The New Black: Why do the Dutch still love dressing in blackface?

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people in the Netherlands have been doing something which would be unthinkable in most other countries. They’ve been dressing in blackface.

As anyone who lives in the Netherlands will know, this isn’t a one-off event, SOEST - Schminken van Zwarte Piet. ANP ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSENbut something which happens every year. According to Dutch myth, Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) spends much of each November and December travelling around the Netherlands, accompanied by his dark-skinned helpers, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). In towns and cities nationwide, adults and children turn out to welcome them, dressed for the occasion in Zwarte Piet costumes of their own: brown or black face paint, curly ‘Afro’ wigs, thick lipstick and chunky gold earrings. ‘Comedy’ African accents are not unheard of. To many outsiders, it all makes for a shocking spectacle; jarringly at odds with the Netherlands’ reputation as one of the world’s most tolerant and progressive countries. To most Dutch people, however, the tradition remains entirely unremarkable – as integral a part of the festive season as turkey and stuffing are elsewhere.

Recent years have seen some signs of change. Many Dutch schools, for example, now encourage children to paint their faces in bright rainbow colours rather than the usual black or brown. In Amsterdam, authorities decreed that this year’s costumes must include only token dark smudges on their faces, reflecting the modern story that Zwarte Piet is only black because he climbs down dirty chimneys to deliver presents. Yet despite these changes, blackface remains a common sight in most Dutch towns. One recent survey by the broadcaster NOS found that of 223 committees organising festivities across the country this year, only two locations, Amsterdam and Heemstede, planned to stop using blackface characters altogether. According to another study, conducted in secret by the social affairs ministry and leaked to the press, only 21% of Dutch people support ending or changing the tradition. Rumours of Zwarte Piet’s demise seem greatly exaggerated.

Any non-Dutch person living in the Netherlands soon learns to tread very carefully when discussing Zwarte Piet – a foreigner coming out against the tradition risks being treated in much the same way as a Hillary Clinton supporter at a Trump rally. But it’s hopefully still acceptable to ask: why is blackface still so popular in Netherlands, years after it died out elsewhere?

In part, it’s simply a case of good old-fashioned nostalgia. For many Dutch people, dressing up in brown face paint and a curly wig is a cherished childhood tradition; an innocent game which only the worst kind of Scrooge would want to stop. Like Bonfire Night for the British, Zwarte Piet for the Dutch is something which may seem odd to outsiders, but makes their children happy.

Secondly, one can also detect an element of line-in-the-sand-ism. In an age when many other aspects of culture – film, music, fashion, literature – have been internationalised, there’s a perhaps understandable desire among some Dutch people to say: Enough! Zwarte Piet is an authentic part of our culture heritage, and will not be sacrificed on the altar of globalisation and political correctness.

Thirdly, the debate about blackface also reflects the different boundaries which exist in the Netherlands between the public and private spheres. img_20161101_173704The Dutch are famous for taking a tolerant approach to many aspects of life; from drug use to euthanasia, prostitution to same-sex marriage. This live-and-let-live attitude is part of what makes the country so appealing, but it can also throw up strange contradictions when one person’s exercise of freedom inconveniences another. In a country where individual rights are sovereign, it’s fine to shout in a residential street at midnight, fine to talk noisily in a ‘silent’ train carriage, and – yes – fine to dress up in a costume which others find offensive. For the Dutch, being tolerant includes respecting the right to do things which others think are intolerant.

More broadly, the controversy also reflects wider attitudes towards race relations which can be – to put it delicately – rather old-fashioned. As I wrote in my book about the Netherlands, the role which the Dutch once played in the global slave trade is still barely discussed in schools and museums, and visitors are often surprised to overhear racial epithets and generalisations which would be unacceptable elsewhere. Last year, the leading Dutch newspaper NRC published a review of a book on race relations, written by an Afro-American journalist, under the headline: “N****r are you crazy?” In some countries, a similar headline would spark public protests, political uproar and perhaps even a criminal investigation. In the straight-talking Netherlands, however, it went largely unremarked.

Finally, the debate about Zwarte Piet also reflects the widening fault lines in Dutch politics. The Netherlands is set to vote for a new government in March. With the far-right politician Geert Wilders enjoying strong support for his Trump-like ‘Make the Netherlands Great Again’ campaign, mainstream politicians have little incentive to face down the traditionalists. Mark Rutte, the centre-right Prime Minister who hopes to avoid a defeat by Wilders, has gone on the record as saying that at this time of year his friends of Caribbean descent “are very happy… because they don’t have to paint their faces”. “When I play Zwarte Piet”, the Prime Minister said, “I am for days trying to get the stuff off my face.” Just this week, when the Justice Minister dared to venture that the celebrations might indeed “upset people and encourage racism’, Rutte quickly responded with a statement saying “I myself love Zwarte Piet; I think it’s a fine tradition.”

The Prime Minister is smart enough to understand the political game he’s playing, and has continuously hedged his Pro-Piet statements with calls for “everyone to decide themselves”. However, many others are even less willing to confront the issue. The Dutch are happy to discuss and debate almost anything – Trump, Brexit, delicate personal problems – but anyone who dares question the wisdom of dressing in blackface is likely to be drowned out by chorus of bitter disagreement. In Rotterdam last month, nearly two hundred anti-blackface protestors were detained by police in an operation which Amnesty International condemned as unlawful. Elsewhere, police were fiercely criticised after an official Twitter account shared photographs of officers themselves posing in blackface. Last week, a Dutch-American journalist was reportedly beaten up by right-wing protestors at a Zwarte Piet demonstration. And when the Dutch national children’s ombudsman said recently that Zwarte Piet might be considered discriminatory, she received numerous death threats. Sadly, in a country which prides itself on political liberty and freedom of expression, reasoned discussion about Zwarte Piet is almost impossible – a situation which does the country little credit. In common with the rest of Europe, the Netherlands is changing fast. But when it comes to blackface, change may be a long time coming.

American Fascism: the view from Germany

I was in the German countryside when the results came in; staying on a glorious stretch of the river Rhine filled with craggy peaks, ruined castles and terraced vineyards aglow with the colours of autumn. A kindly German-Indian hotelier brought me a hearty breakfast of ham and rye bread and broke the bad news. “It’s 27 years ago today that the Berlin Wall fell down”, he said, “and now everyone is going to start building walls again”.

Travelling around Germany for the last couple of weeks, it’s been no surprise to find that most Germans are instinctively sceptical of Donald Trump. Germany may have a conservative government, but it’s also a country where the Green Party hold a tenth of all the seats in parliament, and policies like universal healthcare are widely accepted. According to one poll conducted in the summer, just six per cent of Germans felt positively about the prospect of a Trump presidency. Had German citizens been eligible to vote in swing states by post, Hillary Clinton would have won in a landslide.

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Another factor, of course, is the elephant in the room: Germany’s own experience of demagoguery. On Monday, one popular post on social media, purporting to be a message from “the people of Germany”, told American voters to “go ahead [and] vote for the guy with the loud voice who hates minorities…. What could possibly go wrong?” The post was accompanied by the hashtag #BeenThereDoneThat. Offline, most Germans are a bit warier of evoking comparisons between Trump Republicanism and the Third Reich. Hitler analogies aren’t taken lightly here, and one prominent academic warned journalists that there was “a crying-wolf danger of an inflationary use of Hitler comparisons”. However, Germans know all too well how easily populist rhetoric can turn poisonous.

Before the election, the German media were almost united in their opposition to Trump. One didn’t have to speak much German to understand front-page headlines like Bild’s “Ist Donald Trump ein Sex Monster?” or the Hamburg Morning Post’s “Bitte nicht den Horror-Clown!” Since the result, headlines have been similarly appalled; first prize goes to Die Zeit for its simple English-language summary: “OH MY GOD!” People I’ve spoken to have been just as shocked as many others around the world.  “It’s awful”, a law student in Karlsruhe told me. “Everywhere you look, the right wing is rising. It makes me very afraid for the future, in Germany and elsewhere”.

For the German government, Trump’s election also creates some tricky dilemmas. img_20161110_131048Like many others, the Germans will be forced to cooperate with Trump on many issues, but are likely to be appalled by his policies. The message of congratulations which Angela Merkel sent Trump yesterday provided a masterclass in political wordplay: she said she looked forward to “close cooperation” with the new administration, but also said that such cooperation must be based on “values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law, and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views”. The contrast with Theresa May’s vapid statement that she “looked forward to working with President-elect Donald Trump” on “trade, security and defence” was stark.

An optimist might argue that a Trump Presidency could end up being good for the Germans. With both the British and the Americans threatening to take a step backwards off the world stage, Germany is an obvious candidate to become a new leader of the free world. However, it’s hard to see a weakened, divided America as being helpful in the long term. German exports amount to more than forty per cent of GDP – far more than almost every other country – making Germany deeply vulnerable to any turbulence in world markets. Another big problem is security. For decades, the Germans have been given something of a free ride by NATO; able to under-invest in their own military thanks to the presence of thousands of American troops on German soil, and other powers’ promises to protect German territory against external aggression. If NATO now begins to fracture, the Germans will face difficult questions about whether they should engage more in places like Syria, and the extent to which they’re willing to stand up for neighbours like Poland in the face of a resurgent Russia. Coming a few months after the Brexit vote, Trump’s victory is deeply destabilising. For the Germans to lose one major ally to isolationism is bad news; to lose a second is a disaster.

Finally, Trump’s election also comes at a time when the German political outlook is very uncertain. In more than a decade as Chancellor, Angela Merkel done much to reinforce Germany’s status as a great power, and to build the moral authority of a country where the past casts a long shadow. “She’s really the only one who can run the country properly”, a middle-aged woman shopping for Christmas decorations in Mainz told me. “I can’t imagine anyone else could do it better”. However, the Chancellor’s popularity has been badly undermined by her decision to admit hundreds of thousands of refugees – a policy which Trump said proved Merkel was “ruining Germany” and meant she should be “ashamed of herself”. cwwf3b0xaaauodeElections are due to be held in Germany next year, and Merkel’s party is now polling nearly ten points behind the Social Democrats, with whom they currently share power. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded just a few years ago, has attracted many supporters with its anti-immigrant rhetoric, and already holds seats in more than half of the country’s state assemblies. As German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned this morning, “demagogic populism is not a problem only in America. Elsewhere in the West, too, the political debate is an alarming state”. Merkel – along with the likes of Hollande, Renzi and Rutte – will be hoping that Trump’s triumph isn’t easy to repeat on this side of the Atlantic. As American history becomes increasingly like the plot of a Philip Roth novel, the implications for Europe remain unclear.  “Was nun?” the Allgemeine Zeitung asked on its front page this morning; what now? So far, no-one knows.

Brexit: The View From Africa

Nearly four months after British voters shook the great kaleidoscope of European politics and voted to leave the EU, the pieces are still in flux. Right-wingers across the continent are still enjoying their moment of glory, Nigel Farage shows disappointingly few signs of retiring, and Brussels still can’t quite decide whether to play nicely or punish the British for their insubordination. Private Eye magazine probably came closest to hitting the mark this week when it pointed out that the main reason Brexit hasn’t affected the economy much yet is because Britain still remains a full member of the EU.

I’ve spent much of the last few months in East Africa – part of that huge swathe of the world which was, until the 1960s, run from London. Half a century after the sun finally set on the British empire, this region still has strong ties to Britain, and remains dependent on the British for much of its trade and aid. Many leading Leavers hope that even if trade between Britain and Europe declines in the future, trade with Commonwealth countries like Kenya and Uganda could help replace it. What, then, does Brexit look like from here?
Generally, most politicians, economists and journalists have assumed that the effect of Brexit on Africa will be very negative. Brexit, the thinking goes, will trigger an economic downturn in Britain, which will in turn lead to reduced trade between Britain and Africa. Tourism will decline, and the British will spend less on development aid. Barclays recently forecast that post-Brexit, growth in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to halve to just 1.4% this year. Without the British, the EU also looks less likely to reform the agricultural subsidies and tariffs which have long blocked African farmers from competing in world markets. For African economists at least, Brexit is bad news.

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In the African press, reactions have been a bit more mixed: Kenya’s Nation newspaper claimed that ‘After Brexit, Africa Should Brace Itself for an Anarchic World’, but Uganda’s Monitor declared that ‘UK Exit From EU Would Benefit Uganda’. But what do people in Africa – both the Brits living here, and the locals – think? There is, of course, something ridiculous about trying to condense the views of an entire continent into a few snappy bullet points, but a few conversations this week displayed an interesting range of opinions. In keeping with old European habits in Africa, it’s perhaps helpful to think of the people I spoke to as belonging to one of several distinct groups.

The first group consists of what one might call the liberal internationalist expats: the well-meaning, well-educated professionals who run many of the region’s embassies, non-profit organisations and charities. Among this group, reaction to the referendum result has been predictably negative – they mostly lean to the left politically, and have built careers in an industry which thrives on the principles of international cooperation, pooled sovereignty and careful diplomacy. “It’s the biggest geopolitical disaster for more than a century”, one forty-something British expat told me over bottles of Nile beer in a starlit Kampala pub garden. “Worse than Iraq, worse than Suez, an absolute disaster.” Some of the concerns of this group seem valid – Theresa May, for example, looks set to make development aid less of a priority than David Cameron. But throughout the region, I also heard a lot of Brexit-means-world-war alarmism which seemed driven more by gut reactions against isolationism than by rational analysis. “I still just can’t believe it”, one British diplomat told me, sounding as if she might burst into tears at any minute. “It’s really the end of Britain as any kind of global power. My kids are going to grow up in a world of conflict and hatred, and that breaks my heart”.

dscf7275However, a second group of Brits in Africa takes a rather different view. People who one might think of as old colonials – white Brits who’ve lived in Africa for years – seem to be disproportionately in favour of Brexit. Well-educated and rather upper-class, they still have deep ties to the UK despite living abroad for decades, and have perhaps a stronger sense of history and identity than those who’ve never had to think about which country they should call ‘home’. Several of those I spoke to were curmudgeonly about many things, but surprisingly optimistic about the future of Britain outside Europe. Some even seemed to see Brexit as a way for Britain to reclaim the global role which it enjoyed in the heyday of empire in Africa. Out on the Swahili coast of Kenya, I met one old Englishman who’d spent more than twenty years working as a doctor in the tropics. For him, Brexit represented not a retreat into isolationism but a great stride back onto the world stage. “Now we can finally stop being obsessed with this tiny little corner of northern Europe”, he said. “We might trade a bit less with France and Germany, but we can trade more in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America. We haven’t left anything! We’ve joined the world!” A few days later, another ageing British expat in the mountains of eastern Uganda expressed similar sentiments. “The EU is nothing but a great big scam, designed to help the bankers and lobbyists. But now we’re free at last, ready to rejoin the wider world!” Ending his diatribe against the EU’s colonialist and elitist tendencies, he brusquely ordered one of his black servants to bring him another pot of tea.

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Then, of course, there are the Africans themselves. In major cities and government ministries, it’s relatively easy to find people who are concerned about the effect of Brexit on trade, or the potential loss of the EU as a counterweight to China. Others, though, see echoes of Africa’s own struggles for independence. “Congratulations on winning your own independence!” one Kenyan man said to me while we looked at the Jomo Kenyatta exhibits in Nairobi’s national museum. Mostly, though, people don’t seem to give a damn. In the major East African newspapers, big Brexit news stories – the referendum vote itself, or Theresa May announcing likely the date for actually triggering Brexit – might get a brief mention on the international pages, but everything else is ignored. Theresa May is not a household name in Kigali, and the bars of Kibera do not host impassioned debates about the future of the customs union. This is probably unsurprising, but it also serves as a useful reminder that what seems like epic news in London or Amsterdam is, to much of the rest of world, no more interesting than the failed peace deal in Colombia, the massacre of protesters in Ethiopia, or the latest corruption scandal in South Africa. A Brexit butterfly flapping its wings in Europe might cause a storm in Africa, but it’s much more likely to go unnoticed. “I don’t think it matters a great deal”, one young man in a crowded minibus told me. “Europe or no Europe, Britain will always be Britain”. One can only hope he was right.

Good intentions: when aid to Africa goes wrong

Mwandama is no ordinary Malawian village. I’d visited dozens, perhaps hundreds, of small villages scattered across the country, and while the locations and the languages spoken varied, the sights were almost always the same: bad roads, bare maize fields, leaky little huts and dozens of hungry children. The people were invariably kind and welcoming, and the surrounding countryside was often beautiful, but I always found it a depressing, millenarian scene.

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In Mwandama, though, things were rather different. When I visited a few months ago, the main road leading to the village was a dirt track, but a reasonably smooth one, with few wheel-swallowing potholes. At the edge of the village stood a shiny tap with a concrete basin underneath, and a bleach dispenser for purifying water. Every house had glass windows and smooth cement walls which were robust enough to stand years of heavy rains without collapsing. At the village centre, a cluster of neat brick buildings encircled a small open space; each with a rainproof corrugated roof and neatly whitewashed walls. One, I learned, was the school; another a community Grain Bank to help farmers store their crops safely and sell them when maize prices peaked. Across the way was an immaculate health clinic, with smooth brick-and-concrete benches and posters encouraging visitors to wash their hands, vaccinate their children and take free HIV tests. The children hanging around outside the health clinic looked poor, but well-nourished and (by rural Malawian standards) well-off. A few of them even had shoes.

A brief examination of the health clinic soon revealed what made Mandwama different from other villages: it was, as the stickers above the door said: A MILLENNIUM VILLAGE – one of fourteen established throughout Africa to act as showpieces for the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), a programme which aims to improve access to services like education and healthcare, and in the process demonstrate how poor rural communities can be thrust into the modern age. The UN Secretary General, visiting Mwandama in 2005, described it as no less than “a model” for how to “do” development in Africa.

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The Millennium Villages scheme is the brainchild of Jeffrey Sachs, a celebrity economist and professional world-saver who’s probably the most influential champion of the idea that countries like Malawi are stuck in a “poverty trap” from which they can only escape via a “big push” of cash and expertise provided by rich foreign donors. The MVP is the embodiment of these beliefs: a trial which aims to prove “aid works” and provide a roadmap for the development of the rest of Africa. However, more than fifteen years after the scheme was launched, the evidence in favour of it is decidedly mixed. Supporters (including Sachs himself) point to evidence showing that in most Millennium Villages, incomes have risen, malaria prevalence plummeted, and access to clean drinking water increased sharply. In the village I visited, the MVP claims that crop yields have increased more than fivefold, that access to improved drinking water has doubled, and that every child has been immunised against measles. Visiting in 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon claimed that “the vast majority” of families in Mwandama had enough food, and every household had an anti-malarial bednet, and many more girls were attending school.  “People’s lives are far better”, he said.

Others, though, claim that the MVP is a classic example of a lavish scheme which makes donors feel good, and creates nice photo opportunities for people like Ban Ki-Moon, but does little to bring about lasting change. Perhaps the most high-profile critic is William Easterly; a mild-mannered, grey-bearded Professor of Economics at New York University who argues that Sachs and his ilk are “resoundingly right about the tragedy of world poverty”, but have a dangerous habit of proposing absurd solutions; “large-scale crash programs” which are modern-day versions of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, dreamt up by unaccountable outsiders and rooted in a neo-colonial “arrogance that ‘we’ know exactly how to fix ‘them’”. Others, argue that the Millennium Villages’ gleaming health clinics and new school buildings are nice to have, but that similar results could be achieved for much less money – the MVP typically invests about $120 per villager per year, an extraordinary amount in places where the government’s entire health budget might amount to $25 per person per year. The debate continues, but as the Economist once noted, “for something designed to improve lives in some of the poorest parts of the world, the Millennium Villages Project certainly stirs up a lot of bad blood”.

Wandering around Mwandama, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with the critics. It was clear that some of the infrastructure which had been built represented a great achievement, but – months after the original 2015 deadline for “solving” poverty in the Millennium Villages had passed – a lot of it still seemed half-finished. One woman I spoke to was proud to show me the neat little house which the MVP had built her, but quick to point out that it didn’t include a bathroom. “I have to go to the toilet at the clinic”, she said “and so do all my neighbours. It gets very dirty sometimes. Even the health workers have to go and wash their hands in this toilet building, when it is dirty, and then go back to treat the patients with their dirty hands. That is not good”. Weirdly, at mid-morning on a weekday, the whole village was practically deserted. The men may have been working in the fields, but there were no children in the school, and neither staff nor patients at the shiny health clinic. The Grain Bank looked empty. At the school, the first classroom I looked in was far nicer than most others I’d seen in Malawi, but the next was completely bare. Another contained only two things: an upturned green plastic bucket and what looked like a dead chicken. photo 2The fourth classroom was filled with a mighty jumble of broken, unused desks, which looked as if they had been dumped there by a passing hurricane.
As I peered inside, a boy of about eight ran up behind me, curious and slightly scared of the visiting white man. “Do you go to school here? Do you like it?” I asked. “No school!” he grinned, turning and running away across the red dust of the playing field.

I walked the short distance back to the health clinic, and began nosily peeking through windows and trying doors there. To my  embarrassment, one of the doors which I tried opened, and woman of about my age strode out, introducing herself as a nurse. I asked a few questions about the illnesses she treated, and she recounted a familiar litany of ailments: malaria, pregnancy problems, diarrhea, child malnutrition. But, she said, health problems were less severe than in other places where she’d worked; here in Mwandama, most people at least had enough to eat, and access to clean water. “People here are quite lucky”, she said. I asked whether things had changed much in the last few months, since the Malawian government took over from the foreign advisers who had been running the services in the village. The nurse’s answer was disappointingly predictable: “The clinic is very nice, but the big problem is that we have no drugs. The Millennium people used to send us deliveries, and we had most of what we needed for the patients. But the government took over a few months ago, and since then the deliveries never come. We have no antibiotics and no painkillers. There are no malaria drugs left. If people get sick, we have to try and send them to the nurse in Zomba – but there is no ambulance”. The nurse paused to answer a phone call, and I took the opportunity to flick though my notebook. In it was a quote which I’d copied from one of Jeffrey Sachs’s books, written a few years previously, when the Millennium Villages were just getting started. “In the past”, Sachs had written, “donors often helped countries to build clinics, but then rejected the plea to help cover the salaries of nurses and nurses to help staff the clinics. The predictable result has been the construction of empty shells rather than operating health facilities”.

With impeccable timing, the nurse was interrupted by the arrival of a patient: a slight woman of about twenty-five, with close-cropped hair and tatty purple dress; held up between two friends with her eyes rolled back in her head. One of the two women explained the situation to the nurse, and she quickly translated for my benefit: the sick woman had given birth a few days previously, and had been growing weaker and weaker ever since. She would probably die if she didn’t get a blood transfusion and medication soon, neither of which were available in the “world-class” Millennium Villages clinic. “We can call her an ambulance to go to Zomba, but it will take maybe half a day to get here, depending on whether the driver can find enough fuel. Here, we can do nothing for her.”

I went and fetched my car, and drove back to the photo 4clinic, where the patient was loaded carefully into the back seat. With her moaning behind me, I drove off as quickly as I dared, bouncing along the dirt road to Zomba, leaving the empty Potemkin village behind. As Professor Stanley Hoffman wrote during the Vietnam War, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

The Exit Factor: Voting on Britain in Europe

I arrived in Britain this week to find that everyone had gone completely mad. I’d been following the ‘Brexit’ debate loosely from abroad, but up close it seemed even more distasteful: a rancorous, confusing mess of ill-tempered arguments about Turks, Albanians and Winston Churchill. David Cameron, who used to oppose British membership of the EU, now says that leaving would trigger an apocalypse. Jeremy Corbyn, who once voted to leave, now campaigns to remain. Boris Johnson, born to an MEP father of Turkish descent, compares the EU to a Nazi superstate about to be overrun by immigrants. The media, predictably, are having a field day, collecting celebrity endorsements like little boys swapping football cards. Stephen Hawking, Simon Cowell and Matt Damon are apparently for staying in Europe; Bryan Adams, Keith Chegwin and one ofcondoms.png the singers from Buck’s Fizz want to go. Richard Branson says a vote to leave would be disastrous, explaining that “although I’ve been living in the British Virgin Islands for some time now, I have never stopped caring passionately about the UK”. The cricketer Ian Botham says, bafflingly, that he wants to leave the EU so his grandchildren have “freedom to move around as they want”. The Daily Star, meanwhile, reports that Brussels bureaucrats want to ban electric kettles and toasters. “Day-to-day devices we rely on like mobile phones could also face the chop”, the paper says, thanks to new rules which “will be rolled out just weeks after we vote in the referendum”. Tonight, in the precious final hours before voting begins, Rick Astley will appear in a Channel 4 debate, explaining why he thinks Britain should never give the EU up. It’s little surprise that many voters are despairing rather than inspired.

Compared to some Brits, I tend to think of myself as pretty European – I’ve lived outside Britain for about six years; make a partial living writing about European politics and culture; and probably spent more days in France, Belgium or Germany last year than I did in the UK. A couple of years ago, I even married a European: one of those exotic creatures who persists in speaking a strange language, drinking tea without milk, and driving on the wrong side of the road. Yet despite all this, I find it easy to be convinced by some of the Leave campaign’s arguments. In recent years, the EU has failed spectacularly to deal with the greatest challenges of our age, including the Syrian refugee crisis and the collapse of the Greek economy. More worryingly, there seems to be a serious problem with the democratic basis underpinning the EU –  with the eurocracy quietly shuffling towards “ever closer union”, despite the fact that a substantial minority (or even a majority) of people have made it clear that they want anything but. A casual disregard for public opinion has fuelled the rise of populists and extremists across the continent, and of autocrats on the union’s periphery.

Far too much has been written about the referendum already. But as a follow-up to an earlier post (written when David Cameron was negotiating his reform deal with the EU), three quick points which I haven’t seen made much elsewhere:

  1. The British don’t think they’re European, but others disagree.

I’ve spent much of the last year working in former British colonies in Africa, and also spent a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about the impact which the British and their empire had on the wider world. In doing so, I’ve often been struck by the fact that to many Brits, “Europe” is somewhere else – a place different from the one they live in, to be visited occasionally by crossing the Channel. “Europeans” are not (in the British imagination) Welsh sheep farmers or Home Counties housewives, but people from elsewhere – bicycling Swedes, suntanned Italians, hardworking Poles or rustic French farmers. However, to people in other countries, Britain is unquestionably part of the continent, both geographically and politically. If a Brit goes to Amsterdam they might think they are “going to Europe”, but if a Dutch person visits London they would never think they were “leaving Europe.” And a Ugandan flying to Britain would laugh at the idea that they were visiting anywhere other than Europe.

AD-EU-front-1Perhaps as a result of this disparity, Brits tend to think that Britain plays a marginal role in European affairs. The British government is (people think) a minority voice in Brussels, unable to get its own way and liable to be outvoted by the Croatians or French or Portuguese. In reality, however, Britain has played an outsized role in Europe’s security and prosperity for centuries, and remains one of the continent’s leading economic, diplomatic and military powers – it’s worth noting that the British economy is about three times the size of the Netherlands’, and five times the size of Belgium’s; British military spending is about the same as that of France and Spain combined. In Brussels, the Brits have generally got their own way – winning rebates and exemptions, and retaining a seat at the top table despite being outside both the Schengen visa-free zone and the Eurozone. The Dutch and Germans, in particular, see the British as valuable allies in their ongoing fight against the high-spending southern states and the workshy French: the Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein recently said that the Netherlands and Britain “are maritime people” who “think differently” from the “continental” powers, while the AD newspaper thanked the Brits for helping the Dutch maintain “some common sense on this turbulent continent”. In Germany, meanwhile, Der Spiegel says people have “always looked cross the channel with some degree of envy” and “only with the British can we make the EU better and lead it into a new future”. Decades after the end of empire, the EU helps Britain retain an influence disproportionate to its size; ours is one of the few countries capable of changing the direction of the whole continent on issues like benefits for migrants or military intervention in Libya. If Britain leaves, it will not only lose influence, but be forced to stand by and watch the rest of the union swing in the opposite direction – more protectionist, more dovish, more profligate. As one Dutch newspaper said last week, “an EU without the UK would be like tea without milk. Bitter.”

2) Internationalism is the key to prosperity.

In the past year or so, I’ve spent most of my time in one of two countries. Firstly, the Netherlands: a tiny, swampy country with few natural resources, which adopted a policy of openness to the world, free trade and internationalism, and managed to become one of the richest countries the world has ever seen. And secondly, Malawi –  a tiny, swampy country with few natural resources, which adopted a policy of protectionism and isolationism; failed to negotiate a transit deal with neighbouring Mozambique; deterred foreign investment; imposed expensive and unpredictable border rules; and managed to become one of the poorest countries the world has ever seen. In Britain this week, there has been endless debate about exactly how serious the economic downturn following a Brexit would be, but the overarching lesson seems pretty clear: countries which prosper do so not by raising drawbridges, but by eliminating tariffs, easing customs controls, promoting cross-border investment, and enabling the free movement of goods and people – in other words, by doing exactly what the EU aims to do. Building an autarkic siege economy won’t make British industry thrive, and won’t bring back the glory days of Boris Johnson’s childhood.

3) Symbolism matters.

These days, political manipulation has become so pervasive that there’s a natural tendency to disdain anything which reeks of messaging or political theatre. The world needs more “substance”, we hear, and less “spin”. But the opposite is also sometimes true. Symbols matter; soft power matters; grand gestures and simple images can change the world. The election of a black man, or a woman, as U.S. President has greater meaning than the election of yet another ageing white man. A handshake between an Israeli and a Palestinian leader has greater impact than years of behind-the-scenes negotiations. The election of a Muslim bus driver’s son as Mayor helps promote ‘London values’ in a way that the election of a millionaire old Etonian never can. And, in the same way, a vote to remain in Europe provides a short-hand telegraph to the rest of the world about the kind of country which Britain is, and wants to be – guided by cooperation rather than conflict, internationalism rather than nationalism, and tolerance rather than jingoistic bigotry. I spent part of last week travelling around the north of Uganda. The people I met in the villages there probably won’t notice if Britain negotiates a new trade deal with Denmark, but they will notice if the British people announce to the world that their country is less welcoming and less connected than before, with a foreign policy which can be summarised by the poster shown below. In the 1970s, when the last EU referendum was looming, the Financial Times warned that Britain risked becoming a “tight little island” closed off from the rest of the world. We shouldn’t broadcast to the world that that’s what we’re becoming again.

For these reasons, along with many others, I will be voting to remain.

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Letter from Belgium: Bombers, bureaucrats and failing states

Brussels is looking rather bruised these days. Four weeks after the suicide bombings which killed 32 people, the city’s airport remains partly closed, the Maalbeek metro station is still swathed in crime-scene tape, and the Place de la Bourse is carpeted with flowers. Outside the Gare du Midi, arriving visitors are welcomed by the sight of four hulking army trucks, surrounded by camouflaged, helmeted soldiers fiddling with machine guns. Returning to the city for the first time in several months, I saw far fewer tourists than usual, but military personnel everywhere: soldiers in the train station, soldiers at the supermarket, soldiers at the Cathedral and the Jewish Museum, even soldiers outside Starbucks. “I’m glad I don’t live here”, a Dutch lady confided to me in the line for a pain au chocolat, “It’s just too dangerous”.

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Since the attacks, it’s become popular for journalists to describe Belgium in apocalyptic terms, viewing the country not only as a victim of terrorist attacks, but as a cause of them too. Belgian incompetence, the theory goes, has created the conditions under which jihadis can thrive. The title on a recent article in the German magazine Spiegel is typical: “Postcard from a Failed State”. The website Politico was even blunter: “Belgium is a Failed State”.

Such criticisms are nothing new. In Britain and elsewhere, there’s still a tendency to group European countries into one of two categories: sleekly efficient (Norway, Sweden, Germany) or sleepily inefficient (Greece, Italy, Portugal). Belgium, sadly, is often plonked in the latter category; its rich history and culture reduced to little more than truffles, beer and Tintin. In my book, I wrote about how (despite sharing a language) even Dutch people often think of Belgium as “a nice enough place, but also slightly old-fashioned; a country of bad roads, failing businesses and late-sleeping gastronomes”. “What does it say on the bottom of Belgian beer bottles?” a Dutchman on the Eurostar once asked me. “OPEN AT OTHER END!”

Belgians are understandably annoyed by such stereotypes, but there’s clearly something surreal about the way their country is run. Split between a Flemish-speaking north and French-speaking south (as well as an often-ignored German corner in the east), Belgium suffers from a multiple personality disorder which makes governing very difficult. Brussels – a city of 1.4 million people – has no fewer than nineteen different mayors. Pub quizmasters around the world owe the Belgians a huge debt for setting the world record for the longest period without an elected government – 589 days. In the wake of the bombings, the government has often seemed out of its depth. The day before I arrived, the Transport Minister was forced to resign when it emerged she’d been warned about security failures at the airport ahead of the bombings – and then, after the explosions, told the Prime Minister that she hadn’t received the warnings at all.

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In Brussels this week, attention still seemed focused on deciding who to blame for the recent atrocities. Should it be the hapless Prime Minister, Charles Michel, or the softy-lefty former mayor, Philippe Moureaux? Were the bombings the fault of the intelligence agencies, or the local police chief, or the EU, or the Salafist preachers? The problem, one prominent mayor said, was that “we were unable to offer [the bombers] a Flemish version of the American dream”. Outside Belgium, things are a bit clearer. Blame has settled not on a person, but a place: Molenbeek, a lower-income area of Brussels which hosted the terrorists behind the attacks, and which has sent hundreds of young jihadis to Iraq and Syria. Investigators have unearthed worrying evidence of tolerance for extremism: the bombers reportedly were able to go out for haircuts without fear of being reported to the police, and the local mayor told reporters there was a spirit of omertà in the neighbourhood; a code of silence reminiscent of Sicily under the Mafia. Donald Trump, always a reliable source of geopolitical insight, described the area as a “hellhole”. Yet visitors will find that despite its reputation, Molenbeek is not actually a terribly unpleasant place. A bit shabby, for sure, but no different from the overcrowded, litter-strewn concrete jungles which adorn the fringes of London, Amsterdam and Rotterdam too. Whether those similarities are reassuring or disturbing depends on your point of view.

Under a suitably menacing sky, I walked out of the city centre to the European Parliament. On a Friday afternoon, the place was bustling but in a joyless, colourless way; like an unimaginative Chinese architect’s sketch of what a superstate should look like. The distance from Brussels city centre to the Parliament is barely a mile, but it seems much further. Rather than being embedded in its host, the EU hovers aloof over Brussels like a visiting spaceship, orbited by its own constellation of cafes, bars and expense-account restaurants. For all the talk of unity, Eurocrats and Natocrats seem to live lives which are largely separate from the immigrants who serve them as cleaners, doormen and drivers. It’s been suggested that it wasn’t a coincidence that the recent metro bombing took place just after 9am, when the bureaucratic elite were on their way to work, but the cleaning women and night watchmen of Molenbeek were already safely at home. The capital of a divided country is a divided city.

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And yet despite all this, to anyone who’s ever spent time in states which are genuinely failing, the idea that Belgium is ‘failing’ is laughable. Incomes are higher than in the U.K. or France; life expectancy is higher than in the U.S., and crime (at least of the non-bombing kind) is low. It’s also important to remember that Belgium isn’t Brussels – outside the capital, there are thriving cities like Antwerp and Gent, and miles of picturesque countryside where Islamic terrorism as rare as bad chocolate. In Brussels, on my way back from Parliament, I came across a protest on the steps overlooking the Grand Place: about sixty people, all dressed as clowns, performing tricks and protesting the detention without trial of a Palestinian performer by the Israeli authorities. I had no idea whether he deserved to be jailed, but it seemed to me that any country where political protest means donning face-paint and juggling coloured balls was probably doing something right.

Belgium undoubtedly faces many challenges – but these are not unique. France is also fighting Islamist terror cells; the Netherlands is also struggling to integrate its disaffected young Muslims; and Britain grapples with its own questions about national identity and unity. At best, both Brussels and Belgium could be models for what Europe should be – diverse but united; historic but forward-looking; run by a state which is decentralised and unassertive. And if all else fails, the Belgians are masters at muddling through.

As the sky darkened, I sat for a while outside a beautiful café, eating a beefy carbonade flamande, drinking delicious brown beer and chatting with the friendly trilingual waiter, and thought: If Belgium is a failing state, then it’s a very successful one. Down but not out; bruised but unbeaten.

Tories, Poles and Reckless Gambles: some points on the UK and Europe

With apologies to readers who aren’t that interested in politics, a few random thoughts on the draft deal announced this week between the UK and the EU:

1). Mind the gap. One of David Cameron’s greatest triumphs in more than ten years as leader of the Conservatives has been to drag his party into the modern age; narrowing the gap between party policy and public opinion on issues such as the National Health Service, climate change, gay rights and maternity leave. On Europe, though, this shift hasn’t happened: there’s still a huge gap between what many Conservative MPs and party members think about the EU and what the average voter believes. To many of the people who join local Conservative Associations or attend MPs’ Christmas drinks parties, Europe is the most important political issue of the day; a source of endless frustration and disappointment. To most ordinary voters, however, Europe sits way down their list of priorities, far behind things like jobs, the economy, healthcare and schools. In places like the Netherlands and Belgium, both the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership are fairly obvious: people drive across fenceless borders daily to shop or work, without using passports or changing money. But for Brits, living on an island with their own currency, the Union is far more abstract: something which hovers unnoticed high above their day-to-day lives. All this means that the new deal is one which – as a Bloomberg news headline put it this week – “British Voters Might Not Even Notice”. At the time when Cameron pledged a referendum on EU membership, it may have seemed like a necessary step to kill off UKIP and secure his re-election. Now, it seems like a pointless indulgence; gambling with national security in order to pacify a small minority of Conservatives who might otherwise tire of his husky-hugging ways.

2). Great expectations. In that context, the details of the draft agreement Cameron has reached matter far less than the public’s general impression of it. Sensible people won’t spend their evenings reading the fine print of the new reform plan, but will notice that most newspapers and broadcasters think Britain is getting a bad deal, and will decide how to vote in the referendum accordingly. In this respect, Cameron is in a bit of trouble: having won an election pledging to transform Britain’s relationship with Europe and slash immigration and regulation, he’s now unveiled a draft deal which only tinkers with the status quo, and depends heavily on him winning permission from the very institutions which he claims to be fighting. In the Prime Minister’s defence, it’s impossible to reach a deal which would be agreed by the other member states and keep right-wing Eurosceptics happy, but expectations need to be managed carefully. Cameron blundered by giving the impression that change would be revolutionary rather than evolutionary.

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3). Risky business. Despite all that, the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign is likely to win the referendum, despite the unfortunate acronym. This is primarily because most people are fundamentally risk averse, and unwilling to gamble on major changes if there’s a chance they might threaten their economic security. Both the recent Scottish independence campaign and the UK general election last year are cases in point – after months of analysis and debate, voters ignored the tug of their heartstrings and took the safest option. This reality ties in nicely to one of Cameron’s strongest suits as a leader: that even people who deeply dislike him often think he’s competent, crafty and ruthless enough to protect their interests in a time of uncertainty. If Cameron can make a strong case that leaving Europe would damage Britain’s economic competitiveness and put jobs at risk, most voters will be unwilling to risk change. At a time when the economy seems to be healing, why gamble on an uncertain future?

4). Easy rider. The prospects of the pro-Europe campaign are also helped by the fact that Cameron is getting a pretty easy ride. The opposition Labour Party is deeply divided over foreign policy, while the Brexit campaign still hasn’t found a likeable household name to act as its figurehead. Despite some harsh headlines, the media are also playing gently so far. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was ridiculed over his party’s splits on whether to bomb Syria, while Cameron can breezily admit that many of his own Cabinet disagree with him. If Corbyn had proposed a similar deal to that which Cameron announced this week, the press reaction would be far harsher. Cameron has a reputation for being lucky in his opponents, and this is no exception.

5). Contagion. Other countries will be watching the British renegotiation process carefully – not just because they would prefer the UK didn’t leave the EU, but because a British vote to quit would fan the flames of nationalism in their own countries. The Netherlands, for example, famously voted ‘No’ to the European Constitution in 2005 but since then has developed a begrudging affection for the EU. Most Dutch people recognise that a tiny country with an open economy can do better as a member of club than it could on its own. However, many Dutch are also increasingly unhappy about the laxity of immigration rules and the cost of bailing out other countries which have been less careful with their money. Prime Minister Mark Rutte is traditionally a strong ally of Cameron’s, but his support has become increasingly erratic of late. If the British voted to leave the EU, pressure to hold a similar referendum in the Netherlands and elsewhere would probably become unstoppable.

5). Crowded house. It’s also interesting to note the emergence of a new split within Europe. On economic issues like the Greek bailout, there’s long been a (simplistic but largely accurate) divide between the north and south of the continent, with the pro-austerity Germans, Dutch and British facing off against the more spendthrift Greeks, Portuguese, Spaniards and Italians. In the Brexit debate, there now seems to be a new divide emerging, between the western countries which traditionally import labour and the eastern ones which export it. Cameron’s demand that migrants from other EU countries shouldn’t be able to claim benefits seems fairly reasonable to many British, Dutch or German ears, but is hugely controversial south and east of Berlin. It’s significant that the European Council President negotiating with Cameron, Donald Tusk, comes from Poland, one of the countries which sends the most migrant workers to the UK. It’s also no coincidence that one of Cameron’s first trips to sell his EU reform deal will be to Warsaw. During last year’s ‘Grexit’ crisis, shuttle diplomacy centred on Brussels, Berlin, Paris. In this year’s ‘Brexit’ crisis, the hotspots may well be Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn.

6). The gambler. David Cameron has already become so closely identified with the draft reform deal that it will be hard to survive as Prime Minister if the country votes against it. However, in nearly six years in power he’s acquired a habit of making bold gambles which somehow end up paying off: on forming a coalition government, on the Alternative Vote referendum, on letting Parliament vote on Syrian airstrikes, on Scottish independence. Europhiles can only hope his luck won’t run out this time.