Lessons On Populism, From Bono

Fareed Zakaria - U2 Bono - populism Europe - Kiev

 

How to solve the “scourge” of European populism? CNN’s Fareed Zakaria makes a pilgrimage to Kiev, to consult with the geopolitical oracle known as Bono

Every now and then you read an article so astonishingly un-self aware, so counterproductive, so open to attack and ridicule on multiple fronts that it is difficult to know where to begin. The latest writer to evoke this strong reaction is Fareed Zakaria, CNN’s in-house intellectual and self-touted expert on international issues and foreign affairs.

The headline of Zakaria’s latest asinine column in the Washington Post? “I wanted to understand Europe’s populism. So I talked to Bono.”

Zakaria has apparently turned his formidable mind towards the rising backlash against years of technocratic supranational rule which favored delivering a stream of perks and opportunities to urban cognitive elites while leaving the rest of their citizens to face the vagaries of globalization, automation, outsourcing and supranationalism unsupervised, unrepresented and unprotected. Of course, Zakaria does not view the problem in these terms – he would doubtless describe it as a mass turning away from reason and rationality, and a refusal on the part of ordinary people to gratefully follow the course carefully laid out for them by their intellectual and moral betters.

And so when faced with a rise in “populism” around the world, Zakaria doesn’t engage in any personal introspection as to how he and his circle might have brought us to this moment. He certainly doesn’t reach out to any of the discredited technocrats and ask searching questions of leaders like Hillary Clinton, David Cameron or Tony Blair. No; Fareed Zakaria hopped on a plane to Kiev, where he hunkered down with U2 singer and Woman of the Year Bono, who – as we all know – is the premier global expert on the subject of populism, its causes and its cures.

Again, this is one of those articles where one can scarcely make it to the end of each paragraph without wanting to fly to Fareed Zakaria’s New York home for a personal one-on-one summit with the guy. I read the thing and just sat staring at the screen for a good five minutes, incredulous that anybody could show such supreme ignorance – and worse, lack of curiosity – about the other perspectives he pretends on his television show to care about.

From the top:

When confronting a challenging problem, it’s sometimes useful to listen to someone who looks at it from an entirely different angle. That’s why I found it fascinating to talk about the rise of populism and nativism with Bono last weekend at a summit in Kiev.

Naturally. I hop on a plane to see Bono at least once a month, whenever I am faced with a personal or geopolitical quandary, and I am sure that you do the same. The man is just a font of wisdom. And “different angle”? Bono believes in and champions exactly the same supranational, technocratic and remote system as Zakaria. The man waves an EU flag around on stage in his concerts, for heaven’s sake. Yet Zakaria has the nerve to portray traveling thousands of miles to hear his own opinions reflected back at him from an aging rock-star as a fearless search for alternative points of view.

The Irish singer-activist-philanthropist sees the same forces that we all do, particularly in Europe, but he zeroes in on something intangible yet essential. The only way to counter the dark, pessimistic vision being peddled by nationalists and extremists, Bono says, is to have an uplifting, positive vision. Homing in on the trouble in his part of the world, he told me, “Europe needs to go from being seen as a bore, a bureaucracy, a technical project, to being what it is: a grand, inspiring idea.”

And immediately the bias betrays itself. At a time when the European Union’s failures and the hubris of EU leaders are dooming entire generations of youth to chronic unemployment, when their incompetence at defending the union’s frontiers has led to an inward wave of illegal migration which no voters sanctioned and at a time when the entire European project stands either discredited or seriously questioned in a whole swathe of member states, Fareed Zakaria’s first thought isn’t whether some of the EU’s critics might have a point worth hearing. His first thought is how European elites can best double down on their vision and make their recalcitrant citizens realize the error of their ways and drop their inconvenient resistance to further political integration.

More:

To that end, Bono’s band, U2, has been choosing a moment during its concerts to unfurl — wait for it — the flag of the European Union.

How dreadfully original. He should do a duet with EU supergirl.

“Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling,” Bono wrote in a recent op-ed in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. He is trying to give that feeling meaning. To him, Europe is about the ability of countries that were once warring to live in peace, for people of many different lands and languages to come together. “That idea of Europe deserves songs written about it, and big bright blue flags to be waved about,” he wrote.

This same tedious and over-simplistic point has been made by a thousand teenage left-wingers with the EU flag painted on their faces, not to mention legions of C-list cable news talking heads, yet when Bono says the same thing it becomes profound and original insight worthy of inclusion in a Washington Post feature article. Remarkable.

But here’s the bit where Zakaria’s powers of analysis really desert him:

Bono admits that Europe is a “hard sell” today. The continent is ablaze with populism. These forces have taken control in Hungary, Poland and Italy and are steadily gaining ground elsewhere, including Germany and Sweden. It seems that everywhere the fuel is the same: hostility toward strangers, foreigners, anyone who is different.

There is absolutely zero attempt here to distinguish between actual xenophobia and racism on the one hand, and legitimate concerns about a lack of democratic control over immigration or enforcement of the rule of law against illegal immigrants on the other. But of course in Zakaria’s mind there is no distinction to make. Merely objecting to massive expansions of inward immigration ushered in by governments without seeking popular consent is every bit as racist and worthy of condemnation as donning a white robe and lighting crosses on fire. Simply asking questions about the impact of high levels of migration on societal cohesiveness and public service provision is taken to be the sufficient mens rea to establish guilt.

And so Fareed Zakaria, ventriloquizing Bono the Philosopher King, doesn’t seek to dig into a hugely complex issue featuring a cast of thousands of actors and hundreds of policies and sub-policies. He doesn’t attempt to separate actual racism, prejudice and discrimination against people based on their national or ethnic background, from legitimate concerns about how the EU’s leaders and national leaders have stubbornly implemented their own view of the open, multicultural society without consulting let alone seeking the approval of those they nominally serve. They are all lumped together as “hostility toward strangers, foreigners, anyone who is different”, a blanket condemnation which allows people like Fareed Zakaria and the political masters for whom he covers to press ahead with their existing policies without feeling the need to justify themselves or win public approval. After all, one doesn’t need to make accommodation with racists.

Zakaria then goes on to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama:

The founders of the E.U., he argues, spent too much time building the technical aspects of the project — laws, rules, tariffs. They neglected to nurture an actual European identity, something people could believe in not for rational reasons but for emotional and idealistic ones.

This is one of only two perceptive points made in the entire article, and it comes courtesy of a third party. This is absolutely correct – the EU’s founders and subsequent leaders adopted an unapologetically antidemocratic “if we build it, they will come” approach to constructing their new European superstate. They figured that if only they could get all of the institutions set up and orchestrate enough power grabs from member states to Brussels, the entire project would be a fait accompli and ordinary people would simply have to make their peace with taking orders from elsewhere, and being represented by institutions to which they felt no allegiance and often barely recognized.

But Fareed Zakaria doesn’t pause to marvel at this slow-motion, silent coup or acknowledge that its opponents may have a point in at least raising concerns about it. He and Bono simply look forward to the time when the various peoples of Europe have been successfully re-educated and taught to love their new overlords:

According to the latest European Commission surveys, 71 percent of Poles say they feel attached to the E.U., more so than Germans or Spaniards, while 61 percent of Hungarians feel attached, outstripping the French, Swedes and Belgians. The problem is, it isn’t a deep, emotional bond — they are three to four times more likely to feel very attached to their own nation than to the E.U.

Apparently it is a problem that we do not feel attached to these institutions built largely without our consent, input or oversight. It is problematic, according to Bono and his acolyte Zakaria, that people object to vast new and powerful layers of government constructed at a geographic and political level that we naturally do not feel strong allegiance to because of entirely normal cultural and historic differences. It is something, goes this argument, that must be overcome or suppressed for the Greater Good.

Ordinarily I would enjoy sitting back and watching Fareed Zakaria’s smugness, moral certainty and profound lack of curiousness about people from outside his hermetically sealed intellectual bubble come back to bite him. But I cannot do so, because Zakaria’s loss and humiliation will be all of ours, too. None of us stand to benefit if the worst and harshest elements of the populist revolution take over our politics and trample over our imperfect but essential institutions. A proliferation of Viktor Orbans throughout Europe is not a price worth paying to see the smug self-satisfied smile wiped off Zakaria’s face.

And this is the frustrating thing. In the fight against racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism, we should be allies. But Zakaria will not engage in good faith with the opponents of technocratic, managerialist, supranationalism. He is unable or unwilling to distinguish between discomfort and disagreement with the direction and destination of European political union and “hostility toward strangers, foreigners, anyone who is different”. Because Fareed Zakaria and a hundred prominent journalists and politicians like him are incapable of distinguishing between legitimate criticism of the status quo and support for the worst elements of the populist revolution, they are able neither to call their own side to account for their failings, nor chart the kind of compromise we ultimately need to preserve the benefits of globalization and internationalism with the rightful demand of ordinary citizens for democratic control over their destinies.

This is the real conversation – and I have been saying this for years now – that we urgently need to be having. We need our smartest minds and those with social capital to come together to develop answers to these big questions. But instead, almost to a person, they would rather zip around the globe from Davos to Aspen to Kiev, commiserating with themselves, hobnobbing with aging rock stars, stroking their metaphorical beards and wondering why the rest of their fellow citizens stubbornly refuse to fall into line and get with the program.

Fareed Zakaria will no more learn about the origins of and solutions to populism from Bono than he will learn about bioethics from Justin Bieber. That he felt no sense of shame putting his name to this execrable article in the Washington Post leaves me with a feeling of profound frustration and despair.

But Zakaria is not alone – indeed, his article is emblematic of the cognitive bias which runs through the upper echelons of the corporate, cultural, educational, governmental and journalistic institutions which together set society’s direction of travel (and in the latter’s case, report back on the situation with a laughably false veneer of objectivity).  The only difference between Fareed Zakaria and the rest of them is that he was stupid enough to print what the rest of them think in private on the pages of the Washington Post.

Two years after Brexit, nearly two years after Trump and still the Smartest Guys In The Room™ exhibit no self-awareness, no introspection, no respect for opposing viewpoints and no new ideas beyond “more Europe, more technocracy, more unaccountable supranationalism, and if you don’t like it then there must be something wrong with you”.

Zakaria can commune with Bono all he wants, but it will not save them or us from the slow-motion collision with reality that the West is now experiencing. Yet he prattles on in the Washington Post oblivious to the danger because in Fareed Zakaria’s mind, he and the people he interviews cannot be wrong about anything, and theirs is the only valid perspective.

In the words of Evelyn Waugh, “They were too old and they didn’t know and they wouldn’t learn. That’s the truth.”

 

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Catalonia Independence And Brexit – Not The Same Thing

Catalan Catalunya president Carles Puigdemont speech - declaration of independence

The Catalan declaration of independence does not prove your point, whether you are for or against Brexit

There has been an inevitable tendency among many people to co-opt the events surrounding the recent Catalan independence referendum and resulting declaration of independence from Spain for their own distinct purposes. This is unhelpful. Recent events in Spain illuminate Brexit little more than the election of Donald Trump explains Brexit – in other words, a few headline similarities obscure a wealth of differences.

First, we can all acknowledge that Spain hugely mishandled the entire affair. Whether this is partly due to weaker institutions and the less embedded traditions of democracy in Spain or just sheer incompetence on the part of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government is not fully clear to me, but the actions of the Spanish government clearly fuelled rather than defused the situation.

Rajoy should have learned from the UK’s experience with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Faced with Scottish separatists with similar delusions of statehood, David Cameron called the bluff of the Scottish National Party. The referendum was held on fair terms and the nationalists lost – despite an awfully dreary and uninspiring “No” campaign which pushed an entirely negative message and had little positive to say about the value of the United Kingdom. And though this led to the rise of Nicola Sturgeon and the arrival of the Tartan Tea Party of SNP MPs in Westminster after the 2015 general election, the nationalist tide has since receded.

Madrid took a different approach, opposing the referendum at every turn. I can’t speak to the legality of the constitutional court’s decision to ban the referendum, but the violent way in which it was put down by the police and Guardia Civil handed the separatists a huge and unnecessary propaganda victory. I can fully believe that the Catalan regional government has behaved reprehensibly and childishly throughout, but a mature national government in Madrid would have handled this in a way which took the sting out of the Catalan independence movement, putting it to bed for a generation. Mariano Rajoy achieved the exact opposite.

The decision of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to proceed with a declaration of independence, as ratified by the Catalan parliament, was opportunistic, antidemocratic and immature. Yes, the referendum was violently put down by the Spanish authorities. But the referendum was also deemed illegal  in the first place by the proper Spanish courts, and many of those who would have voted against independence did not go to the polls. To take this botched referendum as a mandate for independence is a huge overstepping of Puigdemont’s authority, and is fundamentally antidemocratic.

Simultaneously, Spain has been far too laid back in dealing with this threat. It was shocking enough that it took until the days before the Scottish independence referendum for anti-independence campaigners to hold a mass rally in London in support of the United Kingdom – but at least it happened. Spain waited until days after the unilateral declaration of Catalonian independence to hold a similar rally in Barcelona. Where was this public outrage and shows of loyalty to Madrid when Carles Puigdemont was prancing around acting like the living embodiment of all Catalan public opinion? It is hard to attribute this to anything but laziness on the part of the citizenry. As he left the US constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin told an enquirer that he had bequeathed the American people “a Republic, if you can keep it“. At times, the Spanish seemed too lazy to make much of an effort to keep theirs.

How does all of this tangentially relate to Brexit? In one sense, Brexiteers can draw some basic parallels to Catalan independence. Both are primarily cultural movements consisting of people who do not accept the legitimacy of the larger political entity which they seek to leave. But the British EU referendum was conducted under the rule of law and its outcome was legitimate. One can raise valid points about the precise mode of Brexit being unstated and the lack of a plan on the part of the official Leave campaign – all true. But the instruction from voters to the UK government to commence secession from the political entity known as European Union was clear. In the case of Catalonian independence, not so. In many cases, the Catalan government behaved provocatively and with great immaturity. These are not smart, measured people whom anybody should seek to drape their arms around.

But there is also a contradiction at the heart of the Catalonian separatist movement. Both in Catalonia and Scotland, advocates for independence seek to leave the political purview of Madrid and Westminster respectively, but remain very much part of the European Union. In doing so they engage in a feat of denial and political fancy which exceeds that of the most ignorant of Hard Brexiteers. Leaving Spain means Catalonia leaving the EU, just as leaving the United Kingdom inevitably meant Scotland leaving the EU when Scotland voted back in 2014. In both cases, separatists sought to downplay or even deny this truth. Carles Puigdemont and his followers need to accept this difficult fact if they are to be remotely taken seriously. But they do not accept reality, just as the SNP refused to accept reality.

It is also curious that the separatists are so desperate to escape the clutches of Madrid (one protester today said that Catalonians were currently “oppressed” by Spain) but are entirely comfortably – even eager – to remain under the authority of Brussels, and inevitably as a much smaller and less influential member state were they to be readmitted. I would very much like to read an argument explaining how modern Spain suppresses Catalonian culture and freedom in a way that the EU would not. As an independent country and small EU member state, Catalonia would be much less able to influence EU policymaking than Spain is currently able to do. They would be in an infinitely weaker position to defend and advance Catalonian national interest.

And yet if this is still the choice of the Catalonian people they should be free to make it – through a lawful, democratic and legitimate referendum. If they do so, it will be a clearly cultural and constitutional decision, just as Brexit was. This doesn’t automatically mean that it is the “wrong” decision – it would simply mean that as with Brexit, some things matter more than short term political and economic stability. This is an argument which I have strongly made about Brexit, and which could hold true for Catalonian independence too. If the people of Catalonia genuinely feel that Madrid is hostile to their own interests then they should have the right to secede from Spain and take the consequences and potential benefits upon themselves. I supported Brexit because I do not feel that our cultural affinity to Europe – our sense of ourselves as part of a cohesive European demos – warrants as powerful and extensive a government as we currently have in Brussels. If Catalonians feel the same about Spain then so be it.

But if nothing else good comes from this turmoil in Spain, hopefully it will disabuse separatists throughout Europe of the childlike, naive notion that Brussels is their friend, and that the European Union in any way cares about their freedom or right to self-determination. It most assuredly does not. The European Union has its own journey – toward greater political integration and centralisation – to pursue. Brexit is enough of a bump in the road for EU leaders; they have no desire to see Europe fragmenting further at a time when they are trying to busily absorb everyone into the grand project, even as their undermining of established member states fuels these separatist movements.

Besides that, this is an internal matter for Spain to deal with. One might plausibly consider taking sides from a personal perspective had the referendum been conducted legally under terms agreed by both sides, or if the Catalan government could make an irrefutable case that no further dialogue with Spain was possible for the redress of their grievances. But in the absence of these mitigating factors we ought to refrain from jumping into a foreign debate purely to score cheap political points about matters in our own country.

The Catalan independence movement is not like Brexit, as anybody who supported the continuation of the United Kingdom in 2014 and Brexit in 2017 should have the humility to accept. No matter how low your opinion of Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks and Dominic Cummings may be, they did not press ahead with an unlawful referendum and claim (quite) such an implausible mandate from it. And whatever constitutional vandalism the UK government is currently engaged in as it seeks to implement Brexit is nothing to the constitutional vandalism currently being perpetrated in Spain.

At its core, Brexit is about securing the continued relevance and autonomy of the nation state (at least until such time as public opinion shifts more definitively in favour of the kind of supranational government offered by the European Union). And that means keeping our personal opinions about Catalan opinions quite distinct from any other political agenda.

 

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Brexit: The Flight 93 Secession

European union flag

Whether you believe that Brexit is a brave and noble endeavour or a rash, ignoble folly probably depends a lot on your perception of short and long-term risk

Imagine that in some surreal scenario you mysteriously found yourself on board a huge passenger aircraft flying a multi-stop, seemingly never-ending transoceanic journey to nowhere.

As the hours and days tick by onboard this strange vessel you begin to question where the plane is taking everybody, and who set the flight plan. There’s an old framed picture of the airline’s founder, Jean Monnet, hanging at the front of the plane above the sealed cockpit door, but the captain and the other passengers refuse to clearly state the destination themselves, even though they all seem very anxious to get there. Rather than being candid, they make only vague allusions to the potential destination and arrival time, and repeatedly emphasise the importance of travelling together in a big, stable aircraft to keep us safe from turbulence.

Then suppose that one day you question whether you want to be on this flight in the first place – your fellow passengers keep getting sick, the pilot stops randomly at tiny airfields in seedy-looking places to let a whole bunch of extra people climb aboard without even checking their boarding passes, and while every seat comes with its own plastic toy steering wheel giving the childish illusion of individual control, it is plainly apparent that the pilot is the sole person in charge.

You also have strong suspicions that a certain Lederhosen-wearing passenger sitting in First Class is the captain’s special favourite, and that this is why they get to control the cabin air conditioning, select the in-flight movie, dictate the meal choices for everyone sitting in Economy and sometimes even persuade the pilot to change speed and altitude. Back in 2015, a little scrawny passenger owed Lederhosen Guy some money and was being evasive about paying it back – now he rides in the unheated, unpressurised cargo hold.

So you finally speak up and ask why we are on this flight at all, this Airbus A380 on steroids, when out the window we can see other happy families zipping along in their Cessnas and small private jets, travelling together in a loose formation to reach their preferred destination but also preserving their individual ability to climb, descend, stop at an airfield for lunch or set a new destination altogether if they so choose.

And in response, some wiseguy across the aisle says that you have no right to complain because a mysterious benefactor bought your ticket armed with perfect information as to the plane’s ultimate destination. The travel agent certainly never lied to them, making the journey seem shorter and the destination more pleasant than the reality now unfolding – no, your benefactor apparently was apparently very firm in their desire for you to embark on this particular journey, and approved of every subsequent course change made by the captain, tacitly if not explicitly.

Many of the other passengers also take turns lecturing you that the era of private aviation is over, that only a fool would put his life in the hands of Westphalia Private Aviation Corp., that one family in one aircraft cannot possibly complete a safe and successful autonomous journey in this day and age, and that only by abandoning our trusty Learjet and boarding the enormous Airbus can we protect ourselves from dangerous pockets of clear air turbulence and other assorted perils of the sky. And if that means eating the same cheap airline food day after day, and giving the airline pilot total authority over us while in the air then so be it.

This is unacceptable, so you pluck up the courage and deliver an ultimatum: either the captain gives up his absolute powers and pays more attention to the demands of individual passengers – even if that means amending the route – or you will disembark, return to your own aircraft to fly on your own terms with your own companions in your own squadron, and with your own destination in mind. The captain laughs in your face. Lederhosen Guy stares at you with a kind of impassive curiosity, but says nothing. The aircraft continues humming along at cruising altitude.

What to do? You figure that storming the cockpit, relieving the captain of his duties and attempting to land the plane yourself is inherently risky, yet it seems preferable to reaching the plane’s ultimate destination and then realising that all of your worst fears and suspicions were correct – and that there is no return service.

If the aircraft will not change course and you are unwilling to accept the destination (or continued vagueness about the intended destination), then indeed storming the cockpit is the only option left. You don’t want to permanently hijack the plane and steer it exclusively according to your own preferences, nor do you want to thwart the captain and harm others by crashing the plane altogether. You just want to disembark peacefully.

Would it be nice if another Airbus A380 with a more amenable pilot was waiting at the next refuelling stop, ready for you and likeminded passengers to hop aboard and continue your journey in a more collegiate style, agreeing the destination and flight plan together rather than stubbornly navigating according to the old captain’s worn-out, anachronistic 1950s map? Yes, of course it would. But that’s not going to happen today. There is no alternative jet on the tarmac, and for all the money you have given the airline the small print on the back of your ticket is clearly marked “non-exchangeable and non-refundable”.

So you gather what support you can from among the other passengers, count to three, and charge the door.

At one point in 2016, some of the more extreme conservative political pundits in America began referring to the presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the “Flight 93 election“, a reference to the United Airlines plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 and deliberately crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and mounted a fightback against the Islamist hijackers. This risible, overwrought argument posited that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be so damaging to the United States – effectively the equivalent of another 9/11 attack – that it was the duty of every true patriot to “storm the cockpit” of American government by electing Donald Trump president instead.

Britain’s 2016 EU referendum was not quite a “Flight 93 moment”, not only because unlike the 9/11 attackers, the EU’s motivations and trajectory (though severely misguided) are not deliberately malevolent, but also because the speed of European political integration is slow and incremental, not sudden and rapid. Unlike a hijacking situation, we therefore theoretically had time to think and form a more considered plan of escape. Unfortunately Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the ringleaders who nominally led the storming of the cockpit, failed to come up with any kind of coherent plan for what to do when they got their hands on the controls. And now they have handed over command to Theresa May, who sits with white-knuckled grip on the yoke, trying and failing to reassure we the passengers over the intercom by repeating the same worn out banalities. Our position, post storming of the cockpit, is therefore significantly suboptimal.

But ultimately, if the captain will not desist from a reckless and undesirable course of action and an orderly disembarkation is impossible then one is left with little choice other than to forcibly set the plane down, blow the emergency exit, jump down the inflatable slide and walk back to the terminal in search of alternative transportation.

With Brexit, as with all flights, there is an outside chance that the new pilots will crash the plane, resulting in total hull loss and our fiery deaths. There is a slightly higher chance of experiencing a landing so rough that there are multiple injuries, the undercarriage fails and the plane requires lengthy and expensive repairs. Right now there are probably even odds that the landing will be sufficiently bumpy that those who do not have their seatbelts fastened securely will get thrown around the cabin a bit and generally have a bad time. But of course, the corollary to this is that remaining on the aircraft despite not knowing its destination and having no individual control over the plane carries a risk of its own. The next stop may be Warsaw or Bucharest, but eventually the plane might head for Pyongyang, carrying us along with it.

The difference between Remainers and Brexiteers is this: Remainers do not seem to much care where they end up (or at least seem willing to smile and suppress any gnawing doubts that they do have) so long as they can be seen to be travelling happily and in total harmony with all the other passengers on the plane. In support of their position, Remainers can point to all of the aircraft’s previous stopovers – many of which were vaguely pleasant or at least neutral – to suggest that we are participating in a wonderful global excursion and would be mad to spurn the promise of future tropical delights.

By contrast, Brexiteers care deeply about the end destination, strongly disagree with the current direction of travel and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to alter it. Leave voters can bolster their argument by pointing out the unprecedented scope of control passengers have ceded to the captain over time, and noting that ours is the only part of the world where people seem to have lost faith in private aviation and insist on flying together in a single huge aircraft. If abandoning our autonomy and climbing aboard the Airbus is so great, they argue, why are people in Asia, Africa, North and South America not following Europe’s lead?

Neither viewpoint is inherently evil. Rather, each view is formed by a different perception of reality and a varying sensitivity to short and long-term risk.

Or perhaps all Remainers are just flag-hating, anti-patriotic, virtue-signalling traitors who think that supporting the EU is an easy way to check the “internationalist” box on their checklist of trendy-lefty political opinions, and/or every Brexiteer is a harrumphing, xenophobic retired colonel who fetishises the British Empire, hates foreigners and wants to re-impose the social values and norms of the 1950s.

It’s hard to say.

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On Article 50 Day

United Kingdom Britain EU Secession - Article 50 Letter - Downing Street - Theresa May - Donald Tusk - European Union

A genuine opportunity for democratic renewal – if we can keep it

Many believed – either through arrogance or hopelessness – that this day would never come.

Article 50 Day: the day that the British government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and formally signalled to the European Union our decision to secede from that dysfunctional, anachronistic and profoundly anti-democratic political union, conceived more than a century ago and constructed in a post-war age now almost completely alien to us.

Of the many pictures which may come to represent “Brexit Day” in historical memory, the two images which struck me are the photograph of Theresa May signing the Article 50 notification letter in Downing Street last night, and the television footage of the British official (Ambassador Sir Tim Barrow) in Brussels, striding into the European Council building to deliver the note to president Donald Tusk.

Why? Because these images more than any other represent the astonishing triumph of democracy over the near-unanimous will of the political establishment.

Theresa May signing Article 50 Letter - Downing Street - Brexit - EU

Sir Tim Barrow - Article 50 letter - Brexit- European Union - Britain

Theresa May did not want to sign the Article 50 letter. During the referendum she campaigned, albeit half-heartedly and often nearly invisibly, for Britain to remain in the European Union before accepting the inevitable and promising to implement Brexit as she manoeuvred for the Tory leadership.

And the British civil service, foreign office and diplomatic corps, represented here by Tim Barrow, our Permanent Representative to the EU, certainly did not want to deliver the letter, so accustomed are they to thinking and operating only within the narrow tramlines of those competencies not surrendered to Brussels..

The generations of politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats who currently run Britain were raised on a narrative of national decline and inevitable dependence on the Brussels political union as the only means of amplifying our fading voice in world affairs. Their formative years were spent during the Winter of Discontent and marked by one post-war national humiliation after another. The tremendous post-1970s (Thatcherite) revival has failed to disabuse them of the utterly false, poisonous notion that Britain is a small and insignificant country, no longer capable of governing herself in the manner of other independent countries such as Canada or Australia, let alone as the fifth largest economy and major cultural, commercial, diplomatic and military power that we truly are.

By huge margins, these people were deeply wedded to Britain’s inevitable future as a European Union member state, and consider Brexit a huge mistake bordering on a tragic act of national self-harm. And yet Theresa May signed the letter, Tim Barrow delivered it, Article 50 was duly triggered and the process of Britain’s secession from the European Union was put into motion.

Why is this something to be celebrated? Because at a time when there is every reason for cynicism and doubt, it shows that at a fundamental level, the British people are indeed still in charge of their own destiny.

Theresa May did not want to sign the letter and Tim Barrow did not want to deliver it, but they did so because they retain a sufficient fear of (if not respect for) the public that they dared not abuse their power by overriding the results of a public referendum. Note that there is no such reticence about subverting democracy in the diminished union we are now leaving – unfavourable referendum results in member states (relating to EU treaties or the ill-fated constitution) have consistently been treated as unfortunate but minor setbacks and then sidestepped by the Brussels machinery, its leaders safe in the knowledge that they are so insulated from democratic accountability that they will suffer no consequences for their actions.

In Britain, however, there remained just enough fear of the people for our leaders to be forced to do the right thing, against their will. That’s not to say that they will get Brexit right, not by a long stretch – right up until Referendum Day, many Brexiteers were too busy hating the EU to identify the future relationship they wanted to have with it, while bitter Remainers did much to poison public and media opinion against the kind of transitional EEA deal which would have caused the least economic disruption. But given a mandate to take Britain out of the European Union our leaders are now doing so, however clumsily and against their will. This is as it should be.

Brendan O’Neill also gets it:

What we’re witnessing in Britain today, with Theresa May triggering Article 50, is something radical: the political class is going against its own judgement under the duress of the demos. The polite, peaceful duress of the demos, it should be pointed out.

We know that 73 per cent of MPs want to stay in the EU. We know many in the House of Lords are horrified by Brexit and were keen to hold it up. We know 70 per cent of business leaders wanted Britain to remain, and that some of them launched costly legal battles to try to stymie the Brexit momentum. And yet in the end, all of them, every one, has had to roll over and give in to the masses: to the builders, nurses, teachers, mums, old blokes, unemployed people and others who effectively said to the political class: ‘You’re wrong. We should leave’. To the people surprised that such a state of affairs can exist, that the political set can be made to do something it doesn’t want to by the mass of society, including even uneducated people: what did you think democracy meant? This is what it means.

Yes, this is what democracy means. To do anything else – to override or subvert the referendum decision for Brexit – would mean the triumph of technocracy  and well-meaning dictatorship over democracy.

We tend to forget, because it has not been this way within living memory for many citizens, but in a democracy the leaders are supposed to fear and respect the people and their judgment, not the other way around. As government relentlessly expanded and the bureaucratic state encroached ever more on our lives, we have unfortunately come to fear the government far more than government leaders fear the public – but not so with Brexit. Government ministers know that to defy the Brexit vote and seek to remain in the EU against the wishes of the people would visit such anarchy and destruction upon the country that they daren’t seriously even consider it (save inconsequential politicians such as Tim Farron). And so no matter how much they dislike it, today they implement our instructions.

Of course, Brexit is just one issue. In many other arenas of public life, officials have absolutely no qualms about defying public opinion and treating voters as polling units to be managed or placated rather than autonomous, thinking and engaged citizens to be feared and respected. We must take care not to merely repatriate powers from Brussels back into the arms of a power-hungry, over-centralised Westminster government that will fail to act in the interest of the UK’s diverse home nations and regions, and which carelessly surrendered its own powers to Brussels without democratic consent in the first place. Now, more than ever, we must hold our politicians and civil servants to account.

Brexit is the start of an opportunity for real democratic and constitutional reform, not an outcome in itself. Secession from the European Union makes the rejuvenation of our democracy possible, but by no means inevitable.

When queried by a stranger as to the outcome of the constitutional convention he was leaving, American founding father Benjamin Franklin famously replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it”.

Today, as Theresa May’s government (for all its many flaws) triggers Article 50 and serves notice on the European Union, we seek to reclaim our national self-determination and renew our democracy – if we can keep it. If we can rise to the occasion and collectively seize the great opportunity which now stands before us.

 

Theresa May signing Article 50 Letter - Downing Street - Brexit - EU

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The EU Snubs Britain At Its Own Risk

Friendship and cooperation

No, Theresa May was not mortally humiliated at the current EU summit underway in Brussels. Somehow, probably after a few nights in intensive care and some trauma therapy, the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will bounce back from being denied the opportunity to make idle small talk for a few minutes with the likes of Federica Mogherini.

Let’s be serious. Were there non-stop footage of every political leader to ever attend an EU summit, we could undoubtedly find instances where each one of them stood alone with nobody to talk to for a short while, even the sainted Angela Merkel. Keep watching the video beyond the first twenty seconds and you actually see May engaged in several conversations with other European leaders. This is a complete non-story.

But seizing on the footage of Theresa May looking momentarily awkward, however, helps to reinforce a narrative that Remainers (and their friends in the media) are desperate to encourage – that of pathetic, little old Britain being banished to the margins of the world having voted to isolate ourselves “from Europe”.

This is an idiotic and superficial analysis, and it speaks volumes about the people pushing the theory that they seem to take delight in what they see as the humiliation of their own prime minister (who, let’s not forget, represents all of us). If Brexiteers have been too harsh in impugning the patriotism of Remainers, as is sometimes claimed, then now is the time for Remainers to finally take their patriotism out for a spin. They claim that our prime minister has just been insulted on the world stage – therefore they should be encouraging a collective national outrage rather than trying to score smug political points.

Remainers claimed throughout the referendum campaign that the EU is a bastion of rationality, of grown up countries cooperating sensibly with one another. Well, what is grown up and sensible about deliberately ostracising one head of government just because the member state she represents is exercising its right to leave (not that any such ostracisation took place)? What is enlightened and admirable about such childish behaviour? And why is this snarling, punitive and insecure little club something of which we would want any further part?

Iain Martin goes further in a piece for Reaction:

It’s a funny video, although not in the way May’s opponents might think.‎ Funny meaning odd, curious, in that your response to it is probably shaped by your existing view of May and Brexit.

For Leavers – and quite a few Remainers who accept the reality that Brexit will happen and no amount of shenanigans by Blair, Mandelson and Clegg (what a dream team!) will stop it ‎- a British Prime Minister being treated in a rude fashion will only encourage Brits to say “if that’s your attitude then please get stuffed” to the EU.

In that gathering I see a room that‎ is overwhelmingly male – a sausage party of smugness. May is too polite or diffident to charge up to them and start “handbagging” and beating up the boys Thatcher-style, so she hovers. Millions of people, most people, who lack liberal elite social confidence will know the feeling from school or parties ever since. It induces sympathy.

We’re not talking to you, you smell, we don’t like you, is the message. Oh, and ‎the UK is not invited to dinner.

The response all this provokes – in me, anyway – is incredulity at the continuing stupidity of the EU’s leaders in their determination to rough up Britain in a manner that amounts to self-harm. Yes, we voted to leave the EU, which is our right and had been coming for ages, ‎but we cannot leave Europe. That would be a geographic, culinary, cultural, commercial impossibility, thank goodness. That means we are going to have to get along, and find new ways of co-operating and co-existing. Punishing Britain and being rude to Theresa May is simply a waste of time and energy, when the world is changing this fast.

I would caution Iain Martin against going down the identity politics route, trying to drum up additional sympathy for Theresa May by portraying her as a lone female in a room of arrogant and threatening men. I see no evidence that gender has anything to do with this non-story. Martin (I assume) is not a fan of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, and he should avoid resorting to their tactic of playing the oppression card when engaging in argument.

But that minor quibble aside, Martin is quite right. Many people will indeed empathise with the awkwardness of walking into the middle of a room of people who generally already know each other quite well and who are already engrossed in conversation. Throw in the fact that the television cameras were rolling and May becomes quite a sympathetic character. So if Remainers’ best argument is now “see how they treat you when you scorn them and try to leave the club” then I think it will largely backfire.

If anything, the history of recent British diplomacy has been one of excessive fawning and deference, punching well beneath our weight considering our status as Europe’s second biggest economy, one of only two nuclear powers and possessing the continent’s most deployable and skilled armed forces, not to mention the popularity and dominance of our culture. Martin also picks up on this point:

Britain has the leading listening, intelligence and security capability in Europe, at a time when the place is under assault from jihadist maniacs and the Russians are out to discredit democracy and create mischief in elections in Germany and France. Even in its depleted state, Britain is a leading player in Nato, which is dedicated to the defence of Western Europe. On the cyberwarfare front in particular that defence is now an urgent priority.

The UK also provides in the City of London ‎the capital of the eurozone, which makes the giant debt machine go round. The British economy is growing and we buy a lot of cars and much else from Europe.

What will it take to wake up the countries of the EU? Their post-1989 experiment is in a terrible state, with the euro and open borders proving to be a disaster. They need a bit of humility and a rethink.

I don’t normally go for “we buy lots of cars from them!” style arguments, but it is not wrong, and everything else that Martin says is persuasive.

If anything, the trouble is that our goodwill and cooperation is too easily taken for granted by our partners. We tend to enforce EU laws and directives while other countries skirt, bend or flout them. We generally honour our obligations with little fuss. And so we should, when that behaviour is equally reciprocated. But right now that reciprocity is missing.

The fact that Britain will be a supplicant during the secession negotiations is currently emboldening the leaders of some otherwise quite unremarkable and forgettable countries to “play the big man” and swagger around, lecturing or threatening Britain safe under the wing of Brussels. They would be advised to realise that at some point Brexit will be complete, and that future goodwill and cooperation from Britain – which many of them need – should not be taken for granted if things become too heated or punitive during the exit negotiations.

Martin notes that the shift is already starting to happen:

Away from Brussels the smart Poles have realised that Britain will remain a partner, and are talking of the UK being the key country in the defence and security space in Europe. The Germans too, seem to be waking up to the need for a different way of thinking about these questions. The conversation at a dinner I was at recently with German policymakers and business people was one of the most interesting, open and illuminating things I’ve heard all year.

But Brussels blunders on, playing its usual games, thinking it clever to humiliate the naughty British. Carry on like this and they really can get stuffed.

It is altogether time for less EU-style holding hands beneath a rainbow (which is all fake, anyway) and more good old fashioned self-interest and realpolitik. Immediately following Brexit we witnessed a number of gestures of solidarity and support from true allies outside the EU while our supposed partners and allies within dealt in condescending language and veiled threats. That alone tells us that membership of the European Union has forced us to pour time and effort into nurturing partnerships which were never natural or terribly fruitful while having to ignore closer and more natural alliances beyond the artificial construct of the EU.

But if the EU and its member states are behaving irrationally and emotionally it is only because they remain in thrall to a beguiling, powerful but unachievable vision of continental political union by stealth from which Britain thankfully escaped. Sensing an existential threat to the group delusion, other countries may naturally wish to lash out at Britain, to make us “pay the price” (and there will be a price – serious Brexiteers have never shied away from that fact).

But while this may explain intransigent or punitive behaviour from the European Union, it will not excuse such antics for much longer. The time for childish temper tantrums and playground insults is over. Voters in Britain and across Europe did not elect their politicians with a mandate to create unnecessary drama just because one country chose to reject a rusting mid-century vision of political union and peaceably extricate itself from that union. And unnecessary drama they must absolutely not create.

A deal must be done and the deal will be done. Hopefully it will be a deal based on common sense, achieving the goal of extricating us from the political union we voted to leave while taking a transitory and measured approach (through continued EEA participation) to avoid any cliff-edges or avoidable economic disruption.

But whatever kind of deal emerges, it will not be influenced by video footage of Theresa May standing alone at an EU summit, no matter how much the images may warm the hearts of strangely-motivated Remainers.

 

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