Getting to Prague Unsecretly

The McClatchy newspaper company reported yesterday that Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, was in Prague last August or September. This is important because if true, it would seem to corroborate part of the controversial dossier compiled by British former spy Christopher Steele. The idea is that Cohen would have taken on the role of contact person with Russia after Paul Manafort was fired from/quit the campaign.

For about 25 hours so far, reporter Peter Stone has left out there twisting slowly, slowly in the wind kicked up by his report. No other news organization that I know of confirms his report. That must be uncomfortable.

If the report is true it is important. Cohen made a conspicuous point of denying the trip when the allegation appeared, when the Steele dossier was published by Buzzfeed. He tweeted a picture of the front of an American passport and wrote “I have never been to Prague in my life.”

•••••

Less than half of Americans have a passport, and as recently as 1997 that number was only 15 percent (After 9/11, for the first time “U.S. citizens traveling by air between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda were required to have a valid passport,” Forbes reports, which raised the percentage dramatically).

Since so many Americans are unfamiliar with borders and how they work, I think it’s important to point out something that many might not realize: whether Mr. Cohen traveled to Prague in 2016 or not, his passport would not necessarily contain a Czech entry stamp.

Here’s how that works: 26 European countries, comprising some 400 million people, signed an agreement in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, in 1995. Under the Schengen agreement, entry into any of these countries requires the usual pass control arrival procedures, the glowering official, the uncomfortable silence, maybe the fingerprint thing and all the flourescence and fatigue, but once stamped in, a visitor is not subject to further border checks within the Schengen area.

Here is a list of the Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

It has been reported that Mr. Cohen traveled to Italy in July of 2016, though at a time not consistent with the claims of the dossier. He could have walked from the plane to the Hertz counter, rented a budget sedan and driven from Roma to Prague in about twelve hours with no need for his passport.

Alternately, his evil, opulent-luxury-yacht-wielding collaborators might have put him ashore on a quiet Portuguese beach, from which he perhaps begged a ride from an itinerant fisherman to the train station, and from there made his way to Prague. He might have caught the Delta flight up to Reykjavik, been waved through by a weary pass control clerk at the end of his shift, predawn, when all those flights come in at once, and caught the ferry to Denmark.

Or, of course, for the conspiracy minded, he might have been spirited in and out of the Czech Republic with the help of all those evil, conspiring collaborators. Doing something really mean about Crimea on the way just for the record.

Point is: these days in Europe, a passport needn’t have a stamp for you to have been there.

You can get to Prague with your initial entry stamp from any of these places:

Election Day in Italy

 

How about a morning coffee catch up on today’s Italian elections?

To start, bookmark these two overviews, a general explainer from Euronews and a cheat sheet from an economic perspective.

Now, what people are saying:

Italy’s Election Could Change Everything, Scott B. MacDonald argues. If Eurosceptics win a majority and cobble together a coalition Italy could face a referendum on whether to leave the eurozone.

That’s doubtful. Politico.eu sees things differently.

The Guardian has a long article on Italy’s political fringe, The fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstreamAnd Tim Parks writes that just over a month ago the body of an eighteen-year old girl

“was found in the countryside near Macerata in Central Italy. Soon the police had arrested a Nigerian accused of selling the girl drugs. On February 3, a white man, previously a local government candidate for the Northern League, drove through the town firing some thirty shots from his car into immigrant shops and bars, wounding six people.”

And thus the stage was set for an ugly five weeks of immigration-centered contentiousness. At the center of that particular stage is Matteo Salvini, 44, leader of the Lega (formerly the Northern League), a xenophobic, racist bunch who fear an “Islamic invasion” in Italy. (Here is an interview.) Salvini has gathered up all the last minute press with headlines like the most dangerous man in Italy.

At the same time, today’s election is huge for the anti-establishment, poll-leading Movimento Cinque Stelle, or 5 Star Movement, the formerly insurgent party founded by Beppe Grillo, a stand-up comedian who is himself ineligible to hold office because of a negligent homicide conviction.

M5S politician Virginia Elena Raggi is Mayor of Rome, and Chiara Appendino is Mayor of Turin. Because its members now wield actual power, to decidedly mixed results, M5S is in awkward transition, governing while campaigning as insurgents.

Part of the problem is that they aren’t governing all that well. Raggi was indicted two weeks ago on favoritism charges that sound familiar: lying about cronyism. In Raggi’s case it was appointing her former assistant’s brother to be Rome’s tourism chief.

Grillo keeps a lower profile than during the rise of the movement. The party’s hopes are pinned on 31 year old Luigi Di Maio, a Vice-President of Chamber of Deputies in the Italian Parliament. Conventional wisdom holds that even if M5S were to get the most votes it would be difficult for them to cobble together a governing coalition.

(M5S background here from Bloomberg. The Atlantic explains How Italy’s Five-Star Movement Is Winning the Youth Vote: “They can’t find jobs, and the centrist parties have failed them, opening space for the populists.”)

The former PM Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) polls in second place but it ain’t got no juice. Slim Odds.

•••••

And then there’s this, from a different Tim Parks article titled Whoever Wins Won’t Govern:

“We are the country of … the decree that never becomes law and the investment that is always inadequate; in the rare event that everything goes smoothly and parliament gets something done we are the country that can rely on the courts to undo it. Italian power is impotence.

Whoever wins, they will not govern. All will go on just the same. Most key policies will be decided outside Italy.”

By which he means the European Union.

•••••

The EU is a wholly fascinating polity. Choose your corner. In the northwest and southeast the United Kingdom and Greece slash and tear at Brussels’ rule. In the northeast, Finland is grateful the EU has its back, given its long Russian border, while in the southwest Portugal appreciates the €1.8 billion more that it receives annually than it contributes to Brussels (2016). And in the middle, the yet-to-be initiated Balkan countries both want in and don’t.

My Italian friends were the first to assure me, seriously, that Donald Trump could become the American president. This was nonsense, I assured them, but they had seen it. They had lived the Silvio Berlusconi experience. Now as usual, Italy faces a dizzy field of Communists, anarchists, stuntmen, the common paralysis and … Berlusconi.

The prospects of a return of Berlusconi invite despair.  One would hope that having once elected a clown parody of a statesman, the good people of (insert your country name here) would run him out of town.

This election is worth staying up late to watch. Happy election day.

Speaking of morning coffee, got time to buy me a cup?

European Languages in Danger?

Euronews has an article with a nice map of European languages in danger. The map is interactive on the Euronews site, here. Every now and then we hear a story about the rampant death of languages around the world. The news here is that in Europe, at least, languages are largely holding their own. The Euronews article is built around a UNESCO report, which you can view here.

The Runoff

On yesterday’s elections: 1. the French have rejected both traditional parties in an election for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic. And 2. the pollsters largely got it right, which is more than can be said for their British and American counterparts these last couple years.

While the next two weeks are potentially fraught, for the moment the idea of a functioning European project survives. But headlines like

“Macron to ‘blow Le Pen out of the water’ in final round of French election – Not even a terrorist attack could increase Front National’s chances, experts believe”

in this morning’s Independent are exactly what forces of moderation don’t want to see over the next two weeks. Because, as Der Spiegel explains,

“if only a fraction of those who believe that Macron’s victory is a given end up staying home on May 7, then Le Pen has a shot at becoming France’s next president. Because there is one certainty that has survived: Front National supporters will turn out in force.”

While the periphery frays (Brexit, the Turkish referendum), you can at least make an argument this morning that the core still believes in the European idea. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with this ‘blow her out of the water’ kind of loose talk. Two delicate weeks lie ahead for an entirely untested would-be leader in a world full of surprises.

System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

••••

It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

••••

An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.