Spanish Elections: EU Watershed?

The Spanish Challenge

Dispatches From The Edge

June 8, 2016


For the past quarter of a century there have been few watershed moments in Spanish political history. Like a well-choreographed pas de deux, the center-left Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and right-wing Popular Party (PP) have taken turns governing the country.


But the 2015 election changed all that. Upstart parties on the right and left crashed the ball, punished the two major parties, and forced another round of voting on June 26 that could be a turning point in a growing campaign to roll back austerity policies that have spread poverty and unemployment throughout the continent.


Last December’s vote saw the ruling PP drop 63 seats and lose its majority. But voters chastised the Socialists as well, with the party losing 20 seats. Many of the seats that formerly went to the two major parties shifted to the left-wing Podemos Party and, to a lesser degree, the rightist Ciudadanos Party. In the current parliament, the PP controls 123 seats, the Socialists 90, Podemos 69, and Ciudadanos 40. Regional parties of Basques, Catalans and Canary Island independents hold 28 seats. The parliament has 350 seats and a ruling majority is 176.


The new election was forced when none of the parties could form a working majority. The PP and Ciudadanos are on the same page politically, but together fall short of a majority. The Socialists, Podemos and the regional parties—most of which are leftist to one extent or another—could have formed a government, but the Socialist Party refuses to have anything to do with Catalan separatists.


While polls indicate that Spaniards are likely to vote pretty much the same way they did in December, a new kid on the block has altered the electoral terrain and raised the pressure on the center-left Socialists to make a choice: follow the lead of Portugal, where the Socialist Party formed a united front with the Left Bloc and the Communist/Green alliance, or imitate the Social Democrats in Germany and join a “grand coalition” and make common cause with the right?


The “new kid” is “Unidos Podemos” (“United We Can”), a coalition of Podemos and the United Left (UL). No one expects the new alliance to win a majority, but most analysts predict, that under Spain’s quirky election system the coalition could increase its representation by 25 percent, or somewhere between 15 to 20 seats. That would vault the new formation past the PSOE, making United Podemos (UP) the second largest bloc in the parliament. The PP is still number one and on track to slightly increase the 29 percent they received in the last election.


Spain’s election geography is heavily weighted toward rural areas, where the PP and Socialist Party are strong. While it takes 128,000 votes to elect someone in Madrid, it only takes 38,000 in some areas of the countryside. The rules also favor regional depth over broad support. In December, the UL won almost a million votes but only got two representatives. Other parties averaged one seat for every 60,000 votes.


United Podemos has internal tensions, but both parties have put these aside for the moment. For instance, Podemos supports continued membership in NATO, while United Left opposes the military alliance. The UL is also opposed to the current structure of the European Union and calls for a “refounding” of the organization.


What both agree on is ending Spain’s punishing austerity regime and confronting the country’s staggering unemployment. The national jobless rate is 21 percent, with a catastrophic 45.5 percent for youth 25 and under. The education system is in a state of collapse, and there is a national housing crisis. In the face of those conditions, the UP has decided to shelve disagreements over NATO and the EU and make common cause.


This is almost exactly what the left did in Portugal, where disagreements on NATO and the EU were sidelined in favor of freezing privatizations, rolling back tax increases, increasing the minimum wage and augmenting funding for education and medical care. There is no question that differences will eventually surface, but the Portuguese left has decided that when the house is burning down saving the inhabitants takes precedent. Whether the Spanish Socialist Party will take that step is an open question.


In some ways the divisions of the left in Spain are narrower than they are in the Portuguese alliance: part of the UP—specifically Podemos—backs NATO membership and the EU. But the PSOE’s opposition to Catalan independence is a major roadblock to an alliance with the UP. Podemos also believes Catalonia should remain part of Spain, but it supports the right of the Catalans to hold a referendum on the issue.


The Socialist Party’s hostility to Catalan independence allies it with the PP and Ciudadanos. The latter was formed to oppose Catalan independence, and the PP has led a mean-spirited campaign against Barcelona. When Catalans banned bull fighting, Madrid made bull fighting a “national cultural heritage” to thwart the ban. When Catalans flew their nationalist “Estelada” flag at the Copa Del Rey soccer match finals in Madrid, the government tried to block it. A court stopped the authorities from banning the flag, and Barcelona defeated Madrid in the match.


PP leader and acting Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is pressing the Socialists to join a grand coalition that, so far, the latter has resisted. But the PSOE is deeply split. Some in the Party would rather bed down with the right than break bread with Podemos United. Others are afraid that, if the Socialist Party enters a grand alliance with the Popular Party, the Socialists will end up suffering the consequences. Center-left parties that join with center-right parties tend to do badly come election time.


The Greek Socialist Party was decimated by the left-wing Syriza Party after the former went into a grand coalition with the right. The Liberal Party’s alliance with the Conservative Party in England turned out to be a disaster. The Liberal Party barely exists today. And the German Social Democrat’s grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has seen the once mighty Socialists slip below 20 percent in the polls. In Spain the mantel of “the left” would clearly shift to the UP alliance, something that many in the Socialist Party deeply fear.


There are profound differences among the European left, making unity difficult. The Socialist parties in Portugal and Spain, for instance, support paying off their countries debts to European banks and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Portuguese Socialist Party’s alliance partners, as well as the Spanish United Left, think the debt is unpayable and, in any case, unfair because most of the debt is the result of the 2008 economic crisis brought on by the irresponsible speculation of private banks. Speculators may have lost the money, but the taxpayers are picking up the tab.


There is a potential path out of the current situation, but it will have to overcome powerful interests and a deeply flawed economic system.


Those “interests” are the debt holders, ranging from governments to the European Central bank and the IMF.


The flaw is built into the eurozone, which is made up of the 19 countries in the 28-member European Union that use the common currency, the euro. As economist Thomas Piketty puts it, the eurozone has “a single currency with 19 different public debts, 19 interests rates upon which the financial markets are completely free to speculate, 19 corporate tax rates in unbridled competition with one another, without a common social safety net or shared educational standard—this cannot possibly work, and never will.”


Piketty argues the eurozone’s rigidity on debt and its strategy for solving it—austerity and yet more austerity—has “throttled” a recovery, particularly in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Even where countries economies are finally growing—Spain and Ireland—their debts are actually higher than when they instituted austerity regimes. And the “growth” is not due to the EU’s economic strategy, but rather to cheap oil and the declining value of the euro.


Piketty proposes a conference on debt, similar to the one that saved postwar Germany. Syriza has long called for such a gathering. Such a conference could cut debt burdens, lower interest rates and spread out repayments.


However, the eurozone would also have to be democratized. The current European parliament includes non-eurozone members and is largely powerless. Decisions are largely made by the unelected Troika—the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. One thing that could be done immediately would be to institute a common corporate tax rate, which could be used to finance infrastructure improvements and education.


Germany is unlikely to support such an approach, but Germany only represents 25 percent of the EU’s population and GDP, while France, Italy and Spain combined account for 50 percent. Add in Ireland, Portugal and Greece, and Germany and its allies are a distinct minority.


Italy is openly advocating debt reductions and loosening of the eurozone’s rules, and France has already raised the issue of a more democratic and transparent EU political structure along the lines of what Piketty is proposing.


Can it be done? It won’t be easy, but Germany is increasingly isolated, and countries in the southern tier of the eurozone are desperate for relief from the endless rounds of austerity. They are also no longer convinced that such a strategy will lower their debt burdens and stimulate their economies. In fact, most the debt is unpayable no matter how much austerity is applied.


There are some wild cards in the upcoming election. Both the PP and PSOE have been tarred with the corruption bush, and two former Socialist governors of Andalusia have just been charged with illegal payments to supporters. Turnout will likely be lower than in the December election, but the left’s effective grassroots organizations may offset that.


The Spanish elections arrive at a critical time for the European Union, and a Madrid government that resists the increasingly discredited economic strategy of the troika could shift the balance in the direction imagined by Piketty.


That, however, will depend on whether the Socialist Party decides to join with the left or go into a grand coalition with the right.


A failure by the left to unite will open the door for Europe’s resurgent far right, whose xenophobia and racism have gained ground all over the continent.The only way to effectively counter the far right is to democratize the European Union and pursue economic policies that will provide jobs and raise living standards. Only the left can deliver such a program.








































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Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs

A Very Brazilian Coup


A Very Brazilian Coup

Dispatches From the Edge

May 26, 2016


On one level, the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff seems like vintage commedia dell’arte: the Lower House speaker who brought the charges, Eduardo Cunha, had to step down because he has $16 million stashed in secret Swiss and U.S. bank accounts. The man who replaced Cunha, Waldir Maranhao, is implicated in corruption around the huge state-owned oil company, Petroblas. The former vice-president and now president, Michel Temer, has been convicted of election fraud, and has also been caught up in the Petroblas investigation. And the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, has also been implicated in the oil company scandal and is dodging tax evasion charges. In fact, over half the legislature is currently under investigation for corruption of some kind.


But there is nothing comedic about what the fall of Rousseff and her Workers Party will mean for the 35 million Brazilians who have been lifted out of poverty over the past decade, and for the 40 million newly minted members of the middle class one-fifth of Brazil’s 200 million people.


While it was the current downturn in the world’s seventh largest economy that helped light the impeachment fuse, the crisis is rooted in the nature of Brazil’s elites, its deeply flawed political institutions, and the not so dead hand of its 1964-1985 military dictatorship.


Given that the charges against Rousseff do not involve personal corruption, or even constitute a crime—if juggling books before an election were illegal, virtually every politician on the planet would end up in the docket—it is hard to see the impeachment as anything other than a political coup. Even the conservative Economist, long a critic of Rousseff, writes “in the absence of proof of criminality, impeachment is unwarranted” and “looks like a pretext for ousting an unpopular president.”


That suspicion is reinforced by the actions of the new President. Temer represents the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) that until recently was in alliance with Rousseff’s Workers Party. As soon as Rousseff was impeached by the Senate and suspended from office for 180 days, Temer made a sharp turn to the right on the economy, appointing a cabinet of ministers straight out of Brazils’ dark years of dictatorship: all white, all male, and with the key portfolios in the hands of Brazil’s historic elites. This is in a country where just short of 51 percent of Brazilians describe themselves as black or mixed.

Seven of those ministers have been implicated in the Petroblas scandal.



The President announced a program to “reform” labor laws and pensions, code words for anti-union legislation and pension cuts. His new Finance Minister, Henrique Meirelles, a former central bank head who once headed BankBoston in the U.S., announced that, while programs for the poor “which don’t cost the budget that much” would be maintained—like the highly popular and successful Bolsa Familia that raised tens of millions out of poverty through small cash grants— other Worker Party initiatives would go under the knife.


The new government is already pushing legislation that would roll back laws protecting the environment and indigenous people, and has appointed ministers with terrible track records in both areas.


One of the largest soybean farmers in Brazil, Blairo Maggi, was appointed Agriculture minister. Maggi has overseen the destruction of vast areas of the Amazon to make way for soybean crops. Temer’s initial appointment for Science minister was an evangelical Protestant minister who doesn’t believe in evolution. Temer also folded the culture ministry into the ministry of education, sparking sit-ins and demonstrations by artists, filmmakers and musicians.


Brazil has long been a country with sharp divisions between wealth and poverty, and its elites have a history of using violence and intimidation. Brazil’s northeast is dominated by oligarchs who backed the 1964 military coup and manipulated the post-dictatorship constitution.


Political power is heavily weighted toward rural areas dominated by powerful agricultural interests. The three poorest regions of the country, accounting for only two fifths of the population, control three quarters of the seats in the Senate.


As historian Perry Anderson puts it, the political system was designed “to neutralize the possibility that democracy might lead to the formation of any popular will that could threaten the enormities of Brazilian inequality.”


Brazil’s legislature is splintered into 35 different parties, many of them without a political philosophy. The legislature is elected on the basis of proportional representation, but with an added twist: an “open list” system in which voters can choose any candidate, many of them standing on the same ticket. The key to winning elections in Brazil, then, is name recognition, and the key to that is lots and lots of money. Most of that money comes from Brazil’s elites and the oligarchs in the country’s northeast.


Because of the plethora of parties, forming a government is tricky. What normally happens is that one of the larger parties ropes in several smaller parties by giving them ministries. Not only does this encourage corruption—each party knows it needs to raise lots of money for elections—but results in political incoherence.


When the Workers Party was elected in 2002 it was unwilling to dilute its programs by bringing ideological opponents into a cabinet, yet the Workers Party needed partners. The solution was cash payouts to legislators, a scheme titled “mensalao” (“monthly payoffs”) that was uncovered in 2005. Once the payoffs were revealed, the Workers party had little choice but to fall back on the old system of handing out ministries in exchange for votes. That is how Temer and the PMBD entered the scene.


With the reputation of Silva and the Workers Party dented by the payoff scheme, the right saw an opportunity to rid themselves of the left, but Silva’s popularity and the success of programs aimed at alleviating poverty made the Workers Party pretty much unassailable at the ballot box. Silva won another landslide election in 2006, and Rousseff was elected twice in 2010 and 2014. In short, the elites could not win elections.


But they could still pull off a very Brazilian coup. First, they hammered at the fact that some Workers Party leaders had been involved in corruption and others implicated in the Petroblas bribery scheme. Rousseff headed up Petroblas before being elected President. While she has never been linked to any of the corruption, it did happen on her watch.


Petroblas is rated the fourth largest company in the world, and it is building tankers, off shore platforms and refineries. That expansion has opened opportunities for graft, and the level of bribery involved could exceed $3 billion. Nine construction companies are implicated in the scandal, as well as more than 50 politicians, legislators and state governors, including the PMDB and the Workers Party.


Rousseff’s biggest mistake was to run on an anti-austerity platform in 2014 and then reversing course after she was elected, putting the brakes on spending. The economy was already troubled and austerity made it worse. The 2005 bribery scheme lost the Workers Party some of the middle class, and the 2014 austerity alienated some of the Party’s working class support.


But it was most likely Rousseff’s decision to green light the Petroblas corruption investigation that spurred her enemies to strike before the probe pulls down scores of political leaders and wealthy construction owners. One of Temer’s ministers was recently caught on tape plotting how to use the impeachment to derail the investigation.


Certainly the campaign aimed at Rousseff was well orchestrated. Brazil’s media—dominated by a few elite families—led the charge. According to Reporters Without Borders, the role of the media was “partisan,” its anti-Rousseff agenda “barely veiled.” Judge Sergio Moro, who is a key figure in the Petroblas investigation, illegally leaked wiretap intercepts that put Silva and Rousseff in a bad light.


Given the makeup of the Brazilian Senate, it is likely Rousseff will be convicted and removed as President. It also appears that Temer will try to roll back many of the programs that successfully narrowed the gap between rich and poor.


Brazil’s economy is in trouble, shrinking 3.7 percent last year. Commodity prices are down worldwide, in large part because of the downturn of China’s economy. Iron ore dropped from $155 to $55 a ton, soya went from $18 to $8 a bushel, and oil from $140 to less than $40 a barrel.


Brazilian debt is rising, but it is still half that of Italy, and unemployment is low, at least by European standards. A return to the austerity policies that destroyed economies all across the southern cone during the 1980s and ‘90s would be a disaster. The worst thing one can do in a recession is curb spending, which stalls out economies and puts countries into a debt spiral.


The austerity policies of the European Union have kept all but a few European economies virtually dead in the water, and those that have shown some growth, like Spain, still post unacceptable unemployment rates. Spain currently has an overall national jobless rate of 21 percent, rising to almost 50 percent among youth. Brazil’s jobless rate is 10.9 percent.


For now, the Workers Party is on the ropes but hardly down and out. It has 500,000 members, and the new government will find it is very difficult to take things away from people now that they have gotten used to having them. Some 35 million people are unlikely to return to their previous poverty without a fight.


One of Temer’s first acts was putting up 100,000 billboards all over the country with the slogan: “Don’t speak of crisis; work!”, which sounds a lot like “shut up.” Brazilians are not noted for being quiet, particularly if the government instituting painful cuts is unelected.


The pressure for new elections is sure to grow, although the current government will do anything it can to avoid them. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning.







Filed under Latin America

The EU: A House Divided

European Union: A House Divided

Dispatches From The Edge

May 16, 2016


“Larger now than the Roman Empire of two thousand years ago, more opaque than the Byzantine, the European Union continues to baffle observers and participants alike.”

Perry Anderson

British historian


The European Union is one of the premier trade organizations on the planet, with a collective GDP that matches the world’s largest economies. But it is far more than a trade group. It is also a banker, a judicial system, a watchdog, a military alliance, and, increasingly, an enforcer of economic rules among its 28 members.


On the one hand it functions like a super state, on the other, a collection of squabbling competitors, with deep divisions between north and south. On June 23, the two-decade-old organization will be put to the test when Great Britain—its second largest economy—votes to stay in the EU or bail out.


The awkwardly named “Brexit” has stirred up a witches’ brew of xenophobia, racism and nationalism, but it has also served to sharpen a long standing debate among the European left over the nature of the organization, and whether it serves to unite a continent shattered by two world wars or functions as little more than a vehicle to spread a particular species of capitalism that has impoverished more people than it has lifted up.


The EU was originally sold as an effective way to compete with U.S. and Japanese commercial power (and later China) by integrating the economies of Western Europe into a common market. The 1957 Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (EEC), but that organization was plagued by currency instability.


Currency manipulation is a standard economic strategy, one the U.S. Treasury follows to this day. The idea is to boost exports by deflating one’s currency, thus making one’s products cheaper. In an organization like the EEC, however, where currencies were traded back and forth, that strategy caused chaos, particularly after the Americans decoupled the dollar from gold in 1971. The U.S. immediately began aggressively devaluing its currency and undercutting Germany.


To make a long history brief, Germany and France began pushing for a common currency, though for different reasons.


For Germany, fluctuating currency rates cut into that country’s export engine. For France, a common currency would give Paris some say over the EEC’s economic policies through the creation of a European Central Bank, policies that at the time were largely determined by Germany’s powerful economy.


Although Britain opted out of adopting the Euro, London rapidly became the financial center of the continent. In the end, 19 countries would adopt the Euro, creating the Eurozone. Eight others, including Denmark, Sweden and Poland kept their own currencies.


The common currency—established by the 1991 Maastricht Treaty and launched in 1999—effectively put the German Bundesbank in charge. Bonn agreed to the common currency, but only on the condition that everyone kept their budget deficits to 3 percent of national income and held their government debt level at 60 percent of GDP. Those figures matched Germany’s economy, but very few of the other states in the EU.


The Maastricht Treaty also transformed the EEC into the EU in 1993.


Deflating one’s currency as a tactic to increase exports and stimulate growth during a downturn was no longer an option, and the debt ratio was set so low that few economies could keep to its strictures. When the bottom fell out during the 2008 economic meltdown, EU states found out just what they had signed on for: draconian austerity measures, the widespread privatization of state owned enterprises—from water and electrical systems, to airports and harbors—and emigration. Millions of mainly young Portuguese, Irish, Greeks and Spaniards fled abroad.


The European Central Bank—with its cohorts, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, the so-called Troika—straitjacketed economies throughout the continent, turning countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland into basket cases, forcing them to borrow money to keep their banks afloat while instituting austerity regimes that led to massive unemployment, huge service cutbacks, and rising poverty rates.


The Troika had a neat trick: it shifted the debts incurred by private speculators on to the public, while the Germans spun up a fairy tale to explain the counter-example: the frugal frau.


“The Swabian housewife,” lectured German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “would have told us her worldly wisdom: In the long run you cannot live beyond your means.”


Except that the debts were not due to the Greeks, Irish, Spaniards, and Portuguese “living beyond their means.” They were just picking up the tab run up by the speculators. The vast majority of “bailouts” that followed the crash went directly into the vaults of French, British, German, and Austrian banks. On the day the Greek “bailout” was announced, French bank shares rose 24 percent.


In many ways, the EU resembles a military alliance on the march. Jan Zielonka, a professor of European politics at Oxford, calls the EU a “postmodern empire,” filling the vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union, using “checkbooks rather than swords as leverage.” During the Clinton administration, the EU—along with NATO—pushed eastward, creating what Zbigniew Brzezinski called “the Eurasian bridgehead for American power and the potential springboard for the democratic system’s expansion into Eurasia.”


The Obama administration strongly supports the UK remaining in the EU.


But the EU has very little to do with “democracy,” as the recent Greek crisis demonstrated. In a confrontation between the then newly elected Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, the latter refused to negotiate over the austerity program that had cratered Greece’s economy. “I’m not discussing the program,” said Schauble, “This was accepted by the previous [Greek] government and we can’t possibly let an election change anything.”


In short, the Troika—an unelected body—makes all economic decisions and is unwilling to consider any other approach but that of the mythical Swabian housewife. It isn’t democracy moving east, but the Bundesbank, and a species of capitalism that is unmoved by unemployment, poverty and widespread misery


So is the Brexit a challenge to the growing might of capital and an implicit critique of the EU’s dearth of democracy? Nothing’s that simple.


First, the loudest critics of the EU are people one needs a very long spoon to sup with: Marine Le Pen’s racist National Front, Britain’s xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, Hungary’s thuggish Jobbik, Greece’s openly Nazi Golden Dawn, and Italy’s odious Northern League. Hatred of immigrants and Islamophobia are the glue that binds these parties, which are active and growing throughout the EU.


Indeed, some on the British left have suggested voting against a Brexit precisely because the most vocal opposition to the EU comes from the most reactionary elements in the UK. The British Conservative Party is deeply split on the issue, with its most rightwing and anti-immigrant members favoring getting out.


The left is also filled with crosscurrents. While some argue for getting out because they see the EU as an undemocratic vehicle for the expansion of international capital, others are critical, but advocate staying in. British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn—hardly a friend to international capital— opposes the Brexit.


While Corbyn is deeply critical of the EU’s lack of “democratic accountability, “ and its push to “privatize public services,” he argues that there is a “strong socialist case” for staying in. Corbyn says the EU plays a positive role on climate change, and that exiting the EU would initiate a race to the bottom on issues like equal pay, work hours, vacations and maternity leave. The Scottish National Party, which is to the left of the Labour Party, also opposes a Brexit, and threatens to call for another independence referendum if it passes.


Left parties in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland are critical of the EU, but most do not advocate withdrawing. What they are demanding is a say over their economic decisions and relief from the rigid rules that favor economies like Germany, and bar many others from ever becoming debt free.


It is ironic that Germany—the country that refuses to even consider retiring some of the overwhelming debts that enchain countries like Greece—owes its current wealth to the 1951 London Conference that cut post-war Germany’s debt in half, lowered interest rates, and stretched out debt payments. The result was the “Wirtschaftwunder” [economic miracle] and the creation of an industrial juggernaut. Greece’s Syriza Party has long called for such a conference to deal with the EU countries mired in debt.


There is no secret why Germany, France and the European Banks oppose debt reduction, or “haircuts”: Between the three of them they hold almost $84 billion of Greece’s debt


The polls show the British electorate could go either way on a Brexit. What happens if they do leave is hardly clear, because it would be a first. The predictions range from doom and gloom to sunny days, and everything in between, although it is doubtful the EU would severely punish Europe’s second largest economy.


One model the left needs to look at in this battle is Portugal, where three left parties, who have long fought with each other, found common ground around reversing the austerity policies that have racked the country’s economy for four years. Portugal just recently received a barely favorable bond rating that gives the coalition government some breathing room. The economy is growing and unemployment down, but at 129 percent of GDP, Portugal’s debt burden is still the third highest in Europe.


Alone, Portugal is no match for power of the Troika, but Lisbon has allies in Spain, Greece, Ireland and increasingly, Italy. Support for the EU in Italy has gone from 73 percent in 2010 to 40 percent today. “Europe has taken the wrong road,” says Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. “Austerity alone is not enough.”


Given the absence of a strong, continent-wide left, however, reversing the current economic rules of the EU may be a country-by-country battle.


It is already underway, and for all of the economic power of the EU, the organization is vulnerable to charges that Brussels has sidelined democracy.


If Brussels—read Germany—can be persuaded or forced to agree to debt reductions, to loosen the spending restrictions and start pump priming, Europe can do something about its horrendous unemployment rate and underperforming economies. If not, whether the British leave or not may be irrelevant: a house divided cannot stand for long.


















Filed under Europe

Baiting The Bear: NATO and Russia

Bear Baiting: Russia & NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

April 28


Aggressive,” “revanchist,” “swaggering”: These are just some of the adjectives the mainstream press and leading U.S. and European political figures are routinely inserting before the words “Russia,” or “Vladimir Putin.” It is a vocabulary most Americans have not seen or heard since the height of the Cold War.


The question is, why?


Is Russia really a military threat to the United States and its neighbors? Is it seriously trying to “revenge” itself for the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union? Is it actively trying to rebuild the old Soviet empire? The answers to these questions are critical, because, for the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, several nuclear-armed powers are on the edge of a military conflict with fewer safeguards than existed 50 years ago.


Consider the following events:

  • NATO member Turkey shoots down a Russian warplane.
  • Russian fighter-bombers come within 30 feet of a U.S. guided missile destroyer, and a Russian fighter does a barrel roll over a U.S. surveillance plane. Several U.S. Senators call for a military response to such encounters in the future.
  • NATO and the U.S. begin deploying three combat brigades—about 14,000 troops and their equipment—in several countries that border Russia, and Washington has more than quadrupled its military spending in the region.
  • S. State Department officials accuse Russia of “dismantling” arms control agreements, while Moscow charges that Washington is pursuing several destabilizing weapons programs.
  • Both NATO and the Russians have carried out large war games on one another’s borders and plan more in the future, in spite of the fact that the highly respected European Leadership Network (ELN) warns that the maneuvers are creating “mistrust.”


In the scary aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, the major nuclear powers established some ground rules to avoid the possibility of nuclear war, including the so-called “hot line” between Washington and Moscow. But, as the threat of a nuclear holocaust faded, many of those safeguards have been allowed to lapse, creating what the ELN calls a “dangerous situation.”


According to a recent report by the ELN, since March of last year there have been over 60 incidents that had “the potential to trigger a major crisis between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance.” The report warns that, “There is today no agreement between NATO and Russia on how to manage close military encounters.”


Such agreements do exist, but they are bilateral and don’t include most alliance members. Out of 28 NATO members, 11 have memorandums on how to avoid military escalation at sea, but only the U.S., Canada and Greece have what is called “Preventing Dangerous Military Activities” (DMA) agreements that cover land and air as well. In any case, there are no such agreements with the NATO alliance as a whole.


The lack of such agreements was starkly demonstrated in the encounter between Russian aircraft and the U.S. The incident took place less than 70 miles off Baltiysk, home of Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet, and led to an alarming exchange in the Senate Armed Services Committee among Republican John McCain, Democrat Joe Donnelly, and U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, soon to assume command of U.S. forces in Europe.


McCain: ”This may sound a little tough, but should we make an announcement to the Russians that if they place the men and women on board Navy ships in danger, that we will take appropriate action?”


Scaparrotti: “That should be known, yes.”


Donnelly: “Is there a point…where we tell them in advance enough, the next time it doesn’t end well for you?”


Scaparrotti: “We should engage them and make clear what is acceptable. Once we make that known we have to enforce it.”


For the Americans, the Russian flyby was “aggressive.” For the Russians, U.S. military forces getting within spitting range of their Baltic Fleet is the very definition of “aggressive.” What if someone on the destroyer panicked and shot down the plane? Would the Russians have responded with an anti-ship missile? Would the U.S. have retaliated and invoked Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, bringing the other 27 members into the fray? Faced by the combined power of NATO, would the Russians—feeling their survival at stake—consider using a short-range nuclear weapon? Would the U.S. then attempt to take out Moscow’s nuclear missiles with its new hypersonic glide vehicle? Would that, in turn, kick in the chilling logic of thermonuclear war: use your nukes or lose them?


Far-fetched? Unfortunately, not at all. The world came within minutes of a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis and, as researcher Eric Schlosser demonstrated in his book “Command and Control,” the U.S. came distressingly close at least twice more by accident.


One of the problems about nuclear war is that it is almost impossible to envision. The destructive powers of today’s weapons have nothing in common with the tiny bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so experience is not much of a guide. Suffice it to say that just a small portion of world’s nukes would end civilization as we know it, and a general exchange could possibly extinguish human life.


With such an outcome at least in the realm of possibility, it becomes essential to step back and try to see the world through another’s eyes.


Is Russia really a danger to the U.S. and its neighbors? NATO points to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and its 2014 intervention in eastern Ukraine as examples of “Russian aggression.”


But from Moscow, the view is very different.


In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmet Kohl pledged to then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move eastward, nor recruit former members of the East bloc military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. By 1995 NATO had enlisted Pact members Romania, Hungry, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and signed on Montenegro this year. Georgia is currently being considered, and there is a push to bring Ukraine aboard. From Moscow’s perspective NATO is not only moving east, but encircling Russia.


“I don’t think many people understand the visceral way Russia views NATO and the European Union as an existential threat,” says U.S. Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe.


Most NATO members have no interest in starting a fight with Russia, but others sound like they think it wouldn’t be a bad idea. On April 15, Witold Waszczykowski, the foreign minister of Poland’s rightwing government, told reporters that Russia is “more dangerous than the Islamic State,” because Moscow is an “existential threat to Europe.” The minister made his comments at a NATO conference discussing the deployment of a U.S. armored brigade on Poland’s eastern border.


Is Russia reneging on arms control agreements? The charge springs from the fact that Moscow has refused to consider cutting more of its nuclear weapons, is boycotting nuclear talks, deploying intermediate range nuclear missiles, and backing off a conventional weapons agreement. But again, Moscow sees all that very differently.


From Moscow’s point of view, the U.S. is continuing to spread its network of anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, which the Russians see as a threat to their nuclear force (as does China). And as far as “reneging” goes, it was the U.S. that dumped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, not Russia,


The U.S. is also pouring billions of dollars into “modernizing” its nuclear weapons. It also proposes using ICBMs to carry conventional warheads (if you see one coming, how do you know it’s not a nuke?), and is planning to deploy high velocity glide vehicles that will allow the U.S. to strike targets worldwide with devastating accuracy. And since NATO is beefing up its forces and marching east, why should the Russians tie themselves to a conventional weapons treaty?


What about Russia’s seizure of the Crimea? According to the U.S. State Department, redrawing European boundaries is not acceptable in the 21st century—unless you are Kosovo breaking away from Serbia under an umbrella of NATO air power, in which case it’s fine. Residents of both regions voted overwhelmingly to secede.


Georgia? The Georgians stupidly started it.


But if Russia is not a threat, then why the campaign of vilification, the damaging economic sanctions, and the provocative military actions?


First, it is the silly season—American elections—and bear baiting is an easy way to look “tough.” It is also a tried and true tactic of the U.S. armaments industry to keep their production lines humming and their bottom lines rising. The Islamic State is scary but you don’t need big-ticket weapons systems to fight it. The $1.5 trillion F-35s are for the Russkies, not terrorists.


There are also those who still dream of regime change in Russia. Certainly that was in the minds of the neo-cons when they used The National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House to engineer—at the cost of $5 billion—the coup that toppled Ukraine into NATO’s camp. The New American Century gang and their think tanks—who brought you Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria—would love to leverage Russia out of Central Asia.


The most frightening aspect of current East-West tension is that there is virtually no discussion of the subject, and when there is it consists largely of distorted history and gratuitous insults. Vladimir Putin might not be a nice guy, but the evidence he is trying to re-establish some Russian empire, and is a threat to his neighbors or the U.S., is thin to non-existent. His 2014 speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club is more common sense than bombast.


Expansionist? Russia has two bases in the Middle East and a handful in Central Asia. The U.S. has 662 bases around the world and Special Forces (SOF) deployed in between 70 and 90 countries at any moment. Last year SOFs were active in 147 countries. The U.S. is actively engaged in five wars and is considering a sixth in Libya. Russian military spending will fall next year, and the U.S. will out-spend Moscow by a factor of 10. Who in this comparison looks threatening?


There are a number of areas where cooperation with Russia could pay dividends. Without Moscow there would be no nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Russians can play a valuable role in resolving the Syrian civil war. That, in turn, would have a dramatic effect on the numbers of migrants trying to crowd into Europe.


Instead, an April 20 meeting between NATO ministers and Russia ended in “profound disagreements” according to alliance head Jens Stoltenberg. Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko said that the continued deployment of armed forces on its borders makes it impossible to have a “meaningful dialogue.”


We are baiting the bear, not a sport that ever ends well.





































Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs, Middle East, Military, Syria

Terrorism: Then and Now

Terrorism: Then & Now

Dispatches From The Edge

March 28, 2016


The year 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rebellion. Throughout the year I will try to revisit some of the lessons of Ireland’s struggle for freedom.


Bombs explode in a subway. The victims are everyday people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What follows is outrage: track down the perpetuators. The people who set off the bombs are monsters and inhuman fanatics, thunder the authorities.


But the year is not 2016, it is 1883 during the “Dynamite War” waged by mainly Irish-American members of the Fenians against the English occupation of Ireland. The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in 1848. The “War” targeted the underground, train stations, city halls, public plazas, and factories in London, Manchester, and Liverpool. The war spanned four years, and in the light of the current terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe, it is an instructive comparison.


On one level there is no similarity. The “Dynamite War” killed and injured very few people, while terrorist attacks and bombs in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, France and Belgium have murdered hundreds and wounded thousands. It is also hard to compare John Devoy and Patrick Tynan of the Fenians to the likes of the Islamic State’s Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani.


Yet there is an historical lesson here, and we ignore it at our peril. Terrorism is a difficult subject to talk about because anything other than outrage seems like one is making an excuse for unspeakably heinous acts. And yet if we are to seriously look for solutions, that requires asking “why,” even if the answers are uncomfortable.


There are certainly easy “solutions” out there: occupy Muslim communities and torture suspects we arrest. Unleash yet more drones, carpet bomb the bastards, and, if necessary, send in the Marines. But that is exactly what we have doing for the past three decades, and is there anyone who would seriously argue that things are better now than they were in 1981?


Did the invasion of Afghanistan muzzle terrorism? A decade and a half later, we are still at war in that poor benighted country, and the terrorism that we experienced on 9/11 has spread to Madrid, Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Cairo, Brussels, Damascus, Baghdad, and other cities. We sowed the wind in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Did we expect to reap less than a whirlwind?


In his book “Blowback,” the late Chalmers Johnson chronicled the ricochets from American foreign policy. We raised up the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to defeat the Russians and helped create Osama bin Laden. We ally ourselves with Saudi Arabia, the country that supplied most of the people who flew those airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, whose reactionary brand of Islam has helped create an army of jihadists worldwide.


The flood of refugees headed toward Europe is a roadmap of U.S. interventions in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya. In the case of the latter, we created a failed state, whose massive arms caches has succeeded in destabilizing significant parts of Central Africa.


The nature of American foreign policy—as well as those of some of its allies—is where the conversation of what to do about terrorism has to begin. This is not to excuse terrorism, but to try to understand what it emerges from, instead of playing an endless—and eventually futile—game of whack-a-mole.


For people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz the answer is simple: terrorists are evil Muslims (although sometimes just being a Muslim is enough). But how many of our leaders ask, “Why are they doing this” and are really interested in an answer? Hillary Clinton says she doesn’t think we should torture people, but she is all for bombing the bejesus out of them and overthrowing their governments. Bernie Sanders is much more sensible, but even he voted for the Yugoslav War, which set off NATO’s eastward march and led to the current crisis over the Ukraine.


Terrorism is not a thing you can wage war against, it is a tactic employed by the less powerful against the more powerful. If you can’t defeat someone’s armies you can always blow up their citizens. Simply using military power in response to terrorism is the most efficient way to recruit new terrorists. Drone strikes are supposed to be “surgical” weapons that only kill bad guys. But as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found, drones have killed thousands of civilians. Each of those civilians has a family, and each of those family (clan, tribe, etc.) members is now a potential recruit. The drone war is a perfect example of Johnson’s “blowback.”


Of course, terrorism generates its own “blowbacks.” The “Dynamite War” didn’t do much damage to the British, but it was a political catastrophe for the Irish. The English used it—along with the infamous 1882 Phoenix Park murders of the colonial authority’s chief secretaries—to pass the “Perpetual Coercion Act” and imprison hundreds of Irish activists. The loss of those leaders seriously damaged efforts by the Land League to stop a wave of tenant farmer evictions that followed in the wake of the 1878-79 crop failures.


Those evictions produced a “blowback” of their own. Tens of thousands of Irish were forced to emigrate to America, bringing with them a deep rage at English landlords and the colonial authorities. That fury fed the anger that many Irish-Americans still held against the British, and that led to a revival of the Fenians and the launching of the “Dynamite War.” It was good old American know how that built the bombs that blew up targets in England.


The “War” was actually similar to the current wave of terrorism, at least in conception. Rather than going after the English armed forces and police, most the bombs were set in public places with the explicit idea of terrorizing everyday life. The plan was to transplant the violence of the colonial occupation to the home country. It did, indeed, scare people, including many English who formerly favored the Irish cause, and turned those who were indifferent anti-Irish. It derailed the Home Rule movement for several decades.


The Colonial authorities responded with yet greater repression, much as many of the current candidates for the White House would if given a chance. But while the “Dynamite War” was ill conceived and counter productive, it was a reflection of the basic injustice of colonialism. The Islamic State is a genuine monstrosity, but it reflects a hundred years of European and American manipulation of the Middle East’s resources and politics. When Britain and France divided up the Middle East to their liking in 1916—deliberately building in ethnic, tribal and religious instability—did they really think there would never be a day of reckoning?


There are monsters in the Middle East, but we have helped create them. The question is, can we stop them?


We should know by now that more bombs and troops do exactly the opposite. To seriously tackle terrorism will take a fundamental re-examination of U.S. foreign policy. It must start with challenging the idea that everything about this country is the “best,” the ideology of “American exceptionalism” that underlies so much of our strategic policies. That idea of “exceptionalism” gives us the right to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs, to subvert their political structures, and, if necessary, seek regime change.


We preach “democracy” to Cuba, China and Russia, while being perfectly comfortable with Saudi Arabia and the other autocratic monarchies that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. People take note of that contradiction and quite logically assume that it is hypocrisy and has more to do with our “interests” than any commitment to the right of people to choose how to run their own lives.


In any case our own political system increasingly looks like some grotesque caricature of democracy, where presidential candidates blithely propose ignoring the Constitution and violating international law, and where a handful of billionaires can dominate the public space.


We are the most powerful economic and military force on the planet, so overthrowing a government or strangling its economy is not all that hard to do. At least in the short run. But the world is simply far too complex to fit into one model of government or worldview and, sooner or later, people will dig in their heels.


How we respond to that resistance is what we need to examine. If the response is force, we can hardly complain when we find ourselves the target of “asymmetrical violence”—terrorism.


The people who set the bombs have to be caught and punished, but that will not end the problem. The Irish who murdered the colonial secretaries in Phoenix Park were caught and punished, but it did not make Ireland a calm place or end Irish resistance to the English occupation. That was resolved when the British finally realized that they could no longer determine the history of another country. We must do the same. And that will take a conversation that we have not yet had. It’s time to start.




Conn Hallinan can be read at and









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A Terrible Beauty: Ireland’s Easter Rebellion

A Terrible Beauty: The 1916 Easter Rebellion

Dispatches From The Edge

March 22, 2016


“Poblacht na hEireann”: The speaker of these words, standing on the front steps of Dublin’s General Post Office and reading from a proclamation, the ink was barely dry, of the “provisional government of the Irish Republic” was the poet Padraig Pearse. It was just after noon on April 24, 1916, the opening scene in a drama that would mix tragedy and triumph, the twin heralds of Irish history.


It is a hundred years since some 750 men and women threw up barricades and seized strong points in downtown Dublin. They would be joined by maybe a 1,000 more. In six days it would be over, the post office in flames, the streets blackened by shell fire, and the rebellion’s leaders on their way to face firing squads against the walls of Kilmainham Jail.


And yet the failure of the Easter Rebellion would eventually become one of the most important events in Irish history, a “failure” that would reverberate worldwide and be mirrored by colonial uprisings almost a half-century later.


Anniversaries—particularly centennials—are equal parts myth and memory, and drawing lessons from them is always a tricky business. And, while 1916 is not 2016, there are parallels, pieces of the story that overlap and dovetail in the Europe of then with the Europe of today.


Europe in 1916 was a world at war. The “lamps,” as the expression goes, had gone out in August 1914, and the continent was wrapped in barbed wire and steeped in almost inconceivable death. Shortly after the last Irish rebel was shot, the British launched the battle of the Somme. More than 20,000 would die in the first hour of that battle, and, by the end, there would be more than a million casualties on both sides.


Europe is still at war, in some ways influenced by the footsteps of a colonial world supposedly long gone. Britain is fighting its fourth war in Afghanistan. Italian Special Forces are stalking Islamists in Libya. French warplanes are bombing their old stomping grounds in Syria and chasing down Tuaregs in Mali.


And Europe is also at war with itself. Barbed wire is once again being unrolled, not to make killing zones out of the no man’s land between trenches, but to block the floods of refugees generated by European—and American—armies and proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.


In many ways, the colonial chickens are coming home to roost. The British and French between them secretly sliced up the Middle East in 1916, using religion and ethnicity to divide and conquer the region. Instability was built in. Indeed, that was the whole idea. There would never be enough Frenchmen or Englishmen to rule the Levant, but with Shiites, Sunnis and Christians busily trying to tear out one another’s throats, they wouldn’t notice the well dressed bankers on the sidelines—“tut tutting” the lack of civilized behavior and counting their money.


The Irish of 1916 understood that gambit, after all, they were its first victims.


Ireland was a colony long before the great powers divided up the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the strategies that kept the island poor, backward and profitable were transplanted elsewhere. Religious divisions kept India largely docile. Tribal and religious divisions made it possible to rule Nigeria. Ethnic conflict short-circuited resistance in Kenya and South Africa. Division by sect worked well in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.


For Ireland was the great laboratory of colonialism where the English experimented with ways to keep a grip over the population. Culture, religion, language and kinship were all grist for the mill. And when all else failed, Ireland was a short sail across the Irish Sea: kill all the lab rats and start anew.


The fact that the English had been in Ireland for 747 years by 1916 was relevant. The Irish call the occupation “the long sorrow,” and it had made them a bit bonkers. Picking a fight in the middle of a war with one of the most powerful empires in human history doesn’t seem like a terribly rational thing to do (and, in truth, there were many Irish who agreed that it was a doomed endeavor.).


The European left denounced the Easter rising, mostly because they couldn’t make much sense of it. What was a disciplined Marxist intellectual and trade union leader like James Connolly doing taking up arms with mystic nationalists like Padraig Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett? One of the few radicals to get it was V.I. Lenin, who called criticism of the rebellion “monstrously pedantic.”


What both Connolly and Lenin understood was that the uprising reflected a society profoundly distorted by colonialism. Unlike in the rest of Europe, in Ireland different classes and viewpoints could find common ground precisely because they had one similar experience: no matter what their education, no matter what their resources, in the end they were Irish, and treated in everyway as inferior by their overlords.


Most of the European left was suspicious of nationalism in general because it blurred the lines between oppressed and oppressors and undermined the analysis that class was the great fault line. But as the world would discover a half-century later, nationalism was an ideology that united the many against the few. In the end, it would create its own problems and raise up its own monsters, but for the vast majority of the colonial world it was an essential ingredient of national liberation.


The Easter rebellion was not the first anti-colonial uprising. The American threw off the English in 1783; the Greeks drove out the Turks in 1832. India’s great Sepoy rebellion almost succeeded in driving the British out of the sub-continent in 1857. There were others as well.


But there was a special drama to the idea of a revolution in the heart of an empire, and it was the drama more than the act that drew the world’s attention. The Times of London blamed the Easter rising for the 1919 unrest in India, where the British Army massacred 380 Sikh civilians at Amristsan. How the Irish were responsible for this, the Times never bothered to explain.


But the Irish saw the connection, if somewhat differently than did the Times. Roger Casement, a leader of the 1916 rebellion who was executed for treason in August of that year, said that the cause of Ireland was also the cause of India, because the Easter rebels were fighting “to join again the free civilizations of the earth.”


As a rising it was a failure, in part because the entire affair was carried out in secret. Probably no more than a dozen or so people knew that it was going to happen. When the Irish Volunteer Force and the Irish Citizens Army marched up to the Post Office, most of the passersby—including the English ones—thought it was just the “boys” out having a little fun by provoking the authorities again.


But secrets don’t make for successful revolutions. The plotters imagined that their example would fire the whole of Ireland, but by the time most the Irish had found out about it, it was over. It was not even an overly bloody affair. There were about 3,000 casualties and 485 deaths, many of them civilians. Of the combatants, the British lost 151, the rebels 83, including the 16 executed in the coming weeks. It devastated a square mile of downtown Dublin, and, when the British troops marched the rebels through the streets after their surrender, crowds spit on the rebels.


But as the firing squads did their work day after day, the sentiment began to shift. Connolly was so badly wounded he could not stand, so they tied him to a chair and shot him. The authorities also refused to release the executed leaders to their families, burying them in quicklime instead. Some 3,439 men and 79 women were arrested and imprisoned. Almost 2,000 were sent to internment camps, and 98 were given death sentences. Another 100 received long prison sentences.


All of this did not go down well with the public, and the authorities were forced to call off more executions. Plus, the idea of an “Irish Republic” was not going to go away, no matter how many people were shot, hanged or imprisoned.


The Easter rising was certainly an awkward affair. Pearse called it a “blood sacrifice,” which makes the rebellion sound uncomfortably close to the Catholic Church’s motto that “The blood of the martyrs is the seat of the church.” And, yet, that is the nature of things like the Easter rising. 1916 churned up all of the ideologies, divisions, and prejudices that colonialism had crafted over hundreds of years, making for some very odd bedfellows. Those who dreamed of re-constituting the ancient kingdom of Meath manned barricades with students of Karl Marx. Illiterate tenant farmers took up arms with Countess Markievicz, who counseled women to “leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”


Some of those divisions have not gone away. There will be at least two celebrations of the Easter rising. The establishment parties—Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and the Labour Party—have organized events leading up to the main commemoration March 27. Sinn Fein, representing the bulk of the Irish left, will have its own celebration. There are several small splinter groups that will present their own particular story of the Easter rising.


And if you want to be part of it, you can go on the Internet and buy a “genuine” Easter Rebellion T-shirt from “Eire Apparent.”

Everything is for sale, even revolution.


In some ways, 1916 was about Ireland and its long, strange history. But 1916 is also about the willingness of human beings to resist, sometimes against almost hopeless odds. There is nothing special or uniquely Irish about that.


In the short run, the Easter rebellion executed the people who might have prevented the 1922-23 civil war between republicans and nationalists that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. The Free State was independent and self-governing, but still part of the empire, while the British had lopped off Northern Ireland to keep as its own. Ireland did not become truly independent until 1937.


In the long run, however, the Easter rising made continued British rule in Ireland impossible. In that sense, Pearse was right: the blood sacrifice had worked.


Does the centennial mean anything for today’s Europe? It may. Like the Europe of 1916, the Europe of 2016 is dominated by a few at the expense of the many. The colonialism of empires has been replaced by the colonialism of banks and finance. The British occupation impoverished the Irish, but they were not so very different than today’s Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese—and yes, Irish—who have seen their living standards degraded and their young exported, all to “repay” banks from which they never borrowed anything. Do most Europeans really control their lives today any more than the Irish did in 1916?


How different is today’s “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—from Whitehall in 1916? The latter came unasked into Ireland, the former dominates the economic and political life of the European Union.


In his poem, “Easter Week 1916,” the poet William Butler Yeats called the rising the birth of “a terrible beauty.” And so it was. But Pearse’s oration at the graveside of the old Fenian warrior Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa may be more relevant: “I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the thing that is coming. Beware of the risen people who shall take what yea would not give.”
























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Socialists Rain On Spain

Socialists Rain On Spain

Dispatches From the Edge

March 5, 2016


The effort by Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, to form a government on March 2 brings to mind the story of the hunter who goes into the forest with one bullet in his rifle. Seeing a deer on his right and a boar on his left, he shoots in the middle.


Sanchez’s search for a viable coalition partner began when the ruling right-wing Popular Party (PP) took a pounding in Spain’s Dec. 20 election, dropping 63 seats and losing its majority. Voters, angered by years of savage austerity that drove poverty and unemployment rates to among the highest in Europe, voted PP Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy out and anti-austerity parties in, although leaving the PP as the largest single party in the parliament.


The only real winner in election was the left-wing Podemos Party, which took 20.6 percent of the vote. The Socialist Party actually lost 20 seats, its worst showing ever, and at 22 percent, barely edged out Podemos. And if the Spanish political system were not rigged to give rural voters more power than urban ones, Podemos would have done much better. The Socialists and the PP are particularly strong in rural areas, while Podemos is strong in the cities.


While a candidate in Madrid needs 128,000 votes to be elected, in rural areas as few as 38,000 votes will get you into the parliament. Podemos and the Socialists both won over five million votes, with the difference only 341,000. But the Socialists took 89 seats to Podemos’s 65.


Spaniards voted for change, but the Socialists, who ran an anti-austerity campaign, chose to form an alliance with the conservative Ciudadanos or Citizens Party, which refuses to have anything to do with Podemos—and the feeling is mutual. Ciudadanos also underperformed at the polls. Ciudadanos was predicted to get as much as 25 percent of the vote and surpass Podemos, but instead came in under 14 percent with only 40 seats.


On the surface the only thing the Socialists and Ciudadanos have in common is their adamant opposition to Catalonia’s push for a referendum on independence. Podemos is also opposed to a Catalan breakaway, but supports the right of the region to vote on the matter.


Catalonia’s drive for independence is certainly controversial and would have a major impact on Spain’s economy, but exactly how the Spanish government thinks it can block a referendum is not clear. And if Catalans did vote for independence, how would Madrid stop it? One doubts that the government would send in the army or that such an intervention would be successful.


Indeed, the fierceness with which the PP, Socialist Party and Ciudadanos oppose the right of Catalans to vote is more likely to drive the province toward independence, rather than discourage it. At this point Catalonia’s voters are split slightly in favor of remaining in Spain, although young voters favor independence, a demographic factor that will loom larger in the future. In provincial elections last September, candidates who supported independence took 47.7 percent of the vote.


The Socialists had a path to form a government, but one that would have required the party to modify its position on a Catalan referendum. If it had done so, it could have formed a government using Podemos, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the Basque Nationalist Party, (EJA-PNV), Canary Islanders, and a mix of independents. Had the Socialists compromised on Catalonia, they might even have picked up the votes from the center-right Democracy and Freedom Party (DIL).

Left parties in the Parliament can put together 162 votes on their own, which is short of the 176 needed to form a government. But it would not have been impossible to pick up 13 more votes from the mix of 14 independents and eight seats controlled by the Catalan DIL.


Choosing Ciudadanos as a partner makes little sense. Podemos immediately dropped cooperation talks with the Socialists and sharply criticized Sanchez for not building a genuine left government. Ciudadanos’ economic policies are not much different than the PP’s, plus it opposes abortion, and is hawkish on immigration. In any case the party did poorly in the national elections. The merger “prevents the possibility of forming a pluralistic government of change,” according to the parliamentary deputy and Podemos spokesperson, Inigo Errejon.


“Negotiate with us,” Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told Sanchez, “stop obeying the oligarchs.” The Socialist Party leader pleaded with Podemos to vote for him so that the Socialist-Ciudadanos alliance could pass “progressive” legislation like raising the minimum wage and addressing the gender wage gap. The Socialists also presented a plan to tax the wealthy, improve health care, and try to stop the growth of “temporary” worker contracts that have reduced benefits and job security.


But those issues do not really address the underlying humanitarian crisis most Spaniards are experiencing, like poverty and growing homelessness, and the damage austerity has inflicted on education and social services. And Ciudadanos’ views on abortion, immigration and privatizing public services are repugnant to Podemos.


Spain’s unemployment rate is still over 20 percent—far more among the youth in the country’s south—and many of the jobless will soon run out of government aid. While the economy grew 3.1 percent in 2015 and is projected to grow 2.7 percent in 2016, it is not nearly where it was before the great 2008 financial crisis and the implosion of Spain’s enormous real estate bubble. On top of which, that growth rate had nothing to do with the austerity policies, but instead was the result declining value of the euro, low interest rates, and cheap oil.


If the Socialists have no success in forming a government, there will be new elections, probably in late June. Polls show the outcome of such a vote would be similar to the last election, but Spanish polls are notoriously inaccurate. In the last election they predicted Ciudadanos would eclipse Podemos. The opposite was the case.


The right-wing Popular Party is likely to do worse, because it is mired in a series of corruption scandals over bid-rigging and illegal commissions. In Valencia, nine out of the 10 PP councilors are considered formal suspects in the case. Indeed, the Party’s reputation for corruption makes it difficult for any other grouping in the parliament to make common cause with it. And even if Ciudadanos dumped its anti-corruption plank and broke its promise never to cooperate with the PP, such a government would still fall short of the 176 votes needed. The PP controls 119 seats.


In part, the Socialists are frightened by the growth of Podemos and the fact that it might replace them as the number two party in the parliament. In part, the Socialists also tend to run from the left and govern from the center, even the center-right. That is a formula that will simply not work anymore in Spain. The domination of the Spanish government by the two major parties since 1977 is a thing of the past, having been replaced by regional and anti-austerity parties like Podemos.


Before the recent election, the two major parties controlled between 75 percent and 85 percent of the voters. In the December election, they fell to just over 50 percent.


A more successful model is being built next door in Portugal, where the Socialists united with two left-wing parties to form a government. All the parties involved had to compromise to make it work, and the alliance might come apart in the long run. But for now it is working, and the government is dismantling the more egregious austerity measures and has put a halt to the privatization of public services like transportation.


Spain’s Socialist Party is riven with factions, some more conservative than others. Sanchez—whose nickname is “ El Guapo” (handsome)—has so far out-maneuvered his party opponents, but this latest debacle will do him little good. He did receive support from the party’s rank and file for the Ciudadanos move, but that led nowhere in the end. Sanchez got 130 votes in the first round and only picked up one more vote in the second round.


Another election will probably not produce a sea change in terms of party support, but voters may punish the Socialists for their unwillingness to compromise. Those votes are unlikely to go to Ciudadanos, and the PP is so mired in corruption that it will struggle to keep its current status as the largest party in the parliament. A recent poll taken after Prime Minster Rajoy passed on trying to form a government found that 71 percent of the voters felt that the PP did not have the best interests of Spain in mind. That refusal may come to haunt the PP in June.


Podemos will undoubtedly pick up some Socialist Party voters, but probably not enough to form a government. That will only happen if Socialists put aside their stubborn opposition to a Catalan referendum and help build what Podemos calls a “genuine” leftist government.




Conn Hallinan can be read at and


















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