From the category archives:

European Politics

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.

Scotland

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!

Over the last year, there’s been a lot of writing about Edward Snowden (I’ve contributed a fair amount to the genre myself). Most people have discussed either the question of (a) whether domestic NSA surveillance in the US is appropriate and whether it is breaking US law, or (b) the purely political consequences of international surveillance. There’s been relatively little discussion of whether there is a problem in principle with international surveillance, and most of what there has been has concerned the question of whether or not privacy is a universal human right. But the recent Der Spiegel revelations combined with some earlier material points to a narrower but very troubling set of problems for liberal democracies. Cross national cooperation between intelligence services has exploded post-September 11. This cooperation is not only outside the public space but, very often, isn’t well known to politicians either. Such cooperation in turn means that intelligence services are in practice able to evade national controls on the things that they do or do not do, directly weakening democracy. [click to continue…]

The Ethics of Immigration symposium: index

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2014

The first part of our symposium on Joseph Carens’s The Ethics of Immigration is now concluded. While we wait for Joe to compose his reply, here’s an index of the contributions:

Update: Joe Carens’s replies in two parts: Part One and Part Two.

So why did the organisers of this symposium also offer the opportunity to a European Union lawyer – not a theorist mind, but a vanilla lawyer – to make a comment on Joseph Carens’ magisterial book on The Ethics of Immigration? It should have been obvious that I could add nothing to the excellent contributions by other normative theorists who are commenting directly on these aspects of Carens’ work. So it must have been for some other reason.

It was presumably in order to provoke a reflection upon the peculiarities of the EU’s own combined system of internal soft borders (‘free movement’) and external hard borders (‘Fortress Europe’, some might say) in the light of Carens’ arguments about the ethical demands of states in relation to borders and migrants. To that extent, my reflections are less about the book than about the issues which the book is helping me to think through – and for that I am very grateful to Joseph Carens for his wonderful text and also to the organisers for indulging my preferences.
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The fading buds of May

by Chris Bertram on May 1, 2014

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Today is the first of May, a day of international solidarity for the working class and labour movement, and always a day of memory for me. In the mid 1970s when I was thirteen years old, I was sitting with my language exchange partner Pierre in his bedroom in a ground floor flat in Montparnasse. I was leafing through a magazine—Paris Match as it happens—and there were pictures of the May events from 1968. I was absolutely stunned by them. Here, in Western Europe, there had been a street-fighting and a general strike within the past few years? I’d been aware of Czechoslovakia and, indeed, my whole school had chanted “Dubcek! Dubcek!” when the Christmas pudding had been brought out in 68, but of Paris I knew nothing. I resolved to find out more, and when the opportunity arose to choose a school history project, I asked if I could study the May events and produced a longish dossier, complete with photos, newspaper clippings and the rest. A few years later, in 1978—and hence on the 10th anniversary—I joined the May Day parade for myself at the Place de la République, no longer an observer but a participant.

What did May represent for me? There was an element of romantic adolescent attachment to be sure, but also the possibility of another society. In the reconstructed history of the victorious Thatcherites the choice that had to be made was between the marketized West and the gloomy authoritarianism of the Soviet bloc. But May 68 seemed to offer a different way, perhaps (oh dear!) a third way. And in a sense it did, it offered the hope of a non-authoritarian and participatory egalitarianism (and coupled with the Prague Spring, the chance of socialism with a human face). From that flowed a lot of other things, social movements, feminism, ecologism, trends in art and culture (there were other sources for these streams, to be sure). The possibility of rejecting the world of corporate power without embracing dourness and concrete was a liberating thought, some might say a naive and romantic one, to which I say “Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible!”

The memory of May, or at least the memory of the possibility of May, has always been there for me as a nourishing idea like Wordsworth’s Tintern when times have been bad (as they so often have since). It doesn’t have to be this way: vivre autrement. Sadly, when I was talking to a very smart student of left-wing convictions the other day, I mentioned May 68 and she asked “What happened in May 68?” It seems the memory of May is no longer there in the imagination of the left. Time for a revival.

Time-recognition for having a baby by the ERC

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 5, 2014

In many European Countries (fn1), scholars applying for research grants with the National Research Councils can indicate that they had a child, and get additional ‘time recognition’. Many grants, especially the most prestigious and best-funded grants, work with a time-limit, e.g. you can only apply until Y years after getting your PhD degree, or between X and Y years after getting your PhD degree. If you had a baby, you can add a certain number of months to Y – which makes the timeframe more flexible for the applicant.

Now, as our friend of the blog Z rightly remarks in the comment following my previous post, the ERC has a quite remarkable policy on time-recognition for having a baby:

if you want to be shocked by something in the [ERC] report, you can have a look at their policy towards the deduction of parental leave from the qualifying period for a starting grant: 18 months per children for women, the actual amount of parental leave taken for men. Say what? What is the presupposition here that justifies such a differential treatment? What was wrong with “the actual amount of leave taken” (perhaps times a multiplier to be more family friendly) for both gender? I felt insulted both as a father of two children born in quite rapid succession at a critical period of my career and on behalf of my wife, who apparently is considered by the ERC to be not being devoted to her work for 18 months, even if she worked full-time the day her mandatory maternity leave ended.

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All the things I knew I didn’t know …

by Henry on March 25, 2014

This apology by former NSA head Michael Hayden to Angela Merkel is pretty interesting as apologies go.

Although I’m not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.

Hayden is very explicitly not apologizing to Merkel for the US tapping her cellphone. He considers this part of the ordinary business of relations between nations; even “good friends.” He’s apologizing because the US was caught doing it, hence putting Merkel in “a very difficult position.” I was in a radio debate with Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe a few months ago, where he drew an analogy between this scandal and the kind of everyday stuff that you know, happens in marriages, when husbands hire private detectives to spy on their wives and makes sure that they’re not cheating and vice versa. Hayden’s apology actually goes one step further in the weirdness stakes – the cheating spouse apologizes not for having cheated, but for not having hid the affair (which he/she still resolutely refuses to confirm or deny) well enough, hence making for social awkwardness. [click to continue…]