it?

That is not clear. The EU is not famous for its willingness to take bold action, and it would have to overcome the opposition of Hungary, another ex-Communist EU member that also has an authoritarian government (though a less extreme one). But the EU’s own cohesion would suffer if it did not defend its fundamental values, so if Duda is only fooling there may be a real showdown in a month or two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“As soon…EU”; and “Poland…standing”)

Britain: “Soft” Brexit or No Brexit

“We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end,” tweeted Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and now president of the European Council. He doesn’t know when the talks will start because even now, a year after Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t know what her negotiating position is.

She thought she knew. It was going to be a “hard Brexit” where Britain left both the European Union’s “internal market” (complete free trade between the half-billion people in the EU’s 28 members) and the customs union (the same external tariffs against everybody else). “Free movement” would also end (to limit immigration from EU countries), and Britain would flourish all alone thanks to its genius for free trade. Good luck with that.

But then May called a needless election to get a bigger majority in parliament – to “strengthen her hand” in the negotiations with the EU that are scheduled to begin next Monday, or so she said. Instead, after a botched campaign focussed entirely on May, the Conservative Party lost its majority in last Thursday’s election.

Now she is a zombie prime minister: “Dead woman walking”, one senior Conservative called her. Yet the Conservative Party can’t dump her yet because she is in the midst of talks with the small Democratic Unionist Party (exclusively Northern Irish) to get enough votes in parliament to keep the goverment in power.

Even if May succeeds, “hard Brexit” is dead. To get the support of the 11 DUP members of parliament – even to retain the support of the 13 MPs of the Scottish Conservative Party – she will have to agree to a much softer Brexit. That would certainly include a customs union, and maybe also continued membership of the internal market.

That may tear the Conservative Party apart, as the hard-line Brexiters in the party will fight against it tooth and nail. May’s Brexit Minister, David Davis, has already warned that next week’s start to the talks with the EU may have to be postponed. But the deadline for an agreement is only eighteen months away, in practice, and the negotiations will be extremely
complex. No wonder Donald Tusk is losing patience.

The Brexit referendum was originally promised in 2013 by May’s predecessor, David Cameron, in order to prevent a split in the Conservative Party. May’s devotion to Brexit today is still mainly aimed at avoiding that split, but the rest of the country has moved on.

If the referendum were held again today, it would almost certainly result in a victory for the Remainers, not the Leavers. The problem is that both main parties include large numbers of Leave voters.

They are a bigger proportion of the Conservative Party, although around half of the Conservative MPs are still secretly anti-Brexit. Jeremy Corbin’s Labour Party is equally divided: at least a third of Labour’s voters were Leavers.

Corbin would not have come so near to displacing the Tories if he had not maintained his ambiguous stance on Brexit in the recent election. Many of the traditional Labour voters who came back to the Labour Party this time were former supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party. They had been made homeless by the collapse of that party, but they are still Leavers.

So neither party is going to propose a second referendum now. To do so would be to lose many of their pro-Leave voters, and probably to lose the new election that is likely to be called before the end of the year. Yet the outcome of last week’s election does open up a possible path to a new referendum.

If the Conservative Party shreds itself over who is to replace Theresa May, or if either the DUP or the pro-Remain Scottish Conservatives withdraw their support, there will have to be another election.

Labour could win that election, but only if Corbyn can convince the Leavers in his party that he will try very hard to make a “soft Brexit” work. At the same time, he must persuade all the students and other young people who voted for the first time this month (and almost all voted Labour) that he will put the results of the negotiations with the EU to a second referendum, even though he cannot promise that publicly now.

It’s a fine line to walk, and Corbyn is genuinely ambivalent about the EU. Nevertheless, the final result could be either an acceptably soft and amicable Brexit, (leaving Britain in a close relationship with the EU, like Switzerland or Norway) – or an abandonment of the whole Brexit project after a second referendum. But it will leave deep scars for a generation whichever way it comes out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“Corbin…Leavers”)