The Minister of Magic isn’t even elected! Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
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Can wizards vote in Muggle elections? Plus other questions about wizarding democracy

As Rufus Scrimgeour put it: “These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today.”

During one of the most complex and unpredictable elections of recent years, our democratic process seems shrouded in darkness. Phrases like “no-confidence”, “caretaker convention”, “minority coalition” and “purdah” command a sense of mystery and bafflement. Citizens whisper in the streets of “vote swapping”, a “legitimacy crisis”, even a “second election”. Nick Clegg weeps softly into his pillow at night, clutching the 2011 alternative vote referendum.

In times of moral uncertainty, I often turn to J K Rowling. Feeling like a failure? She’s here for you, babe. Can’t quite suss your boss? Hear her wisdom. But when it comes to solving massive issues of structural inequality and bureaucratic obscurity, the Harry Potter books make our electoral system seem like an Eden of political transparency. If you’re reading this, Jo – I, for one, have a lot of questions.

The magical world, at least in Britain, is not a democracy. Rowling repeatedly refers to the “appointment” of the Minister for Magic: Fudge, Scrimgeour and Shacklebolt all secure the post with seemingly no approval at all from the Wizarding Community at large. Unusually for a community with a stated preference for segregating people into groups based on fairly arbitrary aspects of their personality, there seem to be no political parties, leadership candidates, or elections. Dumbledore casually refers to the fact that he has been “offered” the top job in wizarding society “three times on the last count, actually.” That ol’ Albus merely shrugs off the minor issue that an elusive person or persons has the power to randomly appoint a magical totalitarian overlord shows how deeply entrenched this approach to government is in wizarding society. It might also explain Dumbledore’s paternalistic and secretive approach to both teaching and magical warfare. (“Hey Harry! How about fighting the world’s most dangerous wizard with minimal help and no information at all from me, the closest thing to a guardian you have? I swear, it’s for your own good!”).

This becomes all the more troubling when Rowling hints at the full extent of the Minister’s control over the whole Ministry. The MoM appears to be a sprawling civil service, and a worryingly large percentage of adult wizards are employed by it, perhaps due to the lack of any functional economy (turns out, when you can do MAGIC, you don’t need to pay people to do much). Within the ministry, individuals have little say in their own career trajectories: witches and wizards seem to be moved sideways between departments against their will like pawns in a bureaucratic chess game. The personal preferences of the Minister play a large part in moves, promotions and demotions: Cornelius Fudge is able to freeze Arthur Weasley’s progress in the Ministry purely because he’s friends with Dumbledore. Even more extreme is the Minister’s ability to create and abolish departments, laws and offices at will. In short, the Minister exclusively commands the entire system of government, and the magical population has no control over his or her appointment. Say what you like about Voldemort, but at least he had something vaguely resembling a party, and a solid number of supporters.

Just as the Minister has unnervingly sweeping control of the Ministry, the Ministry guides all areas of wizarding life. The Magical Law Enforcement Office and the Auror Office are subsections of the Ministry with seemingly no operational independence, making them a potentially dangerous and powerful force for subjugation and control. The high court, the Wizengamot, is headed by the Minister, and its cloudy selection process and physical location within the MoM suggest it is utterly under ministerial control. This allows for the regular detaining of persons in Azkaban without trial indefinitely: Sirius Black never received a trial, yet remained wrongly imprisoned, then wanted, for over twelve years, because it was considered better for Ministry PR. The knowledge that laws surrounding imprisonment are often manipulated for political gain is widespread, as is an awareness that Ministry control of the soul-sucking Dementors is weak. The Ministry have intentionally created an unstable palace of mental and physical torture to frighten its population into subservience. In general, people seem pretty cool with that.

It gets worse: the Department of Mysteries essentially allows the Ministry to collect and analyse the private thoughts (they literally collect BRAINS), memories and potential futures of the population without their knowledge or consent. Want to know what this elusive department of government is up to? Sorry, it’s a mystery! There is no free press: the Ministry gains control of the Daily Prophet, seemingly the only respected news outlet. The Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures allows the Ministry to systematically oppress all non-human magical persons (including Beasts, Beings, Spirits, Goblins and Centaurs), enabling a society which depends on the slave labour of House Elves. The Ministry has an unusual level of influence over education: the Minister can appoint the Hogwarts headmaster, and controls the syllabus, pushing forward subjects which inevitably end in Ministry careers. At the same time, basic Muggle subjects like literature and maths are off-limits, essentially making it impossible for young wizards to leave the wizarding community. Muggle-borns are thereby encouraged to distance themselves from their non-magical homes and families, and commit themselves to the wizarding state.

Despite this disregard for the Muggle population as a whole, the Ministry, not content with total domination of magical society, extends its all-powerful grasp over the Muggle parliament, too. The bewitchment and confunding of Muggles is commonplace, structurally validated by the 1689 International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, which prioritises the invisibilty of the wizarding community over, say, human rights. (The statute, a pillar of wizarding government, declares the primary purpose of the MoM to be concealment, and goes some way to explaining why transparency appears to be utterly disregarded by wizards and witches both within and outside the Ministry.) It remains unconfirmed whether wizards are able to vote in Muggle elections, but the extent to which the Minister for Magic interferes with the business of the Prime Minister suggests that a select group of wizards have unlimited control over any Muggle matters that concern them.

The most worrying thing of all, though, is that after the Second Wizarding War, not a huge amount seems to change. Rowling has since given tidbits of information about life after the war. Yes, our dear friend Kinsley Shacklebolt is now Minister, Harry has "revolutionised" the Auror Office, Hermione is a progressive trailblazer in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. But the flawed system that oppressed and endangered so many is largely still in place.

My fellow Muggles: I understand your discontent, your frustration, your apathy. Our political system is inherently flawed. But remember, it could always be worse. You could be a wizard.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.