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11 june 2016, building the post-brexit boat

Given it will be the biggest set-back to the project in its history (see 1 january 2016, the year of leaving), the eu is turning its attention to the consequences of the looming leave vote; pre-quake tremors are beginning to hit the surface. There are two schools. The first sees the uk as central brick of a wall holding back integration and though convulsive, exit will enable closer union. The second has britain more as the crest of a eurosceptic wave, with the vote loosening the tectonic plates that lead eventually to a more states-first, decentralised construct. Berlin, schauble at least, is already championing the middle-way status quo narrative. Uppermost in this view is denying the uk any rights and privileges as a stark warning to others of the ruinous perils of leaving. While that line is likely to hold in the immediate earthquake of the near-existential crisis the eu will face, it is ultimately unsustainable. Far from being impossible though, both tendencies may find a breakthrough as the vote brings the latent tension to the surface. The "keep them in the fold" countries are likely to strain every sinew to work with the uk on some form of association as similar to eu membership as possible. Norway, switzerland, iceland and (everyone's favourite) lichtenstein already have the eea/efta, and the insertion of the heavyweight uk into the mix should be more than enough to catalyse its reformation. This may prove sufficiently attractive for several other out-inclined member states (hungary, the example du jour) to peel off into too. This has two great attractions for the eu. Putting a safety net in place may well enable the core to start serious optioneering about further integration, likely around a reduced-schengen and the eurozone. An outer-ring is also an obvious answer to the increasingly-fraught question of what to do with turkey and the remaining balkan countries now that the highly-successful dangling-the-prospect-of-membership foreign policy tool has run out of road given political inability to actually bring in any new members for the foreseeable future. Once recriminations fade and passions calm, pro-actively creating this second-tier, unbound by the ecj (see court in the act), is likely to emerge as a potentially sturdy win-win vessel both the eu and britain can sail their now-separate but still interdependent futures together in.

4 june 2016, o solo sorrento

Just back from a week away. "first time in italy ?" asked our skipper, "no, several times in the north" we replied. "Aha", he concluded "so it's your first time in italy". The disorganisation, lack of restaurant chains and total imperviousness to rules though were wonderfully familiar. The romans especially did the roads for us: mopeds flying round blind corners on the wrong side of unbelievably narrow (and picturesque) roads, cars reversing down one way streets and brazenly turning right into no right-turns. Everywhere, the views were breathtaking: from sorrento of course, on the cliffs, looking out onto capri, or at the top of its highest mountain, which we accessed on a 1970s chairlift. I was gobsmacked as we were winched up, that so many of the people coming down were staring not at some of the most mediterranean's most dramatic scenery - ischia was rising as if suspended in a cloud - but at their mobile phones. Not even taking pictures, but clearly on emails or social media; some actually talking, breaking the meditative silence. We are a spoilt generation, lost to wonder. The whole holiday I fought this with my kids, though we had amazing ammunition: the wonders of pompeii, albeit in the searing heat, a cooler evening in herculaneum with a great guide, the mind-boggling walk up and sights atop mount vesuvius, capri and a fabulous morning at italian cookery school. We also got to positano, the first time driving across dizzying cliff-top roads and walking down a mountain to eat at the splendid tre sorelles, the second as the climax to our final day's extravagance of a boat down the amalfi coast, in and out the grottos, swimming and sunning, approaching positano from the very best angle, and then breaking a rule and eating at the same restaurant twice. I read the fantastic jacob's gift; he wrote my book. Heavenly holidayesque.

23 may 2016, nate of the north

I'm going to indulge in some amateur demographics. At last year's uk general election, almost 37m people voted, a 66.1% turnout. Roughly 11.3m voted conservative, 9.3m labour, 3.9m ukip, 2.4m libdem, 1.4m snp and 1.2m green (full results here). Using the economist's tracker as starting point, some 54% of conservative voters can be expected to vote leave in the referendum, alongside 28% of labour's, 92% ukip and 45% libdem. For scotland we have an all-voter proxy, which imported to the nats, is 36%. For the greens, let's go with the telegraph's lowly 20%. Plugging that blizzard of stats into the referendumresult© gives us a forecast, based on the same turnout, with everyone voting as expected. It's a win for remain, but with a wafer-thin 52%. Let's play. Start with the (typically older) tory vote, where factoring in party membership being far more strongly out (around 70%) and that generally outs, being typically more passionate, are more likely to actually vote on the day than ins, that together translates to a modest 5% adjustment. For labour, I think the polling is wrong. Extrapolating from last month's council elections suggests a far bigger chunk of the labour vote, especially in the northern cities, has ukip-leanings generally and will vote leave in the referendum. With a combination of the labour leadership's distinct lack of engagement, the temptation to give cameron a bloody nose and general disengagement caused by the debate being between white tory males significantly depressing labour-voting turnout (I'd say around 30% down on the general election, still higher than the locals) - this gives remain a much closer 55% for this group. Together, these two adjustments decisively swing the vote - to a 53% win for leave. Widen that lack of passion from ins to depress the rest of their votes by just 3%, and mirror the same for outist-enthusiasm, and leave wins with 55%. On turnout, let's try a scottish referendum-like voting surge, with a 76% turnout on the same trends: it helps remain, but they still lose with 49%. More likely, there's a 10% lower turnout (and even 56% would be a pleasant surprise): leave nudges ahead, on 53%. All this helps explain why although I am unambiguously in favour (see 24 february 2016, in or out ?), I fear the vote, by a clear-enough margin, will be to leave (see 1 january 2016, the year of leaving).

21 may 2016, yet more hopelessness

Jonathan freedland tries hard to find crumbs of comfort in this week's israeli government musical chairs - but there is no silver lining in changing the defence minister from a right-wing ideologue committed to the rule of law and in good standing with the army to one far further right and neither. Avigdor lieberman is a notorious extreme-right thug, more noxious than the freedom-party favourite to win austria's presidency this weekend. Unlike netanyahu's vision of the world, which is a complex combination of populist, opportunist and ideological, lieberman's is straightforward racism. Long an advocate of transferring some of the arab population out of parts of the west bank, lieberman has built a popular platform based on denigrating arabs and a political vision based on legally identifying them as second-class citizens. In passing, he has talked about drowning palestinians in the dead sea and executing israeli arabs (ie full citizens) who talk to hamas. During the last gaza conflict he called for israelis to boycott arab shops. The same thinking was behind a sinister government bill (the non-profit association law) to punish domestic critics of government policy. His supporters chant "death to arabs" at rallies. Freedom of expression ? Not for arabs: lieberman's party championed a bill to criminalise commemoration of the "naqba" which loosely translates as catastrophe and is the arab narrative for what jewish israelis celebrate as independence day. Lieberman's party winning 15 seats (of 120) in the 2009 election was one of the biggest shocks in israeli political history, flagging that an enduring message of outright racism has a constituency in democratic israel. Far from the body politic rejecting such racism, it has continued to evolve relentlessly into the mainstream right - hence lieberman's renewed appointment to one of the country's highest offices is hardly news. How far, in the wrong direction, we have travelled (see it was 20 years ago today, 4 november 2015). So - hope from this nightmare ? Bibin there, done that (see 18 april 2015) - tragically, no.

7 may 2016, normal service is resumed (temporarily)

I can't help but love reading the runes of elections, and this week's "locals" in the uk were the biggest single set before the next general election, as well as brief respite from the otherwise politically-dominating referendum. Let's start with the conservatives, in government, at the centre of several small-bore scandals and u-turns, as well as being hopelessly split on europe and so who should have been expected to do relatively badly. In fact they held their own. The reason for this was labour. With a new leader they might be expected to be in a honeymoon period - think cameron or blair one year in, both pretty much all-conquering. They didn't. Behind the headline win in london (against a nasty negative conservative campaign) and the general "slow steady progress" narrative against good expectation management that created fears they would lose badly, this was a very bad set of elections for labour, and catastrophic again in scotland, where they are now no longer even the official opposition (as unionist forces coalesced around the modish scottish conservatives). Two peaks and a flatline. The handsome winners in scotland were again the nationalist snp, but there is a sense they have peaked and a new norm of more effective opposition that will one day topple them (south african anc-style) may just be discernible. It's a high peak though they will be happy with. Less so ukip, who some headline-grabbing first seats in the welsh-assembly aside, have little to boast about this time around, which is perhaps strange given europe has dominated the news these last months. Whatever the referendum result, a major crossroads looms for them, as they have not a bad basis to embed themselves across the country as an angry right-of-mainstream alternative. For that, they need to put europe behind them and avoid becoming a nasty anti-immigrant party, not easy given those are the two issues virtually their entire membership and story are built on. The liberal democrats are hardly worth a sentence: they survive. They lost stockport, where we live, labour becoming the largest party, with 23 of the 63 seats. The lib dems have 21 and the conservatives 14. Our own heald green yet again easily returned the local independents, whose 3 seats previously kept the yellows in power: we may well then be living under our own traffic light coalition. I can only hope it does a better job of fixing the ever-increasing number of potholes.

25 april 2016, I heart europe

With barack obama's full-throated support still ringing, I leave for a short holiday with a feel of a fight-back starting. Although the odd bunch in the corner sometimes prospers (austria's just won an election), they generally don't in britain. It will be interesting to see if the inners can ride on the american president's powerful coat-tails and get some momentum for the first time in the campaign. My helpful advice is to take a break from the nitty-gritty arguments of pragmatic apologists (yes it's not perfect, but...) and try soaring up to the big picture for a while. So apart from obama's slam dunk on trade, as patrick steward may have said (in this excellent sketch, albeit on the echr not the eu) - what has europe ever done for us ? Well peace and security for starters, in a continent that spent the previous 100 years without it. And don't knee-jerk respond nato, an outward-facing technical term. Before the common market, tens of millions were killed in wars between germany and france; today they share a currency and don't even have a border. The euro may have issues and the border occasionally reappear - but it's difficult to imagine them annihilating each other. Spain, greece and portugal are stories of democracies which not long ago were dictatorships. Europe's yugoslavian corner was torn apart by its most vicious war since 1945. Too slow to stop it, europe has since brought healing balm, the major force in creating a civil society and the main motivation for sustained peace, with several successor states already in the club. The eu did not alone change these worlds, but in idea and action it played an important part. Europe and the world are paradigms better for the eu's existence and would be at least as worse off without it. We're off on cheap flights (thanks eu for that too) to prague and budapest, previously communist dictatorships, now safe and prosperous democracies. In the big battle to secure freedom and human rights, protections and order from chaos, transparency against corruption and good governance that bring more prosperity to more people, the eu is not just on the right side but was designed with those ends in mind. For all its faults, many inevitable as a futuristic post-national creation wrestling with the mires of the present, the eu is a force for good and needs its champions to keep being so. I am one.

9 april 2016, ukraine, utrecht, uttoxter... uer OUT

Stop scratching your head. The little-noticed dutch referendum on ukraine last week was a disastrous portent of things to come. It wasn't about an eu trade deal, the question on the ballot. That was signed 2 years ago and has been in force since january. Trade is an eu power (though holland and the other member states have their say along the way; they were in favour). The referendum was the anti-eu lobby taking advantage of a new dutch law forcing a referendum whenever enough signatures are gathered. This was a flash version of the uk's slow progress to the same instrument. Though well-intentioned, this pan-european trend towards direct, as opposed to representative (parliamentary), democracy is having a malign influence. Referenda are becoming the populist vehicle du jour, both of oppositions and governments, witness hungary's echo of greece in ridiculously calling a loaded-referendum on whether the government is right to oppose the eu's solution on migration it didn't agree with but, according to the rules, was outvoted on. With still no date set, that looks increasingly like bluster. Not so the dutch, where a strong majority, some 61%, voted against the eu (treaty), landing policymakers a real headache. Once again, the fundamental question of how democratic majoritarianism in the eu demos can function alongside a system of predominantly national democracies is raised (see 21 february 2015, le demos nouveaux et arrive !). Holland is bigger than greece. Britain is bigger still, and its looming vote to leave is increasingly looking likely to trigger a full-blown eu crisis as that pillar of the european demos looks at best well ahead of its time and at worst a fantasist elitist project that is really just cover for all the capitalist/socialist/liberal (take your pick) ills of the world. It is of course the former, but as more and more eu citizens (for that is what we have been since 1992, see passport to citizenship) are forced to think about it, its ever-wider perception as the latter becomes more and more corrosive, leading populist champions to increasingly define themselves against it. In the uk context that self-reinforcing realisation will just invigorate the outers. The worst berlaymont fears of this as a decade of eurosclerosis are now looking rather like an optimistic outcome.

27 march 2016, terrorism seriously misspelt

An excellent piece in the guardian by ex-times editor simon jenkins, who I credit; as people retweet, so I am reblogging. It's about brussels, and his basic point is don't worry so much about the bombs, worry about our reaction to them. The 24/7 blanket mass media coverage, the hysteria and the security crackdown are all, he argues, exactly what the terrorists want, providing fabulous free publicity, instilling fear and acting as an excellent recruiter to their cause. A guy in a 2nd floor flat with some good logistical skills scored a great success: "I converted a squalid psychopathological act into a warrior-evoking, population-terrifying, policy-changing event. I sent a continent into shock. Famous politicians dropped everything to shower me with cliches. Crowned heads deluged me with glorious odium. I measure my success in column inches and television hours, in ballooning security budgets, butchered liberties, amended laws and - my ultimate goal - muslims persecuted and recruited to our cause." He echoes my early piece on paris (14 november 2015: paris to paris, a heavily-edited story of 2015), saying these things "happen almost daily on the streets of baghdad, aleppo and damascus. Western missiles and isis bombs kill more innocents in a week than die in europe in a year. The difference is the media response. A dead muslim is an unlucky mutt in the wrong place at the wrong time. A dead european is front-page news." Having lived through such times in tel aviv, with bombs on buses going off daily, you do come through the other side. However, the blanket horror now flashed across every media screen of "panic, threat, menace and terror" make things worse and harder. It is that media response which fuels all else. Yet what is an all-consuming mass media, which didn't yet exist in 1994, to do ? If the tv screen didn't cover it in that way, internet alternatives would and that's where audience would migrate to. Newspapers have long-competed on the most screaming headline; now we are on the ethereal equivalent. Reviewing the tightening security measures that encourage us to tell on our fellow citizens, jenkins concludes rather chillingly that "england is becoming old east germany". It is easy to discount such exaggerations. Its harder when you're a ten-year old the school notifies the police about, who quiz your family at their house and examine their computers, because you (or your spellcheck) misspelt "terraced" as "terrorist" house. The fear is we are lobsters in the pot with the waters heating up around us, and for most the warmth is quite reassuring.

18 march 2016, germany’s ukip

Although they have just one seat from the last general election, the united kingdom independence party is a massive success, getting 13% of the vote and having won outright the european elections. Much more importantly, they have shifted the country's political landscape. There is no doubt that without the party started in 1993 by a few professors to stop britain joining the euro, we would not now be having a referendum. If the uk does indeed leave, a mighty blow for the eu itself, ukip will have become one of modern history's most successful political movements. Germany now has its own ukip. The alternative fur deutschland, afd, has quickly accelerated along the same path from anti-euro, to anti-eu, to anti-migrant, opportunistically capitalising on general discontent. Germany is of course different. First, migrant volumes were not the gradual heating a lobster in water story of the uk, but a massive shock of refugees driven by the syrian war. Second, although opposition to the eu was not prohibited, until recently it has not been evident, largely as "europe's" roots in post-war germany are deep, the eu being in many ways an ersatz identity for where the patriotism common in france or britain has only over the last decade had any place at all (see flagging). Third, with its grand coalition and power distributed over a large number of federal state governments, all the main parties are essentially co-opted into, and largely agree with, the political consensus of pax merkela, who has squatted clearly over the centre ground, both left and right, meaning in effect the germany government has had no proper opposition. With afd's mould-breaking 24% in saxony and great results in the west too, it does now.

12 march 2016, knowing the price but not the valeu

Still stuck in referendum world. A particular bugbear is the "leave" camp's claim that britons "give" £20b a year to the eu; £50m a day. Firstly that's wrong, as almost £10b comes right back, in cash for projects like manchester's metrolink and royal eye hospital, promoting tourism to the lake district and a large number of schemes for and investments in small and more risky businesses outside london that would not otherwise receive funding. That means there is a not a single uk-wide picture, as while london is a strong "net contributor" to the eu, wales is a net beneficiary, ie better off in cash terms in than out, as are many other areas. That though is not the story, as this is all about value, not cost. We just paid £45 for a new kettle - but that doesn't mean I should vote to leave john lewis. The question is whether we got value for money from them (which I think we did). The total money spent by the entire eu is 1% of its gdp; for comparison, uk government spends around 42%. Everything done for those 500m people is managed by the commission, which in its entirety has around 30,000 people working for it, less than 10% of the uk central government civil service and less than 1% of its total public sector. The single market alone brings the uk an estimated annual benefit (lies, damn lies & statistics) of £25b, which if we want to translate it to a fanciful figure for each uk household is almost exactly £1000 each a year. For that we also get a slug of external benefits, like 53 free-trade agreements across the world, with another 81 on the way, which enable british firms to export and prosper, and an undervalued foreign service, hand in glove with the uk's own, that bolsters europe's ability to project peace and security across the world. That may sound trite in a world of syria, libya and afghanistan, but it has helped amplify british efforts to bring stability and democracy to eastern europe and beyond and remains an effective global partner for the great powers that is pushing for solutions to these conflicts and which at least tries to make a positive difference. Like the romans, the eu has also brought us the roads. Boris may rant about the "burden" europe has imposed on crossrail (though note britain explicitly agreed to and indeed pushes for this european level playing field) but his small-minded opposition based on london being forced to allow for the possibility that german trains might one day go through it is to rail against the same fundamental single market building block that enables british firms to export a majority of their goods and services to europe. Back at #pulseofthenation hq then, we're still on course to leave. I'm still sad but increasingly sanguine about it.

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