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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”)

A Short Generation in Scotland

Maybe they reach sexual maturity very young in Scotland. What else could explain the fact that they are going to have another referendum on Scottish independence only three years after the last one?

The Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation event. That was the one thing that then-British Prime Minister David Cameron and then-Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond agreed on: even a one-vote majority would settle the matter for a generation.

In fact, the majority to stay in the United Kingdom was close to half a million. It couldn’t have been a clearer outcome. There was none of the obfuscation for which Quebec’s referendums on independence from Canada were famous (like the 106-word question in the 1980 referendum that did not even mention the word “independence”).

The referendum in Scotland simply asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country” – and the Scots said No by a 55%-45% majority. But only thirty months later, the next generation of Scots must already have arrived.

Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond’s successor as leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of the Scottish government, announced on Monday that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence in late 2018 or early 2019. She didn’t even have the grace to say best two out of three.

It’s Sturgeon’s job to promote the idea of independence, of course, but she needed a plausible pretext to demand a re-run of Scotland’s own referendum so soon. The English nationalists who committed the entire United Kingdom to leaving the European Union in last June’s referendum gave her that pretext: 53 percent of the English voted to leave the EU, but 62 percent of Scots voted to stay.

Why such a difference? Because the “Little Englanders” who voted to leave were seduced by the neo-Elizabethan fantasy of a swash-buckling, free-trading England that would stay rich by living on its wits. (Unlike the real Elizabethan England of 400 years ago, whose major foreign source of income was piracy.)

Scotland was never a great power, and it views the European Union as an economic and political safe haven. A large majority of Scots have no desire to leave the EU – especially if they are being dragged out of it by the gravely deluded English.

So Nicola Sturgeon can reasonably say that there has been a “material change of circumstances” since the first Scottish referendum, and claim that this change justifies another one. However, her claim is seriously undermined by the fact that Scots are opposed to another referendum, even under current circumstances, by a three-to-two majority. The whole referendum process is just too painful and divisive.

Moreover, there has been another “material change of circumstances” that hurts the case for Scottish independence. Low oil prices and the gradual depletion of the North Sea oil fields have cut the Scottish government’s tax take from North Sea oil revenue from $14.2 billion in 2008-09 to only $2.2 billion in 2015 and a mere $73 million this year. The oil income that subsidised Scotland’s high social spending is finished.

Then there is the fact that the European Union is made up of sovereign states, and that such states instinctively cooperate to discourage and punish separatism in any of their members. Brussels has plainly stated that an independent Scotland would not automatically retain EU membership.

This is the “Barroso doctrine” – that if any part of an existing EU country becomes an independent state it has to apply for membership – and the European Commission has just reconfirmed that Scotland would be subject to this rule. The application process for new members normally takes many years.

So an independent Scotland could find itself outside the EU single market because of Brexit, and outside the British single market as well because of its secession from the United Kingdom. Scotland exports four times as much to the ROUK (Rest of the United Kingdom) as it does to the EU, so this could spell economic disaster.

At the same time Scotland would also find itself outside NATO, the main Western alliance. As Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato Secretary General, told Sky News: “By leaving the UK, (Scotland) would also leave Nato. Of course it is absolutely possible to apply for membership and then the allies will decide.” But that would certainly take years.

The future looks distinctly unpromising for an independent Scotland that breaks away from the United Kingdom just as the UK pulls out of Europe. (It hardly looks golden for England either.) The Scots didn’t vote yes for independence even when there was no Brexit in the offing. Why would they do it now?

One reason would simply be anger at the arrogance and stupidity of the Little Englanders who have presented them with this unpalatable choice. But there is little enthusiasm in Scotland for independence on these terms. Most Scots just wish the whole question would go away.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 14. (“In fact…independence”; and “At the same…years”)