Best columns: Europe
A master class in digression and deflection
Is Prime Minister Theresa May making any decisions as leader of this country? asked Nigel Nelson. If she is, “she’s not telling anyone.” At Prime Minister’s Question Time in Parliament last week, she showed her mastery of the art of deflection. Not a single substantive answer emerged from the lips of “Mrs. Won’t, Can’t, Shan’t, or Working on.” When opposition Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn asked for some clarification on the when and how of Brexit, May told him, “I’ve been very clear, and I will be clear again.” Then she simply “rambled in a way that only muddied the waters.” When Corbyn said she reminded him of the doltish character Baldrick from the Blackadder TV series—whose catchphrase was “I have a cunning plan!”—May went off on a digression about how the actor who played Baldrick is a Labor supporter. When asked whether she would condemn Spain for agreeing to let Russian warships refuel at Spanish ports on their way to bomb Syria, the prime minister condemned Russia but ignored the Spanish issue. When asked what she is doing about Saudi Arabia, which is sending its Britishtrained pilots to drop British-supplied bombs on Yemeni children, May said she was “very clear” that “the only solution for Yemen was a solution.” If this were a Blackadder episode, we’d laugh—but in real life, such obfuscation isn’t funny.
Dark echoes of Nazi catchphrases
Words and phrases from the Nazi era have made a comeback in Germany, said Anke Fink. Thanks to the rise of the far-right group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known by its German acronym Pegida, our newspapers are once again filled with phrases popularized by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Pegida burst onto the German scene in Dresden in 2014, leading marches demanding that borders be closed against refugees and that Muslims be forced to assimilate. In just two years, the group has “altered the daily speech of many Germans.” They called Chancellor Angela Merkel Volksverräterin, which means “blood traitor.” Only members of fringe groups deploy that word, but mainstream politicians have, worryingly, begun to use Überfremdung—a vicious term for foreign infiltration—without scare quotes. The taint has even spread abroad. Some Donald Trump supporters have shouted “Lügenpresse!” German for “lying press,” at reporters covering the Republican presidential nominee’s rallies. On social media, all these terms are now “used as a matter of course,” as if it were normal to talk like a Nazi. Linguists tell us these words have “chauvinist, racist, and demagogic” implications. We mustn’t let them poison our national discourse.
Europe: A show of force to deter Russia
NATO has just announced a large buildup of military force on Russia’s western flank, said Beata Stur in New Europe (Belgium). Over the next few months, multinational NATO units of 1,000 troops each will deploy to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The U.S. is sending tanks, artillery, and a “battleready battalion task force” of 900 soldiers to Poland, and the U.K. is shipping fighter jets to Romania. The buildup is a response to increasingly belligerent Russian maneuvers. A Russian navy battle group, including the country’s only aircraft carrier, sailed through the English Channel last week and then into the Mediterranean Sea, presumably headed for Syria, where Russian forces have been relentlessly bombing rebel-held civilian areas. Russia also sent two warships into the Baltic Sea and deployed nuclear-capable missiles to its exclave of Kaliningrad, a territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. NATO had previously pledged not to station troops in the newer member states that were once Soviet republics, but now it has “no choice,” says Alexander Vershbow, who retired as NATO’s deputy secretary general last month. “Russia changed the whole paradigm in 2014 with its aggression against Ukraine, its illegal annexation of Crimea.”
This military buildup is “just the kind of self-confidence NATO needs to be showing,” said Mike Schier in Merkur (Germany). America has seemed reluctant to lead lately, and no other NATO power has stepped up—presumably because most NATO countries have let their militaries wither. But Russian President Vladimir Putin “understands just one language: meeting his force with a counterforce.” Of course, nobody expects 1,000 soldiers in Estonia to be a match for the 330,000-strong Russian army, said Max Hastings in the Daily Mail (U.K.). These are “tripwire forces,” intended to convince Putin that any attempt at a Crimea-style takeover will be fought off by all NATO members acting together. Will he believe it? Why should he? The U.S. and NATO have “threatened him with ‘consequences’ for bully-boying” time and again—in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014, and now in Syria. Yet Putin was punished with nothing more than sanctions.
And with every action, his forces get more experienced, said Keir Giles in Independent.co.uk. If NATO were to actually find itself fighting Russia, it would face forces “re-equipped and retrained” because of the conflict in Syria. Russia has been using “as many weapons systems there as possible in order to test them,” even when they are not the best option for the task. Russian military officials sent an aircraft carrier to Syria, for instance, rather than simply use the air base the country already has there. That’s why Russia’s neighbors are scared, said Ian Birrell in the Mail on Sunday (U.K.). Lithuania has reintroduced conscription, while Sweden and Finland are considering joining NATO. Putin has shown a “ruthless desperation to mask economic failure by whipping up nationalist fervor.” Who can predict what this “dangerous despot” will do next?