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European Union

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Migrants: A Glimpse of the Future

Turkey has opened the floodgates, and soon Europe will be drowning in immigrants. “Hundreds of thousands have crossed,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed on television, “and soon it will reach millions.” And it must be true, because you can see it live on your medium of choice.

Look at this clip of Greek frontier guards firing tear gas canisters into angry, stone-throwing crowds of refugees who are right up against the border fence. Look at this shot of other Greek paramilitary troops shooting into the water right beside a rubber raft filled with refugees. Millions and millions of refugees. The migrant Armageddon is at hand.

It’s ugly, but it’s not really what it seems. Erdogan says he has opened Turkey’s border with the west because the country has already taken in 3.6 million refugees, mostly from Syria. There’s just no room for the several million more now trying to get out of Idlib, the last Syrian province held by jihadi rebels. So he’s sending them west.

That is, at best, an over-simplification. There are no more Syrian refugees coming into Turkey from Idlib, because Turkey has closed the border against them. Indeed, most of the people now trying to storm the borders of Greece and Bulgaria – 13,000 at last count, not “hundreds of thousands” – are not Syrians at all.

They are Afghans, Eritreans, Iraqis, West Africans, some genuine refugees and others ‘economic migrants’, who are already living safely in Turkey, but would rather be in some country in the European Union.

They didn’t walk 600 km from Idlib, either. The Turkish government is bussing them to Greece’s land and sea frontiers from wherever they have been living in Turkey, telling them (falsely) that the Europeans will let them in. Erdogan just wants to put pressure on the EU.

Pressure to do what? Good question. He may not know himself, but he’s desperate because his bluff in Syria has been called and he’s facing a potential military confrontation with Russia. It’s not clear how putting the Europeans into play will change that, but he’s definitely at the ‘Do something! Anything!’ stage of desperation.

Erdogan’s problem is that for the past three months the Syrian army, with strong Russian air support, has been taking Idlib province back from Turkey’s Syrian jihadi allies, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly an al-Qaeda franchise) , in a slow, grinding offensive.

Turkey has troops in Idlib, and has gradually been committing them to combat to help the jihadis, but still the Syrian-Russian advance continues. Erdogan has threatened to go to full-scale war, and the Syrian regime and the Russians haven’t even blinked. More than fifty Turkish soldiers have already been killed, so what does he do now?

I don’t know, and I suspect he doesn’t know either. The whole refugee thing may just be a displacement activity, not part of a cunning plan. We’ll probably know more in a week’s time – but in the meantime, look at those clips again, because that’s what the future, or at least a big part of it, will look like.

This is the first time that we have documented evidence of European border guards shooting at, or at least very near, illegal migrants. Yes, there are special circumstances, the migrants are being sent as part of a political ploy – but it will not be the last time.

The Syrian civil war is stumbling to an end, but migrants from all the other countries south and east from Europe will keep coming, and their numbers will swell.

All of the Middle East and West Africa is going to be hit early and very hard by global heating, which will cause a steady fall in food production. The rule of thumb is that you lose 10% of food production for every rise in average temperature of one degree C.

To make matters worse, these regions also have the highest population growth rates in the world: doubling times for most countries are 25 years or less. Now it’s poverty and war that drives the migrants; in the future it will be actual hunger (and war, of course).

They will head for Europe in ever-increasing numbers, because there’s no other safe haven in reach, but it will not remain a safe haven. There will never be another year like 2016, when the European Union, led by Germany, let more than a million refugees in out of sheer pity for their plight. In fact, the political backlash to that act of generosity has already driven politics sharply to the right all over the continent.

Europe’s external borders are already closing down, but in years to come the dirty little secret that everybody refuses to acknowledge will finally become public knowledge. It’s quite easy to shut borders, really. You just have to be willing to kill people who try to cross them without permission.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 15. (“The Syrian…swell”; and “They will…continent”)

Malta: Dismantling the Mafia State

It’s two years since Daphne Caruana Galizia, the best investigative journalist in Malta, was killed by a car bomb. She had been using the huge leaks of financial data in the ‘Panama Papers’ to track down suspicious dealings by members of the Maltese government, and she was getting too close for comfort.

At first the assassins planned to shoot her at her home, through a window where she often sat while working at her laptop, but in the end they decided on a car bomb. They bought it from Maltese gangsters (who probably got it from the Italian mafia), and planted it under the driver’s seat of her car. They triggered it remotely as soon as she got in, and there wasn’t much left.

The actual killers were arrested in December 2017, but they did not reveal who ordered the hit. Fast forward two years, and a spaniel called Peter, a police sniffer dog at Malta’s Luqa airport, raises the alarm. He has smelled something different in the bags of a passenger bound for Istanbul. When they are opened, they turn out to contain 233,000 euros (US$ 260,000) in cash.

That’s twenty times the maximum amount you can take across a border without declaring it, so the cash is confiscated. The police then trace it to Melvin Theuma, part-time taxi-driver, full-time operator of a numbers racket, and fixer to the rich and the low-lifes alike. When they search his home, they find more than 2 million euros in cash.

Theuma is arrested on the following day, 14 November, by the Malta police’s economic crimes unit – and he starts singing like a canary. He was the middleman in setting up the contract killing of Caruana Galizia in 2017, he says, and he will name names in return for an amnesty on all charges against him and ‘protection’.

He got the amnesty, but ‘protection’ from whom? The moment he was arrested, Theuma asked for lawyers – and the two lawyers he requested were both members of parliament for the opposition Nationalist Party who have been accusing the incumbent Labour government of corruption. Both refused to represent Theuma, but he clearly knew that he was going to need help at the political level.

Next thing you know, Malta’s richest man, Yorgen Fenech, leaves the island on his yacht after he is tipped off that Theuma has identified him as the man who paid to have Caruana Galizia killed. He is arrested at sea and brought back to Malta, and he starts to sing too.

Fenech has large property and gambling interests in Malta, and he has friends in high places. His tip-off came from Keith Schembri, the chief of staff to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who Fenech now claims was the real mastermind of the Caruana Galizia murder. In return for a pardon, Fenech will tell all he knows – but Muscat’s cabinet refuses to make that deal. Curious.

Schembri resigns and is briefly arrested, but he is soon released without charge. Fenech says “If I go down, Schembri goes with me.” Prime Minister Muscat announces that he will step down , but only after the investigation is completed. Hmm.

It’s a great plot for a crime novel, but why should we be interested?

Malta was once strategically important because it sits in the choke-point between the Eastern and the Western Mediterranean, south of Sicily and north of Libya, but that doesn’t matter much in a globalised world. It’s a financial hidey-hole for ‘high-net-worth individuals’, and the diving is good, but really, what’s the point of all this?

The Maltese live in a part of the world where corruption, frequently accompanied by violence, is the norm, and where even governments are often controlled by the crooks. You can certainly see echoes of that tradition in the current events in Malta, but in fact Malta’s state institutions are mostly working as they should to clean up the mess – and the credit for that goes to the European Union.

The EU, despite the delusions of Britain’s Brexiters, is not mainly an economic organisation. It was created in the 1950s, after two devastating world wars that began in Europe, to prevent any return to that catastrophic past. Economic integration is part of the strategy, but the bigger part is that the EU protects and promotes democracy and the rule of law in all its members.

That’s why the nascent ‘mafia state’ in Malta is being exposed and dismantled. The EU has no legal power to give orders to the Maltese government, but EU membership is so important to Malta economically, strategically and even culturally that an expression of strong disapproval by Brussels has almost the force of law in Valetta.

An EU parliamentary delegation visited Malta early this month, and said that Joseph Muscat’s reasons for postponing his resignation until mid-January are “not convincing”. He’s still toughing it out, but he WILL have to resign from the prime ministership next month, and the various suspects WILL get fair trials in due course. And justice will probably be served in the end.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“He got…level”; and “Malta…all this”)

English Turkeys Vote For Christmas

Down on the turkey farm, the Scottish and Irish birds noticed that the smiling man in the festive costume was holding a hatchet behind his back, and hid. The Welsh turkeys looked confused and huddled together squawking. But the English turkeys marched bravely up to the chopping block, confident that this would be a Christmas to remember.

Boris Johnson’s big victory in Thursday’s ‘Brexit’ election was achieved almost entirely with English votes. Only 20 of the 364 seats won by the Conservative Party were in the other three ‘nations’ of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom will continue to be called that for several years, but this election has actually sounded its death knell. It was the votes of English nationalists that gave Johnson his victory, and they don’t really care if the UK survives. Just as well, because it won’t.

The English have been nationalists for around five centuries, but they were also content to share a broader ‘British’ identity so long as it gave them bragging rights on the world’s biggest empire. Once that was gone, a specifically English nationalism was bound to resurface eventually.

The resurgence of nationalism in Scotland and Wales was also inevitable, and in Northern Ireland it had never gone away. All those nationalisms largely defined themselves by challenging the domination of the English majority (83%) in the UK, but English nationalists obviously needed a bigger opponent to push against. They found it, inevitably, in the European Union.

The EU is not very credible as an oppressor, but it has been allotted that role by the Conservative Party and the right-wing, billionaire-owned media that dominate the English scene. From ‘Take Back Control’ to ‘Get Brexit Done’, the Conservatives’ slogans work in England, although they have almost no power in the other nations of the UK.

Three-fifths of Conservative Party members now believe that the break-up of the UK would be an acceptable price to pay for leaving the EU. A smaller majority would even accept the demise of their own party if that were the price of leaving. (The pollsters neglected to ask them if they were willing to sacrifice their first-born sons, but presumably their answer would have been the same.)

This unhinged English nationalism will hasten the departure of Scotland from the UK. Scotland will leave to get away from the English crazies and to stay in the EU, its path to the latter goal made easier because in 2017 Spain withdrew its long-standing threat to veto Scottish membership of the EU. A second and successful Scottish independence referendum is probably only two years away.

This election also revealed a majority for ‘Remain’ in Northern Ireland, and the shortest route to that goal would be via union with the Republic of Ireland (which remains an EU member).

That risks reigniting ‘The Troubles’ that ended 20 years ago, but the Protestant loyalists have been betrayed and abandoned by Boris Johnson, so it might work. All the options are now dangerous, and this one not necessarily more so than others.

As for Wales, it will unenthusiastically stick with England. After 600 years of being governed from London – twice as long as the other non-English parts of the UK – it has got used to it. Or at least lost the ability to imagine anything else.

And what about England’s future? It will formally leave the EU by the end of January, but this is just the start of Brexit Part II, the negotiation of a trade agreement with the EU. That would normally take many years, but Boris Johnson swears that he will end the negotiation with or without a trade deal by the end of 2020.

Maybe he’s bluffing again: he didn’t die in a ditch the last time he promised to do so if he didn’t get a deal in time. Besides, crashing out without a deal would be catastrophic for the British economy: half of all UK trade is with the EU. So many people think Johnson will make another sweetheart deal with the EU to save his skin, just like he did last October.

Not necessarily. Johnson pretends to be an amiable, scatter-brained clown, but he is actually a highly skilled political operator with close ties to hard-right British and American ideologues like Donald Trump. If he really shares their goal of opening the British economy up for asset-stripping, then crashing out is a way to achieve that goal.

On the other hand, Johnson is a man without fixed principles or ideology. His sole goal is the acquisition and retention of personal power, and that might require him to pay attention to the interests of the disillusioned and deluded former Labour voters who gave him this victory. He may not dismantle the British welfare state as far and as fast as his backers expect.

Don’t ask me which way he will jump. He probably doesn’t know that himself yet.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The EU…the UK”; and “As for…else”)

A European Germany, Not a German Europe

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago on Saturday, was one of the best parties I ever went to, and certainly the longest. But when I finally sobered up, it was also quite frightening, because nobody knew what was coming out of the box next.

There had been scary moments in Germany during the Cold War, of course, with Soviet troops in the eastern part and troops from practically every Western country in the western part, but a divided Germany had become part of the landscape.

For many people on both sides, in fact, it was a quite satisfactory landscape. As François Mauriac once said: “I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.”

For the older generation of Europeans, Germany had always been the problem (two world wars), and the post-1945 division of the country was a kind of solution, since it kept foreign troops in both parts of Germany. They weren’t formally occupation forces any more, but they served as a sort of guarantee nevertheless. And now, in November 1989, that solution was collapsing.

On a brief visit to Moscow just weeks before the Wall came down, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader: “We do not want the reunification of Germany. It would lead to changes in the (post-1945) borders that would undermine the stability of the entire international situation.”

Indeed, Thatcher added, Gorbachev should ignore any statements to the contrary by the West. The NATO alliance might have to make pro-reunification statements to keep its German partner happy, but the other members didn’t really want to abandon the post-war settlement and “de-communise” Eastern Europe. But she was wrong about that.

Most of the senior politicians in what was not yet called the European Union understood that German reunification was a risk that had to be accepted. There was a new German generation in charge, and you had to trust them.

Western Europe’s other leaders also understood that ‘de-communising’ eastern Europe might finally deliver the free and democratic Europe that should have followed the victory over Hitler in 1945, and they had the steady support of the senior President Bush in both those choices. But it really was a gamble, and it might all have gone wrong.

A reunited Germany could once again have used its wealth, numbers and central position to seek domination over Europe, as it had done under both the Kaisers and the Nazis. The countries of Eastern Europe, freed from Russian rule, might have ended up as a string of squabbling tinpot dictatorships, as most of them did when they first got their freedom after World War One.

The main reason it didn’t all end in tears was the European Union, a more comprehensive version of the existing European Economic Community that was negotiated in 1990-92 and declared in 1993.

Creating the EU (and giving it a common currency, the euro) provided a structure big and strong enough to contain a united Germany and not be dominated by it. It also saved the former ‘satellite’ countries of Eastern Europe from a potentially ugly fate.

The EU countries had all the things that Poles, Slovaks and Bulgarians longed for: prosperity, personal freedom and democracy. And although it is not a charitable institution, the EU decided to let the Eastern European countries join, provided that they also became law-abiding and relatively uncorrupt democracies. So that’s exactly what they did.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did not led automatically to the benign reunification of Germany. It created the opportunity for positive change, but making it happen took clear thinking and hard political work. The happy outcome in Eastern Europe was not some quirk of fate either. It was the product of social engineering on an international scale.

There is no ‘German question’ today. It has been solved. The economies of Eastern European countries are far bigger than they were 30 years ago (four times bigger for Romania, six times for Poland), and average incomes are catching up. In 1990 Poles earned only a quarter of what Germans did; now it’s almost two-thirds.

There are some problems with populist/nationalist regimes in Poland and Hungary at the moment, but it’s still far better there politically than it ever was before 1989. It’s better everywhere – so why is the United Kingdom, the second-biggest member of this organisation that has put an end to centuries of war and tyranny in Europe, now planning to leave the EU?

Because the English don’t get it. Britain is an island that hasn’t been successfully invaded for almost a millennium, so they don’t realise that the EU is primarily about preserving democracy and keeping the peace. They think it’s just an economic deal, and a lot of them believe (mistakenly) that they can get a better deal elsewhere.

They are, as Napoleon allegedly remarked, “a nation of shopkeepers.” (Actually, it was Adam Smith who said it first.) A nation of shopkeepers who haven’t even noticed that their shops are closing down.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“For…them”; and “On a brief…about that”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.