Thursday, April 27, 2017

Macron — the EU’s unlikely champion

On the night of his narrow win in the first round of the French Presidential election Emmanuel Macron thanked his supporters in front of two huge flags — one the tricolor of France, the other the 12 stars on a blue background the symbolises the European Union.

The next day his opponent in round two, Marine Le Pen, announced she was stepping aside from the leadership of her hard right National Front Party because she believed that as a presidential candidate she should be “above partisan issues”.

The battle-lines have been drawn and the overriding issue in the campaign will be the future of France in Europe.

Macron’s belief in the European experiment is total. The EU, he says, should be at the heart of French politics — he would seek closer cooperation between its members in finance, defence and immigration.

That does not mean he accepts the current state of the union, but he is passionate about reform coming from within and, if the United Kingdom is to leave, to be driven by its two remaining large members, France and Germany.

Le Pen, on the other hand, makes no secret that she would be happy to see the EU implode and a return to independent nation states — a system that has repeatedly plunged the continent into war over the decades and centuries before the Treaty of Rome.

She knows she has the job ahead of her, and is well aware that in 2002 when her father, Jean-Marie, managed to sneak into the second round after a split in the leftist vote, he gathered hardly any extra support and was trounced by the Gaullist, Jacques Chirac. 

Distancing herself from the National Front is not only an attempt to lure voters from centre-right parties but incredibly, to woo the far left of La France Insoumise which has absolutely nothing in common with her except a distaste for European integration and globalisation generally.

The speed with which the extremes of ‘right’ and ‘left’ can merge into each other is on display in Russia. Who would have imagined that the former apparatchiks of the Soviet Union would be toasting the fortunes of a hard right Marine Le Pen, as happened quite publically in the Kremlin at the weekend? 

Macron’s initial strong showing follows defeats for nationalists in Austria and the Netherlands — an indication the right’s gleeful prediction of an EU demise is premature. On the face of it the former investment banker and public servant is an unlikely champion to lead the fightback against populism, but then again, these are unusual times.     

Friday, April 21, 2017

May’s dangerous grab for more power

A few days ago United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May stood outside her residence in Downing Street and gave a series of reasons for her spectacular about face in calling an early General Election for June 8.

She said that although the country was coming together after last year’s vote to leave the European Union, Parliament was not.

Labour had threatened to vote against a deal reached with the European Union.

The Liberal Democrats would grind the business of Government to a standstill.

The Scottish National Party would vote against the legislation that formally repealed the UK’s membership of the European Union.

The “unelected” House of Lords had vowed to fight Brexit “every step of the way”.

Every one of these statements is wrong — a series of red herrings put up in an attempt to disguise the Prime Minister’s real agenda — a blatant grab for more power.

Firstly, the country is not coming together on the issue of leaving the European Union. It is true that a recent poll put support for EU membership slightly down from the June, 2016 referendum total of 48.1 per cent, but this is hardly surprising given the stream of Brexit rhetoric that has been spewing from Ministers in the months since

“It’s all over”; “there’s no going back” has been the steady drumbeat from the Government, backed by hysterical headlines from the pro-Brexit media, more or less accusing anyone of treason for daring to question the wisdom of what is happening.

In view of this shameful harassment, it is surprising that the pro-EU lobby still stands solid at around 45 per cent.

As the main Opposition party, Labour has constantly said that it respects the referendum result, but reserves the right to criticise and seek to amend aspects of the final negotiated deal, if it feels that it is not in the country’s best interests.

That is what opposition parties do in a democracy, and it would be a disgrace if Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn were to meekly accept in advance whatever outcome is negotiated in Brussels.

The Liberal Democrats have indeed said they want to examine the final EU exit deal line by line, but with nine members in a 650-strong House of Commons, they were hardly in a position to hold up the legislation for long.

And anyway, is it not right that the most historic (and dangerous) decision taken by Parliament since World War II should be debated at length. What are days or even weeks of delay against the years of regret that a wrong decision would inevitably bring?

This same reasoning applies to the Scottish Nationalists who rightfully must represent their constituency that voted strongly to remain in the EU only to see its vote overwhelmed by England. The party currently holds almost all the Scottish seats and given the anger over May’s refusal to grant an independence referendum, then announcing a General Election they did not want, nothing is likely to change.

Finally to the House of Lords: May stressed it is an unelected chamber as if she had just found that out on the way to the podium. The Lords have been unelected in all the centuries of their existence. They are a good deal more democratic now than in the days when membership was the hereditary right of a privileged few.

Membership today is mostly through appointment by the Monarch on the recommendation of the Government. People of many walks of life are members — politicians, judges, academics, scientists, sports people, public servants.

Its task is to act as a house of review of Government legislation and it can recommend amendments, but in the end it has to bow to the will of a determined lower House of Commons.

Thus it is completely false for May to blame the Lords and the Opposition parties as the reasons she called a General Election. There was absolutely nothing that could not have been achieved though her current majority of 17 in the House of Commons.

What she and her shadowy coterie of advisers did see was the main Labour Opposition locked in a civil war over its leadership and trailing the Conservatives by something like 20 per cent in the polls — and the chance of a landslide victory that would make Parliament almost an irrelevance in future negotiations with Brussels.

There are some disturbing features emerging about May’s leadership — her constant use of the personal pronoun “I have a Government to run”; “I will take this to Brussels”, and the possessive “my Government” used endlessly.

It was present even in her election announcement: “Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the Prime Ministers, Presidents and Chancellors of the European Union.”

It should be remembered that only a Supreme Court ruling stopped the Prime Minister from by-passing Westminster completely and then only after a vigorous defence of this patently anti-democratic position during a failed appeal.

Supporting Remain during the referendum campaign, May switched sides with all the fanaticism of a convert and has relentlessly rammed home the Brexit message ever since. With a substantially increased majority on June 8 she will be able to ride over the opposition on any deal she could make, however rigorous the terms might be, as she hurries towards her place in history as the leader who took the nation out of the EU.

Of course history will judge her, and in the fullness of time that judgement might be harsh, but like all politicians, as opposed to statesmen, her vision is myopic and she cares only for the moment. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Figuring a case for uniting Ireland

Statistics from last year’s census in the Republic of Ireland have emphasised three main points: The country is getting older, the number of people that can speak Irish is declining, and the Catholic religion is losing its hold on the population.

The first two developments are not surprising. Ageing populations are affecting most developed and many developing countries as people put off having children either to accumulate wealth or as a matter of simple survival.

While it is regrettable that Irish is less spoken (despite the valiant attempts of the Government) it is hard to argue with the simple desire of people, especially among the young, to concentrate on a means of communication that will be understood across borders.

Irish, like Welsh, is unlikely to die out completely, but may well be relegated to a boutique tongue used principally among linguistic enthusiasts.

What is most interesting is that in a population of 4.7 million almost half a million told the census they had ‘no religion’. This is now the second largest group behind those who declared themselves Roman Catholic (3.7 million — a fall of 132,220 since the last census in 2011).

The number of non-Irish citizens, at half a million, was more or less steady, but dual Irish nationals showed a significant rise to 104,784, up 55,905.

This suggests that the Ireland of today is more cosmopolitan and outward looking than at any time in its history. It is also potentially richer. The crash of 2008 that hit the country harder than most others in Europe has now been largely surmounted and the economy is well on the way to a full recovery.

These are statistics that will not go unnoticed north of the border where the people are contemplating a United Kingdom embarking on a course that will take them out of the European Union — something which they voted solidly against in last June’s referendum.

The fear in Northern Ireland is that Brexit will mean the reinstatement of a hard border with the south, ending the free movement of the people that is one of the major features of EU membership.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said only that free movement would be a “desired” outcome of Brexit negotiations — a clear message that it could be bargained away during the talks.

Another outrageous suggestion, that the soft border be retained with a hard border between the island of Ireland and Great Britain, has disgusted even the staunchest Unionists.

There is, of course, another possibility – the full reunification of Ireland and continued EU membership for the north, something which would have to be accepted in referendums on both sides of the border.

When I worked in the north more than 40 years ago such talk would have been tantamount to treason in some communities, but today Ireland is no longer the “priest-ridden banana republic” of Ian Paisley in full flight.

In the end Paisley’s attitude softened; the Irish Republican Army put away its weapons. Faced with the unpalatable outcome of a Brexit they did not want, the people of the north might be ready to make their own historic choice.     

Friday, April 7, 2017

China’s Dali Lama protests rebuffed

The Dalai Lama’s visit to the north-eastern Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh brought angry and entirely predictable protests from Beijing, which calls the area “disputed territory” and has even produced maps showing it as ‘Southern Tibet’.

Chinese State media warned of the usual “severe consequences” in bilateral ties, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs weighing in with “grave concerns” and “serious damage” to Sino-India ties.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that by approving the Dalai Lama’s visit there “India has harmed the India-China relationship and fuelled tensions”.

The Buddhist leader was unfazed at the outpouring of hostility. “No problem; it’s normal”, he was reported as saying.

What wasn’t so normal was New Delhi’s vigorous defence of the visit, a significant change from its past polite indifference to the protests.

In a reply, Junior Home Minister, Kiren Rijiju, essentially told Beijing to butt out of India’s internal affairs.

Stating that the visit was a religious one with no political significance, Mr Rijiju said Arunachal Pradesh was an inseparable part of India and China had no right to interfere.

Another official went even further on the matter. “The Dali Lama does not need our approval to visit Arunachal Pradesh. This is a free country”, the official said.

Speculation in New Delhi over the Government’s hard line stance centred on a response to Beijing blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group last year. “I think this sends a clear message that if China affects our interests then we are going to bite back,” one source said.

The Dalai Lama has been a thorn in Beijing’s side since, as a young monk, he fled across the border from Tibet to escape invading Chinese forces. His first refuge on Indian soil was the Tawang Monastery in Arunchal Pradesh which he intends to visit during his current tour.

Later the Indian Government offered him a base in the hill town of Dharamsala, where he set up a Tibetan Government in exile.

Now 81, the Dalai Lama insists he is more interested in providing spiritual guidance to his followers rather than fermenting Tibetan nationalism, but he remains a powerful symbol to Tibetans bridling under the Chinese yoke.

He has already visited Arunchal Pradesh and the Tawang Monastery several times during his period of exile.  

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Article 50 is not the end of the story

In the week that British Prime Minister Theresa May sent her letter to Brussels beginning the process of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, there was the expected firestorm of delight from the Brexit camp.

“This is it, there’s no going back”, “the will of the people has prevailed” were just some of the comments, led by a call from the Prime Minister for the country to “come together” and that in the exit negotiations she would represent “every person in the United Kingdom — young and old, rich and poor, town, country and all the villages and hamlets in between”.

With the triggering of Article 50 the clock has indeed moved closer to midnight, but May’s attempt at Churchillian rhetoric is premature. It is not all over. Ahead lie complicated and possibly vexatious negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with Europe – the viability of London as a global financial hub and the border with the Irish Republic being just two problems to be considered.

May says she is ready to deliver a ‘hard Brexit’ if talks reach a stalemate, a situation that could cost thousands of jobs and isolate Britons from their European neighbours. This alone ought to be cause for a rethink, further parliamentary debate and a second referendum once what it actually means to leave is established.

On 23 June last year the referendum on membership of the European Union resulted in 51.9 per cent of respondents voting to leave and 48.1 per cent seeking to remain, 17,410,742 to 16,141,241. It was hardly a landslide, but in the months since we have had constant references to “the will of the people” as if those who voted against are of no consequence.

I have heard arguments that a margin of 3.9 per cent is often quite sufficient to elect governments, but in that case there always comes a time when a disastrous choice can be reversed at a subsequent poll.

Brexit has no such fall-back position. In fact if May and the Brixiteers had not been reined in by the country’s Supreme Court they would have conducted their negotiations in Brussels free from even Parliamentary oversight, let alone an opportunity for the people to reconsider.

May cannot hope to represent the majority of younger people who voted solidly to keep their employment, leisure and communal freedoms in Europe, nor interestingly, that of the very old.

Else Catchpole (92) did not allow her sight and hearing impairment to stop her catching a train from Cambridge to join the Unite for Europe Rally in London.

“I don’t believe in Brexit…I voted to remain,” she said.

“It’s very stupid to get out of the EU. A terrible mistake. We’ll have to suffer for it.”

Then there was Britain’s oldest man, Bob Weighton, who said that although he was not enamoured with all of the EU’s decisions, quitting was a mistake. 

Anecdotal evidence surely, but there is a theme here that can be traced back to the first referendum on EU membership in 1975 when 67 per cent voted to stay.

Catchpole and Weighton are among the dwindling number of people who can remember a Europe ravaged by war and its immediate aftermath. In 1975 there were, of course, many more and their vote was significant. I recall a friend of my mother’s, a retired farmer, saying he had voted for membership because “I have lived through two world wars and I do not wish to see a third”.

Which brings me to what I will always consider to be the most important achievement of the European Union — in its 60-year history no war has been fought inside its boundaries.

There are those who will sneer at that: They should read their history. I could fill another page by listing the wars that have plagued Europe in the centuries up to 1945.

When Farage, Wilders and Le Pen – and now Trump — wave their flags and decry internationalism, they simply do not understand the dangerous path they are treading.