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Hungary: The First Casualty?

“Hello, dictator!” said Jean-Claude Juncker cheerily to Hungary’s leader, Victor Orbán, at a European Union summit meeting a couple of years ago. The president of the European Commission was only joking, of course, but it was gallows humour. Dictatorship was clearly where Orbán was heading – and now he has arrived.

On Monday the Hungarian parliament passed a new law, allegedly to deal with the coronavirus crisis. It declares a state of emergency and allows Orbán to rule by decree for the duration of the crisis – but it doesn’t say when that state of emergency will end. That will be decided by the man who has just been granted supreme power.

Orbán’s spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, helpfully explained that “Just as in wartime, a state of emergency could extend until the end of hostilities. Today we confront not a military power, but are in a war-like state to defend our people against a pandemic the likes of which
we have not seen in a century.”

‘Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis,’ as Machiavelli allegedly said 500 years ago. So is what we are seeing in Hungary now the tip of the iceberg? Will governments in other democracies whose leaders have dictatorial ambitions use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to give themselves absolute powers?

Will Rodrigo Duterte take ‘emergency’ powers to get around the one-term Filipino presidential limit that obliges him to quit in two years’ time? Will Narendra Modi copy Indira Gandhi’s 1975 ‘Emergency’ and set up as the ‘temporary’ dictator of India? Will Recep Tayyip Erdoğan destroy what remains of Turkey’s democracy to save himself if his popularity declines further?

For that matter, will Donald Trump use the great wave of American coronavirus deaths in the coming months and an alleged threat of mass disorder as an excuse for postponing the November election, especially if his prospects for re-election are not looking bright?

It’s a toss-up with Duterte, who is responsible for so many murders that he can never safely retire. But for the rest, the answer is almost certainly no.

Both Modi and Erdoğan have created solid blocs of religious supporters who practically guarantee their political futures (at great cost to the unity and future prospects of their respective countries). They don’t need to destroy democracy to survive.

As for Trump, whose ‘base’ is too narrow to assure him a political victory in November if other elements of his victorious 2016 coalition defect, he doesn’t really have the option of cancelling the election. Americans’ loyalty to their ancient constitution is still too strong to let that happen.

In any case, Trump probably won’t need such extreme measures to hold on to office. He is already re-writing the script so that his heavy responsibility for the silent carnage that awaits the country is erased in the public’s mind by his last-minute swerve towards a strong policy of social distancing that averts a much greater loss of life. Hail the saviour!

Which leaves us, then, with the question of why Orbán is going to such political extremes when he already had all the power he could possibly want. He has already fiddled the constitution so that his party can win a two-thirds majority of the seats in parliament on only 44% of the votes.

Hungary is effectively a one-party state, and the media and the judges both serve Orbán’s Fidesz Party, not the general public. He even had a ‘state of emergency’ in place already, declared in 2016 during the great refugee flood of that year (though none of the refugees came to Hungary), and he has never rescinded it.

True, he can now hand out five-year prison sentences to Hungarians who spread “false” information, but the courts were already giving his critics multiple shorter sentences if they got too noisy. Why go to this extra trouble when it might even tip the EU into expelling Hungary as a non-democratic country (although I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one)?

I once spent a day with Orbán in Budapest, when we were both much younger men. He was a student leader who had just got famous for defying the Communists with a fiery nationalist speech, and I had spent the summer in the Soviet Union interviewing the emerging democratic opposition. (We were introduced by Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, then Orbán’s mentor and later a prime target of his rabid anti-Semitism.)

We had much to talk about, and I enjoyed his company. What struck me, though, was that he really thought like a lawyer. Maybe a radical one, and certainly later a corrupt one, but a lawyer by character and by training.

So maybe what he’s doing now is just tidying up the law. Hungary was already a dictatorship in practice. Now it’s also one in theory.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“Orbán’s…century”; and “In any…saviour!”

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”)