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Corbyn, Palestinians and Brexit

It sounds like a tempest in a teapot, but it could bring down Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party – and that could end up meaning that Britain doesn’t leave the European Union after all.

It started last Saturday with a photograph in the Daily Mail (a newspaper that regards Corbyn as the Devil’s second cousin) of the Labour leader laying a wreath in a cemetery in Tunisia four years ago. He had laid it, said the Mail, at a memorial to the Palestinian terrorists who planned the attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

It was a calculated attempt to paint Corbyn as anti-Semitic, and the mud stuck. The Mail also published a 2013 video in which Corbyn said that Palestinians were experiencing “conditions in the West Bank, under occupation, of the very sort that will be recognisable by many people in Europe who suffered occupation during the Second World War.” That’s perilously close to comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who never misses a chance to portray Europe as a cauldron of anti-Semitism, immediately tweeted: “The laying of a wreath by Jeremy Corbyn on the graves of the terrorists who perpetrated the Munich massacre…deserves unequivocal condemnation from everybody– left, right, and everything in between.”

Corbyn replied at once on his own Twitter feed: “What deserves unequivocal condemnation is the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli forces since March, including dozens of children.” Fair comment, perhaps, but that is not what a prudent British politician would choose to say when the Israeli prime minister has just accused him of anti-Semitism. Twitter makes everybody stupid.

Jeremy Corbyn is not anti-Semitic, but he certainly could be described as anti-Zionist. It’s not an uncommon position among British politicians who joined the Labour Party in the 1960s and 70s: admiration for Israel and close ties with the sister Labour Party that then dominated Israeli politics, mixed with a keen awareness that the triumph of Israel had been built on a Palestinian tragedy.

Corbyn is also on the hard left of his party, which means that he has never met an anti-imperial, anti-colonial, or anti-capitalist cause that he did not like. That’s how he found himself attending the ‘International Conference on Monitoring the Palestinian Political and Legal Situation in the Light of Israeli Aggression’ in Tunisia four years ago. And once there, he naturally went along when they all laid a wreath in the cemetery.

The conference was officially linked to the devastating Israeli air strike on Tunis in 1985, which killed 80 senior officials of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, members of their families, and Tunisian civilians. Corbyn doesn’t speak either French or Arabic, the two dominant languages in Tunisia, and he presumably thought that’s what the wreath-laying was about. So he took part in it.

In fact, the wreath was laid in memory of a different bunch of Palestinians, members of the Black September group, who had helped to plan the Munich outrage and were later assassinated by Israeli intelligence agents. Did Corbyn just get confused, or did the Tunisians deliberately mislead him? Who knows? Who cares?

What Corbyn should have done when the Daily Mail broke that story was to admit all, plead ignorance, and make a grovelling apology. It would have been humiliating, but he would certainly have survived to fight again.

He didn’t do that. He is a very stubborn man, and he combined a lame semi-admission of his mistake – “I was present at that wreath-laying. I don’t think I was actually involved in it” – with further criticisms of current Israeli policy. And thereby he turned a little personal problem into a crisis for the Labour Party.

Labour has been tearing itself apart recently over differences about where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism. It is certainly not institutionally anti-Semitic – Corbyn’s predecessor as party leader, Ed Miliband, was Jewish – but it has already alienated a lot of its Jewish supporters. Corbyn’s blunder may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Corbyn has never had the support of most Labour members of parliament. It is becoming plausible (though no more than that) to think that he might lose the leadership – especially as it is becoming clear that he’s the main reason Labour doesn’t enjoy a big lead in the opinion polls over the chaotic Conservative government led by Theresa May.

Which brings us to Brexit. The current stalemate in British politics, which has paralysed negotiations for a sensible post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, risks ending next March in a disaster in which the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal at all.

The stalemate is mostly due to the fact that both major parties in the UK are profoundly divided between pro- and anti-Brexit factions, but both parties have pro-Brexit leaders. Recent opinion polls show a small but growing majority of voters would vote ‘Remain’ in a second referendum, but neither party will back such a referendum under the current leadership.

If Labour had a different leader, all that could change – and Corbyn is in deep trouble.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“It was…Germany”; and “Labour…back”)

Britain: “Soft” Brexit or No Brexit

“We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end,” tweeted Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and now president of the European Council. He doesn’t know when the talks will start because even now, a year after Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t know what her negotiating position is.

She thought she knew. It was going to be a “hard Brexit” where Britain left both the European Union’s “internal market” (complete free trade between the half-billion people in the EU’s 28 members) and the customs union (the same external tariffs against everybody else). “Free movement” would also end (to limit immigration from EU countries), and Britain would flourish all alone thanks to its genius for free trade. Good luck with that.

But then May called a needless election to get a bigger majority in parliament – to “strengthen her hand” in the negotiations with the EU that are scheduled to begin next Monday, or so she said. Instead, after a botched campaign focussed entirely on May, the Conservative Party lost its majority in last Thursday’s election.

Now she is a zombie prime minister: “Dead woman walking”, one senior Conservative called her. Yet the Conservative Party can’t dump her yet because she is in the midst of talks with the small Democratic Unionist Party (exclusively Northern Irish) to get enough votes in parliament to keep the goverment in power.

Even if May succeeds, “hard Brexit” is dead. To get the support of the 11 DUP members of parliament – even to retain the support of the 13 MPs of the Scottish Conservative Party – she will have to agree to a much softer Brexit. That would certainly include a customs union, and maybe also continued membership of the internal market.

That may tear the Conservative Party apart, as the hard-line Brexiters in the party will fight against it tooth and nail. May’s Brexit Minister, David Davis, has already warned that next week’s start to the talks with the EU may have to be postponed. But the deadline for an agreement is only eighteen months away, in practice, and the negotiations will be extremely
complex. No wonder Donald Tusk is losing patience.

The Brexit referendum was originally promised in 2013 by May’s predecessor, David Cameron, in order to prevent a split in the Conservative Party. May’s devotion to Brexit today is still mainly aimed at avoiding that split, but the rest of the country has moved on.

If the referendum were held again today, it would almost certainly result in a victory for the Remainers, not the Leavers. The problem is that both main parties include large numbers of Leave voters.

They are a bigger proportion of the Conservative Party, although around half of the Conservative MPs are still secretly anti-Brexit. Jeremy Corbin’s Labour Party is equally divided: at least a third of Labour’s voters were Leavers.

Corbin would not have come so near to displacing the Tories if he had not maintained his ambiguous stance on Brexit in the recent election. Many of the traditional Labour voters who came back to the Labour Party this time were former supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party. They had been made homeless by the collapse of that party, but they are still Leavers.

So neither party is going to propose a second referendum now. To do so would be to lose many of their pro-Leave voters, and probably to lose the new election that is likely to be called before the end of the year. Yet the outcome of last week’s election does open up a possible path to a new referendum.

If the Conservative Party shreds itself over who is to replace Theresa May, or if either the DUP or the pro-Remain Scottish Conservatives withdraw their support, there will have to be another election.

Labour could win that election, but only if Corbyn can convince the Leavers in his party that he will try very hard to make a “soft Brexit” work. At the same time, he must persuade all the students and other young people who voted for the first time this month (and almost all voted Labour) that he will put the results of the negotiations with the EU to a second referendum, even though he cannot promise that publicly now.

It’s a fine line to walk, and Corbyn is genuinely ambivalent about the EU. Nevertheless, the final result could be either an acceptably soft and amicable Brexit, (leaving Britain in a close relationship with the EU, like Switzerland or Norway) – or an abandonment of the whole Brexit project after a second referendum. But it will leave deep scars for a generation whichever way it comes out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“Corbin…Leavers”)

Voters’ Remorse, or The Morning After the Night Before (updated)

Everybody in British politics is in shock now that that they face the reality of having to negotiate the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. In the case of Boris Johnson, a charming opportunist who took the leadership of the Brexit campaign in the hope of succeeding David Cameron as prime minister, the prospect of having to lead those negotiations was so frightening that he simply froze up.

That gave Michael Gove, co-leader of the Brexit campaign, an excuse to stab Boris in the back and supplant him as the main “Leave” candidate for the Conservative leadership, which he duly did on Thursday morning. Gove is a true believer, but he lacks Johnson’s charisma, so the next Conservative prime minister is actually likelier to be Theresa May – who supported the “Remain” campaign.

If most Conservative members of parliament are terrified by the outcome of the referendum, that is even more true for ordinary pro-Brexit voters. The level of voters’ remorse in Britain is so high that a re-run of the referendum today would probably produce the opposite result. But it is hard to imagine how such a thing could be justified. (Best two out of three referendums?)

So the process of extracting the UK from the European Union will presumably stumble forward, albeit at a snail’s pace, even though most of the promises that were made by the “Leave” campaign about Britain’s bright future outside the EU have now been exposed as lies. “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again,” admitted Leave campaigner and former Conservative cabinet minister Liam Fox.

One thing all the contenders for the prime ministerial job agree on is Britain should not start negotiating its exit now. Recognising this, Cameron promised to stay in office until October to give the Conservative Party time to find a new leader – and promised NOT to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty during that time.

Article 50 is the trigger that would start the irrevocable process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU – but there is no agreement yet even on what Britain should ask for, let alone what it might get. By not pulling that trigger for months, Cameron is allowing time for the painful consequences of leaving the EU to mount up and become horribly clear. Maybe he hopes that might cause a larger re-think about the whole Brexit idea. And maybe it will.

But will all this fear and remorse really lead to some sort of turn-around in the exit process? Left to stew in its own juices for six months, British politics might eventually come up with a typically muddled compromise that postponed the final break with the EU indefinitely – but it isn’t going to have six months.

It is now clear that the EU will not be generous and patient in negotiating the British departure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag that the EU would not tolerate British “cherry-picking” when negotiations on subjects like trade and the free movement of people finally begin. “There must be and will be a noticeable difference between whether a country wants to be a member of the European Union family or not,” she said.

There has been great impatience with British behaviour in the other EU countries for many years. Britain has always been the odd man out, demanding exemptions from various rules and agreements, rebates on budgetary contributions, special treatment of every sort. And now that it has “decided” to leave (sort of), it’s playing the same old game, asking everybody else to wait while it deals with its domestic political problems.

“The European Union as a whole has been taken as a hostage by an internal party fight of the Tories (the British Conservatives),” said Martin Schultz, the president of the European Parliament. “And I’m not satisfied today to hear that (Cameron) wants to step down only in October and once more everything is put on hold until the Tories have decided about the next prime minister.”

To make matters worse the opposition Labour Party is also descending into chaos, with leader Jeremy Corbyn facing a revolt over his half-hearted support for the “Remain” campaign, which may have been the main reason for Brexit’s narrow victory. (Half the Labour Party’s traditional supporters didn’t even know that their own party supported staying in the EU.) Both major British political parties, for the moment, are essentially leaderless.

British politics is a train-wreck, unable and unwilling to respond to EU demands for rapid action, but the EU cannot afford to wait five or six months for the exit negotiations to begin. The markets need certainty about the future if they are not to go into meltdown, and one way or another the EU’s leaders will try to provide it. It is going to be a very ugly divorce.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“It is now…said”)

Voters’ Remorse, or The Morning After the Night Before

Everybody in British politics had been talking about the probable consequences of a vote to leave the European Union for months, but they are nevertheless all in shock now that that they face the reality of Brexit. The level of voters’ remorse is so high that a re-run of the referendum today would probably produce the opposite result. But it is hard to imagine how such a thing could be justified. (Best two out of three referendums?)

The remorse has been driven by the collapse of the pound, panic in the markets, and other consequences of a “Leave” vote that the Brexit campaign had promised would not happen. Moreover, leaders of the “Leave” campaign like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith are rapidly walking away from the inflated or simply untrue claims that they made during the campaign.

They have all renounced their promise that Britain would save half a billion dollars a week in contributions to the EU if it left. They now admit that Britain could not prevent free movement of EU citizens into Britain if it wants to have continued access to the EU’s “single market. “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again,” admitted Leave campaigner and former Conservative cabinet minister Liam Fox.

It is also now clear that the EU will not be generous and patient in negotiating the British departure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag that the EU would not tolerate British “cherry-picking” when negotiations on subjects like trade and the free movement of people finally begin. “There must be and will be a noticeable difference between whether a country wants to be a member of the European Union family or not,” she said.

The Brexit leaders had no plan for what to do after winning the referendum, probably because they didn’t really expect to win it. And their nightmare deepened when Prime Minister David Cameron, the man who had called the referendum in the belief that Brexit would be rejected, took his revenge on the leading Brexiteers.

Announcing his resignation, Cameron promised to stay in office until October to give the Conservative Party time to find a new leader. And during that time, contrary to his previous statements, he would not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.

Article 50 is the trigger that would start the irrevocable process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. By not pulling it for months, Cameron is allowing time for the painful consequences of leaving the EU to mount up and become horribly clear. Then the new prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, probably Boris Johnson, will have the honour of pulling the trigger and taking the blame for making that pain permanent.

So it’s hardly surprising that Johnson, despite having pulled off the most remarkable coup in British politics for decades, was looking distinctly glum on the Morning After the Night Before. He looks and behaves like a well-bred British version of Donald Trump, but his “dumb blond” act is just a facade. His political future has been sabotaged, and he knows it.

But will all this fear and remorse really lead to some sort of turn-around in the exit process? Left to stew in its own juices for six months, British politics might eventually come up with a typically muddled compromise that postponed the final break with the EU indefinitely – but it isn’t going to have six months.

There has been great impatience with British behaviour in the other EU countries for many years. Britain has always been the odd man out, demanding exemptions from various rules and agreements, rebates on budgetary contributions, special treatment of every sort. And now that it has “decided” to leave (sort of), it’s playing the same old game, asking everybody else to wait while it deals with its domestic political problems.

“The European Union as a whole has been taken as a hostage by an internal party fight of the Tories (the British Conservatives),” said Martin Schultz, the president of the European Parliament. “And I’m not satisfied today to hear that (Cameron) wants to step down only in October and once more everything is put on hold until the Tories have decided about the next prime minister.”

To make matters worse the opposition Labour Party is also descending into chaos, with leader Jeremy Corbyn facing a revolt over his half-hearted support for the “Remain” campaign, which may have been the main reason for Brexit’s narrow victory. (Half the Labour Party’s traditional supporters didn’t even know that their own party supported staying in the EU.) Both major British political parties, for the moment, are essentially leaderless.

British politics is a train-wreck, unable and unwilling to respond to EU demands for rapid action, but the EU cannot afford to wait five or six months for the exit negotiations to begin. The markets need certainty about the future if they are not to go into meltdown, and one way or another the EU’s leaders will try to provide it. It is going to be a very ugly divorce.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“They have…Fox”; and “There has…problems”)