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A failure of storytelling is stoking identity politics in Europe – Financial Times

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I have been supporting European integration ever since I can remember. But I have also become increasingly appalled by the poverty of the pro-European discourse. There is a failure to speak truth to power, grandstanding rhetoric, scaremongering and a trend towards European identity politics. These may all be failures of storytelling but they also affect policy indirectly. Part of the rise in Euroscepticism in countries such as Italy is due to this confused narrative.

By truth to power, I mean constructive criticism from friends. Europeans are not good at that. We are either pro or anti. I cannot count the number of times during the eurozone crisis when I met with pro-European economists and other academics who expressed private criticism of EU policies but could never themselves say it in public. They valued their access to policy circles and funding.

Readiness to speak truth to power is especially important in the relationships between EU leaders. The eurozone would be in a better place today if the prime ministers of the south had told the leaders of the north during the eurozone crisis that the unsustainable cannot last.

My second category is vacuous grandstanding — the set-piece speeches by European leaders in magisterial surroundings of grand European universities. Emmanuel Macron started his term as French president with a speech at the Sorbonne in 2017, where he laid out his agenda for Europe. Virtually all of his proposals for a “European renaissance” have since been shredded to bits.

I fear we may be go through the same ritual in the current debate about the European recovery fund. The idea started as a federalist scheme and will probably shrink to subatomic size. By the time it appears and we can inspect it, it will be gone.

Hans Kundnani, from the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, has made the observation that leaders such as Mr Macron talk about European sovereignty. But this is a barren concept, devoid of meaning unless backed up by institutional reform.

Confused language comes from confused concepts, which leads to confused decisions. Europeans do not think in geostrategic terms. They are relationship people. Italian finance ministers never walk out of meetings, even when they should. French presidents do sometimes, as Charles de Gaulle did in 1965 when his EU boycott caused the so-called “empty chair crisis”. But French presidents always end up with German chancellors.

My third category are the scare stories, a 21st-century reincarnation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. We had a lot of those during the Brexit years. They are dangerous narratives because intruding events can easily turn them upside down.

The Covid-19 pandemic will blur perceptions of the predicted losses from a hard Brexit transition. And if a narrative develops elsewhere in the EU that Brexit turned into an unlikely economic success, beware of its imitators. The main lesson for the EU of the failed Remain campaign is the need to reacquaint ourselves with the art of the positive argument.

Finally, beware of the fanboys. Some might see it as a sign of maturity that the EU, too, now has its support network of hooligans on social networks. I do not.

Identity politics is toxic for the European discourse. The Remain campaign created a narrative that conflated Europeaness with notions of being young, progressive and urban, while portraying anti-Europeans as old, uneducated and rural. Sectarian division is not in the interest of the EU because it alienates social groups that the EU needs: middle-of-the-roaders who dislike flag-waving, ninth-symphony-chanting European symbolism.

The EU’s founding fathers, like the Frenchmen Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, did not belong to that category. If Schuman were alive today, I suspect he would be horrified at the way the EU messed up monetary integration. I am not even sure he would attend the self-congratulatory annual celebrations of his famous declaration 70 years ago. The EU policy establishment spends far too much time in ceremonies and awarding each other prizes. It has developed qualities of a cult.

All of the above is about stories and symbols. Yet it is the stories we keep telling that influence policy. It will be hard to persuade northern Europeans of the virtues of fiscal integration if they view the austerity policies of the eurozone crisis as a huge success, as some do.

Elsewhere, what people may remember most from the episode is the 52 per cent rise in Greek suicide rates between 2010 and 2016, or the insensitive comments of a former Dutch finance minister and the current one.

If you want to defeat Euroscepticism, get your story straight first. You may then find it easier to sell your policies.

munchau@eurointelligence.com

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Liberals' ability to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny plays into system of 'image politics,' critics say – National Post

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OTTAWA — The Liberal government has avoided months of parliamentary scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead using televised daily briefings with the prime minister to further its system of “image politics,” an expert in democratic process says.

The Liberals and New Democratic Party agreed earlier this week to suspend parliamentary proceedings until September 21, equipping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a “tremendous amount of power over the summer,” said Kathy Brock, professor at Queen’s University.

The decision comes after Trudeau has for months appeared in the House of Commons on a limited basis, instead using his daily briefings outside Rideau Cottage to announce major new spending measures and take questions from the media.

He for sure prefers the Rideau Cottage model

“This government is very focused on messaging and image politics and that meant that it wanted to respond to the needs of Canadians when the pandemic came up,” said Brock, who has served in various advisory roles to all three major political parties over the last 30 years.

“But when they started to face criticism for not acting as quickly as possible, the prime minister turned to the easiest tool, which is having briefings with the media outside Rideau Cottage,” she said.

The approach has been met with criticism by opposition parties and parliamentary experts, who say politicians have not had adequate time to press the Trudeau government on some of its largest spending measures, which now top an estimated $150 billion. They also say the government overreached in an earlier attempt to equip itself with the authority to tax, spend and loan money with almost no parliamentary oversight for nearly two years, well beyond the expected timeframe of the pandemic.

Other observers point out that Parliament would typically rise for the summer months regardless, and that “hybrid” forms of Question Period, which include virtual questions and answer sessions, have continued for the past few months.

“The cut-off in June is not an aberration,” said Lori Turnbull, professor of political science at Dalhousie University. However, she questioned “why there’s such a desire” to close off access to other forms of scrutiny, like private members bills or written questions to Parliament.

Turnbull, like others, has been surprised by the Liberals’ ability to secure the support of opposition parties to restrict in-person sittings of Commons.

“Sometimes I forget that this is a minority government,” she said, “It’s incredible what this government has done. We usually see more push and pull between the opposition and the government.”

The NDP has faced criticism for making an agreement with the Liberal party to suspend Parliament because it allows for the government to sidestep proper scrutiny.

NDP House leader Peter Julian pushed back against those claims in an interview Thursday, saying the deal secured four sitting days in the House of Commons during the summer — a provision that other parties were not pushing for.

“There’s been a lot of exaggeration,” Julian said.

Sometimes I forget that this is a minority government

The NDP opposed a Conservative proposal that would have had regular in-person sittings in the Commons well into June, in which a select group of roughly 50 people would attend in order to maintain social distancing measures. The proposal would have allowed Parliament to exert its full powers before summer break, but Julian argued it would have needlessly excluded the majority of MPs in Canada.

“I think it’s a very Ottawa-centric interpretation,” he said.

A spokesperson for Liberal House leader Pablo Rodriguez reiterated that all parties agreed to the March 13 motion to suspend Parliament until April 20. The agreement with the NDP allows for the continuation of a special COVID-19 committee that meets several times a week, but is not afforded the regular powers of the House.

“We believe it is a responsible plan that ensures accountability and transparency, and respects public health advice,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.

Candice Bergen, Conservative House leader, said there has been a push for months by the Liberal government to avoid regular parliamentary sittings. MPs in recent weeks had been sitting in-person on a limited basis once a week.


Conservative House leader Candice Bergen.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/File

“I was clear with Pablo that we felt Parliament needed to resume,” Bergen said. “But that was clearly not what the government wanted and they found a dance partner in the NDP.”

She said Trudeau has instead opted to convey the Liberals approach to COVID-19 through the televised briefings at his official residence, where media ask daily questions.

“He for sure prefers the Rideau Cottage model,” Bergen said, adding that media “is not a substitute for the official Opposition.”

Brock, at Queen’s University, said the Rideau Cottage meetings give Trudeau more time to craft his own message on a daily basis, unimpeded, while taking only a select number of questions from journalists.

“It certainly operates in the Liberals’ favour, because they’re receiving media attention and it seems very positive because they’re responding to a crisis,” she said. “But it means that they aren’t getting tough questions to the same extent on other, lesser known files.”

• Email: jsnyder@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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A Guide to the Economics and Politics of the Coronavirus Recovery – The New Yorker

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Photograph by Marco Bello / Reuters

Just a month ago, experts were predicting that the American economy would be slow to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment remains at record highs, but, as the country begins to reopen, federal policies that have bolstered small businesses and bailed out big ones seem to have helped avoid another Great Depression. John Cassidy joins Dorothy Wickenden to discuss how good news about the economy complicates Joe Biden’s campaign against Donald Trump.

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Keep Politics Out of Reopening Houses of Worship – The New York Times

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Credit…Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

To the Editor:

Re “Firing Salvo in Culture Wars, Trump Wants Churches Open” (front page, May 23):

Last Friday was not the first time we have witnessed a politician attempting to ingratiate himself with faith communities. Through the years, leaders from both major political parties have sought the support of houses of worship in their electoral campaigns.

Certainly those of us who devote our lives to religious leadership would like to consider our work “essential.” And we eagerly await the day when we can welcome our congregants back to their spiritual homes. While we can pray to God anywhere at any time alone or with others, and while the internet has provided a viable and meaningful vehicle for gathering our members in this time of physical distancing, nothing could ever replace the power of in-person congregational worship.

But religious communities must not become political pawns for a president seeking to placate his evangelical base. In Judaism, the saving of life supersedes all other religious responsibilities. The decision whether or not to reopen houses of worship belongs in the hands of local authorities alone, guided by health concerns, not political ones.

Joshua M. Davidson
New York
The writer is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.

To the Editor:

The cynicism of President Trump’s call to governors to open the churches is staggering. I am a Catholic who attends Mass every day. I have always loved the ritual of the Mass, and I rejoice and celebrate as I gather with friends old and new who enrich my life. I will return joyfully to my church when our governor deems it safe to do so, not when it is politically expedient for our president.

John T. Dillon
West Caldwell, N.J.

To the Editor:

President Trump asks all governors to immediately open up churches and allow in-person worship — without testing. Yet everyone who meets with Mr. Trump must first be tested.

So, what’s good for the gander ain’t good for the goose. If he truly believes that in-person worship is safe, let’s see him go to these churches (or restaurants or theaters) without testing — and let’s see him mingle with the folks not wearing masks.

Marc R. Stanley
Dallas

Credit…From left: Zack DeZon for The New York Times; Andrew Seng for The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “The Star of the City Sells Itself,” by Michael Kimmelman (Critic’s Notebook, Arts pages, May 7):

OK, the Brooklyn Bridge is wholly in New York City and joins two of its boroughs. And it was something of an engineering achievement. Book after book has been written about it; it appears in a wealth of movies.

But the great bridge in the New York area is the George Washington.

When I sought to read a book on the George, I discovered that there were none. Participating in a symposium at Columbia University on American icons, and listening to others drone on about the Brooklyn, I asked “What about the George?” There was complete silence. Then one participant said, to almost universal laughter, “But look where it goes,” the suggestion being that since the George crosses to New Jersey, it couldn’t possibly be important.

The George is also the gateway to Interstate 80, on which one may travel in a straight line to San Francisco. New Yorkers think of themselves as sophisticated compared with New Jerseyans, but they can often be decidedly parochial.

Michael Aaron Rockland
Morristown, N.J.
The writer is the author of “The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel” and a professor of American studies at Rutgers.

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