From the category archives:

European Politics

Not in our name

by Chris Bertram on June 20, 2018

For as long as I can remember, the philosopher’s stock example of a proposition that is morally uncontroversial has been “torturing babies is wrong”. Yet it turns out that torturing babies, or at least toddlers, is US government policy, where that policy involves separating them from their parents, leaving them in acute distress and certainly consigning many of them to a lifetime of mental health problems. And all so that Donald Trump can play at symbolic politics with his base. The justification given to the policy by people like Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to be that the government is simply enforcing the law.

This discourse, that the law has to be enforced and that unauthorized immigrants are lawbreakers who must be punished, is pretty questionable in itself. But in this case it flies in the face of the US government’s commitments under the Refugee Convention, incorporated into US domestic law, according to which refugees are not liable to criminal sanction for unlawful entry. There’s also the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the US has signed up to but not ratified. So, even if you think that laws must be followed and enforced, the question of who the lawbreakers are here is one that does not admit of a clear answer. Not that one should have confidence that the Supreme Court of the United States would interpret the United States’ legal obligation under the Convention in a way that that does not reflect partisan political judgement. Government of laws not of men? Not really.

As a European it is tempting simply to point the finger at Trump, but our own well is just as poisoned. Hungary now intends to criminalize those who give assistance to migrants and refugees, including merely informing them of their legal rights. Salvini, the new Italian interior minister, having refused to allow migrants to dock at Italian ports, now contemplates a purge of people of Roma ethnicity from Italian territory and regrets that he cannot deport the ones who have Italian nationality. And then there are Europe’s 34,361 dead migrants. Terrible times, and all the more terrible because electorates, or at best substantial minorities of them, are willing this stuff. We who disagree have to say: not in our name. And we have to do what we can to push back.

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Twelve Stars project – join in!

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 16, 2018

So folks, I want to draw your attention to the Twelve Stars project – a project set up up by some (mainly German) philosophers who will publish a book, in the run-up to the European Elections of 2019, in which philosophers will defend a specific policy proposal that that the European Union should adopt. There are 25 propositions that will be defended, including that the EU should not tolerate member states to restrict freedom of religion (defended by Rainer Forst), that the EU should offer citizenship to people from Island nations inundated by rising see levels (Mark Alfano), that the EU should abolish intensive farming (Mara-Daria Cojocaru), that the EU should encourage new forms of governance in which companies are run by employees (Lisa Herzog) and many more. For a list of all propositions, take a look here. Our own Miriam Ronzoni will defend the claim that the European Parliament should be elected on the basis of transnational lists, and I will defend the claim that the EU should institute high levels of taxation on air travel.

An interesting feature of the project is that the authors will try out their proposals in a “change my view” debate with anyone who wants to join the discussion. The first three debates are this Friday, with Peter Dietsch arguing that the European Central Bank should consider the distributive effects of its monetary policy, Clement Fontan arguing that the EU should adopt stricter financial regulations, and Jakub Kloc-Konkołowicz arguing that the European Union should involve its national parliaments more strongly when reshaping its institutions and politics. Feel free to join those discussions, and those following over the next weeks!

Many scholars, journalists and commentators have written how in many (all?) European welfare states government-based systems of support and solidarity are being restructured, scaled down, or eliminated. One common ideological basis in all those reforms is the view that people should be made maximally self-reliant and, if need be, families should support other family members in need – hence this would justify a cut-back of state involvement. The European welfare states have always been something most Europeans have been proud of – the idea that civilisation implies that we collectively care for the most vulnerable people in our political community, and that we collectively pool risks that, if left to the market, would lead to some people paying much more to secure those risks than others.

In several countries, the reforms are targeting the income- and labour market support systems for the disabled. In the Netherlands, this has now taken a really ugly turn, as was very well described in an article (in Dutch) by Gijs Herderscheê and Sheila Sitalsing, which was published today in De Volkskrant. [click to continue…]

Catalonia: petition for de-escalation

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 5, 2017

Philosophers from Catalonia are circulating a petition to plead for de-escalation of the current conflict. As this newspaper article reports, and as was confirmed to me by one of the original signatories, the group who took this initiative includes people in favour as well as against independence for Catalonia (and, presumable, some who think “it’s complicated” and have no firm views).

You are all invited to sign in order to call upon both the Spanish and the Catalan politicians to de-escalate and put in place a proper process through with all parties can peacefully engage with these questions, and hence replace confrontation and violence with a proper dialogue.

Catalan referendum – open thread

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 1, 2017

Catalonia is holding a referendum today on secession from Spain. Apparently it’s illegal because the Spanish constitution doesn’t allow anything that can threaten Spanish unity. I haven’t been following the arguments pro and con and don’t know to what extent the separatist views are widely shared among the people living in Catalonia. So I don’t have an informed opinion about Catalonia’s striving for independence, and know from the Belgian/Flemish case how the political background of striving for independence can be very complicated, and how easy it is as an outsider to know half of the facts and sensitivities, and make overly quick judgements on that partial knowledge. But one doesn’t need to have a well-informed view on whether or not this referendum should have taken place, to see that it’s a violation of human rights as well as politically utter stupid of the Spanish government to react with police violence (BBC, Guardian). Anyway, consider this an open thread on the Catalan referendum.

I’ve been thinking about this Gideon Rachman piece over the last 24 hours:

despite her cautious phrasing, Ms Merkel has also behaved irresponsibly — making a statement that threatens to widen a dangerous rift in the Atlantic alliance into a permanent breach. … it is a mistake to allow four months of the Trump presidency to throw into doubt a Transatlantic alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years …Ms Merkel was unwise and unfair to bracket the UK with Trump’s America. In the climate change discussions, Britain sided with the EU — not the US. … if Ms Merkel’s government pursues the Brexit negotiations in the current confrontational spirit — demanding that the UK commit to vast upfront payments, before even discussing a trade deal — she risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and a lasting antagonism between Britain and the EU. It is hard to see how the UK can be expected to see the same countries as adversaries in the Brexit negotiations and allies in the Nato context. So a really hard Brexit could indeed raise questions about Britain’s commitment to Nato — particularly if the US is also pulling back from the western alliance.

Not so much the broader argument (which I disagree with, but in obvious ways) than what the specifics say about the current state of Financial Times liberalism. [click to continue…]

Jane Jacobs, the tyranny of experts and Brexit

by Chris Bertram on May 16, 2017

Last night I watched Citizen Jane, a recent biopic about Jane Jacobs and her long fight against Robert Moses’s plans for New York. Of course, Jacobs was largely correct: Moses’s grand utopian schemes wrecked the ecologies of street and community and eventually produced neighbourhoods worse than the ones they replaced, whilst failing to solve even the problems, like traffic congestion, they seemed best suited to. But being already familiar with the substance of the dispute, and with Jacobs’s great work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, what struck me most forcefully was the rhetoric. On the one hand, there were the self-proclaimed “experts”, on the other, ordinary people with their lived experience, sceptical about whether the “experts” had their best interests at heart (or if they did, whether they shared the same conception of their interests). A great irony of the Jacobs case is that though she was right about Moses and his plans, the net result of her activism has not been, in the end, to preserve those neighbourhoods for the kinds of people who lived there then, but rather to give them an afterlife to be enjoyed by the people who can now afford to live in them.

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Adults In The Room

by John Holbo on May 5, 2017

Yanis Varoufakis’ new memoir sounds pretty damn interesting.

He’s in Washington for a meeting with Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary and Obama confidant. Summers asks him point blank: do you want to be on the inside or the outside? “Outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions,” Summers warns.

Elected politicians have little power; Wall Street and a network of hedge funds, billionaires and media owners have the real power, and the art of being in politics is to recognise this as a fact of life and achieve what you can without disrupting the system. That was the offer. Varoufakis not only rejected it – by describing it in frank detail now, he is arming us against the stupidity of the left’s occasional fantasies that the system built by neoliberalism can somehow bend or compromise to our desire for social justice.

And:

The first revelation is that not only was Greece bankrupt in 2010 when the EU bailed it out, and that the bailout was designed to save the French and German banks, but that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy knew this; and they knew it would be a disaster.

This charge is not new – it was levelled at the financial elite at the time by leftwing activists and rightwing economists. But Varoufakis substantiates it with quotes – some gleaned from the tapes of conversations and phone calls he was, unbeknown to the participants, making at the time.

I enjoyed his interview with Doug Henwood back in March. He seems to think moderately well of Macron, which makes me feel a bit better.

Macron leads!

by Chris Bertram on April 24, 2017

Macron has won the first round of the French Presidential election, and I for one am very pleased at the outcome. In the first place, I’m pleased because Marine Le Pen and the Front National have not done better despite circumstances, such as the Nice and Bataclan attacks, that might have been expected to give them a further boost. This suggests that, at least in France, right-wing populism has hit a limit, for the time being. Second I’m pleased because I think Macron probably has more about him than the Blair and Clinton comparisons and the childish chanting of the mantras of “neoliberal”, “austerity”, “banker” and “elite” by the Mélenchon claque suggests. He’s someone both committed to the EU and committed to changing it, whereas Mélenchon was all about making demands and walking away, in the vague direction of Lexit, as soon as the other member-states turned him down. Unlike Clinton and Blair he has done what he has done without a massive party machine behind him, he’s exhibited a lot of political courage and his bet has paid off. Now that we face the second-round, we see Mélenchon refusing to back Macron against Le Pen, which to my mind indicates that Mélenchon is an unserious poseur, but then his enthusiasms for Hugo Chavez and his apologetics for Assad ought to have been a clue to that.

Deal or No Deal

by John Quiggin on March 17, 2017

I was planning a post, looking at the Brexit negotiations in terms of game theory (more precisely, bargaining theory), but Frances Coppola has saved me the trouble. One reason for my hesitation was concerns similar to those expressed by Ariel Rubinstein, in a 2013 piece that seems to be having a bit of a revival lately. Still, whether or not game theory helps, I think Coppola has it about right.

Austrian presidential elections: why not a recount?

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 2, 2016

Yesterday, Austria’s constitutional court annulled the presidential elections that were held on May 22nd. These elections led – with a mere 0,6% difference – to a victory for the Green Party-backed independent candidate Alexander van der Bellen over the populist right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer. If Hofer had won, it would have been the first time that a populist right-wing politician would become the President of Austria, which many (including me) see as a worrying sign of the way European politics has been developing (and this was all pre-Brexit!).

I’ve been dealing with an inner-ear infection and haven’t had the energy to read very widely on the web, but am struggling with a question to which I couldn’t find the answer. So let me ask that question here, since our readers who are knowledgable about Austrian politics may be able to enlighten me. [click to continue…]

The Schengen option ?

by John Quiggin on June 28, 2016

Like most people outside Britain (and, it seems, like most British people, politicans and pundits as well as voters) I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the detailed implications of a Leave vote until it actually happened. Now that it has happened, the details matter. In particular, it seems that Boris Johnson and other leaders of the Leave campaign (though presumably not UKIP) are hoping to promote either the “Switzerland” or “Norway” options. I thought I’d check on the implications of these options for migration policy and AFAICT, both Norway and Switzerland are Schengen visa countries. So, on the face of it, those Leavers who supported continued market access on the Norway/Switerland model have voted for removal of existing controls on migration rather than the imposition of new ones.

I assume that Johnson and others have in mind a negotiation in which Britain (or England) gets the market access bits of the Norway/Switzerland options, while maintaining the existing opt-outs negotiated as an EU member. But why should the EU offer this? In particular, if Scotland becomes independent and joins the EU, the Scots will presumably want to maintain free access to England, while the rest of the EU would be unlikely to allow Scotland to remain under English border controls. In any case, the whole logic of the EU position is that Britain should not be able to pick and choose.

On the basis of an admittedly perfunctory search, I haven’t been able to find more than passing discussion of this question. Can anyone point me to more comprehensive analysis?

Brexit: the bloodbath

by Chris Bertram on June 24, 2016

Went to bed feeling optimistic, believing the late polls and the bookies, and turned the radio on at 4.20 to hear Nigel Farage gloating. A coalition of English and Welsh voters, advanced in years, low in education, and xenophobic in attitude, have enabled the worst and most reactionary people in British society, made it extremely likely that Scotland will secede, undermined the peace settlement on the island of Ireland, and destroyed the UK’s access to the single market. They have made it likely that their children and grandchildren will be deprived of the right of free movement within the EU. The pound is tanking and the stock market too. Imports will be more expensive, inflation will rise, house prices will fall but interest rate rises will keep the cost of being housed high. Immigration will probably fall, but not because “we” regained “control of our borders” but because immigrants come for jobs and there will be way fewer of those. Already we have the farce of areas of the country, like Cornwall, that voted for Brexit demanding that central government guarantee that the EU subsidies they get will be replaced. And then the horrible lying politics of the whole campaign, with Leave claiming that money saved on the EU would be diverted to the NHS (a commitment Farage repudiated within hours of the result). Little England with Wales is a poorer, narrower, stingier place. Cameron, the most incompetent Prime Minister in British history and the architect of this disaster is walking away, to be replaced by a hard right Tory administration under the leadership of Gove, May or the Trumpesque clown Johnson. People, we are well and truly fucked.

From the same stable as some of Harry’s recommendations, the song that I had always meant to post in this eventuality:

At the moment, I’m reading my way through David Miller’s new Strangers in our Midst and also getting very exercised about the UK’s Brexit referendum (to the point where I’m waking at night and worrying about it). My siblings and I have all benefited from the EU’s free movement rights, my children both have non-British EU partners, we think of ourselves as Europeans. So for me, the threat of Brexit is a threat of lost identity, of something that has been there all my adult life just disappearing overnight. And so I’m feeling pretty resentful towards my fellow citizens who might vote to cut that tie and thereby endanger the security and family life of millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU.

One of Miller’s arguments is a familiar one about social trust, about how welfare states depend for their stability on such trust and that the increasing diversity that immigration brings tends to undermine support for redistributive programmes. This lack of trust gets expressed in anger about stories that immigrants are ahead in the queue for social housing, that they are a drain on health and education services, that they are getting “something for nothing”, and so forth. Needless to say, most of such stories are false. Nevertheless, there may be elements in the design of the UK’s welfare state and its relatively non-contributory character that fuel such anxieties.

Here’s the thing. Those voting for Brexit out of resentment against immigration are disproportionately the elderly poor whites who don’t pay much in but who benefit from those public services. A predictable consequence of them getting what they want is that the fiscal base for those services will be eroded and that either they will have to be cut or taxes will have to be increased. This is because those EU immigrants are, in fact, paying more in taxes than they are taking in services. (Actually, the UK is free-riding in a big way, as it never paid for the cost of educating and training those workers.)

When I take those political affiliation surveys, I always say I’m willing to pay higher taxes. But now the devil on my shoulder is saying “why should you pay higher taxes to replace the taxes that were paid by EU migrants? Those idiots have brought it on themselves, let them now suffer the consequences”. An ugly thought, but I’m guessing that if I’m having it then I’m not alone. The UK’s EU referendum has eroded social trust more than immigration per se ever did. It poses the question of what citizens owe to one another in pretty stark terms. If people could mitigate the need for higher taxes by accepting immigrants and they choose not to do so, why should their wealthier fellow citizens bear the cost of their choices?

2016 presidential elections in Austria

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 23, 2016

The Austrians just elected Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green politician, as their new President – with 50,3% of the votes. The other half of those holding the right to vote preferred Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the populist right-wing (or, as some have it, neo-fascist) party FPÖ. I haven’t followed Austrian politics close enough to know whether that qualification is justified. It’s a difficult debate about which qualifications are justified for the various European radical right-wing parties, but either way it seems that their becoming more mainstream has not made them less radical (Dutch political scientists who have studied various radical right-wing European political parties claim that they do not moderate their principles and ambitions when they gain power – they only moderate their tone).

Either way, those of us who see the European radical right-wing parties as dangerous for values such as toleration, solidarity and international cooperation, have an uphill battle to fight. Van der Bellen may have won last night – but we should not forget that half of the Austrians prefer a radical right-wing president. Too much of this reminds us of the toxic political climate we had in Europe in the past. And I find it increasingly hard not too worry that there are too many signs of some of that returning.