European anti-politics: reading the runes in Italy and Germany

The success of the Pirate Party and Italian comedian Beppe Grillo is symptomatic of our times.

There is no denying that the electoral results in France and Greece last weekend will have a significant impact on European politics in the short- term. But to get a picture of how things will look further into the future, it may be wise to pay attention to two rather more minor elections that took place this weekend.

The poll in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region not only signalled danger for Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition; it also confirmed the establishment of a significant protest movement – the Pirate Party. Meanwhile in Italy, surprisingly high levels of background support for Mario Monti’s technocracy have combined with the emergence of a populist comedian, Bepe Grillo, as a serious political figure.

These developments, diffuse as they may seem, are intimately linked. They point to a growing backlash against the mainstream parties (also in evidence in Greece), but this backlash is not just about disappointment in the parties’ handling of the issues of the day – austerity, growth and the rest. It is tied to the long-term emergence of an anti-political culture that places a potentially dangerous amount of faith in supposedly “neutral” solutions to political problems.

In Germany, the Pirate Party runs on a platform of abolishing copyright restrictions and radically opening up access to information. Their manifesto is a challenge to the old way of doing things – they want to end what they call the “principle of secrecy” and usher in a new era of transparency that allows citizens to interact with government in an entirely open information system.

But in making this claim, the Pirate Party reveals its troubling belief that representative politics can essentially be replaced by technology. Their own method for formulating policy uses an online platform called Liquid Feedback, which allows members to formulate and vote for proposals – the most popular policies eventually make it into the manifesto. The implication is that this supposedly non-hierarchical structure is how politics in general should work. It is as if citizens – left to their own devices and without the interference of traditional parties and the state apparatus – would be able to reach entirely uncontroversial policy decisions.

But this process neatly avoids the question of how executive power is wielded in such a radically open political system – indeed, evidence suggests that certain members of the Pirate Party are rather more equal than others when it comes to policymaking. And it entirely circumvents the age-old democratic problem of how to protect minority rights in a majoritarian system.

The Pirate Party’s success in Schleswig-Holstein this weekend is symptomatic of wider changes in the way citizens are coming to view democratic processes. The belief that technology provides a route to “neutral”, uncontroversial policy decisions is linked to a more general lack of faith in the traditional toolkit of representative politics – values-based partisanship, interest representation and the political skills of negotiation and compromise.

Further evidence of this move towards anti-politics can be seen in the results coming out of Italy. Much of the media has tended to frame this weekend’s local elections as a chance for Italians to show their frustration with the Monti regime. But in fact it is impossible for Italians to vote against Monti’s government, for the simple reason that the government is unelected. Granted, lower poll numbers for the mainstream parties which shore up the technocracy may be an indirect indicator of dissatisfaction, but the fact remains that the government is once-removed from political accountability.

What the election results really show is a rejection of the mainstream parties in favour of a comedian running on a fervently anti-political platform. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement plays on people’s distrust of politicians, proposing to give "the entire public the role of government and guidance normally attributed to a few". Grillo’s success in these elections is a marker of the disrepute into which Italian representative politics has fallen. When this is combined with surprisingly high levels of support for the technocratic government, the trend is clear: people are increasingly inclined to believe that there are non-political, neutral solutions to political problems. Whether these solutions come in the form of a finance-oriented technocracy or a comedy-oriented populist, the point is that the answers to Italy’s economic and social problems are seen as having little if anything to do with democratic politics.

The scenes from Paris over the weekend were a timely reminder of what real democratic politics can be: a contest between different conceptions of how society should be organised, and a means of mobilising large numbers of citizens to take a role, albeit limited, in their own government. The danger is that such exhibitions of the value of representative democracy will become fewer and farther between.

William Brett is a PhD candidate at UCL and a research assistant at the Centre for Financial Analysis & Policy.

The German Pirate party leader Bernd Schloemer. Photograph: Getty Images.
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6 ways Brexit is ruining our food

A meat-eating chocolate-lover? You're in trouble.

We were warned. “We’ve got to get our act together”, said Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London about an impending culinary crisis. He predicted that food would be the second biggest Brexit issue after the future of banking in the City of London. But whereas The City, ominously capitalised, is an ephemeral consideration for those outside the infamous metropolitan liberal elite, food certainly isn’t. Food affects us all – and so far it’s been hit hard by Brexit, after the value of the pound has been savaged, making importing to the UK more expensive. Here are six ways in which Brexit has is ruining our food.

Walnut Whip

The final insult. The sign that Brexit really has gone too far. It was announced yesterday that Walnut Whips would become nothing more than mere Whips. The reason given for this abomination was that the new range would cater for those who didn’t like, or were allergic to, nuts, allowing them to enjoy just the gooey, chocolatey goodness within. Closer inspection reveals that’s not quite the whole story. Walnut importers like Helen Graham, told the Guardian that the pound’s post-Brexit fall in value after last June, combined with “strong global demand” and a poor walnut yield in Chile, have led to Whips shedding the Walnut - not consumer demand. Nestlé say that individual packets and Christmas bumper packs will still be available - but at this rate, getting hold of them might prove harder in practice than in theory.

Marmite

2016’s Marmite shortages was perhaps the first sign that not all was well. Marmite is the ultimate Brexit metaphor: you either love it or hate it, a binary reflected in the 48-52 per cent vote – and the bitter taste it leaves for many. Marmite’s endangered status was confirmed after Tesco entered hostile negotiations with food megacorp Unilever, who wanted to raise trade prices by 10 per cent due to that inconvenient falling pound. Lynx deodorant, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Persil washing powder and PG Tips tea were similarly affected, but none inspired quite the same amount of outrage as the yeast-based spread.

Toblerone

The beauty of Toblerone is the frequency of its triangles. That angularity has been undermined by manufacturer Mondelēz’s decision to space them out, removing 10 per cent of the bar’s total chocolate in the process. Art has truly been tampered with. The scandal led to Colin Beattie MSP calling for the Scottish Parliament to offer condolences to triangle fans, blaming it directly on Brexit. Defending the change, a spokeswoman for Mondelēz said "this change wasn't done as a result of Brexit", suggesting it's part of the sad trend of chocolates getting skimpier. That said, they did admit that the current exchange rate was "not favourable" - and that in itself is directly due to Brexit. They also refused to be drawn on whether they'd be changing their signature chocolate in other EU territories. Hmm. Semantics aside, the dispute is getting legal. Poundland, who are seeking to bring out a "Twin Peaks" alternative to Toblerone echoing the brand's original shape but with two peaks per block instead of one, claim that Toblerone's shape is no longer distinctive enough to warrant a trademark. They claim that their new rival has "a British taste, and with all the spaces in the right places". Shots. Fired.

Cheddar

This one hurts more because it’s closer to home. Our Irish neighbours are reportedly considering turning away from cheddar to mozzarella. This act of dairy-based betrayal is understandable: if export tariffs to the UK go up, Irish cheese producers will have to sell their wares primarily on the continent – for which mozzarella would be a better fit. Tragic.

Chlorinated chicken

Ah, the big one. The subject of not only a transatlantic war of words, but also the source of strife within the cabinet. With the UK forced to look to the US for trade support, it was feared that the country's’ trademark chlorinated chicken would be forced upon these shores as a concession. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox called the media “obsessed” with the topic, dismissing fears over Britain’s meat of the future by saying that there is “no health risk”. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, however, said that there is no way that chlorinated chicken would reach British shelves. The row has faded away somewhat – but this game of chicken between these cabinet heavyweights may yet be renewed when Parliament reconvenes.

Hormone beef

Hormone beef is similarly contentious. US farmers raise cows on growth hormones to fatten them up for markets. As with chlorinated chicken, it’s a practice banned under EU law. It’s a touchy subject for US trade negotiators. Gregg Doud, a senior figure in Trump’s agriculture team, has said that accepting hormone beef is essential to any trade agreement. This debate, too, will presumably rumble on.

All told, it’s a good time to be a vegetarian, but a bad time to have a sweet tooth. Most of the upheaval rests around the weakness of the pound, so maybe the only way forward is to just eat good old homegrown British fruit. At least we'd all be healthier and more in pocket. Oh wait. Apparently British fruit harvests are in jeopardy too, given that most of our fruit is picked by short-term EU migrants. Ah, well, at least we've all got Boris Johnson to make sure that we can have our bananas curved, in packs of more than three.