There is always someone more northern than us
The idea that 'northern is better' is typical of contemporary Italian society, and in the last twenty five years it has been promoted politically by a well-known party called Lega Nord (the Northern league).
It is undeniably true that northern Italy is more developed than southern Italy. In 2011, the average GDP per capita was €31,000 in the north and €17,000 in the south. By 'the north', we mean the regions of Aosta Valley, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-South Tyrol and Emilia-Romagna. 'The south' is generally used to refer to the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia. So far, so uncontroversial, but the idea that Lega Nord tried to pull into the Italian political debate is that the problem of southern Italy is its people. 'Secession!' was its motto in the 1990s, during the peak of its popularity.
Of course it's very simplistic and slightly offensive to suggest that the problem of southern Italy is southern Italians. The north's wealth was built in the 1960s, in large part thanks to the hard work of millions of people coming from the south who were forced to leave their homeland.
Italy’s south was (and maybe still is) plagued by difficulties that were exacerbated by the questionable process that led to the unification of Italy in the 1860s and that favoured, among other things, organized criminality (Mafia, Camorra, etc).
Regardless, discrimination from northern Italians toward southern Italians has always been present and is well represented by a word used by the former to depict the latter: “terrone” (pl. “terroni”), a denigrating term coming from “terra” (soil), referring to the fact that being a peasant was the most common job in the south during the period of mass migration northwards.
The symbol of this process is the city of Milan: Lombardy’s capital, Italy’s financial and industrial center, and primary destination of 60s internal immigrants, who contributed to make it the biggest urban area in Italy, with more than 5 million inhabitants.
And it is in Lombardy that Lega Nord, and its ideas, have made their bastion.
Lega Nord’s battle for the independence of northern Italy takes several forms. These include the criminalization of immigration (and of immigrants), the quest for “monetary sovereignty” (their campaign for the next EP election is mainly focused against our common currency), and support for the “freedom” and “self-determination” of the northern Italian people. This can basically be summarized in one word: ultra-nationalism.
But they are not the only ones. There are many nationalist parties in Europe, but only a couple are specifically against workers from "the south": the Swiss Unione Democratica (sic!) di Centro (UDC, also known as the 'Swiss People’s Party') and Lega (sic!) dei Ticinesi (Ticino League).
These two parties promote discriminatory campaigns against foreign and cross-border workers in Switzerland. And guess who they are? Italians. Coming from Lombardy. It is likely that many of them are Lega Nord’s voters, and it is likely that many of them used to discriminate against southern Italians. Now they are “southern”, while working in Switzerland.
One of the campaigns was 'Ronfa i gatt, bala i ratt', meaning 'Cats sleep, rats dance'. Cats are major political parties; rats, of course, are foreigners: two rats out of the three present on the posters are dressed with the Italian flag, the other one with the European flag.
Another one was 'Siamo in mutande', literally meaning 'We’re in underwear' and signifying that 'we' (the Swiss people) have nothing left, insinuating that everything has been taken by foreigners. Posters clearly explain, among other things, that 'Schengen agreements allow free circulation of criminals'. Enough said.
This is the background that led Swiss people to vote on the referendum, promoted by UDC and held on February 9, concerning migration control. The results showed a (slight) majority of Swiss citizens in favour of controlling migration and discouraging foreign workers. This outcome will force the Government to amend laws accordingly and to review many of the Swiss agreements with the EU. This situation led to the decision, by the European Commission, to review Swiss partnerships to the “Horizon 2020” and “Erasmus+” programs, excluding the eligibility of Swiss students and researchers starting from next academic year.
The major protests against this decision were organized by Mario Borghezio, one of Lega Nord's more bellicose representatives, known for his eccentric and sometimes violent acts against foreigners. Borghezio shouted, during a session at the European Parliament about Swiss-EU relations, 'the EU dictatorship must stop', 'Free Swiss', and 'Respect for the people’s will'.
But 'the people’s will', in this case, was to discriminate against people from Lombardy, the very ones who voted him in to defend them from southern Italians, while being the south of Switzerland themselves. Such is the paradox of ultra-nationalism.
The west's moment of truth in Ukraine has finally come - will the declarations of love give way to action?
Over the past few days, we have all been transfixed, watching the state of emergency unfolding in Ukraine. Tanks, guns and angry citizens, mass protests and violence. But are we ready to accept the pain? What can the European Union do in order to prevent an incident like this? We are spectators in a thriller that is rapidly progressing. We said, 'We don’t want a war in Europe!', and yet this war is approaching.
As Adam Michnik - one of the architects of the democratic transition in Poland and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza - said “the events of recent days are the result of three factors: the mobilization of protestors in Maidan, the diplomatic action taken by EU foreign ministers, and the stupidity of the deposed President Yanukovych. The latter behaved like a gangster. He had no strategy for two months and his reaction was hysterical”.
From the other side, Viktor Yanukovych has said he is still the nation’s rightful leader and urged Russia to refrain from military intervention in the southern Crimea region, where unrest has spread. Speaking for the first time since leaving Ukraine, Yanukovych told reporters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don that the country should abide by a peace accord signed a week ago with EU diplomats under which he’d remain leader throughout December. He labelled the parliament in Kiev illegitimate and vowed to return when it was safe.
Is there a risk of splitting the country? Common sense says “NO”, but in this region of the world nothing is governed by common sense! I do not think that this is a realistic scenario. But if the west, in the broad sense, doesn’t mobilize to provide Ukraine with significant financial help, then Ukrainians will wonder if it is really worth looking westwards.
I really hope Europe will make everything possible. Until now, I think that European diplomacy was wise and effective. But now the moment of truth has come. Will the declarations of love give way to action? The European Union and the International Monetary Fund should help Ukraine. The European Union should fund the necessary reforms for at least the next two years. The success of Ukraine will be the strongest argument to open the door to a democratic Russia. We all wish that Ukraine will return to constitutional normalcy and stability and continue her promising path towards European integration.
The ideological drought of the French Socialist Party weakens Europe as a whole
The French left’s ideological drought affects Europe. The crisis of European progress can be understood as the outgrowth of crises in a number of western welfare states, such as France, where austerity, immigration and global capitalism are associated with doom, insecurity and risk.
In twentieth century France, social movements were primarily led by left-wing groups, whilst the right generally took an economic standpoint in its social and political vision. Left-leaning intellectuals largely shaped the societal vision. But the picture has evolved since, and the inability of the left to generate new ideas, whether at the political or social levels, needs to be palliated by ideas coming from the right. Fresh ideas can bar the way to radical Euro-skeptic views, for financial sacrifices and immigration are opportunities.
In 2012, the Socialist Party has sought to re-enact the societal change promised by Mitterrand but this fell flat just like in 1981-83. The French have still not come to terms with immigration and economic liberalism. A forward thinking centrist right has a great hand to play with. Free from socialist discourse it can articulate the vision of European capitalism where the gap between solidarity and capitalism would be bridged. European capitalism could be sourced inside the French model, as long as France is able to evolve.
The recent report on integration in France by the French think tank Terra Nova was an attempt to reinvent the French model, but failed precisely because it threatened what it should have sought to protect. It suggested altering the Republican model to facilitate assimilation. Even the government distanced itself from a document it had sponsored. Socialists are stuck with a European model they cannot subscribe to and have no alternative to. This is easy ammunition for contesting parties such as the Front National.
The UMP and centrist affiliates of today should find the thematic of Europe, multi-culturality and global economic dependency much easier to comprehend and to discuss. Hollande is, at least officially, implementing policies that are at odds with conservative French socialism. The French socialists may oppose measures advocated by Brussels but must none the less operate in the context of treaties and European legislation. The fact that the current government has not been able to curb the increase in unemployment and to reduce public spending are not indications that it is distancing itself from European directives – it simply demonstrates it is applying the wrong remedy.
Whilst the centrist right is determined to have a dialogue on the current state of the French model, the left seems caught off balance on this topic. This could be because the left feels uneasy with the economically liberal model visible across Europe. The right, which envisions a lighter version of the welfare state with fewer civil servants and administrative layers, reduced unemployment benefits, nominal contributions to healthcare costs, lower corporate taxes and more working years before retirement should be more able to offer an operationally sound national welfare system blending liberal economic policies with a rejection for outright individualism. Economic dynamism, entrepreneurship and an outlook that extends beyond their own borders are the lungs France needs for its heart to beat.
The brewing of a renewed domestic vision associating security with multi-culturalism on the one hand, and solidarity with capitalism on the other is possible. Today is an opportunity for the reformist right to speak up on issues where the extreme right has recently been monopolising sound bites. Responsible capitalism involving solidarity à la Française combined with sustainable public spending will carve the way to a confident France domestically.
If the right could stop being afraid of words and if the French could begin to accept France is in relative decline and in need of an urgent revolution in thinking…it could articulate a convincing plan to reverse unemployment, overcome the deficit and begin to reduce debt and social dumping. The French people’s rapport with Europe could also be altered. Confidence in the state’s ability to perform at home would dissipate what people see as threats to the French model coming from abroad and funnelled into the EU.
The French need a genuine national dialogue in which the left moves beyond its ideological boundaries to prevent extremes from hijacking the debate. By attempting to protect a twentieth century unsustainable welfare conception, the Socialists can only favour Euro-skepticism. In a number of EU countries and particularly in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom, movements contesting the legitimacy of the Euro, rejecting successive enlargement phases, struggle with a seeming loss of identity associated in their minds with the single market and the disappearance of frontiers.
A new contestation wave could materialise in May 2014. In practice, this means many Euro-skeptics could be handed seats in the European parliament. The FN in France is in good marching order; UKIP has managed to reduce Europe to a sinking ship in Britain; and Germany's AFD is predicted to have within its reach 8% of the votes. Whilst these movements in France may not come across as a shock, they are for Germany where pro-Europeanism has been the credo of recent times. National discourses in the European heavyweights will surely have a snowball effect on the course of the EU under the next legislature.
What would be the point of a strengthened EU army?
It is very hard for any parent to see his children go to war in another country, even if he or she is doing it to safeguard his or her country’s security and other interests. I cannot envision a scenario where a parent will want to see their children going to war not for their country, nor their continent, but for an institution. Just to put things into perspective if an EU army has to be strengthened.
Today the EU army has a limited role and it is not a tactical army. However, after the Lisbon treaty many European policy makers made suggestions for a stronger EU army to protect its values. Here again, the question of what type of values we are talking about pops up. The European army today has a presence in areas which are considered sensitive such as Kosovo and Gaza. Having said this, in the past the EU army under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was also involved in operations in three different continents ranging from Indonesia to Libya, and from FYROM to South Sudan.
Current High Representative for EU Foreign affairs and security policy Catherine Ashton has already faced this issue when an “Operational HQ” was proposed. Countries like France, Germany and Spain believed that the proposal was to be implemented even if the UK used its veto. The proposed “military HQ” was to unite major European militaries and employ around 300 people.
One possible successor for Catherine Ashton is Radek Sikorski. The Polish diplomat claimed that once the USA ceases to be interested in securing the EU’s borders, then everything must be done for Europe to have its own armed military. But in reality, for what purpose would this army have to be strengthened?
In the past, most militaries were strengthened for expansionist aims, such as Nazi Germany. I see no reason for an EU army to go fighting into other territories or expanding the army for the sake of Europe’s borders. It is not about defending Europe or its borders. I mean, for whom are our soldiers going to fight and die? Are they going to do it for the President of the European Council, Mr. Von Rompuy and/or the President of the European Commission Mr. Barroso? Or are they going to do it to save the Euro currency? It just cannot get anymore ridiculous than this.
Instead of building a Europe based on its own core values of prosperity and freedom, we are doing everything to build a Europe made out of heavily bureaucratized institutions and unnecessary armies. As Europeans, we already have a bitter taste of what armies and wars are all about. Let’s not send any Europeans to fight elsewhere and leave their families in grief. One thing that the EU must be given credit for is that it managed to secure peace between European countries for the last 60 years, despite recently losing sight of its aims. Therefore, let’s keep Europe’s aims as they were after the devastation of the Second World War, i.e for peace.
Did we all get it wrong on Russia?
A little over a month ago, I wrote my column here on the escalating crisis in Kiev’s Euromaidan and the close resemblance between the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and what we have witnessed in Ukraine over recent months.
The two events both resemble a process in which people’s calls for democracy were met with disproportionate violence from a highly aggressive and dictatorial regime. In both cases, unfortunately, the push for freedom and insubordination towards the disciplining of society were met with death, torture, imprisonment, and chaos. In Ukraine today, the casualties lies somewhere around 100, while many people are injured or missing. Among these, there are not just Ukrainians – there are Poles, Russians, Armenians, Belarusians, Jews, and Georgians who have died in the ‘February Revolution’. Back in 1956, the message was ‘We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe’; today, the message is the same but the speaker is different.
Unlike 1956 however, the world witnessed a rapid metamorphosis in Ukraine: we witnessed President Yanukovich impeached; we followed his flight to Russia. We also saw Yulia Tymoshenko, freed, speaking on the podium of the Maidan. I also heard European Commission President José Manuel Barroso frame the new EU narrative around the normative foundations of a fully integrated union based on democracy and cooperation in the future.
Yet the crisis is far from over: in fact, it is getting worse rapidly. Crimea is effectively fully controlled by Russian soldiers in an escalating conflict, which was deemed by Prime Minister Yatsenyuk as an outright ‘declaration of war’ on Ukraine. According to Dr. Andrew Wilson, the new pro-Russian Crimean authorities, who took power on 27 February, were established at gunpoint. Despite Russian rhetoric about a ‘coup’ in Kiev, the real coup was in Crimea.
Democratic Whip, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and Anne Applebaumhave called for the expulsion of Russian from the G-8, while in a new speech on March 1, President Barroso, has condemned the escalation of violence and violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, calling the events “unthinkable in the twenty-first century in the European continent” and pledged that Euromaidan and the values it fought for – “Europe will defend”.
Could this have been predicted? Slate staff writer Joshua Keating says – definitely –and quotes one Wikileaks cable from 2008 sent by then-President Medvedev, which said “[s]ince the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, Russian military action against Ukraine is no longer unthinkable.”
Yet, it somehow was unthinkable and it caught ‘the West’, particularly the United States, rather off guard. It seems that there was an almost universal hope that the Maidan could claim victory just by its sheer physical courage. That once the regime fell, it was over. But it seems that the struggle, like 1956, has just begun.
Back then it was the Soviet Union which trampled insubordination in its satellite states. Today, it’s the ‘Putinist’ Russian regime, to use Anne Applebaum’s ample characterization, that is reminding us of the true power-play at hand in Europe. At home, Putin fakes opposition and talks the democratic talk. He does not use mass violence like before, he targets. His regime is the reincarnation of the KGB-style omnipresent rule and the Politkovskaya case illustrates that most clearly: not all political opponents are silenced or eliminated, just the ones who get too close to the truth, too famous or too popular.
Ukraine is the Politkovskaya case in geopolitical terms because the democratic movement has become too popular. Putin is afraid of the example that it will set for countries like Belarus, Armenia, even Russia itself. Russia’s geopolitical influence in Europe is being tarnished. Let’s not forget that, as Anne Applebaum states, “Russia is not a capitalist society at all. It is a rent seeking oil economy.” And it has majorly invested throughout eastern Europe, as well as having close accords with the Austrian OMV and the German Ruhrgas (remember how former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, became a Gazprom man immediately after quitting office?).
From Bulgaria, through the Balkans, and up to Ukraine, Russia’s economic hold has translated, with varying degrees of success, into direct political influence. This is most clearly seen today in Bulgaria, a puppet-state for Russian interests. So while we all listen to speeches about ‘building bridges’ and ‘tearing down walls’ coming from Brussels, we forget that democracy is not allowed to progress independently in many of these countries. We all got it wrong, it would seem, when it comes to where Russia stands, geopolitically, and ideologically today; and what its role is with regards to the future of an integrated Europe.
Ukraine is the battleground and it seems increasingly likely that Russia is unconcerned by the (rather slow) acceleration of warnings coming from the west. It is becoming clear how deeply involved Putin’s Russia actually is in European affairs and even clearer that no one is, as yet, sure how to respond to this.
Senator John Kerry has warned of sanctions to come, which have already had astaggering effect on the Russian stock markets and rouble: Gazprom -15% Sberbank -14% Lukoil -12% as from early calculations on March 3. There is much hope there, as the argument plainly follows that given Russia is a rent-seeking oil economy, which is the main funnel of stability and government budget, a drop in oil-prices means an increase of instability. We have already got in wrong once by thinking Euromaidan will be a strong enough force on its own and that bipolarity is over.
Any future talk regarding Europe must seriously rescale the international arena and reposition Russia way back East and take away 20 or so years from its ‘democratization’ period. Hard geopolitics and regional dominance on a bipolar East-West grid must be kept in mind. The European Union is now much less about building bridges or tearing down walls than about safeguarding the ones already in existence.
It seems we have gone back 50 years back in history. Are we ready for this?