The PanEuropean reports from Stratford-upon-Avon, where a breakaway movement wants its own, localised Brexit. Or as they’re calling it, Strexit.
A campaign group in a British market town believes that Brexit does not go far enough. Or rather, come close enough. They want to implement Brexit locally, so that the townsfolk can enjoy the advantages in advance of the national negotiations, without being held back by delays or transition periods.
John King and Richard Vos, leaders of the new movement in the West Midlands town of Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, see no reason why the principles behind Brexit cannot be rolled out immediately to benefit everyone in the town. The group they have founded, dubbed STRIP (Stratford Independence for the People), has expanded from a founding nucleus of 6 to a present total of 28.
“We are hoping the public will not refer to us as strippers, like they call UKIP voters kippers”, says King. “So far this doesn’t seem to have happened; I think people recognise that we have a perfectly serious point to make, which deserves to be respected”.
The aim of the group is to let locals take back control of their own affairs, without interference from bureaucrats in London who do not understand the town’s history and special status.
“Stratford was a great place in Shakespeare’s day, and we want to make it great again”, explains Vos, “but we must cut the red tape that has tied our hands for so long. Give the town back to those who actually live here, not the ones who are just passing through, taking advantage of all our facilities”.
Thousands of foreign tourists invade Stratford every year, who STRIP say traipse through Shakespeare’s birthplace, causing damage for which locals must foot the bill, not to mention the traffic congestion and additional road repairs needed. Some group member have suggested building a wall for security, following the example of York and other famous English towns and cities in the past. But King plays the idea down.
“Of course that is not practicable. We will settle for border points on the main roads, where documents can be checked. Anyone not from Warwickshire will be required to pay a small tariff, which will help the town’s finances enormously”.
“People from London will probably require a visa”, adds King. “It’s not that we don’t like Londoners, but there’s plenty of room for them in the great metropolis”.
So how would Stratford look if the group achieves its aims?
“Shall I compare it to a summer’s day?” quips Sophie West, another founder member. “Seriously, those sunlit uplands the Government talks about would suit Stratford very well. I can’t think of a better place to showcase the new era that the country is looking forward to”.
But the group’s vision does not stop at Stratford-upon-Avon. There are hundreds of towns all over England which could be liberated to realise their true identities, claim the campaigners.
“If we can strike a blow for freedom here, there will be no stopping us,” says an ebullient West. “Strexit will serve as a model for the rest of the country. We’ve started something big and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can go whistle”.
We no longer need English or French, because they are not our languages. We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from.
“When I make music, I forget everything, the dark thoughts go away,” says Ahmed.
It’s the December 11, 2017, and I am in the heart of Exarchia, an anarchist neighbourhood in Athens. I’m staying at at the Orange House (“Zaatar”), an accommodation and cultural centre for refugees. At the moment I am running around Athens, struggling to find a guitar, and I’m becoming increasingly impatient. Tomorrow morning, I’m making music with the refugees. My friend Marina, the Franco-Greek founder of The Orange House is currently on leave, hence I’m here to supervise the house. The next day is a riotous affair. Twenty children, teenagers, adults and even old people show up. We don’t have enough instruments, but I expected this: the two guitars will go to the guitarists, and the others will sing. Those who can’t sing? They can keep the beat going. Obviously, nothing goes as planned. When I ask an Afghan woman to sing the classical C-major scale, she sings the harmonic minor scale: the oriental scale. I audition the others, but she is the only one who can really sing. My dreams of a harmonious choir are short lived.
I improvise: the rhythm, that’s what we’ll focus on. But I can’t help lose hope – very few have a sense of rhythm, and those who do can’t help but speed up to a furious pace. The first classes are tough. My choir keeps getting distracted, and after five minutes, they lose track. They get up, talk on the phone, and walk around the improvised classroom – all with good reason. Ahmed has had nowhere to sleep for more than two weeks, and spends his nights in Victoria Square, the home of many refugees in Athens. As a 17-year-old Pakistani, his status as a “single man” does him no favours. No NGO can find him accommodation. Fahed, a 19-year-old Syrian, is obsessed with Calais and England. He is desperate to join up with the English woman he married in a camp in Gaziantep during his journal, but his marriage is not recognised by the British government. To make matters worse, France has recently closed its relocation programme, deeming it to have fulfilled its goals.
Anousha is Iranian. She is 50 years old. Forced to marry a violent husband at the age of 15, she has born the brunt of insults, punches and humiliation that have marked her forever, decimating any self-confidence she might have had. Every five minutes she tells me she’ll never make it, that she’s not good at anything.
Anja, a 15-year-old Afghan girl, is extremely enthusiastic, despite not remembering anything I tell her.
Olivier never smiles. The 21-year-old from the Congo is always sad, and is not motivated enough to participate in the class. Despite that, he keeps coming back. All of my students arrive looking tense. They are haunted by their past traumas: they mourn for their former countries and way of life, often succumbing to nostalgia. This feeling is compounded by the more concrete problems of finding accommodation, staving off inactivity, learning the new language and dealing with a painstakingly slow bureaucracy. Yet when smiles are drawn, the tenseness fades – we even laugh for a moment.
At the end of class, they leave whistling, and thank me: “the music is magic, it’s really good”. “See you tomorrow, huh?” they insist. And the next day, they are there, at the ready – they even arrive early to make sure not to miss a session. Eventually the choir gets to know one another. I discover that some take a two-hour bus not to miss the six o’clock guitar lesson. The kids love to come and listen. I invite them to join in by clapping rhythm with their hands, but they opt for cooking utensils and standing on the tables. They’re not always in rhythm, but they laugh!
Olivier teaches Congolese rumba to Hassan, who spent a year in prison. Fahed starts again on a famous old American tune. Anousha and Anja ask me to play the chords of a well-known Persian song by Salar Aghili – they sing it together.
We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from.
We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from. They look at each other and the music takes shape, and the melodies blossom with rhythm. Bonds are formed, and I see real smiles. Fahed insists that I teach him to play “happy birthday”. I don’t like the melody, but I try anyway. He doesn’t quite get it and I lose patience, so he films me playing it with his phone. He tells me he would have liked to play it himself – it’s a gift for his wife in England from Athens. I’m embarrassed, what does it matter if “happy birthday” is not my favourite song, I could have made an effort.
Ironically this is what I am thanked for. By not treating them as if they were made of glass, as victims, but for seeing them as equals. By forgetting, for a moment, their status “refugee” – this word that sticks to their skin, and is so hard to remove.
It is not just the populist right who clash ideologically with the European Union.
In 2013, a senior Conservative politician was overheard referring to Eurosceptic activists as “swivel-eyed loons.” Intended as a disparaging remark, some traditionalists wore the label proudly. Michael Fabricant, the party’s former vice-chairman, uploaded a picture of the late bulbous-eyed comedian, Marty Feldman, as his Twitter avatar.
The comments came after 116 Tory MPs defied the ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron, by voting for an amendment to protest his lack commitment to a referendum on EU membership before 2015. Those on the right of the Conservative party were appalled by the delay.
Hard Brexiteers continue to be stereotyped as demented, frothy-mouthed, “swivel-eyed” monsters. Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported that climate change minister, Claire Perry, had used the term in a group WhatsApp conversation with other Tory MPs.
But often overlooked is euroscepticism on the left – with Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn providing an obvious starting point.
Corbyn voted to leave the EEC in the 1975 referendum and has railed against European institutions consistently since becoming an MP in 1983. In parliament, he voted against the 1993 Maastricht Treaty and the 2008 Lisbon Treaty.
During the run-up to the 2016 referendum, the Labour leader was lukewarm in his support of remain. In one chat-show appearance, Corbyn claimed to be “seven out of ten” on the EU, and was conspicuously absent throughout the Brexit campaigning period.
Corbyn is not isolated amongst left-wing intellectuals over the question of the Europe. The New Left Review, one of the most influential political science journals in the world, had been hankering for ‘Lexit’, a handy – if a little ungainly – neologism of ‘left wing’ and ‘Brexit’, for some time.
The journal’s former editor, Perry Anderson, argued that the EU was an authoritarian and neoliberal project, bent on “enforcing a bitter economic regime of privilege for the few and duress for the many.”
A right wing institution?
At the core of the European project is dogmatic commitment to the free-market. Since the 1970s, European markets have becoming increasingly integrated. The creation of a single currency, Masastricht and Lisbon Treaties, the Stability and Growth pact have driven this trend. Directives at the European Central Bank and the European Commission have now all but banned the Keynesian economic model – the very bedrock of social democracy.
With increased integration comes increased competition. EU states are now forced to compete for investment from multinationals more than ever before. In order to gain a competitive edge, states are forced to lower corporation tax, cut labour costs, weaken unions and compromise on environmental and social regulations. The result is spiralling inequality.
Some intellectual voices on the left, including Alan Johnson, have also argued that the failure of the EU to work democratically, in the interests of the majority, has created a “breeding ground for the far right.” In the US, many analysts have attributed the election of Donald Trump to anger at the unequal impact of globalization in some disaffected caucuses. The unequal spread of Economic integration benefits is perhaps a source of discontent here too.
Despite his long held opposition to the EU, Jeremy Corbyn is expected to announce a major policy shift next month. He is reported to be holding a meeting in early February with Labour bigwigs, in which he will discuss the prospect of remaining part of some sort of customs union.
For Corbyn this would draw clear battle lines to fight a Conservative party, currently floundering in chaos. It would appease pro-Europe sections of the Labour party. But such a policy shift would also represent a sacrifice of values for the Labour leader and some of his comrades.
One view of our divided country is that it was always a land of potential Leavers and Remainers, the rift being merely exposed by the referendum. On this theory, Remainers were born rather than made and Leavers, like leopards, will never change their spots.
Yet the truth is that Leavers comprise all sorts of people, as do Remainers. They are not a different species.
I am coming round to the view that our current turmoil is not the fault of the people themselves, so much as the power of a virulent ideology that has flooded the country like a tsunami, sweeping away common sense, but which is now slowly evaporating.
It has happened before: ideas have taken hold with a force disproportionate to their merit, and caused mayhem.
Brexit and other cults
Remember the Moonies? If you were around in the 1960’s like me, you probably will. So called after the founder, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the Moonies, or the Unification Church to give it its official title, were said to be a sinister cult who seduced people away from their families, promising salvation through sex and free love.
The nearest I got to that was driving around in a flower power van, but more impressionable youngsters were turned against their families andbrainwashed by the cult’s teachings, whilst being fleeced of any money and possessions. Desperate parents, grieving for the loss of their loved ones, attempted to locate and “deprogram” their sons and daughters, often with limited success.
What the cult of the Moonies had in common with Brexit Britain was the isolation and impoverishment of its victims. It was dressed up as a spiritual movement, but its ulterior purpose was the amassment of huge wealth by its founder. In the same way, Brexit has been dressed up as a patriotic protest, but its true purpose,as Nick Clegg made clear, is to make the very rich very much richer, by removing the protections and regulations of the EU.
Today, our continental neighbours are doubtful whether they can persuade us to remain within our European family. And with some justification, for to deprogram people like Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May or Jacob Rees-Mogg would be a challenge indeed. Nevertheless, they would welcome us back with open arms if we turned up on their doorstep.
So what happened to the Moonies? They faded from the limelight amid scandal and disillusion, though the Reverend Moon retained considerable political power and influence until he died in 2012. These cults are no fleeting fads or fashions, they can last quite a long time.
How long will the Brexit fad last?
Brexit is an edifice of fantasy resting on no solid foundation, which is already crumbling at the approach of reality. The game is up on this expired idea, which is just waiting to buried. The earliest time for another vote will be December 2018 – not too long to wait.
Some fear that even if we win, a second referendum will inflame the divisions further, leading to a civil war between Brexiters and Remainers. However, it is more likely in my view that the situation will stabilise, and instead of the armies of Brexiters, there will be just normal people again, like before David Cameron’s ill-advised referendum.
When the Second World War put the final nail in fascism, an improbable number of French people claimed they had been fighters in the resistance. And when Brexit is finally nailed, a fair few soft Leavers will discover they had been Remainers all along, because everyone likes to be on the winning side.
Brexit negotiations are due to move onto ‘Phase 2’ in the next few weeks, after EU leaders finally signed off on a painful first round on the 15th December 2017. Here are five things we expect to see in the second round:
“They say it takes two to tango,’ said British Chancellor Philip Hammond to the BBC in January. “Both sides need to be clear about what they want.”
Which is exactly what the other side is asking for (clarity, not doing the tango with Phil). “The first big step is for the U.K. to say very clearly what it wants in clear terms,” stated Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat at the EU summit in December. A sentiment echoed by Michel Barnier: “There must be a precise negotiating position of the U.K. government.”
Unfortunately, neither side is dancing in reality. During Phase One, the EU repeatedly told the U.K. to clarify its position on citizens’ rights, the divorce bill and the Northern Irish border. The bloc remained united, and eventually the U.K. yielded, agreeing to a bill of up to €39 billion, a fairly weak citizens’ rights agreement, and a “seamless and frictionless” Irish border.
Now that those issues have (at least partly) been put to bed, the real misunderstandings can begin. The first round, as difficult as it was, was at least centred around three tangible issues. The second-round focuses on a much vaguer outcome: the framework of the future relationship.
All these factors are going to make Phase Two extremely difficult. In comparison, Phase One will look like negotiating the sale of a second-hand Volkswagen, or a timeshare in Skiathos.
Already disagreements have emerged over the wording: the EU wishes to focus on the ‘framework’ whereas the U.K. accentuates the ‘future relationship’.
It’s no secret that Theresa May wants a transition deal to be agreed quickly: uncertainty is bad for business. But Michel Barnier has set a deadline of October 2018 to negotiate a transition deal, which is far later than the U.K.’s preferred deadline of March 2018. This transition deal will require the approval of the European Parliament, which will have its own requirements for the second phase of talks.
Not only will they need to agree on a transitional deal, but also a framework for future EU-U.K. trade. Again, this will require approval from European leaders, who will each have differing opinions on how quickly to advance trade talks.
All these factors are going to make Phase Two extremely difficult. In comparison, Phase One will look like negotiating the sale of second-hand Volkswagen, or a timeshare in Skiathos. How do you negotiate a trade deal with someone you’re already trading with? Until 2019, the U.K. it is still a full member of the EU. Politico reported that a senior EU official stated: “We cannot officially negotiate with the U.K. on a trade deal as long as they are a member state.”
Essentially, the U.K invoked Article 50, and will returned to third-country status under Article 218, whilst trying to agree a deal on trade. Good thing Poland is busy logging away their forests – a lot of paperwork is going to be needed.
A lot of talk about trade
Trade is going to feature heavily in Phase Two, because both sides want to know how much cash is at stake.
Expect disagreements here too. Brussels has repeatedly stated that the trade deal will consist of two options: Norway-style, or a Canada-style. Conversely, the UK wants a tailored deal, which would include “ongoing access to the EU market, the freedom to diverge from the bloc on certain rules, and ongoing cooperation with some EU agencies, such as Europol.”
Talks will need to cover all the main sectors of trade: financial services, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, aerospace, agriculture… These industries are massive and complex, each with their own subset of legalities. To date, businesses have largely been left in the dark, with the various captains of industry becoming increasingly agitated. In a joint statement, leaders of five U.K business groups stated: “the transition period must now be agreed as soon as possible…further delays to discussions on an EU-UK trade deal could have damaging consequences for business investment and trade”.
Two fractured sides of the table
Brexit has created its own political dividing lines, and Left and Right continue to find themselves, perhaps unwittingly, on the same side.
…a far-right coalition in Austria, a leaderless Germany and a recalcitrant Hungary and Poland, one thing is for certain: realpolitik is alive and well in the minds of European leaders.
Resultantly, the UK government – in particular the cabinet – is anything but united. Tango Master/Chancellor Philip Hammond represents a faction fighting for a soft-Brexit, placing him in opposition to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who seems to want to bring back the 18th century swashbuckling Britannia of old. Throw some Tory rebels into the mix and you have yourself a collection of fiefdoms, in disagreement over everything from the length of the transition period to the retention of single market membership.
The disunity isn’t limited to the UK, mind you. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned against the EU 27 acting in their own interests in the next phase: “That’s what the prisoner’s dilemma is all about,’ he said. ‘Everyone can have an interest in negotiation on their own and think they can negotiate better than their neighbour.” These comments were echoed by Donald Tusk, who said he had “no doubt that the real test of our unity will be the second phase of the Brexit talks.”
With Norway threatening to rip up their current deal with the EU, a crisis in Catalonia, an election looming in Italy, a far-right coalition in Austria, a leaderless Germany and a recalcitrant Hungary and Poland, one thing is for certain: realpolitik is alive and well in the minds of European leaders.
Come back, wayward son
The European Union will continue to tell the UK it can re-join the club at any point before Brexit happens.
Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker have both expressed their desire to retain Britain as a member of the EU. The former even said that Britain could reapply for EU membership post-Brexit, which will most likely turn British politics into one, never ending discussion about EU membership. Think M.C Escher.
The spectre of citizens’ rights
Lingering issues about citizens’ rights will crop up in the second round of negotiations. Several citizens’ rights groups – such as the3million and Bremain in Spain– have made their dissatisfaction clear, and will continue to lobby against the loss of freedom of movement. Even small groups of expats have started to take legal action: British citizens living in Holland went to court earlier this year in a bid to retain freedom of movement.
We believethere are still a number of questions about citizens’ rights to which neither the EU Commission or UK parliament have provided a satisfactory answer. Certainly, trade will dominate the discussions, and it is vital that grass-roots movements and individuals maintain the pressure for greater clarity over citizens’ rights.
PARIS – Human Rights Watch called the European Union’s migration policy ‘hypocritical’ and raised concerns about France’s anti-terrorism laws on the launch day of its World Report 2018.
At the launch of the 28th edition of the charity’s global report, executive director Kenneth Roth said that by financing and training the Libyan coastguard, the EU was ‘directly or indirectly’ forcing people to stay in ‘hellish conditions.’
It would be wrong to suggest that there was ‘anything approaching a systematic improvement of conditions’ of migrants in Libya, he said.
‘Either they have the right to receive protection in Europe, or they are de facto sent back to their countries of origin,’ said director of advocacy Philippe Dam in a Facebook Live shortly after the press conference, ‘but pretending that training Libyan coast guards to send [migrants] back to Libya is the right thing to do is absolutely wrong.’
Roth said that the EU should ‘by all means’ endeavour to provide migrants with alternative ‘safe and legal avenues’ to Europe, but that authorities must still treat them humanely, using the correct asylum procedures for those arriving in Europe by boat.
In December, France took in a group of 25 migrants – from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia – who were rescued from Libya and flown from Niger to Paris, avoiding the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.
In a press release published on the same day as the report, Benjamin Ward, HRW’s deputy Europe and Central Asia director, said that too often in 2017 the EU had treated human rights as an ‘optional extra.’
The communiqué also said responses to migration and terrorism ‘should reflect’ the institution’s ‘core values.’
Macron must do more
On the day that Emmanuel Macron visited British Prime Minister Theresa May at Sandhurst military academy to discuss, amongst other things, counter-terrorism and migration policy, Roth described the French President’s record on human rights issues as ‘mixed.’
Roth described Macron’s recent diplomatic visit to China as a notable ‘low point,’ saying that he heard ‘barely a peep about human rights’ from the French leader.
He also expressed concerns that France’s anti-terrorism laws, adopted late last year, could lead to ‘discriminatory abuse, particularly against the Muslim population,’ and added that Interior Minister Gérard Collomb ‘continues to be in denial’ about ‘police abuse’ of migrants.
Last year Human Rights Watch published reports documenting and denouncing the police’s ‘excessive force’ when dealing with both adult and child refugees in Calais.
Roth congratulated Macron, however, for firmly opposing such mistreatment on his recent visit to Calais, and praised him for ‘reinforcing rather than running away from democratic values’ during his presidential campaign.
He described Macron’s rejection of the authoritarian populist tendencies adopted by some other European leaders as a ‘turning point’ of 2017.
The bigger picture
In a wide-ranging press conference, Roth described the United States as ‘a wall when it comes to human rights,’ and said that Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi was ‘not the leader the world should look to for guidance’ on how to combat ‘the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.’
Asked about the UK, he said he was ‘concerned’ about the rhetoric of certain Brexiteers, and criticised those who wanted to leave the European Convention on Human Rights for their ‘very short-sighted approach.’
However, the World Report also noted that there were ‘hints’ that European leaders were ‘beginning to recognize’ that the future of the EU ‘depends on a willingness to stand up for human rights’. This was particularly observable in the bloc’s response to the ongoing threats to the rule of law in Poland.
‘The lesson of the last year,’ said Roth, ‘is that resistance matters.’
The Brexit deadlock was finally broken last Friday, when the EU agreed that ‘sufficient progress’ had been made on citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and the divorce settlement. But has the deal on citizens’ rights provided enough clarity to the millions of UK and EU immigrants affected by it?
EU citizens in the UK
The main takeaway for both sides was that they would keep their current rights: EU citizens who have lawfully lived in the UK for a minimum of five years will be granted ‘settled status.’ The UK government has said this will be a straightforward process and cost no more than a British passport (£72.50). They will retain access to tax credits, universal credit, healthcare, pensions, etc., and can be away from the UK for up to 5 years and still retain this status. Children born in the UK to parents from an EU country will automatically become British citizens. Irish citizens will not have their rights affected by Brexit and will be able to work and travel in the UK without hindrance.
UK citizens in the EU
Likewise, UK nationals that are legally living in one of the 27 member states will be allowed to stay (though some countries will require an application process to secure this). If they have been living in the country for five years they will be entitled to ‘permanent residence’ or the chance to apply for it. Again, they can be away from the host country for 5 years and still retain permanent residence. If they have a pension, it will increase every year just as it would in the UK.
UK nationals will remain eligible for free healthcare in the EU under a continuation of the EHIC scheme, and if working in several European countries, they will maintain the right to work in all of them.
In addition, close family members (spouse/direct ascendants/direct descendants) will be able to join them if their rights are protected under the withdrawal agreement. Children of British nationals are also protected under the withdrawal agreement if the parents are protected or nationals of the host country.
What’s been left out
For those that have no desire to move and meet the requirements for settled status, this agreement is probably satisfactory.
But it is likely that the EU will adopt a constitutive system – meaning that British immigrants will have to apply for a new status (as EU citizens will be expected to do in the UK).
This process is unlikely to be uniform and each country will have slightly different requirements. Individuals will be asked to provide comprehensive documentation to prove they have lived in their respective host country for 5 years, and this may not be easy to find. Besides, bureaucracies can make mistakes, as the UK home office has proved.
Theresa May has made no illusions: the British PM seeks to create a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented people living in Britain illegally. We have already witnessed the consequences of this draconian policy on European citizens who have lived lawfully in the UK for over 15 years.
‘What will happen to EU nationals who move to Britain post-Brexit? Will they require work permits? How is the UK government planning to register 3 million EU nationals before Brexit?’
The fact that the continuation of free movement was not even discussed is a worrying sign. It may well come up during the next phase of negotiations, but there are no guarantees, thus it is imperative we pressure both British and European parliaments to make sure this issue is not sidelined. Freedom of movement is vital, whether we are officially part of the European Union or not. Associative European citizenship must be made available to those who either wish for or need it.
Furthermore, there are a number of grey areas within the agreement: what will happen to EU nationals who move to Britain post-Brexit? Will they require work permits? How is the UK government planning to register 3 million EU nationals before Brexit? After the UK has regained control of its laws, what safeguards are in place to protect EU citizens?
These questions will be an afterthought in the second round of negotiations, which will focus primarily on the future trading relationship between the two parties. Given that the UK and the EU already have differing interpretations of what that relationship should look like, it is unlikely that we will see further clarification on citizens’ rights in the foreseeable future.
Essentially, we feel that European and British nationals have been largely ignored. Though there have been some assurances made by European leaders, it seems citizens’ rights are more of a hindrance to the UK and the EU to negotiating more important aspects of the deal.
During the 1970s, many of the richest regions in Europe rediscovered both their cultural peculiarities and their old intolerance towards central institutions. Northern Italy was no exception. Now, decades later, separatists claims to the legendary ‘Padania’ imagined by the secessionist party Lega Nord (LN) are still relevant. But is independence the only aim?
Barcelona faced a contested referendum on 1st October, and now Milan and Venice are being called to the polls on October 22nd. The question, as phrased by governors Roberto Maroni and Luca Zaia – both important Lega Nord politicians – leaves little room for interpretation: “Do you want Veneto to be given greater forms and conditions of autonomy?” On the surface, it appears that LN could finally realise its 30 year old dream of a bright, more autonomous future. However, there is more to these referendums than you might think.
A hollow referendum?
Both referendums are nothing but consultative, and a victory on the autonomists’ side may only lead to years of fruitless negotiations between the central state and these two wealthy regions. Indeed, acquiring a special status for Lombardy and Veneto might not be the real goal of this campaign.
Since its creation in 1989, Lega Nord – literally “the Northern League” – has claimed to be the voice of hard-working populations whose high revenues were, they claimed, unjustly redistributed to the lazy southerners. Backed up by imaginative legends of a common northern history and ethnicity, Lega’s ambition was to divide Italy in two at the Po river, leaving Southern Italy on one side and Padania on the other.
This program mirrored that of several other independentist parties all over Europe, says Italian researcher Emmanuel Dalle Mulle. In his recent book, Dalle Mulle points out how the common thread of all these different parties was “ending the economic ‘exploitation’ suffered by a wealthy nation and supposedly carried out by the population of poorer regions”. In other words, rich nationalism hoped to reshape Europe.
Towards a new strategy
This narrative is fed by the fact that Lombardy and Veneto contribute a significant amount to the national GDP, according to EUROSTAT. While the former produces goods and services worth €357 million, the latter generates an estimated €151 million, which is far more than any other region. It’s therefore easy to understand why the citizens of these northern regions might be tempted to ask for greater financial autonomy. But Lega Nord has since moved beyond their Padania narrative.
However, since Matteo Salvini took the reins of the Lega in 2013, the movement’s separatism ambitions have been overshadowed by a new strategy. Aligning with many other right-wing populist movements, Salvini decided to reshape Lega around Euro-skepticism and a strong critique of current immigration policies. The transformation was completed in April 2014 when, ahead of the European Parliament elections, the slogan “No more euro” replaced the historical “Padania” as the party’s national slogan. At the same time, Salvini launched a parallel movement, Noi con Salvini (Us with Salvini), to reach out to those Italian regions – especially in the South – where Lega previously didn’t have a wide following.
If Salvini’s massive operation did allow Lega Nord to reach – according to the latest surveys – 12.9% of the population, this abrupt restyling doesn’t necessarily resonate with northern voters, who might feel they’ve been abandoned by a movement that used to serve their interests. This is where the referendum card comes in handy.
Just a few years ago, in March 2014, the Italian institute for political and social research Demos published the results of a survey conducted in Veneto. The research showed that 80% of the local population would have opted for independence, had a referendum been held.
Three years later, this data is still relevant, and Salvini knows it: in the north, most voters are still attached to Lega’s old values rather than to its new goals. Although, at the moment, the party seems to be doing better on a national level, the leader risks losing the party’s hard core of loyalists, should the populist, euro-skeptical program lose relevance.
“This referendum is probably the result of a tacit agreement: Salvini accepts Maroni’s and Zaia’s regional nation-building policies and, in exchange, they don’t challenge him on a national level,” says Dalle Mulle.
The researcher, who’s been observing his native Veneto from the Graduate Institute in Geneva for the past three years, also believes the referendums has a more subtle objective: that of strengthening Lega’s positions in the Italian national and regional elections of spring 2018. As Italy now heads into months of tireless election campaigning, even a symbolic victory might alter the political balances within the country’s right wing parties.
“The referendum’s questions are so generic, their answer so self-evident that this might as well be just a purely symbolic issue at this point,” Dalle Mulle states. After all, whether voters will reach for such succulent (albeit low-hanging) fruit is a matter of little doubt.
This guest article was brought to you by Viola Serena Stefanello. Follow her on Twitter here.
With the Brexit talks finally underway, we revisit Guy Verhofstadt’s Europe’s Last Chance for an insight into the man with the power to veto the final deal.
At the beginning of the year, the European Union was on the ropes.
Fears of a Brexit defection infection, and a ‘Trump-inspired wave’ of far-right nationalism toppling traditional parties in the Dutch, French and German elections, meant ‘Europeanists’ were contemplating the end of the EU.
Yet, in light of the divisions the Brexit process has caused within the UK – with British citizens’ status in the EU looking uncertain, and multinationals migrating to Frankfurt and Paris – Macron’s injection of pro-EU life-force, and far-right movements struggling to gain ground, the EU seems to be back on its feet.
Despite the refugee crisis on its southern border and Poland’s descent into dictatorship, questioning the Union’s very existence has largely gone out of fashion once again.
In fact, Europeans are feeling rather positive. Statistics from the Pew Research Centre show that the EU’s approval ratings around Europe have seen a sharp increase since Brexit.
For Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgium Prime Minister, the collapse of the EU would have been a catastrophe. The ardent federalist is, he says, “in love with Europe.”
You can tell a lot about someone from how they react to a crisis.
In response, he wrote Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union, arguing that the bloc must pull together, and reform, to resist splintering into divided nations.
In his role as the European Parliament’s (EP) representative in the ongoing Brexit talks, Verhofstadt is a key player. He has the power to veto the final deal.
So what do we know about him from Europe’s Last Chance?
1. He is not unaware of the EU’s malaise.
Verhofstadt is cast as a eurobuffon in much of the press. Yet the leader of the Liberal ALDE faction is acutely aware of the problems that threaten the European project he so believes in:
“…Great Britain’s decision to exit the EU; devastating terror attacks in Paris; desperate refugees flooding into nations unable – or unwilling – to shelter them humanely; intricate currency issues shaking the foundation of a common market; belligerents like Russia and ISIS promising fearful assaults…”
And his support for the EU is not unconditional. He is critical, for example, of the hypocrisy of the bureaucratic EU.
“Where a rule does not exist, we apply one; where the application of a rule is officially required, we do our utmost to avoid it.”
But unlike many – especially British – commentators, who believe these problems show it’s time to jump ship, Verhofstadt believes in more, not less, Europe.
2. He believes the EU should become like the US – a federation.
Famous for his outspoken tweets, and for laying into right-wing Eurosceptics in Parliament, the floppy-haired, proudly European Verhofstadt has fast become the poster-boy for European federalists.
Any #Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved.The clock is ticking – it's time to get real.
“The only way to survive,” he writes, is to give the EU “the powers and means to tackle the crisis it faces.”
How would he equip the EU with these “powers and means?” By creating the United States of Europe.
“Unless Europe emulates its American cousin, it is surely doomed.” For a European politician – with the apparent exception of Emmanuel Macron – Verhofstadt is surprisingly deferential towards the United States.
The U.S.E would mean social as well as economic integration – which Verhofstadt believes should have been done when the Union was founded in 1957 – with a cross-border FBI-style crime-fighting agency, a European Banking Union etc.
The idea is that global problems – such as climate change and financial crises – cannot be solved at an individual state level, so our system for solving them must be international.
Terrorism, for example, is “not hampered by national borders,” he argues, unlike a non-federal Europe.
3. Guy Verhofstadt sees nationalism as a disease.
Verhofstadt makes it abundantly clear that he believes nationalism is “the root of Europe’s problems.”
“Rather than opening their eyes and making the correct diagnosis, the member states – particularly France and Germany – continue to think they can meet the [EU’s] challenges on their own without making use of the full European scale.”
He talks about nationalism in very violent terms – as a “disease.” The same disease that caused the Holocaust.
He also criticises heads of state for the empty promises to their electorates, that – as long as they are concerned about “preserving the sacred cow of national sovereignty” – they will never be able to deliver.
As for popular opinion, he believes the majority of Europeans are pro-EU, but that political decisions should not be contingent on public approval:
“Many of today’s political leaders are followers rather than frontrunners, politicians who stick their fingers in the air to determine which way the wind is blowing rather than mavericks who fly in the face of public opinion where necessary.”
Unsurprisingly, Verhofstadt has not endeared himself to those across the spectrum who see the EU as an undemocratic, meddling, regulatory machine.
He is utterly single-minded in his belief that a federal Europe, free of nationalism, is “the only way to survive.” And ultimately the EU’s survival is more important than what he sees as fickle public opinion.
“The longer we leave our condition untreated”, he argues, “the more difficult it will be to cure.”
4. He is vehemently anti-Brexit.
There is not much love lost between Guy Verhofstadt and the Brexit brigade. Last year he labelled them all “rats”
Verhofstadt sees Brexit as a historic – and highly irrational – mistake, that will harm the UK economically and socially.
Not only will students “be excluded from Erasmus,” but European research funding will decrease, and the poorer areas of the southwest and the northeast will stop receiving EU aid.
He also argues that Brexit was a “divorce that only a minority seems to have wanted,” that it legitimised racism and xenophobia of the right wing press, and cleaved the country in two.
After a “merciless leave campaign that had focussed in the nastiest way imaginable on migration instead of whether to remain or leave,” he says, it is no surprise that there was a sharp spike in hate crimes when Brexit was announced.
“This disgrace of a campaign even motivated the murder Labour MP Jo Cox.”
Not only does he see Brexit as an ugly mess, but he also believes the EU can’t be soft with Britain. This, he argues, would only embolden anti-EU parties who already see the EU as a “doormat.”
Brexit was a “divorce that only a minority seems to have wanted.”
On top of all that, Verhofstadt has a veto, and he’s not afraid to use it.
He has already made it clear that if he thinks it’s in the best interests of the European Union, Verhofstadt will kill the Brexit deal, threatening to block any deal he feels doesn’t respect the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and British citizens in Europe. Yikes.
5. Guy Verhofstadt is not shy of the limelight.
For what is supposed to be a blueprint for the future of the EU, there’s an awful lot of ‘I’ in Europe’s Last Chance.“I wanted to lend my symbolic support to the people of Paris, who had suffered so much…”
And there is much talk of huge crowds coming to hear him speak.
Verhofstadt clearly sees himself as one of the aforementioned “mavericks,” and his tweeting habits and penchant for making news show he is embracing his central role in the Brexit talks. This is a man who ran to be EP president, after all.
Britons that want a soft Brexit will hope he uses his position to put pressure on both sides to come to a deal that is even-handed and sensible, and that he won’t be too vindictive.
But some fear that his tough stance on Brexit, and his desire not to be lenient with the Conservative negotiating team, may see the UK dumped out of Europe with nothing to soften the blow.
Clearly, Guy Verhofstadt using his veto would be a disaster for both sides.
Juuso Järviniemi of The New Federalist argues that Brexit has provided the perfect opportunity for European Parliament to create a Europe-wide constituency.
Transnational lists for European elections have long been discussed in the European Parliament and among federalists. Brexit has presented a golden opportunity in this regard.
The creation of a Europe-wide constituency paralleling the national and regional ones would not require concessions from any member state if the new European seats replaced the British ones which are set to disappear in 2019.
But the clock is ticking, and the time to act is now.
On the initiative of Andrew Duff, the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament repeatedly called for a transnational constituency of 25 MEPs during the 2009–2014 parliamentary term, but there was no luck in the plenary chamber. However, that was of course before the Brexit referendum presented a new opportunity for the reform.
In November 2015, the Parliament adopted a resolution on reforming the electoral law of the EU. Andrew Duff writes that in the resolution, the Parliament “finally voted to support a joint list.”
In the annex to the resolution, it is proposed that the line, “The Council decides by unanimity on a joint constituency in which lists are headed by each political family’s candidate for the post of President of the Commission,” be adopted in a Council decision.
This was not enough for the Greens, who are in favour of transnational lists.
In the aftermath of the November 2015 resolution, against which the Greens voted, their vice-president Josep Maria Terricabras deplored the missed opportunity to send a clear signal in support of designating a proportion of seats for European lists.
As Andrew Duff notes, in April 2017 the European Parliament referred to transnational lists again in a Brexit-related resolution, where it reiterated its commitment to reforming the electoral procedure on the basis of the earlier resolution.
More advocacy is needed
This is the best chance we’ve had to create a transnational constituency.
In addition to Brexit, the supportive stance of French President Emmanuel Macron, among others, contributes to this. The transnational constituency would have the potential to bring genuinely European issues to the fore in European elections, as up to nearly a tenth of the seats would be occupied by politicians with a European mandate.
And not everyone would spend their campaign talking about what their national government is doing, or about their home country’s foreign policy. One could also expect this to push the national and regional candidates to focus on what’s relevant for the European election. Additionally, as each citizen would have two ballots instead of one, the novelty could energise the electorate and increase turnout.
More informed voting, means a bigger turnout.
Moreover, with transnational lists each citizen could exercise scrutiny over more MEPs than before. A Finnish voter could vote for or against 13 MEPs in 2014. In 2019 the number could be 86. From the point of view of democracy, transnational lists are a worthy cause, and democracy is what elections are all about.
The issue of what happens to the British seats will have to be addressed sooner or later, but simply removing the seats altogether appears to be the default option. Academics and politicians I have discussed this with all find it unlikely that transnational lists will come into being, or think that present efforts are insufficient. In April, Politico Europe called the idea “utopian”.
Public discussion on the topic has been scarce, even though there is a clear proposal to be made. We need more prominent European politicians and public figures to make the case for reform. In the 2019 European election, there must be a EU-wide constituency of 73 MEPs.
Some may propose a constituency of a smaller size, which would allow for reducing the size of the parliament to an extent, but there is ample reason to be ambitious. There will be plenty of others out there to try to water down the idea. Indeed, that is the only thing we don’t have to do ourselves.
The debate on transnational lists is a part of a wider discussion on the allocation of seats in the European Parliament, a key question being the just representation of each citizen, considering the (intentional) over-representation of smaller member states.
Politico argues that other seemingly easy alternatives would increase the inequality of representation among citizens. This would be the case for both removing the 73 British seats altogether, and potentially for distributing them among the remaining EU27.
Transnational lists may be called lofty or unrealistic, but these alternatives have their own disadvantages.
A proposal for reallocation that would reduce this inequality – the Cambridge Compromise – has been made, but that alone will not bring about the other benefits of transnational lists. A 73-member European constituency would also increase the equality of citizens in the European Parliament, although to a lesser extent than the Cambridge Compromise.
In May, Andrew Duff proposed the introduction of both the Cambridge Compromise and transnational lists, options that need not be mutually exclusive.
The time is now
Whoever wants transnational lists, must act now – better not wait until the next country is leaving the EU.
This week I plan to contact my MEP, voice my support for the idea and ask what more ordinary citizens can do.
In the name of democracy and European citizenship, I recommend others to do the same.