I was listening to a radio documentary earlier this week which questioned the current structures of the United Nations. Particularly whether the permanent members of the Security Council were still appropriate and whether their veto should be continued. As a student of history, these struck me as having some similarities to the claims of irrelevance raised against the League of Nations formed nearly a century ago in January 1920.
The commentators saw the UN as a huge step forward. An argument was made that the demise of the League was inevitable given the horror of the Great War and the natural renewal that comes with a new century.
That last comment certainly made me think. Was there any evidence of a natural drive for renewal that comes with a new century? A quick scan of the academic research didn’t reveal much other than some passing comment about the new millennium prompting a reevaluation of the status quo be that personal, political or national identity.
It is certainly non contentious to suggest that a New Year brings an urge for self-improvement and making a fresh start for many. Could something similar happen for a national psyche?
Interestingly, when I started to look at when major constitutional or structural political changes were made in the past many do seem to cluster around the first twenty years of a new century.
In the 17th century, between 1600-1620 we saw The Gunpowder Plot, the founding of Jamestown Virginia, the landing of the Mayflower, and the division of Europe with the thirty Years War
Between 1700 and 1720 there were major political reorganisations with the Act of Union (Scotland), the Act of Settlement in the UK and Europe again split over the Spanish Succession.
Within the same period in the 19th century were the Napoleonic Wars,the abolition of the slave trade (UK), the abolition of slave importation by the US congress, the Act of Union (Ireland), the move of federal Government in the US to Washington DC and the Louisiana purchase
Finally in the 2oth century the first twenty years of the century were marked by the Boer War, the Boxer rebellion, the Russian revolution, the direct election of the US Senate and the extension of voting rights to women in the US. Plus there was the little matter of the First World War.
This concentration of political and social change at the start of each century may be purely random or the result of optimistic zeal for major reform brought about by the change of century. I will leave that to someone else’s thesis, but it is an intriguing correlation.
It may also account for the growing political dissatisfaction currently being expressed across the political spectrum. Some see it as the demise of dominance of the liberal and political elites (whatever they might be). Others see a growing voice of both the under classes and the ‘silent majorities’ or forgotten voters.Whatever the truth, 2017 looks like being a turbulent time as a perfect storm has the potential to brew over the next 12 months.
Personally, I have never believed in or understood the argument that all is decided by a small liberal elite. It would be difficult where turnout in most liberal democracies are as high as they are. Also, if it were the case then I doubt we would have President Elect Trump, Brexit or many similarly unexpected results.
It’s just as likely that these unexpected results reflect an increasingly politically aware electorate. If that is the case then surely that should be something to be welcomed? It appears many voters no longer rely on the press to call elections in advance, nor do they engage with polling organisations other than on their own terms.
Shy Conservatives, embarrassed Brexitiers, Timid Trumpers, covert Corbineisters and guilty UKIPpers can all be explained by people deciding their vote is their business and not disclosing it to the polling organisations and media. If that is the case, then some of the electorate are becoming more politically savvy than those organisations.
Most recently, there has been increasing dissatisfaction with the fact that Donald Trump has won the US Presidential election without having won the popular vote in the country. Whilst votes are still being counted it certainly looks like Hilary Clinton will have polled around 2 million more votes than Donald Trump. However, that’s neither new nor in my view is it he point.
Some American commentators take the view that this was exactly the system the Founders had in mind. They contend that pure democracies don’t work and the popular vote is secondary to ensuring the support of most States. There already have been four (possibly five) US presidents who gained power whilst losing the popular vote. These being John Adams (1824), Rutherford Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888) and George W Bush (2000). The questionable result being John F Kennedy in 1960 which is probably too close to call given some electoral idiosyncracies in Alabama at the time which are probably impossible to unpick today.
All electoral systems have idiosyncracies in their structure which cause oddities in their respective results. To criticise Donald Trump for focusing on the States which gave him the maximum votes in the electoral college is just bizarre. You may as well criticise British politicians (or Australian ones come to that) for focusing most effort on the marginal seats in play rather than working with equal effort on safe seats. – Politicians are merely exploiting the rules of the system under which they get elected.
It has been argued that recent electoral results have been abhorrent. However, it can also been seen as a massive protest vote against the current political status quo (informed or uninformed as the case may be). If this is the case then regardless of your political positions all mainstream parties can be seen as having failed their electorates by morphing towards a homogenous middle ground populist position. Against this background only the outspoken, colourful, political outsider (or as my better half would say ‘the batshit insane’) stand out.
Could this explain the sudden popularity of the ‘non-politician’? Trump has been elected to the most powerful office of State with no previous political experience. Forage in the UK championed a strongly Euro-skeptic position was considered as a political outsider prior to the Brexit vote. Similarly, more extreme politicians such as Marine La Penn in France are becoming more popular whilst local dynastic figures are repeatedly rejected (e.g. Clintons in the US, Sarkozy in France).
Regardless of your position within the political spectrum this makes 2017 one of the most turbulent and potentially dangerous years in recent times.
The BBC’s Andrew Neil recently visited the US to cover the elections and is on record as having spoken at length with Trump’s team. He reports that not only is Trump supportive of the UK decision but is willing to actively pressure Europe not to ‘beat up’ on the UK for leaving the club. Why might he do that?
Neil and others formed the view that he was the first US President in many years to be anti EU. Not necessarily anti European nation States but seeing little value in the overarching political structure of the Union. With the apparent demise of TTIP (the US/EU trade agreement) and Trump’s dislike of multilateral agreements this could mean the least meaningful contact with the EU at a time when it faces the most internal division.
If Trump’s view prevails with bilateral trade agreements out of the question for those remaining in the EU (at this time), then the UK suddenly looks like the only game in town within continental Europe. Whilst this may be better than expected news for those interested in Brexit it may not provide much in the way of comfort to Europe for the coming year.
Some take a more extreme view of this position. One is German economist and macro-economic advisor Dr Thorsten Pollett.(far from a British euroskeptic)
In a recent speech to the Mises Institute in Germany, he warned that a move to an EU skeptical President in the States has “deprived the EU of its most powerful intellectual and political advocate”. He said: “The yield gap between the US and the euro is set to widen, making the euro less attractive vis-à-vis the dollar.. Mr Trump’s presidency could actually test the single currency to the breaking point.”
It’s worth considering this is the view of a dedicated EU insider who felt the UK brexit decision followed by a Trump election may be too much for the institution’s financial tolerance. He wrote “The United Kingdom’s decision in June to do the ‘Brexit’ has already dealt a heavy blow to peoples’ confidence in the EU being an economically and politically desirable institution. The chances of the project stalling are now even greater, and the ties that bind the union together may even unravel.”
Whilst I should declare I was one of those wishing to leave the EU, and don’t regret my vote, I have no wish to see Europe fractured, although ultimately any institutions must be fit for purpose.
Pollett was making his view based on all other things being equal – however, the evidence suggests other things are also loaded against the union in it’s current form.
Italy’s Five Star political movement is taking every opportunity to press for a referendum re the continued use of the Euro within the country. Whilst the EU may be able to continue without the UK, it is doubtful that the Euro would be able to continue without Italy. With unrelated constitutional agreements pending in Italy some have questioned whether the Prime Minister can survive if the popular vote continues the current popular trend. In which case, the referendum may be the price of continued political support.
Whilst the Euro crisis in Greece is considered over by many, warnings are already coming out of Greece and Germany that a fourth and even fifth bail out of the Greek economy may be necessary and should not be written off as fanciful or scaremongering.
If you think Brexit was a disaster, just consider the emerging fault lines at the centre of the European partnership.
The French Prime Minister is now advising Chancellor Merkel that her policies re free movement are ‘unsustainable in the long term‘ and although ‘Germany may have chosen this path, France has not.’
Similarly, the German Chancellor is taking actions that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. It is widely understood that there is friction between Germany and the EU Commission following Mr Junker telling Mrs Merkel to keep her industrialists in check and not to allow them to give the UK an easy time in Brexit negotiations. Regardless of your position re Brexit, can it be healthy for an unelected bureaucrat to be advising an elected head of Government how her country should conduct themselves?
Ultimately, most politicians will consider their own electoral position first. Perhaps this explains the Chancellor’s recent request of the EU to clarify the exact meaning and constraints of ‘free movement of people’ within the existing Treaties. My suspicion is this has more to do with the possible success of Madam Le Pen in France in the coming Presidential elections.
Combined with these structural pressures and displeasure is growing following the EU ignoring the outcome of a Dutch referendum re visa restrictions. Similarly, Switzerland is entering extended discussions with the EU after being warned their recent vote to curb cross border working breached EU regulations. Interesting given that Switzerland is not a member of the EU.
Personally I remain content with my Btexit vote. Equally, I grow increasingly disappointed at the EU (rather than Europe) being unable to listen to growing disquiet from its members.
In France, Le Pen who now looks a possible winner in the French presidential elections is committed to a French exit referendum. If Brexit seems a body blow, how would Frexit do anything other than lead to the fracturing of the Union? Similarly, the Northern League in Italy is already calling for the Italian equivalent in that country.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has made continued EU membership a key part of their next general election campaign championing the need to renegotiate or leave. Recent polls in the Netherlands show an average of 88% in favour of a UK in/out vote.
The right wing Freedom Party is calling for referendum for Austrian exit to take place within the year whilst in Poland former Prime Minister and leading politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski is on record as saying ‘we need a new treaty now’
Swedish MEP Peter Lungdren recently stated ‘The unspoken truth is that Denmark and Sweden are already on the brink of leaving. A Nordic trading bloc including the UK looks a viable alternative’.
Already a little reported referendum in 2015 has prevented Denmark from handing over further powers to Brussels. Interestingly, the Commission has already stated this has fallen into the same category of ‘to be ignored’ as the recent Dutch referendum on visa controls. If this disregard for the view of the electorate(s) is the outcome of the current status quo, is there any surprise that people have stopped engaging?
It may be worth pointing out that many of these difficulties stem from the desire to protect the four fundamental freedoms of the EU. These are said to be indivisible. However, if this is the case, perhaps someone can explain why there are currently internal border controls in operation in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Poland and Sweden.
In what looks like an increasingly fractured Europe with America’s attention focusing elsewhere, the next area under debate looks set to be defense. As recently as last week (BBC This Week) former defense secretary Michael Portillo said most of Europe has been living in cloud cuckoo land over defence since the 1980’s.He held that they fail to recognise the importance of the US Umbrella to European defence, want a Europe free of American forces but also increasingly fail to meet their existing NATO commitments.
President Elect Trump has already pledged to build the Pacific fleet up to 350 ships to bolster the perceived threat of instability in that region. This is at the same time as saying spending on NATO is out of proportion and not his top priority.
I certainly don’t seek to justify the spending levels of the US defense budget, it is clear that the next biggest spend is currently from China. Whilst much of the noise from Trump tower may be bluster, it’s hard to see him having much sympathy with Europe asking for more support when the majority of it’s members don’t meet their current 2% contribution.
Even if a significant element is for public consumption, not even the US could afford to make such an investment whilst maintaining its current expenditure on NATO.
As Andrew Neil pointed out, it will also be hard in the absence of the US for the calls on the UK to be anything other than increased. A difficult message to ask the UK to put their forces on the line to support Europe at the same time it’s bureaucracy want to give us a kicking for leaving the club.
Regardless of your political position this has to be a time for calm heads and rational debate rather than simplistic tribal responses. Whatever your view 2017 looks like bringing much more of the same with some unpalatable consequences whatever the outcome. Perhaps the Chinese have it right after all with their now famous curse … ‘may you live in interesting times.’