Skip to content

Do the Winds of Change Portend a Moderating Political Climate in the European Union?

December 10, 2019
AP18085335740037-760x507

March 26, 2018: Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former Finance minister, second right, announces his new left-wing party, MeRA25, in Athens. (AP Photo)

Over the 25 years that I have been studying Greece, the country has often served as a canary in the coalmine for the global economy and the global body politic.  In the 1990s, I was struck by the level of governmental corruption and the tight relationships between business interests and the political parties.  Then I watched as lobbyists expanded their tentacles into virtually every aspect of governance in the United States and as corporations and wealthy individuals, aided by the Supreme Court’s 2008 Citizens United v. the FEC decision, began to increasingly dominate electoral politics.  Similarly, I was struck by the politicized nature of news reporting in Greece, which was so different than the relatively balanced nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC with which I had grown up.  Then, I watched the increasing politicization of cable news, and the transformation of FOX News into American Pravda—a party organ masquerading as a national network.

These experiences have continued during the past decade.  As the financial chaos of the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States spread globally, Greece was an early bellwether for the Sovereign Debt Crisis, which spread to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and Cyprus.  It also foretold the rise of extreme right-wing, anti-immigration politics in Europe and the US.  The transformation of Greece’s Golden Dawn from an irrelevant neo-Nazi political sect into a movement capable of attracting enough support—as much as 7% in national elections—to enter Parliament foreshadowed the subsequent electoral success of Alternative for Germany; the successful turn toward right-wing populism of the Austrian People’s Party, which has pursued an increasingly anti-immigrant line under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz; the reinvigoration of France’s National Front under the leadership of Marine Le Pen; and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.

I used to attribute this canary-in-the-coalmine phenomenon to what anthropologists George Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer termed “anthropology as cultural critique”: The act of observing another culture destabilizes and defamiliarizes one’s gaze so that, returning to the home culture, one sees that culture in an entirely new light.  Today, I am more inclined to see the phenomenon in geopolitical terms.  Greece exists on the margins—or in Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology, the semi-periphery—of the West, of Europe, and of the Eurozone.  A small nation, it is more structurally, politically, and institutionally vulnerable to the winds of geopolitical change than are larger, wealthier nations.  Phenomena that are fundamentally global in nature thus manifest themselves first in Greece and other similar countries and then later make their appearance elsewhere.

Today, I find myself hoping that the canary-in-the-coalmine effect has gone into reverse: that instead of being a bad omen, events in Greece are auguring positive change.  Greece’s July 7th parliamentary elections saw a decisive victory by the center-right party, New Democracy, which took nearly 40% of the votes and, with the electoral bonus, holds a majority in parliament (158 out of 300 seats).  Normally, this isn’t something that I would celebrate.  The way the victory was achieved, however, gives me some cause for hope.  Greece’s new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, won by running to the center, by promising to govern for all Greeks and by promising better, more efficient government that improves the quality of life for everyone.  His pre-election rhetoric was effective if I can judge from the multiple friends and acquaintances who confessed to me that they voted, for the first time ever, for New Democracy.  Mitsotakis also sounded the right notes after the election: he spoke in a unifying language about wanting to work cooperatively with other parties and find agreement on policies that can move the country forward.  His cabinet appointments represent a broad coalition of the center and the right, including three former members of PASOK as well as hardline conservatives like Makis Voridis and Adonis Georgiadis.

The election also had two other positive outcomes.  First, Golden Dawn failed to make the electoral threshold for entry into Parliament.  For the time being, their political voice is returning to the margins, and they will not be entitled to the constitutionally mandated access to the airwaves that comes with representation in Parliament.  Second, MeRA25 (Day25 or the European Realistic Disobedience Front), the Greek version of the German party DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe 2025) and part of the European Spring network of political parties, made the electoral threshold and is represented in Parliament.  MeRA25 and DiEM25 are  pan-European, left-wing, anti-austerity parties that are the brainchild of  Croatian philosopher and activist Srećko Horvat and economist and political scientist Yanis Varoufakis.  Varoufakis, whom I hosted at IU in 2013 in conjunction with the Modern Greek Studies Association Symposium and the Tocqueville Program, is a lightening rod.  He was Greece’s Finance Minister during the failed negotiations with the EU in 2015 that led to the imposition of capital controls on the Greek banking system and the  imposition of a third, extremely onerous memorandum of understanding between Greece and its Troika of Lenders (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF).  He is also a very innovative thinker with a strong pragmatic streak who has the potential to add a lot to the national and federal conversations.

Thus far, the results are decidedly mixed for New Democracy.  The Mitsotakis government has hit the ground running, showing a level of activity and efficiency that stands in stark contrast to the first 6 months of the previous coalition government, which was led by the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA).  New Democracy has devoted a lot of energy to law and justice issues: revoking the country’s university asylum laws; devoting increased energy to policing Exarcheia, a downtown bohemian neighborhood in which both anarchists and organized crime thrive; and enforcing anti-smoking laws.  These moves are politically popular with the broader populace but carry risks.  Greece’s university asylum laws, which were passed by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in the 1980s, are symbolically fraught.  Ensuring the free speech of students and their right to protest, they honor the memory of the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising which helped lead to the eventual downfall of Greece’s Junta of the Colonels in 1974.  In recent years, they have been abused by common criminals, mostly drug dealers, to evade prosecution.  Anarchists also use universities as safe havens for preparing and launching protests, including the preparation of Molotov cocktails.  University asylum is still, however, lionized by significant segments of the population who will not surrender it easily.  Likewise, the confrontation with the anarchists of Exarcheia has the potential to degrade into a war of attrition that will gradually sap the government’s energy.  The anarchist movement in Greece is strong, determined, and complex.  They have created bonds of solidarity with recent immigrants to Europe—who have found themselves stranded in Greece and neglected by the Greek state—by taking over abandoned buildings and organizing squats that provide housing and a measure of integration into the local community.

On the economic front, New Democracy has been working—thus far unsuccessfully—to restart the stalled Hellenikon Project, a major development on the southern coast of Athens that will be built on a large plot of land that used to be the Athens Airport. The development promises new residential and office high rises, a hotel and an integrated resort, a major park, a marina, a public beach, a museum, research centers, an aquarium, and a casino.  Though critiqued by the left as a space that will benefit the global elite more than it will benefit Greece’s own citizens, the development will provide a substantial number of jobs, contribute significantly to economic growth, and provide Athens with much needed green spaces.  The government has also provided some much-needed tax relief to broad sectors of the population and has been pursuing foreign direct investment including, unfortunately, investments in extractive industries like gold mining and oil and natural gas drilling.  It is difficult to see how the environmental risks that these projects entail are worth the relatively small number of jobs and economic growth that they create.

Thus far the signals from outside Greece seem mixed as to whether the winds of political moderation will be blowing in the rest of Europe.  In early October, Portugal weighed in on the side of moderation, reelecting Prime Minister António Costa, a Socialist who nonetheless pursued fiscal discipline and presided over economic growth that outpaced Europe as a whole.  Spain, however, is a different story.  Though Spanish elections in early November saw the Socialists come out on top again, the far-right nationalist party, Vox, emerged as a political force, more than doubling the number of seats it has in Parliament, going from 24 to 52 and putting to rest the notion of a Spanish exception to the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe.  Elections results in Poland and Hungary are somewhat ambiguous.  Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party lost seats in the Sejm, the powerful lower house of Parliament, but maintained a majority.  They lost control of the Senate, however, and failed to obtain a majority in the Sejm that will allow them to unilaterally pass constitutional changes.  In Hungary, opposition politicians made significant strides in city elections despite a playing field that was decidedly tilted against them.  In an interesting op-ed, Sławomir Sierakowski argues that there are hopeful signals in both Poland and Hungary.  In Poland, Sierakowski suggests, the Law and Justice Party seems to have hit its electoral limit, failing to expand its electoral majority even though the party passed generous social spending provisions that were designed to increase their vote count.  In Hungary, opposition politicians won despite Fidesz’s control of the mass media and the organs of the state.

Exhuming the Legacy of Francisco Franco

November 6, 2019
by
architecture-3685178_1920

The Valley of the Fallen 

On the 24th of October, 2019, the remains of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco were exhumed from their resting place at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a massive monument inspired by fascist aesthetics and built by the National Catholic regime in the Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid. The monument took eighteen years to build, using the conscripted labor of political prisoners. Construction of the monument started in 1940, only a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War and the victory of Franco’s nationalists and fascist allies over the Spanish Republican government. The site also serves as the final resting place for approximately 40,000 combatants from the civil war, many of whom were simply dug up and interred without thorough verification of the faction for which they fought and died.  This has been a bone of contention for many of the families of the dead.

 

The exhumation of the former dictator’s body from its grave has been a contentious issue in Spain beginning with the country’s uneven transition to democracy, which took place from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Following the dictator’s death and the ebbing of political power away from the inheritors of Franquismo that followed the establishment of a constitutional representative democracy, the question of the regime’s legacy remained both urgently relevant and surprisingly static. The result was a “Pact of Forgetting” that was formally codified by the 1977 Amnesty Law, an agreement between conservative and leftist parties to avoid the prosecution of crimes committed by members of the regime in favor of a smooth transition to democracy. The Pact has increasingly come under fire, and not just from groups in Spain. The United Nations urged Spain to reconsider the law in 2013, and in recent years there have been other official steps taken to move away from its legacy. The most recent of these gestures is Franco’s exhumation and removal from the Valley of the Fallen.

 

While the Amnesty Law was seen as necessary step by the political elites of the time, as well as a precondition for securing the agreement of the far-right Franquistas to democratic reform, it also weakened the transition, robbing it of any chance of prosecuting the perpetrators of decades of violent repression, torture, and persecution. The law also failed to acknowledge the suffering of countless exiles who were forced to flee Spain following the Nationalist victory to places like France, Mexico, the Caribbean, North Africa, and Australia.

 

It is also noteworthy to mention that the law failed to secure a transition devoid of problems and complications, its supposed reason for being. For years the threat of another pronunciamiento—a declaration of a military coup by officers—was a very real one. This fear turned very real on the 23rd of February, 1981, with an attempted coup by reactionary members of the military and the Guardia Civil. Recent literary and academic publications, from Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) and Anatomía de un Instante (Anatomy of a Moment) to Sophie Baby’s “Le mythe de la transition pacifique: Violence et politique en Espagne (1975-1982)” (“Myth of the Peaceful Transition: Violence and Politics in Spain (1975-1982)”), to name just a few examples, have taken the official narrative to task for insisting on a peaceful transition that did not take place and therefore failing to address tensions and unanswered questions that have only increased in relevance.

 

Rather than forgetting, the pact led to the festering of open wounds and the survival of far-right elements in Spanish society and politics which have only grown more toxic. Some traditions dating back to the dictatorship can still be seen in the military, and these phantoms of totalitarian traditions are seen by some as a dangerous sword of Damocles precariously aimed at the country’s democratic institutions.

 

To many in Spain, the legacy of Franquismo has not been forgetting, but has instead served to kindle a passion towards preserving memory and rescuing the past. The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, founded in 2000, was at the forefront of this effort. The Historical Memory Law, ratified in 2007, was an attempt at bringing legal tools to find mass graves and identify the bodies of those buried there, but later conservative administrations of the right-wing Partido Popular have actively sought to hamper these efforts.

Francisco_Franco_1930

Generalissimo Francisco Franco Bahamonde, caudillo of Spain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

 

The biggest point of contention regarding both forgetting and remembering in recent years became the resting place of the dictator himself. When Franco died he was given a full state funeral, an act that raised eyebrows even then. Franco was considered by many to be Europe’s last fascist dictator, and his dictatorship was certainly predicated on fascistic elements like extreme nationalism, conservatism, and militarism, as well as aspects of vertical syndicalism borrowed from Italian and French fascists. Franco combined these components with a reactionary form of Catholicism to fuse Church and State into a unified entity that served him and his rule as caudillo, or leader, of Spain. In this way his burial site, the Valley of the Fallen, became a physical embodiment of Francisco Franco’s regime in its scale, its symbolism, and its cruelty.

 

Like the giant cross that hauntingly stands on top of the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s legacy has cast a deep shadow over contemporary Spain. The legacy of Franquismo still find echoes in the far-right politics of Spanish parties like VOX that deploy the same xenophobic and reactionary rhetoric that has made inroads in other parts of Europe with the rise of radicalized far-right populism.  VOX mobilizes the far right with a ethno-nationalist rhetoric that is similar to Trumpism in the United States, railing against Catalonian independence movements while exalting the sanctity of Spanish nationalism. Its virtues are Franco’s virtues.  Additionally, some very real remnants of Franco’s legacy in the country still endure: many of Spain’s judges were trained in Francoist institutions, the conservative Partido Popular is populated by the sons and daughters of members of the Francoist regime, and its armed forces are still populated by officers trained in the Franco era.

 

Most of all, the dictator’s body was a very real, physical obstacle to addressing the wounds of the past in new ways. Franco’s tomb represented a tangible anchor to the past for a country that only now seems to be willing to openly confront its history and to entertain the notion of abandoning the self-imposed cage forged by the Pact of Forgetting. While the late dictator’s family insists that Franco did not wish to be buried in the Valley of the Fallen, his followers recognized that the monument was a lasting legacy of the principles of National Catholicism: By giving their caudillo a state funeral there, they would forever wed Spain to the dictator’s memory. Perhaps with the removal of the dictator’s bones from the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s shadow can truly begin to fade from Spain and a different kind of memory can begin to take hold. The path to a lasting resolution to the wounds of history cannot be travelled without stepping out from under the shadow of Europe’s last fascist dictator once and for all.

____________

References:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46048514

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50164806

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/24/franco-exhumation-spain-dictator-madrid

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-politics-franco/confronting-its-troubled-past-spain-exhumes-franco-idUSKBN1X22QW

 

 

 

Boris Johnson’s Brexit Woes Continue as Deadline Approaches

October 24, 2019
by

 

It seems like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is caught in a struggle against time, politics, and himself. The ongoing political wrangling surrounding Brexit only continues to increase as the deadline for Great Britain’s departure from the European Union grows ever closer. For the past few days Britain’s embattled prime minister has become the focal point of the Brexit controversy as last-minute negotiations attempting to negotiate a “soft Brexit” deal continue feverishly. Johnson, the former mayor of London and a former Eurosceptic himself, inherited a growing backlash against the exit process as soon as he moved into No. 10 Downing Street, following Theresa May’s resignation in July of this year. His often tense exchanges in Parliament and his combative personality have often elicited frequent comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump. Johnson, however, seems to lack Trump’s apparently endless political survival skills, guile, and luck, and his PM-ship has been engulfed in controversy and political missteps. This has undermined an already complicated and controversial process following the June 2016 referendum.

 

Johnson’s position further deteriorated when, on 28 August, in an attempt to bypass continued discussion and deliberation regarding Brexit, he advised Queen Elizabeth II to call for an unusually long prorogation of Parliament which sought a suspension from early September until the Parliamentary session on 14 October. On his advisement the Queen granted the prorogation. This unusual move was met with open hostility by ministers on all sides and by the general populace. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, called the move a “constitutional outrage”, and it lead to dissent among moderate and “remain” Tories which culminated in desertion from the party and a loss of a working majority for the conservatives. Among these losses was the prime minister’s own brother, Jo Jonson, who resigned from government. The prorogation controversy came to an end when it was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom on 24 September, ending Johnson’s gambit.

 

Johnson’s loss of a working majority and his mishandling of the prorogation affair directly reflected on the ever-increasing urgency regarding the specter of a no-deal Brexit. The prime minister’s race against time is a very real one. The deadline for Brexit is on 31 October, and so far there has been very little in the way of progress towards securing any deal between London and Brussels. On the contrary, the tone between both parties has only grown more acrimonious as the deadline approaches, with EU officials placing the blame on Johnson for “playing a stupid blame game.”  On 8 October the prime minister held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which reportedly ended badly over the impossibility of finding common ground with regards to Norther Ireland’s position in a customs union. Other high-profile meetings on 9 October faired similarly.

 

The only sliver of good news for Johnson’s government as the deadline neared was a meeting held on 10 October with Ireland’s head of government, or taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in which the possibility of an accord towards further negotiations was agreed to. Varadkar issued a statement after this meeting where he expressed hope for continued cooperation and the upholding of the Good Friday Agreement, a statement which Downing Street quickly echoed. Furthermore, The Guardian’s continuous coverage announced on 10 October that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, were to meet on Friday the 11th in order to determine whether there was enough existing common ground to proceed with negotiations. The news of this possible breakthrough failed to assure already shaken business envoys that business would continue as usual after the 31st.

 

According to The Guardian, Johnson had to convince Brussels to get on board with any agreement that his administration would hammer out before the deadline in order to avoid a hard Brexit during the slim two-day window of 17-18th October. Reflecting Johnson’s last conversation with Merkel, no deal came to pass. There was an additional complication on the home front for the Johnson government, a complication that had already drawn the ire of the prime minister on previous occasions: the Benn Act.

 

The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, colloquially known as the Benn Act, was passed on 9 September 2019. It legally binds Parliament to a hard deadline in which it must negotiate a deal regarding Britain’s separation from the European Union. If a deal was not reached by that time then the act directs the prime minister to address the EU and ask for an extension on Article 50 for 31 January. The date when this act would be automatically triggered was the 19th of October. In response to this impending date, Parliament scheduled a session for 19 October, dubbed “Super Saturday”, which will be fully devoted to Brexit. This was the first time that Parliament met on a Saturday since the Falklands Crisis in April 1982.  Prior to this session Johnson had declared that blame would fall squarely on Parliament if the Benn Act came into effect; disregarding the fact that Johnson’s own behavior and political maneuvering has repeatedly undermined his government’s negotiation efforts.

 

The extraordinary Saturday session provided some forward momentum for Brexit legislation, but only up to a point. Sir Oliver Letwin, a former Conservative member of Parliament who was one of those removed from the party last September for insubordination and is now an independent, proposed an amendment that would delay the implementation of any agreement until legislation had been implemented. This amendment passed, and with this delay the Benn Act went into effect, much to Johnson’s dismay. Downing Street responded by sending two letters. The first was the required text addressed to the European Council requesting the extension. This was seen as being compliant with the Act. The second letter was from the prime minister, underscoring his belief that an extension would be a mistake.

 

Following the implementation of the Benn Act the legislation for the withdrawal agreement, the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act, was passed by Parliament was passed 329 votes to 299. This victory for Johnson, however, was fleeting. A programme motion to speed through the discussion of the bill was defeated by Parliament on 22 October. Time has not been kind to the Johnson government regarding Brexit, and the Benn Act constricted this time further. Even though the EU leadership has signaled its favoring of an extension, if Johnson’s presumptive preliminary deal with Varadkar falls through or fails to impress the EU, then the triggering of the Benn act would be assured. Inevitably, Johnson’s failure to secure a deal would be a considerable political blow, and perhaps a final one. An extension would possibly grant Johnson a reprieve. A more likely scenario is that, regardless of a last-minute deal being reached, Johnson will face a no-confidence vote from an already hostile Parliament. This might be a price—putting an end to Boris Johnson’s government—which many Tories in Parliament may be willing to pay in order to guarantee an extension of negotiations with Brussels. Whether this scenario will actually play out remains unclear, as do the results of the snap election that would be called after a successful no-confidence vote. Already talks of an election have become ever louder as Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn failed to come to an agreement regarding the timetable, and Varadkar, Johnson’s apparent last-minute ally, seemed inclined to favor an extension. The longer the Brexit question remains unresolved, the more polarized British politics become.  The only certainty in this whole affair is that the repercussions of this increasingly acrimonious break-up threaten to be severe.

 

References:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/08/boris-johnson-ready-to-give-up-on-brexit-deal

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2019/oct/10/brexit-latest-news-boris-johnson-varadkar-corbyn-no-deal-would-put-lives-at-risk-says-former-chief-medical-officer-live-news

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2019/26

https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/brexit-benn-act-petition-dismissed-by-court-of-session-1-5019014

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-countdown/countdown-to-divorce-the-meetings-that-will-decide-brexit-idUKKBN1WO29J

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu/last-chance-brexit-saloon-british-and-irish-leaders-meet-idUKKBN1WP0OO

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/23/johnson-and-corbyn-fail-to-agree-timetable-for-paused-brexit-bill

EU Presents a United Front on the Venezuelan Crisis

January 30, 2019
by

venezuela-eu

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.

Sources

https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2019/01/26/declaration-by-the-high-representative-on-behalf-of-the-eu-on-the-situation-in-venezuela/

https://elpais.com/politica/2019/01/29/actualidad/1548777326_225423.html

https://elpais.com/internacional/2019/01/26/actualidad/1548499231_207226.html?rel=mas

https://elpais.com/internacional/2019/01/26/actualidad/1548519874_380308.html

https://euobserver.com/tickers/144016

https://www.euronews.com/2019/01/29/at-least-40-killed-in-venezuela-s-recent-violence-and-850-others-detained-the-un-reports

https://elpais.com/economia/2019/01/29/alternativas/1548754570_268066.html

Forest Schools in Europe

January 25, 2019
by

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?

Sources:

https://www.wildlingsforestschool.com/a-history-of-forest-schools-in-scandinavia/

https://apolitical.co/solution_article/happens-put-toddlers-forest-climb-trees-use-knives/

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-wales-24546777/forest-school-helping-children-connect-with-nature

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-england-tyne-45776620/forest-school-uses-the-great-outdoors-to-aid-education

https://www.northumberlandgazette.co.uk/news/outdoor-learning-school-taking-on-charity-status-1-9316498

Uncertainty Looms after Commons Reject Brexit Deal

January 18, 2019
by

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.

Sources

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/15/theresa-may-loses-brexit-deal-vote-by-majority-of-230

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/16/corbyn-accuses-may-of-being-in-denial-over-brexit-deal-in-pmqs

https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-police-advise-shops-to-hire-extra-security-for-no-deal-brexit/

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/16/labour-mps-declare-support-for-second-brexit-referendum

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/15/theresa-may-suffers-historic-defeat-as-tories-turn-against-her

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/16/germany-and-france-signal-willingness-to-delay-brexit

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

January 11, 2019
by

g0d

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.

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/01/04/technology/04reuters-germany-politics-cyber.html

https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/01/04/world/europe/04reuters-germany-politics-cyber-hamburg.html

https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/01/06/technology/06reuters-germany-politics-cyber.html

https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/01/07/world/europe/07reuters-germany-politics-cyber.html

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/german-data-hacker-says-he-was-annoyed-by-politicians-1.3751332

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46793116