Austria’s Strache Resignation: An Austrian Mueller Probe?

On Friday 17 May the German Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung released a video of the far-right Austrian politician Heinz-Christian Strache planning to subvert Austrian democracy in the run-up to the 2017 Austrian general election. The secret footage revealed a conversation between Strache, later elected Vice Chancellor of Austria, and a Russian-Latvian oligarch offering to buy majority shares in the national newspaper Kronen Zeitung in return for positive coverage of Strache’s Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Within a day of the video’s release Strache had resigned as Vice Chancellor and as head of the FPÖ, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced snap-elections for September.

On 18 April this year the long-awaited Mueller Report was published, albeit its contents edited. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation details the extent to which Donald Trump benefited from “systematic” Kremlin-backed interference into the 2016 presidential election campaign, while outlining ten potential instances of President Trump obstructing justice. No action has been taken against President Trump since, with no political will to impeach him despite the ability for a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives to do so. The outcomes of “Ibiza Gate” and the Mueller Report are telling of the state of both a young and a centuries old democracy either side of the pond. Faced with the dangerous subversion of democracy posed by corrupt, far-right politicians, it is Austria which has triumphed over the supposedly resilient American institutions by quickly purging itself of what has been long considered one of the most successful populist governments in Europe.

In both instances it is political culture which allows us to understand why populist Trump reigns under an imperial presidency, while Strache and his basket of deplorable neo-Nazis are finally on their way out. Ironically for populists who platform on a nativist and nation-aggrandising ballot, the principle of national sovereignty is conveniently ambiguous when it comes to running an election. For the record, what Austria has just done in calling for the new elections is clarified that there be no foreign intervention in the electoral process. This is a primal tenet of trust in democratic processes, where the slightest whiff of foreign collusion in Austria has led to a re-run to ensure public trust in politics is maintained. Centre-right Chancellor Kurz’s decision to hold his coalition to account was the correct choice to right a wrong in the democratic process where green party President Alexander van der Bellen also spoke of Austrian citizens being able to trust their democracy. The election is not predicated on short-sighted opportunism – of the such we are all too familiar with in Theresa May’s 2017 snap-election – but on the principles of democratic accountability and trust.

The USA, however, could not be further from Austria in sharing a cross-party approach to electoral law and upholding the sanctity of an unobstructed electoral process. Following the release of the Mueller Report, a poll found that 75% of Republicans thought “Trump has been honest and truthful when it comes to the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election”, with eight in ten maintaining that Trump should not face impeachment. The extent to which American politics and society remains partisan is politically paralysing. Americans cannot have an honest conversation on the wrongs committed by the ‘Leader of the Free World’ lest they risk being ousted as an enemy of ‘the people’.

Chief amongst those critics of the American president is the national press. In a country run by an administration agitating through constructive ambiguity and the denunciation of critical voices, a confirmatory bias has emerged that pits Trump-supporters against Trump’s conceived ‘other’. The failure of the Mueller Report to bring about a change in the administration was not down to an absence of unequivocal calls for impeachment — anyone could read between the lines of what Mueller was getting at — but its mitigated reception; its watering down by Attorney General William Barr; and Trump’s docile followers, of which two thirds of Republicans intend on supporting Trump in next year’s Republican primary.

But it is Trump’s adoption of rhetoric denouncing a Lügenpresse, or ‘the lying press’, which distinguishes Trump’s America from democratic Austria. As the rallying point for parties across the Austrian political spectrum to oust the FPÖ, the work of the independent press was expressly praised by Austrian President van der Bellen, which the FPÖ wished to subvert through Strache’s dealings with a Russian backer. A non-partisan respect for the freedom of the press in Austria is clearly a signal of a healthy democracy, where the country has shunned Strache and his accomplice Johann Gudenus – puppets of a Kremlin-backed Eurosceptic, illiberal agenda.

In Austria, at least, Kurz called it on the populists: “Enough is enough.” With German comedian Jan Böhmermann widely considered to have leaked the video to the press just a week before the EU parliamentary elections, the far-right’s rhetorical success in government has been shown to be a satirical failure and a stark warning for those flirting with Brexit party-types at the polls this Thursday. As Merkel put it, these “politicians for sale” aren’t worth Europe’s time; it’s time to consider whether any ’man of the people’ will bring back democracy to the U.K. or simply undermine it.

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Notre Dame: Macron’s National Rally

The Notre Dame fire was tear-jerking. Lying at the very heart of Paris, the gutted-out grandiose cathedral remains a symbol of France’s deeply embedded Catholic roots and a symbol of French identity. The UNESCO-class gargoyle hostess is on par with the rest of our world’s shared cultural patrimony, amongst which feature the Ancient Cities of Palmyra and Aleppo in Europe’s back garden. These modern-day Syrian demolition sites don’t have the luxury of commercialised patronage, however, where the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, and even the Michelin man have given donations upwards of tens of millions of euros to Notre Dame’s reconstruction fund, all while the watchful sentinel – the Sheperd King of Rome! – sits atop his billions.

But Notre Dame didn’t just reveal the opportunist ego trips of French billionaires, but of the country’s own elitist president, Emmanuel Macron. Just like any French president over the past decade, Macron has tried to turn a public crisis in his favour. In what has been dubbed his ‘permanent election campaign’ in French political circles, Macron’s reaction to the Notre Dame fire contained as much political rhetoric as it did genuine sorrow for the partial-destruction of an unequivocally French landmark. This is important to consider as the ‘president of the rich’ continued to trail behind in public opinion according to a poll taken just days after the fire. At a 27% approval rating, it’s worthwhile considering what Macron has been up against and what he tried to address in his 16 April speech.

First thing’s first, last Monday’s speech was actually scheduled for Macron to present the findings of a deep French introspection. Sparked by the incessant yellow vests which have pitted Paris against Province (the rest of France), le Grand débat (the great debate) was launched by Macron in January to ostensibly lend an ear to the downtrodden French. The themes of the debate had been handpicked by the government, however, and were often binary in their questioning, leading to a general disenfranchisement with the top-down initiative and triggering a bottom-up, yellow vest-approved Vrai débat (true debate). In light of this prolonged crisis of legitimacy and with the outcome of the whole affair expected to fall on deaf ears, Macron welcomed the Notre Dame fire.

In the event, he addressed the nation and told them “It’s not yet the time [for the great debate].”  The disaster took precedence as a momentous opportunity to bypass the genuine concerns of the French who have mobilised within their villages, towns and cities to express their grievances in a twenty-first century Cahier de doléances.  Yes, Macron wants bygones to be bygones. So much so, he spoke of a supposedly inherent French “ability to mobilise, to unite, and to overcome” – presumably a double-entendre for wading through the civic shit storm as much as getting over the Paris-based fire. Beyond Macron’s flimsy analogy of the French as a nation of builders – pre-empting the recruitment of the French precariat to repair the boujee boutiques ruined by the yellow vests along the Champs-Élysées – he also considered Notre Dame to be a rallying point for the international community.

In the wake of the Notre Dame fire Macron claimed how the ordeal caught international attention and provoked sympathy from people across the world. Foreign leaders tweeted their condolences, notably Theresa May who had to accept Macron’s insistence on a shorter Brexit extension less than a week earlier. The phenomenon of reconciliation and profound sympathy with France around a common (Christian) tragedy has enabled Macron to briefly distract his French critics and European adversaries who consider him to be going too harsh on Brexit, and too bombastic in the pursuit of an EU with France at its helm.

Indeed, in the waning years of Merkel’s final term as Chancellor, it has been europhile firebrand Macron who has picked up the reins of the European project and who gallantly touts the benefits of an ever-closer Union. This has not been too successful, however, with Germany caught with its tail between its legs as its government must stare down the far-right as its official opposition, where Italy is run by populist clowns, and Britain is torn between whether it ever wanted to be in Europe in the first place! With the continent’s euroscepticism at the forefront of his thinking, Macron has his eyes fixed on his own brand of European populism for the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections: a ‘European renaissance’. Yet Macron has missed the beat again, failing to adopt the vernacular of the popular far-right, just as he has consciously failed to listen to his own people’s grievances.

In light of the Notre Dame fire Macron remains a fascinating case-study of Europeanism in practice. But Macron’s compunction to misinterpret what both the French and the Europeans want is a damning indictment of his elitist europhilia. This will have severe consequences as we enter the European Parliament election period: a popular referendum on the French president.

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Labour Clarity on Brexit: Corbyn Seizes People’s Vote

Jeremy Corbyn promised a glimmer of hope to a (spiritually) bereft nation last week following years of insecurity and uncertainty over downtrodden Britons’ futures. No, this wasn’t a grandiose, Momentum-esque policy reveal, but a promising olive branch to break the Brexit impasse. A Peoples Vote-inspired second referendum is now on the cards as official opposition policy as and when Theresa May’s botched deal flops once and for all on Tuesday 12 March.

Let’s be clear: Corbyn has not had a change of heart. For a hard-line left-wing eurosceptic who gave the EU a noncommittal 7/10, his manoeuvre is nothing short of political cunning. Corbs has butchered a flock of birds with one stone here: first of all, the fledgling, pro-remain Independent Group’s PR machine lies dead in the water. A week of shabby do-gooder flexing against the backdrop of Labour’s adoption of a second referendum clause has left them even more lost for words on their raison d’être. The Liberal parties (TIG and Lib Dems) have immediately lost their bravado in pointing out their People’s Vote unique selling point, and the TIG MPs are now solemnly confined to an informal Lib Dem faction reminiscing on Blairism. But they’ll get over it. Beyond them propping up the ‘Bluekip’ government, Labour can count on some 22 Liberals to support its second referendum amendment in the weeks ahead — let alone the SNP’s.


Speak of the devil. Yes, the SNP. The faux-liberal, nationalist party is unequivocally the reason for which we pain over Westminster arithmetic for every Brexit amendment. Since the SNP’s major Westminster début in 2010, the United Kingdom has been ruled under coalitions or confidence and supply-deals, bar the Conservatives stint from 2015-2017. The SNP carries a considerable amount of the blame for the fact that our governments can no longer command majorities and that every vote is so consequential in the process of Brexit. In anticipation of a Labour government and in order to win over SNP voters, Corbyn is taking a calculated risk in giving Scotland, which voted 62% remain, another say in remaining in the EU. The potential backlash of this is the alienation of leave-voting Labour voters and their flight to ‘Bluekip’ in the event of the next election, however. In any case, the SNP will be blindly signing their death wish in voting with Labour on its amendment and the inevitable vote on a second referendum later this month. According to a recent YouGov poll, 45% of Scottish respondents think Labour is right to back a new referendum, compared to 36% against. Labour’s electability seems somewhat more considerable now, doesn’t it? 


Thirdly, and lastly, the prospect of Labour electability has often rested in its ability to appeal to the business community. But with the second referendum amendment, Labour suddenly appears in businesses’ good books. In contrast to ‘Bluekip’ and its no-deal, economically illiterate psychosis, Labour appears practical by ostensibly putting the economy first. This, coupled with John McDonnell’s more conciliatory tone, where he received a round of applause from the British Chamber for Commerce last March for his comments on supplying small businesses with start-up risk capital, looks like the recipe for success to reach out to more British demographics. 


Nevertheless, if the polls are anything to go by — sorry, when were they? — Labour has a way to go yet. It remains to be seen whether Labour will be able to keep its momentum in public opinion. Labour needs to be more reactive and ahead of the game given that a snap election could always be around the corner. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that public opinion which was drifting away from Corbyn has reversed. That “Oh, I knew he was gonna pull it out the bag! I’m glad I hung in there!”-feeling cannot be ignored.

Brexitsplaining: My fatigue towards EU narratives on Brexit

European frustration towards Brexit is not aimed at the British establishment alone, but British citizens. I know this as I’ve had to Brexitsplain. The phenomenon of ‘Brexitsplaining’, the understated request to explain the manifold socio-economic, historical and political considerations behind the Brexit vote, its outcome, and whichever situation the U.K. finds itself in at any given moment since, is something which many Brits abroad have been subject to since the fateful morning of July 24 2016.

You may know that I am quite a Europhile, and a multilingual one at that. Prior to the Brexit vote that triggered this entire polemic, I was able to reconcile a complex relationship with my home country and my spiritual connection with Europe, specifically Germany, by identifying myself, as Ulrich Beck would typify, as a citizen of the U.K. first, the EU second. This proposed dual identity peacefully reconciled my nascent identity crisis. But that was then, and Brexit is now.

Throughout the course of the Brexit negotiations, political actors and media outlets have framed developments however their sensibilities dictate. Across the political spectrum, Nigel Farage and the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party call for a clean-break from the EU, while centrist Brexit-respecting MPs have thus far either rallied around Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit interpretations. On the other hand, there are those who, as Remainers or People’s Vote supporters, are adamantly opposed to both party leaders’ Brexit plans and plan to vote down any such deal, and / or table a second referendum. These myriad political camps have been emboldened in the process of May’s negotiations. Whether acting (un-)reasonably, (un-)pragmatically, or (non-)ideologically, they are legitimate political groupings which are representative of the U.K. electorate, and one should not attempt to underplay the democratic forces which are at work in our country.

While British broad-sheets and their editors attempt to deliver reports on the day-to-day developments in a reluctantly (semi-)informative tone, the same cannot be said on the continent. Along with vehement Remainers, commentators sympathetic to the EU and its membership frame the U.K. as finding itself in political chaos with more than a smack of schadenfreude. In my experience, the Francophone and Germanophone commentators argue, in black and white terms, that Brexit is an inevitable product of colonial decline and an almost deserved outcome of British ignorance towards the EU project and brazen, arrogant self-interest. But a recent visit to Brussels symbolically illustrated not just EU members’ puzzlement with Brexit, but their outright disdain for a British collective. There is often no attempt on their part to qualify the political quagmire as a product of an unprecedented democratic process which seeks to deliver the divided voting preferences towards an advisory – de facto legally binding – referendum within an adversarial, party-based representative democracy. Liberal EU member states’ oversimplification of Brexit as an existential affront to the European project seems to necessitate a swift othering, discarding and absconding of the latest Sick Man of Europe.

As I approached a news agent in Brussels and asked for a recommendation for a Belgian daily, they immediately seized the opportunity to ask me to Brexitsplain. When I failed to take the bait, they condescendingly spluttered, “There’s 27 of us and only one of you. It’s gonna effect you way more than it will us.” Left with an imprint of his wry smile, I took in the vindictive tone of the Belgian man and processed the meaning behind it. I couldn’t help but consider the use of this loose affinity that EU citizens have with the notion of the Union. Belgian first, and EU second, the jeune homme was overcome by a need to distance himself from his ostensibly cultural other. Such Eurocitizenry, van Houtum and Pijpers (2006) argue, is usually defined at the behest of the EU Commission, dependent on political expediency one year to the next, as the binary of ‘Us vs. Them’ serves to construct, or in the instance of Eurocitizens in the face of Brexit, reemphasise a social identity. As the U.K. is about to leave the European Union, the embittered tone reflected the reality of our impending departure: the U.K. would be cast out as a third-party country. It was as though we had never enjoyed a shared history, endeavouring to deliver peace in Europe and a rules-based international order. For political expediency, the United Kingdom’s forty-three year membership is being airbrushed from history before our very eyes.

European repulsion to Brexit is no coincidence. Believe it or not, Brexit Britain is not the only body politic in the midst of an identity crisis. In the era of post-truth and populism, the EU core, i.e. the founding six, are wracked by the threat of an illiberal, sovereign nation state orthodoxy usurping EU omnipresence. The previous threat of a ’Grexit’ may have subsided, but central and eastern EU members have meanwhile succumbed to an authoritarian political culture which was not properly addressed in the aftermath of Soviet dictatorship. Camps have formed within the EU, with Hungary and Poland’s governments sparring most often with the Commission by subverting its diktats. As the diplomatic cold war emerges on the eastern flank, the EU must be firm with the U.K. on its western flank in order to set an example. The Brexit theatre playing out before Europeans should intend to underscore the tumult of going it alone beyond ‘Europe’ and hastens EU slap downs to any ambitions to exit the EU from states flirting with populist euroscepticism.

The tragic consequence of Brexit is in fact the discord between the EU and the U.K. which both parties sought to avoid. Much to Europhiles’ chagrin, alienation from the Eurocitizenry is an inevitable effect, in turn much to Brexit’s beneficiaries’ gain. This bitter fallout has impacted somewhat on my own relationship with Europe. My experience is not dissimilar from others’, and is part and parcel of the Brexit process. Both parties should ensure, however, that they are not shortsighted in the Brexit process and look beyond EU membership to a shared cultural and historical heritage and our countries’ commitments to peace and prosperity prior to and beyond the EU.

Merkel – A German Tragedy

Thirteen years since her first chancellorship began, Angela Merkel has established herself as one of the greatest Chancellors in post-war Germany. Commanding the same respect endowed to the CDU party’s predecessors, notably Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the symbolic post-Nazi Germany statesman, and Helmut Kohl, overseer of German reunification, Merkel has orchestrated Germany’s hegemonic rise while bearing the weathering European tumult.

A leviathan in her own right, and outliving three British premiers in her three long chancellorships, she has rightly been on the receiving end of praise and criticism for both German and European affairs. Although typified for her pragmatic centrism, Merkel is often the first European leader to stray from normative practice, as her suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia last month illustrates.

Merkel’s reign can be broken down into three stages, indicative of her popularity and result-bearing wield of power. We are currently witnessing the tragic fall of a politician who has marred Germany’s cohesive political landscape, dragging down those of its European neighbours in the process.

Merkel – The Mädchen

Beginning in her formative-cum-debut era, as the title suggests, Mädchen – girl – was the affectionate term given to then shadower Merkel by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, indicative of her protégé status in her pursuit for power. Kohl groomed Merkel as his successor by appointing her Minister for Women and Youth, and notably Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety. Merkel was destined to hold high office, attaining the latter position in 1994 – eleven years before she entered the Chancellery.

Following her 2005 election, Forbes Magazine promptly labelled her the World’s Most Powerful Woman ( based on her vocal presence on the world stage and her attractive business reforms. Indeed, the fledgling leader took flight on her home turf, promptly reducing the unemployment rate from its 2000s high of 11.7% in 2005 to 8.1% in 2009, following which she has overseen a year-on-year decline to 5.3% in 2018. Having helped workers dodge the disastrous financial crisis in 2008, her principal tenet of austerity would set the tone for other European governments in the post-crash decade.

Merkel – The Hegemon

Merkel had secured the home front by the end of her first term. Re-elected in 2009, Merkel ruled somewhat unilaterally at times, with scant consideration for the dramatic consequences.

Following the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, Merkel out and out refused the further building of nuclear power plants, overseeing their permanent removal by 2022 to mark a

transition to green energy. Utopian and naive, this effectively prevented an increase in alternative energy resource consumption. As of 2016, 30% of German energy consumption came from renewable energy resources, while 13% was sourced from nuclear plants. A consequent thirst for Russian gas has engendered German energy security, and there will have to be a rapid turnaround in making up for that 13% shortfall by 2022.

Elsewhere in Europe, Greece had dropped into Germany’s fiscal cross-hairs. The sick man of Europe was haemorrhaging debt following the 2008 financial crisis. ‘Living beyond its means’, Greece fell victim to Merkel’s austerity dogma. In a surreal turn of events, the German parliament voted on Greece’s effective survival when the Bundestag agreed to loan Greece $86 bn in bailout packages in 2015. Germany’s economic clout reverberated across Europe as Merkel established her country’s political and economic primacy.

This power was applied in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the occupation of the Donbas region, 2013-2014. The Minsk Accords must have been Merkel’s proudest foreign policy achievements, nominally hemming in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict under the eyes of the OSCE and a host of international observers. Merkel’s humanitarianism did not stop there; she summoned Syria’s civilian victims to traverse the European continent to seek refuge in her land from 2015 onwards. However, Merkel’s good nature was to be exploited and instrumentalised in the following years, sounding the death knell for an ambitious and outward-looking Germany.

Merkel – The Fallen

In last year’s federal elections and subsequent state elections, Merkel has seen her CDU party and CSU sister party lose substantial vote shares. In last month’s Bavarian election, the CSU lost its plurality – falling below 40% for the first time since 1954. This is just the tip of the iceberg for the Germany which Merkel has left in her wake.

The polarising effect Merkel has had on Germany is due to her overall monotonous continuity within German politics, causing the electorate to seek more enthusing and diverse political parties. It is also an effect of her divisive refugee policy. Whether classed as generosity or pragmatism in the face of Germany’s working population’s decline, Germany’s over one million refugees have fuelled the fire of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany). The AfD, a party whose leader has described the Holocaust as ‘bird shit’ in an otherwise ‘1000 years of successful German history’, is now the third biggest party in Germany and the official opposition party to Merkel’s government.

This illiberal trend was triggered by Merkel herself. Her ruthlessly effective management of Germany now gives no alternative in the ideological centre; Germans are polarised in their opposition to Merkel. In a recent survey, it was revealed that nearly one third of Germans are populist.

As a legacy, this has hard-hitting ramifications for the political culture of Central and Eastern Europe. Succumbing to nationalist populism, Germany’s key role within the European Union has faltered. France’s Macron is paralysed in his pro-EU agenda while Merkel is wracked by

Brexit, internal strife and politically hostile neighbours beyond the Oder. Merkel’s Germany has taken one step forward and two strides back.

[Unedited submission to The Gryphon Views]

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The EU Must Tell Poland What It Can Do for Them

Facing a two front attack, the EU is under siege from Brexit Britain and an authoritarian Poland in what is the institution’s greatest existential threat since its founding. Poland’s turn to the political ‘dark side’ has been accompanied by unrelenting swathes of diplomatic support from its Visegrad neighbours. Are we seeing the EU’s own Brest-Litovsk? How is the EU to respond?

Established in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community, which created a common economic area in coal and steel between the ‘Founding Six’ European states (France and Germany, but also Italy and BENELUX), the Union-to-be was foreseen by many political leaders and philosophers as the everlasting post-war political pact of France and Germany – but with the added allure of economic prosperity to its neighbours who legitimised it. Forty two years later, and with a slow but steady increase in its powers and legal oversight, the European Union was founded in 1993 with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty – the apex of the post-war peace project.

By now the euro federal agenda was well underway, counting 12 members which would have inflated to 28 just twenty years later. It was this expansionism that was to sound the potential death knell to the EU’s institutional confidence and its citizens’ trust in it, despite the enlargement’s strategic importance in post-Soviet Europe. And chief amongst those newly independent countries remains Poland, simultaneously one of the EU’s economic success stories and, yet, strong harborer of dissent and euro-scepticism.

What Poland witnessed was that of an EU-financed Marshall Plan following its ascension in 2004. Having brushed off the 2008 financial crisis it maintained an average GDP growth of 3.24% between 2008 and 2018, an indication of higher living standards and economic growth compared to its Soviet days. Though, despite now EU Council President Donald Tusk’s run as Polish prime minister, its seemingly radical transformation in its political culture arguably never shifted and since 2004 has seen a steady consolidation in its nationalist-authoritarian politics. The right-wing PIS (Law and Justice Party) successfully gained both house of parliament and won the presidency in 2015. This is the first time a party has won an outright majority in the legislative branch since the Soviet Union collapse in 1991.

The party holds a eurosceptic and Atlanticist ideological tradition, vehemently opposing EU-federalism while maintaining strong links with the USA. Like in the USA, Poland’s government is partial to flooding its courts with its own partisans, as it has done since 2015. Though more trendy in out-and-out authoritarian Turkey, Poland’s PIS government has also not held back from firing over 11,000 civil servants and charging its most widely viewed independent news channel TVN24 with a $415,000 fine for its coverage over parliamentary protests in 2016. These actions flouted Maastricht’s membership prerequisites and the European Commission triggered Article 7 in 2017 to strip Poland of its voting rights. Unfortunately for the EU, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban’s declaration to veto such a unanimous decision in the presence of the EU’s other 27 members underlines the fundamental flaw of the Union: its disunity.

What had previously evolved into an egalitarian premise of EU membership during the European Community’s development became a tragic weak spot in an ever growing Union. Eleven central and eastern European states joined the EU between 2004 and 2007, of which all excluding Cyprus, but including ‘bridge-builder’ Austria, gave rise to a marvellous regional regime to split from the ‘fast stream’ members in the West: The 3 Seas Initiative. Besides the bellicose Visegrad 4, the eleven-strong bloc, covering one third of European territory and boasting access to the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas optimises the structural divide between Eastern and Western EU states.

The 3 Seas Initative first convened in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 2016 to establish a regional forum on the subject of economic convergence with the western EU countries. So compelling is the will of the economic bloc of $2 trillion that President Trump joined host Poland in Warsaw in 2017 where he received a crowd cherrypicked for his speech at the symbolic Krasinski Square by none other than the PIS government. Ideological twins of the right, Trump’s visit also vindicated Poland’s defiance to the EU’s 2015 refugee relocation initiative, which it immediately shot down along with the infamous anti-migrant ‘defect democracy’, Hungary.

This natural evolution of interstate relations gives rise to uncomfortable question about the EU. Just as NATO faces a dilemma of relevance in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, so too is the EU finding its ‘economic beneficiaries’ falling out of touch with its political elitism and I-know-best lecturing. The raison d’être of the EU, defined at the very consensual as maintaining long-standing peace on the European continent, has been maintained for 73 years. Its ostensibly covert purpose, however, the political and judicial integration of EU member states into a supranational body is not shared by all – this is not a common principle of all 28 involved.

It stands to reason that the EU must adapt before it ceases to exist. Straddling an almost impassable East-West divide, the Union must accommodate a broad church of political cultures while delivering economic prosperity and living standards convergence across the bloc. Poland, Hungary, Visegrad and the 3 Seas Initiative’s members will accept nothing less, since China rolls out its silk road for those disillusioned with those lectured on liberal democracy and human rights.

In the absence now of any consensus on collective punitive action against members, the Union must focus on the economic argument of membership. As the U.K. leaves the EU, regional structure funds – the lifeblood of many post-Soviet EU members, from which €7 billion Poland claimed last year, and of which 3.3% of Hungary’s GDP currently consists – will be strained. Poland and its ‘flawed democracy’ neighbours need to be convinced of what the EU can do for them, and not be told what they cannot.

[Unedited, original submission to The Gryphon Views, printed 1st October 2018]

Featured image: Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

Yorkshire Devolution: The Federal Litmus Test

Following a highly disappointing vote held in North East England which saw 77.9% shut down the regional assembly initiative, also scheduled for North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber, John Prescott’s attempt at far-reaching regional devolution proved a resolute failure. Fifteen years later, however, it is once again Labour which boldly dares more democracy with Jeremy Corbyn’s backing of the Greater Yorkshire devolution deal.

In March this year, the then Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, received the One Yorkshire plan proposed by 18 of Yorkshire’s 20 councils. The letter sought ascension of the 18 councils to Combined Authority (CA) status, the most recent incarnation of local devolution with plenty of promise for a future federal structure. As a CA, a self-started legal body of two or more councils, the onus is taken from unwieldy central government to regional collectives to act immediately and decisively to economic and demographic problems. As Brookings’ Bruce Katz underscores, British cities send their revenues directly to Whitehall, which then redistributes according to its centralised blueprint. Cities such as Leeds, York and Hull, he says, ‘are forced to wait for Whitehall to recognize problems and respond with corrective measures’, while those councils which take the initiative ‘are not rewarded for their good behaviour’.

Each CA is supplied a bespoke devolution package which aims to remedy a series of local issues. This doesn’t mean that every CA enjoys a generous endowment of regional powers; foci are dependant on the CA members’ mutual areas of interest. For a Greater Yorkshire Combined Authority, this means transport budgets, franchised bus services, adult skills funding, and a £500 million Housing Investment Fund. I’m thinking about those student bus tickets…

This is a considerably progressive sign of initiative from the Yorkshire councils involved. The West Yorkshire CA, currently consisting of Leeds City Region, Leeds City Council, Bradford City Council, Wakefield Met. District Council, Kirklees Met. Borough Council, and Caledrale Met. Borough Council would be dissolved in an ambitious expansionist project of regional devolution. But does it go far enough?

Wales received the Welsh Assembly under Tony Blair in 1998, while Northern Ireland has had patchy devolved governance at Stormont since The Good Friday Agreement came into play in 1999. Both are historically significant institutions, both hold distinct regional identities, and both are considerably removed from London in every respect. And Yorkshire and the Humber? This historical region, consisting of a population of over 5 million and a UK Gross Value Added (GVA) share of 6.6% – higher than both Wales and Northern Ireland combined, and not far off Scotland’s economic might (7.6% GVA share) – is an impressive indicator of what southerners and Londoners oft derogatorily label as ‘the North’. It has been an underestimated region, with the economic growth of its three largest cities, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford have a combined GVA of £42.060 billion (2015), greater than Glasgow and Edinburgh’s combined GVA share. The economic case is a no-brainer.

It is to be adorned that the Labour Party champions power to the people at a time at which it can profit from populist democracy platforms which Italy, Austria and Germany’s far-right parties have entered government and opposition on. Yet, this quasi-federalism will not necessitate ill thought-out referenda and jingoism, but will call upon people passionate about both local and regional issues to take up positions of influence. The Yorkshire Devolution Deal would be unprecedented in its uniting of provincial villages, towns and cities. The parallels with a greater federal experiment are uncanny, and something the people of Britain doesn’t yet realise it needs for the sake of its democracy.