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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”)

So Much for the Populist Wave

In his victory speech on Sunday night Emmanuel Macron, the next president of France, said: “I want to become…the president of the patriots in the face of the threat from the nationalists.” The distinction would be lost on most Trump supporters in the United States and on the “Little Englanders” who voted for Brexit in Britain, but it’s absolutely clear to the French, and indeed to most Europeans.

In the United States the preferred word is “patriot”, but it usually just means “nationalist”, with flags flaunted and slogans chanted. “America First” says Trump, and the crowd replies “USA all the way!”

You can’t imagine a British election rally doing that – the United Kingdom is too close to mainland Europe, where that sort of thing ended very badly – but the English nationalism behind Brexit was painfully obvious. For some in both countries it’s actually “white nationalism”, but even the many non-racists who voted for Trump or Brexit draw the line at the border or the water’s edge. There’s “us”, and on the far side there’s “them”.

Whereas the French men and women who voted for Macron understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism very well. They will have to vote for Macron again in the run-off election on 7 May, when his opponent will be the neo-fascist candidate, Marine Le Pen, but in that round they will be joined by almost all the people who voted for other presidential candidates in the first round. She is a nationalist; they are patriots.

In Europe, nationalism is linked in the collective memory with the catastrophe of the last century’s great wars, and the racism that is often associated with it triggers images of Nazi extermination camps. Not all Europeans are immune to that kind of nationalism or political phenomena like Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Beppo Grillo in Italy could not exist, but they remain a minority almost everywhere.

That was not obvious four months ago. After the Brexit vote last June and Trump’s election in November, Europe’s ultra-nationalists were convinced that their moment had finally come – and many observers feared that they were right. Brexit seemed like the first step towards the break-up of the European Union, and from the Netherlands to Austria it felt like the fascists were at the door.

Not so. Wilders’s party gained only a few seats in last month’s Dutch election and remains very much a minority taste. Marine Le Pen is no closer to the French presidency than her openly fascist father was fifteen years ago: the National Front vote never breaks through the 25 percent ceiling. And the hard-right, anti-immigrant, anti-EU “Alternative for Germany” party has lost its leader and one-third of its popular support in the past month.

Some of this is simply disillusionment. Significant numbers of Europeans were initially tempted to back local populist parties by the sheer flamboyance of Trump’s US electoral campaign. After all, Europeans also worry about immigration and terrorism and unemployment, and his rude and crude rhetoric seemed to validate the similar language of their own populist leaders.

But the reality of the dysfunctional Trump White House has turned off most of those recent European converts to populist politics. By and large the hard-right parties of Europe are back where they were before The Donald burst upon the scene, with almost no chance of gaining real political power. It was a false alarm.

The “populist wave” that seemed to be sweeping through Western politics turns out to be merely a storm in the much smaller teacup known as the “Anglosphere”. It’s only known this way to Europeans, who use the word, often tinged with contempt, to describe the deregulated economies and market-obsessed politics of the post-Reagan United States and post-Thatcher United Kingdom. (Australia occasionally gets an honourable mention too.)

For a quarter of a century the politics of the Anglosphere has been consistently subservient to “the market” even when purportedly left-wing leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were in power. The result, as you would expect, has been somewhat higher economic growth rates, and a rapidly widening gulf between the incomes of the rich and the rest.

The rest of the West has not been immune to this political fashion, but it has been far less prominent in the countries of the European Union (and even in deviant anglophone countries like Canada and New Zealand). Now the disparity in incomes between the 1 percent and the 99 percent has grown so great in the heartlands of the Anglosphere that the political chickens are coming home to roost.

The response in both the United States and the United Kingdom is not real populism, which for all its faults does at least try to shrink income inequalities. It is standard right-wing politics in a populist style, using nationalism to distract the victims from the fact that these governments actually serve the rich.

Move along, please. There’s nothing new to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Some…alarm”)

The French Election

Here’s how the French presidential election is going to work. This Sunday’s vote will pick the leading two candidates, who will then have another two weeks to campaign for the run-off vote. But the leading four candidates are now bunched together so closely in the polls that any two of them could make it through to the second round. Including a couple of quite worrisome people.

The permutations and combinations are mind-bendingly complex. One reporter interpreted the pollsters’ latest attempt to predict the second-round outcome as follows: “Macron would win the run-off against any opponent, while Le Pen would lose. Melencthon would defeat everyone except Macron and Fillon would lose to all except Le Pen.”

The point, however, is that nobody knows which two will actually be in the second round. The four main candidates are all predicted to win beween 19 and 22 percent of the votes this Sunday, a spread that is no greater than the polls’ margin of error. And as of last weekend, one-third of the voters were still undecided.

So there are six possible outcomes to this Sunday’s vote – and one of them, just as plausible as the others, would see the fascist and the crypt-communist fighting it out for the presidency in the second round.

Two of the candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Francois Fillon, are worthy centrist figures in the traditional mould of French presidents. Macron, a former investment banker, has a younger, more modern vibe, something like a French Justin Trudeau, but neither man poses any serious threat to the status quo. Whereas the other two….

Marine Le Pen inherited the National Front from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded it in 1972 as an anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist movement. He gloried in outraging mainstream opinion, even indulging in Holocaust denial, but fifteen years ago he made it into the presidential run-off.

And that’s as far as he got. Every other party’s voters united in support of the rival candidate, Jacques Chirac (some holding their noses – one slogan was “vote for the crook, not the fascist”), and the senior Le Pen was resoundingly defeated, getting only 18 percent of the run-off votes. Which taught his daughter that anti-Semitism doesn’t win votes any more. But anti-Muslim rhetoric still does, and extreme nationalism still works too.

“My first measure as president will be to reinstate France’s borders,” she said this week. Out-Trumping Trump, she promised to stop all immigration to France right away, and to allow only 10,000 a year to come in when the total ban is relaxed. She also promises to pull France out of the euro common currency, and to hold a Brexit-style referendum on leaving the European Union altogether.

If France followed Britain out of the EU, the organisation would probably not survive. With the EU’s second- and third-largest economies gone, Germany would utterly dominate the remaining 25 smaller economies, which would prove an unsustainable relationship in the end. And without the discipline of EU membership, it’s likely that former Eastern European members would drift into internal repression and external conflicts.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the other rogue candidate, also dislikes the European Union. He says he would rather change the EU radically than leave it, but in practice he is just as nationalist as Le Pen, and a good deal more radical socially. As a student, he was a Trotskyist activist.

Today Melenchon is just hard left, but very hard. He wants to quit the NATO alliance, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, all of which are “instruments of a failing global capitalism”. He wants to limit pay for CEOs to 20 times the salary of their worst-paid employee, and impose an absolute income ceiling of 400,000 euros ($425,000), above which the tax rate rises to 100 percent.

He’s as enthusiastic about Vladimir Putin as Trump was until a few months ago. He’s also a fan of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (whom Trump does not openly admire, but whose political style he closely emulates). Melenchon is sharp and innovative: on some days he appears in half a dozen cities as once, speaking as a live-action hologram.

He’s funny, too. “Once again, they are announcing that my election win will set off a nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and a landing of Venezuelans,” he wrote in a recent blog post. That’s not true, of course, but it certainly would make Europe a very different place politically.

So how likely is this apocalyptic Le Pen-Melenchon run-off in May? Maybe one chance in six, because the voters can only choose one candidate, not which two they want to see in the run-off. And who would win a Le Pen-Melenchon contest? Probably Melenchon, because he could persuade more people to hold their noses and vote for an ex-Trotskyist than Le Pen could convince to vote for the unshriven daughter of a fascist.

The Trotskyists, you see, never invaded France.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“If France…conflicts”; and “He’s funny…politically”)

Peak Putin?

The crowds of protesters in Moscow and other Russian cities were far bigger the last time, in 2011-2012. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was so intoxicated by the forty or fifty thousand citizens who demonstrated in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s rule that he boasted: “I see enough people here to take the Kremlin…right now, but we are peaceful people and won’t do that just yet.”

It was a delusional thing to say even then. Five years later, the crowds joining the protests against official corruption on Sunday were in the hundreds or the low thousands in most Russian cities. Even in Moscow’s Pushkin Square they probably did not number more than ten thousand – and Navalny himself was arrested on his way to the square. At home, Putin reigns supreme, with approval ratings around the 80 percent level.

He’s not doing too badly abroad, either. On Friday he met with Marine Le Pen, the leading candidate in France’s presidential election next month and Putin’s favourite Western leader after Donald Trump. She supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from the start, and promises to work for an end of European Union sanctions against Russia if she becomes president of France this spring.

That promise might be hard to keep, since she would also be busy organising a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU, but Putin replied “I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.” It certainly is: the Brexiteers in Britain have already won their referendum on leaving, and the EU would probably not survive the departure of two of its three biggest members.

Without the EU, there would be no powerful counterpoise to Russia in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump has already put an admirer of Putin in the White House. Moreover, Russia is now the dominant outside power in the Middle East for the first time since the 1960s, and it has achieved that position at a far lower cost in blood and treasure than the United States paid in 2001-2015.

Putin is undeniably a master manipulator both at home and abroad, and he has good reason to be pleased with his accomplishments. And yet….

Putin has played a weak hand internationally with great skill, but Russia really is weak. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and apart from defence industry the country is largely de-industrialised. (Have you ever bought anything made in Russia?)

Only oil and gas exports give Moscow the cash to play the great power game at all, and the collapse of oil prices has put Moscow on a starvation diet. The relatively low-cost intervention in Syria has brought Moscow high diplomatic returns in the short term, but Putin lacks the resources to play a major role in rebuilding post-war Syria, so Russia’s influence in the region is bound to fade as time passes.

Even in Europe, Russia’s posture is essentially defensive, if only because it could not afford to hold up its end of a new Cold War. Putin has effectively neutralised the pro-Western government of Ukraine by seizing Crimea and sponsoring a separatist war in two eastern provinces, but he won’t go any farther even with Trump in the White House.

Putin’s real vulnerability is at home. His popular support has held up well despite three years of economic decline because of falling oil income, and it may even carry him safely through next year’s presidential election. But there is no reason to believe that oil revenues are going to recover in the near future.

Even Russia’s cooperation with the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries in cutting oil production to get the price back up caused only a modest and brief upward tick in world oil prices. Now they are back down where they were three months ago.

There is great over-capacity in the world’s oil industry, and it’s entirely possible that Russians face two or three more years of declining incomes (from a base that was never all that high). Many Russians are still grateful to Putin for ending the decade of chaos and acute poverty after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but for half the population that is ancient history.

It is the young whom Putin must fear, because they are less impressed by hollow foreign triumphs in places they don’t care about, and more unhappy about an economic future that leaves most of them bumping along the bottom. He has had a long run in power – seventeen years and counting – but his future is probably a lot shorter than his past.

In fact, Russia may be at peak Putin right now, with only mounting troubles in his future. The crowds were smaller this time than last, but they were not just in the big cities. When there are protests in places like Chita and Barnaul, you know that a lot of people are running out of patience.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Even…House”; and “Even…ago”)