Commenting on Sunday’s referendum victory in Croatia in favour of joining the EU, the veteran Guardian journalist Ian Traynor, a man with a long experience of covering former-Yugoslav affairs, has this to say:
Croatia has voted to join the EU by a sweeping majority, delivering a greater than expected yes vote in a referendum watched nervously in Brussels for fear of a backlash… The endorsement means that Croatia, barring any last-minute hiccups, will become the EU’s 28th member country in July next year, symbolising its break with the Balkans and former Yugoslavia and anchoring it strongly in the European mainstream as well as Nato.
How exactly does Traynor think that Croatia’s entry into the EU will ‘symbolise its break with the Balkans and former Yugoslavia’ ? Three Balkan states (Greece, Bulgaria, Romania) and one former-Yugoslav state (Slovenia) are already members of the EU, and the others are seeking to join. The likelihood is that most, if not all, will eventually succeed, and that EU membership will therefore unite Croatia firmly will the rest of the former Yugoslavia and the wider Balkans. Far from ‘symbolising its break with the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia’, Croatia’s entry into the EU will reaffirm its close relations and common destiny with them.
Traynor’s lazy sentence hints at a perceived dichotomy between ‘Europe’ and ‘the Balkans’, whereby the former represents things like law, democracy, progress and human rights and the latter represents things like primitivism, nationalism, authoritarianism and looking backwards. Joining ‘Europe’ would therefore mean abandoning the ‘Balkan’ world of primitivism, nationalism, authoritarianism and looking backwards. Traynor’s sentence hints that the nationalism and wars in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s were a product of the region’s ‘Balkanness'; of traits inherent to it as a Balkan rather than a European region. In reality, Western and Central Europe have had, if anything, worse records of extreme nationalism, imperialism and genocide than have the Balkans.
Ian Traynor should know better.
As Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said, ‘The more closely the democratic system of state approximates to complete freedom of secession, the rarer and weaker will the striving for secession be in practice’. If you want to keep a multinational union together, the best way to do it is to grant maximum freedom to its constituent nations, which will then have no reason to secede. The benefits of full sovereignty for individual nations can be enjoyed alongside the benefits of a larger union; we can have our cake and eat it too. The Yugoslav union could have been saved if only Serbia’s political classes had been ready to accept its evolution into an eight-member confederation, with its constituent republics and autonomous provinces enjoying complete self-rule. Unfortunately, Serbia’s politicians and intellectuals preferred no union at all to a confederal union. The European Union, for its part, though still a confederation, has already integrated too far, to the point where the sovereignty and democratic rights of its constituent nations are being violated; the British government is rightly resisting further unwanted integration. For multinational unions, less is usually more:
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
These are factors worth pondering as we witness the British coalition government’s clumsy attempt to dictate to the Scottish people how their referendum on independence should be framed and organised. The government has rejected the idea of a three-question referendum, as favoured by Alex Salmond (Scottish National Party leader and First Minister of Scotland), in which the Scots would be permitted to vote not only in favour of independence or of the status quo, but also of a third option – ‘devolution-max’, or full sovereignty over domestic affairs but with continued membership of the United Kingdom, and a continued common foreign policy and defence. The government is instead insisting on an ‘all or nothing’ referendum, in which Scots would be forced to choose between full independence or the status quo, and on a deadline by which the referendum would be held.
At this rate, the British government might as well simply declare the United Kingdom dissolved. There is no surer way of persuading a constituent nation to secede from a union than by trying to bully its elected representatives in this manner, and restrict its citizens’ right to vote as freely as possible. David Cameron and his ministers will have only themselves to blame if Scotland’s voters, angry at being denied the right to vote freely without interference from London, react by turning in favour of independence. If they want to save the union, Westminster’s politicians should recognise the right of Scotland’s elected representatives to choose when to hold their referendum and on what basis it should be held. With the majority of Scots opposed to independence, there is every reason to believe that granting them the right to devo-max would be the best way to save the union.
I support devo-max for Scotland. I support the right of the Scottish people to have all the sovereign rights that other nations in Europe enjoy. If they want to be fully independent, I respect their right to be. However, I hope they will opt instead for having their cake and eating it. There is no reason why left-wing Scotland should be forced to endure government by right-wing Westminster; a sovereign Scotland will in all likelihood have more enlightened domestic government than the one the UK has at present.
On the other hand, the UK has, since 1997, been a major positive force in world affairs; first under Tony Blair, then under Gordon Brown and now under David Cameron. However regrettable his domestic policies, Cameron’s foreign policy has been almost impeccable; where Blair was a pioneer of progressive foreign policy, Cameron adopted his model and, if anything, improved upon it. It would be a loss for the world if the UK were to be diminished by Scotland’s secession. By contrast, Salmond’s peacenik, anti-nuclear record suggests that an independent Scotland led by him would be likely to obstruct rather than support progressive moves on the global stage by Britain and the West.
Over and above such cold calculations remains the fact that the majority of Scots, like the majority of English and Welsh, continue to identify, at least at some level, with Britain as a whole. Devo-max would best reconcile the self-identification of Scots as Scots with their self-identification – and the self-identification of the English and Welsh – as Brits.
Some fear that Scottish sovereignty would leave the Conservatives too overwhelmingly dominant in the rump UK. This might not be so straightforward. Comfortable dominance over Labour in a rump UK, and in an English parliament, might lead the English Conservatives to splinter, and see the re-emergence of a gentler, one-nation current of Conservatism in opposition to the currently dominant Thatcherites. At the very least, the establishment of an English parliament would help the English to understand and articulate their own national identity better, as the Scots already do. The Welsh may opt to retain a closer union with England than the other parts of the UK will, but that again is up to them.
PS I have purposely omitted discussing Northern Ireland in this article, as that is a whole different kettle of fish…
I cannot remember any year of my life being so exciting, in terms of global political developments, as 2011. In a positive way, too: although many of the great events of last year have been far from unambiguous triumphs for human progress and emancipation, they have nevertheless demonstrated that many of the chains that bind humanity are not as immovable as they previously seemed. Though many of the battles remain to be fought and some will be lost, that they are being fought at all is reason for optimism. I haven’t remotely been able to provide adequate comment at this blog, but here is my personal list of the most inspiring events of 2011 – not necessarily in order of importance.
1. The Arab (and Russian !) Spring.
Cynics regret the fall of the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes, and the likely fall of the Saleh regime, in the belief that these acted as Hobbesian leviathans keeping lids on political Islam. They fail to appreciate that these dictatorships, through preventing the emergence of healthy political pluralism and through opportunistic collaboration with Islamism, acted as the incubators of the very Islamist movements they claimed to keep in check. It is pluralism – more so than democracy – that is ultimately the cure for the evil represented by Islamism. The Arab Spring may end badly in some or all of the countries in question, but hats off to the brave Syrians, Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and others who have redeemed the honour of the Arab world through their heroic struggle against tyranny, showing that change is possible. The Arab fighters against tyranny may not win, or they may succumb to a new tyranny, but they are fighting a struggle that needs to be fought. And hats off too to the brave Russians who are raising the banner of freedom in the heart of Europe’s worst police state.
2. International intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and Laurent Gbagbo.
For all that I supported the US-led intervention to overthrow the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, events have proven it was an intervention too far: carried out without any form of mandate from world opinion or support in the country in question and attempting a too-radical overthrow of the existing order, it brought democratic change and emancipated the Shia majority and Kurdish minority, but only at great human cost and immense damage to the West’s reputation and to the political standing of the Western governments that participated. By contrast, the intervention in Libya was everything the intervention in Iraq was not: carried out in support of a genuine popular uprising and at the request of Libyans themselves, with a genuine international mandate, it brought down a dictatorship without any foreign troops setting foot in the country or losing their lives. There has been some whining among wishy-washy moderates that regime-change was carried out under cover of a UN mandate to prevent massacre, and that consequently Western leaders have made it more difficult to obtain international support for humanitarian intervention in future. Nonsense: even the propaganda catastrophe of Iraq did not prevent the intervention in Libya, so the successful intervention in Libya will be far from discouraging future interventions. In fact, like the Kosova intervention before it, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can work, as did the international intervention that helped bring about the fall of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, followed by his arrest and deportation to the International Criminal Court where, we hope, more of his fellow tyrants will end up.
3. The rise in the West of protests at the abuses of capitalism.
For much of the past fifteen years or so of my life, I felt I was gradually becoming more right-wing (from an admittedly extreme-left-wing starting-point), to the point where, at the last British general election, I adopted a bi-partisan standpoint vis-a-vis Labour and the Conservatives. I have seen, and continue to see myself, as a centrist rather than a leftist. Well, the events in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US have certainly served as a wake-up call to me, as the mainstream political right and the super-rich – not to put too fine a point on it – are simply taking the piss. Here in the UK, public services are being massacred while those in the corporate and financial sectors pay themselves vast and unearned bonuses, and the authorities turn a blind eye to their blatant tax-evasion. We’re supposed to believe that cutting the incomes of ordinary working- and middle-class people is necessary in the name of deficit-reduction, while cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations is necessary in the name of economic stimulus ! Well, you can’t have it both ways. In the US, the Republicans have gone so far to the right in their support of selfish and irresponsible tax-cuts for the rich that they’ve gone completely off the rails, seriously jeopardising their government’s ability to navigate the economic crisis. With mainstream centre-left leaders like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband failing to show any backbone over this, it is left to grass-roots activist movements to do so. So three cheers for Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and all such movements, for doing what our elected representatives are failing to do. I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.
4. The fall of Silvio Berlusconi and popular protests in Greece.
The fall of the corrupt sleazeball is a bittersweet triumph, given that it occurred in the context of the EU’s imposition of brutal austerity programmes across the Eurozone, accompanied by creeping integration that violates both the national sovereignty and democratic will of member states. The cause of deeper EU integration has revealed itself to be a deeply undemocratic, anti-people cause. I have been very critical of the Greek political classes for their criminal regional policies, vis-a-vis Milosevic, Macedonia, etc.; the Greek people, by contrast, in the ferocious fight they are putting up against the EU-imposed austerity measures, have set an example to us all. Let the costs of the economic crisis be born by the bankers and politicians who caused it, not by ordinary people and future generations.
5. The phone-hacking scandal in the UK.
All my life in the UK, I have lived in the belief that the tabloid newspapers and particularly the Murdoch media empire are a great incubus on British politics and society, encouraging everything that is worst in our country: xenophobia, small-mindedness, vulgarity, philistinism, voyeurism and sleaze. So how refreshing and liberating it is, to see them being taken down a peg or two. There is no reason why people’s private lives and feelings should be constantly violated, and intimate personal details splashed all over newspapers, by hack reporters pandering to the worst public instincts; it is time that the UK passed some serious privacy laws, to put an end to the permanent national scandal and embarrassment of our tabloid press. However uninspiring Ed Miliband may be as Labour Party leader, he deserves credit for bravely taking on the Murdoch empire. Let’s hope the Daily Mail goes the way of the News of the World - that would go a long way toward solving our supposed ‘immigration crisis’ !
6. Independence for South Sudan.
What a sad day it is for democracy, when a genocidal dictatorship accomplishes what various flawed democracies seem unable to do, and negotiates the independence from it of an oppressed region. In July, South Sudan formally became an independent state and joined the UN. Congratulations to its people, who have shown that even the most brutal struggle for freedom can have a happy ending ! Meanwhile, Turkey is escalating its terror and repression of its Kurdish population; Serbia continues to block and disrupt Kosova’s independence, with Serb extremists creating chaos in northern Kosova and undermining Serbia’s EU aspirations; and Israel continues to obstruct peace with the Palestinians through its settlement-building programme and Apartheid-style occupation regime in the West Bank – to which its apologists turn a blind eye, while they try to blame the Palestinians for wanting to join the UN and UNESCO ! Shame on the democratic world.
7. Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the International Court of Justice and Palestinian membership of UNESCO.
Were the democratic world to apply liberal and democratic principles fairly and consistently, it would be extremely easy to bring about solutions to the Macedonian-Greek and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, that would respect and safeguard the rights of all four nations in question. Unfortunately, the EU over Greece and Macedonia and the US over Israel and Palestine, far from acting as honest brokers in negotiations to end these conflicts, are simply supporting the hardline nationalist agendas of the stronger sides. They hypocritically talk of ‘negotiated settlements’ while ensuring that pressure is only put on the weaker sides, never on the stronger. When they say they want both sides to negotiate, what they really mean is that they want one side to surrender. The Macedonians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice over what’s in their national interest from EU apparatchiks, just as the Palestinians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice from craven US officials. Do they really want their countries to end up like Bosnia, whose leaders in the 1990s were unwise enough to follow ‘advice’ of this kind ?? So what an inspiring example these nations are setting when they refuse to follow the advice of hypocrites, and pursue justice in a dignified, civilised manner through international institutions. Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in October followed by Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the ICJ in December are two blows struck for democracy and human rights that Western leaders seem unable to uphold.
8. The fall of Dominique Strauss-Khan and the acquittal of Amanda Knox.
At one level, the collapse of the sexual assault case in New York against Dominique Strauss-Khan suggests that even in the US, it may be legal for a rich sexually to assault a hotel maid, provided the maid in question has a personal history that’s marginally less unblemished by sin than that of the Virgin Mary, and has done something satanically evil like telling a lie during her asylum application. As has long been said, in rape cases it’s often the victim rather than the rapist who is on trial. For all that, Nafissatou Diallo’s accusation against Strauss-Khan did succeed in ending the political career of a violent misogynist with a history of attacking women, forcing his resignation as IMF chief and wrecking his French presidential bid. And in encouraging other female victims of sexual assault, at the hands of him and of others, to come forward. Another spectacular victory over misogyny was won in October, when Amanda Knox was acquitted by an Italian court on appeal of murdering her flatmate, having been originally convicted in something resembling a medieval witch-trial. Again, she was convicted not on the basis of the evidence against her, since there wasn’t any, but because she was good looking and sexually active, pursued what was in conservative Italian eyes an unorthodox lifestyle, and did not behave like a tearful female stereotype after her flatmate’s murder. Soon after, an apparently respectable boy-next-door, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of murdering his neighbour, Joanna Yeates. Initially overlooked by police until he incriminated himself, he turned out to have a secret fixation with strangling women. So there you have it.
9. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the arrest of Ratko Mladic.
Justice finally caught up in 2011 with two mass-murderers whose long evasion of justice made them symbols of ‘resistance’ for the worst kind of extremists. Mladic turned out not to be as brave as he had been when he was directing the genocidal massacre of defenceless Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, and surrendered quietly to the Serbian police. Bin Laden was, by contrast, whacked in Pakistan by US special forces, as was his follower Anwar al-Awlaki by a US drone attack in Yemen later in the year, in both cases prompting much hand-wringing by wishy-washy liberal types of the Yasmin Alibhai-Brown variety, who seem to be under the impression that it’s possible for the US peacefully to arrest terrorists based in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict with those terrorists, as if the latter were pickpockets in New York. They would do well to remember the Allied assassination of Holocaust-architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, and of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour, the following year – we certainly didn’t try to arrest them ! And of course, based on what happened to former Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic, an international court might have just sentenced bin Laden to a few years in prison, then let him out early.
10. The referendum defeat for the ‘Alternative Vote’ in the UK.
Not as significant as the above events, but it made me happy anyway.
Happy New Year !
- Basque Country
- Central Europe
- East Timor
- European Union
- Faroe Islands
- Former Soviet Union
- Former Yugoslavia
- Marko Attila Hoare
- Middle East
- Political correctness
- Red-Brown Alliance
- South Ossetia
- The Left