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.

26 february 2016, how britain’s next prime-minister was selected

In the heat of battle it is difficult to see what tactics are being deployed to what ends and also what the ultimate outcome will be. Whilst they lost the vote, the scottish nationalists clearly won last year's scottish independence referendum, rising from just 6 members of parliament before, to an all-conquering 50 after. Last weekend's intervention in the eu referendum campaign by boris might not have swung that result, but chances are it swung the one afterwards: for the conservative party leadership. Dwell on two facts. First, whatever happens in june, david cameron has already categorically said he will resign before the next uk general election. That could be soon and abrupt, or could be triumphant and some years away, but it's a racing certainty that by 7 may 2020 he'll be gone. At that point the conservative party will select a new leader, who will almost certainly become prime minister, probably a little way ahead of the election to let the radiance of office so helpful in elections rub off, (not that the same manoeuvre did brown or callaghan any good, though it worked for major). Barring an unknown unknown then - second fact - britain's next prime minister will be chosen by the conservative party's membership. The way the system works is that the parliamentary party chooses two colleagues, who then get to romp up and down the country trying to convince the 150, 000 or so rather aged but more importantly overwhelmingly eurosceptic members, with a high-likelihood the eu will be very much on their minds. Boris, like george, theresa (who surely took a hit by seeming sceptical then coming out for in) and the rest, continues to assiduously court mps, and should they choose him as one of the two - his biggest hurdle, as he's not great close up - the race is over. This is true whatever the referendum result. If britain stays, and so he likely faces victorious george, the membership will be seething; if we're leaving, he'll be the all-conquering hero and there probably won't even be a contest. Boris then is very much looking like the uk's next prime-minister then and quite possibly by year-end...

21 february 2016, in or out ?

Despite so much political capital being wasted on so little substance, let's not even pause on the entrails of a piffling deal, but look instead at the question on the ballot. The die seems already cast, with brits set to wake up on 24 june amazed that they've just voted to leave history's strongest ever democratic pooling of sovereignty (see 1 january 2016, the year of leaving). Why should we have stayed ? The union is not perfect, but europe together is very much better off than it would have been without it, as, selfishly, is the uk. Britain joined as the sick man of europe but leaves as a star economic performer of sorts, hard to square with the argument that the eu hobbles us, rather like the oft-repeated slogan that exit will free us to ramp up exports to the rest of the world, like china, and catch up to the mighty german export machine. Yet germany is also in the eu, and isn't even in the "best of both worlds" position we say we want and already have, of being outside the integrationalist bits, schengen and the euro, we seem to find most objectionable. Once our continental colleagues are over the snub, we are told, we will effortlessly retain free access to the internal ("single") market we helped create which is at the centre of our global trade and investment framework, and, by far, destination to more british exports than anywhere else. Not really; bruised and eager to show that exit is ugly and comes at a high price, working out its cost to little england will be tortuous and bad-tempered. In 1994 norway decided not to join and does indeed now have access - but it pays in 83-91% of the uk's per capita contribution; switzerland is less but similar. Neither country has any influence whatsoever on the "acquis communautaire", i.e. the eu rules Britain and the rest impose on them as a condition for internal market access. In 2014 switzerland tried to assert sovereignty, with a referendum that decided to limit eu migration. So far the eu has not agreed, so it's not happened and either switzerland will cave in, or else it will lose open access to the eu market. The uk franchise doesn't help, with european residents of 20 years unable to vote, whilst commonwealth ones of 2 can. Probably the greatest irony is that there's no doubt the union has been going strongly the uk's way for quite some years now, as set out well in the introduction to an excellent article by my old sparring partner jean-claude piris showing just how dreadfully difficult it is going to be to untangle uk membership. Taking a long-term historical sweep, there are 3 main emerging global trade and currency blocs in the world: america, europe and china. Whilst diminished not fatal to be outside one, britain will always have greater control, influence and prosperity by being central and so representing both all its rather good at (free trade, economic liberalism, multilateralist foreign policy, assured diplomacy, a global horizon...) and its own selfish interests in corridors of power increasingly restricted to those key blocs. Yet, here we are, unable to control our emotional intelligence in this age of rage and set to deliver cameron and the establishment a bloody nose, to spite our face. I'm off now to start work on my new article about the details of the uk's withdrawal treaty and the swathes of new english law we'll rapidly need to put in place to fill the vacuum of the eu law we'll be liberated from...

18 february 2016, it was; were you ?

Travelling back from major family event in london last weekend, I paused at whsmith, reflecting on the non-momentous news that in a few weeks one of its more interesting titles, the independent, will no longer grace its shelves. Like bbc3, the rather newer tv station that went off air yesterday, the indy has gone "online only". Surely, say the critics, the latest but not the last to stop having forests felled so we can leave them on train seats after a brief peruse. Actually, time was when I would read the paper practically from cover the cover, back of course when time was less of a premium; I was a student for a long time. The independent was my first broadsheet as a sixth-form politics student, which coincided with its eye-catching "it is, are you ?" launch, fabulous photos and nonchalant ignoring of craven royal events. I must admit though that by the time I returned from my year-off and established my real rag reading revelry, I had already grudgingly graduated to the guardian, where I have remained. I need to stop and think when I stopped reading the actual paper; it was when we left london for frankfurt in 2001, where although I took my economist with me, I started reading the garudnian online and become a financial times devotee. Anyway, sat here on the edge of my seat waiting for any of them to report on the all-important outcome of the european summit - not...

3 february 2016, super mario

No, not that one - but the next president of the united states, or at least republican nominee. Strange as it may seem to crown the fifth-placed senator the victor (coming in with 23% behind Clinton, sanders, trump & cruz in the iowa caucuses), the republican battle has so far all been about who will emerge as the challenger candidate (trump or cruz) and who as the establishment's, with the latter heavy favourite to win. That's what marco rubio won last night. Though tea-party propelled (see 24 october 2011, no deleveraging at home), he sports the backstory shield of an hispanic obama; though no liberal, he works quite hard to remain in the arena of reasonableness. Though I am hilary all the way (see 2 february 2013, hilaryous), he is a worthy opponent, and in this anti-establishment era, with hilary forced to play the safe hands establishment card to see off her own sanders insurgent, he might just win. Meanwhile, a wonderful piece on today's today (2:10 in) that shows the good a president can do, this one the 91-year old jimmy carter, still at it.

30 january 2016, windows zen - not

I have always regarded computers, like cars, as just a way of getting from a to b, or more ambitiously, to z. I neither know nor care what goes on under the bonnet; I call my mechanic, or son. However, so frequent have our help moments become, forced as we are to load ever cleverer applications on to the old dear, that we have finally faced up to the need to change our antique dell desktop, #disposableworld. After due deliberation, and despite loving my i-phone, we ignored the siren voices both of going apple (how much did you say again) and of converting to a laptop (you're so old-fashioned dad) and went like-for-like, of course with upgraded speed, memory and gizmos (there being no basic black ford on the market). I hate it. I don't think I've ever written a computer review before, but there's a first time for everything, so here goes. Windows 10 is absolutely rubbish, user-unfriendly and full of unnecessary stuff that forces you to do things you don't want, like store contacts on the cloud. Focus of my ire is its email programme, an emotional media for me as, though different, it is what remains of my earlier-life penchant for writing letters. It is unintuitive and generally abysmal to the point of non-function. No stars. My signing-on bonus was a week trapped in despondency and the loss of the precious few hours I carve out each week in front of my screen in my study that keep me going. At least I've worked out how to change the hated but ubiquitous email "signature". Mine might as well read "typed on an olivetti lettera 33", my inner luddite having seemingly taken control momentarily. In cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream...

12 january 2016, when nothing goes right, go left

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When the financial "excesses of untrammeled capitalism" crisis almost brought the house down in 2008, europe's left seemed the obvious inheritors. Yet, since then it is the centre-right that has reinforced its credo and made the most credible job of picking up the pieces. Though in power in france, the left is the most unpopular (and erratic) government ever; in germany its counterpart is a weak supporting act. In country after country - spain being the latest - the left has lost. The "greek effect", where a far-left splinter gains momentum (as seen in spain and now internally with the death of britain's labour party) only makes it worse. Yet these leftists are shackled to another era, with rebaked old recipes of marxist colllectivism. More modern, radical leftist thinkers, like unger ("why the left should abandon equality") and graeber ("most of the creative energy for radical politics is now coming from anarchism") have no hinterland or are pilloried for being neoliberals (guilty as charged). I am not the first to observe that the world's largest taxi company (uber) owns no cars, its largest accommodation provider (airb&b) no property, its largest store (alibaba) no stock and its largest media company (facebook) no content. Those behind these incredible societal-size innovations are capitalists red in tooth and claw, and unimaginably wealthy. Backers of the "shared economy" (see 5 june 2014, more of driving less) and that "collaborative commons" which technology is set to unleash never quite seem to have hopes realised. In fact the acceleration and fattening of profits from physical goods to virtual intellectual property is just an even racier capitalism than before, though the corporations earning are different ones. Leftism is not about stopping that but ensuring the level playing fields of entry and maintenance to this new arcadia.

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