Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Kill-lists and Commandos: Germany has a Nazi problem

Seventy-five years after World War Two, far-right extremists have re-entered many parliaments across Europe in suits and ties, but their dark presence can be found in other, equally worrying places, including Germany's intelligence services and its military, the Bundeswehr. As a new global economic crisis unfolds, the neofascist threat inside and outside parliament should be taken very seriously indeed.

On June 30, mere hours before assuming the rotating presidency of the European Council, Germany announced the drastic overhaul of its elite military special forces, the Kommando Spezialkräfte (“Special Forces Command” - KSK) due to links with right-wing extremism. The KSK has been suspended from any further deployments and exercises until at least October, and one of its four battalions - the 2nd Company - is to be disbanded entirely. Making the announcement, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that the KSK had “become partially independent” from the chain of command, creating a "wall of secrecy" around itself, and had a “toxic leadership culture”. 

A decisive move against the KSK was long overdue - the 1,400-strong commando force has been under the spotlight for years now over its links to far-right and neo-Nazi elements. In 2017, a farewell party for a KSK commander from the 2nd Company was investigated after attendees threw pig heads, and played music by far-right rock band “Sturmwehr” while giving Nazi salutes (a punishable offence). Despite credible evidence of the incident, when none of the soldiers present admitted to seeing the Nazi salutes, the Bundeswehr concluded that the charge was “not confirmed”, and no action was taken.

In May this year, a trove of Nazi memorabilia and literature, stolen ammunition and explosives was discovered on the property of a 45-year old KSK officer in Saxony with known far-right politics who attended the same farewell party. Two kilograms of explosives, several thousand rounds of ammunition, a machine gun and other firearms were found, as well as an SS song book, far-right magazines, and neo-Nazi stickers. A subsequent working group set up to investigate the special commando unit presented its findings shortly before the government made its announcement - besides the disturbing conclusions about KSK members, it also noted with concern the disappearance of some 48,000 rounds of ammunition and 62 kilograms of explosives from the KSK’s arsenal. 

The government's move also followed weeks of controversy after Der Spiegel magazine published a KSK insider’s account of the unit. The whistleblower, a captain active in the KSK since 2018, revealed an internal culture where right-wing extremism was "known about," but either "ignored or completely tolerated." He described how one of his instructors used the code "Y-88" as a "call sign" (by which soldiers identify themselves in radio communications). The numbers 88 are a commonly-used code for the Nazi salute, while the letter “Y” bears a close resemblance to the "Lebensrune" ("life-rune”), another symbol used by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Despite noticing the clear reference to Hitler, the whistleblower said recruits stayed quiet for fear of punishment. 

Far-right sentiments in the KSK have been on the radar for quite some time. As early as 2003, then KSK commander, Reinhard Günzel, was dismissed for publicly expressing solidarity with the anti-Semitic statements made by Christian Democratic Union (CDU) MP Martin Hohmann. Hohmann was expelled from the CDU, but in 2017, re-entered the Bundestag (German parliament) as an MP for the far-right party Alternativ für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany” - AfD). Günzel himself went on to become a popular speaker at far-right events, where he denied the scale of the Holocaust, attacked the Nürnberg war crimes trials, and praised the “courage and sacrifice” of German soldiers during World War Two.

A much larger problem

While the KSK has been repeatedly linked with the far-right, it is not alone in this regard, and there have been a rash of far-right incidents involving the Bundeswehr over recent years. In 2017, a German soldier, Franco Albrecht, was arrested after trying to retrieve a pistol and ammunition that he had hidden in a bathroom in Vienna airport. It soon emerged that Albrecht had lived a double life for two years, using a fake ID to register as a Syrian refugee in 2015. He was charged with planning to carry out “false flag” attacks on politicians or refugee rights advocates in an attempt to create a backlash against refugees. 

Ammunition, military equipment and Nazi-era paraphernalia were found in Albrecht's residence, accomplices were arrested, more ammunition recovered, and a larger terror network revealed. Despite Albrecht's actions, however, and the fact that his master’s thesis - completed before joining the military - contained extremist ideology and references to “race mixing” and the “dissolution of ethnic groups”, his Bundeswehr superiors only gave him a warning, and failed to alert the Militärischem Abschirmdienst (“Military Counter-Intelligence Service” - MAD). In November 2019, the Federal Court of Justice finally instructed the Frankfurt Regional Court to open a case against Albrecht for "preparing a serious, state-damaging act of violence”.

A visit to Albrecht’s barracks in Illkirch by then-Defence Minister (now President of the European Commission) Ursula von der Leyen, along with several Berlin journalists, revealed a hand-painted swastika near his weapon and a collection of Wehrmacht memorabilia. The same year, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that a network of the right-wing extremist Identitarian Movement has been growing for years at the Bundeswehr's university in Munich, and investigators discovered yet more memorabilia from Germany's Nazi-era army, the Wehrmacht, on display in troop barracks in Donaueschingen in the Black Forest. 

Defence Minister von der Leyen directed the German military to conduct a thorough overhaul, purging its links with the Wehrmacht, removing memorabilia from barracks and ordering some - but not all - military bases named after World War Two soldiers to be renamed, but the subsequent inquiry launched into the state of the Bundeswehr was condemned as too little, too late. Once touted as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, von der Leyen’s mishandling of the crisis - further undermined by obstruction from the military leadership - pushed her out of the political limelight until an opening appeared around the European Commission presidency. 

The Day X murder list

In 2017, Bundeskriminalamt (“Federal Criminal Police” - BKA) raids in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommen - conducted, curiously, without the knowledge of state government or intelligence officials - revealed the existence of the Nordkreuz (“Northern Cross”) network. At first believed to be a “prepper” network, "Nordkreuz" possessed significant amounts of ammunition and firearms (one member alone had 10,000 bullets taken from police stores), and had ordered some 200 body bags and a supply of quicklime to dispose of bodies. A network of some 54 neo-Nazis, including far-right police, soldiers and members of the KSK, they trained regularly at police and army reserve shooting ranges. 

It later emerged that members of  "Nordkreuz" were plotting to murder several prominent German politicians, and carry out attacks on refugees and immigrants across Germany on an unspecified “Day X”. In preparation, they had circulated "kill lists" of politicians from Germany's main political parties - the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Greens and Die Linke - including Green Party leader Claudia Roth, Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and former German president Joachim Gauck. Several members of an elite German police commando unit were linked to the network, and a submachine gun, over 55,000 rounds of ammunition, and several explosives were found in one former commando’s home.

The group also had a longer list of names and addresses of some 25,000 left-wing “enemies”, compiled from data taken from police computers. While "Nordkreuz" had enhanced the list by conducting further research on their intended victims, the same basic list was also found in the possession of Saxony terror group “Revolution Chemnitz”. It was further distributed as an email attachment by Heiner Merz, state MP for the far-right AfD in Baden-Württemberg, who encouraged AfD members to "save, distribute and use the list" to target left wing individuals from their communities, saying “there are few limits to your imagination”. When the list turned up with "Nordkreuz", Merz claimed he had received it from an “antifa dropout”, and that he had been “deceived”. 

Fears of a "shadow army"

As the evidence piled up, fears and evidence began to grow of a secret “shadow army” within the German military - a fear that has existed ever since the Bundeswehr was formed, and reflecting concerns about the return of the kind of violent nationalist cells that developed in the German army during the 1920s. In January this year, the military counter-intelligence agency MAD reported that at least 550 serving Bundeswehr soldiers were being investigated for possible involvement in right-wing extremism, including 20 in the KSK. An additional 360 cases had been investigated in 2019, although only a small number of these managed to confirm far-right activity. 

In 2019, military counter-intelligence and Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz ("Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution" - BfV) founded a joint working group, where they have discussed more than a thousand cases of possible right-wing extremism so far. Such cooperation is made necessary because the MAD’s responsibility is limited to active soldiers, while significant far-right activity is occurring within the army reserve. According to MAD president Christof Gramm, around 800 reservists have since been excluded from military exercises in recent months because of their “anti-constitutional attitude”. 

The MAD has been sharply criticised over its surveillance and reporting of far-right infiltration however. In 2017, the agency was subjected to an investigation by the parliamentary committee that oversees German intelligence services, and in February 2019, the MAD admitted that it had been consistently under-reported the numbers of right-wing extremist soldiers "to the outside world" and had consequently misled the Bundestag. 

There are also fears that the MAD itself may be infiltrated. In June this year, a senior investigator was suspended for tipping off KSK members to the raid in May. In 2018, another senior officer, Peter W., faced charges of alerting KSK soldiers to a planned raid on their Calw barracks in connection with the Franco Albrecht case. Peter W. is believed to have warned the KSK trainer, André Schmitt - the officer responsible for the unit’s military security and himself a longterm MAD source. Nonetheless, the MAD president continued to assert that his organisation had fully researched the possibility of a “shadow army”, and that no such entity existed. Authorities spoke only of “individual cases”.

Hannibal’s secret army 

In late 2018, a year-long investigation by journalists from the newspaper Die Tageszeitung (“taz”) revealed evidence of an extensive right-wing network, connected to but larger than the already discovered “Nordkreuz”. Around the same time, Focus magazine made similar revelations of an "underground army". This enlarged group was dubbed the “Hannibal network”, after the codename of its chat group administrator - the KSK trainer André Schmitt. Like "Nordkreuz", the Hannibal network was first considered to be a far-right “prepper” network, and was divided into regional groupings across Germany (West, South, East and North) mirroring Bundeswehr structures, along with further branches in Austria and Switzerland. 

Like its northern section "Nordkreuz", other parts of the Hannibal network made preparations for an anticipated societal breakdown on “Day X”, organising weapons depots and safe-houses, and undertaking paramilitary training. Driven by a “hatred for left wingers”, however, members of the network were also preparing to carrying out a possible military coup and developed plans for the mass killings of left-wing politicians and other “enemies”. Top of the list were Dietmar Bartsch and Sahra Wagenknecht, then-leaders of the left-wing party Die Linke in the Bundestag. 

Numbering around 200 individuals, in some ways the network resembled less a “shadow army” than a “shadow state”. Members included active, retired and reserve soldiers, police officers (including commandos from the Spezialeinsatzkommandos - the “Special Operational Units” or "SEK"), lawyers, judges, firefighters, civil servants and even members of the German security, military and intelligence authorities. 

A notably high number of members of the Hannibal network were parachutists. The parachutist training center at Altenstadt Air Base had been infamous in the 1990s for celebrating Hitler’s birthday and singing Nazi songs. Then-commander Fritz Zwicknagl - who was removed as a result - later went on to work for the AfD in the Bundestag. Another instructor with far-right connections, Andreas Kalbitz, remained at the training centre until 2005. He later became a co-leader of the AfD’s extremist faction, Der Flügel (“The Wing”), and sat on the AfD national executive from 2017 until 2020.

In May this year, the AfD executive voted narrowly to expel Kalbitz from the party for “technical reasons” associated with his supposed failure to disclose prior memberships in neo-Nazi organisations. Conveniently, the party application form on which he was required to list prior associations has since gone missing and - with considerable support inside the AfD, and several appeals still ongoing - Kalbitz's membership status remains unclear.

The "Uniter" Network

The soldier (and fake refugee) Franco Albrecht, who was stationed in the Alsace, was part of the southern Hannibal network, “Südkreuz” (“Southern Cross”), and is believed to have been in direct contact with Schmitt. When his arrest in 2017 triggered terrorist investigations into far-right networks associated with the Bundeswehr, Schmitt closed his chat groups, and shifted his focus to the conspiratorial “Uniter” grouping. Schmitt had first founded “Uniter” in Halle during 2012, supposedly to provide further training and insurance support to unite former and serving members of the security forces. However, the tiny grouping soon dissolved following an internal disagreement, and Schmitt founded the Hannibal network on the social media app Telegram in 2015. 

In 2016, however, André Schmitt had re-founded "Uniter" in Stuttgart - and with such a similar structure to “Hannibal”, emphasis on building ties to the military and security services, and “prepper” world-view, that it is widely considered to be an extension of the Hannibal network and its strategy. By the end of 2019, the new “Uniter” network claimed to have up to 2,000 members across Germany, including former members of “Hannibal” and members of the Bundeswehr and intelligence agencies, although the actual numbers remain unknown. And while the organisation denies he was ever a member, a “Uniter” badge was also found among Franco Albrecht’s possessions.

The "Uniter" organisation has also been revealed to have an extensive connections and support among the more right-wing members of the CDU in the former East Germany. It has even claimed support within the military authorities themselves. When taz asked Schmitt to confirm in 2018 that he was in fact “Hannibal”, he accused the newspaper of “harassment” and threatened that “we will have no other option but to inform the MAD". Raids on houses of "Uniter" members have turned up numerous military items, while footage has been obtained of Uniter conducting illegal paramilitary exercises in southern Germany in June 2018. Schmitt has himself been charged for illegal possession of military items, including practice grenades taken from Bundeswehr reserves. 

"Uniter" was stripped of its non-profit status late 2019 and the network moved its base of operations to Switzerland. In June this year, the BfV finally confirmed that "Uniter" was in their sights, indicating that there was “sufficiently significant actual indications” for right-wing extremism in the organisation. Inaugural “Uniter” chairman and the network’s co-founder, Ringo M., was an active state intelligence officer in Baden-Württemberg when the group was set up. He resigned soon afterwards, and left the organisation in 2017, claiming it was “too militaristic”. Der Spiegel magazine revealed in May this year that Ringo M. is now assisting criminal police with their investigations.

Citizens in uniform?

Some commentators have tried to explain the apparent uptick in cases of far-right extremism in the Bundeswehr by reference to Germany’s abolition of compulsory military service in 2011, and some politicians are now calling for its reintroduction. With the elimination of compulsory service, or so the argument goes, the section of German society entering the military narrowed and became self-selecting, creating a problem with far-right recruits. The more sobering reality, however, is probably closer to the claim of Die Linke’s parliamentary group leader Dietmar Bartsch - that far-right extremism in the armed forces is connected with “a culture in the Bundeswehr that has allowed and tolerated this for decades”.

From inception, the Bundeswehr was promoted as a "parliamentary army", made up of “citizens in uniform” to reflect Germany’s political plurality, and with a revised definition of military obedience that was meant to serve as a protective mechanism against Nazi-era excesses. However, the Bundeswehr has, from its creation in 1955, struggled with its association with the far-right and its image as a refuge for both historical and newly-minted extremists. In the late 1950s, the Bundeswehr hired 300 officers from the Waffen-SS to fill its ranks, and more than 12,000 Wehrmacht officers were soon serving in the Bundeswehr - including over 40 Nazi-era generals. 

In 2014, the release of secret papers from Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), revealed what was widely suspected or known for decades - in the years directly following World War Two, around 2,000 former officers of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS had formed a secret army - the "Schnez-Truppe" - to protect the country from external threat of the Soviet Union and the internal threat of left-wing influence. According to the documents, it could call on up to 40,000 further fighters should the need arise, and it regularly carried out surveillance of left-wing politicians. The secret army's leader, the former colonel Albert Schnez, was also heavily involved in the discussions leading to the creation of the Bundeswehr, and went on to lead it from 1968-71.

Another key architect of the Bundeswehr, Hans Speidel, was a self-confessed Mussolini-style fascist who had served as Chief-of-Staff to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, while the first head of the Bundeswehr, Adolf Heusinger, was another high ranking officer with continuous service since before World War One. As the Cold War reached a crescendo, their experience - and anti-communism - made these senior officers valuable assets for the foundation of NATO, while their dubious history could be explained away under the heading “career soldier”. Speidel himself became the NATO Supreme Commander of the Allied Army in Central Europe in 1957. The BND document released in 2014 indicates that both Speidel and Heusinger were also aware of the secret army's existence at the time.

When the Bundeswehr launched in 1955, it did so at a military base in Augustdorf named after Rommel - known as "Hitler's favorite general”. In fact, until the middle of the 1990s, Germany had 50 military bases named after Wehrmacht soldiers in Germany. Some of these barracks were newly built, and were given their names under the auspices of conservative Defense Minister Franz-Josef Strauß in the 1960s. In 2017, a report by left-wing party Die Linke showed that between 1995 and 2016, sixteen such Bundeswehr bases had been renamed, while another nine bases were considering a change. The Augustdorf base, however, bears Rommel’s name to this day, as does another in Dornstadt.

The National Socialist Underground

The Bundeswehr's structural tolerance for the far-right also brought it into contact with the most notorious terror group in recent German history - the “Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund" (National-Socialist Underground - NSU). The NSU - a terror organisation of three extremists supported by some 100-150 far-right associates - is held responsible for multiple bombing attacks and bank robberies, 43 attempted killings and 10 murders, most of them of people of Turkish heritage, in Germany between 2000 and 2007. 

Twenty years ago, neo-Nazi extremist and key NSU supporter André Eminger had barely begun his military service when he reportedly told his supervising officer: "I identify as a National Socialist." It was hardly a shock - he wore a tattoo reading "Blut und Ehre" (“blood and honor”) - the Hitler Youth motto and name of a far-right group now banned in Germany. Despite his admission, however, Eminger continued in the military - including undergoing weapons training - for the next ten months.

The NSU had a far more concerning relationship with the intelligence services, however - in particular with the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the BfV. Investigations have revealed that members of the NSU and their close circle were informers on the BfV payroll and the intelligence services have been accused of actually helping to rebuild the far-right scene in the state of Thuringia. An intelligence agent reporting to the BfV on the activities of the far-right was even a witness at one of the killings, raising serious questions about BfV knowledge of NSU activities.

The BfV has also been criticised for actively obstructing investigations into the NSU’s activities. Shortly after the existence of the group became public in 2011, many BfV files related to the NSU were destroyed - some were shredded soon after the official investigation had begun. The BfV president Heinz Fromm resigned in disgrace, but any remaining BfV files on the NSU have been redacted or remain inaccessible. During the high-profile trial, BfV agents and informants were only allowed to give limited testimony - or in some cases, none at all.

Extremism and the deep state

Fromm’s successor as BfV president, Hans-Georg Maaßen, was himself forced to resign in controversy. During the 2018 Chemnitz protests, where public footage showed an angry right-wing mob "hunting” for “foreign-looking” people, Maaßen claimed the BfV had seen no evidence of any such incidents - a spurious claim echoed only by the far-right AfD. Soon afterwards, it came to light that Maaßen had also passed sensitive information to members of the far-right party, leading to calls for his resignation across the political spectrum - except, predictably, from the AfD. To smooth things over, Maaßen was initially granted a role in the Interior Ministry, but he was placed on early retirement after he used his farewell speech as BfV president to accuse "radical left-wing" forces in the German government of conspiring to remove him because he had criticised the government's "naive" and “left-wing" security and migration policies.

Maaßen’s association with the AfD - which holds 89 seats in the German Bundestag and has now been elected into every German state parliament - is particularly concerning, not only because of the organisation’s connections to far-right groups, but also because of its own brand of far-right politics. In September 2019, a German court ruled that Björn Höcke - co-leader of the AfD's hard-line wing, Der Flügel - could legally be called a fascist as the description "rests on verifiable fact". Der Flügel has some 7,000 members - around one fifth of the AfD total membership. In March 2020, the BfV classified Der Flügel as "a right-wing extremist endeavour against the free democratic basic order”, incompatible with Germany’s Consitution, and placed the group under close intelligence surveillance. Despite demands - and promises - to dissolve, Der Flügel appears to continue to exist.

Attempts to monitor the far-right are facing political hurdles too. On June 1, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that the chief of the state intelligence service in Saxony had been replaced after refusing to delete all data collected on AfD politicians. The newly-elected conservative Prime Minister of Saxony, Dirk-Martin Christian, had demanded the move in accordance with the special protections MPs usually enjoy as a result of their mandate. The AfD, however, is under intelligence surveillance throughout Germany over to its links with the far-right, and other German states have taken legal advice supporting the continued gathering data on the party. The move is therefore unique to Saxony, and is all the more concerning as the Saxony branch of the AfD is considered one of the most extremist.

In fact, despite the AfD's associations with far-right and neo-Nazi politics, Germany’s governing CDU remains divided over whether or not it should work with the party at state, or even federal, level. The conservative CDU - currently in a federal “grand coalition” government with the centre-left SPD - is suffering an identity crisis, as many former CDU voters flock to the AfD - especially in underdeveloped and marginalised parts of the former East Germany. In order to regain lost ground, many CDU members are keen to end the "grand coalition" and return the party to a position clearly on the right wing of the spectrum. Many of these calls also urge an end to the “cordon sanitaire” that other parties have placed around working with the AfD, leading to a tense political stand-off.

Far-right attacks on the rise

Meanwhile, the numbers of violent far-right attacks in Germany continue to rise. German Interior Ministry figures, released in April this year, recorded 986 acts of attempted or perpetrated far-right violence in 2019, over 600 of them targeted at holders of political office, and revelations of the Nordkreuz "kill list" in 2019 coincided with the murder of CDU politician Walter Lübcke in his home by a man with known links to the far-right, including with the neo-Nazi National Party of Germany (NPD) and the German branch of the British fascist terrorist group Combat 18. 

In October last year, a synagogue in the city of Halle was attacked on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. After killing one person but failing to enter the building, the attacker then drove to a nearby Turkish kebab shop and shot dead a customer there. The gunman, a 27 year-old neo-Nazi, had learned to handle weapons in the Bundeswehr, but no indication of his right-wing beliefs was recorded in his military file. 

In 2018, eight members of the neo-Nazi terrorist Freital Group, from near Dresden - a bastion of the far-right - were found guilty of terrorism-related crimes, including multiple attacks on refugee shelters, and in November last year the city of Dresden itself declared a "Nazi emergency”. Also in 2018, police arrested several men for carrying out racist crimes and setting up the right-wing terrorist organisation “Revolution Chemnitz”, while in February this year police arrested twelve members of a far-right terror cell “Group S” that was preparing attacks on mosques in 10 German states in order to start a race war. Members of "Group S" had also discussed making attacks on prominent Greens politicians.

Also in February, a far-right gunman killed nine people of immigrant backgrounds and injured five more at a shisha bar and a cafe in the city of Hanau, near Frankfurt. While the attacker has not been linked with any extremist group, he left behind a manifesto entitled "Message to the entire German people", in which he expressed his racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islam and misogynistic views plainly.

According to Interior Ministry figures from 2019, Germany has at least 24,000 far-right extremists, more than half of them prone to violence, but this figure is likely - again - to be an underestimate. In June this year, Focus magazine revealed that many German neo-Nazis - including members of the NPD and The Third Way - have been travelling to Russia to carry out paramilitary training in camps run by the right-wing white-supremacist Russian Imperial Movement near St Petersburg.

On July 3, magazine Der Spiegel reported that a reservist from Lower Saxony had been suspended after being found with a list of the telephone numbers and private addresses of 17 top politicians and celebrities, including federal Ministers, state Prime Ministers, and current and former leaders of the Greens and Die Linke. The reservist was a participant in two right-wing extremist chat groups on WhatsApp. The list of names came from the larger “Orbit” leak of politician data in January 2019, and has been circulated among far-right chat groups ever since 2019, although the BKA is unsure who created the refined list. A similar Facebook chat group of reservists called "Zuflucht" (“Refuge”) has also been exposed, where participants discussed private armament and, again, fighting a possible "racial war".

On June 27, a district councillor for Die Linke in Bavaria, Stefanie Kirchner, was attacked from behind by a man with a knife. The attacker tried to strangle her, and hurled anti-left abuse. Kirchner was able to free herself, but the attacker escaped. Several days later, on July 3, Janine Wißler - head of Die Linke’s state parliamentary delegation in Hesse - revealed that she had received multiple death threats in February, signed “NSU 2.0", targeting both her and her family. Only days after making this revelation public, Wißler received further death threats. 

The threatening messages bore similarities to several death threats sent to lawyer Basay-Yildiz, who had represented families of the victims in the NSU trial. In both cases, the messages included sensitive personal information taken from police databases, and were signed “NSU 2.0”. In the case of Basay-Yildiz, a chat group of officials with right-wing content was discovered, and several civil servants lost their jobs, but no one was charged. According to evidence obtained by Frankfurter Rundschau, it looks likely the death threats against Wißler also originated from within the police force.

The dangers of "business as usual"

As the spate of incidents has grown - including a surge in fire and bomb attacks on refugee shelters - so has the political pressure on the government and authorities to respond. Konstantin von Notz, deputy president of the Bundestag’s intelligence oversight committee, has described the situation in the Bundeswehr as a “structural problem”, while BfV president Thomas Haldenwang, has called far-right extremism and terrorism the "biggest danger to German democracy today." After promising a strengthened security response, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer banned the neo-Nazi group Nordadler (“Northern Eagles”) on June 5, following raids across the country. Nordadler is the third far-right group to be banned in Germany this year, after Combat 18 in January and the United German Peoples and Tribes group in March.

The recent surge in extremism in Germany also coincides with the political growth of the AfD over the last decade, their far-right rhetoric emboldening many extremist elements, with often deadly consequences. This problem is not limited to Germany either - a report last September from the European Union (EU) police agency, Europol, warned that far-right groups across the bloc were actively recruiting from the police and military to increase their capacity for violence.

The successes of far-right parties in countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, alongside the rightward shift of governments in Poland and Hungary, is a sobering reminder that extremist ideas are growing in broader support and acceptance across the EU. Nor can this growth in far-right political forces over the past decade be dissociated from the politics of austerity enforced by the EU institutions and other agents of neoliberal “business as usual” over the past decade. The current economic crisis is likely to result in another, deeper, recession - characterised by unemployment, social cuts and the further privatisation of public assets - and will once again produce a fertile breeding ground for the far-right.

The numbers of armed extremists remain relatively small - despite the plots of various “prepper” networks there is certainly no threat of a mass insurgency or military coup - although ongoing investigatons are likely to lay bare deeper tentacles in the Bundeswehr and German state. Clearly, however, Germany’s problem with the far-right runs both long and deep - both within and outside the state, including inside the very state agencies meant to monitor it - and, despite recent revelations, the size and extent of extremist networks remains unclear. 

These networks and their many connections with politicians, the military and state agencies pose a unique series of challenges as we head into a new economic crisis, and the social turmoil that this will almost inevitably bring. Should far-right parties like the AfD successfully exploit the social turmoil arising from the downturn, it will only further encourage violent extremists to take matters into their own hands. Worse yet, it also raises the spectre of the far-right parties entering government in a number of EU member states unless credible political alternatives can be found to keep them out.

As a German-led EU begins the task of papering over the cracks of the latest economic crisis while preparing a new round of brutal austerity, it is incumbent on political forces of the left - and all forces that cherish democracy and social justice - to present such an alternative to the neoliberal model that is impoverishing and excluding working class communities across the continent. Such an alternative - denying oxygen to the far-right, empowering working class communities, and instilling sustainability at the centre of our social model - is urgent and long overdue. If we fail to build a new world of solidarity out of this deepening crisis, there are others waiting in the shadows to take their own, much darker, turn.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

COVID-19: La UE ha fallado en una prueba de solidaridad. El precio será más y peor austeridad.

La Unión Europea (UE) ha sido puesta a prueba en su respuesta a la pandemia de COVID-19, y se ha comprobado que es muy deficiente.

La falta de visión resultante, de solidaridad en tiempos de crisis, plantea cuestiones fundamentales sobre la viabilidad a largo plazo del bloque europeo.


A medida que se profundiza la crisis económica causada por el COVID-19, hemos entrado en la peor crisis desde la Gran Depresión. Las consecuencias económicas y políticas ya son masivas y seguirán creciendo. En el espacio de un mes, la Organización Internacional del Trabajo estima que las pérdidas de empleo en todo el mundo aumentaron de 25 millones a 305 millones, con una pérdida de horas de trabajo equivalente a 124 millones de empleos a tiempo completo sólo en el primer trimestre de 2020. Por el contrario, el crack de 2008-2009 provocó la pérdida de aproximadamente 22 millones de puestos de trabajo en todo el mundo.

La economía mundial ya se dirigía hacia una recesión cuando apareció el nuevo corona-virus, pero ahora está experimentando una crisis única, que se adentra en el sector productivo y desafía las ortodoxias establecidas. Los cierres económicos y sociales provocados por el pánico para contener la pandemia han paralizado gran parte de la producción, mientras que el consumo también se ha reducido masivamente. Con millones de personas que trabajan ahora desde casa y otros millones de trabajadores de primera línea casi sacrificados al mercado, la lógica de la producción capitalista y la organización social ya no parece tan «lógica», y la UE está sentada en el borde de un precipicio.

[Leer el artículo completo aquí: TELESFORO MONZON eLab / Euskal Herrigintza Laborategia]

COVID-19: EBk huts egin du elkartasun proba batean. Ordaina austeritate zorrotzagoa eta okerragoa izango da.

Europar Batasuna (EB) proban jarri du COVID-19ak, harek pandemiari emandako erantzunarekin, eta erantzuna oso eskasa dela egiaztatu ahal izan da.

Ondorio gisa ikusi den bisio faltak, hau da krisi-garaian elkartasun-ikuspegirik ez egoteak, Europako blokearen epe luzerako bideragarritasunari buruzko galderak jarri ditu mahai gainean.  

COVID-19ak eragindako krisi ekonomikoa areagotu ahala, Depresio Handiaz geroztiko krisirik okerrenean sartu gara. Ondorio ekonomiko eta politikoak masiboak dira eta hazten jarraituko dute. Lanaren Nazioarteko Erakundearen arabera, hilabete batean mundu osoko enplegu-galerak 25 milioitik 305 milioira igo ziren, eta 2020ko lehen hiruhilekoan lanaldi osoko 124 milioi enpleguren lanorduen galera izan zen. Aitzitik, 2008-2009ko “crack”aren ondorioz 22 milioi lanpostu galdu ziren mundu osoan.

Munduko ekonomia atzeraldi batera zihoan koronabirus berria agertu zenean, baina orain krisi berdingabea ari da jasaten, ekoizpen-sektorean sartzen dena eta ezarritako ortodoxiei erronka egiten diena. Pandemia geldiarazteko izuak eragindako itxiera ekonomiko eta sozialek ekoizpenaren zati handi bat geldiarazi dute, eta kontsumoa ere asko murriztu da. Etxetik lan egiten duten milioika pertsonarekin eta merkatuari ia sakrifikatutako lehen lerroko beste milioika langilerekin, ekoizpen kapitalistaren logikak eta antolaketa sozialak ez dirudi hain “logikoa”, eta EB amildegi baten ertzean eserita dago.

Europako lehen erantzunak nazionalak izan ziren neurri handi batean, mugak ixteari, blokeo sozialei eta, azkenik, industria-itxiera orokorrari buruzkoak. Mugen itxierak -EBko “zutabe” sinboliko bati egindako erasoak- Ursula von der Leyen Europako Batzordeko presidentearen gaitzespen irekia eragin zuen. Herrialde batzuek arindu egin zuten langileentzako eta industriarentzako berehalako asaldura, diruz lagundutako soldatekin eta erreskate korporatiboekin, baina pandemiak Italia jo zuenean, bere laguntza oihuari ez zion inork erantzun, Txinak eta Kubak izan ezik. Italiak EBren duen enbaxadoreak, haserre, Europako buruzagiak “historiara Lehen Mundu Gerran lo sartu ziren 1914ko liderrak bezala pasatzeko” arriskuan daudela ohartarazi zuen. “Europako elkartasuna” oparoaldietarako ideia bat zela zirudien.
 

COVID-19: The EU has failed a test of solidarity. The price will be more austerity - and worse.

The European Union (EU) has been tested over its response to the COVID-19 pandemic - and it has been found sorely lacking. The resulting lack of vision, of solidarity in times of crisis, raises fundamental questions about the long-term viability of the bloc.

As the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 deepens, we have now entered the worst downturn since the Great Depression. The economic and political consequences are already massive – and will continue to grow.

In the space of just one month, International Labour Organisation predicted worldwide job losses grew from from 25 million to 305 million, with working hours lost equivalent to 124 million full time jobs in the first quarter of 2020 alone. By contrast, the crash of 2008-2009 led to the loss of approximately 22 million jobs worldwide.

The global economy was already heading into a downturn when the latest novel coronavirus struck. But it is now experiencing a unique crisis, one reaching deep into the productive sector and challenging established orthodoxies.

Panicked economic and social lockdowns to contain the pandemic have ground much production to a halt, while consumption has also shrunk massively. With millions now working from home, and millions more frontline workers all but sacrificed to the market, the logic of capitalist production and social organisation doesn’t seem quite so “logical” any more. The EU sits perched on a cliff-edge.

[Read the full article in TELESFORO MONZON eLab / Euskal Herrigintza Laborategia here, in Brave New Europe here, and in The Left in Berlin here].

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

75 years since its liberation, Dachau still casts a shadow

75 years ago - on April 29, 1945 - the US army liberated the Dachau concentration camp, outside the medieval town of Dachau, 16 km northwest of Munich. Dachau was the first such camp set up by the Nazis, and served as a prototype and a template for what followed - its layout and building plans used for building other camps. For this, and other, reasons, Dachau continues to cast a long shadow, touching countless lives and weaving its way back into contemporary politics in unexpected ways.

The camp was opened by the Nazis on March 21, 1933 to imprison political prisoners - communists, socialists, trade unionists, anarchists and other “trouble makers”. In addition to the better known - and much greater - figures of Jews and Roma murdered in Nazi camps, more than 3.5 million Germans were imprisoned in concentration camps or prison for political reasons between 1933 and 1945, while approximately 80,000 were killed for resistance or subversion against the Nazis.


Located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory, the camp at Dachau consisted of a barbed wire fence around the factory with numerous wooden huts built to house more prisoners. Along with the prisoners’ camp - which itself took up only 5 acres - an adjoining area of 20 acres was occupied by a Schutzstaffel (SS) training school and barracks. Railway tracks ran up to the gates, which carried the infamous phrase "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work shall set you free") - later replicated at the other camps including Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.

While Heinrich Himmler’s official announcement spoke of containing “threats to state security”, the SS men who arrived in the camp on 11 May 1933 were under no illusions about what the camp was for, their welcoming speech telling them: “We have not come here for human encounters with those pigs in there. We do not consider them human beings, as we are, but as second-class people … Therefore we have no room for sentimentalism … The more of these pig dogs we strike down, the fewer we need to feed.”

In 1919 Dachau had been the site of one of the few victories the Bavarian “Red Army” - mostly members of the soldiers' and workers' councils - of the Bavarian Soviet Republic (“Räterepublik Baiern”) over the proto-facist Freikorps paramilitary militia, during the short-lived revolution. During the 1933 Reichstag election campaign, Hans Beimler - an prominent anti-Nazi activist, militant trade unionist, and leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) in Bavaria - made that historic victory central to his address to a KPD mass meeting in Munich, rallying his comrades against the Nazi threat with the words “we shall all meet again at Dachau!".

The words were darkly prophetic. While Beimler was re-elected to the Reichstag in March, in April both he and his wife were arrested by the Nazis. They never saw each other again. Along with other Communist Party members, Beimler was subjected to two weeks of police beatings in Munich before being sent to Dachau, where the SS guards - some of them former Freikorps members - threw his words back in his face.

Within four weeks, however, Beimler had escaped, strangling his guard, stealing his uniform and brazenly walking out the front door. He fled, via Czechoslovakia, to the Soviet Union, published an account of his experiences in the camp, and then became active in Rote Hilfe ("Red Aid") in France and Switzerland. In 1936, Beimler led the first brigade of German anti-fascist volunteers to Spain, and was appointed commissar of all International Brigades until he was killed in the Battle of Madrid that November. Over 2 million people came out to pay respect as his body was transported to the cemetery in Barcelona.

Another notable victim of Dachau was the lawyer Hans Litten. Born into a conservative, privileged family with a Jewish background, Litten’s idealism led him from the law to Berlin and left wing politics, where he became active in political trials and public speaking. In 1929, Litten sought an indictment of Berlin’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) police chief for incitement to shoot communist protesters at the infamous “Bloody May” May Day rally, where 33 people were killed and hundreds wounded, including Litten himself.

Litten also laid bare, in a penetrating cross-examination during the "Eden Dance Palace Trial", the violence at the heart of the Nazi movement. Litten used the prosecution of Sturmabteilung (SA) thug attacks on three workers to expose Nazi violence and puncture the veneer of legality Hitler had adopted. In a three hour cross-examination of the future dictator in May 1931, he humiliated Hitler - showing that SA violence was a central plank of the Nazi program - and forced him to commit perjury. It was an insult that Hitler would neither forget, nor forgive.

From then on, Litten was continually targeted by the Nazis, police and authorities, but when Hitler took power in 1933, Litten rejected advice from friends that he flee Germany. He refused to abandon his clients, arguing: "the millions of workers can't get out, so I must stay here as well". The night of the Reichstag fire, Litten was one of the first arrested when left wing lawyers and activists were rounded up and taken into "protective custody".

Litten spent the next five years in several concentration camps, enduring forced labour, beatings, torture, and endless interrogations. He twice attempted suicide to avoid revealing information under torture. Finally, in Dachau, unable to bear his physical and psychological scars any longer, Litten hanged himself in 1938. A communist anti-Nazi lawyer openly critical of Stalin - his legacy suited neither side of the Cold War, and he went all but forgotten during the following decades.

Over time, Dachau’s purpose expanded to include forced labor (both German and foreign) as well as Jews, criminals, “undesirables”, and foreign nationals from occupied countries - from Poland, France and the Balkans especially. In 1942, nearly 8,000 prisoners from Yugoslavia were sent to Dachau - including many who had worked with the partisans - and some 5,000 Soviet prisoners of war were interred there.

Over 200,000 prisoners, from more than 30 countries, passed through Dachau, one third of whom were Jews. After the Kristallnacht purges, almost 11,000 Jews were sent to Dachau before being expelled from the country. The camp also held Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Roma, the physically and mentally handicapped, several thousand Catholic priests, and anyone else unlucky enough to fall foul of the Nazis.
  

As the number of prisoners grew, the greater Dachau system developed to eventually include over 100 sub-camps - mostly labour camps for producing munitions - dispersed throughout southern Germany and into Austria. Some of these sub-camps evolved into full-blown concentration camps themselves, such as the infamous Mauthausen camp in Austria. A weapons factory at Gendorf, near the Austrian border, where my Bavarian grandfather was forced to work in dangerous conditions, also used slave-labour from a Dachau sub-camp set up specifically for the purpose.

Although Dachau was not one of the six camps created specifically for industrialised mass murder, 32,000 deaths have been documented at the camp and its satellites, with an estimated further 10,000 undocumented. The Nazis also used prisoners in brutal medical experiments, submerging them in tanks of ice water for hours at a time.

Liberation

The experience of the American soldiers in liberating Dachau and its sub-camps was harrowing. When the American army arrived, approximately 10,000 of the 30,000 prisoners were sick, and some 7,000 had been driven on a last-minute “death march”, first south, and then eastwards towards the Austrian border, 1,000 of them perishing en route.

One account of the liberation of Kaufering IV slave-labor sub-camp - near the town of Landsberg - describes “the camp afire and a stack of some four hundred bodies burning”. American soldiers went into Landsberg, rounding up all the male civilians they could find and marching them back out to the camp. The former camp commandant was forced to lie amidst a pile of corpses, while the male population walked by under orders to spit on him as they passed.

As they reached the main camp in Dachau, soldiers found thirty-nine railway boxcars containing 2,000 skeletal corpses parked immediately outside, and the air was heavy with the stench of decaying bodies and excrement. Inside the complex, they found more bodies - lying where they had fallen days earlier. There were rooms full of hundreds of near-naked dead bodies piled high, a crematorium, a gas chamber - supposedly “unused”.

Despite an official surrender, many guards resisted the liberating forces, some of them fiercely. Outraged at what they had seen in Dachau and elsewhere, American troops shot some 30 or 50 of the camp guards after they had surrendered, while a similar number of guards are believed to have been killed by the recently freed prisoners themselves.

After liberation, Dachau became a prison facility for SS soldiers awaiting trial - the jailer made the jailed - and the site of the “Dachau Trials” of German war criminals. By January 1946, some 18,000 SS members were being held there, along with 12,000 others, including Soviet deserters. After 1948, it became a resettlement camp for 2,000 ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia.

The Americans converted the buildings used by the SS and camp guards into the “Eastman Barracks”, which served as an American military post for many years. When the Americans closed their barracks, the Bavarian Bereitschaftspolizei - the police rapid-response units and riot police - moved in.

Germany’s ongoing struggle with timing and taste took a new turn on January 27, 2015 - the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi death camp Auschwitz. The nearby city of Augsburg decided to convert a former sub-branch of Dachau into a centre to accommodate the growing influx of refugees. The asylum seekers would have lived in a building where thousands of people suffered and died under the Nazis, carrying out forced labour for the aircraft manufacturer Messerschmitt.

Facing public outcry, Augsburg backed down, but the town of Dachau itself did not, housing about 50 of its most vulnerable inhabitants – including homeless people and refugees – in buildings in the former slave-labour “herb garden” complex, just across the road from where the main camp still stands, and within sight of the towers and barbed wire fences.
A Red Thread in the Gloom

This harrowing history has made Dachau an indelible symbol for what took place when the Nazis took over, but it also deserves to be better remembered for what happened when they fell as well. In the brief interregnum after the Nazis were defeated, a strange three-way power struggle emerged in Dachau, that is emblematic of the direction German democracy took after the war.

In 1935, a local Social Democrat, Georg Scherer, was arrested for his stubborn dedication to working class sporting activities, and spent 6 years in the camp, where he was appointed “Lagerältester - responsible for all prisoners - until his release. On April 28, 1945, fearing the SS would escalate their atrocities before the Americans arrived, he led a short-lived - and violently repressed - armed insurrection in the town of Dachau, coordinated with other resistance action in Munich.

When the Americans did arrive, they made him deputy mayor. The tasks he faced were enormous - over 6,000 dead bodies in the camp, 30,000 survivors to be fed, a typhoid outbreak. Labour and transport, food, fuel, clothing and accommodation had to be organised. Within the camp, the Communists in particular had been able to establish their own organisational structures, and after liberation this experience became vital. With supply chains broken, the economy collapsed, and government all but dissolved, Scherer and his fellow communist and social democratic ex-prisoners divided the town into 17 districts, organising the 22,000 inhabitants into committees of 7, and set to work.

A central coordination committee of 8 was set up, with the broadest possible base. It contained 2 Communists, 2 Social Democrats, 2 from the conservative former Bavarian Peoples’ Party, and 2 with no affiliation. Named the “Anti-Fascist Action" committee (AFA), it set about coordinating the post-Nazi reconstruction work. Similar united front “antifa” organisations sprung up across Germany as the Third Reich collapsed, populated largely by members of the working class, but generally mistrusted by middle-class Germans. While the AFA could claim to be representative, however, was unelected and had no claim to authority, and it carried out its work under cautious US military supervision.

While the AFA initially supported US “denazification” measures, tensions increased as it became clear that efforts were focusing on “little Nazis” - many of whom had joined Nazi organisations out of necessity or convenience - while more powerful individuals with better connections - and dirtier pasts - managed to evade punishment. The Americans also began to recruit new civil servants to run the administration, while the AFA continued its work more and more independently, resulting in the development of elements of “dual power” that had echoes of the situation in 1918-19.

The AFA and the new civil authorities soon ended up in competition for US support. Even before Germany’s capitulation in May, the Americans had decided to restore the pre-Nazi administrative system, and in Dachau they appointed Heinrich Kneuer to run the district. A conservative, mid-level bureaucrat, with a dubious history during the 1930s, Kneuer immediately set about trying to dissolve the AFA, which he considered to be a communist threat to the social order. His exchanges with the American commandant show he was - at the very least - a technocrat who considered democracy a threat, the people stupid, and advocated a government of “clever men”.

To Kneuer’s dismay, then, the Americans created a new town council on July 21, exactly half of whom were on the left - 5 Social Democrats and 3 Communists. This return to democracy was a mixed blessing for the Communists, however, and they knew it. From August 1945, the Americans had identified the AFA as “something of a problem”, not so much because of the ongoing inconveniences it caused Kneuer, but because of its dominant leftwing politics.

Local elections were scheduled for January 1946, deliberating forcing the Communists and Social Democrats into competition before they had settled on a common programme. The Communist Party ran the Social Democrat Scherer as their lead candidate, but his former SPD comrades ran against him, ensuring the left vote was splintered, and the KPD result was worse than before the war.

From a right-wing and anti-Communist perspective, the strategy was a success. The conservative silent majority - having sat in uncomfortable quietude as the crimes of Nazism were uncovered and investigated - was given an opportunity to reassert itself. The Bavarian Volksbund (later to become the Christian Social Union - CSU) won 59 percent of the vote in Dachau on a platform of conservative anti-Nazism, combined with opposition to the “Socialist-Communist common action programme”. The anti-Communist sentiment that had led many middle-class voters to support the Nazis had found a new, more “respectable”, outlet.

Meanwhile, disunity in left wing politics had been ensured. In the Soviet zone, the KPD and SPD had been merged, but similar attempts in the West failed. Applications from the KPD to register as either the "Socialist Unity Party" (SED) or the "German Socialist Peoples’ Party" were rejected, and they were forced to run as Communists. The AFA - even with its significant middle-class involvement - and the hopes of antifascist unity, were in tatters. The hard work of the AFA, its idealism, energy, even-handedness and dedication, had succeeded in reconstructing a world that rejected its values, and bourgeois normality - now shed of the memory of its disquieting accommodation with Nazism - had been restored.

Even 75 years on, the sheer magnitude of the horrors of Dachau and the other Nazi camps ought to serve as a stern correction for humanity’s moral compass for generations to come. Unfortunately, the span of history that has passed since they were closed has not served that memory any justice. The bloody violence and oppression we have seen since the Second World War may not have been carried out with the same calculating intensity, but it has been horrific nonetheless, and even now we run the risk of repeating some of the worst mistakes of humanity’s brief existence.

In the words of Milan Kundera “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. For this to truly succeed, however, we must preserve not only the memory of suffering and despair, but the memory of hope. For this reason, then, when I hear the word “Dachau”, the echoing screams of all those who perished in the nightmare machine are joined by the quiet, firm voices of those who said “Never Again”, who persevered in their struggle against fascism in all weather, and who sought to build a better world in the ashes of the old.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Coronabonds or bust? - Gridlock over EU response poses an existential threat

The European Union’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a dangerous lack of solidarity between member states, as longstanding divisions over the future of European integration frustrate the fight against the coronavirus and the downturn it has caused – the worst since the Great Depression. After weeks of bungled responses, old fault lines between “north” and “south” have re-emerged, a marathon Eurogroup meeting on April 7 failing once again reach agreement. The European Union (EU) sits perched uncomfortably on an economic and political precipice, and the consequences could be massive.

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a human catastrophe and economic crisis worldwide, with panicked lockdowns grinding economic gears to a near-halt. The global economy – already heading into a downturn when the coronavirus struck – is now experiencing a crisis that reaches deep into the productive sector of the economy, but the EU response has been patchwork and incoherent, a series of reactive and inadequate measures not equal to the scale of the problem.

The initial response came from national governments, most of whom instinctively closed their borders, locking down society and – eventually – industry. As the walls went up, desperate appeals from Italy for assistance fell on deaf ears, unheeded by all but China and Cuba, and Italy’s ambassador to the EU, warned that Europe’s leaders risk “going down in history like the leaders in 1914 who sleepwalked into World War I”. It was beginning to look like “European solidarity” was an idea for fairer weather.

The EU’s response

The European institutions shifted clumsily into catch-up mode, the European Central Bank (ECB) proposing a package of 120 billion euro to ensure liquidity in the financial and banking sector the same day that its President Christine Lagarde declared the central bank was “not here to close spreads” in sovereign debt markets. This brought a furious response from Italy, casting doubt on whether the ECB would provide member states the necessary support.

The ECB then announced its “bazooka” response – a €750 billion package of Quantitative Easing (QE) named the “Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme” (PEPP). To allow the rapid expansion of public debt and facilitate heavy government spending, the ECB can buy large amounts of government and corporate debt until the end of the year, with significantly more flexible rules than previously. It suspends the 33% purchasing limit on national bonds, includes Greek sovereign debt and the ECB will target short-term debt maturing in as little as 70 days. State aid rules have also been loosened.

Crucially, the “general escape clause” of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) was activated – pausing a mechanism responsible for imposing austerity on member states through inflexible deficit and debt limits and structural reforms. Unprecedented stuff – but still not enough, and concerns remain about what the short duration of the PEPP will mean for EU member states’ capacity to service the resulting debt during a recession.

The burgeoning crisis quickly spilled over into a high-stakes political showdown across the EU. When the Eurogroup – the eurozone’s finance ministers – met on March 24 to draft a longer term “pandemic crisis support” tool. The main proposal was fresh loans under the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the EU’s 410 billion euro bailout fund that allows eurozone members to draw a credit line worth 2 percent of their economic output – with conditions. This option is strongly supported by fiscally more conservative countries, like Germany and the Netherlands.

[Read the full article in TrademarkBelfast and Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung - Brussels' Post Brexit Europe here].

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Europe’s Coronavirus Battle

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed longstanding divisions in the European Union, with the issue of eurobonds dividing the north and south – and solidarity in short supply.

An extended March 26 meeting of the European Council failed to reach agreement on which economic tool the European Union (EU) should deploy to combat what is predicted to be a severe recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, instead kicking the can down the road for a further two weeks.

With the coronavirus pandemic triggering a human and economic crisis worldwide, and panicked lockdowns in member states grinding economic gears to a halt, the European economy sits on the verge of a depression and total shutdown. National governments across the EU took the lead in combating the virus, closing borders and businesses, and in some cases with significant spending programmes to protect workers, jobs and businesses from the resulting downturn. As appeals by Italy for urgent assistance went unheeded by all but China and Cuba, and it was beginning to look like “European solidarity” was an idea for fairer weather.

Playing catch-up, the European Commission muscled-in on border closures, while on March 12 the European Central Bank (ECB) announced an initial €120 billion package aimed at ongoing liquidity in the financial and banking sector. A further 37 billion was mobilised from existing EU funds, but it was soon obvious that the disaster posed a threat of several magnitudes greater than anticipated.

[Read the full article in Tribune Magazine here].

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ireland: Political earthquake as Sinn Féin wins Irish election

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou MacDonald/ An Phoblacht
General elections on February 8 saw Sinn Féin become the most popular political party in the 26 county Irish Republic for the first time - a seismic result has shaken the Irish political system to its core and sent shockwaves across Europe.

The left-wing republican party received 24.5 per cent of first preference votes cast - up 10.7 percent on 2016 - and topped the poll in over 20 constituencies.

Many candidates were elected on the first count, often in areas that had never returned a Sinn Féin TD (member of the Irish parliament, the Dáil) before, and seventeen of the top 20 high-polling candidates came from Sinn Féin.

With counting now complete, Sinn Féin has won 37 seats in the 160-seat Dáil, an increase of fifteen. For the first time ever, each of Ireland’s 32 counties is now represented by a Sinn Féin TD or MP.

The last time Sinn Féin topped the polls nationally was at all-Ireland elections held in 1918, in a result that paved the way for the first Dáil and the War of Independence against Britain.

Outgoing government party Fine Gael took 35 seats (down 12), while Fianna Fáil received 38 (down 7) - although one seat was due to the automatic reappointment of the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker of the Dáil).

Having received setbacks in last year’s local and European elections, Sinn Féin ran only 42 candidates. As a result of the late surge in support, in several constituencies where they ran only one candidate Sinn Féin received close to - or even in excess of - the mandate for a second seat.

A successful strategy of “vote left, transfer left”, however, meant that large numbers of Sinn Féin preference votes helped elect other left wing and progressive candidates.

The socialist Solidarity-People Before Profit alliance secured five seats, with returning TD Richard Boyd Barrett topping the poll in Dún Laoghaire.

Labour and the Social Democrats took six seats each, while the Greens won twelve mandates - reaching double figures for the first time.

Ireland also bucked the trend prevailing in Europe of right-wing nationalist parties taking advantage of public discontent. The slew of far-right, anti-immigration candidates on offer received negligible results, failing to even regain their deposits.

The election result comes as a blow to both Ireland’s major right-wing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who between them have dominated politics in the Irish state for a century.

It is the first time in the history of the Republic that neither party has won the popular vote, and their combined vote share has been reduced to a mere 43 percent. Both parties lost vote share and seats, and some constituencies failed to elect a TD from either party for the first time ever.

During the election, the outgoing conservative Fine Gael government had hoped to capitalise on strong economic figures, recent referenda legalising abortion and equal marriage rights, and the high profile role Ireland played in Europe during the Brexit negotiations.

Fianna Fáil, their support having recovered since the economic collapse after 2008, sought to take advantage of voter frustration with the Fine Gael government. At the same time, they hoped that voters would forget that they had kept that same government in power via a “confidence-and-supply” arrangement throughout its term.

Both parties also united to make harsh attacks on Sinn Féin, ruling out working with the left-wing party after the elections. They joined the mainstream media chorus that Sinn Féin was not a “normal party”, scaremongering about “shadowy figures” controlling it from behind the scenes and about Sinn Féin’s historical links to the long-ended armed struggle in the six counties still under British occupation.

Voters, however, were less interested in scare-tactics and macroeconomic figures than in hospital waiting lists, soaring rents, the homelessness crisis, insurance costs, and increases to the pension age.

The 2008 economic collapse, bank bail-outs and vicious austerity measures left deep wounds in Irish society, and while the economy has officially recovered, the vast majority of ordinary people have not seen the benefits.

The Republic of Ireland, with barely 5 million people, has over 10,000 homeless each week, and more than a third of those in emergency accommodation are children.

In 2018, 50% of the adults aged under 30 were living at home with their parents, due to skyrocketing rents, and there are over 200,000 children living in poverty.

After a decade of austerity, it is little surprise that resentment continued to grow against the two pro-business parties, who have run the state between them since independence.

Sinn Féin, on the other hand, campaigned on the theme “time for change”, and a robust left-wing manifesto titled “Giving workers and families a break”.

Their platform included a rent freeze, a refundable tax credit to reduce rents by up to €1,500, building 100,000 new affordable and social houses over five years, tax cuts on the first €30,000 to help low income earners, restoring the pension age to 65, hiring thousands of nurses, and investing in hospital beds and free GP care.

This message cut through a hostile media and resonated with an electorate desperate for change. On election day, exit polls showed Sinn Féin with the highest support of any party for the entire working age population, in all age groups from 18-65 years. Only in the over-65s did that support drop.

Speaking in Dublin after the vote, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald described the result as a "revolution in the ballot box”. 

“The two party system in this State is now broken, it has been dispatched into the history books,” she said.

“The election is about a real appetite for political change, and that means a change in government.”

“This vote for Sinn Féin is for Sinn Féin to be in government, for Sinn Féin to deliver.”

“My first port of call is the other parties to see whether or not can we actually have a new government, a government without Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.”

The day after the final results were announced, Sinn Féin declared that it would look immediately to form a “government of change” that “delivers on the big issues of housing, of health and climate change, on the right to a pension at 65, and that gives workers a break”.

Despite winning the popular vote, however, Sinn Féin will struggle to form what would be the first left-wing government in the history of the state.

With only 37 seats, even with the support of progressive parties and independents it would fall well short of the 80 seats needed to form government.

If Sinn Féin cannot form its preferred left-wing coalition, excluding the two major parties, it may be forced to consider working with Fianna Fáil and one or more of the other small parties.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had both previously ruled out working with Sinn Féin, and Fine Gael has maintained its hard line after the vote, ruling out any coalition.

On the other hand, Ireland’s traditional “party of government”, Fianna Fáil, is desperate for a return to power and party leader Micheál Martin appeared to soften in tone towards Sinn Féin after results were released.

The party remains split, however, between those stung by the voter backlash over their confidence-and-supply deal with Fine Gael, and those whose hatred of Sinn Féin outweighs their political opportunism.

Even if a deal can be struck, any decision about entering government would need first to be agreed on by Sinn Féin’s membership in a special Ard Fheis (national conference). There is no guarantee it would win support.

Contained in the price for any coalition with Sinn Féin would also be securing a referendum on Irish unity - an issue that has been pushed to the fore by Brexit.

Even though Sinn Féin didn’t campaign heavily on its signature issue in this election, exit polls showed 57% of voters support holding a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years.

Another option for government would be for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - and a smaller party such as the Greens - to enter into a “grand coalition”. Given the history of the two major parties, and their rivalry since the Irish Civil War, this would seem very unlikely.

It would also grant Sinn Féin undisputed status as the official opposition, to expose and pick apart the right wing policies that such a government would inevitably impose.

If no deal is struck in coming weeks, a new election would have to be called. If Sinn Féin’s level of support holds, they could expect to gain several more seats, and the balance of power could change clearly in their favour - another issue clouding the minds of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

For the time being, however, Sinn Féin is keen to find a way into government in order to get to work fixing the social problems created by decades of right-wing rule.

As Mary Lou McDonald told reporters in Dublin, “we are not doing another five years of housing crisis, that is not on the agenda”.

“We want families and workers to have breathing space, I mean financial, economic security and breathing space,” she said.

Whatever happens next, one thing is clear. This is a watershed moment for Sinn Féin and Irish politics. All is changed, changed utterly.