Hostile states pose ‘fundamental threat’ to Europe, says MI6 chief

The Guardian reports: The head of the British intelligence agency MI6, Alex Younger, has said cyber-attacks, propaganda and subversion from hostile states pose a “fundamental threat” to European democracies, including the UK.

In a rare speech by an MI6 chief while in office, Younger did not specifically name Russia but left no doubt that this was the target of his remarks. Russia has been accused of interfering in the US presidential election and there are concerns it could do the same in French and German elections next year.

He did mention Russia in relation to Syria, portraying Russian military support for the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in the takeover of Aleppo and elsewhere as potentially creating a long-term problem that could increase radicalisation.

“In Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian regime seek to make a desert and call it peace. The human tragedy is heartbreaking,” Younger said.

Russia has moved ever closer to centre stage for the US and UK intelligence agencies over the last year. During the US election campaign Donald Trump said he would seek to engage in some sort of discourse with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. [Continue reading…]


The rage of 2016

Roger Cohen writes: The long wave unfurled at last. Perhaps it is no surprise that the two societies that felt its furious force — the United States and Britain — are also the open societies at the hub of globalized turbo-capitalism and finance. For at least a decade, accelerating since the crash of 2008, fears and resentments had been building over the impunity of elites, the dizzying disruption of technology, the influx of migrants and the precariousness of modern existence.

In Western societies, for too long, there had been no victories, no glory and diminishing certainties. Wars were waged; nobody knew how they could be won. Their wounds festered. The distance between metropolis and periphery grew into a cultural chasm. Many things became unsayable; even gender became debatable. Truth blurred, then was sidelined, in an online tribal cacophony.

Jobs went. Inequality thrust itself in your face. What the powerful said and the lives people lived were so unrelated that politics looked increasingly like a big heist. Debacle followed debacle — the euro, the Iraq War, the Great Recession — and their architects never paid. Syria encapsulated the West’s newfound impotence, a kind of seeping amorality; and, in its bloody dismemberment, Syria sent into Europe a human tide that rabble-rousers seized upon.

And so the British voted to quit the European Union, symbol of a continent’s triumph over fascism and destructive nationalism. Americans voted on Nov. 8 for Donald J. Trump, who used much of the xenophobic, fear-mongering language of 1930s Europe to assemble an angry mob large enough that he triumphed over a compromised Hillary Clinton. Neither victory was large, but democracies can usher in radical change by the narrowest of margins. To give the Republican president-elect his due, he intuited an immense disquiet and spoke to it in unambiguous language.

A quarter-century after the post-Cold War zenith of liberal democracies and neoliberal economics, illiberalism and authoritarianism are on the march. It’s open season for anyone’s inner bigot. Violence is in the air, awaiting a spark. The winning political card today, as Mr. Trump has shown and Marine Le Pen may demonstrate in the French presidential election next year, is to lead “the people” against a “rigged system,” Muslim migration and the tyrannical consensus of overpaid experts. The postwar order — its military alliances, trade pacts, political integration and legal framework — feels flimsy, and the nature of the American power undergirding it all is suddenly unclear. Nobody excites Mr. Trump as much as Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin, who is to democracy what a sledgehammer is to a Ming vase. Strongmen and autocrats everywhere — not least in Egypt and the Gulf states — are exulting at Mr. Trump’s victory. [Continue reading…]


The No vote in the Italian referendum had nothing to do with populism and everything to do with Matteo Renzi

James Newell writes: Like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the outcome of the Italian referendum has been a great surprise, but for the opposite reason: polls suggested that the result would be very close and instead there has been a decisive and unequivocal result: on a very high 68 per cent turnout, Italians have turned their backs on the proposed constitutional reforms by 60 per cent to 40 per cent.

Let us be clear: this has been no “anti-establishment, populist revolt”. The division between Yes and No cross-cut the usual political and social divisions. The No side mobilised people on the left and the right; populists and anti-populists; members of the liberal elite and those in less exalted circumstances. Renzi was no establishment figure, to the contrary: he sought to sell his proposed reforms as part of a campaign to sweep away vested interests. His appeals – to reduce the powers of the Senate, to reduce the costs of politics, to cut the number of parliamentarians – were all couched in classic populist terms.

The sheer size of the No vote discredits simplistic interpretations of the outcome as yet another expression of populist fervour. Rather, the vote was the expression of a range of different types of No: a No to the specific constitutional reforms being proposed; a No to the political elites in general; a No to the current economic and social malaise; above all a No to the Renzi government. For Renzi some months ago had staked his entire future on the outcome by framing the vote as a plebiscite on him and his executive. [Continue reading…]


The ‘no’ vote in Italy’s referendum triggers economic and political uncertainty

By Fabrizio Carmignani, Griffith University

Italian voters have rejected plans for constitutional reform supported by the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. This result means more political and economic uncertainty for the time being.

The aim of the reform was to end Italian’s “perfect bicameralism”; that is, the institutional arrangement whereby the house of representatives and senate have exactly the same powers and the government needs to receive a vote of confidence in both Houses. Perfect bicameralism was introduced in the first Republican Constitution, right after the end of Fascism, as a way to prevent the possible rise of a new dictator.

Over time, however, this system also reduced the efficiency and effectiveness of legislation while also increasing government instability. Matteo Renzi invested his entire political capital in the reform, to the point that the referendum itself was seen as a vote for or against the prime minister. Approximately 60% of Italians voted against the reform (and the prime minister).

[Read more…]


Victory for Van der Bellen and the left is a sigh of relief for Europe

Simon Tisdall writes: The sigh of relief that followed Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria’s rerun presidential election on Sunday could be heard all over Europe. After the twin traumas of Trump and Brexit, centrist parties, social democrats and liberals of all stripes had feared another triumph for the advancing forces of nativist populism represented by Van der Bellen’s rival, the far-right Freedom party’s Norbert Hofer.

Instead, Europe and its much-battered political incarnation, the European Union, have won a reprieve – although probably temporary. And Austria has escaped the odium of being the first modern-day democracy to pick as its head of state a political extremist whose party traces its ideological roots back to the strident neo-Nazism of its best-known leader, the late Jörg Haider.

Van der Bellen, a left-leaning, pro-Europe moderate backed by Austria’s Greens, was estimated to have won by an unexpectedly large margin of 7%. The initial contest in May gave him a 1% lead or less, an outcome that was challenged by Hofer.

The result will give a boost to likeminded politicians across Europe who also face potent electoral challenges from the far-right next year, notably in France. “What happens here today has relevance for all of Europe,” Van der Bellen said before casting his ballot, pointing to Hofer’s strong anti-EU, anti-immigrant, nationalist stance. [Continue reading…]


François Fillon and France’s lurch towards Russia

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil writes: François Fillon has just won the French conservative primaries by a huge margin. Now, he will be trying to capitalise on the momentum he has gained from his win to deliver the result he wants in the upcoming presidential election. And with his foreign policy option, this presidential vote will pose a formidable challenge to Europe’s unity. Fillon’s views on Russia, in particular, fly in the face of the current European consensus. But neither foreign policy nor Europe are at the centre of the campaign, and domestic issues are much more likely to prevail when French voters make their choice in the spring of next year.

Fillon, a former prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, made his position on Russia clear long before the primary campaign even began, and he has stuck to it ever since. He believes French policy has been too aligned with the US, whether on Ukraine or the Middle East – in spite of the countries’ significant differences in opinion on these issues. And that, with ISIS and Islamism being the top security priorities for France following the terror attacks since January 2015, an alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is badly needed, even at the price of conflating ISIS and other terrorist groups with any other forces fighting against the Assad government.

Worryingly, he calls not only for the ‘re-establishment’ of a political dialogue with Russia – a dialogue that was actually never interrupted – but also for the EU to lift all sanctions against Russia, including those adopted as a consequence of the forceful and unlawful Russian annexation of Crimea.

The French public’s opinion on the Russia question differs from Fillon’s. The majority have no confidence in Vladimir Putin and support maintaining economic sanctions against Russia on the Ukraine issue. Fillon’s critics add that, rather ironically, his desired relationship with Russia mirrors the alleged alignment with the US that he has attacked so fervently.

If both Fillon and the Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, reach the second round of the presidential election, a rapprochement with Putin’s Russia will become the order of the day for French foreign policy. At the moment it seems that a majority of presidential candidates will run on a pro-Russia or at least anti-sanctions platform. [Continue reading…]


Shootout raises fears over Russian ties to Hungary’s far right

Financial Times reports: When plain-clothes police officers came to Istvan Gyorkos’s house early one morning in late October in search of illegal guns, the increasingly paranoid 76-year-old neo-Nazi barricaded himself in.

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A bloody shootout ensued and a police officer was shot dead. Mr Gyorkos has been taken into custody and faces possible charges.

With previous arrests and convictions for gun violations and hate crimes, the moustachioed founder of Hungary’s neo-Nazi National Front movement (MNA) was often pictured in military uniform. He was known nationally for his fascist political views and, in his home town of Bony, the MNA staged regular paramilitary drills in the muddy hills behind his house and even invited townspeople to watch.

What was less well known was the far-right militia’s multiple ties to Russian secret services. “We don’t believe this attack was a plot orchestrated by the Russian government,” said Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest think-tank. “But there are strong suspicions Mr Gyorkos was supported by Moscow.”

In the wake of the October shootout, the police last week raided nine properties, uncovering MNA weapons stockpiles far larger and more sophisticated than expected, although their provenance is unknown.

While Russian support for far-right groups in Europe has been widely rumoured, the recent events in Hungary have brought to light new evidence of Moscow’s long-running attempts to cultivate far-right extremists. [Continue reading…]


John Major: Case for second Brexit referendum is credible

The Guardian reports: Sir John Major has become the second former prime minister within 24 hours to question the Brexit process, saying there is a “perfectly credible” case for a second referendum on leaving the European Union.

Speaking shortly after Tony Blair argued in an interview that Brexit could be reversed if the public changed its mind, Major said that the 48% of voters who wanted to remain should not be subject to the “tyranny of the majority”.

The former Conservative prime minister said in a speech at a private dinner on Thursday that the opinions of remain voters should be heard in the debate about how Britain left the EU, the Times reported.

In his first intervention over the issue since the 23 June referendum, Major said he accepted the UK would not remain a full member of the EU, but hoped any Brexit deal would mean the UK remained as close as possible to EU members and the single market, which he described as “the richest market mankind has ever seen”. [Continue reading…]


Turkey threatens to end refugee deal in row over EU accession

The Guardian reports: Turkey’s president has threatened to tear up a landmark deal to stem the flow of refugees into Europe a day after the European parliament urged governments to freeze EU accession talks with Ankara.

The threat underlines how far relations between Turkey and the European bloc have deteriorated in recent months, particularly after a coup attempt in July.

“You clamoured when 50,000 refugees came to Kapikule, and started wondering what would happen if the border gates were opened,” Erdogan said in a speech on Friday at a women’s rights conference, referring to a Bulgarian border checkpoint where refugees massed last year.

“If you go any further, these border gates will be opened. Neither I nor my people will be affected by these empty threats,” he said. “Do not forget, the west needs Turkey.”

Erdoğan’s statements, the most direct warning yet that Turkey could abandon the agreement, came in response to a symbolic, non-binding vote in the European parliament on Thursday that demanded an end to the decade-long accession negotiations. [Continue reading…]


Why China and Europe should form the world’s most powerful ‘climate bloc’

Christian Downie, UNSW Australia

It seems almost certain that US President-elect Donald Trump will walk away from the Paris climate agreement next year. In the absence of US leadership, the question is: who will step up?

Sadly this is not a new question, and history offers some important lessons. In 2001 the world faced a similar dilemma. After former vice-president Al Gore lost the 2000 election to George W. Bush, the newly inaugurated president walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, the previous global pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That sent shockwaves around the world, and left nations facing a choice about what to do in the United States’ absence – something they may face again next year. The choice was made more difficult because the US withdrawal made it less likely that the Kyoto Protocol would ever come into force as a legally binding agreement.

However, Europe quickly picked up the baton. Faced with a US president who had abdicated all responsibility to lead or even participate in the global emissions-reduction effort, the European Union led a remarkable diplomatic bid to save Kyoto.

To the surprise of many people, especially in the United States, this diplomatic push brought enough countries on board to save the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005 following Russia’s ratification.

[Read more…]


Europe’s leaders to force Britain into hard Brexit

The Observer reports: European leaders have come to a 27-nation consensus that a “hard Brexit” is likely to be the only way to see off future populist insurgencies, which could lead to the break-up of the European Union.

The hardening line in EU capitals comes as Nigel Farage warns European leaders that Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, could deliver a political sensation bigger than Brexit and win France’s presidential election next spring – a result that would mean it was “game over” for 60 years of EU integration.

According to senior officials at the highest levels of European governments, allowing Britain favourable terms of exit could represent an existential danger to the EU, since it would encourage similar demands from other countries with significant Eurosceptic movements.

One top EU diplomat told the Observer: “If you British are not prepared to compromise on free movement, the only way to deal with Brexit is hard Brexit. Otherwise we would be seen to be giving in to a country that is leaving. That would be fatal.”

The latest intervention by Farage will only serve to fuel fears in Europe that anti-EU movements have acquired a dangerous momentum in countries such as France and the Netherlands, following the precedent set by the Brexit vote. Ukip’s interim leader, who predicted both the vote for Brexit and Donald Trump’s US victory, told the Observer that while Le Pen was still more likely to be runner-up to an establishment candidate next May, she now had to be taken seriously as a potential head of state. [Continue reading…]

Toby Helm writes: From Paris to Brussels, and Berlin to Warsaw and Bratislava, there is much sadness that the British are leaving. In the central and eastern European member states in particular, governments will fight tooth and nail to ensure their people can still travel to, and work in, the UK post-Brexit.

The right to move around the EU has symbolised, more than anything else, the break from their pre-1989 past under Soviet influence.

From his office in Bratislava, Slovakia’s state secretary at the foreign ministry, Ivan Korcok, can see Austria and speaks of the “emotional” importance of the EU to all Slovakians. “Our people are buying their apartments and building their houses across the border over there in Austria. Slovakia is a very pro-European country. People are concerned about the British situation [if it means they will no longer be able to move to and work in the UK]. The older generation here see their kids travelling abroad, and thinking differently to how they did. If one day a child in Slovakia decides to study elsewhere in Europe, including in the UK, and they can afford to, they go, they just go! This is such an emotional thing in positive terms about the EU.”

Marek Prawda, Poland’s former ambassador to the EU and now head of the European commission in Warsaw, says: “For us, being an EU member is the inverse of what was said in your referendum campaign about ‘taking back control’. To us, being a member of the EU has been about gaining back control, about freedom, about security, about being able to run an economy in a modern way. EU membership was a chance to shape our own life. We are able to borrow and invest in our economy. We are part of a rational world.” [Continue reading…]


The global ambitions of Trump’s Goebbels-like chief strategist, Steve Bannon


The Daily Beast reports: [On Sunday, Steve Bannon, publisher of Breitbart, was appointed by Donald Trump as his chief strategist.] Bannon’s support for European far-right parties runs far deeper than his interest in Marion Maréchal-Le Pen or the National Front. He brags about his international Breitbart operation as “the platform” for the American alt-right, and has for years been thinking globally, with an affinity for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the Party for Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, all of which have earned glowing coverage on the pages of Breitbart.

But the election of Bannon’s man Donald Trump as president of the United States has made the globalization of Breitbart and its message infinitely more plausible than it ever was before, and politicians once considered Europe’s deplorables are now rushing to bask in the gilded glow of Trump and Bannon.

On Saturday, Britain’s Nigel Farage, whose blatant and acknowledged lies helped convince his countrymen to opt out of the European Union in the Brexit vote, visited the president-elect in his eponymous Fifth Avenue tower.

Farage emerged from the meeting looking like he’d just won the jackpot at one of the pre-bankruptcy Trump casinos, suggesting that the new president’s “inner team” was not too happy with Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, since she’d been skeptical of Brexit before the vote. Would that “inner team” be Bannon? In our post-factual world, maybe we can say, “People say…”

Breitbart, which currently has operations in London and Jerusalem, certainly has plans to expand in France and Germany with new bureaus to cultivate and promote the populist-nationalist lines there. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-watch group, has accused Breitbart of explicitly embracing ethno-nationalism. After Bannon’s elevation was announced, the law center tweeted several controversial stories written by Breitbart under Bannon’s control, including a piece published two weeks after a mass killing at a black church in Charleston, S.C., last year: “Hoist it high and proud: the confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.”

“Stephen Bannon was the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill,” the law center wrote via Twitter in its first statements on Bannon’s elevation. “Trump should rescind this hire. In his victory speech, Trump said he intended to be president for ‘all Americans.’ Bannon should go.” [Continue reading…]