Throughout August 2021, it seemed as though the Taliban were rapidly taking over two things: Afghanistan, and the news. Fast forward to December, and whilst they have very much retained their hold on the former, they are not to be found anywhere in the latter. However, that is not to say that the Taliban have not been busy since taking over Kabul, the country’s capital, on August 16. The ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ was, until recently, a name associated with the turbulent period of Afghan history before the US invasion of 2001, when the Taliban controlled up to 90% of the country and fostered al-Qaeda. However, it has once again emerged as an active modern-day country, once again associated with a dire record of women’s rights, a harbourer of the illegal opium trade, a suspicious attitude towards education and free thinking, a growth in terror group activity, and a decline in the state of regional relations. Despite this, the case for replacing the current government is incredibly weak.
Several weeks after the fall of Kabul, US Senator for South Carolina Lindsay Graham stated his belief in the inevitability of US forces “going back to Afghanistan” in the future following their withdrawal after twenty years of operations there. Whilst it is not a commonly held view at the moment, it is nonetheless one that should be refuted. The best thing other nations, particularly Western nations, can do right now is to provide examples of well-functioning, rights-respecting democracies. If the last 20 years in the MENA region has proven anything, it is that external attempts to impose laws, ideologies and systems of government on a country have a very low chance of working. Interventions by the West in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have yielded few results, with all four being classed as ‘authoritarian regimes’ by The Economist’s Democracy Index in 2020. By contrast, western military intervention has only served to increase resentment towards its governments and its peoples, and has smeared its core ideals of democracy, the rule of law and individual rights. Therefore, tempting as it may seem when an image of a homeless 6-year old boy or a young girl kicked out of education by the Taliban appears on television, advocating military intervention once more is a naïve path to walk down.
Undoubtedly, the Taliban government has been disastrous for Afghanistan; by almost all measures of effective and representative government, it scores incredibly low. Whilst the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan - the official name for the internationally-supported government that ruled the country between 2004 and 2021 - was deeply flawed, it can at least be said to have been working towards the institution of democracy. After just four months of Taliban rule, the impact on women’s rights, for instance, is clear to see. Whilst women can still go out and do shopping, those who worked for universities, NGOs, newspapers or in government can no longer do so, and girls are prevented from going to school. 60 of the country’s 69 female MPs fled the country as the Taliban engulfed more and more regions, while the other 9 who didn’t remain in hiding and fear for their lives in the face of ever-growing Taliban radicalisation.
The Taliban’s impact on life in Afghanistan is not limited to its consequences for women. Production of opium, the raw material used to make prescription drugs and heroin, has increased since August 2021, despite the Taliban assuring the world that they would crack down on the trade. They have little incentive to do so, given that opium accounts for around one-tenth of Afghanistan’s economic output and the industry employs 590,000 Afghans. It is a lucrative market, as 80% of opium produced globally comes from Afghanistan. In this case, sheer ideological conviction is not sufficient reason for the Taliban for a crackdown. Their promise that in Afghanistan “nobody can be involved in drug smuggling” rings as hollow as their pledge to respect media freedom and human rights.
More general economic issues are endemic under the Taliban. US-led sanctions have harmed the country, freezing almost $10bn of Afghanistan’s assets in August. This caused a banking crisis that led to queues outside many banks in the country, and the Taliban imposing a $200 weekly withdrawal limit on all customers. Further, many Afghan businessmen have fled the country, and are currently waiting in Turkey and Saudi Arabia to see what action the Taliban take to enact their ‘business-friendly’ messaging. The IMF predicts that formal business will shrink by 30% in the next few months, and concrete business-friendly policies are in short supply in Afghanistan at the moment - alongside many staple goods and fundamental supplies.
Indeed, an article in The Economist from November indiciates the extremely worrying humanitarian situation in the country; 23m Afghans out of a population of 38m face acute hunger, a number that has already increased by 3m since earlier this year and will undoubtedly be exacerbated by Taliban governance. This includes 3m malnourished children, with reports of 11 year olds weighing just 13kg. However, Afghanistan’s dire situation is not solely down to the Taliban. Afghanistan’s economy has not had firm foundations in a long time, with three-quarters of government spending under the Islamic Republic prior to 2021 coming from foreign aid. Half the country was already living on less than $1.90 per day before the takeover, and UN estimates that this will increase to 97% by the summer of next year are principally down to the denial of funds the Taliban government faces from abroad.
The previous government had access to such funds despite the extensive corruption that existed at its every level; from the New Kabul Bank scandal in 2010 to it being ranked the 165th worst country in the world for corruption out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index, the evidence was clear. It would be undesirable to try and reimpose such a notorious government on Afghanistan, and the Taliban are currently the only viable alternative. Issues such as the lack of pay for civil servants and the mass unemployment of former policemen and soldiers could be helped, if not solved, by some international assistance to the government.
However chaotic and poorly-governed Afghanistan may seem, international military intervention would do nothing to remedy the situation. The takeover has led to multiple changes in the country’s political situation with regards to regional and international relations. When the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, the Islamic Emirate received limited recognition from a small minority of the world’s countries, notably neighbouring Pakistan who was the strongest diplomatic ally of the country until 9/11 and the fall of the first Taliban regime. Whilst as of yet the Emirate has not received official recognition from any other country, it appears likely that such a formality will soon be granted by old allies. Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan described the Taliban takeover as having “broken the shackles of slavery” for the Afghan people, whilst the Saudi embassy in Kabul reopened on November 30. The United States’ old enemies Russia and China have also shown favourable attitudes towards the new government, with the former removing the Taliban from its list of banned organisations in October and the latter hoping for “friendship and cooperation” with the new authorities. Regional power Iran is willing to tolerate the Taliban despite ideological differences and reported border clashes; in the words of a former Iranian diplomat, “Iran is worried that if it does not tolerate the Taliban's undiplomatic behaviour, Afghanistan will fall into the hands of Iran's enemies”.
There is little appetite for replacing the Taliban regime once again. Multiple regional and international powers stand in the way, and throughout the West citizens and politicians alike have grown tired of the drain on time, money and resources that Afghanistan has turned into. The understandable consensus is that it is better left to soft power institutions, such as the United Nations, negotiations and donor funds, to make change. It is potent to remember the reason the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the first place; to get rid of the threat of al-Qaeda. There are some indiciations that al-Qaeda has been growing again slightly since August and the Taliban are unlikely to follow through on their pledge to entirely separate from the group; however, this does not necessarily presuppose an immediate increased risk of international terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. Further, there has been no intelligence of a spike in attacks being planned on the West from inside Afghanistan. Whatever the Taliban is doing in Afghanistan and however shocking its economic figures look, poor government has never been - including in 2001 - the reason for invading another country, and offers little legitimacy in the world of today.
On October 21st and 22nd, the European Union (EU) held a summit spanning Saturday and Sunday in the Council of Europe’s imposing buildings with a list of preselected topics that were widely expected to be discussed. However, there was a notable additional topic present that has been a thorn in the EU’s side for several years now; Poland’s increasing reluctance to abide by certain EU conventions and institutions. It has exposed weaknesses in the EU’s capabilities to enforce its laws and practises on member states, and suggests that trusting in democratic systems and respecting national sovereignty would be the best way for the EU to avoid discussing more such ‘additional topics’ at future summits.
The latest quarrel that the EU had with Poland surrounds the ruling of the highest court in Poland, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, on October 7th. The Tribunal declared incompatible with the Polish Constitution Article 1 and Article 19 of the Treaty of the European Union, referring respectively to the concept of “ever closer union amongst the peoples of Europe” and “the interpretation and application of the treaties” of the EU. This stands in contrast to what many would consider to be a core principle of the EU; that EU law has primacy over national legislation. In the words of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the ruling constitutes a “direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order”. To increase the controversy further, the original challenge in the Tribunal was brought by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the first time that a leader of an EU member state has questioned an EU Treaty in a national court.
The principle of the primacy of EU law over domestic legislation has curious origins. Such a principle was not, as might be expected, contained in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the founding document of the European Economic Commission (EEC). Instead, in a manner remarkably similar to the 1803 US Supreme Court case Marbury v Madison, where the Court gave itself the power of judicial review, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) largely instated the principle of the primacy of EU law itself. In the 1964 case of Costa v ENEL, a seemingly unwinnable case against the Italian government’s nationalisation of electricity companies in the Italian Constitutional Court, found itself in the ECJ over claims that the law impacted the viability of the EEC’s single market.
In the landmark decision that followed, the ECJ asserted - amongst other things - that the Community legal order had become an “integral part” of national legal systems, that domestic courts were “bound to apply” Community norms and that it was “impossible” for member states’ organs to accord precedence to domestic measures over Community law, as that would jeopardise the “legal basis” and the very “character” of the EEC. This watershed ruling was then upheld by EU member states, and by the time Poland joined in 2004, it would have been well aware of the 40-year-old convention.
The political circumstances in Poland surrounding the Tribunal’s ruling against this convention are far from transparent. The Tribunal ruling was issued by a panel of judges appointed in a murky manner by PiS (Law and Order). The same Tribunal - with politically unbiased judges - had previously declared Articles 1 and 19 of the Treaty to be compatible with the Polish Constitution in a 2005 ruling. However, from a legal point of view, the primacy of EU law was one which member states ever explicitly signed up to in a treaty or conference, and therefore following the principle was never made a condition of entry to the EU. Indeed, Poland is far from the first country to challenge EU law and institutions. The UK had a long-running dispute with the EU and the ECHR over its refusal to grant prisoner voting rights, and the German Constitutional Court questioned the legality of the EU’s Covid-response orientated quantitative easing programme. According to a study by researcher Olof Larsson, there are at least ten major cases of member states changing EU law either through changing the founding treaties or through EU directives, many of which have helped the EU to evolve.
Tensions between Poland and the EU have greatly increased since the start of 2020. The EU has protested against a February 2020 judiciary law that prevents Polish judges from referring matters to the ECJ, established a Disciplinary Chamber containing many open PiS supporters with powers to oversee Polish Supreme Court judges, and created a national body to rule on Polish judges’ independence. In July 2021 the ECJ ordered the Polish government to suspend the Disciplinary Chamber, and on October 27th it ordered Poland to pay €1m for every day it did not suspend the Chamber. The EU has also objected to a Tribunal ruling on abortion from October 2020 which declared a Polish law authorising abortions for malformed foetuses unconstitutional, and made Poland one of the most restrictive countries on abortion in the Western world. Without doubt, both laws have debatable consequences for key features in a democracy, such as judicial independence and individual rights.
Nonetheless, overreach by the EU and its organs in the past - perceived or real - has only held detrimental consequences for itself, recently manifested by the Brexit vote of 2016 and the rise of anti-EU populism in 2016-7. The EU should see its problem as with PiS, not with the Republic of Poland, as it is highly unlikely that Poland will leave the EU. There is no motivation on either Poland’s side to leave the EU, nor on the EU’s side to kick Poland out, not least due to a lack of will to do the former and a lack of will and mechanism to do the latter. The Polish government needs EU money to fulfil expensive schemes before the fast-approaching 2023 parliamentary elections. Civic Platform, a pro-EU party with experience of governing, may well win. The Polish people’s patience with PiS is fast waning; mass protests are increasingly common, and a poll conducted shortly before the ECJ’s October 27th ruling stated that 73.3% of Poles wanted their government to either back down or compromise with the EU. Whilst conducted in a shady manner by PiS, Poland does have legal grounding for its Tribunal’s ruling. However well intentioned the ECJ’s actions against Poland might be, the EU would do best to let Poland battle this out internally.
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.
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