From the category archives:

European Politics

Why Corbyn won, the Peter Mair explanation

by Chris Bertram on September 15, 2015

Over at the Monkey Cage, our very own Henry Farrell sets out how Peter Mair’s brilliant Ruling the Void helps explain Corbyn’s recent triumph. A shout-out too for my friend Martin O’Neill’s treatment of Corbyn’s victory at Al Jazeera.

Writing numbers on refugees’ arms, are you f’ing kidding me?

by Eszter Hargittai on September 3, 2015

If Hungary can forget after 25 years why a fence on its border is shameful, disgraceful, and disgusting then I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the Czech police may forget after 70 years that marking people with numbers on their arms for identification purposes is, well, not something that should be happening. Seriously, WTF.

If you’ve been living under a rock or focusing on US media/most Americans’ FB feeds, you may not even know what’s really going on. This Human Rights Watch piece gives a helpful overview. It also points out why things as they stand don’t work.

Worth noting is this piece from Al Jazeera that makes a very good case for why commentators, very much including the mainstream media, should not be talking about refugees as though they were migrants. They are refugees escaping inexplicable circumstances and we owe them the respect to acknowledge that when we discuss their plight.

It boggles the mind that some people, or in certain cases many people, cannot sympathize with these refugees and have nothing but hatred toward them. Is it history education that has completely failed us? Where is people’s compassion? The source of significant current problems is ISIS, hardly a group with which many in Europe would sympathize. So why is it so hard for people to appreciate that these refugees need help? I guess then it is not surprising that people can’t go the extra step to recognize the potential benefits of welcoming these refugees even if they can’t get on board with the humanitarian need.

There are exceptions, fortunately. Several thousand in Iceland have petitioned their government to take in more Syrian refugees. They get it. Refugees have the potential to contribute significantly to any society. From their letter:

Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, or soulmates, the drummer for the band of our children, our next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finished the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, the fireman, the computer genius, or the television host.

And to be sure, there are also many volunteers who are helping out on the ground across Europe. This piece has concrete suggestions for how you can help even from afar.

Images, of course, often tell the story better than words. I recommend Budapest seen on Facebook for photographs that do a great job capturing the humanity of the situation, the innocence of the children, and the brutality of the circumstances.

And one more important observation:

David Frum on the crisis in the mediterranean

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2015

David Frum is a US pundit, who writes on US politics. So, being based elsewhere, I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to him. Unfortunately, today, somebody drew my attention to this article in the Atlantic in which he argues, as a prelude to some boilerplate anti-immigrant conservative points, that the people who are crossing the Mediterranean are economic migrants rather than genuine refugees. Although there’s a rather dismissive mention of Syrians at the beginning of the piece “just 30 per cent” (30 per cent of a large number is a lot of people), the message of the piece is clear. Frum calls in aid the Canadian journalist Doug Saunders, who knows his stuff and usually writes sensibly on immigration matters.

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After Melos

by John Quiggin on July 15, 2015

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about the words Thucydides assigns to the Athenians in the Melian dialogue

The strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must
And I knew the immediate context. Militarily powerful Athenians demanded that the inhabitants of neutral Melos surrender their city and pay tribute. When the Melians refused, Athens invaded, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children.

I didn’t however, have any broader context in which to place this episode, even though the information is readily available on Wikipedia for example, which is my source here (apologies in advance to any actual experts for inaccuracies). The story begins with the formation of the Delian League, an expression of Greek unity in the war against Persia. The Athenians used the League to supplant Sparta as the hegemon of Greece, and then to oppress the other members, leading to a series of attempted defections. In Thucydides words

Of all the causes of defection, that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity

Eventually, this policy led to the outbreak of war with the Spartan-led Pelopennesian League (this war was Thucydides’ subject). The attack on Melos took place during a brief period of peace about half way through the war. The war ended with Athens being utterly defeated. Only the mercy of the Spartans prevented the Athenians sharing the fate they had meted out to the Melians a decade earlier, as Sparta’s allies demanded.

Rather than extract analogies to current events, I’d like to observe that the historical setting suggests a very different reading of the dialogue to that commonly seen today. In most of the contemporary discussions I’ve read, the Athenian side of the dialogue is presented as embodying the remorseless logic of power politics. But in the light of the outcome (well known to his intended readers), it seems to me Thucydides is better read as showing the Athenians as subject to the kind of hubris that demands, and inevitably receives, punishment. By contrast, while the Melians made a bad bet in resisting, their arguments are entirely sound, and should have been convincing to a rational hegemon.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.


by John Quiggin on July 14, 2015

Obviously, my analysis of the Greek debt crisis was wrong. My crucial error was the assumption that, having held the referendum and being faced with an unacceptable offer, Tsipras would choose exit from the euro rather than capitulation. Judging by this interview with Varoufakis (H/T Chris), that’s what Tsipras thought too, until, too late, Varoufakis told him it couldn’t be done. Certainly Tsipras’ actions were consistent with that interpretation.

Syriza has clearly been beaten. But I doubt that the outcome will work well for the other side in the long run. (Nearly) everyone understands that the debt can’t ultimately be repaid. But the German voting public hasn’t been told that. A deal that had some kind of quasi-automatic mechanism for writing down the outstanding balance (for example, by multiplying up the proceeds from asset sales) might have got around this problem. As it is, an explicit writedown will be needed at some point, presumably after Syriza has been forced out of office. That will be incredibly unpopular in Germany, while making clear to everyone else the locus of sovereignty in the post-crisis EU.

Update Commenters generally disagree with my take on the Varoufakis interview. I’m not wedded to it. The crucial point is that exit from the euro is extremely difficult, and that this fact will be used to punish any eurozone country that tries to resist the controlling powers.

Why Greek debt is a problem

by Henry on July 8, 2015

Daniel wrote a post some months ago which has a useful point about Greek debt.

Don’t think of the Greek debt burden, either in cash € terms or as a ratio to GDP, as an economic quantity. It basically isn’t an economically meaningful number any more. The purpose of its existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem. The regular rituals of renegotiation of the bailout package, financing of debt maturity peaks and so on, are the way in which the solvent Euroland nations exercise the kind of political control that they feel they need to have if they are going to be fiscally responsible for the bills.

If this is right – and I think it is – it suggests that Greek debt is a different kind of problem than most people argue, but that it is arguably a worse one. Pretty well everybody, including most Greek people on both the left and right, agree that the Greek state is a mess (read Stathis Kalyvas’s book for history on how it got there, and on the relationship between Greece and the West). This creates problems in a common economic area, exactly to the extent that the euro area needs some rough congruence of state capacity across countries to administer all the things (taxes; fiscal policy) that the area needs to function properly as a backstop to monetary union. The story of the eurozone’s relationship with Greece post-crisis is a story of external powers trying to restructure an entire political system from outside, using the crude tools of control that are available to them. The situation is somewhere between the kinds of Washington Consensus restructuring and conditionality that the IMF used to impose as a quid-pro-quo for emergency loans to countries in crisis, and the massive efforts to restructure the political systems of Afghanistan and Iraq post invasion.

Obviously these past efforts have mostly turned out pretty badly (perhaps you can argue some of the IMF cases – but you’d have an uphill battle if you really wanted to make a general defense). There are instances of successful political-restructuring-from-outside in Germany and Japan, but both of those involved (a) military occupation over a long period of time, and (b) relatively strong pre-existing state structures. There isn’t any warrant to believe that this effort will turn out better, or that the Troika-or-whatever-they-call-themselves-these-days have the local knowledge and public legitimacy to bring real changes through. The more plausible scenario is the one we have – locals vacillating between (a) resentfully going through the bare minimum of the motions of reform that they think they need to go through to get the money, and (b) resisting outright. This is not a recipe for long term success at anything apart from fostering grudges on both sides.

However, it gets worse. If I understand Daniel’s arguments over the last few years rightly, he thinks that the Greeks should just shut up and get on with it, since (a) the alternative is worse, and (b) given the unsustainability of the debt burden, the richer eurozone countries are going to quietly disappear it at some unstated point in the future when everything becomes less politicized. This is not, contra some commenters, a stupid or evil argument – but I don’t know that it’s right either. The Greek state is not the only one that is underdeveloped – the EU/Eurozone one is too, meaning that there isn’t any single actor that can strike deals, whether informal or formal, on the part of the collectivity. It’s not at all clear that anyone can quietly make a credible commitment to Greece to knuckle under in the expectation of better things in the long run, because it’s not clear that anyone on the other side of that bargain can push through a long term restructuring of debt given how toxic the politics have become. Even if the Greeks started behaving exactly as the rich eurozone countries want them to, it’s not clear that the latter countries’ publics will be willing to forgive what appears to them as vast amounts of taxpayers’ money – and under the current system as I understand it (happy to be corrected if I’m wrong, since much of the devil is in the detail), all that it takes is one member state with a cranky right wing coalition partner to refuse a deal.

To be clear – none of this conducts towards any specific recommendations for what Greece or the eurozone countries ought to do. It’s a lot more modest than that. If we treat Greek debt as a political instrument of control rather than a quantity that is going to be demanded from the Greek people over the shorter run, we should be arguing about the project for which that instrument is being deployed, and asking whether (a) it is fit for purpose, and (b) whether the kind of project that it’s being used for is one that’s going to work over the longer term. We should also be wondering (c ) about the endogenous ways in which the instrument of debt as a form of political control affects the actors on both sides of the relationship, and whether it makes some successful and mutually acceptable long term modus vivendi more or less likely. Obviously, I’m skeptical on all of these (and given past track record, I’d have expected Daniel to be more skeptical on (a) and (b) than he appears to be), but willing to hear counter-arguments.

What’s left of the European Union?

by Chris Bertram on July 3, 2015

The first few hours the atmosphere was hearty
With fireworks, fun, and games of every kind;
All were enjoying it, no one was blind;
Brilliant the speeches improvised, the dances,
And brilliant, too, the technical advances.

Today, alas, that happy crowded floor
Looks very different: many are in tears:
Some have retired to bed and locked the door;
And some swing madly from the chandeliers;
Some have passed out entirely in the rears;
Some have been sick in corners; the sobering few
Are trying hard to think of something new.

(From WH Auden, A Letter to Lord Byron)

One of the consequences of the Conservative victory in the recent UK general election was that there will be an in-out referendum of the UK’s membership of the EU at some point in the next couple of years (details yet to be finalized). How should people who think of themselves as being on the left, egalitarian, liberal, progressive vote?
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In 2014, the Dutch NGO Urgenda, together with 886 citizens, filed a law suit against the Dutch state for not taking sufficient action to limit climate change. Today, the court gave its verdict, which could live be followed on internet (in Dutch, without subtitles). The court has also immediately put an English translation of the ruling online. And the court has ruled:

The Hague District Court has ruled today that the State must take more action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands. The State also has to ensure that the Dutch emissions in the year 2020 will be at least 25% lower than those in 1990.

Many parties have called this a historical ruling, and no doubt this may inspire citizens and activist NGOs in other countries to take their States to court. Few commentators expected that the court would come to this ruling. Many believed that the court would not want to burn its fingers on what is essentially a political process; indeed, some have even gone so far to question whether the division of powers of the Trias Politica would be violated. Yet the court provided an answer to that worry:

With this order, the court has not entered the domain of politics. The court must provide legal protection, also in cases against the government, while respecting the government’s scope for policymaking. For these reasons, the court should exercise restraint and has limited therefore the reduction order to 25%, the lower limit of the 25%-40% norm.

The fact that the ruling only concerns 25% of CO2 reductions highlights that this is not the end of our struggles. A 25% reduction may be fanastic since it’s a court ruling (and that gives it a special kind of political status), but it is not enough. We should also not forgot the sadness of the situation – that we had to go to court to force the government to take action, in a country where legal action is generally not considered a way to do politics or bring activist concerns into the political arena.

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Migrant deaths: who is responsible?

by Chris Bertram on April 21, 2015

Yesterday, in response to a series of tragedies involving migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, the EU issued a ten-point plan with a lot of emphasis on taking action against people smugglers and a range of further measures, such as fingerprinting migrants, that seem irrelevant to events. British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government last year refused to back search and rescue plans on the grounds that they encouraged people to take risks, is now blaming “the human traffickers and the criminals that are running this trade.” The one group European politicians are not blaming, by and large, is themselves. Yet they, and the electorates they appease, bear most of the responsibility.

The reason for this is simple, and it is obvious. All European states are signatories to the Refugee Convention and that places obligations on them to offer sanctuary to people who arrive on their shores and who have a “well-founded fear” of persecution (on various grounds). Although politicians like to claim that their countries have a proud history of taking in the persecuted — as Cameron claimed in a speech last year — they now do everything in their power to make it as hard as possible for those seeking asylum to arrive on their territory. Devices such as heavy financial penalties on airlines and other carriers and ever tighter visa restrictions mean that people fleeing countries such as Syria and Eritrea simply cannot arrive in Europe by safe routes, and if they do so by using false documents they are often prosecuted and imprisoned. People from these countries make up a significant proportion of those trying to cross from Libya to Italy. Because people cannot travel via safe routes, they travel via dangerous ones, just as they do in other parts of the world. They put themselves in the hands of people smugglers and they take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats. But the people smugglers, though no doubt unscrupulous criminals on the whole, are simply responding to a demand that European politicians and their electorates have created.

There is more. Whilst politicians from all of Europe are culpable, many those in northern Europe are particularly so. They have put in place a system in the EU that means that those people who do arrive and claim asylum must do so in the country they first enter. It is very hard to enter the UK, and most of those arriving turn up in countries such as Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain, southern European countries hardest hit by the economic crisis. Countries such as the UK can disclaim responsibility and have no incentive to agree to a fair system of burden sharing.

Fingers pointed at people-smugglers and “traffickers” are pointed in the wrong direction. Europeans need only look in the mirror to see those responsible.

Who blinked?

by John Quiggin on February 24, 2015

So, the latest round of the Greek debt crisis has ended in a typical European combination of delay and compromise, much as Yanis Varoufakis predicted a week ago. But in view of the obvious incompatibility of the positions put forward, someone must have given a fair bit of ground. The Greeks wanted continued EU support, and an end to the Troika’s austerity program. The Troika (at least as represented by German Finance Minister Schauble) wanted Syriza to abandon its election program and continue with the existing ND/Pasok policy of capitulation to the Troika.

Put that way, I think it’s clear that the Troika blinked. The new agreement allows Syriza to replace the Troika’s austerity program with a set of reforms of its choice, focusing on things like tax evasion. Most of Syriza’s election platform remains intact. Of course, it’s only for four months, and none of the big issues has been resolved. But four months takes us most of the way to the next Spanish election campaign, hardly an opportune time to contemplate expelling a debtor country from the eurozone with utterly unpredictable consequences.

If the negotations were a win for Greece (feel free to disagree!) how did it happen?

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A one-horse troika

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2015

I’m a lot further from the action than DD, but I’m still surprised his confidence in the judgement and resolve of the Eurocracy in the coming confrontation with Syriza. Whatever you think about Greece, the failure of austerity in the Eurozone generally is patently obvious. It has already been admitted by the IMF (at least in its research, if not by its political leadership) and just last week by the ECB, with the shift to massive quantitative easing and the abandonment of the (supposedly unbreachable) ban on financing government deficits. That leaves the European Commission as the only horse still pulling the troika hard in the direction of austerity.

But the European Commission is almost as discredited as austerity. Apart from the appalling Olli Rehn, there’s the problem of Jean-Claude Juncker, who faced unprecedented resistance before getting elected, only to be exposed as complicit in tax avoidance/evasion on a scale that makes the dodges of Greek doctors look trivial. I just can’t see the IMF and ECB risking utter disaster in support of a policy they no longer believe in, at the behest of a shambles like the Commission.

That leaves the possibility that the German government will exert its (assumed) veto power more directly [I don’t understand the nature of this power, and would be happy to be enlightened]. My guess is that Merkel won’t be willing to take the risk of lumbering Germany with the responsibility of destroying Europe (again).

Breaking news: world leaders gathering in Baga, Nigeria

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 13, 2015

In Paris, France, about 20 people were killed in hyper-violent attacks, by gunmen claiming to fight for what they see as the values embedded in Islam.

In Baga, Nigeria, about 2.000 people were killed in hyper-violent attacks, by gunmen claiming to fight for what they see as the values embedded in Islam.

In Paris, world political leaders gathered to demonstrate in defense of freedom and against terrorism. They mourned the loss of 20 white Europeans. The events led to intense media exposure and public debates worldwide.

In Baga, world political leaders will soon gather to demonstrate in defense of freedom and against terrorism. They will mourn the loss of 20,000 Black Africans. It is expected that these events will lead to intense media exposure and public debates worldwide.

Charlie Hebdo

by Chris Bertram on January 7, 2015

We don’t have all the facts about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but it seems very likely that it was carried out by extreme Islamists as revenge for the magazine’s satirizing of Islam. I’m sure there will be a lot of comment over the next few days about the symbolic and principled aspects, the need to stand up for freedom of speech, and so on. I don’t dissent from that, but I’m finding it hard to see past the immediate horror of ten, eleven or more human beings, journalists, gunned down like that in a West European capital city. Awful.

The attack comes just after the Islamophobic marches in Germany by Pegida and the many reports of desperate refugees fleeing Syria in unseaworthy hulks. No doubt the Islamophobic parties, the Front National, UKIP and the rest will try to take advantage and ordinary Muslims will feel more isolated and threatened. We need to remember that most of the victims of extremists of this type have been everyday people who happen to be Muslims, we owe those victims our solidarity and to resist the voices who will try to shut them out. We can do that by affirming that citizenship and inclusion are for everyone, regardless of religion, and that we will help those fleeing from persecution by IS and the like.

Social democrats in the twin-peaked world

by Henry on January 6, 2015

Paul Krugman wrote last week about the rise of a ‘twin peaked’ world in which the global poor are doing much better, as are the extremely rich, while the working class are doing badly in comparative terms. He asks:

Who who speaks for those left behind in this twin-peaked world? You might have expected conventional parties of the left to take a populist stance on behalf of their domestic working classes. But mostly what you get instead — from leaders ranging from François Hollande of France to Ed Milliband of Britain to, yes, President Obama — is awkward mumbling. (Mr. Obama has, in fact, done a lot to help working Americans, but he’s remarkably bad at making his own case.)

The problem with these conventional leaders, I’d argue, is that they’re afraid to challenge elite priorities, in particular the obsession with budget deficits, for fear of being considered irresponsible. And that leaves the field open for unconventional leaders — some of them seriously scary — who are willing to address the anger and despair of ordinary citizens.

There’s plausibly a structural story behind the inability of conventional leftwing parties to challenge conventional orthodoxies and respond to the needs of their traditional constituency. They haven’t really relied on this constituency for a long time. Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void hasn’t gotten nearly the attention that it deserves, perhaps because it came out after its author’s death. But Mair – an expert on the evolution of political parties and party systems – makes a strong case that leftwing parties in Europe today have become profoundly disassociated from their voters. This is in part because of ordinary people withdrawing from political parties – the membership of mass parties has collapsed over the last few decades. However, it is also because the elites of parties don’t rely on mass membership to provide resources – instead they rely on resources from the state and networks where they are firmly embedded with other elites. The result is that European political parties rather than representing their constituents to the state, tend to represent the state and its imperatives to their constituents.

This helps explain the extraordinary haplessness of mainstream leftwing parties faced with the politics of austerity. It’s reinforced by the politics of the European Union, which was purpose designed as a non-democratic space (into which, however, bits of democracy have crept over time).

Despite the seeming availability of channels of access, the scope for meaningful input and hence for effective electoral accountability is exceptionally limited. It is in this sense that Europe appears to have been constructed as a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives.

National policies are constrained by EU institutions such as the European Central Bank and other institutions, which are designed to be non-majoritarian ones “from which parties and politics are deliberately excluded.” The result is that:

insofar as competing policies or programmes are concerned, the value of elections is steadily diminishing. Thanks to the European Union, although crucially not only for that reason, political competition has become increasingly depoliticized.

European voters, mainstream European parties and European leaders have increasingly learned how to live without effective participatory democracy. And now it’s biting the social democratic left. The withering of links between leftwing parties and their electoral base, combined with the movement of real decision making to the European level, leaves these parties in the cold. They neither know how to connect to voters any more, nor have any real program for change on those occasions (thanks to exhaustion with their opponents) they actually win office. It’s little wonder that so many of their voters are defecting.


by Belle Waring on September 13, 2014

I can remember back when I was just a wee sleekit lass that read the Economist… OK maybe I was also a bit daft, but I got better when I realized it was, in the words of a recent Gawker article, a news aggregator magazine for people who want to pretend their seat in Economy Plus is a chair by the roaring fire in a manor house. Anyway, they always used to talk about Scottish Devolution and I thought it couldn’t possibly ever amount to anything very serious. But now it seems as if maybe really power will devolve to its utmost, since there’s going to be a vote on independence and everything, and the polls are tight. Scottish readers, are ye voting aye or nay? Subjects of HRH* generally, are Scottish subjects going to keep on keeping on being subjects of HRH, or what? Might she have to give back that big castle she’s apparently so fond of? Who gets the, um, nukes? Enlighten me with an open thread about how Scots maun live in the future.

*Commenters In The Sky and ZM have pointed out that the Queen is HM and only lesser royals mere Highnesses.

Now that Francis Spufford has shown up to do the work of knowing things about the subject, which is what open threads are for (i.e. making the readers do the work) I am hoisting his discussion with SF author Ken McLeod against Scottish Independence up here so that you may watch it more easily. John and I only watched the very very beginning, in which it was explained that Francies Spufford has a very posh accent (which he has come by in an honest, middle-class fashion) and that Lanark is important in some way, which has led us to extrapolate that perhaps giant crabs will come up through cracks in the ground if the two nations are divided, an outcome we naturally deplore. When it is not 10:22 at night and roughly two hours after I took the meds that are supposed to be, welp, going to bed for sure now, so it won’t hurt to take these topamax is very…what now? I will listen more fully and contribute intelligently to the debate. Possibly. Though I have my second Japanese lesson tomorrow! I had to learn katakana and hiragana in a week, that was sort of my own fault though. My brain is oozing knowledge at night in a way peculiar to language-acquisition. Like when I was cold at night and thought I had to curl up in the pages of the big Liddell to stay warm (insufficient heating in SF + Greek MA exams.) Thanks Francis!