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Petulance: The English Way

What would you call a country that called for “a structure under which [Europe] can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom… a kind of United States of Europe” at the end of the Second World War (Winston Churchill, 1946), but refused to join that structure when its European neighbours actually began building it (European Economic Community, 1957)?

What would you call that country if it changed its mind and asked to join the EEC in 1961, a goal it finally achieved in 1973 under Conservative prime minister Edward Heath – only to demand a renegotiation of its terms of membership and hold an In/Out referendum on EEC membership under a Labour government two years later?

What would you say if that country then demanded another renegotiation of the terms of membership under Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984, and insisted on opting out of the planned single currency when the countries of the European Community (as it now styled itself) signed the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992?

And what would you say about that country’s behaviour if another Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, demanded ANOTHER renegotiation on the terms of membership in what is now called the European Union in 2013, and promised ANOTHER referendum once the results were known?

The word “ambivalent” would certainly spring to mind. “Capricious” also has a strong claim to be the right word. But the adjective that really sums up Britain’s behaviour in its 70-year love-hate relationship with the European project is “petulant”.

There’s going to be another referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union on 23 June. Not that Prime Minister Cameron wants to leave the EU, of course. His 2013 promise of a referendum was mainly an attempt to steal votes from the United Kingdom Independence Party, which did indeed want to leave, in the 2015 election.

But Cameron couldn’t walk away from his promise after he won the election, because half of his own party wants to leave the European Union. Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party, is at best lukewarm about the the EU, viewing it essentially as a capitalist plot that has some positive side-effects. And recent opinion polls suggest that the referendum could go either way.

These are not the best of times for the EU. It has not responded well to the wave of mostly Middle Eastern refugees that began rolling across its frontiers early last year. It is suffering from chronic low growth and high unemployment (although the United Kingdom itself is doing quite well on both fronts). It is becoming clear that the adoption of the euro common currency by nineteen EU countries was a major mistake.

There is therefore a lot of disillusionment about the EU even among its core members on the European mainland, and some people fear that “Brexit” (a British exit from the Union) would start to unravel all the other deals and compromises that went into the construction of this historically unlikely structure. But why are the British always the most disaffected ones?

All the countries on the west coast of Europe lost their overseas empires in the decades after the Second World War, and Britain is not the only one to cling to delusions of grandeur in the aftermath. France, too, has a highly inflated view of its own importance. But the French understand the cost of European disunity much better than the British, because they paid a higher price.

It has to do with the fact that Britain is an island. Almost every other European country except Switzerland and Sweden has seen serious fighting on its own soil in the past hundred years. Many of them have seen it several times, and about half of them have been partly or wholly occupied by foreign troops for long periods. Whereas Britain has not been successfully invaded for almost a thousand years.

Britain is not alone in seeing the follies of the EU bureaucracy and resenting the cost of the compromises that have to be made to keep the enterprise alive. It IS alone, or almost alone, in seeing European unity purely as an optional project, to be reassessed from time to time by calculating its economic benefits and weighing them against its political and emotional costs for Britain.

EMOTIONAL costs? Yes, and this is where the petulance comes from. There is a fantasy, still quite prevalent in England, that the country could have a much more satisfying future as a fully independent player, unshackled from the dull and stodgy European Union and living by its wits as a swashbuckling global trader. To which one can only say: Good luck with that.

This romantic vision is not shared by the Scots, who would certainly break away if English votes took the United Kingdom out of the EU. But an independent Scotland might find it hard to claim EU membership after the divorce, as Madrid would not want to establish a precedent that Catalonian separatists could use to argue that breaking away from Spain would be painless.

Most British leaders have worked hard to manage the inflated expectations of English super-patriots and keep the country more or less on track. Cameron has dropped the ball, and the consequences for both Britain and Europe may be quite serious.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“All…price”; and “This…painless”)

Goodbye Schengen

“Europe has forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic,” said Manuel Valls, the French prime minister. “If Europe can’t protect its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that could be thrown into doubt. It could disappear – not Europe itself, not our values, but the European project, the concept we have of Europe, that the founding fathers had of Europe.”

The European Union – 28 countries and 500 million people – is not really going to disappear just because it cannot agree on how to deal with one or two millon refugees. But one of the great symbols of its unity, the Schengen Treaty that allowed its citizens to move around without passports or border checks, is being suspended, perhaps forever.

Schengen doesn’t cover every single EU country. The United Kingdom and Ireland remain outside the Schengen Zone, and Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus, all new EU members, are still waiting to join. Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are part of the Schengen Zone although they are not EU members. But it does include over 400 million people.

It is a remarkable achievement. You could get into your car in Portugal and drive all the way to Finland via Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia without ever once having to show a passport or identity card. There would not even be anybody in uniform standing at the frontier to wave you past, just a sign by the side of the road saying “Welcome to (Country X)”.

Or rather, that was the situation until last month, when Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Austria re-imposed passport checks at their borders, ports and airports even for travellers arriving from other Schengen Zone countries. France acted even earlier, declaring emergency controls on its borders after the terrorist massacre in Paris in November. So now fully half of the EU’s citizens (counting the UK and Ireland) live behind real borders again.

The new border controls are alleged to be temporary measures, which the Schengen Treaty permits for a maximum of six months in the face of some unspecified emergency. But the refugee emergency is not going to fade away by next July, and the threat of terrorism will persist for the foreseeable future.

That’s why the European Commission is now examining how the legal framework of Schengen can be fiddled to allow a further two years of controls on the EU’s internal borders. Nobody doubts that they will find a way to do that – but a great many people doubt that the passport-free zone, once suspended for that long, will ever come back.

This is happening not because Germans fear French travellers or Swedes fear Danes. It’s happening because none of them believe that the EXTERNAL borders of the Schengen Zone are properly controlled.

Even in freeezing January weather 35,000 refugees entered the EU last month, and it looks set to be another million-refugee year. And two of the men who carried out the Paris attacks crossed from Turkey to Greece (a Schengen member) as refugees. You can’t call that a secure external frontier

The three countries that took in 90 percent of last year’s refugees, Germany, Austria and Sweden, have all blamed Greece for letting so many refugees in and failing to document them properly. “Greece has one of the biggest navies in Europe,” said the Austrian interior minister, Johana Mikl-Leitner. “It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected.”

The Greeks quite reasonably ask what their big navy is supposed to do. Sink the refugee boats? As for the failure to register all the refugees properly, they point out that at peak flow last autumn more than ten thousand were arriving each day. They didn’t have enough officials and equipment to cope with such numbers: forty fingerprint machines running non-stop around the clock can only deal with about 4,000 people a day.

There is even talk of suspending Greece from the Schengen Treaty for two years, but a better solution would be to give it the people and resources needed to document everybody who comes in – and to turn back those who have no right to come in.

It’s not just a question of screening out possible terrorists, although that must be done better if confidence in Schengen is to be restored. In practice, Greece (or EU officials operating in Greece) would also have to decide AT THE BORDER who is really a genuine refugee they are obliged to admit, and who should be returned immediately to Turkey.

The brutal truth is that most of the people crossing from Turkey into Greece, including the Syrians and Afghans who come from war-torn countries, are “asylum-shoppers”. They were already safe in Turkey, which is sheltering almost 2 million Syrian refugees and spending billions of dollars a year on them. But life in the camps in Turkey is hard, so they are moving on to seek asylum in richer countries with better facilities.

There is no obligation for Europe to take them all, and the Schengen Treaty will die if it does. But the European Union itself will soldier on without it, at least until and unless the euro currency collapses when the next recession hits.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Schengen…people”; and “The Greeks…day”)

2015 Year-Ender

If historical ingratitude were a crime, most of the people writing year-end pieces this month would be in jail.

This year was not like 1919, when 3 percent of the world’s population died of influenza, or 1943, when the Second World War was killing a million people each month, or 1983, when we came very close to World War Three (though the public didn’t realise it at the time). For most people, in most places, 2015 has been a pretty good year.

Yes, of course, the war in Syria, and millions of refugees, and the downturn in China dragging the world economy down with it, and terrorism here, there and everywhere. And of course, climate change waiting around the corner to drag us all down. But if you are waiting for a year with nothing to worry about, you’ll be waiting a long time.

The war in Syria is four years old and still going strong. In late summer it looked for a time as if the Islamist rebels were going to destroy the Syrian army and take over the whole country, but the Russian intervention restored the stalemate. There is even talk of a ceasefire now, so that everybody else can concentrate on fighting Islamic State.

That may not happen, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both determined to destroy the Assad regime at any cost. The Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (clones of Islamic State who make up the bulk of what American propaganda portrays as “the moderates”) may not agree to a ceasefire either. The war could go on for years yet. But unless Islamic State and the other jihadis actually win, the war will not spread beyond Syria’s borders

There are other wars in the Middle East too, in Iraq (where Islamic State also holds much territory), in Afghanistan (where the Taliban are winning), and in Yemen (where the conservative Arab states have mistaken a tribal quarrel for an Iranian plot and launched a bombing campaign to thwart it). Libya’s internal wars are getting worse, and there is even talk of renewed Western military intervention there.

Oh, and Turkey has relaunched its war against the Kurds. The Middle East is a full-spectrum mess, and the particular brand of Islamist extremism that has taken root there has expanded out of the region to produce terrorist attacks from India to Kenya to France, and even the United States. But the terrorism is not as big as it seems, and neither is the Middle East.

The Middle East only contains 10 percent of the world’s people, and the Arab world (where most of the bloodshed happens) is only half of the Middle East. Its only major export is oil, and its main import is food. What happens there is not as important as what happens in the other 90 percent of the world, which is by and large at peace and doing quite well.

There are no wars at all in Asia, which is home to half the human race, and no wars in the Americas either. There is one war in Europe, in eastern Ukraine with heavy Russian involvement, but a ceasefire has greatly reduced (but not entirely stopped) the shooting in the past four months.

The only real war in Africa this year was in South Sudan, now suspended at least temporarily, although there are half-a dozen other countries where there is a significant level of civil or terrorist violence (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, etc.). Forty of the fifty African countries are entirely at peace, and most of them are at least partly democratic.

This is not a picture of world where violence is out of control. The violence is approaching catastrophic levels in parts of the Middle East, but the scattered incidents of Islamist terrorism against non-Muslims elsewhere are relatively small and few in number. Neverheless, they have encouraged the Western media (and several Western leaders) to talk about terrorism as an “existential threat”.

That is absurd, but Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for US president, has proposed that the the United States should deal with this “threat” by stopping all Muslims from entering the country. The number of non-Middle Eastern people who actually died in terrorist attacks in 2015, including the two Paris attacks, the Los Angeles attack, and attacks on tourists in Muslim countries (mostly British in Tunisia and Russians in Egypt) was just over 400.

The total population of Russia, the United States, Britain and France is about 600 million, so the risk of being killed by an Islamist terrorist, if you are a citizen of one of those countries, is one in one-and-a-half million. It is not a crisis. It is just a problem, and fairly far down the list of problems these countries face.

The refugees coming out of the Middle East, mainly from Syria, are a much bigger issue, but the main burden of caring for them has fallen on neighbouring Muslim countries, principally Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. About one million refugees have reached Europe this year, sparking a political panic in the European Union (population 500 million), but the extraordinary generosity of Germany, which has taken in four-fifths of those refugees, more than compensates for the meaner behaviour of other Western countries.

Enough on the Middle East – except for the quote of the year, from Edward Luttwak, the celebrated freelance “defence intellectual” and self-styled “grand strategist” who sells his advice to presidents and generals. “You know, I never gave George W. Bush enough credit for what he’s done in the Middle East….He ignited a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis that will occupy the region for the next thousand years. It was a pure stroke of brilliance.” Unwitting brilliance, of course, and it won’t be a thousand years or even a hundred, but there is an element of truth in that.

In Asia, the Burmese election in November was probably the final step in ending half a century of military rule in that unfortunate country. The long-predicted drop in the Chinese economy’s growth rate seems to be arriving at last (though the regime still denies it), and the question of whether the Communist dictatorship can survive a prolonged period of slow growth is slowly working its way back onto the agenda.

The Indian economy continues to power ahead, although it remains far smaller than China’s. There were the usual typhoons and earthquakes, and a long-term confrontation may be building over China’s series of new military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, but on the whole Asia had a fairly good year.

So did Africa, despite renewed terrorist attacks in Mali, President Zuma’s boundless corruption in South Africa, and the tail-end of the ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and at least that epidemic spurred the high-speed development of a vaccine that will help to contain future outbreaks.

Nigeria, with a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, brought the Boko Haram insurgency more or less under control, and even Kenya, the main victim of Islamist terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, had some good news.

The year began badly for Kenya when Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia stormed Garissa University College in April and killed 148 people, mostly Christians who were separated from their Muslim fellow-students and shot or hacked to death in front of them.

But when another group of Islamist terrorists stopped a bus on a road in northern Kenya in December and ordered the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians amongst them, they refused: “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily,” said Abdi Mohamud Abdi. Unwilling to murder Muslims, the terrorists left.

Europe has had a relatively quiet time, apart from the refugees. The British election returned the Conservatives to power with a wafer-thin majority, but the Spanish election destroyed the two-party system and left everything up in the air. Silvio Berlusconi finally withdrew from Italian politics, pursued by numerous legal proceedings and leaving the scene less exciting but considerably cleaner.

There was near-panic in the spring about Greece defaulting on its debts and leaving the euro. The anti-austerity, left-wing Syriza government won two elections and a referendum in the course of the year, but eventually submitted to the disciplines of the European Union rather than being cast into the outer darkness.

In Latin America, the high-profile event was the re-opening, after 54 years, of the US embassy in Havana, although ending the trade embargo against Cuba is still subject to a Congressional vote. Left-wing governments lost elections in Argentina and Venezuela (although President Nicolas Maduro still controls the executive branch in Caracas), and even President Dilma Rousseff is in trouble in Brazil, but this is just the usual ebb-and-flow of politics. Latin America is no longer a place apart; it is just part of the West.

And what are we to make of North America? Canada finally showed Stephen Harper the door after almost ten years and elected his Liberal antithesis, Justin Trudeau, to the vast relief of practically everybody beyond its borders and a majority within them. Yet in the same year the Jurassic candidate, Donald Trump, emerges as the Republican front-runner for next year’s presidential election in the United States.

However, there is a strong argument for saying that Trump’s main appeal to potential voters is that he is not boring. This could be a problem for Hillary Clinton, who for all her sterling virtues is deeply, deeply boring.

They have been holding a mock election at Western Illinois University one year before the national election ever since 1975. They have chosen the correct party and even the right candidate every time, including people who were still very dark horses at the time like Jimmy Carter (for the 1976 election) and Barack Obama (for the 2008 election).

They held their mock election for next year last month – and the Democrats won. But Hillary Clinton didn’t. The next president, according to the mock election, will be Bernie Sanders. At least he isn’t boring.
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To shorten to 1250 words, omit paras 5, 10, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23.(“That…borders”; “The only…democratic”; “Enough…that”; and “Nigeria…darkness”) You may shorten the article further as you wish by removing paragraphs of less interest to your particular audience.

After the Spanish Election

“I’m going to try to form a government,” said Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as the results of the national election came in on Sunday night, “but it won’t be easy.” His right-wing People’s Party (PP) still won the most seats in parliament, 129 – but that was far down from the 176 seats it would need for an absolute majority, let alone the 186 it had before the election.

Pablo Iglesias, the man who founded the Podemos (“We can”) party only two years ago, agreed with Rajoy on this, if on little else. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking in the name of Podemos,” he told a rally during the campaign. “We thank you for choosing the path of change. We’re expecting a bumpy ride with political turbulence.”

Podemos ended up with 69 seats, not bad for a two-year-old party in its first national election – but it doesn’t seem interested in cooperating with the other left-wing party. “Hopefully Podemos would be willing to work with us,” said Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which got 90 seats, “but so far I perceive a threatening mixture of arrogance, self-infatuation and condescension.”

“If the socialists or PP had done nothing wrong, neither Podemos nor us would exist,” said Albert Rivera, leader of the even newer party, Ciudadanos (Citizens). Last January it was barely known outside Catalonia, with only 3 percent support in the polls. Last Sunday Ciudadanos got 14 percent of the national vote and 40 seats. So forming a new government in Spain is going to be a long and messy process.

Ever since the dictator Francisco Franco died and democracy returned to Spain forty years ago, only two parties have mattered at the national level. The PP was the traditional right, close to the Catholic Church, and getting most of its votes from rural areas and older voters. The PSOE was traditional left, and got the urban vote, the young, and what’s left of the working class.

The PP and the PSOE alternated in power, and during the three-decade boom after Spain joined the European Union nobody much minded the lack of viable alternatives. Then came the world financial crisis of 2008, with stagnant or falling wages for most Spaniards and an unemployment rate that reached 27 percent.

Each party had a turn at trying to deal with the crisis, and each cut the national budget, rescheduled or repaid as much debt as possible, and imposed severe austerity on the population. Even Spain’s population began to fall, as the young left in droves to find work elsewhere in the EU.

Maybe all that austerity has finally worked. This year the Spanish economy is growing at 3 percent, the highest rate in the EU, and unemployment is down to 21 percent. But that’s still higher than anywhere else in the EU except Greece, and it’s too late for a lot of voters. They don’t believe that either traditional party’s policies had much to do with the upturn in the economy (and a lot of them don’t even believe the statistics that say there is one).

So there was plenty of room for a new party offering an end to austerity, and for a while it looked like Podemos was it. It was anti-capitalist, its 36-year-old leader wore a pony-tail, and it promised radical change. Some people worried that it had “Venezuelan” tendencies, but a year ago the polls suggested that it could even come out ahead of both traditional parties in an election.

Not so fast. Since January the other new party, Ciudadanos, has been luring away the more timid people who once considered voting for Podemos, but were alarmed by its “Venezuelan” tendencies. Ciudadanos also has a 36-year-old leader (no pony-tail) who talks about radical change, but it is really a centre-right party that sits comfortably in the middle of the road, long left empty by the traditional parties of left and right.

That split the protest vote, so now Spain has four major parties, and creating any sort of coalition government is going to be very hard. The arithmetic means that either the PP or the PSOE must be in any coalition that can command a majority in parliament, but Ciudadanos swears that it will not join any government that it does not lead.

Podemos is being equally difficult, saying that it will ask its supporters to vote on joining any coalition. (Being fed up with both traditional parties, they would probably say no.) So unless there is a “grand coalition” between the PP and the PSOE – which is also very hard to imagine – it may not be possible to form a new government at all. In which case, after two months, there must be another election – and you can forget the economic recovery.

Hard times do not usually make people more moderate and open to compromise. Spain was a perfectly reasonable country that managed its democracy well for forty years, but it may just have made itself ungovernable.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Ever…class”; and “Maybe…one”)