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    Albanese should adopt a collaborative, European approach to governing – not the take-it-or-leave-it Anglo style we're used to

    The Australian Labor Party is edging towards 76 seats and possible majority government after the electorate abandoned the Coalition at the federal election.

    But regardless of whether it can reach a majority or not, Labor needs to learn the right lessons from the Morrison government – as well as from its last two terms in power between 2007 and 2013.

    These experiences could point to adopting either a more take-it-or-leave-it antagonistic approach to politics, prevalent in the Anglosphere countries of the US, UK and Australia, or a more European, collaborative style.

    Politics is the art of compromise – nobody gets exactly what they want. But adopting a European approach to parliamentary negotiations could usher in an enduring golden era of stable and progressive government, with more generous and compassionate national politics.

    Read more:
    Labor likely to get a friendly Senate and still hoping for House of Representatives majority

    The take-it-or-leave-it Anglo approach

    The first term of Labor’s previous government between 2007 and 2010 was dominated by Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership and his attempts to pass his climate change legislation.

    The Greens considered the package too generous to polluters and ineffective in addressing climate change, so they blocked it in the Senate where they held the balance of power.

    Despite Labor’s rhetoric that the Greens are therefore largely to blame for Australia’s subsequent history of climate inaction, the reality is far more complicated.

    Bob Brown, then leader of the Greens, wrote to Rudd after the first vote on the legislation in late 2009 seeking talks but received no reply. The Greens then put a compromise plan to Labor after the second vote, but it was again rebuffed.

    Despite these overtures, in April 2010 Rudd announced his government had abandoned the legislation, which was the beginning of the end for his tenure as prime minister.

    In retrospect, perhaps the Greens should have just passed the bill. But the government’s take-it-or-leave-it approach was extremely unhelpful in progressing the legislation. This approach is somewhat typical of the aggressive style of parliamentary politics in Anglosphere countries.

    Most Anglosphere parliaments, including Australia’s House of Representatives, have single-member electorates, which generally results in having two combative parties that take turns in governing.

    This is very different to the more cooperative European models of government.

    The collaborative European approach

    After the 2010 election, Julia Gillard’s Labor entered minority government in a power-sharing agreement with Adam Bandt of the Greens and two independents in the lower house.

    This approach was more reminiscent of European politics, where most parliaments have multi-member electorates. In these electoral systems (also employed in Australia’s Senate) small parties have a greater chance of entering parliament and the large parties rarely achieve a majority.

    It’s therefore common for European parties to enter post-election negotiations to form ad hoc coalitions or power-sharing arrangements.

    This happened in Germany in 1998, when the left-leaning Social Democrat Party formed a national governing coalition with the German Greens, with the latter supplying the foreign minister.

    A similar arrangement resulted from German national elections last year, with the addition of the liberal Free Democrats to create a three-party coalition. The Greens again supplied the foreign minister, as well as the economy minister.

    In South Australia, Labor has adopted aspects of this approach by strategically offering independents in regional and traditionally conservative seats – and even a Nationals MP – ministries in its governments, even if Labor doesn’t require their votes. This collegiality has been continued by the recently elected Malinauskas government, even though it has a governing majority. This canny strategy will have contributed to Labor being in power for 20 out of the previous 24 years by the end of this term.

    The Gillard government’s minority position forced it to adopt this more European-style consultative posture and it resulted in the most productive parliament in Australia’s history, measured by acts passed per day.

    It legislated a price on carbon, which, if it hadn’t been repealed by the Abbott government, would have resulted in 72 million tonnes less carbon emissions according to research in 2020 by the Australia Institute.

    Which style will Albanese take?

    Labor must learn the right lessons from its last stint in office.

    It will face a parliament unlike any previous government, with a significantly enhanced third force comprising the Greens, the “teals” and other independents.

    Labor could entrench a progressive majority in parliament for the foreseeable future by rejecting the antagonistic, duopolistic Anglo approach to parliamentary politics that characterised Labor’s first term of government last time around. Instead, it should shift towards the more negotiated, collaborative Euro approach of its second term from 2010 on.

    Negotiating in good faith with the crossbench will show teal electorates their MPs are making real progress in the halls of power on the issues they were elected to pursue – primarily climate change, an integrity commission and gender inequality. These electorates would therefore be more likely to vote teal again in future.

    Single member electorates make it difficult for independents or small parties to win elections, but once they’re in they can be hard to dislodge, as the experience of Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie, Rebekha Sharkie, Bob Katter, Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines demonstrates.

    If the teal seats continue to elect independents, the Coalition will struggle to regain majority government again.

    Whether Labor manages to achieve a governing majority in the lower house or not, it will still need support from the Greens and progressive independent David Pocock in the Senate to pass legislation.

    Fortunately, Albanese seems to have the temperament that would favour a Euro approach. On election night, he promised to promote “unity and optimism, not fear and division”.

    Nevertheless, both Albanese and other senior Labor members have already been out in force since the election stating they have a mandate from the electorate to deliver their election policies, including a 43% cut in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 – but no more. This is despite the ALP receiving less than 33% of the primary vote.

    Most of the teal independents have policies of a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. And the Greens, who received almost 12% of the primary vote, want a 75% cut. A significant chunk of the electorate therefore voted for much stronger action on climate change.

    Labor would do well to compromise with the crossbench in those areas where common ground can be found to build and consolidate an enduring progressive future for Australia. More

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    Germany's €100-billion army fund: a remarkable change in post-war policy in response to the Ukraine crisis

    If you’d asked experts just a fortnight ago what the key features of Germany’s approach to foreign and defence policy were, there would have been several strands. Alignment with the west, and of course membership of the EU and Nato would have been a feature. Striving for strong transatlantic links would be another, not least because the country was bruised by its regular, public and bellicose criticism from former president Donald Trump.

    But a third strand would have been extreme caution, in its dealings with the EU but especially in defence policy matters. Germany has long preferred to avoid committing troops to joint operations or indeed sending weapons into situations of active conflict. It has instead focused on diplomatic and economic contributions.

    Almost overnight, these established tenets of German foreign policy have been demolished. On Sunday, in a powerful speech to the German parliament, Chancellor Olaf Scholz took the country in a different direction, stating that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s war “in cold blood” was a “watershed” moment for Europe.

    The most significant element of Scholz’s response is an immediate and massive boost to defence spending. A €100 billion fund is being proposed for the renewal of Germany’s (increasingly dilapidated) armed forces.

    Scholz is committing to take Germany’s defence spending up to 2% of GDP (compared to the current level of 1.4%, noisily criticised as inadequate by Donald Trump but also more quietly resented by Germany’s other Nato partners). Armed drones will be purchased, and a commitment to buy new planes to carry US nuclear weapons as part of “nuclear sharing” was made.

    Germany will also supply defensive weapons to Ukraine (having been heavily criticised for not doing so just days before, and indeed even blocking the export of such weapons from Estonia). And, having procrastinated, Germany will now support the exclusion of Russian banks from the Swift payment network. It will also invest immediately to reduce reliance on Russian energy.

    Scholz had been criticised for Germany’s sluggish response to the Russian threat. As recently as December he had been calling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany a “private sector project” – the implication being that it needn’t be stopped. But his speech to the Bundestag went further than even seasoned observers thought possible.

    Historical reticence

    Germany’s foreign policy caution, notably towards Russia, of course runs far deeper than its reliance on Russian energy supply. Today’s Germany is acutely conscious of its history as the aggressor in two world wars in the 20th century, and as perpetrator of the Holocaust. Its invasion of multiple neighbouring countries led to utter destruction, as well as very different borders, and the determination to avoid war.

    Its relations with Russia are shaped by that heavy burden of history too. Over 2 million Russian lives were lost in the first world war, and over 20 million from Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union (including Ukraine) in the second.

    After the second world war, Germany was divided, with eastern Germany initially called the “Soviet Zone of Occupation”, before becoming the “German Democratic Republic”, a communist state and part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact group of countries. The two halves of Germany were separated by an internal border most powerfully symbolised by the Berlin Wall.

    In this period, dialogue with Russia seemed to pay dividends: in the 1970s, under Chancellor Willy Brandt, relations thawed and more contact was permitted between the two Germanies. Extensive negotiation with the USSR enabled agreement on German reunificiation to be reached in 1990.

    Ukraine itself is a case in point in illustrating the way Germany approached foreign policy, given its history. Back in 2014, Germany helped get the (now obsolete) Minsk agreements between Russia and Ukraine over the line, and since then has paid substantial sums in development and other assistance. While being somewhat ready to challenge Russian aggression, it saw itself as a mediator in a division of labour, leaving sharper military tasks to other countries, and trying always to keep lines of dialogue with Russia open.

    Domestic support

    While the changed policy on military spending represents a dramatic shift, Germany’s mainstream political parties are broadly united on the matter. Scholz’s SPD has in fact been the most cautious of the German government’s three coalition partners when it comes to Russia but the party is supportive of the chancellor’s decision.

    Liberal and Green coalition partners had in any case been pushing for a firmer line on Russia, but it is striking that fiscally hawkish liberal finance minister Christian Lindner has backed the increased defence spending being paid out of new debt– and that the Greens have not demurred at arms exports. The Christian Democratic opposition has quibbled at the financing of defence spending, while endorsing the principles.

    The aftermath of Russian shelling just outside Kyiv.

    Public opinion has also shifted: a snap poll shows 78% of Germans support the arms exports and investment in the armed forces. Germans are shocked at Putin’s behaviour, and it also feels close to home: 69% fear that Nato will be drawn into the conflict. Yet views are more divided on whether Ukraine should be allowed into Nato or the EU, and rejection of that remains particularly strong in eastern Germany.

    A step change for Europe and the world

    With the situation fluid, the longer-term implications of Germany’s changed position are not yet clear. Putin’s attack on Ukraine seems to have united Nato and also brought about much stronger EU foreign policy co-ordination, both in terms of sending defensive weapons to Ukraine and deciding on sanctions against Russia. As Scholz put it, “Rarely have we and our partners been so resolved and so united.”

    Together, these changes might lead to greater assertiveness towards other potential aggressors on Germany’s part, rather than staying in its comfort zone of diplomatic engagement and economic support – the additional military capacity, while aimed primarily at the Russian threat, could have wider uses. Either way, this decision from newly installed chancellor Scholz has, in one move, completely transformed Germany’s global role. More

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    US troops head to Eastern Europe: 4 essential reads on the Ukraine crisis

    American troops are heading to Eastern Europe in the latest countermove by the U.S. to Russia’s military buildup on the country’s border with Ukraine.

    The development, announced on Feb. 2, 2022, will see around 3,000 additional U.S. service personnel deployed to NATO member states Germany, Poland and Romania.

    U.S. officials framed the move as one that would reassure countries in the NATO military alliance of U.S. support in the face of a possible invasion of Ukraine, which is not a member. But it is likely to anger President Vladimir Putin, who has demanded that NATO pull back troops from Eastern European countries that were once members of the Soviet Union. Putin has accused the West of ignoring Russia’s security concerns and trying to lure the country into a war.

    Behind the rhetoric and troop movement is a very real – and complex – crisis. The Conversation’s bank of experts has been on hand to explain what is at stake, and why Ukraine has become a flashpoint between Russia and the West.

    1. What it means to have US boots on the ground

    The deployment of thousands of American troops to Eastern Europe wasn’t unexpected. The Pentagon had already said that it was prepared to send up to 8,500 additional members of its armed services to the region.

    It marks a reversal of a trend in Europe that has seen America’s military presence dwindle over the past few decades, say Michael Allen of Boise State University and two scholars from Kansas State University, Carla Martinez Machain and Michael Flynn.

    The three scholars note that U.S. troop numbers in Europe stood at a high of over 400,000 in the 1950s. But this dropped sharply after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

    US military deployments to European states, 1989-2021.

    In the post-Soviet era, U.S. troop presence in Europe has been a delicate matter, the scholars note: “The U.S. and Russia have historically been cautious in not placing troops in places that would be considered a provocation. They generally avoid each other’s sphere of influence, even when responding to the other’s deployments. Yet the NATO allies in Eastern Europe, many of which were once Soviet satellite states, provide a gray area that both the U.S. and Russia may view as within their own sphere of influence.”

    Read more:
    The US military presence in Europe has been declining for 30 years – the current crisis in Ukraine may reverse that trend

    2. What it means to be a NATO member

    The reason U.S. troops are heading to Germany, Poland and Romania, and not to Ukraine itself, is that the former Soviet country isn’t a member of NATO. As Alastair Kocho-Williams at Clarkson University writes, this isn’t out of a lack of desire on Ukraine’s part.

    “Membership with NATO would significantly increase Ukraine’s international military backing, allowing for NATO military action within Ukraine and alongside members of its military. This guarantee of military might would act as a firm deterrent to Russian aggression,” Kocho-Williams writes.

    In fact, NATO’s principle of “collective defense” – under which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all – is, the U.S. says, the very reason American troops are heading to Poland and Romania. It is out of the NATO commitment to protect members – the implication being that an invasion of Ukraine could possibly mean that NATO states bordering Russia could be next.

    But Kocho-Williams cautions that allowing Ukraine to join the military alliance now may pose a problem. “The threat of an imminent conflict between Ukraine and Russia would commit NATO to take military action against Russia,” he writes.

    Read more:
    What’s NATO, and why does Ukraine want to join?

    3. How the Russian media might view this troop move

    The U.S. stated aim in deploying troops to Eastern Europe – to reassure NATO members – was reported faithfully by the American media. It is unlikely that Russian newspapers and TV news broadcasts will present it in the same way.

    Cynthia Hooper at College of the Holy Cross says that the Russian media have portrayed the U.S. as being “hysterical” in its insistence that Putin is hell-bent on invasion. Writes Hooper, “Joe Biden, Russian reporters claim, is building up a false sense of threat from Moscow to deflect attention away from domestic problems.”

    Whether the Russian public is buying this line from state-controlled media is, however, another matter. For many, there are bigger things to worry about. Hooper quotes a Russian friend who told her that people “are sick and tired of those endless political TV shows about the Ukraine; they are absolutely indifferent to international issues.”

    Read more:
    It’s just a ‘panic attack’ – Russian media blames US for escalating Ukraine crisis

    4. Will deployment deter Putin?

    The question is whether the U.S. troop buildup in Eastern Europe will succeed where international agreements have failed; will it deter Putin from transgressing Ukraine’s border?

    In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. It was an illegal military land grab – and one that contravened the Budapest Memorandum, a 1994 commitment in which Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

    [Over 140,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]

    Part of the the problem, as Lee Feinstein of Indiana University and Mariana Budjeryn at Harvard Kennedy School note, is that the memorandum is not legally binding. Even if it were, it might not have been enough to stay Putin’s hand.

    “International law matters, but it does not determine what states do.
    Strong deterrence, diplomacy and international solidarity can influence Russian decision-making. … Ultimately, however, the de-escalation decision is Russia’s to make,” Feinstein and Budjeryn write. All the U.S. can do is make clear to the Kremlin the consequences of its actions.

    Read more:
    Ukraine got a signed commitment in 1994 to ensure its security – but can the US and allies stop Putin’s aggression now? More

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    Péter Márki-Zay: Hungarian opposition's 'non-political' candidate may not be enough to beat Orbán

    Hungary’s parliamentary elections in spring 2022 will give illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a chance to continue his Fidesz government for a fourth term. An unlikely opposition candidate could disrupt these plans.

    Orbán will face Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of the Hungarian county town of Hódmezővásárhely. Márki-Zay’s win in the opposition primaries came as a surprise. The former manager of an electricity company is married with seven children, and does not align himself with any political party. He has lived in Canada and the US, and has spoken about his admiration for how former US president Barack Obama financed his campaign with small donations.

    He entered the race without any party affiliation, beating Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony and European Parliament vice-president Klára Dobrev. Dobrev won the first round of primaries and has the support of a major opposition party, Democratic Coalition.

    However, she is also the wife of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány – a socialist – which tarred her campaign. Her rivals argued that the electorate demanded a new candidate without any association with existing parties and politicians in Hungary.

    Márki-Zay’s victory at the 2018 mayoral byelection in Hódmezővásárhely was a surprise as well. A self-described right-wing Christian candidate and an opponent of Orbán’s Fidesz, he consolidated the opposition vote to win in Hódmezővásárhely – where Fidesz strongman János Lázár served as mayor from 2002-12 and an MP after 2014.

    Márki-Zay’s win set the stage for the 2019 local elections in Budapest, where putting forward a joint candidate was a successful tactic for the opposition in defeating Orbán.

    Political landscape

    A major fault line in Hungarian politics has been Budapest – representing left-liberal politics – versus the rest of the country. Liberal politics resonate in county towns as well, but with less momentum and regularity.

    Hódmezővásárhely is an interesting town to this extent. It is located in the county of Csongrád, where former Fidesz parliamentary group leader Lázár is MP – a testament to the popularity of the governing party.

    It is situated in between two major left-liberal centres of power, Budapest and Szeged. Both of these have seen civil action in support of refugees crossing into Hungary, and protests against Orbán’s anti-LGBTQ+ law. Szeged is the only town where the left has continuously held control since 2006, but its mayor failed to transform his success in local politics to become a national rival to Orbán.

    Márki-Zay’s biggest success as mayor appears to have been decreasing the debt of the city. Opposition mayors tend to portray debt accumulated under their predecessors as a result of endemic corruption, but ultimately voters expect investment in infrastructure, rather than austerity.

    In a way, having a non-Fidesz but a conservative and Christian mayor has benefited Hódmezővásárhely, even though the mayor himself has not delivered much. To consolidate support for Fidesz, Lázár has promised Hódmezővásárhely the biggest tramline extension for a century in Hungary.

    Non-political politics

    Rather than focusing on big projects and substantial political goals and slogans, Márki-Zay takes pride in being non-partisan. He is the founder of the Everybody’s Hungary movement, which “welcomes every decent Hungarian who is interested in change”.

    Its primary goal is to present joint candidates against Fidesz mayors in mayoral elections, but it does not propose any policy platforms to show the electorate why their candidates should be elected over Fidesz ones.

    Its vague platform purports to fight corruption and nepotism with new political faces in county towns, but among its founders are some old, rightwing intellectuals, economists and politicians. The movement echoes earlier dissident reformist circles from the 1980s, promoting a clean new beginning that moves away from old politics.

    Radek Pietruszka / EPA-EFE

    Yet claiming to not have any politics is still a political position – and not a very promising one. To have any chance of defeating Orbán, Márki-Zay needs to present alternative policies and projects to those of Fidesz, and will have to rely on a party machine for campaigning support.

    He has already suggested establishing a new parliamentary faction for his own movement after the election, with “civil [society] candidates without any party affiliation”.

    It looks as if Márki-Zay has already realised that not having any party association will hinder his chances in the election. Yet no candidate is “civil” once elected an MP, and some opposition parties already expressed scepticism about whether they could jointly support candidates from another faction beyond the six parties already in the opposition bloc.

    Can having no politics bring political success to Márki-Zay? There is a legacy of successful dissidence movements in the region that displaced ex-communists, but fell apart at subsequent elections. The region’s current politics are much more complex, and vague anti-corruption platforms cannot meet the challenges of Europeanisation, climate change, nationalism and identity politics.

    Márki-Zay attempted to take a stance on the contentious issue of LGBTQ+ rights, with an April 2021 press conference alongside his family. His suggestion that he was ready to stand with gay Hungarians, (including those in Fidesz) raised the ire of Orbán’s party, but signalled Márki-Zay’s appeal for both conservative and liberal voters.

    Márki-Zay will certainly affect the course of Hungarian politics. This ex-manager of an electricity company and avid follower of American politics cannot be underestimated as a political tactician, but whether his strategy will be enough to beat Orbán is less certain. More

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    Gibraltar reform is a small – but important – step for abortion rights in Europe

    Gibraltar has voted to change the territory’s strict abortion ban, which held that abortion was punishable by “imprisonment for life” for the pregnant person and anyone who helped them get an abortion.

    Just over half of Gibraltar’s 23,343 eligible voters took part in the referendum on June 24, with 62% voting in favour of reforms to make abortion legally available. The success of the referendum will mean important changes for people in Gibraltar who urgently need access to safe, legal and local abortion.

    Originally planned for March 2020, the vote was delayed by the pandemic until June 2021. The referendum asked voters whether to approve a set of reforms to Gibraltar’s Crimes Act, to allow abortion in the following circumstances:

    where termination is needed to prevent “grave permanent” injury to mental or physical health
    where there is a substantial risk of fatal foetal abnormality
    where the pregnancy would risk the life of the pregnant person
    and where the pregnancy involves risk to the mental or physical health of the person, greater than the risk if the pregnancy were terminated (no later than 12 weeks into the pregnancy).

    Permitting abortion in the case of risk to health, risk to life, and fatal foetal abnormality are relatively common abortion allowances. The last requires more explanation: it permits abortion, up to 12 weeks, based on doctors’ assessment of the relative risk of ending or continuing the pregnancy.

    This is the same test established in the Abortion Act of 1967 that regulates abortion in England, Scotland and Wales. That law permits abortion where two doctors certify that “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” up to 24 weeks.

    In practice, doctors in Britain interpret this provision broadly and use it to permit abortion on request, because carrying pregnancy to full term is almost always more medically risky than ending it. In 2019, 98% of abortions in England and Wales were performed on this ground.

    An important note: this is not the same as permitting abortion on request, because it requires abortion seekers to give reasons that comport with the existing legal reasons to end a pregnancy. It also gives doctors the authority to refuse if they judge that the reasons do not satisfy the legal test.

    By contrast, Ireland’s new abortion law, passed in 2018, allows abortion on request up to 12 weeks, without the requirement that the abortion seeker provides reasons to explain their decision. As lawyers Fiona de Londras and Mairead Enright have noted, Gibraltar’s new regulations maintain some of the shortcomings of the outdated 1967 Abortion Act.

    Poland recently tightened its already-strict abortion laws, leading to protests in Warsaw.
    Konrad Zelazowski / Alamy Stock Photo

    Abortion travel

    Gibraltar’s unique political geography has made travel to access abortion especially complicated for residents, but the new law will make safe services available locally for many people. Historically, some have travelled by car or bus to Spain, where abortion is legal up to 14 weeks, while others have gone to England where abortion is legal to 24 weeks, but only if they had the money and documentation to make the long journey. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, made this infinitely more difficult.

    The number of abortion travellers is notoriously difficult to estimate, because anti-abortion stigma means people may conceal their identity or nationality. Nonetheless, based on UK government data, over the last ten years, the number of people from Gibraltar who obtained abortions in England or Wales has varied between zero and six annually. Similar national-level data on Gibraltarian abortion seekers in Spain is not available but a Spanish clinic very close to the border with Gibraltar reported 21 Gibraltar residents sought treatment there in 2019.

    As happens elsewhere in Europe, people in Gibraltar who cannot or do not want to travel for abortion obtain safe but illegal medication online. A Gibraltarian pro-choice campaign group reported 29 pill requests in the first half of 2020, when abortion travel was especially impacted by the pandemic.

    Abortion has been highly stigmatised among Gibraltar’s small community of 33,000, according to Mara Clarke from the Abortion Support Network, a charity that supports people from Gibraltar (and other countries) travelling for abortion. Some of the network’s clients reported that they feared even being seen buying a pregnancy test in a pharmacy because word might get back to their friends and family. Clarke says being able to “speak openly and publicly” to healthcare providers about abortion in Gibraltar will be transformative.

    Looking forward

    Gibraltar joins Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Isle of Man among the European states and territories that have recently liberalised their abortion laws. Reforms in these places are a significant improvement for the reproductive health and rights of people living there.

    Nonetheless, some of the limitations of Gibraltar’s reforms illustrate the familiar pattern of “two steps forward and one step back” on abortion rights. For Gibraltarians who need an abortion after 12 weeks, and do not fall into the very narrow circumstances outlined in the law, they will continue to be forced to travel abroad.

    After this long-overdue reform in Gibraltar, abortion rights advocates will continue to push for liberalisation in Malta, which maintains a total abortion ban, and Poland, which recently tightened its already highly restrictive law. More

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    Jürgen Conings: the case of a Belgian soldier on the run shows how the pandemic collides with far-right extremism

    A soldier has been on the run from police in Belgium since mid-May after being implicated in the theft of weapons from a military base in Flanders.

    The federal prosecutor charged Jürgen Conings with attempted murder and the illegal possession of weapons in a terrorist context after he was connected with threats to kill Belgium’s top pandemic virologist, Marc Van Ranst.

    The case highlights the country’s much overlooked problem with extremism on the right – and how these politics have become entangled with the pandemic.

    Pandemic politics

    It is not just fringe far-right conspiracy groups, such as QAnon and Viruswaanzin, that have been exploiting the COVID-19 crisis. Several Belgian right-wing parties and movements are using the pandemic to spread misinformation and fuel resentment.

    These mostly conservative, pro-Flemish-independence parties include the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) and the extreme far-right Vlaams Belang. Both have been vocal about the way the caretaker governments led by former temporary prime minister Sophie Wilmès have handled the pandemic. The criticism grew even louder when a seven-party coalition took over in October 2020. Even though N-VA and Vlaams Belang were the largest elected parties in Flanders in 2019, they have been reduced to an opposition role in the current federal government.

    This has been a bitter pill to swallow, especially for Vlaams Belang, which had hoped to form a coalition with the N-VA in order to bypass a 1989 ruling aimed at keeping it out of government because of its extreme politics.

    The Interpol search warrant out for Conings.

    The tense political climate has been further exploited by the Flemish alt-right movement Schild & Vrienden to sow even more division.

    It is in this complex context that pro-Conings groups have been popping up online ever since his news of disappearance was broadcast in May.

    Homegrown extremism

    Conings had been on a terror watch list since February as a “potentially violent extremist” and was known to be connected to another former soldier, convicted neo-Nazi Tomas Boutens. Yet neither the Belgian army nor the Belgian minister of defence appear to have been informed about this.

    A Facebook group supporting Conings soon attracted more than 50,000 members before being banned and relocating to encrypted messaging app Telegram, which is harder to regulate. Posts praised his actions with fascist memes – which are popular among the Flemish alt-right and extreme far-right.

    Conings supporters at a protest in Brussels at the end of May.
    Alamy/Belga News Agency

    At least three support marches have taken place since his search warrant was issued – one of them coinciding with protests against COVID-19 measures in Brussels.

    The right-wing trolling of experts

    A number of scientific experts have become targets during the pandemic. As well as Van Ranst, infectious diseases specialist Erika Vlieghe and vaccinologist Pierre Van Damme have had to endure online attacks.

    Belgium’s record-breaking federal government formation talks did not help either. Politicians from the caretaker government quickly passed on all responsibility to a team of scientific experts at the start of the crisis. Trying to save political face, most of the pandemic communication was left to the experts. This is how Van Ranst, head of Belgium’s pandemic planning team and an opinionated Twitter user, became the personification of the pandemic.

    Mainstream politicians from the traditional right and extreme far-right have played a part in fuelling personal attacks against experts. Calling Van Ranst “doctor Hatred” in a previous Twitter dispute, N-VA politician Theo Francken, infamous for his anti-immigration stance, set the tone again at the start of the crisis. Quoting a satirical article, he sent out and subsequently deleted a tweet targeted at Van Ranst. The tweet combined the Dutch word for “pandemic” with the gay slur “sissy”, suggesting the virologist was being overly dramatic about the pandemic.

    Francken’s pande-mietje Tweet.
    Twitter Marc Van Ranst

    Van Grieken and his party have taken advantage of their social media know-how during the pandemic, often publicising content from Vlaams Belang-linked “alternative” news sites, such as the Flemish nationalist ‘t Scheldt. Recurrent themes are xenophobic conspiracy theories and the constant suggestion that Van Ranst is the “leftist hand puppet” to Belgium’s “illegitimate” federal government, associating him with China’s alleged communist dictatorship.

    Dries Van Langenhove, Schild & Vrienden’s leader and now independent Vlaams Belang politician, has participated in the bashing of Van Ranst as well. In a recent meme-packed video, he even compared Van Ranst to Stalin for advising against reopening hospitality businesses too soon.

    Van Langenhove with Van Ranst depicted as Stalin.
    Kies Dries YouTube channel

    This excessive trolling, often accompanied by death threats, has had a concrete impact on all experts involved: before the Conings case, Van Ranst already spoke about being prank-called by groups of drunk youngsters, often ending their calls by singing the Flemish national anthem and calling him “leftist vermin”.

    Lessons for the future

    The pandemic climate has proven to be an excellent breeding ground for extremists. It has provided them with an excuse to go after what they see as the “freedom-destroying” establishment.

    In this climate, Conings is portrayed as a Flemish “resistance fighter” by many sharing his feelings of exclusion – despite being wanted for extremely serious crimes. The way people have responded to his case shows there is an urgent need to more closely inspect Belgium’s homegrown far-right extremism problem.

    In my research, I have been looking at how continental urban terrorist violence materialises both online and offline in the aftermath of the Paris 2015 and Brussels 2016 attacks. This pandemic-driven case teaches us that present-day terrorist threats do not only stem from Jihadist milieus, as is often assumed. The actions of people such as Conings – who appear, on the surface, to be outliers or lone wolves – need to be analysed as part of a wider sociopolitical environment, particularly when political parties appear to feel so comfortable spreading misinformation. More

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    Will European countries ever take meaningful steps to end colonial legacies?

    Centuries of European colonialism have had a tremendous impact on shaping inequities within and among countries, many of which are yet to be effectively addressed. This may seem like a trivial statement, but it is only recently being recognised by EU countries.
    In 2019, the European Parliament passed a Resolution on the Fundamental Rights of People of African Descent. It called for a comprehensive perspective on colonialism and slavery, which recognises their historical and contemporary adverse effects on people of African descent.
    Similarly, last year’s ambitious anti-racism action plan for 2020-2025 declares that colonialism is embedded in European history and has profound consequences for society today.
    Still, the EU has some way to go to fully recognise, let alone address, the structural legacies of colonialism – for example, the racial dividing lines between white people and people of colour within the EU. In all major areas of society across the EU, people of colour tend to be the most discriminated against. Yet, speaking of race and differences between white people and people of colour is not part of the political and legal discourse in the EU.

    Sweden as a case study
    Regarding Europe’s dawning recognition of colonial legacies, Sweden is a case in point. After the second world war it projected itself as a “moral superpower” without any of its own issues with colonialism and racism. It was a champion for equal rights, global justice and solidarity.
    From the early 1960s, it stood up against colonialism at the UN and actively supported anti-colonial struggles. It funded the ANC in South Africa.
    Today, Sweden remains among the world’s largest donors of development aid, despite being a relatively small country. Until recently, Sweden had the most generous admission of refugees per capita in Europe. If we are to believe the Good Country Index, there is no country in the world that contributes more to the common good of humanity than Sweden.
    But Sweden has always participated in, benefited from and even contributed to the international racial divisions of colonialism. Between the first and second world wars, the Swedish parliament voted for the establishment of a state institute for studying, promoting and conserving the race biology of the nation. The commonplace conception at the time was that ethnic Swedes belonged to a superior Nordic type of white Europeans.
    Nor was Sweden a mere bystander to the racial ordering of world affairs that began with European expansion during the late 15th century. It participated in the scramble for overseas colonies, holding onto the island of St Barthélemy in the Caribbean, for nearly a century. This became a significant free port where the treatment of enslaved Africans was no different than on neighbouring islands.
    Today, people of non-European descent make up roughly 15-20% of the Swedish population, a segment of society that has much higher levels of unemployment than white Swedes. While the employment rate for native-born Swedes is close to 100%, for those born in Asia and Africa it is 55-60%.
    A Black Lives Matter protest in Gothenburg. EPA/Adam Ihse
    The more educated you are as an African Swede, the larger the pay gap when set against other Swedes with the same educational attributes – and the more difficult it is to find a job that matches your qualifications. Native-born African Swedes with a university education make approximately 49% less than the rest of the population with similar qualifications.
    These hierarchies in Swedish society are part of a global pattern that has come about as a result of a shared colonial history.
    Addressing colonial legacies
    Despite efforts in some respects, Sweden and other European countries do not properly recognise the many global inequities that are the legacy of colonialism. As the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, put it, colonialism still reverberates in social injustices, the global economy and international power relations.
    Former colonial powers are refusing to give up their domination at the UN, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, for example. Many European nations have consistently opposed and ignored UN resolutions passed with overwhelming majority by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council calling for a democratic and equitable international order.
    This year marks the 20th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa and the world’s most comprehensive human rights instrument against racial discrimination. Among other things, this Durban Declaration and Programme of Action calls for an end to the racial structures established by colonialism and for concerned states to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of the transatlantic slave trade.
    The UK, France and other European countries have opposed the implementation of the Durban Declaration – and Sweden has supported them. For example, on New Year’s Eve 2020 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution for a comprehensive implementation of the declaration, also endorsing the decision to establish a UN permanent forum on people of African descent. When put to a vote, 106 countries supported the resolution. Only 14 voted against – among them the UK, France and the Netherlands. Another 44 abstained, including Sweden.
    Still, EU countries seem to be slowly coming around to recognising the global impact of colonialism. In December 2020, the European Parliament held an inaugural European Day for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In Sweden, a government agency is making efforts towards raising public awareness of Sweden’s participation in the racialised order of European colonialism. That includes its colonisation of Europe’s only recognised indigenous peoples, the Saami.
    So far, no steps have been taken towards redress, but maybe we are witnessing the beginning of an honest reckoning of the past and its impacts on the present. More

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    Unrest in the US has prompted soul-searching in Europe

    In the wake of the shocking events in Washington, DC, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, published a blog laden with sound and fury, beseeching Europeans to heed the “wake-up call for all democracy advocates around the world world” and to “stand up immediately to every violation of the independence of democratic institutions”.
    Many Europeans have felt downcast about the precipitous slide away from cardinal values, including democracy, instigated under President Donald Trump since his 2016 election. Egged on by the continued egregious allegations by Trump of election fraud, a large body of his supporters seized the opportunity to surround and ultimately break into the Capitol Building while members of Congress endeavoured to approve the results of the 2020 election.
    Europeans are still trying to figure out what happened. Was this flashpoint merely an opportunity for an ill-informed group of violent Trumpites to further express their anger, or was it a localised example of deep-seated discontent that has taken permanent root in America?
    And is it only in America that people have been duped by their leader? A fair bit of duping has been occurring too in some European nations, inflicting serious damage to its democratic credentials.

    How deep does this run? EPA
    For Borrell, democracy itself is at stake, both as a value, and mode of government. He too argues that there is a need to “fight harder against disinformation”. Faith in democracy must be found anew and and those European institutions in which democracy rests must be defended. This means fighting back against governments in EU countries that have turned away defiantly from democracy towards unconstrained populism and authoritarian rule.
    Tech is too big
    For Věra Jourová, European Commission vice president for values and transparency, the problem is simple. In Europe and America alike, “people have simply lost trust in democratic institutions”. Rebuilding that trust means taking aim at a few key antagonists: big tech and social media, lax regulations, unethical coding, and unaccountable algorithms.
    If these seem rather unlikely enemies of the state, for Jourová, they represent the building blocks of digital accountability that make up democracy in a digital age. Without them, neither freedom of expression nor the ability to eradicate disinformation and fake news campaigns can be guaranteed.
    Jourová suggests that the European democracy action plan – a broad roadmap of how 2021 Europe can galvanise faith in democratic governments – should be underwritten by sharper use of new rules and regulations, including an ongoing plan to curb tech monopolies.
    Problems at home
    Europe is going to need something really substantial to rebuild trust in democracy at home. While Biden is fighting to rebuild his country, the EU needs to accept that it has permitted some perfidious descents of its own in both its domestic and foreign policy.
    In Poland, EU leaders and institutions alike have tolerated or even wilfully ignored how Jarosław Kaczyński’s incongruously named Law and Justice party has eroded a whole series of norms, including the independence of the judiciary. In Hungary, the Fidesz party under Viktor Orbán has exercised breath-taking examples of undemocratic governance, from snuffing out freedom of the press, independent academic institutions and NGOs, and misappropriation of EU funds.
    Romania and Bulgaria are exhibiting similar erosions of democracy, rule of law and good governance. Externally, from lacklustre attitudes to Belarus and its own near neighbourhood, to exclusively interest-based dealings with China and Russia, the “pragmatic turn” appears to have taken precedence, rather than balance, with the EU’s former canon of value-led foreign policy designs.
    Optimists, however, may argue that there’s no time like the present. Trust in democracy at home, and soft power aboard, is at rock bottom. What better time to turn with unflinching eye and renewed zeal to addressing the torn fabric of European democracy? To call out the false prophets. To sanction the offenders. To remedy the transgressed.
    A good place to start might be the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, which ought to expel the Fidesz party from its membership instead of just repeatedly suspending it. Next could be the European Council, which must start insisting that EU funds will only be available to nations who uphold the rule of law, thus ensuring that no European leader can act with impunity.
    In their global dealings, European leaders must speak and act more strongly. Shouting down Trump wasn’t that difficult, especially towards the end. What is more challenging will be ensuring that Europe’s bilateral deals with China and Russia – and indeed the US under Biden – all resolutely promote democracy as a global value, and its role as the keystone of liberal internationalism. The same applies in its dealings with key global clubs, including the UN (and the World Health Organization), NATO and the G20.
    Too idealistic? Certainly, no liberal state or organisation can ever operate wholly on the basis of liberal principles. There will always be pragmatism and even hypocrisy in how national communities choose to govern as liberal democracies. The point is simply to keep at it. Even flawed liberal democracies – simply by continuing to operate and seasonally rededicating themselves to their founding ideals – provide the opportunities for the very struggles that return us to healthy democratic practices.
    Do it right, and both the US and Europe will be on surer footing through the difficult times ahead in 2021. Fail to do it, and the entire governing philosophy of western liberal democracy will carry a mortal wound well into the middle of the century. More