Monday, June 27, 2016

Perfidious Albion

“Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. … We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing.”
—Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) explains to minister James Hacker (Paul Eddington) Britain’s real strategy for Europe, in the March 24, 1980 Yes Minister episode, “The Writing on the Wall”
Gobsmacked is a great word that they use here on this side of the Atlantic. It perfectly describes the reaction politicians and journalists in both Great Britain and Ireland to Thursday’s referendum. It is not often that so many people are taken by so much surprise in such a widespread public way. Never mind the politicians and journalists. Imagine the emotional state of investors and bookmakers who had placed their bets, confident of a victory for the Remain side. Usually, people with real money at stake in an issue take the trouble to get things right and are hence generally reliable predictors. Not this time.

Even supporters of the Leave side were in shock. Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, had more or less conceded defeat after the polls had closed. Two last-minute polls (not exit polls), held for release until just after the vote, assured everyone of a win for Remain. It was all settled, done and dusted. Then the actual votes were counted, and everyone’s world changed.

The results have been analyzed to death. Voters in London, Scotland and Ulster voted Remain. The Welsh and the English (outside London) voted Leave. Sixty-four percent of voters under 25 vote to stay. Fifty-eight percent of voters over 65 voted to leave. The anguish among the urban young was heartbreaking to behold. They have never identified as anything other than European and feel particularly bereft. Why, they ask, do old voters get to have the deciding voice in their longterm future? It was not hard to imagine a youth revolt with repercussions reminiscent of Logan’s Run or Wild in the Streets.

It is more difficult to have sympathy, however, for the dazed and confused journalists. It is their job to investigate and report, not simply to convey ahead of time what is supposed to happen. If they never saw the Brexit victory coming, it may be because everyone they knew was against it. In their world, the people who were for it existed only in theory. Think about it. A majority of all members of Parliament were in favor of Remain, and Remain was the official position of both major political parties. Most of the television coverage seemed to focus on the Remain arguments. So how did it all go so wrong?

The first clue should have been last year’s general election. The Conservatives won by an unanticipated majority (polls again failing to forecast correctly) after David Cameron promised to hold the Brexit referendum. It was a strange calculation and, in hindsight, a fatal one. Cameron himself was against Brexit but was swept back into office on the promise of giving voters a say on the issue. UK and EU politicians did themselves no favors by making spiraling threats about all the bad things (many by definition self-inflicted) that would happen if the referendum passed. To top it off, President Obama came to visit and explicitly threatened to send Britain to “the back of the queue” if Brexit passed. All of these so-called leaders essentially dared voters to go against them as a point of national pride.

That has always been the problem with the EU. When the rules and arrangements are worked out among the various countries’ political classes, everything is fine—on the surface. When specific treaties or questions are put before masses of actual voters, they often do not fare well. Needless to say, the reaction among much of the political class is not that they need to be more in touch with voters but that there should be less voting. It is especially rich to watch those politicians and pundits, who rhetorically favor the working class, excoriate that same working class for voting against their own self-interest, i.e. their self-interest as perceived by the more enlightened political class.

Many have blamed xenophobic and racist currents for the result. Certainly, there were ugly motives among a good many, but it is too broad a brush to paint the entire voting majority. The immigration/refugee issue, to the extent it was used by both sides, was to my mind something of a red herring. Being outside the Schengen Treaty area, Britain has always been in control of its own borders when it comes to non-EU citizens. Having said that, there has obviously been discomfort with the continual addition of new EU countries reaching farther and farther east.

As dramatic as Thursday’s vote was, that will not be the end of the issue. There is actually a provision for exiting the EU, and the Brits have two years to negotiate it. In the short term, everyone is too busy sulking to work on it seriously but, when heads start to clear, do not be surprised if the EU tries to make some concessions that would justify another referendum. Enough individual UK citizens have already signed a petition to require Parliament to consider calling a new referendum, and Scotland seems to think it may have the legal right to trigger one as well.

This thing is not over. Not by a long shot.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Breakup Brewing?

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
—Thomas Jefferson, writing to James Madison from Paris on January 30, 1787
My coffee is cold. I blame the European Union.

Does that make me some kind of weird, fringe anti-government whacko? Nah, I’m just someone who loves my coffee (all those years in Seattle, you know) and who gets tired of having to remember to keep turning on the coffee machine to keep the coffee hot or, alternatively, having to keep microwaving my cold cup of coffee.

What does the EU have to do with my coffee maker? It’s kind of a symbolic thing. You see, I bought a new coffee machine a couple of months ago, and this one behaves differently from the ones I had before. My previous drip coffee maker, once it had made the coffee, would keep it warm on a hot plate that shut off automatically after a couple of hours. The new one shuts off after 30 minutes. Maybe I should drink my coffee faster, but it always seems as though the coffee is barely ready before it has already gone tepid. Every time I go looking for a refill, I find the pot has gone lukewarm if not downright cold. So I am using the microwave more these days.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this is a #firstworldproblem of non-major proportions. Compared with all the planet’s much bigger issues, it is definitely not worth complaining about. It is just an annoyance. So why am I bringing it up at all? Because it is a concrete (albeit minor) example of why a lot of people living in the European Union have a certain level of negative feeling about it. You see, the time limit on my coffee maker is because of an EU rule. Someone or a group of someones in Brussels decided for some reason that coffee makers should not keep coffee warm longer than a half-hour. And that this was important enough to put into a legal directive affecting the citizens of 28 countries. Perhaps there is a very good reason for this. Maybe there was a spate of tragic accidents, which I somehow have managed not to read or hear about, in which glass coffee pots shattered because they ran dry sitting on top of hot plates that refused to turn off soon enough. Maybe whole buildings have gone up in smoke because of those stubborn coffee warmers. I do not doubt that there is a reason and that the reason seemed perfectly good to the bureaucrats in Belgium.

Here’s the rub. If this rule had been passed by bureaucrats in Dublin, then at least I could contact my local representative in Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament). One of the advantages of living in a small country is that it is incredibly easy to get in touch with your national representative. And maybe it would make a difference and maybe it would not, but at least I would have had my say. As it happens, though, if I were to ring up, say, Éamon Ó Cuív (one of the TDs who represents me) to give out about my coffee maker, I would probably get a recitation of how terrible it is but what can you do? The decision was made in Brussels, not Dublin. Sorry.

Here is another example. You know that little checkbox you have to click every time you visit a new website? The one with the link to a page full of legal information that you never click on (let alone read) but it says something about cookies and privacy? Everyone who publishes a web site—from the biggest corporation down to the humblest blogger who builds his or her own website, e.g. me—has to make their site ask that question and receive a response because the EU decided it was in consumers’ interests and, if there is even a chance that someone in the EU will look at your website, you better make sure your website asks the question or risk having the wrath of the EU bureaucracy come looking for you.

The dirty little secret is that the political class loves the EU precisely because its rule-making is so remote and anonymous. It gets the local parliamentarians off the hook. This is why so many politicians in so many different political parties in so many different countries have come out against Brexit—shorthand for the referendum to be held on Thursday, which is meant to decide the question of whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave the EU. When citizens complain about controversial or annoying rules, the response is often a shrug of the shoulders and a “What can you do? It’s those bureaucrats in Brussels.”

In addition to the political class, you know who really wants Britain to stay in the EU? The investor class. Last week when the polls suggested the Leave side would win, London stocks and pound sterling tanked. When the polls shifted after the horrific murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a crazy man, those measures surged on the positive side.

Is the EU anti-democratic? Well, every time a country votes the “wrong” way on an EU treaty (Denmark on the Maastricht Treaty, Ireland on the Nice Treaty), the electorate is always required to vote on it again—until it finally gets it right. So there is a bit of a sense that the role of voters is mainly to act as a rubber stamp. If Britons vote in two days to leave the EU, I suspect the referendum will end up getting a do-over.

To be sure, there are extremely valid reasons for people to want to be part of the EU. Businesses like the convenience and relative simplicity of working within a tightly knit trading bloc and using a common currency. (The UK has never joined the euro and still uses pound sterling.) Travelers like going through shorter immigration queues since an EU passport guarantees automatic entry to all EU countries. And some people, remembering back to two devastating world wars in the past century, feel that political and economic integration is the best hedge against armed conflict.

Personally, I am at odds with myself on the question. As someone who believes that free trade and travel are necessary for personal liberty, I think the EU is great. As someone who believes that, in the interest of individual rights, the best government is the one closest and most answerable to you, I sometimes find the EU scary.

People who prefer to leave the EU see it as a trading bloc that did not know where to stop and has gradually turned into a super-state, inexorably overwhelming individual countries’ perogatives. In no area is this feeling stronger than in immigration. Many Britons feel their country has lost control of its borders. This is technically true when it comes to citizens and residents of other EU countries, as they have the right to live and work in Britain. It does not really apply to the hordes of refugees currently flooding into Europe, as the UK is not part of Europe’s Schengen Treaty zone in which entry into one country is tantamount to entry to all. This is why sprawling refugee camps have amassed around Calais. It is the last stop on the way to Britain, and non-EU citizens must have a visa.

That last point raises an interesting question. Why are those migrants so desperate to get into the UK anyway? After all, they are already in the Schengen zone and can travel unimpeded within 26 European countries. Why huddle in miserable camps, waiting for a chance to cross one more border? Here are some possible reasons. Perhaps they have friends or family in the UK and know they will have a community of support there. Maybe they speak English but not French or German. Or maybe, just maybe, Britain’s relatively strong economy and standard of living is a factor.

In the end, if there is a viable reason for the UK to leave the EU, it will have more to do with the economy than with immigration. In hindsight, Britain’s decision not to join the euro looks like it was probably the right one. Despite all the (at times hysterical) predictions of disaster for Britain if it goes it alone, it looks more and more, economically, as though the EU really needs the UK more than the other way around.

Whatever way the Brits end up voting, let’s hope that they approach this important decision wide awake and sober. They will want to ponder it seriously over a good hot cup of tea—or maybe over a good stiff cold cup of coffee.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Flight of Fancy

“Was that mere coincidence or some foreordained destiny? Who can say? But I do know this. It is at our own mortal peril that we cast aside the tales, the lore, the lessons and the admonitions of those who went before us.”
 —Prince Chrysteffor of Alinvayl
There is much going on in the world these days to make the heart heavy. Political divisions in many countries—particularly as seen in the campaigning for the U.S. presidential election and Britain’s European Union referendum—make every human tragedy grist for the mill of partisan exploitation and demonization. Sometimes you just need a break from it all.

So let us leave America and Europe to look after themselves for a few minutes and turn our attention to the country of Afranor. What? You have not heard of the kingdom of Afranor? Do not bother thumbing through your atlas for it. (Does anybody actually have or use atlases anymore?) It is imaginary.

In the past week my second book has come out.

It is quite a bit different from my bildungsroman about the early 1970s, Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. The new book is escapist fantasy, an adventure story about swords and sorcery and princes and a quest. There is a an evil sorcerer, a warrior princess, a pirate queen and horde after horde of ungodly creatures. If it sounds like something a socially awkward teenager might dream up, that’s because it is. The story first saw the light of day when my Spanish teacher assigned us to write a story. Consumed at the time by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and issue after issue of Marvel’s The Mighty Thor, I let myself go. The title, Las tres torres, was a rip-off, I mean, homage to the middle book of Tolkien’s trilogy. The action owed quite a bit to the Thunder God’s comic book adventures in Asgard, as envisioned by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. As I continued my Spanish studies in high school and at university, I kept working on the story. I revised it and expanded it and wrote sequels and spin-offs—all in Spanish. Eventually, the story was put away to make time for more serious things, like earning a living and having a social life. Then years later I found myself needing material to put a small child to sleep at night, and the story came alive again—this time in a more simplified form. She eventually grew old enough to fall asleep reading books on her own, but I found I had a need to write the story down once and for all and in English. The Three Towers of Afranor is the result.

Lately, as I peruse social media memes viewing current politics through the lens of pop culture entertainment—you know the sort of thing, Game of Thrones images with Hillary Clinton as Queen Cersei or Donald Trump as Ramsay Bolton—I wonder, will anyone try to do that with my story? Will they try to make it an allegory about the War on Terror the way some people saw The Lord of the Rings as a roman à clef about the Second World War? (Tolkien actually conceived his story many years before WWII.) Will some people think I deliberately intended some political message in this violent fable?

All I can tell you is that the main points of the story originated, as I have said, more than four decades ago and it was not my intention to include any political message. On the other hand, I suppose it is not impossible that such messages could grow out of the story organically or that I could have woven such themes into the tale unconsciously.

All you can do is read the book and judge for yourself. You can find more information about it and where to acquire it, as always, on my book blog.