Brexit To Greek Debt: EU Is Easy Boogeyman, Brutal Negotiator

Promising voters to get the EU to change is easy, delivering that change is next to impossible.

Johnson at 10 Downing Street two weeks before his resignation
Johnson at 10 Downing Street two weeks before his resignation
Ferdinando Giugliano

LONDONBoris Johnson and David Davis, Britain's freshly departed Brexiteer ministers, are a cautionary tale for anti-establishment politicians across Europe.

The U.K."s vote to quit the EU was hailed as the beginning of a continent-wide transformation, which would see national governments claim back control from the Brussels bureaucrats. Yet the failure of the now former Foreign Secretary and the ex-Brexit Secretary to devise a plan for how to actually do this is instructive.

Both have now abandoned Theresa May"s cabinet and retreated to the comfort of like minds on parliament's backbenches, perhaps to plot her removal or perhaps not. Who knows, maybe Johnson will finally satisfy his own vaunting ambition and usurp May, but it's a long shot. Other political leaders should look at his parable: It's far easier to shout abuse against the EU than to guide your country out of it.

Much like tragic drama, the anti-elite revolts in places like Greece, Italy and the U.K. are starting to follow a similar pattern. The first step is "overpromising," whereby populist politicians convince the public that they alone can deliver what mainstream opponents have failed to achieve. This typically involves being able to extract EU concessions that are vastly superior to anything seen before.

For Johnson and Davis, these empty pledges included keeping the kind of access British companies enjoy in the single market, while being at liberty to strike other trade deals and restrict immigration from the EU. Of course, Brussels was never going to agree to this and never will – regardless of whether it's May they're negotiating with or Johnson. Most European leaders believe the four pillars of the single European market (the freedom of movement of labor, goods, services and capital) are indivisible and inviolate. But Brexiteers built an entire campaign around the claim that they weren't.

Tsipras had to learn to button up — Photo: EU2016SK

Johnson and Davis are in excellent company. Alexis Tsipras convinced Greek voters that he alone could keep the country in the single currency while negotiating a much looser rescue program than his predecessors. In Italy, the populist League and Five Star Movement have spent years saying they could force the EU and the financial markets to let Rome run a much higher budget deficit than the rules allowed.

The second phase of populism is "victory," when the public gives the anti-elite brigade a shot at making good on their promises. Johnson and Davis were both brought into government to help shape the Brexit plan. Davis was even put in charge of running the talks with Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator. Yet in two years, they failed to come up with a viable alternative to the softer Brexit strategy agreed by May and her ministers on Friday at her country house Chequers.

Indeed, all the gifts offered by the U.K. "Leave" team have turned out to be fantasy. The unity of European countries hasn't crumbled and the commitment to the "four freedoms' hasn't budged. Last weekend's proposals are in fact a humiliating climbdown for the Brexiteers – hence the resignations. Here are the likely third and fourth stages of populism: "Underdelivery" and "defeat."

European leaders believe the four pillars of the single European market are indivisible and inviolate.

As determined and ruthless a politician as Johnson can't be ruled out entirely, but it's impossible to see how he can emerge victorious here. A "no-deal" Brexit is the nuclear option but the economic damage from this would hardly match the "sunlit uplands' that Johnson promised voters alongside Britain's unique ability to "have its cake and eat it too."

Greece is a similar tale. Alexis Tsipras is still in government (although Yanis Varoufakis, his former finance minister, isn't), but he faces a steep challenge to win the next election after failing to give Greek voters what he'd promised. Austerity has continued, and even a deal on debt relief doesn't include a face-value reduction. In Italy, the League and Five Star coalition is barely a month old. But it too has begun to backtrack on many campaign promises. It won't take long for disillusionment to kick in.

For all the populist swagger, it's incredibly difficult to go against the collective will of all the other EU member states. The Brussels bureaucrat may be an easy target rhetorically but they're a hard opponent, precisely because they have very little flexibility to deviate from the agreed rules. Of course, EU member states might one day realize that this is all too much to bear and that countries need to be free to set their own course. But until then, the Johnsons and Davis's of Europe are destined to fail.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!