Federal Leaders Must Come Up With a Substitute for Oil

alternatives international - 2. September 2015 - 17:44

The longest election campaign in recent Canadian history is an opportunity to point to the contradictions of the major parties on the question of ecology. If there is one issue that touches simultaneously on economic development, the protection of ecosystems, public health, climate warming, transportation and the legitimacy of public institutions, it is the exploitation of the tar sands and the many pipeline projects for exporting the most polluting oil in the world.

Let's say it straightaway: No federal party at this time has a credible plan to get out of hydrocarbons. They have not said where they stand on controversial projects like Old Harry, Anticosti or shale gas.[1] As long as Quebec remains in the Canadian federation, the Québécois are entitled to demand more from the parties that hope to govern in Ottawa, and that they take decisions that measure up to the issues of the 21st century.

It is in good taste to say that economy and environment should not conflict. However, we often overlook the contradictions between the imperative of unlimited growth of tar sands operations and the fight against climate change.

Oil Interests

A brilliant journalist of the Toronto Star, Linda McQuaig, running for the NDP in Toronto, put her finger on the problem. During a television debate, she reminded us of an obvious fact on which there is scientific consensus: a large quantity of tar sands will have to remain below the ground if Canada hopes to achieve its objectives in the fight against climate change.

This simple factual statement unleashed a media storm in which all the leaders, including [the NDP's] Thomas Mulcair, took their distance from this position. “When men cannot change things, they change the words,” said Jean Jaurès. And that's exactly what happened.

These leaders hurried to characterize the New Democrat candidate's statement as extreme! And to reiterate their support for the energy industry under the pretext that it provides well-paid jobs. Of course, since no one is against virtue, sustainable development, social acceptability and renewable energies, each was quick to promise environmental assessments, forgetting that these are all too often entrusted to agencies heavily influenced by people from the industry, in particular the oil industry.

In the end, the oil interests have imposed themselves on the politicians, twisting the meaning of words and harping on “business as usual.” Canadian petropolitics requires that no one disrupt the dominant economic and energy paradigm, where powerful fortunes have an interest in ensuring that nothing changes.

Pipelines of Dissent

Another example of ambiguity on the part of the major federal parties concerns their positions on the many pipeline projects. In Quebec, we are of course concerned about TransCanada's Energy East project, which will convey 1.1 million barrels of oil per day for export abroad, with tiny economic benefits and increased risks to hundreds of waterways and local communities. But there are also the Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and Kinder Morgan projects, as well as the projects for exploration and drilling in the deep waters of the Arctic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In the case of Energy East, it is clear that the interests of Quebec are opposed to those of the economic elite that dominates Canadian politics. From this standpoint, petroleum is not only a national issue for us as Quebec independentists, it is also an environmental and social issue affecting the people of Quebec, the people of Canada, the First Nations and the entire planet!

What is desperately lacking in this election campaign is a global vision, a desirable, viable and realizable solution that will replace the relentless exploitation of hydrocarbons. In short, a credible plan that starts from “where we are now” and shows us the path to follow “to where we want to go.” This is not utopian, but showing realism, to carry out an energy transition toward a post-carbon economy by 2050.

As the philosopher André Gorz pointed out, it is time to think from back to front, to define the changes to be made by looking at the goal to be achieved and not to set the goals by starting with the interests of those who resist change. It is necessary, therefore, to go beyond a mere papering over of the current petropolitics. We need a prosperity based on sources of sustainable and ecologically responsible energy.

Amir Khadir is a member of Québec solidaire and MNA for Mercier in the Quebec National Assembly.

This article first appeared in French on the Le Devoir website. It was translated by Richard Fidler and published on his website Life on the Left.

Categories: les flux rss

The EU’s disastrous status quo

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 15:57

The risk is of losing on both fronts, on a national level and a European level, where elections go by without shaking off the suspicion of usurpation.

Wolfgang Schauble and Yanis Varoufakis. Demotix/Bjorn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.Many believe that by resigning and asking for new elections to be held in September, Alexis Tsipras proved wrong those who considered him defeated. It’s a hasty and rather unrealistic conclusion to draw: nothing will fundamentally change in Greece, since everything was already written into the Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the Greek government and the European institutions on 12 July 2015: further and more severe austerity measures, the sell-off of valuable public assets to mostly German companies, the breakup of a political left that imagined it could replace the existing Europeanism with a new one, a Europe no longer German-led and no longer bound to neoliberal dogma.

Even if the Greek debt is restructured – as sooner or later must be the case, since it is unsustainable – the path has been mapped out. The Greeks had no say on it, and cannot change it. The remarks of Stefano Fassina, former deputy Finance Minister of Italy and former member of the Democratic Party, are uncompromising and incontrovertible: “To promise a ‘social’ interpretation of the Memorandum is pure propaganda. When you are committed to a primary surplus target of 3.5 percent and to heavy spending cuts from this year on, you can kiss goodbye to income support”.[1]

Was (or is) a different way out possible? Outside European institutions it was maybe possible, but unfeasible: neither the EU’s stronger states nor the ECB would today allow an orderly, managed Grexit. As for the proposal made by Yanis Varoufakis (rejecting the memorandum, preparing a parallel currency to provide liquidity in order to face the closure of banks), it was voted down during a restricted cabinet meeting. This being said, Tsipras seems convinced that internal reforms are possible, in the shadow of the Memorandum: for instance, by fully and directly involving the European Parliament, “the only European institution with a direct popular mandate”, in a regular evaluation procedure for the implementation of the loan agreement between Greece and the European Stability Mechanism, as the fifth body in the so-called ‘quartet of creditors’ which replaced the Troika. It’s difficult to believe that Greek voters will be excited by the prospect of their power being hollowed out and transferred to a European Parliament firmly controlled by radically different coalitions of forces. The outgoing Prime Minister is surely aware that in the present circumstances failure awaits him: otherwise he would not have admitted to having been “blackmailed” into capitulation.

We have to start from here, if we don’t want to get stuck in illusion or in impotent rage. We have to start from a failure which is a defeat for all: for Syriza, for Popular Unity’s new left, for Yanis Varoufakis, for Tsipras himself. In the present circumstances, the future is submission. Submission to an overtly Darwinist Europe that rewards the powerful and the arrogant and expands beyond measure the reign of necessity, reducing to a minimum and indeed smashing to bits the few islands reserved for the reign of liberty.

The socialist former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who negotiated with the EU the first Adjustment Programme, already realized that Europe was a matter of selective fight for survival, of  struggle between life and death, between those who hurt and those who get hurt. He later reported what Angela Merkel told him in 2010, during the first negotiations on the bailout program: “Es muss weh tun!” – “It must hurt!”.         

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Such is the astonishing experiment that is being attempted by the European Union using every available means, and not just in their relations with Greece but in the multiple different directions: a forced return to the state of nature and to the sacrificial rites connected to it.

The war of all against all, fear, the permanent suspicion that enemies – foreign or domestic – may be waiting just around the corner, ready to get rid of us or to take advantage of our diminished prosperity: this is what the crisis boils down to, and one may well wonder if it is not knowingly nourished and prolonged. There are countries, such as Germany, that in the last five years have greatly benefited from the crisis. According to a study by the Halle Institute for Economic Research (IWH) -  since 2010 the federal government of that country saved €100 billion, thanks to the low interest rates mainly as a result of the Greek crisis. [2]

Another disaster - the increase of immigrants - remains unaddressed and left to rot, treated as if it were a natural disaster or a plague of war which must take its course, whatever the number of victims. Most of the migrants are asylum seekers fleeing wars and chaos often fuelled by the West. But the law of cause and effect is too complicated for lazy European minds. It’s easier for them to get rid of their responsibilities by putting the blame on a scapegoat, thus creating the ultimate bogey man: the freeloader, the scrounger, the possible parasite, be it foreign or domestic, Greek or migrant.

In this peculiar state of nature the free market is everything and the measures adopted in Europe in order to preserve it enjoy the status of natural laws, inviolable and irrefutable, quite as if they were divine. The dominance of markets over politics gave rise to the crisis which began in 2007-2008, and yet the depoliticization of the world-economy grows undisturbed in the dull conviction that the poison may turn into a remedy. Both in the Mediterranean Sea where asylum seekers drown and in the countries most affected by the debt crisis, the return to the state of nature and war confronts us with a mankind which recalls the one described by Hobbes: the life of individuals, dominated by reciprocal fear and incapable of cooperating in order to face difficulties, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.[3] Such conditions may give rise to revolutions or pave the way to an all-powerful Leviathan, to whom the individual surrenders his freedom in exchange for the illusion of security.

Significantly, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has recently warned of extremist political contagion from the Greek crisis. Pointing at a “widespread impatience”, he remarked that “when impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions”, and expressed concern for the “radical leftist illusion that you can build some alternative” to the current EU economic model. He argued that far-left leaders were pushing to cast aside traditional European values like “frugality” and liberal, market-based principles that have served the EU in good stead. Any resistance to these principles must be defeated: the Greek humanitarian catastrophe is, in this framework, just another form of “frugality”.

So much became clear on the night of 12 July: a night of retribution and revenge, already scripted in the wake of the 25 January Greek legislative election by the creditors who had negotiated a new aid package with Athens, aiming more or less secretly at a “regime change”. In the 5 July referendum the majority of Greeks said no to further austerity measures, and the agreement signed by Tsipras was all the more humiliating as a result. The path is penitential: stages of suffering are followed by promises of salvation. The sacrificial offering was necessary for the high ranks of the Union to start talking again about an improvement of governance in the eurozone, an increase of community resources, and even about federation.

As part of this path, the strengthening of institutions proposed by the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has a precise meaning, and is far from promising. The new institutions are designed to depoliticize the Union even more, to bypass once and for all the revolutionary impatience exposed by Tusk. Syriza’s impatience was won over with the consent of Tsipras, who could not or maybe would not avert the left wing’s split from the party ahead of elections.

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If we don’t get to the roots of the wound inflicted on democracy and citizens’ rights, if we do not acknowledge that this wound has fatally broken the relationship between Europe’s unification and its popular legitimacy, if we keep insisting that the eurozone’s financial rules are sacrosanct and that no expression of popular sovereignty and no constitutional article can call them into question, stronger or new European institutions won’t help us free the Union from the state of nature and rediscover our reasons for living together with a common currency as a challenge to the dollar’s hegemony, but will strengthen the very ruling elites that brought us to this pass. Europe was born to put an end to centuries of fratricidal wars, and needs today a new bond to make sense of its unification. Only justice can constitute this bond, and justice implies the struggle against inequality and exclusion. EU unification falters because this bond is missing.

Even the proposal to give the European Parliament more powers, supposedly a good idea, risks turning into a trap. What’s at stake today is sovereignty, namely who has the right to decide on right and wrong, war and peace. And we are not talking about the sovereignty of nation-states, which has long lost its absoluteness, but of the sovereignty of the peoples, of their Parliaments and Constitutions, which have survived the decline of the old sovereign states. To reduce the latter, in the absence of a supranational sovereignty, amounts to linking the destiny of nation-states indelibly to the destiny of democracies, damning both and depriving democracy of any cosmopolitan aspiration.

Instead of powers being multiplied, as happens in federations, old powers and rights are being discarded, and new ones are created only in a fake form. Article 11 of the Italian constitution is very clear about that: limitations of sovereignty are accepted just as long as they are “necessary to establish an (international or supranational) order ensuring peace and justice among Nations”, not otherwise. Also Article 23 of the German Constitution (the so-called Europa-Artikel, introduced in 1992 after reunification) admits delegations of sovereignty only to the extent that the social, democratic, and legal principles applied in Europe are not inferior, in quality and quantity, to those ensured by Germany’s basic law.

This is not the path followed by those who envisage further delegations of sovereignty without carefully taking into consideration the dangers of social impoverishment and hollowed out democracy. The new Europe sought by part of the German government and supported, at least for the time being, by a majority of governments (including those of France and Italy), seems to have something else in mind: to legitimate the usurpation of popular sovereignties and the financial rules which facilitated it. Maybe the little, misanthropic kings of Europe will succeed in creating the federation sought by many democrats for more than a half century – a narrower and tighter federation, with or without a Grexit. But those kings will be usurpers, having deconsecrated the body of the sovereign people, stripping it of its powers, of the will it expresses in elections or in referenda, and of the constitutional rights guaranteed to the minorities.

All this leads to the strengthening of an élite which bears no concrete relationship to the classic procedures of representative democracy, and has no accountability. As a matter of fact, such an élite has been in power since the European Community chose to be just a market, a free trade zone, ready to give up its political ambitions and the inclusive social model advocated in post-war years (the welfare state), and lacking an autonomous foreign policy plan, both in the Mediterranean Sea, in the Middle East and in its relationships with Eastern European countries and Russia. European defense policy, although necessary, would be doomed to failure like the euro if it was built without accountability to a common government and to a common policy chosen by voters.

Some contend, not without foundation, that in a community framework, Greek popular sovereignty cannot possibly be worth more than the popular sovereignty of other member states. But it’s a lame argument: in this particular case, a will of the people has been completely ignored, a minority of the European Council has been brutally silenced, and the principles of constitutional democracy are now in a sorry state throughout the Union.

The negotiation with the Tsipras government was conducted to show that no popular will whatsoever can renegotiate the financial terms that according to the ruling oligarchies are bound to remain the core principles of the eurozone, the sole repositories of sacredness and sovereignty. The sovereignty of the citizen-voter – no matter his nationality – must be stripped of its sacredness.

If that is how things stand, Wolfgang Schäuble’s duplicity is not surprising: the arrogant, exemplary punishment meted out to Greece is consistent, from his point of view, with the stronger and tighter European Union he demands and promises. It even becomes its essential logical prerequisite. Schäuble has been promoting since 1994 a European Union built around a core – a Kerneuropa – with a joint finance minister and a joint and larger federal budget,[4] on condition that all partners accept German monetary and economic doctrines without altering them, even though the gap between center and periphery will inevitably produce crises and social sufferings. Was it not Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers, who said that Europe would be built through crises? Well, the Greek crisis will produce –  according to the Berlin government – the long championed “other Europe”. In Schäuble’s approach, crisis doesn’t lead to increased levels of solidarity and democracy: it’s the doloristic, chastening, inferiorizing version of Schumpeter’s creative destruction.

Greek suffering has been useful – this is the point of the German government, supported by a majority of member states and by the EU institutions – and hitting one state to educate all the others has been morally instructive. The Mephistophelean evil inflicted or suffered is “part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good”. Many supporters of Europeanism hesitate. What happened in Brussels during that fateful Greek night makes them uncomfortable. But Schäuble surprises them: is he aware of the evil that has been done? Has he learned anything?

It seems unlikely. Also the Lamers-Schäuble plan of 1994 has to be revised, given the following two decades. Even then, it stressed the purely economic nature of the Union. Today the plan is being proposed again, without acknowledging the mistakes made: starting from the enlargement of the Union to include Eastern European Countries, which was carried out mindlessly, with no clear idea of any future balance between the new member states’ sovereignty and EU sovereignty, and least of all of relations with Russia. The governments of Poland, of the Czech Republic and Slovakia have declared they will only relocate Christian Syrian refugees in their countries: the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the principle of non-discrimination still seem to pose some problem for Eastern Europe.

As regards the handling of the Greek crisis, no self-criticism is in sight. The International Monetary Fund expressed some doubts, while continuing to recommend the imposition of recessive measures, but the two other members of the former Troika – the European Commission and the European Central Bank – remained quite unmoved.

No doubt seems to trouble them. At most, they envisage – as was suggested by the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz and again by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker at the beginning of July – humanitarian aid for Athens. This was an offer no less humiliating than the 12 July agreement on a further swathe of austerity measures and economic reforms. Once again, after being crushed by deflationary disciplines, here was Greece being treated like a country hit by war or natural calamity. The tighter European Union aired after the straitjacket deal has at the moment two main goals: to sanction the moralising dogma of recessive austerity, euphemistically renamed “frugality”, and to face down the EU democracy crisis, only worsened after the Greek bailout referendum, while ensuring that a centralized and oligarchic material constitution survives any possible (and feared) democratic breakthroughs in member states (Greece today, maybe Spain tomorrow). Their main concern seems to be that governments and voters learn one lesson: “It must hurt!”

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A federation would of course be needed, in order to make the euro efficient and the crisis of a member state not terminal. Paul Krugman explains how Puerto Rico, virtually bankrupt like Greece, hasn’t suffered a complete catastrophe because it is part of the US fiscal union. When its economy faltered, its payments to Washington dropped while its receipts from federal social insurance programs rose, so that the island is automatically receiving aid on a scale that would be inconceivable in Europe.[5] The absence of a strong federal statehood is the Aristotelian proton pseudos, the original error or false premise which led to all the logical fallacies of the common currency.

Nicholas Kaldor wrote about this as early as 1971, highlighting the serious defects of the first attempt at European economic and monetary union (the so-called Werner Plan in 1970). According to Kaldor, a full monetary and economic union was “unattainable without a political union”, and the latter presupposed “fiscal integration, and not just fiscal harmonisation” as recommended by the Plan; it required the creation of a “Community Government and Parliament” which took over “responsibility for at least the major part of the expenditure now provided by national governments” and financed it “by taxes raised at uniform rates throughout the Community”.

It sounds almost like Schäuble’s Plan, except for the goal of the federal government as envisioned by Kaldor: “With an integrated system of this kind, the prosperous areas automatically subsidise the poorer areas; and the areas whose exports are declining obtain automatic relief by paying in less, and receiving more, from the central Exchequer. The cumulative tendencies to progress and decline are thus held in check by a ‘built-in’ fiscal stabilizer which makes the ‘surplus’ areas provide automatic fiscal aid to the ‘deficit’ areas”.[6] The present German government would see each of these conditions as heresy. The failing path chosen instead is to keep lending to Greece, thus increasing a debt burden that everyone agrees is completely unsustainable.

Kaldor’s argument contains an element that, albeit not emphasized, is maybe the most decisive and topical today. All the plans drafted by member states so far (Werner Plan, Maastricht Treaty and creation of the European single currency, more recent plans of “economic governance” of the eurozone) share this fundamental flaw. They are incapable of a realistic historical vision, and the farther they are from the end of World War II, the more they suffer from a particularly insidious case of progressivist illusion. The transformation of neoliberal economic laws (and of their social effects) into “natural” laws (and effects) feeds on the same illusion.

Why has the euro been celebrated with such blind optimism for so many years, despite all the flaws of which Chancellor Kohl in particular was perfectly aware? How come no preparation was made for the worst case scenario? Only a few insisted on the Union’s shortcomings: all the others firmly believed that the original flaw would be spontaneously, necessarily, naturally corrected (like a bumpy path is flattened by walking on it) and economic-monetary union would give birth to the political union it needed.

However, there is something rotten in progressive neoliberalism: as so often, political illusions are also forms of deceptions (those who delude and are deluded do not really want the United States of Europe they pay tribute to, and right from the outset they had in mind precisely this currency without a State, with the imbalance it creates in favour of the more powerful States and classes, who not surprisingly have variously benefited from the crisis).

This is where Kaldor, although he supported the monetary union, with what seems today tragic foresight deflates all kinds of illusions and carries out a realistic assessment: “Some day the nations of Europe may be ready to merge their national identities and create a new European Union [...] This will involve the creation of a ‘full economic and monetary union’. But it is a dangerous error to believe that monetary and economic union can precede a political union or that it will act (in the words of the Werner report) ‘as a leaven for the evolvement of a political union which in the long run it will in any case be unable to do without’. For if the creation of a monetary union and Community control over national budgets generates pressures which lead to a breakdown of the whole system it will prevent the development of a political union, not promote it”.[7]

Defending the proponents of economic theories established as dogmas, greatly reducing the role of positive law in the relationship between Law and Nature, between Nòmos and Physis, once more deluding increasingly reluctant peoples into believing in a providential history: this is the new European utopia, that pretends to be in continuity with post-war unifying projects while degenerating into dystopia. Old and new literary inventions come to mind: from the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition as described by Dostoyevsky’s underground man (the place where “new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided”), to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s One State and its compulsory “We”, to Michel Houellebecq’s extension of the domain of the struggle sought and planned by neoliberal capitalism.

In today’s EU dystopia, the world is not so much the postnational one called for by Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, as the post-democracy described by Colin Crouch: “'You can always vote, but you have no choice”.

The Greek people will soon go to the polls for the third time in a year, but to no purpose. A joint finance minister will control all the economic policies of the member states, hollowing out even more national parliaments and constitutions, with a view to making supranational power immune to the dangers of national elections or referenda. More formal powers will be conferred to a European Parliament which lacks the history of national parliaments, their role, and above all the possibility of interacting with an elected government. Mr Schäuble himself reveals his own ambiguity, when he calls for a greater sharing of sovereignty between the member states while at the same time saying that the European Commission overstepped its mandate during the negotiations over Greek loans, thus infringing on the competence of the Eurogroup.

This Eurogroup sums up the many flaws of the Union, having no legitimacy. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister, has recently commented on the behavior and role of the body defended by Mr Schäuble against Juncker’s alleged intrusions. The Eurogroup acts as an intergovernmental body, and among other things is called to implement a treaty – the so-called Fiscal Compact – which is not part of the treaties which govern the EU. Having been excluded from a gathering convened by the Eurogroup, which issued a statement without Greece’s consent, Varoufakis asked for legal advice on whether a Eurogroup statement can be issued without the conventional unanimity and whether the President of the Eurogroup can convene a meeting without inviting the finance minister of a eurozone Member State. He received a singular answer: “The Eurogroup is an informal group. Thus it is not bound by Treaties or written regulations. While unanimity is conventionally adhered to, the Eurogroup President is not bound to explicit rules”. The Eurogroup is not answerable to anyone. No minutes are kept. It doesn’t exist in law.[8] It symbolizes the deconstitutionalized and deparlamentarized Europe which has prevailed in these years, using the Greek case as a guinea pig for its experiments.

The intention is to strengthen this very kind of Europe, pretending that the wind of progress will carry us all towards the United States of Europe. It’s a sham. No wonder the Five President’s report – presented on 22 June 2015 by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with European Council chief Donald Tusk, the Eurogroup’s head Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi, and European Parliament President Martin Schulz (whose surprising involvement weakens the monitoring role MEPs could perform from the outside, in refusing to be dragged along by the executive power) – addresses the issue of political union, but only as the crowning and late achievement of an even tighter and more economically binding Union, not as its precondition.

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Under these circumstances, better not to delegate further sovereignties blindly, without carefully planning what is to be done in the eurozone, without re-establishing the absolute primacy of law and of the rights enshrined in the various national Constitutions and in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Such rights are today being systematically violated, bypassed or neglected.

Better not to delegate power to bodies (the Eurogroup) that have no democratic legitimacy and could even be illegal. Better not to sacrifice the veto power of member states, although the liberum veto is bound to hinder the creation of a political union. As a matter of fact, the risk is losing on both fronts. On a national level, parliaments and constitutions are hollowed out. On a European level, a legal and democratic vacuum arises: elections go by without undermining the governance of Europe, which for all its being called ‘federal’ won’t be able to shake off the suspicion of usurpation; won’t be strong or willing enough to confront the European Central Bank and make sure that the independence of the latter does not turn into abuse; will be unchecked, immune from the surprises of democracy, and clinging to motionless economic rules: even when these rules do not work, even when increasing numbers of citizens ask for new ones.

On 26 March 2015, in a speech at the Italian Parliament, the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, said that the long-term goal must be to move from a rules-based system to one based on stronger European institutions. But in Draghi’s view there is no question today that the rules can change. On the contrary, the role of institutions is to ensure the respect and perpetuation of present rules. These are the same rules that led to the violation of fundamental rights; that strengthen and preserve the status quo just when it would be necessary to move from governance to a real federal government, to give effective answers to the disillusioned demands of the peoples.

Draghi labels as unrealistic and fanciful both sovereignist solutions (“retrenching behind national borders would not solve any of the problems we face today”) and federalist alternatives (“an unrealistic vision of European integration is not the answer either. We are not a Union where some countries permanently pay for others. And to hope for this only distracts us from taking our responsibilities and facing our national challenges”). In other words: he wants to stay put.

Monnet once said that institutions are necessary because their life is longer than that of men and governments, and therefore, if they are well-designed, they can pass on the wisdom of successive generations. He didn’t say that institutions are necessary because they ensure the perpetuation of given economic doctrines. Those who today envisage a good “governance” of the eurozone without first overcoming a nonetheless precarious status quo, should be reminded of Kaldor’s admonition. Otherwise the Aristotelian proton pseudos, the first lie which led to all sorts of mental deviations, will endlessly repeat itself.

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[1]     Stefano Fassina, interview with Il Manifesto, 21 August 2015. See also interview with L'Unità, 22 August 2015.

[2]     IWH, Halle Institute for Economic Research  (http://www.iwh-halle.de/d/publik/iwhonline/io_2015-07.pdf), quoted by  Spiegel online, 10 August 2015 (http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/soziales/deutschland-hat-100-milliarden-euro-durch-minizinsen-gespart-a-1047483.html).

[3]     Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter XIII.

[4]     Wolfgang Schäuble-Karl Lamers, Überlegungen zur europäischen Politik, 1 semptember 1994.

[5]     Paul Krugman, “America’s Un-Greek Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Appalachia”, New York Times, 3 August 2015.

[6]     Nicholas Kaldor, New Statesman, 12 March 1971, in: Further Essays on Applied Economics, New York 1978, p. 205. Italics mine.

[7]     Ibid., p. 206.

[8]     Yanis Varoufakis, interview with the New Statesman, 13 July 2015. Die Zeit article, 19 July 2015.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The last of the Papandreous? Momentous times for democracy in Europe The Syriza problem: radical democracy and left governmentality in Greece The poisoned chalice Country or region:  Greece Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The EU’s disastrous status quo

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 15:57

The risk is of losing on both fronts, on a national level and a European level, where elections go by without shaking off the suspicion of usurpation.

Wolfgang Schauble and Yanis Varoufakis. Demotix/Bjorn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.Many believe that by resigning and asking for new elections to be held in September, Alexis Tsipras proved wrong those who considered him defeated. It’s a hasty and rather unrealistic conclusion to draw: nothing will fundamentally change in Greece, since everything was already written into the Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the Greek government and the European institutions on 12 July 2015: further and more severe austerity measures, the sell-off of valuable public assets to mostly German companies, the breakup of a political left that imagined it could replace the existing Europeanism with a new one, a Europe no longer German-led and no longer bound to neoliberal dogma.

Even if the Greek debt is restructured – as sooner or later must be the case, since it is unsustainable – the path has been mapped out. The Greeks had no say on it, and cannot change it. The remarks of Stefano Fassina, former deputy Finance Minister of Italy and former member of the Democratic Party, are uncompromising and incontrovertible: “To promise a ‘social’ interpretation of the Memorandum is pure propaganda. When you are committed to a primary surplus target of 3.5 percent and to heavy spending cuts from this year on, you can kiss goodbye to income support”.[1]

Was (or is) a different way out possible? Outside European institutions it was maybe possible, but unfeasible: neither the EU’s stronger states nor the ECB would today allow an orderly, managed Grexit. As for the proposal made by Yanis Varoufakis (rejecting the memorandum, preparing a parallel currency to provide liquidity in order to face the closure of banks), it was voted down during a restricted cabinet meeting. This being said, Tsipras seems convinced that internal reforms are possible, in the shadow of the Memorandum: for instance, by fully and directly involving the European Parliament, “the only European institution with a direct popular mandate”, in a regular evaluation procedure for the implementation of the loan agreement between Greece and the European Stability Mechanism, as the fifth body in the so-called ‘quartet of creditors’ which replaced the Troika. It’s difficult to believe that Greek voters will be excited by the prospect of their power being hollowed out and transferred to a European Parliament firmly controlled by radically different coalitions of forces. The outgoing Prime Minister is surely aware that in the present circumstances failure awaits him: otherwise he would not have admitted to having been “blackmailed” into capitulation.

We have to start from here, if we don’t want to get stuck in illusion or in impotent rage. We have to start from a failure which is a defeat for all: for Syriza, for Popular Unity’s new left, for Yanis Varoufakis, for Tsipras himself. In the present circumstances, the future is submission. Submission to an overtly Darwinist Europe that rewards the powerful and the arrogant and expands beyond measure the reign of necessity, reducing to a minimum and indeed smashing to bits the few islands reserved for the reign of liberty.

The socialist former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who negotiated with the EU the first Adjustment Programme, already realized that Europe was a matter of selective fight for survival, of  struggle between life and death, between those who hurt and those who get hurt. He later reported what Angela Merkel told him in 2010, during the first negotiations on the bailout program: “Es muss weh tun!” – “It must hurt!”.         

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Such is the astonishing experiment that is being attempted by the European Union using every available means, and not just in their relations with Greece but in the multiple different directions: a forced return to the state of nature and to the sacrificial rites connected to it.

The war of all against all, fear, the permanent suspicion that enemies – foreign or domestic – may be waiting just around the corner, ready to get rid of us or to take advantage of our diminished prosperity: this is what the crisis boils down to, and one may well wonder if it is not knowingly nourished and prolonged. There are countries, such as Germany, that in the last five years have greatly benefited from the crisis. According to a study by the Halle Institute for Economic Research (IWH) -  since 2010 the federal government of that country saved €100 billion, thanks to the low interest rates mainly as a result of the Greek crisis. [2]

Another disaster - the increase of immigrants - remains unaddressed and left to rot, treated as if it were a natural disaster or a plague of war which must take its course, whatever the number of victims. Most of the migrants are asylum seekers fleeing wars and chaos often fuelled by the West. But the law of cause and effect is too complicated for lazy European minds. It’s easier for them to get rid of their responsibilities by putting the blame on a scapegoat, thus creating the ultimate bogey man: the freeloader, the scrounger, the possible parasite, be it foreign or domestic, Greek or migrant.

In this peculiar state of nature the free market is everything and the measures adopted in Europe in order to preserve it enjoy the status of natural laws, inviolable and irrefutable, quite as if they were divine. The dominance of markets over politics gave rise to the crisis which began in 2007-2008, and yet the depoliticization of the world-economy grows undisturbed in the dull conviction that the poison may turn into a remedy. Both in the Mediterranean Sea where asylum seekers drown and in the countries most affected by the debt crisis, the return to the state of nature and war confronts us with a mankind which recalls the one described by Hobbes: the life of individuals, dominated by reciprocal fear and incapable of cooperating in order to face difficulties, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.[3] Such conditions may give rise to revolutions or pave the way to an all-powerful Leviathan, to whom the individual surrenders his freedom in exchange for the illusion of security.

Significantly, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has recently warned of extremist political contagion from the Greek crisis. Pointing at a “widespread impatience”, he remarked that “when impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions”, and expressed concern for the “radical leftist illusion that you can build some alternative” to the current EU economic model. He argued that far-left leaders were pushing to cast aside traditional European values like “frugality” and liberal, market-based principles that have served the EU in good stead. Any resistance to these principles must be defeated: the Greek humanitarian catastrophe is, in this framework, just another form of “frugality”.

So much became clear on the night of 12 July: a night of retribution and revenge, already scripted in the wake of the 25 January Greek legislative election by the creditors who had negotiated a new aid package with Athens, aiming more or less secretly at a “regime change”. In the 5 July referendum the majority of Greeks said no to further austerity measures, and the agreement signed by Tsipras was all the more humiliating as a result. The path is penitential: stages of suffering are followed by promises of salvation. The sacrificial offering was necessary for the high ranks of the Union to start talking again about an improvement of governance in the eurozone, an increase of community resources, and even about federation.

As part of this path, the strengthening of institutions proposed by the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has a precise meaning, and is far from promising. The new institutions are designed to depoliticize the Union even more, to bypass once and for all the revolutionary impatience exposed by Tusk. Syriza’s impatience was won over with the consent of Tsipras, who could not or maybe would not avert the left wing’s split from the party ahead of elections.

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If we don’t get to the roots of the wound inflicted on democracy and citizens’ rights, if we do not acknowledge that this wound has fatally broken the relationship between Europe’s unification and its popular legitimacy, if we keep insisting that the eurozone’s financial rules are sacrosanct and that no expression of popular sovereignty and no constitutional article can call them into question, stronger or new European institutions won’t help us free the Union from the state of nature and rediscover our reasons for living together with a common currency as a challenge to the dollar’s hegemony, but will strengthen the very ruling elites that brought us to this pass. Europe was born to put an end to centuries of fratricidal wars, and needs today a new bond to make sense of its unification. Only justice can constitute this bond, and justice implies the struggle against inequality and exclusion. EU unification falters because this bond is missing.

Even the proposal to give the European Parliament more powers, supposedly a good idea, risks turning into a trap. What’s at stake today is sovereignty, namely who has the right to decide on right and wrong, war and peace. And we are not talking about the sovereignty of nation-states, which has long lost its absoluteness, but of the sovereignty of the peoples, of their Parliaments and Constitutions, which have survived the decline of the old sovereign states. To reduce the latter, in the absence of a supranational sovereignty, amounts to linking the destiny of nation-states indelibly to the destiny of democracies, damning both and depriving democracy of any cosmopolitan aspiration.

Instead of powers being multiplied, as happens in federations, old powers and rights are being discarded, and new ones are created only in a fake form. Article 11 of the Italian constitution is very clear about that: limitations of sovereignty are accepted just as long as they are “necessary to establish an (international or supranational) order ensuring peace and justice among Nations”, not otherwise. Also Article 23 of the German Constitution (the so-called Europa-Artikel, introduced in 1992 after reunification) admits delegations of sovereignty only to the extent that the social, democratic, and legal principles applied in Europe are not inferior, in quality and quantity, to those ensured by Germany’s basic law.

This is not the path followed by those who envisage further delegations of sovereignty without carefully taking into consideration the dangers of social impoverishment and hollowed out democracy. The new Europe sought by part of the German government and supported, at least for the time being, by a majority of governments (including those of France and Italy), seems to have something else in mind: to legitimate the usurpation of popular sovereignties and the financial rules which facilitated it. Maybe the little, misanthropic kings of Europe will succeed in creating the federation sought by many democrats for more than a half century – a narrower and tighter federation, with or without a Grexit. But those kings will be usurpers, having deconsecrated the body of the sovereign people, stripping it of its powers, of the will it expresses in elections or in referenda, and of the constitutional rights guaranteed to the minorities.

All this leads to the strengthening of an élite which bears no concrete relationship to the classic procedures of representative democracy, and has no accountability. As a matter of fact, such an élite has been in power since the European Community chose to be just a market, a free trade zone, ready to give up its political ambitions and the inclusive social model advocated in post-war years (the welfare state), and lacking an autonomous foreign policy plan, both in the Mediterranean Sea, in the Middle East and in its relationships with Eastern European countries and Russia. European defense policy, although necessary, would be doomed to failure like the euro if it was built without accountability to a common government and to a common policy chosen by voters.

Some contend, not without foundation, that in a community framework, Greek popular sovereignty cannot possibly be worth more than the popular sovereignty of other member states. But it’s a lame argument: in this particular case, a will of the people has been completely ignored, a minority of the European Council has been brutally silenced, and the principles of constitutional democracy are now in a sorry state throughout the Union.

The negotiation with the Tsipras government was conducted to show that no popular will whatsoever can renegotiate the financial terms that according to the ruling oligarchies are bound to remain the core principles of the eurozone, the sole repositories of sacredness and sovereignty. The sovereignty of the citizen-voter – no matter his nationality – must be stripped of its sacredness.

If that is how things stand, Wolfgang Schäuble’s duplicity is not surprising: the arrogant, exemplary punishment meted out to Greece is consistent, from his point of view, with the stronger and tighter European Union he demands and promises. It even becomes its essential logical prerequisite. Schäuble has been promoting since 1994 a European Union built around a core – a Kerneuropa – with a joint finance minister and a joint and larger federal budget,[4] on condition that all partners accept German monetary and economic doctrines without altering them, even though the gap between center and periphery will inevitably produce crises and social sufferings. Was it not Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers, who said that Europe would be built through crises? Well, the Greek crisis will produce –  according to the Berlin government – the long championed “other Europe”. In Schäuble’s approach, crisis doesn’t lead to increased levels of solidarity and democracy: it’s the doloristic, chastening, inferiorizing version of Schumpeter’s creative destruction.

Greek suffering has been useful – this is the point of the German government, supported by a majority of member states and by the EU institutions – and hitting one state to educate all the others has been morally instructive. The Mephistophelean evil inflicted or suffered is “part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good”. Many supporters of Europeanism hesitate. What happened in Brussels during that fateful Greek night makes them uncomfortable. But Schäuble surprises them: is he aware of the evil that has been done? Has he learned anything?

It seems unlikely. Also the Lamers-Schäuble plan of 1994 has to be revised, given the following two decades. Even then, it stressed the purely economic nature of the Union. Today the plan is being proposed again, without acknowledging the mistakes made: starting from the enlargement of the Union to include Eastern European Countries, which was carried out mindlessly, with no clear idea of any future balance between the new member states’ sovereignty and EU sovereignty, and least of all of relations with Russia. The governments of Poland, of the Czech Republic and Slovakia have declared they will only relocate Christian Syrian refugees in their countries: the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the principle of non-discrimination still seem to pose some problem for Eastern Europe.

As regards the handling of the Greek crisis, no self-criticism is in sight. The International Monetary Fund expressed some doubts, while continuing to recommend the imposition of recessive measures, but the two other members of the former Troika – the European Commission and the European Central Bank – remained quite unmoved.

No doubt seems to trouble them. At most, they envisage – as was suggested by the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz and again by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker at the beginning of July – humanitarian aid for Athens. This was an offer no less humiliating than the 12 July agreement on a further swathe of austerity measures and economic reforms. Once again, after being crushed by deflationary disciplines, here was Greece being treated like a country hit by war or natural calamity. The tighter European Union aired after the straitjacket deal has at the moment two main goals: to sanction the moralising dogma of recessive austerity, euphemistically renamed “frugality”, and to face down the EU democracy crisis, only worsened after the Greek bailout referendum, while ensuring that a centralized and oligarchic material constitution survives any possible (and feared) democratic breakthroughs in member states (Greece today, maybe Spain tomorrow). Their main concern seems to be that governments and voters learn one lesson: “It must hurt!”

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A federation would of course be needed, in order to make the euro efficient and the crisis of a member state not terminal. Paul Krugman explains how Puerto Rico, virtually bankrupt like Greece, hasn’t suffered a complete catastrophe because it is part of the US fiscal union. When its economy faltered, its payments to Washington dropped while its receipts from federal social insurance programs rose, so that the island is automatically receiving aid on a scale that would be inconceivable in Europe.[5] The absence of a strong federal statehood is the Aristotelian proton pseudos, the original error or false premise which led to all the logical fallacies of the common currency.

Nicholas Kaldor wrote about this as early as 1971, highlighting the serious defects of the first attempt at European economic and monetary union (the so-called Werner Plan in 1970). According to Kaldor, a full monetary and economic union was “unattainable without a political union”, and the latter presupposed “fiscal integration, and not just fiscal harmonisation” as recommended by the Plan; it required the creation of a “Community Government and Parliament” which took over “responsibility for at least the major part of the expenditure now provided by national governments” and financed it “by taxes raised at uniform rates throughout the Community”.

It sounds almost like Schäuble’s Plan, except for the goal of the federal government as envisioned by Kaldor: “With an integrated system of this kind, the prosperous areas automatically subsidise the poorer areas; and the areas whose exports are declining obtain automatic relief by paying in less, and receiving more, from the central Exchequer. The cumulative tendencies to progress and decline are thus held in check by a ‘built-in’ fiscal stabilizer which makes the ‘surplus’ areas provide automatic fiscal aid to the ‘deficit’ areas”.[6] The present German government would see each of these conditions as heresy. The failing path chosen instead is to keep lending to Greece, thus increasing a debt burden that everyone agrees is completely unsustainable.

Kaldor’s argument contains an element that, albeit not emphasized, is maybe the most decisive and topical today. All the plans drafted by member states so far (Werner Plan, Maastricht Treaty and creation of the European single currency, more recent plans of “economic governance” of the eurozone) share this fundamental flaw. They are incapable of a realistic historical vision, and the farther they are from the end of World War II, the more they suffer from a particularly insidious case of progressivist illusion. The transformation of neoliberal economic laws (and of their social effects) into “natural” laws (and effects) feeds on the same illusion.

Why has the euro been celebrated with such blind optimism for so many years, despite all the flaws of which Chancellor Kohl in particular was perfectly aware? How come no preparation was made for the worst case scenario? Only a few insisted on the Union’s shortcomings: all the others firmly believed that the original flaw would be spontaneously, necessarily, naturally corrected (like a bumpy path is flattened by walking on it) and economic-monetary union would give birth to the political union it needed.

However, there is something rotten in progressive neoliberalism: as so often, political illusions are also forms of deceptions (those who delude and are deluded do not really want the United States of Europe they pay tribute to, and right from the outset they had in mind precisely this currency without a State, with the imbalance it creates in favour of the more powerful States and classes, who not surprisingly have variously benefited from the crisis).

This is where Kaldor, although he supported the monetary union, with what seems today tragic foresight deflates all kinds of illusions and carries out a realistic assessment: “Some day the nations of Europe may be ready to merge their national identities and create a new European Union [...] This will involve the creation of a ‘full economic and monetary union’. But it is a dangerous error to believe that monetary and economic union can precede a political union or that it will act (in the words of the Werner report) ‘as a leaven for the evolvement of a political union which in the long run it will in any case be unable to do without’. For if the creation of a monetary union and Community control over national budgets generates pressures which lead to a breakdown of the whole system it will prevent the development of a political union, not promote it”.[7]

Defending the proponents of economic theories established as dogmas, greatly reducing the role of positive law in the relationship between Law and Nature, between Nòmos and Physis, once more deluding increasingly reluctant peoples into believing in a providential history: this is the new European utopia, that pretends to be in continuity with post-war unifying projects while degenerating into dystopia. Old and new literary inventions come to mind: from the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition as described by Dostoyevsky’s underground man (the place where “new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided”), to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s One State and its compulsory “We”, to Michel Houellebecq’s extension of the domain of the struggle sought and planned by neoliberal capitalism.

In today’s EU dystopia, the world is not so much the postnational one called for by Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, as the post-democracy described by Colin Crouch: “'You can always vote, but you have no choice”.

The Greek people will soon go to the polls for the third time in a year, but to no purpose. A joint finance minister will control all the economic policies of the member states, hollowing out even more national parliaments and constitutions, with a view to making supranational power immune to the dangers of national elections or referenda. More formal powers will be conferred to a European Parliament which lacks the history of national parliaments, their role, and above all the possibility of interacting with an elected government. Mr Schäuble himself reveals his own ambiguity, when he calls for a greater sharing of sovereignty between the member states while at the same time saying that the European Commission overstepped its mandate during the negotiations over Greek loans, thus infringing on the competence of the Eurogroup.

This Eurogroup sums up the many flaws of the Union, having no legitimacy. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister, has recently commented on the behavior and role of the body defended by Mr Schäuble against Juncker’s alleged intrusions. The Eurogroup acts as an intergovernmental body, and among other things is called to implement a treaty – the so-called Fiscal Compact – which is not part of the treaties which govern the EU. Having been excluded from a gathering convened by the Eurogroup, which issued a statement without Greece’s consent, Varoufakis asked for legal advice on whether a Eurogroup statement can be issued without the conventional unanimity and whether the President of the Eurogroup can convene a meeting without inviting the finance minister of a eurozone Member State. He received a singular answer: “The Eurogroup is an informal group. Thus it is not bound by Treaties or written regulations. While unanimity is conventionally adhered to, the Eurogroup President is not bound to explicit rules”. The Eurogroup is not answerable to anyone. No minutes are kept. It doesn’t exist in law.[8] It symbolizes the deconstitutionalized and deparlamentarized Europe which has prevailed in these years, using the Greek case as a guinea pig for its experiments.

The intention is to strengthen this very kind of Europe, pretending that the wind of progress will carry us all towards the United States of Europe. It’s a sham. No wonder the Five President’s report – presented on 22 June 2015 by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with European Council chief Donald Tusk, the Eurogroup’s head Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi, and European Parliament President Martin Schulz (whose surprising involvement weakens the monitoring role MEPs could perform from the outside, in refusing to be dragged along by the executive power) – addresses the issue of political union, but only as the crowning and late achievement of an even tighter and more economically binding Union, not as its precondition.

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Under these circumstances, better not to delegate further sovereignties blindly, without carefully planning what is to be done in the eurozone, without re-establishing the absolute primacy of law and of the rights enshrined in the various national Constitutions and in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Such rights are today being systematically violated, bypassed or neglected.

Better not to delegate power to bodies (the Eurogroup) that have no democratic legitimacy and could even be illegal. Better not to sacrifice the veto power of member states, although the liberum veto is bound to hinder the creation of a political union. As a matter of fact, the risk is losing on both fronts. On a national level, parliaments and constitutions are hollowed out. On a European level, a legal and democratic vacuum arises: elections go by without undermining the governance of Europe, which for all its being called ‘federal’ won’t be able to shake off the suspicion of usurpation; won’t be strong or willing enough to confront the European Central Bank and make sure that the independence of the latter does not turn into abuse; will be unchecked, immune from the surprises of democracy, and clinging to motionless economic rules: even when these rules do not work, even when increasing numbers of citizens ask for new ones.

On 26 March 2015, in a speech at the Italian Parliament, the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, said that the long-term goal must be to move from a rules-based system to one based on stronger European institutions. But in Draghi’s view there is no question today that the rules can change. On the contrary, the role of institutions is to ensure the respect and perpetuation of present rules. These are the same rules that led to the violation of fundamental rights; that strengthen and preserve the status quo just when it would be necessary to move from governance to a real federal government, to give effective answers to the disillusioned demands of the peoples.

Draghi labels as unrealistic and fanciful both sovereignist solutions (“retrenching behind national borders would not solve any of the problems we face today”) and federalist alternatives (“an unrealistic vision of European integration is not the answer either. We are not a Union where some countries permanently pay for others. And to hope for this only distracts us from taking our responsibilities and facing our national challenges”). In other words: he wants to stay put.

Monnet once said that institutions are necessary because their life is longer than that of men and governments, and therefore, if they are well-designed, they can pass on the wisdom of successive generations. He didn’t say that institutions are necessary because they ensure the perpetuation of given economic doctrines. Those who today envisage a good “governance” of the eurozone without first overcoming a nonetheless precarious status quo, should be reminded of Kaldor’s admonition. Otherwise the Aristotelian proton pseudos, the first lie which led to all sorts of mental deviations, will endlessly repeat itself.

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[1]     Stefano Fassina, interview with Il Manifesto, 21 August 2015. See also interview with L'Unità, 22 August 2015.

[2]     IWH, Halle Institute for Economic Research  (http://www.iwh-halle.de/d/publik/iwhonline/io_2015-07.pdf), quoted by  Spiegel online, 10 August 2015 (http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/soziales/deutschland-hat-100-milliarden-euro-durch-minizinsen-gespart-a-1047483.html).

[3]     Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter XIII.

[4]     Wolfgang Schäuble-Karl Lamers, Überlegungen zur europäischen Politik, 1 semptember 1994.

[5]     Paul Krugman, “America’s Un-Greek Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Appalachia”, New York Times, 3 August 2015.

[6]     Nicholas Kaldor, New Statesman, 12 March 1971, in: Further Essays on Applied Economics, New York 1978, p. 205. Italics mine.

[7]     Ibid., p. 206.

[8]     Yanis Varoufakis, interview with the New Statesman, 13 July 2015. Die Zeit article, 19 July 2015.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The last of the Papandreous? Momentous times for democracy in Europe The Syriza problem: radical democracy and left governmentality in Greece The poisoned chalice Country or region:  Greece Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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La población civil, víctima de la crisis fronteriza entre Colombia y Venezuela

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 15:34

La cobertura mediática de la crisis fronteriza entre Colombia y Venezuela se centra en el presidente Maduro, olvidando a su primera víctima: la población civil. Hacen falta políticas de desarrollo que construyan un futuro para la región. English.

«PuenteInternacional Simón Bolívar» de Andrés Urdaneta - Trabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia GFDL vía Wikimedia Commons

El 21 de Agosto, el presidente venezolano Nicolás Maduro decidió cerrar la frontera entre Colombia (Norte de Santander) y Venezuela (Táchira). Declaró el estado de emergencia y deportó a colombianos que viven en Venezuela de manera ilegal. Desplegó millares de tropas. Esta crisis no hace sino confirmar una triste realidad: son los civiles que viven en las áreas fronterizas los que sufren de verdad por estas medidas.

Pero cabe preguntarse en primer lugar por qué esta gente abandonó Colombia. Muchos huyeron de la guerra que Bogotá libra contra las guerrillas. Se trata de una triple tragedia: huyen de la violencia, son expulsados del lugar en el que buscaron refugio, y vuelve a toparse con la negligencia del Estado colombiano consistente en refugios superpoblados, comida insuficiente y muy escasas capacidades institucionales para manejar la avalancha de gente que regresa a sus lugares de origen. Después de todo, Colombia ostenta el récord de vivir la segunda crisis de personas desplazadas más grande del mundo.

La cobertura mediática del comportamiento de Maduro obvia las cuestiones centrales de esta crisis. En primer lugar, históricamente, las tierras fronterizas entre Colombia y Venezuela han sido dejadas de lado. A lo largo de toda la frontera encontramos a gente abatida por el abandono del estado. En Catumbo, del lado colombiano, la gente dice que, tras esperar varios años a que el gobierno reconstruyese el puente destruido por la guerrilla, fue el presidente Chávez quien ayudó a construirlo de nuevo. No en vano en Catumbo cuelgan fotos de Chávez en la sala de estar. En amplias áreas de la frontera de Colombia, no se captan las radios colombiana mientras que los canales venezolanos se reciben perfectamente. Informados de lo que pasa en Venezuela y privados de lo que pasa en Colombia, la gente se siente más “venezolana”. Optar entonces por vivir en Venezuela parece razonable.

También más al sur, en Arauca, la gente se siente abandonada. Un campesino explica: “Uno sólo puede ponerse enfermo los martes, que es el único día en que el médico está aquí”. En Apure, del lado venezolano, un granjero alababa la imposición de normas de convivencia por parte de los grupos armados colombianos y venezolanos: dicen a la gente que limpie las calles y que guarden a sus animales en casa durante la noche. No hay estado que asegure el orden. Un cura local se queja de que “Si una vaca se pierde, la gente acude corriendo a las guerrillas. Siempre acuden a las guerrillas! Intervienen, incluso para imponer soluciones salomónicas”.

Viajando con indígenas Wayúu a Zulia, en el norte venezolano, éstos afirman que ninguna organización internacional aparece por allá. Y esto a pesar de que el número de tanques venezolanos estacionados a lo largo de esa parte de la frontera ha aumentado significativamente y que,  del otro lado, los colombianos han intensificado su presencia. Además, el punto de partida de grandes rutas del tráfico de cocaína hacia Europa y los EU está se sitúa en esta región, y aún así, la población local está abandonada a su suerte.

En segundo lugar, la mayoría de la atención que recibe la población responde a crisis puntuales, en vez de ocuparse de las causas estructurales del abandono. Un amigo de Cúcuta describió Norte de Santander como un “laboratorio social”.  Las organizaciones (agencias gubernamentales, de  Naciones Unidas o de la cooperación al desarrollo bilateral) llegan y ponen a prueba nuevas políticas. Sus esfuerzos son loables, pero no deberían limitarse a Norte de Santander cuando otros departamentos fronterizos sufren problemas similares.

Apure, en Venezuela, es un ejemplo. No se ha declarado el estado de emergencia, pero un contacto local afirma que los colombianos están siendo empujados a través de la frontera a Arauca, en Colombia, una de las “zonas rojas” de la guerra civil colombiana. ¿Y qué pasa con los traumas de esta gente, que vuelven al lugar donde sus esposas fueron asesinadas, sus hijas violadas y siguen estando amenazados por la presencia de grupos armados, amenazas bien visibles en los grafitis pintados en las paredes de sus casas?

Los desplazamientos a través de la frontera se han venido produciendo a lo largo de décadas, si bien en una manera menos visible, gota a gota. La gente no se va a las tierras del interior, porque tiene vínculos familiares a través de la frontera, que les facilitan el poder ganarse a vida. Muchos no cuentan como refugiados porque no saben cómo registrarse, o bien porque temen que sus torturadores puedan perseguirlos, atravesando la frontera. Es preferible el anonimato.

Las deportaciones no empezaron el 21 de Agosto. Según el diario colombiano “El Espectador”, entre Enero y Mayo de este año ya habían sido deportados 2.276 ciudadanos. Cabe preguntarse por qué no hubo denuncia en los medios hasta el 21 de Agosto.

Por último, los civiles que habitan las tierras fronterizas pagan el precio de las actividades criminales a gran escala. Los que hoy padecen el cierre de la frontera contrabandean pequeñas mercancías de Colombia a Venezuela, a menudo para su propio consumo, o son “pimpineros”: venden gasolina venezolana en Cúcuta. La policía colombiana lo permite, porque saben que acabar con esta práctica supondría acabar con el modo de vida de miles de colombianos. En Octubre pasado, discutimos este asunto con estudiantes en Cúcuta. Muchos de ellos trabajan como pimpineros. Privados de alternativas económicas, “cambiar de negocio” es imposible, dijeron. De manera que el contrabando será ilegal, pero se considera legítimo.

Mientras tanto, poderosas organizaciones criminales trafican grandes cantidades de gasolina destinada a la venta en Bogotá, o a los laboratorios que transforman coca en cocaína, a lo largo de toda la frontera. Estos cargamentos no entran en Colombia por Cúcuta sino más al norte, o más al sur. A menudo, las élites políticas locales protegen a estos traficantes. Un líder religioso de La Guajira señaló: “Aquí no puede distinguirse entre actores legales o ilegales porque aquí no hay Estado. Los actores estatales pertenecen al aparato del Estado, pero la mayoría de sus actividades son ilegales”. La detención el gobernador de La Guajira en 2013 es sólo la punta del iceberg.

Abordar los problemas estructurales de las tierras fronterizas y su transformación en una región económicamente próspera requiere un esfuerzo continuado y no remiendos puntuales. Debe irse más allá de la ayuda humanitaria en una región acostumbrada al asistencialismo. Debe priorizarse el desarrollo local en todas las áreas fronterizas desatendidas.

Las políticas gubernamentales necesitan tomar en consideración lo que está pasando sobre el terreno. Las dinámicas socioeconómicas en la región sólo pueden ser comprendidas desde una perspectiva que considere las áreas fronterizas como una sola unidad transnacional, superando la perspectiva estatista existente, que empieza en la capital y acaba en la frontera. Los gobiernos conocen suficientemente estas regiones. La estrategia post-conflicto que propone Colombia va en esta dirección, pero todavía desenfoca el objetivo. En un discurso en Londres hace unos meses,elalto comisionado para la paz, Sergio Jaramillo, afirmaba que la “paz territorial” en las regiones marginalizadas debe incluir a la juventud, para evitar que pierda el tiempo en los salones de billar y acabe en metida en problemas. La triste ironía es que no haya salones de billar en la frontera.

Y lo más importante de todo: Colombia y Venezuela deben ayudar conjuntamente a las poblaciones fronterizas. En ciudades como Cúcuta, la estructura social es débil. Tras décadas de violencia y abandono, el miedo y la desconfianza han desgarrado el tejido social. Aún así, son gentes resistentes, y trabajan duro. Han puesto en marcha iniciativas ciudadanas para ayudarse los unos a los otros. Esta es la capacidad de cambio que debe ser apoyada.

Country or region:  Venezuela Colombia Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

La población civil, víctima de la crisis fronteriza entre Colombia y Venezuela

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 15:34

La cobertura mediática de la crisis fronteriza entre Colombia y Venezuela se centra en el presidente Maduro, olvidando a su primera víctima: la población civil. Hacen falta políticas de desarrollo que construyan un futuro para la región. English.

«PuenteInternacional Simón Bolívar» de Andrés Urdaneta - Trabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia GFDL vía Wikimedia Commons

El 21 de Agosto, el presidente venezolano Nicolás Maduro decidió cerrar la frontera entre Colombia (Norte de Santander) y Venezuela (Táchira). Declaró el estado de emergencia y deportó a colombianos que viven en Venezuela de manera ilegal. Desplegó millares de tropas. Esta crisis no hace sino confirmar una triste realidad: son los civiles que viven en las áreas fronterizas los que sufren de verdad por estas medidas.

Pero cabe preguntarse en primer lugar por qué esta gente abandonó Colombia. Muchos huyeron de la guerra que Bogotá libra contra las guerrillas. Se trata de una triple tragedia: huyen de la violencia, son expulsados del lugar en el que buscaron refugio, y vuelve a toparse con la negligencia del Estado colombiano consistente en refugios superpoblados, comida insuficiente y muy escasas capacidades institucionales para manejar la avalancha de gente que regresa a sus lugares de origen. Después de todo, Colombia ostenta el récord de vivir la segunda crisis de personas desplazadas más grande del mundo.

La cobertura mediática del comportamiento de Maduro obvia las cuestiones centrales de esta crisis. En primer lugar, históricamente, las tierras fronterizas entre Colombia y Venezuela han sido dejadas de lado. A lo largo de toda la frontera encontramos a gente abatida por el abandono del estado. En Catumbo, del lado colombiano, la gente dice que, tras esperar varios años a que el gobierno reconstruyese el puente destruido por la guerrilla, fue el presidente Chávez quien ayudó a construirlo de nuevo. No en vano en Catumbo cuelgan fotos de Chávez en la sala de estar. En amplias áreas de la frontera de Colombia, no se captan las radios colombiana mientras que los canales venezolanos se reciben perfectamente. Informados de lo que pasa en Venezuela y privados de lo que pasa en Colombia, la gente se siente más “venezolana”. Optar entonces por vivir en Venezuela parece razonable.

También más al sur, en Arauca, la gente se siente abandonada. Un campesino explica: “Uno sólo puede ponerse enfermo los martes, que es el único día en que el médico está aquí”. En Apure, del lado venezolano, un granjero alababa la imposición de normas de convivencia por parte de los grupos armados colombianos y venezolanos: dicen a la gente que limpie las calles y que guarden a sus animales en casa durante la noche. No hay estado que asegure el orden. Un cura local se queja de que “Si una vaca se pierde, la gente acude corriendo a las guerrillas. Siempre acuden a las guerrillas! Intervienen, incluso para imponer soluciones salomónicas”.

Viajando con indígenas Wayúu a Zulia, en el norte venezolano, éstos afirman que ninguna organización internacional aparece por allá. Y esto a pesar de que el número de tanques venezolanos estacionados a lo largo de esa parte de la frontera ha aumentado significativamente y que,  del otro lado, los colombianos han intensificado su presencia. Además, el punto de partida de grandes rutas del tráfico de cocaína hacia Europa y los EU está se sitúa en esta región, y aún así, la población local está abandonada a su suerte.

En segundo lugar, la mayoría de la atención que recibe la población responde a crisis puntuales, en vez de ocuparse de las causas estructurales del abandono. Un amigo de Cúcuta describió Norte de Santander como un “laboratorio social”.  Las organizaciones (agencias gubernamentales, de  Naciones Unidas o de la cooperación al desarrollo bilateral) llegan y ponen a prueba nuevas políticas. Sus esfuerzos son loables, pero no deberían limitarse a Norte de Santander cuando otros departamentos fronterizos sufren problemas similares.

Apure, en Venezuela, es un ejemplo. No se ha declarado el estado de emergencia, pero un contacto local afirma que los colombianos están siendo empujados a través de la frontera a Arauca, en Colombia, una de las “zonas rojas” de la guerra civil colombiana. ¿Y qué pasa con los traumas de esta gente, que vuelven al lugar donde sus esposas fueron asesinadas, sus hijas violadas y siguen estando amenazados por la presencia de grupos armados, amenazas bien visibles en los grafitis pintados en las paredes de sus casas?

Los desplazamientos a través de la frontera se han venido produciendo a lo largo de décadas, si bien en una manera menos visible, gota a gota. La gente no se va a las tierras del interior, porque tiene vínculos familiares a través de la frontera, que les facilitan el poder ganarse a vida. Muchos no cuentan como refugiados porque no saben cómo registrarse, o bien porque temen que sus torturadores puedan perseguirlos, atravesando la frontera. Es preferible el anonimato.

Las deportaciones no empezaron el 21 de Agosto. Según el diario colombiano “El Espectador”, entre Enero y Mayo de este año ya habían sido deportados 2.276 ciudadanos. Cabe preguntarse por qué no hubo denuncia en los medios hasta el 21 de Agosto.

Por último, los civiles que habitan las tierras fronterizas pagan el precio de las actividades criminales a gran escala. Los que hoy padecen el cierre de la frontera contrabandean pequeñas mercancías de Colombia a Venezuela, a menudo para su propio consumo, o son “pimpineros”: venden gasolina venezolana en Cúcuta. La policía colombiana lo permite, porque saben que acabar con esta práctica supondría acabar con el modo de vida de miles de colombianos. En Octubre pasado, discutimos este asunto con estudiantes en Cúcuta. Muchos de ellos trabajan como pimpineros. Privados de alternativas económicas, “cambiar de negocio” es imposible, dijeron. De manera que el contrabando será ilegal, pero se considera legítimo.

Mientras tanto, poderosas organizaciones criminales trafican grandes cantidades de gasolina destinada a la venta en Bogotá, o a los laboratorios que transforman coca en cocaína, a lo largo de toda la frontera. Estos cargamentos no entran en Colombia por Cúcuta sino más al norte, o más al sur. A menudo, las élites políticas locales protegen a estos traficantes. Un líder religioso de La Guajira señaló: “Aquí no puede distinguirse entre actores legales o ilegales porque aquí no hay Estado. Los actores estatales pertenecen al aparato del Estado, pero la mayoría de sus actividades son ilegales”. La detención el gobernador de La Guajira en 2013 es sólo la punta del iceberg.

Abordar los problemas estructurales de las tierras fronterizas y su transformación en una región económicamente próspera requiere un esfuerzo continuado y no remiendos puntuales. Debe irse más allá de la ayuda humanitaria en una región acostumbrada al asistencialismo. Debe priorizarse el desarrollo local en todas las áreas fronterizas desatendidas.

Las políticas gubernamentales necesitan tomar en consideración lo que está pasando sobre el terreno. Las dinámicas socioeconómicas en la región sólo pueden ser comprendidas desde una perspectiva que considere las áreas fronterizas como una sola unidad transnacional, superando la perspectiva estatista existente, que empieza en la capital y acaba en la frontera. Los gobiernos conocen suficientemente estas regiones. La estrategia post-conflicto que propone Colombia va en esta dirección, pero todavía desenfoca el objetivo. En un discurso en Londres hace unos meses,elalto comisionado para la paz, Sergio Jaramillo, afirmaba que la “paz territorial” en las regiones marginalizadas debe incluir a la juventud, para evitar que pierda el tiempo en los salones de billar y acabe en metida en problemas. La triste ironía es que no haya salones de billar en la frontera.

Y lo más importante de todo: Colombia y Venezuela deben ayudar conjuntamente a las poblaciones fronterizas. En ciudades como Cúcuta, la estructura social es débil. Tras décadas de violencia y abandono, el miedo y la desconfianza han desgarrado el tejido social. Aún así, son gentes resistentes, y trabajan duro. Han puesto en marcha iniciativas ciudadanas para ayudarse los unos a los otros. Esta es la capacidad de cambio que debe ser apoyada.

Country or region:  Venezuela Colombia Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The Colombian-Venezuela border crisis: the civilian backdrop

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 14:40

The Colombia-Venezuela border crisis' media coverage should focus on the affected populations rather than in a Maduro/Santos dispute. Structural development policies should be deployed to build a future for the crossborder region. Español.

«PuenteInternacional Simón Bolívar» de Andrés Urdaneta. Own work. GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

On 21 August, Venezuelan president Maduro decided to close the border between Colombian Norte de Santander and Venezuelan Táchira, declare a state of emergency and deport Colombians illegally living in Venezuela. Thousands of troops were deployed. This crisis confirms a sad reality: civilian borderlanders suffer most from such measures.

Why did these people leave Colombia in the first place? Many fled the war that Bogotá wages against guerrillas. This is a triple tragedy: they flee violence, are expelled from where they sought refuge and return to State neglect in Colombia: to overfilled shelters, insufficient food and inadequate institutional capacity to cope with an influx of people who return to where they came from. After all, Colombia holds the record for the second biggest displacement crisis world-wide.

The media’s focus on Maduro’s behaviour misses the issues at the core of the crisis.

First, the Colombian-Venezuelan borderlands have been historically neglected. All along the border, I met people embittered by the State’s abandonment.

In Colombian Catatumbo, locals told me that, after several years of waiting for their government to rebuild a bridge destroyed by a guerrilla attack, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez assisted in building a new bridge. No wonder I saw Chávez pictures in Catatumbo’s living rooms. In large parts of Colombia’s border zone, Colombian radio cannot be received, yet Venezuela’s channels work perfectly. Informed about Venezuela’s affairs yet alienated by Colombia, people feel more “Venezuelan”. Opting to live in Venezuela seems sensible.

Also further south in Arauca (Colombia) people feel abandoned. A villager explained: “You can only get sick on a Thursday because this is the only day when the doctor is here”. On the Venezuelan side, in Apure, a farmer praised Colombian and Venezuelan leftist armed groups’ that impose rules of coexistence, tell people to clean the streets and keep animals inside at night. Neither State takes responsibility for ensuring order. A local priest complained: “If a cow gets lost, people run to the guerrillas. They always run to the guerrillas! They intervene to provide even Solomonic solutions”.

When travelling with indigenous Wayúu to Venezuelan northern Zulia, I was told that no international organisation would go there. This is in spite of a significant increase in the number of Venezuelan tanks stationed along that area of the border and an intensified Colombian military presence on the other side. Moreover, the starting points of the major cocaine trafficking routes towards the US and Europe are located in this region. Yet the local population is left to its own fate.

Second, attention generally focuses on ad hoc crises rather than on tackling structural causes. A friend from Cúcuta described Norte de Santander as a “social laboratory”. Organisations - government bodies, UN and bilateral development assistance agencies - come in and try out new policies. Their efforts are laudable, but should not be limited to Norte de Santander, when other border departments suffer similar problems.

Venezuelan Apure is an example. No state of emergency exists in Apure, but a local contact in Guasdualito told me that Colombians are being pushed over the border to Colombian Arauca, one of the “red zones” of Colombia’s civil war. What about the traumas of these people who return to where they witnessed their spouses being killed, daughters being raped and are still threatened by the presence of armed groups, visible through their graffiti sprayed on the walls of houses?

Displacements across the border have been taking place for decades, yet in a less visible, drop-by-drop manner. People don’t move to the country’s heartlands because family ties across the border facilitate making a living. Many people don’t register as refugees because they don’t know how to do so, or fear that their torturers might persecute them across the border. Anonymity is preferable.

Deportations did not start on 21 August. According to the Colombian “Espectador”, between January and May this year, 2,276 Colombians were deported. Why was there no media outcry before 21 August?

Finally, civilian borderlanders pay for the large-scale criminal activities. Those WHO SUFFER UNDER THE CURRENT CLOSURE OF THE BORDER smuggle staples from Venezuela to Colombia, often for their own consumption, or are “pimpineros”: they sell Venezuelan gasoline in Cúcuta. Colombian police permit this because they know that stopping this practice would deprive thousands of Colombians of their livelihoods. Last October, I discussed this issue with students in Cúcuta. Many of them work as pimpineros. Devoid of economic alternatives, “switching business” is impossible, they said. Therefore contraband may be illegal, but is considered legitimate.

Meanwhile, powerful organised criminals traffic large amounts of gasoline to be sold in Bogotá or to process coca into cocaine in laboratories along the border. Those cargoes don’t enter Colombia via Cúcuta, but further north or south. Local political elites often protect such traffickers. A religious leader from La Guajira highlighted: “Here you can’t distinguish the illegal from the legal actors, because here there is no State. State actors belong to the State apparatus, but most of their activities are illegal.” The arrest of La Guajira’s Governor in 2013 is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tackling the borderlands’ structural problems and transforming them into an economically vibrant region requires a sustained approach rather than quick fixes. It must go beyond humanitarian assistance in a region used to “asistencialismo”. Developing local capacity must be prioritised in all neglected border areas.

*Government policies need to take into consideration what is happening on the ground in these regions, because the socio-economic dynamics can only be understood from a perspective that considers borderlands as a transnational unit rather than from a state-centric perspective that starts in the capital and ends at the frontier. Governments don't know these regions well enough. Colombia’s proposed post-conflict strategy moves in this direction, but still misses the point. In a speech in London earlier this year, Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace, argued that “territorial peace” must include youth in marginalised regions so that they don’t hang out in billiard rooms and get into mischief. The sad irony of this statement is that the region has no billiard rooms.

Most importantly, Colombia and Venezuela must jointly support their borderlanders. In cities like Cúcuta, civic structure is weak. The social fabric has been torn apart through fear and mistrust after decades of violence and neglect. Yet most of these people are resilient and hard-working. They have launched civil society initiatives to help each other. This potential for change must be supported.

Country or region:  Colombia Venezuela Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government Ideas International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The Colombian-Venezuela border crisis: the civilian backdrop

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 14:40

The Colombia-Venezuela border crisis' media coverage should focus on the affected populations rather than in a Maduro/Santos dispute. Structural development policies should be deployed to build a future for the crossborder region. Español.

«PuenteInternacional Simón Bolívar» de Andrés Urdaneta. Own work. GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

On 21 August, Venezuelan president Maduro decided to close the border between Colombian Norte de Santander and Venezuelan Táchira, declare a state of emergency and deport Colombians illegally living in Venezuela. Thousands of troops were deployed. This crisis confirms a sad reality: civilian borderlanders suffer most from such measures.

Why did these people leave Colombia in the first place? Many fled the war that Bogotá wages against guerrillas. This is a triple tragedy: they flee violence, are expelled from where they sought refuge and return to State neglect in Colombia: to overfilled shelters, insufficient food and inadequate institutional capacity to cope with an influx of people who return to where they came from. After all, Colombia holds the record for the second biggest displacement crisis world-wide.

The media’s focus on Maduro’s behaviour misses the issues at the core of the crisis.

First, the Colombian-Venezuelan borderlands have been historically neglected. All along the border, I met people embittered by the State’s abandonment.

In Colombian Catatumbo, locals told me that, after several years of waiting for their government to rebuild a bridge destroyed by a guerrilla attack, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez assisted in building a new bridge. No wonder I saw Chávez pictures in Catatumbo’s living rooms. In large parts of Colombia’s border zone, Colombian radio cannot be received, yet Venezuela’s channels work perfectly. Informed about Venezuela’s affairs yet alienated by Colombia, people feel more “Venezuelan”. Opting to live in Venezuela seems sensible.

Also further south in Arauca (Colombia) people feel abandoned. A villager explained: “You can only get sick on a Thursday because this is the only day when the doctor is here”. On the Venezuelan side, in Apure, a farmer praised Colombian and Venezuelan leftist armed groups’ that impose rules of coexistence, tell people to clean the streets and keep animals inside at night. Neither State takes responsibility for ensuring order. A local priest complained: “If a cow gets lost, people run to the guerrillas. They always run to the guerrillas! They intervene to provide even Solomonic solutions”.

When travelling with indigenous Wayúu to Venezuelan northern Zulia, I was told that no international organisation would go there. This is in spite of a significant increase in the number of Venezuelan tanks stationed along that area of the border and an intensified Colombian military presence on the other side. Moreover, the starting points of the major cocaine trafficking routes towards the US and Europe are located in this region. Yet the local population is left to its own fate.

Second, attention generally focuses on ad hoc crises rather than on tackling structural causes. A friend from Cúcuta described Norte de Santander as a “social laboratory”. Organisations - government bodies, UN and bilateral development assistance agencies - come in and try out new policies. Their efforts are laudable, but should not be limited to Norte de Santander, when other border departments suffer similar problems.

Venezuelan Apure is an example. No state of emergency exists in Apure, but a local contact in Guasdualito told me that Colombians are being pushed over the border to Colombian Arauca, one of the “red zones” of Colombia’s civil war. What about the traumas of these people who return to where they witnessed their spouses being killed, daughters being raped and are still threatened by the presence of armed groups, visible through their graffiti sprayed on the walls of houses?

Displacements across the border have been taking place for decades, yet in a less visible, drop-by-drop manner. People don’t move to the country’s heartlands because family ties across the border facilitate making a living. Many people don’t register as refugees because they don’t know how to do so, or fear that their torturers might persecute them across the border. Anonymity is preferable.

Deportations did not start on 21 August. According to the Colombian “Espectador”, between January and May this year, 2,276 Colombians were deported. Why was there no media outcry before 21 August?

Finally, civilian borderlanders pay for the large-scale criminal activities. Those WHO SUFFER UNDER THE CURRENT CLOSURE OF THE BORDER smuggle staples from Venezuela to Colombia, often for their own consumption, or are “pimpineros”: they sell Venezuelan gasoline in Cúcuta. Colombian police permit this because they know that stopping this practice would deprive thousands of Colombians of their livelihoods. Last October, I discussed this issue with students in Cúcuta. Many of them work as pimpineros. Devoid of economic alternatives, “switching business” is impossible, they said. Therefore contraband may be illegal, but is considered legitimate.

Meanwhile, powerful organised criminals traffic large amounts of gasoline to be sold in Bogotá or to process coca into cocaine in laboratories along the border. Those cargoes don’t enter Colombia via Cúcuta, but further north or south. Local political elites often protect such traffickers. A religious leader from La Guajira highlighted: “Here you can’t distinguish the illegal from the legal actors, because here there is no State. State actors belong to the State apparatus, but most of their activities are illegal.” The arrest of La Guajira’s Governor in 2013 is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tackling the borderlands’ structural problems and transforming them into an economically vibrant region requires a sustained approach rather than quick fixes. It must go beyond humanitarian assistance in a region used to “asistencialismo”. Developing local capacity must be prioritised in all neglected border areas.

*Government policies need to take into consideration what is happening on the ground in these regions, because the socio-economic dynamics can only be understood from a perspective that considers borderlands as a transnational unit rather than from a state-centric perspective that starts in the capital and ends at the frontier. Governments don't know these regions well enough. Colombia’s proposed post-conflict strategy moves in this direction, but still misses the point. In a speech in London earlier this year, Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace, argued that “territorial peace” must include youth in marginalised regions so that they don’t hang out in billiard rooms and get into mischief. The sad irony of this statement is that the region has no billiard rooms.

Most importantly, Colombia and Venezuela must jointly support their borderlanders. In cities like Cúcuta, civic structure is weak. The social fabric has been torn apart through fear and mistrust after decades of violence and neglect. Yet most of these people are resilient and hard-working. They have launched civil society initiatives to help each other. This potential for change must be supported.

Country or region:  Colombia Venezuela Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government Ideas International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Lord Hall’s modest proposal for the BBC

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 13:48

While Charter Review has been marked by a clamour over cuts to programmes and services, less attention has been paid to a BBC proposal which could have equally far-reaching implications.  

Image: Flickr / Lis Ferla

The BBC’s response to the Government’s Charter Review Green Paper expected within weeks, is slated to include a radical plan from the Director General, Tony Hall to open up “the BBC to more competition”. There are fears it could become a prelude to privatisation of much of the BBC’s programme-making, leaving a shrunken BBC. 

Hall wants to sweep away the existing quota system which reserves 50% of drama, entertainment and features for the BBC’s in-house programme makers. In future all programmes would be opened up competition from private independent producers with the exception of News, Sport, Current Affairs and Children’s programming which will be exempt. The quid pro quo for the BBC’s beleaguered producers is that some two thousand of them will become part of a new “arms length”, “more commercial” outfit, BBC Studios which would be free to compete for work in the open market in the UK and globally.

The aim, according to Hall, is “to drive up standards and drive down costs”; but it is also intended to address the virtual disappearance of a thriving creative sector of small to medium sized production houses that the BBC quota system was designed to stimulate. 

This system established in the last Charter guarantees that 50% of all BBC TV output goes to in-house programme makers; 25% to independent TV companies, and the remaining 25% is open to competition from either. 

However, in the last ten years the independent sector has seen rapid consolidation. We like to boast that we have the best TV in the world. What some viewers may be unaware of is that now much of BBC output is made by a handful of foreign owned super-indies (mainly American), who have swallowed up many of the best British producers in a spate of take-overs and acquisitions. The indie market is now dominated by hyphenated behemoths such as Endemol-Shine producers of MasterChef and Bad Education, Liberty Global-Discovery who make the Call the Midwife and Victorian Farm, and Warner Brothers responsible for Waterloo Road, New Tricks and Who Do You Think You Are?  The only independent UK TV producer of scale left standing is ITV, and that is rumoured to be up for sale. 

The outcome the BBC Trust notes has been “a gradual shift in the balance of power, away from the broadcasters and towards the bigger global producers.” The BBC once the 800-pound gorilla of UK broadcasting, now looks more like a media minnow. 

Tony Hall argues that the way the quota rules work mean a system designed to encourage new ideas and new talent is rewarding old favourites, reducing choice and tying the hands of BBC commissioners and Channel Controllers. 

The BBC Studios proposal aims to tackle another issue. As media platforms proliferate, success in TV today is more and more about creating great programmes. Owning valuable intellectual property is key. That means having the right talent. BBC production struggles to attract the best talent because it can’t offer the right incentives. If a BBC producer comes up with a great idea and the BBC turns it down, they have nowhere else to go. Under the BBC Studios plan they would be free to pitch it to any other broadcaster, UK or global. 

This is the latest stage in a process which began with the introduction of the first BBC independent quota programmes in 1990. Since then the BBC has embraced market values, and the language and practice of consumer choice, efficiency and competition.   

The independent producers’ body PACT has welcomed the opportunity to grab a slice of Bake-Off, or Dr Who, but is worried about the prospect of having to compete with BBC Studios head-on. Chief Executive John McVay complains that BBC Studios might enjoy an unfair competitive advantage by virtue of its close relationship with commissioners and current tenancy of valuable franchises such as EastEnders.    

The unions have expressed hostility to the plan to scrap quotas fearing it may mean cost-cutting and increased job insecurity. They warn that BBC Studios might prove a prelude to outright privatisation. 

This goes to the heart of the issue. What is meant by “arms length” and “more commercial”? Where would the new BBC Studios sit within the Corporation’s organisation chart: in public service or the commercial arm, BBC Worldwide? If the latter might the Government, already eyeing up a possible sale of Channel 4, be tempted to privatise it entirely, leaving a much smaller BBC with even less clout in the market place for bold new ideas? 

What will happen next? 

The regulator, the BBC Trust, supports ending quotas, but has suggested that the Studios proposal would need to be put through its own possibly prolonged regulatory processes. This might be interpreted as kicking BBC Studios into the long grass. This puts the BBC in a bind. Tony Hall has made it clear that the two proposals are a package and can’t be taken separately.

Which way will the BBC jump? We should learn with its response to the Government’s Green Paper. Anyone who cares about the future of British television would be well advised to watch this space.

If you want to keep OurBeeb debating the BBC, please chip in what you can afford.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The BBC charter renewal, seen through a Nordic lens The BBC, the press and online news Still failing after all these years BBC Green Paper: red alert on funding Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Lord Hall’s modest proposal for the BBC

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 13:48

While Charter Review has been marked by a clamour over cuts to programmes and services, less attention has been paid to a BBC proposal which could have equally far-reaching implications.  

Image: Flickr / Lis Ferla

The BBC’s response to the Government’s Charter Review Green Paper expected within weeks, is slated to include a radical plan from the Director General, Tony Hall to open up “the BBC to more competition”. There are fears it could become a prelude to privatisation of much of the BBC’s programme-making, leaving a shrunken BBC. 

Hall wants to sweep away the existing quota system which reserves 50% of drama, entertainment and features for the BBC’s in-house programme makers. In future all programmes would be opened up competition from private independent producers with the exception of News, Sport, Current Affairs and Children’s programming which will be exempt. The quid pro quo for the BBC’s beleaguered producers is that some two thousand of them will become part of a new “arms length”, “more commercial” outfit, BBC Studios which would be free to compete for work in the open market in the UK and globally.

The aim, according to Hall, is “to drive up standards and drive down costs”; but it is also intended to address the virtual disappearance of a thriving creative sector of small to medium sized production houses that the BBC quota system was designed to stimulate. 

This system established in the last Charter guarantees that 50% of all BBC TV output goes to in-house programme makers; 25% to independent TV companies, and the remaining 25% is open to competition from either. 

However, in the last ten years the independent sector has seen rapid consolidation. We like to boast that we have the best TV in the world. What some viewers may be unaware of is that now much of BBC output is made by a handful of foreign owned super-indies (mainly American), who have swallowed up many of the best British producers in a spate of take-overs and acquisitions. The indie market is now dominated by hyphenated behemoths such as Endemol-Shine producers of MasterChef and Bad Education, Liberty Global-Discovery who make the Call the Midwife and Victorian Farm, and Warner Brothers responsible for Waterloo Road, New Tricks and Who Do You Think You Are?  The only independent UK TV producer of scale left standing is ITV, and that is rumoured to be up for sale. 

The outcome the BBC Trust notes has been “a gradual shift in the balance of power, away from the broadcasters and towards the bigger global producers.” The BBC once the 800-pound gorilla of UK broadcasting, now looks more like a media minnow. 

Tony Hall argues that the way the quota rules work mean a system designed to encourage new ideas and new talent is rewarding old favourites, reducing choice and tying the hands of BBC commissioners and Channel Controllers. 

The BBC Studios proposal aims to tackle another issue. As media platforms proliferate, success in TV today is more and more about creating great programmes. Owning valuable intellectual property is key. That means having the right talent. BBC production struggles to attract the best talent because it can’t offer the right incentives. If a BBC producer comes up with a great idea and the BBC turns it down, they have nowhere else to go. Under the BBC Studios plan they would be free to pitch it to any other broadcaster, UK or global. 

This is the latest stage in a process which began with the introduction of the first BBC independent quota programmes in 1990. Since then the BBC has embraced market values, and the language and practice of consumer choice, efficiency and competition.   

The independent producers’ body PACT has welcomed the opportunity to grab a slice of Bake-Off, or Dr Who, but is worried about the prospect of having to compete with BBC Studios head-on. Chief Executive John McVay complains that BBC Studios might enjoy an unfair competitive advantage by virtue of its close relationship with commissioners and current tenancy of valuable franchises such as EastEnders.    

The unions have expressed hostility to the plan to scrap quotas fearing it may mean cost-cutting and increased job insecurity. They warn that BBC Studios might prove a prelude to outright privatisation. 

This goes to the heart of the issue. What is meant by “arms length” and “more commercial”? Where would the new BBC Studios sit within the Corporation’s organisation chart: in public service or the commercial arm, BBC Worldwide? If the latter might the Government, already eyeing up a possible sale of Channel 4, be tempted to privatise it entirely, leaving a much smaller BBC with even less clout in the market place for bold new ideas? 

What will happen next? 

The regulator, the BBC Trust, supports ending quotas, but has suggested that the Studios proposal would need to be put through its own possibly prolonged regulatory processes. This might be interpreted as kicking BBC Studios into the long grass. This puts the BBC in a bind. Tony Hall has made it clear that the two proposals are a package and can’t be taken separately.

Which way will the BBC jump? We should learn with its response to the Government’s Green Paper. Anyone who cares about the future of British television would be well advised to watch this space.

If you want to keep OurBeeb debating the BBC, please chip in what you can afford.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The BBC charter renewal, seen through a Nordic lens The BBC, the press and online news Still failing after all these years BBC Green Paper: red alert on funding Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Europe’s refugee crisis: bridges, not fences, are the answer

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 12:46

The inability of the European Union to agree a meaningful response to the current migrant crisis is not only disgraceful, it risks defining the Union’s legacy as a spectacular failure. 

'The Jungle' - Calais. ©MdM. All rights reserved.The inability of the European Union to agree a meaningful response to the current migrant crisis is not only disgraceful, it risks defining the Union’s legacy as a spectacular failure. 

After the Second World War, Europeans joined hands to build bridges, working together to create societies in which fundamental rights and shared values would be cornerstones.

And yet today thousands are drowning within sight of our shores and many more have fallen ill or injured making perilous journeys to and across the Continent only to be met with violence or abuse. 

The fractured, broken approach to settling asylum claims between European states, and anti-immigrant hysteria, only serve to resurface long-since healed divisions in Europe. 

Never has the need for Europe to take concerted political action been greater.

In these extraordinary times, extraordinary measures are needed, like suspending Europe’s ‘Dublin regulation’ which requires an asylum seeker to claim asylum at the first European country they enter.

In some parts of Europe, like Hungary, borders are effectively being closed as razor wire fences are built in violation of international law.  Macedonia has declared a state of emergency. 

The migrant crisis could have been foreseen and common, EU-wide plans based on humanity and solidarity drawn up.  Instead, states have squabbled over quotas for refugee resettlement schemes and pandered to a perceived need to placate anti-immigrant sentiment.  Short-term, short-sighted populist decision-making by politicians is rarely a good way to make sound public policy.

The Middle East is wracked with turmoil and suffering.  The four countries neighbouring Syria host more than four million refugees.  To our collective shame, other situations of desperate poverty or diabolical dictatorships have been left to fester, driving innocent people in search of protection and a better life.

Nowhere is Europe’s failure more apparent than in the Calais camps, crucibles of desperation and suffering in the heart of Europe. It is the epitome of the failure to see the need for concerted action in all Europe for which refugees and migrants are paying with their lives. 

Doctors of the World has been working with vulnerable migrants in Europe for many years, providing them with essential medical care while advocating for their right to health. We are present at every stage of their journey, from conflict zones to Greece and in Calais.

Those who make it to Calais are trapped in squalid living conditions on a disused refuse tip.  Outbreaks of illness caused by these terrible living conditions are commonplace; trauma exacerbates people’s fragile mental health.  Adding to this are the injuries and anguish caused by regular violence from police and people smugglers. And yet, as the only humanitarian medical organisation in Calais, it falls to our volunteers to pick up the pieces of Europe’s broken asylum system.

This situation would not be accepted in any other refugee crisis in any other part of the world, where internationally agreed standards for the provision of aid and protection are applied.

The French and British authorities offer only misguided help, focused almost entirely on security measures, which fails to address root causes and only intensifies the rejection and dehumanisation of vulnerable migrants.

Bridges, not disproportionate and dangerous security measures are the answer.

Seeking asylum is not a crime. Migrants are not a security risk. They have not come to occupy Europe or to get medical care. They are simply, desperately, seeking a dignified life.  In fact, migration drives economic prosperity and social and cultural diversity.  It is an asset not a threat.

Reception and protection mechanisms which are commensurate with the scale of the problem must be put in place, and quickly. Europe must assure asylum seekers safe passage via effectively implemented ‘legal corridors’. Resettlement schemes must be extended and every effort taken to reunite separated families, especially in the case of the unaccompanied children we see in places like Calais. They have particular assistance and protection needs, which must be met since they are always at risk of violence and exploitation.

Europe has a long, laudable history of seeking to end chronic poverty globally and in meeting humanitarian needs during armed conflicts and after natural disasters. Calais should not dilute Europe’s reputation and track record for principled humanitarian action.

The Governments of Europe need to act with courage. They must stop piling migrants in to squalid camps and detention centres. They must lead with the principles and values that define the common European endeavour: humanity, dignity and respect.

Calais could be the bridge back to the Europe we stand for – open, hospitable and healthy.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Sideboxes Related stories:  Another Asia Minor disaster The stench of hypocrisy: a migrant's story The answer to the refugee crisis? A return to European ideals. Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Europe’s refugee crisis: bridges, not fences, are the answer

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 12:46

The inability of the European Union to agree a meaningful response to the current migrant crisis is not only disgraceful, it risks defining the Union’s legacy as a spectacular failure. 

'The Jungle' - Calais. ©MdM. All rights reserved.The inability of the European Union to agree a meaningful response to the current migrant crisis is not only disgraceful, it risks defining the Union’s legacy as a spectacular failure. 

After the Second World War, Europeans joined hands to build bridges, working together to create societies in which fundamental rights and shared values would be cornerstones.

And yet today thousands are drowning within sight of our shores and many more have fallen ill or injured making perilous journeys to and across the Continent only to be met with violence or abuse. 

The fractured, broken approach to settling asylum claims between European states, and anti-immigrant hysteria, only serve to resurface long-since healed divisions in Europe. 

Never has the need for Europe to take concerted political action been greater.

In these extraordinary times, extraordinary measures are needed, like suspending Europe’s ‘Dublin regulation’ which requires an asylum seeker to claim asylum at the first European country they enter.

In some parts of Europe, like Hungary, borders are effectively being closed as razor wire fences are built in violation of international law.  Macedonia has declared a state of emergency. 

The migrant crisis could have been foreseen and common, EU-wide plans based on humanity and solidarity drawn up.  Instead, states have squabbled over quotas for refugee resettlement schemes and pandered to a perceived need to placate anti-immigrant sentiment.  Short-term, short-sighted populist decision-making by politicians is rarely a good way to make sound public policy.

The Middle East is wracked with turmoil and suffering.  The four countries neighbouring Syria host more than four million refugees.  To our collective shame, other situations of desperate poverty or diabolical dictatorships have been left to fester, driving innocent people in search of protection and a better life.

Nowhere is Europe’s failure more apparent than in the Calais camps, crucibles of desperation and suffering in the heart of Europe. It is the epitome of the failure to see the need for concerted action in all Europe for which refugees and migrants are paying with their lives. 

Doctors of the World has been working with vulnerable migrants in Europe for many years, providing them with essential medical care while advocating for their right to health. We are present at every stage of their journey, from conflict zones to Greece and in Calais.

Those who make it to Calais are trapped in squalid living conditions on a disused refuse tip.  Outbreaks of illness caused by these terrible living conditions are commonplace; trauma exacerbates people’s fragile mental health.  Adding to this are the injuries and anguish caused by regular violence from police and people smugglers. And yet, as the only humanitarian medical organisation in Calais, it falls to our volunteers to pick up the pieces of Europe’s broken asylum system.

This situation would not be accepted in any other refugee crisis in any other part of the world, where internationally agreed standards for the provision of aid and protection are applied.

The French and British authorities offer only misguided help, focused almost entirely on security measures, which fails to address root causes and only intensifies the rejection and dehumanisation of vulnerable migrants.

Bridges, not disproportionate and dangerous security measures are the answer.

Seeking asylum is not a crime. Migrants are not a security risk. They have not come to occupy Europe or to get medical care. They are simply, desperately, seeking a dignified life.  In fact, migration drives economic prosperity and social and cultural diversity.  It is an asset not a threat.

Reception and protection mechanisms which are commensurate with the scale of the problem must be put in place, and quickly. Europe must assure asylum seekers safe passage via effectively implemented ‘legal corridors’. Resettlement schemes must be extended and every effort taken to reunite separated families, especially in the case of the unaccompanied children we see in places like Calais. They have particular assistance and protection needs, which must be met since they are always at risk of violence and exploitation.

Europe has a long, laudable history of seeking to end chronic poverty globally and in meeting humanitarian needs during armed conflicts and after natural disasters. Calais should not dilute Europe’s reputation and track record for principled humanitarian action.

The Governments of Europe need to act with courage. They must stop piling migrants in to squalid camps and detention centres. They must lead with the principles and values that define the common European endeavour: humanity, dignity and respect.

Calais could be the bridge back to the Europe we stand for – open, hospitable and healthy.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Sideboxes Related stories:  Another Asia Minor disaster The stench of hypocrisy: a migrant's story The answer to the refugee crisis? A return to European ideals. Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The answer to the refugee crisis? A return to European ideals.

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 12:36

The refugee crisis is symbolic of the political crisis in Europe. To avoid systemic collapse, Europe must return to solidarity and protecting those fleeing war and persecution.

Migrants cross the border into Hungary. Noticias Cuyo/Flickr. All rights reservedFor many years European countries have been warned about the inadequacy of their immigration and asylum systems. Now, with increased refugee arrivals and more frequent tragedies, this system is showing all its weaknesses. The cause of this collapse is not, however, the arrival of refugees in Europe. The real reason is political.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 430,000 asylum applications have been lodged in European Union member states since January 2015. 40% of them have been received by Germany alone and Hungary taking one in four of the remaining ones. This means that 26 EU countries are dealing with just over 180,000 asylum applications; an epic effort indeed.

Even including the almost 300,000 people who arrived in Italy and Greece since January – mostly Syrians who will be granted asylum – Europe is still far from experiencing the real refugee arrival pressure faced by much less rich and stable countries like Pakistan, Lebanon and Ethiopia, or, without looking too far, Turkey, home to some 2 million Syrian refugees.

Regrettably, more often than not, politicians ignore facts. With the outstanding exception of Germany, in the majority of EU countries, politicians are competing with each other in sending bad signals to the public.

France and the United Kingdom – the latter being a country where asylum applications have remained stable over the last few years - could not find a better answer to the needs of some 3,000 migrants in Calais than to send the police and allocate money to reinforce surveillance. Last Wednesday, in Denmark – where asylum applications have not increased significantly compared to 2014 - the parliament approved a cut in refugee benefits, with the declared intention of making the country less attractive to refugees. In Poland – where asylum applications in 2014 dropped by 50% compared to 2013 - the country’s president spoke against the possibility of taking in more asylum seekers, although the number of asylum applications remained low in the first half of 2015 too.

With a steep increase in asylum applications and little if any help from fellow EU countries, Bulgaria and Hungary have made the bad choice of sealing off their borders. This is certainly not the right answer to those who seek international protection. The inconvenient political truth, however, is that this comes as the result of an EU asylum system which penalises countries placed at the border of Europe.

The real problem is not the arrival of refugees, but this desultory, almost hysterical response to it. More than a refugee crisis, this is a political crisis: member states are turning away from European ideals, when in reality we need more. To save a Europe of solidarity and human rights, we must rethink the European approach to migration.

The first thing to do is to fundamentally review the Dublin Regulation: an unfair mechanism which allows the majority of EU member states to allocate responsibility for dealing with asylum-seekers to frontline countries like Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta and Spain. The latest positive move with regards to this has come from Germany, which has suspended the application of the Dublin Regulation to Syrian refugees. This decision should be extended to all categories of asylum seekers and applied by all EU member states.

Furthermore, EU countries and the European Commission should build a system where countries fairly share asylum-seekers based on the principles of solidarity and the protection of human rights. This would help not only improve the protection Europe affords to refugees but would also relieve the some of the pressure on those EU countries most stretched by the migrant crisis.

Such developments should go hand-in-hand with improved co-operation between states in the Western Balkans. So far, the EU has pressured them in various ways to deter asylum-seekers, a choice that has led some of these countries to adopt a series of unlawful measures like ethnic profiling at border crossings and the confiscation of travel documents. Now, the EU has to help these states develop their asylum systems and their capacities to host refugees in accordance with European standards. This will not only help save lives, but will also help implement the promise to “achieve a greater unity” that all EU and Western Balkans states agreed to when they joined the Council of Europe.

In addition, European states must provide more legal avenues for refugees to reach the continent, for example by easing humanitarian visas and family reunification rules. This would not only help refugees avoid perilous sea and land routes, but would also weaken the grip of smugglers, who thrive when migration restrictions are harsh.

Protecting refugees is both a moral and a legal obligation. It is not an easy task, but neither is it impossible. We must do more to protect those who flee wars and persecution. With political will, Europe can hold true to its values. 

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Sideboxes Related stories:  The refugee crisis facing fortress Europe "The fence must go!" - reflections on the meaning of Europe's most recent fortifications in Hungary Country or region:  EU Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

The answer to the refugee crisis? A return to European ideals.

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 12:36

The refugee crisis is symbolic of the political crisis in Europe. To avoid systemic collapse, Europe must return to solidarity and protecting those fleeing war and persecution.

Migrants cross the border into Hungary. Noticias Cuyo/Flickr. All rights reservedFor many years European countries have been warned about the inadequacy of their immigration and asylum systems. Now, with increased refugee arrivals and more frequent tragedies, this system is showing all its weaknesses. The cause of this collapse is not, however, the arrival of refugees in Europe. The real reason is political.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 430,000 asylum applications have been lodged in European Union member states since January 2015. 40% of them have been received by Germany alone and Hungary taking one in four of the remaining ones. This means that 26 EU countries are dealing with just over 180,000 asylum applications; an epic effort indeed.

Even including the almost 300,000 people who arrived in Italy and Greece since January – mostly Syrians who will be granted asylum – Europe is still far from experiencing the real refugee arrival pressure faced by much less rich and stable countries like Pakistan, Lebanon and Ethiopia, or, without looking too far, Turkey, home to some 2 million Syrian refugees.

Regrettably, more often than not, politicians ignore facts. With the outstanding exception of Germany, in the majority of EU countries, politicians are competing with each other in sending bad signals to the public.

France and the United Kingdom – the latter being a country where asylum applications have remained stable over the last few years - could not find a better answer to the needs of some 3,000 migrants in Calais than to send the police and allocate money to reinforce surveillance. Last Wednesday, in Denmark – where asylum applications have not increased significantly compared to 2014 - the parliament approved a cut in refugee benefits, with the declared intention of making the country less attractive to refugees. In Poland – where asylum applications in 2014 dropped by 50% compared to 2013 - the country’s president spoke against the possibility of taking in more asylum seekers, although the number of asylum applications remained low in the first half of 2015 too.

With a steep increase in asylum applications and little if any help from fellow EU countries, Bulgaria and Hungary have made the bad choice of sealing off their borders. This is certainly not the right answer to those who seek international protection. The inconvenient political truth, however, is that this comes as the result of an EU asylum system which penalises countries placed at the border of Europe.

The real problem is not the arrival of refugees, but this desultory, almost hysterical response to it. More than a refugee crisis, this is a political crisis: member states are turning away from European ideals, when in reality we need more. To save a Europe of solidarity and human rights, we must rethink the European approach to migration.

The first thing to do is to fundamentally review the Dublin Regulation: an unfair mechanism which allows the majority of EU member states to allocate responsibility for dealing with asylum-seekers to frontline countries like Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta and Spain. The latest positive move with regards to this has come from Germany, which has suspended the application of the Dublin Regulation to Syrian refugees. This decision should be extended to all categories of asylum seekers and applied by all EU member states.

Furthermore, EU countries and the European Commission should build a system where countries fairly share asylum-seekers based on the principles of solidarity and the protection of human rights. This would help not only improve the protection Europe affords to refugees but would also relieve the some of the pressure on those EU countries most stretched by the migrant crisis.

Such developments should go hand-in-hand with improved co-operation between states in the Western Balkans. So far, the EU has pressured them in various ways to deter asylum-seekers, a choice that has led some of these countries to adopt a series of unlawful measures like ethnic profiling at border crossings and the confiscation of travel documents. Now, the EU has to help these states develop their asylum systems and their capacities to host refugees in accordance with European standards. This will not only help save lives, but will also help implement the promise to “achieve a greater unity” that all EU and Western Balkans states agreed to when they joined the Council of Europe.

In addition, European states must provide more legal avenues for refugees to reach the continent, for example by easing humanitarian visas and family reunification rules. This would not only help refugees avoid perilous sea and land routes, but would also weaken the grip of smugglers, who thrive when migration restrictions are harsh.

Protecting refugees is both a moral and a legal obligation. It is not an easy task, but neither is it impossible. We must do more to protect those who flee wars and persecution. With political will, Europe can hold true to its values. 

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Sideboxes Related stories:  The refugee crisis facing fortress Europe "The fence must go!" - reflections on the meaning of Europe's most recent fortifications in Hungary Country or region:  EU Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

It's ok for you to be fat but not for me: life beyond anorexia's lies

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 10:28

Recovery is about a compassionate way of being in the world, love and community. Content warning: disordered eating, suicide attempts.

Anorexia is a dull, drawn-out process of not-doing. Credit: Shutterstock.

I was lying on a hospital trolley, filled with shame and paracetamol. By the time the doctor arrived the nurse had a large tube down my throat and was washing out my stomach.

The first thing he said was, "Well, I can see you've had broccoli tonight". My despair gave way to relief. I was emptied out, the food gone, I could begin again. I was 17 and had been anorexic for three years. Having been unable to get rid of my dinner or my hopelessness, I had been driven to take my own life.

Without specialist help I had yo-yo'd up and down in weight with various attempts at recovery, always reaching a point at which I could no longer stand being heavier. I found that when my weight was supposedly "normal", my mind still lived in an anorexic wasteland of warped and twisted logic, dysmorphia, and despair. I felt that my skin was crawling, that I was suffocating in my own flesh and wanted to rip through it to let myself out.

This visceral assault was a daily battle. I could not imagine that there would be a time when I would live from my body as if it were a secure base, rather than as if I were locked into a body that was not mine.

Anorexia was never about vanity, it never is. I wanted to shush myself, shrink myself into a neatly packaged box, with a quiet voice: on the sidelines of life enough not to make any detectable mistakes. I did not want to be the scribble-outside-the-lines, messy, loud person I thought lay beneath the surface threatening to come out and make a fool of me. I lived in fear of being too brash, too much, too there.

It is only now, as I am more politically and culturally aware, that I can see how much of this ties in with the unattainable demands put on women and girls in our culture. We must not rage, we must not be loud, we must not ask for too much, be too visible, we must not be too successful. I never felt I could do anything well enough, so I at least wanted my demise to be spectacular. 

But anorexia is anything but spectacular. It is a very dull, drawn out, long process of not-doing. Not eating, not socialising, not living. And yet it is not as passive as it may seem. There is agency in anorexia, at least in the beginning. Eventually though, the illness is so woven into the fabric of one's being, it is hard to distinguish personality from pathology.

Thirteen years after that first overdose I hit another rock bottom. I had been trying to recover but found myself eating emotionally - what I now understand to be a physiological response to under eating at other times. I was sitting on my bedroom floor in a corner leaning over a plastic bag chewing up and spitting out Jammie Dodgers. I was distraught and didn't know how I would make it through the night. I suddenly remembered seeing a notice for Overeaters Anonymous and decided to look them up online: I had convinced myself I was overeating and no longer anorexic.

I went to my first meeting in Crouch End the following day. I was met by a warm, kind group of people in a church meeting room who were speaking honestly about their struggles with food in a way I'd never heard anyone speak before. They were admitting to things I would never previously have told anyone. Like how they ate out of bins. I felt at home.

At my next meeting I asked someone to sponsor me and we came up with my 'abstinence', which was to be three meals a day, no snacks, and no sugar. A common saying in OA is that it's harder for the "foodies" because alcoholics don't drink, whereas we had to let the tiger out of the cage three times a day. So snacking was too dangerous and my penchant for sweet foods meant that that temptation had to be eradicated. In order to be abstinent I would need to do all twelve steps and eventually sponsor newcomers, which I did. I was asked to speak at conferences across the UK and revelled in the praise I got for "working my programme". I was for all intents and purposes a fully signed up lifetime member of OA. 

The idea, for anyone who doesn't know, is that you're in a twelve step programme for life. Step out and you will eventually relapse and will possibly die. With a lot of accountability, and a supportive community around me was able to stick to this strict way of eating for a year.

In truth I was able to use this support to maintain a somewhat eating disordered state. I liked having this kind of prescribed way of living, having felt so at sea in life before.

My weight continued to rise despite eating an increasingly restricted food plan - diets only work for around five percent of people in the long term and though eating disorders are absolutely not a diet, what I was essentially doing to my body amounted to dieting along with a spiritual programme. I did not know this at the time.

The regain was making me desperate once again and another rock bottom was rising to meet me. I could no longer stand the feeling of being in my skin. I felt like I had been padded out with flesh that did not belong to me, it was a vicious onslaught, and not one I was sure I could withstand. Despite my despair, I knew I couldn't go backwards. I knew I couldn't restrict and relapse all over again, especially with the inevitable weight gain. 

So I turned to a couple of Facebook friends and acquaintances who I knew to be therapists with specific interests in body acceptance. This was where it all changed.

My distress signal was heard and I was signposted to various blog posts and books. I began reading about a movement called Health at Every Size (HAES), which introduced me to the science behind weight and health. HAES does not say that everyone at any size is healthy, but instead that size is not a predictor of health. You can be thin and unhealthy, fat and healthy, and all shades in between. What matters is the health behaviours you adopt, and not your weight. 

HAES is also about a compassionate way of being in the world, challenging size stigma and the social inequalities that affect health. 

I was never anorexic for health reasons, and I was never motivated by health reasons in my pursuit of recovery. In each position I sought only to change and improve my mental state. However, realising that the weight gain wasn't my fault, that my body was doing what it needed to do, I felt more able to cope with it. I came to understand that my body is individual and cannot be accurately measured by an arbitrary method such as the Body Mass Index (BMI), which was only ever meant to map population trends and fails to differentiate between muscle mass and fat mass. 

Given that my body was doing its best to heal itself and that my restriction was only making it worse, what I was left with was this: eat more, according to hunger, and work on my fat phobia and body acceptance. The idea that I could trust myself didn't feel compatible with the OA philosophy and I left.

What I realised I had been doing all this time was saying "it's okay if you're fat, but not if I am". Because fat is bad. Because fat is lazy. Because fat means I am out of control, irresponsible, a burden, ugly, and so on. Or so society says. What hit me, and hit me hard, was how these beliefs about being fat meant that I was inadvertently contributing to the demonisation of fat people. I use fat here as a descriptor. As it should be used, not as the moral term implied in my old judgments.

Something fundamental was shifting in my mind and I was beginning to see anorexia and my eating disorders beyond the personal, beyond my own story, to something with a wider context.

As I worked on challenging my beliefs around what different bodies meant to me and why, I was also on a journey to eating freely. I like the term 'attuned eating' and that's where I feel I am at now. There are no rules, I have just got to know my body, to feel what hunger is before I am ravenous, to feel what satisfied is before I feel stuffed, to trust that what I fancy eating is what my body wants, and also to eat sometimes outside of these times. During social occasions I might want to eat something someone has made, have some popcorn at the cinema, eat an ice cream when out with friends.

And my weight stabilised and has stayed the same for three years without me trying to manipulate it in any way. That is freedom for me. My body is my home, the place I live from, and it can be trusted. I can be trusted. 

I think what keeps me grounded and in recovery is community. Just like the community in OA was invaluable at the time, so I have found a different community in which I feel I belong.

I am involved in HAES events held in London, and soon after became involved with an amazing organisation called AnyBody, the UK chapter of a global organisation called Endangered Bodies. At AnyBody we seek to challenge the industries who benefit from mining our bodies for profit; who create body insecurities where there were none (think vaginoplasty - who was concerned with how their vaginas looked before this new procedure was advertised?). 

Here I quickly realised that I am a feminist and began to see my personal struggles within a wider socio-political context. The personal is still very much political. My fears of taking up space, of having feelings that might be loud, angry protests, can be understood as mirroring much of what women and girls grow up with from the beginning of life.

Recovery requires a positive and loving community. Eating disorders thrive in isolation. In recovery find your people, those individuals you can be you with - without apology - and stick by each other. Resist the urge to bond over body shaming and dare to speak of your true insecurities. Community, compassion and courage will get you far. Full recovery is possible.

Sideboxes Related stories:  On beauty: Special K adverts, body dysmorphic disorder, and Lupita Nyong'o Lea's story: my days as a mad girl Time does not always heal: state violence and psychic damage Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

It's ok for you to be fat but not for me: life beyond anorexia's lies

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 10:28

Recovery is about a compassionate way of being in the world, love and community. Content warning: disordered eating, suicide attempts.

Anorexia is a dull, drawn-out process of not-doing. Credit: Shutterstock.

I was lying on a hospital trolley, filled with shame and paracetamol. By the time the doctor arrived the nurse had a large tube down my throat and was washing out my stomach.

The first thing he said was, "Well, I can see you've had broccoli tonight". My despair gave way to relief. I was emptied out, the food gone, I could begin again. I was 17 and had been anorexic for three years. Having been unable to get rid of my dinner or my hopelessness, I had been driven to take my own life.

Without specialist help I had yo-yo'd up and down in weight with various attempts at recovery, always reaching a point at which I could no longer stand being heavier. I found that when my weight was supposedly "normal", my mind still lived in an anorexic wasteland of warped and twisted logic, dysmorphia, and despair. I felt that my skin was crawling, that I was suffocating in my own flesh and wanted to rip through it to let myself out.

This visceral assault was a daily battle. I could not imagine that there would be a time when I would live from my body as if it were a secure base, rather than as if I were locked into a body that was not mine.

Anorexia was never about vanity, it never is. I wanted to shush myself, shrink myself into a neatly packaged box, with a quiet voice: on the sidelines of life enough not to make any detectable mistakes. I did not want to be the scribble-outside-the-lines, messy, loud person I thought lay beneath the surface threatening to come out and make a fool of me. I lived in fear of being too brash, too much, too there.

It is only now, as I am more politically and culturally aware, that I can see how much of this ties in with the unattainable demands put on women and girls in our culture. We must not rage, we must not be loud, we must not ask for too much, be too visible, we must not be too successful. I never felt I could do anything well enough, so I at least wanted my demise to be spectacular. 

But anorexia is anything but spectacular. It is a very dull, drawn out, long process of not-doing. Not eating, not socialising, not living. And yet it is not as passive as it may seem. There is agency in anorexia, at least in the beginning. Eventually though, the illness is so woven into the fabric of one's being, it is hard to distinguish personality from pathology.

Thirteen years after that first overdose I hit another rock bottom. I had been trying to recover but found myself eating emotionally - what I now understand to be a physiological response to under eating at other times. I was sitting on my bedroom floor in a corner leaning over a plastic bag chewing up and spitting out Jammie Dodgers. I was distraught and didn't know how I would make it through the night. I suddenly remembered seeing a notice for Overeaters Anonymous and decided to look them up online: I had convinced myself I was overeating and no longer anorexic.

I went to my first meeting in Crouch End the following day. I was met by a warm, kind group of people in a church meeting room who were speaking honestly about their struggles with food in a way I'd never heard anyone speak before. They were admitting to things I would never previously have told anyone. Like how they ate out of bins. I felt at home.

At my next meeting I asked someone to sponsor me and we came up with my 'abstinence', which was to be three meals a day, no snacks, and no sugar. A common saying in OA is that it's harder for the "foodies" because alcoholics don't drink, whereas we had to let the tiger out of the cage three times a day. So snacking was too dangerous and my penchant for sweet foods meant that that temptation had to be eradicated. In order to be abstinent I would need to do all twelve steps and eventually sponsor newcomers, which I did. I was asked to speak at conferences across the UK and revelled in the praise I got for "working my programme". I was for all intents and purposes a fully signed up lifetime member of OA. 

The idea, for anyone who doesn't know, is that you're in a twelve step programme for life. Step out and you will eventually relapse and will possibly die. With a lot of accountability, and a supportive community around me was able to stick to this strict way of eating for a year.

In truth I was able to use this support to maintain a somewhat eating disordered state. I liked having this kind of prescribed way of living, having felt so at sea in life before.

My weight continued to rise despite eating an increasingly restricted food plan - diets only work for around five percent of people in the long term and though eating disorders are absolutely not a diet, what I was essentially doing to my body amounted to dieting along with a spiritual programme. I did not know this at the time.

The regain was making me desperate once again and another rock bottom was rising to meet me. I could no longer stand the feeling of being in my skin. I felt like I had been padded out with flesh that did not belong to me, it was a vicious onslaught, and not one I was sure I could withstand. Despite my despair, I knew I couldn't go backwards. I knew I couldn't restrict and relapse all over again, especially with the inevitable weight gain. 

So I turned to a couple of Facebook friends and acquaintances who I knew to be therapists with specific interests in body acceptance. This was where it all changed.

My distress signal was heard and I was signposted to various blog posts and books. I began reading about a movement called Health at Every Size (HAES), which introduced me to the science behind weight and health. HAES does not say that everyone at any size is healthy, but instead that size is not a predictor of health. You can be thin and unhealthy, fat and healthy, and all shades in between. What matters is the health behaviours you adopt, and not your weight. 

HAES is also about a compassionate way of being in the world, challenging size stigma and the social inequalities that affect health. 

I was never anorexic for health reasons, and I was never motivated by health reasons in my pursuit of recovery. In each position I sought only to change and improve my mental state. However, realising that the weight gain wasn't my fault, that my body was doing what it needed to do, I felt more able to cope with it. I came to understand that my body is individual and cannot be accurately measured by an arbitrary method such as the Body Mass Index (BMI), which was only ever meant to map population trends and fails to differentiate between muscle mass and fat mass. 

Given that my body was doing its best to heal itself and that my restriction was only making it worse, what I was left with was this: eat more, according to hunger, and work on my fat phobia and body acceptance. The idea that I could trust myself didn't feel compatible with the OA philosophy and I left.

What I realised I had been doing all this time was saying "it's okay if you're fat, but not if I am". Because fat is bad. Because fat is lazy. Because fat means I am out of control, irresponsible, a burden, ugly, and so on. Or so society says. What hit me, and hit me hard, was how these beliefs about being fat meant that I was inadvertently contributing to the demonisation of fat people. I use fat here as a descriptor. As it should be used, not as the moral term implied in my old judgments.

Something fundamental was shifting in my mind and I was beginning to see anorexia and my eating disorders beyond the personal, beyond my own story, to something with a wider context.

As I worked on challenging my beliefs around what different bodies meant to me and why, I was also on a journey to eating freely. I like the term 'attuned eating' and that's where I feel I am at now. There are no rules, I have just got to know my body, to feel what hunger is before I am ravenous, to feel what satisfied is before I feel stuffed, to trust that what I fancy eating is what my body wants, and also to eat sometimes outside of these times. During social occasions I might want to eat something someone has made, have some popcorn at the cinema, eat an ice cream when out with friends.

And my weight stabilised and has stayed the same for three years without me trying to manipulate it in any way. That is freedom for me. My body is my home, the place I live from, and it can be trusted. I can be trusted. 

I think what keeps me grounded and in recovery is community. Just like the community in OA was invaluable at the time, so I have found a different community in which I feel I belong.

I am involved in HAES events held in London, and soon after became involved with an amazing organisation called AnyBody, the UK chapter of a global organisation called Endangered Bodies. At AnyBody we seek to challenge the industries who benefit from mining our bodies for profit; who create body insecurities where there were none (think vaginoplasty - who was concerned with how their vaginas looked before this new procedure was advertised?). 

Here I quickly realised that I am a feminist and began to see my personal struggles within a wider socio-political context. The personal is still very much political. My fears of taking up space, of having feelings that might be loud, angry protests, can be understood as mirroring much of what women and girls grow up with from the beginning of life.

Recovery requires a positive and loving community. Eating disorders thrive in isolation. In recovery find your people, those individuals you can be you with - without apology - and stick by each other. Resist the urge to bond over body shaming and dare to speak of your true insecurities. Community, compassion and courage will get you far. Full recovery is possible.

Sideboxes Related stories:  On beauty: Special K adverts, body dysmorphic disorder, and Lupita Nyong'o Lea's story: my days as a mad girl Time does not always heal: state violence and psychic damage Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

How 'unelectable' is Jeremy Corbyn?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 9:03

There are arguments to be had over whether Corbyn’s policies would work – but the available evidence suggests his agenda is more palatable to the electorate than many would like to admit. 

What do the polls say about Corbyn's agenda? Flickr/Bob Peters. Some rights reserved.

Commentators across the political spectrum have finally found something they can agree on: Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Some on the right make clear their disdain for all he stands for. Others, on the centre left, have a more subtle argument. We’d love to vote for him, they say, but he’d never win over the wider public – so it’s time to get real.

These arguments don’t win any prizes for originality, and they’re not much better in terms of accuracy. One of the positive results from the failure of polls to predict the election result is a greater scepticism about what they can tell us – but they remain useful evidence of how public opinion stands. Here are some areas where it can be useful to compare this against accepted wisdom.

Was Miliband ‘too left wing’? Personality vs policy

Tony Blair voiced his fears before the election that “a traditional left wing party competes with a traditional right wing party, with the traditional result.”

Many commentators believe events proved him right, arguing that Miliband was rejected for being too left-wing – and hence that it’s crazy to expect a candidate further to the left to do better than he could. But plenty of research suggests that personality and perceived leadership qualities were equally if not more important factors than policy in voters’ rejection of Miliband. Fairly or otherwise, his failure to convince the public that he was personally up to scratch was a serious, arguably decisive handicap.

From 2010 until April this year, YouGov regularly asked people who they thought would make the best Prime Minister out of Miliband, Cameron and Clegg. On this measure Miliband was consistently behind Cameron for five years. In the last poll before the election, 40% of said that Cameron would make the best Prime Minister while only 26% said the same of Miliband.

When the leaders’ parties were mentioned, the results were much closer with “Conservatives led by Cameron” preferred to “Labour led by Miliband” by 42% to 39% of respondents. It’s hardly unreasonable to speculate that a Labour party with the same policies, but led by someone able to convey stronger leadership qualities, could have performed better.

Miliband also trailed Cameron on specific qualities often associated with leadership. Just before the election, 21% of people thought Cameron was ‘a natural leader’, 21% thought he was ‘strong’, 24% ‘decisive’ and 17% ‘charismatic’. These numbers may not look great but they are significantly less dire than Miliband’s (4%, 9%, 9%, and 6% respectively). (There were some crumbs of comfort for Miliband: he outperformed Cameron on being ‘in touch with ordinary people’ by 26% to 8% and ‘honest’ by 19% to 12%).

After the election, Lord Ashcroft carried out a survey of 12,000 people who voted, attempting to analyse their motivation. Respondents were asked to choose their top three reasons for voting the way they did. The top two reasons given by people who voted Conservative were “I thought the leader of the party I chose would make the best prime minister” and “I trusted the motives and values of that party more than other parties” (both were chosen by 71%). The “Motives and values” reason was actually slightly more important for people who voted Labour (75% put it in their top three reasons). But only 39% of Labour voters put the “leadership” reason among their top three.

In other words, people who voted Labour were equally as persuaded by the motives and values of their chosen party as people who voted Conservative. But Miliband was apparently a much weaker factor in persuading people to vote for his party than Cameron was for Tory voters. On this evidence, it would seem that getting a more convincing leader, rather than some more right wing policies, was the greater priority for Labour.

The "Listening to Labour's Lost Labour Voters" report of focus group discussions with former Labour voters in marginal seats, which was featured by the Observer in July, also found that Miliband’s personal qualities were one of the key reasons given for not voting Labour. 

“These voters didn’t see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister. In fact, many people in the groups laughed at the prospect of him being the leader of the UK,” said the report. It added: “their image of Labour as a political party with a leader that was open to derision clouded all their thinking about a renewed Labour Party.”

These voters referred to Blair as a “template” for a leader – not for his policies, but because he was a “likable person and a genuine family bloke”. Politicians as divergent as Boris Johnson and Charles Kennedy were also mentioned as positive examples.

“These voters are seeking an authenticity in the leader that they can only judge through the media. They are looking for someone who is relaxed, comfortable and confident in their dealings with the national media. They can see through people who are trying to be politicians as opposed to people who are being themselves. There was a clamour for more ‘yes’ and ‘no’, straight answers instead of ducking and waffling from politicians. And they wanted all politicians to stop trying to please everyone all the time, because that can only lead to dissembling and fudge.”

It’s easy to overestimate the importance of specific policies and underestimate the importance of personal appeal. This latter factor worked in Blair and Cameron’s favour, and worked against Miliband. It remains to be seen what the wider public thinks of Corbyn, but the point is that a lot of it’s about personality, not policy.

Spending cuts

Labour’s wider inability to inspire trust – on the economy, and more generally – is another reason why more people didn’t vote for them. In Ashcroft’s post-election poll only 26% of people who voted Labour said that one of their top three reasons for doing so was because they thought that “the senior members of the party I chose would make a more competent government” (46% of Tory voters put this among their top three reasons). Polling for the TUC by GQRR also found that 32% of voters thought that Labour was “competent”, compared to 57% who had that perception of the Tories.

The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman has highlighted “public spending and welfare cuts” as areas where the Corbynite left of the Labour party is “out of kilter with the electorate”.  Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times likewise pinpointed “zero austerity” as one of Corbyn’s ideas that he predicted will eventually “lose their eccentric charm and acquire the infamy they deserve”.

At first glance The TUC/GQRR poll seems to tie in with these views. It found that the number one doubt putting people off voting Labour in the election (cited by 40% of voters) was that “they would spend too much and can’t be trusted with the economy”. I don’t doubt that this finding is an accurate reflection of people’s impressions of Labour – but it’s not an indication that the electorate is fundamentally opposed to public spending.

The pollster who carried out the research says: “this concern is not rooted in the fiscal position used in the campaign; in fact by a 5 point margin voters thought Labour should cut spending more slowly than they planned rather than faster. Instead… it is Labour’s inability to demonstrate clear change from the past that grounds concern… The leadership candidates are right to come to a reckoning with that history on spending – it either needs to be fought for or conceded.”

When asked about public spending and cuts in less political contexts, public opinion is consistently shown to be fairly evenly divided. Many people think that cuts are being implemented unfairly, and deeper questioning finds that people are cautious about where they will support them. 

YouGov’s fortnightly opinion tracker on spending cuts from 2010-2015 tells an interesting story. In June 2010, more people thought that “the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit” was good (49%) rather than bad (31%) for the economy. But opinion soon turned against cuts and by January 2011, more people thought the government’s spending cuts were bad (47%) rather than good (38%). It was only in the second half of 2013 that this trend changed and people started to see the cuts as good rather than bad again. When people were last asked (in May), 48% of people thought that government cuts were good for the economy and 34% thought they were bad.

Opinion on whether the cuts were needed was more consistent. Throughout the whole of the last parliament, a majority of people viewed the cuts as “necessary” (by 58% to 28% in May). There was also a tendency to see Labour as more responsible for the cuts than the coalition. In May 38% said Labour were more to blame, while 32% put more blame on the coalition.

Together, these findings suggest that many people were sold on the Tories’ austerity arguments, and that the austerity narrative gained traction as the economy improved. But equally, opinion on whether the government’s cuts were good or bad for the economy was not fixed, and a significant proportion of people (18% in May) were undecided. And since 2010 there has also consistently been more people thinking that the cuts were being done ‘unfairly’ than ‘fairly’ (by a margin of 50% to 33% in May). So Corbyn’s anti-austerity ideas would not be falling on entirely deaf ears.

Other polls on similar topics also find opinion divided. In 2014, Populus carried out a poll for the Financial Times which suggested that the public were slightly against continued austerity. 41% of people agreed with the statement that “the national economy is not yet fully fixed, so we need to continue with austerity and cuts in government spending over the next five years”. 28% said that while austerity had been needed, another five years of it was not. And 18% said that austerity had never been needed. The last two add up to 46% against continuing with austerity.

And in another YouGov poll in January, more people (32%) said that they would prefer to see the next government “giving public services more money and more investment to try and improve services, even if it means the government has to borrow more and builds up more debt” rather than “doing more to reduce the amount the government borrows and the debt it builds up, even if it means public services do less or have to do things with less money” (24%). 29% wanted to keep borrowing and spending on public services about the same. (Interestingly, UKIP supporters were split evenly between these three options.)

Welfare cuts

In April the Financial Times reported that “Britons back further welfare cuts” since its polling with Populus found that 75% of people thought “there is still too much money being wasted on paying benefits to people who don’t need them”.  

Looking in more detail at the poll’s findings, this conclusion is debatable. Only half of these people (37%) actually agreed that the government should continue its programme of welfare cuts. The remaining 38% thought that while money was wasted, “the government is targeting the wrong people in trying to reduce the welfare bill”. Meanwhile, 25% of people thought that “the amount of money being wasted on benefits has always been overstated and is just being used as an excuse to take money away from people who need it”. These last two categories add up to a majority of 63% who could reasonably be described as being against the government’s welfare cuts.

When the same poll asked people about spending cuts in a range of particular areas, the only area where more people supported cuts than supported either maintaining similar spending or increasing spending was overseas aid (which 69% were in favour of cutting). On child benefit, pensioner benefits and working age benefits (as well as schools, the NHS, defence, funding for local councils, and university tuition fees), a majority of people supported either increasing government spending, or keeping it roughly the same.

There was a similar pattern in a YouGov poll after the recent budget, where they asked voters whether the government’s welfare cuts over the past five years had gone too far or not far enough. 23% of people thought that the government had “got the balance about right” and 24% thought that they had “not gone far enough”, combining to make 47% – more than the 38% who thought that welfare cuts had “gone too far”. This trend is backed up by responses to the other questions YouGov asked. 45% of people thought that the money available for benefits was too high; slightly more than the 40% who thought it was either too low or about right. And a clear majority of 57% thought that the number of people eligible to claim benefits was “too wide”, rather than 19% who thought it was “too narrow”.

A different picture emerged, though, when the poll asked about the amount of money spent on specific groups of people receiving benefits. The only group who people thought too much money was spent on benefits for was “better off retired people”. In the cases of people who were on the state pension, out of work, disabled, in work but on low wages, or who were working and had children, a majority of people thought that either the right amount, or too little, money was being spent on benefits.

These results appear contradictory, but the key issue seems to be perceptions of fairness. The public supports benefits for people who need them, and opposes them for people who don’t. The fact that people tend to support welfare cuts when not asked about specific areas suggests that a narrative focusing on scroungers and wasted money has been somewhat persuasive. Equally, the findings that people don’t support many specific cuts to benefits suggest that there are limits to how far such ideas can take root when they don’t match reality.

On his independent blog, YouGov’s director of political and social polling Anthony Wells says “I hardly think when people talk about benefit cuts they are thinking of winter fuel payments, rather I expect the support comes from the continuing belief that lots of benefits go to categories not asked about like ‘people who aren’t really disabled’, ‘people who could work but can’t’, ‘asylum seekers’ and so on.”

The company also found a more or less even split in June on whether the government’s planned additional £12bn of welfare cuts were “in principle” the right or wrong thing to do. And a ComRes poll in July found that a majority (57%) opposed the proposed cuts.

These results suggest that politically, the issues of public spending and welfare cuts are more up for grabs than many commentators suggest. But even if voters were willing to back higher public spending in principle, it doesn’t mean they would trust Labour to carry it out. It will undoubtedly be a challenge for whoever leads Labour to overturn negative perceptions of the party’s competence.

Tax

Corbyn’s support for higher taxes on the wealthy appears to be in line with what the electorate thinks. In 2014 YouGov found that more people would support than oppose income tax for those on over £120,000 being raised to 60% (45% vs 35%). By a margin of 44% to 38%, people opposed a rate of 80% on income over £300,000. But given that not even Corbyn would be likely to propose a rate this high, the relatively high proportion of people that support it is interesting – particularly since it includes a quarter of Conservative supporters. In a 2012 poll, YouGov also found that a majority (56%) supported a rate of 75% for people earning over £1 million a year.

A ComRes poll for the Daily Mail before the budget showed that only 33% per cent of people supported cutting the top rate of income tax for those earning over £150,000 to from 45% to 40%. This policy was opposed by 61% of respondents, including a majority (57%) of Conservative supporters.

In the 2014 poll, YouGov also had a question on wealth distribution in a more general sense. They found that 56% of people would like to see “a more equal distribution of wealth, even if the total amount of wealth was reduced”. And only 17% agreed with “increasing the total amount of wealth, even if its distribution is less equal”. 

A popular message. Flickr/Fibonacci Blue. Some rights reserved.

Nationalisation

“Mass nationalisation” has been highlighted by some commentators as one of Corbyn’s problematic policy areas. But as others have pointed out, polls consistently indicate that the public tends to be in favour of nationalisation.

The railways and energy are the two areas that Corbyn’s campaign has focused on. A YouGov poll in 2013 asked people whether they favoured railway and energy companies (as well as the Royal Mail and the NHS) being publicly or privately run. About two thirds of people said that railway and energy companies should be publicly run (66% and 68% respectively). 84% supported a publicly run NHS and 67% a publicly run Royal Mail.

In 2015 YouGov asked people about the same subject in a slightly different way, offering a third option of “it doesn’t matter which sector they are run in, as long as the standard of service is maintained”. In this poll, a narrow majority (52%) continued to support rail nationalisation, compared to 27% favouring privately run railways and 14% choosing “whatever maintains standards”. The balance of opinion was also in favour of nationalising utilities. 47% supported nationalising them and 16% preferred to see them privately run. 30% wanted whatever maintains standards.

The second way of asking the question arguably gives a better reflection of how people view the issue. The results suggest that public opinion tends to favour nationalising rail and utilities, with an additional, relatively small proportion open to nationalisation if it works. The 2015 survey also asked about a wider range of areas and found that people tended to support publicly run schools, hospitals, postal delivery, prisons, and roads/motorways – but not banks.

YouGov also did a poll in 2014 looking at people’s top three reasons for supporting or opposing rail re-nationalisation. The reasons most people found more persuasive in favour of re-nationalisation were that “fares would go down” (40%) and “railways should be more accountable to taxpayers rather than shareholders” (46%).

32% of people said that the argument “it would be more cost-effective overall” was one of the most persuasive in favour of re-nationalisation, while 16% said that “it would be less cost-effective overall” was one of the most persuasive reasons to oppose re-nationalisation. Opponents of rail nationalisation often argue that it would be a waste of money, but on this evidence that line of reasoning is not resonating with the public.

NATO and Trident

John McTernan has singled out Corbyn's preference for leaving NATO and giving up nuclear weapons as “electorally toxic".

A YouGov poll last year asked people about the UK’s commitment to NATO. 57% thought the UK should “maintain its commitment to defend NATO allies when attacked”, with 18% opposed and about a quarter (26%) not sure.

However, when asked about commitments to help defend specific NATO countries, the results are more complicated. The poll asked people whether the UK should be willing to use military force if Russia attacked a range of countries. Majorities supported helping to defend the United States (52%) and France (51%), and 43% supported helping to defend Poland. With regard to NATO members Latvia and Turkey, people were split more or less evenly between using military force, not using it, and “don’t know”.

It’s reasonable to assume that most of the public haven’t thought through their views on NATO membership fully. But in this poll, people tended to support continuing with the NATO alliance in theory, but were divided on following through with some of commitments entailed by membership. In the event that Russia attacked Latvia, it’s hard to predict what public opinion would be on the UK lending its military support to the Baltic state.

Polls tend to show that the public don’t support nuclear weapons in theory. A ComRes survey in 2014 for WMD awareness found that 78% agreed with the statement that “nuclear weapons for defence purposes are too expensive for governments to maintain” and 70% that “nuclear weapons should not be part of a country’s defence system”.

Asked specifically about Trident, the results are less clear. In the same survey, 24% of people thought that the UK’s nuclear weapon system should be disbanded in favour of disarmament. A similar proportion (26%) supported a nuclear weapons system that was reduced in size and capacity. 29% supported renewing the system to maintain the same size and capacity.

So 55% supported retaining nuclear weapons in some form. But given that before they were asked specifically about Trident, about a quarter (23%) didn’t know whether the UK had any nuclear weapons or plans to replace them, it’s hard to argue that this is a high priority for voters.

In 2009, an ICM poll for the Guardian found that 54% of people thought that “Britain should no longer have a nuclear deterrent”.  

And in the same year, a poll carried out by ComRes for the Independent found that 58% agreed that “given the state of the country's finances, the Government should scrap the Trident nuclear missile system”.

More recent polling seems to show broad support for retaining nuclear weapons, however. In 2013, YouGov found that 32% of people supported ordering four new submarines to replace Trident, while 34% favoured a cheaper way of keeping nuclear weapons. So two thirds of the public favoured keeping some kind of nuclear deterrent. When forced to choose between retaining Trident and scrapping it (with no cheaper alternative), 56% supported ordering four new submarines.

Another YouGov poll for the Times in 2015 found that 25% of people supported “replacing Trident with an equally powerful nuclear missile system” and a further 31% thought that Britain should have a less powerful, cheaper nuclear system.

Some of these results are contradictory but the general picture is that while the public is against nuclear weapons in theory, people tend to favour the UK retaining some kind of nuclear weapons (with a slight preference for a cheaper option). To suggest that opposition to nuclear weapons is “electorally toxic” is stretching it.

Opinion on Trident can be difficult to gauge. Flickr/alister. Some rights reserved.

This is one area where a fixation on the politics of the eighties may be warping some people’s perceptions. Significant numbers of people are either undecided on these issues, or don’t have clear views. A different YouGov poll from June this year found clear tendencies for people to think that both NATO membership and nuclear weapons made Britain safer rather than less safe. But equally, a relatively large proportion of respondents either said that these made little difference either way to Britain’s safety, or didn’t know. The combined proportion of people saying either "makes little or no difference either way" or "don't know" was 43% for NATO membership and 49% for having nuclear weapons.

Immigration

Corbyn wants to end the scapegoating of migrants and recognise the contribution they make. The public see immigration as an important issue. It’s thought to be too high and to have a negative effect on the country.

Ipsos MORI’s Global @dvisor poll on attitudes to immigration found in July that 60% of British people agreed with the statement that there were “too many immigrants” in Britain (compared to only 18% who disagreed). The poll also found that 52% of people think that immigration has a negative impact on Britain, compared to 28% of people think that it has a positive impact. Opinion on the question of whether immigration has been good for the economy was more balanced. 37% agreed that immigration was “good for the economy of our country”, while 35% disagreed. Over two thirds of people (68%) agreed that “Immigration has placed too much pressure on public services in our Country” and about half (48%) agreed that “Immigrants in our Country have made it more difficult for nationals to get jobs”.

But questioning about “immigrants” rather than “immigration” gets more Corbyn-friendly answers. In an October 2014 poll for Sky News, YouGov asked people their views on whether immigrants from different parts of the world made a positive or a negative contribution to today’s Britain. Immigrants from many places were felt to make a positive contribution – not just those from Australia, the US, and Western European countries but also those from Poland, the West Indies, and India.

People had overall negative impressions of the contribution made by immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, but also Albania – a country from where few migrants come to the UK. Commenting on the Albania result, the company’s President Peter Kellner said: “The fact that our reaction is much the same as to Bulgaria and Romania suggests that public attitudes are shaped more by generalised fears than by personal experience.”

Previous polls in the Ipsos MORI series indicate that attitudes to immigration have steadily become more positive over recent years – albeit from a low base. For example, the 60% who agree that there were “too many immigrants” is down from 71% in 2011. And the 68% agreeing that “Immigration has placed too much pressure on public services in our Country” is down from 76% in the same year.

In the latest Economist/Ipsos MORI issues Index (July 2015), which asks people what they think the important issues facing the country are, immigration/immigrants came number one, mentioned by 42% of people. This means it was seen as more important than the NHS (mentioned by 32%) and the economy (27%). 24% of people named immigration as the most important issue facing the country. 

Similar YouGov research finds that people tend to see immigration as a more important issue for the country than for themselves and their families. People are regularly asked what they see as the most important issues facing the country, and facing themselves and their families. In May this year, immigration was seen as the most important issue facing the country. 52% of people put in in their top three, compared to 47% for the economy and 43% for health. But when asked about the most important issues facing “you and your family”, only 22% of people put immigration in their top three. This put it well below the economy (45%) and health (42%), and on a comparable level to pensions (25%) and tax (21%). 

Summary

In some policy areas, such as higher taxes on the rich and nationalisation, Corbyn appears to be more in line with public opinion than his rival leadership candidates. In key contested areas like public spending and welfare, people are divided, but seem to be more receptive to Corbyn’s policies than is often assumed. The Tories have successfully framed debates in their terms, but the hold of these ways of thinking doesn’t appear to be unshakeable. Immigration is one issue where Corbyn appears to be out of step with public opinion, but even here, the picture is a bit more complex than that.

Of course, there are separate arguments to be had over whether Corbyn’s policies would work, and he would need to overturn negative perceptions of his party – but his agenda is more palatable to the electorate than many would like to admit. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’ Does Cruddas' new poll on austerity sink Corbyn's chances? New Labour is 'unelectable' Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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How 'unelectable' is Jeremy Corbyn?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 9:03

There are arguments to be had over whether Corbyn’s policies would work – but the available evidence suggests his agenda is more palatable to the electorate than many would like to admit. 

What do the polls say about Corbyn's agenda? Flickr/Bob Peters. Some rights reserved.

Commentators across the political spectrum have finally found something they can agree on: Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Some on the right make clear their disdain for all he stands for. Others, on the centre left, have a more subtle argument. We’d love to vote for him, they say, but he’d never win over the wider public – so it’s time to get real.

These arguments don’t win any prizes for originality, and they’re not much better in terms of accuracy. One of the positive results from the failure of polls to predict the election result is a greater scepticism about what they can tell us – but they remain useful evidence of how public opinion stands. Here are some areas where it can be useful to compare this against accepted wisdom.

Was Miliband ‘too left wing’? Personality vs policy

Tony Blair voiced his fears before the election that “a traditional left wing party competes with a traditional right wing party, with the traditional result.”

Many commentators believe events proved him right, arguing that Miliband was rejected for being too left-wing – and hence that it’s crazy to expect a candidate further to the left to do better than he could. But plenty of research suggests that personality and perceived leadership qualities were equally if not more important factors than policy in voters’ rejection of Miliband. Fairly or otherwise, his failure to convince the public that he was personally up to scratch was a serious, arguably decisive handicap.

From 2010 until April this year, YouGov regularly asked people who they thought would make the best Prime Minister out of Miliband, Cameron and Clegg. On this measure Miliband was consistently behind Cameron for five years. In the last poll before the election, 40% of said that Cameron would make the best Prime Minister while only 26% said the same of Miliband.

When the leaders’ parties were mentioned, the results were much closer with “Conservatives led by Cameron” preferred to “Labour led by Miliband” by 42% to 39% of respondents. It’s hardly unreasonable to speculate that a Labour party with the same policies, but led by someone able to convey stronger leadership qualities, could have performed better.

Miliband also trailed Cameron on specific qualities often associated with leadership. Just before the election, 21% of people thought Cameron was ‘a natural leader’, 21% thought he was ‘strong’, 24% ‘decisive’ and 17% ‘charismatic’. These numbers may not look great but they are significantly less dire than Miliband’s (4%, 9%, 9%, and 6% respectively). (There were some crumbs of comfort for Miliband: he outperformed Cameron on being ‘in touch with ordinary people’ by 26% to 8% and ‘honest’ by 19% to 12%).

After the election, Lord Ashcroft carried out a survey of 12,000 people who voted, attempting to analyse their motivation. Respondents were asked to choose their top three reasons for voting the way they did. The top two reasons given by people who voted Conservative were “I thought the leader of the party I chose would make the best prime minister” and “I trusted the motives and values of that party more than other parties” (both were chosen by 71%). The “Motives and values” reason was actually slightly more important for people who voted Labour (75% put it in their top three reasons). But only 39% of Labour voters put the “leadership” reason among their top three.

In other words, people who voted Labour were equally as persuaded by the motives and values of their chosen party as people who voted Conservative. But Miliband was apparently a much weaker factor in persuading people to vote for his party than Cameron was for Tory voters. On this evidence, it would seem that getting a more convincing leader, rather than some more right wing policies, was the greater priority for Labour.

The "Listening to Labour's Lost Labour Voters" report of focus group discussions with former Labour voters in marginal seats, which was featured by the Observer in July, also found that Miliband’s personal qualities were one of the key reasons given for not voting Labour. 

“These voters didn’t see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister. In fact, many people in the groups laughed at the prospect of him being the leader of the UK,” said the report. It added: “their image of Labour as a political party with a leader that was open to derision clouded all their thinking about a renewed Labour Party.”

These voters referred to Blair as a “template” for a leader – not for his policies, but because he was a “likable person and a genuine family bloke”. Politicians as divergent as Boris Johnson and Charles Kennedy were also mentioned as positive examples.

“These voters are seeking an authenticity in the leader that they can only judge through the media. They are looking for someone who is relaxed, comfortable and confident in their dealings with the national media. They can see through people who are trying to be politicians as opposed to people who are being themselves. There was a clamour for more ‘yes’ and ‘no’, straight answers instead of ducking and waffling from politicians. And they wanted all politicians to stop trying to please everyone all the time, because that can only lead to dissembling and fudge.”

It’s easy to overestimate the importance of specific policies and underestimate the importance of personal appeal. This latter factor worked in Blair and Cameron’s favour, and worked against Miliband. It remains to be seen what the wider public thinks of Corbyn, but the point is that a lot of it’s about personality, not policy.

Spending cuts

Labour’s wider inability to inspire trust – on the economy, and more generally – is another reason why more people didn’t vote for them. In Ashcroft’s post-election poll only 26% of people who voted Labour said that one of their top three reasons for doing so was because they thought that “the senior members of the party I chose would make a more competent government” (46% of Tory voters put this among their top three reasons). Polling for the TUC by GQRR also found that 32% of voters thought that Labour was “competent”, compared to 57% who had that perception of the Tories.

The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman has highlighted “public spending and welfare cuts” as areas where the Corbynite left of the Labour party is “out of kilter with the electorate”.  Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times likewise pinpointed “zero austerity” as one of Corbyn’s ideas that he predicted will eventually “lose their eccentric charm and acquire the infamy they deserve”.

At first glance The TUC/GQRR poll seems to tie in with these views. It found that the number one doubt putting people off voting Labour in the election (cited by 40% of voters) was that “they would spend too much and can’t be trusted with the economy”. I don’t doubt that this finding is an accurate reflection of people’s impressions of Labour – but it’s not an indication that the electorate is fundamentally opposed to public spending.

The pollster who carried out the research says: “this concern is not rooted in the fiscal position used in the campaign; in fact by a 5 point margin voters thought Labour should cut spending more slowly than they planned rather than faster. Instead… it is Labour’s inability to demonstrate clear change from the past that grounds concern… The leadership candidates are right to come to a reckoning with that history on spending – it either needs to be fought for or conceded.”

When asked about public spending and cuts in less political contexts, public opinion is consistently shown to be fairly evenly divided. Many people think that cuts are being implemented unfairly, and deeper questioning finds that people are cautious about where they will support them. 

YouGov’s fortnightly opinion tracker on spending cuts from 2010-2015 tells an interesting story. In June 2010, more people thought that “the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit” was good (49%) rather than bad (31%) for the economy. But opinion soon turned against cuts and by January 2011, more people thought the government’s spending cuts were bad (47%) rather than good (38%). It was only in the second half of 2013 that this trend changed and people started to see the cuts as good rather than bad again. When people were last asked (in May), 48% of people thought that government cuts were good for the economy and 34% thought they were bad.

Opinion on whether the cuts were needed was more consistent. Throughout the whole of the last parliament, a majority of people viewed the cuts as “necessary” (by 58% to 28% in May). There was also a tendency to see Labour as more responsible for the cuts than the coalition. In May 38% said Labour were more to blame, while 32% put more blame on the coalition.

Together, these findings suggest that many people were sold on the Tories’ austerity arguments, and that the austerity narrative gained traction as the economy improved. But equally, opinion on whether the government’s cuts were good or bad for the economy was not fixed, and a significant proportion of people (18% in May) were undecided. And since 2010 there has also consistently been more people thinking that the cuts were being done ‘unfairly’ than ‘fairly’ (by a margin of 50% to 33% in May). So Corbyn’s anti-austerity ideas would not be falling on entirely deaf ears.

Other polls on similar topics also find opinion divided. In 2014, Populus carried out a poll for the Financial Times which suggested that the public were slightly against continued austerity. 41% of people agreed with the statement that “the national economy is not yet fully fixed, so we need to continue with austerity and cuts in government spending over the next five years”. 28% said that while austerity had been needed, another five years of it was not. And 18% said that austerity had never been needed. The last two add up to 46% against continuing with austerity.

And in another YouGov poll in January, more people (32%) said that they would prefer to see the next government “giving public services more money and more investment to try and improve services, even if it means the government has to borrow more and builds up more debt” rather than “doing more to reduce the amount the government borrows and the debt it builds up, even if it means public services do less or have to do things with less money” (24%). 29% wanted to keep borrowing and spending on public services about the same. (Interestingly, UKIP supporters were split evenly between these three options.)

Welfare cuts

In April the Financial Times reported that “Britons back further welfare cuts” since its polling with Populus found that 75% of people thought “there is still too much money being wasted on paying benefits to people who don’t need them”.  

Looking in more detail at the poll’s findings, this conclusion is debatable. Only half of these people (37%) actually agreed that the government should continue its programme of welfare cuts. The remaining 38% thought that while money was wasted, “the government is targeting the wrong people in trying to reduce the welfare bill”. Meanwhile, 25% of people thought that “the amount of money being wasted on benefits has always been overstated and is just being used as an excuse to take money away from people who need it”. These last two categories add up to a majority of 63% who could reasonably be described as being against the government’s welfare cuts.

When the same poll asked people about spending cuts in a range of particular areas, the only area where more people supported cuts than supported either maintaining similar spending or increasing spending was overseas aid (which 69% were in favour of cutting). On child benefit, pensioner benefits and working age benefits (as well as schools, the NHS, defence, funding for local councils, and university tuition fees), a majority of people supported either increasing government spending, or keeping it roughly the same.

There was a similar pattern in a YouGov poll after the recent budget, where they asked voters whether the government’s welfare cuts over the past five years had gone too far or not far enough. 23% of people thought that the government had “got the balance about right” and 24% thought that they had “not gone far enough”, combining to make 47% – more than the 38% who thought that welfare cuts had “gone too far”. This trend is backed up by responses to the other questions YouGov asked. 45% of people thought that the money available for benefits was too high; slightly more than the 40% who thought it was either too low or about right. And a clear majority of 57% thought that the number of people eligible to claim benefits was “too wide”, rather than 19% who thought it was “too narrow”.

A different picture emerged, though, when the poll asked about the amount of money spent on specific groups of people receiving benefits. The only group who people thought too much money was spent on benefits for was “better off retired people”. In the cases of people who were on the state pension, out of work, disabled, in work but on low wages, or who were working and had children, a majority of people thought that either the right amount, or too little, money was being spent on benefits.

These results appear contradictory, but the key issue seems to be perceptions of fairness. The public supports benefits for people who need them, and opposes them for people who don’t. The fact that people tend to support welfare cuts when not asked about specific areas suggests that a narrative focusing on scroungers and wasted money has been somewhat persuasive. Equally, the findings that people don’t support many specific cuts to benefits suggest that there are limits to how far such ideas can take root when they don’t match reality.

On his independent blog, YouGov’s director of political and social polling Anthony Wells says “I hardly think when people talk about benefit cuts they are thinking of winter fuel payments, rather I expect the support comes from the continuing belief that lots of benefits go to categories not asked about like ‘people who aren’t really disabled’, ‘people who could work but can’t’, ‘asylum seekers’ and so on.”

The company also found a more or less even split in June on whether the government’s planned additional £12bn of welfare cuts were “in principle” the right or wrong thing to do. And a ComRes poll in July found that a majority (57%) opposed the proposed cuts.

These results suggest that politically, the issues of public spending and welfare cuts are more up for grabs than many commentators suggest. But even if voters were willing to back higher public spending in principle, it doesn’t mean they would trust Labour to carry it out. It will undoubtedly be a challenge for whoever leads Labour to overturn negative perceptions of the party’s competence.

Tax

Corbyn’s support for higher taxes on the wealthy appears to be in line with what the electorate thinks. In 2014 YouGov found that more people would support than oppose income tax for those on over £120,000 being raised to 60% (45% vs 35%). By a margin of 44% to 38%, people opposed a rate of 80% on income over £300,000. But given that not even Corbyn would be likely to propose a rate this high, the relatively high proportion of people that support it is interesting – particularly since it includes a quarter of Conservative supporters. In a 2012 poll, YouGov also found that a majority (56%) supported a rate of 75% for people earning over £1 million a year.

A ComRes poll for the Daily Mail before the budget showed that only 33% per cent of people supported cutting the top rate of income tax for those earning over £150,000 to from 45% to 40%. This policy was opposed by 61% of respondents, including a majority (57%) of Conservative supporters.

In the 2014 poll, YouGov also had a question on wealth distribution in a more general sense. They found that 56% of people would like to see “a more equal distribution of wealth, even if the total amount of wealth was reduced”. And only 17% agreed with “increasing the total amount of wealth, even if its distribution is less equal”. 

A popular message. Flickr/Fibonacci Blue. Some rights reserved.

Nationalisation

“Mass nationalisation” has been highlighted by some commentators as one of Corbyn’s problematic policy areas. But as others have pointed out, polls consistently indicate that the public tends to be in favour of nationalisation.

The railways and energy are the two areas that Corbyn’s campaign has focused on. A YouGov poll in 2013 asked people whether they favoured railway and energy companies (as well as the Royal Mail and the NHS) being publicly or privately run. About two thirds of people said that railway and energy companies should be publicly run (66% and 68% respectively). 84% supported a publicly run NHS and 67% a publicly run Royal Mail.

In 2015 YouGov asked people about the same subject in a slightly different way, offering a third option of “it doesn’t matter which sector they are run in, as long as the standard of service is maintained”. In this poll, a narrow majority (52%) continued to support rail nationalisation, compared to 27% favouring privately run railways and 14% choosing “whatever maintains standards”. The balance of opinion was also in favour of nationalising utilities. 47% supported nationalising them and 16% preferred to see them privately run. 30% wanted whatever maintains standards.

The second way of asking the question arguably gives a better reflection of how people view the issue. The results suggest that public opinion tends to favour nationalising rail and utilities, with an additional, relatively small proportion open to nationalisation if it works. The 2015 survey also asked about a wider range of areas and found that people tended to support publicly run schools, hospitals, postal delivery, prisons, and roads/motorways – but not banks.

YouGov also did a poll in 2014 looking at people’s top three reasons for supporting or opposing rail re-nationalisation. The reasons most people found more persuasive in favour of re-nationalisation were that “fares would go down” (40%) and “railways should be more accountable to taxpayers rather than shareholders” (46%).

32% of people said that the argument “it would be more cost-effective overall” was one of the most persuasive in favour of re-nationalisation, while 16% said that “it would be less cost-effective overall” was one of the most persuasive reasons to oppose re-nationalisation. Opponents of rail nationalisation often argue that it would be a waste of money, but on this evidence that line of reasoning is not resonating with the public.

NATO and Trident

John McTernan has singled out Corbyn's preference for leaving NATO and giving up nuclear weapons as “electorally toxic".

A YouGov poll last year asked people about the UK’s commitment to NATO. 57% thought the UK should “maintain its commitment to defend NATO allies when attacked”, with 18% opposed and about a quarter (26%) not sure.

However, when asked about commitments to help defend specific NATO countries, the results are more complicated. The poll asked people whether the UK should be willing to use military force if Russia attacked a range of countries. Majorities supported helping to defend the United States (52%) and France (51%), and 43% supported helping to defend Poland. With regard to NATO members Latvia and Turkey, people were split more or less evenly between using military force, not using it, and “don’t know”.

It’s reasonable to assume that most of the public haven’t thought through their views on NATO membership fully. But in this poll, people tended to support continuing with the NATO alliance in theory, but were divided on following through with some of commitments entailed by membership. In the event that Russia attacked Latvia, it’s hard to predict what public opinion would be on the UK lending its military support to the Baltic state.

Polls tend to show that the public don’t support nuclear weapons in theory. A ComRes survey in 2014 for WMD awareness found that 78% agreed with the statement that “nuclear weapons for defence purposes are too expensive for governments to maintain” and 70% that “nuclear weapons should not be part of a country’s defence system”.

Asked specifically about Trident, the results are less clear. In the same survey, 24% of people thought that the UK’s nuclear weapon system should be disbanded in favour of disarmament. A similar proportion (26%) supported a nuclear weapons system that was reduced in size and capacity. 29% supported renewing the system to maintain the same size and capacity.

So 55% supported retaining nuclear weapons in some form. But given that before they were asked specifically about Trident, about a quarter (23%) didn’t know whether the UK had any nuclear weapons or plans to replace them, it’s hard to argue that this is a high priority for voters.

In 2009, an ICM poll for the Guardian found that 54% of people thought that “Britain should no longer have a nuclear deterrent”.  

And in the same year, a poll carried out by ComRes for the Independent found that 58% agreed that “given the state of the country's finances, the Government should scrap the Trident nuclear missile system”.

More recent polling seems to show broad support for retaining nuclear weapons, however. In 2013, YouGov found that 32% of people supported ordering four new submarines to replace Trident, while 34% favoured a cheaper way of keeping nuclear weapons. So two thirds of the public favoured keeping some kind of nuclear deterrent. When forced to choose between retaining Trident and scrapping it (with no cheaper alternative), 56% supported ordering four new submarines.

Another YouGov poll for the Times in 2015 found that 25% of people supported “replacing Trident with an equally powerful nuclear missile system” and a further 31% thought that Britain should have a less powerful, cheaper nuclear system.

Some of these results are contradictory but the general picture is that while the public is against nuclear weapons in theory, people tend to favour the UK retaining some kind of nuclear weapons (with a slight preference for a cheaper option). To suggest that opposition to nuclear weapons is “electorally toxic” is stretching it.

Opinion on Trident can be difficult to gauge. Flickr/alister. Some rights reserved.

This is one area where a fixation on the politics of the eighties may be warping some people’s perceptions. Significant numbers of people are either undecided on these issues, or don’t have clear views. A different YouGov poll from June this year found clear tendencies for people to think that both NATO membership and nuclear weapons made Britain safer rather than less safe. But equally, a relatively large proportion of respondents either said that these made little difference either way to Britain’s safety, or didn’t know. The combined proportion of people saying either "makes little or no difference either way" or "don't know" was 43% for NATO membership and 49% for having nuclear weapons.

Immigration

Corbyn wants to end the scapegoating of migrants and recognise the contribution they make. The public see immigration as an important issue. It’s thought to be too high and to have a negative effect on the country.

Ipsos MORI’s Global @dvisor poll on attitudes to immigration found in July that 60% of British people agreed with the statement that there were “too many immigrants” in Britain (compared to only 18% who disagreed). The poll also found that 52% of people think that immigration has a negative impact on Britain, compared to 28% of people think that it has a positive impact. Opinion on the question of whether immigration has been good for the economy was more balanced. 37% agreed that immigration was “good for the economy of our country”, while 35% disagreed. Over two thirds of people (68%) agreed that “Immigration has placed too much pressure on public services in our Country” and about half (48%) agreed that “Immigrants in our Country have made it more difficult for nationals to get jobs”.

But questioning about “immigrants” rather than “immigration” gets more Corbyn-friendly answers. In an October 2014 poll for Sky News, YouGov asked people their views on whether immigrants from different parts of the world made a positive or a negative contribution to today’s Britain. Immigrants from many places were felt to make a positive contribution – not just those from Australia, the US, and Western European countries but also those from Poland, the West Indies, and India.

People had overall negative impressions of the contribution made by immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, but also Albania – a country from where few migrants come to the UK. Commenting on the Albania result, the company’s President Peter Kellner said: “The fact that our reaction is much the same as to Bulgaria and Romania suggests that public attitudes are shaped more by generalised fears than by personal experience.”

Previous polls in the Ipsos MORI series indicate that attitudes to immigration have steadily become more positive over recent years – albeit from a low base. For example, the 60% who agree that there were “too many immigrants” is down from 71% in 2011. And the 68% agreeing that “Immigration has placed too much pressure on public services in our Country” is down from 76% in the same year.

In the latest Economist/Ipsos MORI issues Index (July 2015), which asks people what they think the important issues facing the country are, immigration/immigrants came number one, mentioned by 42% of people. This means it was seen as more important than the NHS (mentioned by 32%) and the economy (27%). 24% of people named immigration as the most important issue facing the country. 

Similar YouGov research finds that people tend to see immigration as a more important issue for the country than for themselves and their families. People are regularly asked what they see as the most important issues facing the country, and facing themselves and their families. In May this year, immigration was seen as the most important issue facing the country. 52% of people put in in their top three, compared to 47% for the economy and 43% for health. But when asked about the most important issues facing “you and your family”, only 22% of people put immigration in their top three. This put it well below the economy (45%) and health (42%), and on a comparable level to pensions (25%) and tax (21%). 

Summary

In some policy areas, such as higher taxes on the rich and nationalisation, Corbyn appears to be more in line with public opinion than his rival leadership candidates. In key contested areas like public spending and welfare, people are divided, but seem to be more receptive to Corbyn’s policies than is often assumed. The Tories have successfully framed debates in their terms, but the hold of these ways of thinking doesn’t appear to be unshakeable. Immigration is one issue where Corbyn appears to be out of step with public opinion, but even here, the picture is a bit more complex than that.

Of course, there are separate arguments to be had over whether Corbyn’s policies would work, and he would need to overturn negative perceptions of his party – but his agenda is more palatable to the electorate than many would like to admit. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’ Does Cruddas' new poll on austerity sink Corbyn's chances? New Labour is 'unelectable' Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Human trafficking and Africa’s ‘pornography of pain’: the pitfalls of CSR

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 8:43

LexisNexis South Africa has mined its newspaper archives to produce a deeply flawed ‘human trafficking awareness index’. This draws upon sensationalised research to create yet more false information on trafficking.

GongTo/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.

LexisNexis is an internationally renowned company that specialises in providing research and information for legal and corporate clients. It is especially popular amongst law students, who routinely use its user-friendly search engines to write assignments and briefs. While these search engines can be an invaluable source of information, they have also unfortunately been put to use to support sensationalism, myth-making, and poor ‘research’.

This is because LexisNexis recently sponsored the publication of a new ‘human trafficking awareness index’ (HTA index), which seeks “to analyse the volume of news related to human trafficking” in Africa. This index uses information from their media database to “highlight emerging trends and patterns of awareness within and across national borders”, and attempts to produce insights that will enable anti-trafficking activists “to monitor and drive the anti-trafficking agenda”.

The inaugural awareness index was published in November 2013, and since then two further reports focusing on media coverage from September - December 2013 and January – December 2014 have been published. These reports follow a common logic, with media references to human trafficking being treated as a proxy for public awareness of human trafficking in South Africa as well as in Africa more broadly. The main thrust of all of these reports is not only that human trafficking is insidious and increasing, but that public awareness would assist in uncovering a multitude of cases that are assumed to go undetected. Thus, through public awareness more trafficking victims will—somehow—be saved.

The reports do not reflect critically on the power of sensationalist media coverage to distort the public’s perception of the problems associated with human trafficking. This omission is all the more glaring given the  now extensive body of research that suggests relevant media reports routinely suffer from dubious statistics and classifications, unrepresentative or uncorroborated anecdotes, and self-serving statements from ‘experts’ with a vested interest in exaggerating specific problems.

While journalists often have a great deal to say about trafficking, this emphasis can often come at the expense of other more pervasive forms of violence and exploitation.  Most obvious of these is domestic violence, a devastating (but mundane) epidemic that has prompted an estimated third of all women who have been in a relationship to report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner.

Sensationalised reporting on human trafficking also tends to exaggerate the reach and content of trafficking, and to present often self-serving speculation as ‘fact’. This does a disservice to victims of trafficking, and can increase burdens faced by already marginalised groups such as sex workers and migrant populations, for example when trafficking raids take place.

In a recent report on Trafficking and Gender, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, warns:

Exclusive focus on trafficking without a social analysis also contributes to sensationalism. It creates the false impression that trafficking is a problem that can be solved by merely taking a few legal measures and providing assistance to those identified as trafficked. Thus, the long term goal of advocating for systemic and structural changes in society gets overlooked.

It is therefore highly debatable whether the HTA index brings us closer to either a clearer understanding or an effective response.

Stylised images and dubious ‘statistics’

All three HTA index reports are attractively designed, ten to 24-page documents packed with highly stylised images of white women bound with ropes and sad black children peering through rusty fences or scratching at walls.  Especially troubling within the context of post-apartheid South Africa is the cover of the second report, which has an image of a mouth of a white person being smothered by a black hand. These types of visual images not only run the risk of falling subject to what historians of slavery have described as a ‘pornography of pain’, they also present a racially coded image of menace and physical constraint that does not adequately capture the challenges and complexities associated with migration and exploitation.

Cover of the second HTA index report. Fair Use.

This visual presentation is accompanied by the use of dubious statistics. Especially prominent here is the figure of 2958, which the most recent report calculates is ‘the number of potential trafficking victims reported on by African media during the period [January – December 2014]’. This figure is in turn drawn from 1838 ‘unique African media articles on human trafficking, captured by the LexisNexis database during the period’. Yet the report contains no definition of trafficking, has no methodology section, and includes no indication of the original source of media articles or how they were located, or indeed how the report drew its conclusions. Furthermore, what is reported on by the popular media as ‘trafficking’ frequently has little resemblance to the technically complex and serious crime of human trafficking as written into law. As such, counting the number of individuals labelled ‘victims’ by the media does nothing but produce yet another inflated and inaccurate statistic.

These methodological difficulties do not prevent the 2013 and 2014 reports from making bold claims about ‘notable trends’.  The 2014 report highlighted that child trafficking is ‘a pervasive problem’, while the September -December 2013 report includes a section titled ‘Murky Waters – Forced Labour (in the maritime industry)’ despite the fact that this trend does not feature in the media reports considered. While some might consider that a red flag, the report asserts:

this type of trafficking remains under-reported in the media, although the number of victims assisted in individual cases tends to be higher than those of sexual exploitation. [...] Elsewhere in Africa, ‘deep sea’ child sex tourism is becoming more widespread and entrenched in Kenya, as ‘clients’ rent boats to sail out to sea with children of their choice.

Sex work in South Africa and Nigeria

All three reports contain a variety of anecdotes and case studies from various parts of Africa. The 2014 report noted the death of Desiree Murugan in Durban, South Africa.  Murugan was a 39-year old mother of one, who worked as a sex worker in Durban.  In August 2014, she was found stabbed to death and decapitated in Chatsworth. This brutal murder sent shockwaves through the sex worker community, and a memorial was held by her family and supported by sex workers and sex worker advocates. The 2014 report classified this murder as “Body Part Trafficking/Ritual Killing” and provided the following description:

Indian sex worker killed and beheaded for muti [an isiZulu term for traditional medicine]. Stabbed 195 times; brain, ear, nose, flesh and skin from face removed. Body found in Shallcross, Chatsworth. 6 arrested, including a traditional healer, 2 men, and 3 minors (a girl and two boys). Co-accused claimed they were offered R2m for the head of an Indian, Coloured or White woman with long hair by the traditional healer, who pleaded guilty and received a life sentence.

South Africa has no category of crime for ‘ritual killing’. The scenario described above also does not fulfil the definitional requirements of trafficking for organ trade, as laid out by the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT).  It is not clear at all, apart from its sensationalism, why this brutal killing was not simply labelled as ‘murder’ in the 2014 HTA index report.

Similarly, the same report contained a section titled ‘Plight of migrant women – Nigerian women take risks crossing the Mediterranean to Italy only to become sex slaves’.  There is no reference to the original source, a problem found throughout the report, so one is left to wonder how many of the women labelled sex slaves actually became sex workers, something very different. One also cannot know from the report how many of these women saw sex work in Italy, which has legalised the occupation in contrast to Nigeria, as a step up from their previous conditions.

There is little ambiguity over the definition of trafficking internationally.  It is clearly set out by the United Nations Palermo Protocol and includes the essential element of movement by means of coercion or deception for the purposes of exploitation. The two case studies above, and many others described in all three reports, do not seem to pass definitional muster according to the evidence that is provided.

Potential trafficking victims?

The first HTA index report warned that “The information and numbers provided in this report are only as accurate as the way in which the media reports this heinous crime”, and that many references to trafficking cases explicitly include the phrase “potential trafficking victims”. However, these cautionary notes were not uniformly included throughout the reports. A useful summary page with a table and bullet points—particularly valuable for busy journalists—instead proclaimed that there was a total of 5450 victims of trafficking in the period August 2011-2013 and that 2971 victims were children. This ‘fact’ was subsequently reproduced in a report on the SADC Gender Protocol 2014 Barometer

This conflation of potential victims with real victims (as defined by journalists) is further encouraged by LexisNexis’ public relations work. For example, the press release accompanying the 2014 report noted:

At least 2958 people were trafficked through African countries outside of South Africa over the 12 month period from January to December 2014 for unjust purposes including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced recruitment as child soldiers.

A representative from LexisNexis South Africa repeated this statement in an article written for the Cape Times, a popular South African daily newspaper. This sort of repetition serves to give weight to the result and to persuade the public that a reputable law research firm confirms the extent of human trafficking.

Making responsible choices

Recently, the CEO of LexisNexis South Africa proudly noted that his company had directed all its corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds towards combating human trafficking.  At a global level, LexisNexis has also chosen to support a range of anti-trafficking organisations, including the now notorius Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia. This Foundation closed down in October 2014, after its namesake was exposed in Newsweek for having fabricated a history of being sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather. Mam also allegedly instructed Cambodian girls to lie about their lives as sex slaves in order to bolster the credibility and stature of her foundation.

Africa does not need false or misleading claims about trafficking that gain undeserved credibility through their association with a well known corporation. These claims are especially problematic when they harness the mutilated bodies of sex workers like Desiree Murugan towards dubious ends. Africa is currently plagued by a virulent mix of gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. There is consequentially an urgent need for companies like LexisNexis to invest their substantial CSR funds towards practical efforts to prevent gender-based violence, as well as for sustained government, private sector and civil society engagement with violence at the community and policy levels.  It is fundamentally irresponsible to instead choose to fund glossy reports that fail to enlighten anyone.

This article draws on a response written to the release of the HTA report in 2015, entitled Marlise Richter "Evidence-based, truthful reporting needed on human rights violations" Cape Times 16 April 2015.

Sideboxes Related stories:  A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work Violence in the safety of home: life in Nigeria after selling sex in Europe American arrogance and the movement to end 'female genital mutilation' Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Human trafficking and Africa’s ‘pornography of pain’: the pitfalls of CSR

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 8:43

LexisNexis South Africa has mined its newspaper archives to produce a deeply flawed ‘human trafficking awareness index’. This draws upon sensationalised research to create yet more false information on trafficking.

GongTo/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.

LexisNexis is an internationally renowned company that specialises in providing research and information for legal and corporate clients. It is especially popular amongst law students, who routinely use its user-friendly search engines to write assignments and briefs. While these search engines can be an invaluable source of information, they have also unfortunately been put to use to support sensationalism, myth-making, and poor ‘research’.

This is because LexisNexis recently sponsored the publication of a new ‘human trafficking awareness index’ (HTA index), which seeks “to analyse the volume of news related to human trafficking” in Africa. This index uses information from their media database to “highlight emerging trends and patterns of awareness within and across national borders”, and attempts to produce insights that will enable anti-trafficking activists “to monitor and drive the anti-trafficking agenda”.

The inaugural awareness index was published in November 2013, and since then two further reports focusing on media coverage from September - December 2013 and January – December 2014 have been published. These reports follow a common logic, with media references to human trafficking being treated as a proxy for public awareness of human trafficking in South Africa as well as in Africa more broadly. The main thrust of all of these reports is not only that human trafficking is insidious and increasing, but that public awareness would assist in uncovering a multitude of cases that are assumed to go undetected. Thus, through public awareness more trafficking victims will—somehow—be saved.

The reports do not reflect critically on the power of sensationalist media coverage to distort the public’s perception of the problems associated with human trafficking. This omission is all the more glaring given the  now extensive body of research that suggests relevant media reports routinely suffer from dubious statistics and classifications, unrepresentative or uncorroborated anecdotes, and self-serving statements from ‘experts’ with a vested interest in exaggerating specific problems.

While journalists often have a great deal to say about trafficking, this emphasis can often come at the expense of other more pervasive forms of violence and exploitation.  Most obvious of these is domestic violence, a devastating (but mundane) epidemic that has prompted an estimated third of all women who have been in a relationship to report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner.

Sensationalised reporting on human trafficking also tends to exaggerate the reach and content of trafficking, and to present often self-serving speculation as ‘fact’. This does a disservice to victims of trafficking, and can increase burdens faced by already marginalised groups such as sex workers and migrant populations, for example when trafficking raids take place.

In a recent report on Trafficking and Gender, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, warns:

Exclusive focus on trafficking without a social analysis also contributes to sensationalism. It creates the false impression that trafficking is a problem that can be solved by merely taking a few legal measures and providing assistance to those identified as trafficked. Thus, the long term goal of advocating for systemic and structural changes in society gets overlooked.

It is therefore highly debatable whether the HTA index brings us closer to either a clearer understanding or an effective response.

Stylised images and dubious ‘statistics’

All three HTA index reports are attractively designed, ten to 24-page documents packed with highly stylised images of white women bound with ropes and sad black children peering through rusty fences or scratching at walls.  Especially troubling within the context of post-apartheid South Africa is the cover of the second report, which has an image of a mouth of a white person being smothered by a black hand. These types of visual images not only run the risk of falling subject to what historians of slavery have described as a ‘pornography of pain’, they also present a racially coded image of menace and physical constraint that does not adequately capture the challenges and complexities associated with migration and exploitation.

Cover of the second HTA index report. Fair Use.

This visual presentation is accompanied by the use of dubious statistics. Especially prominent here is the figure of 2958, which the most recent report calculates is ‘the number of potential trafficking victims reported on by African media during the period [January – December 2014]’. This figure is in turn drawn from 1838 ‘unique African media articles on human trafficking, captured by the LexisNexis database during the period’. Yet the report contains no definition of trafficking, has no methodology section, and includes no indication of the original source of media articles or how they were located, or indeed how the report drew its conclusions. Furthermore, what is reported on by the popular media as ‘trafficking’ frequently has little resemblance to the technically complex and serious crime of human trafficking as written into law. As such, counting the number of individuals labelled ‘victims’ by the media does nothing but produce yet another inflated and inaccurate statistic.

These methodological difficulties do not prevent the 2013 and 2014 reports from making bold claims about ‘notable trends’.  The 2014 report highlighted that child trafficking is ‘a pervasive problem’, while the September -December 2013 report includes a section titled ‘Murky Waters – Forced Labour (in the maritime industry)’ despite the fact that this trend does not feature in the media reports considered. While some might consider that a red flag, the report asserts:

this type of trafficking remains under-reported in the media, although the number of victims assisted in individual cases tends to be higher than those of sexual exploitation. [...] Elsewhere in Africa, ‘deep sea’ child sex tourism is becoming more widespread and entrenched in Kenya, as ‘clients’ rent boats to sail out to sea with children of their choice.

Sex work in South Africa and Nigeria

All three reports contain a variety of anecdotes and case studies from various parts of Africa. The 2014 report noted the death of Desiree Murugan in Durban, South Africa.  Murugan was a 39-year old mother of one, who worked as a sex worker in Durban.  In August 2014, she was found stabbed to death and decapitated in Chatsworth. This brutal murder sent shockwaves through the sex worker community, and a memorial was held by her family and supported by sex workers and sex worker advocates. The 2014 report classified this murder as “Body Part Trafficking/Ritual Killing” and provided the following description:

Indian sex worker killed and beheaded for muti [an isiZulu term for traditional medicine]. Stabbed 195 times; brain, ear, nose, flesh and skin from face removed. Body found in Shallcross, Chatsworth. 6 arrested, including a traditional healer, 2 men, and 3 minors (a girl and two boys). Co-accused claimed they were offered R2m for the head of an Indian, Coloured or White woman with long hair by the traditional healer, who pleaded guilty and received a life sentence.

South Africa has no category of crime for ‘ritual killing’. The scenario described above also does not fulfil the definitional requirements of trafficking for organ trade, as laid out by the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT).  It is not clear at all, apart from its sensationalism, why this brutal killing was not simply labelled as ‘murder’ in the 2014 HTA index report.

Similarly, the same report contained a section titled ‘Plight of migrant women – Nigerian women take risks crossing the Mediterranean to Italy only to become sex slaves’.  There is no reference to the original source, a problem found throughout the report, so one is left to wonder how many of the women labelled sex slaves actually became sex workers, something very different. One also cannot know from the report how many of these women saw sex work in Italy, which has legalised the occupation in contrast to Nigeria, as a step up from their previous conditions.

There is little ambiguity over the definition of trafficking internationally.  It is clearly set out by the United Nations Palermo Protocol and includes the essential element of movement by means of coercion or deception for the purposes of exploitation. The two case studies above, and many others described in all three reports, do not seem to pass definitional muster according to the evidence that is provided.

Potential trafficking victims?

The first HTA index report warned that “The information and numbers provided in this report are only as accurate as the way in which the media reports this heinous crime”, and that many references to trafficking cases explicitly include the phrase “potential trafficking victims”. However, these cautionary notes were not uniformly included throughout the reports. A useful summary page with a table and bullet points—particularly valuable for busy journalists—instead proclaimed that there was a total of 5450 victims of trafficking in the period August 2011-2013 and that 2971 victims were children. This ‘fact’ was subsequently reproduced in a report on the SADC Gender Protocol 2014 Barometer

This conflation of potential victims with real victims (as defined by journalists) is further encouraged by LexisNexis’ public relations work. For example, the press release accompanying the 2014 report noted:

At least 2958 people were trafficked through African countries outside of South Africa over the 12 month period from January to December 2014 for unjust purposes including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced recruitment as child soldiers.

A representative from LexisNexis South Africa repeated this statement in an article written for the Cape Times, a popular South African daily newspaper. This sort of repetition serves to give weight to the result and to persuade the public that a reputable law research firm confirms the extent of human trafficking.

Making responsible choices

Recently, the CEO of LexisNexis South Africa proudly noted that his company had directed all its corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds towards combating human trafficking.  At a global level, LexisNexis has also chosen to support a range of anti-trafficking organisations, including the now notorius Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia. This Foundation closed down in October 2014, after its namesake was exposed in Newsweek for having fabricated a history of being sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather. Mam also allegedly instructed Cambodian girls to lie about their lives as sex slaves in order to bolster the credibility and stature of her foundation.

Africa does not need false or misleading claims about trafficking that gain undeserved credibility through their association with a well known corporation. These claims are especially problematic when they harness the mutilated bodies of sex workers like Desiree Murugan towards dubious ends. Africa is currently plagued by a virulent mix of gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. There is consequentially an urgent need for companies like LexisNexis to invest their substantial CSR funds towards practical efforts to prevent gender-based violence, as well as for sustained government, private sector and civil society engagement with violence at the community and policy levels.  It is fundamentally irresponsible to instead choose to fund glossy reports that fail to enlighten anyone.

This article draws on a response written to the release of the HTA report in 2015, entitled Marlise Richter "Evidence-based, truthful reporting needed on human rights violations" Cape Times 16 April 2015.

Sideboxes Related stories:  A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work Violence in the safety of home: life in Nigeria after selling sex in Europe American arrogance and the movement to end 'female genital mutilation' Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Categories: les flux rss

Human rights mainstreaming in climate change policy: a glass half full

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. September 2015 - 8:30

The UN’s human rights bodies can’t solve the problem of climate change – but that doesn’t mean they have no role to play in pushing for more ambitious action to meet this global threat. Español

In December this year, world governments will meet in Paris to agree a new binding treaty to halt and ultimately reverse global climate change. The 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), known as COP21, is one of the most important environmental conferences ever to be held. But, as argued in a new Policy Report from the Universal Rights Group, it is also one of the most important human rights gatherings of the past half-century.

The ability of states to reach—or not—a new and ambitious global agreement in Paris will have a determinative impact on the lives, prospects, hopes, dignity and rights of millions of people around the world.

The consequences of climate change for the enjoyment of human rights have been considered and recognised by the UN on many occasions. The international community has also repeatedly called for human rights principles to be integrated into global climate change policy responses, in order to strengthen those responses and make them more reflective of, and accountable to, the needs of vulnerable people.

The consequences of climate change for the enjoyment of human rights have been considered and recognised by the UN on many occasions. Despite these steps, Stephen Humphreys, in a recent article for Open Democracy, concludes that, when it comes to climate change, “… human rights law and lawyers—and the human rights movement as a whole—has little useful to say and no obvious role to play.”

While such a downbeat assessment is surprising, especially when coming from someone who has played a leading role in shaping the human rights and climate change debate for nearly a decade, it is easy to see why Stephen has developed doubts.

The stark truth is that early rapid progress (from 2007 to 2011) in driving forward and leveraging the ‘human rights and climate change’ agenda stalled after COP16 in Cancún. From late 2011 to late 2014, little or no progress was made in using human rights concerns to generate greater ambition in the UNFCCC talks, or in integrating human rights obligations and principles into (international and domestic) climate change policy.

So, does that mean the international human rights community has “little useful to say and no obvious role to play?”

The answer to this question depends on the expectations one has for the role of the international human rights system.

Of course the UN Human Rights Council and its mechanisms cannot solve the contemporary climate crisis. But nor should they – it is neither their responsibility nor their mandate in the UN architecture.  The mandate of the Council, as set down in GA resolution 60/251, is to ‘mainstream’ human rights across other UN institutions, mandates and policies—not to absorb those mandates or take over those policies.

Fulfilling this mainstreaming mandate is what the Council set out to do in March 2008 with its first resolution on human rights and climate change (resolution 7/23). Its goal was to demonstrate that climate change has negative implications for human rights (not a given at the time); to delineate the nature of those implications (e.g. which rights, which population groups are most affected); and to urge the relevant parts of the UN to be guided by concern for human rights, when crafting policy responses.

When measured against these objectives, the performance of the international human rights system may be seen in a more positive light.  

Slowly but surely, and building on the Cancún Agreements, human rights are being mainstreamed into climate change negotiations, processes and policies.


Flickr/United Nations Photo (Some rights reserved)

The 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún.

National Communications (national reporting) under the UNFCCC offer one example of this. A recent report by the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice (MRFCJ) found that, of those countries that have submitted National Communications and national adaptation plans of action, 49 made explicit reference to human rights (including many who co-sponsored Council resolution 7/23).

As the world looks towards COP21 in Paris, there are, moreover, further signs of renewed momentum behind human rights mainstreaming in international climate policy.

A number of actors have taken steps to leverage the language of human rights to press for more urgency and ambition in the climate change negotiations, and to more robustly integrate human rights principles and obligations into international and domestic climate policy. In October and December of 2014, dozens of the UN Special Procedures mandate holders issued joint statements calling on states to integrate and take heed of human rights obligations in action on climate change.    

In February 2015, the Government of Costa Rica launched the ‘Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action.’ The signatories to the Geneva Pledge have committed to “enable meaningful collaboration between our national representatives in these two processes [i.e. the UNFCCC and the Council] to increase our understanding of how human rights obligations inform better climate action”. Shortly afterwards, a representative of France, the incoming chair of the COP, called for human rights to be integrated into the Paris negotiations in order to reach “an ambitious and just agreement” at COP21.

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has put forward three practical proposals to strengthen mainstreaming:

  1. The creation of fora under the UNFCCC and the Council to allow the human rights and climate change communities to share examples and good practices (building on the Geneva Pledge);

  2. The development of guidelines, by the human rights community, on how to integrate human rights obligations, standards and principles into climate policy (i.e. how to operationalize a rights-informed approach); and

  3. States should include consideration of the linkages between human rights and climate change in their reporting to the Human Rights Council (i.e. the UPR) and their reporting under the UNFCCC (i.e. National Communications).

A final recent promising step was the Human Rights Council’s decision to renew and strengthen the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment. In an early signal of his intent to leverage this role to help promote greater ambition in Paris, in April 2015 the Special Rapporteur spearheaded a joint submission by 14 Special Procedures mandate-holders to the COP UNFCCC on the potential implications for global human rights of a 2°c or a 1.5 °c increase in global average temperatures.

These are, of course, relatively small steps when set against the enormity of the human rights challenges posed by climate change. But that does not mean the international community should not continue to take them. It remains vitally important for international climate change policymakers, when they convene in Paris later this year, to understand the human rights implications of the decisions they are expected to take, especially for the most vulnerable members of society. And it remains important for States to implement any agreement reached in Paris in a manner consistent with their international human rights obligations. These objectives are still worth fighting for.

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