Tag Archives: Brexit

European Disorder.

Reviewing Prof Simms New Statesman article 24-30 November 2017.

 

JR Max Wheel

30 November 2017

 

Amongst the near endless name-calling and brickbats over Brexit in the UK, a very interesting and insightful article appeared in the New Statesman this week, written by Prof. Brendan Simms, from the University of Cambridge’s politics and international studies department.

Since the UK remains so deeply divided on this issue, it is good to have a take on the EU which throws some light and not heat.

 

Most mainstream media outlets have pinned their colours to the Leave or Remain mast and hence are even less trustworthy than normal as sources of information, but have degenerated into presenting emotive and deliberately slanted presentations- click-bait.

 

Simms points out some important messages, one, that populism far from going away is now rife in many (most) member states, sometimes powerfully so, whether in the splintering of a broad political consensus; Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Greece have suffered from it as well as the UK. Poland and Hungary are in near open revolt at EU rulings from Brussels. Worse still, there is now a strong regional identity issue in Spain over Catalonia, the North in Italy, as well as the ever-present issues between Walloons and Flemings in Belgium. This is disturbing as the EU was supposed to have substituted the nation state with the prospect of an overarching federal Europe. That now looks impossible. The creation of the Union to supplant the nation state was never the foregone conclusion that many of its proponents believed. Indeed, as Simms argues powerfully far from transcending the nation state, the EU has thrown a lifeline to it after a near death experience in two world wars of the 20th.C. De Gaulle viewed the Union as a “L’Europe des Nations”, not what its founding fathers envisaged at all.

 

Suddenly regions matter as well as nations. This is a unique achievement, the EU has spawned the very opposite of what it promoted, a “Balkanisation” of Europe instead of a cohesive Union.

 

In large part this stems from its messy single currency, which has aggravated many of the underlying economic issues between members since the Crash of 2007/8. This has driven up unemployment, meant that achieving competitive balance is impossible and works only in favour of the most advanced and productive countries, especially Germany.  So, we have a common currency and a common travel area administered by a de facto confederation, not a federation, and on frequent occasions, an agenda driven by a key member State, Germany or in the past, France. The founding Franco-German axis may rebalance or not, what is certain is that the status quo cannot persist in an era of mass migration, globalised trade in goods and services. Many parts of the EU economy are still not open, in services especially, but also in the protectionist tariff wall, which also masquerades as a harmonisation of standards. Such standards largely emanate from UNECE anyway and are transcribed into EU law.

 

Large swathes of industry in individual member states have languished economically, the economic decline being mirrored by the rise of an angry electorate, ready to punish its leaders for falling to recognize the economic damage or seeming to care much about it.

 

It is worth looking at the problem of post-election politics in Germany.  After 12 years in power as Bundeskanzelerin, Angela Merkel seems vulnerable. Never a political visionary, Merkel was always a cautious political manager, seeking a consensus, when she did act decisively according to her instincts, in opening the borders to a massive immigration wave, it spectacularly rebounded threatening to stymie a largely cohesive system. The Centre Right CDU/CSU party and the Centre Left SPD have been outflanked to the left and right. Far from being the bastion of free trade and stability in the wake of what is painted as populist upsurges in the UK and US, she is likely to be overwhelmed by it. Simms also uses an interesting analogy for these times, that of Klemens von Metternich, Austrian Chancellor after the Napoleonic Wars. Metternich’s aim was to stifle uprisings, contain radicalisation and revolutionary movements until it hit the buffers of the 1848.

 

Brexit was never the real catalyst for a break-up of Europe, even if some of its wilder promoters desired it, it was always the underlying political and economic factors affecting real people.

 

There are only a few choices, accept that there are limitations to the Federal Project as conceived or to try to forge a smaller and consensual European Union, which may have to be a lot smaller and economically, and politically cohesive. Even that is unlikely to be acceptable or sustainable without deep-rooted changes.

 

Death of a Chancellor and the struggle to maintain the European dream

 

JR Max Wheel

6th July 2017

 

On the 16th June 2017 Germany mourned the death of Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor who oversaw the reunification of Germany; perhaps he was not the greatest German post-war Chancellor, but one who will be fondly remembered for his down to earth qualities, domestic political acumen and the extraordinary responsibility of integrating the two Germanies of West and East into one cohesive country. His place in history will nevertheless be secure. Significantly he chose to be buried in the cathedral of Speyer in the heart of the Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz), by the Rhine and not in his native City of Ludwigshafen, further upstream.  The reunification, presaged by the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its vassal states in central and eastern Europe marked the true end of WWII and 1989 should rightly be seen in the same light as 1789.

Speyer Cathedral: Courtesy Wikipedia

After Germany’s disastrous history in the 20thC, the creation of the largest and most powerful economy in the EU was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by the former Allied Powers, in particular, France, the UK, Netherlands and Poland as well as in Israel. Indeed, the notion of unity – or “Einheit” was a near toxic word with its quasi Third Reich overtones, such that “die Wende” or change, transition was preferred.

Whilst the unification preceded the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, with its ambitious political and monetary aims, it placed France and Germany, effectively Kohl and Mitterand as the key representatives of the proto European Union. In the following years the costs of reunification meant Germany exceeded the threshold levels for debt enshrined in the Growth and Stability Pact: the first of many to violate them over the next 25 years.

Fast forward to 2017, and after years of feeble economic performance from France, it was now crystal clear that the leadership of Europe was de facto in German hands. It was not meant to be so, since it was rashly assumed, at least by France, that the EU would be a “German horse with a French rider”, reflecting France’s long-honed diplomatic skill and expertise and as the designer of many of the EEC institutions, which subsequently morphed into the EU.  This Franco-German axis has always been the core with other member states being important but peripheral, especially the UK, with its radically different history, political systems and law.

Why is this important? Mainly because the EU is now notably unbalanced in terms of relative economic strength and influence. It’s eastward and south eastward expansion to include Poland, Czech and Slovak Republics and the Baltic states to the Balkans and admission of Greece, Romania and Bulgaria has tilted it towards members whose history, culture and identities vary notably from the largely contiguous borders of the founding six. Those member interests are not necessarily those of the core, this is especially true of the Central European [Visegrad] Four, as well as the UK.

One is loath to add to the entire and poisonous Brexit debate whereby the UK voted to leave in a hotly disputed referendum, but it has to be understood that the desire if not the reality of a shared federal future, long a cherished dream of its founders, Monet and Schuman was never shared by the UK. Here lies an important ironical twist, the quasi Constitution, opposed by France, Ireland and the Netherlands and then hastily cobbled together as the Lisbon Treaty 2007 was never offered to the UK in a referendum. This was a major missed opportunity, since a putative EU constitution should have always been offered up to all member states’ electorates, but was cynically avoided in the UK or meekly accepted elsewhere.

Thus, no proper debate was ever held in the UK until its own in/out referendum. The British, ever the unplanned pragmatists thus did not get to engage on this fundamental aim which was always the core of the European Project. It is remarkable, but inexcusable that the powerful British media never elevated European matters and aspirations as either important enough to warrant serious discussion or to inform its electorate appropriately. Its outcome and consequences were both dramatic and less surprising in retrospect.

The UK is the first member to voluntarily withdraw from its membership. There has always been a long streak of Euroscepticism in Britain, but the fallout demands more than its tortuous disengagement under the one-sided and deeply flawed Article 50 procedures, it argues for a radical shift in British politics away from the adversarial first past the post system to a more consensual PR system and an overhaul of the Commons (viz. a massive reduction in numbers) and Lords ( abolition and substitution by a Senate comprised of all devolved administrations and England) which would reflect the wishes of all the constituent countries of the UK.  It is astonishing that the UK played a leading role in constructing a successful federal constitution for the then West Germany, but failed to recognize any need for change in its backyard.

The outcome for the UK is highly uncertain, as it is for much of the EU, but a collective failure of imagination and will may result in a sub-optimal solution for both, weakening both parties at a time when the old order and institutions that have prevailed since the end of WWII are reaching the end of their life span and usefulness.

 

 

Death of a Chancellor and the struggle to maintain the European dream

Rebuilding a Broken United Kingdom- A tale of 4 Kingdoms.

JR Max Wheel

 

14 March 2017

 

The UK’s proposed exit from the EU has thrown up some serious fault lines inside the Union.  A core reason is a failure that goes back years, the infamous West Lothian question so eloquently described by its own MP. Tam Dalyell, whereby the devolved administrations MPs sitting in Westminster can vote on English matters, yet English MPs cannot vote on those arising in those administrations. The movement towards decentralised power in the UK was in principle fair enough- to move decision-taking closer to the people, but as with many important issues it was not thought through, thereby creating another anomaly in the quirky nature of the UK’s unwritten constitution.

 

Despite sitting for a Scottish seat- West Lothian, Dalyell opposed both plebiscites in 1979 (Callaghan Government) and in 1997(New Labour- Blair). He was right. Nonetheless New Labour pursued the devolution agenda in Scotland and Wales creating a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The tortured politics of N.Ireland was subject to a separate agreement. The critical failure was to confine the plebiscites to the constituent countries only and not open to English voters. This might be seen as a cynical ploy to entrench Labour votes in its traditional heartlands especially Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, all it has done is the reverse, encouraged a nationalist and separatist movement, based on actual and perceived historical grievances. The situation in Wales has not (yet) resulted in a similar upsurge in nationalist feeling. Had the devolution argument been aired properly it would have queried the relationship of all the constituent parts, not just the devolved regions.

 

Thus, rather than redefining the United Kingdom for the future, it has created confusion and mutual suspicion. A much better solution would have been to have redefined the role of the Upper Chamber, long a parking lot for the great and the good and a handy way of rewarding party political participation. Its role as a revising chamber is a valuable one, but it has become a bloated anachronism, with over 800 members. In addition, it contains bishops, law lords and hereditary peers. Why so many when the US can have an upper house of 100 in the Senate and other parliamentary democracies make do with many less than the UK. There have been endless attempts to re-legitimise the Upper Chamber by direct election, none has really succeeded.

 

What is needed is a Chamber that reflects the diverse interests of all the countries, and thus represents regional interests which cannot then be over-ridden by solely English interests, nor vice versa, this would force a level of real debate and concerted decisions. Needless to say this would provide a perfect opportunity to reform the Chamber and to rid the UK of its excess peers, and to concentrate their minds on issues of real importance.

 

This matter acquires an extra urgency as Scotland contemplates a second independence effort and whilst N. Ireland faces a very difficult problem arising from Brexit. It suits no one except those willing to frustrate the electorate’s result, of which there are plenty, with quite specific and anti-democratic views.

 

Brexit – now Government and Opposition Chaos!

JR Max Wheel

30 June 2016

Today brings news of fresh turmoil in UK politics in both the Government and opposition ranks. Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the UK case for leaving the EU it is blindingly clear that the country’s governance has been found wanting. Under more normal circumstances there would and should have been a vote of no confidence in the Government and a likely general election.

It is however symptomatic of deeper constitutional issues which have been festering since the Scottish referendum and the devolution settlements: it seems to me that this now requires wholesale changes to our voting system which is increasingly exposed as unrepresentative. It may be as well that the UK does not do “Government by plebiscite” normally, but this referendum has exposed deep fault lines, as well as abuse.

It should have escaped no one ‘s attentionthat since the campaign was carried out on a cross party basis, that any subsequent action should require a similar cross party arrangement and agreement to implement, not a prolongation of the status quo ante.

The UK’s first past the post system has generally served us well enough, this time it is in danger of embedding a very divisive decision through Parliamentary majority and in the near absence of a Prime Minister, a full-blown leadership campaign and with no effective opposition. Worse the leaders of both campaigns have been exposed as acting in self-interest and not necessarily in good faith. This is unworthy of any democracy, let alone the UK.

We now need comprehensive overhaul of the following and with some urgency.

  • A move to proportional representation for the House of Commons.
  • Reform and radical downsizing of the Upper House to function as a reforming chamber – a Senate. Removal of all peers, whether Lords Spiritual or Temporal
  • Direct representation for the devolved administrations in the Senate
  • Abolition of the much abused honours system
  • A charter of British Rights applicable to all citizens, and extensive to all legally, if temporarily residing in the UK.

 

We may still decide to exercise a sovereign right to execute a withdrawal from the EU, but it  should not be rammed through on the current basis. The leadership of the campaign has by its behaviour and the turmoil evident in the opposition, forfeited the right to proceed “as is” after the unseemly brawl of a leadership campaign being embedded in the process and in so doing distorting the result together with flagrant abuse of Government department resources. Two choices remain – neither of which should have ever been necessary, a rerun of the referendum or a general election when the opposition have a new leader and team in place.

No side emerges with any credit from this exercise which is worthy of a banana republic and not Britain. It’s time for serious change.

 

Brexit – the Fallout

JR Max Wheel

29 June 2016

The bad tempered debate about the referendum result continues to rumble on in the UK and Brussels. It would be charitable to suggest that this is chiefly the shock effect and real fear of cross EU contagion, but it is more.

As is usual faults are evident on both sides, in the UK for failing to prepare for both possible outcomes of the vote and selling the notion that exit would rapidly bring an end to the key issue of uncontrolled migration whilst preserving beneficial trade concessions from the Single Market. The campaign was marked by outrageous and frequently unsubstantiated claims by both Remain and Leave sides and further fuelled by a unpleasant rise in racial tensions, which have lurked beneath the surface in Britain, and well before the advent of a faux multicultural narrative; the same tensions are by no means confined to the UK, but exist across Europe and beyond.

In principle, it should not be beyond the grasp of a mature EU that not all member countries, for historical and cultural reasons regard its federal ambitions as either necessary, desirable or even feasible. That much has been obvious since the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon treaties, the last being the (failed) attempt at creating a European constitution) rammed through as a treaty. This exercise in overreach really triggered the widespread anti EU feelings of the sceptics, and not just exclusively in the UK. It is no accident that M. Monnet believed in a Commission of elite decision-takers as clearly the serfs could not be expected to run matters themselves, a de haut en bas attitude that prevails even today -an historical core feature that makes for a large part of the EU’s democratic “deficit”.

The crash of 2008 and its consequences and the economic damage wrought by the single currency, essentially incapable of adjustment, should itself have required a major rethink by administrators in Brussels, at Council, Commission and Parliament level. They signally failed to do so and fatally pressed on, triggering serial economic crises in Southern Europe which continue to this day. The mantra of “more Europe” was again trotted out as the only solution, despite the fact that France and the Netherlands notably, submitted Lisbon to referendums and decisively rejected its implications.

The migrant crisis is for many the final straw; it shows the EU as incapable of coordinated rational response on either sensible humanitarian or socio-economic grounds. This is not to pretend that it is or will be easy to resolve; but clinging to artificial constructs in the face of an unprecedented movement of people was irrational and irresponsible. The root causes are well known, however the limp and disoragnized response revealed EU power structures to be incapable of rapid or rational action. The freedom of movement of peoples is a wholly aspirational and Utopian idea, born in the 1950s and its current extreme form, utterly inappropriate in the highly mobile globalised 21stC.

By now the problems piling up at the EU have reached breaking point – Euro mismanagement and ongoing suffering from economic woes, borders exposed as dangerously porous, rapid accession of low income new states, a mishandled accession approach from Ukraine resulting in a barely contained war and the annexation of Crimea and a bureaucracy, for whom no issue seems too small or insignificant but to require the dead hand of a meddlesome Brussels.

This is both dangerous stasis at one ahand coupled with over focus on trivia:  further integration is stymied, even to support the currency, let alone protect common borders or to consult on matters of foreign policy. Worse, policy making is driven by appointed staff, whose remoteness from member states’ own electorates leads to the perception and frequently the reality, that national laws and customs become increasingly irrelevant.

The continuing increase in wealth inequality despite the excesses leading up to 2008, but in reality a much longer time horizon back to the mid 1970s (since when wages as a share of GDP have been static or falling) and the increasingly powerless lower or eroded middle classes add up to a toxic brew. The EU project is now suffering an existential threat and the UK referendum is merely the lightning rod, but the blame game persists with no one focused on how a modern Europe can be made both democratic and dynamic. Tying essential trade issues to mass migration on  the immovable notion of an “essential” pillar or “freedom” verges on lunacy.

The Visegrád group of Central/Eastern European countries have already begun to demand reform of EU institutions, even as extremist parties have picked up momentum and arguing for national referendums in France, Italy, Greece, Finland and the Netherlands. Those who have benefitted from the opportunities arising from globalised trade in goods and services are being challenged by those who have not and whose communities have changed radically and who sense that nationals are being pushed to the bottom of the queue for hard-pressed public services. Rationality does not enter into that argument, even if it is part perception and part reality. Anger fuels political upheavals.

If the EU is to mean anything and to survive, let alone thrive, it must change fundamentally, that means either real economic and political integration, which is what more Europe means, and seems wildly unlikely or it means a move to a more flexible set of political arrangements, a Europe of associated nation states trading freely and with their agreeing which issues require pan European cooperation, rather than diktats handled down from a supranational Commission to a rubber stamp Parliament. Since the currency problem cannot be fixed and acts like a latter day gold standard, it must be made flexible to allow for external adjustments, which don’t repeat the errors of the 1920s/30s, where the only way to achieve it was via falling employment, wages and GDP.  A measure of how vital this is the prevalent fear that Germany, the de facto EU paymaster may itself lose out in the wake of Brexit, outvoted by austerity ridden Southern Europe. The clock is therefore ticking for both sides and contrary to mainstream media,  it is not solely due to the threat or reality of Brexit.