Catalonia: the case for a federal Europe

The increasing tensions in Spain, leading up to the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October, offer a strong case for a more federal Europe, made stronger by the lack of other viable options.

In the distant past, this is something that would have been settled on the field of battle. Spain would seek to put down the province declaring independence, and Catalonia would have resisted.

In the twenty-first century, there’s reasonable hope that this won’t end in bloodshed. There’s a vestige in that older way of thinking in the speed with which Spain suspended Catalan autonomy, calling fresh elections, and the threats to arrest the (now ousted) Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont. From the outside, it feels like a game of double bluff, but one in which every twist tears at the self-understanding of the many who see themselves as both Catalan and Spanish, making it harder to find a negotiated solution.

In a dis-spiriting parallel with Brexit, the near-impossibility of establishing an independent state seem not to impinge on the desire for it (countries can only join the EU with the agreement of all existing members, and Spain would be likely to veto membership). The sense is of poorly and partially articulated grievances leading to actions that make things much worse.

For the EU this presents a dilemma. Donald Tusk quickly came out with a statement saying that, the declaration changes nothing, and the EU will deal only with Madrid. In one sense he has no choice: for the time being this is an internal matter for a member state. In the short term, that would come under pressure only if Spain cracks down on Catalonia in a way that calls into question its commitment to the basic ideals of the Union. That’s possible, and there was pressure for action on that basis against Hungary in May 2017, but the hope is that things won’t get that bad.

But the other side of the EU’s dilemma is that this does change everything.

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Theresa May in an impossible position

Are we right to mock Theresa May, or is she caught in the impossible position of trying to deal with the wreckage of her predecessor’s mistakes, over Europe and in calling a referendum without planning for both possible outcomes, and the divisions in her own party?

Almost since the moment when she became Prime Minister it has been tempting to mock Theresa May. From her 2016 conference speech, when she seemed to have abandoned her previous support for EU membership and managed the meaningless “Brexit means Brexit”, through vacuous comments on the “will of the people”, to her performances as the “Strong and stable” “Maybot” in the 2017 General Election.

But is this fair? Her disastrous speech speech to the 2017 Conservative Party Conference begins to flag up another side. As it stands, she may well go down in history as the most unfortunate Prime Minister in a very long time. In the long view of history, she may get credit for courage in an impossible situation, and come to be seen as one of the high-profile victims of Brexit.

That conference speech said more than its words. Letters falling off a sign, someone playing a prank, and a nasty cough could be seen as bad luck. But things are rarely as simple as that, and it can be worth asking what is happening unconsciously in the seemingly-accidental.

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Brexit: exacerbating the wealth divide

Privileged access for big business to government in the Brexit process threatens to make it a “Brexit for the rich”, not the people who voted for it and already felt left behind.

The Independent for 26 August 2017 ran an article by Jon Stone and Joe Watts, based on a report saying that big business and banks have been dominating access to government over Brexit, while labour groups and NGOs have been marginalised.

Without access to the report itself, its not possible to verify its assertion, but at the very least it seems highly credible Last year I blogged about Brexit as a new “class war” in which it felt as if the wealth were grabbing the opportunity of Brexit to re-shape Britain in a way that exaggerates wealth divides.

Advocates of “trickle-down” economics will say this is fine: prioritise the key wealth creators and everyone gains. That didn’t work under Margaret Thatcher, and there’s little scope for it working now, except for those who are temperamentally-equipped to gain from a brutalising “each person for themself” mentality.

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The not-very-great Repeal Bill: a power grab from No.10

The Great Repeal Bill has finally been published. It’s grab for power from No.10 which is both an assault on parliamentary democracy, and a sharp illustration of the impossibility of achieving a Brexit that is actually good for the UK. It is also the polar opposite of the “take back control” slogan of the Leave campaign.

On the face of it the idea is simple: repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, which provided a mechanism to bring into UK law things emerging from the EU, and shift all EU-derived law into British law. British and EU law have been so intertwined for so long that simply repealing everything would create some big holes, so this could be seen as a pragmatic solution. It means that on the day after leaving the EU, UK law would be in the same place that it was the day before.

But things are not quite what they seem.

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A government fails

The fire at Grenfell Tower is clearly a very serious event. A 24-story building, newly refurbished was engulfed in flames. Advice to people to stay in their flats in the event of fire catastrophically wrong. Reactions to the disaster throw a spotlight on the failings of the government.

So far, so bad. There is grief and there is anger. At the time of writing this, it’s not clear whether the fire was a result of building regulations not being followed, or not being sufficient to ensure fire safety. Whatever the actual cause, many people have died nasty deaths.

Pulling the lens back from the fire itself, it raises serious questions of government.

Under normal circumstances people look to government to provide order and stability. In difficult times governments also have blame and anger projected onto them.

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Brexit on the doorsteps

One of the salutary experiences of the last few months has been door-knocking in several areas which Liberal Democrats have not worked for a while and where there is significant support for Brexit. Responses have been varying. Alongside those promising to vote Liberal Democrat there have been angry responses — people who see the Liberal Democrat clipboard and slam the door and even someone who rushed out of their house to shout at me for putting a Liberal Democrat leaflet through their letterbox.

This leaves me wondering about the antipathy.

A slammed door says that someone is angry, but not why. Where conversations have been possible — though they are sometimes rather short — they have been illuminating.

It’s easy to dismiss the Leave campaign for its lies. The sense I have been getting on the doorsteps is of something deeper than that, as if we are wrecking the bright image of a wonderful Brexit. The situation was brilliantly summed up by a UKIP leaflet celebrating the wonderful [sic] prospect of Brexit and suggesting that people depressed or upset about it should join the Liberal Democrats.

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Article 50 under way

29 March 2017 was not a good day in the history of the U.K. It was the day when we took a wild leap into the unknown, chasing fantasies over reality. What Brexit actually means is hardly clearer now than when the referendum was called.

Triggering article 50: a dangerous leap backwards for the UK

The prize for the most absurd Brexit comment on the doorstep in the first three months of 2017 goes to the person who said: “I voted Leave. We were fine before we went in and we’ll be fine now. It’s my children and grand-children I feel sorry for”.

The litany of lies from the Leave campaign should anger people: the £350 million a week for the NHS (denied the morning after the vote), the fantasy of a threat that Turkey would join the EU and flood us with immigrants (suddenly not an issue), the threatened end to free movement of people causing nurses to leave the country than burst of jobs, “take back control” turning into having to obey the rules others make in what Michael Hessletine has called “the greatest loss of sovereignty in British history“, and renewed pressure for Scots independence and Irish re-unification which brings the Brexit-related break-up of the U.K. much closer.

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Moving to a Chinese way of doing things

The rise of China promises a fundamental change in the world. The way China is used to operating is so far outside how the West is used to operating that it is hard to engage with. One of the things fuelling anxiety over globalisation is that this is happening beneath the radar. The change isn’t necessarily bad, but unfamiliarity breeds fear.

China emerging as the world’s major power, and changing the way things are done.

In the west, we are use to thinking of ourselves as global powers. In our own terms, we have been the world’s major economic powers, and have proud colonial histories. In reality, those colonial histories are murky, and we have only had dominance because of widespread poverty. The rise in the economic might of China and India has gone with increased living standards: the only thing that could stop a major re-alignment is the sort of humanitarian catastrophe which we should see as morally repugnant.

But change is not just about economic might: it is also about how nations naturally do things. The western mindset that has been dominant is not the only way.

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The other side of Brexit: What about the Leavers?

I’m increasingly conscious that one really important group has become invisible in the storm around Brexit: the people who actually voted for it.

St Austell: voted heavily for Leave, and now faces an uncertain future as Cornwall faces losing EU funding

Canvassing recently my ear was firmly bent by someone who voted Leave and is worried about the NHS. The promise of £350 million per week might have evaporated on the morning after the referendum, but her concerns have not. She’s not angry at the lie: for her this is just one more in the chain of politicians’ lies. The worry is real.

One of the memorable moments in Laura Kuenssberg’s documentary on the referendum had Leave voters in Sunderland saying “now people in London have got to listen to us”.

Instead we have a prime minister saying “Brexit means Brexit” and talking of the “will of the people”, but who reacted to being reigned in by the courts by bring a bill before parliament to give her huge powers in the Brexit process. This sounds like a land grab from No.10 rather than an attempt at listening.

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A time for wise leadership

At the start of 2017, things feel much less stable than a year ago. Prince Charles broke with convention in his Christmas message by expressing concern at the “deeply-disturbing echoes of the 1930s”. He is thinking in global terms, but the UK is part of this story. He is right to be concerned.

Two wise leaders: Angela Merkel and Kenneth Clarke

I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a leader to stop it. We need something different. I am mentally contrasting the stereotype of the fascist leader, who whips up the darkest desires of the crowd, and the wise leader who enables people to be heard so that wisdom emerges rather than fear and mudslinging.

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