Dear Partners in thought,
As you know, Interludes are made to give you my humble take on international events that follow a certain ethos broadly representing that of Western civilisation, good and bad, that made our world. Interludes are also expressions of “common sense” in a world driven by emotions if not passions, conveying views that may not be always fashionable but are rational at least from an end game standpoint.
I will not expand on my erstwhile two favourite topics which are Donald Trump and Brexit. Borrowing from the witty Economist this week, “Trump Season 2” is starting roaringly with a potential government shutdown forever if no wall so America can stem the evident rape endemics and related ills from down South. It seems at times that the key British political leaders still would oddly prefer for different reasons, mostly partisan at heart, not to have a second referendum whatever the abysmal costs to their nation of a looming No Deal. And while the EU will likely give them a few more weeks to decide, this not to be accused, as they unfairly will, to be the source of all the post-Brexit ills that would likely befall Britain. Let’s hope that reason prevails and that taxpayer money ends up being well spent in the US and that the people in the UK are given a voice after all so they can decide their fate for themselves based on facts this time and whatever the outcome.
Two pieces of news deserved to be mentioned this week: the resilience of the hard core “Gilets Jaunes” or “yellow vests” and their hard to find agenda in France, and the news that a boat of 32 refugees wanting to cross the Mediterranean has been at sea for more than a month being unwanted by any European and indeed EU country.
The yellow vests are not as numerous in their eighth weekend as they were at the peak of the movement and indeed riots. There is a hard core at work that wants to demonstrate, mainly to change the (or their) world, many of them simply wanting to remove a democratically elected President and executive and feeling that it is a perfectly fine thing to do in 2019, time of the free. While they are a minority, they feel empowered to voice their wishes partly as they exist more in a world of mobile technology and social networks when people feel they exist because they can express what they want without either constraints nor restraints. They now feel that it is fully unacceptable that public order might be maintained by the police even though many demonstrators have shown a liking for free and quasi-permissible violence and looting. They feel they can do away with having executives having been elected and with a bit of push and understanding from France at large maybe they will reach their goal. This empowerment is dangerous and reminiscent of periods of history where active minorities resorted to undemocratic ways, similarly opposed to the views they would defend in the first place, to achieve their goals generally ending in the suppression of individual rights. Having started with expressions of despair at capitalism (one would think) and not making it socially with the usual French expectations from the State to “assist” (not taking into account that France is already redistributing 57% of its GDP) as well as vague but some specific wants (like on the gas tax to fund partly climate change), the yellow vests achieved their goals when Macron and the French government caved in (something that can also be discussed but may be a French choreographic feature of societal “debate”). Now they go further and like in May 1968 want to change the world we live in and rewrite how democracy works. They want the street, mobile phone and social network empowered, to rule the day. They want to decide for countries where they go just because they can scream and walk down roundabouts. So far the French are generally sympathetic, as they often are with big strikes and the like, especially when they are not bothered – and they don’t mind for the Parisians to pay for being Parisian in a very French habit. My bet is for the NIMBY factor (not in my backyard) and when riots come too close to home or their costs destroy too many of the jobs they could have benefitted from, as they start doing, yellow vest support will quickly vanish. Whatever the style of Emmanuel Macron, who is still supported by a large group of silent and reform-minded French voters, sympathy for the yellow vests will be replaced for screams of law and order and a 30 May 1968-like pro-order demonstration will materialise, reaching the very roundabouts of France. It will be difficult for the yellow vests to capitalise upon any wants they may have as they do not know what they want and are prone to contradiction as previously explained (while they likely pay no or little direct income tax with France being the ruling EU tax champion, they do not want more indirect taxation though would want increased spending to benefit them). They have no clear leaders, no coherent programme, no ability to manage anything much less a country like France. Besides screaming slogans, they can’t negotiate as they have nothing to give or really desire specifically. The yellow vests are like kindergarten kids on steroids some of whom like to break things. It is a question of time before they crumble but every weekend is costly to France (and thus Europe and its reforms) financially and in terms of image. As Macron explained recently in his own style but with accuracy: “We can’t work less, earn more, cut taxes and increase spending”.
The latest refugee crisis in the Mediterranean shows a valiant boat of 32 brave refugees being unwanted by any EU country after one month at sea with many NGOs expressing their outrage and screams of shame as expected. The situation is certainly dire. There are a few teens and a couple of children involved. Nobody can rejoice at such an abysmal situation. One would hope that they will find a safe harbour soon. Having said this, it is also time to be honest and admit that Europe cannot welcome “all the misery in the world” (as said by French PM, Michel Rocard in 1990 nearly 30 years ago). Ms Merkel accepted one million refugees due to the combination of her pastoral and Eastern German descent with the clear need to correct the critical and ever looming German demographic time bomb. Her move made a lot of sense and was well-intended but the implementation and impact of such a massive arrival of ethnically and culturally different individuals in Germany (and elsewhere in Europe) created a change that was not foreseen and Europe was not prepared for. This move created the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) movement, which incidentally scored highest in local elections where immigrants were the fewest like in Saxony, mirroring similar trends for non-mainstream populist parties and candidates with huge and unsettling societal agendas in “left out” midwestern America or Northern England where immigration fear played a big role. This massive immigration influx, which was corrected also as to ensure that skilled applicants were targeted to stay permanently (something the US could learn as they still have a lottery for any work visa applicant, regardless of skills of whether they are renewing their visa and are employer-sponsored and paying tax!) created ripple effects in other countries leading to a rise in populist parties’ fortunes and very likely to the Leave vote in Britain in June 2016. There is a great need for governments how liberal-minded and pro-globalisation they may be (and should be) to do a reality check and start understanding that national identity matters to European people and not everybody can come in and stay in Europe. There must be an immigration process that is fair and also focused on national balances at all levels lest we risk going into nightmarish integration processes throughout the continent. There is also a need now to limit immigration to skilled applicants who add to the pie of EU countries and do not end up being an additional burden to national societies in the context of a sound EU if we want the latter to grow serenely. National governments and the EU should work together to clamp down systematically on those criminal outfits that prey on refugees and bring them to European shores on false promises and in risky, if not lethal, conditions. Being aware of the Syrian war catalyst and putting aside something that may have been initially seen as a tactical negotiating advantage by Damas, there is also a need for a strong economic Marshall-like development plan to help those economies of Africa and the Middle East to keep their refugees at home – their national home. While this may sound harsh and devoid of humanity, Europe will not survive if it does not adopt a resolutely proactive policy that breaks with naive credos of the past and faces reality. This is manageable and will prevent European populist parties and their leaders ill-fitted to run modern societies and economies from seizing power democratically on the back of fears or send their nation down the economic abyss.
Having said all that and hoping you will forgive this European “humanist-realist” for his straight, no-nonsense views, I wish you all a very happy and most healthy New Year 2019, which I also want prosperous and far less yellow in the attire.
Serge Desprat- Jan 7, 2019 (Prague)