Donald Trump will make Europe | May 2016
In 2014 UKIP leader Nigel Farage promised a political earthquake. When it came in 2016, it was more of a political magic trick. Eurosceptics appeared on stage as bumbling fools, making outrageous statements with little apparent regard to accuracy or rigour. But behind the curtain, they won over hearts and minds with a sleight of hand and a smooth rhetoric that appealed to people’s sense of allegiance and identity.
Meanwhile, europhiles became convinced that they had a monopoly on facts. To remain or to leave — reason seemingly pitted against passion, informed choice against foolish impulse. It was a battle they expected to win by trotting out experts with statistics and flipcharts, instead of making an effort to inspire. But though there were plenty of facts to go round, both true and false, facts alone cannot start a movement.
The Leave campaign’s great switcheroo was convincing people that it was the fake facts wot won it. The prevailing assumption is that Brexit happened because voters believed a bus that said an extra £350 million would go to the NHS per week. But stats like that, real or fake, never win elections. Politics is about priorities. It is an exercise of balancing conflicting major truths, not debunking minor myths.
In the run-up to the Brexit vote, both sides gave true answers to the big questions. The Leave campaign was right to say that outside the EU, Britain would regain full control over its laws and borders and pay less to Brussels. The Remain campaign was equally correct in saying that Brexit would be an economic leap into the darkness and a political step towards isolationism. It was left up to citizens to weigh up those consequences, and decide what they valued most.
In the end, warnings of imminent financial doom had little traction. There was no denying that Britain would continue to be a rich country, EU member or not. There was no denying that the UK would maintain diplomatic ties and an international outlook either. For the majority of a public that has not embraced a European identity, it was not clear that the extra tosh and influence is worth ceding power to an alien authority. Britons did not feel European, and so national sovereignty took precedence. ‘Take back control’ triumphed.
This is a problem that goes beyond Britain. For all the talk of a democratic deficit, the EU’s woes stem from a lack of a common identity. Elections for the European Parliament would enjoy a higher turnout if people felt European enough to share a parliament. At present, they are little more than a litmus test for public opinion on the incumbent national government. The EU’s attempts to drum up support for itself by improving publicity and transparency are hardly noticed by a citizenry that feels increasingly estranged from the whole darn thing, no matter how much information they receive about it.
This is where Trump is a blessing in a blustering blonde politician’s disguise. Europe’s complex problem could benefit from some of his cut-through clarity. “Buy American and hire American,” he has demanded. “It is time to declare our economic independence once again.” There’s not much room for ambiguity there. The surge of protectionism across the Atlantic will sharpen the public eye to the economic values that were the foundations of the European project, that bastion of modern capitalism, that engine of free trade and industry. European citizens will grow to prioritise that which separates them from Trump’s new America and binds them closer to each other.
“We will build a great, great wall on our southern border,” Trump has said. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He couldn’t be clearer. His unique brand of populism could rekindle feeling for the political values that were latched onto the EU as it expanded, transforming it into a guardian of rights and liberties, a backer of social and environmental progress. These are the parts that will cobble together a European kinship, a sense of belonging molded and sharpened by Trump’s transatlantic challenge. Identity and fraternity are cemented by war, whether that war is fought with words or weapons.
See it happen: Donald Trump will make Europe. When Trump axed funding for organisations that provide abortions to women in poor countries, Europa shuddered in her sleep and loose change rolled out of her pockets. When he snorted at climate science, she shook off a blanket to escape the smouldering heat. When he derided Obama and cosied up to Putin, she tossed and turned as her dreams were overcome with the stuff of nightmares. It won’t take much more to rouse her from her slumber.
The EU’s democratic deficit | May 2015
WHOSE JOBS ARE THEY AFTER? Yours, proclaim UKIP posters across Britain, pointing the finger at those “26 million Europeans” who are to blame for inequality and unemployment. With a month left until the election, Nigel Farage has laid out his priorities, and they are – unsurprisingly – immigration, immigration, immigration.
Meanwhile, the flickering embers of popular leftism have been rekindled in southern Europe, where the rhetoric of anti-austerity flies in the face of EU-sanctioned policy. In woe-ridden Greece, SYRIZA draws up plans to resurrect the drachma in preparation for exit from the eurozone – and perhaps the EU – while Spain’s Podemos braces itself for a decisive election at the end of this year.
With the 2008 fiscal crisis well behind it, the state of Europe’s political field is troubling – not least because the surge in Euroscepticism at both sides of the political spectrum has not waned. The European Union is facing a bigger problem than first thought. Anti-EU sentiment is no longer the domain of bumbling politicians with purple badges or of protesters wielding banners in public squares. Euroscepticism is now entering the mainstream, and the EU’s core principles are meeting with challengers from all sides. In southern Europe, Troika-imposed austerity is being fiercely resisted, and in the northern countries, the EU policy of free movement of labour is facing heat. The crowning symbol of Britain’s political establishment, the Conservative Party – currently leading in pre-election polls by a hair’s width – has pledged to hold a national referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017. YouGov polls show that between 30 and 40 percent of the British public would vote to leave.
In Britain and elsewhere, Euroscepticism grips both young and old, poor and rich. The protester and the politician, the campaigner and the corporation, the local and the foreigner, all agree – Europe isn’t working. But this isn’t a problem that stems directly from austerity or the tide of immigration. Rather, the European Union is facing the consequences of its democratic deficit. In a Union of 28 different countries, over 60 languages and dialects, 500 million people, and very little common European identity to speak of, it’s democracy that isn’t working.
When European Parliamentary elections came around in May 2014, the average voter could see little point in turning up. What was an MEP candidate, running for election in Eastern England, doing for the nation by taking a taxpayer-funded trip to Brussels? This is a concern that has echoed across the continent since 1979, as participation in the European Parliament elections – the biggest exercise in multinational democracy worldwide – has progressively dropped. Those who vote in European elections often do so to take a stand against the establishment – as in 2014, where Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Front stormed to victory – or simply to express their dissatisfaction with their national government. The EU’s bulky bureaucracy, convoluted decision-making process, complex system of power-sharing, and murky lines of accountability make it very difficult for Europeans to cast their votes confidently. A major problem is simply that many voters do not understand what the European Union does.
Can Europe survive 2015, the year of elections in Greece, Italy, Sweden, Estonia (so far), Britain, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Denmark and Poland (forthcoming)? Probably. But the European Union’s democratic deficit needs to be reduced in order to ensure its future legitimacy. The solution: an increase in the accountability of the European Union to national governments.
Democratic reform cannot simply mean, as is often suggested, an increase in the power of the European Parliament. The parliament, which always wants a bigger EU budget and a larger role for the EU, has failed to convince many voters that it represents their interests, and there is little evidence that it does. Voters themselves want to ensure that their national interest is not being drowned out by an increasingly federal system. A Pew Research poll last year found that majorities in seven major European countries think their voice doesn’t count in the EU – including 81 percent of Italians and 80 percent of Greeks. Key decisions which affect the 28 member-states should be made by elected officials, not bureaucrats. The EU needs to be made more directly accountable to national parliaments – the parliaments which voters are familiar with.
Already, there is a little-known system where parliaments in EU member-states can issue a “yellow card” to the European Commission and force it to reconsider a law. In 2013 Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, proposed the introduction of a “red card” into this system, whereby national parliaments could bar any EU legislation deemed inappropriate. Allowing national parliaments to block unwanted EU laws in such a way would be a major step towards making EU decisions democratically accountable.
Ultimately, a reaffirmation of national sovereignty in a growing European Union is essential. It’s time for European citizens need to see that the EU is working for them, by moving some key powers back to member-states – because ultimately, in a Union of 500 million people, it is difficult to see what difference a single vote can make.
Sugar, Sugar | February 2015
Eating well has become a logistical nightmare. Expert advice constantly contradicts itself, and the “golden rules” seem to change on an annual basis. We are told we should eat dairy products to help offset osteoporosis, but that we should avoid them to safeguard against breast cancer. Saturated fats are bad for us; but really, we’re better off eating butter instead of margarine. Whole grain foods are miracle foods – except when they’ve got gluten in them. One thing is certain, though: we should eat plenty of fruit and veg. Make sure it’s organic though. Although actually, that may not make much of a difference.
While dieticians continue to argue over the health benefits of organic apples, Britain’s obesity rates remain dangerously high. Last year, new data revealed that two-thirds of men and women in the UK were overweight or obese, putting the British in third place globally, behind Iceland and Malta. The report, which looked at data from 1980 to 2013, revealed that the UK’s obesity rate was at its highest in three decades.
As a result, an age-old debate is resurfacing: Is sugar the hidden evil in our diets? In December, US researchers controversially concluded that sugar is worse than salt in pushing up blood pressure and causing heart disease. They highlighted that in both the UK and US, teenagers were consuming up to 16 times more sugar than was recommended, and that overindulgence in sugary soft drinks had been linked to a staggering 180,000 deaths a year. Experts are increasingly arguing that excessive sugar
consumption is the insidious cause behind the obesity epidemic.
Sugar-bashing is not new: free-flowing sucrose has been frequently pinpointed as one of the main contributors to obesity, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes. Sugar has also been linked to several types of cancer. At the beginning of this year, Jamie Oliver labelled it “the next tobacco”: an evil substance that destroys lives. But some experts are sceptical of these claims, arguing that sugar’s health risks have been exaggerated, and that obesity is the simple result of consuming too many calories.
Either way, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a major problem is misinformation. While the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of sugar is set at 90 grams for women (and 120 grams for men), that recommendation applies to total sugars – including those naturally found in milk and fruit. And yet, this is the figure which people consult to decide whether they should eat another bar of chocolate. What they should actually be looking at is the guideline for added sugars: current advice recommends a maximum of 50 grams per day for women, and 70 grams for men. In 2014, a draft report by the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition called for those figures to be halved.
Already, a can of Coca-Cola gives you one-third of your recommended added sugar allowance, and if the government’s report carries any weight, that same can of coke contains more sugar than you should consume in a day.
We are increasingly sceptical of alarmist dietary advice – in most cases, traditional wisdom and good old common sense prevail. Over 2,600 years ago, the ancient Greeks recognised the value of moderation, and it seems that the best nutrition advice today should tout the same principle. Just as you wouldn’t eat slabs of red meat six times a week or slather your daily toast with half a tub of butter, you wouldn’t put fifteen teaspoonfuls of sugar in your tea. Fifteen teaspoonfuls – or almost 60 grams – is the amount of added sugar that the average UK adult consumes per day. The figure for teenagers is even higher, at nearly 75 grams. It turns out that processed sugar isn’t just found in fizzy drinks and breakfast cereals; copious amounts of it are hidden in everything from ketchup and salad cream to white bread and low-fat yoghurt. And all evidence suggests that we are eating too much of it.
© 2017 Eleni Courea