On Brexit

I was listening to the radio this morning and, inevitably enough, they were discussing the prospect of Theresa May’s deal passing and the consequences of it being rejected. The (Labour) MP being interviewed was asked if he was worried about rejecting the deal leading to the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal.

His answer was symptomatic of a fundamental problem with all of the Brexit discussions in the UK in that he blithely asserted that a no deal wouldn’t happen because Parliament doesn’t want it to happen.

This is all well and good but the MP in question appears to have no comprehension that the UK is not the only party in these negotiations. The other EU member states, as well as the European Parliament all have their own priorities and concerns and are not going to offer anything that crosses their own lines.

Parliament can demand that the Prime Minister goes back to Brussels to ask for more, but there is nothing else on the table and no matter what she does, May is going to come back empty handed.

If May’s deal is rejected, no deal is the default option and Parliament would need to decide to do something in order to avoid it. And quickly.

As things stand, the UK will leave the EU on 29th March regardless of whether a deal is agreed it not. This leaves only two months to either revoke the Article 50 notification or ask for an extension of the negotiation period.

Just asking for an extension doesn’t mean that it will be granted. The EU27 have been quite clear that the current agreement is the only one on the table. They are not willing to reopen negotiations — especially given that Britain still doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. Not to put too fine a point on it, the rest of the EU is thoroughly fed up with the behaviour of the UK and have reached the point at which they just want the whole sorry mess to be over.

EU countries are preparing for a no deal Brexit.

An extension to ratify the deal or run another referendum may be possible but even here, time is limited.

The European Parliament Elections are in May and the new Parliament will meet for the first time in July. If the UK is still chasing it’s own tail at this point the EU will have to deal with the legal difficulties arising from the UK being in the EU but with no MEPs.

The UK’s approach to Brexit so far has been defined by isolationist and wishful thinking. If — as looks certain — May’s deal is rejected, MPs and the press will need to recognise that, because of the incompetent manner in which the UK has approached this, the available options are now very limited indeed.

No deal. No Brexit

So this is interesting:

MPs will attempt to force the government to return with an alternative to Theresa May’s Brexit deal within three days of her plan being defeated in parliament.

MPs are planning to table an amendment to a business motion that anticipates Theresa May’s deal being rejected and says: “a minister of the crown shall table within three sitting days a motion … considering the process of exiting the European Union under article 50”. This is to prevent the government from sitting on their hands after the expected defeat and then resubmitting the deal once time has run out for all other options.

Obviously, the amendment may not make it into the bill, but if it does, just letting the clock tick down ceases to be an option. But there aren’t many other options out there.

The EU have made clear that they are not willing to re-open negotiations into the withdrawal agreement and, even if that was not the case, anyone who tells you they can renegotiate this in the two and a half months left to go is either dishonest or delusional.

I don’t see the EU agreeing to extend the Article 50 negotiation period unless the UK suddenly comes up with a very clear idea of what they are trying to achieve. So we can rule that option out, unless the government that they really do want to put the existing options (May’s deal, no deal or no Brexit) to the public in a second (third, if you count 1975) referendum.

And if time runs out for a referendum, then the only option I can see is for Parliament to decide to revoke the Article 50 notification itself and cancel Brexit.

The hard Brexiters have broken their own Brexit. It remains to be seen whether Parliament will finally take back control.

Sane Conservative says something sane

The Guardian reports that Chris Patten, the former Conservative party chairman is the latest Tory grandee to come out in support of a second Brexit referendum, or People’s vote.

What struck me, though, was this:

The whole sorry shambles began with a decision to call a referendum in order to try to manage the English nationalist right wing of the Conservative party.

I have said it before, but the main problem with the Conservative Party is that most of its members — and a significant proportion of its MPs — are not conservatives. The One-Nation Tories and pragmatists have been largely sidelined by a post-1980s crop of rabid libertarians and English nationalists.

And it’s because the Tories have discovered ideology that Britain is in the mess it is today.

Democracy in action

The Belgian local elections back in October saw the mainstream parties losing out to the margins — the Greens and the far-right Vlaams Belang being the big winners. Most of the coalition agreements are now in place and new mayors are taking their places in councils up and down the country.

Not everything is settled, though, and we are still seeing the fall-out from the far right’s revival, most notably in the east Flemish town of Ninove, where Forza Ninove (the local iteration of Vlaams Belang) won most of the seats. Most of the seats is not a majority and none of the other three groups were willing for enter a coalition with the extremists.

The N-VA’s two councillors chose to sit this one out creating a stalemate in which neither the far-right nor the proposed Liberal-Socialist coalition was able to command an overall majority. This stalemate was broken last week when one of the N-VA councillors split with his own party to support the liberal-left coalition. This means that Ninove now has a new municipal council, and the far right have been excluded from the cabinet.

All good stuff, but on Thursday various far-right groups got together to have a march and a whine.

When I saw this, I first thought of the Paradox of Tolerance, which was defined by Karl Popper and can be summarised as:

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

But I don’t think that this really applies in this case because the so-called March for democracy is inherently disingenuous.

It is quite reasonable for a political party to decide, on the basis of very divergent values, that no deal with another party is even worth considering. Moreover, Belgian politics has a long established principle of the Cordon Sanitaire in which mainstream agree to not deal with the far right — this was an explicit agreement in the case of the now defunct Vlaams Blok and remains as an understanding when dealing with Vlaams Belang.

No-one prevented Forza Ninove from putting up candidates and campaigning in the local elections. No-one was prevented from voting for Forza Ninove.

If no-one wants to deal with your party, this is not an attack on democracy but a reflection of the obnoxiousness of your politics.

The strange rebirth of Liberal Europe

Over at Thinking Liberal, Matthew Green asks if 2019 will be the year of the Liberal backlash.

This liberal backlash is based on two things. Firstly that younger people don’t hold with the anti-liberal movement. For them global warming is a real threat, and diversity a real asset. This needs qualification: less educated youngsters are picking up on the right-wing attack, and indeed they are behind a lot of the associated violence. But they form a lower proportion than they used to, and are prone to apathy. Meanwhile a large part of the original backlash comes from older people. This gives the potential for the pendulum to swing back. Time may be on the liberals’ side.

I’m not entirely convinced. While it is true that illiberal and anti-liberal populists rely on an angry but shrinking demographic, these people still appear to be willing to give a pass to their leaders. Given that the more committed people are to a worldview, the harder it is to turn away from it I think that the retreat from authoritarian thinking will be long and slow.

This, however, is very true:

[I]t is clear that the anti-liberal populists don’t have long term solutions for the main problems afflicting society. In fact, beyond the headlines, their solutions involve the breaking down of democratic institutions to provide cover for crony capitalism in league with a crony state.

Populists don’t have solutions. They are adept at channeling (often legitimate) anger in order to win power but once they gain power the paucity of their programmes quickly become apparent. The speed with which many Brexiters fled the scene once the referendum was won is a reflection not only of this paucity but also the extent to which they know that they have nothing beyond a few well-chosen slogans.

I don’t share Matthew’s faith in the strength of democratic institutions — the ongoing disaster of the Trump presidency shows just how weak these institutions can be — but these can be rebuilt.

The populist tide will recede but I don’t think this is going to happen quickly or consistently across countries. Emmanuel Macron demonstrated that it is still possible to defeat the far right with liberal, optimistic and internationalist programme. We need more of this.

No-deal Brexit ferry company owns no ships and has never run Channel service

The above headline comes from The Guardian, via Liberal England and sums up the the state of the UK’s Brexit preparations.

One of the companies contracted by the government to charter ferries in the event of a no-deal Brexit does not own any ships, has not previously operated a ferry service and is not planning to do so until close to the UK’s scheduled departure date from the European Union, it has emerged.

Concerns have been raised about Seaborne Freight, which was awarded a £13.8m contract to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate to the Belgian port of Ostend if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, after a councillor for the Kent town queried whether it would be possible to set up the new service by the scheduled Brexit date.

The government has signed three such agreements — without a tendering process — in order to ease congestion on the Dover-Calais crossing in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The thing is that the ports of Dover and Calais have, over the past forty years, become really efficient when it comes to handling large quantities of cargo. Neither Ramsgate nor Ostend will come close to making any difference to the cross-channel congestion at all.

This is probably why the government’s delusional plans are so dependent on a delusional company that has no ships and no trading history.


Having collapsed the Belgian government by walking out of the coalition over a non-issue, the super-geniuses of the N-VA have just realised that this means some of the legislation they wanted implemented is also cancelled.

So now they are planning to propose much of the legislation that was in the coalition agreement but is probably now no longer going to happen.

The N-VA has 31 out of 150 seats in the Belgian parliament and, with the end of the coalition, there is no reason for their former partners to help them out here.

So they are going to have to convince the Socialists, the Greens and others to vote for a reduction in unemployment benefit.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Let’s make 2019 a year to push back against conspiracy theories

Colin over at Violent Metaphors suggests that we make 2019 Less of a Triumph for Conspiracy Theories. The post is so good that I tried using the WordPress reblog feature.

I don’t like the WordPress reblog feature so that post is gone and you have this piece of old-school bloggery instead.

The crucial observation, I think is this:

Not every conspiracy theorist will act on their beliefs, and even fewer will become violent. But those extremists aren’t arising in a vacuum. They radicalize over time, after years of absorbing frantic, paranoid calls to action the culture that grows up around particularly invidious conspiracy theories. We can’t do much to control the bell end of violent extremists directly; only law enforcement is really equipped to do that, and unfortunately only after the damage has already been done. But going into the holidays and 2019, we — and that does include you, the reader — can do something to disarm the culture that radicalizes them.

We can’t control this domestic terrorism without first curbing the irrational beliefs that trigger it. That will be a long, hard challenge. It’s hard to persuade a conspiracy theorist to give up their beliefs, particularly because the most persuasive voices come from the people they know and respect.

It’s always tempting, when people start spouting conspiracy theories and other nonsense, to ignore them, move away or change the subject. Getting into a fight you can’t win is not most people’s idea of a good time — myself included.

But if we step back from these conversations, people only hear what the conspiracy theorists are saying. Worse, if no-one disagrees then the opinion being expressed gains authority by being unchallenged.

The most important thing is just to show up. Simply starting the conversation is an incredibly powerful victory over conspiracy theories, because it helps create a bond between someone falling victim to those ideologies and you in the mainstream. It shows that the harm those ideas can do matters to you and that it should matter to everyone.

The aim here is not to start a fight, or do win an argument. Just to ensure — as calmly as you can — that people know you disagree with them and that they know why. Let people know if you think an opinion is harmful, and let them know why.

No-one is going to change their mind overnight, but if you can help someone realise just how extreme their opinions have become, they make become more reluctant to share those opinions online and maybe — just maybe — they will start looking more seriously at more moderate content.

PM resigns

The Belgian Government continues to wobble. Having refused to propose a confidence motion for his minority government, Prime Minister Charles Michel is now struggling to pass a budget. The N-VA were in favour of the budget when they were in government, but now that they have quit, they’ve decided that they don’t like it any more.

As the Prime Minister had anticipated that the budget probably won’t be approved by a majority of MPs, he proposes working with so-called “provisional twelfths”, a system that would see the federal government having one twelfth of this year’s budget being put at its disposal every month between now and the elections next May. However, this would mean that between now and then the government would have to seek parliament’s approval every month for the “provisional twelfths”. The Prime Minister called on MP to “act responsibly”.

The alternative is an early election, which no-one wants, not only because it would mean the political parties would be trying to form a coalition while campaigning against each other in the EU elections, but also because whichever party brings down the government is likely to be punished at the polls for dragging voters out yet again.

But with the Socialist and Green parties threatening a vote of no confidence, Michel has called their bluff by resigning.

The king is not obliged to accept the resignation and is now talking with other political leaders before deciding what to do next.

King Filip could ask Michel to remain as leader of a caretaker administration, which would be able to execute decisions already made by Parliament, but would not be able launch any new initiatives. If Michel refuses, the king could either nominate someone else or instruct the government to call an early election.

If a caretaker administration is proposed, Parliament could still table a vote of no confidence, dissolve itself and trigger new elections. But they probably won’t.

Either way, nothing much is likely to happen before the new year but it looks like Charles Michel’s unlikely administration has finally run out of road.

Belgian Standoff

I mentioned the state of the Belgian government last week — specifically, the fact that the largest party in the government coalition has walked out leaving us with a minority government. The Greens and Socialists have called for a confidence vote, arguing that without the N-VA, this is a new administration. The government has resisted this, arguing that the new administration is exactly the same as the old one, just a bit smaller.

With the next federal elections due in May (at the same time as the European Parliament elections), no-one wants to be responsible for bringing down the government and dragging the electorate to the polls yet again. So we have something of a standoff.

Today, the socialists twitched, saying that they would launch a no-confidence motion if the Prime Minister fails to seek the confidence of the Belgian parliament.

The government has said no.

We will see tomorrow if Belgium still has a government.