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Varadkar and Bernabic

19 June 2017

Varadkar and Bernabic
By Gwynne Dyer

For most Irish people the most striking thing about their new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is that he is very young. (At 38, he is the country’s youngest leader ever.) It’s mainly the foreign press that goes on about the fact that he is a) half-Indian, and b) gay.

Varadkar himself, the son of a doctor from India and a nurse from Ireland who met while working in a hospital in southern England, is definitely not keen on being seen as a symbol of changing public attitudes: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician, for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

No, it doesn’t, but it is still worth focussing on for a moment to think about what it tells us not just about Ireland but about the West as a whole, and even about the world.

Homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967, and it was decriminalised in Canada the following year (when Pierre Trudeau, then the justice minister, told the CBC that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”). It only became legal in Ireland a quarter-century later, in 1993. But two years ago same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland by a referendum in which 62 percent of the voters said yes.

Well, we already knew that Ireland had changed. It has lots of immigrants now – one in every eight people is foreign-born – and the political power of the Catholic Church has collapsed. So it’s no longer a surprise that an Indo-Irish gay man can become prime minister. But what about Serbia?

The only “immigrants” in Serbia are ethnic Serbs who were stranded in other parts of former Yugoslavia after the break-up. The Serbian Orthodox Church is still strong, and it has no truck with degenerate Western ideas about human rights. As one Orthodox monk wrote: “Homosexuality is not a problem in Serbia. There are hardly any gay people, and society wouldn’t permit them to organize or (publicly advocate) their abominations.”

Two-thirds of Serbians think that homosexuality is an illness, and almost four-fifths believe that gay people should stay in the closet. But Ana Brnabic is an out and proud lesbian, and she has just been appointed prime minister of Serbia. She is also of Croatian descent. How has this happened?

Brnabic was appointed by Alexandar Vucic, who was prime minister himself until he ascended to the presidency in last month’s election. The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful person in the government, but Brnabic is a technocrat, not really a politician. It is widely expected that she will concentrate on making the trains run on time, so to speak, and leave the sensitive political decisions to Vucic.

The general assumption in Serbian political circles is that Brnabic’s appointment is window-dressing. Serbia wants to join the European Union, and the government would quite like to divert the EU’s attention from a few little image problems: its close ties with Russia, its hostility to refugees, and rampant corruption.

So what could be better than a woman prime minister (a Serbian first) who is openly gay (another Serbian first) and even has foreign antecedents (her father was born in Croatia)? Why, the Serbs are even more enlightened than the Irish! We should make them full members of the EU as soon as possible!

That may well be the plan – and if it is, so what? The European Union knows that there was a considerable amount of calculation behind Brnabic’s appointment, but it will not condemn President Alexandar Vucic for trying to make Serbia look like a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Lots of ordinary Serbs will be shocked by this assault on “Serbian values”, but many of them will understand that it serves the national interest. And little by little, just because Brnabic is the prime minister, they will grow less uncomfortable with the notion of gays – and indeed just women in general – having a legitimate role in public life.

This is how change really happens: not sudden enlightenment, but a gradual acceptance of new rules and values. And the most encouraging take-away from this little story is that even a man like Vucic, once an ally of the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, understands the new political and social rules of the West.

They are not yet the new rules everywhere. Eastern Europe is way behind Western Europe, North America and Latin America, largely because it spent between forty and seventy years isolated from the rest of the world under Communist rule. The struggle is still intense in parts of Asia, and it has scarcely begun in most of Africa and the Muslim world.

Gay rights, feminism, human rights in general are not really “Western” values: a hundred years ago the West was just as intolerant of difference as everybody else. The change has come to the West earlier mainly because it is richer, but we are all traveling on the same train, and the other end will pull into the station just a little bit later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit 6 and 8. (“The only…abominations”; and “Brnabic…Vucic”)

Greece Loses, EU Wins

The first round of the battle for the euro is over, and Germany has won. The whole European Union won, really, but the Germans set the strategy. Technically, everybody just kicked the can down the road four months by extending the existing bail-out arrangements for Greece, but what was really revealed in the past week is that the Greeks can’t win. Not now, not later.

The left-wing Syriza Party stormed to power in Greece last month promising to ditch the austerity that has plunge a third of the population below the poverty line and to renegotiate the country’s massive $270 billion bail-out with the EU and the International Monetary Fund. Exhausted Greek voters just wanted an end to six years of pain and privation, and Syriza offered them hope. But it has been in retreat ever since.

In the election campaign, Syriza promised 300,000 new jobs and a big boost in the monthly minimum wage (from $658 to $853). After last week’s talks with the EU and the IMF, all that’s left is a promise to expand an existing programme that provides temporary work for the unemployed, and an “ambition” to raise the minimum wage “over time”.

Its promise to provide free electricity and subsidised food for families without incomes remains in place, but Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government has promised the EU and the IMF that its “fight against the humanitarian crisis (will have) no negative fiscal effect.” In other words, it won’t spend extra money on these projects unless it makes equal cuts somewhere else.

Above all, its promise not to extend the bail-out programme had to be dropped. Instead, it got a four-month “bridging loan” that came with effectively the same harsh restrictions on Greek government spending (although Syriza was allowed to rewrite them in its own words). And that loan will expire at the end of June, just before Greece has to redeem $7 billion in bonds.

So there will be four months of attritional warfare and then another crisis – which Greece will once again lose. It will lose partly because it hasn’t actually got a very good case for special treatment, and partly because the European Union doesn’t really believe it will pull out of the euro common currency.

Greece’s debt burden is staggering – about $30,000 per capita. It can never be repaid, and some of it will eventually have to be cancelled or “rescheduled” into the indefinite future. But not now, when other euro members like Spain, Portugal and Ireland are struggling with some success to pay down their heavy but smaller debts. If Greece got such a sweet deal, everybody else would demand debt relief too.

The cause of the debt was the same in every case: the euro was a stable, low-interest currency that banks were happy to lend in, even to relatively low-income European countries that were in the midst of clearly unsustainable, debt-fuelled booms. So all the southern European EU members (and Ireland) piled in – but nobody else did it on the same scale as the Greeks.

The boom lasted for the best part of a decade after the euro currency launched in 1999. Ordinary Greeks happily bought imported German cars, French wines, Italian luxury goods and much else, while the rich and politically well connected raked off far larger sums and paid as little tax as possible. Greek governments ended up lying about the size of the country’s debts.

No less an authority than Syriza’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, described the atmosphere of the time like this: “The average Greek had convinced herself that Greece was superb. A cut above the rest….Due to our exceptional ‘cunning’, Greece was managing to combine fun, sun, xenychti (late nights) and the highest GDP growth in Europe.”

Then the roof fell in after the 2008 crash, and “self-immolation followed self-congratulation, but left self-importance in the driving seat,” as Varoufakis put it.

That is why the sympathy for Greece’s plight in other EU members is limited. Moreover, the EU, and especially the Germans, have managed to convince themselves that “grexit” (Greek exit from the euro) would not be a limitless disaster.

The other PIGS (Portugal, Ireland and Spain) are in much better shape financially, and Brussels no longer fears that the Greek “contagion” will spread irresistibly to them as well. Neither does it think that a Greek departure from the euro would bring the whole edifice of the single currency tumbling down. And it knows that the vast majority of Greeks don’t want to leave either the euro or the EU – so it’s playing hardball.

When the interim deal was made public on Tuesday, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras put the best possible face on it, saying that Greece had “won a battle, but not the war.” In fact he lost the first battle, as he was bound to. It will take him longer to lose the whole war, but that will probably happen too.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 11 (“The boom…put it”).

Scottish “Neverendum”?

13 May 2011

Scottish “Neverendum”?

By Gwynne Dyer

“I’d grown up with the assumption that Scotland was a poor, wee, deprived place that had never had a fair kick of the ball and could certainly never stand on its own two feet,” said Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose goal is an independent Scotland. He certainly doesn’t believe that now – and the SNP finally won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in the election on 5 May.

Salmond first formed a government four years ago, but that was a weak coalition in which the SNP had to bargain and compromise with the other parties. This time, with 69 out of 129 seats, Salmond doesn’t have to haggle. He can carry out his election promises, which include a referendum on Scottish independence.

If the voters said yes, that would be the end of the United Kingdom, the 300-year-old union of Scotland and England. Other things being equal, a majority of Scots might well vote for independence, but other things never are equal.

In the real world, many Scots are afraid that their small country, with only one-tenth of England’s population, would be too vulnerable to the financial and strategic storms that shake the world. Opinion polls consistently show that no more than a quarter to a third of Scottish voters would vote yes in an independence referendum. Yet they voted the SNP into power. Why?

The main reason is that the Liberal Democratic vote collapsed in Scotland in this election. Quite a lot of those Scottish Lib Dems gave their votes to the SNP instead, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they support independence.

Since Salmond has been canny enough to promise a referendum, they knew that they could vote yes to an SNP government, and then say no to independence. He delivered sound government in difficult circumstances over the past four years; why not give him another go?

The reality is that Salmond is unlikely to persuade the Scots to vote yes in his promised referendum, even if he postpones it until near the end of his term in the hope that he can cajole or manipulate more of them into backing independence. (The smart money is betting on 2015.) So there shouldn’t be any big changes in Scotland as a result of this election – and yet it may hurt the country a lot, in the end.

Scottish separatists hate the analogy with Ireland, which they once held up as an example of how a small European country with few natural resources and a big but undercapitalised banking sector could do very well in the world. Now they just try to change the subject when Ireland comes up, but that’s not the worst thing that could happen to Scotland.

The real danger is what would happen to Scotland if the separatists lose the forthcoming referendum but keep on trying. That’s what happened in Quebec, where the separatists first came to the fore politically in the 1960s. They held and lost two referendums, in 1980 and 1995, but for half a century the prospect that there would eventually be a referendum (or yet another referendum) on separation from Canada was there every year.

“Planning blight” is what happens when the word gets out that they may be running a freeway through the neighbourhood, and property values and new investment collapse. Quebec had it on a province-wide scale for half a century. It’s impossible to calculate the financial cost directly, but the population numbers are a good indication of what happened.

For the first half of the 20th century, Quebec and Ontario, the two biggest Canadian provinces, had about the same population and grew at about the same rate. In 1960, Quebec was only slightly smaller than Ontario, with 5.2 million people compared to Ontario’s 6.2 million people. By 2010, Quebec had only grown to 7.8 million, while Ontario had 13 million people.

The contrast is equally dramatic for the big cities. Montreal, the metropolis of Quebec, had always been Canada’s biggest city. In 1960, Montreal had 2.2 million people, and Toronto, the capital of Ontario, had only 1.7 million. Now Toronto has 6 million people, while Montreal has only 3.8 million.

It’s as if Chicago had started growing fast in the 1960s, and was now half again as big as New York City. It was the planning blight of the ever-looming next referendum on independence – the “neverendum”, as English-speaking Quebecers sometimes call it – that did this to Quebec. The same thing could happen to Scotland.

Independence for Scotland would not necessarily be a financial and demographic disaster, but the permanent expectation of another independence referendum certainly would be.

The Scots are unlikely ever to vote yes for independence, because the world has become a much harsher place economically for small Western countries with declining traditional industries and big debts. (An independent Scotland would presumably inherit about at tenth of Britain’s national debt.)

Yet Salmond has now put an independence referendum firmly on the Scottish political agenda, and it is unlikely to go away again in the foreseeable future even if he loses this one. Neverendum.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 15. (“The main…independence”; “Scottish…Scotland”; and “The Scots…debt”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

The Great Islamic Threat

4 September 2010

The Great Islamic Threat

By Gwynne Dyer

People often wind up believing their own cover story. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, for example, is trapped forever in the rationalisations he used in 2003 to explain why he was going along with George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He was at it again last week, telling the BBC that “radical Islam” is the greatest threat facing the world today.

The BBC journalist went to Ireland for the interview, because Blair chose Dublin for the only live signing of his newly published autobiography: a personal appearance in Britain wouldn’t be safe. Even in Ireland, the protesters threw eggs and shoes at the man who was Bush’s faithful sidekick in the struggle to save Western civilisation from radical Islam.

But is militant Islam really a bigger threat to the world than the possibility of a major nuclear war (happily now in abeyance, but never really gone)? Bigger than the risk that infectious diseases are going to make a major come-back as antibiotics become ineffective? Bigger even than the threat of runaway global warming?

Blair has to say it is, because he was one of the people who launched a crusade against radical Islamists after 9/11. Or at least against those whom they accused of being supporters of radical Islam, although many of them (like Saddam Hussein) were nothing of the sort.

Blair has never publicly acknowledged that Saddam Hussein was actually an enemy of radical Islam: admitting it would drain the last dram of logic from his justification for invading Iraq. So he only talks in general terms about fighting “radical Islam”, and hopes that the more ignorant part of the public will think that includes the Iraq war.

Never mind. It’s far too late for Blair to change his story, and anyway the argument about Iraq has gone stale by now. Except for one thing: many influential people in Western countries still insist that “radical Islam” is indeed the world’s greatest threat. Some do it for career reasons, and others do it from conviction, but they all get a more respectful hearing than they deserve.

It depends on what you mean by “radical Islam,” of course. In some Western circles, any Muslim who challenges Western policies is by definition an Islamist radical. But if it means Sunni Muslims who believe in the Salafist interpretation of Islam and are personally willing to use terrorist violence to spread it, then there aren’t very many of them: a few hundred thousand at most.

These people are unlikely to start blowing things up in New Jersey or Bavaria, though they are a serious threat to fellow Muslims living in their own countries. (They are particularly keen on killing Shias.) The vast majority of them speak no foreign language and could never get a passport.

It’s a big, ugly problem for countries like Iraq and Pakistan, but it is a pretty small problem for everybody else. The number of people killed by “radical Islamic” terrorists in the past decade OUTSIDE the Muslim world is probably no more than 15,000.

None of these deaths is justifiable, but it is weird to insist that a phenomenon that causes an average of, say, 1,500 non-Muslim deaths a year, on a planet with almost seven billion people, is the greatest threat facing the world today. Yet the people who launched the “war on terror” do say that, as do many others who built their careers by pushing the same proposition.

They do it by the simple device of warning (to quote Blair’s recent interview) that “there is the most enormous threat from the combination of this radical extreme movement and the fact that, if they could, they would use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. You can’t take a risk with that happening.”

Never mind the quite limited damage that terrorists actually do. Imagine the damage they MIGHT do if they got their hands on such weapons. Very well, let us imagine just that.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had 10,000 nuclear weapons ready to launch at each other. If they had ever gone to war, hundreds of millions of people would have been killed – even several billion, if it had caused a nuclear winter. And of course the two countries had huge biological and chemical warfare capabilities too.

If “radical Islamists” ever got their hands on a nuclear weapon, it would be ONE bomb, not ten thousand warheads. If they managed to explode it, it would be a local disaster, not a global holocaust. The worst poison gas attack ever, on the Tokyo underground system in 1995, killed only thirteen people, and although germ warfare could be hugely destructive of human life, it requires scientific capabilities that are very difficult to master

Besides, just how does invading various Muslim countries shrink any of these dangers? It probably increases them, actually, by outraging many Muslims and providing the extremists with a steady flow of recruits.

Terrorism, by radical Islamists or anybody else, is a real threat but a modest one. It cannot be “defeated”, but it can be contained by good police work and wise policy choices. It might make it into the top ten global threats, but it certainly wouldn’t make it into the top three. Anybody who says it does has something to sell or something to hide.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“The BBC…Islam”; and “Blair…war”)