Opinion

John Lloyd

The inconvenient voters of Europe

John Lloyd
Nov 19, 2013 17:06 UTC

Sixty years ago, pondering the question of an unruly populace, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht mused, “Would it not be easier / In that case, for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?”

It was a rare piece of ironic criticism of East Germany’s communist regime for Brecht, since he usually supported it. But after the regime’s suppression of a workers’ revolt in 1953, he spoke out. It’s one of his most famed observations, trotted out whenever a populace is ungrateful enough to vote “against their own good.”

European Union politicians can sympathize. They’ve labored for six decades to fashion a union that was supposed to end wars and greatly expand economic markets, not to mention bring former communist states into freedom.

Yet the European people, instead of gratitude, now strain against an institution over which they have little direct say. In one of several recent books that express pessimism over the future of the euro currency, The Fall of the Euro, Jens Nordvig, the head of currency strategy at Nomura Securities, puts it bluntly: “The economic need for further integration is clashing with public sentiment, increasingly opposed to handing over additional functions to European officials.” Nordvig’s pessimism derives from the view that the politicians cannot ensure the EU’s political support, not that the authorities can’t manage the mechanics of the euro.

The British economist and commentator David Marsh is marginally less categorical in his new book, Europe’s Deadlock. He thinks the euro currency may survive, but shrink in footprint. He saw firsthand how skeptical the Germans had become when he took part in a debate in Hamburg in 2009. The audience believed that the euro was irreversible. But when faced with the question of who’d pay for it, the previous majority who had thought that the euro would last forever melted into a small minority.

A tale of two citizenships

John Lloyd
Nov 12, 2013 18:25 UTC

When New York City Mayoral-elect Bill de Blasio strode on stage for his victory speech last week, he said that “the people of this city have chosen a progressive path.” But will they stick with it (and him)?

The international media, at least, are skeptical. The Economist opined that “New Yorkers may yet miss (Michael) Bloomberg.” The Wall Street Journal gave generous space to doubters like the omnipresent Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, who said that de Blasio “could go too far left, because there’s a tolerance for moderation, not necessarily for liberalism.” The Financial Times’ columnist Christopher Caldwell took an opposite, but still skeptical, tack, questioning how far his leftism would really go: “de Blasio would be more like his predecessor than meets the eye.” Only the liberal New York Times was generally welcoming, but covered itself against his possible failure by noting that “he is a politician who has yet to prove himself as a manager, and it will be a steep learning curve.”

To the UK Labor Party’s leader Ed Miliband, however, de Blasio’s victory was particularly sweet. I recently talked to a member of his “shadow cabinet” — the group of opposition parliamentarians that correspond to the government’s cabinet — and was told that Miliband’s pitch of a “one nation Labor party” was based on inculcating an ethic of solidarity among citizens and reversing the rampant individualism that Miliband sees encouraged by Prime Minister David Cameron (and that de Blasio sees as having been fostered by ex-Mayor Bloomberg). So while recognizing that Britain is not New York, the two men share a common sense that a new civic mindset is as important as any specific measures.

Russell Brand’s socialist revolution

John Lloyd
Nov 5, 2013 21:49 UTC

Russell Brand, the British comedian, used a guest editorship of the 100-plus-year-old leftist magazine New Statesman last month to call for a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system.” Capitalism, and the ideology that sustains it — “100 percent corrupt” — must be overthrown. He also doesn’t think people should vote, as partaking in democracy would further the illusion that a rotten system could change. It was a call, albeit chaotically phrased, for a socialist revolution.

Born into the middle class, Brand’s childhood was disturbed: his photographer father left when he was six months old, his mother developed cancer when he was eight (but survived), he left home in his mid-teens and took to drugs. He later became a star, delighted in promiscuity, married the singer Katy Perry for a year and a half and grew modestly (by star standards) rich, with an estimated net worth of $15 million and a lovely new Hollywood millionaire bachelor’s pad.

None of this disqualifies him from speaking and writing seriously about politics, nor from calling for a socialist revolution. Marx was born into the upper-middle class, Lenin was a minor aristocrat by birth, Stalin studied to be a priest and Mao was the son of a wealthy farmer. Even Pol Pot came from a peasant family considered relatively wealthy by the standards of the times. All of these people called for, or launched, revolutions. No reason, then, to believe that a demand for a 21st century socialist revolution could not be launched from the Hollywood Hills, or from a BBC studio.

Across the world, universal healthcare is in poor health

John Lloyd
Oct 29, 2013 18:08 UTC

Most Europeans don’t understand the U.S. healthcare debate. They don’t understand it because the opposition to it, and its breadth and depth, runs so counter to the experience of almost every European born since World War Two. It’s an experience so deep, so vigorously underpinned by government action and social teaching, that it has become a moral credo. They think healthcare is and should be a public provision. Most Americans don’t seem to.

The Europeans, who think of their unions as stubborn defenders of public provisions, don’t understand why a bunch of U.S. union leaders have come out against some of Obamacare’s central elements, arguing in a letter that it will “shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40 hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class.” (They worry that the thresholds for employers to provide health insurance will mean employers shift full-time employees to part-time work.)

The Europeans also don’t understand the visceral opposition of the right to the proposed system. Harvard economist and Obama advisor David Cutler looked at Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and said, “Never before in history has a candidate run for president with the idea that too many people have insurance coverage.” Yet Romney got a respectable vote. To oppose universal healthcare in Europe would be to guarantee instant political oblivion.

China’s great firewall grows ever higher

John Lloyd
Oct 22, 2013 14:17 UTC

This week I was scheduled to attend a seminar on new and social media in China with other British journalists, but first I needed a visa. It never came. Consular officials told me that I was denied entrance because I didn’t have an appropriate letter of invitation — but others in my party traveled with the same documentation that I provided.

So why couldn’t I visit? I fell back on an explanation that seemed rational: the authorities hadn’t liked my journalism.

I’ve been working for the last three years with a young Chinese journalist on a book about the state of Chinese investigative journalism. Over a year ago, we published a joint piece in the Financial Times in which we argued that the scope of investigative journalism in China has narrowed, and noted the growing list of reporters who have been fired. One of the most famed, Wang Keqin, had uncovered a series of frauds and failures by the authorities that resulted in his sacking, twice — once in 2011, and again, from another paper, in February of this year.

In Ukraine, a choice of civilizations

John Lloyd
Oct 16, 2013 17:57 UTC

KIEV — In 1993, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed that “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.” His theorythat the world was divided into potentially warring civilizations — and later, his book on the topic — have been denounced by legions of critics, mainly on the liberal side. But it had and has retained one group of unlikely fans: Russian nationalists.

They saw in his definition of “Slavic-Orthodox culture” (including much of the former Soviet Union and reaching deep into East-Central Europe) a confirmation, albeit from a surprising quarter, of their own view of the world. That is, that Russia is and must remain the central and organizing power of a collection of states that history, religion and culture had predisposed to unity, and to a distinctly separate identity from a West that would devour them behind a front of “spreading democracy.”

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is an ardent Huntington-ite. His much quoted view that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century signaled a deeply felt loss of a world in which Russia ruled not so much by force but by cultural and political leadership. In such a view, the nations that comprise that civilization are less important than the civilization itself. For a Slavic-Orthodox state to shift to the West would not be a choice, but a betrayal of the bloc’s essence.

Maybe don’t give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses

John Lloyd
Oct 8, 2013 16:16 UTC

As we saw last week, Africans are desperately risking, and losing, their lives in the struggle to get into Europe. They come above all from the war-afflicted states of Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. They trek to Libya (itself now increasingly in bloody turmoil, a Spring long gone) or Tunisia, and from there seek a boat to the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost piece of Italian soil, nearer to the north African coast than it is to Sicily.

The emigrants pay up to 1,000 euros to traffickers, who sometimes take their money and disappear, sometimes pack hundreds of them into fishing boats, which might normally carry a dozen men. From there they set off to cover the 80 or so miles to the lovely island, a luxurious resort with some of the best beaches on the planet, and now the fevered hope of some of the world’s poorest.

At the end of last week, a 66-foot ship with upwards of 500 of these people sank less than a mile from Lampedusa. More than 150 were rescued; as many as 350 may have drowned. Italy, mired in recession with burgeoning unemployment for all, and especially for the young, is no more generous to illegal emigrants than the rest of Europe, but the scale caused shock there and throughout the continent. Unlikely, though, that it will it cause a change in attitude.

Goodbye to all that centrism

John Lloyd
Sep 30, 2013 20:17 UTC

How much longer will the political center hold in Europe? Its erosion, years in the making, is only picking up speed. In Italy, the latest political crisis presages the collapse of the centrist left-right coalition. In Austria, a recent election barely gave a similar coalition enough votes to continue governing. The European Union nations are hurtling toward elections next spring for the European parliament, which will bring real debate and divide to what has been a largely consensual assembly. Not far separated from the yolk of the financial crisis, nationalism is the politics of the times.

While Europe’s economy is making a slow, small improvement (with exceptions in the south), its politics are becoming much more fragile. Most economists say that the crisis can only be fully remedied by taking more powers into a powerful Euro-center, one that’s fiscal, financial, macro-economic, and thus political. Brussels believes it must be done: but no national government, even Germany’s, believes it could deliver popular approval for the move. The crisis is already forcing integration, yet causing citizens to recoil from the EU. That’s the central contradiction of Europe, stark and grim.

Voters now demand that their national governments protect them from the fallout of treaties that their political leaders signed. Citizens are concerned that immigration — especially from the two latest (and poorest) EU members, Romania and Bulgaria — is ruining their societies, and the growing recoil is forcing these politicians to retreat from their commitments. Manuel Valls, the French Interior Minister, said in an interview last week that many of the Roma (once known as gypsy) people who have come to France mainly from Romania and Bulgaria and live in squalid camps, should return. A European Commission spokesman responded the next day, saying such a move would break European law.

For Germany, mum’s the word

John Lloyd
Sep 23, 2013 17:17 UTC

If every nation gets the leader it deserves, what would Angela Merkel’s smashing victory on Sunday say about Germany?

It would show that Germans are cautious, prefer consensus to confrontation in their politics, and dislike pizzazz in their politicians. They both want a united Europe and despise southern European states that can’t manage their finances. At least, that’s how they are for the moment. (European politics, even in Germany, are febrile these days.)

Angela Merkel has achieved a rare fusion with a nation into which she was not born. Merkel is the daughter of an East German, socialistic Lutheran pastor, passionately fond of opera, fluent in Russian and moderately good in English, with a doctorate in quantum chemistry. But, as an approving German woman told the BBC, she is now seen as “one of us.”

The Church and organized labor’s new orthodoxy

John Lloyd
Sep 17, 2013 21:24 UTC

Two of the western world’s great organizations, the AFL-CIO and the Roman Catholic Church, decided last week to tackle two of the world’s great problems differently than they had for decades before. This might just be another proof that they’re getting weaker (they are). Or it might be a big, good shift.

The two groups are hardly alike. One is concerned with the material; the other occupied with things spiritual.  But last week they were united, as the leaders of both appeared ready to break with tradition and leave behind a history of exclusion. These moves haven’t attracted much notice: but if the two leaders follow through, the consequences will be enormous.

Let’s address the AFL-CIO’s action first. At its convention in Los Angeles last week, the confederation’s President Richard Trumka noted that CEO pay had gone up 40 percent since 2009, and invited the delegates to imagine “what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes went up by 40 percent. Almost no one would live in poverty!” True, but an expected line from a union boss. But then he moved on to say — extraordinarily, for a union representative — that “we cannot win economic justice…for union members alone. It would not be right and it’s not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”

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