Current Affairs Editor
The 26 September 2021 has been a crucially important day for Germany, but also for Europe. The election held on that day did not only have the role of deciding the political succession to Angela Merkel in the Kanzleramt (Chancellery) after 17 years of "Mutti" leading the nation. While its full outcomes are not yet entirely decided, this election will also have a lasting impact on the international political scene.
Indeed, the election results have provided no clear-cut outcome, which makes prognoses for the future difficult. While the formerly ruling party, the CDU/CSU has come second behind the socialist party SPD by less than two percentage points, the SPD is in no position to dictate what will happen when it comes to forming a government. In fact, the German political tradition of coalitions has placed the ball in the smaller parties’ court.
In the race for the chancellorship, the Green party (Bündnis90/Die Grünen) initially did very well, and their candidate Annalena Baerbock was at times even ahead of Armin Laschet, the candidate of the CDU, and Olaf Scholz, candidate of the SPD. However, in the months running up to the election, the Greens lost a considerable number of percentage points, and thus reached 14.75 % on 26 September. Next to the Greens, the neoliberal party FDP also managed to position itself as a key player in the ongoing coalition negotiations.
In coalition scenarios, a leftist alliance between the Green Party, the SPD and the Left Party (Die Linke) was quickly ruled out. The two most viable options were thus so-called “flag” coalitions, named after national flags for their colours. A “Jamaica” coalition would involve the CDU (black), the FDP (yellow) and the Greens. However, this plan was officially abandoned on 6 October 2021, and the “Senegal” or “traffic light” coalition of SPD (red), Greens and the FDP has become most likely. It would be the first of its kind in German history.
Whatever the outcomes of this election will eventually be once a government is formed – which will still take time –, it is however clear that this could have wide-reaching consequences. Germany, next to France, is still one of the main driving forces of the European Union. As France also faces upcoming presidential elections in 2022, the potential leadership changes in both countries could profoundly impact the EU. At a time when Europe is searching for a place between the growing Sino-American rivalry and the equally growing political ambitions from Russia, these elections and their results could potentially destabilise European efforts to assert themselves - or strengthen them.
The situation will thus have to be especially closely monitored through the lense of foreign policy. Under Merkel, Germany has overall been fairly quiet on the international scene and has shied away from many engagements and open alliances, often positioning itself in the role of a mediator. This was for instance the case when the Syrian Civil War started, as Germany repeatedly stressed a diplomatic resolution over a joint European military intervention. Germany only agreed to military measures that were ultimately never taken when it became known that the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad was using lethal sarine gas against his own people. Likewise, Germany is a mediator in the peace efforts to resolve the war between Ukraine and Russia, sparked in 2014, and continues to do so despite the increasing Russo-European tensions over the last years.
Decisions like these have also had an impact on overall foreign policy and perception of the EU by the global community; the EU’s dependence, in particular in a military context, on the US has also played a role. And as China has become increasingly aggressive in its foreign and economic policy over the last decade, the EU has not decided on a joint strategy on how to navigate the clear opposition between China and the US, nor its own relation to China. While the US is heading into the direction of a conflict with China, Europe has important economic relations with Beijing and a slightly less hostile relationship to consider. These exterior problems highlight the EU’s internal divisions, as even Germany and France as leading forces often steer in different directions. Under Macron, France continues to campaign for more European autonomy, both in an economic and a military context, while Germany has usually urged for caution. Berlin's approach to foreign policy could now be changed under the new coalition, although there remains the problem of how cooperative the three different parties will be, as their political ideas sometimes differ to quite some extent. The effectiveness of this historic coalition will therefore only become apparent after some time.
Whatever government Germany will officially be led by for the next four years, the tensions and looming threats on the international scene will arguably create a challenge for Germany - and, by extension, for Europe and its relation to the world.
The storming of the Capitol has provoked the wrong questions.
Where everyone’s eyes are right now is understandable. After the US Capitol building was stormed on Wednesday the 6th of January 2021, general panic filled the media, rightfully so to a degree. Currently the focus is on how Trump provoked the violent protest, why the Capitol Police failed to prepare for what everyone expected, and the individual recounts of the events by Capitol staff, reporters and members of congress.
There are important questions to be asked about these issues, but we must see past them if we are to truly understand what is going on. Whilst Trump’s words did directly translate into violence, he is a symptom of a more deep-rooted illness. Democratic Representative Jim Himes from Connecticut hopes that this is the peak of the troubled phase of the American democracy, and that this is the worst it will become. But to think that the election of Joe Biden fixes anything is to be either naïve, or wilfully blind.
Twenty-first century politics in the West seems to be the story of populist narratives exploiting what appears to be a deeply insecure society.
In America the obvious place to start is the socio-economic conditions. Social mobility has decreased over time in the US (the lowest out of the industrialised nations), but perceptions of social mobility tend to be optimistic whilst the American Dream is held onto.
Income inequality has experienced a steady rise since the 1980s but attempts at addressing the blatant neo-liberal undermining of the social fabric are dismissed as a Marxist plot. The country’s symbolic dedication to the capitalistic land of the free, where the American Dream is possible for all, holds it back.
An aspect of American society which cannot be ignored are the racial tensions. Not long ago we all watched daily updates on violent clashes between police and Black Lives Matter protestors. The reports of Capitol Police removing barricades to allow protestors to pass and taking selfies with pro-Trump protestors paints a stark contrast between law enforcement’s responses to the two protests.
Trump does not exist in a vacuum and whilst he should be held responsible for violence his words caused, we should not pretend Trump entered a perfectly stable political environment and suddenly created division.
Political violence always has an underlying cause. People do not simply leave their homes and risk their lives and safety for no reason. Whilst it is easy to dismiss radicals as fanatics, the truth is something radicalised them, whether it be Trump supporters in the US, Brexit supporters in the UK, Orban supporters in Hungary or PiS supporters in Poland, they have turned to political extremities for a reason, typically anger; anger which has been hijacked for political purposes.
If we dismiss the storming of the Capitol building as a violent culmination to four years of absurdity, which can be locked away and forgotten because Joe Biden will save us from our perils, we fail to understand the historical trends which brought us here.
Populism works best when underlying trends in society have angered people, and if we fail to acknowledge the societal patterns which enabled the violence then we will see more of it in the future.
In 2020, the world has not only seen the emergence of a virus that would plunge it into chaos and the biggest health crisis of the new millennium; this year has also witnessed the emergence of a number of military conflicts across the globe, not all of them new, but some aggravated by the crises of this time.
After the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which concluded on 10 November, on 4 November 2020 it became known that an armed conflict had ensued in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. Following Ethiopian elections in 2018, the TPLF, the Tigray People´s Liberation Front, a militarily and politically significant autonomous movement, has repeatedly defied orders from the new government and commenced regional election processes in Tigray in September 2020, once again in defiance of the federal government. Barely two months later, these political tensions have resulted in an armed conflict that seems far from being resolved.
The conflict that has ensued in the region follows a pattern that is not new: a region that is already leaning towards autonomy, ethnic and political tensions resulting in unrest and armed uprisings, military retaliation from the government. But foremost, it is a conflict that is not supposed to exist, at least not in the eyes of the Ethiopian government, who are trying their best to distract, deny and silence any diffusion of news on the events in the north of the country. International press has nevertheless made an effort to report on the conflict, especially so since human rights groups have identified at least one large-scale massacre to have taken place according to the United Nations. The Ethiopian attempts of covering up the events in Tigray merely confirm that this conflict is marked by military brutality and severe violations of human rights.
Aside from the internal turmoil of the country, what do these events however mean for the wider region and the neighbouring nations? Ethiopia situates itself in a zone in the east of the African continent, which, until now, would not have been regarded as unstable as other parts such as Mali; however, the conflict in Tigray brings instability to a region that has South Sudan – since its split from Sudan still a zone of ongoing conflict and violence – and Somalia, a country shaken by famine, Islamist terrorism and pirate attacks on its coasts.
And then, there is also the problem of refugees: naturally, as in any unstable region, many choose to flee from the violence that is being unleashed during the clashes between independent forces and the military controlled by the government. It is estimated that about one million out of the six million inhabitants of the Tigray region have already become refugees. Aside from the disastrous effects these movements of migration will have in the time of a pandemic, the neighbouring countries, notably Eritrea, whence already refugees regularly try to reach Europe, have to take in those who flee from Tigray. From a humanitarian point of view, the situation is thus already catastrophic; lack of medical care, food, communication, and almost everything else will make this conflict far more costly in terms of civilian losses and regional destabilization than any political victories could justify.
Bartek Maj (Current Affairs Editor)
Poland finds itself at a legal, social, and political crossroads. The anti-government protests sparked by a court ruling banning abortions due to serious birth defects, outlawing almost all abortions, has caused the biggest protests since the fall of communism. This upheaval is a reaction to a long pattern of the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) implementing anti-democratic reforms as they push forwards a far-right populistic rhetoric.
The governing party presents itself as the traditionalist party of Catholic values and of Polish nationalism. PiS uses familiar populist tactics of establishing a self-other narrative where a select few “good” Poles are worthy patriots whilst everyone else is the enemy who is trying to undermine the Polish vision (the EU, the LGBT community, Russia, communists, etc).
Alongside its ideological populism, the government has implemented a range of anti-democratic judicial reforms since it was elected in 2015. Through manipulating the retirement ages of judges and the judicial appointments, PiS managed to curb trust in the independence of their courts to the point where in March of 2020 a German court refused to extradite to Poland as they doubted the defendant would receive a fair trial.
These reforms have put Poland and the EU on a collision course as the country fails to live up to its democratic and judicial standards, but there is little the EU can do as Poland is supported by Hungary, a country which has been a more extreme case of anti-democratic populistic rhetoric since the FIDESZ party was elected under Viktor Orbán with an supermajority in its legislature in 2010. The two countries have become the two most concerning cases of democratic backsliding in the EU, after a post-communist period of promising moves away from authoritarianism and towards democratisation.
However, the recent protests show that Poland is not united behind the populist authoritarian agenda of PiS. Over the past weeks, videos of mass protests have emerged as people have come out into the streets, challenging the traditionalist order which has been forced onto them. Poland has always been a strict Catholic nation with some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, even before the recent court ruling, however, it seems the extremity of PiS is pushing the country towards a violent re-awakening. A leader of an organiser of the protests (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet, OSK) summarises it well when she says the protests are against a wider patriarchal culture of anti-women and anti-LGBT rhetoric, and a religious fundamentalist state with a questionable judiciary.
However, these protests are simply the set up for what is a national showdown between populist religious fundamentalism and those who do not wish to be oppressed, a confrontation which can be seen in many other parts of the continent and the world.
In Italy and Spain, the celebration of Easter comes second only to Christmas. Normally, Easter celebrations involve numerous processions throughout cities, towns and villages. Floats featuring effigies of Jesus and Mary pass through the streets, marching bands accompany the processions, and thousands of people gather to celebrate. Easter brings people together in a way that goes beyond religion - although the majority of Spain and Italy is considered to be Catholic, Easter celebrations bring vast numbers of tourists, and there are even some secular processions.
This year it is not possible to hold the customary celebrations. The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt across the globe, and the cancellation of Easter celebrations brings increased social, religious and economic impacts.
While Easter celebrations in Spain and Italy differ greatly from those in the UK, we are all facing similar social impacts at this time. Although the Easter processions are sombre and serious, they are also celebratory and bring vast numbers of people together in the streets. Normally, families would gather for a large lunch of traditional dishes and cakes, much like we do in the UK. In Italy, Easter Monday is typically spent with friends on trips to the country or picnics in the parks. In whichever way an individual might choose to spend Easter, it is almost certain that they would be surrounded by other people.
This year, instead of taking to the streets to watch the ceremonies, people were confined to their homes, unable to attend the important religious events. Pope Francis still carried out the majority of the customary rituals, with the faithful joining him through the media. However, one of the most important and dramatic elements of Holy Week had to be cancelled - the traditional ‘Via Crucis’ torchlit procession on Good Friday in which the Pope says numerous prayers and passes his blessings on to the crowd. Instead, the Pope read the prayers in an almost empty St Peter’s square and the event was transmitted online.
Moreover, it is not only locals who attend the Easter celebrations in Spain and Italy – in fact, many areas in Spain and Italy consider Easter to mark the beginning of the tourist season. In Spain, Seville is renowned for holding one of the largest Easter celebrations and last year this city alone generated 400 million euros during Semana Santa. This year, with the Semana Santa processions cancelled for the first time since 1933, the city has suffered an enormous emotional and economic loss. Seville will not be the only place to have suffered hugely. It is customary that the Easter processions are rehearsed and planned for many months, costing a vast amount of money, most of which is spent before Easter itself. These losses add yet another layer to the crisis being faced during this time.
However, the crucifixion is also seen as a story of rebirth. Perhaps this can take on an extra significance this year and serve as a ray of hope as Italy and Spain begin to slowly lift restrictions.
By Imogen Peck.
The European Union has come under increasing scrutiny in the last few years, and independence campaigns throughout European nations have restlessly highlighted some of its shortcomings. Most recently the EU has faced criticism from the Danish Employment Minister, Peter Hummelgaard, after Nordic countries suggested that the imposition of an EU-wide minimum wage would undermine the successful collective bargaining model which has led to higher than average wages in Scandinavia. In other words, it is an imperfect political body, and so there are many pragmatic reasons – not least the undemocratic nature of EU law – which help to explain why the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016. However, it is my belief that sovereignty was not the decisive factor in bringing about Brexit. One must assess the emotion appeal that ultimately led the Leave campaign to victory.
The British public were warned that leaving the European Union would be worse for business and therefore weaken the economy. Among the points made in the economic case for Remain was the fact that parts of the UK receive significant amounts of EU funding. Hence it is curious that Wales, a country which has received £4billion in ‘structural funding’ from the EU since 2000, was one of the places which voted most heavily to leave. Similarly, in Sunderland, another place which swung overwhelmingly for leave, thousands of jobs have been put at risk after Nissan decided to review the running of its factory in that city, which has been the Japanese carmaker’s production base in Europe since 1986. Why would two regions, with so much to lose, take such a risk?
The answer is simple – the vote was an emphatic two fingers, directed unmistakably at a condescending London establishment. Both Wales and Sunderland were hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, and their struggle was replicated in similar regions across the UK. Having seen their communities grow weaker as a result of financial decisions made by the big bankers, the referendum was their chance to reject the same ‘experts’ who had ignored their communities in the previous years. A poll by YouGov in 2017 found that 61% of Brexiteers were willing to ‘damage the economy’ in order to push through with Brexit. This clearly illustrates how emotive reasoning often preceded economic pragmatism in the decision to vote to leave the European Union.
Nationalism has grown throughout Europe, and its influence on the British decision to leave the EU cannot be understated. Studies have consistently found that British citizens consider themselves less ‘European’ than other EU nations. Geographically this can be explained by the fact that the UK is not physically connected to the rest of Europe. However, the fact that the UK was not a member of the Schengen Area and did not use the Euro, and yet still decided to vote for Brexit, suggests that this less ‘inclusive’ deal, this unique arrangement, was simply not enough. National identity is something much more collective in the UK than in other EU countries. Unlike in Germany where regional pride is greater than national pride, or in Spain where national identity often revolves around language and dialect, Britons pride themselves on being British first and European second. This is reflected in the age demographic of leave voters, who tended to be older than those who voted to remain. While younger generations largely grew up thinking themselves both British and European, many older leave voters remember life before Britain entered what was then the European Common Market in 1973. These voters grew up with a resolute sense of themselves as British. And, while many would have voted to remain a member in Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum, the evolving nature of the European constitution in the years after that vote – Brussels taking on more and more powers – was always likely to upset that sense of British identity, and produce a backlash of the sort we witnessed in 2016. A strong sense of national pride, then, seems to underpin one of the most important reasons for why Brexit happened: a nostalgic desire to return to the past.
Nostalgia is one of the most powerful human emotions. While some may view history as an exponentially progressive march, it is hard to argue that Britain today is in a better position than before. Whether people voted to leave the European Union with their head or their heart, they evidently did so in the hope that their decision would improve the United Kingdom. Many remember a time when the National Health Service was the pride of the country, and the promise to take the £350million we pay to the EU every week and redirect that money to the NHS clearly influenced many voters. As I have said, Brexit was a rejection of the establishment. Nigel Farage himself said that the vote to leave was a win against ‘big merchant banks’ and ‘big politics.’ Many voted against these big establishments as they remember a time when globalisation and business did not take precedence over the smaller voices of local communities. The desire for the past can also be seen in the promise to end freedom-movement with the European Union. Communities felt as though their identities had been diluted by European immigration, and the rejection of immigration indicates a desire to return to a more ‘British’ Britain. And while there are statistics which show that immigration both socially and economically benefits the UK, it is hard for many communities to recognize the force of these benefits when they compare their lives today to years before.
Of course, it is impossible to give a single concrete reason for why Brexit happened. Rather, a more holistic view of the cultures and attitudes of Britons is required. What does seem to be clear is that Brexit was not merely a result of the failure of the European Union. Political apathy towards an ever-elitist group of London-based ‘experts’, poor social and economic conditions throughout the UK and frustration at the effects of austerity culminated over many years. The 2016 referendum simply provided the stage for many who felt forgotten or left behind to voice their anger at the perfect opportunist scapegoat – the European Union.
By Haroon Faqir
Eclipsed by the recent tensions between Iran and the US, events in Lebanon have been overlooked. This article overviews the current situation, and what can be expected in the future.
On Sunday 13th October 2019, a series of 100 forest fires broke out in Lebanon, devastating both agricultural and residential communities of the Chouf District and areas of south Beirut. Fortunately, there were few civilian fatalities, however, this would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Cyprian and Greek emergency services. The Lebanese Civil Defence was forced to call upon foreign aid due to the inability of their own services to tame the fires. Their incapacity to independently resolve the blaze is indicative of the country’s failing public service sector and, on a larger-scale symptomatic of their fragile political situation. Tensions have long been brewing in Lebanon owing to persistent problems with governmental policy and on Thursday 17th October 2019, over 100 civilian activists took to the streets of Beirut. A growing dissatisfaction with the government as well as the poor handling of the forest fires and the imposition of new taxes on Tobacco and WhatsApp voice calls became the breaking point. Although the protests subsided over the holidays, this week they took a much more violent turn. Central banks in particular suffered great damage, with some burnt to the ground.
Lebanon’s political configuration is unusual - maintaining a sectarian government. For those unfamiliar with this concept of sectarianism in the political realm, it means that the 18 officially recognised religions in Lebanon must share power and each religion receives a specific number of seats in parliament. At the top of the hierarchy - the President must be a Maronite Christian; the Prime Minister a Sunni and, the speaker of the house a Shia. Whilst at surface-level the mass protests may seem to be about matters such as the WhatsApp tax, objecting sectarianism. This is particularly remarkable as the sectarian democracy has been in place since Lebanese independence in 1943, and the system runs deep in the country’s history.
It is not difficult to see how this sectarian system may prove controversial. Cooperation becomes increasingly difficult in a sectarian government as it entrenches religious differences, and with a two third majority needed for laws and motions to be passed, action becomes near impossible. Case in point - the presidential election took 2 years, and after this a further 3 years until a president could be decided. Public trust in the government has deteriorated exponentially and what is remarkable is that the population is crossing their own sectarian and political divisions in order to unite in the protest for a secular government. Breaking their sects in order to break the government.
Prime Minister Saad Hiriri has already announced his resignation only weeks into the protests. He claims that his resignation serves “the country’s dignity and safety”. However, this has only led to greater fear and uncertainty. If Lebanon does not suffer first from an economic collapse due to its intractable government debt, it will suffocate under the pressure of its environmental crisis. A lack in governmental authority has led to severe ecological issues in Lebanon, and environmental politics have become a national priority. State negligence has caused a complete dysfunction of Lebanon’s waste disposal system, and as journalist Sune Haugbolle writes “the environment has deteriorated apace with public trust in the government and hope for the future”.
There is a desperate need for a stable government who can provide long-term waste-management strategies, as stop-gap measures will no longer suffice. The call for a cleaner Lebanon reflects a call for fundamental human rights, as the gases emitted from landfills have rendered living conditions dire and cases of emphysema, heart conditions and asthma are increasing. Lebanon will remain a country paralysed by political dysfunction if it doesn’t address the certain shortcomings of its sectarian system and despite the obvious progress of the protests, whether they will be able to force a change of government is yet to be seen. One can only hope that change will come before the imminent economic and ecological crises.
By Amana Moore
In English the word “gilet” may bring to mind made-in-Chelsea-esque characters sitting in the Ivy with a Bloody Mary, but this French activist group wear a very different kind of gilet, one which has become the recognised symbol of an anti-government movement who claim to protest for social and economic justice in France. Translated directly, Les Gilets Jaunes means “The Yellow Vests”, referring to the hi-vis vests that French law requires all drivers to keep in their vehicles.
Last month marked one year since around 280,000 people across France turned up to protest taxes introduced by President Emmanuel Macron in the first Gilets Jaunes demonstrations on 13th November 2018. Sparked by a rise in fuel prices which largely affected those living in more rural areas of France, over the subsequent months the movement became more concerned with other issues facing French society. The demands of the group spanned from raising the minimum wage to calling for Macron’s resignation, and its supporters were wide-ranging, both in views and approach. While some protesters insisted on peaceful action, others have turned to violence. Interestingly, their lack of official political orientation has meant their support ranges from the far-left to the far-right, making it difficult for the government to negotiate with them as an entity. Rather than addressing a singular leader, the French government have had to negotiate with a mix of political groups united under a common feeling of discontent, reminiscent of similar populist movements taking place across Europe. With no centralised leadership, their rise to prominence has been attributed to a timely exploitation of pertinent social and economic concerns and a tactical use of social media platforms such as Facebook, through which most of their demonstrations are organised.
After weeks of protest in Paris in 2018, Macron confronted this “economic and social emergency” in a special public address in December of that year and proceeded to freeze the price of electricity and gas until May 2019, to implement a €100-a-month increase in the minimum wage from 2019, and other significant changes. This turnaround in policy was delivered with a contrite tone, Macron accepting his “share of responsibility” for the uprisings. Macron then toured the country with a “grand national debate” as a way of enabling French people to express their economic and social views. The impact of the movement also stretched further afield, with other countries staging similar demonstrations in which protesters donned the same yellow vests.
As the government have responded to the anger demonstrated in Autumn 2018 over the last 12 months, popular support for the Gilets Jaunes has arguably dwindled, with a recent poll by Elabe for BFMTV suggesting that over half of the French population want the protests of the Gilets Jaunes to stop. The impact of the Gilets Jaunes movement on French society both emotionally and practically over the past year is undeniable, but the future of this protest group is difficult to gauge. Is it just another demonstration of an infamous determination to protest in a country founded on rebellion? Or perhaps it shows a progressive relationship between people and state? Having successfully reminded Macron (accused of being the ‘president for France’s elite’) that there is a whole population of French people who will not stand for these “inégalités”, perhaps the work of the Gilets Jaunes is complete. In the face of increasingly violent action at the hands of the Gilets Jaunes, many of the group’s more moderate supporters have distanced themselves from the disruption, leaving a determined core who insist that their fight is far from over. The yellow vest has undoubtedly become a symbol for productive activism in France; they protested for change and they got it. However, this image of change does not come without its complications.
The Gilets Jaunes have shown that protest can be productive, and we perhaps have something to learn from the French in this. The impact they created was brought about by a unifying sense of discontent, and now, in the face of Macron’s concessions, the intensity of widespread feeling has faded, if temporarily. Although maybe less well-attended, the protests continue to take place and the yellow gilets have not quite gone out of fashion. The flame, if small, remains, ready to be stoked when the occasion arises.
‘This government was not going to hang around’ and ‘that we would not wait until Brexit day, October 31st, to deliver on the priorities of the British people,’ declared Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on 2nd September over the chants of Westminster protesters. Now nearing a general election on 12th December, with the Brexit deadline in a constant state of postponement, is it wise to take our parliamentary representatives’ words with a pinch of salt, an ounce, or a kilo?
Among the many possible eventualities which could determine the course of Brexit based upon the general election result, the three most probable outcomes are shrouded with delay and uncertainty. For if the Conservatives win a majority, Johnson claims he will back Brexit and ‘get it done’ before 31st January 2020, though this would not necessarily entail a Conservative majority, but a leave majority. If Labour wins the election, Jeremy Corbyn will call for further delay beyond 31st January, promising six months of negotiating the withdrawal agreement again, then putting a referendum back to the people. In the event that the Liberal Democrats win, though this is unlikely, Brexit would be scrapped in true ‘Bullocks to Brexit’ fashion.
Speaking to protesters outside Westminster, many were infuriated and felt cheated by the government and their handling of Brexit. ‘Some may call it a national crisis, what are your views on the uncertainty [surrounding Brexit], is it worrying for the nation?’
‘Well, there’s a very simple way to stop the uncertainty and that’s to revoke article 50,’ claimed Ruth from Canterbury. ‘Why should we respect the result [2016 EU referendum]? You know, which bit should we respect? The inequalities? the lying? the cheating? the foreign money? the Cambridge Analytica adverts? What is there to respect? There is nothing democratic about it at all.’
On Brexit, Sam from South London put his foot down saying that, ‘there are enough people on the leave side — I’d say at least 1.2 million; for them, a no-deal Brexit would be the line that is crossed, therefore as a Democrat I think that if it’s a no-deal that we’re getting we need to either stop that [gestures to protests outside Parliament] by letting Parliament do their job or have a second referendum between remain and no-deal because I think that’s what a democratic mandate would say we needed.’
When questioned which party he would vote for in the general election Sam responded, ‘if Rory Stewart had won the Conservative leadership debate I would be voting for the Conservatives and not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour government.’ He then affirmed that because Johnson leads the party he will vote for the Liberal Democrats.
At what point will the Commons put their ideological differences aside and act in the national interest? Something of a positional issue has now turned into a national crisis and if the tensions facing Parliament were not bad enough, the delay has brought about further grid-lock, throwing days away like pennies down a wishing well. Brexit remains a lingering dread on people’s minds and whether you are remain or leave, the delay brings many people to the same judgement; Brexit must be dealt with now.
“Trafficking”, “immigration”, “refugees”. Whether used as terms for political scaremongering or simply on the front pages, these are three words that we hear all too often. It was only three weeks ago that 39 Vietnamese nationals were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex after attempting to reach the UK through clandestine methods. This is very much not the first case of its kind, and nor will it be the last. Is it not time that we re-think our immigration policies?
On 23rd October, 31 men and 8 women were found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry container in an industrial park in Essex. Since then, the driver of the lorry has been charged with manslaughter and three others have been released on bail on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy of human trafficking. The identities of the victims as well as their cause of death is still under forensic investigation, however, Essex police have termed it the “largest mass fatality victim identification process in their history”. It is reported that some of the victims and their families paid up to £30,000 for what they believed to be a ‘safe route’ to the UK.
What these 39 Vietnamese men and women shared was the promised hope of a better life in the UK. Risking family debt and security, they unknowingly were signing up for a scam; the promises of VIP entry on a business class ticket to the UK, and a more prosperous life upon arrival. However, paradoxically, immigration policies are only getting stricter, which is forcing more and more migrants to take these life-threatening journeys. The Essex lorry deaths are not an isolated incident. Tragically, the 39 Vietnamese nationals make up just 4% of official migrant deaths in the Mediterranean this year. This story was covered in every UK news outlet and made the front pages of every newspaper, yet despite the horrifying realities of human trafficking that it exposed, it failed to precipitate a government-level discussion over immigration policies.
Ultimately, there is no perfect solution on how to police immigration, which is what makes this such a polarizing issue. From one perspective, in a ‘Trump-esque’ fashion, the UK government could resolve to build a more fortified border. Indeed, this was at the forefront of the ‘vote leave’ Brexit campaign in 2016, with many UK citizens advocating stricter immigration policies in order to “keep out foreigners”. However, being an island with an 11,000-mile coastline, it is perhaps ingenuous to believe that this would be an effective or economical approach to the issue. As one iNews reporter sharply suggested “Build bigger walls and determined people will build bigger tunnels or buy longer ladders”.
This apathetic ‘build a wall’ approach gives rise to the question of fundamental human compassion. Shouldn’t we be looking beyond how to best keep a tally of who’s crossing the border and how we can stop them, but rather question why they are crossing the border? Why were 13.6 million people forced to flee their homes in 2018? Why are we still letting human traffickers capitalize on human suffering? Why are we denying access to these desperate people?
When Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee, washed up dead on the Turkish coastline in 2015, this evoked emotion in even the most heartless of the population. What this image also did was educate. It educated us about the reasons that forced this young boy and his family to flee Syria by such desperate measures. Reasons such as; violence, persecution and insecurity. The Essex lorry deaths have played a similar role, laying bare the fragility of life in Vietnam. In addition, it has disclosed the cruel reality of human trafficking. It is estimated the smugglers responsible for the Vietnamese nationals would have made upwards of £500,000, whether the 31 men and 8 women survived, or not. From these instances alone it seems certain that harsher immigration policies in the UK are not the answer.
Ultimately this demonstrates the urgent need for a deeper global awareness of the driving forces and motivators that lead migrants and refugees to flee their homelands under such desperate circumstances. Hopefully then moving forward, immigration policies will be determined in a more informed and compassionate manner. One suggested solution is to increase border regulation rather than fortification of controls – but this puts pressure on a system which is already struggling. Or it is possible that increased support, whether financial or other, to the countries of origin would be effective? Although sadly the Essex lorry deaths may not have been the wake-up call that the UK so desperately needs, what is certain is that they demonstrate why there needs to be a reinvigorated urgency for a change in attitudes amongst UK policy makers and the population alike.
By Tilly Campbell, Current Affairs Editor
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