Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley

CounterPunch

Things are rocky on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, Donald Trump’s presidency, barely a month old, has made a chaotic start, and is getting sucked into ever deeper crisis. In London, Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom which looks deeply split, is about to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus she will begin the process of Britain leaving the European Union and its associated institutions.

In the midst of rancor between an infant presidency and its detractors, the White House meeting of May and Trump, seen hand in hand, was an extraordinary and rare demonstration of mutual love only a week after trump’s inauguration. A month on, it seems a long time ago.

Let us remind ourselves about what has happened in the past month. Donald Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” The exodus of officials from numerous federal departments and agencies that keep the United States government functioning has been dramatic. Instead, Trump has created his own little swamp, which he has found difficult to fill.

First, the National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced out after revelations that he had held telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, while President Barack Obama was still in office and Flynn was in Trump’s transition team. That in one telephone conversation Flynn discussed the sanctions President Obama had imposed on the same day was bad enough. What sealed Flynn’s fate was that he then lied to Vice President Mike Pence, who then publicly defended Flynn saying that there had been no discussion with the Russian ambassador about the sanctions.

Flynn was also interviewed by the FBI soon after Trump’s inauguration, and had given a similar account to the agency. Following leak after leak, speculation has become relentless that over the past year other Trump associates have had constant and repeated dealings with the Russians. President Trump’s plan to appoint a friendly individual as intelligence supremo to investigate and identify sources responsible for leaks shows how much the working relationship between the White House and the intelligence services has broken down. The consequences of this breakdown for Britain’s formidable intelligence headquarters GCHQ could be serious in the light of the UK’s disengagement from the European Union.

Second, Andrew Puzder, billionaire CEO of a fast-food restaurant chain, withdrew his nomination as Trump’s Labor Secretary because of intense criticism of him in the Senate prior to his confirmation hearings. Third, Trump’s choice to refill the national security adviser’s post, Robert Harward, turned down the offer despite the president’s repeated efforts to persuade him. And then, David Petraeus, once a celebrated army general, dropped out of the race for Trump’s national security adviser.

Petraeus has been on probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge after revelations of an extramarital affair and mishandling of classified material with his lover. It is as clear as daylight that President Trump is beleaguered and faces struggle to establish his authority like few of his predecessors.

For Prime Minister Theresa May to fly to Washington within a week of Trump’s inauguration was both an act of political expediency and perilous haste. He was mercifully courteous before television cameras. She was anxious to say, again and again, that she was there to “renew the special relationship” between the United States and Britain. She boasted in front of cameras that she had secured President Trump’s full commitment to NATO in private talks. Right up to his election, Trump had described NATO as obsolete, and threatened to reduce Washington’s commitment to defending smaller, more vulnerable countries of the alliance if they did not spend more money on defense.

Trump remained silent on the matter while his guest went ahead to announce that the American president had given a firm commitment to NATO. Barely two weeks later, Trump’s Defense Secretary, James Mattis, taking Trump’s original line, said that unless other alliance members spent more, America would “moderate” its commitment to their defense. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s blunt response was that Germany would not accelerate its existing, long-term plan to gradually increase military spending despite America’s demand to do so by the end of 2017.

Vice President Mike Pence immediately picked up where Mattis had left, making clear that he was delivering Donald Trump’s message. Apparently referring to Germany, France and Italy, the American Vice President said, “Some of our largest allies do not have a credible path. The time has come to do more.”

So, we have turmoil in Washington; unprecedented tensions between the United States and NATO; and the European Union. Nonetheless, Britain’s Prime Minister looks determined to make a clean break from the European Union and all its institutions, and follow Trump’s America. It is a dangerous path.

Less than a year ago, Theresa May advocated Britain’s continued membership of the EU that gave the country access to the world’s largest market. Now, she is a passionate leader who will lead Britain out of the European Union and its economic, social, environmental and judicial instruments. She will accept estrangement from immediate European neighbors, but much greater reliance on a superpower governed by an isolationist, unpredictable president more than three thousand miles away across the Atlantic.

She will explore the “brave new world” more than half a century after Britain lost its empire, and ceased to rule the oceans. All with a small army and naval force smaller than those of the United States, Russia, China and Japan, and only slightly bigger than the French navy. Britain has nuclear weapons, but it cannot conceivably use them without America’s consent.

A country is never more vulnerable than when there is just one guarantor and not enough room for manoeuvre.

[END]

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Austria Wakes Up and Rejects Far-Right Takeover

The Citizen

The June referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 American presidential election, were massive right-wing political earthquakes.

Those who predicted aftershocks, this time in Austria’s presidential election and Italy’s constitutional referendum, thought that they were on safe ground in assuming that the right would triumph there, too.

Instead, the far right in Austria suffered a shock defeat. Independent candidate and former leader of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen, beat the Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, by a margin of 53.3% – 46.7%. In May, Bellen had won by a tiny margin of 31000 votes, but the result was annulled by Austria’s highest Constitutional Court. Then, the judges found that although there was no fraud, thousands of absentee votes had been counted too early, influencing the main vote. And the court ordered that the election be held again.

In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had called a constitutional referendum to curtail the powers of devolved regional governments and reduce the size of the Senate, arguing that these measures would reduce bureaucracy. Renzi suffered a heavy defeat and resigned as he had said before the vote. The outcome, however, did not cause the shock to the Italian system that many had predicted.

Britain’s right-wing press had made much about a new crisis for the euro and the stock markets if Renzi lost the referendum. In the event, Italy and the EU took Renzi’s departure in their stride. The truth is that governments in post-war Italy come and go frequently. Prime Minister Renzi’s was the latest. Italy’s economic and industrial decline has been going on since the end of World War II, with no real growth over the last twenty years. What was new and unexpected this time? It was business as usual for Italy.

The United Kingdom sees developments in mainland Europe very differently from Europeans themselves. So deep is the hostility against the European Union and its leading members, Germany and France, that diehard opponents on Britain’s political left and right will go to any extent to try to prove that the EU project is collapsing.

There are two different realities in mainland Europe. The far right, fervidly opposed to the idea of the European Union, has been on the rise for a number of years. But now support for the EU is also rising in many member-states, particularly in the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

That the far right poses a serious challenge for established parties throughout Europe is not in doubt. Nonetheless, Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the anti-Europe rhetoric and the prevailing uncertainty, all appear to have generated a new consciousness across the continent. The European Union may have its faults. But many of those who have been working for its disintegration in the name of nationalism and sovereignty are far from serious politicians who have credible alternatives to offer.

Austria’s newly-elected president, Van de Bellen, fought on the slogan: “Those who love their country do not divide it.” The result of the re-run is evidence that the new post-Brexit reality, and the forethought of what might happen to Austria in the event of a far-right victory, evidently changed the hearts and minds of many voters.

Other worries also concentrated the minds of Austrians in the event Norbert Hofer won the presidency. The post is largely ceremonial, but what if Hofer exercised his constitutional right to appoint a prime minister, and that person was from the fringe? Austria has been a liberal democracy since the devastation in two world wars in the last century. The prospect of upheaval threatening the country’s stability and prosperity was not something Austrians wanted to contemplate again.

Continuing arrival in Europe of great many refugees escaping Middle East wars, in which the West has played its own part, have helped create favourable conditions for the far right. But to many Austrians, a far-right takeover is a frightening prospect for their country which, along with Germany, still grapples with its history of fascism and World War II.

That history reminds us of the rise and fall of a great empire and the destruction wrought by extremist politics. So the Austrian people drew back from that prospect and elected Van der Bellen, a mild-mannered academic, who expressed faith in the country’s liberal parliamentary democracy.

Will the tide now turn against right-wing extremist groups in other countries? France, Germany and the Netherlands are among European Union states due to have elections in 2017. In France, the current Socialist President Francois Hollande, facing a humiliating defeat, has announced that he would not stand for re-election next year. The contest to succeed Hollande will almost certainly be between Francois Fillon, ex-prime minister, who recently won the Republican presidential primary, and Marine Le Penn, leader of the far-right French National Front. Opinion polls suggest that Fillon will easily overcome the challenge from Marine Le Penn.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Despite criticisms of her decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees, Merkel remains popular among Germans. And her role is central to the success of the European Union and Germany’s leadership role.

The year 2016 has certainly produced big surprises, and it would be reckless to make predictions about the coming year. The best which can be said at this point is that even though support for the political right is causing alarm among established parties, far right nationalism has probably reached a peak from where it is unlikely to climb up much further.

[END]

The Fall of David Cameron

History News Network

Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who dominated British politics in the 1960s, once said that a week is a long time in politics. The meaning of his famous remark is that political fortunes can change dramatically in a short time. Just one year after winning the May 2015 general election against the odds, Prime Minister David Cameron has suffered a spectacular fall. He is out of power and out of politics, having stood down as an MP with immediate effect on September 12, less than three months after he resigned as prime minister.

Cameron had been leader of the Conservative Party for ten years, and prime minister for six, all but one in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. When he appeared to be at the pinnacle of his career, having won a majority in the May 2015 general election, his luck ran out. Now, he is yesterday’s man. Much of Cameron’s legacy is being dismantled by his successor Theresa May. His record in office is under critical examination. His admirers are dwindling.

Two days after Cameron’s resignation as an MP, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published a highly critical report. It held him “ultimately responsible” for the collapse of the Libyan state, and the rise of ISIS after the Anglo-French military campaign with American help in 2011.

Remember, then Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy were leading champions of military action in Libya, citing the principle of “responsibility to protect” – a principle endorsed by the UN Security Council as a means of last resort to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amid determined public calls for a western-led campaign against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a reluctant President Obama gave in. The result was a NATO campaign which led to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. Obama regrets the bungled Libyan intervention now.

The parliamentary committee’s report said the government of Prime Minister Cameron neither had accurate intelligence nor a coherent strategy for Libya after Gaddafi’s removal. The result, according to the report, was political and economic collapse, tribal warfare, widespread human rights abuses and the rise of ISIS in North Africa, fuelled by weapons which the Libyan army abandoned.

The initial objective of the Libyan campaign was limited to protect the besieged civilian population in Benghazi, protesting against Gaddafi’s rule when the Arab Spring swept across the region. After that objective was secured within a short time, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report concluded, the United Kingdom “drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.” It became “exclusively focused on military intervention.” The decision was taken in France; the United Kingdom simply followed.

Insofar as Britain’s recent military interventions abroad are concerned, there are parallels between David Cameron and Tony Blair, prime minister from 1997 to 2007. Blair was heavily criticised in the Chilcot Inquiry, published in July 2016, for acquiescing with President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003. The parliamentary inquiry into Libya found that David Cameron went along with the decision-making in France, with calamitous results.

Tony Blair, with George W. Bush, must bear the ultimate responsibility for the collapse of the Iraqi state, the emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq and more recently ISIS. Likewise, the parliamentary inquiry, in its final analysis, held David Cameron responsible for the disintegration of Libya. The policy created conditions for the birth of ISIS in North Africa, and for massive waves of refugees arriving in Europe. UK actions in Libya were described as “ill-conceived” by the inquiry chairman Crispin Blunt, a member of Cameron’s own Conservative Party. Cameron himself refused to testify. He said he was too busy to appear.

But the reason for Cameron’s fall from power was not Libya. He was a tactical, rather than visionary, leader, not able to stand up to dissenters in his party. He failed to secure a majority in the 2010 general election, and had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party. In 2015, he won by a small majority in parliament on a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union.

His pledge was meant to placate the anti-EU faction in his Conservative party, and to counter the UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage, a vehemently anti-EU and anti-immigration politician. Cameron’s lurch to the right on issues such as immigration, and his attempts to secure concessions from the EU, were tactics to maintain control, win the referendum, and stay in the European Union. He was over-confidence that he was a winner, and would prevail in the referendum. It proved costly.

Cameron’s predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, had resisted calls for a referendum. In the 1980s, Thatcher’s frequent public arguments with the rest of the European Union over British contributions, and her assertions of national sovereignty, concealed divisions in the Conservative Party. Her successor John Major (1990-1997) often clashed with party rebels over EU membership, but would not contemplate another referendum. Major insisted that the membership issue was resolved in the 1973 vote. Cameron lost the gamble, because what was meant to be an electoral exercise about the EU became a vote on a wide range of policies under his prime ministership.

Now that Cameron has left the political scene, it is for Prime Minister Theresa May to manage the aftermath. But the recent history of the United Kingdom demonstrates that when a prime minister has dominated national politics for years, the tenure of their successor is difficult and short. James Callaghan (1976–1979) survived in office for three years before his defeat by Margaret Thatcher. John Major had a difficult time in office before his defeat in 1997 by Tony Blair’s Labour Party. And after Blair’s resignation, Prime Minister Gordon Brown managed to remain in office for three years before he was defeated in 2010.

The next general election in the United Kingdom is due in 2020. Whether Prime Minister Theresa May’s government can last until then is an open question.

[END]

Britain in the Doldrums After the Brexit Vote

CounterPunch

The recent referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was a people’s revolt which unleashed a series of unintended consequences. The result was unexpected, and its aftershocks ended more than a handful of political careers. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had vigorously campaigned to remain in the EU, resigned the following day. The euphoria which the Leave campaign’s ‘victory’ generated did not last. Several leading figures of the winning side withdrew from the front line.

Nigel Farage, a vehement anti-EU and anti-immigration politician, stood down as leader of the right-wing populist UK Independence Party. Farage claimed that he had done his bit, and was going to spend time with his family. Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, whose last-minute decision to join and become co-leader of the Leave campaign, announced that he would not enter the race to succeed David Cameron as the Conservative Party leader and prime minister. George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), who was seen as a future prime minister, also decided not to enter the leadership contest.

Amid the shock of Brexit, the party’s ‘big beasts’ Michael Gove and Liam Fox were eliminated from the leadership race in the first two rounds. The Home Secretary Theresa May, a quiet Remainer, found herself in a commanding position among Conservative members of parliament. Chris Grayling, another Leaver, made a tactical retreat without even entering the race. Andrea Leadsom, a junior minister, took a distant second place. Her lack of judgment and experience were soon obvious. Leadsom retired hurt after growing criticisms from party members and the press.

Leadsom’s withdrawal left Theresa May as the last candidate standing in the field. Thus she became the leader of the party and prime minister.

Two striking features emerged from May’s appointment of a new cabinet on taking office. The overwhelming majority of her ministers were in the Remain camp, as she herself was, before the vote. Nevertheless, she did bring some prominent figures of the Leave camp into her cabinet. She has given them departments with the responsibility to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union, and to find new trade deals to plug the big hole which leaving the EU will create.

The appointment of Boris Johnson, an outspoken politician who has a reputation for making undiplomatic remarks, as Britain’s foreign secretary has caused astonishment, ridicule and anger in Europe and the United States. Johnson has few friends, but many foes. The new Brexit Secretary, David Davis, was minister of state for Europe twenty years ago. Liam Fox has been given the department of international trade, and Andrea Leadsom environment, food and rural affairs – a department which has to deal with massive EU subsidies for farmers.

These four politicians were the main faces of the Leave campaign in the governing Conservative Party before the referendum. Now they are entrusted with the heavy responsibility of making Britain’s exit happen. For them, the time for sloganeering is over. Now they must deliver. The presence of some of the most vocal Leavers in a cabinet which has a safe majority of Remainers looks like a Machiavellian device to keep opponents in and, at the same time, contain them. If they fail, people will hold them responsible.

The United Kingdom leaving the EU would be a walk into the dark, for there is no precedence of a member-state walking out of the association. Once Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered, the process would be extremely complex, tense and risky. The prime minister has announced that she will chair three new cabinet committees which will focus on the European Union and international trade, economy and industrial strategy, and social reform. The Brexiteers who found a place in the cabinet achieved high office, but with their wings clipped. Theresa May, to whom they should be grateful, will always be watching their every move.

This outcome shows that winners are often losers in the chaotic aftermath of a popular mutiny, for that is what the referendum was. Rebellion continues to simmer under the surface in the governing Conservative Party, which has a working majority of just 16 in parliament. There are about 20 hard-line MPs who will stop at nothing short of complete exit from the EU, and Theresa May has either sacked or not promoted around 25 Tory MPs, who are unhappy. The prime minister may be safe in the cabinet she has chosen now, but the prospects of revolt in the near future are high.

The origins of the people’s revolt in the EU referendum are worth exploring. A close examination of how different groups voted is revealing (see Politico). While 70 percent 18 to 24-year-old voters wanted the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, there was a steady decline in support for the EU among older age groups. Among those aged 65 years or more, 61 percent voted to Leave. Britain’s aging population has been on the rise for years. Older people with lingering memories of World War II look negatively at the EU, in which Germany is the most powerful member-state.

Support for remaining in the EU among voters with a university degree was 71 percent. It declined with lower education to the extent that almost two-thirds of voters with a high school diploma chose to Leave. Across the political spectrum, the more right-wing voters were, the stronger their opposition to Britain’s membership of the EU and free movement of people. So Labour and Liberal-Democrat voters backed the idea to remain in large numbers while backing for leaving among Conservative and UK Independence Party supporters was very high. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. England and Wales went against. The referendum has divided families, with young and ambitious graduates wanting to travel on one side. Their parents and grandparents on the other.

Most worrying is the divide between rich and poor in England and Wales. Communities devastated by the demise of the coal and steel industries since the 1980s have still not recovered. Young, able and ambitious have moved to other parts of the country, indeed to other European countries. Left behind are the old, the less educated and the poorly skilled whose wages are easily undercut by new arrivals from other EU countries. Years of hardship, isolation and hopelessness have made them bitter and resentful. A great many of them saw in the referendum their only opportunity to punish the rich and the powerful, who had failed them. To vote Leave was their only weapon.

The United Kingdom has not seen such deep polarization in living memory. The pound has crashed. Confidence in the economy has suffered a sharp decline. Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she will not trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and start the exit process this year. For the country faces major challenges – to negotiate the exit from the EU; at the same time to maintain as much access to the European single market as possible; to negotiate dozens of new trade deals with countries around the world. These are monumental challenges. It is doubtful whether the United Kingdom has the ability to meet them without having to pay the price.

 [END]

The Dangerous Political Game That Killed Jo Cox

The Citizen

LONDON: The assassination of Jo Cox, a 41-year-old Labour MP, during a fierce political campaign ahead of the 23rd June referendum to decide whether Britain remains in the European Union, or leaves, has shocked many people. Her assassination is not only a personal tragedy for her family. It has wider significance, for British society has become deeply polarised in the current debate over immigration and its social and economic consequences.

A 52-year-old man, Thomas Mair, has been arrested and charged with the murder of the MP. When Mair was produced before a judge in London, and asked to confirm his name, he replied: “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Mair had repeatedly shot Jo Cox, and plunged a knife several times into her body as she lay dying outside a village library, where she had gone to meet her constituents.

According to the prosecution’s summary, as Mair attacked he shouted a variation of “Britain First”, “Keep Britain independent” and “Britain always comes first”. As he was arrested, Mair told police officers that he was a “political activist”.

A 77-year-old man tried to intervene, but was also attacked and seriously wounded. Britain First is an extremist right-wing group. The name chimes with the “America First” slogan of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in the US presidential election.

In a video released after the assassination, Britain First swiftly denied that the attacker had any links with the group. Other details emerging since Thomas Mair’s arrest tell a different story. There is evidence that he had purchased manuals on guns and explosives from National Alliance, an American neo-Nazi group which advocates an all-white nation.

Receipts going back many years show that Mair bought Ich Kampfe (I Fight!), an illustrated handbook issued to members of Germany’s Nazi Party in the early 1940s; and he had been a subscriber to a white supremacist magazine S. A. Patriot, published by a pro-apartheid group in South Africa.

Police found firearms, knives and Nazi regalia during their searches of Thomas Mair’s home. As further evidence emerged, an overwhelming number of people expressed grief over the death of Jo Cox. At the same time, some white supremacists glorified the act of murder on social media. Right-wing extremist groups are now a priority line of police investigations, along with Thomas Mair’s mental health. Police said that he was fit to be questioned.

The political and social landscape in Britain has undergone an alarming transformation, and poses a major challenge to society. The targeted assassination of a young politician, on the threshold of a promising career in politics after a decade of work for international charities, is a symptom of deeper conflict between antagonistic forces in British society.

To make sense of what has happened, context is all important. Despite strong opposition to Britain’s membership of the European Union in some quarters, general consent had been found after a referendum in 1975. It did not last long. Scepticism over closer integration with the rest of Europe started to come to the fore again in the 1980s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in power. She fought the European Union hierarchy, but did not make a decisive move to leave the association.

Nonetheless, many of her associates and followers were encouraged, and their hostility to the EU grew steadily. Today, distrust of Germany and France lingers in many of Britain’s older generation, though young people under 35 years of age are more pro-European Union.

Enlargement of the EU to 28 member-states and closer integration has its virtues. It has created a large single market with unrestricted movement of goods and services, but has also enabled free movement of people. It has also kept the peace in Europe. With an ageing population and shortage of workers in some sectors, immigrant workers from the European Union and outside have been coming to Britain to take up jobs which are difficult to fill. Competition in the labour market is greater.

There is downward pressure on wages because of economic austerity in the government and private sectors. Competition for jobs, and the presence of new arrivals from abroad, mean extra pressure on public services. Further, it generates resentment among working people already in Britain, because they feel disadvantaged. Their complaint, put in simplistic terms, is that foreigners are taking away their jobs.

The reality is somewhat different. Immigrants are mostly young with necessary skills, and many work as doctors, nurses, IT specialists. Others do menial jobs which British workers are reluctant to do for relatively low wages.

Anti-EU politicians have been successful in harnessing the discontent. They have fought an aggressive campaign over immigration from EU countries, and assert that the United Kingdom must regain its independence and sovereignty from the European Union – the absurd implication is that the United Kingdom is an EU colony. To this end, many politicians on the right have common cause, though their tactics may vary. Some of the language used in the “Leave” campaign has been inflammatory, even xenophobic, similar to that on the far right.

For example, claims that Turkey’s entire population of 80 million, overwhelmingly Muslim, is about to descend on Britain; the 500 million people living in the European Union can enter the country any time; and a poster similar to a Nazi-era image showing a flood of people ready to enter, with the message “Breaking Point”. After Jo Cox’s murder, her bereaved husband, Brendan, criticised mainstream politicians for legitimising extremist anti-immigrant views by imitating far-right rhetoric.

The far-right fringe group Britain First recently announced that it was to launch a “direct action campaign against Muslim elected officials targeting where they live, work and pray”. The group described them as “occupiers”.

It is a disturbing scenario in which hatred runs deep; individual interest supersedes wider community interest; there are people who feel that their leaders have granted equality and fair treatment to those who do not deserve it; the ‘undeserving’ are inferior and subhuman in their eyes. In this critical period, Britain needs leadership that promotes unity not division, cooperation not isolationism, and communal harmony not blame.

[END]

The United States, Britain and the European Union

CounterPunch

On his farewell tour, President Barack Obama has stirred the pot ahead of the June referendum in Britain on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union or leave. His warning to leavers that Britain cannot expect a trade agreement with the United States any time soon if it withdraws from the EU has infuriated leaders of the Brexit campaign, and delighted those who want to remain, including Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama’s message to Britain was that it should remain in the EU, and that it was in America’s interest, too.

Some of the comments made by leading Brexit figures in the governing Conservative Party in retaliation to Obama’s intervention have been described as borderline racist.

In a particularly outspoken jibe, London mayor and a member of the British cabinet, Boris Johnson, accused the American president of interfering in British politics. Johnson went on to say that after entering the White House Obama had ordered the removal a bust of the British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, from the Oval Office. Furthermore, he suggested that this might be because of Obama’s “part Kenyan ancestral dislike of the British empire.”

Other leading Brexit campaigners expressed similar sentiments. Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, told the American president to “butt” out of intervening in Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Farage, too, asserted that Obama was influenced by his Kenyan family’s colonial view of Britain. The use of this type of language about an American president is unprecedented for the British political establishment – a country which claims a “special relationship” with the United States.

There are striking similarities between insinuations by American conservatives about Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage and his Muslim father, and comments heard in Britain. Some members of the Brexit lobby have privately expressed fears that such direct attacks on him will backfire, and help the pro-EU campaign in a tight race. Jingoism and xenophobia live on both sides of the Atlantic. There are people ready and willing to whip up such sentiments.

Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, a member of the British parliament and a supporter of remaining in the EU, has described Boris Johnson’s remarks as appalling, and said it was “inconceivable” that his grandfather would not have welcomed Obama’s views. It was, after all, Churchill who first suggested closer European unity in a famous speech in the Swiss city of Zurich in 1946.

From the ruins of the Second World War, Churchill spoke of his vision to recreate “the European family” with a structure under which it can “dwell in peace, in safety and freedom.” He described it as something like a United States of Europe. Today, his party is tearing itself apart over whether Britain should be part of that structure.

Why should President Obama have intervened so publicly in the EU debate during his visit to Britain? And why did opponents of the European Union react so furiously? These questions require understanding of how Britain’s relations with the United States and the rest of Europe, Germany in particular, have evolved in the last century.

The Second World War was a watershed which brought enormous global change. Hitler’s Nazi regime in Europe, and imperial Japan in Asia, were defeated. But Europe was quickly divided into rival blocs again – one dominated by America, the other by the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Europe’s colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, were so exhausted that they would have found it difficult to keep distant territories under their control. And the foremost superpower, the United States, was exerting pressure on the masters to let their colonies go. The Americans wanted to expand their markets worldwide, for which they were in competition with the Soviets.

Imperial Britain had to yield to imperial America – the coming inevitability which Churchill intensely disliked. There was, however, another option. Accept that the United States was paramount; stay close to Washington; and, whenever possible, use diplomacy to maneuver America in the direction in which Britain’s interests would be served.

The United States, too, was looking for close allies – in Europe, in the United Nations Security Council and other international organizations. Germany had been the main enemy in two world wars. France, at times, was too independent for Washington’s liking. Under President Charles de Gaulle’s leadership, France left NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966, asserting its independent nuclear deterrent and broader defense policy. Only in 2009 did President Sarkozy announce that France would rejoin the military structure of NATO once again.

In contrast, the United Kingdom has enjoyed the closest military and intelligence ties with the United States. “Special relationship” is a term often invoked in London. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the iron curtain, have paved the way for NATO and the European Union to expand. Today, both organizations perform similar functions, having incorporated countries that were once in the Soviet bloc. NATO and the EU both do the job of containing Russia, and of projecting American power beyond Europe. Brexit campaigners fail to get it.

[END]

Europe’s Nanny Angela Merkel Feels Isolation: The Tide is Turning

CounterPunchMay 21, 2012; The News, Pakistan, May 23, 2012; Iran Daily, May 23, 2012;  Le Grand Soir, mai 2012  

Recent elections in France and Greece have generated a good deal of comment, suggesting that the years of center-right governance in Europe may be coming to an end. The defeat of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France by the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, and the collapse in Greece of political parties that allowed unrestrained capitalism and chaos to take hold, are major developments. But whether they represent a turning-point likely to return Western Europe to social democracy cannot be taken for granted yet.

Certainly, the public opinion has become radicalized to an alarming degree. European societies are undergoing a process of atomization as confidence in mainstream political parties and their leaders collapses. In the midst of a severe continental crisis, millions upon millions of people feel that their leaders are both unwilling and unable to look for solutions to help the most vulnerable.

The masses have become disgusted with professional politicians after giving them many opportunities. Recent national and regional elections in Greece, France and Germany are proof of voters walking away from mainstream parties whose political labels and programs are deceptive. The same trend has been repeated in the recent local elections in Britain. Unfortunately, when a government loses, the victor picks up where the defeated left. Callous disregard of the masses, and obsession with the accountants’ jargon of “balancing the books,” are behind the austerity imposed on ordinary citizens throughout the European continent. The result is the collapse of traditional politics and the rise of groups on the extremes.

This phenomenon across Europe mirrors what has long been happening in the United States. The difference is that in Europe the coercive power of supranational financial institutions, supported by the United States, is being applied with extraordinary ferocity and haste. It goes against the post-war liberal consensus, developed following the devastation of the two world wars in the last century.

The most traumatic events are taking place in Greece. The fall of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) from governance to near insignificance, and the collapse of the New Democracy Party vote by a third, in the recent general election are dramatic. The consequence is the rise of new political groups, most notably Syriza, vehemently opposed to the austerity package which, Germany, the wealthiest European country, insists upon.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has her own domestic compulsions. Germany’s public opinion is strongly against bailing other countries out of the crisis. But in refusing to yield on harsh cuts and work for economic growth instead, the German chancellor has created a distinct impression that she does not recognize the Greek people’s democratic choice. The appearance of diktats from Bonn is a highly sensitive issue, for memories of Nazi occupation of Greece during the Second World War are still alive among many Greeks. They may be one of the poorest member-states in the European Union, but are proud of their history and civilization.

The Greek electorate’s refusal to accept harsh cuts any more, reflected in the country’s extraordinarily polarization, made the formation of a coalition government impossible. Reports of the German chancellor telling Greece to hold a referendum on whether Athens wanted to retain the euro currency added fuel to the fire and those reports had to be denied. Nevertheless, the coming election in June will in effect be a referendum on Greece’s continuing presence in the euro area. Otherwise, the country walks away from the straightjacket which eurozone has become, prompting a default on its debt payments and causing a financial “calamity,” as many free marketeers have been predicting with passion.

The past decade has been one of retreat for social democratic politics in Europe. From Scandinavian countries in the north to Italy and Greece in the south, the political right has been dominant across the continent. However, just when old social democrats looked utterly defeated, new forces of the left are beginning to come forward. They have begun to fight back and the tide has started to turn.

In recent months, Chancellor Merkel of Germany has looked like a heartless nanny who has mishandled the Greek crisis. As long as she had an ally in Nicolas Sarkozy as the president of France, the duo dominated. Now, however, Greece is not the only European Union member in crisis and Merkel stands severely weakened by at least two factors. One is the defiance of the Greek people. The other, even more decisive, is the defeat of Sarkozy by his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in the French presidential election. Along with Greece, France too goes to the polls for the National Assembly in June, when the domination of the French right is almost certain to end. At home, the defeat of Merkel’s party in Germany’s most populous region, North Rhine Westphalia, by the Social Democrats is a major jolt against her center-right coalition.

So the tide is turning in Europe and the left is emerging from the wilderness years. But it is not certain how bold the new left, splintered and still facing a strong challenge from the entrenched right, is going to be. It is to be seen whether the left is able to assert itself in the ideological battle with the right.

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