Climate change

The politics of climate change

The Republican party’s campaign against nature

October 18th 2017 | Chicago | Xavier Ward

Photograph from NASA

On June 1st, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. It was not necessarily unexpected given his previous train of Obama-era policy reversals, but nonetheless his decision was met with widespread criticism from politicians, environmentalists, and business leaders around the world. Yet, his own party members have either continued to praise the decision to withdraw or remained silent on the issue.


Climate science

For the political party that has heralded global climate change as a non-issue, natural fluctuation in the climate, or – as the President has said – a “myth” conjured by the Chinese, this response, much like the President’s decision, was unsurprising.

According to Article II, The agreement aimed to keep global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels, decrease greenhouse gas emissions in a way that does not halt food production, and carve a financial pathway consistent with those aims.

Nearly all scientists – at an overwhelming 97% of peer-reviewed studies – agree that global climate change is real. Through recent research, we have been able to tie human activity and industrialisation directly to this unprecedented global rise in temperatures.

Diagram from NASA

Ever since the second industrial revolution, planet Earth has been facing the most dramatic rise in climate change and pollution that human civilisation has ever witnessed.

Now, with the new millennium’s rapidly increasing trends of globalisation and consumerism, the threat of reaching a “tipping point” caused by positive feedback loops in the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) looms dangerously close.

Since its establishment in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has continuously upgraded its synthesis of the scientific community’s opinion, most recently stating that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause” of climate change due to the anthropogenic release of GHGs.

Failing to meet the Paris Agreement’s vision could result in a range of catastrophic consequences, including failing crop yields, melting glaciers, decreased water availability, damaged coral reefs, rapid extinction, and extreme weather events.


Political fuel

So, knowing all this, why were Republican lawmakers under the Trump administration elated at the decision to withdraw from this agreement? What element are we missing from this equation of facts?

Lobbyism is the likely answer. After all, the oil industry’s campaign donations and close relationships with the GOP are no coincidence. They are the manipulators of a deliberate and long-standing strategy to undermine climate science at every opportunity, and the results thus far have been disastrous.

Yet, it was not so long ago that a Republican, not a Democrat, ran a presidential campaign with a pro-environment agenda. As The New York Times reported shortly after the president’s decision to withdraw from the accord, it was Republican Senator John McCain who had run against former President Barack Obama on a climate change platform in 2008.

Photograph from Democracy Now!

McCain touted himself as the man who stood tough on climate change in the face of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. And more recently, he suggested that America should uphold the Paris Agreement, citing the death of the Great Barrier Reef as a symptom of global climate change.

He has since been diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. Unfortunately for the 81-year-old senator and Vietnam War veteran, treatment options are limited. However, he is not alone as a Republican in the fight against climate change.

Other politically vocal Republicans – politicians or otherwise – have also articulated concerns about climate change. In March, 17 Republicans introduced a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledging climate change as a real, man-made phenomenon.

“We want the caucus to act as an ideas factory for climate change solutions,” said Carlos Curbelo, Florida Republican Congressman who co-chairs the Climate Solutions Caucus. “We will be modest at first, but I think you’ll see more and more ideas.”


International multilaterialism

Nevertheless, when Trump decided to withdraw, Republicans were largely united in their praise of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement.

When did that become a trend among Republicans? And why must Republican politicians either oppose climate change or remain silent on the issue?

When his decision was made public, Trump cited the “draconian” nature of the agreement, stating that it set in place arbitrary climate goals that hurt U.S. workers and businesses.

Photograph from C-SPAN

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the President said in his speech. He then stated that he would personally call the leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Canada to reassure his commitment to trans-Atlantic relations and tell them that he wished to negotiate a better deal for Americans.

Only minutes later, however, the leaders of France, Italy, and Germany issued a joint statement stating that the climate standards set in place by the Paris Agreement were non-negotiable.

Withdrawal from the agreement marked a victory for former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who both reportedly urged the president to withdraw behind closed doors.


Coal is doomed

The isolationist and job-centric justification that Trump gave for his decision, all while decrying the empirical findings of climate science, is in-line with much of the other rhetoric witnessed during his campaign and throughout his early days in office.

On the campaign trail, Trump gave an impassioned decree to the people of Pennsylvania that he would bring coal workers back to the mines and steel back to Pittsburgh.

The rough-and-tumble industries that built the area are now struggling, and many of the workers in the formerly lucrative industries spend their days sending out résumés rather than hauling coal or refining steel.

Photograph by Mark Lyons

Still, his lavish campaign promises struck a chord with workers seeking to remedy a dying industry. Just enough to get their votes. It’s no coincidence that Trump won Greene County, Pennsylvania by a whopping 40 points, where John McCain and former President Obama nearly tied in the presidential election.

Coal jobs are projected to their lowest numbers since 1978, and roughly 30,000 jobs have been lost in the past few years. Withdrawing from the Paris accord will not bring jobs back to these industries, and therein lies the issue with his justification for leaving.


Renewable progress

According to a survey from The Solar Foundation, jobs in the solar industry have soared in past decade, showing aggressive job growth since 2010 with around 260,000 Americans employed in that ecosystem.

The only energy industry that still employs more than solar is oil & petroleum, which constitutes 38% of the country’s energy workers.

Trump’s commitment to job growth may seem noble at the surface level, but the reality is that the industry is dying. Human workers are being replaced by machines, old methods are being swept aside by new technology, and mines all across coal country are closing.

Photograph from WindEurope

Despite the apparent facts, Republican lawmakers still praised the President’s decision to leave this historic agreement with 195 countries committed to fighting climate change together.

In the Trump era, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the archetype of the Republican establishment. He was a vocal critic of Donald Trump on the campaign trail, and even rescinded an invitation to speak at a major event in his home state of Wisconsin after tapes emerged of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and entering their changing rooms during a pageant.

However, when Trump actually secured the votes he needed to claim the office of the President, Ryan said that Trump had done a great thing for the Republican establishment by giving them control of all three branches of government.


Time is running out

Since he took office in January, the Republican establishment has grown ever more congruent with Trump’s agenda. Whether it is for fear of voter backlash or out of general unwillingness to break from establishment ideology, the GOP continues to add fuel to the fire of Trump’s rhetoric against climate science.

The result is a nation filled with people who are in denial of the facts: climate change is the greatest existential threat our species has ever faced. Politics can always change, but the environment only has one chance.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

Populism in Europe

Party for Freedom or parting from freedom?

How patriotic populism empowers authoritarian politics

March 11th 2017 | The Hague | Melih Uzun

Photograph by Getty Images

Ever since Donald Trump was elected into office, critics have been suggesting that it is an indication of the global rise of right-wing populism, with similar rhetoric set to emerge victorious in European countries as well. The upcoming elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) tops the polls, could prove to be a major trial for this hypothesis.


Islam and integration

Geert Wilders is arguably one of the most polarising figures in Holland. He is infamous for his outspoken anti-Islam views and has been a constant source of controversy for over a decade. The numerous death threats he has accumulated over the course of the years have even led him to require full-time police protection.

Besides religion, he is also often accused of inciting hatred against ethnic minorities – especially the local Moroccan community – over issues related to violence, crime, and lack of integration. In 2014, his Freedom Party held a meeting in The Hague that was illustrative of the polarising rhetoric adored by many, while leaving others trembling with indignation.

Having asked his audience whether they wanted to see more or less of the European Union and Labour Party, both questions were met with chants of “less, less, less”. He then went on to ask them whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans and – upon hearing them chant the same answer once again – ensured his supporters that he would “get it done”.

Photograph by Fabrizio Bensch

Hundreds of people filed police complaints and he was tried for charges of incitement to discrimination. Wilders was finally found guilty (but not penalised) in December – a decision which he vowed to appeal against.

Wilders enjoys the support of a substantial part of the population. However, he is also widely criticised for his evasive tendencies, for his preference of bold statements over elucidated plans (his election manifesto is just a single page), and for shying away from settings which would allow his agenda to be questioned.

He has withdrawn himself from public debate on two occasions, the most recent of which was caused by a feud with a media outlet. The hosting TV station had contacted Wilders’s brother earlier for an interview, which angered the PVV politician. Wilders, however, maintains that the boycott is a matter of principle, claiming that his privacy was violated and rejecting any allegations about him “dodging” the debate.


Make the Netherlands Ours Again

As much as Wilders is accused of being evasive towards the media, British journalist John Sweeney managed to land an invitation to interview him for BBC Newsnight. Upon meeting Wilders at the House of Representatives, he was quick to ask him a frank question: “are you going to do to Holland what Mr. Trump is doing to America?”

Wilders rejects the notion that he is merely a Dutch copy of Trump, but he has admitted that there was “indeed, a patriotic spring going on”. He considers Brexit to be a turning point, where Brits supposedly reclaimed their country “even though the political elite made sure to scare the people away from voting in favour of leaving the European Union”. The same applies to the US, where “despite all the rhetoric of the elite, Mr. Trump won the election”.

Furthermore, Wilders confirmed his admiration of Trump by stating that he hopes to “repeat the same thing, because once again, the people want to be in charge again”. According to his vision: “It’s not only America first; it’s also Holland first, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”

Photograph by Yves Herman

In an attempt to gauge his stance on threats of terrorism other than those stemming from radical Islam, Sweeney asked Wilders what the biggest loss of Dutch lives (by terror) has been in the last few years. His response was that the Netherlands have been “lucky not to suffer the kind of attacks that Germany, France, Belgium, and even the United Kingdom” have faced.

Wilders was caught off guard by Sweeney’s prompt mention of flight MH17, referring to the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, killing everyone on board. The lives of 193 Dutch citizens were lost that day, and Russia remains the prime suspect – despite denying any such allegations. Sweeney hinted at this attack to illustrate why he believes Wilders might be obsessed with “one element of the spectrum” (Islamic extremism) while ignoring more pressing issues such as “Russian fascism”.

Wilders chuckled slightly and asserted that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with freedom. Therefore, he says “the Islamisation of Dutch society needs to be stopped, or we will cease to exist”. His critical outlook on Islam is reflected in the PVV’s ideology, which is further characterised by staunch Euroscepticism and nationalism.

These ideas became apparent once again in Wilders’s rebuttal of Sweeney’s concern about slogans like America First or Holland First, which he considers reminiscent of the zeitgeist of Europe at the brink of the Second World War. Wilders dismissed this as fearmongering by politicians to distract from the establishment of “another totalitarian institution, which is called the European Union”.


Fake news and fake Parliament

The BBC journalist was clearly taken aback by Wilders’s characterisation of the EU as a “totalitarian institution”, but perhaps remarks like these need not come as a surprise from somebody whom he likened to Donald Trump – a man who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.

By his own admission, Wilders admires Trumps victory against the “political elite”. This quintessentially populist pretence of aligning with the people as opposed to the elite seems to be a part of both of their success formulas.

Experts attribute Trump’s popularity to his unconventional ways that distinguish him from the archetypal politician. Despite being a billionaire, Trump won the hearts of millions of ordinary Americans by presenting an eccentric anti-establishment alternative to the tired, old, sophisticated-sounding candidates people had grown increasingly sceptical about.

Photograph by CNN

Likewise, the fact that Wilders is one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament doesn’t keep him from condemning the “political elite”, whom he deems to be ignorant of the life of the average Dutchman. On one occasion, he even denounced the National Assembly and its MPs altogether, calling it a “fake Parliament” that does not represent the will of the people.

Wilders’s position to lecture an elected parliament on democracy is questionable at best, as he is de jure the only member of his Freedom Party, allowing him to single-handedly dictate their entire policy agenda.

This statement bears another striking resemblance to Trumpisms, and more specifically to his unfounded denunciation of various media as “fake news”. Both politicians evidently see no issue in arbitrarily delegitimising institutions such as media outlets – or even the House of Representatives.

What makes this most worrisome is that this mindset, when sufficiently empowered by populism, could lead to dangerous forms of authoritarian politics. After all, if there is any common ground between the regimes of countries like China, Russia, and Turkey, it would be their aversion to voices of dissent.


Patriotic spring or Democratic autumn?

Whilst some may argue that it is a bit of a stretch to compare populists like Trump or Wilders to real authoritarians, there is much more to it than meets the eye.

In fact, concerns that have been raised thus far are arguably just the tip of the iceberg; an investigation initiated by the Dutch Bar Association uncovered a multitude of proposals from the PVV’s one-page election manifesto that were found to be detrimental to the rule of law.

Their programme was found to be at odds with EU and International Law (including the United Nations’ Refugee Convention), as well as the Dutch constitution, as it intends to endanger freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of education, and the right to a fair trial. One cannot help but wonder if Wilders was being ironic when he named his party.

Diagram by Peilingwijzer

His disdain for the establishment runs much deeper than his attack on parliament suggested, because his objection goes far beyond feuds with fellow MPs. He has publicly accused judges and prosecutors of being politically biased against him and his party, which is a straightforward denunciation of the entire justice system and the separation of powers.

There is no apparent limit to the lengths Wilders would go to in order to play the victim of an arbitrarily defined set of forces and institutions – or rather the “political elite” – who are unanimously set on conspiring against him and his beliefs.

With just a few days to go until the elections, Wilders’s popularity in polls appears to be stagnant, but his Freedom Party may still win up to 28 out of 150 seats. The PVV is matched with the governing Conservative Liberals (VVD), who have a fair chance at retaining the largest number of MPs, despite a projected decline from their current 41 seats.

However, the sitting government is a coalition of Liberals and the Labour Party (PvdA), and the latter is set to face an even sharper decline from 38 to a projected 14 or even 9 seats. Other parties who are expected to receive a considerable amount of votes on March 15 include the Christian Democrats (CDA; ~19 seats), the Liberal Democrats (D66; ~18 seats), the Green Party (GL; ~16 seats) and the Socialist Party (SP; ~14 seats).


Europe marches on

Most mainstream parties have vowed to exclude the Freedom Party from coalition talks. This offers consolation, as it seems their vision for the Netherlands will never see the light of day.

However, given the distinctly fractured state of Dutch politics, forming a coalition without the PVV might also prove to be a challenge. Furthermore, excluding Wilders from government will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire, contributing to his narrative of fighting for the neglected common man.

This seemingly prolific narrative, as employed by Donald Trump, may pave the way to a milestone for the Freedom Party in this election, as well victories for other right-wing movements like Le Pen’s Front National. But only time will tell if this patriotic spring, as Wilders calls it – a staggering resurgence of nationalist and populist rhetoric – will lead to an actual victory in the name of freedom.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

EU Referendum

What happens after Brexit?

UK votes to leave the EU, Cameron resigns as PM.

June 29th 2016 | London | Francisco Morales & Bartu Kaleagasi

Photograph by Reuters

In the aftermath of the EU referendum that shocked the world, many are left wondering how it happened, and what will come of it.

The UK had been a leading member of the European Union since 1973, bringing both economic prosperity and global influence to the country. So how did almost 52% of British voters end up supporting Brexit, and what are the future economic and political implications?


A demographic divide

As the polls had suggested before, there was a large difference in voting patterns by age. Whilst almost 75% of young people voted to Remain, 60% of the elderly voted to Leave.

On social media, millennials have been voicing out their qualms with the way the results went down, and especially with regards to the older generation. As young voters are the ones who will face the long term consequences of this historic vote, for better or worse, they feel understandably let down by the outcome.

Diagram by BBC

However, youth turnout was also much lower than that of older age groups. Although this is not a surprising trend as far as elections are concerned, a referendum with repercussions of this magnitude should have as much informed input as possible in order for direct democracy to serve its intended purpose.

On the other hand, overall participation was much higher than in last year’s General Election, with 72% of the nation casting their vote. This was one of the highest turnouts in recent years.


United Kingdom or Kingdom of England & Wales?

Another notable difference was between the United Kingdom’s various countries and regions. Whilst England (53.2%) and Wales (51.7%) voted to Leave, Scotland (62%) overwhelmingly voted to Remain, as did Northern Ireland (55.7%).

In England, many cities including London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, and Brighton voted to Remain, whereas less urban regions were mostly in support of Leave.

EU membership was one of the most important parts of Scotland’s vote to stay in the UK in 2014, and the Better Together campaign had even used it as their main argument against Yes Scotland. Our previous analysis on the issue can be found here.

Diagram by The Telegraph

In fact, just today, Scottish MEP Alyn Smith demanded that Scotland be given the right to remain a member of the EU, parting ways with its southern neighbours in disagreement over their future. Likewise, SNP MP Angus Robertson told Parliament that they have “absolutely no intention whatsoever of seeing Scotland taken out of Europe” and that they refuse to be part of a “diminished little Britain”.

Indeed, since the UK outside of the EU is not the same country as Scotland voted to stay in, it is likely that they will get another independence referendum in the next few years. On top of this, the prospect of Irish unification has also been gaining momentum, with Sinn Fein calling for a national poll on the day of Brexit.

It seems then that the EU referendum was fundamentally a choice between (a) the United Kingdom as a leading member of the EU, and (b) the Kingdom of England & Wales. Perhaps such a constitutionally significant decision should have required a super-majority of 60%, rather than having been decided by a simple majority margin of 3-4%, vulnerable to the whim of public opinion.


The immigration question

Immigration was perhaps the most contentious and important factor for voters heading into the referendum, and one in which both campaigns intentionally misinformed the public.

Many voters, particularly in the lower-income areas, appeared to believe that a vote for Leave was actually a vote for less immigration, rather than anything to do with the EU. Yet, the actual position that the UK will take with regards to immigration is uncertain at this moment.

Boris Johnson, likely to become the next Prime Minister, suggested that Britain would only make changes in its laws and taxation, claiming that immigration would actually be left untouched. Tory MEP and Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan also echoed similar sentiments, stating that free movement of labour between the UK and the EU would be likely to remain.

Photograph by Alamy

This strikes an odd chord among both Leave and Remain voters, as it seems almost impossible that the EU would agree to give UK the benefits of staying in, without any of the obligations that come with it. Britain would be enjoying an incredibly luxurious position within Europe, without having to take on many of the burdens that other EU nations do.

It is certainly regrettable that a lot of misinformation seems to have been bred by both campaigns, and it is even more regrettable that the picture on immigration is no clearer than before. The tensions that come from immigration in the UK seem to have been rising ever since 2004 saw the enlargement of the EU, whereby many Eastern European countries joined and were thus given the opportunity to move into Europe.

This growing resentment for immigration was then substantially amplified by the Syrian refugee crisis, and many people could not agree on the difference between war refugees and economic migrants. As it stands, the statistics suggest that there has been very little correlation, if any at all, between British wages and higher levels of immigration.

However, for many, the issue is also a matter of cultural clash between western values and foreigners, which is an argument with somewhat more merit than the economic one.


Trade and finance

One of the key concerns from people in the Remain camp was how trade would continue to prosper in a post-Brexit economy.

Leaving the EU would affect trade substantially, and that was one of the main reasons why Scotland voted to remain. Excluding trade with England, the EU is one of Scotland’s two largest trading partners, the other one being the US.

Now, with Brexit being a reality, Scotland will not only call for independence, but also seek to remove itself from the arrangement of leaving the EU. Nicola Sturgeon has already entertained the idea of the former, and she has confirmed that the latter will happen in whatever way possible.

If it invokes Article 50, the UK will have to seek the advice of its best legal and financial experts in negotiations with the EU. The clause, which finds its origin in the Lisbon Treaty, triggers a 2 year period in which the member state must negotiate its deal to leave the union.

If no deal is reached within that time frame, the UK must leave the EU without any trade agreements, reverting back to WTO standard tariffs. Essentially, the economy would collapse. However, this period can be extended upon mutual agreement between the UK and the EU, so that scenario would be unlikely.

Photograph by Georg von Wedel-Goedens

Evidently, striking a deal with the EU which will please the general public is going to be a difficult task, and particularly so in a time frame of just 2 years. It is likely that the UK will negotiate to stay in the single market, much like Norway, accepting all of the EU obligations that come with it.

The United States, who had previously claimed that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” to strike a trade deal with them if they chose to leave the EU, has now softened their stance and expressed eagerness to co-operate. With trade partners like China, Britain is not limited to trading within the EU, but it is almost certain that both the EU and the UK will still need each other for economic prosperity.

Another worrying issue with the post-Brexit economy is that of the financial services industry – banks, accountants, corporate lawyers, and investment managers – all of which will be unable to provide their services to the EU without the UK’s membership. London could risk seeing its status as Europe’s financial centre be taken away by others like Frankfurt, and its global reputation be taken over by others.

Unless some sort of exemption is granted to London, Brexit presents a huge risk and danger for the same industry that provides 12% of Britain’s GDP. To that end, it is certainly no surprise that London voted emphatically to remain.


Economic depression?

It is worth noting, however, that Britain’s trading power is certainly not a small one. The aftermath of Brexit only gives evidence to such, as financial and trade markets crashed all over the world.

Most notably, the Pound reached its lowest value in over 30 years, France overtook the UK as the world’s 5th largest economy, and S&P downgraded its credit rating from AAA to AA.

Since Monday morning, the pound has continued to fall, despite assurances by George Osbourne, the Chancellor, that the economy would stabilise. The level of fear and uncertainty prevailing over financial markets has given Leave supporters further cause to pause their celebrations in the meantime. A country in isolation, in a world of increasing globalisation, may indeed find itself struggling to keep afloat.

Photograph by Reuters

Yet, some economists have spoken out against these observations and suggested that the economic effects will not be as drastic as the Remain camp makes it sound. In their view, the British economy has faced far worse in the past, and so has the Pound itself, as seen in the 1970s when it fell to a third of its value.

Reassuringly, a multitude of large firms have remained resilient in continuing to do business in the UK and braving out the effects of Brexit. This comes after a period where even HSBC, one of the UK’s most prominent banks, were in talks to move their headquarters to Hong Kong.

As it appears, the economic future of the UK and the EU may not be as bleak as some regard it, but there is no conclusive answer at this moment in time. It will depend largely on what sort of deals are negotiated, and how much international business the UK can continue to attract.


Political turmoil

Over the weekend, several anti-Brexit protests took place, with millions voicing a strong sense of dissatisfaction at the Leave campaign’s misinformation, at tabloids for their highly anti-EU and dishonest approach towards the referendum, and at the false promises of prominent campaigners.

For instance, the Leave campaign’s pledge to spend Britain’s weekly EU payments on the NHS was refuted by Nigel Farage, sparking public outcry at the perceived change of position.

Whilst it is worth noting there were very realistic and noble reasons to vote Leave, it appears that a large amount of the public were grossly misinformed on issues like immigration. Both the UK and Europe are seeing an increase in xenophobia, racism, and populism, and Brexit appears to have only exacerbated this hostility. As of last Wednesday, the police and media have reported a large spike in the number of hate crimes targeted at foreigners living in the UK, particularly in England.

Whose fault is it, however? As Krugman pointed out, it appears “the big mistakes were the adoption of the Euro without careful thought about how a single currency would work without a unified government, the disastrous framing of the Euro crisis as a morality play brought on by irresponsible southerners, and the establishment of free labour mobility among culturally diverse countries with very different income levels, without careful thought about how that would work”.

Photograph by Jeff J Mitchell

Perhaps a Remain win would have dampened criticism of the EU, but not for long. It appears that some of the long-term issues which exist as a result of the European project have far-reaching consequences that Brexit only brought to the forefront of discussion.

Inside Britain, political turmoil is afoot. Among the Conservatives and Labour, campaigning for either side of the referendum has divided the parties in two. This was clearly evidenced by David Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister, as well as the Labour Party’s coup against Jeremy Corbyn, which saw over 25 resignations and a vote of no confidence by a margin of 172 to 40 MPs.

Politicians from both camps are now treating each other as traitors to the British public, at a time when unity is most essential. As support for the two main political parties continue to dwindle in the face of modern challenges, a worrying cloud is cast over Europe.

Perhaps a new form of politics is necessary to see this wave of nationalism and rejection of globalisation through. The solution may in fact come from Britain’s youth, who have shown interest in leading a unified Europe.


Future scenarios

Since the fallout of Brexit, despite Cameron’s statement that there would be no such thing, a second referendum has been petitioned by those unsatisfied with the result, reaching over 3 million signatures over the weekend.

In media, several reports have surfaced of Leave voters who seem to be regretting their decision, many of whom voted out of protest, rather than actually expecting to win the referendum. Once again, there comes the argument that constitutional decisions should require a qualified majority of at least 60%.

Parliament is sure to be discussing these matters shortly, but developments on this front seem unlikely. As Cameron is set to step down in October, whoever steps into his shoes will seek to invoke Article 50 and start negotiations with the EU. If Boris Johnson is indeed the next Prime Minister, his over-optimism about the future, as evidenced by his latest column on the referendum, is bound to hit the brick wall of reality.

Photograph by European Parliament

On the other hand, many commentators suggest that Brexit will never actually happen, despite the referendum’s result. In that view, both the UK and the EU have simply too much to lose, and the margin was too tight for such a drastic outcome.

This points towards several possible scenarios: (a) Parliament simply votes against invoking Article 50, (b) Parliament calls for an early General Election, giving Labour and Liberal Democrats a chance to reject the referendum, or (c) Parliament negotiates with the EU, and then announces a second referendum on the precise terms of exit. In the latter case, it is likely that Remain would win by a substantial margin.

Unfortunately, direct democracy only works if everyone is well-informed and rhetoric is shot down by facts. For now, one thing is certain: the EU will continue its project to improve the lives of 400m+ people, regardless of the UK’s outcome.

Catalan Independence

Catalonia declares itself a sovereign state

The past and future of Spain’s north-eastern separatism

January 17th 2016 | Barcelona | Martin Rogard

Photograph by AFP

In recent months, the possibility of an independent Catalan Republic has been rapidly materialising.

The election of a separatist coalition by a slim 51.7% majority on September 27th was shortly followed by the passing of a resolution on October 27th, by the regional parliament, which declared “Un Estat Català Independent”, essentially declaring Catalonia a sovereign state. Growing political salience for independence has pushed political parties to form a majority coalition in the regional parliament called Junts pel Sí, or ‘Together for Yes’, which now claims it has the electoral mandate for secession.

However, although separatists won a majority of seats, they did not receive a majority of the popular vote. Due to the way constituencies are divided, just under half of the electorate actually voted for the pro-independence coalition.


Spanish reaction

In light of these developments, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy maintains that “Catalonia is not going anywhere, nothing is going to break”.

In fact, the independence resolution was immediately followed by an extraordinary meeting of the Spanish Council of Ministers, which approved an appeal to the Constitutional Court for the nullification of Catalonia’s parliamentary ruling.

In its report, the advisory body suggested that “there is sufficient legal basis” to challenge the claim before the Constitutional Court since it “disregards the core of the Spanish Constitution by declaring disobedience to the sovereign Spanish state”. Whilst such quarrel between regional Catalan and federal institutions has not been infrequent in the past, the pressure for independence has been rapidly escalating in the midst of national elections.

Diagram by The Economist

This rising tension is difficult to ignore when walking the eclectic streets of Barcelona. A couple of days ago, a middle-aged man who was standing with a separatist flag in front of the Town hall told me that an independent Catalonia had been the dreams of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but that it would now be him, his children and grandchildren who would finally see it happen.

In his mind, the current “oppressive” and “corrupt” Spanish Monarchy is fighting the same losing battle as the Spanish Empire had with its former colonies. “We, Catalans, are no different than Columbians or Cubans” alliterated the interviewee


Historical roots

When did this zeal for separatism actually begin? And why?

Well, the Catalan separatist movement can be traced back to the creation of the Estat Català revolutionary movement in 1922. Historically, Catalonia has always been a notorious critic of unitary and monarchical power, advocating for greater regional autonomy and a Republican nation-state.

When a Second Spanish Republic was attempted in 1931, the independence movement died down with the creation of the self-administrative ‘Generalitat de Cataluña’, still under Spanish authority, but enjoying unprecedented levels of self-rule. In fact, when the Civil War erupted, following Franco’s coup in July 1936, Catalonia was actually one of the strongholds in defense of the Spanish state.

As described by George Orwell, who fought in Barcelona, the ‘Generalitat’ in 1937 was a place of “no boss-class, no menial class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers and no priests”.

Photograph by AFP

Today, Catalonia remains disconnected with some of the most traditional Spanish values in its commitment to progressive politics. Such cultural differences are mirrored in their use of the ‘Catalan’ as the official regional language, instead of Spain’s ‘Castellano’.

Having won the conflict, Franco immediately reinforced national unity, thus curtailing the region’s autonomy. Under the dictatorship, separatist movements were silenced, but Catalonia remained tacitly critical.

In 1975, after Franco’s death, the proclamation of a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic sparked a revival of the independence movement, which continues to this day.


Economic considerations

Recently, ‘Junts Pel Si ’ has been arguing for independence so that Catalonia is no longer required to provide funding for other regions as part of the fiscal redistributive policies imposed by the Spanish government.

In keeping all tax revenues to itself, the Generalitat would enjoy a larger budget for infrastructure, education, and healthcare, estimated between 5% and 9% of GDP. As such, the past seven years of fiscal austerity have intensified the population’s eagerness to secede, demanding a different recipe for economic growth.

On the other hand, being a part of Spain allows it to export local products such as its ‘Cava’, a form of sparkling wine, anywhere in Spain and in the EU. Catalonia greatly benefits from Spain’s membership to the European Union, which offers low export costs, consistent tourism, and infrastructure funding to the region.

Photograph by David Ramos

As a result, the economic argument for independence is entirely dependent on Catalonia’s ability to negotiate favourable relations with the Spanish state and the EU on a bilateral basis if it becomes a sovereign state.

Such issues are reminiscent of similar conflicts in Scotland, which faced many of the same debates over the last few years. Indeed, while EU accession laws may grant temporary membership to a seceding territory, any new member must be unanimously vetted by all member states, including Spain, which puts separatists in an awkward bargaining position.


Corruption and democracy

Beside the long-term explanations for Catalan independence, it appears that the recent escalation in separatism has been catalysed by an ongoing democratic crisis in Spain, and Europe in a wider context.

Indeed, for the past ten years, the Spanish political landscape has been plagued with corruption scandals of illicit party funding, such as the infamous ‘Bárcenas affair’, tax evasion scandals, and abuses of executive legal immunity provisions. The Monarchy has also been engulfed by scandals as Spain’s former King Juan Carlos I engaged in elephant hunting in Botswana, as well as the ‘Urdangarín affair’, which found him accused of embezzling large sums of public money.

If the general lack of transparency, rule of law and accountability of public officials has resulted in great dissatisfaction for the general electorate, this has been exacerbated even further for Catalans.

Photograph by Paul Hanna

This democratic crisis can be statistically illustrated by a Transparency International report, which found that 74% Spaniards felt that their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective. An even higher percentage of people felt that from 2007-2010, the level of corruption in the country had actually increased.

According to the independent NGO, the most corrupt institution in Spain are the political parties. The mistrust of established political parties has created an electoral vacuum in Spain, which rapidly gave rise to newer parties such as the socialist and anti-austerity Podemos, and the mostly neo-liberal Ciudadanos.

Both parties call for profound political reform, and stand to the respective political left and right of the two largest parties, PSOE and PP.


Un Estat Catala independent?

The rise of new parties, coupled with general mistrust of institutions in Spain, have produced largely fragmented results in the national elections held in December 2015, crippling the ability of any party to form a coalition government.

In fact, many in Spain now believe there will a re-run of the elections, and a large portion of the electorate seems to be calling for political change.

In Catalonia, this surely means the independence movement will continue pushing forward until serious political reform is achieved.

Greece Crisis

The Greek Story in context

A look at the past and future of the EU debt crisis

August 9th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Photograph by Milos Bicanski

In the past few months, Greece has been the centre of attention of world media. As the possibility of a Grexit came closer than ever, the financial stability of the Eurozone, and arguably the world, was at play.

On the 8th of July, Guy Verhofstadt gave a passionate speech in the European Parliament, directly addressing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the height of troubled negotiations between Greece and its creditors. His speech, which went viral on all forms of social media, ended with the phrase “do it now!”.

Mr Verhofstadt’s comment pinpoints the current scene of the “Greek Story” that we’ve been witnessing. A retrospective look on this story is necessary not only to understand the present situation, but also to understand what needs to be done in the near future.


Historical context

In the 1940s, Greece suffered a civil war which ended with the surrender of the communist party.

In its aftermath, leftists in Greece were both marginalised and blamed for the war. Years later, this rejection of the leftist movement culminated in the 1967 coup d’état, led by fascist generals at the time. Their military “junta” brought about oppression, forced exiles, persecutions, and torture of communist academics, activists and cultural figures.

After the fall of “The Colonels” in 1974, there was a progressive liberalisation of the leftist movement in Greece (along with the rest of Europe) which led to the successful election of the nation’s first ever social democratic party, PASOK, in 1981.

What came next has been attributed as the root of Greece’s modern woes.

In order to gain the vote and sympathy of the divided Greek society, the PASOK government engaged in systemic clientelism and nepotism. The public sector expanded immensely, jobs became favours, and corruption became a regular part of Greek politics and civil society.

On the other hand, the Greek people developed a love-hate relationship with the government which still persists today. Most people distrusted the government and evaded taxes in some form, whilst also simultaneously relying on it for a number of services ranging from jobs to personal favours like permits and licences.

Photograph via Media Commons

One cannot solemnly blame PASOK for this, as Greece was a relatively new country with dysfunctional institutions. Yet, as the years went by, clientelism continued and became ingrained in the minds of the average Greek citizen and politician.

In 1990, Nea Dimokratia (ND), the centre-right party, came to power in government. However, instead of changing and fixing Greece’s political culture, ND feared it would alienate voters if it discontinued the “way of government” that had prevailed during the 80’s.

Thus, Greek clientelism continued untouched, passing from ND to PASOK and arguably reaching its climax in 2004 when Greece hosted the Summer Olympics. The games not only cost billions in public money, but were also the subject of bribery relating to building contracts. In Greece, many still regard it as “the games we couldn’t pay for”.


The Great Recession 

In 2009, ND’s rule came to an end. In the wake of the Great Recession, the european financial market was hit by high government structural deficits and accelerating debt levels.

The countries most affected by the recession saw a strong rise in interest rates for government bonds as a result of investor concerns about the future sustainability of their debt. Investors started to doubt Greece’s ability to repay its accumulated debt, not only because of its ever increasing size, but also due to revelations that past data on debt levels and deficits was manipulated by the Greek government.

The outcome was a deep crisis of confidence in Greece’s economy, shown by an increase of bond yield spreads and in the cost of risk insurance on credit default swaps compared to other Eurozone countries. This not only meant that the “cheap” money flowing into Greece due to its membership in the Euro (feeding its clientelistic system) could not continue, but that the government could not even borrow any more at market levels due to the recession.

Diagram by The Economist

Greece needed urgent money to pay its debt, as well as its pensions and salaries. As a result, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (together known as the Troika) gave Greece around €200 billion between two bailouts in 2010 and 2012.

In exchange, the Troika demanded austerity measures from the government which would lower its debt and reduce the size of its public sector. It also put forth the need for structural reforms in ministries and in the country’s tax collection system.

Whilst some were necessary, many of these measures were rightly criticised as harsh, and sometimes even counter-productive. In fact, the image of the Troika’s tainted black cars and suited men arriving in Athens to “dictate terms” gave them the lovely nickname of “Men in Black”.


Troika’s austerity measures 

In theory, the reforms would be a way of showing the Troika that Greece could indeed put its finances back in track and ditch the clientelist system that had reigned for decades. All in exchange for the bailout money.

However, PASOK and ND, the parties who oversaw the first and second bail-out reforms in 2010 and 2012, both failed to do their job.

From the list of Troika’s demands, Greek politicians chose the “easiest” and ergo most superficial ones to implement. They raised taxes, cut salaries, and reduced public sector jobs. The essential reforms that actually needed to be done, the ones that required time, energy and great political cost, were largely postponed.

For example, the fund that was designated to privatise many of Greece’s undervalued assets had as its goal to raise €50 billion euros. In reality, it raised little more than €2 billion.

Photograph by European Parliament

Indeed, privatisation in a country where the government is as big and dysfunctional as Greece’s can make those who benefit from the state angry, which in turn results in MPs losing their jobs. That is why it was easier to just sign in laws that reduced government expenses rather than making essential and difficult reforms.

In economic terms, this did little more than prolong Greece’s recession and had a very small positive effect on the country’s debt crisis.


The rise and fall of SYRIZA

So, after five years of austerity that hadn’t paid off, Greeks were becoming increasingly frustrated.

In January of 2015, the people elected SYRIZA, a party that vowed to repeal austerity laws, rehire public workers, halt privatisation of public assets, reach an agreement with the Troika that wouldn’t require austerity, “force” them to write down the debt, and eliminate the corrupt oligarchical business elites that dominate the Greek economy.

SYRIZA, treating the Greek people much like a naive child, made such a vast range of impossible-to-complete promises. Journalists and politicians constantly questioned the financial and political feasibility of such actions, but never got an answer. Nonetheless, their rhetoric played well with a society that had suffered five years of crippling austerity and recession.

Photograph via New York Times

After six months, the verdict is quite clear: SYRIZA negotiators botched the negotiations with their counterparts and brought Greece on the verge of a Grexit.

The government is now negotiating for a third bailout, having had to first implement capital controls and increasingly harsh measures. More importantly, the country is finally seeing some positive structural reforms, those that ND and PASOK had failed to implement for so many years.

Yet, the national debt has not been written down, SYRIZA has not reduced, but perhaps even increased the clientelistic methods used in the past, it has failed to eliminate the corrupt oligarchical business elites of the economy, and it and has eliminated some of the previous positive reforms made by ND and PASOK during the 2010 and 2012 bailouts.


The Third Bailout

The newest agreement between Greece and Troika is set to unfreeze €86 billion over three years.

The reforms in question consist of a mix of taxation, labour market, and banking sector reforms, alongside privatisation of state-owned assets (details can be found here). More industries will be subject to the top VAT rate of 23%, Greek islands will no longer have the lowest VAT rate of 6%, and corporate tax will also increase up to 28%.

Moreover, the retirement age will increase to 67 by 2022, whilst state-funded aid to the poorest pensioners will be eliminated by 2019. The reforms also aim to liberalise the labour market and, among other things, increase shopping hours and adopt “rigorous reviews and modernisation of collective bargaining, industrial action and, in line with the relevant EU directive and best practice, collective dismissals”.

Greece also has to reinforce banking governance by “eliminating any possibility for political interference, especially in appointment processes”. Indeed, the deal signals for the creation of a concrete programme for “de-politicising the Greek administration”.

Photograph via Reuters

Lastly, the most controversial aspect of the deal was that “valuable Greek assets will be transferred to an independent fund that will monetise the assets through privatisations and other means”.

The fund, with a value of €50 billion, will be headquartered in Greece and managed by Greek authorities under the strict supervision of the Troika. Of its revenue, 50% will go to debt repayments, 25% to investments and the remaining 25% to the recapitalisation of greek banks following their massive loss of capital that prompted capital controls.

The deal, however, does not mention a reduction for Greece’s unsustainable debt (a detail that makes the IMF wary). With such tough reforms ahead, Greece is heading for its third and hopefully last bailout for years to come.


The next chapter

So what happens now?

With the third bailout soon on its way, difficult times are ahead for Greece. There are two main issues now at play.

First, the anti-austerity platform will continue under other politicians in Greece, having been “given away” by SYRIZA. Greek society will thus continue to be divided between those who see austerity as the necessary evil to fight Greece’s woes and those who see it as an unnecessary punishment by Greece’s creditors.

Politicians will emerge, possibly old members of SYRIZA disillusioned with its trajectory, who will carry the anti-austerity movement in Greece and exploit the understandable anger and frustration of the Greek people.

Photograph by European Parliament

Second, Greece will have to live through a period of political turmoil until we can find a party to properly carry on the reforms of the third bailout. It is quite clear that SYRIZA does not believe in the reforms it signed up for; they will not be the ones to implement them.

Yet, despite the surrounding uncertainty, Greece has made one thing clear during these last 6 months: the will of the Greek people is to stay in the Euro and to find a solution to Greece’s financial problems by restructuring what is fundamentally wrong with the country.

Almost all Greeks agree that something has to change, yet they also agree that what happened these past five years is not the real answer. True reforms need to take place, and there is now, more than ever, both the political and social will to do them.

The question is, who is going to carry them out? The two parties who created the problems in the first place, or the party who promised its way into power just to repeat the same mistakes?

One thing is clear, as Mr. Verhofstadt said, someone needs to “do it now!”.