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Macedonia: What’s in a Name?

13 January 2019

The Congo Republic (pop. 5 million) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (pop. 88 million) manage to share their name quite amicably. Russia and Belarus (White Russia) don’t seem to mind either. Sudan and South Sudan don’t get along at all, but their quarrel was never about a mere name. Whereas Greece and Macedonia….

After 28 years of argument and anger, the two Balkan countries signed an agreement last June that changed Macedonia’s name to ‘North Macedonia’, because the Greeks said they couldn’t use the original one-word title. Greece could and did blackball the Macedonians, saying they couldn’t join the NATO alliance and the European Union until they changed their name – and eventually the Macedonians gave in.

The Macedonians jumped through a lot of constitutional hoops to keep their end of the bargain, and last Friday their parliament officially changed the country’s name to ‘North Macedonia’. So the Greeks got what they wanted, and now it is the Greek parliament’s turn to ratify the deal and lift its ban on ‘North’ Macedonia joining NATO and the EU.

But no. A small ultra-nationalist party called the Independent Greeks, whose seven seats Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras depended on for his majority in parliament, walked out of the coalition on Sunday.

Tsipras has betrayed Greece, they say. No foreigners should be allowed to use the sacred Greek name of Macedonia, even in the phrase ‘North Macedonia’, and what those foreigners really secretly want is to take over the whole of northern Greece. So Tsipras now has to hold a vote of confidence, and if he loses it there will have to be an early election.

He may well lose it, because most of the people in the main opposition party, New Democracy, are also paranoid nationalists. Or more precisely, they know that paranoid nationalism is the way to maximise the right-wing vote. Some of them are privately quite reasonable men and women, but they know what they have to say to win, and they will say it.

How has this nonsense come to dominate the politics of two entire countries for more than two decades? When the old Communist regime in Yugoslavia lost power in 1991 and the six ‘republics’ that made it up became independent countries, the southernmost one was called the Republic of Macedonia.

It came by the name honestly. From the Roman empire 2,000 years ago down to the Ottoman empire only a century ago, its territory was always part of a larger province called Macedonia. No other country was using the name, so independent Macedonia kept it.

There was, however, a region in northern Greece that also used to be part of that province, and also called itself Macedonia. No harm in that: the people in the Republic of Macedonia weren’t claiming that the Greek region called Macedonia belonged to them. But the Greeks insisted that they were, and wouldn’t let them join any organisation that Greece belonged to.

So the Republic of Macedonia was frozen out of NATO and the European Union (and all the EU’s subsidies for post-Communist countries in eastern Europe). It only got a seat in the United Nations by agreeing to call itself the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM) for UN purposes. And the foolishness dragged on for a generation.

The Macedonians themselves – sorry, the ‘North Macedonians’ – eventually developed their own ultra-nationalist crazies, who insisted that they were the true heirs of the Alexander the Great. Skopje, the capital, is littered with monuments and statues extolling him, put there by the previous government basically to yank the Greeks’ chain.

It’s not clear why you would want to claim descent from Alexander the Great, whose main achievement was conquering a lot of countries, killing a lot of people, and dying at thirty, but then the people of Mongolia take pride in having Genghis Khan as an ancestor. At any rate, the Macedonians did what they did, and the Greeks rose to the bait. It was really ugly for a while.

But finally the wheel turned, and both countries ended up with grown-ups in charge at the same time: Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Zoran Zaev in Macedonia. Both are social democrats who have other fish to fry, and just want to get rid of this issue that the nationalist right exploits endlessly. It hasn’t been easy, but they are almost there.

Zaev had to hold a referendum on the deal in Macedonia, and got 90 percent ‘yes’ votes – but the nationalists boycotted the ballot, and so invalidated the outcome because fewer than 50% of the potential voters took part. That meant Zaev had to get a two-thirds majority in parliament instead, which required him to bribe some shady members of parliament with amnesties for their alleged crimes.

Tsipras will face an uphill fight to win a confidence vote, and if he loses that he may also lose the election. He has spent a lot of his political capital in his struggle to rescue Greece from its financial plight. But these two men deserve to succeed. Maybe they will.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The Macedonians…while”)

Brexit Chicken

9 January 2019

There’s no need to practice bleeding, as the soldiers say, but the British government didn’t get the message. On Monday, it paid 89 truck-drivers £550 each ($930) to simulate the immense traffic jam that will happen in Kent if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal at the end of March.

The drivers had to bring their vehicles to Manston, a disused World War Two-vintage airfield in Kent, where the government is planning to park 4,000 big trucks if a ‘no-deal Brexit’ on 29 March leads to new customs checks on trucks heading for Europe. Every extra two minutes’ delay at customs, say the experts, would mean another 15 km. of trucks backed up on the roads leading to the cross-Channel terminals.

So the drivers parked their trucks on the airfield, then drove down to the port in convoy while the traffic-control experts measured…what? This wasn’t the 10,000-truck gridlock jamming the roads that might happen in late March. It was a single file of 89 trucks driving sedately along an uncrowded road. It looked like an exercise in pure futility, a Potemkin traffic-jam.

Yet it did have a rational purpose – a political purpose. It was being staged to persuade the British public, and especially the British parliament, that Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government really will take the United Kingdom out of the EU without ANY deal if parliament does not accept HER deal.

May’s deal is almost universally disliked. The Remainers hate it because they don’t want to leave the EU at all, and the Brexit hard-liners in her own party hate it because it keeps Britain too closely tied to the EU.

Never mind the details – they are almost theological –but the upshot is that May cannot get parliament to pass the exit deal she made with the EU, which would at least keep the trade flowing. She just doesn’t have the votes. And she can’t get the EU to amend the deal either.

The opposition to her deal in parliament is so strong that she cancelled a scheduled vote on it a month ago because she was bound to lose it. She is now committed to holding the vote on 15 January – but she still doesn’t have the votes. So she is threatening to jump off a bridge, and take everybody else with her, if they don’t back her deal. It has become a game of Chicken.

The charade in Kent is part of a government show-and-tell campaign to prove that she really means it. So are the predictions that the chaos at the Channel ports will be so bad that Britain will have to charter planes to bring scarce medicines in, and that supermarket shelves will be bare (Britain imports 30% of its food from the EU), and that zombies will rule the streets. (I made that one up, but you get the picture.)

The problem is that nobody believes her. May has manipulated the parliamentary rules and schedules to make it appear that there are no legal alternatives except her deal or a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, but she just doesn’t convince as a suicide bomber. Indeed, there was a vote in parliament on Monday night that blocked the government’s ability to make tax changes connected with a no-deal Brexit without parliament’s “explicit consent”.

That doesn’t actually mean that it cannot happen, unfortunately. Parliament can block her deal, but unless it can agree on some other course of action Brexit happens automatically on 29 March – without a deal. And that really would be nasty.

How nasty? William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party, summed it up well in the Daily Telegraph: “I don’t know what will follow a rejection of [May’s] deal…a constitutional shambles, a second referendum shambles, a no-deal exit shambles, a Corbyn [Labour government] shambles. I just know that it will be an abysmal shambles.

“People who say that the deal is the worst of all worlds haven’t understood how bad things might get,” Hague concluded. As May herself admits, a no-deal Brexit is “uncharted territory.”

So what will really happen when parliament starts voting later this month? There will almost certainly be more than one vote, as the 650 members of the House of Commons, no longer constrained by party loyalty – it’s too important for that – swing this way and that. But there may not be a majority for any specific course of action, in which case parliament will probably end up voting for a second referendum.

May has sworn that she will never allow that, because it would be a betrayal of the 52% who voted ‘Leave’ in the first referendum in June 2016. But in the end she probably will allow it, because she is not a suicide bomber.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“How…territory”)

Brexit Referendums: Best Two out of Three?

The five-day debate in the British parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union did not start well for her. Everybody knows that she hasn’t got the votes to pass the deal, but it turned out that she hasn’t got the votes for lots of other things either.

It’s a rotten deal because it was bound to be. The EU is 27 other countries with a population seven times that of the United Kingdom, so it was always going to have the upper hand in negotiations. It played hardball in the talks because it needed to demonstrate that Britain would be worse off by leaving. Otherwise other members might also decide they could ‘cherry-pick’ the bits of the EU they liked and skip the rest.

So the EU countries stuck together, and May’s government was forced to choose between a ‘no-deal’ Brexit that would cause chaos in the UK and the lousy deal that the EU offered her instead. In a moment of sanity, she chose the latter.

The deal leaves Britain still part of the common market the Brexiters wanted to quit and still paying into the EU budget, but no longer with any voice in the EU’s decisions. Moreover, Britain can only exit that halfway house with the consent of the EU.

That consent will only be forthcoming if May can somehow find a way to keep the border between Northern Ireland (a part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which will remain an EU member) ‘invisible’. Until then, Britain must stay in the customs union.

End the customs union and the inter-Irish border becomes a real barrier where customs duties are collected and illegal immigrants are stopped. But that would hinder the free passage of Irish people, which was the heart of the deal that stopped the killing in Ireland twenty years ago. The ‘Troubles’ would return – or at least that’s what people fear, including the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who effectively has a veto on EU policy on this issue.

So May’s deal leaves the UK half-in and half-out of the EU, “shackled to a radiator” until such time as it comes up with a magical solution to that border conundrum. In fact, there is none: the Good Friday agreement that ended the war in Ireland assumed that both the UK and the Irish Republic would remain EU members, and it cannot survive a full rupture of that relationship.

May’s deal was therefore never going to make it through parliament. Those who don’t want Brexit (at least half the members of the House of Commons) will vote against it, but so will the real Brexiters, who see it as a betrayal of their fantasy. And if party discipline is going to collapse anyway, then you might as well vote for what you actually want.

May lost three votes in parliament on Monday, which gravely undermined the authority of her government. The most important was one that took away her freedom to decide what to do next if (or rather when) her deal is voted down. Now, PARLIAMENT decides what to do next – and it could choose a number of courses, including a second referendum on Brexit.

The second referendum has become the unicorn of British politics, a fabled beast that never shows up in real life, but there are unicorn droppings all over the Houses of Parliament this week. As the fantasies fade and reality bites, the members of House of Commons (of whom a majority always supported ‘Remain’, even if many hid their views in order to survive politically) have become an extraordinarily volatile group.

There are half a dozen possible outcomes to the parliamentary manoeuvring of this week, ending with the decisive vote on May’s deal next Tuesday, but several of them would probably lead to a second referendum that might reverse the Brexit vote of June, 2016. And the European Court of Justice’s advocate-general has just ruled that the UK could, if it wishes, just drop its application to leave without needing the permission of other EU members.

It would be a remarkable result: three years of huffing and puffing about ‘sovereignty’, followed by a meek resumption of Britain’s (quite advantageous) position in the EU. Of course, the angry Leavers would cry ‘Foul!’ and demand yet another referendum – ‘Best of Three’ – or they could just take to the streets.

There are frequent veiled threats in the right-wing press that any thwarting of the Brexit dream by a second referendum could result in blood in the streets. That may be so, although it’s more likely to be another of those ‘Project Fear’ campaigns that have disfigured the entire Brexit process.

In any case, if it should ever come to street-fighting, the Remainers would win easily. They are, on average, thirteen years younger than the Brexiters.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“End…issue”)

Brexit and the Border

It was either ignorant or irresponsible for those campaigning for Brexit (British exit from the European Union) two years ago to claim that the Irish border would not be a problem. In fact, it may lead to a catastrophic ‘no deal’ Brexit in which the United Kingdom crashes out of the EU without an agreement of any kind.

Both the British negotiators and their EU counterparts say that the deal is “95 percent agreed”, but the other five percent is the border between the Republic of Ireland (an EU member ) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK and therefore soon NOT part of the EU). Time is running out, and agreement on that last five percent is far from certain.

The border has been invisible since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 ended 30 years of bloody conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. Three thousand people had been killed, but the situation had reached stalemate. The Good Friday deal let both sides accept that fact.

For the (Catholic) nationalists in Northern Ireland, a completely open border with the (Catholic) Republic was a vital part of the deal. It implicitly acknowledged that the two parts of the island might one day be reunited, although not now.

As the 1998 agreement plainly said, people born in Northern Ireland have the right to be “Irish or British or both as they may so choose.” And it worked, sort of: the only way you can tell you have crossed the border now is that the speed signs change from miles to kilometres or vice versa.

It was a brave, imaginative deal that has given Northern Ireland twenty years of peace, but it is now at risk. When the ‘Leave’ side narrowly won the Brexit referendum in the UK and Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister in 2016, she had a credibility problem. Like Cameron, she had supported ‘Remain’, but the Conservative Party she now led was dominated by triumphant Brexiters.

So she became an enthusiastic Brexiter herself. The English nationalists who ran the Brexit campaign had said nothing about leaving the EU’s ‘single market’ and customs union, but within weeks of taking office May declared that Britain must leave both of them.

She even made this demand part of her famous ‘red lines’, the non-negotiable minimum that the British government would accept in the divorce settlement. Unfortunately, ending the customs union would mean re-creating a ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – and that might lead to a renewal of the sectarian civil war between Catholics and Protestants in the North.

It’s not clear when the Conservative government in London realised that the Irish border was going to be the biggest stumbling block on the road to Brexit, and the party’s more extreme Brexiters are still in denial about it. But the Republic will stay in the EU, and it insists that there must be no hard border after Brexit. Ireland has seen enough killing.

No hard border is therefore an EU red line, and it’s impossible to square that with May’s decision to leave the EU customs union. If there is no customs union, then there have to be border checks. And maybe a new war in the North.

So the EU suggested a ‘backstop’. If London and Brussels can’t come up with a free-trade deal to keep the border soft (i.e. invisible), then Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union, and the rest of the UK could leave. The real border, for customs purposes, could run down the middle of the Irish Sea.

Theresa May actually signed up to this solution last December, because the only real alternative is a hostile Brexit that simply ignores the EU’s position. But no sooner had she agreed the ‘backstop’ with the EU than rebels in her own camp – extreme Brexiters and members of a small Northern Ireland-based Protestant party whose votes are all that keeps the Conservatives in power – forced her to repudiate it.

Now May’s position is pure fantasy: no customs border with the EU either on land or in the Irish Sea. Which is why the probability of a chaotic ‘no deal’ Brexit is growing daily, and the prospect of renewed war in the North is creeping closer.

Is renewed war really possible? Last year Sinn Fein, the leading Catholic party in Northern Ireland, withdrew from the ‘power-sharing’ government mandated by the Good Friday agreement. That could be seen as clearing the decks for action once it became clear that Brexit would undermine all existing arrangements in Ireland.

And if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s predicted on Tuesday, unemployment in the UK will almost double, house prices will fall by ten per cent in two years, and the British pound will fall even further. First impoverishment for the British, then war for the Irish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“As…versa”; and “No…North”)