Summer 2016 in Europe: A Look Back– The Kenneth Surin Column
We are back in the Empire, or more precisely, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, having spent 7 weeks in Europe (or “Yurp” as that fake Texan Dubya Bush used to call it).
Europe– Paris, London, Lesvos, and Rome were our destinations—is troubled, although its splendours (the small bookshops and cafes and pubs) are still there to be savoured, albeit in declining numbers as chains and conglomerates swallow-up smaller enterprises.
Paris was a little tense after the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan carnages, and by the unrest occasioned by new labour laws pushed through without even a cursory nod to “democratic” principles by a “socialist” president who pays his hairdresser $1000 a month to titivate his thinning hair. The inhabitant of the Élysée Palace might have wanted to outdo David Cameron, who in 2014 managed to get his barber included in the queen’s honours list. The Euro 2016 football/soccer tournament further taxed the resources of the French security state.
The UK had voted for Brexit the week before we arrived in London, and the political establishment was in turmoil. I blogged on the Brexit vote when it occurred, but no one could have anticipated the delicious chaos which has since descended on the UK establishment– Cameron resigned as prime minister, as did Nigel Farage the leader of UKIP.
In the election for a successor to Cameron, two early favourites who had campaigned for Brexit, the former London mayor Boris “BoJo” Johnson and the secretary of justice Michael Gove, whose appetite for double-dealing is prodigious even by Tory party standards, were soon gone.
This left another Brexiter Andrea Leadsom, she of the dodgy CV, to take on Theresa May. Leadsom, a rightwing outsider probably giddy at the near prospect of becoming prime minister, then opted for a game of Russian roulette with her candidacy by saying May could not have a real stake in the UK’s future because she was childless. The predictable outcry at this crass pronouncement prompted Leadsom to withdraw.
May’s new cabinet saw the duplicitous Gove sacked, as was George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) who had been Cameron’s reckless and incompetent architect of austerity since 2010. But it also contained a couple of surprises, reflecting a possible desire on May’s part to have potential troublemakers inside her tent rather than out, as well as a possible element of retribution. After all, Leadsom had been malicious, and BoJo his usual breezy patronizing self.
To the amazement of nearly everyone in the UK (and himself probably), as well as chancelleries and foreign ministries elsewhere, the gaffe-prone BoJo was made foreign secretary. The man who had allowed the pejorative term “bongo bongo land” to be used with reference to African countries in the Spectator magazine when he was its editor from 1999 to 2005, can in all likelihood anticipate a cordial welcome when he visits those countries.
At the same time May appointed as BoJo’s deputy a critic who had called him the Silvio Berlusconi of UK politics– like the foot-in-mouth elderly Italian lothario BoJo has a proclivity for “bunga bunga” in his dealings with women. BoJo is being hemmed in, as well as given every opportunity to make a fool of himself in the international arena (not that this harmed Berlusconi with many Italian voters).BoJo’s one piece of luck is that Obama will soon be leaving the White House– the American-born BoJo spoke like a member of the Tea Party when he said that Obama disliked the UK because he was “half-Kenyan”.
BoJo’s first speech as foreign secretary, at the French embassy, was received with boos, the French foreign minister calling him a “liar” the day before probably signalling that diplomatic niceties were no longer France’s order of the day where BoJo was concerned.
Leadsom was made environment secretary, with agriculture included in her portfolio. UK farmers accustomed for decades to lavish EU agriculture subsidies are going to be in a foul mood when these disappear after Brexit. The prospect of tractor convoys carting manure and dumping their loads outside Leadsom’s residence is a scenario many will contemplate with relish.
Britain’s political chaos now enveloped the Labour party, where Corbyn’s leadership has been undermined repeatedly by its Blairite faction. Shortly after the Brexit vote, the report by the civil service mandarin Sir John Chilcot on the UK’s role in the Iraq war was released. Chilcot said it was not within his remit to determine if war crimes had been committed in the course of the war, but the report was especially damning about Blair’s conduct in it.
Chilcot in fact made a prima facie case for investigating Blair for war crimes, something Corbyn has always supported. Blair’s cronies in the party now created a distraction, at a crucial time when the party should have been pressuring the feuding Tories, by challenging Corbyn’s leadership during the Brexit campaign. Corbyn has always viewed the EU as an undemocratic monolith, rightly so, and although he toed the party line in favour of Remain, his campaign efforts on behalf of Remain were less than wholehearted.
The Blairites, in a moment of treachery matching anything Gove was capable of, seized on this and tried to oust him. As expected the party’s membership base rallied to Corbyn’s support, and he remains leader, though an absolutely unnecessary election for the leadership is forthcoming. Corbyn should win it comfortably.
Lesvos– where we took part in the “Crossing Borders” conference, involving both activists and intellectuals, and dealing with the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe– was beautiful and grim at the same time. I blogged about it earlier. All that need be said here is that the EU’s deceiving and many-faced role in the refugee crisis is a prime exhibit for its abolition.
Rome was the location of the 2016 Deleuze Studies international conference. The overwhelming majority of the attendees were young. It was refreshing for someone like me approaching retirement to see a conference so dominated by doctoral students and early-career academics.
Italy, however, is in serious trouble, even though on the surface la dolce vita is very much there to be experienced in its myriad forms.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 97% of Italian households saw their incomes fall or remain stagnant in the decade ending in 2014. The analogous figures were 80% for the US, 70% for both the UK and the Netherlands, 63% for France and 20% for Sweden. Italy’s unemployment rate stands at just under 12%, with youth unemployment standing at a staggering 36.9%. The IMF has said that it will be the mid-2020s before Italy’s economy returns to its pre-2007 levels, indicating a two-decade period in the doldrums.
Europe’s problems, then, are serious and multifaceted.
Photo of Boris Johnson from Wikipedia