AFTER an unusually long and hot European summer, Europe’s packed autumn agenda looks likely to produce equally long and heated debates on three complex and interconnected issues: Brexit, burqas and Bannon.
First, Brexit. Discussions on Europe’s withdrawal from the European Union have so far been messy, complicated and chaotic. As a result, apart from those directly involved in the tedious process, many people have quite simply stopped paying attention.
Soap opera British politics, including the unexpected departure of several key “Pro-Leave” ministers, ongoing rumours of “palace coups” and conspiracies against Prime Minister Theresa May and persistent talk of a second referendum — this time one that is not based on misleading information — have added to the confusion.
But this looks set to change. As the end-March 2019 cut-off point for Britain’s EU membership approaches, the focus both in London and Brussels is suddenly on a so-called “no-deal” scenario under which Britain would leave the EU without agreeing a detailed formula for its departure.
EU officials say that if that happens they will be bound, legally, to treat the UK as a “third country”, with little or no ability to waive EU rules and regulations.
Observers call it the “train wreck” option, with Britain crashing out of the EU without any agreed formula or norms for the future. While many so-called “hard Brexiteers” clearly favour such a route, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it will have devastating consequences on the British economy.
The possible disruption lying ahead was further hammered home by the British government last week which issued its first contingency plans for such a “no deal” scenario by warning in a series of technical documents, that without a withdrawal agreement, importers and exporters could face significant new bureaucratic hurdles, credit or debit card payments in continental Europe could cost more, and British citizens living in the bloc could lose access to banking and pension services.
Even minutiae like the design of cigarette packs would be affected, the government said.
Dominic Raab, secretary of state for Brexit, is clearly trying to prove to his European interlocutors that Britain is prepared for all eventualities. But in doing so he has further frightened British business leaders, doctors and scientists who have been arguing against Brexit for months.
Second, even as they try to thrash out a working relationship with the EU, British politicians have become embroiled in a toxic debate on Muslim women who wear the burqa following former foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s comment that people in such clothing looked like “letter boxes” or “bank robbers”.
The British prime minister has asked her former cabinet member to apologise and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said the comments risked “vilifying Muslim women”.
But the burqa debate isn’t confined to Britain. Danish police recently fined a woman for wearing a niqab in a shopping complex, saying she was violating the country’s contentious law banning full-face Islamic veils in public places which has just come into effect.
Restrictions on the wearing of full-face coverings already exist in France, Belgium, Netherlands and Bulgaria and are also the subject of fierce debates in Germany.
Proponents of the ban argue that the burqa falls within the category of clothing which cover large portions of the face, including masks and helmets, which are banned in the public sphere. Those opposing the restrictions warn that they further stigmatise Muslim women and prevent their integration.
Most European Muslim women are either unveiled or wear headscarves and resent the negative attention paid to the small minority of women who conceal themselves head to toe. Despite the publicity they get, burqa-clad women are extremely rare in Europe — and often are tourists visiting from the Gulf.
Finally, Europeans are braced for even more meddling in their domestic politics by Steve Bannon, former aide and political guru to US President Donald Trump who has announced that he wants to unite right-wing and populist parties in the EU. The specific aim of his organisation, The Movement, is to try and influence next May’s European parliament elections.
Bannon plans to establish a foundation that supports right-wing ideas and populist and anti-systemic groupings, similar to those that have taken power in Italy and Hungary, with the ultimate aim being to sell his brand of ‘Trumpism’.
He sees the foundation as a rival to the liberally-oriented Open Society Foundation of the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist, George Soros.
Not all far-right European parties are falling into line behind Bannon, amid fears that the American is hijacking their agenda. But whether its imported troublemakers or home-grown ones, populist politicians are giving Europe’s mainstream parties a run for their money — and for votes in the upcoming European parliament elections.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2018