How Brexit Nightmare Is Cooling Italy's Anti-EU Fever

Italy's political leaders who rejoiced with Brexit referendum are now silent.

Anti Brexit protestors gather in Rome
Anti Brexit protestors gather in Rome


TURIN — Now that the UK must face the Brexit reality, nobody here in Italy is celebrating — not even those who had initially popped the champagne.

Let's take, for example, Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-European Union, anti-immigrant League party. On June 23, 2016, the day of the historic referendum in the United Kingdom, the man who has since risen to Interior Minister, had rejoiced: "Long live the courage of free citizens! Heart, head and pride beat lies, threats and blackmail. Thanks UK, now it's our turn," he'd tweeted. Almost three years later, Salvini is silent on the issue.

Same goes for Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S), allies in the coalition government with Salvini's League. In a blog post titled "The EU has to change or it dies — word to the citizens," he wrote: "The most expensive path to the M5S, asking citizens to give an opinion on the most decisive topics." Given the results, it may have been better not to ask for that opinion at all. Perhaps British politicians should have taken responsibility for the "remain" or "leave" choices, rather than confining it to citizens who cannot fully assess all of its implications. In either case, right now the UK would not be humbly asking, hat in hand, for an extension on the deadline to leave the Union.

Matteo Salvini on the campaign trail last year. Photo: Lega Salvini Premier

The dream of leaving Europe is turning into a nightmare. Her Majesty's subjects wanted to take their destiny back into their hands, expel the too many Italian and Spanish dishwashers, assert full "British" sovereignty without all those constraints imposed by Brussels. Instead, they now risk loosening their hold on Northern Ireland (if, implementing the so-called "backstop", the border with the EU were drawn in the middle of the Irish Sea); or they could trigger a new civil war, in case the physical border with Ireland was restored. Perhaps voters hadn't thought about it enough. Whatever the reason, that ill-calculated desire for sovereignty could actually make the British less masters in their home. But this is not the only paradox.

Among those invoking more sovereignty, the idea was shared that shaking off Europe would be a walk in the park. For the UK and also for Italy, if it came to that. Almost two years of fruitless negotiations demonstrate exactly the opposite: There is no hope of leaving as if nothing had happened, maintaining the advantages of the Union without, however, assuming the negative consequences.

British negotiators have come up against a wall, similar to what happens in a condominium meeting if a tenant goes against the other 27: "You don't want immigrants? Then no free circulation of goods and capital. You don't like the EU rules? No problem. You'll have to pay the duties. Could you have thought of that before? Of course, but now it's too late."

Our luck in Italy, compared to the British, is that a referendum on the Union would have not been allowed here, since it is forbidden by the Constitution, article 75. When our fathers included that clause, they saved us a lot of trouble.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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