Tag Archives: european union

Brexit: the Welsh puzzle

The results are in, the markets have panicked, Prime Ministers have stepped down, and no one seems brave enough to press “the big red button” of officially informing the EU that the UK intends to leave. In short, the public referendum to see if the UK would prefer to leave or remain in the EU has been a bit of a mess.

Funnily enough, with support for leave tanking in the wake of several walked back promises on public funding and bans on further immigration, it appears that the vote on the UK’s future in the EU will actually have the greatest impact on the different parts of the UK’s relationships with each other. What’s leaped out at many is the divide between the vastly greater voter pool that is England (which voted in almost all its subdivisions to leave) and the rather different returns among the smaller populations in Northern Ireland and Scotland (both of which decisively voted to remain).

Out of that has come talk of a border referendum in Ireland and renewed interest in Scottish independence. Departition and separation serve on the one hand as vehicles to avoid leaving the EU or speed the process of reentry, but also demonstrate a vulnerability of the UK. On the one hand, it now functions as a democracy, but on the other not only must it wrestle with a past of global colonial violence but modern borders drawn by those processes applied to what once were neighboring nations. One’s former colonial subjects seldom vote to withdraw from the world hand-in-hand with their on-going occupiers.

With a slim majority also voting to leave within Wales, it’s easy to instead summarize the regional differences in the vote as being between north and south rather than colonized and colonizer. That misses some of the complexities of the Welsh vote, which are not only key to understanding what happened there but help contextualize the successes of remain and meaningfulness of the EU to Northern Ireland and Scotland.


One of the most decisive discrepancies between how those in England and those in Wales decided to vote on this referendum was in terms of immigration. Especially at the end of the campaign, that issue became squarely central, with EU membership being conflated with a comparatively open borders, less restricted immigration, and more generally the existence of immigrants.

In England, the implications were loud and clear to the foreign-born populations largely concentrated in London, the Southeast of England, and to a lesser extent the Southwest. In part because of immigrant voters, those would be respectively the only English subdivisions that voted in favor of remaining, in favor of leaving by less than the narrow victory in Wales, and the narrowest victory in England still larger than that in Wales. Among other factors, immigrants concerned about the rhetoric and politics of the leave campaign were a key part of the remain vote in England.

The precise opposite demographic tendency shows up in Wales, with the subdivision with the most immigrants – Powys – being the one with the largest leave-lopsided return. The trick to that is that immigrants to England tend to be also immigrants to the UK. Generally speaking, they are people of color from former UK colonies or immigrants from fellow EU countries particularly Poland and other eastern European countries. Those are the populations that have in the wake of the election faced harassment and even violence.

In stark contrast, the majority of immigrants to Wales are immigrants from wthin the UK, and overwhelmingly, they’re English. This is particularly true in, you guessed it, Powys. In stark contrast to the key importance of voters of color in London and elsewhere in England, some of the least immigrated-to parts of Wales were where remain locally won. Bro Morgannwg, Caerdydd (also known as Cardiff), and Sir Fynwy – all along Wales’ comparatively less immigrated-to southern coast – were among the five local areas where remain won.


(The percent of local Welsh populations born in England from the 2011 census.)

While immigration is fairly common even along the western coast of Wales, that is also in some ways the nationalist heart of the country – where the highest percentage of the local Welsh population has retained the use of Cymraeg, the Welsh language. That’s where the other two remain-leaning local subdivisions can be found: Ceredigion and Gwynedd.


(The cymrophone percentage of the Welsh population, according to the 2011 census.)

Speaking very generally, the most English parts of England tended to vote leave, while the most Welsh parts of Wales tended to vote remain. What was supposedly a referendum on the fate of the whole of the UK was heard very differently not just between locals and immigrants, but different groups of locals.

English colonial legacies

Much has been made about every local major subdivision of Scotland voting in this referendum to remain in the EU. While many have been quick to talk about a divergence between Northern Ireland and Scotland on the one hand and England on the other, it’s important to note that there is not the same level of uniformity in Northern Ireland’s vote.

To those familiar with the contested fate of that corner of the UK, the Brexit vote is just another confirmation of a familiar voter pattern. Stretching from Antrim then south around Belfast while dipping into that city’s eastern neighborhoods, leave won. Everywhere else in Northern Ireland, remain did.

This is a geographic manifestation of the most basic of divisions of that area, baked into the region’s uniquely power-sharing government since the Good Friday Agreement. Those now somewhat ironically called “Unionists” – largely descended from settlers affiliated with the UK’s colonial rule of the whole of Ireland – voted to leave. Those termed “Nationalists” – who typically have precolonial, Irish ethnic ties to the area – voted to remain.


While much of the analysis of this has rightly noted that there were some concrete EU policies driving those different voting patterns – from an Irish desire for harassment-free travel across the border to some unionists’ desire for an isolationist UK that may look the other way if The Troubles return – few have talked about this as a parallel to what can be seen to some extent in Wales.

English immigration is a phenomenon seen in Scotland as well, but in Wales and Northern Ireland it appears to be one more fiercely politically interested in maintaining the image of a powerful UK. It might not always find logical outlets, as the momentarily free falling pound showed, but there is a political constituency in both Northern Ireland and Wales who just seemingly demonstrated they don’t think of themselves as either of those things except in residency.

$350 to the NHS

For all their similarities, however, the voting dynamics in Northern Ireland and Wales don’t perfectly align. While high concentrations of English immigrants were what helped make some of the highest leave returns within Wales, some of the least immigrated-to portions of the country also saw leave majorities. North of Caerdydd, in the heart of Welsh coal country, immigrants from either elsewhere in the UK or the world are rarer than anywhere else in Wales. Those places form the backbone of the Welsh labor movement, which has fallen by the wayside of an inability to deliver equality and dignity amid deindustrialization. They voted last week to leave, in some places by margins not seen elsewhere in Wales.

(W. Eugene Smith’s “Three Generations of Welsh Miners” taken in 1950 in South Wales, from here.)

This is the portion of Wales most directly invested in the social services of the UK. It’s their Labour votes which propelled the so far only Welsh prime minister, David Lloyd George, into office, in which he laid the groundwork for what would become the National Health Service (NHS).

Although the agitators who forced that and similar provisions through were Welsh, the past century since that has seen the best access to those services quite clearly be designed around locations in England, not Wales. Welsh coal country may not have the worst access to NHS facilities when compared to, say, central Wales, but it remains a pressing issue that they may be redirected to an NHS location in Caerdydd, if not England itself due in part to the lack of resources in Wales.

While the leave campaign led with a dogwhistle about the NHS with mixed results in many polls, one of the places that seemingly played best was among the Welsh especially in coal country. The EU has meant free travel for Irish, and a market for recently discovered mineral deposits for Scots, but it’s been seen as part of a broader disorientating restructuring of the Welsh economy.If anywhere saw a leftist euroskepticism, it was Wales.

The largest bloc of leave voters feeling bitter about suddenly reversed promises to increase NHS funding is undoubtedly the Welsh, and now EU development grants may suddenly dry up as well. Hitched, perhaps soon without Scottish or Irish partners, to an English-led “union,” for many in Wales the lofty question of national independence and the pressing reality of poverty won’t stay two separate discussions with two separate half-successful parties to vote for (Plaid Cymru and Labour respectively).

In a strange way, these Welsh voters helped sabotage the referendum and threatened their anemic local economies, yet may have just forced their nation as a whole to take a long hard look at itself. It’s difficult to picture a Welsh economy without the benefits of the EU, but perhaps a euroskeptical outlook is what might drive Wales to or even passed independence not just from Brussels but also from London.

While Ireland has seen conflict and Scotland has actually staged votes on leaving the UK, Wales has dallied in more gray zones of devolution and greater local autonomy. Tethered to a tanking UK economy, suddenly desperate for a way to outvote English people caught in a frenzy of xenophobia and imperialism reminiscence (that may very well turn on Welsh), and lied to about increased funding for social services – what part of all that tells Welsh people not to start thinking more drastically?

Last week’s vote revealed the several deep tensions within the UK. What’s easy to recognize is how there is already an independent Ireland (and a campaign for its expansion) and a Scottish Nationalist Party. This was blatantly a demonstration of how English people’s politics and theirs diverge. It’s harder to sort through, because it’s more effectively masked, but there’s a lingering echo of the same sentiment in Wales. Whether it can emerge into that level of separatism is a question only time will tell.


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Class in Ukraine

TW: antisemitism, anti-Roma violence and rhetoric

An interesting class-focused look at the on-going conflict in Ukraine was put forward today in an opinion piece by Vladimir Golstein, a Russian immigrant to the United States and Brown professor with a degree in Slavic studies. I won’t quite link to it yet, for reasons that will become clear, but I think the question it raises (what can we see when we focus on class in the recent political upheaval in Ukraine?) is one worth exploring more broadly.

Even the comparatively pro-business sources acknowledged the reality of an oligarchic retreat from Yanukovych’s government this winter. One article from Bloomberg News at that time noted that “Business oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man who acquired control of state stakes in leading power generators in 2011-2012, had relied on ties to Yanukovych to safeguard control of large sectors of the economy”. Unfortunately, the looming possibility of repressing protest movements would “signal that Ukraine is adopting the model of next-door Belarus” and justify an international response like the EU’s “visa ban and asset freeze on [Belorussian President since 1994] Lukashenko and [other] top officials”. The many oligarchs involved in politics would have been directly affected, as would have their class as a whole because of how many of them have foreign investments or assets which would at least come under new scrutiny.

A bit more foreboding to the less wealthy Ukrainians who are typically more invested in their own country’s production, is that entering the EU would create a situation where the local markets would have “duty-free access to more than 90 percent of [the EU’s] products”. The already anemic manufacturing base of the country, concentrated along its eastern border with Russia, would likely crumble in the face of EU integration, stressing an already beleaguered working class in the region.

The German paper Der Spiegel argued even more overtly that several Ukrainian oligarchs that had been essentially invested in the existing government abrupt switched sides, and actively supported the protesters in the middle of this February. As one piece explained

Last Tuesday’s [February 17, 2014] bloody conflicts tipped the scales. On Wednesday both Akhmetov’s and Firtash’s [two oligarchs] TV stations changed their coverage of Independence Square: Suddenly the two channels, Ukraina and Inter, were reporting objectively on the opposition. The message of the oligarchs was clear: We’re letting Yanukovych fall. And in parliament — where the majority party had barely budged a millimeter in the past weeks — the mood suddenly changed: Suddenly they were looking for a compromise after all. It became clear on Thursday what this would mean: the forming of a broad coalition, the return of the old constitution and, with it, a reduction of the presidential powers as well as an accelerated presidential election.

That is the economic class and socio-political faction that Vladimir Golstein sees facing grassroots resistance from russophone and perhaps even russophile groups in eastern Ukraine. He asks

But what about the heavily industrialised Ukrainian east? Those who think that it is Russia that pulls it back are deeply ignorant of the complexity of the region. The Donbas Region, which comprises 10 percent of Ukraine’s population and produces 25 percent of Ukrainian exports, is inhabited by Russian-speaking people who work in mines, steel plants, and machinery factories, and who have a less cheerful view of Westernisation.


Local workers hardly need Putin propaganda to know that many of their smoke stack plants will be closed once Ukraine joins the EU. It is sufficient for Ukrainians to look to other recent EU countries, from Hungary to Romania and the Baltic States, or even at Russia’s own economy that switched to the export of natural resources at the expense of thousands of closed factories to know what will happen to the big Soviet-style factories that still dominate the landscape of the Donbas region.

(Shaded in is the Donetsk or Donbas region of Ukraine, with the city of Donetsk itself marked with a red dot. It is one of Ukraine’s most densely populated areas.)

Golstein is entirely too optimistic about this class consciousness, particularly in the larger Donetsk (or Donbas) region, being removed from ethnic and even racial histories. He explained that they were united in the interest of maintaining their jobs, independent of whether they are “ethnically Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian or Hungarian”. In the past few days, there have been allegations of separatists engaging in antisemitic pamphlet campaigns and anti-Romani violence, hallmarks more reminiscent of fascism’s recent history in the region than Marxism’s. The broader issue of average Ukrainians having different political interests than their economic and political elites will likely leave Ukraine’s prospective government in a precarious position, but the unique flashpoint so far has produced not only class consciousness as Golstein notes, but also hints of a dangerous sort of ultra-nationalism.

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This is not just in theory

TW: ethnic cleansing, islamophobia, genocide

On Monday, I discussed just how much violent rhetoric the Muslims of the world, particularly anglophone ones, are subject to, on an increasingly frequent scale. It’s become commonplace to discuss mass murder, for instance. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just a matter of thoughts and statements, as in some places, Muslims are being killed or otherwise systemically endangered because of their religious faith. Al Jazeera has been doing some excellent reporting for the past couple of months on the situation in Burma or Myanmar, specifically approaching the “democratization” of the country from that angle.

In the past couple of days, especially, they’ve covered the dangerous potency of islamophobia in the country, starting with a renewed look at the nativist and islamophobic violence against the Rohingya people, who tend to live in the westernmost province of Myanmar. Much of their recent history is quite depressing – from first colonialist exploitation by the British (who “imported” their labor into British Burma) to modern xenophobic otherness by their compatriots of some half century (if not longer). It’s one of the cases where the separate socio-economic classes laid out by Harm de Blij in The Power of Place seems particularly salient. Unfortunately, following the departure of an imperialist “global” class, the “mobile” Rohingya laborers and “local” Burmese peoples have targeted each other, instead of cooperating to repair the colonial era damage to the country.

(From Human Rights Watch’s online report on the killings, an image of civilian forces that drove out or killed Rohingya in western Myanmar in the summer of 2012.)

Today, however, Al Jazeera provided some excellent analysis of the broader regional implications of this conflict, both for Buddhist-majority countries like Sri Lanka and Muslim-majority ones like Indonesia. In a nutshell, while there are ethnic dimensions to this and nearly every ethnic conflict in neighboring countries, many of those tensions between groups are increasingly talked about as religious. The Rohingya might not be exclusively targeted for being Muslims, but like many people in the area and ultimately around the world, their religious identity makes them only even more acceptable as targets. While the Rohingya have born the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, it is not unique to regions where they live and has led to recent killings of Muslims with other ethnic backgrounds.

Of course, there’s a question of acceptable to whom – and the potential answers to that are distressingly broad. With prior reports showing deliberate government inaction and subsequent efforts to restrict Muslims facing communal violence in Myanmar, it seems wrong to excuse the actions of various official and unofficial political leaders. But beyond them, Al Jazeera seems to be asking whether the international community is culpable as well. Today, their official twitter account explained, “We ask if the EU is [sic] liftting sanctions on Myanmar prematurely“. Sanctions are difficult to justify in any situation, but the fact that a wave of violence against Muslims hasn’t phased narratives in the “Western” media that Myanmar has democratized seems to indicate something about the perception of Muslims in not only that country but ours as well.

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And you’ll like it!

TW: anti-Roma violence

So a few people have been abuzz over the recent Hungarian constitutional changes. There’s pretty clearly a precarious political situation developing in that country, as the inability to use existing hate crimes laws to prosecute anti-Roma hate crimes shows (sorry it’s only available in pdf format). I have significant qualms about the agendas pushed at times by Der Spiegel (which has supported the politicized aid stipulations put upon Greece) and by Human Rights Watch (which had many high-ranking members lobby for the Iraq War), but their reporting puts together a rather worrisome picture of Hungary’s current trajectory. Ignoring their prescriptions to the problem (since both organizations have proven all too fallible in terms of determining the correct course of action), their descriptions (which are corroborated elsewhere) tackle very different dimensions of the developing problems.

(A 2012 vigil for a 2009 killing of a Roma man and his son in Tatárszentgyörgy, Hungary, from here.)

Der Spiegel’s coverage is quite clear: one issue is how Hungary is effectively creating an incentive for those educated there to stay and work there for at least a few years following their post-university entrance into the labor force. As Der Spiegel puts it, it’s a “measure meant to curb the emigration of highly-educated workers and academics”. That seems imminently reasonable for a comparatively small country with highly liberalized immigration laws that allow workers to be easily poached by other EU nations. The article briefly lays out a few other changes in the same section of new laws that the parliament has now effectively written into the constitution, but it doesn’t exactly dwell on their purpose or function.

That’s where the Human Rights Watch’s piece comes into play. It doesn’t actually examine the impacts on immigration much at all, and instead cuts straight to the heart of how life within Hungary will be impacted by the assorted other changes. In short, the results don’t sound very good. A few Fidesz (the currently governing party) officials have put out English language explanations which I won’t link to provide them any more coverage, but suffice it to say, they’re claiming that new language defining families with explicit references to sexual reproduction are no cause of concern for queer Hungarian families. They’re claiming that the Hungarian state’s preservation of a vague commitment to provide housing makes up for the de facto criminalization of homelessness. They’re pretending that preferential support of certain religious groups over others is something other than religious establishment. They’ve passed over the fact that among the new changes also allow the National Judicial Office to transfer cases (particularly political corruption cases) to inexperienced rural courts that are rarely reported on.

Many politically-active Hungarians have been raising the alarm for some time now that a tide of antisemitic and anti-Roma sentiment was rising, but that seems to have been part of a larger vision among conservative Hungarians of a better Hungary with “proper” families, no undesirable homeless, and no corruption (within eyesight or earshot). An apparent lack of Jews or Roma was merely one facet of how society needed to be reformed in their view. But what’s more, that vision comes along with laws designed to keep many younger Hungarians stuck there with them. You’ll partake in their utopia, and supposedly, you’ll like it too.

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Billions of people aren’t enough leverage?

The Hindu recently published a rather interesting opinion piece on Chinese foreign policy, that looked over the history of how China has annoyed almost every neighboring country in the past couple of decades, and consequently is feeling a little lonesome. While India is one of those countries, as the two have previously come to blows over a border dispute, a number of different international factors is driving the two to look past those squabbles and focus on the need for joint international action on various issues. Chief among those reasons to unite forces would be climate change.

But the fact that China and India must tactically coordinate in order to influence international policy actually leads to only further questions. Both nations are by far the largest single-state portions of the global population, and the coming decade China is predicted to outpace the United States as the world’s largest economy. While both superstates have per capita wealth that’s dwarfed by the US, Canada, Australia, and much of Western Europe, there’s clearly indications that their economies are actually more stable and in a sense more robust than those of “more developed” countries.

In spite of this, India or China acting independently on the issue of climate change would apparently get nowhere. There’s two potential explanations for that. For one, as individual countries they’re in such completely unique positions that their political views, while influential, fails to connect with the interests of others. Alternatively, their needs are at least somewhat similar to not only each other but many other countries. In spite of that, even when working collectively, their capacity to influence world affairs is disproportionately small. It seems as though both are highly plausible arguments.

For one, a frequently used socio-economic category for countries used since the fall of the Soviet Union and disintegration of the idea of a capitalist first world, socialist second world, and unaligned third world, has been that of BRICS. The steadily more democratic Brazil, ostensibly more open Russia, developing India, increasingly Western-friendly China, and post-apartheid South Africa represented to many analysts a confusing and new national category in the changed global landscape. They were unified by recent indications of growing prosperity and bright political futures in spite of past histories of violent repression and extensive concentration of wealth in a small elite. Likewise, they were all populous regional powers that contained diverse religious and ethnic groups. Occasionally, Mexico and Indonesia would be included within the category as similarly emergent powers.

(The BRICS countries, from here. They contain for approximately 2.9 billion people. If Indonesia and Mexico are included in the same category, they account for 3.3 billion people.)

As negotiations over the original Kyoto Treaty began to become more urgent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they successfully pushed for the exemption of “less developed countries” (which included all of their categorical members except Russia) from stipulated cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The economic development of the poorest countries in the world, which to some extent still included the BRICS countries, was understood as an acceptable alternative to stricter environmental protections (especially since most of the historical emissions had been produced in wealthy developed countries).

That said, the classification of Russia as a developed country has led to it pushing for policies more in line with those proposed by Japan, the US, and Canada, rather than India or China. As Al Jazeera’s coverage of the discussions shows, the EU is essentially the lone voice within the “developed world” in even entertaining the idea of a second or additional periods of proposed cuts. India and China have disagreements between each other, and with the coalition of the poorest and most flood-prone countries, but have the beginnings of a consensus among “less developed” countries. The positions of South Africa and Brazil are unmentioned, but it’s unclear why they would disagree with those other nations.

Even assuming that the positions of India and China are unacceptable to their fellow BRICS-type countries, inadequately strict for the most vulnerable nations, and anathema for the developed world aside from the EU, those three collectively are 3 billion people of the planet’s 7 billion. Surely, a few additional millions can be found in places too poor to be considered “developed” and too secure from rising tides to be considered among the most at-risk. Reaching a plurality if not a majority of the world’s population in terms of signatory states to a new treaty is not some unthinkable prospect. But it’s still treated as a long-shot.

The only explanation is that not all countries’ votes count for as much. The treaties are non-binding and there’s not really any clear context for punitive measures for refusing to sign on. So the majority of the population of the “developed” world can burn what we want without a care, even if we number a noticeably minor portion of the world’s people. The oil-rich gulf states (another tiny minority) seem to gladly agree to our right to do that, since they can turn a tidy profit from it.

Not only does climate change spell out a future where your race and class within wealthier countries may determine your security, but the same factors play out across the entire globe. And China and India might be better situated than other nations, but their voices are still devalued in the current debate, even if their nations represent a third of the world.

Edit: I apologize for erroneously calling China the world’s current largest economy in the original published version of this article. I was confused by misleading representations of this argument, that China may have a much larger GDP than largely believed.

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