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European Union

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Brexit: No Turning Point Yet

Even with Donald Trump scheduled for a brief visit to the United Kingdom this week amid massive protests, it’s still ‘all Brexit, all of the time’ in the sceptred isle – and the long struggle over the nature of the deal that will define Britain’s relationship with the European Union post-exit allegedly reached a turning point last weekend.

“They had nothing else to offer. They had no Plan B. She faced them down,” said a senior government official about the hard-line Brexiteers after Prime Minister Theresa May got them to sign up to a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ at a crisis cabinet meeting last Friday. But the armistice between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions in her fractious Conservative Party lasted less than 48 hours.

On Sunday morning hard-line Brexiteer David Davis, the ludicrously titled Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, reneged on his short-lived support for May’s negotiating goals and resigned in protest. Then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed suit, claiming that May’s plan meant “the (Brexit) dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”

The sheer fecklessness of the ‘Brexit dream’ is epitomised by Johnson, who first compared May’s negotiating plans to “polishing a turd”, then came round to supporting them for about 36 hours, and finally resigned, saying that they would reduce the UK to a “vassal state” with the “status of a colony” of the EU. Yet at no point in the discussion did either of them offer a coherent counter-proposal.

And what is all this Sturm und Drang about? A negotiating position, devised by May with great difficulty two years after the referendum that yielded 52% support for an undefined ‘Brexit’, which could never be accepted by the European Union. Its sole virtue was that it seemed possible to unite the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions of the Conservative Party behind it. But the unity imposed by May broke down before the weekend was over.

All four of the great offices of state – prime minister, chancellor (finance minister), foreign secretary and home secretary (interior minister) – are now held by Conservative politicians who voted Remain in the referendum. Yet they are unable to persuade their party to accept even a ‘soft Brexit’ that preserves Britain’s existing access to its biggest trading partner, the EU.

The Brexiteers’ power lies in their implicit threat to stage a revolt that overthrows May, fatally splits the Conservative Party, and precipitates an early election that brings the Labour Party to power. They may not really have the numbers to do that – it’s widely assumed that a majority of the Conservative members of parliament secretly want a very soft Brexit or no Brexit at all – but May dares not test that assumption.

So, horrified by the prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn (who is regularly portrayed by the right-wing media as a Lenin in waiting), the Conservatives are doomed to cling desperately to power even though they can probably never deliver a successful Brexit. And the time is running out.

The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on 29 March of next year whether there is a deal that maintains most of its current trade with the EU or not. In practice, the deadline for an agreement is next October, since time must be allowed for 27 other EU members to ratify the deal. If there is no deal, the UK simply ‘crashes out’, and chaos ensues.

The volume of trade in goods and services between the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU is so great, and the preparation for documenting the safety and origins of goods and collecting customs on them so scanty, that the new border would simply freeze up.

That would cause great difficulty for many European enterprises, but for Britain it would be a catastrophe. As an example, two-fifths of the components for cars built in the UK are sourced from elsewhere in the EU. Yet most of the time available for negotiating a soft Brexit has already been wasted, and Britain still does not have a realistic negotiating position.

This preposterous situation is almost entirely due to the civil war within the Conservative Party between the Brexit faction the rest. The only reason that there was a referendum at all was because former prime minister David Cameron thought that a decisive defeat in a referendum would shut the Brexiteers up and end that war. He miscalculated.

The Brexiteers spun a fantasy of an oppressive EU that was the cause of all Britain’s troubles and sold it to the nostalgic older generation, the unemployed and underemployed who were looking for somebody to blame, and sundry nationalists of all colours.

They narrowly won the referendum with the help of a rabidly nationalist right-wing press, spending well beyond the legal limits in the campaign – and, it now appears, with considerable support from Russia. (The biggest contributor to the Brexit campaign, mega-rich investor Arron Banks, met the Russian ambassador at least eleven times during the run-up to the referendum and the subsequent two months.)

There’s still a chance that reason will prevail before the UK crashes out of the EU, of course. But the odds are no better than even.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The volume…position”; and “The Brexiteers…colours”)

Italy: The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

NOTE: THE NEW COALITION GOVERNMENT IS SUPPOSED TO BE ACCEPTED BY THE ITALIAN PRESIDENT TODAY, 21 MAY, BUT AT THE TIME OF WRITING IT STILL HAD NOT HAPPENED. CHECK.

From the European Union’s point of view Brexit, the impending departure of the United Kingdom, is a pity but not a disaster. Britain never joined the euro, the common currency used by most EU members, and the English were always the awkward squad in the EU’s march towards an ‘ever closer union’. Whereas the defection of Italy could threaten the EU’s survival.

Two and a half months after the election on 4 March, Italy is finally getting a new government. It is a bizarre coalition of the Five-Star Movement (M5S), a populist party of the left, and the League, a populist party of the far right. Moderates both in Italy and in the wider EU reassure themselves with the thought that it cannot survive, let alone cooperate, but they may be wrong.

There is actually a good chance that the new coalition will survive, at least for a while, because it is based on the ancient principle that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. And the enemy the two parties have in common is the European Union.

Until recently the M5S was promising to hold a referendum on Italy’s membership in the euro, while the League was advocating outright withdrawal from the EU. They have backed away from those extreme policies for the moment, but what they are promising to do will nevertheless bring them into direct and severe confrontation with the European Union.

The coalition’s ‘contract for change’, a joint programme agreed earlier this month, is a patchwork quilt of both parties’ favourite policies. It includes the M5S pledge of a minimum basic income of 780 euros ($917) a month for the poorest Italians, and the League’s demand for a flat tax of 15% on the incomes of middle-class Italians, and only 20 % even for the rich.

This will doubtless please a great many Italian voters (which was the whole point of the idea), but it involves an extra $132 billion per year of deficit spending. This blatantly violates the EU budget rules designed to keep the euro currency stable.

The Italian government’s foreign debt is already so big that only the implicit guarantee of eurozone membership keeps its borrowing costs down. A few more years of Italian over-spending, however, and the stability of the euro itself will come into question, so the EU will fight very hard to block the coalition’s spending plans.

A confrontation is also likely to erupt over illegal immigration, with the new coalition government pushing for a change in the ‘Dublin regulation’ that requires refugees to seek asylum in the first EU country they reach. For the great majority of the ‘refugees’ who make it across the Mediterranean each year, that first country is Italy, and most Italians want the
burden shared more fairly among all the EU countries.

That would seem to be enough dry kindling to get the fire going, and yet an open fight between the Five Star-League coalition and the EU will probably be postponed for a while. It
will get kicked down the road because the EU needs all the unity it can muster to resist the US assault on global trade.

The problem is not just the steep US tariffs on a variety of EU products that are due to kick in soon. The bigger issue is rapidly becoming how to protect European banks and companies trading with Iran from being forced to pull out of Iran by Trump’s promised ‘secondary sanctions’. That’s a sovereignty question, and the other big EU countries will bend over backward to keep Italy in line until this issue is settled.

In the longer run, however, a major confrontation between Italy and the rest of the EU is coming if the coalition government lasts. When it arrives, the two parties that make up the coalition are quite likely to fall back on their previous plans for quitting the euro currency and even the EU as a whole.

As Oscar Wilde remarked in a quite different context: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” For the EU to lose first the United Kingdom and then Italy would certainly look like carelessness, but it should not be seen as an inevitable event. More like a chapter of misfortunes.

The narrow Brexit victory in the UK (52%-48%) was driven by a generation of English nationalists (‘Little Englanders’) that is rapidly ageing out, while the great majority of the under-35s voted ‘remain’.

The great majority of Italians want to stay in the EU, but their general discontent led many to vote for parties that are (among other things) anti-EU.

Some new EU members that spent almost half a century under Communist rule and very little time as democracies, like Poland and Hungary, are back under authoritarian rule, and the disease seems to be spreading.

It could turn into a perfect storm that unravels the European Union, but cheer up. At least Europe would recover some of its fine old traditions, like picturesque dictatorships, ultra-nationalism, sporadic wars, and maybe the occasional world war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“A confrontation…countries”; and “The problem…settled”)

Migrants: The Borders Are Closing

There are actually fewer migrants crossing the Mediterranean and landing in European Union countries this year than in any other recent year: only 37,000 so far, although the flow will increase with good summer weather. But they are nevertheless the ‘last straw’ as far as some EU countries are concerned. Patience is running out.

Last week Italy’s new populist government stopped a ship that had just rescued 630 African migrants from the usual overloaded, sinking boats from coming into any Italian port. “Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not,” said Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, in a tweet. “Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying – this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO.”

Eventually the even newer socialist government of Spain volunteered to take the migrants instead, although they had to endure several more days on open decks in poor weather before reaching Valencia. But it may have been a once-only gesture: the Spanish are feeling very put upon too.

Around 2 million migrants have entered Europe claiming to be refugees since 2014, which doesn’t sound like an unbearable burden. After all, the EU has 500 million citizens. Turkey, with only 80 million people, has taken in about 2 million Syrian refugees. Heroic little Lebanon has let in about the same number, which is equal to almost half its own native population.

But there are three factors that aggravate the situation in Europe. One is that the refugees in Lebanon have the same language, culture and religion as most of the Lebanese themselves. Even in Turkey they tick two of the three boxes. Whereas the ones who reach Europe don’t tick any of those boxes.

The second exacerbating factor is that only a few of the EU’s 28 countries are carrying almost all of the burden: Italy, Spain and Greece, where the migrant boats arrive, and Germany, which took in almost a million migrants in the single year of 2015. (That generous act is probably what cost Chancellor Angela Merkel a clear victory in last year’s election and forced her to cobble together a shaky coalition instead.)

The final factor is that many of the migrants – maybe as many as half – aren’t traditional refugees fleeing war or persecution. They are simply people who hope for a better life in Europe than the one they left behind, and are willing to face great risks and hardships to get it.

About half the people on the migrant ship that Italy turned away, for example, were from Nigeria or Sudan. Neither country is at war, and Nigeria is actually a democracy. Even the great wave of Syrian refugees in 2015 was made up of people who were already safe, in Turkey or elsewhere, but chose to keep going because Europe was richer and freer.

So the humanitarian impulse is blunted by cynicism about the migrants’ motives, and the very unequal distribution of the migrant burden among the various EU member states breeds conflict both between and inside those countries. The politics is already getting poisonous – and this is only a dress rehearsal for the real migrant apocalypse, which is not due for another decade or two.

Even now many of the ‘economic migrants’ are really climate refugees, although they would probably not use that phrase themselves. The family farm dried up and blew away, and there are no jobs in the local towns, so some family member has to go to Europe, find a job and send cash home.

This phenomenon is going to get a lot bigger. Global average temperature reached one degree C higher than the pre-industrial average just last year, and it is bound to rise at least another half-degree even if we do everything right starting tomorrow morning. It may rise a lot more.

The subtropical parts of the world, including the parts near Europe – the Middle East and the northern part of the African continent – already have hot, relatively dry climates. Global warming will make them hotter and dryer still, and cut sharply into food production. These regions also have by far the highest rates of population growth on the planet.

The time will almost certainly come when large parts of the Middle East and Africa north of the equator will be unable to feed all their people, and far larger numbers than now will abandon their homes and head for Europe. Nobody talks about this in public, but every European government that does serious long-term planning is well aware of it.

This vision of the future colours every decision they make about migrants even now, for the tougher-minded among them know that the borders will eventually have to be closed even if it means leaving people to die.

Most European leaders are still trying to balance the immediate humanitarian concern against that long-term strategic perspective, but they are gradually losing the struggle. And some, like the Polish, Hungarian and Austrian governments, and now the Italian government as well, have effectively decided to close the borders now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“About…freer”; and “The subtropical…planet”)

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

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”)