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European Union

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European Union: No Populist Breakthrough?

For the second time in a month, a member country of the European Union has NOT voted a populist into power. Could it be that the populist wave has broken?

It would be a good time for that to happen, because elections to the EU’s parliament are next month. The hard-right populist parties that have already proliferated in the 28 member countries were hoping to sweep into a dominant position in the EU parliament as well next month, but maybe the story will be more nuanced.

The Spanish election on Sunday saw the traditional socialist party (PSOE) increase its vote by a quarter under the leadership of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. “The future has won and the past has lost,” said Sánchez, who has raised the minimum wage, appointed a female-dominated cabinet and promised to bring in laws defining rape as sex without clear consent during his brief time in power.

That wasn’t the headline on Monday morning, of course. Good news is no news, so the media played up the fact that a particularly nasty party of right-wing populists called Vox has made it into the Spanish parliament for the first time.

Vox is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and promises to “make Spain great again.” It wants to repeal laws against gender violence, and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. But it actually only got 10 percent of the votes, and most of those it stole from the Popular Party, the traditional home for nationalist and ultra conservative voters.

Sánchez will still have a hard time putting a coalition government together – he’s probably going to have to make some deal with the Catalan separatists, which will alienate many other Spaniards – but this is not exactly populism triumphant.

It wasn’t a populist triumph in Slovakia last month either. The neo-fascist candidate, Marian Kotleba, didn’t even make it into the run-off presidential vote. In the second round Zuzana Caputova, a neophyte in politics, beat the candidate of Robert Fico’s ruling Smer-SD Party, which plays by right-wing populist rules and has close links with Viktor Orban’s elective dictatorship in Hungary.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial office in Slovakia, so Fico is still really running the government (although he had to step down as prime minister last year after an investigative journalist looking into links between Slovak politicians and organised crime was shot dead by hired killers). It’s not all roses yet in Slovakia, but spring is in the air.

So what does this tell us about the populist wave in Europe in general, and about the EU parliamentary elections next month in particular? Not as much as you’d like, because ‘Europe’ is a very complicated place.

What we can say is that there is a general rise in nationalism, from Brexit-supporting Britain to a huge surge of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant feeling in Eastern European countries
(which have almost no Muslims, or indeed immigrants of any sort). We can also say although most people won’t admit it) that nationalism on this scale does pose a real threat to the future of the European Union.

The European Union was the great political success story of the latter half of the 20th century. What was once the most war-torn part of the globe, the source of both the world wars, has become the most peaceful, cooperative and democratic region on the planet. It also looks after its citizens, on average, better than almost anywhere else.

Why would they (or at least a lot of them) now be in rebellion against all that? Economic growth has been slower in the past few decades, but they are not poor. The gap between the rich and the rest has been widening, but not nearly as much as it has in the United States or China or Russia. Why risk throwing it all away?

The EU has lost its unifying external threat. It was the menace of an allegedly expansionist Soviet Union that drove the Western European founders of EU to bury all their old quarrels and come together, but the Soviet Union is long gone and Putin’s Russia is not really a plausible replacement.

Another irritant is the growing pressure of immigration: refugees from wars in the Middle East and from both tyranny and climate change in Africa. The ‘threat’ that immigration poses is greatly exaggerated, but the 28 different governments of the EU have not come up with a coherent and effective policy to deal with it while the populists exploit it with great success.

The right-wing populist group of parties in the European Parliament currently holds 37 seats in the 751-member parliament but the latest opinion polls predict that it will rise to 61 seats in next month’s election. If the United Kingdom is still in the EU at that time, which seems likely, the total could rise to a hundred, but that’s still hardly a landslide.

The concern is not for the immediate future, but for the trend line. The populists have been gaining strength for two decades now, and if that goes on for another five years the EU could just vanish, the way the old Soviet Union did in 1991. So from that point of view, at least, the news from Spain and Slovakia is good news.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 11 and 12. (“Sánchez…triumphant”; and “The European…away”)

A Funeral in Ireland

Yesterday (Wednesday) the Taoiseach (prime minister) of the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, and Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, both showed up in Belfast in Northern Ireland for the funeral of a young woman called Lyra McKee. So did the president of the Republic, Michael Higgins and UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. It’s quite possible that none of them had even heard of her a week ago.

She was a promising young journalist, already well known in the small world of Northern Ireland for her political journalism and her LGBT activism. She was killed a week ago by a New IRA terrorist while covering a riot in Derry, the British province’s second city. It was a mistake, of course: the terrorist was probably trying to kill one of the police officers who were standing nearby.

The funeral was held in Belfast’s main Protestant cathedral, St. Anne’s, although McKee had grown up Catholic. Both Catholic and Protestant clergy conducted the funeral service, in a joint rejection of the sectarian violence that is creeping out into the open again in Northern Ireland. That is why the prime ministers and other high dignitaries were there too – but it may be too late.

Lyra McKee described herself as a ‘ceasefire baby’. She was only eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, ending thirty years of ‘The Troubles’, a terrorist civil war between Protestant and Catholic extremists that killed over three thousand people in a province whose population is less than two million. But the war wasn’t actually about religion.

The Protestants were loyal to Britain (and resentful about losing the absolute dominance they once enjoyed in Northern Ireland). The Catholics were ‘nationalists’ who looked forward to the day when they would be the majority in Northern Ireland (thanks to a higher birth rate), and then to the great day when all of Ireland will be united and the ‘Prods’ of the North are reduced to a tiny and helpless minority.

They fought each other to a standstill, and in 1998 they signed the Good Friday Agreement, which created a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and put an end to the killing. Most people realised it was a truce, not a final peace settlement, but many hoped that given enough time it could grow into something more. Generational turnover has solved a lot of the world’s problems.

In the meantime, the deal allowed a generation of young people like McKee to grow up in a relatively peaceful place. It might still be a place with a hopeful future today if the English had not voted to leave the European Union three years ago in the ‘Brexit’ referendum. (I say ‘English’ deliberately, because both the Scots and the Northern Irish voted for the United Kingdom to stay in the EU.)

The problem with Brexit is that the Good Friday Deal depends on a completely open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In fact, an invisible border: no police, no checkpoints, little visual evidence that it even exists. That, plus the right to have an Irish passport instead of a British one if they chose, was what persuaded the North’s Catholic nationalists to settle for a draw in the war.

Everybody in Ireland saw the problem with Brexit: if the UK withdraws fully from the EU – no customs union, no ‘single market’ – then the ‘hard’ border will have to reappear in Ireland. The more extreme nationalists will see that as a betrayal, and the guns will come out again. But the insular idiots promoting Brexit in England weren’t even aware of the problem.

They’re aware of it now. The Republic of Ireland remains a member of the EU, and it got the other members to insist that protecting the ‘soft’ border must be part of the British withdrawal agreement.

Last November Theresa May signed that agreement, which says that all of the United Kingdom must stay in the customs union until some UK-EU trade agreement is signed that still allows free movement of goods (and people) across an invisible border.

That could be a long time from now, or even never, in which case the UK never really leaves the EU. It just loses any say in the EU’s policies. So the outraged British parliament has spent the last two months rejecting not only the withdrawal agreement May signed, but every other proposal for leaving (or staying) that has been put before it. Pathetic, really.

Meanwhile, the first terrorist attacks are getting started again in Northern Ireland. The ‘dissidents’ who formed the Real IRA in 2012 are nationalists who never accepted the truce. They have been waiting for an opportunity to reopen the revolutionary liberation war that they imagine was betrayed by the Good Friday Agreement, and Brexit is giving it to them.

There was a car bomb outside the courthouse in Derry in January, and last week the New IRA tried to kill a police officer and shot Lyra McKee instead. As Will Francis, her literary agent, said (quoting William Faulkner): “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“They’re…really”)

The Brexit Border Backstop

The other Europeans are not laughing at the English for the most part. They are looking at them with pity and scorn. But also with a great deal of impatience.

On Tuesday the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘deal’ for Britain’s exit (‘Brexit’) from the European Union, painfully negotiated over more than two-and-a-half years, by an overwhelming 149-vote majority.

It was the second time parliament, including a large chunk of her own Conservative Party, rejected the deal she made with the EU last November. And the main reason both times was the so-called ‘backstop’: a commitment by May’s government to avoid a hard border in Ireland at all costs.

Today (I am writing on Wednesday), the British parliament will also reject a proposal that Britain just leave the EU without a deal. ‘Crashing out’ would mean instant customs barriers at the United Kingdom’s port, airports and land borders, with immense disruption of trade including food imports and industrial supply chains. It would be an economic disaster.

On Thursday, once that option is foreclosed, the British parliament will vote on asking the EU for a postponement of the departure date (currently scheduled for the 29th of this month). That vote will almost certainly pass, but neither the government nor parliament can even agree on how long a postponement to ask for.

If your local daycare was this feckless, you’d move your children at once.

The EU will probably grant the United Kingdom a delay to avoid a ‘no-deal Brexit’, but there will be no more negotiations: the delay would only be to give May time to sort out the politics of getting her deal through. It will be a long delay, not just a few weeks, because nobody believes she can do that quickly (if at all). And it will require the consent of all the EU’s 27 other national leaders.

It’s all about the ‘backstop’. That’s why parliament won’t pass May’s deal, and it’s why the EU refuses to re-negotiate it.

May’s November deal with the EU promised that the United Kingdom would stay in the existing customs union with the EU, and also remain closely aligned with the ‘single market’ that guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour across the whole EU – until and unless the two parties negotiate an alternative arrangement that keeps the inter-Irish border unpoliced and almost unmarked.

If you drive the 500-km. border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, the road crosses it dozens of times (there are 270 vehicle crossings). The only way you know you have crossed the border again is that speed limits are posted in kilometres in the republic, but in miles in the North.

But for 30 years during the ‘Troubles’ (1969-1999), which saw 3,000 people killed in a province of less than two million people, the border was a war zone. British soldiers, of whom hundreds died there, called it ‘bandit country’.

The killing ended with the ‘Good Friday agreement’ of 1999, which managed to achieve a compromise between the Protestants of Northern Ireland (who feel British) and the Catholics (who mostly identify as Irish). There would be power-sharing at government level, and the border with the Republic would become invisible. The Irish nationalists in the North could even have Irish passports instead of British ones.

Brexit is almost entirely an English nationalist project – Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU – and the Brexiteers just ignored the fact that leaving the EU would sabotage the Good Friday deal by creating a hard border in Ireland. There would have to be customs officers and passport checks, or else there would be huge amounts of smuggling and an uncontrolled flow of illegal migrants.

But a hard border would bring the war back, even though most people don’t want it. The population on the UK side of the border is overwhelmingly Catholic, and any attempt to control the border without putting officials on it will fail: the local people will just destroy the cameras and other sensors.

But put in customs officials, and you will need police to protect them – and soon enough you will need soldiers to protect the police. Welcome to the Troubles, volume two.

So the Irish government demanded that the border stay open and invisible. It is and will remain a member of the EU, so that became EU policy. Which means Northern Ireland (and therefore all the rest of the UK) must stay in the customs union until someone comes up with a magical method for controlling the border invisibly.

That’s why the ‘backstop’ was necessary, and Theresa May accepted that when she signed the deal last November. But she cannot sell it to her own party’s hard-line Brexiteers, let alone to the other parties in parliament. Magical thinking still rules, and the arrogance is as breathtaking as the ignorance.

What happens next? Nobody has any idea.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 7. (“The other…impatience”; and “The EU…leaders”)

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

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”)