To the great poet T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruellest month.” But in 2017, the world’s politicians could be forgiven for thinking that September is more deserving of the title.
Consider French President Emmanuel Macron, a relative unknown who was elected in May with the support of many who were voting against his second-round opponent, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front. Now, Macron is facing strong opposition from both the far left and the far right over his plan to rejuvenate the French economy. In addition to budget cuts and a public-sector pay freeze — neither of which would be popular under any circumstances — Macron is trying to reform France’s labour code. This was sure to kick up a political storm, and French trade unions have already responded by threatening a general strike for the second week in September.
Moreover, Macron has hardly helped himself with some of his decisions since taking office. For example, one can only wonder why he chose to invite US President Donald Trump to attend France’s Bastille Day celebrations in July. Such a monarchical display from “le president soleil” was surely a mistake.
Nonetheless, Macron has shown himself to be brave, articulate, and determined to do the right thing. It remains incumbent upon all liberal, pro-European centrists to wish him well.
In the United Kingdom, September could be the month when Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit-bound government and the British public are mugged by reality. Michael Gove, May’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, used to argue that the UK would be in the driver’s seat once its exit negotiations with the European Union began. But that is hardly where one wants to be if one’s vehicle is headed off a cliff. As we have seen time and again, Britain’s approach to the Brexit negotiations seems to be nothing more than a mix of wishful thinking, back-peddling, and plaintive requests that the EU bend over backward to help British leaders get out of the mess they have made.
While this spectacle has been playing out, UK living standards have been falling. Many Britons recently returned from vacationing in the European sun to discover that their pound buys them much less than it used to: the euro in their pocket is now worth £0.92 ($1.19), up from £0.70 before the Brexit vote. And, according to some traders, the pound will continue its decline this fall, and could reach parity with the euro before long.
In the United States, Trump, too, is unlikely to have a good month. His relations with fellow Republicans in Congress are in free fall, as are his chances of passing any serious legislation. The failure to repeal or reform the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has made passing tax cuts only harder; and if lawmakers and the Trump administration do not agree on a spending deal next month, the US federal government will shut down. Complicating matters further, Trump has continued to direct abusive early morning tweets at members of Congress, the media, and others, while losing or firing top advisers. If his administration has any organising principle, it seems to be that of the revolving door: in one moment, out the next. Trump’s new chief of staff, retired General John Kelly, could still impose discipline within the White House; but it is all but impossible that he will be able to rein in the president himself.Moreover, just as Trump will continue to issue extremist and ignorant public statements, the investigation into his campaign’s alleged ties with Russia will not end anytime soon. With each passing week, former FBI Director Robert Mueller and his team of career prosecutors are presumably getting ever closer to unearthing the truth, whatever it may be.
September could also be the month when we witness an explosive showdown between the Trump administration and China. Trump’s protectionist instincts and hostility to globalisation do not bode well for the world as a whole. But his argument that China plays by different economic rules than everyone else is not far from the truth.
During his country’s accession negotiations with the World Trade Organisation in December 2001, a former Chinese commerce minister (who is now in prison for corruption) used to tell me and other negotiators that, “If you respect us by an inch, we’ll respect you by a mile.” But judging by reports from the US and European business leaders, the opposite seems to be true: we have given China a mile, and gotten an inch in return.
China, simply put, does not play by the rules to which it agreed. For starters, it protects its own markets from competition, which is abundantly clear in the case of its internet companies. And when it does grant foreign companies access to its domestic market, it often requires them to enter into partnerships with Chinese companies, or to hand over intellectual property. If this continues, China’s partners will eventually lose patience. While Trump’s disavowal of international trade rules and norms has received ample attention, China’s own abuse of those norms has gone unnoticed. If China does not improve its behaviour, all of us – including the Chinese – will suffer. China’s economic success need not threaten the rest of the world; but it needs to be achieved on a fair basis. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his politburo should signal that they are committed to this goal before they gather for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party this fall. If they do, September will be slightly less cruel than it otherwise is shaping up to be.
— Project Syndicate, 2017
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.