Macron and Merkel renew their vows

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“GENTLEMEN, NEVER forget that for France there can be no other alternative but friendship with Germany.” Half a century after Charles de Gaulle uttered these words to his ministers, the relationship between France and Germany remains the most important in Europe: an emblem of peace and reconciliation, and the foundation stone of European integration.

To renew and strengthen this essential bond, President Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, will meet on January 22nd in the German border town of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French), where they will sign a 16-page treaty. The ceremony takes place 56 years to the day after de Gaulle and his West German counterpart, Konrad Adenauer, met at the presidential palace in Paris to sign the Elysée treaty, capping the two countries’ move from Erbfeinde (hereditary foes) to partners in what a later West German chancellor would call the entente élémentaire.

The inauguration in 2017 of Mr Macron, a passionate European who spoke of seizing a historic moment to face down nationalism, seemed to offer the best chance in years to restart the Franco-German motor. For Mrs Merkel, who had grown used to disappointment under three previous French presidents, Mr Macron looked like a serious reformer, ready to improve French competitiveness and steady its public finances. Mr Macron hoped to inspire Germany to join him in reforming the euro area and bolstering the EU’s resilience. He filled his government with Germanophiles, from his prime minister and finance minister down, and rarely acted before weighing the German response.

Yet a harsh reality has since set in. Despite the ambitions laid out by Mr Macron in a sweeping speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, the sense of possibility that dominated those early months has mostly evaporated. This is reflected in the low ambition of the new treaty. In place of grand plans for an EU army or commonly guaranteed bonds, you find hopeful language on co-ordinating decisions and plans to deepen municipal co-operation in border regions. An agreement between the countries’ parliaments will establish a 100-member joint assembly. Officials speak of turning the model of co-operation embodied in the Elysée treaty into a platform for Franco-German “convergence”. But it is aspirational at best. “Fifty-six years on, everyone knows the Elysée treaty,” says Henrik Enderlein of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “I doubt anyone will look at the Aachen treaty in 50 years.”

Its meatiest provisions concern defence and security co-operation. France and Germany account for almost half the EU’s military-industrial capabilities, says Claudia Major at the SWP think-tank in Berlin. If they don’t agree, things don’t move. The French have welcomed German help in their operations in the Sahel, and the pair work together in the so-called Normandy format with Russia and Ukraine.

Yet there remains a gulf in strategic understanding. “Germany does not need a strong army for its understanding of sovereignty,” says Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the Bundestag and one of Germany’s great Francophiles. “France is a different story.” The Germans strongly opposed the French intervention in Libya in 2011, and remain suspicious that schemes like Mr Macron’s European Intervention Initiative, set up outside the EU, are a ruse to get other Europeans to pay for French action in Africa. French officials are frustrated by German unwillingness to deploy troops, and consider PESCO, a framework for EU defence projects promoted by Germany, as woefully unambitious. This leads to a split-the-difference approach, reflected in Aachen’s dispiritingly Eurocentric proposal for France to back a permanent seat for Germany on the UN Security Council.

On the euro zone Mr Schäuble, finance minister in the 2010-12 crisis, says that German positions, including in his centre-right Christian Democratic Union, have notably softened: “Compared to the positions in my parliamentary group six years ago things are much better.” Yet it is hard to ignore the gap between achievement and aspiration. Mr Macron had sought a euro-zone budget worth “several points of GDP”, as well as a special parliament and finance minister. The budget the euro zone agreed to consider in December is an order of magnitude less ambitious. Banking union proceeds at a glacial pace, thanks in part to German fears about Italy’s wobbly lenders.

Inside Europe, the pairing has proved most effective when the two governments have first battled to secure agreement among themselves. “The strength of the relationship is that we come from different directions and find a joint position,” says Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe minister. Hard-fought compromises tend to endure, and, despite the occasional fear of a Franco-German stitch-up, can sweep up other countries who feel their interests are roughly represented by one or other of the big two.

Yet in an enlarged EU other groups, like the central European Visegrad four or the Dutch-led “New Hanseatic League”, can make the weather; the Hanseatics represent at least as big a roadblock to Mr Macron’s euro-zone plans as Germany. And the motor often sputters. Proposals to harmonise the two countries’ corporate-tax systems as the basis for an EU-wide agreement, for example, have been around since 2011. Similarly, a much-heralded French push for an EU tax on digital giants like Google and Facebook has struggled to gain traction in Berlin. In frustration Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, has applied a digital tax unilaterally.

The difficulties stem in part from diverging analyses of Europe’s place in the world. Mr Macron is impatient to bolster what he calls “European sovereignty” in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unreliable America. Germany is not immune to such arguments; its manufacturers are belatedly waking up to the Chinese threat, for example. That has helped motivate Germany’s push with France to lean on sceptical competition authorities in Brussels to allow the merger of the rail operations of Siemens and Alstom.

Yet as one French official puts it, “Germany is a slow-moving country, and doesn’t like big visions.” Few Germans share Mr Macron’s instinct to turn politics upside-down. To many, compromise sounds suspiciously like watering down rules, or paying for French indiscipline or military adventures. Economically, Germany’s strong performance has bred complacency at home and an outsized fear of indiscipline abroad. The French case is not helped when Italy seeks to bail out failing banks with state money or Greek finance ministers threaten to blow everything up.

The ties will endure, if only because France has nowhere else to turn and Germany, especially after Brexit, has no better partners. “Yes, it’s difficult,” says an adviser to Mr Macron. “But is there anybody else who has ideas?” The heady ambitions of the Sorbonne speech already belong to a different time. There is little chance of progress in 2019 owing to EU and German state elections, and Mr Macron’s troubles with the gilets jaunes (his trip to Aachen will be his first outside France for nearly a month). Addressing well-wishers during his first visit to Berlin in 2017, Mr Macron said he wanted “even bigger” crowds five years later, once he and Mrs Merkel had brought results. Good luck with that.

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The trouble with America’s extraterritorial campaign against business

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FOR EUROPEAN firms operating in Asia, or Latin American and Asian firms hustling in Africa or the Middle East, business risks abound. Surprisingly high on the list of things that keep bosses awake with cold sweats at night is falling foul of America’s Department of Justice (DOJ) or its Treasury Department.

The United States leads the world in punishing corruption, money-laundering and sanctions violations. In the past decade it has increasingly punished foreign firms for misconduct that happens outside America. Scores of banks have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines. In the past 12 months several multinationals, including Glencore and ZTE, have been put through the legal wringer. The diplomatic row over Huawei, a Chinese telecoms-equipment firm, centres on the legitimacy of America’s extraterritorial reach (see article).

America has taken it upon itself to become the business world’s policeman, judge and jury. It can do this because of its privileged role in the world economy. Companies that refuse to yield to its global jurisdiction can find themselves shut out of its giant domestic market, or cut off from using the dollar payments system and by extension from using mainstream banks. For most big companies that would be suicidal.

Wielding a stick is often to be applauded. Were it not for America’s tough stance against FIFA, for instance, the dodgy officials who ran world football would not have been brought to book. But as the full extent of extraterritorial legal activity has become clearer, so have three glaring problems.

First, the process is disturbingly improvised and opaque. Cases rarely go to court and, when they are settled instead, executives are hit with gagging orders. Facing little scrutiny, prosecutors have applied ever more expansive interpretations of what counts as the sort of link to America that makes an alleged crime punishable there; indirect contact with foreign banks with branches in America, or using Gmail, now seems to be enough. Imagine if China fined Amazon $5bn and jailed its executives for conducting business in Africa that did not break American law, but did offend Chinese rules and was discussed on WeChat.

Second, the punishments can be disproportionate. In 2014 BNP Paribas, a French bank, was hit with a sanctions-related fine of $8.9bn, enough to threaten its stability. In April ZTE, a Chinese tech firm with 80,000 employees, was banned by the Trump administration from dealing with American firms; it almost went out of business. The ban has since been reversed, underlining the impression that the rules are being applied on the hoof.

Third, America’s legal actions can often become intertwined with its commercial interests. As our investigation this week explains, a protracted bribery probe into Alstom, a French champion, helped push it into the arms of General Electric, an American industrial icon. American banks have picked up business from European rivals left punch-drunk by fines. Sometimes American firms are in the line of fire—Goldman Sachs is being investigated by the DOJ for its role in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. But many foreign executives suspect that American firms get special treatment and are wilier about navigating the rules.

America has much to be proud of as a corruption-fighter. But, for its own good as well as that of others, it needs to find an approach that is more transparent, more proportionate and more respectful of borders. If it does not, its escalating use of extraterritorial legal actions will ultimately backfire. It will discourage foreign firms from tapping American capital markets. It will encourage China and Europe to promote their currencies as rivals to the dollar and to develop global payments systems that bypass Uncle Sam. And the DOJ could find that, having gone all guns blazing into marginal cases, it has less powder for egregious ones. Far from expressing geopolitical might, America’s legal overreach would then end up diminishing American power.

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Why it’s right to hold a new Brexit referendum

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To hold another referendum on Brexit in the coming months, three key questions would need to be resolved.

First, when would it take place? Holding a referendum in the UK is not straightforward. Parliament must legislate. The Electoral Commission must test the proposed question for clarity and impartiality. Campaign groups must form. A “lead” campaigner on each side must be selected. Voters must have a chance to hear and reflect on the arguments.

In a report published by the UCL Constitution Unit last autumn, my colleagues and I calculated that all of this takes at least 22 weeks. Some referendum supporters say the process could be sped up. That is true: parliament could dispense with normal practice if it wished. But the existing procedures have been put in place so that referendums are conducted fairly. Tossing them aside would undermine the legitimacy of the result.

Counting 22 weeks from now takes us into the second half of June, well beyond the March 29th date when Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union. A referendum could therefore be held only if the Article 50 period were extended—which would require the unanimous agreement of the 27 EU members—or if Britain revoked its Article 50 notification.

Second, what would the question be? There are three viable options that could be put to voters: leaving without a deal; leaving on the terms of the deal; or remaining in the EU. The question could pit two of these options against each other, or all three.

The choice of format for the question would depend on politics. It seems inconceivable that Parliament would call a referendum without putting Remain on the ballot paper: that is the outcome most referendum-backers want. A Deal option is also likely. Most supporters of a referendum envisage a Remain v. Deal choice; despite the protestations of the prime minister, Theresa May, there would also be a clear logic to the government calling such a vote if getting the agreement through Parliament proved impossible. No Deal is the option most likely to be excluded: the majority of MPs find it unconscionable. Given the deal’s unpopularity among Brexiteers, however, leaving No Deal out would fuel understandable cries of betrayal.

That points to a strong case for a three-option question. But this would pose its own challenges. A standard first-past-the-post vote could yield a split result, with no option carrying majority support. Remain might win even though most voters wanted a form of Brexit. No Deal might win though most voters wanted a closer relationship with the EU. So a three-option referendum would have to allow voters to rank the options in order of preference, with votes being counted to reveal the option with widest support. There are several ways of doing that, each with advantages and disadvantages.

Third, how would the referendum be conducted? One crucial issue is the franchise: some Remainers feel the 2016 vote was skewed against them by excluding 16–17-year-olds and EU citizens resident in Britain. Whatever the case for widening eligibility, however, it would be unwise to change it for a second Brexit referendum: if Remain won only because the franchise had been altered, the outcome would not be seen to be legitimate.

A more significant issue relates to the rules for conducting the campaign. The referendum in 2016 revealed major problems in the existing rules. The government was able to spend millions on a leaflet, sent to all households, that backed one side of the debate. The rules on campaign spending and transparency—written 20 years ago—were shown to be grossly inadequate for the digital age. The quality of information available to voters was woeful.

The Constitution Unit’s Independent Commission on Referendums proposed measures to address all these problems in a report last summer. Some reforms require work before they can be implemented. Others can be put into effect immediately, such as improving the transparency of campaign spending and extending the period when the government is barred from campaigning. That would increase the robustness of the referendum process and therefore boost confidence in the outcome.

How media outlets covered the campaign would matter as much as the formal rules. Broadcasters widely recognise that they must do better than in 2016. The internet giants have improved their practices over the past two years but could do much more. Parts of the print media remain too willing to put advocacy above truthfulness.

Another referendum is entirely feasible, and may prove to be the best way out of the current impasse. But no one should imagine it would be easy. Only if the process were designed to be scrupulously fair could the result hope to command legitimacy. And legitimacy across the political spectrum would be essential for any referendum to herald a stable outcome.

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Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit in the Department of Political Science, University College London.

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Sweden grudgingly gives Stefan Lofven another term as prime minister

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IN MOST DEMOCRACIES, one side needs at least a plurality of the votes to form a government. Not so in Sweden, a polite country with a system of “negative parliamentarianism”: a candidate can become prime minister so long as an absolute majority of the Riksdag, the country’s parliament, does not explicitly object. The result can resemble a family that keeps ordering the same unloved pizza because it cannot agree on anything else. On January 18th, 153 MPs voted against a second term for Stefan Lofven (pictured, right), the Social Democrat who has served as prime minister since 2014. Just 115 backed him, but 77 abstained, meaning Mr Lofven will continue nonetheless.

Sweden is one of a long list of countries driven to the brink of paralysis by the rise of populism. It had gone four months without a government after the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) took 17.5% of the vote in an election on September 9th. Other parties shun the SD due to the party’s roots in the neo-Nazi movement in the early 1990s. With the rest of the seats in parliament split almost evenly between the left and the right, neither Mr Lofven nor his chief counterpart, Ulf Kristersson of the centre-right Moderates, were able to form a coalition.

Mr Lofven’s formula for holding power involved splitting the four-party conservative coalition, known as the Alliance, which governed Sweden from 2006-14. After long negotiations, he reached an agreement with the centre-right Centre and Liberal parties. They agreed to abstain, though they will not join the government. That leaves the Moderates and the smaller Christian Democrats grumbling in opposition.

The governing agreement between the left and the centre-right is a novelty for Sweden, which has no recent tradition of centrist grand coalitions, unlike other European countries such as Germany. It also carries risks for Mr Lofven. The 73-point policy agreement he struck with the Centre Party and the Liberals includes measures such as cutting taxes, scrapping rent controls on new housing and allowing weaker employment protections for immigrants, in order to induce businesses to hire them. This initially prompted the socialist Left party to say it might block Mr Lofven’s bid for a second term. It eventually decided to abstain, but warned that it will vote to bring down the government if the moves to loosen rent control or job guarantees go ahead.

The Social Democrats’ coalition partner, the Green party, barely cleared the 4% threshold to get into parliament in the election. Some of its members are also bitter over Mr Lofven’s moves towards the centre. The Moderates and Christian Democrats, meanwhile, accuse the Centre Party and the Liberals of betraying their electoral promises by acceding to a leftist government. Mr Lofven’s minority government is wobbly, and his second term may prove short. The Moderates may find their pledge never to co-operate with the Sweden Democrats ever harder to keep.

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A horrific attack in Bogotá

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AT 9:30AM ON January 17th, José Aldemar Rojas arrived at General Santander police academy in Bogotá in a car packed with 80kg of explosives. He drove through a cargo entrance and headed towards the heart of the compound. Details are still emerging, but it seems that when policemen tried to stop him, he reversed and crashed into the women’s dormitory. The resulting explosion killed at least 21 people, including Mr Rojas, and injured 68 more.

The attack on Colombia’s capital brings back memories of the worst moments of the country’s long wars against leftist insurgent groups and against Pablo Escobar, a drug-trafficking kingpin. In 1989 he ordered the bombing of a building that then housed Colombia’s intelligence agency, killing 52 people and injuring 1,000. The last big terrorist attack in Bogotá was in 2003 when the FARC, a leftist guerrilla group, detonated a bomb that killed 36 people at a private members’ club. But Escobar is dead and the FARC disarmed in 2017 under a peace agreement signed by Colombia’s then-president, Juan Manuel Santos. Bogotanos thought they had seen the end of large-scale urban terrorism.

The government has blamed the National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller guerrilla group, for the latest attack. The armed forces’ intelligence service has identified Mr Rojas as an explosives expert who lost his arm in a past explosion; he is said to have belonged to the ELN’s Domingo Lain cell, which is located in Arauca, on the border with Venezuela. The ELN has so far said nothing.

For decades the ELN, which now has about 2,000 armed fighters and an unknown number of followers, was overshadowed by the much bigger FARC. Like the FARC, it had sought to overthrow Colombia’s government in a Cuba-style revolution. These days it combines that fight with such criminal activities as drug-trafficking and kidnapping. Its strongholds are in Nariño, on the border with Ecuador, as well as in Antioquia in central Colombia and Arauca and Norte de Santander in the north-east.

If it was behind the attack on January 17th, the ELN has shown that it poses a threat in a major population centre. Mr Santos opened peace negotiations with the group in 2017. His successor, Iván Duque, who took office in August 2018, suspended them because the group refused to free the 17 hostages it holds. The bombing in Bogotá means that peace talks are unlikely to resume anytime soon. That may have been the point of them.

In some ways, the ELN is a knottier problem for the government than the FARC were. It is a loosely organised group with a weak chain of command. Unlike the FARC’s guerrillas, ELN combatants do not live in camps, which makes it harder to bomb them. Its members dress like civilians.

In 2014 the ELN established a “national urban battalion” with operations in ten cities as part of a strategy to shift its insurgency away from rural areas. The battalion’s commander is said to be Jaime Galvis (known as Ariel), one of the ELN’s most brutal leaders and a member of its central command. Colombia’s intelligence services have no idea where he is or even what he looks like now (no photographs of him have appeared since the 1990s). The operation suggests that the urban cells have the capacity to coordinate with units in the countryside, says Gerson Arias, who participated in negotiations with the guerrilla group.

The bombing is sure to complicate Colombia’s relations with its neighbour, Venezuela, which provides a haven for the ELN. Colombia’s government was among several that refused to recognise the legitimacy of Venezuela’s dictatorial president, Nicolás Maduro, after he began his second term on January 10th. Even as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia over the past three years to escape Venezuela’s shortages and hyperinflation, the ELN fighters have found refuge there. The ELN runs training camps in Venezuela close to the border. Colombian intelligence suspects there are links between the ELN and the Cartel of the Suns, a drugs gang controlled by members of the Venezuelan regime.

As long as Mr Maduro’s government survives the conditions of chaos it has created, it will be an unavoidable partner in any peace process. Yet Colombia’s relationship with Venezuela has never been worse. Mr Duque has recognised the president of Venezuela’s democratically elected national assembly, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s legitimate president. After the attack in Bogotá the Colombian government may seek ways to retaliate, probably politically, against its neighbour. An internal conflict may soon have a growing international dimension.

 

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Why China rents out its pandas

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PANDAS: CUTE, popular and expensive. So expensive, in fact, that the Malaysian government has reportedly considered handing its two adult pandas back to China, the country from which all pandas originate. As part of an agreement made in 2014 by its then prime minister, Najib Razak, Malaysia must pay China $1m each year to rent the bears until 2024. The new Malaysian government, which took power in May 2018, has been reviewing the deal, and this month the leader, Mahathir Mohamad, had to refute ministerial claims that the pandas would be returned early. Why does Malaysia have to pay so much?

China has offered pandas as gifts since the seventh century, when Empress Wu sent two bears to Japan. The tradition resurfaced under Mao Zedong. Russia and North Korea were given pandas during the cold war, and America got a pair after President Nixon’s China trip in 1972. By giving its national animal to a foreign power, China is able to emphasise the closeness of political ties. But as China has grown increasingly capitalist, pandas have become an economic tool as well. Instead of giving them away, in the 1980s China started loaning them for $50,000 per month, with the bears and any offspring remaining Chinese property. But the bears were not offered to just any country. Kathleen Buckingham and Paul Jepson of Oxford University found recent panda loans coincided with trade deals that China had signed in Scotland, Canada and France. They argue that pandas form a key part of guanxi–reciprocal relationships that can establish deeper and more trusting bonds between countries.

The animals’ diplomatic importance has led to some controversy. In 2010 a pair of American-born panda cubs were returned to China just two days after China had expressed anger at Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. The National Zoo in Washington had asked for an extension of the loan deal for one cub, but China refused and both cubs were brought back. The timing was interpreted by some as an act of punishment. Panda issues have also clouded China’s relationship with Taiwan: China’s offer of two bears in 2005 was declined by Taiwan’s then pro-independence government, which objected to their names (a play on the Chinese word for “united”). A later sinophile government accepted the bears as part of a strategy of strengthening ties across the Taiwan Strait.

Some take issue with the very idea of loaning pandas. When two pandas were brought to Edinburgh Zoo a few years ago, Ross Minett, the campaign director of a local animal-welfare charity, said the bears were “being exploited as diplomatic pawns in a commercial deal”. The zoo itself may not have objected: its visitor numbers increased by 4m in the two years after the bears’ arrival. Thanks in part to pressure from the World Wildlife Fund, China is meant to spend the panda rents on conservation. Whether it does so is not clear, but the number of research and conservation bases has quadrupled in the past 40 years. Increasing the size of the wild panda population is proving a rather tougher task, though. There were 1,100 bears in 1976; now there are 1,864.

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“True Detective” returns to a tried-and-tested format

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IT WAS the show that proved to film-makers and movie stars that “prestige TV” could be where they stand out. The first season of “True Detective”, which premiered on HBO four years ago, was cinematic and beautifully shot with compelling performances. Somewhat unusually for American television at the time, it was a self-contained story that would run for only eight episodes, a format friendly to stars who were wary of the small screen. For lead actor Matthew McConaughey, it confirmed the “McConaissance”. Like a blockbuster film, the show was a cultural sensation.

Nic Pizzolatto, the show’s creator, has since tried twice to recreate that sensation, with brooding, toxically masculine heroes confronting evil while wrestling with their own demons. The second season of “True Detective”, starring Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn, featured capable but not outstanding performances. It had more violence than the first while lacking direction; its storyline was complex and confusing.

The third season, which premiered on January 13th, has been received by some enthusiasts as a return to form. It is at least a return to the format. Like the first season, its central mystery unfolds in multiple timelines: two children go missing in a small town in Arkansas in 1980, and the viewer follows the case’s twists and turns in 1980, 1990 and 2015 through the ageing eyes of Wayne Hays, a moody, laconic detective and Vietnam veteran (played by Mahershala Ali).

As this season’s McConnaughey figure, Mr Ali delivers a convincing turn. Ever a magnetic presence on screen, he holds the viewer’s attention with his intensity, even when he has to communicate meaning with silence (something called for frequently in Mr Pizzolatto’s scripts). The other performances are solid, including Stephen Dorff as Hays’s partner, Roland West—the Woody Harrelson role from the first season.

But what the new iteration of “True Detective” reveals, in the five episodes available for review, is that Mr Pizzolatto’s formula suffers without the support of lush cinematography and career-making performances. He sets the story in a milieu thick with potential for drama—a black cop in a white-dominated police force in the deep south—but takes only superficial shots at exploring racial tensions (in part this may be because Hays was meant to be a white detective, with a black partner, until Mr Ali lobbied successfully for the role). At one point Hays accuses West of not backing him up with superiors on account of race. The father of a missing child apologises to West for using a racial epithet to describe Hays, to which West responds: “He’s been called a lot worse by people who meant it a lot more”. West thrives in his career while Hays flounders. But such tantalising notes stand on their own as miniature set pieces. They do not, as yet, appear to invest the larger story with deeper meaning. Similarly Hays’s relationship with his wife (in 1990) is meant to be understood as tense and complex, but the on-screen manifestations are superficial: he gets unreasonably angry with her, betraying his insecurities; she stands her ground; they have sex.

In the first season director Cary Fukunaga’s rolling shots of the Louisiana bayou and slow, lingering takes of creepy crime scenes primed audiences for Mr McConaughey’s hypnotic delivery of cryptic aphorisms like “time is a flat circle”. It did not matter that the mystery at the heart of the story ultimately proved unsatisfying in its resolution, that in the end its mythmaking was for naught. The show’s mystical, foreboding aura made it a hit.   

Mr Fukanaga fell out with Mr Pizzolatto during the first series. Without Mr Fukunaga’s artistry, “True Detective” needs its central mystery to pay off to be worth the watch. That is possible this time: the criminal investigation takes intriguing turns in episodes three, four and five. But “True Detective” is meant to be a human drama, as much about examining the nature and challenges of its titular hero as about cracking a case. The mystery that remains to be solved is whether Mr Pizzolatto can make that formula work on his third try.

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New allegations against Donald Trump raise the odds of impeachment

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DURING THE campaign for America’s mid-term elections last year, Republican candidates warned that Democrats would try to impeach Donald Trump if they won control of the House of Representatives. Despite a few vows from some strident left-wingers, the new Democratic majority in the lower chamber has shown little appetite for trying to remove the president. Their leaders have preached patience while Robert Mueller, the special counsel, continues his investigation of Mr Trump’s activities related to Russia.

If recent revelations are confirmed, however, they would sharply increase the chances of a battle over impeachment. On January 17th BuzzFeed published an
article alleging that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer, to lie to Congress about Mr Trump’s plans to meet with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, in 2016 to discuss the development of a luxury hotel. “Suborning” perjury—a legal term for which searches on Google have spiked since the story broke—is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

BuzzFeed’s claims have not yet been confirmed by other news outlets, and one of the article’s authors has conceded that he has not personally seen any of the documents that would back up the allegation. Even if such evidence does emerge, longstanding Justice Department guidelines prohibit the indictment of a sitting president. The greatest threat the story presents to Mr Trump is that if enough members of Congress believe he induced Mr Cohen to lie to them, they might be more inclined to remove the president from office.

In the wake of BuzzFeed’s story, participants in political betting markets now think it is more likely than not that the House will vote to put Mr Trump on trial. Before the news broke, traders collectively assigned a 47% probability to a successful impeachment vote during Mr Trump’s first term. Afterwards, this figure surged to 59%, on the highest volume of transactions since the mid-term elections.

Nonetheless, an impeachment in the House would hardly guarantee that Mr Trump will depart the White House early. Removing him from office would then require support from two-thirds of the Senate, where Democrats are in the minority. The president could also conceivably leave office by resigning or dying. But traders on PredictIt still think there is a 65% chance that Mr Trump will remain in his job for at least his full four years.

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Why another referendum would be so problematic

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Holding another referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union is an uncomfortable idea. That, of course, is not a compelling argument against holding it. Nor does it mean that a referendum may not eventually be regarded as the best available option. But let’s consider the immense challenges.

First, there are all sorts of practical issues. A majority of MPs would have to support such an undertaking, they’d have to agree on the question and there’d have to be a government—and, crucially, a prime minister—willing to bring the legislation forward to make a referendum happen.

There’s also the question of time. It would take around 22 weeks to organise a vote (not the full year that the government, ridiculously, has claimed). Assuming that we don’t think it’s a great idea to hold one in the middle of summer, that means we might do it in the autumn. It’s an open question as to whether EU leaders would unanimously grant us an extension to Article 50 to hold another referendum just as they are appointing a new European Commission president in the autumn.

However, such practicalities are not the biggest concern. There are even trickier issues to consider.

Many of those calling for a new vote base their arguments on concerns about the fairness and/or legality of the first one. Certainly, there appear to have been shady online tactics. The Information Commissioner’s Office found a number of breaches of data-protection law by Leave.eu, which now faces fines. A number of Remain campaigners have also been fined, by the Electoral Commission, for failing to account for expenses.

It’s undoubtedly true that we need to clarify and firm up our rules on malpractice to take account of digital campaigning. As a recent report by the Culture Select Committee said, “our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose”. However, I see no prospect of this happening in time for another referendum. In which case, we run the risk of malpractices simply happening again.

What will certainly happen again is that we would witness a campaign based on competing claims about an uncertain future. To those who say “we know much more now”, my response is yes, we do. We know that Theresa May’s government has made a hash of the process, that parliament has no majority for any conceivable outcome, that the EU won’t simply roll over and give us what we want (to be fair, some of us knew that last one in 2016).

What we don’t know, as we didn’t know in 2016, is what the future holds. We don’t know what kind of trade deal we will get, and therefore what kind of Brexit we will have. So another referendum would be a rerun of the old one, lacking the most important facts, as there are no facts about the future.

It would also be a rerun of a campaign full of promises that can’t be kept. Proponents of a rerun have stressed that “of course we have to address the grievances of those Leave voters who were protesting about the state of our politics and our economy.” How comforting. How familiar. A campaign that promises things it will be in no position to deliver.

Not only that, but it will be a debate carried out by one side purely as an anti-establishment exercise. Little surprise that Leave campaigners have already come up with the slogan “tell them again”. A three-month-long publicly funded campaign in which one side foments anti-establishment and anti-politics sentiment is surely not the wisest idea at this febrile moment in our political history.

To be clear, this is not about submitting to threats of violence from the far right. It is about whether we really want to encourage a collapse in faith in our political establishment on the part of Leave voters who have not changed their minds, and feel that expressing their opinions once should be enough.

And—despite what People’s Vote campaigners might say—there has been no decisive shift in public opinion since the first vote. The poll of polls stands at just 54-46 in favour of Remain, which hardly speaks of a public clamouring to overturn the previous result. It also speaks to the dangers of an extremely close vote.

Imagine an outcome of 52-48 in favour of Remain in a second vote, and on a lower turnout than in 2016. (Bear in mind, if we have a binary question, a significant number of voters will feel disenfranchised from the start.) This would, at a minimum, pave the way for some kind of English nationalist party (UKIP 2.0?), and create the conditions in which such a party might prosper. Is that a future to aspire to?

The notion that a country split down the middle—with the Tory civil war on Europe re-inflamed, and much of the public furious about supposed betrayal—is one that can return to normal and carry on as before, is unrealistic. We would be a country waiting for “the decider,” for “the best out of three votes,” to settle the issue. A country perhaps, like now, with diminishing attractiveness to potential investors.

It speaks volumes about the state of our country that a second referendum that would be little better than the first in terms of quality, and might resolve little if anything in terms of substance, might still be seen as the least bad of all the options confronting us. It is up to politicians to decide whether or not we are desperate enough to resort to it. But let’s be honest about the problems it entails.

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Anand Menon (@AnandMenon1), is the director of The UK in a Changing Europe and a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London.

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