Democracy under attack

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market on Monday, 19 December 2016.  Angela Merkel, in a televised broadcast, expressed concern that immigrants might be blamed – and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party has done just that.  Angela Merkel faces an election next year, in which AfD is strongly placed to become Germany’s  largest political party – and the Berlin truck attack will help it to do so.

It isn’t only Angela Merkel’s political party that is under attack, and ISIS isn’t the only attacker. The whole of Western liberal democracy is under a 3-way attack: from an Islamic terrorist jihad to set up a universal caliphate, from a wave of anti-establishment authoritarian populism, and from Russian interference with elections.  These three directions of attack are not coordinated, but are nonetheless helping each other to undermine Western democracies and the EU.

ISIS is trying to polarise society.  It wants headlines, Western indignation and condemnation of Islam – so that more Muslims will join its cause in what it presents as a conflict between civilisations.  It did not have to arrange for the truck attack.  It merely had to radicalise an individual, provoking the attack, and then claim responsibility for it.

Authoritarian populism is a style of political leadership which feeds on people’s discontent with their current situation.  That discontent might come from job losses due to globalisation, from liberalisation in society’s attitudes on gender, from gross financial inequality, or from multiculturalism.  Donald Trump, AfD and Nigel Farage can all be categorised as authoritarian populists.  Some of their supporters have reacted to multiculturalism by supporting ‘alt-right’ racial supremacists, whose views are similar to Nazism.

It has been alleged that Russia influenced the US presidential election by hacking into email servers, and Internet attacks on German political parties have also been traced to Russia.  It has also been alleged that Russia is sponsoring the spread of disinformation on Internet social media.  Disinformation is an effective way of swinging elections: Breitbart used it to help Trump be elected and is about to launch a German site.  It has been suggested that Russia is also using disinformation as a political tool, to promote nationalism and to undermine the EU and NATO.

It is easier to describe the problem than to propose a solution.  The European Union was initially established to counteract the forces of nationalism and fascism that had led to the Second World War, but it and its members are now experiencing this 3-way attack.  Sadly, the EU is no longer seen by many people as a force for peace.  There is some justification for the accusations levelled at it: bloated bureaucracy, failing to listen to the people and the pursuit of a political dream that seems to threaten the autonomy of its members.  It is clearly imperfect, and unless it starts to address the population’s real concerns it is likely to collapse – but now it is needed more than ever.

Resisting Authoritarian Populism

Donald Trump was elected on a wave of anti-establishment resentment, in what has been called ‘authoritarian populism’.  This phenomenon is also growing in Europe, so it is important to understand its origin and nature, its prevalence, how it might gain power and how it might be effectively opposed.

Stuart Hall used the term ‘authoritarian populism’ (AP) in the book The Politics of Thatcherism in 1983, but as Bob Jessop pointed out in a 1984 critique, there are separate phenomena within it.  AP is a useful term when applied to a desire for a strong leader with a forceful independent foreign policy and impatience with liberal social attitudes.  Hall swept up Thatcher’s neoliberalism in his use of the term, but more recent writers have not done so.   “Populist authoritarianism can best be explained as a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change”, according to Pippa Norris in an article published on 11 March 2016, and she highlighted a popular desire for “a strong leader unchecked by elections and Congress”.  Her article cited the rise of liberal attitudes – to matters of gender, cultural diversity and global governance – as having caused sections of the population to become anxious and resentful.

An anti-immigrant stance is a feature of AP.  In this respect it overlaps with the term ‘alt-right’ that Sasha Abramsky used in an article published on 29 October 2016, entitled Make America hate again,  when explaining Trump’s success and drawing attention to the attendant risk of fascism.   The terms ‘far right’ and ‘radical right’ are also used by different writers to highlight similar political phenomena.

A recent YouGov survey of the prevalence of AP in Europe was entitled Trump, Brexit, Front National, AfD: branches of the same tree.  It depicted AP as “a core set of attitudes: cynicism over human rights, anti-immigration, an anti-EU position in Britain, and favouring a strong emphasis on defence as part of wider foreign policy.”  It found that “in eight of the twelve countries, almost half of voters – if not more – hold authoritarian populist views”.  In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National – an AP party – already enjoys considerable support.  The survey’s finding, that 63% of French voters have AP attitudes, would suggest a potential for her to win the French presidency.  She is anti-EU and there is growing anti-EU sentiment in several other member countries, resulting from people’s concerns about the economy and high levels of immigration, so there is a significant threat to the EU’s existence.

Britain’s next General Election is currently expected to be in 2020 (if there were an earlier election, focused on the issue of Brexit, it is predicted that the Conservatives would win – but that would merely postpone political change).  At present the 48% of British voters who have AP attitudes are mostly in the Conservative Party and UKIP, but there are some in all the political parties.  UKIP is a political party which has entirely AP policies; its new leader, Paul Nuttall, has said that he wants to “replace the Labour Party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people”.   This could be a serious threat to Labour, which is already looking vulnerable.  UKIP came second in 125 constituencies in the last General Election; in the next election it might easily win many of those seats.  In any case, AP voters are likely to vote for UKIP or the Conservative Party.

People with progressive attitudes tend to oppose authoritarian populism.  They are represented by several political parties in England at present: Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green.  With a first-past-the-post political system in Britain, a divided opposition would win very few seats, but the Liberal Democrat win in the Richmond Park by-election gives an indicator of how this problem can be overcome (even though it was a very unusual situation).  The relevant lesson for other constituencies is that there was a pact: the Green Party stood aside so that the Liberal Democrats were able to overturn a substantial Conservative majority, campaigning on an anti-AP and pro-Europe platform (the Labour Party had very little support in this wealthy part of London).

A pact between the progressive parties in England, whereby only one of them fields a candidate in each constituency, might give them a chance in a General Election.  It is very difficult to launch a new political party in a first-past-the-post system (as UKIP discovered, having won only one seat despite having received 12.6% of the votes cast in the last election) so a pact has a better chance.   There would be problems in agreeing which party would be best placed to win a particular constituency, but if they all committed themselves to trying to introduce proportional representation they would be helping to ensure the future survival of them all (and UKIP might also support a move to proportional representation).

Why Britain should remain in the EU

We live in a connected world.  Britain will always be affected by what happens in Europe.  More than 40% of our trade goes to the EU.  We are geographically close, so we are affected by the same environmental issues, and Europe’s political and economic stability matter to us.

It makes sense for us to collaborate constructively with our neighbours: remaining in the EU, helping its rules to evolve, and strengthening it by being members.  Our EU membership was the result of a democratically-approved UK decision to co-operate with the EU on matters of common interest; it gives us influence on trading rules and other matters that would affect us even if there were a ‘Brexit’.  The British people have a democratic voice equal to that of the other members and our elected politicians share in EU decision-making.

Britain has tariff-free trading with EU members and it benefits from the EU’s bilateral trade deals with some other countries; otherwise it trades globally under (less advantageous) WTO tariff rules.  Other economies in the world are growing more rapidly, but the EU remains an important market.  Strong customer relationships have developed over 43 years of membership.  Most economists believe that leaving the EU would damage the UK economy.  New negotiations would be needed with the EU and all its trading partners.  The economy of the EU, our biggest customer, would suffer from a smaller market and the loss of British influence if we were no longer a member.

European citizens are granted rights of free movement between member countries, as part of the single market; over half of Britain’s immigrants now come from Europe.  Existing EU law prevents such migrants from burdening their host’s social security system, and Britain’s EU reform deal clarifies how that would work in practice, but immigration is problematic.  It has increased the UK population, giving some people cause for concern, but it has brought overall economic benefits.

Politicians should focus on fixing any pressures on housing and public services instead of leaving the EU and closing our borders.  Immigration should not be subject to arbitrary national targets.  It should be managed regionally, according to the availability of work and accommodation.  For example, the BBC reported that Sports Direct was allowed to expand in the Derbyshire town of Shirebrook without upgrading housing and public services; then there were problems when a flood of immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe. The company should have been denied planning permission, or the town’s infrastructure should have been upgraded. The problem in this case was not EU immigration but local political failure – as reported by Chad.

There are many in the EU who want it to develop into a superstate, but the UK can remain separate from that.  We have the best of both worlds.  We co-operate with the other members on free trade, collaborative policing and joint regulation of the environment, but we avoid the loss of political and financial independence that comes with membership of the Eurozone’s single currency.

EU members are committed to standards of human rights that stretch beyond the EU and are enforced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  This legal framework protects all Europeans from government malpractice; it helped the Hillsborough families to expose a police cover-up and obtain justice, for example, and it has upheld press freedom, prevented torture etc.  The UK and other governments established these rights to prevent the fascist oppression of minorities, such as that which led up to the Second World War. A recent resurgence of far-right politics in Europe indicates that vigilance must continue.

As a collective voice, the EU can wield considerable soft power; it has more diplomatic legitimacy than its separate countries with their colonial pasts.  In international affairs, Britain’s most useful role is to support the EU’s collective influence to promote stability.  Britain would not contribute to a European army, though, to avoid undermining NATO; as EU members, we would veto it, as the government has stated.

A vote to leave the EU would increase the power of a small group within Britain’s political establishment: the leaders of the Brexit campaign, who are misleading the public.  A vote to leave is to choose to bury our heads in the sand, in the vain hope that we can isolate ourselves from Europe; it would lead to political, cultural and economic shrinkage.  A vote to remain is to choose to co-operate with our neighbours to build a better future for the whole continent.

The Impacts of Immigration

Immigration affects everyone’s lives and it can rapidly become a toxic issue.  It is driven by economic pressures or by humanitarian concerns: to take in refugees fleeing conflict or persecution.  In destination countries, the arrival of strangers for either reason is a sensitive matter but politicians should be concerned with managing the effects rather than trying to exploit people’s fears in order to win votes and gain power.  It warrants careful discussion of its economic, political, moral, legal and security aspects so that it can be appropriately managed to avoid practical problems and social tensions.

Some people from other countries are recruited by employers who need specific skills, but other economic migrants are job-seekers desiring a better life.  Refugees also need jobs.  If the economy can absorb all the immigrants without creating unemployment, as has been the case in both the UK and the US, the result is economic growth.  UK unemployment in May 2016 was the lowest for a decade, as a proportion of the working-age population, suggesting that immigrants hadn’t taken people’s jobs.

People’s other economic concerns about immigration include the perceptions that immigrants drive down wages and that they impose a financial burden on the economy.  These fears are rarely justified, since the minimum wage protects the lowest-paid and economic migrants have to go home if they fail to find work.  Free movement of labour, as with the flexibility within the EU or the US, enables large diverse economies to develop naturally and respond to changes in circumstances; it is an economic benefit, and constraints on immigration choke economic growth.

Politicians’ responsibilities include ensuring that housing, education and health services are all capable of accommodating the immigrants; they are equally accountable to both the immigrants and the native population.  If politicians complain about immigrants, they are acknowledging their own failures.  If they are not personally responsible for solving the problems, or don’t have control over the relevant agencies, it is worth asking why they are employed at all.  It is an admission of incompetence to complain about problems that they are paid to solve.

There may be moral and social concerns about immigrants – especially if they have different values – as is often the case with asylum-seekers; this is less of an issue with the economic migration within Europe, though, where all the member countries have signed up to the European Charter of Human Rights.  Immigrants change the character of the areas they live in.  Provided that they speak the language, behave in a socially acceptable fashion and obey the law, they don’t present a tangible threat to their neighbours.  They are entitled to freedom of belief, and should not be required to change their religion, but they may need to change some practices in order to comply with the host society’s laws, human rights and conceptions of how people should behave.  What may have been acceptable in their countries of origin might not be acceptable in the societies they have arrived in, but minorities can resolve contradictions in values and avoid giving offence.

There are moral reasons for people to behave well towards immigrants: all religions and common decency enjoin acceptable behaviour towards others.  People have only to ask themselves how they would act if they were in the same situation as the immigrants and how they would like to be treated.  Cultural pluralism is inevitable in today’s world and, for people of different cultures to live in harmony with each other, it is necessary to show respect towards those of different race, religion, ideology, gender, sexuality and nationality.  Some cultural groups, though, form tight clusters which diverge from the wider society and create tensions; the Cantle Report on Social Cohesion, which examined this problem, identified some remedies.  Needless to say, it is in immigrants’ own interests to try to fit into the host society.

Immigration has legal and security aspects, which differ between refugees and economic migrants.  Strictly speaking, refugees who are at risk in their native countries have no legal right to claim asylum in the country of their choice, although there is a collective international commitment to protect them; if their reasons for fleeing are found to be genuine, they cannot legally be returned to their countries of origin if they would be at risk of persecution.

With regard to economic migrants, countries in the European Economic Area have signed treaties that accept the free movement of labour as being a necessary feature of a single market, but sections 10 and 16 of the relevant EU directive prevent such migrants from being a drain on the benefit system of the destination country and section 22 of that directive allows restrictions “on grounds of public policy, public security or public health”.  Countries outside the EU are not legally committed to take in economic migrants.

Some immigrants are security threats, but so are some of the native population; a country’s security services have to be geared to protect the population against anyone who is a threat to others.  Background checks are needed on everyone who is entering a non-Schengen country, or is entering the Schengen zone from outside it; intelligence sharing is necessary to facilitate such checks.  Countries have the legal right to expel any immigrant who is a security threat, provided that the person concerned would not be placed in danger by repatriation.

Laying blame on peaceful immigrants is a risky tactic.  It can cause hostility towards minorities who have lived in the country for generations, potentially leading to uncontrollable violence.  Intolerance should be swiftly condemned, because it is all too easy to foment ethnic strife.  Politicians who complain about immigration are creating problems instead of solving them; they certainly shouldn’t be rewarded at the ballot box.

Lies, statistics and self-interest

Some politicians routinely use lies, misleading statistics and exaggeration to make arguments that suit their cause.  The campaign leading up to the 2016 British referendum, on whether or not to leave the EU (a so-called ‘Brexit’), is providing many examples; as AOL reported, “Both sides in the Brexit battle are playing fast and loose with the truth”.

Lies were told.  The Vote Leave campaign’s battle bus was emblazoned with the eye-catching claim that “We send the EU £350 million a week”; its statement for the 2016 EU Referendum Voting Guide (published by the Electoral Commission) made the same claim four times in fewer than 400 words.   That claim is an exaggeration, amounting to a lie – as explained by FullFact.org, which revealed that “the UK actually pays just under £250 million a week” (less than 1% of its GDP).  And the EU gives some of that money back in grants, so the net cash cost of the EU was £163 million a week in 2015.

Among the many smaller lies and misleading statements, Boris Johnson, for example, said that it was “absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us how powerful our vacuum cleaners have got to be, what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing”.  Jon Henley, in The Guardian, fact-checked Johnson’s statements.  The claim about bananas was a lie; the EU does not control their shape; it has standardised the classification of shapes on product labels, so that retailers know what they are buying from the producers.  There is a plan to limit the power of vacuum cleaners, but Johnson failed to explain that “the UK government actively supported the measures and, like every member state, could have blocked them if it wanted to”; his implication that the EU was imposing such measures on the UK was misleading (but wasn’t strictly a lie); he just wanted to arouse indignation in his audience (and he didn’t bother to explain that the reason for the measure was the likely benefit to the environment).

Statistics almost always contain assumptions and interpretations, and they can be selectively quoted.  A UCL study, The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, was quoted by the pro-EU Guardian, Independent and Financial Times to say that EU migrants contribute £20bn to Britain – but the anti-EU Telegraph and Mail used a different part of the study, in a way that its authors described as “misleading”, to report that migrants as a whole had cost the economy £118bn.  The organisation Migration Watch UK challenged some of the UCL study’s assumptions to produce its own report, which was used by the Sun newspaper to claim in its headline on 16 May 2016 that “EU Migration costs Britain £3m every day, shock report warns”.

The future is unforeseeable, so forecasts are always conjectures.  Nonetheless, the pro-EU Britain Stronger in Europe campaign saw fit to publish a leaflet saying, among other claims, that the UK economy “would be hit to the tune of £4,300 a year for each UK household” (quoting one of the figures from an official Treasury Report).  It described its claims as “the facts from independent experts”, but in no sense of the word can such projections be described as facts.

Exaggeration has also featured strongly in the campaign.  Boris Johnson (repeating a similar claim made earlier by Dominic Cummings) grossly exaggerated when he said that “The European Union is pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate”.   The EU carries out almost none of the functions associated with a State; its job is only to maintain collective rules on trade, joint policing and the environment; its total spending, covering all member States, is less than one sixth of what the UK government spends.  Nor is it a dictatorship: it is under the collective democratic control of the EU’s members; British Ministers, Prime Ministers and elected MEPs have agreed to its rules and to the UK’s membership contribution; and Britain has a right of veto on some decisions.

The many conflicting details, proffered as ‘facts’ by both sides, are misleading and confusing.  It is more honest and more understandable to present a high-level vision when making an argument; supporting statements from influential individuals and organisations should be presented as opinions, not facts.  The public can then make up its own mind, based upon which vision it prefers and which supporting statements it trusts.  The lies told by the Leave campaign undermine the trustworthiness of those who are leading it.  Its slogan, “Vote Leave, take back control”, is a cause for concern – given that its leaders want that “control” to be given to those who are deliberately misleading the public.

EU Accountability

Michael Gove emotively argued that the EU lacks democratic accountability and that Britain should therefore leave it: a ‘Brexit’.  This argument would only be valid if the EU were in some way governing Britain, but the reality is that Britain and other members have only agreed to allocate some aspects of governance to the EU.  For example, the EU has no jurisdiction over most aspects of tax, government spending or going to war.  It affects only those aspects of British governance which have an impact on other European countries.  Some ambitious and over-confident politicians, though, find it irksome to yield to any external regulation.  They would prefer to negotiate multiple bilateral agreements, despite the time and cost of doing this with every country in the world.

If an agreement is negotiated between several countries, the accountability for it is shared.  No single country’s electorate can dismiss the appointed administrators, or reverse collective decisions, but all the countries involved have oversight of the decision-making process.  The EU provides a collective framework for regulating trade within a large and diverse geographical area, with some implications for human rights and the environment.  Multiple regulations are required, springing largely from the desire for a single market.

The Great Depression in the 1930s was largely caused by protectionism: countries put up trade barriers against each other and thereby restricted economic growth for all of them.  That experience illustrated the benefit of collectively removing the barriers to trade, requiring trading partners to agree standards and regulation.  Europe’s diverse cultures and tendencies towards conflict present a very difficult arena in which to take collective decisions but the benefits of free trade are well-known.  Britain, with its history of being a trading nation, eventually joined the Common Market to reap those benefits and its economy improved dramatically as a result.

Free trade can, if unregulated, adversely affect workers.  It is possible to have a race to the bottom: for companies to try to cut costs by exploiting people.  Workers want to be protected but commercial companies chafe against the resulting regulations.  It doesn’t help the workers if a company is driven out of business, but it can be too easy for companies to exploit people’s need for work and their reluctance to move far away from their family and friends.  Those politicians whose parties receive large company donations have a conflict of interest in such matters.

The free movement of labour within the single market is an essential safety valve for both employers and workers.  Successful companies need more workers, who may not be available locally.  Some workers want to be able to move if they have inadequate employment prospects where they live.  Given that technical change is happening increasingly rapidly, and that globalisation is resulting in some industries becoming uncompetitive, employment prospects are constantly shifting; the free movement of labour within the EU is therefore essential and there is no reason why its members would agree to Britain having an exemption.

Freedom of movement requires agreements on some aspects of human rights across Europe: people would be effectively prevented from moving if they had inadequate socio-economic rights in the destination country.  The overall scope of European Human Rights is, however, much wider and is not directly linked to EU membership.  Russia, for example, has signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights and submits to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights; those rights were agreed after the Second World War, as a safety mechanism against fascism, to prevent governments from oppressing minorities.

The environment also needs some collective regulation within Europe to make the single market work properly.  Without regulation, companies could start a race to the bottom on environmental standards in order to compete with each other.  A company might save money by dumping effluent into a nearby stream, for example; that would adversely affect the people living nearby, or in adjoining countries, whilst the company concerned would undercut the costs of more tightly-regulated competitors.

Some politicians and some companies want to have the benefits of free trade with Europe without submitting themselves to the associated collective regulation.  This is unrealistic.  Certainly, trade would continue if Britain leaves the EU – but not on such favourable terms.  If, like Norway, Britain agreed to the regulations without participating in defining them, it would then pay a slightly reduced subscription.  The various trading options have been published.

Michael Gove’s characterisation of the EU, as democratically unaccountable, is misleading; its accountability is not solely to the British electorate because it is dealing with matters which have to be collectively decided.  It only deals with matters that affect more than one country.  Britain has as much control over the EU as any other member, and could play a leading role if it chose to be a good team player rather than behaving like a spoilt child.

Populism

Widespread public discontent is seen as an opportunity by populist politicians; they can amplify people’s concerns and promise change as a means of gaining support (and the power that goes with it in democracies).  Dissatisfied people can be tempted to follow anyone who offers change, but the tragedy of hopeful voters is that they can be led in directions that seriously damage their future prospects.  There is a real risk of this happening in both Britain and America this year.

In Britain, the EU referendum has allowed some politicians to capitalise on public concerns about immigration and low wages.  Those who advocate Britain leaving the EU, a ‘Brexit’, are offering a utopian vision of a proudly independent Britain somehow doing better than it does now.  The government, though, has described the four possible ways for Britain to trade with the EU if it were no longer a member, showing how each is inferior to current arrangements.  Iain Duncan Smith has airily dismissed this as a “dodgy dossier”; he asserted that Britain would develop new trade relationships that would transcend all existing ones.  He didn’t say how this could be done.

The British people need to be reminded how well they have done since they joined the EU.  Rather than running away, Britain should try to work more closely with its European neighbours for their mutual advantage.

In America, where there is public concern about jobs, Mexican immigration and Islamic terrorism, Donald Trump has become very popular; he advocates economic protectionism, which is the disastrous policy that led to the Great Depression in the 1930s; he has said that he would build a wall to keep out Mexicans, which sends a nasty message to anyone of Hispanic descent; and he is mobilising public opinion against all Muslims (not just ISIS), so he risks stirring up communal violence with America’s Muslim population.  Hopefully he would be soundly beaten when it comes to the presidential election, but that would not be the end of America’s problem.  If large swathes of the population are disaffected, other politicians may try to emulate his populist tactics and a hostile Congress could prevent the next President from doing anything constructive.

Populist politicians may truly believe that merely by seizing power they can benefit the people.  A Brexit, though, would do irreversible damage to Britain’s prospects and the American people would not be well served by another four years of political stalemate.

The campaign for a Brexit

Now that David Cameron has finished his negotiations on Britain’s place in the EU, the Vote Leave campaign is gathering momentum.  Eurosceptic Cabinet Ministers are free to make their case.  Michael Gove has made a very clear statement on why he thinks that Britain ought to leave the EU: a ‘Brexit’.  Boris Johnson, having talked to Gove and having made his own political calculations, is also campaigning to leave.  There are serious weaknesses in their arguments though, and they are ignoring Scotland’s likely demand for independence if Britain were to leave the EU.

Michael Gove argues that Britain should take control of all its own decisions; he accuses the EU of democratic unaccountability.  He criticises its policies on refugees.  He cites examples of what he sees as over-regulation.  He also argues that Britain would be more prosperous outside the EU.  These are persuasive arguments, each worthy of some attention, but he does not tell the whole story.

He puts a nationalist case, arguing that Britain should recover its sovereignty, despite the fact that we would continue to be affected by the decisions of other countries – as The Economist has pointed out.  He praises Britain’s democratic accountability and contrasts it with the appointed EU Commission.  What he does not say is that the 28 member States have only allowed the EU to have jurisdiction over matters of shared interest, which include protecting the environment and the human rights of all its citizens.  He also fails to mention that the European Commission is subject to the authority of elected politicians, albeit the collective political authority of all the countries affected.  The hidden sub-text of his stance is that he wants Britain’s political elite to have unfettered control over all aspects of our lives.  Britons would then have no right of appeal – even if a government were to legalise indefinite detention without trial, for example, and in 2004 it was only prevented from doing that by human-rights law.

When he states that “EU immigration policies have encouraged people traffickers and brought desperate refugee camps to our borders”, he doesn’t explain how Britain would be better protected by leaving the EU and having no influence on its policies.  The French are currently cooperating with Britain by holding back refugees at Calais.  He also notes that political tensions are rising within Europe, largely because of the refugee problem.  This is a legitimate cause for concern for Britain, whether or not it is an EU member; a Brexit would not help Europe to solve those problems.

It is easy to find examples of inappropriate regulation in any set of rules that has developed over many years.  There are anachronisms in both British law and EU regulations.  Michael Gove argues that the British economy outside the EU would no longer be held back by excessive regulation, but he does not say which regulations he would dispense with.  Workers’ rights perhaps?  Or environmental considerations?  Or financial regulations (a tricky subject, given what happened in 2008)?  Most EU regulations have been introduced to protect its citizens from what might otherwise be harmful actions by big companies (who might be donors to the Conservative party).

It is wishful thinking to assert that Britain would somehow be more prosperous if it were outside the EU.  Most (but not all) British business leaders want to stay in the EU; their views should carry more weight than the assertions of self-interested politicians.  It is also interesting to consider how we would achieve this additional economic growth without more people; we would need immigration from somewhere and several employers have expressed frustration at the arbitrary limits set by the government.

Boris Johnson has made a political calculation, in which self-interest will have played a part.  The Economist article referred to above mentions his desire to replace David Cameron, for example.  He would have taken account of Michael Gove’s arguments and he almost certainly would have assessed the strong popular tide running for Brexit, particularly when so much of the national press is banging that drum.  Unfortunately, many people will not try to make up their own minds by closely examining the arguments for Brexit; they might be attracted by the nationalist sentiments expressed by Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, they might trust Boris Johnson as a politician, and many will unquestioningly accept the opinions expressed by those newspapers with whom they feel most comfortable.

There is a bigger picture, which is less sentimentally nationalistic and which puts real influence before the pipe-dream of complete autonomy.  Having close links with one’s neighbours is the best policy in a joined-up world.  Those who wish to put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain should reflect that the world was different when it had an Empire.  Then it was seen as an island protected by the world’s strongest navy; now it is more appropriate for the United Kingdom to cultivate its soft power and its economy –both of which depend upon it having close relationships with other countries.

Ukrainian Narratives

The recent talks in Minsk were reported in the West in terms of a conflict with Russia – as in this week’s Economist leading article, entitled “Putin’s war on the West”.  Alternative narratives are possible and less dangerous.  Ukraine’s civil war can be seen as just that: an uprising by a portion of its population that believed that its interests were being ignored by the government in Kiev.  It can also be seen as an objection by that part of the population to a major change in the country’s status: a move towards joining the EU.  It will now be difficult to have a united Ukraine forming part of a borderland between Russia and the EU.

The Cold War narrative is convincing.  The West is sensitive about Russian expansionism and the Russians don’t want Ukraine to join the EU and NATO.  Russia has been assisting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking separatists, in pursuit of its own geopolitical agenda.  Europe and America have responded in geopolitical terms – and America has talked of sending arms to support Ukraine’s West-leaning government.  This is a dangerous way of framing the conflict in Ukraine.  The West’s support for the Kiev government echoes America’s attempt to prop up the government of South Vietnam – which failed.

There is much less danger of escalation if the conflict is seen as a civil war, where the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine’s population is protesting against being treated as second-class citizens.  As commented previously on this website, the Kiev government has failed to be inclusive, i.e. to take into account the concerns of its Russian-speaking population.  Attempts to prevent the use of Russian as an official language strengthened that impression (although that law has since been repealed).  The interests of Ukraine’s Eastern population, such as its trading links with Russia, seem to have been virtually ignored by the Kiev government.  There is an alarming parallel with events in Iraq, where Nouri al-Maliki’s government discriminated against the Sunni population; as reported by Al Jazeera, this gave an opportunity for groups affiliated to Al Qaeda to launch a rebellion – and now the so-called ‘Islamic State’, feeding on Sunni discontentment, has grown far beyond Iraq.

The conflict can be framed as a protest by Russian-speaking Ukrainians against the Kiev government’s desire to tilt towards the West.  There are echoes of the events in Cyprus from 1955 onwards; Turkish Cypriots became alarmed at a proposal by Archbishop Makarios for enosis (unification) with Greece; this eventually led to an invasion by Turkey to “protect” the Turkish-speaking minority and a subsequent partition of the island.  The ceasefire agreed in the Minsk talks looks like a partition – and if this remains, President Putin would be able to trumpet success in further enlarging his empire.

If Ukraine wishes to stay a single country, the negotiated ceasefire has to hold and it has to propose a constitution which attends equally to the requirements of its different constituencies.  A neutral Ukrainian federation might be acceptable to Russia, the West and the Ukrainian population – if it offers adequate safeguards for the Russian-speakers and if it guarantees not to join either the EU or NATO.  An escalation of the war is not a viable alternative; at best it would lead to a partition like those in Cyprus (and Korea).

Greeks Need Relief, not Grexit

What is good for the Greeks would also be good for Europe.  Although some level of austerity was needed across Europe, to reduce fiscal deficits, it has been carried out in a very damaging way: it has depressed economic growth and has been inflicted on the poorest members of society.  The widespread feeling that a country should be punished for past overspending has to be balanced against the need to look forward to the best way of recovering from Greece’s current predicament and Europe’s continued economic slump.  The suggestion that Greece should leave the Eurozone – a ‘Grexit’ – is based on the assumption that Greece is the only country with a problem, yet this is far from the case.

Right-wing commentators have been arguing that austerity is the only way back to fiscal rectitude and that irresponsibility has to be punished.  For example, a recent Spectator article argued that “austerity really is a virtue” and that “Greece is an incorrigible basket-case”; it also suggested that the IMF and the European Central Bank (ECB) agreed.  On the contrary, the IMF has acknowledged that “Austerity is much worse for the economy than we thought” and a Wall Street Journal report suggested that the ECB “would like to do more to spur growth” but that Germany is holding it back.  Studies suggest that austerity reduces growth.  Paul Krugman and other prominent economists have argued that a Keynesian approach, of applying an economic stimulus during a depression, is more appropriate.

The application of austerity has been grossly unfair.  In Britain, for example, wealthy individuals and corporations have not shouldered much of the burden of recovery; the government reduced the higher rate of income tax, and wealthy corporations moved their profits to Luxembourg to avoid paying corporation tax.  Instead, the poorest members of society have been targeted with an artificial benefit cap and the ‘bedroom tax’ – which have been popular with the majority of the electorate, who are unaffected and who dislike ‘benefit scroungers’, but which have been a very blunt instrument for cutting the benefit budget.  A large portion of the benefit budget now goes to the working poor, not to the unemployed and those who are unable to work; an adjustment to the minimum wage would have been more effective – simultaneously giving people more money to spend and reducing the government’s benefit payments.  The minimum wage could also be a tool for addressing economic imbalances within the UK and between countries of Europe: its level should be set regionally, or even locally, to attract jobs to areas with a low cost of living.

Robert Skidelsky, in this week’s New Statesman, wrote: “I agree with Syriza: the way back to prosperity insolvency is not debt collection and austerity but debt relief and public investment.  This is Europe’s choice.”  This article, which was mostly available at eiranews.com, also reminded readers that some of Germany’s debt was forgiven after the Second World War and enabled its economy to recover.  It cannot be denied that Greek politicians overspent, but the pain experienced by their population has been sufficient punishment to avert any temptation to repeat the mistake.  Politicians now need to move forward in the best way for both Greece and for Europe as a whole – with some debt lightening and with less austerity.