Blowing the wind into your own sails – Juncker’s State of the European Union

Arne Van Lienden 

After President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker finished his third State of the European Union speech on the 13th of September, the thing that stood out to most people was the almost unchecked optimism in his message compared to his gloomy address last year, when – in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum – the general sense that the EU was heading to imminent disintegration seemed all too real. According to Juncker, the EU now has “wind in our sails” and he urged to “make the most of the momentum”. He did so by proposing a wide range of initiatives, some bolder than others, but all encapsulating this sense of optimism and determination. Nothing showed this more clearly than Juncker’s reluctance to talk about Brexit – the hour-long speech devoted only one minute to the painful issue. The looming threat of inertia and disaster that marked the State of the Union speech in 2016 seems to be replaced by a general sense of growth and hope.
How can it be that the tables have turned so drastically in only a year? And is this truly the state of today’s Union?

The State of the Union speech is – in a true European fashion – a product of import. In the United States, the State of the Union is an annual event that is deeply ingrained in the American political tradition. In Europe it was only introduced in 2010, when the Lisbon Treaty stipulated that the President of the European Commission must address the European Parliament annually to reflect on and discuss the successes and failures of the European Union in the year before, in order to stimulate transparency and democracy in the European political arena. Continue reading “Blowing the wind into your own sails – Juncker’s State of the European Union”

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The Elections that will shape Europe #1: The Netherlands

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Geert Wilders. Photo by Peter van der Sluijs

Arne Van Lienden

This is the first in a series where The Euroculturer dives into the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France, and Germany. In this first article, Arne van Lienden explains the stakes in the Dutch elections.

It is safe to say that 2017 will be a decisive year for the future of the European Union. Not only will the EU have to negotiate the exit of the UK from the Union, following the Brexit referendum, but it will also have to contend with uncertain elections in three founding Member States. Among these three are Germany and France, who, especially after the UK’s departure, are the most financially and politically powerful members of the Union. With populism on the rise and anti-EU sentiment becoming more widespread, it is needless to say that these elections will be vital for the survival of the EU, at least in its current form. With the French elections in April and the German elections in September, it might be easy to overlook the Dutch elections this month. Although The Netherlands is significantly smaller and less powerful in the European arena than France and Germany, the elections on the 15th of March will serve as a lipid test for how the electorates of the so-called ‘core’ countries of the EU will respond to the Brexit referendum, austerity measures and budget cuts, as well as the influx of refugees. It is the first round in a series of fights that will decide Europe’s future.

The surge and decline of Geert Wilders

In order to form an executive government in the Netherlands, a party needs a majority of the seats in the Tweede Kamer (Parliament). This comes down to 76 seats out of the 150 available. In contrast to, for instance, the UK, a Dutch party has never managed to win 76 seats outright. Therefore, the Dutch government is always a coalition of different parties, often with strikingly different political ideologies. Especially in today’s fragmented political climate, polls show that the biggest party will probably get no more than 25 seats in this election. This will mean that there is most likely going to be a broad coalition government, which sometimes can consist of four or five parties. The coalition system ensures that governmental policies are always the result of a consensus between different, often opposing, parties, making it impossible for radical policies to get passed. However, a common criticism is that practically nothing ever gets done due to this balancing act.

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Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Photo by Minister-president

It is important to understand the coalition system to understand why, in the last months before the election, far-right Eurosceptic Geert Wilders is dropping several points in the polls per week. Of all the 28 (!) parties that are participating in the elections, only a few have not ruled out Geert Wilders’ PVV as a coalition partner. PVV’s stance on Islam and immigration were a deal breaker for parties on both the left and right. For current Prime Minister and leader of the right-leaning VVD Mark Rutte, there is also a personal factor that rules Wilders out as a coalition partner. Rutte’s first government fell after Wilders withdrew his support, something that Rutte has never forgiven. The slim chances of actually ending up in government made the PVV lose many voters – voters who rather strategically support a party that will be able to form a coalition. Nonetheless, recent polls still show that the PVV will end up as one of the biggest parties – if not the biggest – in the Netherlands, and for that reason it will be an important voice in the opposition of the future government. Some people also fear that promises of moderates to not work with the PVV will be forgotten once the votes are cast. Mark Rutte’s VVD in particular is seen as a party that could pragmatically change its tune after the elections.

Puzzling for a coalition

With new polls coming out every other day, Dutch politicians and citizens are puzzling to find a workable coalition that has 76 or more seats in Parliament. The VVD and PVV seem to be leading in the polls, but few other parties want to work in a coalition with these two parties. A more likely option is a center-left government, including Christian-Democrats, socialists, environmentalists, and classical liberals. A loud proponent of a possible center-left coalition is the young Jesse Klaver, leader of GroenLinks (GreenLeft). Often compared to Justin Trudeau for his appearance and political style, Klaver’s GroenLinks is expected to go from four seats to 18 or more. Klaver’s political star is rising and this is frightening the VVD and PVV, who both chose to resign from a televised debate after they heard that Klaver was invited behind their backs. Right-wing tabloid De Telegraaf started the offensive against Klaver and was surprisingly joined by other leftist parties that were aiming to win back voters that have been lured over to GroenLinks. Lodewijk Asscher, the new leader of PvdA (Labor), attacked Klaver for allowing prices to rise due to higher taxes on driving cars and more subsidies for green energy.

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Jesse Klaver. Photo by BuelensLeon

Nothing is settled yet, and the coalition negotiations after the coming elections will be fierce and difficult. Although Klaver has repeatedly reached out to the Christian-Democrats as a possible coalition partner, these parties might very well choose to join Mark Rutte’s VVD. The VVD is still rising in the polls, but with a strikingly smaller margin than in 2012. Austerity measures and integrity scandals have made trust in Rutte and the VVD decline significantly, and the campaign by the VVD revolves completely around regaining lost trust, combined with a more right-wing tone to siphon votes from the PVV.

The Netherlands in Europe

What does the current political climate say about the role of the Netherlands in Europe? It is clear that the Netherlands is heavily divided over issues of integration, finance, and Europe. Like many European countries where populism is on the rise, the political debate has become more complicated. With Wilders trying to delegitimize the media and Rutte refusing televised debates, it seems that democracy has already become a clear loser in the upcoming elections. The role of the Dutch in Europe is contested, but except for the PVV and some marginal right-wing parties, it is a political consensus that the Netherlands needs the EU more than that it suffers from the EU.

However, even though the PVV is unlikely to form a part of the government, it has succeeded in hardening the tone of the Dutch political debate and making anti-EU rhetoric more acceptable. To be pro-European is often frowned upon, and needs more explaining than to say one is against the European project. Although the Dutch elections precede the French and German ones, government policy will, for a great part, rely on how the new German and French governments will deal with the EU. The Netherlands is too small to unilaterally turn its back on Europe or to single-handedly speed up the integration processes. It relies on the policies set in the European powerhouses. The normalization of anti-EU rhetoric in the political arena of a founding EU Member State is a frightening development that promises nothing good for the future of Europe. On the other hand, a pro-European center-left coalition  could serve as an example to other European countries that, even in a time of populism and the alt-right, progressive policies still stand a chance.

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The ignored revolution: The Dutch referendum crisis

Arne van Lienden

“The democratic revolution has begun”, proclaimed politician Thierry Baudet after the April 2016 Dutch referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine met the minimum threshold of votes and showed a decisive ‘no’ to the agreement. But so far, the referendum has not set off a revolution. In fact, until now the Dutch government has constantly delayed or deferred from acting upon the outcome of the referendum. This reluctance to respect the referendum result has grave implications for the legitimacy of governance and will only spark a further rise of populism in the Dutch political arena. The government needs to act, or the parliamentary elections in 2017 could see a landslide win for populist parties.

The response of the Dutch government to the outcome of the referendum has been characterized by deferral and inaction. The referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine differs in one great aspect from the other referenda we have seen in Europe this year. Unlike the Brexit referendum in the UK and the refugee referendum in Hungary, the Dutch referendum was a bottom-up initiative and was neither initiated nor wanted by the Dutch government. The government never took the referendum seriously and was not willing or capable of effectively campaigning for a Yes vote for the Association Agreement. Hence, after the result was announced it took the government by surprise. This can be seen in the reluctance of the government to act upon the outcome. Continue reading “The ignored revolution: The Dutch referendum crisis”

Alone together: The UK and US Special Relationship in the Trump Era

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Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. World War II was the beginning of the special relationship between the US and the UK.

Arne van Lienden

In 1946 Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that another devastating war could not surely be prevented “without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples… a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” The term ‘special relationship’ has been used ever since by leaders of both countries to explain the uniquely close relations between Great Britain and the United States in cultural, historical, and political matters that go far beyond a shared language. However, relations between Great Britain and the US are more complex than the sentimentalized notion of a ‘special relationship’. The intensity of the relationship has always depended on coinciding interests and the personal relationship between leaders of both countries. The last eight years the relationship has become weaker. Instead of focusing on an Anglo-American alliance, Obama repeatedly stressed the need for multilateralism. However, in times where both the electorates of Great Britain and the United States have decisively rejected multilateralism the relationship is bound to become very special again.

Strong bilateral ties between the United States and Great Britain existed long before World War II. But after the war there was a strong urge- particularly in the UK- to articulate the exceptional character of the relationship more explicitly. Whereas Great Britain had historically been the strongest in the relationship, the war radically altered power relations between the two countries. The British government needed US support on the continent in order to keep communist influences limited in the shattered countries of Western Europe. The UK was not as materially affected by the war as the countries on the continent, but the fight against the Nazis had put a great strain on its economic resources. In order to overcome the debt and stagnant economy the UK hoped for US economic assistance after the war. The US did of course stay very much involved in Europe and it is in these first postwar years that the fundaments were laid for a ‘special relationship’. The UK was able – partly through American financial aid- to revitalize its economy and although poverty was still widespread, the country was still considered to be one of the victors of World War II and consequently recognized as a global power. The US also feared a Communist take over in Europe and cherished the strategic alliance with the equally anti-communist UK. The extensive cooperation in matters of defense and intelligence that were established during World War II continued after the war, only this time to fight a different enemy.

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Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

The strength of the ‘special relationship’ always heavily depended on the political situation in both countries and has usually been stronger in times where political agendas coincided. This is most clearly seen in the last two decades of the 20th century. In the 1980s UK Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan pursued a similar neoliberal economic agenda and the two leaders developed a relationship that “was closer ideologically and warmer personally than any relationship between any other British prime minister and American president”. Also after the Cold War the ‘Special Relationship’ endured. The 1990s saw the rise of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK and the election of Bill Clinton in the United States. Blair and Clinton also developed a close relationship and the former described them as “political soul mates”. Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush was more problematic but at the same time proved the strength of the ‘special relationship’. Bush and Blair were political and ideological opposites. However, when Bush made clear to Blair he was going to invade Iraq in 2003, Blair felt compelled to join his most important strategic ally. The disastrous consequences of the Iraq War are well known and Tony Blair is probably painfully right in hindsight when he sarcastically called a possible invasion “my epitaph.

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Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

In the last eight years the ‘special relationship’ has been under great pressure. Instead of cherishing the Anglo-American alliance, Obama pursued a more multilateral foreign policy. This strategy is of course a consequence of the Iraq war, where the UK and US have arguably left Iraq as a more destabilized and sectarian country than it was before the invasion. The biggest strain on the relationship followed from the military operations in Libya in 2011. In a recent interview in The Atlantic Obama said he “had more faith in the Europeans” but that the Europeans were not committed enough to the intervention. In the same interview he especially mentions David Cameron, who according to Obama got “distracted by a range of other things”. He also criticized what he called European “free riders” that pick and choose where to military intervene.  In the UK these remarks did not go down well. Former UK foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind stated, “if there’s criticism, looking at your own actions is sometimes appropriate” and also other British politicians spoke out against Obama’s criticism. The British outrage over Obama’s statements reveal a deeper-laying development in the ‘special relationship’. Whereas the US enjoyed the UK as a partner in times where it needed an ally in Europe, nowadays its scope is way broader. Under the Obama administration the US has increasingly consolidated its relationships with other countries like Germany, China, and Australia. Some authors even called the relationship with Germany the new “special relationship”, a very sensitive statement in the UK for evident reasons.  In times where the global power of Britain is steadily diminishing, a potential break-up in the ‘special relationship’ is a real concern.

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Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

However, 2016 might go down as the year where the ‘special relationship’ became great again. The relationship has always been dependent on coinciding political agendas, and the election of Trump in the United States and the Brexit-vote in the UK might realign these interests once again. Both votes revealed that the electorates have had enough of multilateralism and extensive international cooperation. Both Trump and Brexiteers promised to give the countries back to the people in times where the people felt it was taken from them. In his campaign Trump even mentioned that his election would be a continuation of what the Brexit-vote started. In this climate of isolationism it might very well be, ironically, that both countries will need each other more than ever. When the UK loses its access to the single European market, it will need to rely on its economic ties with the US. While Trump’s cabinet is slowly taking shape, it is still very unclear what his international position will be. The UK sees an opportunity here as it hopes to be able to influence his agenda like Thatcher was able to do with Reagan”. We are yet to see how the new episode in the ‘special relationship’ will play out, but it is clear that the foundations for renewed extensive cooperation are there.

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David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Matteo Renzi in 2016. With Obama seeking new partnerships and Cameron busy with the EU referendum, the ‘special relationship’ looked to be over.

Another important factor also points towards a more intensive relationship between the UK and US. It seems that for the first time it may become a love triangle. During Donald Trump’s campaign UKIP-leader Nigel Farage, one of the lead supporters of Brexit, took the stage on multiple occasions. This has lead to rumors about a role for Farage in Trump’s administration, and Trump himself has spoken of Farage as a potential UK ambassador to the US. Especially the photo of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage in a golden elevator spoke to the imagination of many speculators. Although it is merely gossip at this point, the fact that a British politician could play a role in the American Presidential elections and Trump’s remarks on Brexit show that the ‘special relationship’ still plays an important role in both countries. It proves that the foundations for more extensive cooperation have not been eradicated by Obama’s presidency.

Will Donald Trump and Theresa May reignite the special relationship?

The election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the EU dominated world news in 2016. For many people it has been a confronting year, a year where it turned out that polls and numbers are sometimes grossly mistaken. Also many will perceive it as a year where global and European cooperation seem to be under grave threat. The actual political consequences of both votes are yet to be seen, but it is clear that the Trump-victory and Brexit created a new impetus for a ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. In a time when both countries have turned their back to the rest of the world, they will need each other more than ever.

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The Danger of Ridiculing Trump: Even if he loses Trump and his supporters cannot be ignored

 

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Trump and his supporters

Arne van Lienden

Ever since Donald Trump announced that he would run as the Republican Presidential candidate he has been a constant supplier of sensational media headlines. Never before in modern American history did a Presidential candidate attract so much controversy and had so little support from the establishment of his own party. With every shocking statement he has made so far – from calls to ban Muslim immigration to virulent misogynistic remarks – commentators predicted that it would be the end of his campaign. But for Trump it seems that nothing can harm him. He continues to generate support while liberal media are left fazed. His actions made the persona Trump into a constant subject of ridicule, almost a laughing stock. But laughing at Donald Trump distracts the attention from the deeper laying socio-economic issues influencing his supporters. As long as these are not heard or taken seriously, Donald Trump may just be a harbinger of things to come.

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Trump rally in Cincinnati

Recent polling has shown that is rather unlikely that Donald Trump will become the next President of the United States. The leaked video with Billy Bush came at the worst possible moment for his campaign. For weeks he tried to appear more reasonable and substantive in interviews and press conferences in order to gain support among white middle-class voters. But where some middle-class voters just might have started to believe he was not that bad, the video leaked and established Trump’s image as a misogynist once again. The result is that demographically Donald Trump just does not seem have enough support to win the Presidency. Besides having a lack of middle class votes, Trump also lacks support in other parts of the population. Whereas Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 won 6% of the African American votes, polls show that Donald Trump has around 3% support among African Americans. Although these percentages seem both shockingly insignificant one should only remember the Presidential elections of 2000 to see that in American Presidential elections the margins are often incredibly small. In recent years the Republican Party has also aimed for the Hispanic vote as Hispanics are overwhelmingly Catholic and could align themselves with the Republican views on abortion and gay marriage. However Trump has antagonized many Hispanics with his derogatory remarks on Mexicans and consequently this election they seem to favour Hillary Clinton over Trump.

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Trump’s campaign slogan. Photo by Gage Skidmore

While numbers may suggest that Donald Trump is running behind it seems that no one takes any reassurance from this. This election has never been about numbers or statistics because they have been against Trump from the very start. Jeb Bush and Marc Rubio were seen as the golden boys in the Republican Party but they were forced to withdraw their campaigns within months because Trump constantly exceeded every expectation. Donald Trump has gone beyond the statistics and numbers that always dominated the media coverage on the Presidential elections and has done so by mobilizing a group of voters that in recent years has been structurally underrepresented in the vote because they felt no candidate recognized their position. It is the ‘hidden group’ of working-class white Americans that suddenly rose to the surface as an important force during these elections. In areas that have been negatively affected by globalization and ‘trickle-down’ economics Trump is seen as the candidate who can turn America back into the manufacturing superpower it was before. With the newest round of the Clinton email scandal hurting her polling position, a Trump presidency is not impossible.

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Host of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver. Photo by Steve Jennings

Popular liberal TV-shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight have in the meanwhile started a media offensive against Trump and his supporters. Donald Trump is the perfect persona for ridicule and satire. His inconsistent speeches, outright racist and sexist statements, and his remarkable debating style have been the subject of satirical items that gathered millions of views on TV and YouTube. Also the supporters of Trump are often publicly scorned. There is an overload of videos where Trump supporters are exposed as violently racist and/or sexist. It is important in any free society that people can get mocked and that politics can be the subject of satire, but the current media coverage on Donald Trump uses a dangerous framework to depict him and his supporters. To see the successes in his campaign as a sudden eruption of collective stupidity and racism in American society overlooks the fact that his supporters “may not have it worse than some other demographic groups in America today, but they have fallen the furthest”. The racial and sexist dimension in the Trump campaign should never be overlooked, but neither should the fact that the white working class is the demographic group in America that lives in a worse economic situation than their parents did. Globalization and neoliberal economics have left certain areas in the United States riddled with unemployment, poverty, and a dangerous disgruntlement.

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This Trump supporter at a Cincinnati highlights the deep distrust of his supporters hold for mainstream media

In recent years the main focus of the Democratic and Republican Party has been to gain the middle class vote. The white working class voter is deemed to be aging and to be slowly becoming a relatively small demographic group. So in the Presidential campaigns the Republican Party focused more on the wealthy part of society with promising tax cuts, and the middle class families who were also promised a rise in purchasing power. The establishment of the Democratic Party, traditionally the party for the white working class, has shifted its main focus to social justice for minorities. Although Bernie Sanders did voice the discontent of the white working class, Hillary Clinton is seen as the epitome of middle-class liberalism with no regard for a struggling working class. It is no wonder then that the white working class voter did not feel represented in the establishment of both parties. Whereas usually this does mean that they would not vote, this year’s election is different. Donald Trump presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate who would completely change the partisan and bureaucratic government in Washington. His populist rhetoric and promise to ‘make America great again’ resonate in the areas where the white working class is still the largest voting group. For instance in the Rust Belt – a formerly heavily industrialized area in the Midwest – unemployment is structural after most industries left the area. Trump’s rhetoric to bring manufacturing back from China is hugely popular in these areas that ever since the Reagan presidency have only been in decline.

Framing Donald Trump’s campaign solely in terms of racism and sexism overlooks the fact that 42% percent of the American electorate is nonetheless likely to vote for him. Ridiculing Trump and his supporters will only contribute to further polarization and antagonism between liberals and conservatives in the United States. It is disturbing enough in itself that a substantial demographic voter group only finds itself heard in a megalomaniac and populist candidate like Donald Trump. The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight’s success comes mostly from poking fun at channels like Fox News, but the audience of Fox News is not likely to be open to other views or other channels if they find themselves the subject of scorn there. It rather works to reinforce the polarized media landscape in the United States. It should be the task of liberal media to look deeper into people’s motivation to vote for Trump and to make their concerns more accepted in the discourse surrounding the elections. Also Hillary Clinton’s debate strategy of constantly reminding people of the controversies surround Trump is futile as long as the deeper socio-economic worries of the white working class are being ignored. A more inclusive discourse should begin with the media and politicians that propagate a liberal ideology.

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Trump has many devoted supporters. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

If numbers and statistics can be trusted just this once in these elections, then Hillary Clinton will become the first female President of the United States. This will be a huge milestone for gender equality in United States, just as the 2008 election of Barack Obama was one for race equality. But it should not ignore the fact that Donald Trump has made it so far in the American elections. It should not be considered as a deviation from normalcy in politics or as a unique collective misjudgment. The success of Donald Trump has revealed the discontent of a ‘hidden group’ of voters who previously have been structurally ignored in American politics. The only way to prevent a normalization of populism in American politics is to be more open to the struggles of this group of voters. If they will be ignored again than Trump will prove to only be a harbinger for things to come in the American political arena.

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