// archives

Western European

This tag is associated with 6 posts

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”)

Crooked Timber

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784. It is still true.

On Sunday the 24th ‘Conference of the Parties’ – the 180 countries that signed the climate change treaty in Paris in 2015 – opened in the Polish city of Katowice. The Polish government chose the venue, and it presumably selected Katowice because it is home to Europe’s biggest coal company. It was a thinly disguised show of defiance.

It’s not just Donald Trump who loves coal. It’s by far the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but Poland gets 75% of its electricity by burning coal and it has no intention of changing its ways. In fact, shortly before COP24 opened in Katowice, the Polish government announced that it is planning to invest in a large new coal-mine in the region of Silesia.

1,500 km to the west on the same day, in Paris, municipal workers were picking up the debris after the third and most violent weekend of protests against President Emmanuel Macron. The demos are not as big as those of the great revolt of 1968, but they are certainly the biggest for decades even in this cradle of revolutions.

And what were the protesters (known as the ‘gilets jaunes’ after the fluorescent yellow vests that French drivers must keep in their vehicles) protesting about? In Paris and in other cities, they were building barricades, torching cars, and setting banks and houses on fire because Macron’s government has raised the tax on diesel fuel by 6.5 cents per litre.

This was on top of an increase of 7.9 cents per litre earlier this year, and most French vehicles run on diesel, but the public’s reaction does look a bit excessive. The fact that Macron justified it as a ‘green’ tax intended to reduce fuel use only seemed to make the protesters angrier, and at least until the extreme violence of last Saturday the majority of French people supported them.

Poles clinging to coal despite the fact that the fog of coal smoke that envelops Polish cities in winter kills thousands every year, and ordinary people in France rioting for the right to go on burning cheap diesel in their cars despite a comparable death toll from atmospheric pollution there, suggest that the quest to cut greenhouse gas emissions before global warming goes runaway faces even greater resistance than the experts feared.

Bear in mind that Poland and France are relatively well-educated countries that belong to the European Union, the region that has led the world in terms of its commitment to emission cuts. Neither country has the kind of climate-change denial industry, lavishly funded by fossil-fuel producers, that muddies the waters and spreads doubt about the scientific evidence in the United States. Neither the Poles nor the French are in denial. And yet….

Now, it’s true that Poles have a large collective chip on their shoulder for historical reasons (their entire country was erased from the map for more than a century), so they often respond badly to being lectured by well-meaning foreigners. It’s also true that President Macron is arrogant and has a tin ear for public opinion. But neither nationalist resentment nor clumsy political leadership are in short supply worldwide.

Bear in mind also that the emission cuts promised in the 2015 agreement will not actually come into effect until 2020: we have a mountain to climb and we are not even in the foothills yet. Much bigger sacrifices than a few cents extra on the price of diesel or an end to burning coal will be required before we reach the end of this process, if we ever do.

The question therefore arises: can we really expect that the relatively large (although still inadequate) cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases promised in Paris at the 2015 summit will ever gain the public support necessary to make them happen? If not, then our current global civilisation is doomed.

For the EU, the biggest distraction from the task at hand is the very high rate of unemployment in many Western European countries: officially just under 10% in France and Italy and 15% in Spain, but the true figures are at least a couple of points higher in every case. In fairness to the French protestors, many of them have lost sight of the bigger issue because they just can’t make ends meet.

This unemployment is ‘structural’, and it will not go away. Its primary cause is automation, a process that will only spread and deepen with the passage of time. We are entering this critical period for dealing with climate change – the next five years are make-or-break – just as the world’s economy is undergoing a hugely disruptive transformation that will leave many people permanently jobless.

If you were designing a species capable of making this difficult transition, you would certainly prefer to start with one that was wiser, more cooperative, and less excitable than ourselves, the near relatives of chimpanzees. Something a little less crooked, at least. But this is the timber we have to work with. Good luck.
________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“For…jobless”)

The Muslim Diaspora

“Every Continental [European] under the age of 40—make that 60, if not 75—is all but guaranteed to end his days living in an Islamified Europe,” wrote polemicist Mark Steyn in 2006. “Native populations on the continent are aging and fading and being supplanted remorselessly by a young Muslim demographic.”

So ‘Eurabia’, as Steyn called that Islamified Europe, ought to be a reality by now: people who were 75 when he wrote his book ‘America Alone’ in 2006 would be 87 now if they were still alive, but at least half of them aren’t. Yet Europe’s population is still only 5 percent Muslim, which is a very long way from a majority.

The hysterical discourse about Muslims taking over Europe and leaving the United States ‘Alone’ in the world is a staple of far-right rhetoric in the United States, and it has a devoted band of imitators on the racist, anti-immigrant right of European politics. There is a large and growing Muslim population in Europe, but its growth does not begin to match the predictions of the panic-stricken.

According to the calculations of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, by 2050 the Muslim share of Europe’s population would grow to 7.4 percent by natural increase even if there is no further migration. If migration reverted to its pre-2014 pattern, the Muslim population would be 11 percent of the total by 2050. And even if the huge flow of Muslim refugees in 2014-17 continued, it would only reach 14 percent by mid-century.

It was the surge in refugees fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in 2014-17 that sparked rising support for racist and anti-immigrant policies in many European countries. Pictures of UKIP leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a huge poster showing a seemingly endless column of Syrian refugees and labelled ‘Breaking Point’ may have been the key event that gave the Brexit referendum a narrow ‘Leave’ majority in Britain.

In France, neo-fascist National Front leader Marine Le Pen got one-third of the vote in the presidential election of 2017 by blowing on the same dog-whistle. German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw her party’s vote shrink dramatically in last September’s election, probably because she let a million refugees into Germany in 2016. No good deed goes unpunished.

But the Iraq war is now over, and the Syrian war is staggering to an end. The Afghan war may drag on for years, but the refugee pressure on Europe is already declining. Twenty or thirty years from now, when global warming has destroyed agriculture in much of the Middle East and North Africa, there will be another, much bigger wave of refugees, but at that point Europe will certainly slam the door shut. There will never be a ‘Eurabia’.

There are some Western European countries – the United Kingdom, France, Germany Sweden and Belgium – where the Muslim population is around the 10 percent level now, and could increase to as much as 18 or 19 percent by 2050 if the ‘high’ estimate of refugee intake applies. One country, Sweden, could go even higher, ending up 30 percent Muslim by 2050 on the ‘high’ assumption.

But these predictions may be underestimating the speed at which Muslim birth-rates fall to match those of their non-Muslim neighbours. (European Muslim women now have an average of 2.6 children, whereas non-Muslim women have 1.6.) And in any case, what is so bad about having a higher proportion of Muslims in your population?

The whole panic is built on the assumption that Muslim immigrants are fundamentally less likely than Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Sikh immigrants to give their loyalty to their new country, less able and willing to adopt its values and its ways. Why? Because Islam is an all-embracing way of life that is very resistant to change.

Many Muslims think that the beliefs and behaviours they are inherited are indeed uniquely resistant to change, but there is no evidence that this is true. For example, around a quarter of Americans who were raised as Muslims have left the faith, and more than half of those people no longer identify with any faith. Almost exactly the same figures apply to Americans who were raised Christian.

Assimilation operates more quickly where immigrant communities are small and relatively new: American Muslims are only one percent of the population, Australian Muslims 2.6 percent, Canadian Muslims 3.2 percent.

In the United Kingdom and France, where Muslims now comprise 6.3 percent and 8.8 percent of the population respectively, assimilation proceeds more slowly: less than 5 percent of British Muslims marry outside the faith, for example. But it does proceed: the vast majority of Muslims in these countries identify as British or French, and share their democratic values.

The word ‘assimilation’ is unpopular in many quarters, as it is held to imply being absorbed into a dominant and somehow superior culture. ‘Integration’ is to be preferred, as
it leaves the original cultures intact while integrating the immigrants into a splendidly diverse whole. In reality, the two processes operate together, integration more quickly and assimilation more slowly.

The integration of new immigrants always changes the general culture to some extent, and assimilation is always partial, because new immigrants keep arriving. But there is nothing to be feared here: the national identity and values are safe.
_____________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“But the…Eurabia”; and “The word…slowly”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’, is published this month by Scribe in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

Hungary: Closing the Border

“Hungary is not far away from issuing orders to open fire on refugees,” said one of the European Union’s foreign ministers on Tuesday, and called for the country to be suspended or even expelled from the EU because of its “massive violation” of the EU’s fundamental values. And it’s true that Hungary has built a 175-km. razor-wire fence along its southern border to keep migrants out.

It has deployed ten thousand police and soldiers along that border, and is recruiting
3,000 “border-hunters” equipped with pepper-spray and loaded pistols to help them in their task. And on 2 October it will hold a special referendum asking Hungarians: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

The answer that Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants is“No”, and he is certain to get it. He was an anti-Communist student radical when I first interviewed him almost thirty years ago in the dying days of the Soviet empire. Now he is a right-wing demagogue – but he knew what Hungarians really thought about Communist rule then, and he understands what they think about giving asylum to Muslim refugees now.

The EU foreign minister who made that incendiary remark about Hungarians shooting refugees was Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, the smallest of the EU’s 28 countries, and the foreign ministers of several bigger EU countries, including Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, immediately condemned it.

Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said that Asselborn has “long left the ranks of politicians who could be taken seriously,” and has become a “frivolous character” who is “patronising, arrogant and frustrated”. He also called Asselborn a “classic nihilist” who works tirelessly to destroy Europe’s security and culture.

Szijjarto will not be alone in his views on Friday, when 27 EU foreign ministers (the British foreign minister, Boris Johnson, was not invited) gather in Bratislava for an informal summit. The official topic is the European Union’s future post-Brexit, but they will also be debating what to do about the million-plus migrants, most of them Syrian, Iraq and Afghan refugees, who arrived in the EU in the past eighteen months.

It’s not just Hungarians who want to keep Muslim refugees out of the EU. Right-wing nationalists in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and even Austria feel the same, and they dominate the governments in most of those countries. They see the more relaxed attitude of the big Western European members to “multi-culturalism” as a slow-motion form of cultural suicide (which is why Szijjarto called Asselborn a “classic nihilist”).

Most Eastern Europeans think this way because they have a different history. They experienced almost no immigration under four decades of Communist rule, and it is usually the places with few or no immigrants that are most terrified of them. They also remember centuries of being attacked and invaded by a Muslim great power, the Ottoman Empire (which ruled most of Hungary for more than 150 years).

This does not excuse their extreme views about Muslim refugees – “Calling someone a moderate Muslim is like calling someone a moderate Nazi,” said Czech President Milos Zeman five years ago – but it does explain them. They think the Germans are crazy to let a million Muslim migrants in, and they have no intention of sharing that burden even if Berlin and the other big Western capitals say they should.

You can and should condemn this attitude to desperate and mostly harmless refugees – even though there will inevitably be a few “sleepers” among them who are loyal to Islamic State – but you can’t just ignore it. Global refugees are more numerous today than at any other time since 1950, but in twenty years there will probably be five or ten times as many – and the borders will be slamming shut everywhere.

The immediate driver of this tsunami of refugees will often be wars, but what drives the wars will be climate change and runaway population growth. Africa’s population will double in the next thirty years, just as global warming cuts deeply into the continent’s food production.

The population growth rate of the greater Middle East, from Morocco to Pakistan, is lower than Africa’s but higher than any other region. Many countries can’t grow enough to feed their own people even now, and intense heat and semi-permanent drought will make the problem far worse.

There will be tens of millions of refugees, and their destination will be the relatively developed and well-fed countries of Europe (and, in the case of refugees from central and southern Africa, South Africa as well). Similar waves of climate refugees will be washing up against the southern border of the United States and the northern coast of Australia.

The Hungarians may not end up shooting refugees on their southern border this time around. It’s still a quite small problem: one or two million refugees in the European Union (pop. 500 million) is really only a drop in the bucket.

But with time the number of refugees will grow, and politics everywhere is vulnerable to demagogues. In 30 years’ time, and perhaps much sooner, there may be shooting along all these borders.
__________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Most…should”)