Posted by Jason O on Dec 3, 2016 in European Union
, Irish Politics
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Elites. There’s the villain of the day, the word bandied about by both the hard right and the hard left to signify those from whom all woe emanates. It’s a nice handy shorthand, and works everywhere. In Trumpian America, Brexit Britain, Le Pen’s France, Paul Murphy’s Ireland. If we could only get rid of elites, sure, wouldn’t we be in clover?
Yeah. I’ve yet to find a definition of “elite” which has common agreement. Is it the mega-rich? Not if you look at who just got elected to the White House on a Down-With-The-Elites platform. Is there anyone who thinks Donald Trump and the Republican congress is going to dismantle capitalism? Even his supporters don’t expect that.
Surely, if it were a revolt by the poor against their economic betters then Jeremy Corbyn would be topping the poll? Or the alphabet left in Ireland would be at least bumping around the same 25% in the polls that the distinctly counter-revolutionary Fianna Fail and Fine Gael each command? Marine Le Pen is certainly more economically left wing but even that’s more to do with populism than a dismantling of capitalism. Nigel Farage is a former City of London trader. The same struggling white working class who elected Trump also elected a majority Republican congress, a party that has systematically and unashamedly tried to dismantle the modest US welfare system.
Sure, you can point at Davos and Martha’s Vineyard and Blair and Clinton types all meeting in pretty salubrious surrounds, and of course the sharing of wealth is an issue.
But the reality is that when many talk about the elites they are talking about a group, even a class, that they say is not just economically but culturally apart.
Look at the breakdown of who voted Trump. 53% of white women voted that he was closer to their values than an actual white woman. 29% of Latinos voted for him. They saw something in him that they couldn’t see in Hillary Clinton. Was it that she represented some sort of elite disconnected from their lives?
Let’s look at this elite. Who are they? They’re pro-immigration, more secular than not, internationalist, pro-free trade, socially liberal, economically centrist.
Against them, we’re told that the “ordinary people” are nervous if not openly hostile to immigration, traditionally religious, nationalist and suspicious about it, against free trade and economically in favour of both lower taxes and higher spending.
The problem with the disconnected elite argument is that when you trace it through history, the liberal elite are right more often than they are wrong. It was the unrepresentative elite who pushed for an end to slavery. Votes for women. Desegregation. Indeed, all three were condemned at the time as being lofty interference from on high by pointy-headed intellectuals in their ivory towers. Desegregation was forced on the southern states of the United States almost completely against the democratic wishes of the people of those states. The fancy-pants liberal elite literally sent soldiers into those states to enforce elitist liberal laws that black children could attend the same schools as white children.
Take our own country. A liberal elite here scrapped the marriage ban in the civil service in a time when Fianna Fail had a motion at its Ard Fheis suggesting that married women in work were unfairly depriving others of work. Homosexuality was decriminalised without much national debate, with no party of significance taking a stand against, despite the fact that there probably was a significant minority opposed.
Having said that, our own constitution has probably helped in this regard, in that many changes on everything from the special position of the Catholic Church to divorce to marriage equality to the death penalty all had to go before the people. But movement on all were started by a small liberal elite whose views eventually became a majority view.
Across the west, the liberal elite has been right more often than it was wrong. It championed international cooperation on security (NATO) and economic prosperity (the EU) and on trade (the WTO). It pushed for the sanctions that toppled apartheid.
But more than anything else, it did details. That’s what made it work, and now threatens it.
The liberal international elite was the force that patiently negotiated the compromises that let an Irishman work in Estonia, or a Japanese car be bought in Belmullet. They negotiated the agreements that lets planes cross from one jurisdiction to another, using the same air traffic control protocols. That lets a man in Dublin buy insurance in Tokyo to safeguard a container being shipped to Helsinki.
Rail all you want about the WTO and NATO and TTIP and faceless international bureaucrats, but there are mortgages in Cork getting paid because a product shipped from Cork can go on a shelf in Beijing or Boston. It’s the elite that put those deals together.
The alternative offered by almost every opponent of the elite is to regard a slogan as a policy. Scrap NAFTA. Take Back Control. Build the wall.
Last week, a movie, “Arrival”, came out. It’s about a group of elite scientists desperately trying to communicate with newly-arrived vast alien spacecraft whilst shock-jock DJs are whipping up mobs to attack the alien ships under the slogan “Save our species”.
It’s a curiously appropriate metaphor for where we in the west find ourselves today.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 30, 2016 in European Union
Say what you will about current French President Francois Hollande, but he is solid on two things. One is France’s role in NATO, and the defence of Europe, and the other is fighting Islamic extremists across the world and especially in Africa, where French troops have been deployed by him.
I bring this up because of the serious possibility that the second round of the French presidential election next year may offer the choice of two pro-Putin candidates. Two candidates who see the Kremlin not as a threatening meddler in the affairs of the US and Europe, both physically and through media manipulation, but as a wronged victim.
Two candidates with less than enthusiasm about NATO, which has provided this continent with security since 1949.
Two candidates who, if the phone call came from the President of Estonia begging for help from a Russian invasion, may refuse to answer the phone, or give mealy-mouthed support but not contribute France’s military might to the defence of its partners.
France is one of the great nations. It is also a nation whose very soil is soaked in the blood of foreigners who gave their lives both defending and liberating the country. If there is one nation whose honour is tied up in the defence of the weaker nations from external aggression, it is France.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 26, 2016 in European Union
On May 7th of next year, Europe’s golden age of peace and prosperity could come to an end, as France votes in the second round of the presidential election.
Now: let me be clear. This is not hyperbole. In both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election the progressive side of the argument laid it on thick. A vote for Trump or Brexit meant catastrophe, disaster, chaos. The voters didn’t believe it and they were right. My side were so hysterical at times that even if every thing we said had a grain of truth, and most of it did, we were left looking ridiculous after the result.
I’ve no doubt Brexit will still hurt the UK more than help it, but the UK will get by somehow. Trump is a different beast altogether, in that nobody (including, I suspect, the president-elect himself) knows quite what to expect. But whatever happens, it isn’t our problem to solve. Only Americans can do that.
But that leaves Le Pen and France. Watching Andrew Marr question her about remarks her father made 30 years ago about the Holocaust makes me fear that once again the liberal media don’t get it. The public don’t give a shit about what her father said. They care about whether she is talking about things that worry them in a a language they understand, and the answer is yes. Call her all the names you want: a Nazi, a racist, a fascist…it doesn’t matter. As with calling Trump a pervert, a racist, a misogynist, those labels are only cared about by people who aren’t going to vote for her anyway. She’s got the racist vote locked up, and knows it, and is going now for people who would never vote for her father but might vote for the pro-Israel pro-gay rights pro-choice Le Pen. The Le Pen who seems to have an economic vision where the political establishment has no answers but paralysis.
It’s that vision that should worry us. It’s very simple. France first. In jobs, investment, trade, she wants to raise protection against competition from foreign products and labour. It’s a very clean, simple message to sell. If you’re a farmer, the idea that your products on the shelves will be made more competitive because everybody else will be heavily tariffed or even barred. That you won’t have some Pole or Spaniard competing against you for a job. That she will return a New Franc that will be competitively devalued, a currency and a national budget under the control of the French and not some bureaucrat in Brussels or Frankfurt.
And that’s even before she starts rounding up the dark faces on the streets that scare you when they have a rucksack.
Taken at face value, it’s a very attractive proposition for many.
But as with pretty much every proposition put forward by the populist left or right, it refuses to face up to the complexity and integration of modern life.
For a start, France leaving the euro, which she has proposed, will break up the EU as anything other than a nominal entity. A France that devalues sharply will force Spain and Italy to do the same, and with France, Spain and Italy out of the euro it is the Deutsche Mark in everything but name. A sharply appreciating euro will destroy Germany’s exports, and coupled with French tariffs will almost certainly trigger retaliation protectionist measures. With that the single market is dead.
From an Irish perspective, by the way, the question will be asked. If there is no European single market, why would major exporters want to be based on a small island in the Atlantic?
Yes, we have to rely on France’s mainstream politicians to put up the defence, but given how that fared in the UK and US it’s not hopeful.
Assuming Italy doesn’t disintegrate politically and vote to exit the euro before May, France is it.
The front line.
France is where a Europe of free movement and cooperation and prosperity unknown in this continent’s history could come to an end. The freedom of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania hinges on how the people of Brest and Toulouse vote. If they vote for a woman who thinks that Putin is the victim and NATO a plot by the Baltics to intimidate Russia, we may well see the flickering light of free nations extinguished once against on the south coast of the Baltic sea.
May will decide what you tell your grandchildren, of a Europe free for all from Tallinn to Galway, or a forgotten backwater of small nations squabbling in an economic quagmire, shivering behind choking protectionism and border controls. A quaint place that once mattered, but now with our children scrabbling on the streets of once great European cities for coins scattered by Chinese tourists.
At its heart is the belief that things are terrible and can’t get any worse. It’s a belief that should be moronic to anyone with any knowledge of European history. This continent wrote the textbook on things getting worse.
Step up onto the bridge overlooking Birkenau’s entrance and see where the trains were unloaded, and tell me it can’t get any worse than it is now.
It can’t happen here?
Funny, I remember when Brexit and Trump couldn’t happen either.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 18th July 2016.
Writing on social media last week about the Nice attack, the conservative commentator John McGuirk remarked that “at some point soon, people are going to say “you know, we tried the nice way. We tried tolerance. We tried being understanding. Maybe it’s time to give the crazy guy a shot at it.”
It’s hard to dispute the logic of his argument, given the rollercoaster of the last 12 months. From Trump to Brexit, we are witnessing what some are calling “post-truth” politics but what I prefer to term The Right To One’s Own Facts. The most disturbing aspect of the Brexit debate for me was the willingness of voters particularly but not exclusively on the leave side to casually dismiss facts which did not fit with their worldview.
But what should really alarm us is that there now seems to be substantial numbers of voters who choose to vote recklessly on the basis that “sure, it can’t get any worse, can it?” There are literally millions of people voting for Trumps, Farages and Erdogans. It can always get worse.
In 1979 the trades unions brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government because they thought he was too right-wing. Think they were still applauding themselves for that act after ten years of Mrs Thatcher? Reckless voters keep thinking that they can’t break the system, even when they pretend they want to.
But they do want to break it, some say. Why shouldn’t they? They’re disengaged. Except they’re not. They are completely engaged by other taxpayers through the state. It often provides their dole, their healthcare, their housing, their kids’ education, all funded by the taxes of voters whom they themselves seem to hold in contempt for being “an elite”.
The welfare state isn’t some form of natural fiscal phenomenon. It’s a decision by voters collectively to provide what is, in many instances, a form of nationalised charity. Sure, get insulted all you want at that definition, and talk about entitlements and rights, but bear in mind that whilst all of us, in every class, cannot avoid paying some tax, even if it is just VAT, some pay far more into the pot than they draw out, and others vice versa. You know where the poor are disengaged properly? Venezuela. When you can’t even find toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Disengagement? That’s abandonment by the state, and it isn’t happening here.
The other awkward reality about reckless voters is their contribution to the rise of the hard anti-immigrant right in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What do these countries all have in common? How about, in one study after another, they collectively have the highest standards of living as nations in the world, which actually means in human history. So what’s their gripe? How disengaged are they? Is their broadband speed letting them down? Not getting enough time to play Pokemon?
What unifies Trump voters, Brexit voters, far right and far left voters? For some it is simple racism. We seem to believe that racism is no longer possible, but is merely a symptom of some other underlying cause. But guess what? Some people just don’t like people who are a different colour or creed. It doesn’t matter why, we just have to ignore them because their opinions are irrational and listening to them about the direction of society is like listening to Jimmy Saville about child protection protocols.
But I would suggest that the racists are a minority, and the real motivating factor for many of these voters is the speed of change, and that’s a big problem. Yes, immigration transforms societies, but so does technology. The speed of transport has sped up immigration, but it has also sped up shipping times from the cheaper labour less employment rights factories of China and thus made off-shoring jobs much more viable. How do you stop that?
The Trumps and the Le Pens can stop immigration, and erect walls, both physically and tariff. But they can only alter the speed of change by actually withdrawing their respective countries from the globalized economy, which has all sorts of consequences from labour shortages to the price of food in the shops.
For me, the greatest reason why we should ignore reckless voters is their belief that complexity can be removed. That “take back control” or “just send them all home” is an actual solution. This is using a match to see if there is any petrol left in the drum stuff, and it must be opposed.
Of course, all that assumes that a majority of voters will vote in a non-reckless way, and that, in the age of Trump, is a hell of an assumption to make. Just look at the Erdogan of Turkey.
In 1932, in Germany, 52% of voters voted for either the Nazi party or the Communist party. Many of those same voters would have to wait for 17 years for another free election, and only after their country lay literally in ruins and under occupation.
It is very possible for voters in a democracy to vote to abolish themselves. Reckless voters have a right to be heard. But they don’t have a right to grab control of the wheel of the bus and take us all down with them. Nor are we obliged to let them.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 20, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
On my desk, as I’m writing this column, is a small EU flag on a stand. It’s typical of the overpriced tat on sale on and around the tourist devouring gravitational black hole that is the Grand Place in Brussels. No self-respecting EU official would waste their money on rubbish like this. And yet I spent mine, and it sits on my desk, meaning something to me, a symbol of an almost lifetime of belief in not just European integration but an actual United States of Europe. It’s that belief which is what makes this particular column so hard to write.
Last week there was a debate about the European Commission insisting that the Irish government had no choice as to whether to levy a water charge or not. That it was EU law, that our derogation was over, that was that. Now, as it happens, I believe in water charges. Clean, safe water is a precious commodity that costs money to deliver to our homes, and should be treated as such, and that means putting a value on it. People respect something far more when they have to pay for it.
But a question niggled in the back of my mind. Why is it Brussels’ concern whether we charge for water or not? We signed up for the water framework directive, but the bigger question is why does our system of water supply funding matter to Brussels at all?
Defenders of the directive will say, quite fairly, that if you sign up to something you should carry it out. They also raise the question of why we sign up to some of this stuff in the first place. These decisions are not forced on us by Brussels but by our own national ministers agreeing, and our national parliament not holding them to account before they do so, as say, the Danish parliament does. Indeed, Danish ministers often have to brief their parliament before they go to Brussels, and receive instructions.
It also raises the question, which seems to be regarded as heresy in Brussels, as to whether a member state can change its mind about a directive or regulation and go back to the council and say “you know what, this isn’t working. Let’s get rid of it.”
But the water directive is indicative of something much bigger, and much more troubling. The truth is, we now have a situation where Brussels has direct involvement in the finances of the member states, actually telling us what we can and can’t do with our own money.
Now let me be clear, less some eurosceptic reads this as a Damascene conversion to euroscepticism: I get why we do it. We do it because the euro, our common currency, can only work if its participant nations operate on the basis of sound finances. But that’s the problem: in order for that to happen, we have to go the full federal route, with an economic policy decided in Brussels. The problem is that there is no support for that in Europe, and so we end up, pardon the awful pun, stuck in the middle with EU.
I believe in the euro. I don’t buy the argument that the euro caused our property bubble. The fact that we complain now about the Central Bank restricting lending shows that we had the power to restrict the availability of cheap money during the Tiger years but chose not to use it.
I support a common currency because it makes a political union wealthier. Is there anyone who thinks the US would be the world’s preeminent power if it had 50 competing currencies?
But our problem is that we’re not willing to go the full route, to a central economic policy and a central treasury with Eurobonds. Without it, the euro becomes a convenient demon, for UKIP or AfD in Germany or the Five Star Movement in Italy to easily blame for problems and even failures of national policy. In short, it becomes a weapon to use against the EU itself.
The euro has made countries share power with each other, making German prosperity reliant on Greek finances, but has not given anyone enough power to actually complete the job. If a federal government in Brussels actually collected Greek taxes, and returned a block grant to the Greek government, we’d all probably be better off, including the Greeks. But that’s not on the table, and trying to put it, or something like it, on the table will almost certainly break up the EU.
The euro is becoming a scapegoat for nationalist populists to blame, either directly, as in Italy, or indirectly, as in Ireland with our fiscal treaty obligations to balance our books.
I voted for both the Maastricht criteria and the Fiscal Treaty because I wanted to restrict the ability of Irish politicians to recklessly abuse the national finances. But instead we have created an unforeseen consequence, where rather than forcing national politicians to be honest about tax and spending, we have given them a faceless stooge to blame.
Should we break up the euro? The consequences of such an act, and the devaluation wars it would set off, are horrific to contemplate. So I honestly say I don’t know.
But I’ll tell you one thing: if the belief that it is some unaccountable thing in Brussels which is making you pay for water or queue for hours in A&E is permitted to grow, it will eventually destroy not just the euro but the European Union itself.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 15, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
If one wanted to begin the process of creating an Irish Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, one could start by adjusting a single newspaper headline.
Last week there was much on-air and online preening about how proud we were of the Irish Naval Service. The L.É. James Joyce had just returned from the Mediterranean where it had pulled nearly 2,500 people from the sea, and headlines announced the news with a hint of national self-applause.
But what if the headlines had continued to say something like “and ferried them onto Ireland to be housed.”
Imagine the popular response.
“Now, Joe, I’m not a racialist, but…our own people first, Joe…”
The naval service has a right to feel proud for doing a professional job. But let’s be clear: we as a country then hand the refugees over to the Italians and make it their problem, literally sailing off into the sunset feeling good about ourselves having done what is essentially the easy bit.
The standard alphabet left response is that we should take in every refugee who presents themselves. But even the alphabet left, far more committed to staying on the populist side of every argument than socialist principles of humanitarianism, don’t make a whole lot of noise about it. Some rending of garments, and then it’s back to the more comfortable territory of demanding free stuff paid by people with twirly moustaches and top hats.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, called last week for the creation of an EU city in North Africa to house refugees. Orban has taken, at times, a populist line against refugees, including moving a referendum on the EU’s refugee resettlement policies which he will almost certainly win.
I’m not a fan of Orban, but I’ll tell you two things about him. One, he’s not the most right wing leader in Hungary. That would be the third largest party, Jobbik, an outfit that likes uniformed marches and casually talks about drawing up lists of Jews. Secondly, despite the nasty yahoos to his right, he remains popular in the country, with his Fidesz party regularly polling in the mid-40s. There aren’t many sitting European leaders who can claim that.
That’s not to defend him. But it does raise the awkward fact across Europe that whilst we may want to help the refugees, and we do, large and growing numbers of Europeans don’t want the refugees in Europe, at least not in current numbers. Moreover, in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Hungary populist anti-immigrant parties are winning millions of voters.
Europe’s leaders are caught between a continent and a sea of human misery.
In that context, the Orban suggestion should be looked at. Not a Tony Abbott style offshore prison where people can be dumped and forgotten, but a far more ambitious project.
We should build a little piece of Europe in North Africa. Not a vast camp of tents, but a city where refugees can not only be safe but build a life. It’ll mean building schools and hospitals and roads and marketplaces, and deploying thousands of European soldiers and doctors and engineers and teachers. It won’t be cheap. It’ll probably need a bond for billions raised by the ECB, and be part of the customs union and the eurozone.
But picture the outcome. First, a place actually geared up to shelter the thousands fleeing. Secondly, a clear response from Europe: do not try to enter our continent illegally. You will be brought to the safe zone. You can leave anytime you want. But you can’t go to Europe without our consent.
Let me stress: this won’t end immigration, nor should it. Such a place would allow us to gradually process those who wish to live in Europe, but on our terms. The children there would be educated as European children, working towards becoming European citizens, learning European values, and studying in European universities. The eventual goal would be perhaps a new Beirut as it used to be, a bustling place of business and trade, a gateway between Europe and its neighbours, where businesspeople and students and even tourists legally travel to Europe and live in Europe but feel at ease going back and forth.
And those refugees who don’t want their children sitting with Christian or Muslim boys or girls? Or deny the Holocaust? Or insist on the burka? There’s the gate. Keep walking. You wouldn’t like Europe anyway. Sure it’s full of Jews and gays and strong women.
It’ll need to be run by someone with administrative experience, is pragmatic and middle of the road, a good European, and knows about divided communities. I can think of a chap who drinks in Fagans who might be up to the task. Or that posh English mate he used to knock around with.
A fantasy? Perhaps. But so was Brexit, ending apartheid, the Berlin wall falling, a black president in the White House, Trump. We live in times of breakneck change.
We keep demanding that “the EU” do something about refugees. There is no EU, only EU member states. Individually, EU states can’t solve the problem, and may destroy themselves politically trying, as Angela Merkel has discovered despite her enormous courage.
The Orban proposal is a European response to a European-wide problem. It deserves serious consideration.
Posted by Jason O on Sep 25, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.
Twitter lit up last week, as it is wont to do, over the news that Hungary and the Czech Republic have called for a European army. Sorry, when I say Twitter, I don’t mean the 80% of Twitter that knows what a Kardashian is, nor the 18% that knows what a Cardassian is, but the 0.2% that worries about stuff like European defence. And that’s being generous.
For the political nerd and certain dog-whistling newspapers of the hard right in Britain, a European Army is a cross between the Loch Ness monster, a yeti, and a credible explanation as to what the hell the TV series “Lost” was actually about. It’s elusive, fascinating, and guaranteed to stir up heated debate on all sides of the argument. It allows our now departing British friends to put on a quite spectacular display of political schizophrenia, going from “Vote Leave because the rest of Europe wants a European army” to “See! Now we have left we can’t veto that crowd creating a European army! We told you!”
In other words, something for pretty much every voice inside the head of your average UKIP member.
From the Irish perspective, we get to do the usual “Down with war, up with peace” thing whilst ignoring the fact that if we hid any further behind NATO we’d all be living off the coast of San Diego. Not to worry: the last time we liberated a beach it was in Wexford for Steven Spielberg. The rest of Europe has never regarded us as one of the “we stand with you” nations. We’re more of a John Hurt in “The Field” operation, stealing ham from a sandwich and then protesting that we didn’t do anything. We don’t conquer other people, we don’t defend them. Nothing to do with us.
Which is fine, there’s something in the European army debate for everyone as long as you accept the fact that discussing “Lost” is more likely to lead to a satisfactory conclusion than a European army debate ever will.
The Hungarians and Czechs were responding to an initiative by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative (the title refers to her status, by the way, not any state of narcotic substance use) to begin work on EU military structures. Now, if talks and initiatives about European defence actually counted as military capability, Europe would have the equivalent of a Death Star hovering over the Kremlin. But they don’t. The reality is that all Europe really does is talk about defence and design new logos for yet more defence bodies to talk about defence. But if a couple of thousand tonnes of Russian steel came lumbering over the Finnish or Estonian border, those European defence initiatives wouldn’t count for squat.
Well, maybe that is slightly unfair. The European Defence Agency does quietly work away on those technical things that matter, like research into drones and trying to get Europe some sort of coordinated air transport capability. But the actual shooting at Russians as they fight their way through the streets of Talinn? That’s NATO or to be honest, the Americans we’re relying on, which, whilst watching The Big Giant Loud Blonde Head running for the White House should really make us take this whole defence thing much more seriously.
The primary reason we won’t see a European army anytime soon is because nobody is really willing to die for Estonia, other than maybe Estonians and their near neighbours. Create and fund (there’s the tricky bit) a standalone volunteer European army, made up not of Irish or German soldiers but European soldiers who just happen to be Irish or German, and that might be a different story, but that isn’t going to happen any day soon. We can’t even get Europeans to agree on taxing companies we all say we want to tax.
If you want to know why all this latest guff won’t lead to anything tangible, consider this:
There is currently in existence a detailed plan to create a European army.
It’s a very detailed plan which proposes the creation of a common European army, funded from a common budget. It lists out how many interceptor fighters should be in each squadron. It permits the European Defence Forces to recruit in the member states. It allows for conscription of males between certain ages. It bars member states from recruiting for national forces except in very limited circumstances, mostly to do with defending overseas territories.
It is so detailed, in fact, that it even has a section on the tax arrangements of military canteens and restaurants.
In short, it has all the things Sinn Fein, the Daily Mail and the alphabet left warned you about. As someone who supports a common European defence, I got giddy with excitement as I read it, and even more excited when I realised it had been agreed to by German, French, Italian, Dutch and Belgian ministers, who had even drafted a treaty to implement it.
I mean, a treaty! How more serious can you be?
Any day now, right?
The proposal was called the Pleven plan, and was announced in 1952, finally being rejected by the French National Assembly in 1954. Sixty two years ago.
European Army? Yeah, right.
England, 2023. Five years after Brexit.
The roaring and shouting after England and Wales left the EU was loud and colourful. A generation of politicians who had supported British membership found themselves demonised as Quislings and traitors, and quietly retired from public life, and every ministerial speech was peppered with Eurosceptic hyperbole as the new regime took office.
Over time, however, the EUphoria died away, as the government and the tabloids turned to the issue that had carried the Brexiteers over the line: Immigration.
The new government moved quickly to deliver on the issue. Tough new visa requirements were in place, and whilst existing legal residents were permitted to stay, they could not be joined by relatives, and so as many returned to their home countries they were not replaced. The teary-eyed right-wingers who had choked back stories of Commonwealth citizens (“our kith and kin”), every one of whom seemed to be related to a spitfire pilot, being put behind queues of stony faced Poles, suddenly and bizarrely seemed to go cool on Pakistani and Indian and African immigrants having easier access. The number of people legally entering the UK dropped significantly.
The tabloids, robbed of the EU pinata to mercilessly beat, but knowing that immigration was still the story that stirred the loins, turned their attention to the government. the new line was that the government was full of mealy-mouthed liberals letting people sneakily in. That and the EU was actively conspiring to flood England with immigrants through Ireland, Scotland and Calais, of course.
The government, like all populist governments, was as concerned about how to be seen to be doing something as actually doing something. The truth was that the immigration controls were not delivering the rewards the tabloids had promised. Housing was not cheaper, as fewer immigrants had only freed up the very lowest in housing quality, which in turn had forced landlords to improve the quality but raise rents to pay for it. The vast numbers of manual workers needed to fund large scale building of houses didn’t exist, resulting in builders struggling to find the skilled labourers to do the job. The Irish workers that they could source, due to a common deal with Ireland, expected top dollar, and all that contributed to higher costs and thus higher prices. The NHS and other public services were struggling under staff shortages as it emerged that many of the hard-pressed English white working class didn’t actually have the skills to fill the jobs. But the government was too scared to issue too many working visas to fill those jobs, as the tabloids, bereft of the EU to blame, had now doubled down on ANY immigrant “depriving” Brits of a job. Politically, it was better to leave those jobs empty.
With the labour shortage feeding into wage rises, inflation, public service waiting lists and rental rises, the Government decided to go fully for immigrants as the problem.
The launch of the Immigration Police was a huge media managed affair. The logo of the new force, a union flag in the shape of a shield, was emblazoned on the fleet of shiny new vehicles and officers unveiled by Prime Minister Johnson. The helmeted, combat trousered police, who vaguely resembled the baddies from “Blake’s Seven” but with huge union flags on their shoulders, grinned at the prime minister’s jokes about them “scaring the hell out of him”.
As with everything in post-Thatcher Britain, the Immigration Police was a private for-profit tendered service, the contract held by a huge security company with a very mixed record.
Within months of commencing operations, the IP was the new source of fury for the right-wing tabloids. The fact that a significant number of IP officers were themselves illegal immigrants who had gotten through the cut-price vetting process resulted in the resignation of the Home Secretary, and the tender holder announcing that it could no longer fulfill the contract under such arduous “red tape”. The subsequent taking of the company to court by the Home Office resulted in even more embarrassing revelations including the fact that some immigrant IP officers from some countries seemed to be using their very considerable IP powers to pursue vendettas against people from other tribal areas or religious groups.
The Government was forced to introduce emergency legislation to nationalise the whole IP organisation, making it a state agency. This, as it always seems to do, then sent costs through the roof as the new IP management, made up of Home Office staff, were more than happy to spend millions on vetting.
Three years after its initial launch the IP had been “purged” of illegal immigrants. It was also running hugely over-budget, requiring cuts elsewhere to feed its huge fiscal maw, and led by a very media savvy chief executive who fended off any attempt to trim the rapidly expanding budget with tales of hordes of terrorists and illegal workers sweeping towards virginal England. The IP’s media budget was very substantial.
Aside from its internal chaos, the daily operations of the IP became problematic. Although initially popular, with black cab drivers beeping their horns at speeding IP vehicles, sirens flashing, off to defend England, the reality of the organisation’s nebulous task began to take the shine off rapidly. The new Home Secretary, of Asian extraction and from the hard-right of the party, was adamant that the IP must be visibly active which led to huge poster campaigns asking the public to cooperate. One stand-up comedian likened the posters to the “Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!” posters of the 200oAD comic character Thomas De Torquemada. The IP also started setting up random street checkpoints, which began to jar even with the most right-wing of blazer-wearing golf club Mosleys. Camera footage of IP officers singling out dark-skinned pedestrians alone caused a row, and in one case a riot where a number of black and East Asian youths proceeded to beat up the aggressive IP officers. This resulted in the local police having to intervene.
Indeed, relations between the IP and the regular police were strained at best. In London, where the Metropolitan Police had made a serious effort to diversify its membership, the jarring approach of the IP did not go down well. The commissioner complained that the IP was stirring up racial tension in areas where painstaking work by community police officers had finally started to show results. One incident in particular, where two Metropolitan Police officers challenged an overly aggressive IP checkpoint resulted in the IP officer in charge demanding that one of the officers, who was black, prove his legal status in the country and then attempted to arrest him. The situation, again all over the web, was only contained when the Met officers called in an armed SO19 unit and arrested the entire IP patrol to loud cheering and applause from local youths of mixed races.
The Home Secretary was furious. The commissioner backed her men, and when the Home Secretary threatened to fire the commissioner, the commissioner revealed that she had a special investigation unit looking into penetration by the far-right of the IP. She revealed taped footage from an undercover officer of IP officers, who were revealed to be members of various white supremacist organisations, joking and laughing at how they were paid “by one Paki to fit up other niggers and Pakis”.
The Home Secretary was gone by teatime.
Another source of problems for the new Home Secretary was how to verify someone was legally resident in the UK. His officials excitedly dusted off an old file: a National Identity Card. Not surprisingly, he balked at the idea, but the issue was unavoidable. In order to avoid charges of racial profiling, IP checkpoints were now stopping and demanding identification from every person, regardless of age, colour or gender. Many people were now carrying their passports with them everywhere, and the grumbling was beginning. In time honoured fashion, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, having demanded a “get tough crackdown” on immigration, now did a u-turn and started banging on daily about the IP being a version of the Gestapo harassing ordinary Brits going about their business.
The Home Secretary stared blankly at his officials. Polls showed that middle England was vehemently against having to carry “papers”. Is this what we fought a war for? On the other hand, without some form of verified state backed ID, his officials said, there was no way for the IP to check on-the-spot. Unless, we created a national biometric database, one junior official mused. Then we wouldn’t have to carry ID, just be scanned. Of course, we’d have to scan the entire population.
The Home Secretary died in the ambulance on the way to hospital. The coroner said it was a massive heart attack.
The huge camp near Dover (christened Camp Boris by the media) was also the problem of the new Home Secretary. Since Brexit, the EU had decided that illegal immigration into the UK was not its concern, and so turned a blind eye to migrants making their way across the channel. France had announced that the UK could do its own border control in Dover, and closed its facilities in Calais, the infamous “jungle”. French, Belgian and Dutch police and coastguards were told that preventing “outflows” were not a priority, to the extent that many boat owners on the continent were taking a few quid for carrying illegals to the edge of the UK’s territorial waters and letting their passengers take their chance in a rubber dinghy. All to huge protests from the British ambassador to the EU who was embarrassingly filmed being kept back by security personnel as he tried to lobby ministers attending an EU council meeting.
Huge resources were being deployed along beaches in the south east to capture illegals, and send them to the camp, which now had over 9,000 residents. The decision as to who should run the camp had turned into one of the finest games of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel in years. The Prison Service had said that they were a criminal rehabilitation service, and weren’t suited. The NHS said they weren’t a prison service. The local police said they would have to take “Bobbies off the beat”, and the chief of staff of the army had threatened to publicly resign if the army were told to run the camp. So, it had ended up with the Immigration Police, whose CEO had happily accepted the task then submitted a huge budget supplement request which took the IP’s annual funding clear of the Metropolitan Police’s £3.7 billion.
With scandals within the IP, the ongoing battle to secure the coast (most of the Royal Navy, including the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, were on coastal patrol), the growing unhappiness with the overt and hostile street presence of IP officers demanding “papers” on street corners, the outbreak of riots in Camp Boris was not welcomed by the Government. The IP officers, even with riot gear, struggled to maintain order in two days of rioting. On the third day a large group of young Syrian refugees charged the perimeter, panicking a member of one of the IP armed response units. Without authorisation he emptied his full clip into the crowd, killing nine refugees and wounding another four. Three children were killed in the stampede from the fence. The image went worldwide, and resulted in massive demonstrations against UK embassies.
The Home Secretary, who had only authorised the creation of armed units of the IP three months earlier, in response to stories of some refugees being armed with knives, handed in his resignation to the Prime Minister later that day. The PM was harangued in the house, and in a fit of pique that was typical but would come to haunt him, announced that he would be his own home secretary.
He arrived down to the camp bearing his name just as another riot was getting into its own. Outside the camp, hundreds of young and middle-aged white men, members of the self-appointed United Kingdom Defence Force gathered with baseball bats and crowbars, telling the gathered media they were there to back up the IP and “back Boris”. Another crowd, larger than the UKDF, were made up of anti-fascist protesters who roared abuse at the first crowd.
When the PM arrived, the UKDF cheered and chanted his name, prompting him to wave just as another surge broke through the IP line and charged towards the main gates. The UKDF surged forward before breaking into a Braveheart-style run at the main gate of the camp. The two groups met. The UKDF, unlike the refugees, were armed with a variety of weapons and ploughed into the refugees.
The PM’s bodyguards shoved him into his car, screaming at the driver to get them out of there, all live on TV as a huge fight broke out around them. The IP commander, totally overwhelmed, ordered the use of rubber bullets and water cannon, all aimed at securing the main gate. Some of the baton rounds hit UKDF members, who, seeing the IP firing at them, were overcome with the fury that can only come from experiencing treachery, and attacked the IP vehicles.
The news of the surge at the gate of the camp swept through the camp, encouraging thousands more to rush the entrance, overwhelming the IP officers at the door.
On his way back to Downing street, the PM gave the order for the army to be sent in with more baton rounds.
By evening, order had been restored, but half of the residents of the camp had fled. 39 people were dead, a mixture of refugees, children, IP officers and UKDF members.
In Munich that night a far-right group held a rally, holding aloft images of the British prime minister as they sieg heiled in support.
Watching this on TV, the PM had the good grace to vomit.
Europe. The near future.
The Russian invasion of Europe has been defeated.
An EU safezone holds millions of refugees in North Africa.
In Brussels, a woman directs the continent.
To some she is a saviour.
To others a tyrant.
To one man, a target.
You can download a PDF of “Fulcum” below. Enjoy!
Posted by Jason O on Aug 29, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
The first time I ever saw a picture of a burqini, being worn by Nigella Lawson on a beach, my reaction was to wonder why I’d never heard of it before. It’s a fabulous, logical invention, especially if you’re someone like me who follow’s Billy Connolly’s observation that Scottish people in the sun start out first as blue, then white, red, then white again. The sun and I are not friends, and I can see how a person would want something like this. There’s also the fact that there’s nothing particularly Muslim about wanting to preserve one’s modesty on the beach. There’s nothing European about having to show off all the goods either, just that you have the right to if you feel you’ve got goods worth showing. For what it’s worth, a male burqini, if such a thing exists, would transform me from badly shaved bear to strange bearded whale. Either way my modesty would almost certainly be protected by averted eyes and the odd queasy stomach.
The decision by various French mayors to ban the burqini is just plain wrong and to me shockingly un-French. In short, it has been targeted because it is being worn by one particular religious group, not for any practical reason. Wearing a burqini does not affect the enjoyment of the beach by others, nor is it any less hygienic (a particularly dodgy claim) than wearing a wetsuit. This is simple straight bigotry targeted at one religion in the hijacked name of liberalism.
The veil, on the other hand, is different. It goes against a core value of European culture about face to face interaction, and is a direct challenge to that culture. In short, those who wish to wear the burqa in Europe must ask themselves does their desire to wear it trump their desire to be part of European society, because that is the choice. Indeed, perhaps it is time that Europe go even further on the veil. There are, no doubt, women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who do not wish to wear the burqa, and women in Europe who do. Would it not make more sense for both our societies and for those women themselves to live in a society that mirrors their values? I for one would have no problem swapping liberated Saudi women for their European shuffling letterbox peering counterparts.
All this raises a broader question of European values in themselves, and what values must a person subscribe to be part of European society. In Germany, France and Austria it is a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust occurred. In the past, I’ve believed that such an offence is an infringement on the freedom of speech, despite the absolutely loathsome concept of the offence in itself. But today, I’m not so sure. Would it be possible to draft a charter of civic European values that we all aspire towards, and more importantly, being opposed to them becomes a crime in itself and also grounds for denial of refugee status? Now, it’s true that going from west to east Europe gets more conservative, and you won’t get the same rights for gays in Poland that you will in Ireland, but even within that spectrum you have a set of values that are broadly transferable. No EU member state jails gays or mistreats Jews, and those are values that are a beacon of progress in other parts of the world.
But it also raises the question of whether, for example, we really want people coming to live in Europe who support the burqa? Or see Jews as less than equal, or deny the Holocaust, or regard homosexuals or women as inferior? It’s true, there are many native born Europeans who would have problems with some of those values, but so what? This isn’t an anti-Muslim charter but an anti-extremist one. But more importantly, let it be the litmus test for asylum seeking in Europe. These are the values you have to subscribe to, and if you question them, keep walking.
Immigration is a good thing, and I can see both the hijab and the burqini become part of European culture in a way that doesn’t threaten our core freedoms. I would not be surprised to see either feature on the walkways of Paris or Milano in the future, and we have nothing to fear. But the veil is different, and it has no place in a society that regards the genders as equal.
Women who are forced by husbands or families to wear the veil must be helped, and their oppressors (for that is what they are) must be confronted by our laws. Forcing a woman to wear a veil is an act of oppression. As for the women who choose to wear it by their own choice, that is their right, as it is to find a society more in tune with their values, because Europe is not that place.