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EU Presents a United Front on the Venezuelan Crisis

January 30, 2019


This week’s blog post takes us some distance away from the European continent to focus on the EU’s response to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. On January 23—a specially symbolic date in the country, as it marks the ousting of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez and the transition to democracy in 1958—opposition leader Juan Guaidó sworn himself in as interim President of the Republic before a massive crowd in the center of Caracas. The crowd, numbering tens of thousands, had come out to protest the regime of President Nicolás Maduro amidst increasing discontent for the growing political authoritarianism and economic devastation that has forced more than three million Venezuelans into exile, in a country that until not long ago was seen as one of the wealthiest and most genuinely democratic in Latin America. Although, ever since the rise of Hugo Chávez to power in 1999, Venezuela has gradually experienced an erosion of democratic checks and balances and a concentration of power in the hands of a populist Executive, things took a turn for the worse under the leadership of Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor. Faced with growing discontent from the working classes—which, although traditionally a bastion of Chavismo, were hit hard by an economic crisis fueled in large part by the regime’s mismanagement of the state’s powerful oil industry—and the ensuing control of the legislature (the National Assembly) by the opposition, Maduro decided to convene in 2017 a National Constituent Assembly supposedly charged with revising the constitution, but actually designed to serve as a “supraconstitutional” power meant to bypass the opposition-controlled legislature. This Constituent Assembly, in turn, convened presidential elections in 2018, won by Maduro but not recognized by most members of the international community as legitimate for not having taken place through the regular constitutional procedures or with the requisite guarantees, which led to an electoral boycott by the opposition.

It is in this context that Juan Guaidó enters the scene. Recently elected President of the National Assembly—the only representative institution recognized by the international community as democratically legitimate—he invoked Article 233 of the Constitution to claim that, given the lack of valid elections, there is a vacuum in power that must be filled by the next in the line of succession: himself. Calling Maduro a usurper, he proclaimed himself interim President for a transition period leading to new elections, and he received the immediate backing of the United States and most Latin American nations (excepting Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Uruguay), who have recognized him as the legitimate leader of the country.

The emergence of an all-out crisis, with two parallel governments claiming representation of the state, has also brought pressure on European nations to lend their recognition one way or the other. In this regard, however, the European response has been more measured than the American one: rather than immediately recognize Guaidó as President, most EU countries have manifested their desire for a democratic transition and have called for elections to be held as soon as possible. Notably, the EU did not recognize the 2018 presidential elections as legitimate, so there seems to be some ground on which to base a show of support for Guaidó’s cause. Nevertheless, the EU has chosen to avoid rushed decisions, in large part due to the complexity of the situation: given the multiple avenues of interpretation surrounding the constitutional issues at stake, it may have made sense to wait until it could be ascertained that Guaidó’s claim had at least some facial credibility.

guaido maduro

In the end, the position that prevailed was to issue an ultimatum to the Maduro regime: either convene free and fair elections in a matter of days, or the EU will recognize Guaidó as the only legitimate president. In a statement released by High Representative Federica Mogherini, the Union reiterated “its full support to the National Assembly, which is the democratic legitimate body of Venezuela,” noting that “[i]n the absence of an announcement on the organisation of fresh elections with the necessary guarantees over the next days, the EU will take further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership in line with article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution.”

This position was advocated by the Spanish government—undoubtedly the one with deepest connections to Venezuela—, which also insisted on the need for a united European front on the issue. And it is perhaps the most sensible position that the EU could adopt, declaring itself unequivocally in favor a democratic transition while avoiding the appearance of a direct interest (or participation) in the challenge launched by Guaidó. Nevertheless, most of the principal European nations (such as the UK, France, or Germany) have made clear their sympathies towards the self-proclaimed interim President. This once again includes Spain, whose Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has travelled to Latin America and is currently in the process of discussing the Venezuelan crisis with the Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who remains one of the few Latin American leaders that have decided not to pronounce themselves against Maduro.

Ultimately, the international recognition of Guaidó as interim President may play a significant role in swaying what is in all likelihood going to be the key player in the current crisis: the Venezuelan armed forces, on whom a hugely unpopular and increasingly authoritarian Maduro depends to keep him in power. After all, international powers like the US and the EU have the capacity to exercise financial pressure by blocking the regime’s many assets abroad and by freezing its oil exports, as well as to ignore Maduro’s foreign policy in favor of Guaidó’s, thus helping turn the latter’s claims into a de facto reality and helping convince loyalist members of the military that they may be on the losing side of the equation. But, in any case, it is important that the international response be seen as supporting, and not driving, Venezuela’s own struggle for a democratic transition, or else it will fuel the regime’s own discourse that, by supporting Maduro, the military are also defending the nation against foreign intervention. It is equally important that such response avoid flaring up the already delicate situation with a bombastic rhetoric that may lead to violent escalation and even civil war. And, in that sense, the approach taken by the EU may be striking the adequate balance. Whether that balance will produce the necessary results, and contribute to a peaceful transition in the Caribbean country, remains to be seen.



Forest Schools in Europe

January 25, 2019

knife girl

A forest schools or nature school has been a popular and upcoming form of early childhood education in parts of Europe since the 1950s. As the name denotes it is outdoor education for young children in which students visit natural spaces to learn personal, social and technical skills. Forest schools mostly cater to preschool or kindergarten aged children and some of the outdoor skills learned include how to light fires, garden, whittle, prepare chickens, and climb.

To some this can be a frightening sight with children high up in trees or using sharp knives but now what originated in Denmark has spread to other parts of Europe and the world. Denmark itself has 1 in 10 preschools, which are held outdoors. The UK now has around 150 forest schools and Germany has around 2,000. Canada started their first school in 2007 and the concept is also popular in Australia and New Zealand.

Many involved in the development of forest school education claim playing and learning outside has been found to boost children’s development in various ways. These schools are said to improve concentration, creativity, happiness, and social skills. Such improvements in childhood development were found in a study on Forest Schools in England and Wales, which listed increased language skills, higher motivation to participate, and greater knowledge of natural surroundings. There is also evidence that it stimulates motor development. Some elementary teacher in Denmark say they can tell the difference between kids who have been to a forest schools because they are quick to learn.

This type of schooling, which has now spread to beyond Scandinavia, is based on the Nordic philosophy of ‘friluftsliv’ (literally ‘outdoors’ in Danish) which embodies the idea that returning to nature is returning to home. For the Danish in the 1950s, Ella Flatau formed a “walking kindergarten” where daily hiking was part of the curriculum. Mothers began sending their children from Copenhagen’s busy neighborhoods to the countryside for these forest schools. In the 1970s, there was another boom in nature-based preschools. The forest school approach has also existed since the 1950s in Sweden. Goesta Frohm who created the idea of ‘Skogsmulle’ (in Swedish ‘skog; means forest and ‘Mulle’ is character who lives in the forest) to bridge the gap he felt younger children had to nature. His methods include hand sensory experiences, regular visits to the forest, and reconnecting to nature. He executed this process though an imaginary character called Skogsmulle. In 1986 the first ‘I UR och Skur’ (In Rain or Shine) nursery opened and led to a movement of more than 190 nurseries and 20 primary schools based upon the Skogsmulle teaching method.

There are many types of ‘forest schools’ in Denmark and Sweden. They are usually set of in woodland to provide starting points for activities inside and outside for the whole or significant part of the day. The people that take care of these children of the forest have to complete a special 3.5-year bachelor program and train to care for children. They have the know how on when to step in and help and when not to, in order to teach a lesson. Some schools in the UK use this method to help kids with special education needs or who suffer from extreme stress and anxiety.

tree boy

Using sharp tools and playing in more unconventional  conditions does increase the likelihood of injuries but serious injuries are rare and parents seemingly trust the forest schools’ teachers. The main injuries are insect stings and scrapes and some view this as a positive opportunity to build more resilience at a young age. So, will these schools be a fad or continue to spread across the world helping us connect to nature as we live in an increasingly technologically bound world?


Uncertainty Looms after Commons Reject Brexit Deal

January 18, 2019

may commons

On Tuesday night, the House of Commons handed a resounding defeat to Prime Minister May’s Brexit deal, voting it down 432 votes against 202. The defeat, by a staggering 230 votes, is the largest ever suffered by a British government in the modern era, and it had the dubious honor of bringing together rebel Conservatives dissatisfied with the proposed deal (for not sufficiently delivering on the Brexit promises) and Labour remainers who believe the entire Brexit process to be a disaster. This seemingly unnatural communion actually reflects the difficulties lying ahead in the road towards the March 29 deadline, marking the moment in which the UK will officially leave the EU: although there is widespread agreement among members of parliament (MPs) about what they don’t want, there is no such agreement about what they do want. The crux of the situation was perhaps best captured by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, in a speech before the European Parliament on the day after the vote: “Objectively speaking, this vote is not a clear manifestation of a positive majority which would define an alternative project, and an alternative to the proposal on the table today.”

This reality is particularly stark insofar as it moves Britain ever closer to the one outcome that almost nobody wants: a no-deal Brexit. No-deal has been rightly depicted as a worst-case scenario, as it would see the UK storming out without any kind of system in place for its future interaction with Europe, thereby becoming just another third country vis-à-vis the EU, but one whose infrastructure is not prepared to cope with a customs border between it and its main trading partner. Unfortunately, however, no-deal happens to be the default rule if, well, no deal is reached by the time the March 29 deadline arrives. And EU representatives have repeatedly emphasized that the deal presented to Parliament by Ms. May is the only viable deal, already incorporating as many concessions as they can possibly include. Therefore, the expectation on the part of some hard-Brexiter MPs that after Tuesday’s vote the Prime Minister should simply go back to Brussels and get a better deal—specifically, one without the now famous “Irish backstop”—is simply unrealistic. More than that, it is delusional.

In light of that reality, it would seem to make sense for Ms. May to start to look for a different kind of consensus, one that seeks to bring Labour MPs hoping for a soft Brexit together with moderate Tories who may be willing to give up on some of the unrealistic demands of hard-Brexiters. Unfortunately, she has taken the opposite path: while promising to seek cross-party support, she has already ruled out the possibility of a customs union or a second referendum, thus entrenching herself in the same red lines that led to her unprecedented parliamentary defeat. Given that these two are precisely the alternative demands of soft-Brexiters and remainers, the call for cross-party talks is largely an empty one, as it rules out the participation of liberal MPs. This leaves her, once again, with only the more radical and intransigent Brexiters within her own party as her interlocutors, which means that the possibility of any alternative deal with the EU for which she may garner enough backing remains as distant as ever. Perhaps her hope is that, in the midst of the ensuing deadlock—with her political supporters agreeing only to demands that that the EU would never acquiesce to—, the impending reality of a no-deal Brexit will force most MPs to change their minds at the last minute and accept her deal as the lesser evil. But, if that is in fact her hope, it is an irresponsible one, one that rests on putting the nation’s future at stake for the sake of her own political pride. Indeed, the politics that have surrounded Brexit thus far give little reassurance that the possibility of nefarious consequences for the country will actually drive Conservative politicians to make the responsible choice. On the contrary, opportunist figures like Boris Johnson are likely to hail no-deal as a more welcome outcome than “vassalage” to the EU, putting all of their deceitful demagoguery on display in a bid to obtain the Prime Ministership during the ensuing chaos.

In the face of the impossibility of compromise over a reasonable Brexit, then, it would seem that the best alternative to the self-inflicted wounds of no-deal would be to convene a new referendum and let voters decide whether they want to move ahead with the madness. Ms. May’s arguments against the second referendum, that it would be a betrayal of democracy and that it would undermine the trust of British citizens in their institutions, are simply misplaced. The referendum would not be a re-do of the 2016 vote, asking voters to change their minds: it would be a new question on a new subject; namely, whether in light of the current reality surrounding the implementation of Brexit (something about which citizens could not have had the necessary information before the process begun), voters would prefer to go ahead with a no-deal, to endorse May’s own deal, or to remain within the EU. In addition, absent some constitutional constraint that may serve the purpose of facilitating democratic governance, there is no normatively compelling reason why the will of voters some years ago should be any more authoritative than the will of voters today, especially when we consider the reality of changing demographics and of a changed political context. Therefore, it may be better for Ms. May to give up on her red lines and open up the possibilities of a softer Brexit, or of a second referendum if that does not work. There is simply too much at stake, and if through her intransigence the Prime Minister leads the country into the disaster of a no-deal, the responsibility will rest squarely on her shoulders.


In your @_Orbit: Germany’s data breach by G0d

January 11, 2019


Starting in December personal data and documents from hundreds of German politicians and public figures were publish on Twitter for all to see in one of Germany’s most-far reaching data leaks. There was, however, one group that remained unaffected out of the seven political parties. AfD or Alternative for Germany’s right wing party was left untouched. Some of the higher profile people affected include Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greens leader Robert Habeck. The published information included telephone numbers, addresses, credit card data, photographs, and private communications. Several affected have deleted social media accounts as a result of  the breach.

Germany’s federal criminal police (BKA) said the information published online included addresses, telephone numbers, credit card data, photographs, privates communications and copies of identity cards. The Twitter account G0d with the handle @_0rbit was suspected to be behind this as it published the leaked information in an “advent calendar” where a window is opened each day leading up to Christmas. Early postings involved the personal information of rappers, journalists and YouTube video bloggers, but starting Dec. 20, information on members of five of the six political parties with seats in the German Parliament was released. It was not clear why AfD politicians were spared.

The account has since been suspended. Originally security officials thought the breach to be ‘the usual suspects’, Russia, however while they have denied involvement, this time they have been cleared as a unnamed German suspect has been identified as the culprit. The perpetrator was unknown until Jan 7th when G0d confessed to the crime. Police report A 20-year-old German man has made a confession that he was behind a data breach. Investigators said the man was still in school and living with his parents. The suspect said he acted alone and out of annoyance at statements made by the public figures he attacked. Styling himself “G0d”, he published private information about politicians, journalists, and celebrities on Twitter, under the username @_0rbit. His provisional arrest, however, was lifted on Monday evening and he was released “due to a lack of grounds for detention”, police said. They took into account both his age and his co-operation. He “exploited several vulnerabilities”, investigators said, adding that several such security gaps have since been fixed. The private information seems to have been acquired over a substantial period of time in 2018 in what officials called a “sophisticated” operation, and added to publicly available information.

The breach has been a wake-up call to security officials around the world as there have been much criticism towards Germany’s BSI or Federal Office for Information Security. The BSI defended its role in responding to the data breach, saying it could not have connected individual cases it was aware of last year until the entire data release became public last week. “It’s clear that we as the federal government … must do more to improve cyber security,” Stephan Mayer, state secretary in the Interior Ministry said. It has also emerged that German officials knew of at least one attack last year, but thought it was an isolated case. Overall, this has caused a call for a tightening data security laws.


Crisis or Opportunity? Macron and the Need for an Adequate Response to the Yellow Vest Movement

December 14, 2018

Arc de Triomphe

Competing with the demise of Theresa May’s Brexit deal for the most prominent news of the week in Europe, the revolt of the “Yellow Vests” in France has captured both headlines and people’s imaginations. The largely spontaneous protest movement, with its peaceful demonstrations on the one hand and its riotous vandalism on the other, has rekindled a hope for the revival of the ideal of popular resistance in the face of an elitist government that fails to deliver for the working and middle classes. Very much in line with the old-timey French tradition of the barricades, this modern-day revolution has left images of the Arc de Triomphe clouded by the smoke of burning debris and the tear gas of armored law-enforcement, along with hundreds of injured and arrested, as demonstrators gathered to protest for a fourth consecutive weekend in the streets of Paris. More importantly, perhaps, the revolt has placed the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, against the ropes. Indeed, Macron himself is at the very center of the storm: although the protests begun in opposition to his announced fuel-tax increase—aimed at reducing carbon emissions—, the yellow vests (named after the reflective hazard  vests that all drivers are mandated to carry in their vehicles under French law) were soon asking for his head. And they continued doing so even after the President backtracked on the tax. “Too little, too late,” most protesters said, as the movement progressed towards an overarching critique of a system that many feel is all too ready to simply “leave them behind.”

Indeed, much of the recent discontent with Macron has come from the perception that he is a self-centered figure too preoccupied with his own image as the savior of Europe to pay attention to the needs of the not-so-privileged. The issue for a large swath of voters is that the President, who ran as the non-establishment yet pro-European alternative to both far-right and far-left populism, has readily embraced neoliberal policies (such as the reduction of taxes on the wealthy to stimulate investment) while neglecting the common people. More than that, he is seen as having adopted a generally haughty attitude towards the public, treating those who express their discontent towards him in a condescending manner that betrays an elitist arrogance reminiscent of other French political figures of the past.

There is a danger behind this attitude, however, that extends well beyond Macron’s own political future. In particular, the problem is that the President’s self-positioning as both a pro-European centrist and an aloof, “Jupiterian” figure unconcerned with the predicaments of the common Frenchman risks damaging not only his own image, but the whole idea of a political center that may serve as a viable alternative to the populism currently on the rise throughout Europe. After all, Macron’s message is that his presidency is the last bulwark against the populist tide, especially on the Euroskeptic right. He has therefore effectively tied his own figure to the possibility of continued institutional stability in the heart of EU, especially as he is now positing himself as the heir-apparent to Angela Merkel’s European throne. But considering that it is in large part the perception of a detached elitism by the political cadres that has driven many voters to the ideological fringes, Macron’s overall approach may only serve  to reinforce in the eyes of a majority the idea that pro-European institutionalism is indistinguishable from an elitist neoliberalism that works against the needs of the common people. This, however, is not necessarily the case: as German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas has repeatedly emphasized, a politically integrated European Union may in fact be the best and only hope for the survival in the continent of the social-democratic model and the welfare state, since individual nations can no longer be expected to successfully cope with the forces of global neoliberalism that dictate their economic and social policies.

Of course, the possibility of any such integration passes through the fundamental reformation of European institutions so as to make the whole EU more democratic or, in other words, more directly accountable to the people, thereby giving its citizens a greater stake in European politics and a greater sense of common belonging to a European polity. And this, in turn, can only be based on a reinforcement of European competencies, so that the democratic participation of citizens at the European level may have a meaningful object, and so that the Union may have the capacity to operate as a meaningful actor in the global stage. Interestingly, Macron’s pro-European stance includes some ideas in that direction, ideas that anti-establishment protesters like the Yellow Vests tend to oppose, having developed a reasonable suspicion of the European Union as just one more element in the government’s drift towards globalization. Therefore, it is the President’s responsibility to disassociate the process of European integration from the neoliberal project that many French citizens legitimately fear, and part of that task may include repudiating some of the economic policies that have so angered the populace. It also includes a rejection of the elitist attitude that voters have come to despise, and in that sense Macron may have a lot to learn from the very leader he aspires to replace at the head of European politics, Angela Merkel. Indeed, Merkel’s political savviness has always been accompanied by an outward projection of humbleness and a rejection of the same egotism that Macron all too often likes to display. This outward image has helped Merkel secure the admiration of many in Germany and abroad, and has given her a voice of authority even as she stepped down, just recently, from her position as the leader of the conservative party in her country. An image like that would certainly help Macron dispel some of his own reputation as an elitist figure that does not truly represent the people, a reputation that is now one of the gravest dangers to his presidency and to European stability more generally. After all, if populism were to succeed in France, the hopes for the continuity of the European project would be largely shattered.

Perhaps Macron’s televised speech last Tuesday in response to the protests, accepting responsibility for his aloofness and promising to put in place reforms meant to improve the condition of the working class—such as an increase in the minimum salary—should be seen as a good first step, a gesture of good faith that will hopefully lead to an altogether different approach by the embattled leader. In fact, the current crisis could even serve as a moment of opportunity for the President, a chance to change the direction of his policies while portraying himself as someone willing to listen to the demands of the people. Naturally, that opportunity will be complicated by the headless nature of the Yellow Vests, who as a largely grassroots movement do not actually operate under a single voice or an identifiable leadership, but instead comprise a multitude of different individuals with different demands that are unlikely to be all simultaneously satisfied, not matter the response. What this means is that not just Macron, but also the protesters themselves, as well as the broader French citizenry, bear part of the responsibility to bring the current crisis to a satisfactory conclusion, At this moment, following the President’s concessions, the ball appears to be on the court of the Yellow Vests. Let us hope that, instead of mere violence or impossible demands, what follows is a process of dialogue that allows the political classes to effectively respond to the concerns of their constituents. Nothing less than the future of social democracy in Europe is at stake.


Green Taxes and Yellow Vests: French Outrage to Increasing Gas Prices

December 7, 2018


Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a green tax on fuel to go into effect January 1 as part of his environmental policy strategy. This green tax comes on the back of the call for action against climate change. This has set off protest for the last three weeks, which turned violent last weekend in Paris. As a result, President Emmanuel Macron announced on Tuesday that it would suspend the gasoline tax increase for at least six months

These protests have been named the Yellow Vest Movement (Mouvement des gilets jaunes) for the safety vests worn by the protesters The yellow vest idea came early on, people who agreed with a petition were encouraged to show their support by displaying the high-visibility yellow vest every driver in France must by law carry, in case of roadside trouble. 

The Yellow Vest Movement originated in May and spread through social media.  It started when a woman named Priscillia Ludosky launched an internet petition calling for a drop in gas prices. The petition went mostly unnoticed until October, when Éric Drouet, a truck driver,   circulated it among his Facebook friends. The media picked up the story causing the number of signatures to skyrocket from an initial 700 to 200,000. Now it has more than 1.15 million signatures and counting. Originally, the yellow vest protesters were people from rural areas who have to drive long distances as part of their daily life and couldn’t afford the increase in fuel prices. The movement grew to include members of the working and middle classes, who  say their incomes are too high to qualify for social welfare benefits but too low to make ends meet.

The movement moved from social media to the streets on November 17 when Drouet decided to hold a car rally protest to demand lower gas prices. Supporters were asked to place their yellow vests on their dashboard or back shelf. The protests started in the French provinces but moved to Paris last week where they turned violent  over the weekend. Rioters defaced the Arc de Triomphe and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, looted shops, vandalized buildings and even attacked police. The cost of damage in Paris has been estimated at 4 million euros, or $4.5 million, protesters sprayed graffiti that read “Macron resignation” and, on the Arc de Triomphe, “We’ve chopped off heads for less than this.” Along with monetary losses four people have lost their lives due to the protests and hundreds were wounded. Three of the four people were killed separately in traffic accidents caused by roadblocks set up by yellow vests, and an 80-year-old woman in Marseille died from injuries she received when a tear gas grenade hit her in the face as she closed her apartment windows to protests below. Over 400 people have been arrested in Paris. Macron was in Buenos Aires for the G-20 summit over the weekend during the riots. He denounced the violence from Argentina and said those responsible for the chaos would be found and punished.


What the protester want has changed with their initial demand to repeal the green tax on diesel. Now, others want the current minimum wage to be raised. There have also been calls to dissolve the National Assembly and hold new elections. There has been a lot of rhetoric directed towards Macron, there have even been chants of “Macron resign!” President Emmanuel Macron was elected last year with an overwhelming mandate for sweeping reform, but his popularity has fallen sharply in recent months. He was elected on a platform of economic reform which would, the French people were told, improve their lives – with lower unemployment and a kick-started economy and many feel that has not emerged. Political leaders such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left France Unbowed have tried without success to latch on to the yellow vests. Macron has accused his political opponents of hijacking the movement in order to block the reforms. Macron has previously said he won’t back down on the fuel tax. Since he took office 18 months ago, the French president has seen public push back on almost every one of his reforms, especially liberalizing the labor market. However, this is the biggest political crisis he has faced so far, and it could determine the rest of his presidency.

On Tuesday, due to the violence, it was announced the tax would be postponed for six months and not start at the beginning of the year as planned.announced the green tax would be postponed for at least six months. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, is the one who announced this saying, “The French people who have put on yellow vests love their country,” he said. “We share those values.” But condemned violence.  “No tax warrants putting the unity of the nation in danger. One would have to be deaf and blind not to see or hear the anger. This anger is rooted in a profound injustice, that of not being able to live decently from the fruits of one’s work, of not being able to provide for the needs of one’s children.” According to a poll conducted Sunday by Harris Interactive for French media, 72 percent of French people support the yellow vests, even after Saturday’s riots, but 85 percent say they are against the violence. Along with a suspension of the gas tax increase, the government said it would also delay new vehicle inspection measures and increases in electricity rates that were intended as part of Macron’s plans to transition France toward cleaner energy. Now the French government is concerned about more violence this upcoming weekend and we will have to see if this postponement improved moods or made matters worse. 


Proposed Brexit Deal Fails to Dispel the State of Uncertainty

November 30, 2018
May Corbyn

Getty Images / BBC

Last Sunday, the long awaited deal laying out the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union finally took form, as British and European negotiators came to an agreement on some of the more contentious issues surrounding Brexit. Nevertheless, the deal, which might have briefly appeared to be a victory for Prime Minister Theresa May given the previous uncertainty as to whether any sort of agreement could in fact be reached before the deadline, soon disappointed expectations of offering a meaningful step forward: its conclusion was followed by a series of resignations from Ms. May’s cabinet, and shortly thereafter some of the main factions in Parliament—which must ratify the deal before it can come into force—begun positioning themselves as opposed to it. On the one hand, hard Brexiters complain that the deal makes too many concessions, and that it is therefore a betrayal of the spirit of Brexit. On the other hand, Labour MPs, under the direction of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, see in the potential collapse of May’s efforts an opportunity for taking over the reins of government themselves, and the official party line is to oppose the deal and demand new general elections if it fails to pass during the parliamentary vote scheduled for December 11.

One of the dilemmas faced by parliamentarians, however, is that there is no clear path ahead in the event of the deal failing. The more immediate alternative, if the present agreement is turned down, would be a no-deal Brexit, which would likely prove catastrophic for the British economy as the UK would be left out of the European trading block without any other mechanism in place for everyday exchanges with the continent. The prospect of grounded flights, highways turned into lorry parks as goods wait to clear customs, and shortages of medical and alimentary supplies imported from Europe are now the talk of the day. The other possibility, of course, is simply no Brexit. Indeed, the position of Labour and other opposition parties is that the UK should not be allowed to exit the UK without a deal; but, in order for this to occur, Parliament would have to either revoke Article 50 (which triggers the exit process for a EU member state) or convene a new referendum asking voters whether they would like to move ahead with Brexit under its current circumstances. The former option would be politically dangerous, as Parliament would be seen to ignore an explicit popular mandate. And, regarding the latter option, it is not clear that there is enough of a political will among legislators to follow the referendum route. Even if abandoning the whole Brexit enterprise may be the best course available—May’s own government recently published a report confirming that the UK will fare worse off economically under any Brexit scenario than if it remained in the EU—, and even though there is a growing demand for a “people’s vote”—a recent march in London gathered hundreds of thousands of demonstrators calling for a new referendum—, pro-Brexit Tories are obviously opposed to the idea, and even Labour’s position on the matter is ambiguous, with Mr. Corbyn showing a clear preference for general elections that would put him at the head of the Brexit negotiations.

Perhaps most opposed to a new vote is Prime Minister May herself, who has argued that the only alternative to her government’s agreement is a no-deal Brexit. Although this may be in part an effort to scare MPs into voting Yes on December 11, she also seems steadfast in her denunciation of a new referendum as a betrayal of the original one. Criticizing those who are calling for a people’s vote, she recently accused them of wanting to “overturn the will of the British people. Parliament overwhelmingly gave the British people a vote. They voted to leave. I think it’s a matter of trust in politicians that they actually deliver on Brexit for the British people.” The rationale behind this argument, however, seems fuzzy at best. It is not clear how a popular referendum on a subject for which there is much more information available to voters than there was when the original decision occurred two years ago would actually betray the will of the people. On the contrary, it would simply update that will in light of current developments. Ultimately, May’s position amounts to a normative defense of a contingent moment in time as the relevant marker of the voice of the people, and not so much a defense of giving the people a voice per se. After all, absent any entrenched norms to enable the identification of one particular form of expression as the relevant popular will, why should we accept that the opinion of voters in 2016 should carry any more weight than the opinion of voters in 2018, even though the composition and the disposition of those voters may have changed in the process? Indeed, to privilege the original referendum is to enforce an arbitrary reading of what is after all an abstract will from an abstract (and ever-changing) collective—arbitrary insofar as it is not grounded on any specific normative consideration.

Therefore, the possibility of a second vote should be one clearly open for debate, especially in a scenario where the failure of the proposed agreement leaves the prospect of a no-deal exit looming dangerously in the horizon. Recent assertions coming from the EU, specifying that the supranational body would be open to an extension of the Article 50 deadline for the purpose of convening a new referendum (assertions that contradict Ms. May’s own statement that any such extension would entail a start-over of the negotiations for an exit agreement), should make the idea of such a referendum all the more feasible. The question, right now, is whether the different political interests at stake will leave enough room for such a resolution of the Brexit crisis, or whether Britain’s future will be left prey to the power plays of its leaders. One way or the other, we will soon find out.

Sources v