Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: European Parliament

Plucky Little Belgium

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Belgium is a strange concept, more of a vague idea than a real country. There is a joke that there is just one real Belgian, and he is the king, (currently King Philippe, who is married to a speech therapist). Everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon. General de Gaulle described Belgium as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French. The dominant powers in the 19th Century constructed a neutral state to prevent an invasion of England from Antwerp harbour.

For rich French people, including Gerard Depardieu, the idea of Belgium is as a tax haven. The village of Nechin – which has a street known as Millionaire’s Row – is less than two minutes drive from the French town of Roubaix.

There is a tired old joke about the only famous Belgians being fictional characters like Tin Tin and Hercules Poirot. Let us not forget Plastic Bertrand, born in Brussels of a French father and Ukrainian mother. There are major real Belgian talents such as Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and painters like James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Jonathan Meades observed that when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist.

Magritte often painted enigmatic men holding umbrellas. In his recent novel, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, (the title of one of Ensor’s paintings) Dimitri Verhulst wrote: “the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella”. In the novel, Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited.

Centre of the EU Enterprise

One hundred years ago it was thought of as “plucky little Belgium”, a small powerless nation bullied by German military might. The country is about the same size as Maryland, with a population of 10,839,905 people on January 1, 2010. Today, it is the epitome of what EU haters hate about the EU. For Eurosceptics the name of the Belgian capital, “Brussels”, is shorthand for oppressive, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dictatorship.

Belgium was an early adopter in the European project. It was one of the six founder members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; in 1957, it was among the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community. Today Brussels is the home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.

As well as 20,000 EU civil servants, Brussels attracts a large population of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals. The EU has brought an estimated 115,000 extra people to live in Brussels. These people tend to have few or no Belgian friends. There may be some resentment among Bruxellois because of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large tax-exempt EU salaries. People who had lived in Brussels for years suddenly discovered that the best idea to earn is to rent their apartments to the officials and leave the city.

Let’s Talk about the War.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg used to be the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area covered by Belgium today was a prosperous commercial centre. It was also a battleground between European powers. The British ‘invented’ Belgium as a neutral state, a buffer zone against the French. Britain intervened to defend Belgian neutrality when German troops invaded in 1914. Before the war, Belgium had one of the world’s most successful economies. The war displaced a third of the population and in the first months of the war, as many as a million Belgians faced starvation because of German requisitions. Around 6,000 Belgians were executed, there were as many as 60,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, 25,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.

Belgium as Oppressor

Belgium is a young country that grew rich suddenly during the industrial revolution, thanks to coal and steel. It also acquired wealth from looting the Congo. Plucky little Belgium was particularly vicious in Africa. Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo and ran it as a personal fiefdom and business venture. Labourers were not paid but they were beaten, mutilated and murdered.

The province of Katanga seceded after Congolese independence from Belgium in June 1960. Belgium-based mining interests engineered the rebellion so that they could continue mineral extraction. Belgian settlers and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw and, when they refused, Lumumba expelled Belgian diplomats. On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs sent a cable that stated clearly that Belgian policy was the “definitive elimination” of Lumumba. Lumumba was, indeed, assassinated. A case has been presented that the Belgian government also had a hand in the killing of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

Rwanda was also part of Plucky Little Belgium’s empire. In 1933, the Belgian authorities issued identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them. The ethnic cleansing and genocide of twenty years ago were horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s under the Belgians.

Economy

Belgium was the world’s 15th largest trading nation in 2007. There is still a highly productive work force, high GNP and high exports per capita. Belgium’s main imports are raw materials, machinery and equipment, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and oil products. Its main exports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, finished diamonds, metals and metal products, and foodstuffs.

Poverty

Belgian Premier Elio di Rupo has questioned the EC’s commitment to austerity and has raised concerns about the best way for Belgium to balance growth and austerity. Political tensions have prevented him doing anything about this in practice. Between 1990 and 2009, the poorest 30 per cent of Belgians saw their share in net taxable incomes fall (from 11.2 to 8.3 per cent), while the richest ten per cent saw their share increase (from 27.3 to 31.9 per cent).

According to the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, 15.3 per cent of Belgium’s population in 2011 was at risk of falling into poverty. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, the wealthiest region in Belgium, this was 9.8 per cent, whereas in Wallonia, a poor French-speaking region, this was 19.2 per cent.

In 2012, nearly one in seven Belgians had a monthly income that was lower than the official poverty threshold (€1,000 for a single person or €2,101 for a couple with two children).Twenty-one per cent of the Belgian population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to the new European poverty indicators.

An Experiment in No Government

During 2007-11, cultural and linguistic tensions resulted in the state being without a government for 589 days. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo became Belgium’s first French-speaking premier; He is of Italian origin and he is gay and socialist. Despite reforms, tensions remain; the formation of a coalition government took 18 months following the June 2010 federal election. However, the hiatus did show that the country could function with just a caretaker government and the civil service.

Federalism

Verhulst sees Belgium a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its inhabitants. Belgium is a federal state divided into three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south and Brussels, the bilingual capital, where the French and Dutch languages share official status. There is an ongoing political crisis, which may lead to the country splitting, as did Czechoslovakia. It is ironic that the country seen by eurosceptics as the seat of a federalist plot, may itself fall apart. This would provide encouragement to separatist groups throughout Europe. Wallonia is the poorer segment of federal Belgium. How will it survive without the efforts of the industrious Flems? Wallonia will probably need EU subsidies.

Conclusion

A persistent note in visitors’ accounts is that Belgians are discontented and rude. Some might feel guilt at the barbarity of the Belgian colonial project. some feel uncomfortable about the presence in their midst of migrants from that empire.

 

To end on one positive thing about Belgium – it was Belgium that helped soul genius Marvin Gaye to recuperate, if only for a little while. A sojourn in Ostend gave Gaye the breathing space to reach one of his greatest achievements, Sexual Healing.

Plucky little Belgium is in dire need of some kind of healing. One wonders whether this will be possible given Belgium’s central role in the EU project. The EU project itself seems to be increasing the natural disgruntlement of its people.

On 28 July 2010, Plastic Bertrand finally revealed that he was not the singer of any of the songs in the first four albums released beginning in 1977 under the name Plastic Bertrand.

Inequality -Europe and the Precariat

A version of this article appeared in the July 2014 issue of Echelon magazine

 

European Values and Inequality

In theory, the core of the EU project was opportunity. Free movement, competition, a single market and non-discrimination should be pillars of an equal society. Nevertheless, socio-economic inequalities in Europe are greater today than in the 1980s and many who oppose free movement were recently elected to the European Parliament.

 

Five years of austerity policies have led to a further deterioration of living standards. Europe’s social model of welfare will no longer be sustainable if a majority of citizens can barely scrape by and have no security or opportunity. In Greece, infant mortality is up 43% because of stringent cuts to healthcare services. In Spain, over 400,000 families lost their homes. There were 4.5million people in Ireland on Census night (10th April 2011). There are an estimated 1,300 ghost estates in Ireland with 300,000 houses lying empty. There are plans to demolish these estates. In 2012, Focus Ireland, a charity for homeless people dealt with 8,000 customers.

 

Spending on education has effectively dropped in most EU countries. Youth unemployment affects a quarter of young Europeans and in Greece and Spain, 50% of the young are unemployed.

A study launched by UK deputy PM (at time of writing) Nick Clegg (educated at the private Westminster School and Cambridge University), shows that in Britain, one child in five is on free school meals. Only seven per cent of children attend private schools, but these schools provide 70 per cent of High Court judges and 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs.

David Boyle, a fellow at the New Economics Foundation think-tank, warned that rising property prices would effectively render the middle classes extinct as the dream of home ownership becomes ever more distant. The “squeezed middle”, would need to take three or four jobs just to make ends meet and no longer have time for cultural activities.

Causes of Inequality

Over the last few decades, large international corporations have been powerful generators of inequality. By the early 1980s, the CEOs of the largest 350 US companies were getting 30 times as much as the average production worker. By the start of the 21st century, they were getting between 200 and 400 times as much. Among the 100 largest UK companies, the average CEO received 300 times the minimum wage.

The EU encourages cuts in social spending, even presenting them as preconditions of recovery. They argue that recovery depends on “employer-friendly practices”. “Labour flexibility” really means crushing trade unions. More than a third of all workers in the private sector were union members forty years ago; now, fewer than seven percent are members of a trade union. France and Spain used to have powerful unions, but today less than ten per cent of their workforce is unionised.

Precariat

Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Spirit Level and Malignant Growth

The Spirit Level is a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in 2009. The book argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. The authors claim that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in unequal rich countries.

Piketty

Capital in the 21st Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty, focuses on wealth and income inequality in Europe and the US since the 18th century. The book’s central thesis is that inequality is not an accident but rather a feature of capitalism that requires state intervention to reverse. The book argues that unless capitalism is reformed, the democratic order is in danger.

Piketty predicts that the rise in inequality under neoliberalism will increase throughout the 21st century, reaching Victorian levels by 2050. He argues that if growth is low, labour’s bargaining power weak, and the returns on capital high, this will encourage speculation rather than entrepreneurial risk-taking or working hard to accumulate wealth.

Arguments against Promoting Equality

Companies are reluctant to implement equality measures because of what they see as heavy costs, which reduce their profit margins and impede their investment capacity. Equality and anti-discrimination contradict the ‘freedom’ of their enterprise, as executives would not be free to hire and do business the way they choose. They argue that inequality is not systemic but a failure of individuals to be resilient.

The engine of the neo-liberal system is widespread discrimination, and inequalities of class and geographical location. Globalisation so far has ensured that cheaper labour can always be found somewhere else. Some entrepreneurs have been cynical enough to claim that discrimination makes perfect business sense and should be acknowledged as such. From this perspective, removing inequalities would bring this very profitable system (for a few) to collapse.

Arguments for Equality

Almost all production and wealth creation is the result of cooperation. Society as a whole and its infrastructure contributes to everyone’s income and living standards. Accumulated technical and scientific knowledge, an educated population, transport systems and electricity supplies help the wealthy to become and remain wealthy. The combined efforts of vast numbers of people affect the living standards of even the rich.

Promoting equality is an investment. Excluding able individuals entails a huge loss of talent and skill when the economy needs to harness all potential creativity. A 2012 talent shortage survey found that around one in three employers around the world found it difficult to fill vacancies. Talent is often wasted because of discrimination.

Conclusion

In a speech to the Sutton Trust, Mr Clegg admitted that the Coalition “cannot afford” to leave a legacy like the current position. “Morally, economically, socially: whatever your justification, the price is too high to pay. We must create a more dynamic society.” Clegg’s statement is part of thetherapeutic management of inequality”- the officially sanctioned smokescreen of seeming to promote fairness, social justice, social equality, and equal access to education. A fear of what UK PM David Cameron called a “broken society” is the organising principle behind a wide range of measures to regulate supposedly dysfunctional behaviour. The “middle” sees itself as living in a nightmare world being ripped apart by greedy bankers at one extreme and sub-human Chav ‘trailer trash’ at the other.

Standing noted that, lacking any work-based identity, or sense of belonging to a labour community, the psychology of the precariat is liable to be determined by anger, anomie, anxiety, and alienation. Perhaps the precariat will rise up but they are not the real vandals. The one per cent or ten per cent’s constant looting of the middle classes as well as the working class engenders resentment. In a context of too much debt and slow or no growth, austerity weakens the body politic rather than strengthening it. Austerity only really helps those who are wealthy enough to take advantage cheaper asset prices and sell the assets back later.

The EU needs to remember its founding principles and take action to complete the banking union, protect small savers from the banksters, create decent jobs, implement a realistic investment policy, and protect consumers and the environment. Equality must be at the heart of every European policy.

 

Gesture Politics and the European Parliament

A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Parliamentary Privilege to Pry- Members of the European Parliament have little power but have licence to meddle.

 

At the time of writing, I do not know the results of the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament (EP). Writing about the elections for the April 2014 issue of Echelon, my researches showed that, although real power in the EU lies with the European Commission and the European Central Bank, this does not deter the EP as a body, or members as individuals or groups, interfering on a global scale and having an opinion about everything under the sun.

Sri Lanka

Back in October 2011, GOSL refused Paul Murphy, an MEP representing Dublin, a visa to visit Sri Lanka. He wanted to teach Sri Lanka about democracy. “The whole of the working class, poor farmers and poor people, Sinhala and Tamil, are victims of this repressive government in my opinion.” As well as complaining that he was refused a visa, he raised the issue of an Irish citizen, Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram,  whom he said had been held prisoner by the Sri Lankan authorities without charge for four years.

Soon after Paul Murphy’s fulminations against GOSL, I had dinner at the Gallery Café with a delegation from the Irish Development Authority. They were keen to improve business relationships with Sri Lanka in order to further Ireland’s recovery from the economic crisis.

At the time GOSL refused Murphy a visa, he had been an MEP for only eight months and was 28 years old. Murphy was already supporting striking Kazakh oil workers, trade unionists in Columbia, Syrian revolutionaries, Bahraini and Chinese dissidents, oppressed Palestinians (he took part in the flotilla to Gaza); he protested against a high speed rail link in Italy.

Murphy certainly has no mandate from the Irish people to take on the entire world’s problems. Mind you, he does not have a mandate from the Irish people to address domestic issues either. He has no electoral mandate at all. How many people voted for Paul Murphy? None. Joe Higgins of the Irish Socialist Party handed the Dublin EP seat to Murphy when he was elected to the Irish national parliament.

Africa

I read recently in the Somaliland Sun (I read it constantly) that the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the EP has scolded the government of Ethiopia accusing it of using humanitarian aid as a political tool. The MEPs said that the EU should use sanctions against Ethiopia to stop human rights abuses against Ethiopian and Ogaden civilians. This may be a worthy cause, but the comment thread in the Somaliland Sun shows that this is a more complex situation than MEPs think.

In April 2014, an EP delegation planned to visit Morocco to assess the human rights situation there but the government refused them entry.

 

Syria

The EP, in its last plenary session before the May 2014 elections, adopted a resolution expressing its concern on the latest developments in Syria. The resolution specifically condemns the attack against the Armenian town of Kessab. The resolution also takes note of the rich diversity of ethnic and religious communities in Syria and expresses concern about the Al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front capturing a number of Christian and Kurdish villages on the Turkish border. Some MEPs wanted the resolution to mention Turkey’s role in the attack against Kessab and in doing so raise again the issue of the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915. This may not be the best way of handling the complexities of Turkish-EU relationships.

Iran

On April 3, the EP passed a resolution expressing grave concern over the human rights situation in Iran and the “continued, systemic violation of fundamental rights” in the country, and called on the members of the EU to “mainstream human rights in all of its relations with Iran.” The resolution claimed that the presidential election in Iran in July 2013 did not conform to European standards. Whatever about EP opinion, world opinion generally regarded the election of Hassan Rouhani as a positive step.

The Iranian government was not too pleased about this. An Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman described the resolution as “unfounded and unacceptable” and other senior figures accused the EP of “blatant intervention in Iran’s internal affairs” and called on the Iranian government to reject the EP’s idea of establishing an office in Tehran.

Destabilising Influence

Is it sensible for a body that has little democratic legitimacy, no army, and no tax-raising capability to conduct foreign policy through gesture politics? There is no common EU interest when it comes to foreign policy.

European politicians grandstanded on the Ukraine crisis. This was destabilising rather than helpful. The EU won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Nevertheless, it is not a force for peace if it pursues interventions divorced from differing national interests based in different histories, economies, geography and territorial relationships. If Ukraine were in NATO, EU countries and the West would be obliged to go to war over the Crimea. What European would want to die for Sevastopol?’ Many Russians would be prepared to die for the Crimea.

It was bizarre and rather alarming that Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, could blithely admit to Putin’s face that Ukraine’s membership of NATO could be “part of the process”. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has long been recognised as impossible on geopolitical grounds. Ukraine was considered too close, historically and economically, to Russia, and home to strategically important Russian military bases. Putin told Rompuy that he was playing geopolitics.

Russia has effectively integrated Europe into its system of crony capitalism and corruption. Most European capitals, especially London, depend on vast amounts of Russian money for their financial systems to thrive. Ukrainian membership of NATO and sanctions against Russia would not be good news for the City of London.

 

Conclusion

In a non-binding resolution (aren’t they all?), the EP called on the EU authorities to impose immediate sanctions on Russian energy providers in the European market. The EP called for a freeze on the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline, which serves to ensure the supply of Russian gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. All the countries along its line – Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Italy – want South Stream because they know that it is the best way of guaranteeing cheap gas supplies.

At a time when a new president of Iran is thawing relations between his country and the US, is it wise for a powerless body to irritate the Iranians? Iran has the world’s second largest natural gas reserves after Russia – about 15.8% of world’s total reserves. Iran is one of the few countries capable of supplying much larger amounts of natural gas in the future. Iran’s overall gas exports in 2009/10 reached a record high of 6.8 billion cubic meters, increasing 44% over the previous year. Is this a good time to be annoying Iran as well as Russia?

I am against sin. I would not argue that the EP should ignore human rights violations but there is a danger that the EP’s meddling could be counter-productive and destabilising. Doing business with dodgy regimes might be more effective than isolating them through

Democratic Deficit

This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Echelon magazine.

 

Will austerity trump apathy at EU Parliamentary Elections?

 

All EU member states will hold elections between 22 and 25 May 2014 to choose 751 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). This will be the eighth Europe-wide election to the EP (European Parliament). The EP is the only EU institution to be directly elected.

 
The electorate in EU member countries never displayed much enthusiasm about the EP. Voters think voting is futile because decision-making generally resides in the European Council, which comprises heads of state and governing ministers from member nations. Turnout has been falling steadily since the first election in 1979. In 2009, the overall turnout was at 43%, down from 45.5% in 2004. In Britain, the turnout was just 34.3%, down from 38% in 2004. Turnout is not yet as low as that of the US Midterm elections which usually falls below 40%. The participation of young people voting for MEPs is particularly discouraging. In 2009, 50% of those over 55 voted, while only 29% of 18 to 24 year olds bothered to vote. Low voter turnout weakens the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

 
Distrust about the treaties and conventions that hold together modern Europe appear at an all-time high. The percentage of Greeks approving the EU leadership decreased from 32% in 2010 to 19% in 2013, while in Spain, the approval plummeted from 59% in 2008 to 27% in 2013.

 
In Ireland, polls indicate that Sinn Féin, once the political voice of the IRA, as the TNA was the voice of the LTTE, will easily elect three MEPs. The political gains to the Irish mainstream parties and the ruling coalition arising from positive economic indicators now mean nothing. UKIP’s (United Kingdom Independence Party) support rose from about four percent in 2012 to about eleven percent in 2013 – despite having no members in the British parliament. Proportional representation in the EP favours UK fringe parties that do not do well under the first-past-the-post Westminster system. At the last EP elections in 2009, UKIP came second behind David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Radical right-wing populist parties do well in EP elections because of differences in the degree to which voters vote strategically and dissimilarities in the issues that are at stake. Diverging levels of turnout allow populist parties disproportionate representation. For example, the Dutch PVV, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration party, obtained 5.9% of the seats in the 2006 and 15.5% in the 2010 national elections, as opposed to 17.0% in the 2009 elections for the EP.

 

Exit polls suggest that PRRPs (Populist Radical Right Parties), a group of parties with fascist tendencies, could win around 67 seats, close to 10%, up from the 37 they now control. The Economist estimated in January 2014 that anti-EU populists could win between 16% and 25% of seats. Cross-border alliances may strengthen their bargaining power. Dutch right-wingers are discussing an alliance with their right wing French counterparts.

 
Not everyone believes that fascist parties will take over the EU. Some assert that concern about populism is exaggerated. In Conflicted Politicians: the populist radical right in the European Parliament, Counterpoint, a research and advisory group that uses social science methods to examine social, political and cultural dynamics, investigated how the PRRPs currently operate in the EP.

 
The report concluded that PRRP MEPs face a fundamental conflict. On the one hand, their ideology commits them to being fiercely critical of the EU – in some cases they want out altogether. At the same time, they benefit from the EU – obtaining money, representation, legitimacy and contacts – and are part of one of its core institutions.

 

Some PRRP MEPs react by rebelling against the institution and regularly voting against the majority on the issues that matter to them, such as immigration. PRRPs do not find it easy to maintain alliances and their weakness is rooted in ideological heterogeneity, a fear of stigmatisation, and conflicting nationalisms. The populist radical right has little impact on policy and substantive issues in the EP. When compared to other political groups, its MEPs participate less, write fewer reports and opinions, and are less successful at pushing through amendments and winning votes. They rarely hold the balance of power and so have little ‘blackmail power’ to offer the other political groups votes in exchange for advancing their policy interests. The PRRP focuses its role on gaining publicity rather than participating in policy-making activities.

 
Why do EP elections matter? These elections are taking place during a period of profound political and economic crisis, and will shape EU politics for the next five years. The results will determine the answers to such questions as: How can the eurozone be made robust? Should austerity policies be maintained or abandoned? The power of banks operating on a global scale is beyond the control of individual states. So far, only the conservative and nationalist blocks have successfully politicized European elections. The ability of citizens to combat the EU’s democratic deficit from below is key to changing the representational structure for the better.

 
Even if the EP is reformed, it will not be a parliament as we know it. In democracies, the legislature normally initiates and amends laws, whereas in the EU, faceless technocrats devise directives behind closed doors. Axel Weber, chairman of UBS, told an audience at Davos that the coming elections could undermine recent progress by governments and the ECB (European Central Bank) by allowing extreme anti-European parties to gain influence in the parliament. What Weber calls “progress” is that banks are not lending to businesses. Bank lending has been falling for years now. Most of the €1 trillion that the ECB lent to the banks at the height of the crisis, ostensibly to stimulate national economies, has been repaid to the ECB. There is a liquidity trap because European banks have been paying money back to the ECB while starving companies and people of credit – in Ireland, Italy, France, Spain and Greece.

 
Even a higher voter turnout will not put right the lack of democracy in the EU. Technocrats, not the elected parliament will continue to make the important decisions. Voters know this and do not bother to vote. This allows right wing parties that have no chance of representation in their home parliaments to win seats in the European parliament. They may not be able to affect EU policy but they do get a platform and the oxygen of publicity. Even those, like Axel Weber, who warn of the dangers of right wing parties getting into the EP, are really saying that they do not want elected representatives interfering with the plans of the technocrats (who favour bankers like Weber).

 
Herr Weber would probably also object if voters elected non-right parties who did something practical to restrain the banks.

 

He is probably not really in favour of democracy.

 

 

Resurgence of the Right

Austerity feeds Fascism in Europe

Germany and France initially got together to lay the foundations for  the European Union project as an attempt by to prevent the two nations going to war yet again. The project was also an attempt to rebuild a continent laid waste by Nazism and nationalism. Today, fascism is gnawing away like a rat at the EU’s moral core. Most of the member countries in the EU today have some history of fascism. The economic crisis and the austerity measures implemented to counter it have exacerbated the situation.

Neo-Nazism borrows elements from German National Socialist doctrine, including militant nationalism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Anti-Muslim sentiment is also now a component. Targeting of “the other” is common. Migrants are easy targets to blame when “natives” are unemployed.

In 2012, the European Parliament allocated €289,266 to the European Alliance of National Movements (EANM). Among the seven members of EANM are the British National Party, France’s Front National and Hungary’s Jobbik, all of which are xenophobic. Claude Moraes, a UK Labour MEP, accused the BNP of “views which are undemocratic, such as repatriation of part of the population”.

There will be European Parliamentary elections in six months’ time. These elections usually have a low turnout, which gives an opportunity for protest voters. From next May, the European Parliament could have a radically different complexion. The Dutch Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, has agreed an electoral pact with the French National Front. According to polls, National Front is the most popular party in France. In Austria, there has been a resurgence in support for parties whose views uncomfortably echo that celebrated Austrian, Adolf Hitler.

Germany

After the war, the far-right in Germany itself quickly re-grouped. The Deutsche Rechtspartei was founded in 1946. The Socialist Reich Party was founded in 1949. The German Social Union) was another 1950s Neo-Nazi organisation. The currently most successful rightist movement is the National Democratic Party (NPD), which won 9.2% in the 2004 state election in Saxony, and 1.6% of the nation-wide vote in the 2005 federal elections.

In 2011, Verfassungsschutz (Federal German intelligence) reported 25,000 right-wing extremists in Germany. In the same report, 15.905 crimes committed in 2010 were classified as far-right motivated. These crimes included 762 acts of violence in 2010. In 2011, neo-Nazis were linked to ten murders.

The NPD may be entering the mainstream. However, it has dubious friends such as Homeland-Faithful German Youth, which organises annual marches to mark the bombing of Dresden. NPD leader Udo Voigt was charged with incitement for distributing race-hate pamphlets about German footballer Patrick Owomoyela, whose mother is Nigerian. There are many smaller groups preaching anti-Semitism and calling for violence against immigrants. German neo-Nazis frequently attack refugees’ hostels.

There are many neo-Nazi enclaves in economically depressed East Germany. Dotted around the tiny village of Jamel, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, the vast majority of residents are neo-Nazis – and proud of it. There have been reports of pro-Hitler parties here during the summer where attendees chant ‘Heil’ around a bonfire.

France

France outlaws Nazi organizations, yet a significant number exist. The French government estimated that neo-Nazi groups in France had 3,500 members. In 2011 alone, 129 violent actions were recorded in France against Jews. In France in 2011, 260 threats were recorded, 15% related to neo-Nazi ideology.

An Ifop poll for the Nouvel Observateur suggested in October that Marine le Pen’s National Front (FN) will win 24 per cent of the  vote in next May’s elections for the European Parliament. Mass immigration from Eastern Europe, and from Muslim countries, has been the main target of the FN’s campaigning. Harry Roselmack, France’s first black newsreader, wrote in Le Monde on November 5 2013, “Xenophobia and racism are the essential glue that binds the FN. And it is not unhelpful to see its republican veneer crack from time to time.”
Italy

A significant minority of Italians look back fondly on the period between 1922 and 1943 when Mussolini got the trains to run on time, drained the Pontine Marshes and won a small empire for Italy. Fascism is still alive in mainstream Italian politics, thanks in part to Berlusconi merging his Forza Italia party with the Alleanza Nazionale, which has neo-fascist roots.

“Most old people remember only the total devastation fascism brought,” said Alberto Martinelli, a political science professor at the University of Milan, “But a minority, while not saying outright they loved Mussolini, will say how things were better”

The dictator also still provides a rallying point for today’s far-right sympathisers, Italian football hooligans, and the politically ambitious CasaPound, named after the celebrated American poet Ezra Pound who sided with Mussolini during the war. CasaPound won over 25,000 votes in the Lazio regional elections.

Every year, on October 28th, Mussolini’s admirers celebrate the anniversary of Fascists’ March on Rome. They march and pray, blessed by a Fascist priest, the famous Father Tam who gave a Fascist salute during a skinhead protest march held in Milan.

Hungary

The far-right Jobbik Party won 17 percent of the Hungarian Parliament in 2010.  The party scapegoats Jews and ethnic Roma. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has failed to establish a strict line between his centre-right Fidesz party and Jobbik, and he has been reluctant to condemn its policies. A Jobbik Member of Parliament called for Jews in Hungary to be put on lists, saying they are a “security risk.”

Greece

The far right political party Chrysi Avyi (Golden Dawn) received 6.92% of the votes in the elections of 17 June 2012, entering the Greek parliament with 18 representatives. A few Golden Dawn members participated in the Bosnian War and were present during the Srebrenica massacre. Court testimonies recently revealed that Golden Dawn party members have allegedly committed dozens of criminal acts, including attempted homicides and violent street raids. The magistrate’s report revealed that party members had military training, including the use of assault weaponry. The Racist Violence Recording Network, a group monitoring hate crimes in Greece, estimates there have been 300 serious assaults by far-right gangs in the country over the past two years. Nearly all of them involve multiple attackers and end with stab wounds and broken bones. A Golden Dawn supporter stabbed anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fissas to death in the heart and chest on September 17.

Conclusion

The re-articulation of nationalist discourses in Greece is disturbing. Some online comment threads are reminiscent of Colombo Telegraph. A foreigner stirs up the trolls with this contribution: “Golden Dawn sounds like something I would clean my toilet with. You blame everyone for your nation’s position but yourselves. You know why Greece is suffering. It’s not because of America, or Jews, or immigrants. It’s because you have not contributed anything to the world in 2000 years. You live off tourists walking through the rot and ruin of an ancient era that is never coming back. You are not a nation, or a people. You are a museum. What do you think you’re going to do, conquer what Hitler could not, get rid of immigrants and hope jobs appear out of nowhere? What a joke a once proud people have become.” Responses to the provocation were like this: “What a pile of horseshit. This is all LIES. … misinformation and Zionist propaganda.”

Some in Greece have called for restrictions on hate speech from the right. In Sri Lanka also, hate speech has the potential to rekindle conflict. Censorship, however, is a slippery slope.

The rise of the neo-Nazis raises many complex issues, in addition to the question of freedom of speech and association. The economic crisis has highlighted the de-legitimization of liberal democratic practices and institutions. Even before the crisis took hold, many who were sympathetic to European integration and the single market, were somewhat queasy about the tyranny of un-elected bureaucrats in Brussels. Whatever about the moral tone of the EU project, the reality was too often rule by directive rather than democracy. The crisis has led to troika technocrats dictating to elected governments.

In Greece, from the 90s onwards new nationalist, anti-European discourses highlighted the democratic deficit. If EU institutions were not to be trusted, was violence not justified?

Are we seeing a similar situation in Sri Lanka? Is there a danger that frustration with the ineffectiveness of the democratic opposition will lead to extra-parliamentary action by extremists nostalgic for a non-existent past glory?

Perhaps no far right party will ever take power again as in Germany in 1933.  Vigilance, however, is essential.

 

 

Paul Murphy MEP

This was my first article for The Nation newspaper, published on October 23 2011. It has disappeared from their website.

My compatriot, Paul Murphy MEP, an Irish member of the EU Parliament,  wants to visit Sri Lanka to lecture the government about democracy.

He is  a prematurely balding twitchy 28 years old, (There are many videos on You Tube showing Murphy ranting to an empty hall  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjToY8jULCY and demonstrating that he cannot pronounce “Sinhala”).

He has never had a proper job and has been an MEP for around eight months. No-one ever voted for him to be an MEP.

He  has been complaining about Sri Lanka in several media outlets.

“The idea to travel to Sri Lanka came from the meeting I hosted in the Parliament a few months ago about the massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka. My wish to go was strengthened by the many meetings I have had with the Tamil Diaspora, and others active on the issue of Tamil rights, in the recent period.”

“I will continue to highlight and speak out against what I consider to be war crimes of the Rajapaksa regime and to defend the right to self determination by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. I will also continue to speak out against the ongoing militarisation of Sri Lankan society and against the repression used against any opposition to the Sri Lankan regime. The whole of the working class, poor farmers and poor people, Sinhala and Tamil, are victims of this repressive government in my opinion.”

As well as complaining that he was refused a visa to visit Sri Lanka, he is raising the issue of an Irish citizen, Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram,  whom he says has been held prisoner by the Sri Lankan authorities without charge for four years.

Other than the assertions of Murphy himself. I have been unable to find much  information about Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram. All I know is that the man studied polymers at Queen Mary College in the 1970s.

I asked the Irish Ambassador in New Delhi, Kenneth Thompson, if any representations  had been made to him about this case.  I was  fobbed off by one of His Excellency’s minions. The press office of the Foreign Ministry in Dublin told me: “The Department is aware of this case and all possible consular assistance is being provided to Mr. Gunasundaram Jayasunderam’s wife and family through the Consular Assistance section in Dublin, the Embassy of Ireland in New Delhi and the Honorary Consul of Ireland in Sri Lanka.”

I have asked Paul Murphy himself for more information. He has not responded.

I would greatly appreciate it if  any readers  point me in the direction of some information about Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram. (I can be contacted at spikeyriter@gmail.com.)  Is he in custody in Sri Lanka? If so what has he done?

I was sorry to hear that Paul Murphy was  unable to get a visa to visit Sri Lanka. I understand that he  wished to visit the north of the country. It will be  a pity if he does  not get an opportunity to do so. I do not think he has  visited Sri Lanka before. If he  had, he should  be impressed by the changes that have occurred all over the country since the Tamil Tigers were defeated.

Paul Murphy wants to teach Sri Lanka about democracy. How many people voted for Paul Murphy? President Rajapaksa, despite a strong  animosity expressed in some papers, notably the Sunday Leader, and despite anxieties about the economy and worker unrest,  has  generally won the confidence of voters and he currently seems unassailable. A recent Gallup found that more than nine out of ten Sri Lankans approved of the president. Mainly, Sri Lankans of all ethnicities are grateful to President Rajapaksa that their children can go to school without fear of being blown to giblets.

Joe Higgins of the Irish Socialist Party won the Dublin EP seat in 2009 but gave it up when he was elected to the Irish national parliament on the wave of voter disgust with mainstream Irish parties.

There was criticism that Higgins was being less than transparent: “He deliberately kept people in the dark about the fact that if he got elected to Europe he would throw in the towel at the first smell of a general election and that in truth people were not electing him but some unknown entity”. There was a great deal of high-minded debate about how the Socialist Party would choose a successor to Higgins but none of this seemed to involve consulting  the electorate.

Paul Murphy worked for Higgins and took over Higgins’s EP seat. The above comment is from the website politics.ie. Here are some more:  “He [Murphy] is known to nobody outside of his small party and has never sought election…This appointment of Higgins’s assistant is complete cronyism despite the tripe being written by the hard-line socialists.” “The people voted for a list that named Ruth Coppinger as the replacement for Joe Higgins, in the present circumstances. For the Socialist Party to instead appoint a crony of Joe Higgins is a sign of contempt for democracy.”

How many votes did Paul Murphy get? None! How many votes did President Rajapaksa get?

Paul Murphy, in his infinite compassion,  wants to get involved in everyone’s problems and spreads himself thin. The British satirical magazine Private Eye has been bursting bubbles of pomposity since the early 60s. One of the Eye’s great comic creations is the all-purpose lefty agitator Dave Spart. Spartism has entered the English language. The Urban Dictionary defines a Spartist as: “An individual who observes Marxist theory to the exclusion of all else. Often condemns most things in society and the world with meaningless far left-wing dogma, and often ends up in logical cycles and jumping to conclusions in the process. Such people claim to be progressive, but are as backward thinking, unimaginative, hare-brained and colourless as the leaders of the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe.”

There is a lot of Spartism on Paul Murphy’s website: http://www.paulmurphymep.eu/

Paul is a feisty little fellow. His tireless ecumenical activism tempts me to rename him  Daibhéid Ó Speartáin. Murphy is supporting striking Kazakh oil workers, unionists in Columbia, Syrian revolutionaries, Bahraini and Chinese dissidents, oppressed Palestinians (he took part in the flotilla to Gaza), he protested against a high speed rail link in Italy, he feels for the homeless all over the world. The Chinese government must be trembling to know that Daibhéid Ó Speartáin has them sussed.

There are many problems to be solved in Ireland.

Ireland has a reasonable international image when it comes to human rights and global charitable works. However, it has to be noted that the Irish government (not the current one) allowed Shannon Airport to be used by the CIA for extraordinary rendition flights. That means anonymous people held without charge were being flown all over the world to be tortured with the complicity of the Irish government.

This was not Paul Murphy’s fault, of course. He was not a member of the Irish government. He has never been elected by anyone. He has no power or influence. Murphy certainly has no mandate from the Irish people to take on the entire world’s problems.

Lest we accuse Paul of neglecting problems back home in dear old Ireland, it should be noted that he is suing the Irish police for assaulting him when he was protesting at the Shell gas plant at Corrib. He protested  against cutbacks at Tallaght Hospital. He is active in Free Education for Everyone. In 2009, he was working on a PhD thesis titled “Does socialist law exist?” In Ireland,  he has been prominent in campaigning for young workers rights, holding a series of public meetings throughout Dublin as part of the “Jobs not Dole” campaign. Paul Murphy has also been vocal in opposition to the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland and austerity measures being carried out by the government including the proposed “Household Tax”.

Mind you,  he has not got a mandate from the Irish people to address those issues either. He has no electoral mandate at all.

Writing in the October 2011 issue of Lanka Monthly Digest, Amantha Perera reminisces about his grim visits to Vavuniya during the war. He finds the North as a whole transformed for the better, with Vavuniya a particular revelation. The Tampa hotel is providing better facilities for journalists than five-stars in Bangkok and a boisterous crowd gets drunk around the pool. The next morning Perera chats to some students one of whom says he is sleepy because he studies late into the night. “I am not scared to study alone at night, there are no more loud noises”.

This reminded me of something my friend the Reverend Harold Good said in 2008 when receiving his  award from the Gandhi Foundation for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process. A child wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.”

Is amnesia more conducive to reconciliation than truth? Do we need a young Dublin jackeen who has never set foot on Sri Lankan soil  and has very little experience of life in general to remind us that horrors have occurred in this land?

Don’t be a begrudger,  Paul. Let Sri Lanka continue to enjoy the peace we have had for over two years.

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