Europe/Americas update: February 26 2018



Somebody tossed a grenade at an Athens police station overnight, causing one minor injury. A left wing anarchist group apparently took credit for the attack in an online posting.


The surprise outcome of Sunday’s mayoral election in the city of Hódmezővásárhely has opposition parties wondering if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party might not be more vulnerable than they’d thought. Hódmezővásárhely has been Fidesz territory–unsurprising, given its proximity to the Serbian border and Orbán’s xenophobic politics–but their candidate lost on Sunday. The result has all three opposition parties–the LMP, the Socialists, and even the ultra-right Jobbik–talking about clearing the decks for each other’s candidates in regions where one or the other is likely to do better against the Fidesz candidate. By not splitting the opposition vote the three parties would have a better chance of knocking Fidesz off of its perch. However, such arrangements are difficult to negotiate even among like-minded opposition parties, let alone between leftists and a party like Jobbik that’s even more reactionary than Fidesz.


Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union voted to go ahead with her plans to form a governing coalition with the Social Democrats. That clears a hurdle, but not the biggest hurdle, which is still expected to be the Social Democratic Party vote. Even that vote seems like less of an uphill battle than it did just a couple of weeks ago.


Emmanuel Macron continues to Make France Great Again, but he’s likely to face a bit of blowback in the coming weeks:

Emmanuel Macron is to push through sweeping reforms to France’s vast state rail system and cut rail workers’ special employment rights – tackling one of France’s riskiest political issues.


Any question of overhauling the SNCF state railway company has always proved controversial, with the train network grinding to a virtual halt for weeks when trade unions opposed changes to rail staff’s benefits in 1995.


But the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said that the government would quickly push through changes by special executive decree without a vote in parliament if necessary. Trade unions are discussing possible strikes on 12 March and will join bigger public sector strikes on 22 March.

France’s rail system has to get more “efficient,” you see–“efficient” here meaning “everybody’s lives have to get a little worse except for those of me and my pals.”


UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has apparently decided to stop watching Theresa May flounder and put forward his own Brexit plan. Corbyn on Monday made himself the champion of a “soft Brexit” by proposing that Britain remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit–under the condition that London have a say in any trade deals the EU negotiates, which is an idea to which the EU has not been very amenable.

This is an interesting move for Corbyn, both because there are plenty of Labour types who dislike the EU on left-wing grounds (Corbyn himself used to be among them) and because it potentially leaves him and Labour as the more business-friendly party at least when it comes to managing Brexit. Most UK companies would prefer the country remain in the customs union. From a purely political perspective this move puts Corbyn in a position to cobble together a “soft Brexit” coalition with most of his Labour members plus the moderates in May’s Conservative Party. That could be seriously damaging to May politically at a time when she’s still scrambling to figure out exactly what kind of Brexit she wants–and what kind she can afford to pursue without losing hardline pro-Brexiter Tories. Corbyn had a little fun with the mess that the Tories have become in his speech on Monday:

Mr. Corbyn mocked Tory infighting over the terms of the deal on Monday, joking that “anything agreed at breakfast is being briefed against at lunch and abandoned at teatime,” and tried to present himself as a voice of sanity.


“The European Union is not the root of all our problems, and leaving it will not solve all our problems,” he said. “There will be some who will tell you that Brexit is a disaster for our country, and some who will tell you that Brexit will create a land of milk and honey. The truth is more down to earth, and it’s in our hands.”

Already, the Tories face a vote on a trade bill amendment calling for the UK to stay in the customs union that has the support of soft Brexiter Tories and now will probably have the support of Labour as well. In other words, it’s very likely to pass over May’s objections. The Tories are already looking for ways to legalese that amendment so that May isn’t obliged to remain in the customs union.



Colombia’s ELN rebels say they will impose a unilateral ceasefire during the country’s legislative election next month. They clearly mean it as a goodwill gesture hoping to get the Colombian government to reopen peace talks.


Finally, Columbia University’s Rajan Menon takes a look at the Trump Nuclear Posture Review and, needless to say, doesn’t like what he sees:

These aren’t the only dangerous ideas that lie beneath the NPR’s flexibility trope.  Presidents must also, it turns out, have the leeway to reach into the nuclear arsenal if terrorists detonate a nuclear device on American soil or if conclusive proof exists that another state provided such weaponry (or materials) to the perpetrator or even “enabled” such a group to “obtain nuclear devices.”  The NPR also envisions the use of selective nuclear strikes to punish massive cyberattacks on the United States or its allies.  To maximize the flexibility needed for initiating selective nuclear salvos in such circumstances, the document recommends that the U.S. “maintain a portion of its nuclear forces alert day-to-day, and retain the option of launching those forces promptly.”  Put all this together and you’re looking at a future in which nuclear weapons could be used in stress-induced haste and based on erroneous intelligence and misperception.


So while the NPR’s prose may be sleep inducing, you’re unlikely to nod off once you realize that the Trump-era Pentagon — no matter the NPR’s protests to the contrary — seeks to lower the nuclear threshold.  “Selective,” “limited,” “low yield”: these phrases may sound reassuring, but no one should be misled by the antiseptic terminology and soothing caveats.  Even “tactical” nuclear weapons are anything but tactical in any normal sense.  The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki might, in terms of explosive power, qualify as “tactical” by today’s standards, but would be similarly devastating if used in an urban area.  (We cannot know just how horrific the results would be, but the online tool NUKEMAP calculates that if a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb, comparable to Fat Man, the code name for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, were used on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live, more than 80,000 people would be killed in short order.)  Not to worry, the NPR’s authors say, their proposals are not meant to encourage “nuclear war fighting” and won’t have that effect.  On the contrary, increasing presidents’ options for using nuclear weapons will only preserve peace.


The Obama-era predecessor to Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review contained an entire section entitled “Reducing the Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons.” It outlined “a narrow set of contingencies in which such weaponry might still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners.”  So long to that.

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