21 may 2016, yet more hopelessness

Jonathan freedland tries hard to find crumbs of comfort in this week's israeli government musical chairs - but there is no silver lining in changing the defence minister from a right-wing ideologue committed to the rule of law and in good standing with the army to one far further right and neither. Avigdor lieberman is a notorious extreme-right thug, more noxious than the freedom-party favourite to win austria's presidency this weekend. Unlike netanyahu's vision of the world, which is a complex combination of populist, opportunist and ideological, lieberman's is straightforward racism. Long an advocate of transferring some of the arab population out of parts of the west bank, lieberman has built a popular platform based on denigrating arabs and a political vision based on legally identifying them as second-class citizens. In passing, he has talked about drowning palestinians in the dead sea and executing israeli arabs (ie full citizens) who talk to hamas. During the last gaza conflict he called for israelis to boycott arab shops. The same thinking was behind a sinister government bill (the non-profit association law) to punish domestic critics of government policy. His supporters chant "death to arabs" at rallies. Freedom of expression ? Not for arabs: lieberman's party championed a bill to criminalise commemoration of the "naqba" which loosely translates as catastrophe and is the arab narrative for what jewish israelis celebrate as independence day. Lieberman's party winning 15 seats (of 120) in the 2009 election was one of the biggest shocks in israeli political history, flagging that an enduring message of outright racism has a constituency in democratic israel. Far from the body politic rejecting such racism, it has continued to evolve relentlessly into the mainstream right - hence lieberman's renewed appointment to one of the country's highest offices is hardly news. How far, in the wrong direction, we have travelled (see it was 20 years ago today, 4 november 2015). So - hope from this nightmare ? Bibin there, done that (see 18 april 2015) - tragically, no.

7 may 2016, normal service is resumed (temporarily)

I can't help but love reading the runes of elections, and this week's "locals" in the uk were the biggest single set before the next general election, as well as brief respite from the otherwise politically-dominating referendum. Let's start with the conservatives, in government, at the centre of several small-bore scandals and u-turns, as well as being hopelessly split on europe and so who should have been expected to do relatively badly. In fact they held their own. The reason for this was labour. With a new leader they might be expected to be in a honeymoon period - think cameron or blair one year in, both pretty much all-conquering. They didn't. Behind the headline win in london (against a nasty negative conservative campaign) and the general "slow steady progress" narrative against good expectation management that created fears they would lose badly, this was a very bad set of elections for labour, and catastrophic again in scotland, where they are now no longer even the official opposition (as unionist forces coalesced around the modish scottish conservatives). Two peaks and a flatline. The handsome winners in scotland were again the nationalist snp, but there is a sense they have peaked and a new norm of more effective opposition that will one day topple them (south african anc-style) may just be discernible. It's a high peak though they will be happy with. Less so ukip, who some headline-grabbing first seats in the welsh-assembly aside, have little to boast about this time around, which is perhaps strange given europe has dominated the news these last months. Whatever the referendum result, a major crossroads looms for them, as they have not a bad basis to embed themselves across the country as an angry right-of-mainstream alternative. For that, they need to put europe behind them and avoid becoming a nasty anti-immigrant party, not easy given those are the two issues virtually their entire membership and story are built on. The liberal democrats are hardly worth a sentence: they survive. They lost stockport, where we live, labour becoming the largest party, with 23 of the 63 seats. The lib dems have 21 and the conservatives 14. Our own heald green yet again easily returned the local independents, whose 3 seats previously kept the yellows in power: we may well then be living under our own traffic light coalition. I can only hope it does a better job of fixing the ever-increasing number of potholes.

25 april 2016, I heart europe

With barack obama's full-throated support still ringing, I leave for a short holiday with a feel of a fight-back starting. Although the odd bunch in the corner sometimes prospers (austria's just won an election), they generally don't in britain. It will be interesting to see if the inners can ride on the american president's powerful coat-tails and get some momentum for the first time in the campaign. My helpful advice is to take a break from the nitty-gritty arguments of pragmatic apologists (yes it's not perfect, but...) and try soaring up to the big picture for a while. So apart from obama's slam dunk on trade, as patrick steward may have said (in this excellent sketch, albeit on the echr not the eu) - what has europe ever done for us ? Well peace and security for starters, in a continent that spent the previous 100 years without it. And don't knee-jerk respond nato, an outward-facing technical term. Before the common market, tens of millions were killed in wars between germany and france; today they share a currency and don't even have a border. The euro may have issues and the border occasionally reappear - but it's difficult to imagine them annihilating each other. Spain, greece and portugal are stories of democracies which not long ago were dictatorships. Europe's yugoslavian corner was torn apart by its most vicious war since 1945. Too slow to stop it, europe has since brought healing balm, the major force in creating a civil society and the main motivation for sustained peace, with several successor states already in the club. The eu did not alone change these worlds, but in idea and action it played an important part. Europe and the world are paradigms better for the eu's existence and would be at least as worse off without it. We're off on cheap flights (thanks eu for that too) to prague and budapest, previously communist dictatorships, now safe and prosperous democracies. In the big battle to secure freedom and human rights, protections and order from chaos, transparency against corruption and good governance that bring more prosperity to more people, the eu is not just on the right side but was designed with those ends in mind. For all its faults, many inevitable as a futuristic post-national creation wrestling with the mires of the present, the eu is a force for good and needs its champions to keep being so. I am one.

9 april 2016, ukraine, utrecht, uttoxter... uer OUT

Stop scratching your head. The little-noticed dutch referendum on ukraine last week was a disastrous portent of things to come. It wasn't about an eu trade deal, the question on the ballot. That was signed 2 years ago and has been in force since january. Trade is an eu power (though holland and the other member states have their say along the way; they were in favour). The referendum was the anti-eu lobby taking advantage of a new dutch law forcing a referendum whenever enough signatures are gathered. This was a flash version of the uk's slow progress to the same instrument. Though well-intentioned, this pan-european trend towards direct, as opposed to representative (parliamentary), democracy is having a malign influence. Referenda are becoming the populist vehicle du jour, both of oppositions and governments, witness hungary's echo of greece in ridiculously calling a loaded-referendum on whether the government is right to oppose the eu's solution on migration it didn't agree with but, according to the rules, was outvoted on. With still no date set, that looks increasingly like bluster. Not so the dutch, where a strong majority, some 61%, voted against the eu (treaty), landing policymakers a real headache. Once again, the fundamental question of how democratic majoritarianism in the eu demos can function alongside a system of predominantly national democracies is raised (see 21 february 2015, le demos nouveaux et arrive !). Holland is bigger than greece. Britain is bigger still, and its looming vote to leave is increasingly looking likely to trigger a full-blown eu crisis as that pillar of the european demos looks at best well ahead of its time and at worst a fantasist elitist project that is really just cover for all the capitalist/socialist/liberal (take your pick) ills of the world. It is of course the former, but as more and more eu citizens (for that is what we have been since 1992, see passport to citizenship) are forced to think about it, its ever-wider perception as the latter becomes more and more corrosive, leading populist champions to increasingly define themselves against it. In the uk context that self-reinforcing realisation will just invigorate the outers. The worst berlaymont fears of this as a decade of eurosclerosis are now looking rather like an optimistic outcome.

27 march 2016, terrorism seriously misspelt

An excellent piece in the guardian by ex-times editor simon jenkins, who I credit; as people retweet, so I am reblogging. It's about brussels, and his basic point is don't worry so much about the bombs, worry about our reaction to them. The 24/7 blanket mass media coverage, the hysteria and the security crackdown are all, he argues, exactly what the terrorists want, providing fabulous free publicity, instilling fear and acting as an excellent recruiter to their cause. A guy in a 2nd floor flat with some good logistical skills scored a great success: "I converted a squalid psychopathological act into a warrior-evoking, population-terrifying, policy-changing event. I sent a continent into shock. Famous politicians dropped everything to shower me with cliches. Crowned heads deluged me with glorious odium. I measure my success in column inches and television hours, in ballooning security budgets, butchered liberties, amended laws and - my ultimate goal - muslims persecuted and recruited to our cause." He echoes my early piece on paris (14 november 2015: paris to paris, a heavily-edited story of 2015), saying these things "happen almost daily on the streets of baghdad, aleppo and damascus. Western missiles and isis bombs kill more innocents in a week than die in europe in a year. The difference is the media response. A dead muslim is an unlucky mutt in the wrong place at the wrong time. A dead european is front-page news." Having lived through such times in tel aviv, with bombs on buses going off daily, you do come through the other side. However, the blanket horror now flashed across every media screen of "panic, threat, menace and terror" make things worse and harder. It is that media response which fuels all else. Yet what is an all-consuming mass media, which didn't yet exist in 1994, to do ? If the tv screen didn't cover it in that way, internet alternatives would and that's where audience would migrate to. Newspapers have long-competed on the most screaming headline; now we are on the ethereal equivalent. Reviewing the tightening security measures that encourage us to tell on our fellow citizens, jenkins concludes rather chillingly that "england is becoming old east germany". It is easy to discount such exaggerations. Its harder when you're a ten-year old the school notifies the police about, who quiz your family at their house and examine their computers, because you (or your spellcheck) misspelt "terraced" as "terrorist" house. The fear is we are lobsters in the pot with the waters heating up around us, and for most the warmth is quite reassuring.

18 march 2016, germany’s ukip

Although they have just one seat from the last general election, the united kingdom independence party is a massive success, getting 13% of the vote and having won outright the european elections. Much more importantly, they have shifted the country's political landscape. There is no doubt that without the party started in 1993 by a few professors to stop britain joining the euro, we would not now be having a referendum. If the uk does indeed leave, a mighty blow for the eu itself, ukip will have become one of modern history's most successful political movements. Germany now has its own ukip. The alternative fur deutschland, afd, has quickly accelerated along the same path from anti-euro, to anti-eu, to anti-migrant, opportunistically capitalising on general discontent. Germany is of course different. First, migrant volumes were not the gradual heating a lobster in water story of the uk, but a massive shock of refugees driven by the syrian war. Second, although opposition to the eu was not prohibited, until recently it has not been evident, largely as "europe's" roots in post-war germany are deep, the eu being in many ways an ersatz identity for where the patriotism common in france or britain has only over the last decade had any place at all (see flagging). Third, with its grand coalition and power distributed over a large number of federal state governments, all the main parties are essentially co-opted into, and largely agree with, the political consensus of pax merkela, who has squatted clearly over the centre ground, both left and right, meaning in effect the germany government has had no proper opposition. With afd's mould-breaking 24% in saxony and great results in the west too, it does now.

12 march 2016, knowing the price but not the valeu

Still stuck in referendum world. A particular bugbear is the "leave" camp's claim that britons "give" £20b a year to the eu; £50m a day. Firstly that's wrong, as almost £10b comes right back, in cash for projects like manchester's metrolink and royal eye hospital, promoting tourism to the lake district and a large number of schemes for and investments in small and more risky businesses outside london that would not otherwise receive funding. That means there is a not a single uk-wide picture, as while london is a strong "net contributor" to the eu, wales is a net beneficiary, ie better off in cash terms in than out, as are many other areas. That though is not the story, as this is all about value, not cost. We just paid £45 for a new kettle - but that doesn't mean I should vote to leave john lewis. The question is whether we got value for money from them (which I think we did). The total money spent by the entire eu is 1% of its gdp; for comparison, uk government spends around 42%. Everything done for those 500m people is managed by the commission, which in its entirety has around 30,000 people working for it, less than 10% of the uk central government civil service and less than 1% of its total public sector. The single market alone brings the uk an estimated annual benefit (lies, damn lies & statistics) of £25b, which if we want to translate it to a fanciful figure for each uk household is almost exactly £1000 each a year. For that we also get a slug of external benefits, like 53 free-trade agreements across the world, with another 81 on the way, which enable british firms to export and prosper, and an undervalued foreign service, hand in glove with the uk's own, that bolsters europe's ability to project peace and security across the world. That may sound trite in a world of syria, libya and afghanistan, but it has helped amplify british efforts to bring stability and democracy to eastern europe and beyond and remains an effective global partner for the great powers that is pushing for solutions to these conflicts and which at least tries to make a positive difference. Like the romans, the eu has also brought us the roads. Boris may rant about the "burden" europe has imposed on crossrail (though note britain explicitly agreed to and indeed pushes for this european level playing field) but his small-minded opposition based on london being forced to allow for the possibility that german trains might one day go through it is to rail against the same fundamental single market building block that enables british firms to export a majority of their goods and services to europe. Back at #pulseofthenation hq then, we're still on course to leave. I'm still sad but increasingly sanguine about it.

26 february 2016, how britain’s next prime-minister was selected

In the heat of battle it is difficult to see what tactics are being deployed to what ends and also what the ultimate outcome will be. Whilst they lost the vote, the scottish nationalists clearly won last year's scottish independence referendum, rising from just 6 members of parliament before, to an all-conquering 50 after. Last weekend's intervention in the eu referendum campaign by boris might not have swung that result, but chances are it swung the one afterwards: for the conservative party leadership. Dwell on two facts. First, whatever happens in june, david cameron has already categorically said he will resign before the next uk general election. That could be soon and abrupt, or could be triumphant and some years away, but it's a racing certainty that by 7 may 2020 he'll be gone. At that point the conservative party will select a new leader, who will almost certainly become prime minister, probably a little way ahead of the election to let the radiance of office so helpful in elections rub off, (not that the same manoeuvre did brown or callaghan any good, though it worked for major). Barring an unknown unknown then - second fact - britain's next prime minister will be chosen by the conservative party's membership. The way the system works is that the parliamentary party chooses two colleagues, who then get to romp up and down the country trying to convince the 150, 000 or so rather aged but more importantly overwhelmingly eurosceptic members, with a high-likelihood the eu will be very much on their minds. Boris, like george, theresa (who surely took a hit by seeming sceptical then coming out for in) and the rest, continues to assiduously court mps, and should they choose him as one of the two - his biggest hurdle, as he's not great close up - the race is over. This is true whatever the referendum result. If britain stays, and so he likely faces victorious george, the membership will be seething; if we're leaving, he'll be the all-conquering hero and there probably won't even be a contest. Boris then is very much looking like the uk's next prime-minister then and quite possibly by year-end...

21 february 2016, in or out ?

Despite so much political capital being wasted on so little substance, let's not even pause on the entrails of a piffling deal, but look instead at the question on the ballot. The die seems already cast, with brits set to wake up on 24 june amazed that they've just voted to leave history's strongest ever democratic pooling of sovereignty (see 1 january 2016, the year of leaving). Why should we have stayed ? The union is not perfect, but europe together is very much better off than it would have been without it, as, selfishly, is the uk. Britain joined as the sick man of europe but leaves as a star economic performer of sorts, hard to square with the argument that the eu hobbles us, rather like the oft-repeated slogan that exit will free us to ramp up exports to the rest of the world, like china, and catch up to the mighty german export machine. Yet germany is also in the eu, and isn't even in the "best of both worlds" position we say we want and already have, of being outside the integrationalist bits, schengen and the euro, we seem to find most objectionable. Once our continental colleagues are over the snub, we are told, we will effortlessly retain free access to the internal ("single") market we helped create which is at the centre of our global trade and investment framework, and, by far, destination to more british exports than anywhere else. Not really; bruised and eager to show that exit is ugly and comes at a high price, working out its cost to little england will be tortuous and bad-tempered. In 1994 norway decided not to join and does indeed now have access - but it pays in 83-91% of the uk's per capita contribution; switzerland is less but similar. Neither country has any influence whatsoever on the "acquis communautaire", i.e. the eu rules Britain and the rest impose on them as a condition for internal market access. In 2014 switzerland tried to assert sovereignty, with a referendum that decided to limit eu migration. So far the eu has not agreed, so it's not happened and either switzerland will cave in, or else it will lose open access to the eu market. The uk franchise doesn't help, with european residents of 20 years unable to vote, whilst commonwealth ones of 2 can. Probably the greatest irony is that there's no doubt the union has been going strongly the uk's way for quite some years now, as set out well in the introduction to an excellent article by my old sparring partner jean-claude piris showing just how dreadfully difficult it is going to be to untangle uk membership. Taking a long-term historical sweep, there are 3 main emerging global trade and currency blocs in the world: america, europe and china. Whilst diminished not fatal to be outside one, britain will always have greater control, influence and prosperity by being central and so representing both all its rather good at (free trade, economic liberalism, multilateralist foreign policy, assured diplomacy, a global horizon...) and its own selfish interests in corridors of power increasingly restricted to those key blocs. Yet, here we are, unable to control our emotional intelligence in this age of rage and set to deliver cameron and the establishment a bloody nose, to spite our face. I'm off now to start work on my new article about the details of the uk's withdrawal treaty and the swathes of new english law we'll rapidly need to put in place to fill the vacuum of the eu law we'll be liberated from...

18 february 2016, it was; were you ?

Travelling back from major family event in london last weekend, I paused at whsmith, reflecting on the non-momentous news that in a few weeks one of its more interesting titles, the independent, will no longer grace its shelves. Like bbc3, the rather newer tv station that went off air yesterday, the indy has gone "online only". Surely, say the critics, the latest but not the last to stop having forests felled so we can leave them on train seats after a brief peruse. Actually, time was when I would read the paper practically from cover the cover, back of course when time was less of a premium; I was a student for a long time. The independent was my first broadsheet as a sixth-form politics student, which coincided with its eye-catching "it is, are you ?" launch, fabulous photos and nonchalant ignoring of craven royal events. I must admit though that by the time I returned from my year-off and established my real rag reading revelry, I had already grudgingly graduated to the guardian, where I have remained. I need to stop and think when I stopped reading the actual paper; it was when we left london for frankfurt in 2001, where although I took my economist with me, I started reading the garudnian online and become a financial times devotee. Anyway, sat here on the edge of my seat waiting for any of them to report on the all-important outcome of the european summit - not...

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