Volt Europa: A New Party to Jolt Europe

My latest article just published on Impakter:

The New Party to Make Europe Smart and Fair

There is a new party rising across Europe, a party shaped by Millennials who want a voice in their future: Volt Europa. The name says it all: Volt Europa, jolt Europe. An electrical charge to shake it out of its lethargy, give it new energy.

Volt is, of course, the international unit to measure the force of electric current. It’s a nice easy name that stays the same with the same meaning across Europe and all its languages and cultures. And, in the words of the party leaders on their website, “it fully represents our fast and efficient team”.

So who is this team and what does this party aim to do?

Volt Europa had an extraordinary start: in less than two years, it acquired over 20,000 adherents and it is active in 32 European countries with more than 300 teams. It is mostly a party of young people but it has attracted all ages, including older citizens horrified by what is happening to Europe these days. The oldest is a 92 year-old Netherlands citizen. Even more extraordinary: over 70% of its adherents have never been involved in politics before.

That means Volt is not a rehash of a dying party or a new current in a traditional party. It’s a totally new entity, a pan-European party aiming to have subsidiary parties in every EU member country. As Kai Kotzian, a 43-year-old Volt candidate for the European Parliament in Germany recently told the Frankfurter Wochenblatt:  “Our perspective is different from that of other parties. We are not just looking at what’s good for Germany, but what’s good for the entire European Union. Since there is no European electoral law, in order to form a cross-European party, we had to found one in each country so we could vote.”

The first national Volt party was created in Germany in March 2018, now Volt has 12 parties at the national level. It covers all the EU members and beyond, including Switzerland, Serbia and Albania.

Among new parties with a pan-European vocation, Volt stands in a “leftist” centre. To its left, you have Dem 25, the party founded by the former Greek finance minister Varoufakis. To its right, you have The Movement founded by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser and extreme right Breitbart News editor.

Bannon’s Movement, however, is paradoxical as a “pan-European” party. Its avowed aim is to weaken the EU, and if possible, destroy the European dream of a United Europe. Bannon plans to pull together all the European populist parties for a big win at the European Parliament elections. Not an easy task as populist parties are clearly nationalistic and often at odds with populists from other countries.

Volt, in contrast, is truly pan-European and committed to building up and strengthening Europe, standing on a “progressive” middle ground. It fights for sustainable growth and social justice. But it’s not as far to the left as Varoufakis’s Dem 25. Also, unlike Dem 25, Volt has no founding father image, like Varoufakis. Or, to compare it with the Five Star Movement, like comedian Beppe Grillo.

Volt is not a vertical, hierarchical structure. And it shares with the Five Star Movement a propensity to give a lot of weight – and a voice – to its base, using digital communication, social networks and participatory methods to develop its political platform.

Volt Europa’s Political Message

Volt Europa’s immediate goal: Win in the upcoming European Parliament Elections. Candidates were announced in 11 countries at a meeting in Amsterdam on 27-28 October 2019 – among them Italy, France, Germany and Spain. The hope is to obtain at least 25 deputies in 7 countries which would enable Volt to register as an autonomous parliamentary group. 

The long-term goal: Reform Europe and give it a voice in the concert of nations. And the “reform” has nothing to do with populism’s backward, nostalgic message of restoring sovereignty and going back to Charles de Gaulle’s “Europe of Nations”.  On the contrary. It is forward-looking, ultra-liberal and progressive, much like Macron’s plan to reform Europe or Carlo Calenda’s.

More Europe is good. A reformed Europe that works is better.  Volt’s Amsterdam Declaration adopted in October 2018 makes for inspiring reading. This is indeed groundbreaking: Volt will campaign across Europe on a single common platform.

Here are the highlights:

The rest on Impakter Magazine, click here 

Did you notice something new here? Yes, there’s an announcement: IMPAKTER Up is launching! That’s an amazing new app for startups with socially responsible aims – “social good companies” – to match them with investors committed to a sustainable future. 

Yes, our planet needs to be saved from rapacious, voracious capitalism! 


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Italy’s Love Affair with Populism: From Berlusconi to Salvini

My latest article on Impakter, updated 24 February 2019 with the news that Salvini is taking funds from Russia. Here is the opening:

Italy has a surprising weakness for populism à la Trump. It began over twenty-five years ago with Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party and is still going strong with the extreme-right populist Lega leader Matteo Salvini. Berlusconi and Salvini share the same worldview with Trump: a visceral attachment to national sovereignty (my country first!), a rejection of multilateralism and international cooperation in any form, and a determined anti-immigration and pro-business stance.

As to the Italian fascination with Trump, it is unique in the group of advanced, politically mature European countries that constitute the core of the European Union. Compared to fellow citizens in Spain, France and Germany, Italians are three to four times as likely to have “a lot or some confidence in the U.S. President”, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center survey (October 2018):

Trump does slightly better in the UK (28%), no doubt as a result of Brexit and Britain’s continuing “special friendship” with the United States. And, predictably, he does best in Europe’s most “illiberal democracies”: Poland (35%) and Hungary (31%).

Admittedly, Italy’s fatal attraction for strongmen is nothing new. Setting aside Mussolini and fascism and turning to modern times, we have Silvio Berlusconi, the TV mogul. Berlusconi has shaped Italian politics, opening the door to extreme right parties that were once banned because of their fascist roots. To understand how it happened and see where Salvini’s populism could lead Italy, it helps to look at his legacy.

Berlusconi’s Legacy: A Brilliant Start, Broken Promises and a Humiliating End

Much as Macron did with his party “La République En Marche”, Berlusconi created a party literally overnight, Forza Italia (“Go Italy” – note the nationalistic touch and the reference to Italy’s passion for football).

The start was even more explosive than Macron’s. Founded in December 1993, the party quickly gained a relative majority and won general elections three months later. That was the result of a skillful use of media campaign techniques on Berlusconi’s Mediaset, a near monopoly in commercial TV. The party’s earliest officials were Publitalia executives, the advertising arm of his business empire.

Forza Italia always was – and still is – Berlusconi’s “personal party”. And he proceeded to lord it over Italy, both as the head of the center-right coalition and serving as Prime Minister for a total of nine years. Considered the most influential politician since Mussolini, there is no question that he has shaped Italy’s politics and economy over two decades – unfortunately leaving the economy in shambles.

Yet he had vowed he would make his compatriots rich. Many believed him, seeing how rich he was himself. But Italy’s economic growth rate remained abysmal throughout. In 2010, only Haiti and Zimbabwe fared worse than Italy. Likewise, he couldn’t deliver on his promise to reform the slow and inefficient justice system, as his efforts at reform turned out to be personal moves to defend himself and his assets from prosecution. As to immigration, he was the first politician to tighten immigration rules in Italy and establish a special relationship with Libya to discourage inflows of migrants across the Mediterranean.

The most damaging result of the Berlusconi years was the return in mainstream politics of extreme right anti-establishment political parties, brought in and rehabilitated as Forza Italia’s partners: Umberto Bossi’s Lega (then called Lega Nord as it was both anti-Rome and anti-Southern Italy) and Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance with deep roots in fascism.

2011, the height of the Euro crisis, was a turning point. In April, Berlusconi was put on trial, accused of paying an underage prostitute. By November, he was forced out of office. He left Italy in financial disarray, with an estimated debt of €1.9 trillion. He always claimed it was a “EU plot” by Brussels bureaucrats.

On 1 August 2013, he was convicted of tax fraud, banned from office and condemned to four years in jail that were commuted to “community service” due to his age (he was 77). In November of that year, the Senate expelled him from Parliament and he vowed to follow the example of Beppe Grillo, the comedian and founder of the 5 Star Movement, who was able to lead his party in spite of not being a member of Parliament Grillo has made it a principle in his party that anyone with a criminal conviction cannot hold a public office – himself included, since he was convicted of manslaughter in a car accident in 1981.

Today, at 82, Berlusconi is still in politics. Forza Italia has lost its luster and the Lega, that used to be his junior partner, is well ahead in the polls.

In the photo: Salvini and Berlusconi. That day, 7 January 2018,  Berlusconi, Salvini and Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia, agreed on the distribution of electoral colleges  SourceLa  Stampa, photo LaPresse  

Is Salvini, Berlusconi’s heir, Italy’s Trump?

On 21 February, the Italian newspaper L’Espresso published shocking news:  That Salvini’s party the Lega is likely to be secretly financed by Putin, to the tune of €3 million, with the goal of giving it a boost in the upcoming European Parliament elections and more generally spread discontent in Europe. This is of course not the first time that news emerge of Russian funding extreme-right, anti-establishment populist parties with the purpose of destabilizing Europe – notably Marine Le Pen in France is said to have received some €11 million from her friend Putin.

Yet the last ten days had been a turning point for Salvini with several wins. On 10 February, his party, the Lega, came first in local elections in the Abruzzo region, with 27,4% – a number oddly close to the one in the above-mentioned Pew survey rating Trump, suggesting that this could be indicative of the core support for any populist in Italy.

The rest on Impakter, click here. 

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Philanthrocapitalism Under Fire: A Call for Responsible Giving

My latest article on Impakter, here’s the opening:

Looking back to the exceptional crop of 2018 bestsellers criticizing the state of our society, from rising economic inequality to populism and climate change, one book stands out: “Winners Take All” by former New York Times columnist and Aspen Institute fellow Anand Giridharadas. It skewers philanthrocapitalism, arguing that uber wealthy do-gooders, rather than changing the world, do well for themselves, preserving the status quo. What is needed is a move to more responsible giving.

Book cover and author photo by Mackenzie Stroh

Anand Giridharadas made waves with his new book, Winners Take All, The Elite Charade of Changing the World and the waves show no sign of stopping. 

When it came out in August 2018, the renowned American economist and Nobel laureate John Stiglitz, in praising it in a New York Times article warned that we should “prepare for a new genre” of books analyzing economic inequality and globalization: the kind that “gently and politely skewer[s] the corporate titans who claim to be solving such problems. It’s an elite that, rather than pushing for systemic change, only reinforces our lopsided economic reality — all while hobnobbing on the conference circuit and trafficking in platitudes.”

Since then, Anand Giridharadas has been active on the conference circuit but he has certainly not been “trafficking in platitudes” and he has stopped being gentle and polite. Instead, he has taken to “skewering corporate titans” with a vengeance, even going into their lairs, as he did when he gave this talk at Google in October 2018: 

In December 2018, The Financial Times, in a lengthy article titled “Is wealthy philanthropy doing more harm than good?”, reviewed Anand Giridharadas’ book along with two others that touch on the subject: Just Giving, Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better by Stanford University scholar Rob Reich and Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy by Stephen Moore and Arthur B Laffer, Trump’s campaign economic advisers. 

For the FT, Trumponomics was a “timely defence of the president’s policies” and in particular of his €1.5 trillion tax cut – and it predicted that, of the three books, this was the one most likely to become a bestseller “given the size of the conservative bulk book market” in the United States. 

The prediction turned out to be wrong: Of the three, as of now, Giridharadas’ book is clearly the best seller, ranking highest on Amazon’s best sellers list (#252 and #1 for the philanthropy category), followed by Reich (#27,928) and far behind, Trumponomics (#85,183). 

Perhaps many, if not most, American readers are tired of Trump. 

The FT however does make an important point: What’s wrong with philanthropism in America is that the US has a uniquely favorable tax system that allows all kinds of charities to deduct taxes “regardless of whether they are effective”. Annual tax breaks amount to $50 billion, as much as the Federal government spends on energy, the environment, food and agriculture. Reich calculates that barely 20 percent of philanthropy benefits the poor, the rest mostly goes to education, culture (the arts) and religion (worship). 

The FT draws attention to an important point made by both Giridharadas and Reich: Giving to education is problematic. It benefits wealthy district schools or charter schools, thus increasing American public education’s “savage inequality”. The FT clearly enjoys Giridharadas’ sense of “acute observation” and polemical tone, quoting him on Trump (though leaving out the last five words in the sentence):

By January 2019, as political leaders and corporate titans were flying to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Giridhadarads raised the tone. The press rushed to cover him. The Economist called it an “entertaining polemic”, subtitling its book review “The Davos Delusion”. 

“Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a culture that tasks elites with reforming the very systems that have made them and left others in the dust.” 

On Bloomberg, Giridharadas baffled his interviewers, lashing out at Davos, calling it “a family reunion of the people who broke the world” and suggesting Davos should be cancelled: 

The rest on Impakter (including the Bloomberg video), click here to read.

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Brexit: Third Act

My Sunday article, just published on Impakter, I found a great featured image with Munch’s famous “Scream” (Creative Commons, photo by David Holt) and here’s the title:

Brexit: The Point of No Return? What Can Be Done?

And the opening:

Are we approaching the point of no return with Brexit? And is there anything that can be done? It can’t be proved, but it looks suspiciously like Prime Minister Theresa May is deliberately engineering drama in order to get her “deal” – the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU – approved by the U.K. Parliament.  She seems to be pushing the clock to the last minute before midnight of 29 March – Brexit’s deadline, the date she set herself by triggering Article 50, now almost two years ago.

She’s aiming for that date like a straight arrow, telling Parliament that she sees no possibility of a second referendum. That’s something she has said many times over the past year: There will be no second Brexit referendum. And even less new elections. A proposed cross-party amendment to Theresa May’s Brexit plan calling for a “people’s vote” was ditched earlier last week because of lack of Labour party support.

Poor Britain, one could feel sorry that at this crucial juncture, the U.K.’s two leading politicians are clearly anti-Europeans and don’t have at heart the welfare of their fellow citizens. They are not the kind of people who will revise their opinions in the light of emerging evidence that Brexit is a very bad idea.

Theresa May started in the Remainers’ camp when she was still in Cameron’s government, but after Brexit, she saw her opportunity to become Prime Minister and she quickly jumped to the other side. Clearly, she won’t let go – not until she has Brexit where she wants, beyond the point of no return. As to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, he has been a Euro-skeptic all his life and he’s not about to change his opinions, even if Brexit in fact hurts the working classes the most.

Bloomberg’s Brussels Edition calls it “Brexit Fog” as no deal for an orderly withdrawal is yet in sight. As far as the EU is concerned, the deal struck with Prime Minister Theresa May last month is the only possible one, nothing else can be envisaged. May is currently trying to win over Labour Party rebels to her deal and more generally, laying the groundwork for a possible delay on Brexit. At the time of writing, nobody knows whether she can succeed or not.

Brexit is unquestionably the most damaging foreign policy move the U.K. has ever contemplated in its whole History. With Brexit now approaching the point of no return, the costs of a “no deal Brexit” are becoming painfully clear to everyone.

No-Deal Brexit Damage to the U.K.

The U.K. food industry is in a panic, expecting a food emergency to explode after March 29 when all the borders with the EU will close down. On 28 January,  UK food retail chief executives issued a “no-deal Brexit” warning in a letter that was also signed by Marks & Spencer managers. They noted:

“Our supply chains are closely linked to Europe – nearly one third of the food we eat in the UK comes from the EU. In March, the situation is more acute as UK produce is out of season: 90% of our lettuces, 80% of our tomatoes and 70% of our soft fruit [are] sourced from the EU at that time of year. As this produce is fresh and perishable, it needs to be moved quickly from farms to our stores,”

The problem is the “just-in-time” food supply chain. If it is disrupted, it will be a disaster foretold.

Food retailers are stockpiling food where possible but all the available frozen and chilled storage space in the U.K is already in use and there is little further general warehousing space. The UK authorities might decide not to check products at the border, but the French have already announced they will enforce sanitary and customs checks at Calais as they are forced to do on all exports from the EU to outside countries. As a result, freight trade at Calais and Dover is expected to be reduced by as much as 87%.

In short, food will cost more and the poorest will be hit the hardest.

But food is not the only industry hit by a no-deal Brexit – all areas, from fashion to cars are going to hurt, and the working classes in particular will feel the pain as factories shut down and jobs move abroad.

The problem is that for 30 years, industry supply chains have been built to fit into the EU system. To repurpose them will be a gargantuan task, made all the more difficult as the U.K.’s free entry into the vast EU market closes up, discouraging investors and extra-European manufacturers like the Japanese who have used the U.K. as a door to jump into Europe.

The so-called “Ireland backstop” is another potentially catastrophic problem. The whole of Ireland, North and South, does not want the clock to be turned back to a state of war. In the words of Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney:

“It is vitally important that politicians in Westminster understand the overwhelming wish across society in Northern Ireland not to return to borders and division of time past”.

No-Deal Brexit Damage to the E.U.

The damage will be far more serious than is commonly thought.

To read the rest and find out how badly it will go for the EU, click here.

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The Logical Way to Reform Europe – Why it could Fail

Just published on Impakter:

French President Macron addressing the Sorbonne 26 September 2017 Source: Elysées

Everyone agrees that to reform Europe is a priority. And there’s only one logical way to do it, as proposed by French President Macron. His plan is simply brilliant. Exactly what Europe needs now. But there are many reasons why it will not be adopted – in spite of its brilliance and evident relevance.

It should come as no surprise that the author of this reform plan is French. France has always been the country of logic since Descartes’ days. The sad thing is that logic is not a winner these days with nationalist populism reviving everywhere – including in Germany and Italy and in most of Central and Eastern Europe. There are other reasons too militating against Macron’s plan: Germany’s fixation on austerity, Italy’s anti-establishment government. Italy, as I will show, is the unexpected linchpin – the country that could kill the dream of a United Europe.

First, let’s examine Macron’s plan, and then see why its chances for success are slim. Slim but not totally hopeless: There is an on-going revival on the left, especially with the Greens in Germany and some inspiring figures like Carlo Calenda in Italy.

Macron’s Plan to Reform Europe: Making it a Sustainability Champion

So what is Macron’s plan? As Bloomberg put it, Macron’s goal is to make Europe “fit for a globalized world”.  In a landmark speech at Paris’ Sorbonne University in September 2017, he outlined a six-pillar plan (he calls them “keys”) to reform Europe and make it “sovereign, united and democratic”:

For the video of the full speech in English translation, click here

Macron’s six “keys” are:

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Populism’s Broken Promises: Two Emblematic Cases

An article published on Impakter that I am particularly proud of: I got compliments from a great professional journalist Judy Bachrach who is also a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, the author of bestselling “Glimpsing Heaven” and professor of investigative journalism at John Cabot University. Here is the first part (concerning the U.S. and Trump); the second part is about Europe (and Salvini):

Populists make empty promises. They exploit people’s discontent, raise expectations but cannot deliver solutions. They claim to represent the “will of the people”. Yet they spread lies and accuse leaders of other parties, particularly progressive ones, to be the root cause of all the problems people face. Populists thrive on divisiveness and partisanship in both America and Europe. And it is happening in the world’s oldest democracies, places that should have been inured to the populists’ siren songs.

Two recent cases are emblematic of what is going on.

Case # 1: The United States

Consider America. Trump constantly attacks the “failing New York Times” for spreading “fake news”:

“Former @NYTimes editor Jill Abramson rips paper’s ‘unmistakably anti-Trump’ bias.”

Ms. Abramson is 100% correct. Horrible and totally dishonest reporting on almost everything they write. Hence the term Fake News, Enemy of the People, and Opposition Party!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2019

He flatly overlooks the fact that the New York Times has never been more successful, with extraordinary financial results and a fast-growing audience – Forbes estimates NYT’s online subscriber base to be its biggest value driver, and forecast this growth to pick up in the coming years and reach 4.5 million by 2022. A remarkable performance at a time of great difficulty for the industry battered by digital publications and online news.

But Trump, like all populists, has an Achilles’ heel: He can’t deliver on his promises. And he never will. Because his promises are nonsensical, none of them can resolve the problems they are meant to address.

What is happening now with his promised border wall is only the start. He incautiously caused the shutdown of government, sending home 800,000 government employees without pay. And he is doubling down on his mistake, with false accusations at the Democrats when everyone knows that the Democrats have nothing to do with it.

Trump, and he alone, is the cause of the mess. And if the shutdown lasts a year or more as Trump says he’s ready to do, don’t go ask all those employees sitting at home how happy they are with him or what they think of his MAGA policies.

But what about employment and Trump’s promise to create more blue-collar jobs to revive the rust belt? The just published employment data was fantastic, almost double what economists had predicted, shattering Wall Street forecasts of doom: 312,000 jobs were created in December, bringing total employment gains in 2018 to a three-year high of 2.64 million. The Labor Department adjusted its figures for October, raising them from 237,000 to 274,000 and for November, from 155,000 to 176,000.

Cherry on the cake: the average wage rose 11 cents, or 0.4%, to $27.48 an hour. OK, 0.4% doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s an average and it means some people did get ahead. And if the employment rate crept up to 3.9 percent from a 49 year low of  3.7 percent, that’s a small creep and it was because more people, attracted by a booming economy, entered the workforce.

So has Trump delivered on his promise? First, it’s too soon to tell. The impact of whatever Trump did will take some years to show up. No political measure is ever instantly translated into measurable economic effects.

Second, we need to remember that Trump in his first two years has only really achieved two things:

(1) deregulation of the environment, paralyzing the Environmental Protection Agency – a boon for the fuel and coal industry and steel; and

(2) an unprecedented tax break for Big Business and the One Percent – at the expense of the middle class and the lower blue-collar working class.

Both measures will need time to impact the economy in full, but we already see early signs that can tell us which way things will be going.

The expected early burst due to Trump’s tax break is much like a wave of fresh funding currently translating into higher overall employment and attracting new people in the labor market. Problem: It is not going into every nook and cranny in the economy, as the Republicans expected.

There is a good reason for this shortcoming. A considerable amount of the funding freed from the tax is not going into new investment, but instead going into stock buybacks to please shareholders. For now, that makes Wall Street and the One Percent very happy. But every cent and dollar going into stock buybacks means it is not going into Main Street and jobs for blue-collar workers.

The amounts diverted into stock buybacks is extensive: By end 2018, it is estimated that of the announced 1.1 trillion in buybacks, a record amount, already $800 billion have actually been purchased. Record buybacks are usually a sign that CFOs believe their stock is undervalued. But not all buybacks have happy outcomes. Consider the case of Apple that was recently badly hit by dropping sales for its smartphones in China:

Then there’s another problem: Robotization. This had nothing to do with Trump’s policies. The trend to automation started a long time before Trump reached the White House. Except for one thing, he should have foreseen the problem.

A good leader sees farther than his voting base. He should have understood that jobs in the coal and steel/aluminum industries that existed twenty years ago are no longer there because of automation. For example, Austria boasts of an almost entirely automated steel plant: It only needs 14 people to run.

The same is true for the United States, as a Brookings article abundantly documents. The last time employment peaked in the coal industry was in the 1920s. Already, by 1980, it was plunging – from 785,000 in 1920 to 242,000. And by 2015, it had lost 59% of its workforce compared to 1980 – most of the loss due not to trade but to automation.

The change from pit mining to surface mining (using explosives and considerably less labor) accelerated the move. Capital intensive highly productive technologies are already in use everywhere and it is expected that over the next 10 to 15 years, their deployment will be ramped up.

But Trump didn’t see that coming. He is not interested in either automation or the opportunities opened up by Artificial Intelligence.

As a result of his tax cut, jobs in the steel, aluminum and coal industries have rebounded, sure, but only modestly. Not enough to change the equation in the rust belt. Moreover, Big Business hasn’t changed its modus operandi, as the recent decision of General Motors to close down plants in the U.S. and send 45,000 people home shows.

Bottom line, Trump is only interested in easy-to-sell slogans, not in resolving difficult problems.

Case # 2: Europe

Consider the European Union, and take a close look at one of its best-grounded, most  emblematic democracies: Italy. The country where after the disaster of World War II, a particularly representative democracy was set up with a carefully crafted Constitution, intended to avoid the dictatorship of the majority and give equal representation to all citizens, excluding none.

The rest on Impakter, click here. Let me know what you think!

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Murderers in the Mediterranean: How to Stop Them

Just published on Impakter:

Two days ago, 117 people died in the Mediterranean. People talk of massacres whenever migrants drown. And then forget about it, overwhelmed by the relentless news cycle of our digital age. Perhaps if we called a spade a spade, people wouldn’t forget: Murderers at work in the Mediterranean is a better description of what happened.

Consider the facts.  They had been 120 when they escaped from Libya in hope of a better life in Europe. Then, after about eleven hours of navigation, their overloaded rubber dinghy deflated and capsized. They tried to swim for hours, but most couldn’t make it. There were ten women among them, one was pregnant. And there were two children, one of which was a two-month baby. Most of them came from Nigeria, Cameroon, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Sudan. Three survived to tell the story and were brought by helicopter to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

All the others could have been saved but weren’t.

With modern satellite technology, any boat crossing the Mediterranean can be spotted. For years, the Italian navy did a magnificent job of spotting them and saving lives, earning people’s gratitude and admiration across the world.

In the Photo: An over-crowded boat of refugees and migrants is rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy as part of the Mare Nostrum operation. Source:  © Massimo Sestini for the Italian Navy

But with far-right populist leader Matteo Salvini in charge (he is Italy’s Interior Minister), all that has changed. Of course, we have no proof that the Italians watched as people drowned. Only one thing is certain: These people fought for hours in freezing waters before going under.

Salvini has made his policy crystal clear: He has closed Italian ports and accuses NGOs of playing the game of human traffickers, saying:  “As long as European ports will remain open…sea traffickers will continue to do business and kill people.”

This causes an excruciating moral dilemma. People are killed anyway, closing ports and looking the other way is no solution. There are ways to stop “sea traffickers”. For example, one could work out agreements with governments on the southern coast of the Mediterranean – especially with Libya and Turkey – to gain control and police the areas where the traffickers actually operate – and not in the open sea, when it’s too late. But Salvini is doing none of this. 

MAP showing where the rubber dinghy with 120 people aboard sank. Source: Mail Online

For now, the situation is in an ugly stall. Countries (like Italy) that should welcome refugees are not doing so. And putting themselves in the unwanted role of murderers at sea.

For example, exactly two days after 117 people were left to die, one of the ships of the NGO Sea Watch saved 47 migrants including 8 unaccompanied children. These were migrants in similar circumstances, clinging to a sinking dinghy. They were found by Sea Watch in international waters north of Zuwarah in Libya. Who will take them in?

A few days earlier, in another angle of the Mediterranean, in the western sea of Alboan, another 53 people had died in similar circumstance, with only one survivor – a fact documented by UNHCR.

This brings the total for this month to 170 deaths from drowning. A lot of deaths in just a few days.

The overall number of people who died crossing the Mediterranean in 2018 was, according to UNHCR, 2,262. Too much, even if we are far from the peak of 2015 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously opened the doors of Germany to a “million refugees”. UNHCR’s data speaks volumes:

Source: UNHCR

UNHCR tweeted dismay at the latest tragedy:

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the high numbers of people dying on Europe’s doorstep.”


— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) January 20, 2019

The President of Italy Sergio Mattarella was also moved to issue a press release expressing his “profound sorrow for the death of over one hundred people, including women, men and children”.

The only one who remained silent was Salvini.

Yet, his policy of closing borders is putting him at odds with international law, in particular, the principle of “non refoulement” ( a French term, in deference to the fact that French has been traditionally the language of international diplomacy) – as explained in this UNHCR video:

The rest , including UNHCR’s excellent video about the non refoulement principle, is on Impakter. To read, click here.

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Brexit Deadlock: What Next?

I wrote about the Brexit deadlock for Impakter and here is the start of my updated article that examines the options following the U.K. Parliament’s rejection of May’s “Brexit deal” and her surviving the no confidence vote called for by Labour on 16 January 2019:

Ten weeks to Brexit. March 29, the date of UK’s exit from the EU, is closer than ever. But right now we are living through a “Brexit deadlock”. And it shows no sign of resolving: First there was the historic contrary vote in Parliament on 15 January that rejected Prime Minister May’s controversial “Brexit deal”. The margin of defeat was enormous, May lost by 230 votes. Next, on 16 January, May survived the vote of no confidence Labour Leader Corbyn had called for, with a thin majority of 19 votes.

The defeat, however predictable and expected, still managed to shock many people. And EU Commission President Juncker expressed regret:

I take note with regret of the outcome of the vote in the @HouseofCommons this evening. I urge the #UK to clarify its intentions as soon as possible. Time is almost up #Brexit https://t.co/SMmps5kexn

— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) January 15, 2019

The EU Commission also released a formal statement on 15 January by President Juncker highlighting that the “process of ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement continues.  Because this Withdrawal Agreement (i.e. May’s “Brexit deal”) is:

“a fair compromise and the best possible deal. It reduces the damage caused by Brexit for citizens and businesses across Europe. It is the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.”

The EU won’t budge on the Irish border problem. This is it – end of the road. As EU Council President Donald Tusk was quick to note , the U.K. should cancel Brexit since no better deal can be negotiated.

The problem is a political one. As Guardian’s John Henley said, ““The crux of the problem is that there is no parliamentary majority for any solution. There is no majority for May’s deal, there is no majority for no deal, there is no majority for a second referendum, and there is no majority for the various alternative deals mooted by MPs.”

The logic is to go back to the people and vote again, as suggested by Susan Wilson in her recent article on Impakter celebrating “2019: The Year We Finally Bury Brexit“. That is also what the markets expect and the pound immediately rebounded.

Unfortunately, little time is left to organize a referendum. Some people argue there’s no time left at all.

Yet a no-deal Brexit was excluded by a crucial Parliament vote on 8 January that passed almost unobserved by the mainstream media. But that vote ensured, to use Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s expression, that the UK cannot “legally go crashing out” of the EU on 29 March 2019:

The rest on Impakter, click HERE to read. Let me know what you think!

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2018: A Watershed Year. Will 2019 Finish the Job?

On 1 January 2019, the following article was published on Impakter. In case you haven’t seen it, here it is – and a Happy New Year to all (despite everything!)

2018 was a watershed year. The geopolitical table turned: The world changed from order to disorder. True, the ordered world we had known since the end of World War II till 2016 was far from perfect. It had many problems and inequities. And it had been slow – some say too slow – in moving towards a common sustainable development agenda and a climate control agreement.

By contrast, the disorder brought in by Trump’s America First agenda is fast-moving. As fast as the Internet, it travels on social media.

The World is Like A Racing Car Without a Pilot

With Trump, the Monroe Doctrine is back in a lethal 21st century variant. In the 19th century, if America chose to isolate itself, it didn’t matter that much. The world had a driver (the Great Powers of Europe). Today the world is like a racing car without a pilot. Local wars and mass migration are more likely than ever before. And in July 2018, the U.S. stopped cooperation with the UN on human rights matter – sending, as the Guardian argued, a “dangerous signal to authoritarian regimes around the world.”

We’ll be lucky if we can avoid World War III and the climatic collapse of the planet.

The network of multilateral alliances created after World War II to contain the rise of Russia’s and China’s imperial ambitions is gone. Over the long run, as I have argued in a recent article, Eurasia is in our future, with a good chance that America is relegated to the sidelines.

Trump closed the year with a government shutdown. His aim? Always the same: To get the funding for the border wall he promised his fans. But one must question whether his end game is not something different and entirely personal: By raising the issue of “border security”, Trump is in fact deflecting attention from his looming problems with Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling of the presidential elections, a.k.a. “Russiagate”.

Over in Europe, there was another form of “shutdown” when British Prime Minister Theresa May kicked the can down the road asking Parliament to vote next year for the Brexit deal she had worked with the EU. Talk of a second referendum got louder though nobody seemed to agree on how to phrase the question. Also, the time left for organizing a referendum is getting squeezed, making it unlikely that the U.K. will in fact manage to reverse its decision and remain in Europe.

But it was Trump’s move – to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan – coupled with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation on the same day that really shook up Europe – even though, as the Washington Post and Foreign Policy reminded their readers, he was a “deeply flawed defense secretary” with a questionable record.

Pulling out of Syria was universally viewed as a serious mistake. As French defense minister, Florence Parly said (on RTL radio) said, refering to ISIS, “the job must be finished.” And with Mathis gone, it won’t be  – Mathis who was viewed by America’s allies in NATO, especially Japan, South Korea, France and Germany, as “as their most sympathetic and effective conduit to Mr. Trump” and the “adult of last resort” who could restrain an unpredictable president.

But Trump shook up Americans too – at least some of them, for example firebrand filmmaker Michael Moore admitted that this was  the “the first time” he’s actually“frightened for the country”:

One thing is certain: Trump made Russia very happy, opening the way to revived Russian influence in the Middle East. Vladimir Frolov, a Russian columnist and foreign affairs analyst, exclaimed: “Trump is God’s gift that keeps on giving.”

The financial world perhaps understood best what happened as 2018 wound up: the past week in the stock market – from 18 to 21 December – has been the worst week since the 2008 crisis. Adding insult to injury, Trump discussed firing Federal Reserve Chairman Powell after the latest interest rate hike. Whereupon the dark shadow of a looming bear market caused the White House to retract. What was unprecedented was that both shares and bonds took a hit : normally they move in opposite directions.

What made 2018 a watershed year?

Politico asked American historians how History would remember 2018, asking the “smartest historians they knew” to write the paragraph about 2018 that History books in the future would include.

Some attributed a big role to Trump, others didn’t. The majority agreed on one thing: 2018 marked the end of American world leadership.

To give a sense of what they said, I will quote but one of them. Jacqueline Jones, professor of American history at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote: “The traditional narrative of the United States as a noble world leader and defender of human rights was slipping away, and by the end of Trump’s second year in office, the country was in danger of sliding into a garden-variety authoritarianism.”

Others were concerned with more pointed issues, some specifically American (and Trump-related), others worldwide:

The rest on Impakter, click here.

Actually, I’m not pessimistic: as the 2018 midterms showed in America, voters still have in their hands their own future – and that of our planet. A bad regime (Trump’s) can be castigated. 

Brexit, as of now, appears unavoidable. The U.K., barring some unexpected referendum, will fall out of Europe and become some kind of super Singapore. 

But let’s hope that European voters will show equal awareness and sensitivity s American Democrats did when they vote in May 2019 for the European Parliament. What we DO NOT NEED is a wave of populists taking over Europe! That would be the end of both Europe and the fight against climate change.

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Gilets Jaunes Protests: The Roots of French Discontent

My analysis of the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) crisis, just published on Impakter. It is far more complex than just another political crisis caused by Facebook. Here is the start of the article:

“He deserves to have his head chopped off, symbolically,” said Claudio, a 47 year-old mason and father of four (last name withheld), referring to French President Macron who has been often accused of draping himself in the symbols of pre-revolutionary France. Claudio lives in the northern town of Le Mans famous for car racing. Like many “Gilets Jaunes”, he likened their protests to the 1789 French Revolution. That, of course, is wishful thinking.

But wearing “Gilets Jaunes” (the yellow roadside safety vests required by law) is a stroke of genius. It made protesters highly visible both on the road and in the media. Ever since they began three weeks ago, Saturday 17 November, that is all one sees on our screens: yellow vests.

It turns out that Macron’s tax hikes on diesel fuel was the straw that broke the camel’s back and fueled the Gilets Jaunes’ anger. For them, what is at issue is fiscal justice. They can’t stomach his decision to raise taxes on pensioners at the same time that he scrapped wealth taxes. No matter he meant them as a tax break for investors to encourage them to invest in French business (notoriously under-invested) and create jobs.

The decision was perceived as unfair by the working classes, bogged down by taxes while the rich evades them, escaping to fiscal paradises. Macron is seen as “the president of the rich”. Out to impoverish the middle class.

“The guy thinks he’s God!” exclaimed Claudio, exasperated, as he dug in at a blockade outside a fuel depot of Le Mans, fortifying barricades. Along with some 50 companions, he is preparing for a long winter of discontent.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here. Find out what Facebook’s role in this crisis really was. Let me know what you think!

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