Latest thoughts on Brexit: Its Decay, Italy (and Ireland), Cars, and Giving up British Citizenship

The slow decay of Brexit: a Rule-Taking Country

I don’t mean that the UK will stay in the EU. I fully expect it to formally depart next year. If the poor performance of the UK economy compared with the Eurozone continues, I also expect the UK to rejoin in a few decades, when the growth divergence is not just in figures, but felt in everyday life, such as when people find it too expensive to travel in Europe or buy goods from Europe; if they do travel they notice that everything seems expensive and there are more nice things abroad than at home, while European tourists will seem to have huge amounts of money to throw around.

It might or might not work out like that, but the point here is that the UK, behind headlines about soft versus hard Brexit, is moving towards an ‘alignment’ with the single market and the customs union: not formal membership but keeping nearly all the rules. The short term losses in trade from leaving both the single market and the customs union, along with the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border question, have combined to make de facto membership of the single market and the customs union inevitable. Hardening the border at all between the two parts of the island of Ireland is economically disruptive and very threatening to a Northern Ireland peace settlement, in which the Irish nationalist-republican side in NI can live with being part of the UK as long as the North and the Republic are unified via the EU and associated commercial agreements.

This is what I get from following Eurosceptic sources when they get round to proper conversation and analysis, rather than fighting the remain-leave battle. Brexit outbursts of premature triumphalism over Italy, or demands to abolish the upper House of Parliament because the Lords uses its constitutional rights to pass amendments they don’t agree with back to the Commons for the final decision, are a distraction from the collapse of full Brexit.

The idea of a ‘no deal’ walk-away from the EU has been abandoned and inevitably the UK will accept single market/customs union rules while the government makes a show of leaving everything. Because the UK very probably will not be a formal member of the single market (though there is a possibility of joining the EEA which would mean formally staying in the single market), it will be able to reduce migration from the EU (not a great thing to my mind), which will bring joy to a large part of the population (particularly the Brexit-voting part). No doubt the reality of moving to what Jacob Rees-Mogg (a well known, hard-Brexit Conservative MP) calls ‘vassal state’ status will be covered over with that issue, but the reality is the UK will accept rules for customs and economic regulation made by the EU indefinitely.

‘Indefinitely’ means ‘permanent’ though this is being covered up by talk of ‘transitional periods’. Alternatives to this have collapsed with the failure of ‘no deal’. The New Hard Brexit is to accept aligned rules on goods, but not on services, with the UK’s exceptional role in financial services in mind. However, there is no indication that the EU will give this kind of deal, despite the Brexiteer posturing about the UK being too powerful to push around, which has clearly been shown as empty by negotiations so far.

Over-excited Brexiteers getting Italy wrong (and Ireland)

So a new government formed without anti-Euro currency finance minister. 5 Star and the League (the coalition partners) are not impeaching President Sergio Mattarella. The idea they would is a bit of a joke anyway, as it would require the agreement of the Supreme Court and a vote of both chambers of the Italian parliament to achieve an impeachment. The issue behind the non-impeachment was that Mattarella had vetoed an anti-Euro candidate for finance minister: Paolo Savona (who now has another post in the government).

Some relevant facts here. 1. Italian presidents have the constitutional right to veto ministerial nominations and have frequently done so before 2. Recent Italian opinion polls show support for the Euro at over 60% 3. Neither coalition party ran on an anti-Euro manifesto.

Claims that Mattarella is some pathetic weak instrument of the European institutions who ordered him to keep Savona out are themselves absurd. 1. There is a shared preference of Mattarella, the Italian public, and European institutions for staying in the Euro 2. Mattarella is from a political family in Sicily, which went anti-mafia and Sergio Materall’s brother, Piersanti, who was head of the regional government, was assassinated by the mafia as a result. I think we can say Sergio is a character of substance to stay in politics after that.

Regarding constitutions and democracy, constitutions establish limits on the power of temporary majorities through rules and institutions designed to embed basic rules about rights and the use of power. This is why democracy of a kind worth having is referred to as ‘constitutional liberal democracy’. You cannot both be in favour of constitutional democracy and complain when constitutional constraints express themselves in the action that Mattarella took, which is well within his formal powers and previous precedent.

Many of the triumphalist Brexiteers in the UK, who were shouting about Mattarella as an enemy of democracy who was about to be punished, are admirers of the US ‘constitutional conservatism’ which, on the face of it, advocates very strict restraints on the actions of elected bodies according to the supposed original meaning of the constitution. You can’t have it both ways. And even if you think democracy means the unrestrained right of a majority, there is no majority support for leaving the Euro in Italy and no manifesto mandate for the coalition to leave the Euro.

You could argue that Mattarella made a mistake about perceptions and had been outplayed, that had some plausibility for a few days but does not look so correct now. Mattarella has got what he wanted and will not be impeached. It’s true that the League has strongly increased its support since the election in opinion polls, but that mostly precedes the ministerial crisis. Brexiteers are still clinging to an attempted triumphalism over Italy. The Italians are standing up to Brussels, which supposedly is a lesson to Britain to be tougher in Brexit negotiations. Well it is a bit soon to say whether the Coalition in Italy represents Eurosceptic triumph and hard to see what this has to do with Brexit negotiations.

What loud mouthed Brexiteers in the UK say about Italy is in some ways not very important, but what is important is the presumption to know more than they do and circulate false assumptions about European politics in the UK, which in turn distorts our debates and assumptions, and which can then pop up amongst Proper centre-right journalists and commentators Who Should Know Better.

Something similar has emerged with Brexiteer attitudes towards Ireland’s attempts to keep an open border with Northern Ireland. Manipulated by the EU institutions with naive and incompetent leaders (rather reminiscent of old prejudices about the Irish being stupid) has been standard opinion, and then there was the claim by a senior Conservative politician, Iain Duncan-Smith, that the Irish position is to do with a forthcoming presidential election. 1. The Irish president has no political powers whatsoever 2. There may not be an election, since no one has announced a wish to run against the incumbent so far and it may suit the major parties in Ireland to leave it like that. Funnily enough all those stupid naive Irish leaders manipulated by the EU have given Ireland much greater economic growth than the UK. What an economic miracle there would be in Ireland if they were as clever as Brexiteers!

It’s difficult to stop Brexiteers from 1. using simplistic rhetoric about majorities and Will of the People to suit their immediate anti-EU goals without concern for consistency and the values of liberal democracy 2. Living in an imagined world where European politicians they disagree with are stupid and/or slaves of the European Commission, conspiring against democracy. These views should be challenged and left with the true believers, away from informed debate.

Brexiteers and German car companies

UK enthusiasts for leaving the EU have a strange obsession with German car makers. They export so many cars to the UK, they will MAKE the German government which will MAKE the European Commission give us the exit deal we want. This has been going on from all kinds of people ever since the Leave Referendum (maybe during the campaign as well, but I missed that). It is an expectation that has obviously been falsified by the course of negotiations in which the EU has got 10s of billions of Euros from the UK to even start negotiations (though the UK tries to pretend otherwise) and has refused the kind of market access the Brexiteer enthusiasts assumed they would get automatically thanks to Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes (!).

Even today, listening to the Telegraph Brexit podcast, I heard Christopher Hope (the highly affable and mostly reasonable chair) keep on about how German carmakers were going to make Brussels gives the UK what it wants. The guests, pro-Brexit people from the Telegraph, were clearly bemused as they had been explaining how the UK was going to remain ‘aligned’ with the single market. Clearly if the UK is already de facto accepting the ‘indefinite’ (i.e. permanent) application of single market rules, German car makers have no incentive to MAKE Merkel give the UK another deal preferable to hardcore Brexiteers.

Of course the saddest expression of this muddled thinking came from Boris Johnson (the notoriously attention seeking and inconsistent foreign minister) when he claimed Italian prosecco wine manufacturers would make Rome/Brussels give the UK a Brexiteer-friendly trade deal. It turns out demand for prosecco in Italy is greater than supply and the makers can easily live with reduced demand in the UK.

The German car industry is of course much larger and not dependent on the supply of a particular kind of grape. Still, just one seventh of German cars are sold in the UK. Now obviously it would be very bad news to lose one seventh of the market, but there are no circumstances in which German manufacturers would sell no cars in the UK, the drop would never be as great as one seventh. Sales of German cars are already declining in the UK and given weak UK economic performance compared with Germany, the decline is likely to continue. Anyway, it should now just be really bloody obvious that German car manufacturers have not united to force Berlin/Brussels to accept a hardcore Brexit agenda! There is clearly a very big stream of reality distorting national self-obsession amongst Brexiteers who believe this kind of thing. Well it has now been shown to be thoroughly incorrect, let go now!

Brexit Bureaucracy and Renouncing UK Citizenship

UK nationals living outside the UK in the EU are applying for citizenship abroad to retain rights they lose after Brexit. Some of these countries forbid dual citizenship so UK citizens are renouncing UK citizenship. The Home Office takes the opportunity to raise fees for renouncing citizenship, though evidently its revenue is already increasing because of charges for renouncing citizenship. Didn’t Brexiteers tell us Brexit would reduce state bureaucracy?

Role of a Citizen in Hegemonic Authoritarianism

I want to begin a n-part series on Hannah Arendt. Why Arendt? Because I wrote a paper on her last semester and have been obsessed ever since. I will pick up one theme (or a sentence and sometimes just a phrase) from her work and try to either describe it in contemporary political terms or evaluate it against legal theories, political and moral. All this, I will do under the presumption that there are some political ideals like democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism that exist within the domain of possibility for polities irrespective of their legal culture. What I will also presume is that all political ideals function on a spectrum and it is difficult to accurately pin point exactly when something has turned from being tolerable to just plain rotten.

 

At various points in history, societies become obsessed over a political concept. Every once in a while, societies experience an onslaught of violations. Violations of their personal, maybe innate, sense of justice. I am not going to argue on the nature of this sense of justice. Instead, I will point towards our basest moral instincts. If you agree that there is such a thing as conscience that can not only exist but also develop outside of the legal system, you will see that it relates to how we think about what is wrong and what it right. Ergo, justice.

The violation of justice shakes things up enough for us to evaluate and figure out which political ideal, if protected, could have saved us. Against the Nazi regime it was the Rule of Law, for feminists it is Equality, against the Nanny State, it is liberty, and so on. In a bid to make amends, we compensate by institutionalizing it, giving it a place of honor in public discourse, and protesting all violations, big or small.  Every once in a while, the political concept finds a life of its own – growing differently in different parts of the world, becoming an essentially contested concept. After a point of time, the omnipresence of the principle starts to define the terms of the debate in matters unconnected with it.

Today, it is Authoritarianism. Not one where the ruler does not even wish to keep up the pretense of legality and justice but the kind which creeps up when no one is looking. Hannah Arendt was worried about the latter. She worried not just about the big bureaucratic state with its mechanical application of law and antipathy towards political moral ideals, but also about the citizen under such a regime who observed and obeyed and said not a word because the violations were too minor and too remote to care about.

The citizen who refuses to think is the power source of authoritarian regimes. One can ask if Arendt expects her model citizens to practice constant vigilance, continuously evaluating the judgements of their sovereign for potential violations of some sense of justice. After all, her theory of power is based on a conception of power working through communication and co-operation as opposed to the traditional understanding of power emanating from coercion and commands. ‘Power corresponds to the human not just to act, but to act in concert’, said Arendt. She challenges the notion of power having a mandatory connection with sovereignty.

We must take note of the existing political background to her writings. She, along with half the world, stood against the Soviet Union. Communism was not just a bad word, it was inherently evil. So strong was her position against Marx’s writings that she blamed ‘the social’ for the destruction of the political realm. The political realm was the place for public discourse. Deliberation helped in protecting freedom whereas the urge for leveling down of human life resulted in the destruction of democratic practices. However, what was most egregious was the tendency of communism to regularly violate the autonomy of the individuals.

The ‘social’ was not just a command of a sovereign, it was implicit in hegemonic structures through which obedience was guaranteed. Why is this relevant today? It is relevant for its implications on how we judge regimes. Are we to be satisfied with just a form of legality or do we want to prevent violations to whatever principle it is that we have chosen to hold dear, albeit for the century? If we choose the latter, then Arendt’s expectations from a model citizen do not seem too demanding. We must constantly sit in judgment, not just of the laws that govern us (plenty of people do that already) but of the tools of reasoning we use in our political discourse. It is our justifications and not just our positions in a political debate that catalyzes hegemonic authoritarianism.

10 Greatest Speeches of All Time

That’s the topic of my latest column over at RealClearHistory. Obviously, I took a break from my World War I-themed posts to do this one. Here is an excerpt:

4. Duty, Honor, Country speech by Douglas MacArthur: May 12, 1962. General Douglas MacArthur was a divisive figure in his day. For many, he was too martial for a constitutional republic, too outspoken for a General, and some of the policies he argued for (foreign and domestic) were a bit too hawkish for my stomach. William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, helped show me how important republican governance was to the General, though. MacArthur thought deeply about republicanism and the effects that war had on a republican citizen’s virtues and characteristics. I have the slight advantage of having Manchester’s work on MacArthur etched into the back of my mind while reading through the latter’s speech, given to cadets at West Point two years before his death: “His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me; or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.” You can read the whole speech here.

These columns are aimed at a different crowd that what I am used to here at NOL, but I think I do a pretty decent job of weaving rather mundane topics (great speeches from an American point of view) into the fabric of more fundamental questions about our global society. Read the rest to find out if I’m way off the mark on this one.

Dutch politics, after the elections

Now that the Dutch elections for the Lower House are over, as well as the unprecedented international hype surrounding it, it is time for a few pointers and reminders.

Turkey

Prime Minister Mark Rutte used the crisis with Turkey to his greatest advantage. When the crisis just loomed he escalated, helped of course by the increasingly hysterical reactions of the Turkish authorities, particularly the President.

I have not been able to get figures, but it is rather normal for foreign ministers, including from Turkey, to visit the Netherlands and address their nationals, also for political purposes. This is just the consequence of allowing Turkish people to have dual nationality and -in the Turkish case- also double voting rights. With the referendum in Turkey coming up, it is only logical to allow proponents and opponents to campaign as well.

This said, any thinking person would strongly object to the plan to give even more power to the already way too powerful Turkish executive. Dictatorship looms (please read Barry’s much better informed blogs on this).

Politicians almost always choose the short term over the long term. Certainly four days before elections. Still, the downside of Rutte’s actions are immense, as they also serve the interest of Erdogan, enabling him to play the victim of the ‘racist Dutch’. It might even pull the deciding number of voters into his camp. That would be bad for Turkey, and for Europe.

Chances for Turkey joining the European Union were already small, but have now disappeared completely. (Which I personally do not mind much, but others differ, including many in Rutte’s own party).

Populism

Another topic of international concern surrounding the election was the rising populism and its alleged ending by the electorate at the ballot box. Indeed, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom did not become the biggest party, yet he did win votes again. An increase of a third actually, from 15 to 20 in the 150-seat Lower House. His party thus became the second largest party in parliament.

He was never going to be Prime Minister anyway, as all parties had said before the elections they would not collaborate with him. This was important as the Dutch electoral system has a low threshold, which means many parties can enter parliament and no party has ever won a majority of 76. It demands parties to negotiate a governing coalition. After Wednesday at least four parties are needed for such a majority, which will take months.

There is a less-noted, other ‘bad populism’, which includes the largest winner, the Green Left party. This party represents are the radical environmental left, led by a young good looking leader who has been able to attract a lot of young people, in particular women, according to electoral research. There are also other populist parties elected, most notably the party for pensioners, the Islamic party DENK,  and the Forum for Democracy, the intellectual version of Geert Wilders’ party.

Coalition building

It remains to be seen whether Green Left will get a seat in government, given the large differences with the other parties who will be negotiating the new government: the centre right VVD of Rutte, the social liberals of D66, and the Christian democrats.

This process is slow and boring for most people, except for political junkies like myself. So chances are you will not hear about Dutch politics until a new government has finally been installed. Do not be surprised if this does not happen before Christmas.

US Immigration: a Primer

President Trump was elected for a variety of reasons but any observant person knows that the general topic of immigration played a significant role. Mr Trump appears unfamiliar with the current American immigration system and he is ignorant of the economic benefits of immigration, or he downplays them. Below I address modest parts of both topics. I aim for sensationalism rather than for completeness.

First a little bit about the American immigration system such as it is in January 2017. There are two main bizarre ideas among Trump supporters about the real system: One regards who is allowed to come into this country (legally, I mean); the other strange misconception has to do with how aliens become US citizens.

The system by which the US admits immigrants is a little complicated and its description relies on a specialized legal jargon. In my considerable experience, few people have the patience to sit through a lecture on American immigration policy. So, let me cut to the chase:

THE NON-EXISTENT ORDERLY QUEUE

There is no way, zero way, the average married Mexican can legally immigrate into this country.

This is worth mentioning because many are under the impression that illegal immigrants are cheats who cut through the line instead of patiently waiting their turn.

The “average Mexican” does not have American-born children, children who are US citizens by birth. Mexicans who do have such children and the children are minors go to the head of the line. There is no (zero) line for those who don’t have close relatives who are Americans or legal immigrants. This example illustrates the US immigration policy that accounts for most legal immigrants in most years: Family re-unification.  

Sophisticated people noticed long ago that there is an instantaneous way to acquire an American relative. It’s to marry an American. Doing so for the purpose of gaining admission to the US is illegal for both parties involved. I don’t know if anyone ever goes to jail for it but it’s ground for immediate deportation. Nevertheless, I am told by some of my immigrant friends that there is a thriving little cottage industry of visa brides and grooms for a fee in some parts of the country. I cannot verify this rumor but I believe it.

Similarly, there is only one way the average married Irish man or woman may immigrate into this country: Winning a lottery. (You read this right: a lottery which one may play as often as one wishes; it has not entry fee.) In 2015, only about 49,000 people, all from Europe and Africa, gained admission on the basis of winning that lottery.

Some legal immigrants gain admission under the broad category of “employment related reasons.”  This category includes high-level programmers as well as farriers. (Look it up.) It’s a small number. In 2015 they made up about 15% of all one million-plus legal admissions. Our average Mexican and our average Irishman does not qualify here either.

You may have heard of an “investor’s visa” accorded to foreigners who will create employment in the US. That’s always a tiny number, about 10,000 in 2015.  It’s not always open. Congress decides about if every so often.

There is a third main, amorphous way by which foreigners are admitted, “asylum” broadly defined. I call it “amorphous” because the definition of who is a refugee or an asylum seeker can be changed by Congress in a very short time. The President decides how many can be admitted in either category. The number admitted under this category is accordingly highly variable. It was about 150,000 in 2015. It could have become 500,000 in 2016 because of a new crisis anywhere in the world. (It didn’t.) The current, Trump figure of  50,000 seems just about normal historically. Yet, there is wide variation about the average.

There is thus no orderly queue that Felipe or Ahmed could join on their own if they wanted to avoid becoming illegal aliens.

That’s it, folks. If you want to know more about the raw numbers, study the relevant pages in the Statistical Abstract of the US.

So, contrary to what I suspect is a widespread idea among conservatives, it is not the case that there is an orderly, wide-open legal way to immigrate into this country that illegal immigrants perversely ignore. Illegal immigrants are not rudely jumping to the head of the line; they come in through a side-door the US does not seem able to close.

One more thing, a programmatic idea: Instead of the present admission policies (plural)  based on viciously absurd selection we have, we could take a page from the Australian and from the Canadian playbooks. That is, we could coolly decide what kind of immigrants we want and try and tailor a door to those precise dimensions. Presently, we are doing very little of this, however unbelievable it may sound. Such a rational procedure would not not need to eliminate refugee and asylum seekers admissions.

I am personally in favor of such a reform . I also think special policies  should apply  to our proximate neighbors to the north and to the south. I developed this idea with Sergey Nikiforov in an article [pdf] published in the Independent Review several years ago.

Incidentally, I am a product of a rational immigration policy myself. I was admitted on merit alone. I rest my case! Thank you for asking. OK, truth be told, I tried to come in as a spouse of an American citizen but she dumped me.

GAINING CITIZENSHIP

On to the next misconstrued idea. I keep hearing (on talk radio, I confess) irate citizens affirming that foreigners who don’t want to take American citizenship should not be admitted. The case hardly arises.

In fact, in reality, to be allowed to become a US citizen, to take American citizenship, requires several years of residence in this country after being legally admitted. (See above.)

Hence, personal preference plays little role in determining which immigrant does not become a US citizen. I don’t have the numbers but I am sure that, as a rule, the vast majority of legal immigrants adopt American citizenship shortly after they are legally empowered to do so. It is true that, in theory, some hesitation or some problems may arise in connection with some countries of origin who do not wish to recognize dual citizenship. In practice, depriving anyone of his passport is low on the list of priorities of most countries from which new US citizens originate. (India may be an exception – a curious exception – as if the country were facing an unbearable burden of immigrants of all sorts.)

The consequence of this scenario is that, contrary to what I think is a widespread notion, there is no horde of legal immigrants living in this country and peevishly and disloyally refusing to take American citizenship. It also follows that there is no mass of illegal immigrants who obstinately refuse American citizenship. It’s not available to them, period.

I think it’s legitimate to be opposed to illegal immigration and even to legal immigration but it’s best to do on the basis of correct information.