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Leader: The return of Europe

The central reason the EU now confronts such challenges with confidence is the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president.

At the close of 2016, the European Union was haunted by the spectre of permanent decline. For the first time in its history, a member state had voted to leave. The Brexiteers hoped – and Europhiles feared – that Britain’s departure would trigger a chain reaction. The United States, meanwhile, once a champion of European integration, had elected Donald Trump as president, a man who openly wished for the break-up of the EU. As Europe confronted these new threats, its own long-standing problems – the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, the Russia-Ukraine conflict – remained unresolved.

The paradox, as the political scientist Ivan Krastev writes in his essay on page 24, is that although these troubles have endured, the EU is now defined by a new mood of optimism. In part, this reflects a genuine shift in economic performance.

The eurozone economy grew at its fastest rate for a decade in 2017 (2.5 per cent) and unemployment fell to its lowest level since 2009 (8.7 per cent). By contrast, the UK grew at around 1.8 per cent, its worst performance since 2012. Though the Brexit vote did not result in the recession some forecast, Britain’s losses – and the EU’s refusal to grant concessions – have been sufficient to deter other member states from leaving.

Mr Trump has also proved less destructive than many had feared. An accelerating US economy has reinforced the EU’s recovery, and the American president has inadvertently united Europeans in contempt. However, Mr Trump’s new threat of a trade war (“I’ve had a lot of problems with the European Union,” he said) shows the potential for mutually destructive protectionism.

The central reason the EU now confronts such challenges with confidence is the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president. As Mr Krastev writes, his victory was “a reminder of the importance of leadership” and of the winning combination of “talent, ambition and good luck”. Mr Macron’s unashamed advocacy of Europe and his assured personal style has created a profound change in the political atmosphere. For too long, EU leaders appeared to regard support as an automatic entitlement; Mr Macron recognises that  it needs to be earned and argued for.

Britain’s troubled state offers a contrasting lesson in leadership. Theresa May’s absence of vision has made the unenviable task of Brexit even harder. Such is the Prime Minister’s weakness and lack of authority that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, privately mocked her refusal to make the EU an “offer” in the negotiations. Though they are divided by the Europe Question, Remainers and Leavers in Mrs May’s party are united in despair at her leadership. Her premiership has become a joyless act of managing decline.

The best leaders are political alchemists: capable of repeatedly turning crises into opportunities. Mr Macron’s achievement was to transform despair into optimism and fear into hope. At a defining moment in the UK’s history, it is precisely this skill that Mrs May lacks. 

Theatre of the elite

In this magazine last year, the Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro described the musical Hamilton as “the closest I’ve ever felt to experiencing… an early performance of, say, Richard III, on the Elizabethan stage”. So it was a grave disappointment to many fans when the latest tranche of tickets went on sale on 29 January. Around half the seats have been hiked in price from £89.50 to £100 since the initial release, a rise of 10 per cent in just 18 months. Top price “premium” tickets are £250; only eight seats are £20.

Tickets are selling well, so some would argue this is simply the market in action. But Hamilton has the potential to create a new generation of theatre-lovers, and treating it as a purely commercial proposition seems short-sighted. In New York, the sky-high stalls prices were offset by the Rockefeller Foundation funding 20,000 tickets for schools at $10 each.

Hamilton at least is backed by private money. We should ask more searching questions of subsidised theatres, such as the National on London’s South Bank, which received £18.2m from the Arts Council in 2016-17. Although schemes such as the Travelex £15 tickets are welcome, standard prices cannot be allowed to creep ever higher without theatre losing touch with younger and less wealthy audiences. The art form will die if it becomes a conversation purely among the elite. 

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

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I’ll miss the youthful thrill of Claire’s Accessories – but the tween Mecca refused to grow up

From an adolescent rite of passage to struggling to stay open: how the tackiest shop on the high street lost its shine.

The first day I was allowed to go into “town” (hailing from rural Essex, that’s the local shopping centre, not London) with a friend – unsupervised by a parent – was a real cornerstone of my childhood.

We were 13, and looking back, we had neither mobile phones nor contingency plans, and my mum must have been sat at home for the entire two hours scared shitless, waiting for when she could pick me up again (by the Odeon carpark, 3pm sharp).

Finally free from the constraints of traipsing around department stores bound by the shackles of an adult, my friend and I had the most grown-up afternoon we could imagine; Starbucks Frappuccinos (size: tall – we weren’t made of money), taking pictures on a pink digital camera in the H&M changing rooms, and finally, making a beeline for tween Mecca: Claire’s Accessories.

As a beauty journalist, I’m pretty sure Saturdays spent running amok among the diamante earrings, bow hairbands and fluffy notebooks had an influence on my career path.

I spent hours poring over every rack of clip-on earrings, getting high on the fumes of strawberry lipbalm and the alcohol used to clean freshly pierced toddlers’ ears.

Their slogan, “Where getting ready is half the fun”, still rings true for me ten years on, as I stand on the edge of dancefloors, bored and waiting until my peers are suitably drunk to call it a night, yet revelling in just how great my painstakingly applied false lashes look.

The slogan on a Claire's receipt. Photo: Flickr

On Monday, Claire’s Accessories US filed for bankruptcy, after they were lumbered with insurmountable debts since being taken over by Apollo Global Management in 2007. Many of the US-based stores are closing. While the future of Claire’s in the UK looks uncertain, it may be the next high street retailer – suffering from the surge of online shopping – to follow in Toys R Us’ footsteps.

As much as I hate to say it, this is unsurprising, considering Claire’s commitment to remain the tackiest retailer on the high street.

With the huge rise of interest in beauty from younger age groups – credit where credit’s due, YouTube – Claire’s has remained steadfast in its core belief in taffeta, rhinestone and glitter.

In my local Superdrug (parallel to the Claire’s Accessories, a few doors down from the McDonald’s where we would sit, sans purchase, maxed out after our Lipsmacker and bath bomb-filled jaunt), there are signs plastered all over the new Makeup Revolution concealer stand: “ENQUIRE WITH STAFF FOR STOCK”. A group of young girls nervously designate one among them to do the enquiring.

Such is the popularity of the three-week-old concealer, made infamous by YouTube videos entitled things like “I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CONCEALER!” and “FULL COVERAGE AND £4!!!”, no stock is on display for fear of shoplifters.

The concealer is cheap, available on the high street, comparable to high-end brands and favoured by popular YouTube “beauty gurus”, giving young girls a portal into “adult life”, with Happy Meal money.

It’s unlikely 13-year-olds even own eye bags large enough to warrant a full coverage concealer, but they’re savvy enough to know that they can now get good quality makeup and accessories, without going any higher than Claire’s price points.

They have naturally outgrown a retailer that refuses to grow with them; it’s simply not sustainable on Claire’s part to sell babyish items to a market who no longer want babyish things.

Adulthood is catching up with this new breed of teenagers faster than ever, and they’ve decided it’s time to put away childish things.

Tweenagers of 2018 won’t miss Claire’s Accessories if it goes. The boarded-up purple signage would leave craters in shopping centre walls soon to be filled with the burgundy sheen of a new Pret.

But I will. Maybe not constantly – it’s not as if Primark has stopped selling jersey dresses, or Topshop their Joni jeans – it’ll be more of a slow burn. I’ll mourn the loss of Claire’s the next time a pang of nostalgia for blue-frosted shadow hits me, or when it’s Halloween eve and I realise I’m bereft of a pair of cat ears. But when the time comes, there’s always Amazon Prime.

Amelia Perrin is a freelance beauty and lifestyle journalist.