Category Archives: Brexit

29 March 2017

Today the hammer falls and I feel sick. The decision to pull the UK out of the EU, and also the way in which the UK government has gone about it, leave me in a state of constant grief and anger. I am very bitter. I find myself with many of the symptoms of depression, but I’m aware of it and trying to tackle it. Writing this blog post is one of the ways.

I’m sure some people find it hard to comprehend how a political event like this could have such a profound effect on me personally. I’m quite sure that very many of the people who voted to leave last June took the decision very lightly without really giving it any much thought at all, or acting on the spur of the moment. Well, let me try to explain.

I’m both British and German, and I grew up in 1970s England. TV, comics, books, everything still seemed obsessed with the war. My parents and grandparents all had war stories, from opposing sides. At the same time, we thought we’d die in a nuclear holocaust when the Cold War went hot. (We really did.) My holidays were spent driving down to southern Germany and spending time with my family there. Europe, and Europe’s divisions, meant something very concrete and real to me, with heavy emotional significance. As I grew up and became politically aware, so European integration became an issue, the issue, that meant most to me. And, as a student, I watched Thatcher’s reign disintegrate over the issue. I joined the Young European Movement, I went to federalist conferences, I idolised Jacques Delors and dreamed of working for the EU one day. And I did it. I passed the famous ‘concours’. In 1995, I realised my dream and came to work for the European Commission in Brussels.

Like all dreams, it didn’t live up to its billing. It’s a job. I could rant for a week on ways in which things could be improved. But this is also, still, a vocation, and I believe in it as much as I ever did. I have no doubt at all that the people of Europe need to come together if they want to be more secure, and have a better quality of life. Effective government at the European level seems to me to be more important than ever, as I look around the world. So this monstrous idiocy on the part of the country where I grew up leaves me reeling. I still can’t really believe it, I don’t want to believe it. All this energy which should and could have been spent on making things better and instead it’s being used to destroy.

So here comes the uplifting closing section of this post. Here is what I’m telling myself. I know it’s true, and so it ought to help me deal with it.

The UK is leaving, but the EU is still here. This isn’t the end. Life for most of my colleagues continues more or less without interruption – I’m struck by how, for most people around me, Brexit is just another issue which is happening to other people, like Syria, or drought. Yes, there are implications for the EU, and we need to work up policy solutions, but already the UK is seen as something outside which is in big trouble of its own making but it’s not our problem any more, we just need to find ways to defend our interests. I don’t think they are being complacent, but they are being realistic, and they have a sense of perspective which I don’t. Brexit carries considerable risk for the EU but it also brings opportunities. We have a job to do to minimise the risk and maximise the opportunities. Meanwhile I have a cause that will occupy me in my home country for the rest of my political life. Theresa May wants the country to unite behind her as she rips the UK out of the EU. Not as I live and breathe will she ever get that wish. Never. No way.

A quick recap

So this is where we find ourselves:

1. This Conservative government currently has a majority of 16.

2. Investigations are underway in 20 Tory seats into alleged electoral fraud.

3. Without those seats, this government would not have had a majority to trigger the referendum (about which see point 7).

4. The Tories’ manifesto in 2015 said “Yes to the Single Market”. It also said they wouldn’t raise National Insurance Contributions. Breaking one promise could bankrupt thousands of businesses and put millions out of work. Breaking the other promise might raise a bit of much-needed extra revenue. They want to break both, but have u-turned on only one. Can you guess which?

5. Both the official and the unofficial Leave campaigns are being investigated for breaking electoral law. Oh and by the way both Leave campaigns lied incessantly, as a matter of recorded fact.

6. We had a referendum in 1975 on whether to join the EU. The UK chose to join, by 67% to 32%. The people had spoken.

7. But for 40 years a group of europhobic extremists refused to accept “the will of the people” and campaigned constantly for the UK to leave the EU. In 2016, they finally got their way. The 2016 referendum was all about appeasing the far right fringe of the Conservative Party, afraid they’d lose activists to UKIP. This is no way to make serious decisions about the future of the country.

8. Leave won by 51.9% over 48.1% on a 72% turnout – so only 37% of the electorate voted to Leave. Young people, overseas British voters, non-British UK resident taxpayers were disenfranchised and could not vote, despite the enormous implications for these groups.

9. Leading Leave campaigners said “this would be far from over” if Remain won by 52% over 48%. The same campaigners, having contested the last referendum’s result for forty years, call us traitors for refusing to accept this – I’m searching for the right word here – “shitshow” and try to silence us.

10. Modern democracies typically demand a two-thirds super majority as a necessary and sufficient condition for significant constitutional change.

11. This government (see point 3 for its legitimacy) says “no deal is preferable to a bad deal” but says it has not costed the impact of “no deal”.

12. The government (see point 3) refuses to give the British Parliament a vote on the final Brexit deal. (Note that the oh-so-undemocratic European Parliament will get a say on the final Brexit deal. But not the UK’s parliaments, national or regional.)

13. The government (see point 3) refuses a second referendum to let the people decide on whether to accept the final deal.

Still think the UK is a model of democratic good governance?

Why I will be campaigning for Scottish independence

My British half is, as far as I know, purely English. But I am rooting for the Scots to vote for independence in their next referendum. It would be good for Scotland. It would be good for Europe. And it would be good for Britain.

I consider myself a patriot. My patriotism is not some arbitrary attachment to a flag, or to a piece of earth, or to a person descended from a Dark Ages robber baron; my patriotism is a love of community, society, and an attachment to a set of values. To me, patriotism is multilayered and fuzzy at the edges. I have a romantic fondness for the England of Arthur Ransome and E. Nesbit, I feel a connection to Marylebone Station and Tottenham Green Lanes, I’m moved by the music of Bach and Boccherini and the architecture of Durham and Rouen and Ulm. These emotional responses give me roots in my culture and they bring a sense of security and continuity which is an important component of human wellbeing. They are the foundations and load-bearing walls which support the practical, rational manifestation of my patriotism: my public service, my campaigning for our values, my politics. There is no inconsistency in my loving England, and Britain, and Germany, and Europe; and in my feeling contempt for the British parliament after what it did on the evening of 13 March 2017. On the contrary, anyone who loves our society and its values must necessarily feel rage at how these have been challenged and weakened by the very people whose job it is to protect them.

Scotland would be better off outside the UK but in the EU. Scots are not represented by Westminster nor have they been for a long time. I don’t see how Scotland’s interests can be adequately represented by Westminster without a fundamental reform of how British government works. After the 2014 referendum, the Scots were promised meaningful devolution. This has not happened and it is obvious to me that it won’t happen, because exceptionalist Westminster cannot understand the concept of meaningful devolution. The very existence of the West Lothian Question proves this, as I’ve argued. To have meaningful self-governance within a meaningfully federated governance structure, Scotland must leave the UK and remain in or rejoin the EU.

Europe would be better off with an independent Scotland. Scotland is European, and belongs in the family. (So does the rest of the UK, of course.) Scottish independence within the EU would be a demonstration of belief in Europe, in our values, in multilateralism, and a rejection of the binary zero-sum nationalism advocated by Putin-backed populist movements in England, France, the Netherlands, etc.

The United Kingdom would be better off if Scotland chose independence. British society is irredeemably broken. We might argue how we arrived at this juncture, but to me this is self-evident. Westminster’s exceptionalism means continued centralisation of power in national government at the expense of effective subsidiarity whether that means Brussels, the regions, or local government. And national government has shown itself to be unfit and captured by toxic special interests. Brexit is the proof. A ruling party captured by zealots for whom no lie was too much, any means justified the end, the end being a corruption of patriotism resulting in its polar opposite: the impoverishment of the country, its decline in status and influence, the undermining of its security, and the destruction of its citizens’ quality of life. Time and again we have seen that Westminster will not reform itself. Only a seismic shock can deliver change, and it’s hard to see what such a seismic shock could be short of civil discord unless it’s the actual break-up of the United Kingdom. A velvet divorce might be the greatest gift Scotland could give to English patriots.

To me, the choice Scots face is clear: they could stay in a dysfunctional United Kingdom ruled from Westminster, unable to rein in a contemptuous and entitled elite who have proven themselves guilty of serious and serial misgovernment; or they could emulate Europe’s other smaller countries which have thrived as independent states within the EU, enjoying higher standards of living and a better quality of life. For Scots, it’s what you’d call a no-brainer. But it should be welcomed by the rest of us, the citizens of the United Kingdom they’d be leaving behind. Because we like the Scots and want the best for them; and because it gives us a chance to mend what is broken in our own system.

Knitting pattern: the fairisle euroberet!

Calling all members of the Bresistance! Show your love for Europe with this unisex fairisle euroberet! May be worn Citizen Smith-style, Che Guevara-style, or René-off-of-Allo-Allo-style – however you wear it, it’s guaranteed to troll a kipper.

 

Disclaimer: this is my first attempt to write up a pattern, and it won’t lead you by the nose. I am assuming some experience with stranded colourwork and basic increasing/decreasing on the part of the reader, and that you will be comfortable adapting the pattern on the fly to suit your needs and address any errors. My beret (pictured at top and below) was improvised, and so is this pattern. If you don’t recognise an abbreviation, you probably won’t want to knit this pattern (but if you’re curious please search them on youtube where there are hundreds of great tutorials).

The beauty of a beret, knit from the top down, is that you don’t have to be too fussy about sizing. The only bit you have to get right is the very final four rows of ribbing which have to fit the head you’re knitting for. If you get to the end of the pattern and you find you’re still a bit too big, just add another decrease round or two.

The beret is knit in the round from the top down (beginning with an i-cord). Start using DPNs and transfer to circular needles as appropriate (once I’d complete the i-cord I transferred to a single set of long circular needles and used the magic loop method throughout). At the top and the bottom of the star section, there are long floats of up to 15 stitches, I recommend trapping the floating yarn every five stitches using a twist. Be careful to avoid making your floats too tight or the fabric will pucker.

Yarn: DK weight (I used Cascade 220 Superwash 821 Daffodil, Cascade 220 Superwash 1925 Cobalt Heather, Cascade 220 Superwash 1951 Sapphire Heather)

Gauge: 24 stitches x 24 rows per 10cm

Needles: 3.5mm circular, 3.5mm DPNs

1. With 3.5mm DPN, CO six stitches in light blue yarn

2. Knit an i-cord of around 2cm or 3cm

3. Arrange stitches evenly on 3 DPNs (2 stitches on each) or transfer to long 3.5mm circular needles (to knit in the round using the magic loop method). Next row is Row 1.

4. Row 1: k6, PM.

5. Row 2: kfb* x 6 (12 stitches total), SM

6. Now, knit rows 3-50 following the pattern with row 3 at the top (click on the thumbnail below). Each row in the pattern is repeated twelve times to complete a single round. SM (slip your marker) at the end of each round. At its maximum breadth, you will have 192 stitches per row.

On increase rows, M marks the increase. Use any increase you like – I used kfb, m1l and m1r. For the decrease rows, a backslash / marks decrease stitches (I used k2tog).

Chances are your head is smaller than mine, in which case you might want to repeat row 50 once or even twice until you arrive at a size that fits you more comfortably.

7. To finish, knit five rows in k1 p1 rib

8. Cast off in rib using an elastic bind-off (eg http://slipslipknit.com/?page_id=92). Weave in ends.

 

Also published on Ravelry.

Muddled mindsets

There is a good piece by Philip Stephens in today’s FT (£/€) arguing that differences in the way the UK sees the EU, compared to the way the other EU 27 see it, means that a “disorderly brexit” is more likely. This very much corresponds with my 25 years of experience in government on both sides of the Channel. But I think it goes beyond a mere difference in mindsets. Yes, I have long observed, and noted, that the UK approaches its foreign relations with a transactional attitude, on a case-by-case basis, always asking “what’s in it for us?” in very narrow terms. By this I mean that the calculation is quite deliberately and often explicitly made in terms of immediate trade-offs – winning a defence contract, or some other political victory that can be triumphed in the House of Commons and the tabloids. The calculation does not tend to give sufficient weight to the country’s longer term, strategic interest – for example the investment in goodwill which is hard to quantify but which is nonetheless very real. This is the mindset which led to a succession of EU ‘wins’ from Fontainebleu to Maastricht, Lisbon, and finally Cameron’s “reform” package. But all these wins had costs in terms of goodwill and influence, costs which were visible to many of us but downplayed or even actively denied by those who claimed the victory for themselves. And this speaks to a second aspect of this mindset: the UK’s confrontational, zero-sum approach to foreign relations in which there must always be winners and losers. Perhaps this is an echo of Britain’s winner-takes-all politics. Certainly, it’s something of a cliché that the Parliament in Westminster seats government and opposition literally against each other at sword’s length, while continental legislatures generally sit in a hemicycle configuration, facilitating a kaleidoscope of coalitions.

Well, after 40 years of trying, it seems that the square peg would not go into the round hole. The UK will step away from the EU and plough its own furrow. Viva la différence. But first we have to get past the Article 50 negotiations; and then we have to carve out a new UK-EU relationship. Years of difficult and very important negotiations lie ahead. As I said in my previous post, to negotiate successfully requires empathy and intelligence. Understanding the way your negotiating partner thinks is crucial to a successful outcome. And here we move beyond a mere difference in mindsets.

Philip Stephens

My observation over many years has been that not only does the UK (by which I mean Westminster and Whitehall) have a short-term, transactional approach to the EU, it thinks everyone else does, or should. It seems incapable of understanding that its partners’ different mindset might be a conscious political choice made in good faith and for sensible reasons. We see it in Whitehall’s reflexive focus on lobbying Paris and Berlin rather than Brussels and Strasbourg. We see it in the fixation on German cars and Italian prosecco. It is reflected in the “have your cake and eat it” attitude whereby Leave politicians in the UK seem unable to accept that EU politicians mean it when they say there will be no cherry-picking, that the UK cannot have a bespoke arrangement which allows it to benefit from the rights of EU membership without shouldering the responsibilities. The intelligence is there: the UK’s highly regarded diplomats are experts in communicating differences back to London in beautifully written telegrams. And yet this intelligence falls on resolutely deaf ears. The Leave ayatollahs don’t want to hear it. They shoot the messenger who dares to challenge their world view.

Philip Stephens

This is Westminster exceptionalism taken to a logical extreme. At the time of the Scottish referendum, I wrote about it and expressed a hope that devolution would in time introduce people to the reality and obvious benefits of federal, tiered government, undermining the Westminster exceptionalism that poisons the UK’s politics and public life. Perhaps it will, one day, but it will come too late for this generation and the next who will live in a Britain outside the EU, and much, much poorer for it.

Brexit: a negotiator’s observations

Over the course of my EU career I have negotiated many things, from trade quotas to international treaties. Here are a few comments and observations on preparations for Brexit negotiations.

  • Goodwill forms an essential part of one’s negotiating capital. Where one side feels goodwill towards the other, that party is more likely to accept trade-offs for the sake of an agreement which helps his partner keep his stakeholders happy. In a successful negotiation, both sides come away feeling happy with the outcome.
  • A confrontational, zero-sum situation, where winning is impossible without the other side losing, is less likely to lead to a good outcome for either side. You negotiate better with partners, not with opponents.
  • The best outcomes are achieved where both sides understand the other’s motivations and objectives, and have some empathy. “Help us help you” should be the motto of both sides in a negotiation. Try to put emotions to one side and be realistic about the other side’s objectives and motivation. To do that, you must get out of your echo chamber.
  • Avoid doing anything which will erode goodwill. For example, if your negotiating partner is most comfortable working in his own language, ask yourself “how can we help him work in his own language without putting ourselves in a weaker position?” Don’t run to the newspapers declaring that you will force him to work in your language rather than his – and especially don’t do that where you can’t deliver on that threat.
  • Negotiators always have to keep an eye ahead and an eye behind: watch and understand your negotiating partner and watch and understand your own stakeholders. Be careful to get the balance right. Don’t be so focused on managing your own stakeholders that you take your eye off the people with whom you will actually be negotiating.
  • Talking down your negotiating partner, adopting confrontational language, making demonstrably unrealistic or false assertions about your negotiating strengths, in order to build support among your stakeholders, is a very risky strategy. Your negotiating partner is watching, and will adapt his negotiating strategy and tactics accordingly.
  • If you do decide to go down the route of confrontation, do so from a position of strength. Bullying isn’t nice but it can be a valid strategy when you face intransigence. But only if you genuinely hold the right cards. The UK’s problem is (a) it does not hold a strong hand, (b) it is currently behaving in an intransigent way itself, (c) it therefore risks being the one who ends up being bullied.
  • Know your negotiating partner. If your partner is a Brussels institution with decades of experience negotiating complex agreements with multiple partners and simultaneously managing multiple stakeholders, confrontation probably isn’t going to be the best strategy. And don’t stick your head in the sand. You have to work with those negotiators – don’t invest all your effort in lobbying Berlin and Paris when Brussels is where you should be focusing most of your attention.

(Disclaimer: I am not involved on either side of this negotiation except as an interested observer.)

European consolidation and disintegration, past and future

hadrianswall

I spent last week walking along the line of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, the fortification built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian to mark the Empire’s northern boundary. I took it as an opportunity to reflect on a united Europe and a fractured Britain (then and now).

For a bit of fun, here is a map of the Roman Empire at around the time the wall was built and a map of the European Union as it might look a few years from now. Spot the key differences on the north-western periphery!

RomanEmpire

Roman Empire c 120AD

eu-map-2016

European Union c 2020AD

Katie Low wrote about the eerie parallels between ancient Roman and modern British politics on this blog a couple of months ago. Spotting parallels and patterns is one of the reasons we find history so fascinating. At its peak, Rome delivered a period of prosperity, stability, and security unrivalled in Europe’s history until the mid-20th century. It did so through a complex political structure which delivered effective administration and the rule of law throughout its diverse territory made up of many nations, all of whom enjoyed (from 212 AD) Roman citizenship.

Political consolidation might not appeal to nationalists but it makes a lot of sense for anyone in search of peace and prosperity. What’s more, it is inevitable. Take a look at this map of conflicts throughout recorded history. Note how concentrated they are in Europe compared to, say, China with its much longer history of political consolidation.

battles

4,500 years of human conflict

Rome’s period of peak success was relatively short-lived, just under a hundred years from the succession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. The EU has had around sixty years. Its citizens have enjoyed a period of high quality of life which we now take for granted. Again and again we hear from anti-EU nationalists the argument that we don’t need the EU any more, that any success it has had in resolving centuries-old conflict among European states is now baked in and irreversible. Any student of history should know better.

(Some more photos of my walk along Hadrian’s Wall are in this Flickr album.)

Two Breakups and a Funeral

In the last year I have gone through two traumatic breakups and a painful bereavement.

A year ago my father died. The loss of a parent is devastating and life-changing. But he had lived a full and long life, he was suffering, and so was my family. We all have to go one day. My dad’s day had come. My grief was laced with relief and acceptance.

Earlier this year, my partner of three years ended our relationship. I fell into a (thankfully short-lived) depression. I felt for a while as if my world had disintegrated, I felt rudderless. But on some level I knew that it had been necessary, that better times were ahead, that my ex had been brave to act, and that she was hurting too.

Last week the UK chose to leave the European Union. This doesn’t feel the same. I don’t love the EU like I loved my father and my partner. But I do love it, and this is personal. I believe in the EU. I work as an EU public servant because of that belief – it is, to use an unfashionable word, my vocation. For at least thirty years it has been the leitmotiv to my life. And now my homeland has rejected it, possibly fatally wounding it. I am beside myself with anger and grief. This isn’t the euthanising of a loving but flawed relationship, nor the end to a loved one’s terminal suffering. This is a cold-hearted killing. The trigger was pulled by people who had no real understanding of what they were doing, and the gun was being pointed by cynical, manipulative narcissists and psychopaths. Around me I see shocked people in denial, anger, grief. I don’t know if I will ever progress to acceptance.

[Guest Post] Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

A bit of a departure for this blog – and a very exciting one – here is a guest post by my friend and fellow former classicist, Katie Low, on parallels between modern British and ancient late republican Roman politics.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

Several ancient historians supposed that the defeat of Carthage meant Romans could no longer focus on an external enemy and thus fell to fighting each other: in the UK, while polarised politics are of course nothing new, the ‘reliability’ of the Cold War has been replaced by perceived and real threats from many different sources. Then, as the first century BC drew on, powerful leaders such as Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar outgrew the confines of the hierarchical political system that the republic had maintained for centuries and began to establish their own popular power bases. Finally, while making a glib link between the unutterably tragic death of Jo Cox and the assassination of Caesar in 44 would be entirely wrong, I would stress that the latter event foreshadowed subsequent  political murders of emperors that achieved no systemic change and were generally carried out for less than noble motives.

It was another assassination, however, that the terrible thing that happened on Thursday first brought to mind. In 91 BC, another Roman politician was murdered, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus (once again, I am not drawing  a detailed parallel with recent events: the specific cases are far more different than similar, but the broader similarities are what interest me). At this point, Rome was a troubled place. After the attempts of the 130s and 120s by the reforming tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to ease inequality in Roman society had ended in civil unrest and their violent deaths, tension had continued to build, and additional strife was brewing amongst the city-states on the Italian peninsula who were allied to Rome but did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship.

Drusus, who as tribune represented the common people but, like virtually all magistrates, came from the upper classes, seems to have pursued a mixed programme. He proposed measures to reinforce the authority of the senate, but also a law that would have provided land for the impoverished working classes, and he also intended to grant citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. The sources for this period are not comprehensive and his motives not entirely clear (he was not a straightforward popular champion), but his assassination by an unknown assailant unleashed armed revolt by the allied cities who saw no other way of gaining full recognition from Rome. The subsequent Social War (socius is Latin for ‘ally’) lasted three years and was destructive and bloody. Historians have disagreed over whether the independent confederation established by the allies was their ultimate aim or simply a base from which to fight for citizenship, but although it was eventually granted to them, the conflict segued into a full-blown Roman civil war, a precursor to the ones that ended the republic itself.

Once again, I do not believe this will happen in the UK: 91 BC and AD 2016 are very far apart in all kinds of ways. But I can’t help thinking they have elements in common. Inequality and disenfranchisement, mass and elite alienation, identity politics – indeed, the dichotomy between the Italian allies wanting to join Rome but on their preferred terms, and seeking to ‘go it alone’ as an independent nation, looks oddly familiar amid the current debate over British membership of the EU. As I said, history tends to provide more questions than answers. It suggests, though, that once conventional political stops offering solutions, things may never be the same again.

The Age of Unlightenment

This was the advice from my friend Mary this morning:unlightenmentA snapshot of where we are on the morning of 14 June 2016: a disturbed man apparently driven to self-hate murders fifty people in a club; populist politicians clamber over the corpses to score points; religious fundamentalists claim the atrocity for their own. A law firm boasts of its victory over families trying to secure a future for their children who have already been dealt a shit hand by life. And my country seems intent upon an unimaginably stupid act of self-harm, egged on by charlatans, liars, demagogues, and self-serving narcissists.

I feel as if I’m watching our civilisation’s lights dim. The Age of Unlightenment.