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The EU and European Politics

Photo credit: R/DV/RS (Creative Commons)

Complex situations often require us to take a step back for what consultants call the 10,000 feet view. The problems facing the EU these days—from Grexit to Brexit—surely seem impenetrable. A convoluted potpourri of economic, financial, and political crises leaves most observers either completely disengaged or increasingly reliant on their gut feelings. To wrap one’s head around the forces that threaten the European project, it helps to think in very simple categories: exit, voice, and loyalty. Few theories still prompt real-life insights almost half a century after their publication. Albert O. Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty” surely falls into this category. Put simply, Hirschman postulated that members who are unsatisfied with an organisation they are part of, can either exit …

Ending what has been a tumultuous six-month long negotiation process, last week the Greek Parliament approved the first package of austerity measures required by Greece’s creditors as part of the “Greekment” reached in the early morning hours of 13 July 2015 in order to initiate talks on a Third Fiscal Adjustment Programme (or “Memorandum”) and avoid Greece’s expulsion from the Eurozone. According to early reports, this Memorandum cover the Greece’s financing needs for the next three years, but will require the harshest set of austerity measures of the three fiscal adjustment programmes to date. In this first package alone, the Greek government is obliged to implement tax increases and pension cuts totalling approximately 2% of GDP, while future austerity measures …

In the first of a series of interviews by Phil England examining the situation in Iceland and the possible relevance of developments there to the UK, Phil talks to Pirate Party MP Birgitta Jonsdottir. Birgitta Jonsdottir is a co-founder of the Icelandic Pirate Party and one of three Pirate Party MPs in the Icelandic government. Since March the Pirates have been polling as the most popular party in Iceland. Their core policies focus on direct democracy, civil rights and access to information. A former Wikileaks volunteer, Jonsdottir describes herself as an anarchist and a poetician. She is also founder and Chair of the International Modern Media Inititative (IMMI) which aims to strengthen democracy through transparency of information. Could the right to information clauses …

The crisis in Ukraine has produced a new narrative about Vladimir Putin’s leadership. In contrast to the stated modernising goals of his first two presidencies – the achievement of greater state efficacy and the improvement of living standards and prosperity for ordinary Russian citizens – Putin has been recast as the saviour of the Russian nation. This new narrative includes a mission to protect the citizens of the ‘Russian World’ that live beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. In some analysis, this has led to parallels with Slobodan Milosevic’s political journey in the former Yugoslavia (Whitmore, 2014). Yet, while Vladimir Putin has shown strong patriotic instincts throughout his political career, he is not a natural nationalist. In an article titled ‘Russia: The Ethnicity Issue,’ which Putin published in January 2012 ahead of the presidential election, his ambiguous support for ethnically-based nationalism was apparent. He warned about the dangers that ethnic chauvinism posed to the territorial integrity of the Russian state: ‘I am convinced that the attempts to preach the idea of a “national” or monoethnic Russian state contradict our thousand-year history,’ he averred, ‘this is a shortcut to destroying the Russian people and Russian statehood, and for that matter any viable, sovereign statehood on the planet’ (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 2014). Moreover, his regime’s relationship with the nationalist leadership in eastern Ukraine, and their ideological backers in Russia, has not always been cordial during the Ukrainian conflict. Putin’s commitment to the creation of a new territory, ‘Novorossiya,’ which would lead to the breakup of Ukraine, has been questioned by nationalist ideologues and militia leaders throughout the crisis (Sonne, 2014).

With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sworn in as Turkey’s first popularly elected president last August, the debates on adopting a presidential system have once again come to the forefront in the run-up to the Turkish general election in June. The most important implication of the election will be whether it will lead to a formal move toward presidentialism in Turkey’s constitution. Prior to the election, Turkey’s political system was admittedly complex. In 2007, Abdullah Gül, Erdoğan’s predecessor, was the last to be elected under the former system, in which parliament elected the president. He took office following a strained process between the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish Armed Forces, and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The first presidential election in April was boycotted by the CHP. The Chief of the General Staff of the army made statements expressing the wish for a sincerely secular president, and published an e-memorandum warning against emerging disputes regarding the secular nature of the Turkish republic in the context of the election. Eventually, the AKP called an early general election in July, after which the presidential election was re-held in August. As a further response to the crisis, the AKP held a referendum in October, ensuring the popular election of the president. Thus, Turkey remained a parliamentary system with a ceremonial president until the first popular presidential election was held, and Erdoğan was elected last year. Now, the system has become semi-presidential with both a popularly elected president and a prime minister responsible to the legislature. Crucially, the president does not hold substantial executive powers.

In 2013, the European Union and the United States launched negotiations for a comprehensive trade agreement (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP). TTIP’s objective is to facilitate market access for goods and services across the Atlantic by cutting tariffs and trade restrictions (like the Buy American Act), harmonizing regulatory standards, and setting common trade rules, including on custom policies and protected geographical indications. The agreement is negotiated in a difficult situation. Europe’s weight in the global economy is declining, whereas the US has recovered from the crisis and is striking a parallel deal with the ASEAN countries in the Far East. Europe’s economic prosperity depends on trade more than that any other region’s in the world. International trade (import and export) accounts for 87% of EU GDP (against 30% in the US, and 50% in China). But what TTIP is about is the future, not the present. This is the last opportunity for the EU and the US to set the production, environmental, investor and consumer standards for the global economy.

The recent plebiscite on Scottish independence has triggered a much wider debate in the UK about the organisation of state power in institutional and territorial terms. In particular, the role and economic position of the main cities vis-à-vis the state have raised headlines about ‘cities going independent’, such as ‘Devo Met’ (The Economist, 25 Oct 14). This not only continues the strong focus on the economic dimension of statehood and its territorial and institutional manifestation, but also that of identity and the sense of community (commonality). No longer, so it seems, does nationality operate automatically through the ‘nation state’ as a territorial and governmental entity. Instead, metropolitanism is encouraging, perhaps requiring, a ‘reterritorialisation of politics’ (Sellers and Walks, 2008). This growing emergence of an urban (metropolitan) dimension to national (and international) discourses on shared values, imaginations and common purpose has come to challenge the nationalisation thesis formulated as part of ‘political modernisation’ (Hofferbert and Sharkansky, 1971), and its primary focus on territorial states as expressions of an existing and cohesive civil society, or as ‘nationalisers’ seeking to shape a national identity (Brubaker, 1995). This once prevailing thesis propagates national contexts as dominant, hegemonial conditioning factors which reach across states, including regional and local identities and discourses, whether urban or not. The understanding of nationality has thus been viewed from a top-down perspective of discursive nationality, and corresponds with the territorial view that cites, being down the scalar hierarchy from the state, are automatically an integral part of that – bigger – entity – geographically, institutionally and discursively. Such, in effect, triple hierarchisation – where territory, institutional power structures and discourse of identity and belonging (communality) sit in parallel hierarchical arrangements – is now being challenged by a growing urban/metropolitan voice stepping out of the seemingly homogenous sonority of a national discursive ‘backcloth’. This may appear as a reverse step to the integrative, even homogenising, effects of nationalising politics (Caramani, 2004), seeking to overcome spatial and societal differences in identities and sense of belonging. From such a (conventional) perspective, states are seen as the ‘natural’ rallying points of national discourses of self-determination and their geographic manifestation.

In 2014 the push for devolution became a major political issue. Scotland remains in the UK, but only after last minute bargaining devolved further powers to Holyrood. This has encouraged calls for more devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and for the formation of an English parliament. George Osborne’s Autumn Statement proves that Westminster is listening. Meanwhile, MPs and local governments want more powers entrusted to local authorities. Manchester is following Bristol’s lead in appointing a mayor. The UK is not alone in this trend. Emboldened by the experience in Scotland, Catalonia held an independence vote of its own, even if unrecognised by the government in Madrid. Legal or not, that vote may also boost efforts in the Basque Country, Bavaria and Flanders. While these votes may prove unsuccessful, the tension surrounding them will linger. The issues depend on the contextual consequences of the increasing trend towards devolution. There are two forces operating in two different directions: on the one hand, city/regional small nations are demanding Independence from their referential nation-states, while on the other hand, nation-states themselves are re-centralising or decentralising their structures and powers. Over the coming months, this Special Series will focus on the diverse angles to this debate by identifying and emphasising certain innovative and thought provoking case studies for the purpose of comparison. Posts will cover topics like the re-scaling of nation-states, constitutional change, the right to decide, independence movements, the federal EU hypothesis, the Europe of Regions approach, democratic participation and civic nationalism in relation to city-regions.