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Polish Lessons

There is a tension at the heart of populist political parties that may ultimately lead most of them to electoral defeat. They depend heavily on the votes of the old, the poor and the poorly educated – “I love the poorly educated,” as Donald Trump once put it – but they are also right-wing parties that do not like what they call ‘socialism’. (Other people call it the welfare state.)

So while they fight the ‘culture war’ against liberal values and bang the nationalist drum (which is popular with these key voting groups), they usually shun the kinds of government programmes that would actually raise the incomes of their key voters. It doesn’t sit well with the ideologies of the people who lead these parties, who are neither poor nor poorly educated.

A case in point is Britain’s governing Conservative Party, which has made the journey from traditional conservative values to rabid nationalism and populism over the past decade. But at the same time it has pursued ‘universal credit’, a punitive reform of the country’s generous welfare programmes that has left most of its working-class voters worse off, and forced some to turn to food banks.

The Conservatives have been getting away with it, in the short term, because Brexit is an all-consuming emotional issue in which the same old, poor and poorly educated part of the electorate mostly voted ‘Leave’ in blatant contradiction to their economic interests.

However, it does not make electoral sense in the long term. Populists always manufacture some sort of crisis for their supporters to focus on at election time, but few others will work as effectively as Brexit. Sooner or later their economic policies, which hurt the poor, will betray them. Unless they heed the Polish example.

In last Sunday’s Polish election, the populist Law and Justice Party won 43.6% of the vote (according to the exit polls) in an election that saw the biggest turn-out since the fall of Communism in 1989. That is a full 6% higher than the vote that first brought them to power in 2015, and will give them an absolute majority in the Sejm (the lower house of parliament).

The Law and Justice Party is not an attractive organisation. It cultivates the national taste for self-pity and martyrdom (the ‘Christ of the Nations’), and always finds some imaginary threat to ‘Polish values’ that only it can protect the nation from. In 2015 it was Muslim refugees (none of whom were actually heading for Poland); this time it was the alleged LGBT threat to Polish culture.

In power, it has curbed the freedom of the press, attacked the independence of the judiciary, and purged the civil service, replacing professionals with party loyalists. Several times it has been threatened with sanctions for its anti-democratic actions by the European Union, which has the duty of defending democracy among its member countries.

Law and Justice’s rhetoric is divisive and filled with hatred. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski explained that the government wanted to “cure our country of a few illnesses” including ““a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”

So far, so bad, but fairly typical of the new generation of populist parties in the West. What is very different, and gave Law and Justice its resounding victory in this election, is that it addressed not only its voters’ ideological concerns but also their economic needs.

Perhaps it’s because the Polish right, suppressed under Communist rule for more than four decades, never developed the kind of libertarian, Ayn Rand-worshipping ideology that infects much of the right in countries further west. Or maybe it’s because of Polish nationalism’s long alliance with the Catholic Church, which actually does respect and care for the poor.

At any rate, Law and Justice manages to be economically left-wing even though it is culturally right-wing. In power, it raised the minimum wage, promising to double it by 2023, and lowered the retirement age. It gave pensioners an annual cash bonus and boosted farming subsidies. (It won most of the rural vote.)

Above all, it brought in the 500 Plus programme, which gives parents 500 złotys ($130) a month for each child. It’s pro-family (which pleases the Church), it encourages big families (which pleases nationalists, given Poland’s declining birth-rate), and while it doesn’t make much difference to middle-class families, it transforms the life of a poor family with three children.

And all that money going into the hands of the citizens produced an economic growth rate last year of 5.4%, one of the highest in the European Union. No wonder Law and Justice increased its share of the national vote in this month’s election.

So if you are not fond of populism, pray that populists elsewhere do not discover Poland’s secret. They do need to be culturally conservative, because they are always blood-and-soil nationalists, but there’s no particular reason why they shouldn’t be economically liberal. If they want to last, that’s the way they have to go.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 14. (“A case…interests”; and “And all…election”)

Johnson’s Cunning Plan

The plotting reflex is strong in the populist politicians who currently run both of the big English-speaking countries. President Trump dreams up underhanded tricks even when he has no need of them.

Why would he bother to sabotage the campaign of Joe Biden, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who would give him the least trouble in next year’s election? He’ll probably face impeachment over it, but he couldn’t help behaving that way. You might as well ask why even well-fed cats catch and kill mice.

They are acting on instinct, and so was Donald Trump. ‘Boris’ Johnson is a habitual plotter too, but this time he actually needs a cunning plan.

Britain’s prime minister has only been in office for ten weeks, and he is already in potentially terminal trouble. Boris Johnson was never an ardent Brexiter: he even voted for the relatively sane version of Brexit that his predecessor Theresa May failed three times to get through Parliament. But he is consumed by ambition, and he saw in her fall an opportunity to seize the top job at last.

He won it in July, in an internal poll of Conservative Party members, by promising to ‘deliver’ Brexit quickly no matter what the cost. (The 60,000 Party members who chose him are far more extreme than most Conservative members of Parliament and certainly than the average Conservative voter.)

Unfortunately, Johnson can only deliver by crashing out of the European Union without a deal. The deal Theresa May negotiated would have caused Britain only moderate economic damage, but that deal was repeatedly killed by the votes of the ultra-nationalist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of his own Conservative Party.

They’d kill it again, and Johnson’s long-sought prime ministership with it, if he made the kind of concessions needed for a negotiated deal. In practice, therefore, he has to deliver a kamikaze Brexit to stay in power at all – and then he has to hold an election immediately afterwards, to confirm his hold on power before the Brexit damage piles up and even dyed-in-the-wool Leavers turn against it.

So Johnson’s Cunning Plan A went like this. Meet Parliament for a couple of days in early September when it comes back from recess, promise that you are negotiating hard with the EU and confident of getting a deal – only a “one in a million” chance of failure – and then close Parliament down for five weeks (‘prorogue’ it) .

By the time Parliament comes back in mid-October and it is clear that there is no deal, it will be too late. The law says that the United Kingdom will leave the EU automatically on 31 October unless there is a deal. Parliament will then vote Johnson’ government out, but he’ll just call an election – for AFTER the 31st.

The election will roll around some time in November, and by then Johnson will be the Leavers’ hero for having delivered Brexit after 40 months of delay. He’ll win, and be safely back in office for five years even if the economy then goes into slow-motion collapse. The plan would have worked perfectly if the opposition parties were hopelessly stupid.

Unhappily for him, they weren’t. In early September, before Johnson could prorogue Parliament, the opposition parties passed a law obliging him to ask the EU for a three-month extension if there was still no deal on 19 October. It passed only because 21 Conservative members of Parliament who saw ‘no deal’ as a disaster for Britain voted with the opposition.

Johnson promptly expelled them from the Party – and thereby lost his majority. But the opposition parties did not vote him out, which would have let him call his election as Plan A required. They just left him hanging there, twisting in the wind.

Then all eleven judges of the Supreme Court chimed in to say that Johnson’s decision to shut Parliament down for five weeks in the midst of a political crisis had been unlawful. Time for a different plan, and quickly.

So here’s Cunning Plan B. There is an obscure law called the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 that allows the government to override Parliament in the event of a national emergency. If Johnson could engineer such an emergency, he could ignore the “surrender bill” (as he calls it) that forces him to seek an extension rather than crash out on 31 October.

What kind of an emergency? Well, it would probably require blood in the streets, which Johnson can only obtain by provoking Leave supporters to acts of violence. That is why he now uses extreme language to stoke resentment and mobilise anger, talking incessantly about betrayal and treachery.

As the Labour Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, told ‘The Observer’ on Sunday, “Whipping up the idea of riots or even deaths if we do not leave the EU on 31 October is the height of irresponsibility. But it is also pretty obviously being orchestrated.” And the death threats on social media to MPs who are trying to thwart Johnson have multiplied fourfold in the past week.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1, 2 and 3. (“The plotting…plan”)

Three Small Victories: A Turning Point?

Have we reached peak fascist in Europe? Well, all right then, peak hard-right nationalist, but are we there yet? That would be reassuring, and three events in the past week give some cause for hope.

First, on Sunday Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), failed to win first place in the two state elections where it had a chance of forming the government, Saxony and Brandenburg.

Both states seethe with resentment because former East Germany is still poorer than the western part of the country thirty years after reunification. Never having experienced immigration under Communist rule before 1990, many people in the east live in permanent panic about being overwhelmed by immigrants (although there are actually very few immigrants there).

So out of Germany’s sixteen states, Brandenburg and Saxony should have been the easiest wins for the AfD – but they didn’t win. They came a close second in both states, but they were beaten by an unusually high turn-out, clearly made up largely of people who don’t ordinarily bother to vote but realised that their votes were needed to stop the AfD.

Secondly, on Tuesday it became clear that the hard-right League party in Italy has been comprehensively snookered. Back in the days when it was the ‘Northern’ League it was more openly racist, and wanted to secede from Italy to get away from the allegedly lazy and corrupt southern Italians. “South of Rome lies Africa,” as the nastier variety of northern Italians say.

The League, although renamed and prettied up, is still the Nasty Party, but for the past eighteen months it has been in a coalition government with the anti-establishment (but not so nasty) Five-Star Movement (M5S). The League was doing well in the opinion polls, however, so its leader, Matteo Salvini, broke up the coalition in the hope of winning sole power in a new election.

Instead, the Five-Star Movement found a new coalition partner, the Democratic Party, and the League is out in the cold. On Tuesday 79,634 members of the M5S ratified the deal in an online vote – the party is ultra-democratic – and the League may have to wait another three-and-a-half years for a general election. Maybe by then its polling numbers will be down.

And then there’s the United Kingdom, where new Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson met parliament for the first time on Tuesday and immediately lost a key vote – because 21 members of his own party voted against him.

Boris –‘Al’ to his friends, family and many lovers, but he switched to ‘Boris’ as a young man because he thought it was more memorable – is not a neo-fascist. He is not ideological at all, just an opportunist who will wear whatever identity gets him where he wants to go. At the moment, his identity is hard-right English nationalist.

Many of the people around him have drunk the Kool-Aid, however, and really are ‘Little-Englander’ nationalists who don’t care if Brexit breaks up the United Kingdom. Together they have hijacked the Conservative Party.

Johnson is currently pretending to negotiate with the European Union while actually planning to crash out of the EU in a ‘no-deal’ exit that would do severe damage to the British economy. But it would secure his own political future as the man who finally delivered Brexit (albeit a Brexit far more extreme than anybody imagined back when they voted for it in 2016).

Such a Brexit would create enormous opportunities for the ‘disaster capitalists’ who have been quietly funding the Brexit movement, and who hope to asset-strip a crippled England. It certainly offers the non-English parts of the ‘United’ Kingdom, and especially Scotland, a perfect pretext for holding independence referendums of their own.

But Boris’s political future is unclear. He is currently a contender for the title of shortest prime ministership in British history, because his defeat in parliament and the defection of so many moderate Conservative members of parliament mean that there will have to be an election – which Johnson may well lose.

There have been no epic victories this week, no decisive turning points. The virus of nationalism still infects the politics of many European countries, and even the long-term future of the European Union, guarantor of peace in the continent for the past sixty years, cannot be taken for granted. But clearly the far-right nationalists can lose as well as win.

That should have been obvious, but the populists seemed almost unstoppable when they first surged to prominence in 2016. Brexit and Trump, then Hungary and Poland, then Italy and Germany – the only question was ‘Who’s next?’.

Now the bloom is off the rose. They win some, they lose some – and they lost three big ones in the past week. They will doubtless be around for quite a while, but we may be nearing peak populist.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Johnson…own”)

Brexit: Johnson Makes His Move

Shock! Horror! Johnson prorogues Parliament! End of democracy in Britain! The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, says he was not even consulted, and calls it “a constitutional outrage.”

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cut the amount of time that parliament will meet before he crashes the United Kingdom out of the European Union in a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October by six working days.

Johnson will face parliament for the first time as prime minister on 4 September, but they will all go off on holiday again on 10 September, not on the 13th as scheduled. And then parliament won’t meet again until 14 October, not on the originally planned date of 9 October. So no need to panic, and a rather small constitutional outrage.

Great commotion in the media, of course, but the reports that zombies will roam the streets of London eating the children of Remainers after Britain’s ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU on Halloween are absolutely untrue. (There have, however, been some werewolf sightings in the City.)

Johnson is an accidental prime minister. Few people even in his own Conservative Party thought he was fit for the job, but they panicked after the Conservatives came fifth – fifth! – in last May’s European Union elections.

The British only voted in those elections at all because Theresa May’s government still hadn’t managed to leave the EU after three years of trying. It lost so badly because a lot of Brexit-backing Conservatives defected to Nigel Farage’s single-issue Brexit Party in exasperation, and to win them back the Conservatives had to change leaders.

So out goes May and in comes Johnson, who may be a liar and a clown but is popular with Conservative voters. And this new prime minister, chosen only by a vote of Conservative Party members, inherits the task of keeping the Party’s promise to take the UK out of the EU. Alas, the parliamentary arithmetic to do that still does not work.

The Conservative government has only a one-vote majority in parliament, but that’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger part is that Conservative members of parliament are so split on the question of Brexit that there is no exit deal that all of them will vote for.

Theresa May did actually negotiate a realistic exit deal with the EU late last year that allowed for a smooth continuation of trade and avoided the danger of re-creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Unfortunately, that enraged the extremist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of the Conservative Party so much that they voted May’s deal down three times.

The alternative is simply to leave without a deal. That means accepting a huge hit to British trade (half of which is with the EU), a crash in the value of the pound, and a great many lost British jobs. Johnson himself is no head-banger, but he is a chameleon who will change colour if it serves his purposes, and he has adopted the no-deal policy in order to become prime minister.

This still does not end the Conservative Party’s civil war over Brexit, because a small number of moderates on the other wing of the party will rebel and vote against a no-deal Brexit rather than see the country dragged into economic ruin. They may be as few as a dozen, but that might be enough to bring the government down.

So where are the opposition parties in all this? All over the place, is the answer. There are four of them, and they can’t agree on the time of day, let alone on a common strategy for stopping ‘no-deal’.

Given time they might, because it is really their duty to avoid economic disaster in Britain, avert a new war in Ireland, and hold the United Kingdom together. (Scotland will probably secede if there is a no-deal Brexit.) But they are taking their own sweet time about it.

That’s why Johnson thinks it’s worth taking flak for cutting down the number of days parliament will meet between now and 31 October. The fewer days the opposition has to work on the problem, the less likely they are to get all their ducks in a row. It’s as simple as that, and it’s entirely legal.

So what are the odds that Britain will really commit this massive act of self-harm? About the same as they were last week, actually. On learning of Johnson’s new move on Wednesday morning, analysts at the Royal Bank of Canada raised the probability of Britain crashing out of the EU without an exit deal to 44%. Last week it was 41%.

Small crisis, not many hurt.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The British…leaders”; and “Given…about it”)

By Gwynne Dyer

Shock! Horror! Johnson prorogues Parliament! End of democracy in Britain! The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, says he was not even consulted, and calls it “a constitutional outrage.”

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cut the amount of time that parliament will meet before he crashes the United Kingdom out of the European Union in a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October by six working days.

Johnson will face parliament for the first time as prime minister on 4 September, but they will all go off on holiday again on 10 September, not on the 13th as scheduled. And then parliament won’t meet again until 14 October, not on the originally planned date of 9 October. So no need to panic, and a rather small constitutional outrage.

Great commotion in the media, of course, but the reports that zombies will roam the streets of London eating the children of Remainers after Britain’s ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU on Halloween are absolutely untrue. (There have, however, been some werewolf sightings in the City.)

Johnson is an accidental prime minister. Few people even in his own Conservative Party thought he was fit for the job, but they panicked after the Conservatives came fifth – fifth! – in last May’s European Union elections.

The British only voted in those elections at all because Theresa May’s government still hadn’t managed to leave the EU after three years of trying. It lost so badly because a lot of Brexit-backing Conservatives defected to Nigel Farage’s single-issue Brexit Party in exasperation, and to win them back the Conservatives had to change leaders.

So out goes May and in comes Johnson, who may be a liar and a clown but is popular with Conservative voters. And this new prime minister, chosen only by a vote of Conservative Party members, inherits the task of keeping the Party’s promise to take the UK out of the EU. Alas, the parliamentary arithmetic to do that still does not work.

The Conservative government has only a one-vote majority in parliament, but that’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger part is that Conservative members of parliament are so split on the question of Brexit that there is no exit deal that all of them will vote for.

Theresa May did actually negotiate a realistic exit deal with the EU late last year that allowed for a smooth continuation of trade and avoided the danger of re-creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Unfortunately, that enraged the extremist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of the Conservative Party so much that they voted May’s deal down three times.

The alternative is simply to leave without a deal. That means accepting a huge hit to British trade (half of which is with the EU), a crash in the value of the pound, and a great many lost British jobs. Johnson himself is no head-banger, but he is a chameleon who will change colour if it serves his purposes, and he has adopted the no-deal policy in order to become prime minister.

This still does not end the Conservative Party’s civil war over Brexit, because a small number of moderates on the other wing of the party will rebel and vote against a no-deal Brexit rather than see the country dragged into economic ruin. They may be as few as a dozen, but that might be enough to bring the government down.

So where are the opposition parties in all this? All over the place, is the answer. There are four of them, and they can’t agree on the time of day, let alone on a common strategy for stopping ‘no-deal’.

Given time they might, because it is really their duty to avoid economic disaster in Britain, avert a new war in Ireland, and hold the United Kingdom together. (Scotland will probably secede if there is a no-deal Brexit.) But they are taking their own sweet time about it.

That’s why Johnson thinks it’s worth taking flak for cutting down the number of days parliament will meet between now and 31 October. The fewer days the opposition has to work on the problem, the less likely they are to get all their ducks in a row. It’s as simple as that, and it’s entirely legal.

So what are the odds that Britain will really commit this massive act of self-harm? About the same as they were last week, actually. On learning of Johnson’s new move on Wednesday morning, analysts at the Royal Bank of Canada raised the probability of Britain crashing out of the EU without an exit deal to 44%. Last week it was 41%.

Small crisis, not many hurt.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The British…leaders”; and “Given…about it”)