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Catalonia Again

I’m sitting here trying to write an article about the election in Catalonia on Wednesday, because there’s nothing else to write about. It would be more interesting if the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party for the past 23 years, elects a new leader who is not Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, but the results on that won’t be in until tomorrow.

Apart from that there’s nothing except more stuff about Donald Trump’s Russian links. So it has to be Catalonia – and the problem is that I don’t care what happens in Catalonia.

One more smallish group defined by some tiny distinction of religion or language or history wants to break away from some other, bigger group – ‘Spaniards’, in this case – that is defined by slightly broader and more inclusive distinctions of the same kind, and I simply couldn’t care less.

Maybe, after all the nonsense that happened in the past six months – big demos for independence, an illegal referendum that was designed to provoke the Spanish state into over-reacting (and succeeded), and various pro-independence leaders jailed or going into voluntary exile to avoid arrest – a majority of people in Catalonia will be so fed up with the turmoil that they vote to remain part of Spain. But I don’t think so.

Maybe a majority will be so enraged by Madrid’s blundering over-reaction that they vote for their independence from Spain, and actually get it.

Then most of the larger companies in Catalonia will move their headquarters elsewhere (several thousand have gone already), and they will have a new currency nobody trusts (because they will no longer be in the European Union), and the people running the place will be the single-issue fanatics who managed to put this issue on the agenda in the first place. They don’t seem to have many ideas about what to do next.

As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” But I don’t think the Catalans are going to vote decisively for independence this time either.

Instead, they are going to split their votes in a way that leaves no clear majority for or against independence, and makes it hard even to form a coalition government. (What is happening in Catalonia this month is actually an election, not a referendum, although everybody is treating it like the latter.) So we can look forward to months, years or even decades more of the same.

On a somewhat larger canvas, this is exactly what is happening in the United Kingdom, too. Just as the Catalans complain that they are paying too much tax to the Spanish government, which transfers it to poorer parts of Spain, so the ‘Little Englanders’ complain that the UK pays too much to the European Union (which spends a lot of it raising standards in the poorer parts of eastern Europe).

Just as the Catalans (and especially younger Catalans) are far less different from other Spanish citizens than the separatists imagine, so the English (and especially the young English) are far less different from other Europeans than the Daily Mail-reading older generation of English nationalists imagines. It is the ‘narcissism of small differences’, in Sigmund Freud’s famous phrase.

But just as the Catalan mess is guaranteed to run on for years, now that it has reached this stage of obsessiveness, so will the British mess. If the UK actually leaves the European Union, the British will be much the poorer for it, and the nationalists who foisted it on the rest of the population will spend the next generation blaming the wicked Europeans for their own mistakes.

And if, by chance, the British end up not leaving (rationality doesn’t often win, but occasionally it does), then the country will spend the next generation contending with a non-violent insurgency waged by the disappointed nationalists.

Obviously, not every separatist movement that appeals to nationalism is wrong. The anti-colonial struggles for independence in the 20th century were fully justified and necessary because the injustices were great and the gulf between rulers and ruled was immense. The American war of independence in the 18th century was justified because great questions about human rights and democracy were at stake.

But when all parties concerned subscribe to democratic values, it generally makes more sense to stay together and try to work out the differences. Separatist pro-independence movements in democratic countries tend to be driven by the ambitions of politicians who want to be bigger fish in a smaller pond.

As former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien put it (in a broken half-English sentence calculated to insult his fellow French-Canadians who were the separatist leaders in Quebec), they want to drive up “dans un gros Cadillac avec un flag sur l’hood” (in a big Cadillac with a flag on the hood). Enough said.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But just…nationalists”)

Brexit Blues

Politicians never lie. Well, hardly ever. They’re not into full disclosure, as a rule, but they know that if you lie, sooner or later you will be caught out, and then you are in deep trouble. So just change the subject, or answer a different question than the one you were asked, or just keep talking but saying nothing until everybody gets bored and moves on.

British prime minister Theresa May had a bad day with the truth recently. She got her job when last year’s referendum came out narrowly in favour of leaving the European Union – Brexit – and the previous prime minister, David Cameron, had to resign. Her task is to lead the country out of the EU, and it’s been a nightmare, with her own cabinet evenly split between Leavers and Remainers.

But then a talk radio host called Iain Dale asked her live on air the question she must have been dreading: would she now vote Leave if there was another referendum? She couldn’t say no, because she is leading the negotiations with the EU about leaving. She couldn’t say yes, because that would be a lie. So she waffled and dodged.

Dale heard her out, and then, very politely, asked her the same question again. She dodged again. So he asked her again. And again. After four goes, it was perfectly clear to everybody that she would not vote Leave, and probably didn’t in the first referendum either. It’s hard being a politician sometimes.

The United Kingdom is now halfway out of the EU – or rather, May’s government has now used up half the time that was available to negotiate an amicable divorce settlement and decide on the post-separation terms of trade with the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner by far. Unfortunately, it has not settled half the issues that need to be decided, or even a quarter. Maybe one-tenth.

The delay is almost entirely due to the deep divisions in her own cabinet. Half of them are Brexiteers, some of them quite fanatical about the need to Leave, while the other half secretly wish the referendum had come out the other way. And if they do have to leave, they don’t want to go very far.

It’s all about ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. The fanatics want a ‘hard Brexit’ in which the UK crashes out of the EU without so much as a post-Brexit trade deal, while their opponents want to stay in the customs union and even the ‘single market’ (where all the EU countries adhere to common standards for goods and services).

May couldn’t afford to alienate either side by taking a stand, because the consequent war within the cabinet would probably bring the government down – and the Conservatives would probably lose the subsequent election. But if she couldn’t tell her own colleagues which way she was going to jump, she couldn’t tell the EU negotiators either, and so eighteen months have passed with very little accomplished.

Now she has been forced out into the open – by the ‘Irish question’, of all things. The one land border between the United Kingdom and the EU is in Ireland.: Northern Ireland is part of the UK and on its way out of the EU; the Republic of Ireland is staying in the EU. So obviously, there will have to be customs posts and other controls on that border post-Brexit.

But there must not be that kind of ‘hard border’ or the war in the North is likely to start up again. Part of the deal that persuaded the fighters of the IRA to lay down their arms 20 years ago was the guarantee of a ‘soft border’ between the two parts of Ireland, with no passport checks, no customs controls, no barriers of any kind. Break that deal, and it probably wouldn’t be long before the killing started again.

Theresa May couldn’t go on ignoring this question, because she depends on the support of a small Northern Irish party for her majority in parliament. In the end, she had to agree to what she called ‘regulatory alignment’ between the UK and the EU in order to keep that border open. For all practical purposes, that means the UK must stay in the EU customs union and internal market, although it will no longer have any say in how they are run.

This does reduce the whole Brexit enterprise to a complete nonsense: the UK will pay 40 billion euros in compensation to ‘leave’ the EU, and end up approximately back where it started. It’s still better than crashing out without a deal, and it may be what May secretly wanted all along, but there is going to be a rebellion by the Brexiteers in the cabinet sooner or later.

So it’s all up in the air again, really: hard Brexit, soft Brexit, or even drop the whole idea and stay in the EU. It was always a stupid idea, and the grown-ups are definitely not in charge.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 7. (“Politicians…on”; and “It’s…services”)

The Irish Border

History never leaves Ireland alone. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the lethal alliance of the Conservative Party in Britain and the Unionist Party, which represented the Protestant minority in Ireland, made it impossible for the British parliament to pass a Home Rule Bill for Ireland.

A Home Rule Bill might have let the two countries take their distance peacefully and gradually, while retaining close links – or maybe not, but it was worth a try. Instead came the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the Irish War of Independence, the partition of the island between the independent Republic and Northern Ireland (part of the UK), the Irish Civil War, and three decades of terrorist war in Northern Ireland that only ended 20 years ago.

Well, the Conservatives and the Unionists are back in coalition now, and another war is brewing on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. At the moment it’s practically an invisible frontier, with no border posts or customs checks, because both the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic belong to the European Union. Brexit, however, will put an end to that, and probably to peace as well.

In principle, Britain flouncing out of the EU shouldn’t hurt anybody except the British themselves, but the UK’s Irish border is a nightmare. Prime Minister Theresa May has sworn a mighty oath that the United Kingdom will leave both the ‘single market’ and the customs union, but that will turn this ‘soft’ frontier into a ‘hard’ EU border with a non-EU country: border guards, customs checks, passports, queues and all the rest.

What made the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 possible was the promise that the border between the two Irelands would practically disappear, which allowed the Catholic nationalists of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to believe that their war had not been just a futile struggle that killed 3,000 people. They could dream that with all the coming and going across an open border, the two parts of Ireland would grow closer and eventually reunite.

Recreate a hard border and they will feel cheated. Not all the militants of the IRA will pick up their guns again, but some almost certainly will. It was very hard to stop the first time, and there is no particular reason why a renewed war couldn’t last another thirty years and kill thousands more.

Presumably Theresa May does not want to see this, and the EU recently offered her a way out. If you must go, they said, then leave the inner Irish border open and put your customs and immigration controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (which are conveniently separated by the Irish Sea).

Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs union and nobody would be stopped at its land border with the Republic. Customs and immigration checks would only happen at Northern Irish ports and airports, when people or goods have crossed or are going to cross the Irish Sea. It makes as much sense as anything can within the context of Brexit – but May has to reject it.

She must reject that offer because she lost her parliamentary majority in the election she needlessly called last June, and remains in power only thanks to the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party – i.e., the hard-line Protestants of Northern Ireland. And the DUP, always terrified that Britain will abandon them, simply will not allow any kind of border, however soft, to be put between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

May cannot defy the DUP on this or her government will fall – and the Conservatives would probably lose the subsequent election, putting her nemesis, the dreaded Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in power.

However, if May insists on leaving the EU customs union, there will have to be a ‘hard’ border – and if there is, says Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, he will veto any negotiations between the EU and the UK on a free trade deal after it leaves the Union.

Theresa May is finally cornered, and the United Kingdom may end up ‘crashing out’ of the EU with no deal at all. The UK can then spend the next decade trying to renegotiate on less favourable terms the 59 trade deals it now enjoys with other countries as a member of the EU – and, more likely than not, dealing with a renewed IRA insurgency in Northern Ireland.

Or May could aim for a deal that keeps the UK in the customs union. Then the border would remain open, and there would be no Irish veto, and a reasonable deal on post-Brexit trade would be possible. But that would split the Conservative Party, and avoiding that is far more important to her than all these other issues.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Northern…it”)

Brexit: May’s Strategy

So far, so good. Boris Johnson, the face of the “Out” side in last month’s Brexit referendum and now Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, got through his first encounter with the 27 other foreign ministers of European Union countries on Monday without insulting anybody.

They were gathered in Brussels for a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and “Boris” was on his best behaviour. He didn’t call anybody a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg” (Arnold Schwartzenegger) or “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger” (George W. Bush).

The poem he wrote in May about Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan having sex with a goat – just google Turkish President Offensive Poetry Competition – didn’t come up as there were no Turks present. There were no Russians at the Brussels meeting either, so nobody objected to his recent remark that President Vladimir Putin looks like Dobbie the House Elf.

As for John Kerry, he was the soul of tact about Johnson’s description of Hillary Clinton as a woman with “dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” Boris is the Clown Prince of British journalism, but you have to admit that he is a very odd choice for chief British diplomat.

He wasn’t the only surprising choice that new Prime Minister Theresa May made in filling her cabinet. The man who gets the tricky job of negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union is David Davies – who as recently as two months ago thought that this could be done by making trade deals separately with each EU member. (They always negotiate as a bloc.)

But Davies was a leading Brexiteer during the referendum campaign, so he gets the job anyway. Liam Fox, the new Secretary of State for International Trade, who will have the thankless task of negotiating new trade deals with countries around the world to make up for Britain’s lost trade with Europe – deals that cannot come into effect until the UK has actually left the EU – was also a leading voice in the pro-Brexit campaign.

So May (who was in favour of “Remain”, and probably still secretly thinks it would have been the better outcome) has chosen the three most prominent Brexiteers to deal with the hugely difficult task of finding a way for the United Kingdom to leave the EU without ending up in the poor-house. Johnson, Davies and Fox are certainly not the three best negotiators for the job, so what is she up to?

One part of her strategy is obvious: “Keep your enemies close.” With the three leading Brexiteers in the cabinet, they will have less time and opportunity to plot against her. But another adage also applies: “Give your enemies enough rope, and they’ll hang themselves.”

The Brexiteers won the referendum by promising that exit from the EU would be easy and painless. So let them take charge of negotiating that exit – and let them take the blame for the very painful terms that Britain will probably have to accept as the price of leaving.

Will they be worse terms than a different negotiating team might achieve? Johnson is profoundly unpopular in Europe: France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, told French radio that Johnson “told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall.” But a more charming (or at least less insulting) British foreign secretary would probably get the same deal. It’s not really about personalities.

The great advantage for May in having the Three Brexiteers negotiate the deal is that nobody will be able to say that a more devoted team would have got a better deal. And maybe by then she will even be able to say that the deal is so bad that the UK should have another referendum (or a general election) about it before actually leaving.

She can’t say that now, so she just says “Brexit is Brexit”. But at least two years will pass before the outcome of the exit negotiations is known, and by then many things may have changed.

The British pound may be worth even less (some suggest that it will be at par with the US dollar). The British economy will probably be in a recession, and maybe a full-scale financial crisis, as foreign investment dries up and the huge British trade deficit becomes unmanageable. Jobs will have begun to disappear in large numbers, and British voters may be in a quite different mood than they are today.

Or maybe they will be even angrier at the stupid foreigners who won’t accept that the world owes them a living. You can’t really predict how the politics will play out. But May loses nothing by letting the leading Brexiteers try to make their promises come true – and when they fail, as they inevitably will, it might even create a chance to reverse the verdict of last month’s referendum.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“One…themselves”; and “Will…personalities”)