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Will the EU Survive the Coronavirus?

The most insidious tactic of COVID-19 is to get a person’s body to attack itself. In the worst cases, the body’s autoimmune system essentially goes haywire as it tries to fight off infection. This “cytokine storm” can lead to serious inflammation in the lungs and ultimately to major organ failure.

COVID-19 seems to have had a similar effect on the international system. Instead of working together, the global community started to attack itself. The mechanisms designed to facilitate international cooperation — borders, trade — began to work against this cooperation. In the worst cases, countries began to fight over the very medical supplies that, shared equitably,  could save the largest number of people.

This geopolitical cytokine storm will have long-lasting consequences. One of its casualties may ultimately be the European Union.

The Failure of Regional Responses

In an ideal world, the outbreak of COVID-19 in China would have precipitated a uniform international response.

Every country would have implemented the same protocols the World Health Organization developed after the SARS epidemic, and a global team of experts would have helped China contain the crisis. Then perhaps the world could have dodged the latest pandemic threat and avoided going into the current health and economic tailspin.

Absent a coordinated global response, different regions of the world could still have banded together to fight the infectious disease.

In Asia, each country approached the challenge its own way, virtually all of them better than the U.S. response. Taiwan, despite its proximity to mainland China, has kept the number of infections in the triple digits. South Korea has deployed a sophisticated technological response to flatten the curve after an initial outbreak. What Asian countries didn’t do, however, was pull together as a region. Even putative allies Japan and South Korea took the opportunity to amplify their longstanding feud by trading accusations and imposing mutual travel restrictions. Only recently have China, Japan, and South Korea begun to coordinate their pandemic response.

Latin America, riven by numerous ideological splits, has had wildly divergent responses to COVID-19, from the denialism of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua to a strict quarantine in Peru.

Having beaten back several outbreaks of Ebola, African countries have shown a bit more of a cooperative spirit, thanks to institutions like the Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement project.

Given Donald Trump’s erratic behavior during this crisis, forget about a coordinated North American strategy. In fact, there hasn’t even been a coordinated U.S. strategy coming out of Washington.

Europe should have been different. For decades, the European Union has built up institutional cooperation across economy, politics, and culture. Surely, it would take on an external threat like the coronavirus in a unified manner.

It didn’t.

The Case of Italy

Italy was the first hotspot to emerge in the European Union. Within a few days of its first reported case of infection in Lombardy on February 20, COVID-19 was putting an enormous strain on the hospitals of northern Italy. The EU’s response was largely bureaucratic — more consultations. When it came to concrete assistance, the EU had little to offer Italy.

On March 10, only a couple weeks after the appearance of its first case, Italy’s permanent representative to the European Union Maurizio Massari wrote in no uncertain terms in Politico:

Italy has already asked to activate the European Union Mechanism of Civil Protection for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection. But, unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to the Commission’s call. Only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity.

Worse, a number of European countries like France and Germany actually imposed export limits on critical medical supplies for fear that they would need them in the coming days.

The eventual intervention of the European Commission to impose region-wide export restrictions in exchange for EU members rescinding their national bans might have alleviated some shortages within the bloc but at the expense of poorer countries outside of it. In early April, Italy is still nowhere near securing the 90 million masks it needs.

For many Italians, the failure of European solidarity was nothing new. Writes Luigi Scazzeri at the Centre for European Reform:

Over the past decade, Italy has gone from being one of the most enthusiastic supporters of greater European integration to one of the most eurosceptic member-states. Many Italians felt that Italy did not receive much European solidarity during the eurozone crisis, and that the Union served as an enforcer of damaging austerity policies. The damage to Italians’ view of the EU was then compounded by the bloc’s response to the migration crisis. Italy took in 650,000 migrants between 2014 and 2018, and efforts to distribute these among other EU countries were largely symbolic… 

Okay, so the EU screwed up its response to COVID-19. It certainly isn’t alone in misjudging the extent of the crisis and failing to act in the best interests of all.

It now has a second chance to make good as a bloc in addressing the economic crisis developing in the wake of COVID-19. Yet it seems on the verge of repeating an earlier set of mistakes.

Corona Bonds?

When Europe was in the depths of its sovereign debt crisis a decade ago, some countries called for Euro Bonds. This common debt instrument, floated by the Eurozone as a whole, could have provided access to cheaper credit for all members, but especially those hardest hit by the financial crisis. The most indebted nations like Greece and Italy supported the idea. The Germans and the Dutch, worried about subsidizing what they considered bad economic behavior, nixed the idea.

Virtually the same argument has reemerged today as Euro Bonds have become Corona Bonds, with the same countries in favor and the same countries against. Infuriated at the opposition to such Corona Bonds, Bloomberg reported, some Italian politicians paid for a full-page ad in a German newspaper “accusing the Dutch of ‘a lack of ethics and solidarity,’ and unsubtly reminding the Germans of the solidarity Europe showed them after [World War II], when Germany’s debts were forgiven or restructured at a conference in 1953.”

The EU has taken some dramatic measures in response to the economic shock of the shutdowns.

It has relaxed the rules on government spending to permit large-scale stimulus packages. The European Central Bank has made $820 billion available to buy up European bonds, which will reduce the cost of borrowing for the worst hit countries. The Eurozone has its European Stability Mechanism, designed to help countries in trouble with 400 billion euros at its disposal. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen also announced last week that the EU “will allocate up to 100 billion euros ($110 billion) to the hardest hit countries, starting from Italy, to compensate for the reduction in the wages of those working on shorter hours.”

There are other proposals including a Europe-wide stimulus package, which would come on top of the bailouts that each of the national governments has enacted, and a European Guarantee Fund that could reach 200 billion euros.

That’s a lot of money available to members of the club. Perhaps it’s enough money to buy — er, guarantee — the loyalty of even the most Euroskeptical.

So, why are Italy, Spain, and other countries still pushing for Corona Bonds? They want debt mutualized — i.e., shared — rather than dumped on the shoulders of the most adversely affected. And they’re worried that the other deals come with strings attached that will resemble what was required of them during the last financial crisis.

What the Germans and Dutch prefer, which would indeed include some conditionality, might seem to make economic sense. But it also might deepen the fissures already present in the EU and push the Eurozone if not the larger bloc to the breaking point.

Europe’s Pre-Existing Conditions

Before the coronavirus struck, it looked as if Europe was spinning off in many different directions.

The United Kingdom was on its way out. Hungary and several other East European countries were heading in a distinctly authoritarian direction. Italy was flirting with right-wing populism. On the economic front, Germany remained a powerhouse, Greece had not made up for all the ground it lost in the 2009 crisis, and the countries of Eastern Europe had not yet closed the gap with the western half of the continent.

The far right, which was gaining strength in the European Parliament, had decided not to follow the example of Brexit but instead work within the system to transform the EU. The coronavirus could very well be their best ally in this struggle to devolve power from Brussels to the individual member states.

First came the reimposition of national border checkpoints within the Schengen Area, with Germany the last to follow suit on March 16. Ten days later, Europe was supposed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Schengen’s abolition of border controls. Instead there are new gates and road barriers where not long before travelers could pass between countries without even knowing it. It’s not clear when these intra-European travel restrictions will be lifted.

Then came the more restrictive policies toward migrants still desperate to get into Europe.

On March 17, the EU closed its borders to non-nationals. Greece had already sent troops to its border with Turkey to stop refugees from crossing over by land. But people are still attempting to reach Europe by sea. Of the 800 who left Libya in March, 43 made it to Italy and 155 landed in Malta. The Libyan coast guard gathered up the rest and returned them to Libya. Now that the first cases of infection are appearing in refugee camps in Greece, the containment efforts are turning inward.

By contrast, Portugal has boldly given all migrants and asylum-seekers full citizenship rights on a temporary basis so that they can access health care during the pandemic.

Throughout Europe, national policies are trumping region-wide rules and regulations. The most extreme case is Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has declared a state of emergency that gives him nearly unlimited power for an unknown period of time. Other states like Spain and the UK have declared states of emergency but without comparable flouting of the rule of law. And some countries, like Romania, Estonia, and Latvia, have invoked Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights that permits states of emergency “in times of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation.”

Hungary’s authoritarianism, Portugal’s generosity, Italy’s call for solidarity, Germany’s tightfistedness: European responses to the current crisis are literally all over the map. This does not bode well for the future of the European Union. As Nathalie Tocci, a former adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, told The Guardian: “This is definitely a make-it-or-break-it moment for the European project. If it goes badly this really risks being the end of the union. It fuels all the nationalist-populism.”

Right now, Europe is in the midst of a cytokine storm. The doctors are hooking the patient up to the ventilators of economic bailout. It’s uncertain whether this strategy will save the patient or just prolong the agony. For sure, however, if the EU survives its intubation, it will emerge on the other side a different and possibly much weaker survivor.

Foreign Policy In Focus, March 8, 2020

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Goodbye to All That: The UK after Brexit

If I were the European Union, I’d be wiping my hands, sighing in relief, and slamming the door after the United Kingdom’s long-delayed departure.

Britain had been a noisy, pushy houseguest for 47 years, and it was only growing ruder. It spent the last three years hanging out in the foyer, braying and temporizing. Even as it steps out the door it’s trying to negotiate the most generous visitation terms: all rights with no responsibilities.

Good riddance to guests who overstay their welcome.

The UK was always demanding special exceptions to the rules. It was always attempting to smuggle its ridiculous laissez-faire ideas into continental practices. It was always boasting of its extramarital affairs with America. And, mon dieu, could it drone on at dinner about the “good old days” when the sun never set on its imperialist expanse. John Bull, indeed!

There’s no better example of this British bull than Nigel Farage, the man who practically engineered Brexit. What do you suppose he was doing for a living for the last two decades? Managing a Union Jack flag factory? Running a fish-and-chips shop in London? Growing turnips somewhere in the British countryside?

No, the man who made a career of hating the EU served in the European Parliament non-stop since 1999.

He was pulling down 100,000 pounds a year for doing the work of a termite, eating away the foundations of the house into which he’d been invited. Part of his time was also spent misspending funds, which forced the EU to dock his pay. At least when he complained of EU corruption, he could present one indisputable case to prove his point.

Farage’s departure from the European Parliament was of a piece with his undistinguished tenure as parliamentarian. “I’m hoping this begins the end of this project,” he crowed on his last day in the body as he waved his little Union Jack. “It’s a bad project, it isn’t just undemocratic, it’s anti-democratic.”

Seems to me that the European Parliament was overly democratic by letting someone so obnoxious bite the hand that had fed him, year after year, for two decades.

As for the speechifying and flag-waving, the parliament’s vice president, Mairead McGuinness, , was having none of it. “If you disobey the rules, you get cut off,” she said to the misbehaving Farage.  “Please sit down, resume your seats, put your flags away — you’re leaving — and take them with you.”

It’s too bad no one ever said something like that to Boris Johnson, the erstwhile prime minister of what will soon be the incredibly shrinking United Kingdom. Johnson joined Farage in misleading the British public into cutting off their own noses to spite the EU’s face. Johnson is wittier than Farage, more willing to make fun of himself and his pomposities. But he’s still a prat. In the end, the pair have turned out to be the glycerol and nitric acid of Brexit — harmless by themselves but recklessly explosive in combination.

The nitroglycerin blast won’t reach across the Channel. The European Union will survive Brexit, thank you very much.

No, Brexit will turn out to be a suicide attack on the UK itself.

Goodbye Scotland?

The hardy people of Scotland didn’t want to leave the European Union. By a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, they voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. It was unanimous across all 32 council areas.

In the last UK election in December, meanwhile, the Scottish National Party (SNP) practically swept the results, gaining 13 more seats to hold a commanding 48 of 59 Scottish seats in the British parliament (it currently holds a majority in the Scottish parliament as well). Labor, having failed to clearly support Remain, dropped to a single seat.

The head of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, is angling to hold another referendum on Scottish independence. The Johnson government is saying no, that the 2014 referendum, which supported remaining in the UK by a margin of 55 to 45 percent, was a “once in a generation” opportunity. Sturgeon could very well retort that, because of Brexit, the UK has aged a generation in the last three years.

Support for independence today in Scotland is as close as Brexit was in 2016. The latest polls put it at around 51 percent. But that will likely increase as the economic impact of Brexit begins to hit.

Of course, Scottish independence would also be a step toward rejoining the European Union. According to outgoing president of the European Council Donald Tusk, there’s enthusiasm in the EU about an independent Scotland applying for admission.

The enthusiasm goes both ways, since the Scottish economy depends a great deal on Europe. In 2018, Scottish exports to the EU grew by 4.5 percent to reach 16 billion pounds. That’s less than a third of what goes to the rest of the UK, but it’s still a significant amount. Moreover, because of a growing labor deficit, Scotland has relied on EU nationals to staff the tourism and service sectors.

As a sign of their Europhilia, the Scots voted last week to keep the EU flag flying outside their devolved parliament in Edinburgh. Take that, Nigel Farage!

Goodbye Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland also wanted to stay in the EU, not quite so much as Scotland, but still by a significant margin of 56 percent to 44 percent in the 2016 referendum.

Brexit could have the most calamitous impact on the peace that has held between unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement that effectively ended the war between these two communities also softened the border between the two parts of Ireland through demilitarization and increased cross-border exchanges.

Ever since, it’s been a delicate balance between the north and the south and between Northern Ireland and the UK. But at least everyone was part of the EU. Not anymore.

Since the Republic of Ireland remains part of the EU, a special arrangement has been made to keep Northern Ireland part of Europe’s customs union. But that will push the boundary between the UK and Ireland into the sea and also require all sorts of paperwork for the trade that passes between the two.

The unionists are upset that their link to the UK has been weakened. The republicans are angry that they’re no longer part of the EU alongside the Republic of Ireland. The various paramilitaries associated with these communities are still around, though it’s unlikely that Brexit by itself will reignite the conflict.

But the long-held dream of republicans in Northern Ireland — unification with the south — is now back on the table. And that might push the unionists up against the wall. Many are furious at Boris Johnson’s betrayal of Northern Ireland at the EU negotiating table and might probably view unification with the south as a detour back into the EU. But other unionists might be willing to go to any length to prevent that scenario.

As Nick Laird writes in The New York Review of Books:

The old binary national and religious distinctions would be complicated with economic questions, and questions about whether the Northern Irish want to be yoked to insular self-defeating Little Englanders who couldn’t care less about them, or to the largest single market in the world, which, for whatever its faults, was founded on the postwar ideals of peace and fraternity and prosperity.

Of course, the longer Northern Ireland debates this question, the more the question might answer itself. “The demographics of Northern Ireland have been steadily shifting,” writes James Angelos in The New York Times. “Within the decade, a majority of its people will be Catholic, making the prospect of a united Ireland seem almost inevitable.”

Goodbye Prosperity?

First off, even though the UK is now officially out of the EU as of January 31, no one knows what the economic impact will be — because of the one-year grace period before any of the consequences of withdrawal begin to kick in.

The UK has dodged the bullet of a “no deal” exit, which would have been truly catastrophic. But during this transition period, it now faces a second bullet. Johnson is threatening a “no free trade” exit as part of his negotiations with the EU, refusing to accept European rules and regulations in exchange for privileged access to the EU market.

Even if the two sides narrow their differences, the UK will be hard hit by losing the benefits of membership. The Brexiteers have been counting on a trade deal with the United States to take up the slack. Given how vindictive and unpredictable Donald Trump can be on trade issues, that’s an especially poor horse to bet on.

According to economists at the London School of Economics, Britons can expect a drop of 6.4 percent in per capita income. Whatever the UK saves in its payments to the EU — about 9 billion pounds overall in 2018 — will be more than offset by the cost of divorce, which will be 33 billion pounds.

The UK will lose out not only on the import and export side. UK businesses won’t be able to bid on public contracts in EU member states. The UK will have to forgo R & D resources from Brussels. Young Britons won’t be able to find work so easily on the continent.

Brexit optimists point to a couple strong indicators in the current British economy, such as low unemployment, low inflation, and accelerated wage growth. See, they say, the gloom-and-doomers are wrong.

But this last year has been the worst non-recession growth year in the UK since World War II.

The economic shock delivered by the initial Brexit vote in 2016 already took 1,600 pounds out of the British pockets that they might have ordinarily had if the vote had gone in the Remain direction. Financial services and other businesses have already moved a trillion dollars in assets to other European cities. Foreign investors who might have set up factories in England as a way to access the European market, like Honda and Nissan, are looking elsewhere. Last year, the rate of investment into the UK dropped to the lowest in six years.

Johnson is hoping that he can remake England into a low-wage, low-regulation alternative to the European Union, a “Singapore on the Thames.

Singapore? Hah, the UK should be so lucky. It will be more like Louisiana, which has also pursued a “low road” approach to competing for investment. Despite being a haven for oil and chemical companies, Louisiana is one of the two poorest states in the country and comes in dead last in the rankings of most environmentally friendly states.

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail of the Brexiteers is not just leaving the EU but also destroying the institution, as Farage so indelicately put it. Even here, though Brexit has proven self-defeating.

The British experience of withdrawal has served as smelling salts to the rest of Europe. No other exits are on the horizon. Brexit has revealed just how beneficial EU membership is — and also the exorbitant cost of divorce.

The far right remains Euroskeptical. It has also grown more powerful politically since 2016 and has more representation in the European Parliament. This access, however, has changed the political calculus. Now the Euroskeptics are looking at how to change the EU from within, which is frankly a more dangerous prospect.

But that’s a European debate, which no longer will include the British. The UK is pursuing a different Holy Grail: success outside the European Union. And how likely is that prospect?

To understand the UK’s current predicament, let’s go back to the scene involving the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Black Knight stands before a bridge to block King Arthur from crossing. Undeterred, Arthur promptly cuts off the Black Knight’s left arm.

“’Tis but a scratch,” the Black Knight says, brandishing the sword with his other arm.

Arthur promptly cuts off this arm as well.

“It’s just a flesh wound,” says the Black Knight.

Arthur cuts off first one leg and then the other.

“All right,” says what remains of the Black Knight, “let’s call it a draw.”

That’s England, limbless after its battle with the EU. Goodbye Scotland, Northern Ireland, and general prosperity. Brexit has left the UK with barely a leg to stand on.

Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson might call that a victory. Other Brexiteers might gamely declare it a draw.

Everyone else will see it much more clearly: as a veritable rout.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 5, 2020

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Will 2020 Be Another Victory Year for Trump and Brexit?

with Valerio Alfonso Bruno 

In early 2017, Europe’s far-right parliamentary bloc met in Koblenz, Germany, to plot its political future. The meeting of the bloc’s leaders — which included Marine le Pen from France, Matteo Salvini from Italy and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands — took place shortly after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. The group was optimistic about its prospects. “Yesterday a free America, today Koblenz, tomorrow a new Europe,” declared an excited Wilders.

Today, the far right faces a watershed year. After the 2019 European Parliament elections, the European far-right bloc has doubled in size, and Boris Johnson has finally extricated the UK from the European Union — a dream of the far right for some time. On the other hand, Trump heads into an election year amid his own impeachment trial.

The success of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s long-shot presidential bid in 2016 signaled a global turn to the right. Will 2020 deliver a different verdict?

Responding to Impeachment

The news of Donald Trump’s impeachment spread across the world in the hours after the historic House vote in mid-December in favor of impeachment. However, world leaders and high-profile politicians generally reserved judgment on the event. “World reaction muted to nonexistent” was the headline in USA Today. Some responses were general, as when China’s The Global Times took the opportunity of the impeachment to point out the growing “flaws of Western-style democracy.”

Two major exceptions to the lack of reaction from politicians worldwide were Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italy’s leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini. Both expressed strong support for Trump, predicting that he would not only survive the proceedings, but even benefit from the impeachment in terms of electoral support. Both Putin and Salvini condemned the Democratic Party for trying to reverse the will of the people outside the ballot box. The Russian president, during his annual press conference, stated that the Democrats were simply trying to reverse their 2016 loss by “other means.”

Salvini’s League is leading the polls with 31% support. He not only expressed support for Trump, but empathized with him. Indeed, Salvini may also face legal proceedings in 2020 for having blocked a refugee transport from docking at an Italian harbor last year. As with Trump’s impeachment, the Italian senate will decide whether the proceedings will take place or not

Other Trump allies around the world have been notably quiet. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, overwhelmed by his own corruption scandal, was careful to put distance between Israel and the United States over Trump’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, hit by the threat of US trade sanctions, has also not come out strongly in support of Trump in this hour of need. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined Trump at the White House in November and appeared before journalists just as the impeachment hearings were getting started in the House. It was a sign of support for Trump, certainly, but otherwise Erdogan has been quiet about the political challenges the US president faces.

With the exception of Israel and the Philippines, where he remains popular, Trump has very low favorability ratings around the world. Based on Pew polling conducted in 32 countries last year, only 29% of people have confidence in the US president. Even in countries with right-wing leadership, like the UK and Hungary, Trump’s numbers are in the low 30s. No doubt that helps explain why Boris Johnson took pains to ask Trump not to “interfere” in the UK elections at the end of last year.

Trump’s erratic policies, his tendency to slap trade sanctions even on close allies, and his mercurial temperament also help explain why the coterie of right-wing and populist leaders around the world are adopting a wait-and-see approach to Trump’s political future.

Brexit and the European Far Right

In Europe, the reactions of far-right parties to Brexit were similarly low-key and revolved around two messages: respect the popular vote and avoid painful negotiations. In particular, Marine Le PenMatteo Salvini and Vox’s Santiago Abascal all agreed on the necessity to respect the “will of the people” and also warned the European Union not to use painful Brexit negotiations to punish the UK and deter other member states from contemplating withdrawal.

Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), expressed similar sentiments. However, the AfD has called for a possible “exit” of Germany from the EU, the first major German party to adopt such a policy. Indeed, the major far-right parties in Europe, with the exception of AfD and a few others, are very cautious about threatening a possible withdrawal from the European Union. Even Spain’s Vox, which captured around 15% of the vote in last year’s election, is not enthusiastic about a “Spaxit,” even though an EU court ruling in favor of parliamentary immunity for jailed Catalan separatist leaders has put pressure on the party to support EU withdrawal in response.

The euroskepticism of the 2010s that produced calls for a withdrawal from the EU has largely given way to a different far-right strategy: to gain influence within European structures and use them to advance its agenda.

Partly this about-face reflects the interests of the electorate. The National Rally has stepped back from the idea of “Frexit” and leaving the euro bloc because “The French people have shown that they remain attached to the single currency,” according to a party document. Or, as Salvini has said, “We don’t want to leave anything; we want to change the rules of the EU from the inside.” The country where sentiment to leave the EU is highest is the Czech Republic, and it only hits 34%.

The other part of the story is the growing far-right representation in the European Parliament, the coordination of far-right parties in the European space, and the influence of far-right NGOs like CitizenGo. The UK has always been something of an outlier in the European Union — joining late and negotiating multiple exceptions to EU rules. It looks as if Brexit will be an outlier as well.

What’s Next?

In 2017, given the victories of Trump and Brexit the year before, Geert Wilder was justified in his optimism about the future of the far right. In the next few years, he could point to other reasons to be cheerful: the win for Bolsonaro in Brazil, the reelection of Narendra Modi in India, the success of the far right in the Hungarian and Polish parliamentary elections, the electoral surges of Vox in Spain and AfD in Germany.

The situation in 2020 is not so clear. Scandals have overwhelmed key leaders like Netanyahu, Bolsonaro and Trump himself. The far right’s participation in the Austrian coalition government came to an end as a result of another corruption scandal. Despite much media exposure, the efforts of Steve Bannon, Trump’s ideological adviser, to build a “Nationalist International” have not borne fruit.

Much depends on two factors: the results of the Brexit negotiations and the outcome of the 2020 US election. If Britain suffers economically as a result of withdrawal from the EU, the backlash against Johnson and his populist politics will be significant. And if Donald Trump loses in November — in the Electoral College as well as in the popular vote — it will send a strong message that his brand of illiberal, xenophobic populism lacks enduring appeal.

The triumphalism of the far right and its claims of an inevitable march away from liberalism will suffer a major blow. However, the cautious approach by far-right parties worldwide to Trump’s impeachment and Brexit may well signal that those political actors are now adopting long-term strategies to gain power. Their long-term strategy is shifting to a slower infiltration of democratic institutions both at the national that supranational level.

Fair Observer, February 3, 2020

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Trump, Brexit: Where’s the Backlash?

I dutifully got a shot this winter to inoculate myself against four different flu viruses. By exposing myself to weakened strains of these diseases, and preemptively suffering some mild flu symptoms, I can ward off the more serious consequences of a full-on infection and do my part to help stop the further spread of these pathogens.

Both the United States and United Kingdom came down with chills and high fever in 2016.

In the most optimistic scenario, the passage of the Brexit referendum and then Donald Trump’s electoral victory some months would inoculate the general population against an even more serious illness. Surely, once Britons got a foretaste of exiting the European Union they would come to their senses and run back into the embrace of Brussels. Likewise, Americans would experience the horror of a Trump presidency and kick him out of office after his first term (or even before).

So far, so bad.

In the British election last week, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a decisive victory over both the wavering Labor Party and the more EU-friendly Liberal Democrats. With his commanding parliamentary majority, Johnson will be able to usher the UK out of the EU, and there’s little that anyone can do to stop him.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Congress is impeaching an American president for only the third time in history. That, on the face of it, would seem to be a resolute response to the disease that is Donald Trump. But Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere. According to a number of indications this week, his chances of reelection have even been improved by impeachment — or, at the very least, not adversely affected by it.

Democracy is supposed to be the political system that allows citizens to learn from their mistakes. But what happens when those mistakes are so momentous that they threaten to overwhelm the system and its vaunted self-correction mechanisms?

We’ve been suffering from flu symptoms only to learn that just around the corner is the political equivalent of Ebola.

Johnson’s Folly

In the run up to the recent UK election, Boris Johnson couldn’t seem to stop making mistakes. He threatened to pull the UK out of the EU even without a deal, a move so disruptive that members of his own party bolted into opposition. He invoked emergency powers over parliament to force a vote on his Brexit proposal. He lost vote after vote in the House of Commons.

Through it all, Johnson was his usual buffoonish self, a true English eccentric who has lied and cheated his way to the top. He should have been tossed out of office simply for being an insufferable poser.

But Johnson survived because he knew three things. The Labor Party was a house divided between those who favored staying in the EU and those who wanted out. The leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn, was deeply unpopular, even in some Labor strongholds. And the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, was eager for new elections, over the objections of her senior associates, because she thought she could climb over two unpopular parties to reach the top of the political heap.

Johnson was thus able to fall back on his only option: call an election and hope to repopulate parliament with his own people. True to form, Johnson has pulled off yet another improbable win.

Labor, meanwhile, suffered an epic fail, losing some seats it had continuously occupied for a century. Corbyn, having presided over this disaster, will be out on his ear. The Liberal Democrats lost ground in parliament — and Swinson herself couldn’t even hold onto her seat.

Up north, the pro-Remain Scottish National Party has consolidated its control in Scotland and will be pushing as hard as possible for another referendum on independence. Johnson has a large enough parliamentary majority to prevent that from happening for the time being. But the United Kingdom may well be the first casualty of Brexit.

The EU leadership, meanwhile, is relieved that Britain will finally follow through on its plan. The UK has always been a pain in the EU’s butt — demanding innumerable exemptions from EU rules, refusing to join the common currency, serving as a European foothold for American-style laissez-faire capitalism. Finally, there’s an end in sight for the seemingly endless Brexit negotiations, which represented yet another example of British intransigence.

Even though the British population didn’t experience a Brexit backlash in this election, there has been a cautionary backlash within the EU itself. No other country is seriously considering exit at this point. But that’s not necessarily good news. The Euroskeptics who were so excited by Brexit have begun to embrace a different strategy: take over the EU. If you were lukewarm about European integration before — because of its neoliberalism, its retreat on immigration, its bureaucratic excesses — you’re going to be even less enthusiastic if the likes of Brexiteer Nigel Farage takes over.

The Brits might have second thoughts about Brexit when their economy tanks, the Conservative Party eviscerates what’s left of the British welfare state, and the removal of EU benefits (like retiring on a British pension to a sunny Mediterranean country) hits home. A future backlash is certainly possible. But crawling back into the EU will not be so easy — and that’s if the EU will have them.

Nevertheless He Persisted

Jeff Van Drew was a Democratic congressman from New Jersey. He entered Congress in 2018 by flipping a district that Trump won two years earlier by five points. The New Jersey legislator positioned himself as a moderate Democrat. He was one of only two congressional Democrats to vote against moving forward with the impeachment hearings.

He hasn’t switched his position on impeachment. But he is switching parties.

Despite declaring last month that he was a lifelong Democrat, Van Drew decided to become a Republican this month. It wasn’t so much the pull factor from Trump’s party as much as the push factor from the Dems. The New York Times reported on a poll of Democratic primary voters in his New Jersey district that showed 71 percent of them less likely to vote for Van Drew if he continued to oppose impeachment.

Jeff Van Drew is not leading a rush to the exits. The Democrats, with enough votes to impeach in the House, are not cracking down on dissenters. And public opinion continues to favor impeachment, at least among Democratic voters (about 83 percent).

The problem is that a lot of politicians are calculating that impeachment is not a winning issue in heavily Republican areas or potential swing districts.

If you’re a Republican, you face a revolt among your constituents if you consider voting for impeachment. Fewer than 10 percent of Republican voters support impeaching the president. Plus, you risk a fatwa from the president.

Consider the transformation of Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a moderate congresswoman who was never gung ho about Trump’s presidential aspirations. When the impeachment hearings began, she became Trump’s attack dog on the House Intelligence Committee. In so doing, she has solidified her Republican Party voter base and gotten a big lift from the president himself.

Is it disgusting? Yes, absolutely. Is it politically astute. Yes, unfortunately.

Or what about Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate for president in 2016 whose looks Trump insulted on his way to the nomination? She says that Trump should be impeached. But she still might vote for him in 2020!

She’s not alone. A majority of Americans favor impeachment, but recent polling puts Trump ahead of all Democratic rivals on a head-to-head basis. According to a USAToday poll, Trump leads Joe Biden by 3 percent, Bernie Sanders by 5 percent, Elizabeth Warren by 8 percent, and Pete Buttigieg by 10 percent.

Back in September, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, the top five Democratic hopefuls were beating Trump, with Biden up by an astounding 16 percent, Sanders 12 percent, Warren 11 percent, Kamala Harris 10 percent, and Buttigieg 6 percent. That was only a few months ago!

So, yes, there’s a backlash. But it seems to be against the Democrats, not Trump. As I wrote back in September:

Impeachment of Trump, at this point, is both a legal and moral necessity. It’s also very likely a political trap.

Trump relishes the role of an underdog, persecuted by the powerful. It’s what enables him to connect to a political base that, aside from his deep-pocket funders, feels disempowered by a rigged economy and a sclerotic political system. Impeachment, for this constituency, vindicates the narrative of the “deep state.” 

Indeed, it suggests that the entire state is out to get Trump — which it is and should. But impeachment is the only thing that can turn the most powerful man in the world into a cornered victim and thus, for a significant number of American voters, a sympathetic character.

It helps, of course, that the president can point to soaring economic indicators, recently announced trade deals with China and our North American neighbors, and a new space command included in the recent budget bill.

It’s galling that a scofflaw can remain sufficiently popular to win elections. No doubt Trump is eyeing the example of Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines who has presided over the extrajudicial killing of thousands of people and yet maintains nearly an 80 percent approval rating.

Trump invited Duterte to the White House and praised his deadly war on drugs. Duterte, after all, is the living proof that you can shoot people indiscriminately and still maintain your popularity. Trump, unleashed in a second term, might just try to test the applicability of that model to the United States.

A Dangerous Acclimatization

There’s been more than one mass shooting a day in the United States this year: 396 as of December 16, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Despite all the political handwringing and the gradual shift in public opinion over the last few years in favor of stricter gun control laws, federal policy has barely shifted. No assault rifle ban. No “red flag” law. No universal background check

What has happened instead? After the mass shootings this summer, companies with names TuffyPacks reported a 300 percent increase in sales of bullet-proof backpacks. Parents are taking prophylactic measures that are pathetically insufficient. Mass shootings are the new normal. Suck it up and move on.

Americans have similarly adjusted to the criminal actions of the president, his violent policies at the border, his verbal abuse of virtually everyone. We haven’t bought TuffyPacks to protect ourselves from the White House. Our skins have just grown tougher.

And that’s the saddest part of all. It’s just a lot harder to generate a backlash when our backs have become accustomed to the lash.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 18, 2019

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Articles Europe Featured Islamophobia

The Far Right’s War on Culture

The far right is on a roll. Just a few years ago, liberals and conservatives would have considered its recent political victories a nightmare scenario. Right-wing extremists have won elections in the United States, Brazil, Hungary, India, and Poland. They pushed through the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. In the most recent European Parliament elections, far-right parties captured the most votes in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Hungary.

Sure, Trump is being impeached, Brexit is a mess, and the far right in Austria and Italy have suffered recent setbacks. Still, looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to conclude that such extremists have acquired the sort of mainstream legitimacy across the planet that they haven’t enjoyed in nearly a century.

What’s worse, those electoral victories obscure an even deeper, potentially far more influential success — in the world of storytelling. The radical right has developed a global narrative that, by uniting virulent racists and commonplace conservatives, mass shooters and populist politicians, is already injecting fringe ideas into mainstream culture.

Admittedly, it’s not a story that has either universal appeal or will win any literary awards. Still, by telling it over and over again in different languages to a growing number of listeners, the far right is having a profound impact on global culture. In many places, it may already be winning the crucial battle for hearts and minds.

The radical right’s story is rooted in the most basic plot of all: us versus them. Its main nemesis is determined, so the tale goes, to storm the battlements of the “civilized world” and, in what’s called a “great replacement,” oust its innocent inhabitants. Since this isn’t the Middle Ages, the evil adversary isn’t deploying siege engines or an army of pillagers. Its tactics are more insidious: taking over institutions from the inside, infiltrating culture, and worst of all birthing lots of babies.

But who exactly are the pronouns in this story? The idea of “the great replacement” is based on the fantasy that “they” (especially migrants and Muslims) are intent on replacing “us” (whites, Christians). Some versions of the narrative have an anti-Semitic slant as well, with Jews lurking in the shadows of this fiendish plot. For racists, the Others, of course, have darker complexions. For Islamophobes, the outsiders practice the wrong religion.

If you’re not a member of the far right, if you don’t subscribe to its YouTube channels or follow its burgeoning Twitter accounts, you might have only scant acquaintance with this story. But once you start looking for it, the great replacement turns out to be omnipresent.

Between 2012 and 2019, for instance, 1.5 million tweets in English, French, and German referenced it. You could hear an echo of the phrase at the Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other demonstrators chanted, “You will not replace us!” But the phrase really broke into the headlines in March 2019 when a mass shooter who opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, titled the online manifesto he prepared for the occasion, “The Great Replacement.”

By now, it’s become alarmingly clear that an increasing number of people are taking this bizarre, historically deficient, and thoroughly warped story to heart.

Once Upon a Time

At first glance, the man who came up with the idea of the “great replacement” might not seem like your usual suspect. Renaud Camus was a radical student demonstrator in Paris in 1968 and in 1981 voted for socialist Francois Mitterrand for president of France. A noted poet and novelist, he published books on his gay identity that attracted accolades from the likes of intellectual Roland Barthes and poet Allen Ginsberg. By the early 2000s, however, Camus had begun to outline a new philosophy that distinguished between “faux” or false French (immigrants or their children) and real French (those who had lived in the country for many generations). In 2010, he published a book entitled Le Grand Remplacement bemoaning the prospects of a France and a Europe transformed by immigration.

Camus’s work became the foundational text for a growing movement called Generation Identity, a modernized version of white nationalism that has influenced the alt-right in the United States, gained momentum on the Internet, and become a global phenomenon. The “identitarians” embraced Renaud Camus and spread his ideas in a virtual echo chamber all their own. “The playing field is not level,” points out Julia Ebner of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The far right now has a striking “advantage in terms of algorithms of social media favorable for spreading conspiracy theories and potentially harmful and inciting content.”

And keep in mind that it’s not just explicit racists and Islamophobes who are pushing this meme. A softer version, embraced by mainstream conservatives, transposes the racial anxiety at the heart of the Great Replacement into a cultural key. “Our civilization,” it claims, is now at risk. French culture must be preserved. European civilization is being undermined. The American way of life is endangered. “Africa wants to kick down our door and Brussels is not defending us,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in 2018. “Europe is under invasion already and they are watching with their hands in the air.”

This isn’t a new story. It was so prevalent in the 1920s that F. Scott Fitzgerald lampooned the idea in his famed novel The Great Gatsby when he put such arguments in the mouth of one of his characters. “If we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged,” Tom Buchanan says over dinner in the first chapter. “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

Buchanan was then echoing arguments in well-known books like The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). Such arguments would take firm root in Europe as well. Adolf Hitler, for instance, called Grant’s book “my bible.” The Nazis, of course, didn’t just impose immigration controls to ensure the supremacy of the white race. They took Gatsby, Grant, and Stoddard to their logical, genocidal conclusion.

In the wake of the defeat of Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese racism in World War II, a global consensus emerged, shared by capitalists and communists alike, that the extreme version of the replacement story had been consigned to the trash bin of history. In the West, the political center would eventually sign on to some variant of multiculturalism in which immigration became an integral part of civilization, not antithetical to it.

The end of the Cold War, however, brought an end to this consensus. Communism was effectively over and union membership declining. Liberal parties attracted to the Third Way politics of President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were abandoning their working-class base. In the industrialized world, economic globalization was creating greater insecurity among the middle class and the working poor. In this context, multiculturalism and immigrants became easy targets for a rising white nationalism. In the 1990s, the growing popularity of previously fringe politicians like Jörg Haider in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia paved the way for future parties and movements that would far more vigorously break the anti-fascist taboos of the past.

In the 1920s, the far right had found an effective way to attract adherents by blaming all the ills of the nation on “degenerate races.” This story of racial eugenics united both conservatives like President Calvin Coolidge and conspiracy theorists like Grant and Stoddard. “The demographic replacement is a similar master frame that can unite both clear extremists and conservatives who might be worried about demographic change,” warns Matthew Feldman of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. “Once you add those two together you have potential majorities in many countries. They’ve found a winning formula. There’s nothing that I’ve seen that comes remotely close to countering that formula.”

Same Old Story

When war broke out in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it was the first time that bloodletting on that scale had taken place in Europe since the end of World War II. The subsequent fragmentation of the country would also prove a giant step backward for the project of European integration. Here was a multicultural state, the first in line among the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe for membership in the European Community (later, the European Union or EU), that a set of Balkan politicians would tear apart thanks to political expediency, nationalist ideology, and economic arrogance.

At the time, the widespread ethnic cleansing that took place during the Yugoslav wars was generally seen as either a throwback to an earlier era of genocide (ancient hatreds) or a final bout of violence accompanying the end of the Cold War (temporary antagonisms). It was, in either of these scenarios, entirely backward looking.

By now, the Yugoslav successor states have indeed put those wars behind them, with Slovenia and Croatia even joining the EU. But the desire for ethnic purity has not disappeared, not in the Balkans or in Europe as a whole. Only recently, for instance, new walls have appeared in the Balkans — between North Macedonia and Greece, Slovenia and Croatia, Hungary and Serbia — this time to maintain greater homogeneity by keeping out migrants and refugees from the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, the EU is paying Turkey billions of dollars to stop more desperate Syrian refugees from heading for Europe, while investing resources in Libya aimed at preventing migrants and refugees from making their way across the Mediterranean. Fleeing war and poverty, those migrants and refugees have only grown in number as European sentiment against them has reached new heights.

The European far right has risen in the slipstream of such xenophobia. Buoyed by its electoral success, the far right now wants to take a further giant step that might indeed return Europe to the days of ethnic cleansing — not just keeping out immigrants but expelling ones already there. This policy of “remigration” is the active corollary of the great replacement.

For decades, the European right rejected multiculturalism, insisting on the full assimilation of all immigrants. Now, it has given up on assimilation entirely. The platform of the German far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for instance, reads: “Germany and Europe must put in place remigration programs on the largest possible scale.” Already the biggest opposition party in the German Bundestag, or parliament, the AfD similarly increased its representation in the European Parliament in 2019 and also surged dramatically in the states of the former East Germany in recent local elections. The AfD’s position on immigrants is particularly disturbing given that the Nazis, before they embarked on the Final Solution, promoted their own version of remigration by proposing to send Jews en masse to Madagascar.

Ideas like the great replacement and remigration, having percolated in the identitarian movement for close to two decades, have now circulated back to the states of the former Yugoslavia. The far right has found fertile ground in Serbia and in the Serbian regions of Bosnia. And mass murderers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand have drawn a straight line between their brutal acts and the ethnic cleansing supported by war criminals like Serbian politician Radovan Karadzic during the breakup of Yugoslavia. In this way, the proponents of the great replacement are keeping alive the spirit of the worst war Europe has experienced on its soil since World War II.

Tell Me Something Else

The obvious response to the far right’s great-replacement story, here and in Europe, is to promote more humane immigration and refugee policies and a more inclusive vision of society. But that story — along with celebrations of multiculturalism, nods to the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”), and the endless repetition of the EU’s official motto of “unity in diversity” — has not proven sufficiently compelling to those around the world anxious about their own slipping status in society.

A better story is needed: a story that somehow captures the same “us” versus “them” dynamic.

How about this: believe it or not, the great replacement is indeed actually happening, just not the way the far right imagines. We are about to be replaced by a desperate set of adversaries. This foe is crafty and able to get through nearly all our careful democratic defenses.

The difference with the far right’s narrative boils down to pronouns. The “us” in the counter-story I imagine is not a marginalized group of people. The us is all of us on a fast-heating planet.

As for the “them,” it’s tempting to follow the example of that other Camus — Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus — when he equated fascists with rats in his novel The Plague. The far right and its mainstream collaborators, along with the energy extraction industry, the finance sector, and corrupt oligarchs, are certainly a form of pestilence, a “them” that needs to be countered. Since 1965, just 20 of the major fossil-fuel companies have produced a third of the greenhouse gas emissions sent into the atmosphere. And now they’re aided by Donald Trump and his top environmental and energy officials, intent as they are on heating the planet to the boiling point for their own profits, as well as similar figures around the world.

But here’s the thing, we don’t have to work hard to dehumanize the adversaries they’re letting loose on all of us because they aren’t human at all.

The list of “them” would, for instance, begin with a buzzing mosquito. After all, as a result of rising global temperatures, disease-bearing mosquitos are now spreading far beyond their normal range. That would include the mosquitos responsible for transmitting the Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses. Dengue fever, present in only 10 countries in the 1970s, can now be found in 120 of them. And there is no question that, as the planet heats, malaria-bearing mosquitos will return to the United States after having been eradicated nearly 70 years ago. Climate change may also produce new types of mosquitos that could be even more effective in transmitting disease.

Lest you think that the mosquito is hardly worth losing sleep over unless it’s buzzing around your tent at night, remember that this tiny creature may well be the deadliest adversary humankind has ever faced. In his new book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, Timothy Winegard argues that, as a result of the illnesses they’ve transmitted, mosquitos have killed 52 billion people, about half of everyone who has ever lived on the planet. This tiny creature, in other words, has proven a truly genocidal force.

It’s not just mosquitos, of course. The “them” that we’re going to find ourselves up against will include disease-bearing ticks, rats, and a range of crop-devouring insects. Such creatures are all, in essence, standing on the sidelines and cheering climate change on. Their gain, our loss: it’s no more complicated than that.

We don’t need an evil space invader to unite the planet in a common fight. The adversary is just above our heads and right beneath our feet. In combatting a pestilence that affects everyone, we can tell an inclusive story that can appeal even to former supporters of Donald Trump, Hungarian ruler Viktor Orbán, and others. The far right is all about drawing borders and excluding “undesirables.” They will always win at that game.

It’s time to flip the script. We are indeed in the fight of our lives. When it comes to the climate crisis, a great replacement does loom on the horizon. Humans and the civilization that goes with us may, it turns out, be all too replaceable. It’s time for everyone — and I mean everyone — to pull together, forget our superficial differences, and win this epic battle of us versus them.

TomDispatch, October 20, 2019

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Burning Down the House

Doesn’t idiocy ever take a vacation?

As August wound down, the populist troika of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Jair Bolsonaro proved once again that the United States, the United Kingdom, and Brazil would be better off with no leaders rather than the dubious characters that currently pretend to govern these countries.

In all three cases, these leaders escalated their nationally destructive policies this summer in ways that have alienated even their erstwhile supporters. Once again, they have demonstrated that they have no interest in making America, Great Britain, or Brazil great again. They are only interested in doing as much damage as they can before they are ultimately dragged out of office.

Johnson Tries a Coup

Boris Johnson is a bumbling blowhard with but one current obsession: Brexit. He has promised to sever the UK’s relationship with the European Union by October 31 even if it means doing so without a deal that would mitigate the pain of separation.

The Halloween deadline is grimly appropriate. A No-Deal Brexit would make for a blood-curdling horror film. Just slap a Ghostface mask on the British prime minister, give him a knife to cut the umbilicus with Europe, and voila: Scream 5.

Johnson’s latest tactic to get what he wants is to suspend Parliament for five weeks this fall to limit debate on alternatives to his doomsday option. He hopes to make it impossible for parliament to pass even emergency legislation banning a no-deal Brexit. Believe it or not, the British system allows for such maneuvers – so Queen Elizabeth had to give her blessing to the suspension.

When Trump engages in anti-democratic activities, the Republican Party by and large indulges him. Not so in the UK, where even conservatives are up in arms over Johnson’s silent coup. After the prime minister’s announcement of the suspension, the government’s whip in the House of Lords resigned, as did the head of the Scottish Conservative Party. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, meanwhile, has pilloried Johnson and joined a legal challenge to the suspension.

This week, Johnson lost his one-vote majority in parliament when Conservative member Philip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats even as the prime minister was addressing the chamber.

Most parliamentary members, including quite a few Conservatives, oppose a no-deal exit. No matter: Johnson is following Trump’s script by remaking the Conservative Party in his own image, threatening to purge anyone who doesn’t follow his hard line. After losing a vote that will allow parliament to introduce legislation to delay Brexit, Johnson expelled 21 dissidents, including a number of former ministers and one grandson of Winston Churchill.

Now Johnson is talking about holding a snap election in mid-October. The Conservatives are comfortably outpolling Labor, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens. However, if all the Remain forces unite against Johnson, they could eke out a victory. But Johnson could also promise an election for October 14 and then, surprise, postpone it until after Halloween, making Brexit a fait accompli.

Johnson once said, “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a titanic success of it.” Determined to do the wrong thing even though he knows it’s wrong, Johnson is steering the United Kingdom straight into an iceberg. Nigel Farage is his chief navigator, and the rest of the country is clustered on the bow, bracing for impact.

With a second referendum, wiser heads could wrest control of the helm and prevent disaster, but Johnson is doing everything he can to fast-track Brexit on the principle that it doesn’t matter where you’re going as long as you get there fast.

Bolsonaro Fans the Flames

Idiocy loves company.

Jair Bolsonaro styles himself the Trump of the tropics. The comparison is apt. Some future poet, in describing the inferno of the present, will stuff Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson feet first into the mouth of Satan in the ninth circle. Having stoked the fires of climate change, Bolsonaro will richly deserve such an afterlife.

As The Economist points out, Bolsonaro as a candidate…

promised to end fines for violations of environmental law, shrink the protected areas that account for half of the Brazilian Amazon and fight NGOs, for which he has a visceral hatred. In office, his government has gutted the environment ministry and Ibama, the quasi-autonomous environmental agency. Six of the ten senior posts in the ministry’s department of forests and sustainable development are vacant, according to its website. The government talks of “monetizing” the Amazon but sabotaged a $1.3bn European fund that aims to give value to the standing forest.

As a result of Bolsonaro’s hands-off policy, deforestation in the Amazon has been out of control this year. Emboldened by their president’s actions, Brazilian farmers organized a “fire day” to clear land for planting. “We need to show the president that we want to work and the only way is to knock (the forest) down. And to form and clean our pastures, it is with fire,” said one of the organizers of the Fire Day. The number of fires in the Amazon nearly doubled this year over the same period last year.

It’s not as if the world wasn’t warned. Time magazine put the burning Amazon on its cover exactly 30 years ago!

The impact this time around is straight-forward. The Amazon is a huge carbon sink. Burn it up and global warming will accelerate. There will also be irreversible loss of biodiversity. And the upside? More soybeans, which Brazil can sell to China because the latter is no longer buying the harvests of U.S. farmers.

Oh, and more profits into the pockets of Bolsonaro’s friends in the industries that are paving the paradise of the Amazon and putting up a parking lot.

Trump Trashes the Planet

Donald Trump is a moth that can’t stop itself from flying directly at the flame of fame (or, more accurately, the inferno of infamy). He could stay off Twitter, but instead his tweets piss off one group of voters after another. He could stay away from the press, but his lies, gaffes, and personal attacks are amplified throughout the media universe. Arguably, this is a strategy to solidify the base and reinforce Trump’s reputation as an anti-establishment gadfly.

But there’s no political strategy behind his trade war with China and his impulsive threats last month to further escalate tariffs on Chinese goods. The sectoral damage to his base worries his political advisors: say goodbye to the farm vote, a good chunk of blue-collar voters thrown out of work, and a bunch of average consumers angry at shelling out more money for their holiday gifts.

Worse would be a more general economic recession brought on by this needless trade war, which would doom the president’s reelection chances. Yes, the U.S. economy is due for a “correction,” particularly because of Trump’s tax cuts and over-the-top spending. But if Trump played it safe, he could have probably postponed the recession until after the 2020 election. Instead, he’s doing everything he can to ensure that it makes landfall smack dab during the presidential race.

Trump isn’t just self-destructive. He continued over the last couple weeks to destroy U.S. alliances, most recently by expressing interest in buying Greenland from Denmark. The land wasn’t on the market, as the Danish government reminded the president, which prompted Trump to cancel his trip to the country.

Greenland? Really?! Perhaps Trump was making an indirect acknowledgement of the effects of climate change, attempting a land grab up north to secure a spot for Ivanka and Jared’s summer palace.

Meanwhile, Trump is powering full speed ahead toward climate apocalypse. The administration’s latest move is to remove restrictions on methane emissions, a more potent contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide. The effort is designed to reduce costs for oil and gas companies. But guess what? Even some of the top energy companies are opposed to Trump’s move.

“Last year we announced our support for the direct regulation of methane emissions for new and existing oil and gas facilities,” Exxon Mobil spokesperson Scott Silvestri said. “That hasn’t changed. We will continue to urge the EPA to retain the main features of the existing methane rule.” After all, Exxon, BP, and others are trying to position natural gas as part of the solution to climate change, and the Trump administration is busy undermining this argument.

The methane restrictions that Trump is trying to unravel date back to the Obama administration. But the current administration wants to tear up much older agreements as well. The Clinton administration protected Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from logging and mining. But Trump wants to open up this 16.7 million-acre sanctuary to the usual suspects in the extractive industries. This is no small land parcel. It represents half the world’s temperate rainforest.

Bolsonaro, at least, is only interested in trashing a rainforest (albeit a large one). Boris Johnson is content to trash a country (albeit a rich one). Donald Trump, with that ego of his, aspires to trash an entire planet. Yes, all three will eventually flame out. But not before they’ve scorched the earth clean.

An environmentalist told journalist Alan Weisman before the 2016 elections that she was considering voting for Trump. “The way I see it,” she said, “it’s either four more years on life support with Hillary, or letting this maniac tear the house down. Maybe then we can pick up the pieces and finally start rebuilding.”

The philosophy of “things have to get worse before they get better” has sometimes worked out in the past. But that’s the past.

Unless we stop him, we’ll be rooting around in the post-Trump ashes in vain for the pieces. The house will be gone. And there will be nothing we can salvage to rebuild it.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 4, 2019

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Articles Europe Featured

Boris Johnson and the New Battle of Britain

All eyes are focused these days on Boris Johnson, the new prime minister of the United Kingdom.

But that’s not the most important news this month out of Britain.

The Labor Party has finally come around to opposing the country’s exit from the European Union, though it’s possibly a case of “too little, too late.” The party failed to get its act together before the European Parliament elections in May and was thus unable to offer a clear alternative to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which ultimately received the most British votes.

Nevertheless, the battle lines are now clearly drawn. Just last month, the country was led by Theresa May, who initially supported Remain but who dutifully pushed through her party’s commitment to Leave. At the helm of the main opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, is Jeremy Corbyn, whose dislike of the European Union’s neoliberal elements ensured that Labour was incapable of taking a clear position. With such half-hearted leadership, no wonder the country has been making a mess of things after the Brexit referendum.

But now, the chest-thumping Brexiteer Boris Johnson will take Britain’s helm. And Labour has moved more firmly into the Remain camp. Let the battle begin.

Labour’s Shift

Britain’s Labour Party is in difficult straits. It’s not just the party’s incoherent position on Brexit. Charges of anti-Semitism within the party have led to a number of MPs leaving the party and an investigation by the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission. Fully one-third of British voters think that Labour is anti-Semitic. In this year’s European Parliament election, Labour lost half its seats. The party has seen its popularity drop from 42 percent in July 2017 to 27 percent two years later.

But given how unpopular the Conservative Party has been, even 27 percent puts Labour close to the top of the polls. There is, however, competition from another quarter. The Liberal Democrats have just chosen a new party leader, Jo Swinson, who offers a full-throated rejection of Brexit and an equally unequivocal condemnation of Boris Johnson: “He has shown time and time again that he isn’t fit to be prime minister. Boris Johnson has only ever cared about Boris Johnson.”

An insurgent movement within Labour has attempted to right the ship and stave off the challenge from the Liberal Democrats. A new group of radical and socialist Labour MPs called “Love Socialism, Rebuild Britain, Transform Europe” recognizes the problems of the European Union and acknowledges the pain suffered by so many of Brexit’s supporters. But it argues that Britain should remain in order to join the fight to transform the EU. Last week, the group held a meeting in parliament that included a number of shadow cabinet ministers who endorsed the anti-Brexit agenda and pushed for another referendum on the issue.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has officially shifted to supporting a second referendum, but only after Labour-affiliated trade unions pushed him that direction.

I asked Mary Kaldor, a professor of global governance at the London School of Economics and a long-time campaigner at the European level, if Labour’s shift has come in time to affect the Brexit discussion. Boris Johnson, for instance, has threatened to implement Brexit by the EU’s deadline of October 31 even if he can’t renegotiate a deal to cushion the impact of withdrawal. This “no deal” option terrifies Britons across the political spectrum.

“We’re on a knife edge,” she told me. “The victory of the Brexit Party [in the European Parliament elections] pushed a whole group of society toward this mad ‘no deal’ position. My fear is that a lot of Labour MPs will support the withdrawal agreement because the alternative is no deal. As [Labour MP] Clive Lewis said at the meeting on Monday, ‘We’re in for the fight of our lives.’”

The next official British election is set for 2022. But snap elections could take place if Boris Johnson believes that he can take advantage of Labour’s divisions and Jeremy Corbyn’s  declining popularity. It would be an enormously risky move to do so before the Conservatives have delivered on Brexit.

But Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, is notoriously unpredictable and incautious.

The Tragicomedy of Johnson

It’s often said that anything —a speech, a threat, a jingle — delivered in an upper-class British accent sounds more sophisticated (to American ears at least). Boris Johnson, however, challenges that assertion. He has a long history of sounding absolutely asinine, posh accent notwithstanding.

A one-time journalist, Johnson is a walking, talking embodiment of the Peter Principle: the tendency of a person to rise in a bureaucracy to their level of maximum incompetence. Except that Johnson has been failing forward his entire life.

Johnson was fired from his first job at the Times of London for making up a quote. A normal person would have scrupulously observed the rules of the game thereafter or found a different career. Instead, Johnson doubled down. He found a new employer, the Telegraph, that ate up all the Euroskeptic nonsense he was making up from his new base in Brussels. As one of his former colleagues put it, Johnson wrote “outrageous stories with only the slenderest connection of truth in them.”

As mayor of London, Johnson was entirely out of his depth, wasting huge sums of money on unrealistic projects such as an airport on an artificial island in the Thames. Another time, he bought old German water cannons for riot control that ended up in the scrap heap at a loss of 300,000 pounds. The only reason London continued to function is that Johnson delegated all the actual work to competent underlings.

Later, as foreign secretary, Johnson compiled an even more ignominious record of gaffes and diplomatic blunders. He insulted foreign leaders. He told inappropriate jokes. And he managed to screw up the details of a case involving a British citizen detained in Iran in such a way that she remains in jail there until today.

In fact, the only thing that Boris Johnson has ever succeeded at is Brexit, the campaign he supported from the very beginning. But that’s like identifying the Iraq War as George W. Bush’s signal accomplishment or suggesting that the conviction of the Central Park Five was one of Donald Trump’s great victories.

With Johnson taking over Number 10, government ministers are leaving in droves. Cabinet ministers Philip Hammond and David Gauke have submitted their resignations, as has Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan. A #NeverJohnson bloc has emerged to mirror the #NeverTrumpers. A polarizing figure, Johnson may well tear apart the Conservative Party over the issue of Brexit.

Or, having reached the pinnacle of his incompetence, Boris Johnson could bring the entire country down with him in one final fail. Then with a shrug and a smirk, he’d go back to writing ridiculous articles and saying outrageous things. It would be high comedy on the order of Monty Python — if it weren’t all so damn tragic.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 24, 2019

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Articles Europe Featured

Global Game of Thrones

I was surprised to learn that Dagmar Havlova had become a monarchist.

In 1990, when I first met the sister-in-law of Czech playwright and later president Vaclav Havel, she was a spokesperson for Civic Forum, the movement that would guide Czechoslovakia from communism to democracy. Virtually everyone in the country at the time was excited about this transformation, about voting, about the new politicians coming to the fore, about drawing a democratic line between the new age beginning and a rapidly retreating authoritarian past.

By 2013, however, Havlova had become disenchanted with how democracy had devolved in her country, how Czechoslovakia had split in two, how corruption had proliferated, how an opportunist like economist Vaclav Klaus had steered the Czech Republic in the wrong direction.

“I’m a monarchist,” she told me in February 2013. “I believe that some symbol of morality at a different level is important even if the symbol is just a vision of what we would like to achieve. When you have a king or a queen, who is a human being, you can understand that the symbol and the human being can differ, but you are more attached to the symbol than to the person. So I believe that monarchy is the right system. It continues over generations. It is also an issue of responsibility. Individual politicians are elected just for a few years, while a royal family lasts ages. Monarchs are responsible to the country, to history somehow.”

This is not a shared enthusiasm in the Czech Republic where, when election season rolls around, the monarchist party receives only a handful of votes.

Elsewhere in East-Central Europe, monarchists periodically rally in the streets of Serbia and Romania for the return of their crowned heads, but there’s not much likelihood of that happening. Only King Simeon of Bulgaria had come close to regaining any significant power. Between 2001 and 2005, he served as prime minister of Bulgaria — only the second monarch to become the head of state through democratic elections. It was not a particularly distinguished term of office.

But royals continue to hold important positions in a dozen other European countries as well as throughout the Middle East and in parts of Africa and Asia. Globally, 43 countries have some form of monarchy. Meanwhile, royalty has colonized a much larger swath of popular culture, judging from the popularity of The Crown or the imaginary kings and queens of Game of Thrones.

Just this past week, royalty was in the news as the Japanese emperor abdicated, a new king took the throne in Thailand, and one more child joined the British royal family. At a time of declining faith in democracy, royalty now looks “more durable than it once did” at the end of last century, opines The Economist.

On the other hand, with wannabe monarchs like Donald Trump that show far less deference to democracy than the current occupants of Buckingham Palace and Kyoto’s Chrysanthemum Throne, who needs actual kings and queens?

Making Royals Look Good

Emperor Akihito ruled for 30 years in Japan, but largely as a figurehead. The throne lost its substantive power as part of the deal that Japan negotiated with the United States at the end of World War II.

Despite being more a symbol than a leader, Akihito made some important contributions to Japanese politics and culture. He was the first truly post-war emperor — his father Hirohito ruled from 1926 all the way until 1989 — and did much to subvert the far right’s conception of emperor as militarist-in-chief. As Jeff Kingston writes in the South China Morning Post, Akihito…

connected with the people in ways that his aloof father never could have and has done more than all of Japan’s political leaders combined to heal lingering post-war wounds. He has managed to work within the constitutional constraints that bar him from politics to intervene subtly in the politics of the past. While those constraints preclude forthright remarks, he has effectively conveyed the nation’s regret for the misdeeds Japan committed under the guise of pan-Asian liberation. In serving as the conscience of Japan, defying the denialists, and showing compassion to those victimised by the war waged in his father’s name, Akihito gained unquestioned moral authority.

Such a role as the conscience of the nation has been particularly important during the era of Shinzo Abe, who has sought to “normalize” Japan’s military by overturning the country’s peace constitution.

Because the role of the emperor is defined by that constitution, Akihito had come to seem quaint for many Japanese conservatives. His son, the new emperor Naruhito, who studied at Oxford and is generally considered to be liberal in his perspective, will have a tough job of somehow preserving some version of Japan at peace with its neighbors when the constitution that demarcates that status also prevents the emperor from making any significant interventions to save the intent of the document.

Making Royals Look Bad

I once saw a film at a Bangkok movie theater. Before the feature began, a picture of the king appeared on the screen. Everyone in the audience stood at attention. So, I did too.

That was my first time in the “presence” of royalty. I was struck by how similar the process was to North Korea, where outside observers routinely ridiculed the personality cult associated with the Kim Il Sung and his family. Here was the same difference between the respect accorded an established religion and the contempt reserved for a mere cult, even if both share the same outlandish rituals and origin myths. Such is the power of history and convention.

That king, Bhumibol, was at his death the world’s longest serving monarch. Unlike Akihito, he did intervene directly in the fractious disputes of Thai politics, siding with the military early on but also restraining the generals in 1992 to ease a return to civilian rule. As he grew older, however, the king’s earlier instincts prevailed, and he supported both the 2006 military coup and the most recent one in 2014. He allowed Thailand to slip back into military dictatorship, the last true one in the world, preferring to devote his energies to encouraging development projects throughout the country.

Don’t expect much from his son, who officially took the crown this week. Writes The Economist:

The contrast between King Bhumibol and his successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn…is sharp. The new monarch, who lives in Germany, barely spends any time in his realm, let alone inspecting rural projects. He has a string of abandoned children and dumped consorts around the world. He made a poodle an Air Chief Marshal. His escapades inspire disdain; his rule, fear. Strict lèse majesté laws promise three to 15 years in prison for those critical of the royals.

Now, thanks to the coronation rituals, Vajiralongkorn is not just king but a “living god.” He is also sitting on top of a hefty fortune — $30 billion — which, given his history of extravagance and unpredictability, does not inspire confidence. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables revealed several years back that many among the Thai elite held the then-crown prince in low regard, some even hoping that the king would break with tradition and tap his daughter, Sirindhorn, to be queen.

In Japan, over the last few decades, the emperor has represented a certain restraint on the militarist ambitions of the political elite. In Thailand, the new emperor takes over just after voters supported the anti-militarist party in national elections in March.

The new king’s older sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya, actually threw her hat in the ring in the elections on the side of this anti-militarist party in a bid to become prime minister. Her brother denounced the move, and the election commission blocked her candidacy. Too bad: either this sister, who gave up her title to marry a commoner and earned a master’s in public health at UCLA, or Sirindhorn, who serves as the zero hunger ambassador for the UN, might better guide Thailand out of its current political divisions.

But that’s the thing with kings and queens. It’s a monarchy, not a meritocracy.

King Trump?

Donald Trump has a thing for royalty. Back in the 1980s, he actively tried to rub up against royalty by courting Princess Diana after her separation from Prince Charles. “He gives me the creeps,” Diana confessed, ignoring all the flowers the American businessman sent her way. Next month, Queen Elizabeth will host Trump at Buckingham Palace. This has been one of Trump’s dreams (now that having sex with Princess Diana is no longer on his bucket list).

Trump loves the fact that kings don’t have to run for office. He loves their wealth, their bling, and the adulation that so many of them enjoy. He has cultivated warm relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. He has met with the king and queen of Jordan, the Spanish royals, the king of Belgium, and Emperor Akihito.

He has boasted of calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping “king.” According to CNN, Trump gave this report on the exchange:

[Xi] said, “But I am not king, I am president.” I said, “No, you are president for life, and therefore you are king.” He said, “Huh…huh.” He liked that. I call him “king.” I get along with him great.

Trump believes that he stands above the law, just like royalty. He believes that he should be president for life. He thinks that he shouldn’t have to release his tax returns to the commoners. He thinks that the news media and anyone else who has the temerity to criticize him should be punished for lèse majesté.

Over 200 years ago, this country rid itself of a king’s control. Today, Americans are fascinated by the British crown and the vanished Russian imperial family and the royal intrigue of Game of Thrones. But America doesn’t need another king.

The next presidential election had better double as a deposition.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 8, 2019

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Deal, No Deal: Britain’s Fearful Future

It’s not in the text of Dante’s Inferno, but I suspect that those residing in the upper circles of hell regard their neighbors in the bottom circles with a mixture of pity and relief. Cleopatra, buffeted by strong winds in the second circle for her lustful behavior on earth, glances down at the traitor Judas, immobile in a frozen lake in the ninth circle, and sighs, “Ah, there but for the grace of God.”

And so it is with the Americans and the British these days. I’m reluctant to put Trump’s America in a precise location in the nine circles of hell (Violence? Fraud? Treachery?). But surely it is somewhere above the United Kingdom writhing in its current Brexit convulsions.

Surely, too, Americans are looking across the pond these days with a bit of transatlantic schadenfreude. Yes, the current situation in the United States — sociopathic president, federal government half shut down — is appalling. But the government will open again, and this president will eventually be tossed out of the Oval Office (electorally, procedurally, or physically).

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is on the verge of screwing things up for many, many years to come. The way that Prime Minister David Cameron handled the 2016 referendum on European Union membership was bad enough. His successor, Theresa May, inherited a bad hand — and she has played it poorly. The British parliament has rejected May’s version of a deal, which she negotiated with the EU. Meanwhile, the EU has refused (so far) to make any further concessions that might make that deal more palatable to a sufficient number of British MPs to ensure passage in a revote.

So, let’s take a look at the options that are now available to the poor, benighted Britons.

The Doomsday Scenario

Some residents of the UK just want out of their marriage with Brussels, and they don’t care how it happens. Forget about trial separation. Forget about negotiated terms. Forget about joint custody agreements. They’re willing to forfeit everything in order to walk out of the relationship.

So far, Theresa May refuses to take “no deal” off the table. If she fails to persuade the British parliament to support her plan, can’t get the EU to nudge a bit on a couple key issues, or doesn’t attempt to win a stay of execution, Britain will be given the bum’s rush out of the EU on March 29.

The hardcore Leavers will rejoice: Britain will no longer have to abide by any of the EU’s laws and regulations. Britain can keep out all the foreigners it wants, since it will no longer be subject to the EU’s rules governing freedom of movement. It can make any and all budgetary decisions without meeting EU regulations on debt ceilings. Nor will Britain have to contribute its roughly $17 billion annually to the overall EU budget (much of which goes to agricultural subsidies to farmers throughout the Union).

After that, however, there’s little to rejoice about. Gone would be the nearly two-year transition period that would help Britain adjust to leaving the EU (and vice versa). Britons would face immediate sticker shock as the prices of imports immediately go up with the imposition of up to a 38 percent tariff, and many British producers would discover that they were no longer competitive in European markets. British farmers could no longer draw EU subsidies (nearly $4 billion annually).

Expect a nightmare at British airports with the cancellation of up to 5 million flights as soon as the “no deal” goes into effect. The roadways would be clogged, too, with trucks and motorists stuck in long lines at the Chunnel. And the British assembly line of products that depend on European components would be monkey-wrenched.

The overall impact on the British economy would be devastating, as the Bank of England has predicted:

In its worst-case scenario no-deal, the pound would fall by 25% and unemployment would, in time, rise to 7.5% from its current level of 4%. The International Monetary Fund predicts British households would be an average of £6,000 a year worse off as a result.

Investors have pulled out $20 billion from UK equity funds since the Brexit vote. London, which has more foreign banks than any other financial center, will be hit the hardest as these institutions relocate to the continent in anticipation of a no-deal exit. According to one estimate, London will lose nearly a trillion dollars in assets.

The human costs of this scenario are more difficult to measure. British expats living elsewhere in Europe and foreigners living in Britain will both find themselves in limbo. Handled poorly, a no-deal exit might turn into a kind of India-Pakistan population transfer, with foreigners streaming out of Britain and expats, including 200,000 pensioners, dragging their belongings back the other way.

But perhaps the greatest sticking point is Northern Ireland. Ireland would remain part of the EU, while Northern Ireland would exit along with the rest of the UK. That would create a hard border, which might well disrupt the compromise that brought the Troubles to a close in the 1990s. After all, that compromise depended in part on establishing an open border between north and south that allowed Republicans to continue to dream of a united Ireland and Unionists to maintain their links to Britain.

There have been negotiations over a “backstop” that can prevent this border from hardening. But, without going into the rather complicated details, the backstop is null and void if the EU and Britain can’t come to some kind of agreement. If that happens, things could get ugly.

Indeed, Britain is bracing for disorder all over the country in the event of a no-deal exit: riots over shortages, unrest in Northern Ireland, mayhem at the borders. The government has allocated 3,500 soldiers and spent $2.5 billion to deal with these problems should they arise. Good luck with that.

A Negotiated Exit

Since the 2016 referendum in which a very slender majority of Britons supported leaving the EU, the debate has largely been over how radical the separation should be.

A “soft exit” would transform the UK into something like Norway, a non-EU country that nevertheless has access to the EU’s single market (Norway is not, however, a member of the customs union). At the same time, Norway pays into the EU budget and accepts free movement of people.

A “hard exit,” meanwhile, would take the UK out of the single market, but according to a negotiated timetable.

The initial deal that Theresa May struck with the EU last year was something in between. It would keep the UK in the customs union and Northern Ireland in the single market, thus avoiding a hard border in Ireland. It would protect the rights of foreign nationals living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU. During the nearly two-year transition period, the UK would have to abide by EU rules but would lose the ability to have any say about those rules. It would also pay a steep divorce settlement: over $50 billion. This is the deal that the UK parliament rejected.

May came back this week with a “Plan B” that will be voted on at the end of this month. But it’s not substantially different from what the MPs have already voted against. May believes that, given the potentially dire consequences of the “no deal” scenario, the various parties involved in negotiating Brexit might decide to compromise – or, at least, be dragged kicking and screaming toward compromise.

This is probably a fool’s errand. There’s no reason for Labor to support her, particularly if she refuses to take “no deal” off the table. The members of her Conservative Party that voted against the deal seem to prefer apocalypse over what they believe to be an unacceptably soft divorce.

The EU, meanwhile, has been very clear about not budging. It believes that, after a lot of patient negotiations, it solved the Rubik’s cube of Brexit. It doesn’t want to reopen that process. And it wants to make sure that any other country contemplating a similar exit understands that Brussels is no pushover.

But after the British parliament rejected the deal on the table, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently urged her colleagues to come up with something, anything to avoid a no-deal exit. “We have a responsibility to pursue this separation process responsibly so that in 50 years, people won’t shake their heads and say ‘Why weren’t they able to find a compromise?’” she remarked.

Such a compromise would require more time. At the end of this month, the British parliament will also vote on several amendments to May’s Plan B, including one in which the UK requests an extension until the end of this year. May has so far refused to consider an extension.

Another amendment, from Labor, proposes that Parliament vote on whether to hold a second referendum. Support within Labor for a second vote is growing, but not everyone in the party agrees.

Please, Please, We Want to Stay!

The historian Ernest Renan once wrote that the nation is a daily referendum. The notion that the British can define themselves with a single referendum seems rather foolish. At the same time, it would not be very helpful if they were forced to vote every day on whether they wanted to stay in the European Union.

But why not shoot for something in between and settle for a second referendum? Many voters confessed that they didn’t really understand the stakes when they cast their ballots. Over the last two years, they have learned a great deal more about what advantages they get from EU membership and what the consequences will be of withdrawal. If given a second bite at the apple, they would be voting for or against a very specific deal, not just an abstract concept.

May is no fan of a second referendum: “I also believe that there has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy.”

She does have a certain point. The Leavers would feel justifiably angry. The divide in the country would deepen. “Many would feel that their long-desired Brexit had been stolen from them and would turn away from democracy in frustration,” writes Marcus Becker in Der Spiegel. “It would provide a significant boost to anti-European right-wing populists.”

But democracy is all about people changing their minds. You can change your vote from one election to the next. You can propose a ballot initiative that reverses the effect of an initiative that the public supported the year before. You can even amend a constitution (if, unlike Britain, you have a constitution). This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Indeed, some Conservative MPs have put together a campaign in favor of another vote on Brexit called the Right to Vote.

The British people seem to favor another referendum. According to a Sky News poll from a few days ago, Britons overwhelmingly want to vote again on Brexit, 53 percent to 36 percent. It’s difficult to know exactly which way a second referendum would swing. The latest YouGov poll reports that Remain now outpolls Leave, 56 to 44 percent. But it might be considerably closer than that, if a “soft exit” option seems viable.

Of course, I wouldn’t blame the EU if it just wanted to be done with Britain. Before Brexit, the UK was already one of the most crotchety members of the EU. It never joined the eurozone and has kept its own currency. It’s not part of the Schengen system. It’s not a signatory of the EU’s Fundamental Charter of Human Rights. And it can choose not to follow on a case-by-case basis any of the EU’s justice and home affairs legislation. These four “opt-outs” are more than any other EU member’s.

In addition, over the years, Britain has been routinely described as a “thorn in the side” of the EU because it’s skeptical of too much integration, of Franco-German cooperation, of anything that smells too “continental” to parochial UK noses. Who needs that kind of angst? And by ridding itself of the UK, the European Parliament wouldn’t have to listen any more to wankers like Brexiteer Nigel Farage (Euro MP from South East England since 1999).

But provided Britons change their minds in a second referendum, the EU should welcome the UK back into the fold.

These are perilous days for the future of Europe, what with the rebellions of Poland and Hungary, the electoral victories of the far right in Austria and Italy, and the continued spread of the cancer of Euroskepticism throughout the continent. Even Steve Bannon doesn’t anticipate more Brexits, however. So, increasingly, the fight will not be about staying or leaving but about the shape of the European Union itself.

This future debate will be considerably richer if it includes the voices of those who came so very close to exit only to change their minds at the last minute.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 23, 2019

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Europe Featured

The Importance of the New Netflix Dystopia

Popular culture is full of alternative histories. Mackinley Kantor wrote a famous article in Look magazine in 1960 about what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America imagines a world where Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the 1940 elections and ushers fascism into the United States. And The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon series based on the Philip K. Dick novel, depicts a terrifying scenario in which the Axis powers have won World War II.

These counter-histories tackle big historical events. The stakes are huge. As we read or watch these parallel universes, we shudder as we contemplate the precariousness of our current reality.

The new Netflix series 1983 inspires comparisons to these other counter-histories. But I fear that many people outside Poland might decide not to watch the series because the “what if” might seem parochial to them. It’s not just that the alternative history involves Poland rather than the United States or Russia or even Germany. It’s that even the “what if” here would be somewhat obscure for Poles themselves.

The show is called 1983, after all, not 1981. That’s the year when most people ask the big “what if” questions. What if the Soviet Union had invaded Poland that year to suppress the Solidarity trade union movement? What if Solidarity had improbably brought down the Communist government and replaced it with something more democratic nearly a decade before this actually happened in 1989?

But this new series focuses not on 1981 but on 1983, more than a year after the Polish government declared Martial Law, suppressed Solidarity, and supposedly prevented the Soviet Union from intervening. In March 1983, according to the fictitious past of the new Netflix series, a number of explosions take place in major Polish cities. The Communist government blames the incidents on terrorists and uses them to justify a further consolidation of power. It does so also to keep the Russians at arm’s length, though in reality the risk of Soviet military intervention had effectively disappeared even before the Polish government declared Martial Law in December 1981.

Thus we have a very strange counter-history. In reality, although the Polish government remained concerned about Solidarity’s activities underground and the overall sympathies of the Polish population, it would lift Martial Law in July 1983. Meanwhile, March 1983 was no special month, no critical turning point. Which means that the new Netflix series is set in a relatively small country and takes place in a not particularly pivotal year. The stakes, it would seem, are very low indeed.

But it turns out that 1983 is not so much about what happened differently but about what didn’t happen. Because of these explosions in Poland in the parallel universe of 1983, the country doesn’t go through the transformations of 1989. The explosions give the Communist Party an opportunity not just to push the opposition underground but effectively to eliminate it and continue to hold power into the 2000s. Indeed, the present day of the series is 2003, 20 years after the incidents. The Party, with the help of the secret police, the army, and the regular police, is still well-entrenched. It has constructed a widespread surveillance regime. It distributes propaganda to a population isolated from the outside world. It delivers sufficient economic success to garner popular support while relying more on nationalism than communism to maintain its legitimacy. The underground opposition that has survived is meager. A new resistance movement called the Light Brigade attracts a younger generation, but it too is small in number.

The show toggles back and forth between 1983 and 2003. In the first episode, a young man, Kajtan, passes his oral exams in the spring of 2003 on his way to becoming a lawyer. Kajtan seems to be the golden child of the Communist elite. He’s even dating the daughter of the economics minister. He is also an orphan. His parents died in the 1983 bombings. That’s when he became imprinted on the public imagination when he appeared on the front page of the Party newspaper as the boy with a lily at the funeral of his parents. In the flashbacks, we see his parents in the months before the bombings, the father participating in the underground, the mother working at the sports ministry. The two plotlines seem to run in parallel but they actually converge, the first leading up to the bombings themselves in 1983 and the second gradually exposing the real cause of the attacks.

The world outside of Poland is full of big events, like the deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East in preparation for what seems like another war in Iraq under orders from an administration headed by Al Gore. But these world-historical events are marginal. The series focuses claustrophobically on Poland as if we, the viewers, are as isolated as the characters in the show. And that’s what makes 1983 so interesting. The show is concerned not with abstract what-ifs. It is instead suffused with the specifics of Polish culture and history.

Take, for instance, the depiction of the opposition movement. 1983 depicts clandestine meetings and heated discussions over the use of violence, just like the conditions during Martial Law. But there is one scene in particular that stands out. One of Kajtan’s old friends brings him to a performance in an underground passage in Warsaw’s Old Town. It is a single actor reciting from the poet Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece Dziady. Many Poles will instantly recognize the reference to the banned performance of Dziady that precipitated the protests of 1968 that began in Warsaw.

Then there’s the role of the Vietnamese community. When I lived in Warsaw in 1989, I remember the small community of Vietnamese who’d come over as students or guest workers. They’d set up a few restaurants where you could get reasonably authentic noodle soup. There was one community in particular in Praga, across the river, and I even remember articles in the paper about Vietnamese gangs. A new wave of Vietnamese came to Poland in the 1990s as small-scale entrepreneurs, and they are now Poland’s largest non-European immigrant population.

But 1983 imagines a much larger role for the Vietnamese. The Party has brought in large numbers of Vietnamese guest workers to handle sensitive tasks. There are Vietnamese students and Vietnamese oppositionists. The community seems to have monopolized the fast-food industry. And Vietnamese are involved in the underground economy of drugs, prostitution, and gun-running. Polish cops even have to pick up some Vietnamese words to get by.

It’s the many details of 1983 that give it so much authenticity even though it’s fake history. The series showcases the Stalinist architecture that’s still scattered around Warsaw, including the famous wedding cake Palace of Culture and Science in the very center of the city. But there’s also the Old Town and some of the new glass and steel structures as well. At one point, Kajtan is sitting on a bench eating a zapiekanka, the cheap French-bread pizza that was ubiquitous in 1989 but harder to find by the early 2000s when better options were available. In the alternative reality of 1983, the zapiekanka survives just like the Party.

But perhaps the most authentic part of 1983 is its preoccupation with those twin phenomena of modern Polish political life: manipulation and collaboration. It was a constant fear among those in the opposition that the authorities were constantly manipulating people and events. Perhaps they were provoking the opposition so that it would respond with violence. The other great fear was of collaborators. Poland’s secret police – Sluzba Biezpieczenstwo (the security service known as the SB) – was not as powerful or as influential as the East German Stasi. But there were still 20,000-plus operatives who were managing, at their height, 84,000 informants. Many leading intellectuals and dissidents have been accused at one point or another of being informants, including former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

There were no terrorist attacks in Poland in 1983. But a few months earlier in September 1982, a strange incident took place in Switzerland. A group that called itself the “Polish Revolutionary Home Army” seized control of the Polish embassy in the city of Bern and took several diplomats as hostages. The militants called for an end to Martial Law, more than a million dollars, and safe passage out of Switzerland. After 72 hours, Swiss police stormed the embassy, freed the hostages, and captured the gunmen.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The head of the hostage-takers was Florian Kruszyk, who turned out to be a convicted Polish spy. In 1968, the Austrian authorities arrested him after determining that he was a member of the Polish secret service. So, was the whole incident cooked up by the Polish authorities to discredit the opposition and justify a crackdown on Solidarity underground? Possibly. 1983 takes this scenario and runs with it.

Jennifer Wilson criticizes the series in The New Republic for depicting an imaginary Polish dystopia instead of challenging Poland’s current dystopian reality. But that’s not fair. For many Poles and those who listen carefully, there’s a substantial connection between the imagined future of 1983 and the current reality of Poland under the Law and Justice Party or PiS. This party, of course, is right-wing, not Communist. But it espouses the kind of nationalism that Communist Party officials spout in 1983. And PiS favors the same kind of semi-isolationist politics.

Agnieszka Holland, the famous Polish director who was involved in the making of 1983, encourages such comparisons. “The Poland in the series is isolated – much more isolated than in the communist era,” she told The Guardian. “Outside influences are very rare, so the country develops its own version of modernity. Prosperity is limited, but people don’t know how it is outside so they feel safe and happy. They are manipulated by this propaganda, but they feel it is good for them. Of course, this is very close to what PiS would love to have in Poland.”

It’s not just Poland, she goes on. The support for right-wing populists and authoritarians in Russia, the United States, Turkey, the Philippines, India, and Brazil suggests that many people around the world have little interest in freedom.

For this reason, 1983’s exploration of the freedom vs. security dilemma goes beyond the Polish context of the series. It’s a show that’s well suited to the times we live in. It’s also a genuinely riveting show, with sharp dialogue, great acting, and mesmerizing atmospherics. I hope that it cultivates an audience hitherto ignorant of Poland and its history.

Foreign Policy In Focus, December 14, 2018