Apr 24 2017

Speech! Speech! : The Campaign Rhetoric of Theresa May

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By Alan Finlayson

As the country prepares for an unexpected barrage of campaign rhetoric Professor Alan Finlayson analyses Theresa May’s opening shot and speculates on what might come next.

Theresa May’s surprise speech announcing a General Election, is rhetorically rather clever. She uses language to position herself favorably in the campaign to come. But it’s also risky, creating clear opportunities for her opponents.

Every clever schoolchild has worked out that the first thing you do in answering an essay question is to redefine it so that you can say whatever it was you wanted to say. The same principle can be applied in political debates. The party which defines what the debate is really about improves its chances of winning. That is why politicians will try to make a debate about, say, economic policy into one about competence or trust. Roman rhetoricians likened this to finding the ‘fulcrum’ of an argument, the point over which opinion was divided. The trick is to find a point where the distribution of opinion is unbalanced in a way that favors you. If opinion is split 55-45 on a vote about environmental regulation maybe you can redefine the question as one about ‘the overwhelming power of the state’ and put more numbers in your column.

In her speech calling for an election Theresa May used such rhetoric to try and define two debates at once.

The first of these is the question of whether or not there should be an election at all. Under current rules the UK Prime Minister cannot call an election. But she can propose one and put it to a vote in the House of Commons. The risk is that in so doing she might look opportunistic – exactly what the rules are meant to be prevent. So, May tries to do two things. The first is to make out that she is only reluctantly calling this vote. She says as much, adding that she is just doing what is ‘necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs’. She also tries to describe that Commons vote as about something other than an election. Rather, it is about letting ‘everybody put forward their proposals for Brexit and their programmes for Government’ and removing the ‘risk of uncertainty and instability’ and ensuring ‘strong and stable leadership’.

The UK is at the start of a period of complex and profound negotiations demanding the full focus of government and the subtlest of strategies. Here is the Prime Minister unexpectedly complicating that process further with an election certainly intended to enhance her personal power. But she defines the situation in the opposite way, implying that voting against the election is a vote for uncertainty and instability. That’s a bold rhetorical move.

It’s also only half of the story.

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Apr 12 2017

Could Grexit follow Brexit?

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By Panos Chatzinikolaou

In the summer of 2015, the EU saw one of the most turbulent times in its 60-year history.

The election of the radical-left party SYRIZA, and its leader Alexis Tsipras, put Greece on a collision course with its creditors – the IMF, the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB) and the driving force behind the last two, Germany. The result? EU leaders had to sit at the negotiating table for more than 24 straight hours to avoid ‘Grexit’ – a Greek exit from the Eurozone. And they did.

Almost two years on, many things have changed in the Union – the refugee crisis has intensified, nationalism has significantly strengthened, and of course, the UK voted to leave the European Union.

One thing, however, has remained the same; talks between Greece and its creditors are once again on the verge of collapsing, and Grexit looms. What was originally a negotiation process supposed to be resolved at the December 2016 Eurogroup, is still being discussed and, almost six months later, a solution is still not in sight. Germany and the IMF are unable to agree on whether Greece’s debt is sustainable; as a result of mutual veto the process cannot advance. The Greek economy remains stagnant, eagerly anticipating some sort of liquidity injection and relief, currently asphyxiating under the renewed deadlock.

Although some may argue that there are more important developments taking place in Europe this year, such as the French and German elections, the importance of the troika (EC, ECB, and IMF) negotiations with Greece should not be underestimated.

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Apr 4 2017

Brexit as a Strategic Shift

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By Roberto Orsi

Britain’s move to leave the European Union has been a topic of political discussion worldwide for more than a year, starting from an extremely polarising referendum campaign in spring 2016 to the latest developments following PM May’s official invocation of Art. 50 of the EU Treaty on March 29. A great deal of analyses and forecasts have been formulated: some are already obsolescent, others have been faring better, but overall a great uncertainty looms over the entire question of what kind of outcome Brexit will yield. Will Britain be better off? Will the EU be strengthened? What about the economic implications? What about the “common values” of the European Union?

All these questions and the related answers certainly have their legitimacy, and many offer valuable insights also in relation to practical issues such as the status of EU citizens living in Britain or immigration in general, trade regulations, academia and research, defence, and so on.

However, there is one element of Brexit which appears to be little understood: its historical magnitude. Whatever the reader may think of Brexit, the way it emerged, how it was politically engineered, the opportunity of deciding such matter by means of a referendum, the point is to understand what kind of event Brexit is, and to what kind of historical events it may be compared.

Brexit is a major strategic shift for Britain and the future of Europe, which shall therefore compare with other major strategic shifts in history. This means that its consequences are better understood and judged in a multi-generational time frame. The US coming out of isolationism under F.D. Roosevelt in the 1940s, France’s recognition of Algerian independence in 1962, the US recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1972, the Soviets decision to withdraw from Central Europe in the late 1980s, are just four examples of strategic shifts in the past century. Britain has taken this kind of decisions numerous times: signing the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, fighting Germany both in 1914-18 and 1939-45, withdrawing from the Empire afterwards.

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Mar 31 2017

We’ve triggered Article 50. Is this such a tragedy for Europe?

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By Mary Kaldor

It is now possible that new governments in France and Germany will respond to civil society pressure and do what is needed to change the EU, without being blocked by Britain.

This is a very sad day for Britain. There is still a possibility that it can be reversed if parliament and the country get a vote on the final deal. But if it does go ahead, among the consequences we can expect are:

  1. The end of Britain, as Scotland chooses independence and Northern Ireland descends into renewed conflict
  2. A poorer more authoritarian, more small-minded, xenophobic and more violent England and Wales
  3. The destruction of our public institutions (universities, the NHS and the BBC) both as a result of declining public spending and the loss of EU funding as well as workers, doctors, nurses and students
  4. The loss of prospects to travel, study and work across Europe and the loss of European identity to a whole generation who have grown up with those rights

Perhaps the only silver lining might be the decline of the City, which is responsible for the tendency of British governments to express overweening ambition and to neglect the needs of the poor in this country, even though it will also mean big job losses not only in London.

What does this leave our European neighbours?

But is Brexit also a tragedy for the rest of Europe? On the one hand, many worry that the UK offers an example for other parts of Europe and for populists everywhere, and that this is the beginning of a disintegrative process akin to the fall of Yugoslavia. They might be right.

On the other hand, it is possible that the kind of changes that need to be made if the EU is to survive might be more likely without the obstacles that Britain tends to pose to further integration.

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Mar 23 2017

The Gaps of Nations & The Rise of Far-Right Populism

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By Marion Laboure and Juergen Braunstein

The Brexit vote and more recently the US presidential election suggest a noticeable rise of populism. Marion Laboure and Juergen Braunstein argue that this trend is not new. For example, Austrian Chancelor Schuessel’s invitation to the far-right freedom party to form a government in 1999/2000 caused upheaval in Europe, and beyond. Shortly after, during the French presidential elections in 2002, the far-right candidate Le Pen managed to gain enough votes to make it to the second round.

The rise of populism in 2016 has several potential explanations. Some commentators explain the US presidential election outcome as well as the Brexit vote as a form of protest with socio-economic origins. The tectonic plates upon which the socio-economic order of OECD countries rests have started to shift: opening new gaps while closing existing ones, and necessarily producing political change in the process. The 2008 Financial Crisis is only one aspect of these developments.

It is commonplace to assert that many citizens feel a loss of “control over their destiny”. Phrases along these lines are often found in popular media, and point to several fundamental dynamics and global shifts that play out along different social dimensions, including age, geography and education. Concrete observable implications of these shifts include, for instance, increasing inequality within countries and rising job insecurity. Giddens’ (1990) observation in The Consequences of Modernity, that as socio-economic systems become more complex they leave people with an increased sense of disempowerment, seems more pertinent than ever.

Globalisation – the “process by which businesses or other organizations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale” per the Oxford dictionary – has helped to close the economic gap between nations. Globalization makes competition global and has certainly benefited developing countries. This equalisation among nations took place via several mechanisms, notably production. It is much less expensive for a company to produce where workforce is cheap and resell manufactured products where purchasing power is high. Throughout the 1990s, the cumulated GDP of emerging countries represented barely a third of the cumulated GDP of the G7 countries. By 2016, this gap had virtually disappeared – reflecting the predictions of classical trade theory. Over the years, the gap tended to decline worldwide but to widen inside a country – a trend noted by Piketty in his best-selling book ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’.

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Mar 15 2017

The Moral Question in Italian Politics

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By Roberto Orsi

Corruption in Italy is a constantly debated problem. However, it is largely framed as a moral and legal issue. This piece suggests instead that the root of the corruption problem is political and constitutional, as it lies in the creation and degeneration of clientelistic networks as the most straightforward way for the generation of political consensus given the Italian context. Only a complete overhaul of the state’s fundamental structures, which unfortunately appears unlikely, may diminish the role of clientelism and hence of its teratological developments.

The issue of corruption has never abandoned the core of Italian political discussions, and understandably so. Indeed the country’s situation is invariably and significantly worse than its major European partners in all corruption metrics, possibly being the most corrupt among developed nations, with an accelerating trend in recent decades. Numerous studies have highlighted that corruption, mainly defined by bribery, embezzlement, and other forms of power abuse, is extremely costly for the country, while it has certainly contributed to its massive national debt, locking Italy in a trajectory of endless stagnation and decline.

However, in the national press and political communication in general, the problem is overwhelmingly framed as a moral and legal issue. Certainly these are important aspects of the matter. But this is also not the most productive approach, neither intellectually, nor from a practical perspective, and the lack of substantial progress over such a very long period of time should prompt some deeper reflection and re-formulation of the basic question.

Instead of concentrating on a moral and criminal-legal narrative, it is time to address the problem as a political question. The root of Italy’s corruption problem is mainly political, i.e. it is a structural feature of how political consensus is created and can be created in the country.


How can a regime enhance its consensus base?  

Every political regime, democratic or non-democratic, anywhere and in any age, needs consensus. How can political leadership possibly gain such consensus from the society? At close scrutiny, it is arguable that there exist only a limited number of ways to achieve it, in practice only the following four:

  • Consensus is reached by rational discussion and consensus-making procedures as well as institutions in the context of a highly developed civil society (Habermas’s public sphere). This is (or used to be) the prevailing model of Nordic societies, or the Netherlands, and partly in UK, Germany, France. The creation of a highly developed civil society is the key to achieve this consensus making model, but there is no clear recipe on how to build one, and historically this may take rather unique circumstances as well as numerous generations.
  • Consensus is built by means of force, i.e. political violence and/or the threat thereof. This can be very effective in limited cases for limited amounts of time, raises grave ethical questions, and it is certainly extremely costly.
  • Consensus is built on the foundations provided by the authority (auctoritas facit legem) and prestige of certain individuals, or organisations. The authority of the state is largely reflected in the respect paid to its symbols. Authority is gained historically as a stratification of positive results, even resistance to oppression and martyrdom, as well as military victories.
  • Consensus is fundamentally traded in exchange for (direct or indirect) economic benefits financed with public resources, whether legal or even against the law, and in this second case one may have what is usually considered as corruption in a technical sense. An arrangement for consensus making based on continuous and immediate quid pro quo (clientelism) can function smoothly for quite a long time, until the leadership runs out of resources to distribute, also as a consequence of negative feedback effects generated by this very system on economic wealth production.

Every government gains consensus from the society utilizing a mix of these four methods, according to the available resources: authority and prestige, force and the ability/opportunity to use it, a strong civil society (if available), economic wealth.

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Mar 9 2017

Brexit and the First ‘European’ Generation

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By Michael Cottakis

Support for the EU is highest amongst Europe’s young. This is, perhaps, unsurprising. After all, we are talking about the Erasmus or EasyJet generation of cheap travel and study abroad; the first in Europe’s history to grow up without the imminent threat of war. With a growing number of this group feeling themselves to be “European”, there are inklings amongst the youth of an emerging transnational citizenship.

Yet whilst 75% of Britons under the age of 30 voted to Remain in the EU during the recent referendum, stats show that only 40% turned up to vote. This trend is repeated in Greece, where a mere 30% of this age group voted at the last general elections; whilst Spain, Italy and France exhibit similar tendencies. These attest to an increasing disinterest and frustration amongst the European youth, deriving partly from the failure of the EU (and its member states) to contain the damaging effects of the Eurozone and refugee crises; but also from a sense of hopelessness – that their ideas are brushed aside, and their concerns ignored.

In the years since 2008, young Europeans have suffered more than most. With youth unemployment in the South hovering above 50%, and career prospects non-existent, the risk that the Millennials will become a ‘lost generation’ is a real one. Cynicism and disinterest in politics, against such a backdrop, is understandable.

However, now is not the time for disengagement. Europe faces its worst crisis since the Second World War. The once-assured liberal international consensus has been eroded, with new political battle lines being drawn. In Europe these are expressed by the tussle between Europeanists and nationalists. It is a battle that will likely define the next decade.

With young Europeans forming a central component of this first group, their efforts to stem the populist nationalist tide will be crucial. To do this, Europe’s young must turn their frustration into ambition to help build a united European space that works better for all its citizens. The 1989 Generation Initiative emerged out of this thinking. Founded in London in 2015, its aim is to ‘regenerate’ Europe through the ideas and actions of its younger citizens. Its reaction to Brexit has been to open four new branches in separate European countries.

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Mar 3 2017

The Economics of Brexit Needn’t Be Quixotic: Towards a Green Industrial Strategy for Britain

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By Afzal S. Siddiqui and Max Hänska

“Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

-Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

Much attention is currently focused on migration, identity, and related factors in explaining Brexit and related phenomena. The emphasis on regaining sovereignty and “control,” limiting immigration, and scapegoating others has characterised public debate not only during the referendum campaign but also since Leave won. Indeed, Prime Minister Theresa May’s newly appointed government has prioritised so-called sovereignty over access to the common market as part of its Brexit plan. In Mrs. May’s narrative, “citizens of the world” and shadowy multilateral agencies have undermined the U.K. by foisting multiculturalism and regulation upon its industrious citizens. At the risk of being unfashionable, both in our perspective and diagnosis, it is worth returning the discussion to the long-term causes and directing our thinking towards possible long-term strategies. Euroscepticism, resurgent nationalism, and a turn inward are the immediate symptoms of a longer standing malaise that may be best expressed by the widespread belief that future generations will be worse off than present ones. The decline in reliable middle- and working class jobs, the erosion of social services that provided a baseline of stability throughout people’s lives, and the attendant economic vulnerability that many experience have been mobilised by populists for their nationalist causes. Rather than offering a sober
assessment of the underlying trends giving rise to the despair genuinely felt by much of the British populace and proposing creative ways forward, British politicians across the spectrum are opportunistically channelling anger by blaming ready-at-hand foes such as immigrants and the EU, who, we are told, are the sole culprits. As an alternative to this quixotic penchant for a “hard Brexit,” we outline an industrial strategy that addresses the U.K.’s economic and social challenges, while being environmentally sustainable and forward-looking.

Diagnosis of what ails thee

In our reading, Brexit is, to a significant extent, the expression of long-term trends that have gnawed at the economic foundations of the middle – and working classes (see here and here). The erstwhile ostensible panacea of economic liberalisation also eroded the wide base of material well-being on which liberal democracy’s social contract rested. In response to stagflation brought on by the first oil crisis of the 1970s, many OECD countries sought to reinvigorate their industries by shifting manufacturing to the global south and by transitioning towards the service sector for domestic jobs.[1] These alterations were underpinned by deregulation and reduction of trade barriers. The resulting increase in offshoring benefited the global north as its multinational corporations were simultaneously able to lower unit production costs and increase domestic demand as their citizens subsequently gained greater access to credit even if real wages stagnated. Thus, benefits from this restructuring accrued primarily to multinational corporations and their shareholders with some modest gains for the middle class from cheaper goods and real-estate speculation. For example, taking the specific case of the electricity industry, its deregulation was promoted in the U.K. in the 1980s on the basis of increasing choice for customers. However, retail electricity prices did not decrease in real terms after privatisation in 1991. In fact, the main benefit from deregulation was the removal of subsidies to British Coal (which could have been implemented without recourse to deregulation) and windfall profits to shareholders in privatised power companies.[2]

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Feb 20 2017

The European Union at a Crossroads


By Roberto Orsi

The European Union is approaching a moment of difficult decisions which will determine whether it will manage to survive in the near future or whether it will enter the final trajectory of its dissolution. In the past few years a series of crises have shaken the very foundations of the European integration project, often with damage which clearly appears irreversible, particularly the ongoing migration crisis, Brexit, and the festering Eurozone crisis. Now a new chapter of the crisis in the common currency is rapidly becoming apparent. On the one hand, Greece is again dealing with financial trouble which would require another round of international intervention; talks of Grexit have re-gained momentum. On the other hand, and adding to that, the worsening of Italy’s financial outlook is bringing about this time unavoidable and fundamental questions about the entire euro-project and its future.

With Renzi’s defeat in the referendum concerning constitutional reforms (November 4th, 2016) and the collapse of his government, political uncertainty has returned to Rome. However, this time it is not the stereotypical situation of Italian politics. A few things have become rather clear to all those who want to see them:

  1. Italy’s economy is not going to grow much faster than 1% per year in the foreseeable future in the best possible scenario. This comes after roughly twenty years of stagnation-depression. If Italy can only record a 0.9% growth in 2016, a year when numerous external circumstances were massively in its favour (a weak euro, ultra-low interest rates, quantitative easing from the ECB, low oil prices, growing trade partners), what will happen when this exceptional alignment of propitious planets dissolves?
  2. Italy’s chances of economic growth are hampered by a severely negative demography, a well-known problem which cannot be solved by additional immigration, particularly considering that many migrants have started to leave for more dynamic economies or more generous welfare systems, and hundreds of thousands of young Italians, often with high qualifications and skills, are leaving the country for good. Demography alone condemns the country to a near-zero or negative GDP growth, with all the financial implications.
  3. A series of financial cracks have started to appear: not only the well-known story of MPS bank, but the banking sector in general is under pressure, with numerous institutions facing serious trouble. Unicredit, the largest bank in Italy, has closed 2016 with a loss of €8 billion, and it is now trying to raise an unprecedented €13 billion in new capital. Furthermore, it emerged recently that INPS, the largest state-owned pension fund and one of the largest in Europe, runs a deficit of over €12 billion/year and during 2016 has crossed the boundary into negative equity. Directly or indirectly, all these are deficits which will have their impact on the state budget, as candidly admitted by the INPS president.
  4. Italy has a debt/GDP ratio of well over 130%. With an economy which cannot grow in real terms, it can only reduce its debt burden by means of inflation. However, on the one hand the ECB has to keep inflation within limits in the interest of the Eurozone at large, and on the other higher inflation would push interests in the Italian debt higher, with a heavier interest burden which Italy cannot afford (if not financially, then certainly in political terms). After 2011-2012, when it became clear that markets were pushing Italy towards insolvency, the ECB has engineered a protection net to prop-up the national debt, thereby gaining time. However, this came as a consequence of a political agreement within the EU, according to which Italy received (indirect, but massive) financial aid in exchange for deep reforms of its economic system: from labour market laws to pensions, from spending cuts to governance changes. The German/EU idea was that Italy could be put back on the tracks of economic-financial sustainability through those reforms, which were even listed in all detail in a famous letter from the ECB in summer 2011.
  5. After more than five years and three governments (Monti, Letta, Renzi) in which the technocrats of the economic ministries and the Bank of Italy have played an important role, it is clear that Italy is fundamentally unable to reform itself and therefore it will not regain the aforementioned economic and financial sustainability. In all frankness, the German/EU plan was hyper-optimistic at best, bordering on delusion.
  6. As these elements become all too apparent, the political debate in Italy is becoming more disillusioned than ever about the immediate future of the country. What was once the twisted idea of some pessimist commentators, including the author of this piece, it is now becoming widely accepted: Italy will face a major financial shock, and state insolvency is now practically impossible to avoid within the current formulation of the euro-system. Hence the rise of a growing number of those who argue for exiting the Eurozone altogether, as well as a strong anti-EU and anti-German rhetoric.

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Feb 7 2017

Against Anti-Pluralism

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By Max Hänska

Citizens are voting for candidates hitherto considered unlikely; the future of the EU, and indeed the post-war international order is in question. It is unsurprising that the current fin de siècle atmosphere, and many citizens’ sense of precarity, uncertainty, and loss of control, would produce the current outpouring of scorn in response to perceived political immobilism in the face of burgeoning challenges. A few weeks ago Roberto Orsi contributed to the expansive debate about the causes, consequences and appropriate responses to these political ruptures emerging across the western world. Orsi’s piece is helpful because it identifies important symptoms and systematic failures in western policy, but he willfully pushes a uni-causal account of events, and points us towards fallacious solutions. Though this pieces is at least in part a response to Orsi, having read his piece (which can be found here) is by no means a prerequisite for following this one.

Competing narratives

The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648 (1648) by Gerard ter Borch.

It is undeniable communities have changed. They have become more diverse in their ethnic makeup, languages spoken, and in some communities immigrants form majority sub-cultures that can make natives feel unwelcome. This may not be apparent to those with the means to move to cities in search of the best jobs, or to the neighborhoods with the best schools and amenities. The best paid jobs usually draw from a global talent pool, involve airport lounges, and the kind of cosmopolitan culture in which nationality as a relevant marker of distinction is all but irrelevant. The failure to understand the concerns of many voters, goes hand in hand with the so-called ‘elite’s’ failure to relate to experiences of those whose economic lives are more precarious, whose regions have lost stable jobs, and for whom national identity still holds significant purchase. As the economic and cultural experience of urban (or in the US, costal) populations diverged ever more starkly from the experience of rural, small-town, deindustralising parts of the West, the public narrative contrived by politicians and the news media lost resonance with large parts of the public who’s lives are clearly shaped by a sense of decline. British tabloids, Breitbart, InfoWars, Trump and UKIP have filled this narrative void. The story Orsi tells is distinctly in this vein. It was prescient to recognize that there was a need for an alternative narrative where prevailing stories rang hollow to many. These narratives fill the gap, characterizing the struggle as one of elites against the people, returning the scorn many citizens have felt themselves exposed to (let’s be honest, those living in urban centres of prosperity, where political, media, and economic power is concentrated have had little patience or regard for the culture, concerns and views of the population outside these melting pots). But these narratives are also wrong, and their moral arc leads to conflagration.

This isn’t all about identity

It is, for instance, true that politicians failed to properly articulate the wider challenges and risks that the refugee influx brought, which is not to say that admitting refugees was wrong (the frequently peddled idea that Merkel invited a million refugees is, in any case, a rhetorical device of the right which suggest that there was some simple and obvious alternative which politicians, conspiring against their own people, declined to pursue.). But for those, who for decades were on the receiving end of the neoliberal mantra of individual responsibility, to whom the political system signaled that they must make their own fortune, calls for solidarity with refugees must have rang cruelly dissonant.

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