Brexit: From Dear God What Happened, to Dear God What Next

So. The unthinkable has happened. As we glumly watch the markets plummet, the hate speech blossom and the political leaders trip over themselves trying to flee the havoc, it’s difficult to resist the urge to collectively grab half of the British population and shake them while screaming that one line from Planet of the Apes:

Honestly, I’ve been trying to write this article for some time now, but every day there is some new dramatic revelation to deal with.

Shall we start from the beginning? Actually I ought to start this piece with a disclaimer – I’m not British, nor am I living in the UK. In fact I’m the only writer on this blog who isn’t, at the moment, but I believe my fellow authors are still attempting to rebuild their lives in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of #Brexit.

It’s been a week since the Brits took to the polls to vote on a question that has been contentious and divisive from pretty much the birth of the European Union: should the UK be part of the EU, or not? Back in February The Economist gave a pretty good overview of the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU, but in essence it boils down to a few major points.

The first is that the UK, although not a founding member of the EU, has played a crucial role in its development since even before it joined in 1973, with Winston Churchill named as one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the EU. Perhaps the most quintessential example of Britain’s early relations with the Union is Margaret Thatcher, who spent the mid to late 1970s campaigning vigorously for the UK to be part of a closer European Union, only to turn around once in office as Prime Minister in the 1980s and decry the political and economic disadvantages the UK was suffering as a result of the EU. Her resistance to EU governance precipitated the end of her leadership, and her views on Europe became progressively more critical as the decades passed. Thatcher’s legacy in Britain, while hugely divisive, is undeniable – and many are citing it as a direct influence on the outcome of this referendum. The irony, of course, is that the working class – the demographic that hated Thatcher most passionately – has ended up championing the same side of the debate.

There’s rather a lot of irony in this whole situation, to be honest.

The second major point is that the UK has been perhaps the most reluctant major player in the EU for some time. Thatcher played a huge role in the development of the single market (primarily in securing Britain rebates in said market), but the UK opted out of two of the most crucial tenets of the Union: the Schengen Agreement, which we’ve discussed before, and the common currency or ‘Eurozone’. All Member States of the EU are obliged to be part of the common currency (eventually) and the free movement agreement, although Denmark also opted out of the currency and Ireland joined the UK in rejecting Schengen in the interests of maintaining their pre-existing free movement agreements. Basically the UK is the kid who’ll come to your birthday party, but he’ll sit in the corner and refuse to play musical chairs or wear a party hat, and then will insist on deciding how the cake should be cut.

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“You better not be giving my piece to those immigrants!” [x]

In the wake of the financial crisis that shook the Eurozone and sent corresponding waves through the UK (who helped bail out Portugal and Ireland, but not – contrary to popular belief – Greece), an already shaky faith in the EU was further damaged by the ascension of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, who are part of a larger pantheon of exceptionally awful hard-right political parties on the rise across Europe.

It was in this political climate that British Prime Minister David Cameron pressed the big red button that will end the world. Struggling with divisions within his own Conservative party, Cameron took a gamble that won him the election last year: he promised the Eurosceptics of the UK that there would be a referendum on British membership of the EU if he was re-elected Prime Minister.

He was giving a decision that would normally be left to Parliament, advised by experts and lobby groups and whoever else, to the population itself. The problem, of course, is that the European Union and particularly the UK’s membership of it are extremely complex topics that a large percentage of the population don’t understand. It’s the problem that has led to so much frustration and anger about the EU in the first place, and it’s also the problem that led to so many people voting Leave without understanding what they were voting for or what the consequences would be.

To be fair, anyone who tells you they know for sure what the consequences of the referendum will be at this stage is straight up lying. There are no certainties. This is uncharted land, and we of Europe are stumbling through it with a compass made of twigs, leaves and a depressing combination of cynicism and naivety.

Here’s what did happen, though, in the immediate aftermath. Cameron jumped ship faster than a rat leaving the Titanic, if that rat had somehow also steered the ship directly into the iceberg. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP and key campaigner for the pro-Brexit camp, backpedalled just as hard as he could on some of the key pledges that were made to the British people during the campaign, along with a number of Tory MPs. The British pound plummeted, dragging several European markets with it, and international financial markets freaked all the freaking way out, shedding 2 trillion USD worldwide. Scotland, which had based its decision NOT to leave the UK two years ago in no small part on its desire to stay part of the EU, and voted strongly for Remain, deployed Nicola Sturgeon to start kicking ass and taking names. And Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, delivered ice-cold shade directly to Nigel Farage’s face:

So for the moment, chaos reigns. It is perhaps the biggest crisis the UK has faced for many decades, and nobody wants to take responsibility for it. Will Boris Johnson be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Will England be left alone as Scotland, Northern Ireland and even Wales decide they’d rather be part of the other Union, actually? Can the UK ever be friends with Europe again?

EU Summit in Brussels

“No.”[x]

European policymakers are now left with an unenviable choice. Britain’s exit from the EU comes only one short year after the same debate in Greece threatened to destabilise the entire bloc. They will have to act decisively in order to prevent the fallout from ripping the European Union into very small angry pieces in the coming months and years. Do they extend a hand to help mitigate the damage the referendum result is likely to do to the British economy and society, and particularly to the most vulnerable people in the country? Or do they demonstrate exactly why leaving the EU is a very bad idea, and make an example of Britain’s impending misery?

It’s an extremely dangerous situation. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France are already taking as much advantage of the situation as possible in order to further the far-right Eurosceptic movement in their own countries. These movements are vehemently xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic, and they expose Europe to the dangers of division and isolationism that lead to conflict.

Meanwhile, racist and xenophobic outbursts have been reported all over the UK in the wake of the referendum as the dregs of society are emboldened by what they see as a validation of their hatred. Economic recession will hit the poorest in society hardest, and it’s a very real possibility at this stage. What’s more, the burden of repairing the longer-lasting consequences will fall to the youth, who above all other demographics overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.

It’s also not clear what the UK’s role on the world stage will be in the future. When the UK joined the European Union, the British Empire was still a thing. Thanks to its colonial past, England has been a hub for international exchange of goods, finance, business and culture for centuries.

Uh, thanks, colonialism?

But now it’s facing the possibility of being entirely alone, without advantage or unity. What does the future hold for an isolated UK? For an isolated England?

The future probably doesn’t hold a second referendum, despite that petition going around (which, hilariously, was actually set up by a pessimistic Leave voter before the results were announced). Perhaps Scotland will try and block the UK’s exit, but to be frank, the dangers of going against the outcome of the referendum at this stage really need to be considered. Commitments were made, and the democratic process yielded this result, even if it is an extremely terrible decision made by an under-informed public and influenced by a line-up of people who will not be treated well by the history books. If the UK government decides to renege on its commitment, there will be a lot of extremely angry extremely hard-right people across the country, fuelled by self-righteous fury. We are only five years distant from the riots in 2011 that swept through the country like a rabid feral cat – they were driven by rage against inequality, and in the end a lot of the rage behind the Leave campaign stems from a similar, though disastrously misdirected, place.

It’s also not clear how the rest of the world is going to be affected, once the rush of tweets and think-pieces (including mine) dies down. Many are looking westward in abject fear of the US election in November and the prospect of Trump riding the rising wave of right-wing populist into the White House. But I’m done prophesying doom for today, so I’ll let Samantha Bee explore that one:

 

CB

[Header image source: https://pixabay.com/en/brexit-exit-united-kingdom-england-1481024/]

Great Power and Great Responsibility: Belgium’s Nuclear Energy Quandaries

I don’t know about you, but every time I start wading into a news story featuring nuclear anything, I start feeling like we, collectively, as humans, have basically been a toddler that somehow unlocked grandpa’s gun cabinet for the last 75 years or so – we’ve found this Shiny Thing that occasionally goes bang in exciting ways and now we want to see what else we can do with it. And we have absolutely no idea what it’s really capable of. Except instead of just killing like, ourselves, or a loved one, it’s capable of destroying the entire earth. So… more like a toddler that’s got into grandpa’s nuclear warhead cabinet, really.

baby mushroom cloud

I’m really good at metaphors.

Nuclear fission, the process that lies at the core of both atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, has fundamentally altered our world in so many ways that it would be a completely unrecognisable place without it. And while it’s made significant advances in science, engineering and medicine possible, when it comes to associations it’s hard to get past the image of a mushroom cloud and the names of places like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

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On the other hand, it gave us radioactive spiders which would eventually lead to this amazing cinematic moment, so it’s not all bad. [x]

It’s probably deeply unfair to associate nuclear warfare with nuclear power station disasters, one being intentional destruction and killing with weapons and the other being the accidental result of unforeseen circumstances in otherwise useful infrastructure, but the connections seem a lot more concrete once one gets into discussions about the security issues surrounding nuclear power stations. Discussions like the ones Belgium is currently facing after the death of a guard at a Belgian nuclear facility two days after the attacks in Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016. The incident sparked fears of sabotage to a nuclear power station despite the local prosecutor ruling out any military link to the guard’s death, and further security measures heightened tensions in the weeks following the attacks. Media reports have stoked fears that nuclear plants in Belgium might be potential targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials.

Which… is not great news, although it’s wise to consume news media in the days and weeks following a terrorist attack with a healthy grain of salt. Besides which, there’s a much larger and longer-running discussion around Belgium’s nuclear power plants that poses serious logistical and political problems for a sizeable portion of Western Europe: really friggin’ old reactors.

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They no longer identify with the music played on the radio, they need sleeping pills at night and they’re starting to worry about osteoporosis. [x]

Both the Doel plant on the Dutch border and the Tihange plant near the German border have experienced maintenance and mechanical issues in the last five years. Both plants have reactors dating back to the mid-1970s. The Netherlands and especially Germany are calling for Belgium to mothball the oldest of the reactors in these plants – which were scheduled to be shut down in 2015 – due to fears they might malfunction enough to cause nuclear meltdowns, also known as the worst possible crisis your neighbours can have, narrowly beating out noisy marital disintegration and acquiring an anxious and overzealous Chihuahua.

Germany has made similar demands to France, which is closing its oldest nuclear power station, the 39-year-old Fessenheim, this year. The Energiewende, or energy transition, launched by Angela Merkel’s government in 2011 has seen plans put in place to close all of Germany’s nuclear power facilities by 2022. Largely spurred on by the disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, the Energiewende policies saw a reversal of the CDU’s plan to extend the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear reactors to 2050, and instead beat a hasty retreat to the timeline originally proposed by its left-wing predecessors in government.

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“After careful consideration of recent events, we have decided that nuclear fallout is scary as shit and we out. We ouuuttt.” [x]

It’s a policy that is not without its detractors, five years on. Nuclear power still provides about 18% of Germany’s electricity production at the moment. Finding a balance between the difficulties in creating new renewable energy infrastructure and trying to limit the need for increased reliance on fossil fuels is no small task. They’re getting there – almost a third of Germany’s energy requirements were met by renewable sources last year. But the nature of the European energy landscape means that there is a not insignificant amount of import and export between Germany and its neighbours, and Germany’s neighbours are still big into that sweet, sweet, nuclear buzz. While proponents of the Energiewende policy claim this doesn’t compromise Germany’s political position on nuclear energy, the fact remains that nuclear energy will still be passing through Germany’s grid and coffers as long as its neighbours are producing it, and that nuclear disaster – of the kind it fears will happen in Belgium – doesn’t respect national borders.

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Nuclear fallout doesn’t even need to show its passport any more! [x]

Is it alarmist to talk about an impending nuclear disaster in Belgium? Maybe not, when you consider that the Belgian government decided three weeks ago in late April to provide iodine pills to its entire population, in case of a nuclear accident. The pills are to prevent the build up of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland, which is one of the most well recorded hazards of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents. The move doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the government’s decision not to shut down the reactors, but then again it’s worth noting that 60% of Belgium’s electricity comes from nuclear power, so it’s not really a decision they can make lightly.

So how worried should we be? Greenpeace certainly has grave concerns. But nuclear energy proponents point out that the dangers posed by increased fossil fuel usage are a certainty, compared with nuclear power, which only poses the possibility of a threat. There are even arguments that radiation exposure after a nuclear accident isn’t as dangerous as we’ve thought. The problem is that the argument around nuclear energy is deeply polarised, with compelling facts on both sides, but a disturbing lack of scientific certainty or consensus. It often comes down to balancing the benefits of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption with the difficulty of storing and disposing of nuclear waste – both extremely long-term issues with ramifications that will need to be dealt with many generations down the line (assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves in the meantime).

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If only there was a solution… [x]

Ultimately Belgium is left with the choice between taking drastic action to overhaul its energy infrastructure (either in the form of new reactors, or alternative forms of energy production), or crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. But does it have a responsibility to listen to its neighbours on this matter? Given that the EU is currently seeking to strengthen investment in nuclear energy throughout its member states it might be best served by planning construction of new reactors, despite its pledge to phase out reliance on nuclear power. Who knows, maybe we’ll reached the promised land of nuclear fusion, with its increased safety and efficiency, and less hazardous by-products compared to fission. Unfortunately that technology seems to be perpetually thirty years away from commercial production, and Belgium’s problems can’t wait that long. And if it chooses to continue down the path of fission energy, it’s fairly likely that Germany won’t be too keen to let it borrow a cup of sugar or water its houseplants in the near future.

CB

 

PS While researching I came across that old 1950s video on what to do in case of nuclear attack, so please enjoy this horrifying jaunt through history:

Putin on a Show

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Before we start can we just take a moment to see how funny it is that his first name and patronym are the same? I’ll never understand how he or Magnus Magnusson managed to inspire so much terror.

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“I’ve started the presidency, so I’ll finish it.”

Putin was born and raised in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and studied law at university. He then went on to work for the KGB, a vocation which slow news days would have you believe still causes him to walk with a “gunslinger’s gait”.

Already on the first rungs of the political ladder by the time the Soviet Union broke up, it has long been suggested that Putin took the humiliating dismantling of his country very personally and that it has informed his foreign policy since. During the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, Putin saw his chance to annex Russian-majority Crimea and took it, later agitating for something similar in Donetsk and Luhansk. Prior to this he intervened militarily in Georgia in 2008 when the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, attempted to bring the breakaway region of South Ossetia under control. Putin even opened up a second front in Abkhazia just for good measure. Bizarrely, Saakashvili is now the Governor of Odessa in Ukraine. That someone can hold two such senior political offices in two different countries in such a short space of time probably says a lot about how an “us-versus-them” mentality has set in in the region.

If you are also an aspiring megalomaniac and don’t really think that two provinces in twelve years is a particularly good record of expansion, remember Putin’s ace in the hole. Unlike many of his Western contemporaries he has the luxury of time. Whilst other leaders could be thrown out of office at the ballot box or are subject to term limits, Putin is not. Well, technically he is, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Putin became a full-fledged president in May 2000 after a brief period as acting president caused by the unexpected resignation of Boris Yeltsin on December 31st 1999. (Yeltsin, who was well-known for enjoying his drink, was clearly planning such an epic millennium eve party that he decided to call in sick to work for the rest of his days.) After eight years as president he was required to stand down, and did a job swap with his prime minister and bad-George-Osbourne-look-alike Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev had the great idea – entirely on his own, and with no input from Putin whatsoever – to increase the length of a presidential term from four years to six. When election time came round in 2012 it was everyone’s favourite Vladimir who won the day, paving the way for his time in power to run till at least 2024, by which time he’ll be 71 and have been president for twenty years, longer than the previous four Russian/Soviet leaders combined.

In Soviet Russia as, they say, elections lose you.

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Who even was Yuri Andropov? No, genuinely, who actually was he?

It’s also worth remembering that Putin didn’t begin with conquering new territory straight away; he had to keep the remains of his own country together first. Early in Putin’s presidency Chechnya posed a real threat of secession and certain individuals within the North Caucasus seemed willing to resort to any means necessary to accomplish that. The 2002 Moscow theatre siege ended in the deaths of 130 hostages, although some blame was put on the way security forces handled the operation. In 2004, just months after Chechen President Akhmat Kadyrov was assassinated, over 1200 people were taken hostage at a school in Beslan by a group of 32 terrorists, at least eight of whom had been arrested and released shortly before the attack. The siege ended after three days with the deaths of over three hundred hostages, many of them children, and most of the remaining hostages injured. The way in which the security forces acted again came under scrutiny, with foreign journalists harassed, misinformation spread on Russian state TV and the suggestion that many of the deaths were caused not by terrorist booby-traps but by rockets fired by the Russian forces.

The reason that those extended presidential terms are a dead cert to be beneficial for Putin is because the opposition politicians in Russia are routinely silenced, as are the guns used to silence them. A prominent opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated in 2015 just one day after called for a march against the war in Ukraine. The war was a major coup (quite literally) for Putin but also a delicate balancing act. He wanted to appear to be bringing some of “old” Russia back into the fold, a popular move back home, but without admitting to the rest of the world that Russia was actually fighting the war on sovereign Ukrainian territory, despite all the evidence to the contrary. After Nemtsov was murdered Putin personally oversaw the investigation into the killing, an investigation which came to the unusual conclusion that the assassination was carried out by Chechens angered by Nemtsov’s anti-Islam remarks, especially his solidarity with the cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

And he’s far from the first person die suspiciously under Putin’s watch. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead as she was preparing to file a report heavily critical of the then Prime Minister and now President of Chechnya Ramzam Kadyrov. Ramzan, the son of former President Akhmat Kadyrov, was accused of endorsing the use of torture by his security services. Incidentally, Kadyrov was hand-picked by Putin who signed a decree removing his predecessor from office and nominating Kadyrov for the post shortly after he became constitutionally old enough for the office. In another coincidence, which is beginning to feel a lot less like a coincidence, Politkovaskaya attempted to help negotiate with the hostage-takers during the Beslan school siege but was twice stopped from boarding a plane. When she finally did manage to get on board, she was given a poisoned cup of tea which caused her to lose consciousness.

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Politkovskaya (l) and Litvinenko (r).

Then there was the FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned in London by radioactive polonium in his tea, something which is fast seeming like a more dangerous Russian drink than poorly-distilled methanol-containing vodka. Whilst Andrey Lugovoy was considered the main suspect, Moscow rejected a British extradition request, presumably thinking that the traces of polonium-210 found in the hotels he stayed in, restaurants he ate at, planes he flew on and his own admission to a Moscow hospital for suspected radiation poisoning were merely coincidences. Just to bring this all round to a depressing full circle Litvinenko had commented upon the Beslan school siege, saying that it is inconceivable that the terrorists responsible were freed without being useful to the FSB and that they were either coerced or allowed to carry out the attack as a false flag operation. It is a very easy thing to use the internet to claim false flag conspiracies for everything (Pearl Harbour, 9/11) with varying qualities of evidence to back it up. As a former secret agent Litvinenko could have known many things that made him an assassination target, but it’s not implausible that his insight into Beslan was one of them.

Of course all this is denied by the Kremlin, but Putin has presided over a culture of secrecy, confusion and crushing of dissent that at best has allowed these rumours to take hold and allowed many people to find them highly plausible.

And what about those stories that after a marriage to Rupert Murdoch and her brief flirtation with Tony Blair, Wendi Deng’s penchant for evil has finally brought her to a relationship with Vladimir Putin? Maybe not everything you read about him is true.

TF

Bonus: It’s not really got anything to do with the article, but here’s an Epic Rap Battle of History.

Intertwined Destinies: On Böhmermann, Brussels, and German-Turkish Relations

When I started researching this article two weeks ago, the current furore around German comedian-turned-international-scandal-item Jan Böhmermann was merely a blip in the post-April Fool’s day round up. It was with mingled bewilderment and frustration that I watched the news unfold in the following days – frustration not only at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s squashing of free expression both within his borders and internationally, but also because I was hoping to get ahead of the curve in English language news coverage of the incident. Once John Oliver’s got hold of a topic, though, you can be pretty sure everyone’s going to hear about it.

Yes, just about everybody is talking about the so-called “Schmähkritik Gedicht”, which more or less translates to “slander poem”. Böhmermann, who hosts the popular satirical comedy show Neo Magazin Royale, wrote the segment in support of his fellow entertainers at extra-3, whose own toe-tapping satirical song about Erdogan was already drawing ire from the Turkish president:

(Turn on subtitles for the English translation)

“Je suis extra-3!” declared Böhmermann, after carefully explaining (apparently to Erdogan himself) that the freedom of the press is a protected right in Germany under Article 5 of the Grundgesetz, or German Basic Law, and as such extra-3’s song constitutes legal, valid political criticism. “There are instances, however,” he continued, “in which – there’s art, there’s artistic freedom, that’s permitted, and on the other side, there’s – what’s it called? ‘Schmähkritik’.”

“When you defame people, when you insult someone,” supplied his colleague Ralf Kabelka, helpfully.

“Do you understand, Herr Erdogan? That can actually be prosecuted… Maybe it’s a bit complicated, perhaps we’ll quickly explain with a small example,” Böhmermann said, and proceeded to recite a rather grandiose verse in which the Turkish president was, among other things, accused of fucking goats, oppressing minorities, beating girls, and enjoying fellatio with a hundred sheep instead of sleeping (it is, we should note, not clear who was doing the fellating). “But these are things we’re not allowed to say, right?” interjected Böhmermann at several points.

Cue uproar, and – as Böhmermann himself predicted – legal repercussions.

This is a tricky situation for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Or rather, as Spiegel Online is declaring with delighted morbidity, it’s a harbinger of doom for her leadership (to be fair, declaring that Merkel is doomed is Spiegel Online’s absolute favourite hobby right now).

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They’re building up their Anguished Angela/Mournful Merkel picture gallery [x]

The main cause of tension is the fact that Merkel has been determinedly brokering a deal with the Turkish government that would see refugees arriving by boat in Greece returned to Turkey, in exchange for the same number of refugees being resettled in Europe through more official channels. The ‘one in, one out’ arrangement is already being carried out, with Syrian refugees arriving in Germany and Finland in early April. The plan has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups, with UNHCR declaring that it violates European and international law by returning asylum seekers to a third country (that is, neither the country they are fleeing nor the country in which they sought asylum). Merkel, however – along with other European leaders – is desperately hoping that this will abate the never-ending political nightmare that is European refugee policy.

Syria. Aid distribution in Yarmouk camp

The political nightmare has nothing on the actual nightmare playing out right now [x]

In her efforts not to alienate such a key player in this crucial plan, Merkel has allowed for Böhmermann to be prosecuted under German law – albeit an archaic and little-used law forbidding insults against foreign heads of state, which the Chancellor has subsequently vowed to get rid of by 2018. A little too late for Jan, certainly. But this episode in German-Turkish relations is part of a much larger picture, and in fact is contributing to tipping a much larger set of scales than simply Erdogan v. Böhmermann.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been researching this article for a couple of weeks. In late March, I visited my friend Betül Gülsen in Hannover, who wanted my opinion on something.

“What do you think about the reaction to the Brussels attacks?” she asked me. “I mean, compared to the reaction to the explosions in Turkey.”

“Well,” I answered her, “I’ve heard almost nothing about Turkey, and almost nothing but Brussels in the last week.”

Betül nodded. “I don’t think they’re going to treat every terrorist attack the same, but why couldn’t the government put the Turkish flag up on the Brandenburger Tor [Brandenburg Gate] after Ankara or Istanbul? Just doing that one thing, just to recognise that we are part of this country, and that those attacks have a real effect on a lot of Germans and people who live here. Why can’t they include us, if they can include Belgium?”

Why, indeed? There have been countless arguments written about how not all terrorist attacks are equal in the eyes of Western news media, even when two incidents happen within days of each other in two European capitals. This article can’t hope to contribute to that wider conversation right now – the fact of the matter is that the case of Germany’s response to the attacks in Turkey and the attacks in Belgium occur within a very specific context, which adds another, more urgent layer to that question: why didn’t Germany stand in solidarity with Turkey the way it did with Belgium?

Betül is Turkish German – born in Turkey, and raised in Germany, she is one of approximately 2.71 million people residing in Germany who have at least one Turkish parent. Turks are the largest immigrant group in the country, and have formed an integral part of German society and culture since the Gastarbeiter (or guest worker) programme of the 1960s and 70s resulted in a wave of immigration.

This instance, in which there was such a large influx of foreign workers – and more specifically, a large number of Muslims – invites comparison with Germany’s current struggles to integrate new arrivals in the country. The persistent racism with which the Turkish population has struggled for many years is already showing its larger, more threatening face to refugees in the form of such extreme right movements as PEGIDA.

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Although the only movement worth comparing to PEGIDA is a bowel movement [x]

The German government did issue a statement of solidarity with Turkey (and also Côte d’Ivoire) on March 14th. Merkel made a statement of condolence and solidarity for the families of ten victims, including eight Germans, of the bombing near Istanbul’s Sultanahmet in January of this year. But it doesn’t really compare to the explicit, deliberate and deeply felt reaction to the horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels.

“The frustration stems from the fact that not projecting the Turkish flag on the Brandenburger Tor seems symbolic for Turkish people living in Germany as: Try as hard as you can (or don’t try), you’ll never be a proper part of the German society,” Betül explained to me. “Like, you’re good enough to build up this country after World War II, but apparently not good enough to sympathise with you in terms of solidarity with your families.”

Clearly, there are political motivations behind the German government offering unconditional alliance and support to Belgium and not to Turkey. There are numerous complex relationships in play, not least the ever-looming question of Turkey’s accession to the EU, which many commentators (including German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble) have ruled as impossible, despite Turkey’s long and influential shared history with Europe.

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Erdogan’s personal politics are significant here, too. His government’s flagrant abuse of human rights would make any sane politician wary of aligning themselves too closely with the Turkish administration.

But surely there must be a middle ground here. Isn’t it possible for Germany’s government to separate its criticism of the Turkish state with its empathy for the Turkish people (who are, after all, in many cases also the German people, and also the primary victims of said human rights abuses)? Indeed, it’s in the government’s best interests to mitigate the ongoing marginalisation of Muslims and foreigners in Europe and in Germany specifically – after all, it’s increasingly clear that the primary cause of extremism is alienation, which is leading to severe rifts in societies such as France’s.

This is not at all to say that the Turkish population of Germany poses a terrorist risk. On the contrary – Germany’s extensive Turkish population presents the perfect opportunity for a Western European country to genuinely embrace cultural and religious diversity, in a clear and unambiguous manner. They’ve been part of Germany for over half a century, and are already well on the way to full inclusion in German identity and culture and the best possible outcome of Germany and Turkey’s already tightly intertwined futures. But Germany must be prepared to meet them in the middle.

This doesn’t mean sacrificing criticism of the Turkish government (and indeed, in response to the scandal, UK-based magazine The Spectator has set up a competition to insult Erdogan for a prize of £1,000, so there’s more incentive than ever). While Jan Böhmermann has received accusations of racism for his Schmähkritik, there is little doubt that his criticism was aimed squarely and exclusively at the Turkish President and not at the population in general. I really want to show you the clip (with the all-important context, although it’s all in German), but it’s being taken down at lightning speed all over the internet, so there’s no guarantee this link will still work even at the time of publishing this article:

 

As for Betül, she wrote a letter of support to Herr Böhmermann assuring him that not all Turks felt the same way about his poem (which received a mixed reaction in the Turkish press), although she expressed frustration that he’d made it so easy for Erdogan to come after him in the courts. Nevertheless, she’s promised to send him baklava.

 

CB

PS – if you want to see some of Böhmermann’s work in English, then this video followed directly after the Schmähkritik segment:

[Header image credit: FOCUS Online]

Bangladeshi Blogger Killings

Last week a secular activist and blogger, Nazimuddin Samad, was hacked to death in Bangladesh. His death follows a trend begun last year when several atheist bloggers were murdered as a result of their writing. The incident is troubling and in the one act ties together several complex issues of religion, terrorism and free speech.

Modern Bangladesh first appeared during the partition of India after independence from Britain in 1947. Originally East Pakistan, the region fought for and won independence in 1971. Despite being a country with a large Muslim majority, Bangladesh has always been more cosmopolitan than other countries in the region. Due in part to shared cultural links with neighbouring Indian states like West Bengal and its proximity to South-East Asia, there are significant communities of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians in Bangladesh and the country is officially secular. Into this melting pot, two newer groups have been poured over the last twenty years. On one side there is the blogger, able to reach out to a wide audience with intellectual think-pieces on the nature of secularism; on the other the slow trickle of extremist al-Qaeda sympathisers who are willing to take drastic action of any perceived slight to their ideology.

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You can have a province in any colour you like as long as it’s green

Nazimuddin Samad was hacked at in the street by at least four assailants, one of whom then shot him. This incident is reminiscent of a spate of seemingly targeted killings last year. Between February and August 2015 four bloggers – Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Neel – were murdered in similar circumstances. The case of Neel is particularly indicative of the way these attacks play out. He reported to police that he had been followed home in the days leading up to his death, but these reports were never followed up. Whilst these bloggers are often described at secular or atheist and those descriptions are probably completely accurate, many of the comments of Neel and others feel fairly measured. This wasn’t the smug self-surety of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, nor are we talking about cartoons of the Prophet here. The main thrust of their writing was simply a denouncement of extremism, a repudiation of radical beliefs. The same sentiments which we might expect any politician or newspaper to offer were enough to get these men killed.

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L-r: Roy, Babu, Das and Neel

In Neel’s case Ansar al-Islam, a local offshoot of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack. The police have suggested that that the other attacks, as well as the murders of a Christian pastor and two Sufi instructors or pirs, bear similar hallmarks and may have been carried out by the same group. The possibility remains that these are instead copycat attacks and indeed the police have been quick to implicate other Islamist groups such as Jamaat-ul Mujahideen and Ansarullah Bangla Team in the assaults. Whoever is behind the attacks, one thing for sure is that they bear the hallmarks of terrorism. What we think of as terrorism are the large-scale attacks with high body counts. 9/11, Bali, Mumbai in 2008 all stick in our minds but the terror caused, while widespread, is arguably short-lived. People were flying on 9/12 and Bali and Mumbai remain vibrant international hubs. These lone killings, however, are just as much an act of terror as any. Their extremely targeted nature make them much more terrifying for the small group of people being persecuted. That kind of fear would follow you every time you left the house. When you factor in the fact that radicals asked the interior ministry to punish a list of 84 writers in 2013 and that several people on that list are now dead, the situation must be incomprehensibly bad.

Despite all the finger-pointing, no-one has yet been prosecuted for any of these killings. This week, after the murder of Nazimuddin Samad brought these ugly scenes back to the streets of Dhaka, Bangladeshi students protested at what they saw as the inaction of the authorities to prevent this kind of attack. They blamed the police, not only for failing to protect bloggers such at Niloy Chatterjee whose reports of being followed went unheeded, but also for giving succour to whoever wishes to continue these attacks by not bringing anyone to justice over them, thus suggesting these people can murder with impunity. The students were also angry at their government for not doing more to prevent the attacks. Indeed, the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina was rather unhelpful when she used her remarks on the killings last year to blame her opposition Bangladesh National Party for the attacks. Hasina, it is worth noting, is only Prime Minister because all the opposition parties boycotted the 2014 general election and over half the seats in parliament were uncontested.

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It seems somehow trite to attempt to empathise with people who literally risk their lives to speak out against injustices they see. We didn’t set out writing this blog to make friends and maybe we thought we had some wrongs to right in the world. We’ve said worse things about less deserving people. We can pretend to operate with the same sense of purpose, the same daring nature as the bloggers in Bangladesh. But we don’t have to fear the potential for reprisals, short of a sarcastic retweet. We can’t really compare ourselves to people who lay everything on the line to make their voices heard.

There’s always a line to tread between free speech and hate speech. In America, the same constitutional protections that allow Donald Trump to call Mexicans drug dealing rapists and allow state to roll back anti-discrimination laws under the guise of religious expression also allow people to burn the American flag and complain about the content of the Bible. Elsewhere in the world, the laws covering hate speech are often rolled into ones dealing with blasphemy. Whilst it may come as no surprise that countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia take a dim view of blasphemy, it might be more surprising to find out that under these conditions countries like Germany and New Zealand have prison sentences ready for potential blasphemers.

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The heavy price of free speech.

Many will continue to argue what limitations should be put on free speech and whilst I believe we should always err on the side of free speech, what we all should agree on it that no-one should ever die for saying what they think.

TF

 

The Easter Bunny: Part-Time Time Lord

We’ve had three months to recover from Christmas and now another chocapocalypse is upon us. This weekend it’s Easter and the nonsensical frenzied hunts for chocolate eggs (laid and packaged by a magical rabbit with a seemingly infinite supply of tin foil and an odd penchant for advertising the calorific value of its offspring) will be in full swing once more. However, this year the bunny is demanding something in return. On Sunday the nation will rise to the realisation that an hour of our lives will be held hostage until October.

Advocates of the shrewdly named “Daylight Saving Time” (DST), which begins with the theft of an hour of the night, claim the system saves energy. People tend to be awake longer in the evening than in the morning, so shifting the clock forward means they use less energy for light in the evening. The fact that the first major implementations of DST occurred during the First World War and were repeated in subsequent times of need suggests that there is some substance to this argument. However, in the century since, electricity consumption patterns have diversified from basic light and heat to stuff like this:

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Not sure whether to salivate or cry.

Unsurprisingly, such “advances” have led to differing conclusions in contemporary studies of the energy benefits of DST e.g. here and here.

However, there is one cast iron positive that DST advocates can always fall back on, increased leisure activity due to lighter evenings. This tends to be a boon for retailers, especially sports retailers, as people drag themselves blinking into the rare British sunlight in order to get just enough exercise to stave off death for the coming winter months.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that any positive health effects may be cancelled out by an increased risk of heart attacks in the days following the clocks going forward. Furthermore, combining the start of DST with the piousness-free, gluttonous modern day Easter–where we are carpet bombed with calories over a long sedentary weekend—seems like some kind of sinister Murdoch inspired synergism designed to cull the population.

Thankfully, if you were to have a heart attack, the ambulance that took you to hospital would be less likely to crash. Data suggests that road traffic accidents are reduced due to the lighter evenings, leading to campaigns for the clocks to go even further forward into what is termed double summer time. This idea did actually reach the floor of Parliament a few years ago in the form of the Daylight Saving Bill. The bill was met with derision from MPs in more northern constituencies where the winter sun would not rise until late morning, apparently a danger to school children.


After several weak attempts at wit (“Surely midday is not called midday by accident.”) the bill was filibustered, but jacob ress mogg cuthbertnot before real life Cuthbert from the Bash Street Kids, Jacob Rees-Mogg, attempted to create a separate time zone for Somerset. Rural workers, in places like Somerset, are vocal opponents to DST as agricultural routines based on sunrise and sunset tend not to deal well with the clock shift, so maybe Rees-Mogg was onto something. Regrettably, this idea never had the backing of David Cameron who said:

“We are a United Kingdom. I want us to have a united time zone.”

A noble sentiment indeed. So on Sunday morning just remember, you may be tired and unhappy, but we are all in this time zone together.

JW

Love is a Battlefield: The Politics of Same-Sex Unions in Italy

Marriage equality is arguably one of the most defining socio-political developments of the 21st century, with 18 countries worldwide now recognising the right for two consenting adults in a committed relationship to enjoy the same legal protections and tear-jerker flash mob proposals regardless of their sex or gender. It’s a movement which in 2015 alone gave us everything from the staggering expat #HomeToVote pilgrimage for Ireland’s historic referendum, to the frenzy to produce the most viral “Love Wins”-themed advertisement, to the straight couple who hilariously threatened to get divorced if marriage equality passes in Australian parliament – prompting a predictable reply from the internet.

 

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Marital joy and the rainbow flag industry: both on the rise in 2015 [x]

It’s a movement that has seen significant gains particularly in Europe, with the Netherlands leading the charge towards a brighter, sparklier future, as it became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001. Since then, the number of countries in the EU that allow same-sex marriage has risen to 11, with a total of 22 countries providing some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.

The latest country to join this group is Italy, with the Senate passing a bill to allow civil unions for same-sex couples in late February. While the bill still has to pass the lower chamber in order to become law, it is widely regarded as a sealed deal – although one that comes as something of a compromised victory for LGBTQ activists.

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Like this, except instead of cake, it’s vital and fundamental rights. [x]

The bill that passed the Senate lacks crucial legislation that would legalise the adoption of children by the partner of the child’s biological parent. The so called “stepchild adoption” provision became the central bargaining chip in negotiations over the bill, and saw the process delayed by several days after Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party walked away from a deal with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party in mid-February. The deal would have kept the provision in the bill in the face of conservative opposition and amendments, however M5S ended up boycotting the final vote altogether. It’s a cynical move from a formerly laughable party (literally – Beppe Grillo is most famous for his career as a comedian) making rapid gains across the political spectrum, as it spots an opportunity to get more conservative voters on side.

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Because, y’know, you can’t make a governmental omelette without breaking a few standards of common decency.

In the end, the Prime Minister hastened the process by calling a confidence vote on the bill, an audacious move that would have seen the government obliged to resign if it did not pass. By removing the stepchild adoption provision, however, the Democratic party were able to come to an agreement with the centre-right Nuovo Centrodestra party that allowed for a final vote supporting the legislation by 173 to 71.

Of course, the civil unions bill, which has been debated in the Senate since January, has faced significant opposition from several quarters. As might be expected, one of the strongest forces opposing marriage equality in Italy is the Vatican, which despite being a separate sovereign state is still permitted to loudly voice its opinion on Italian politics thanks to the complexities of the Patti Lateranensi or Lateran Treaty, established in 1929. Nevertheless, Renzi none-too-gently informed the bishops’ conference where to shove it after its leader Angelo Bagnasco weighed in on the democratic process.

Protesters also voiced opposition to the Vatican’s stance, taking to the piazzas with giant alarm clocks and asking politicians to “wake up,” presumably to the fact that it’s already a quarter past 2016 and they are late to the gay marriage party.

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It’s not the kind of party you can be fashionably late to. [x]

But how does marriage equality fare across Europe? On a global scale, those 11 countries in the EU represent a whopping 61% of all countries that have legalised same-sex marriage (add Iceland and Norway to the equation, and Europe has a whole 72% slice of the delicious equality pie). But while much has been made about how Italy is dragging its feet as far as its Western European neighbours go, there is significant – and in some cases surprising – inconsistency in the EU.

Germany, Austria, Northern Ireland and much of Central Europe confine the rights of same-sex couples to civil unions, with accompanying limitations to various aspects of marriage such as adoption rights.

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I’d like to thank the designer of this graph for allowing me to make a pun about the EU’s chequered record with gay rights. [x]

Considering Germany’s attempts to present itself as a progressive leader in recent years (and months) it’s puzzling that they haven’t managed to get this sorted out sooner, but Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is no closer to allowing same-sex couples to tie the knot, even after Catholic stronghold Ireland proved you don’t have to choose between #LoveWins and the Lord.

When the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) weighed in on the debate in Italy last July, it found that by not offering equal protection to homosexual couples as it did to heterosexual couples, Italy was in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Given that the purview of the ECtHR extends to all 47 members of the Council of Europe (almost twice the number of member states in the EU), this is a not insignificant precedent to set. Sadly, like many European-level governmental and legislative structures, the ECtHR suffers from an inability to enforce its rulings beyond portraying the offending member state as a hypocrite.

The fact that the provision most often denied to same-sex couples is adoption only compounds the tragedy of this situation. Nothing screams hypocrisy quite like denying parents legal rights to their children in the name of “defending families”. Reinforcing social ostracism, marginalisation, and the idea that a mother should have to carry around a paper saying she’s “allowed” to care for her child is reprehensible, and particularly stupid considering there are good arguments that legalising gay marriage would give Italy an economic boost it sorely needs.

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Because everybody loves a wedding in Tuscany, no matter what your sexual orientation may be.

But if the history of the fight for total marriage equality in Italy is anything to go by, the battle is far from lost. Just look at former Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, who in 2014 casually brushed away Italian law to recognise the marriages of 16 same-sex couples, and presumably proceeded to enjoy the full benefits of 16 different reception buffets, open bars, dance floors and hours of tearful, heartfelt speeches. And while the Interior Minister dismissed Marino’s signing of the marriage contracts as merely “[giving] these very respectable couples his autograph,” it speaks to the growing pressure for equal rights in recent years, in a country where the struggle for equality has been fierce and its victories hard-won.

CB

 

The Primary Objective

As the field of candidates begins to narrow in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, it’s worth sparing a thought for those forced to withdraw. Far from spending  the next four years in the White House, many of them will soon be consigned to the undignified rank of tough-pub-quiz-question, showing the same levels of name-recognition that garnered them such low poll ratings in the first place. For every Jeb Bush that will probably continue to have a role in public life, there’ll be many Bobby Jindals who it’s difficult to believe ever thought he was presidential. But lest we forget those who sacrificed their careers at the altar of vanity and power, here are five past candidates who, for better or worse, stayed in the public eye after their presidential ambitions were squashed.


2012 – Herman Cain

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A former businessman with no political experience. A man whose anti-Mulsim remarks were met with disdain. A candidate enjoying a surprise early poll lead. Remind you of anyone? While Herman Cain’s greatest contribution to politics may end up being his use as a comparison to Trump (at least until that all stopped being quite so funny) his legacy to comedy was much greater. The former Godfather’s Pizza boss briefly ran in 2000, but it was in 2012 that Cain made his mark. His central economic policy was to rip us the US tax code and replace it with his snappily titled 9-9-9 tax policy; a flat 9% rate of tax for personal income, business transactions and federal sales. The clever sound-bite failed to stack up as a workable policy and was widely ridiculed. A bizarre ad in which his campaign chief blew smoke into the camera before Cain grinned slowly while a power ballad played in the background did nothing to alleviate this and led to merciless and endless parody.

These days he tries to convince people that chimps believe in God and spams his mailing list with erectile dysfunction remedies.


2004/2008 – John Edwards

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As an inexperienced first-term senator Edwards never looked likely to win the 2004 Democratic nomination, but showed enough promise that he was marked out for big things in the future. John Kerry even saw fit to offer him the Vice Presidential nomination that year. In 2008, Edwards’ campaign was hard-fought but ultimately drowned out by the epic clash which emerged between Senators Obama and Clinton. Edwards’ failure to secure the nomination wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to him that year, as his less-than-honourable personal life caught up with him. He initially denied allegations that he had had an affair with campaign worker Rielle Hunter and fathered a child with her. Whilst he later admitted the affair, he continued to disown the child until 2010, something unlikely to earn him any “world’s greatest dad” mugs in Father’s Days to come. One former aide later accused Edwards of convincing him to admit paternity in order to cover up the deception. All of which was made worse by the fact that it happened at a time when his wife, herself a respected attorney, author and activist was dying of cancer. She lived just long enough to see him finally admit paternity of his lovechild and to write a scathing book about their relationship. Now firmly entrenched as American politics’ bastard-in-chief, John Edwards was indicted on charges of misusing up to $1 million of campaign funds to cover up his affair. He was acquitted of one charge and five others were dismissed due to mistrial. He’s now managed to slide his way back into the courtroom by returning to practising law.


2000 – John McCain

Before, anyone gets smug and says “but surely McCain won the Republican nomination?” yes, that is true of 2008 John McCain but a much younger, sexier John McCain had a first crack of the whip eight years previously.

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Younger, sexier.

A Vietnam veteran who spent time as a POW in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison, McCain was elected Congressman for Arizona in 1983, upgrading to Senator four years later. By 2000 he was a well-respected if sometimes unpredictable member of the GOP, known to reach across the aisle on matters of principle. He teamed up with fellow Senator and veteran John Kerry to declare that there were no secret prisoners still being held in Vietnam, something many veterans still believed and for which some never forgave him. On paper his experience and backstory was in obvious contrast to Presidential scion George W. Bush, whose rowdy and alcoholic youth and perceived inability to speak in coherent English were potential stumbling blocks to his nomination. As his challenge to the establishment-backed Bush grew stronger, McCain became the victim of an anonymous poison-pen campaign. As the New York Times later recalled:

“Literature began to pepper the windshields of cars at political events suggesting that Mr. McCain had committed treason while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, that he was mentally unstable after years in a P.O.W. camp, that he was the homosexual candidate and that Mrs. McCain, who had admitted to abusing prescription drugs years earlier, was an addict.”

McCain lost the South Carolina primary soon afterwards and his candidacy never recovered. In 2004, he was often mentioned as a Vice Presidential candidate for Democrat John Kerry as part of a unity ticket, but nothing ever came of it. By 2008 McCain’s time had finally come and he won the Republican nomination. With a deeply unpopular incumbent Republican President, McCain had an uphill battle on his hands, one only made harder by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. In contrast to the rancour during this year’s Primary season, during which Donald Trump offered the supreme diss of “I like people who weren’t captured,” McCain at least attempted to make the vote about policy, valiantly attempting to talk down a supporter who railed against Obama as an Arab.

Less edifying was his channelling of the Beach Boys to advocate bombing Iran.

Since his defeat he’s returned to the Senate when he’s become chair of the Armed Services Committee.


1992 – Ralph Nader

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The only person other than John McCain to eventually make it onto the ballot for the Presidential election, Nader first challenged as a write-in Democrat in 1992. A strong left-winger and environmentalist, he was the Green Party candidate in 1996 and again in 2000, when he may have inadvertently been very influential in the race. The closeness of George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore led some to suggest that Nader’s siphoning (however small) of the liberal vote cost Gore the election. Somewhat ironically of course, Al Gore would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent global warming. For his part Nader refused to give up his presidential ambitions (or perhaps just hoped to influence the debate) by running again as an independent in 2004 and 2008.


1988/1992 – David Duke

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A candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and the Republicans in 1992, David Duke is the sort of name you don’t want (but I now have) in your search history. A white supremacist, vocal anti-Semite and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Duke was notorious as far back as his student days for parading around Louisiana State University campus in a Nazi uniform. Not content with the number of K’s in his organisation he founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan or KKKK. His unashamed far-right views notwithstanding, he won a seat in the Louisiana state house in 1989, though failed as an effective lawmaker during his single term, due to his inability to get to grips with procedure. Whilst his own bids for President never looked like taking off, he has kept busy in politics, meeting with former BNP leader Nick Griffin and recently endorsing Donald Trump. Trump’s inability to immediately disavow Duke may be one reason his electoral success has shown signs of slowing in recent weeks.

In the 1990s David Duke raised funds from supporters, claiming he was in dire financial straits. This turned out not to be the case, the money mainly being spent on gambling, and Duke was convicted of fraud. More recently, he was detained and eventually asked to leave the Czech Republic because of his record of Holocaust denial, whilst he was deported from Italy in 2013 after it was discovered that Switzerland had issued him with a Schengen-wide travel ban. He received an honorary doctorate from the obscure Ukrainian Interregional Academy of Personnel Management and is now insistent on styling himself Dr. David Duke. Perhaps he just misses being associated with three repeated initials.


So there you have it, every cycle has its own quirks. Who knows, if we survive the coming Trumpocalypse we may one day look back upon Ben Carson’s grain stores or Chris Christie’s huge mistake with fondness.

TF

 

Asylum Seekers and Denmark: A Tale of Three Treaties

Denmark – a country primarily known for its pastries, its Vikings, its mopey Shakespearean princes and its superlatively happy population – has recently been gaining the incongruous image of a small-time mob boss, shaking down newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees for their valuables before letting them into the country.

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“Give us your non-sentimental lunch money in excess of 10,000 kroner, punk” [x]

In an attempt to offset both the political and financial costs of the current refugee crisis, the Danish parliament has approved the so-called “jewellery bill” allowing police to search incoming asylum seekers and seize non-essential items without sentimental value that are worth more than 10,000 Danish kroner, or about £1,000. These goods will apparently help fund the welfare expenses of some 20,000 people who applied for asylum in Denmark in 2015, although since the bill’s implementation on the 5th of February this year the measures have generated exactly zero kroner.

Indeed, some commentators are of the opinion that the measure is intended to be a symbolic deterrent rather than a revenue generator, although it’s hard to say which is more destructive for one’s faith in humanity – the idea that the government wants to claim what little possessions refugees might have managed to drag halfway across the world with them in order to sweeten the welfare pot, or the prospect of trying to compete with countries like Hungary for Worst Place to Be a Refugee.

Although it’s taking a lot of heat at the moment, Denmark is far from the first country to employ these tactics in recent years. Australia’s soul-crushingly terrible deterrent policies regarding asylum seekers arriving by boat have inspired wannabe copycats in Europe, and are now vying seriously with Apartheid and Rolf Harris to be the shittiest thing Australia has ever exported to the rest of the world.

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When your immigration policy is being praised by the Dutch Donald Trump, it might be time to rethink your life choices. [x] [x]

In fact Denmark is joining the company of countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and parts of Germany in requiring refugees to surrender their valuables in exchange for asylum. While these bills are undoubtedly kind of a dick move, they are far from the most worrying political motion currently in play. In the midst of this entire ruckus, the Prime Minister of Denmark has actually called for the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention to be revised to a more convenient version that would reduce European countries’ obligations to provide asylum.

This is serious business. The 1951 Refugee Convention is used as an international standard for the protection of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights, and was set up in the wake of the last great crisis that saw millions of people displaced from their homes. There are 147 countries party to the Convention worldwide, including all the EU member states. It is the oldest and perhaps most well established of the three treaties or agreements that are currently having the greatest impact on refugee policy at a European level. To understand why Denmark is calling for revisions to one of the most important humanitarian documents in history, we have to understand how these three treaties interact.

So what are the other two? First up is the Schengen Agreement, which allows free movement between 26 countries (22 EU countries plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein). In essence this means you can travel from Treviso to Tromsø without ever needing to show your passport or change visas, which is good news for people who hate train delays, airport queues and immigration paperwork (read: everybody). The inimitable CGP Grey explains a little about how Schengen fits into the EU’s whole deal here:

 

The other treaty to consider is the Dublin Regulation, also sometimes referred to as Dublin III. It primarily aims to be a mechanism by which everyone can decide which state should be responsible for dealing with an individual’s claim for refugee status. The BBC has helpfully put together a 90 second video that gives an overview of the Dublin Regulation here:

 

This is where things get complicated, for two main reasons. As the video above points out, under the Dublin Regulations there are several countries that end up taking a disproportionate burden of responsibility for asylum seekers entering the EU due to their location on the coast or southern edges of Europe. Since Dublin III usually dictates that the country where an asylum seeker first enters the EU should be responsible for that person’s application, Italy and Greece end up in the position of either processing a huge number of applications or throwing their hands up and letting people move inland to other, less bureaucratically clogged states.

In fact, this leads to the second complication – due to the Schengen Agreement, asylum seekers can in theory travel unhindered through Europe until they reach a country where applying for refugee status might be easier/be more desirable/take less than five freaking years. After years of complaining about the Dublin Regulation’s ineffectiveness, Germany chose to stop enforcing the rules by which asylum seekers might be returned to other countries in August last year. Around the same time, Denmark – which is sandwiched between two of the countries with the highest number of applications for asylum in all of Europe – started receiving a huge amount of foot and train traffic travelling north from Germany to Sweden and promptly freaked out. Since January, national borders have been reinstated between Germany, Denmark and Sweden in an effort to control the movement of people northwards. Many see this development as the beginning of the end for the Schengen Agreement.

European regulations and treaties are complicated beasts at the best of times. The European Union is basically held together on the premise that its members want to be part of the great European project, and by agreements that they all want to operate under common rules to streamline economic and social processes. While there are courts and political systems to act as instruments that uphold various laws and treaties, when it comes down to it the consequences of breaking such agreements are often more along the lines of severe side-eye and a lot of snarky comments about how the offending Member State can’t be trusted to keep its word.

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“And on Wednesdays, we take in acceptable quotas of refugees.” [x]

The suspension of the Schengen Agreement and the condemnation of the Dublin Regulation could mean that these treaties will be renegotiated and restructured to address the changing situation in Europe – in Dublin III’s case, this process could begin as early as March. While these measures will certainly have complex long term ramifications for asylum seekers, refugees and (especially when it comes to Schengen) Europe as a whole, a project as vast and (relatively) new as the European Union is necessarily going to see some changes over time as it figures out what it is and what it’s going to be.

But the Danish government’s call to rethink the 1951 Refugee Convention is a different ballpark altogether. 65 years after it was brought in, the Convention remains crucial to the work of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and underpins the fundamental notions of who refugees are and what their rights should be. At a time when more people than ever before are left vulnerable by displacement and conflict, the notion of reducing those protections in such a core piece of legislation is almost unthinkable. After all, we seem to have enough trouble even considering refugees as human at the moment:

 

All this isn’t to say that there isn’t hope. A great number of Danes are deeply concerned with the plight of refugees, and there have been some fantastic local outreach and integration initiatives within the country. But as long as politicians are willing to use the plight of refugees and asylum seekers for political gains, there is a very real danger that even the most basic of human rights could be under threat.

CB

Trident and the Nuclear Deterrent

After the atomic bomb was first used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the USSR raced to match the technology of the Americans and tested their first nuclear weapon in 1949. A nuclear arms race began in the late 1950s as the Cold War became increasingly hostile, and by the 1980s each side had tens of thousands of warheads (see graph below). Into this fray wandered Britain, who had still not quite come to terms with the fact that the imperial dream was over and that it had ceded superpower status to its renegade colony across the Atlantic. Britain first tested a nuclear weapon in 1952 (France would follow in 1960 and China in 1968). To date these countries, along with India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the only ones known to have nuclear weapons, to a greater or (in North Korea’s case much) lesser extent.

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What goes up must come down? From here.

After attempting to develop their own Blue Streak missile system, the British eventually realised it would be much easier to deliver death to their enemies by buying the American Polaris missiles and attaching their own nuclear warheads to the tips. A Polaris-armed submarine first went out on patrol in 1968 and, despite the end of the Cold War, the patrols continued for over a quarter of a century until another American missile system, Trident, replaced it in 1994.

The idea of these weapons during the Cold War was that if Britain was devastated by a nuclear attack, it could in turn obliterate the main cities of the country (i.e. the USSR) which launched it. For this reason some of the nuclear weapons, and the only ones which still remain today, were based on submarines patrolling the ocean and able to respond even if the mainland defences were destroyed. The ability of both sides to almost simultaneously wipe each other out is known as “mutually-assured destruction” and is the reason Trident is often referred to as a “nuclear deterrent”. It’s a situation which Yes, Prime Minister is still the best at explaining.

But is a nuclear deterrent useful on the modern world stage? It’s not possible to do much more than scratch the surface of the question in this sort of format, but the main threats to Britain in recent years have been ISIS, al-Qaeda, and arguably the occasional lone FSB agent or remaining Irish republican paramilitary. All of which are groups or individuals who are particularly difficult to target by a nuclear strike. In the case of ISIS it would feel like a hollow victory to free the people of Iraq and Syria from the caliphate only to hand back to them a radioactive wasteland. For the kind of warfare fought today, intelligence and targeted drone strikes are far more valuable for achieving our objectives. Yet still it’s difficult to shake that nagging feeling that the first person to put down their gun runs the risk of getting shot. (It should be remembered however, that South Africa once developed a nuclear weapons programme, before voluntarily dismantling it.)

Another dimension to this argument is that to simply think of the nuclear deterrent in terms of our own national interest is in fact rather selfish. That as a developed nation, a world power with resources to maintain a nuclear arsenal, we are responsible not just for protecting ourselves but also for defending smaller nations from the despotic tendencies of their better-armed neighbours. It’s an argument not without merit and is one that should at least be seriously considered. All military intervention is quite reasonably seen through the prism of Iraq these days, but at the turn of the century air support and boots on the ground in Kosovo and Sierra Leone almost certainly saved lives. An attitude of isolationism is not necessarily desirable, either in our own interests or in terms of our moral responsibility to the world community.

Trident Nuclear Submarine HMS Victorious

“Hey guys, me and the crew wondered if you needed any extreme defending doing.”

A reading of this view in terms of nuclear weapons, however, brings us back full circle to the question of whether the button would ever be pressed. Russia recently annexed Crimea, the territory of another sovereign state, and vastly increased its influence in other east Ukrainian provinces. Despite strong evidence to the contrary Russia denies a military involvement in the conflict and this just illustrates how differently wars are fought from seventy years ago. Could a nuclear strike be justified if there wasn’t 100% surety the country being targeted was even an aggressor? And even if there was that surety, is Crimea worth the mutually-assured destruction of starting a nuclear war for? The answer, as evidenced by the fact we’re all still here is, apparently, no.

Another possibility for retaining peace of mind as we deal with the nuclear anachronism would be to decommission the weapons multilaterally, that is, all sides agree to do it. Following the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) meetings in the 1980s, weapon numbers ceased to rise significantly and have started to come down, albeit very slowly. If the pure outdatedness of such weapons isn’t enough to encourage us to destroy them, maybe their capacity for a new kind of threat will be. The weapons storage sites in the former USSR are notoriously insecure. The International Atomic Energy Agency has recorded 18 incidents of loss or theft of plutonium and uranium, not to mention any cases which have gone unnoticed. Nuclear material could easily pass through the former Soviet states either side of the Caspian Sea and then on into Afghanistan, or through Turkey’s porous Eastern border to Iraq and Syria. Fears of terrorists creating a low-grade yet nonetheless devastating “dirty bomb” and using it have long been voiced and if we imagine that such an attack might be a suicide bomb, the nuclear deterrent quickly loses its ace in the hole. And in case we think that Russia is the only one taking poor care of its nuclear arsenal, this eye-opening video about America’s nuclear weapons should bring us back to Earth.

The decision on whether to renew the Trident system will come before Parliament this year and with a majority Conservative government the result is only likely to go one way. However, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been in favour of unilateral disarmament and recently shuffled his top team to make sure his shadow defence secretary was too. With many of the Labour membership supportive of Corbyn’s views but a majority of his MPs opposed there are likely to be some ugly scenes ahead, and it’s difficult to say who will come out on top. Andy Burnham has said recently that an agreement which satisfies the whole party may be “impossible”.  However, what can be said is that for the first time in many years we will probably have a genuine debate about the pros and cons of maintaining Trident.

TF