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Archive for March, 2019

The Brexit fiasco

People’s Vote march, London, March 23rd

[update below]

I haven’t had a post on Brexit since the aftermath of the calamitous referendum now almost three years ago, but have been following the affair closely all along, and particularly in the run-up to today’s third vote on Theresa May’s plan. The Brexit psychodrama is, as they say on my side of the Channel, ubuesque. It’s bonkers.

As everything there is to say about the Brexit matter has been said countless times by the legions of pro-Remain commentators—e.g. on the opinion page of the FT, the first-rate politics.co.uk, and analysts presently or formerly associated with the Centre for European Reform, to name just a few—I will simply reiterate what I’ve been asserting from the outset, to wit:

  • There is no valid argument for Brexit. None whatever. It makes no sense for a country to quit a single market and customs union with which it has been economically interlocked for four decades and conducts close to half of its trade. There is no rational argument for this, economic or otherwise.
  • That crashing out of the EU with a no-deal is irrational and makes no sense was expressed during the referendum campaign by the Leavers themselves, none of whom advocated leaving the single market (or even the customs union); and this included Nigel Farage and the most Europhobic of Tories, who assured voters that in the event of Brexit, the UK would continue to enjoy frictionless trade with the EU in a relationship akin to Norway or Switzerland—though it seemed not to occur to the Leavers that these two countries are bound by EU rules—though which they have no seat at the table in making—must respect the “four freedoms” (one being the movement of people), and pay into the EU budget, entre autres. (As for why Norway and Switzerland have their particular relationships with the EU, it’s because their electorates rejected joining the EU, or the EEA for Switzerland, in the first place, so these are the closest relationships they can negotiate with the EU short of full membership).
  • In short, the Brexit campaign was driven by delusions and sold to the British electorate on lies. As Boris Johnson famously put it, the UK would have its cake and eat it. The Brexiteers thought they could have a Europe à la carte, in which the UK would take what it liked (single market, customs union), reject what it didn’t like (movement of people, ECJ, contributing to the EU budget), and then take things that were not on the menu (concluding its own trade agreements). This was utterly delusional. And then there was the matter of the Irish border, which was never mentioned during the campaign. It wasn’t even an afterthought. As for Scotland and sentiments there, qu’est-ce qu’on en a foutre?…
  • The referendum, needless to say, should have never been held. And, needless to say, the majority of those who voted ‘leave’ had no idea what they were voting for. Demagoguery over immigration was central in the Leave campaign, as was, for working class Labour voters, anger over six years of the David Cameron government’s austerity. But whatever the case, if a hard Brexit had explicitly been the one on offer, ‘leave’ would have never won. This is a certainty.
  • Contrary to popular belief, referendums do not express the “will of the people.” Referendums are not inherently “democratic.” French Republicans long had a healthy allergy to plebiscites, in which strongmen or demagogic politicians can short-circuit the institutions of representative democracy in stoking the fears or appealing to the base instincts of voters with ill-understood binary choices. Likewise with popular referendums (Switzerland, which has its unique history and particularities, is a case apart). Insofar as the Brexit referendum was merely advisory, i.e. not binding, there was no legal reason to respect its outcome. Failing that—and in view of the inability of the House of Commons to approve anything—it stands to reason that the people should have the opportunity to revisit the 2016 referendum in a second one: to vote to quit the EU outright, with no deal, or revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, and with the House of Commons ratifying that choice. After that, no more referendums. On anything.
  • Theresa May, in view of her abject incompetence, may be the worst British prime minister ever, but she is joined by Jeremy Corbyn, who is surely the worst-ever leader of the opposition. If the Labour Party were led by someone other than this 1970s gauchiste dinosaur, who still thinks of the EU as a Trojan Horse for the Gnomes of Zürich, we likely would not be in this Brexit mess.

It’s been a challenge engaging in a contradictory discussion of Brexit, as seemingly every UK citizen and/or resident I know personally is pro-Remain and as opposed to Brexit as I and my US cohorts are to Trump. But then I discovered that one UK citizen I do know personally, and whom I see on Facebook, is a Leaver, so I tried to engage him in debate a few months back, in response to a Brexiteer comment he made. I got some bollocks about how the EU is “undemocratic,” to which I responded that this is a myth, that the EU’s institutions are no more or less undemocratic than those of its member states (and as for the euro and its very real structural problems, the UK, with its opt-out, is not concerned by these). He then brought up German “dominance” of the EU, with me retorting that this is no less a reality than the now erstwhile British dominance—or at least outsized influence—in Brussels over the past three decades. Following that I was zinged with a question about Jean-Claude Juncker and who elected him anyway, with me replying the European Council followed by the European Parliament, and then rhetorically asking in return who, pray, elected Theresa May to be prime minister? No answer to that one and so that was that. So much for exchanging views with a Brexiteer.

At least he didn’t rhapsodize about a post-Brexit UK becoming another Singapore

The excellent Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole had an essay in The Guardian last November 16th entitled “The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit: In the dark imagination of English reactionaries, Britain is always a defeated nation—and the EU is the imaginary invader.” I mentioned above the UK’s outsized influence in Brussels. This was real. The Single Act was spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher. The Brits basically got everything they wanted from Europe, including the rebate and opt-outs from Schengen and the single currency. That Europe has been a very good deal for the UK makes Tory Euroscepticism that much more irrational. For English right-wingers, allergy to the EU has become a marker of identity, like guns and Israel for US Republicans. And that it has been fueled by myths and lies goes without saying.

Who knows what’s going to happen on April 12th? The choice now looks to be between a no-deal crash out and requesting a long-term extension from the European Council, which would necessitate the UK participating in the European elections and likely organizing a second referendum, perhaps preceded by a general election. The logical choice would be the latter—in terms of both public opinion and the votes in the House of Commons—but after reading this uncomplimentary portrait of Theresa May in Spiegel Online (March 15th), I’m not confident. If faced with a choice of breaking ranks with her party’s Brexiteer base or going over the cliff, it is more than likely that she’ll opt for the latter.

If one didn’t see it, former UK and EU diplomat Robert Cooper has a must-read op-ed (March 22nd) in the FT, “The Brexit farce is about to turn to tragedy: Britain is paying for its ignorance of how the EU actually works.”

Probably the most pertinent piece I’ve read on the general subject over the months has been by Pankaj Mishra this past January 17th in The New York Times, “The malign incompetence of the British ruling class.” The lede: “With Brexit, the chumocrats who drew borders from India to Ireland are getting a taste of their own medicine.”

The view that so many of us have always had of Britain as being a serious country, with serious institutions and a serious ruling class, has sustained a serious body blow over the past three years. Watching BoJo, Jacob Rees-Mogg & Co, how can one take this ruling class seriously? Sérieusement.

À propos, literary critic and cultural historian Joanna Scutts had an intriguing article last September 14th in The New Republic, “Britain’s boarding school problem.” The lede: “How the country’s elite institutions have shaped colonialism, Brexit, and today’s global super-rich.”

For those slightly conspiracy-minded—or maybe not—this piece (January 30th) by OpenDemocracy UK co-editor Adam Ramsey is worth pondering: “Stop calling ‘no-deal’ Brexiteers idiots. They know exactly what they’re doing.” The lede: “This is not bungling, or delusion. It’s part of the Great British Asset striptease. And we need to know who’s bankrolling it.” In this vein, also see Anne Applebaum’s March 8th Washington Post column, “The more we learn about Brexit, the more crooked it looks.”

Finally, New Statesman contributing editor Martin Fletcher has a ‘long read’ dated March 27 entitled “The humbling of Britain: The ‘enemies of the people’ are not those opposing Brexit, but the reckless politicians who have brought us to this act of self-harm.” He concludes:

Events are now moving so rapidly that it is impossible to predict what the situation will be even by the time this article is printed. Just conceivably, enough MPs will have discovered their spines to avert a complete disaster. Just conceivably they will have paused to ask themselves what was so awful about EU membership that leaving is worth such turmoil. Just conceivably they will have realised that there is no deal nearly as good as the one we already have.

Otherwise Britain will slink shamefully away – impoverished, marginalised and vastly diminished – from the greatest experiment in multinational co-operation the world has ever known. There will be no sense of joy, no national celebrations. As we live with the consequences the Brexiteers will inevitably blame anyone but themselves, but they will assuredly deserve what Donald Tusk, the European Council president, called their special place in hell.

À suivre, c’est sûr.

UPDATE: Politico.eu has a lengthy, must-read enquête (March 27th) by its UK correspondent Tom McTague, “How the UK lost the Brexit battle: The course of Brexit was set in the hours and days after the 2016 referendum.” The party to whom the UK lost was, of course, the EU, which quickly gained the upper hand after the June 2016 referendum and took charge. The EU’s position was predictable from the outset, but that those in power in London were blind to. What has been striking is how isolated the UK has been in Brussels throughout the process. The UK has always had allies in the European Council. It has been a very big player and for decades. But in the case of Brexit, it has had not a single ally. Even the Visegrad countries and Italy, who are otherwise telling Brussels to sod off, have been at one with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier—who’s the real hero here—on Brexit. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit psychodrama, the UK will be greatly diminished. Sad.

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I’ve been closely following events in Algeria over the past three weeks, along with everyone who has the slightest interest in that country, of the dramatic, exhilarating, and quite unexpected movement of civil society against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s candidacy for a 5th presidential term—now forsworn, though not really. The popular movement is being compared to the early stages of the 2011 “Arab spring”—particularly in Tunisia and Tahrir Square in Cairo—but is more than that, in that it has swept up the entire country—there have been simultaneous Friday demonstrations in all cities and towns—all social classes, age cohorts, and political sensibilities. And the movement, which has no leaders for the moment (and with Islamists not in evidence), has been entirely peaceful. Gilets Jaunes these are not. Academic specialists of Algeria are all weighing in with their analyses—which I’ve been linking to on my French Twitter account (I know most of the specialists personally and several are friends)—though not me so far. I was invited last week by a very high-profile US publication to write on the subject but declined, as I haven’t been to Algeria in 2½ years and didn’t feel like repeating what others are saying, and with my words being dépassé in a couple of days. We’ll see down the road, as the Algeria story is not going to fade anytime soon. And for the moment, I’m not going to offer a full-fledged commentary on AWAV. Instead, I want to post some photos, most from last Friday’s huge demonstration in Algiers (coinciding with International Women’s Day), taken by unidentified persons present and posted on social media (Facebook and Instagram; if there’s a credit here, it goes to Franco-Iraqi film director Abbas Fahdel, who assembled the pics and posted them on Facebook), and which will give a good sense of the movement.

For journalistic sources on Algeria, the best, in addition to the major French organs (e.g. Le Monde, Libération, Mediapart) and Algiers dailies (El Watan, Liberté, etc), are Huffpost Maghreb, Middle East Eye, and Orient XXI. À suivre.

Messali Hadj is on the banner.

Dancer Melissa Ziad, Algiers, March 1st (photo: Ranougraphy)

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The border

Tijuana, Baja California

[update below]

The article at the top of The New York Times website late yesterday was headlined “Border at ‘breaking point’ as more than 76,000 migrants cross in a month.” Trump’s histrionics over his famous wall have clearly not deterred migrants and asylum-seekers south of the US-Mexico border from reaching and trying to enter the United States. Asylum-seekers need to be emphasized here, as, according to the NYT article, more than 90% of the new arrivals are from Guatemala. Some of these are no doubt “economic migrants” fleeing poverty and seeking a better life tout court, but one may be reasonably certain that a larger number are quite literally fleeing for their lives.

On this, the March 7th issue of The New York Review of Books has an absolute must-read article by the Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano, entitled “The Migrant Caravan: Made in USA,” though on the NYRB cover it is simply headlined “The nightmare they’re fleeing.” The nightmare is in the Northern Triangle of Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador, and, above all, Honduras—where the levels of violence and death are comparable to countries in the midst of full-fledged civil wars. The organized crime and gang phenomenon—the maras—in the three countries are well-understood, with Saviano, who has gained fame for his work on the Neapolitan Camorra—and at some risk to his life—well-qualified to inquire into the situation there—and Honduras in particular—and further our understanding. In becoming a narco state, Honduras is, in effect, witnessing state collapse, where ordinary people are left to fend for themselves in the face of daily danger to their and their families’ lives. Thus the flight to the United States. And the United States, Saviano emphasizes, bears huge responsibility for the catastrophic situation, in view of its insatiable domestic demand for cocaine and other narcotics, the militarized War on Drugs, flooding the region with weapons during the US-sponsored counterinsurgencies of the 1980s, deporting back to the region young men who had fled to the US during the 1980s and were initiated into the Los Angeles gang culture, et j’en passe. Insofar as the nightmarish situation in the Northern Triangle is largely of American making, the US has a moral obligation in addition to a legal one—if international conventions on refugees and asylum-seekers mean anything—to be generous with Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans arriving at US ports of entry.

Saviano’s article should be obligatory reading for any American who has the slightest interest in what’s happening on the southern border. Or even if s/he has no interest but votes. If you, dear reader, haven’t read it, do so. Now.

In a similar vein is an enquête in Le Monde (Feb. 2nd) by correspondent Angeline Montoy reporting from San Pedro Sula, “Au Honduras, l’exode pour seul horizon.” The lede: “Les caravanes de migrants en route pour les Etats-Unis fuient la misère, la violence et la répression politique de l’Etat d’Amérique centrale.”

And there’s this piece in the NYT yesterday, “Border patrol facilities put detainees with medical conditions at risk.” The lede: “The deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody point to shortfalls in health care provided to migrants, who sometimes arrive with serious illness and injury.”

And this from the NYT (Mar. 3rd): “‘You have to pay with your body’: the hidden nightmare of sexual violence on the border.” The sexual violence is, of course, not only at the border but at every point along the way. And back home.

Seriously, anyone with the slightest sympathy for Trump’s position, or who otherwise favors an ungenerous policy toward Central American asylum-seekers, is a moral midget who should be ashamed of him or herself.

À propos, I recently read a lengthy article in the March 2016 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, “Why border enforcement backfired,” by Douglas S. Massey (who is the leading social science specialist of Mexican migration to the US), Karen A. Pren—both of Princeton University—and Jorge Durand, of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City. The abstract:

In this article the authors undertake a systematic analysis of why border enforcement backfired as a strategy of immigration control in the United States. They argue theoretically that border enforcement emerged as a policy response to a moral panic about the perceived threat of Latino immigration to the United States propounded by self-interested bureaucrats, politicians, and pundits who sought to mobilize political and material resources for their own benefit. The end result was a self-perpetuating cycle of rising enforcement and increased apprehensions that resulted in the militarization of the border in a way that was disconnected from the actual size of the undocumented flow. Using an instrumental variable approach, the authors show how border militarization affected the behavior of unauthorized migrants and border outcomes to transform undocumented Mexican migration from a circular flow of male workers going to three states into an 11 million person population of settled families living in 50 states.

What Massey et al definitively demonstrate in their study has been known for some time, which is that restrictionist immigration policies do not only not significantly reduce migrant or refugee flows—their effect is minimal—but have perverse, unintended consequences, which include dramatically increasing the size of the undocumented migrant population by effectively shutting down longstanding circular migratory practices, increasing the costs to the migrants (and thus considerably lowering their standard of living), and fostering criminal networks (of gangs who lend the migrants the substantial sums of money for their voyage, cross-border smugglers, and the like).

As the article is behind a paywall (accessible for free for those with university accounts), here are a few passages:

By any standard, the surge in border enforcement after 1986 constituted a massive policy intervention into the workings of a vast and complex social and economic system that had evolved since the 1940s in response to changing social and economic circumstances on both sides of the border (Massey et al. 2002). Critically, this massive intervention was undertaken for domestic political purposes and not based on a rational assessment of the forces actually driving undocumented migration or a reasoned consideration of how one might manage it. Whenever a policy is derived in a climate of fear without any real understanding of the actual workings of the social or economic system it aspires to influence, the stage is set for unintended consequences. (p.1563)

And this

Although U.S. policies may have decreased expected net earnings gain from undocumented migration by lowering wages and increasing crossing costs, the net differential in expected earnings between Mexico and the United States never came close to being eliminated. Under these circumstances, the changes induced by U.S. policies functioned less to deter undocumented migration than to compel migrants to work longer to earn back the costs of crossing and make the trip profitable. Moreover, having experienced the risks of a desert border crossing migrants would logically be loath to relive the experience. Finally, given longer stays north of the border and more attachments formed to people and places in the United States, permanent settlement is expected to become more likely. Given these changed circumstances at the border and within U.S. labor markets, we hypothesize little effect on the decision to depart for the United States without documents but strong effects on the decision of undocumented migrants to return to Mexico. (p. 1582)

And the conclusion begins

The principal substantive finding of our analysis is that border enforcement was not an efficacious strategy for controlling Mexican immigration to the United States, to say the least. Indeed, it backfired by cutting off a long-standing tradition of migratory circulation and promoting the large scale settlement of undocumented migrants who otherwise would have continued moving back and forth across the border. This outcome occurred because the strategy of border enforcement was not grounded in any realistic appraisal of undocumented migration itself but in the social construction of a border crisis for purposes of resource acquisition and political mobilization. Although these arguments have been made previously, never before have instrumental variable methods been applied to such a wide range of border outcomes and migrant behaviors to assess the causal effect of U.S. border enforcement.

How Border Enforcement Failed

Our estimates reveal that the rapid escalation of border enforcement beginning in 1986 had no effect on the likelihood of initiating undocumented migration to the United States but did have powerful unintended consequences, pushing migrants away from relatively benign crossing locations in El Paso and San Diego into hostile territory in the Sonoran Desert and through Arizona, increasing the need to rely on paid smugglers, and substantially increasing the costs and risks of undocumented migration. The increase in border enforcement, meanwhile, had only a modest effect on the likelihood that an undocumented migrant would be apprehended during a crossing attempt, one substantially mitigated by the greater use of coyotes and higher quality of services they offered, and no effect at all on the likelihood of gaining entry over a series of attempts.

The combination of increasingly costly and risky trips and the near certainty of getting into the United States created a decision-making context in which it still made economic sense to migrate but not to return home to face the high costs and risks of subsequent entry attempts. (…) (p. 1590)

And some policy options

Aside from doing nothing, however, there were other policy options available to officials beyond attempting to suppress migration through police actions at the border. One such option would be to accept Mexican migration as a natural component of ongoing economic integration under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Between the agreement’s implementation in 1994 and 2010, for example, total trade between Mexico and the United States rose 5.3 times, while according to data from the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics (2014) entries by business visitors increased 3.6 times, exchange visitors 6.2 times, tourists 12.1 times, intracompany transferees 17.4 times, and treaty investors more than a thousand times. Within an integrated economy, people inevitably will be moving.

As the experience of recent decades has shown, however, in practical terms it appears to be difficult if not impossible to integrate markets for goods, commodities, capital, services, and information while keeping labor markets separate (Massey et al. 2002). A more realistic option would have been to manage migration in ways that benefit both nations while protecting to the degree possible the rights and interests of both migrants and natives, much as the European Union did with the creation of its internal labor market (Fernandez-Kelly and Massey 2007; Massey 2008, 2009). Ironically, a more open border would likely have produced less permanent immigration and slower Mexican population growth in the United States by facilitating cross-border circulation. Indeed, the recent analysis of Massey, Durand, and Pren (2015) shows that documented migrants are now the ones circulating back and forth between the two nations, even as undocumented migrants remain trapped or “caged in” north of the border.

Rather than blocking the revealed preference of the typical Mexican to move back and forth temporarily for work in the United States, policies could have been implemented to encourage return migration, such as lowering the cost and risk of remitting U.S. earnings, paying tax refunds to returned migrants, making legal immigrants eligible for U.S. entitlements even if they return to Mexico, and cooperating with Mexican authorities to create attractive options for savings and investment south of the border. The billions of dollars wasted on counterproductive border enforcement would have been better spent on structural adjustment funds channeled to Mexico to improve its infrastructure for public health, education, transportation, communication, banking, and insurance to build a stronger, more productive, and more prosperous North America and eliminate the motivations for migration currently lying in ineffective markets for insurance, capital, and credit (Massey 2008). (…) (p. 1595)

The Washington Post has a report (Feb. 7th) from Nogales, Arizona & Sonora: twin cities divided by a border but that have always existed in symbiosis, with families on both sides, people crossing back and forth freely… Until the militarization of the border, with a wall and concertina wire separating the two cities as in a war zone. According to the Post, the city of Nogales AZ—which has had no say in the matter—has had enough. Borrowing from Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!”

UPDATE: On circular migration, see the paper by Patrick Weil, “All or nothing? What the United States can learn from Europe as it contemplates circular migration and legalization for undocumented immigrants,” published in 2010 by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in its Immigration Papers Series.

Nogales, AZ (credit: Jonathan Clark/Nogales International/AP)

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