Archive for the 'EU matters' Category


The limits of populism. Will the hard right disappoint its fans’ most ardent hopes again in Sweden?

Friday, August 3rd, 2018

Sweden has a general election on 9 September 2018.  You might have picked up on it because the newspapers have been drawing attention to the prospects of the Sweden Democrats as they are apparently rising in the polls.  For those that aren’t familiar with them, the Sweden Democrats are the descendant of the fascist movement but now looks like a fairly standard nationalist anti-immigration party.  Could such a party top the polls in a country famed for its social democratic inclusiveness?

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this story before.  Geert Wilders’ party was poised to become the largest party in the Dutch elections (it didn’t).  Marine Le Pen was poised to top the French presidential poll in the first round (she didn’t).  The undoubted improvements by the hard right are regularly over-egged in advance.

This has proved profitable for cool-headed bettors in the past.  I wrote about this in advance of the Dutch elections.  Betting against Marine Le Pen also proved a winning strategy.  In both cases the odds on the hard right were far too short.

Are we looking at the same story this time?  Perhaps.  Unlike the Dutch elections, there are recent polls showing the Sweden Democrats in the lead.  The Chris Hanretty tweet at the top of the thread sums up the position.  So the Sweden Democrats are in with a shout of doing this.  Favouring the Sweden Democrats in this contest at this stage would mean favouring the methods of two of the regular pollsters in opposition to the results of the majority of pollsters.

Would that be justified?  As always, we need to look at the odds.  As I write, you can back Sweden Democrats to finish with most seats at 1.83 on Betfair and lay them at 1.84.  That is eyebrow-raising, given that they have only been ahead in four out of the last 50 polls (and tied in a fifth).  You’d have to have strong views about a quality gap in the methods of polling companies to justify that price.  There’s no particular reason to assume that the Sweden Democrats’ support is being systematically underrecorded; that wasn’t the experience in the Netherlands or France.

Are there any indications as to which pollsters to back?  Picking winners is a mug’s game (polls are snapshots not predictions and demographic changes may alter the reliability of polls in ways which are impossible to predict in advance).  Nevertheless, we have a small clue.

In the wake of the last general election in 2014, all the current pollsters took their usual polls.  Sentio and YouGov immediately found an upsurge in support for the Sweden Democrats from the general election that none of the other pollsters picked up at that time.  That perhaps suggests that Sentio and YouGov might be overstating Sweden Democrat support.

This isn’t anything like a sure thing.  But at 1.84 (or indeed at anything close to evens) the Sweden Democrats look like a clear lay for most seats.  At least till new information makes me rethink, I’m betting accordingly.

Alastair Meeks


The long tail. Looking at the rise of populism

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of populism. All the powers of old Europe has entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the EU and the House of Lords, Angela Merkel and big business, George Soros and Leo Varadkar.  Or so some political scientists would have you believe.

Let’s take a cool look at the evidence.  When we talk of populists, a lot of different ideas get mixed together: nativism, authoritarianism and outsider status.  This allows those building a thesis of populists on the march to point to phenomena that have no obvious link other than their unexpectedness.  There is not much that connects Five Star Movement and Fidesz, yet both are used as examples of populism.

Let’s be a bit more precise.  For a party to be treated as populist, it must claim to be representing the people’s will against the elite and be willing to use authoritarian means to enforce that.  There is a heavy overlap with nativism but they are not the same thing: neither Fidesz nor the Conservative party are really populist (both lay claim to being natural parties of government) but both in their present incarnation are nativist, with a heavy emphasis on anti-immigration rhetoric and hostility to perceived foreign influences.

The James Dennison tweet at the top of the thread sets out the polling of populist right parties in 15 western European countries.  The picture is decidedly mixed. 

In any case, the emphasis on populism and nativism overlooks the rise of a whole different set of new parties.  Many of these new parties are found in the centre that so often has its last rite pronounced.  In France, Emmanuel Macron and En Marche have come from the invisible centre to take full power.  In Italy, Five Star Movement were the largest party at the recent general election, a confounding mixture of outsider centrism and conspiracy theories.  In Spain, Ciudadanos have emerged as a new liberal voice. 

This uptick in liberalism has not been confined to new parties.  The FDP got a double figure vote share in the German 2017 election.  D66, a Dutch liberal party, was one of the big winners in the Dutch 2017 election.

Meanwhile, outsider parties on the left have also had success.  In Germany, Die Linke and the Greens took one sixth of the votes between them last year.  The Greens also were big gainers in the Netherlands last year.

If there is a theme, it seems to be less one of an inexorable rise of populism and more one of fragmentation, as voters look to explore new options. At the last German and Irish elections, the two main parties took around 50% of the vote where at the turn of the millennium that total had been just shy of 70%. In the Netherlands, the two largest parties at the 2017 election took just over a third of the vote. In the previous election the top two parties had taken over half the vote. No candidate in the French presidential election got a quarter of the vote in the first round.

Why is this happening? In all the countries I have mentioned so far, MPs are elected with some measure of proportionality. This enables new parties to come to the fore relatively easily since support that is scattered geographically can be converted into seats. But that doesn’t explain why votes are fragmenting now.

It is hard to look past the internet for the cause of that. The phenomenon was noted in relation to consumer goods by Chris Anderson in his book The Long Tail. He noted how the internet allowed retailers to stock a far greater range of goods, particularly virtual goods, than was possible in a bricks-and-mortar shop. This allowed those goods which had previously been uneconomic to stock to build a much greater market share.

Similarly, like-minded souls can cluster together on the internet, however niche their interests.  Goat-fanciers, quidditch-players and political bettors can find each other and share ideas and plans. Those who share political views can do the same. So the environmentally conscious, libertarian geeks, change-hating pensioners and metropolitan elitists can each find their respective online niches. If they don’t feel that existing parties are meeting their needs, they can easily set up new ones online. In a system that rewards proportional shares, grass roots presence is not as important as elsewhere.

So far I haven’t mentioned Britain. It’s the exception that proves the rule: at the last election the two main parties both greatly increased their vote share. Britain does not have a proportional electoral system so breaking through is so much harder (though not impossible as the SNP showed in 2015). 

In practice, however, the same forces are apparent just beneath the surface.  Both main party leaders represent just one faction of their party and neither has the political capital to enforce their will effectively.  Labour currently runs the gamut from those who gleefully proclaim that they are communists to those who see themselves as centrist dads, with every flavour of social democrat and socialist in between, with a heavy sprinkling of belligerent Remainers and right-on avocado-eating consumerists.  The Conservatives, consumed in flames as they are by Brexit, include factions seeking to stop Brexit, those seeking to pursue the Mayite deal, those seeking to obtain a deal that leaves Britain still more detached from the EU and those who are currently making preparations to invade Belgium.  All of these groups have their strength replenished Antaeus-like from the public support they now have ready access to.

In these circumstances, party control is tenuous and the ability of the leader to exert authority is still more tenuous.  Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of control over the parliamentary Labour party doesn’t matter much now but a Labour government would be chaotic.  Theresa May’s administration already shows what a fragmented government looks like.  Each faction in each party has leaders who will look strong only until they seek to impose their will on other factions rather than just the leader, at which point the limits of their power would become awkwardly clear.  Jacob Rees-Mogg can snarl, but the chain round his collar wouldn’t let him get many bites in.

Meanwhile, voters in the UK still feel alienated.  As noted in the second tweet, fewer than half of all voters, even after ignoring don’t knows, now feel that a political party represents their views.  There’s a large potential market out there for new political parties.  Perhaps one day Britain, like other European countries, will have a system that allows the public to have a meaningful choice.

Alastair Meeks


Right turn ahead. The Hungarian general election

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Hungary is the holding pen of Europe. Sat on the Great Hungarian Plain, which is effectively the most westward of the steppes, it is no coincidence that successive invasions over many eras have come through Hungary and stopped at Vienna, from the Mongols to the Turks to the waves of migrants in 2015 – it is the line of least resistance.

The last hundred years have not been good for Hungary. It lost two thirds of its territory at the Treaty of Trianon and it has seen a Communist government, an authoritarian right wing dictatorship, a fascist puppet state and USSR-dominated Communist government. In that time, Budapest has been occupied by three different armies in that time, those of Romania, Germany and the USSR.

Its democratic history effectively started in 1989. One man, Viktor Orbán, has been prominent in public life throughout that time. He has been Prime Minister for the last eight years and he is looking for re-election on 8 April. The election does not look like a cliffhanger. His ruling party Fidesz is set for a landslide if the polls are to be believed. Nevertheless, the election is likely to be of significance for Europe as a whole.

What of the electoral system? The Hungarian Parliament is elected using a method that’s a bit like the Italian system. It has 199 MPs. 106 are to be elected by first past the post. The other 93 MPs are elected by proportional representation, with a threshold of 5%. In 2014 Fidesz just managed a two thirds majority on 43% of the vote.

The election will be free but not fair. The votes will be counted correctly and parties are freely able to organise: if anything Hungary’s opposition parties are too numerous rather than too few. But Fidesz’s dominance of the media is unlike anything seen in western Europe. The cards are stacked in their favour. They are on track to take something like half the vote if the admittedly volatile Hungarian polls are to be believed.

Who are the other runners and riders? The socialists split into three after their 2010 defeat and remain divided. The far right Jobbik continue to thrive. A greeny-liberal party called LMP have some popularity among young leftish urban professionals. Young rightish urban professionals have the option of Momentum. Few are taking it.

Hungary’s economy is doing well. Its economy, admiittedly fuelled by a pre-election loosening of the purse strings, is growing at just under 4% a year at the moment. Unemployment has halved in the last five years. Those who have visited Budapest in the last few years will be aware that it is a modern European city.

Just as London is not Britain, however, Budapest is not Hungary. The east of the country remains poorer than the west. The jobs and wealth are largely created in the big cities and large parts of the countryside are being left behind. Outside the tourist areas and the wine-growing regions, opportunities in rural areas are few. Unsurprisingly, the young are leaving. It’s routine for smart young Hungarians to head for Germany, Britain, Canada or the USA. The rural decline in many areas is stark. You can rent or buy whole villages.

Viktor Orbán’s support is derived primarily not from Budapest but from the countryside. He has launched a succession of initiatives designed to appeal to older, less educated, culturally conservative voters. In Britain, earnest academics would be urging us to listen to the concerns of these Somewheres. At 1000 miles distance, it’s easier for outsiders to label their concerns as racist and backward. There are probably at least two lessons to be learned from that differential treatment.

So the current government introduced a Sunday trading ban – now repealed, campaigned against external influences personified in George Soros (who not coincidentally is a key figure in the Central European University which is one of the few Hungarian institutions outside Fidesz’s control and which the government also sought to dismantle, before holding fire in the face of international pressure) and has launched a national consultation about the EU (you will not be surprised to learn that the Hungarian government is unenthusiastic).

Meanwhile, the highest levels of government have become notable for their unexplained wealth. Hungarians do not live to Scandinavian standards of probity – locals will negotiate with the traffic police and it is socially compulsory to tip the doctor even though it is officially illegal. So a certain amount of feathering the nest is expected from all governments, if not exactly approved of.

The current government is perceived to have been taking this to a whole new level. An English word “strawman” has entered the Hungarian dictionary under the spelling “stroman” to refer to the front men who have been enabling the Orbán family to acquire businesses and land. Public cynicism about this spans the political spectrum.

The opportunity has been seized by Jobbik. For some time they have been campaigning with posters like the one at the top of the thread (which translates “You work. They steal.”). These are sentiments that hit home right across the political spectrum, with which impeccable liberals would firmly agree.

Jobbik clearly now have big money behind them because Budapest is festooned with Jobbik posters in a similar style that can be translated “We grow. You win.” with various simple campaign promises such as “European wages”. In my view, these latest posters miss the mark a little, drawing an implicit contrast between “We” and “You” (the point is rather stronger in Hungarian, where personal pronouns are used mainly for emphasis – verb endings normally do the work unassisted). Nevertheless, Jobbik are making all the running in opposition to Fidesz. They might well outperform their average polling and finish a clear second.

It is against this background that Viktor Orbán has been campaigning almost exclusively against migration. He is evidently determined not to be outflanked on the right and his rhetoric about George Soros would make even a Telegraph journalist blush. The Hungarian public, many of whom outside Budapest have next to no experience of immigration, lap it up. But Hungary’s population has been in decline for a generation, with no end in sight. It appears that immigration is unpopular, regardless of the fundamentals. That’s one lesson that one does not need to travel 1000 miles from Britain to learn.

Alastair Meeks


How the EU hierarchy is losing supportive governments

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

One of the less attractive aspects of British Euroscepticism (a keenly-contested category) is the willingness of many supporters to see the imminent collapse of the EU with every electoral development around the continent. Last year, Eurosceptics were salivating at the prospect of Geert Wilders’ party topping the poll in the Dutch election. Thwarted on that front, nearly nine out of ten Leave cats who expressed a preference decided that Marine Le Pen’s election as French president would be best for Britain. But the French electorate stubbornly refused to go off the reservation.

People who should know better (Andrew Neil, I’m looking at you) breathlessly live-tweeted every development in Germany before, during and after the German election on the basis that nation was about to suffer imminent collapse. The Catalan referendum briefly became a Eurosceptic cause – oddly, getting proxy support from some who were horrified at the idea of Scottish independence. And so on.

At the end of it all, the schadenfreude remained corked. Spain is still riven over the question of what to do about Catalonia, but it is a problem whose solution does not look as though it needs to be found this year. The Dutch have a right of centre government, the French have an energetic if hubristic young centrist President, the Germans have a grand coalition for the next few years. There may come a day when France or Germany forsakes their EU friends. But it is not this day. Purgatory has been postponed.

Italy is the latest sensation. The two most Eurosceptic parties have done well in the election, far better than expected, and the composition of the new Parliament is going to make forming a government tricky. But Italy has always had weak government – 67 governments since World War Two and four Prime Ministers in the last five years. You might be forgiven for concluding there’s not that much new about that either.

Yet the EU undoubtedly looks more fragile politically than it did even two years ago. Hungary and Poland are openly promoting an illiberal ideology and Austria has far-rightists in government. Greece continues in subdued hostility. Over it all hangs Brexit.

It is important not to get carried away. Inspired by the Corbynites, I have prepared a table of EU member states as a Eurocrat might regard them all. As with all such tables, the labelling of individual states is open to argument. I’m more interested, however, in the overall picture.

For there are two conclusions I draw in particular, one positive for the EU, one negative. The positive conclusion is that, contrary to the perception of the more belligerent British Eurosceptics, most member states’ governments are still onside. The negative conclusion is that the drift rightwards across the columns in the last few years is undeniable.

The trend is complicated by a general drift towards political fragmentation in many countries across the EU. Hard-right populists like Lega, AfD and the PVV have picked up some support, but this is only part of a wider trend against mainstream parties in countries with proportional representation. In countries with far right and far left parties that are seen as untouchable coalition partners, this means that the remaining parties are dealing without a full deck when seeking to put together stable coalitions. As well as Germany and the Netherlands, this has affected Irish, Belgian, Greek and Swedish politics in recent years. Such governments creak and groan under the strains, making it essential for them to be carefully brokered on all bar flagship policies.

Where does this leave the EU? On the one hand, the Brussels hierarchy can count less on a feeling of inter-government comity than they have for many years. On the other hand, the weakness of many governments is actively of assistance to them – in many countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, a fuzzy pro-EU stance is one of the threads that binds the coalition together, enabling Brussels to rely on a pro-EU approach being the line of least resistance in such countries.

Even as pro-EU forces are weakening within member states, the governments of many of those states are potentially more amenable to following the very pro-EU lead given by France and Germany, and indeed that weakening may have provoked it. The long run risks of following such a course are obvious.

But in the short run, these trends have implications for the Brexit talks. Weak pro-EU governments contending to hold themselves together are not going to pull themselves apart opposing the Brussels line. This means that, within their remit, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker have an unusual degree of power in the negotiations. So perhaps Leavers who want a constructive deal should start being a bit more pleasant about them. No need pointlessly to alienate those who have taken control, is there?

Alastair Meeks


Rebeller Italia. The next problem coming down the tracks for the EU

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

The EU is already wrestling with Brexit and with a renaissance of illiberalism in Poland and Hungary challenging its long-held views of European values.  What it really doesn’t want is a third front.  Italy seems set to disoblige.

Ever since Silvio Berlusconi was ousted at the end of 2011, Italy has been run on a reform platform, first by a technocratic government headed by former European Commissioner Mario Monti, and then for the last five years by the parties of the left.  When S. Monti came to power in 2011, Italy’s bond markets suggested that institutional lenders were on the point of completely losing confidence in the Italian government.  With concerted help from the ECB, that shaken confidence was steadied.  Successive governments have sought to implement reforms to restart an Italian economy that has languished for years.

The Italian public is losing patience.  It has had enough of being promised jam tomorrow and a lot of Italians would like to see some jam today, thank you very much.  It is in a grim mood.  56% in a recent Gallup poll thought 2018 would be worse than 2017 and just 15% thought it would be better.  Italy is a seriously downbeat country.  (In the same poll, for comparison, 34% of Britons thought 2018 would be better and 27% thought 2018 would be worse than 2017.) 

It is sometimes said that an Italian is a Frenchman in a good mood.  What has caused this pessimism in a country that is famously cheerful?  It’s hard to look past two main causes, both of which will be familiar to British readers: the EU and immigration.  Candidly, the Italians have much more to complain about on both fronts legitimately than the British have had.

Ever since Italy joined the Euro, its economy has been largely stagnant.   Many Italians perceive the Eurozone as being run largely for the benefit of the Germans and regard complaints about Italian profligacy as hypocritical, ignoring the huge benefit that they perceive the Germans as getting at their expense.  Whatever the truth of the matter, the Italian economy has underperformed for years.  Even now, when the number of people in employment is rising after the economic reforms have started to take effect, this has made no visible difference to many Italians since the number of people seeking employment has expanded more or less correspondingly as a result of rises in pension age and immigration: unemployment remains at a stubbornly high 11%.

Immigration has been more dramatic for Italians than for the British.  Never mind conventional immigration, over 600,000 people have been rescued from the Mediterranean onto Italian shores in the last four years.  36% of Italians see immigration as the single biggest issue facing Italy.

With a general election to be held on 4 March, the barometer is about to point to stormy weather.  At this point I need to take a detour through the Italian electoral system.  If only it were as straightforward as AV.  The Italians have been messing around with their electoral system for years.

The previous electoral system was widely regarded as unsatisfactory, being a combination of closed list PR and a winner’s bonus for the grouping that commanded a plurality.  However, agreeing a replacement proved very difficult.  One Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, fell when he placed his authority on getting a referendum passed to reform the system and the public decided not to back him.  Finally, a new system was rammed through both chambers towards the end of last year.  It is not straightforward, so brace yourselves.

Both the lower chamber and the senate are elected on the same day.  There are 630 deputies in the lower chamber.  232 are elected by first past the post, with constituencies like the British ones.  386 are elected by proportional representation nationally.  12 are elected by ex-pats through PR.

The senate is compiled on broadly similar lines.  It has a few life senators (former Presidents and such like – they currently include Mario Monti and Renzo Piano).  The great majority, however, are elected.  It has half the number of elected representatives of the lower chamber and so 116 senators are elected by first past the post, 193 by PR across Italy and 6 by PR among ex-pats.

What does this mean in the context of Italian politics?  Italian politics is a regional affair.  Lega Nord, the Italian UKIP, are strong in the north (as you might have guessed): the success of recent referendums for greater autonomy in Lombardy and Veneto reflect that.  The left have traditional heartlands in what are called the red regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche and Emilia-Romagna.  The right have traditionally done well in Milan and Sicily.

A system based in part around constituencies very much aids parties with traditional power bases and those that can form blocs.  It is a major challenge for parties like the Five Star Movement who are relatively new, have no coalition partners and who are not particularly associated with any one area.  Unsurprisingly, they’re livid about what they see as election rigging.

In current polls, the centre-right bloc is well ahead, getting somewhere around 39% of the vote.  Five Star Movement and the centre-left are neck and neck for second, with Five Star polling somewhere around 28% and the centre-left getting around 26%.  Ipsos have projected the centre-right might get 266 seats, Five Star Movement 170 seats and the centre-left 154.  The centre-left look like they are going to be hammered in the constituencies everywhere other than their heartlands of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.

Silvio Berlusconi remains a guiding spirit of the centre right bloc but those thinking of betting on the next Prime Minister should be aware that he is debarred from holding public office (though he is seeking to overturn this).  His influence will be external.  He is not exactly sympathetic towards the EU hierarchy after they played a pivotal part in ejecting him from office in 2011.  But he is formally campaigning on a pro-EU platform, including being supportive of EU membership.  His past record invites severe scepticism about whether he would play by the rules and he doesn’t need to campaign on an anti-EU platform to pick up Eurosceptic votes: the public know how he feels about the Eurocrats.  His coalition partners are avowedly Eurosceptic, with the Lega Nord pledging a referendum on membership of the Euro.

Silvio Berlusconi’s big election pledge is to introduce a flat tax.  However, since he advocated that when he first campaigned in 1994, you have to wonder whether it is more than electoral bait.  The Italian public are fully aware of all of his flaws.  If they vote for the centre right to take power, it will be a vote of disillusionment rather than enthusiasm.

The centre-left are seen as the establishment.  For what it is worth, I suspect that the centre-left will probably recover a bit of ground before election day as some grumpy voters decide that they’re the best of a bad bunch, but nothing like enough to retain power.

What of the Five Star Movement?  In a country full of maverick politicians, they fit in well, displaying a combination of silk and steel.  You could call them centrists, but they joined with UKIP in the European Parliament and have opposed vaccination programmes on the ground they cause autism.  They aren’t afraid of voicing some pretty trenchant views on immigration.  They have just withdrawn from a policy of a referendum on membership of the Euro but are proposing that Italy should ignore the Eurozone rules on limiting its deficit to 3% of GDP.

As can be seen above, the next Italian Parliament is very likely to be hung.  With so many wild cards in the pack, the next Italian government can be expected to pursue lots of different populist measures.  At a time when France and Germany are both seeking to reignite integration, they might find themselves with yet another nominal partner that is uninterested in playing by the rules and who might dare them to take action.  The EU can’t really afford to make an example of yet another large member state.  Italy may be about to choose a very good moment indeed to go rogue.

Alastair Meeks


This must be the Troll of the year

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017


Picking up the pieces. Disintegrating Europe

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

For 160 million years, overlapping substantially with the age of the dinosaurs, the entire landmass of the world was gathered together into a supercontinent called Pangaea.  And for much of the last 30 years, many devotees of the EU have imagined a single supercontinental system of government, as first western Europe and then much of eastern Europe has gloopily coalesced under a twelve-starred flag.  Laggards were expected to be absorbed over time with improvements in governance or, in the very long term, with an increased recognition of its virtues.

It hasn’t worked out that way.  Britain has voted to leave the EU, destroying the aura of inevitability around ever-closer union.  At a subnational level, the stresses have been seen in other areas too.  Scotland came close to voting for independence in 2014 and a large minority are as enthusiastic for that cause as ever.  Catalonian nationalists are wrestling with the Spanish government to secure independence at the moment, the Spanish government having decided to take a far more confrontational approach to assertive nationalists pushing their luck than the British coalition government ever did.

Spain seems intent on a course that will provide it with either with a province that will at best be bitterly resentful and at worst ungovernable or with a new neighbour with a grudge against it that will last for decades.  Through mismanagement, a difficult but salvageable relationship now looks unsalvageable.

Three looks like a trend.  It’s a trend that might not have ended yet either.  After an informal independence referendum in 2014, Veneto is holding a formal referendum at the end of this month on a proposal for further autonomy.  So is Lombardy.  Opinion polls suggest that support for independence in Sardinia is at a level comparable with that in Scotland and Catalonia.  Flemish nationalism remains strong.  Pan-Europa is fissuring.

Why?  No doubt whole books will be written on the subject.  1066 And All That joked that the Treaty of Versailles was the cause of increased geography.  Certainly it was the spur for a bout of nationalist country-making. Numbers of states then stayed relatively stable while the pressures of outside forces (Russia and Germany before 1945, Russia and the USA afterwards) made co-operation between national groups essential.  With the collapse of the USSR, the defensive need for nation size lessened sharply, and as a result much smaller countries emerged in the early 1990s, feeling comfortable sheltering under transnational groupings like NATO and the EU.

After a 20 year pause, the process of fragmentation has restarted.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it has restarted in the west of the continent, far from a militarily resurgent Russia that is eagerly egging this fragmentation on.  It seems to reflect in part a lack of interest in wider international responsibilities that western European countries might be perceived to have.

Mere cultural difference isn’t enough – Welsh nationalism and Scania separatism, to take two examples, have not yet really taken flight.  I note that in every case where separatist sentiment is surging (bar Sardinia), the secessionist part is at least as rich as its host.

The strident nativism that has been seen at a national level in France, the Netherlands and Germany (to name three) seems to have been driven by the poor, the old and the uneducated.  Brexit seems to belong with this nativist trend.  Likewise, Lombard and Venetian demands for greater autonomy are led by the Lega Nord, kindred spirits to UKIP. On the other hand, Catalan nationalism, like Scottish nationalism, has dressed to the left.  There is more than one component to the centrifugal forces.

Paradoxically, it is potentially easier for unhappy regions within the EU to break away from their existing national boundaries.  The EU provides an outer framework or safety net to break the fall.  Scottish nationalists never found a good answer to the question of what currency they would use after independence, while the question simply doesn’t arise if everyone around you is using the Euro. 

But that is only true if the seceding state is allowed into the EU.  Again, Scottish nationalists struggled (ironically with hindsight) to answer the question of how it would deal with the disruption to its EU membership.  Would Spain veto Catalonia’s membership of the EU, and if so for how long?  Would other member states tolerate it doing so?

The EU has a tightrope to walk, therefore, between not interfering in member states’ own affairs and not irrevocably alienating potential future member states.  It has not yet found the right institutional tone in relation to Catalonia, failing to comment on Spain’s disproportionate use of force against citizens, though as events unfold it no doubt has further opportunities to tack according to the prevailing winds.  Meanwhile, Europe – including Britain – continues its descent into introverted identity struggles.

Alastair Meeks



If the PVV do it tonight in the Dutch election it will be another polling miss where the right was understated

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017


British punters stayed with the PVV until yesterday

The big political betting event today is the Dutch General Election where the betting prices have been out of line with the polling.

British punters appear to have been taking a view that the PVV will do better than the surveys suggest. At one stage Betfair had the PVV at a 71% chance – at 1pm that was down to 34%

I took Alistair Meeks’ post yesterday seriously and have a small wager that the PVV won’t do it.

Mike Smithson