Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Work in Progress

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The American re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba may prove to be outgoing President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement. So how are things progressing?

Last March, Obama visited Cuba and told its people that “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”

His visit was the culmination of fifteen months of diplomatic engagement, which began when the U.S. and Cuba announced the restoration of relations, on December 17, 2014.

It was the first visit of an American president since the Cuban Revolution, and the first since the United States imposed more than fifty years of diplomatic and commercial isolation on the island.

In visiting Havana, Obama was hoping that his presence could accelerate an opening in Cuba’s economic and political institutions, while President Raul Castro wanted to gain international credibility and legitimacy without making too many political concessions.

The private sector has grown exponentially since Raul Castro began a program of economic reforms in 2010, allowing hundreds of thousands of self-employed workers, such as restaurateurs, barbers, and cabdrivers, to sell their services directly to customers.

A year later Cubans were given the right to buy and sell their own homes and cars, to start an expanded range of businesses, and to travel freely.

So is a reconciliation under way between the two nations? To some extent, of course. Since launching in May, Carnival Corporation’s cruise line Fathom has been running trips every other week to Cuba.

The first direct commercial flight between the U.S. and the island in over a half-century took place on Aug. 31. Soon, up to a maximum of 110 daily flights operated by U.S. carriers are due to begin flying to the island.

On Sept. 27, despite some Republican objections, Obama nominated Jeffrey DeLaurentis be the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba since the two countries broke off relations 55 years ago.

The U.S. on Oct. 26 abstained for the first time in an annual UN General Assembly condemnation of the half-century-old American trade embargo against Cuba. It was the first time Washington did not oppose the motion, proposed every year since 1991. 

But Fidel Castro, who died last week, remained suspicious of American designs on the country, and wanted to uphold the gains made since 1959.

Referring to Obama’s appeal to “forget the past and look to the future,” Castro responded, in Granma, the Communist Party’s newspaper, that no one should “succumb to the illusion that the people of this noble and self-abnegating nation will ever renounce the glory, the rights, and the spiritual bounty won with its achievements in education, the sciences, and culture”

At the seventh Communist Party Congress held in April, Fidel told the delegates that “the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervour and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without truce to obtain them.”

So Cuba has not become an American friend just yet. Havana’s resentment over the more than five-decade embargo, which remains in place, is still strong despite the renewal of diplomatic ties with Washington. It can be annulled only by Congress, where support for it remains.

And Donald Trump’s election victory will probably make it even harder to lift it.

Turkish Minority in Bulgaria Often Persecuted

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The centuries-long Ottoman Empire rule over Christian peoples in the Balkans was never accepted as legitimate. However, some did convert to Islam, in many cases in order to benefit from becoming part of the rulers’ own faith.

As the Turks were slowly driven out, such people were often left “stranded,” as it were, a residue in newly-sovereign Christian states that were not very hospitable to these remnants of Islamic empire. They were viewed as a reminder of Turkish Ottoman domination.

Bosniaks and Albanians in the former Yugoslavia faced hardship, including two major wars, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, in the 1990s.

Less well-known is the persecution suffered by Turkish Muslims in Bulgaria during that period.

Three decades ago, the Communist regime in Sofia started to assimilate the Turkish minority by force. Bulgarian Turks had to change their names and were no longer allowed to speak Turkish in public.

In 1984, army and police units surrounded the Kardzhali district in southern Bulgaria, fairly close to the Turkish border, and home to the bulk of the Turkish minority. The Turks received new identity cards and all previously existing minority rights were revoked.

Resistance mounted, and by 1989, the Communist rulers in Sofia realized that the situation was spiraling out of control. Bulgarian Communist leader Todor Zhivkov decided that only a mass emigration of the Turkish minority to Turkey could ease the pressure.

Fortunately for the Turks, the Communist regime collapsed soon afterwards.

As Bulgaria transitioned to a post-Communist political order, parliament unanimously voted that Turks and other Muslims could again use their own names. Still, the majority of the 300,000 emigrants never returned.

The 1991 post-Communist Bulgarian Constitution contained a provision banning political parties “formed on an ethnic basis.” So the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSDP), successor to the Communists, asked the country’s Constitutional Court to declare unconstitutional a new political party formed by the beleaguered Turkish minority.

However, the Court affirmed the legality of the new Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which today largely represents Bulgaria’s Turkish and other Muslim ethnic minorities.

As Bulgaria moved towards trying to gain admission to the European Union, in 1999 parliament ratified a resolution for the protection of minorities. The country joined the EU in 2007; it is also a member of NATO.

Today Bulgarian Turks represent about 10 per cent of the country’s population of 7.3 million. The DPS party won 38 of 240 seats in the Bulgarian election of 2014, with 14.8 per cent of the total vote (including 83 per cent of Turkish voters), and is the third biggest party in the National assembly.

Its opponents consider the party to be excessively pro-Turkish, in contrast to Slavic Bulgarians, who, as Orthodox Christians, historically have tended to sympathize with Russia.

In December 2015 Lyutvi Mestan, chairman of the DPS, was expelled from the party following a declaration he had made in support of Turkey following the downing of a Russian fighter aircraft by Ankara a month earlier.

Mestan then founded a new party, DOST, an acronym which stands for Democrats for Responsibility, Solidarity and Tolerance in Bulgarian, but spells and sounds like a word for “friend” in Turkish

Friday, November 25, 2016

Is There a Resurgence of Hungarian Anti-Semitism?

Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press

With the rise of Victor Orban and his Federation of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz), a nationalist party now dominates Hungarian politics.

In 1988 Orban helped found the party, initially as a youth-oriented liberal anti-Communist group. But under Orban’s guidance, it began to move to the right, especially since its landslide victory in the 2010 national election. In 2014, it took 44.87 per cent of the vote, winning 133 of 199 seats.

He now hopes to lead a “cultural counter-revolution” in Europe, in which liberal ideas like helping refugees are supplanted by identity-based notions of family, community and Christianity, with the European Union stripped of its powers to force asylum-seekers onto unwilling countries.

With political freedom has come a renewed sense of Hungarian nationhood, and Orban has tapped into this nationalistic mood. He even questions Hungary’s membership in the EU.

Hungarian Jews have reason to be alarmed by this, as there are unpleasant precedents to this type of rhetoric.

In the first few decades of the 20th century the Jews of Hungary numbered roughly five per cent of the population. Jews were disproportionately represented in the professions and in commerce, relative to their numbers.

But after the First World War, the country was ruled by an autocrat, Admiral Miklos Horthy, whose views towards Jews verged on anti-Semitism.

“I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc. should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad,” he remarked in a letter to one of his prime ministers.

In 1920 Horthy introduced the quota system at the universities, restricting Jewish presence to a maximum of six per cent of all students enrolled.

Numerous anti-Jewish laws were passed in the late 1930s, as the country moved closer to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Hungary would join the Axis powers in World War II.

Nonetheless, Hungary’s Jews did not become engulfed by the Holocaust until March 1944, when German tanks occupied the country, and the viciously pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party took power. Of the original 825,000 Jews in the country before the war, about 565,000 perished, most at the Auschwitz death camp.

During the Communist period, anti-Semitism was formally forbidden, though Zionism and mass immigration to Israel were not allowed and contacts between Hungarian Jewry and world Jewry were curtailed.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution against Soviet control created a problem of loyalty for the Jews, whom the Soviet Union had saved from Hitler and his collaborators. The fact that a few of the Communist leaders were Jews fueled the hatred of anti-Semites.

Since the end of Communist rule in 1990, anti-Semitism has openly re-emerged.

One of the major representatives of current anti-Semitic ideology is the Movement for a Better Hungary, known as Jobbik, In the election of 2014, the party secured 20.22 per cent of the total vote, good for 23 seats, making them Hungary’s third largest party in parliament.

In November 2012, Marton Gyongyosi, one of the party’s leaders, posted a video speech on the Jobbik website in which he called for a list to be drawn up of all the Jews in government because he deemed them to pose “a national security risk to Hungary.”

Jewish organizations responded by describing it as a reintroduction of Nazism in Hungary.

In May 2013, Jobbik members protested against a World Jewish Congress meeting in Budapest, claiming the protest was against “a Jewish attempt to buy up Hungary.” Nine months later Tibor Agoston, the deputy chairman of Jobbik’s organization in Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, referred to the Holocaust as the “holoscam.”

A report produced in April by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies found that 53 per cent those aged between fifteen and thirty-four years old said they would vote for Jobbik, and only 17 per cent for the ruling Fidesz party.

Hungary’s Jews have reason to be frightened.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Russian PM Medvedev Visits Israel

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
The war in Syria, nuclear proliferation, trade, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue were on the agenda during a Nov. 9-11 three day tour of the Middle East by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

In Israel, he met with President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, among others. In the Palestinian territories, he was greeted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Medvedev told Netanyahu that terrorism threatens Israel in a “very unique way,” but Russia also suffers from it. “This is why there is a need to fight terror together,” he stated.

In turn, Netanyahu described Russia and Israel as partners in combating radical Islamist terror and stressed that Russia and Israel, along with many other countries share the goal of eliminating the Islamic State.

Netanyahu and Medvedev discussed Iran and the 2015 deal that six world powers, including Russia and the United States, struck with Tehran to limit its nuclear capacity.

“We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “Iran has espoused the destruction of Israel and supports terrorism on five continents.”

Iran, he added, must not be allowed to establish “Shi’ite militias, which it is organizing, and of course the arming of Hezbollah with dangerous weapons aimed at us.” One U.S. estimates places the Lebanese group’s arsenal at more than 100,000 missiles and rockets.

Medvedev also reaffirmed Russia’s position on Israel’s legitimacy. He told Israeli media that “Our country has never denied the rights of Israel or the Jewish people to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount or the Western Wall.”

Medvedev then visited Abbas in Ramallah on the West Bank, declaring that Russia consistently supports the implementation of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
Abbas said that Russia “must play an effective and permanent role in any events related to the peace process.”

Medvedev responded that Moscow’s September invitation to host direct talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders was still on the table. “Mediation cannot replace direct talks between the parties, which is the best thing.”

He expressed hope that the new U.S. administration would participate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“Our recognition of the state of Israel cannot be for free,” Abbas was quoted as telling Medvedev. “As such, it is necessary for Israel to recognize the state of Palestine.”

The backdrop to all this, of course, is Moscow’s deeply expanded involvement in the Syrian civil war. Vladimir Putin wants more than anything else to reassert Russia’s role as a high-stakes player in the international system.

Netanyahu might not have been happy to see Russia get so involved in the Syrian equation, but he knows that the physical presence of Russian forces in Syria may help contain threats from Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, as well as from Islamist terrorists.

In the past year, Netanyahu and Putin have met four times, and Moscow and Jerusalem have agreed to coordinate their actions in Syria as well as share intelligence.

Last June, Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Zvi Heifetz told Russian media that his country supported Russia’s war on terror in Syria.

Will Trump Be Accepted as the Next President?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Voters upset that Donald Trump has been elected president have begun scrambling for ways to change the results.

Almost instantly, protests, some of them violent, erupted in dozens of cities, with participants insisting that Trump was “not my president,” and blaming the Electoral College.

Actually, there have been five elections since 1820 in which the recipient of a plurality of the popular vote did not become president. Presidents are not elected by a national vote, but in 51 separate jurisdictions.

The Electoral College is part of the U.S. Constitution and is composed of 538 members, with each state and the District of Columbia having one elector for every member of its Congressional delegation – its Senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Except in Maine and Nebraska, the winner of the popular vote in each state gets all of its electoral votes.

The Electoral College exists to ensure that the states, through their own electorates, would choose the president. America is a federation, and has checks and balances built into its political system.

Actually, if the states all had an equal say in who was elected the president, the Democrats would fare even worse, as Republicans win most of the states.

Still, thousands of people have taken to the streets. There were demonstrations in Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Miami, Milwaukee, Oakland, San Diego and numerous other cities.

Several thousand protesters marched up New York City’s Fifth Avenue to Trump Tower, the president-elect’s skyscraper home. “We’re horrified the country has elected an incredibly unqualified, misogynist, racist on a platform that was just totally hateful,” declared one, who held a sign reading, “No Fascism in America.”

A flag was set ablaze in front of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, as protesters chanted “America was never great.”

In Los Angeles, several thousand protesters gathered in MacArthur Park holding placards reading “Dump Trump” and “Minorities Matter.” A protester in Portland, Oregon, was shot in a night of rioting and vandalism.

A post-election Washington Post-ABC News poll found that one-third of Clinton supporters do not view Trump’s election as legitimate. I’ve never seen this before.

As well, petitions have appeared demanding that the actual members of the Electoral College, which is to meet on Dec. 19, switch their votes to the Democratic candidate.

A petition on, signed by millions of people, noted that electors can vote for Hillary Clinton if they choose. Even in states where that is not allowed, their vote would still be counted, if they would simply pay a small fine – “which we can be sure Clinton supporters will be glad to pay!”

Organizers in a drive led by are targeting roughly 160 Republican electors in the 15 states that Trump won but which don’t have laws bounding the electorates to the winner.

All of this is unprecedented. I vote in Pennsylvania, and found myself unable to support either of these flawed candidates. But we have to accept the result.

As a comparativist, I study countries where very deep divisions, usually based on ethnicity, religion or class, result in polarizing elections that lead to violence when the outcome is not accepted by the losers. Is democracy in the United States now under the same threat?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Requiem for a Ruling Elite

Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax] Chronicle Herald

Maybe the astounding result in the 2016 American presidential election, which saw the most improbable of candidates, Donald Trump, beat the seasoned pro, Hillary Clinton, should not have been the shock it was.

A system that had completely failed tens of millions of people for decades, and especially after 2008, needed a rude awakening. The Democrats even lost the “rust belt” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, long their bastions!

The political elites, had Hillary Clinton won, would over the next few years have allowed the rage to continue building, and 2020 would be a lot worse than today.

A really smart ruling class would have allowed Bernie Sanders to beat Hillary Clinton in the primaries, instead of fixing it and crowning her.

Now they’re looking for excuses. Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal even claimed that a group of “right-wing agents” in the FBI intentionally prevented Clinton from behind elected president.

This is indeed sour grapes. Clinton lost because not enough of members of her core constituency came out for her.

Clinton held an 80-point advantage among African-Americans, but was unable to match Obama’s 87-point edge in 2012. She won 65 per cent of Latino voters, compared with the 71 per cent who voted for Obama in 2012.

Among millennials, she won 54 per cent, compared with 60 per cent for Obama in 2012.

With women, she barely improved on Obama, gaining 54 per cent among them, just one per cent more than Obama’s vote in 2012.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, “overturned the table.” We are in uncharted waters, for sure, but with Clinton, the establishment seemed oblivious to the charted ones, and they were heading straight for the rocks.

“The Democratic Party’s failure to keep Donald Trump out of the White House in 2016 will go down as one of the all-time examples of insular arrogance,” wrote Matt Taibbi on the Rolling Stone magazine website on Nov. 10. It bullied anyone who dared question its campaign strategy by calling them racists, sexists and agents of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“Trump's election was a true rebellion, directed at anyone perceived to be part of ‘the establishment.’ The target group included political leaders, bankers, industrialists, academics, Hollywood actors, and, of course, the media.”

The rage was directed at institutions that people believe have failed them and at an economy that doesn’t work for ordinary workers. Voters saw the aftermath of a financial crisis and Great Recession in which the gap between winners and losers just grew larger, and perpetrators escaped punishment.

 “What has happened in America should not be seen as a victory for hatefulness over decency,” contended Robert Reich, a former Democratic Secretary of Labour, in the Guardian of London, Nov. 10. It is more accurately understood as a repudiation of the American power structure.

“Recent economic indicators may be up, but those indicators don’t reflect the insecurity most Americans continue to feel,” he wrote. They do not show the linkages between wealth and power, stagnant or declining real wages, soaring CEO pay, “and the undermining of democracy by big money.”

When liberal elites are unable to deal with, or even acknowledge, major cultural and economic problems, just calling those who are hurting names, people turn to the extremes.

After 2008, President Obama needed to be a reformer like Franklin Roosevelt, but he wasn’t. Instead, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted in her Nov. 13 column, he “settled comfortably into being an Ivy League East Coast cerebral elitist who hung out with celebrities, lectured Congress and scorned the art of political persuasion.”

His presidency will end with Democrats in possession of 11 fewer Senate seats, more than 60 fewer House seats, at least 14 fewer governorships and more than 900 fewer seats in state legislatures than when it began.

So maybe now we may have a “Huey Long” demagogue in the White House. The Democrats asked for it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Why is the European Union Failing?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The attempt to build a European super-state has hit rough water, being buffeted on the one side by the wave of migrants entering the continent from Africa and Middle East, and by the rise, in reaction, of ethnic nationalism in countries such as Hungary and Poland.

The greatest blow, of course, has been the decision of the United Kingdom to exit the union. Globalizers have been taken aback by this, and seem unable to comprehend the desire of many citizens in long-established nations to retain their own sense of cultural identity – and, not coincidentally, to recreate an economic order in their countries that privileges them over foreign labour and capital.

Meanwhile, the post-2008 Eurozone crisis has hit southern European countries particularly hard. Italy, Spain, and Portugal all chafe under a regime of austerity that benefits stronger economies like that of Germany.

In these countries youth unemployment now approaches 50 per cent and surveys report an unprecedented level of pessimism among them. Aimlessness and lack of opportunity have driven up the suicide rate.

Worst hit has been Greece: six years of financial and fiscal oversight by the Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund have brought a cumulative loss of 27 per cent of its economy, an unemployment rate of 24 per cent, and political instability. Since 2009, its governments have averaged seventeen months between elections.

Some of the blame falls on the shoulders of the country, of course. Governments were reluctant to cut the extraordinary waste of the Greek state; they were part of a political system known for its opportunism and complete lack of responsibility.

When the extent of its fiscal mismanagement became apparent, investors began to realize that unlike in other currency unions, there was no formal mechanism to support a distressed constituent government and that Eurozone members were unprepared to fully stand behind the liabilities of their weakest link.

So now that the bills have come due, creditors are offering the country no slack. The proliferation of social ills and the intensity of economic stagnation has fueled the rise of political extremists.

In eastern Europe, meanwhile, the electoral success of nationalistic parties such as Law and Justice in Poland and Hungary’s Fidesz also reflect the aftershocks of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, which turned many people against liberal elites. They also share the fear of a Muslim presence, one which is widespread in the region.

In the end, the EU may collapse because it doesn’t have the kind of support that individual countries take for granted from their citizens.

“Working mainly on societies where the state malfunctions,” writes the well-regarded Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Oxford University School of Government, Peter Collier,  in the September 30 Times Literary Supplement, “I have come to recognize the value of an inclusive sense of shared identity: ‘whatever our political, ethnic and religious differences, we are all X.’” By this Collier means a collectivity with a sense of shared political consciousness, as if it were a large extended family.

“A common identity underpins the notion of the ‘common good,” and that in turn supports compliance with the taxation that supports public goods. In some societies X is an empty set. Most of Europe’s nations have an X; but lacking a common language and hence a common discourse, ‘Europe’ can never build an equivalent.

“By progressively stripping nation states of authority, ‘ever closer union’ risks transferring power to an entity that has the appetite to acquire it but lacks the legitimacy to use it: a political black hole,” concludes Collier.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has urged the 28 EU member states to “fight against stupid populists.” This is how he insults those who worry about their future.

Rather than the shining hope of a united Europe, it seems the EU is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.

Ethiopia in Trouble Because of Ethnic Rivalries

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

This past year, Ethiopia, the second most populous nation in Africa after Nigeria, has been convulsed by protests in which hundreds of people have been killed.

This worries western powers. American military and intelligence services work closely with the Ethiopians to combat terrorist threats across the region, especially in Somalia, and few if any countries in Africa receive as much Western aid.

Ethiopia had been seen as an economic success story. Addis Ababa became the showpiece of the country’s transformation, with a Chinese-built light rail system, luxury hotels, fancy restaurants and wine bars packed with millionaires. The narrative for Ethiopia was that of a successful nation with double-digit growth.

Much of this was due to the efforts of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was, writes British scholar Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation in his 2015 book The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa, “a master player of the diplomatic game, and he managed both to charm the international community and to use it for Ethiopia’s benefit.”

But he died in 2012 and it may all now come crashing down, thanks to ethnic rivalries – so often the bane of African states. His successor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, is eroding the institutions of government and reversing state-building.

The trouble started in November 2015 when members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, began protesting government land policies. The protests were initially over a plan to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa into the Oromia region.

In July 2016 Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, the Amhara, joined in, and the protests hardened into calls to overthrow the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which is led by the Tigrayans, a small ethnic minority.

Though only about six percent of the population, they dominate the military, the intelligence services, commerce and politics.

Since the protesters hail from Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, with a combined population of more than 62 million out of the country’s 100 million, this is no small matter.

Demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians chanted anti-government slogans. Sugar factories, textile mills, and foreign-owned flower farms were burned down.

The government in early October took the drastic step of imposing a six-month state of emergency. Human rights groups called the response ruthless and witnesses said that police officers have shot and killed hundreds of unarmed demonstrators.

Thousands of Oromos have been jailed without trial on suspicion of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front, a secessionist group. Hundreds of bloggers, journalists and opposition figures have been detained.

“Limitations on independent media, jamming of television and radio signals, and recent blocking of social media all point to a government afraid to allow its citizens access to independent information,” Felix Horne of Human Rights Watch indicated in August, as unrest spread.

The government’s control of the country is so complete that not a single opposition politician sits in the 547-seat parliament. After a widely criticized election in May 2015, the regime won the last seat the opposition had held.

Opposition party members point to continuing efforts to intimidate those who challenged the result. Three of their members have been killed since the vote.

“It’s a tough time for Ethiopia,” asserted Yilkal Getnet, chairman of one opposition party, Semayawi. Added Beyene Petros, chairman of another opposition group, Medrek, “These are non-ambiguous acts of reprisal.”

Yet Washington, making it clear that security trumps its other concerns in the Horn of Africa, described the government as being “democratically elected.”

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

CETA Deal Remains Controversial

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
The European Union trade deal with Canada known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) provoked huge opposition across Europe, with critics warning that it could lead to the break-up and privatisation of public services which could be deemed to be monopolies under its competition rules.

Hence the initial opposition by the French part of Belgium known as Wallonia. The EU requires all its member states to consent to the treaty -- some 38 national and regional parliaments across Europe must approve before it can be implemented.

This means that in Belgium, for important national deals like this one to pass, its federal, regional and community bodies must all give their approval.

Only after further negotiations did a new version that provides guarantees for farmers and a corporate dispute settlement system allow Wallonia to agree to the deal.

The Belgians insisted that implementation be regularly evaluated on environmental and socioeconomic impacts and that regions such as Wallonia can protect agricultural products where they expect CETA to cause a “market imbalance.”

The Belgians also will refer to CETA’s most controversial component, the Investor Dispute Settlement System (ISDS), to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a ruling.

It set a precedent for talks between the European Union and the United States over an even larger trade deal: the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

“We had to fight CETA to prepare for TTIP, because that free trade deal is 10 times worse,” remarked Luc Hollands, who in 2013 helped start a movement against free-trade agreements and austerity policies.

Wallonia’s prime minister, Paul Magnette, met with other Belgian leaders to hammer out a joint declaration and declared himself “extremely happy” that Walloon demands were met.

Wallonia has above-average unemployment and was worried that cheaper Canadian goods might threaten the livelihoods of its people. In economically depressed regions voters may not see trade deals as a good thing.

Wallonia’s economy has stagnated in recent decades, as its steel mills have closed down. Global competition has squeezed small businesses dry.

The prime minster of the more prosperous Flemish region, Geert Bourgeois, said the original 1,598-page text of the trade deal stood, with the addendum serving as a “clarification.”

Other countries are also wary. Bulgaria had also been threatening to veto the trade agreement if Canada didn’t guarantee visa-free access for its citizens. But its government formally accepted the trade pact, with any remaining concerns to be met during the ratification process.

Prime Minister Trudeau finally signed the deal in Brussels on Oct. 30 and expressed hope that the other EU members will come aboard soon.

It may take two to four years for full ratification across the EU to be completed, and parties to the deal reserve their right to opt out, if they can’t gain majority approval in their parliaments.

Supporters of CETA contend that failure to agree to the agreement would have undermined the EU’s ability to forge other deals and would have further damaged its credibility, which is already in trouble due to the Brexit vote in Britain to leave the EU, and disputes over the migration crisis.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Where is Hungary Heading?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a nationwide revolt against the Soviet-imposed government of the Hungarian People’s Republic, lasted from Oct. 23 until Nov. 10, when it was crushed by Soviet tanks.

At least 30,000 people were killed and some 200,000 others fled to the west, with more than 37,000 eventually coming to Canada.

Imre Nagy had been appointed prime minister during this brief window of freedom and announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact.

With the return of Soviet troops and the re-introduction of Communist rule, Nagy was tried, executed, and buried in an unmarked grave.

Even so, the Hungarians were able to define their own more economically liberal brand of Communism. This so-called “Goulash Communism,” instituted in 1968, was formally known as the New Economic Mechanism. When I was in Hungary in 1977, it felt much freer than neighbouring Communist states.

Still, Hungarians longed for a multi-party system, rather than their Soviet-style state. In October 1989, the Communist Party convened its last congress, and the country’s parliament transformed Hungary into a non-Communist republic.

It guaranteed human and civil rights, and created an institutional structure that ensured separation of powers among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government.

On March 25, 1990, the first free parliamentary elections in Eastern Europe took place in Hungary. The country seemed to have become a liberal democracy and had joined both NATO and the European Union by 2004.

But things have in recent years taken a different turn, with the rise of Victor Orban and his Federation of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz), a nationalist party that has dominated Hungarian politics on the national and local level since its landslide victory in the 2010 national election. In 2014, it took 44.87 per cent of the vote, winning 133 of 199 seats.

Orban first made his name in Hungary when, as a young lawyer and activist, he spoke at an immense rally in 1989 celebrating the reburial of Imre Nagy. He had helped found his party a year earlier, initially as a youth-oriented liberal anti-communist group.

But under Orban’s guidance, it began to move to the right. The Orban who was elected prime minister in 2010 and re-elected in 2014 has become a political and economic conservative nationalist who promises to restore Hungarian values.

Only on the basis of national, Christian and European traditions “can a strong and successful Hungary be built,” declared the prime minister in March 2014.

The European refugee crisis of 2015-2016 has brought Orban’s views regarding Hungarian sovereignty into sharp focus. He is a fierce opponent of the EU’s plan to share migrants across the 28-nation bloc under a mandatory quota system.

He has described the arrival of asylum seekers in Europe as “a poison,” saying his country did not want or need them.

“This is why there is no need for a common European migration policy: whoever needs migrants can take them, but don’t force them on us,” Orban stated last July. The populist leader added that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.”

Orban in 2015 set up a border fence to block the path of asylum seekers streaming into Europe. Along with Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary is suing the EU to avoid taking in the 1,294 migrants the bloc says it must resettle.

In October, he held a referendum in which 98 per cent of participants voted against the admission of refugees to the country. Ahead of the vote, the government warned that immigrant communities had turned major cities across Europe into "no-go zones.”

But more than half of the electorate stayed at home, rendering the process constitutionally null and void. Undaunted, Orban still hopes to lead a “cultural counter-revolution” in Europe.

With political freedom has come a renewed sense of Hungarian nationhood, and Orban has tapped into this mood. He reminds Hungarians of their once-great stature within Europe.

“Our responsibility is to prevent Brussels from Sovietizing,” Orban told a crowd at the 60th anniversary commemoration of the revolution in October. It is clear that the great majority of Hungarians don’t want to take orders from Brussels any more than they were willing to be ruled from Moscow. Might they even follow Britain out of the European Union?