Europe/Americas update: September 23-25 2017

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Because we live in bar-none the stupidest time in all of human history, there are a lot of Russian people who are very angry with Morgan Freeman.

The actor.

How can anybody be mad at the guy who narrated March of the Penguins, you ask? Well, Freeman, for some reason, lent his voice and his credibility to an introductory video by the “Committee to Investigate Russia,” the Russian investigation committee that doesn’t do any investigation and was founded by five people who collectively don’t really know shit about Russia. In the course of narrating the video, Freeman had some very interesting things to say, like such as:

What-Committee-Investigate-Russia
!!!!!

Oh, OK, neat.

Morgan Freeman’s voice can bend time and space, but I’m not sure it can make this extended Russian grift virtuous, and I’m positive it can’t make the Committee to Investigate Russia anything more than a very expensive distraction from the actual work of investigating Russia, which can only be done by Congress if it’s to have any actual impact.

UKRAINE

The United Nations human rights office issued a new report on Monday citing “grave human rights violations” committed by Russia in Crimea. Apparently people who objected to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula have been arrested, disappeared, tortured, and in at least once instance executed without trial. The Crimean Tatar community has, unsurprisingly, taken the brunt of the abuse.

LITHUANIA

Citing unhappiness over being “sidelined,” Lithuania’s Social Democratic Party quit the government on Saturday, leaving the ruling Farmers and Greens Union with only 57 seats in a 141 seat legislature. The party plans to ride the situation out as a minority government until elections in 2020, but that’s an awfully long time to try to maintain something like that and snap elections may be required at some point.

GERMANY

Angela Merkel, Leader of the Free World™, won a fourth term as German Chancellor on Sunday! She did it, folks! Everything is going to be OK now!

Well, not really.

A victory by Merkel’s center-right coalition’s victory in Sunday’s vote was never in doubt. But it lost 65 seats, lost its easiest coalition partner (which lost 40 seats and went into the opposition), and saw a surging far right nationalist party, Alternative for Germany, slide into third place by winning 94 seats. AfD’s showing made it the first far right party to win seats in the Bundestag in more than 60 years. Far right nationalists in the German parliament, getting a thumb’s up from the Austrian far right–what could go wrong, really?

Merkel has already vowed to win back the support of the people who voted for the fascists, which bodes really well for Germany and for all the Western liberals who have fallen in love with her since November. But she’s going to have to do it at the head of a completely unwieldy governing coalition including the libertarian Free Democratic Party and the Greens. Any three-party coalition is a recipe for instability, but one relying on two such disparate partners is almost doomed to crap out at some point. Merkel’s current coalition partner, the Social Democrats, went into the opposition both because it lost seats while serving as Merkel’s junior partner and to prevent AfD from becoming the main opposition party in parliament. Merkel has reportedly asked SPD leader Martin Schultz to reconsider his decision, but while I think he might reconsider on the former point he’s highly unlikely to do anything that leaves AfD leading the opposition, a status that carries some important perks in the German system.

Although she will return as chancellor, this election was a defeat for Merkel. She’s acknowledged it as such. It reflects, yet again, the failure of the centrist neoliberal consensus that Merkel has come to embody in the face of public resentment and a resurgent right-wing populism. It reflects her failure in particular to bring living conditions in the former East Germany up to par with those in the former West Germany. It also reflects the utter failure of the Social Democrats, who are suddenly going to have to find a voice and a message that isn’t “What She Said.” In that sense, maybe there’s some long-term benefit to this outcome, if it forces the German center-left to figure out how to appeal to German voters again. Likewise, if this result forces Merkel to pay more attention to the European project and its disconnection from so many European voters. But if she spends her remaining time as chancellor chasing AfD voters, then this election could portend a real disaster for European politics and stability.

FRANCE

The most recent Institut français d’opinion publique poll finds Emmanuel Macron’s popularity back on the upswing. Macron’s favorability rating in this poll was only -8 (45% approval to 53% disapproval) compared with a -17 point spread in August.

This jump in approval doesn’t seem to have helped Macron’s En Marche party, which came off quite poorly in Sunday’s election for the French Senate. The party was hoping to win 40-50 seats so that it could form a 3/5 majority alongside Macron’s other center-right friends, but it won only 23 seats. The French Senate is elected by local mayors and councils rather than by the general public, and it can’t really block Macron’s plans as long as he’s got such a large majority in the National Assembly, but he will need that 3/5 majority to be able to amend the constitution.

Meanwhile, as many as 150,000 people turned out in Paris on Saturday to protest Macron’s changes to France’s labor laws. The demonstrations were led by leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who remains Macron’s highest profile political opponent even though his party only has a handful of seats in parliament.

SPAIN

Spanish officials believe they’ve now shut down Sunday’s planned Catalan independence referendum and say they may allow a “mock” vote/independence “party” to take place as, I guess, a consolation prize. So that should be fun.

UNITED KINGDOM

Brexit negotiations are resuming just a few days after Theresa May’s big speech in Italy, but the European Union says it’s still waiting to hear Britain make concrete proposals with respect to issues like the divorce bill. May’s speech was long on “don’t worry, we’re going to do our part”-type rhetoric, which is part of her government’s strategy to make vague promises to Brussels and then pivot to talking about the future UK-EU relationship, but that strategy isn’t working.

Watching the UK government concede, at least in a general sense, on issue after issue while remaining firmly convinced it has the EU right where it wants it has been truly remarkable. This piece by Philippe Legrain really sums up the whole process:

Among the many reasons why the United Kingdom voted last year to leave the European Union, one of the biggest was its delusions of grandeur. Britain was big and powerful enough to go it alone. It would have the whip hand in negotiations with the EU, which would quickly agree to an exit and trade deal on Britain’s terms. The United States, China, India, and other major economies would beat a path to its door to strike advantageous trade deals. Water would run uphill.

Brexiteer zealots still believe such guff — and shameless opportunists such as Boris Johnson, the buffoonish foreign secretary with an eye on May’s job, continue to play to the gallery. But May’s Florence speech marked the beginning of a more realistic approach. With the Brexit negotiations deadlocked and the prospect of economic and legal turmoil if the U.K. crashes out of the EU on March 29, 2019, without an exit deal — disrupting trade, halting flights, stopping the transport of nuclear materials, and much else — she tried to woo the EU into unblocking the talks while keeping onside hard-line Brexiteers in her government and Conservative Party politicians who might otherwise try to unseat her.

Gone were the bluster that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and the dark threat to sever security cooperation with the EU. Instead she made big concessions and expressed an unconditional commitment to maintain Europe’s security. Recognizing that it would be impossible to finalize and ratify a trade deal by March 2019, she sought a two-year post-Brexit transition in which pretty much everything would stay the same as now except that the U.K. would no longer have a say in setting EU rules. Having previously denied that the U.K. had a legal obligation to pay a Brexit divorce bill — Johnson had diplomatically said the EU could “go whistle” — May pledged that Britain would honor its outstanding commitments. And having earlier unsettled EU migrants in Britain — not least with her “citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere” speech a year ago — and staunchly rejected a role for the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) after Brexit, she offered stronger guarantees that EU citizens’ rights would be protected after Brexit, including by the ECJ.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Some rare good news: the Brazilian government has revoked a decree issued in August that would have opened up almost 18,000 square miles of the Amazon rain forest to commercial mining operations. The decree was challenged in court and suspended, with the court arguing that such a measure needed to go through congress. Rather than appeal the decision, Michel Temer’s government has opted to drop the issue, for now.

UNITED STATES

As I mentioned earlier, the Trump administration rolled out a new version of its travel ban on Monday that removes Sudan from the previous ban list and adds North Korea, Venezuela, and Chad. The inclusion of North Korea and Venezuela is an obviously cynical move to try to prove that this isn’t a “Muslim ban” and thereby help it pass legal muster–and, sure enough, it’s working:

The Supreme Court has canceled oral arguments on President Donald Trump’s travel ban and refugee ban — originally scheduled for October 10 — as both sides of the case work to file briefs on the impact of a new immigration order from the Trump administration, issued Sunday.

With his 90-day travel ban now expired, and the window for his 120-day refugee ban coming to a close, Trump announced a new immigration order effectively banning almost all travel from eight countries, six of which have majority Muslim populations — indefinitely. Five of these countries were also banned in the early iterations of Trump’s travel ban. New rules on the administration’s refugee policy are expected to come out in the coming days.

Any delay is a win for Trump since it leaves the ban in place. Whether this new ban will survive a court challenge depends heavily on how the courts weigh the inclusion of two non-Muslim countries. As I say, it’s a ploy–hardly any North Koreans attempt to travel to the US anyway, and the Venezuela “ban” only applies to certain government officials, so the practical effect of the ban still falls almost entirely on would-be Muslim travelers.

Finally, let’s consider Puerto Rico. The one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria (please donate here if you can) has left the island utterly wrecked. At least 10 people have been killed, major roads are impassable, and the electrical grid is completely offline, which could leave Puerto Ricans without power for months. Food and water supplies are already running out and it could take $30 billion to rebuild.

Puerto Rico doesn’t have $30 billion, but that shouldn’t matter, because Puerto Rico is part of the United States. It’s not a state, though, and that apparently means that when disaster strikes Congress and the White House both feel free to tell Puerto Ricans to go fuck themselves. The New Republic‘s Sarah Jones explains:

The island’s governor requested greater federal assistance over the weekend, and it has yet to appear. (Reporting indicates the White House might get around to it in October.) Donald Trump has been virtually silent on the issue, preferring instead to attack African-American athletes.

But the glacial pace of Congress’s response is part of an older pattern. By denying the island statehood, Congress deprives residents of the vote and of certain funds. Puerto Rico’s economic options are further limited by the Jones Act, as the PBS Newshourreported in 2015; the act “requires everybody in Puerto Rico to buy goods from an American-made ship with an American crew.” In 2016, Congress finally moved to resolve Puerto Rico’s years-old debt crisis—the island was $73 billion in debt—by passing PROMESA, which ostensibly allows the island to restructure its debt.

PROMESA, as Jones writes, is an austerity scam, and that’s not the only way we’re subjecting Puerto Rico to experiments in disaster capitalism–with the storm damage, the island can now benefit from literal disaster capitalism, with all the advantages that brings. President Trump even took time off from his busy schedule of yelling at black football players to tweet about it. How fun!

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