Latest Entries »

ECAS PRESS RELEASE:

——————————————————————————————————————-

ECAS Launches Hot Line for EU Citizens in Limbo

 

in the European Year of Citizens

  

 

On 10th of January 2013, the official opening day of the European year of citizens, ECAS is launching a Hotline as part of its EU Rights Clinic to overcome the visible and hidden barriers to European citizenship.

 

“20 years since Union citizenship was created with the Maastricht Treaty, awareness of rights is increasing in Europe while respect for them is deteriorating”, said Tony Venables, Director of the European Citizen Action Service.

 

The EU Rights Clinic set up by ECAS and the University of Kent in Brussels[1] will collect evidence about problematic cases, particularly in the areas of:

 

  • Barriers to the Free Movement of Young Job Seekers and Students. How difficult is it becoming for young job seekers, trainees or volunteers to move around Europe in time of economic crisis and high unemployment? The recent funding crisis over Erasmus further illustrates these difficulties.
  • Entry and Residence in the EU. How easy is it for family members or partners of EU citizens to share the same European rights to move in the EU? Problems of acquiring visas and rights to family reunion are the most frequently mentioned infringements of EU law across Member States.[2] The visible EU tensions over Schengen may be manifestations of a deeper malaise.
  • Social Security across Borders. There is real friction between European rights and pressures on national governments to combat so-called “benefit tourists”.  With citizens losing their social entitlements in their country of origin when they move across borders, but without them acquiring social rights in their country of destination, are we seeing increasing numbers of European citizens – particularly those on lower incomes – being left in limbo?

 

Citizens throughout the EU will be able to call the hotline (+32 (2) 548 04 94) or send an e-mail ( rightsclinic@ecas.org), fill in the on-line form or Skype (rights.clinic01; rights.clinic02; rights.clinic03) in order to share their personal stories, seek help and thus contribute to improvements in European policy and legislation[3].

 

The EU Rights Clinic will encourage the grouping together of complaints and requests in order to achieve greater impact and success in enforcing European rights. Cases which require solution at a national level will be handled in collaboration with our respective national partners – for example the Kent Law Clinic and the AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe) in the UK, the Migrants’ Information and Support Network (GISTI) in France, Accem in Spain, the Union of Citizens Advice Bureaux in Poland and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in Romania. Over time, a network of rights’ advisers spanning all the member states will be created to expand the reach of the EU Rights Clinic and to contribute to closing the gap between the fine principles of EU law and their implementation in practice.

 

Below is a link courtesy of Public Service Europe-detailing a typical working week in the life of Assya Kavrakova, the Programme Manager running the European Citizen’s House project:

http://www.publicserviceeurope.com/article/2999/seven-days-a-week-in-the-life-of-assya-kavrakova

For anyone interested in finding out about the House itself or the person who drives the project, it’s a commendable read!

It will probably come as no surprise, that given the title, this post may be deemed as inflammatory- I certainly hope so. For an orthodoxy had settled into the western mindset, an orthodoxy which equates Christianity with the Tea Party supporting, gun toting, evolution denying religious right in the United States. This orthodoxy is highly corrosive to the identity of Christianity and it is completely destructive to public discourse in the US as well as perhaps worldwide. As a Christian, I resent it and I shall explain why.

I recently read this article: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/21/to-some-obama-is-the-wrong-kind-of-christian/?hpt=hp_c1 and I was troubled by it. It concerns me that such an article was ever necessary. Let’s get our bearings-when I say American Religious Right, I’m sure most people will know what I mean. You know the kind-the type of person who’s completely ok with millions of their compatriots having no access to healthcare because they cannot afford it (in the richest country on Earth)-the same people who would instead devote their time to demonising gays, to defending their right to carry murderous weapons and to actively supporting offensive wars which have caused appalling losses of life.

Anyone who is familiar with the Christian Left movement will find my views easy to understand. I am startled by the question-Is President Obama a Christian? In fact, though I do not know the reality of the man’s private life, his public actions speak of him being the only type of Christian there should be or arguable the only type of real Christian there is. In my eyes the modern archetypal Chrstian of the religious right should not even bear the name “Christian”-I do not recognise these people as being of my own faith. I don’t think that many progressive Christians would either, if they search their feelings. The problem is that the evangelical right has become too vocal, they have gained too much of a platform and have occupied the public mindset. By this I mean that now, when I speak to non-Christians I can immediately tell that a lot of them associate the term “Christian”, with the type of insane hate fuelled garbage that comes out of the Bible belt.

I think everyone should have one thing clear, and this applies as much to deluded right wing nuts as it does to moronic atheists who pick out random quotes from the old  testament and use them to bash Christians with. The New Testament is the heart of Christianity. This is a logical fact. Most of those on the right as well as those who mock Christians conveniently pick phrases from books such as Leviticus, which are also part of the Jewish Torah. Now I put the following logic question to you all-if Christianity in fact boils  down to the old testament, why are Christians not just jews? The answer is simple of course and it is that Christianity involves more than the old testament. A brutal truism, but one that it appears many have forgotten. So instead of focusing on the old, let’s look at the new. What does Jesus do throughout his life? Heal the sick, feed the hungry, protect the prosecuted (remember, he who is without sin, cast the first stone?). Do you know who the Christian right would be if they were in biblical times-they would be the people trying to stone Mary Magdalene for being immoral. They would be the moneylenders who set up shop in the temple.

For how else can we explain the waves and waves of self-righteous indignation emanating from the the US evangelical right? They pass judgement on the lives of others, paying much lesser attention to their own it seems. Or do they think that Jesus would approve of them supporting warmongering leaders who promote greed as a virtue? How easy and comforting it must be to cloak your own wrongdoing in righteous terms.”Why, I am not neglecting the sick and needy Lord, I am merely encouraging them to stand on their own two feet. ” No, I think not. It sees apparent to me that the bluster of the “Christian” Right is designed to use faith as excuse for their own prejudices, malice, greed and lack of communal feeling. Be what you will, ladies and gentlemen, but please do no hijack and pervert my/our faith to suit your twisted worldview.

There is an intellectual point which some of these people may not appreciate. So many in the US have a fascinating aversion to the state, perhaps in part bred into them as descendants of people escaping monarchies in Europe and perhaps through brutal anti communist propaganda. Either way  what they fail to understand is this. The State is us. It is me, it is you, it is all of us. I would commend Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” to anyone and everyone as a basic text on understanding the concept of the State. However what I really mean is this. The problems of our time are much greater in scale than those of before, purely because there are more of us and everything is globalised. We cannot meaningfully fulfil our Christian duty of charity on our own or just through community groups. If you are doing that, are you helping? Yes, of course you are and it’s fantastic that you are. Are you doing enough if you don’t support social politics? No, I don’t believe you are. The only way to tackle the heightened problems is to use the State as the higher expression of ourselves. The State is not a monstrosity from which one must run and hide, which one must distrust and denigrate. What the State is, it’s entire raison d’etre is to tackle problems we can’t on our own. Therefore, it is only logical that to solve the large scale social issues and to discharge our charitable duties we must, must, use the State, rather than allow it to abdicate and be hijacked by business interests. When you give to Charity, is that not redistribution? Of course it is, and supporting social, progressive politics is no different-it is merely what you do individually, magnified on the only scale that can have a real effect on the social problems of today. At the same time what should the state not do-it should not be used as an enhancer for the individual petty prejudices and hate of a bigoted minority. You have the right to hate and to be a bigot-it’s not nice, but you do have that right. But you don’t have the right to use the State as a tool to hurt others with, whether they be your compatriots or the innocents abroad who die and suffer in the name of better commercial opportunities for American companies.

So here it is-the day before the most important day of Europe’s 2012 calendar (and possibly the most important of the next 5 or so years). Forget the Euros and the Olympics folks, tomorrow is what really matters. I am of course talking about the French Presidential run off.

I conceived of writing this blog post as an open letter to any passing Frenchman (or woman :D ) who may come upon it between now and the time polls close tomorrow. And the message of the letter is this-if you haven’t already made up your mind, please for the sake of Europe and France-vote Hollande.

The usual health warnings apply. I am neither French nor living in France. I am keenly aware that I know nothing of the internal French situation nor do I pretend to. As an outsider however, all I can see is the big picture and the long game and they make for startling viewing. Since the economic crisis hit, Europe has lurched to the right. The majority of EU leaders come from right wing parties and the dominant grouping in the EU parliament is the EPP-also right wing. Most EU Commissioners are also right wing. How has it come to this? There are many reasons. In times of crisis voters often go right due to a combination of perceived competence and the fact that right wing parties are usually shamelessly populist. Unfortunately, European citizens have not until now clocked on to the fact that the answer to a crisis borne of neo-liberal economics cannot be more rabid neo-liberal economics.

These times are now changing. The public is beginning to see through the wafer thin lies and incompetence of the neo-liberal mantra. Not just in Greece, where elections should bring in left wing alternatives but in Italy too, the unelected junta of Mario Monti is soon facing the chop (http://blogs.euobserver.com/irvin/2012/04/28/can-holande-walk-the-walk/). As an aside, the above blog (in several different posts) explains why austerity measures undertaken by most EU governments are unsound economics and self-defeating-so you can all assure yourselves my criticism is well founded. Having researched the crisis thoroughly as part of my dissertation it appears that there are hardly any experts who advocate the full on austerity peddled by the likes of Merkozy-even the IMF under Christine Lagarde (hardly an emminent left winger) has spoken out against it.

The left’s fightback is gathering momentum. Yesterday’s UK local elections saw Labour crush the Coalition parties, making gains of over 820 councillors. This indicates that even in a traditionally conservative country such as the UK people have just about had enough. Cameron and Osbourne’s brand of arrogant Thatcherism has landed the UK back in recession-proof as if more proof were needed that full on austerity simply doesn’t work. So if the UK public has seen through Tory incompetence of deceptions how can the French, who are the parents of enlightened European Progressive political thought continue to buy into the Sarkozy doctrine?

Let me explain why I place so much importance on the French vote. Regardless of the fact that Germany is currently economically stronger, France is the first nation in Europe. France has been around longer than any nation in Europe currently present (Greece was not “Greece” for the majority of it’s history and the same goes for Italy). Then there is France’s cultural pre-eminence in Europe. I would contend that Paris is ultimately the most influential capital in Europe-more than Berlin, certainly more than London and Rome. And then there is a fact that the two most senior advocates of Europe’s austerity drive are Sarkozy and Merkel. The opportunity presented is obvious.

If Sarkozy falls, one of the sturdiest right wing bastions will have been breached. Merkel is very unpopular in Germany and a win for Hollande may give the German opposition the good example to oust her at the next elections. Suddenly, if Hollande wins and sticks to his convictions the tide of neo-liberalism may begin  to be reversed-first France, then Italy, then Germany (potentially the UK in 2015) may eliminate their right wing governments. But a loss for Hollande may nip this in the bud. That is why it’s vital for the French to vote Hollande tomorrow. It is for France, yes but also for Europe. The French people need to lead their peers into a more progressive tomorrow, just like they did before during their Revolution. Then too, the entrenched orthodoxy of Europe was a conservative monarchism, a status quo which put the interests of a small group above those of the people. Again, it has come to this in Europe only it’s not monarchies but banks and their lobby, aided by politicians. Again, it is time for the French as then, to deliver a resounding slap in the face of those who would forget themselves.

The Problem with Power

Rant time.

To be fair, I must say that I failed to renew my LibDem membership a long time ago. I still considered myself “a LibDem” but I was disturbed by the party’s direction enough to not want to be a party member. For me it was an issue of the party regaining my vote and membership rather than retaining it-I was not prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt as many of my activist colleagues have done.

Perhaps it is hypocritical that I continued to promote the party to others while not being a member, but I don’t see it that way. I have never urged anyone to join as a member, I merely have advocated that the LibDems are worth a vote and even more, that Labour and the Tories are unworthy of Government. I still believe in the latter, but I am having trouble with the former. So the question is what do you do, when your choices are all bad and if you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t?

Personally, I am a left winger-I am a lot more a left winger than I am a Liberal (sorry if that disappoints anyone who knows me). In the LibDem spectrum I am definitely more on the old Social Democrats wing and even now am quite interested in how this Liberal Left thing will play out. Of course I am also a Liberal-for the most part I am a strong believer in social liberalism (though I’m not an absolutist) but I am definitely not an economic Liberal. For me anything that strays into the “right wing” is instantly suspect until it proves that it serves some sort of utilitarian goal, basically that it will achieve something which is good for the people. Why am I not a Labour activist? Probably because Labour nowadays are further right than the LibDems and are generally hellbent on destroying personal freedom on a breathtaking scale.

So for me, the current developments which have taken the party on a dark journey rightwards, rubber-stamping abhorrent Tory pet projects, are very unpalatable. I think this is definitely the reason why I not only have no plans of renewing my membership, but I am finding it harder and harder to say a good word about the LibDems in Government. The Grassroots party is still true to its roots, but there is a growing disconnect between them and their representatives in Westminster. Several times now LibDem MP’s and Peers have completely ignored conference motions and arguably public and Grassroots LibDem outcries and toed the party and government line. In other words, they are listening to Clegg and Cameron and not to the card carrying members who ARE the party. Nick Clegg had famously said that he will die a card carrying LibDem-well that’s very poetic but all for nowt if he completely bastardises what that card stands for in the mean time.

At the same time, it is important to realise a very clear and chilling truth. Everything that the public doesn’t like about the government and that has caused the most pain to the ordinary person would be much, much worse, if the LibDems were not in government. If this was an exclusively Tory Government, the UK would be suffering the full brunt of Cameron and Osborne’s perverse market obsessed brand of insanity. I don’t believe that Nick Clegg is a bad man. I really don’t. I think he does bad things for good reasons. I think he believes that what he is doing now is the best thing for the country-making concessions here, being diplomatic there in order to extract every bit of humanity possible from Tory policies. Essentially I believe he is engaging in an extremely risky and high stakes game of damage limitation on behalf of Joe Public. I empathise with this, which is why I still think the coalition was the only way forward. Staying the Tory hand and checking their excesses in Government would not otherwise be possible.

I fear, however that he and the rest of the leading LibDems have lost their head in their attempts and controlling Cameron and co. They have started agreeing and advocating things they would never dream of pre-election. This shows they are in danger of completely losing their integrity and tarnishing the party reputation for generations. I fear, therefore that the strain from holding back the Tories and their inexperience in Government (and in managing sly political operators) has lead them to essentially go native (or fall to the Dark Side if you will).

So what is the solution-the Tories seem hell bent on destroying the state and making the people suffer, Labour’s answer to everything appears to be to spy on you and the LibDems…well they don’t really seem to have an answer to anything right now. The only way out for Clegg right now seems to be to wait for a sufficiently charged issue and use it as an opportunity to either score a big win over Cameron or break the coalition. Waiting it out will only allow the Tories to do more damage, which will take the next Labour or coalition government even longer to reverse. Furthermore, waiting until 2015 will, at this rate, ensure the LibDems get slaughtered at the polls. People blame the party for everything that goes wrong. I used to think that the electorate is stupidly being duped by Cameron into blaming Clegg for everything. Now I see it differently-of course they’re not angry with Cameron-those who voted for him actually think he’s doing good work and those who didn’t know for sure that Tories will be Tories-you can’t expect a wild beast not to bite. The LibDems however, CAN do something about it-which is why they get blamed everytime they don’t. They need only look to the continent to see examples of minority parties in Government mounting much more active rearguard action than the LibDems have currently managed. Will it cause stalemates-sure, maybe. That’s still better than allowing atrocious laws onto the statute book for the sake of stability.

Ever the student of Irony, I thought I’d follow up a post generally advocating an eastern grouping opposing a western grouping in the Council with talking about the need for exactly this type of division to be eradicated.  The reason why what I talked about in my previous post is necessary is because the dominance of two nations over all the rest is not healthy for anyone (apart from the two nations involved).  It is not so necessary that the challenge comes from the east, but it seems as if that is the most likely place for it to come. What is more, the EU is still very divided in exactly this sense and while everyone must work to fight this, in the mean time the smaller and newer member states need to pool together their votes and influence so as not to be overran by the older and bigger members.  However this kind of confrontation will not be necessary if the East/West gap is sufficiently addressed.

The overreaching issue in EU politics at the moment is that for all the fanfare of “United in Diversity” (in which I am a complete believer btw) the reality is different. The cracks in the EU structure are legion and they are centuries old. The English mistrust the French, The French mistrust the Germans, the Germans think they are better than everyone, Everyone thinks the Italians and Greeks are lazy and everyone in the west despises and fears the states from the East. This is just a sweeping generalisation of the type of divisions, bigotries and prejudice which still haunts the EU. None is greater however than the East/West divide as it is most recent and most raw.  In the Eastern Block the older generations have spent their entire lives being indoctrinated into dismissing western society as consumerist, exploitative and broken. This kind of thing doesn’t just go away. In the west, we are still being indoctrinated whenever the subject of communism comes up with a lot of garbage which leads everyone to view Eastern Block states as stuck in the middle ages.  Both of these schools of thought must be eradicated if we are to build a cohesive European society. The way to do that is, of course, through better education.

Since the fall of Communism, eastern block countries have lifted the veil of ignorance and the younger generation has become very open to western ways of thinking and living. In fact,  perhaps they have become too open to the point of eroding their own national identity. For the purpose of this discussion however, this is a good thing. Young people in the Eastern parts of the EU are being taught comprehensive world history, as well as western ideas and ideals. One thing which can be said of Communism is that at least outside of the involvement of the Communist party they did allow the teaching of a holistic view of world history which churned out citizens who were not ignorant of the World in this sense.

The same cannot be said of the west. I can only speak of the education system in the UK,  where I studied. However, judging from attitudes displayed by politicians and low-middle level western technocrats I have encountered, prejudice is still endemic. The enemy of prejudice is of course knowledge. In many ways, while I get frustrated at what I see it is hard to blame people who don’t know any better. As Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. This is true in very many cases. As an example, the UK education system is woeful when it comes to teaching History. As far as the UK History curriculum is concerned, children need only be aware of the the events which involve England in one way or another-they even only learn of the Roman Empire in the small way it affects them (which leads to an inflated sense of importance of the events occurring in the Britain at that time, which were by comparison inconsequential).  It is no wander that this produces students with unshakable national confidence and extremely questionable general knowledge. This is a thread that runs uninterrupted-The Middle ages, Renaissance, the entire history of Europe is taught in England (and I believe elsewhere in Western Europe) as if Europe begins and ends with the West. Almost no mention is made of anything happening further east than Hungary, with the occasional mentions of Poland and Byzantium (usually when they somehow relate to the West).

This is, quite clearly a farce.

Anyone who has spent even a small modicum of time studying the history of our continent should be able to see that reality is much different. Let’s start with the most glaring example. The Byzantine Empire was culturally, economically, politically, militarily greater than any state in Western Europe until perhaps the colonial era. Yet it attracts so few mentions. Any telling of the story of Europe should accord at least as much time to the Byzantine Empire as to any other state and in fairness probably double that of most.  Secondly, and this is a subject of particular importance to me since I am Bulgarian, is the omission of my country from medieval and pre-medieval history.  This is a glaring hole in any textbook, rivalling the hole left by the scant discussion of Byzantium.  It is a historical truth that between the 7th and 14th centuries the two most developed nations in Europe were Byzantium and Bulgaria. This is true of Byzantium even before the 7th century (the situation only ended because both states were occupied by the Ottoman Turks). This is the case for the following reasons. Unlike western states which were feudal in nature, both Bulgaria and Byzantium were much more centralised and were arranged a lot more like a modern state. They had therefore, more developed political systems which also lead to superior quality of life and cultural achievements. Furthermore both states exercised control over the Church and not vice versa, which stopped the period known in the west as “the dark ages” from ever happening in the east. It is during this time that the Cyrillic alphabet was invented in the First Bulgarian Empire and disseminated to the Slavic world.  How many western nations can claim such cultural achievement? The two Eastern empires were also more powerful. A few examples to that effect. The battle of Tours is famous for stopping Islamic conquest of Europe, but again it is instructive that this was conquest of Western Europe. Only 20 odd years previous was the Siege of Constantinople which led to a battle between Byzantium and Bulgaria on one side and the Umayyad Caliphate on the other. The forces engaged in that battle were much greater than at Tours and the blow dealt to the Caliphate was consequently much more serious in  military terms. Yet it is almost never mentioned.  Another example is the battle of Adrianople, between Bulgaria and the Latin Empire which was a crusader kingdom temporarily usurping Byzantium and conveying western power in the east.  The battle was more akin to a slaughter, with the Latin Empire’s forces being dwarfed to the extent that Tsar Kaloyan’s army was described as innumerable by one chronicler.  This was a vivid example of the disparity between East and West at that time, only in favour of the East.

Yet, it is as if these things never happened. Of course, dig in encyclopaedias long enough and you will find these facts there, but who does? The fact is that it is easy and natural for western pupils to grow up believing people in the east are next to savages if they have not been properly educated in what is, after all, the truth.  It is not until we tackle this limited representation of history that we can start bridging the gaps in our collective, European community. I raised this point at a conference/event at the European Parliament this year (an event on tackling prejudice organised by Romanian MEPs I believe) and got some encouraging replies from the panel. Apparently work is being done on a common, European History book which should take accurate account of the history of Europe rather than the rather skewed version being currently taught. Hopefully, the project endures and does not fall victim to rampant austerity, because this project is crucial. Until we educate each other or one another’s achievements it is impossible to breed the requisite level of mutual respect which will allow the EU to function properly, rather than having populist politicians constantly falling pray to the prejudices of their voters and having to kowtow to them, since it is far too late to educate those masses.  I can speak with certainty only of my corner of the Eastern block, but I am certain that much of the achievements and history of other Eastern block states are also routinely overlooked in the same manner. This is simply unsustainable.

While the biggest problem is in the West, there is also an issue in the East. Even though the new generation is open to new, western ideas in theory, their application in practice is proving difficult. Concepts such as the Rule of Law, transparent democracy, fighting corruption are struggling to take hold. Furthermore, disillusioned by decades of communism, Eastern Bloc citizens do not see the value in civil participation and voting for example. Voter apathy is a serious problem and re-enforces the problems with corruption etc..  A lot needs to be done by right thinking politicians and by active citizens to challenge the status quo and actually absorb the beneficial experiences of western nations of which they are rightly so proud.  Both East and West then, have serious tasks ahead of them. If both are achieved we may begin to see less a distinction made between western states and eastern states and more (if distinctions must be made) between states based on their individual merits or failings. Roughly then, we could really start talking about “Europe” as if it were a united thing.

This article will be the first part of a body of work which I will write in the aim of formulating a coherent set of internal and foreign policies and ideas which will perhaps allow the EU to overcome its current troubles and prosper for the future. I am not labouring under the delusion that policymakers will read this blog and will implement my suggestions-this is written for my own benefit and if someone who has influence in these things should come upon it and think there are good ideas than so much the better.

Right now the EU is in deep crisis. The world is not doing too hot generally, but it seems that Europe is the worst hit (of course ignoring the absurd levels of debt that the USA is actually in). The Union, as an institution which is incredibly complex is also facing complex problems. While I clearly don’t hold all, if any, of the answers, at least to me some things are self evident.

The first step in tackling any problem in the political arena requires strong leadership. Unfortunately, the EU is by definition diametrically opposed to the notion of leadership in the national sense.  Such a figure would be instantly opposed by almost all involved. The alternative therefore is to fix the system of leadership which we do have currently as it appears to be deficient in several ways. Running something through a council is ineffective at the best of times but it is necessary when considered in the context of Europe’s ultra violent and divided past. But answer this one question-how is a system designed to be fair and provide decisions which everyone is at least partially happy with supposed to endure when the decision process is so skewed in favour of certain Member States? How long are the rest supposed to go along with this? The system seems to have gotten along fine for a long time, but when the chips are down, no one likes having their fate out of their own hands (and nor should that be the case), which is why the time is finally ripe to challenge Franco-German dominance of the EU.

The logic goes that France and Germany are the biggest contributors into the common pot and therefore should have the most say-this isn’t obviously institutionalised or often verbalised, however this is the thought process which prevents other heads of state from consistently challenging France and Germany over common policy proposals. Naturally, France and Germany don’t always agree and they don’t always get their own way in the Council, especially on highly emotive issues. However they do have a definite degree of dominance over other member states, even other net contributors such as the UK and the Netherlands. There is a degree of fairness to the chief contributors getting slightly more of a say, however the level of disparity is not appropriate. Lets not forget that the Council is far from being the only place where this dominance is expressed-a quick look at the top appointments in the Commission and other institutions will also demonstrate how disproportionate the situation is. Clearly, this cannot continue in the current situation-when times are hard people are a lot less likely to accept being ordered around by a ruling clique. The fact that France and Germany consistently get together to hammer out a common position before summits, with the expectation generally being that whatever they decided will then be adopted (subject to cosmetic changes after they have finishing throwing the occasional bone to Italy, the Netherlands or Spain) is both insulting to the rest of the EU 27 and makes a mockery of the EU decision process. Being the EU’s sugar daddy (especially Germany) surely affords you some perks but should it effectively lead to Europe surrendering itself to France and Germany on a platter. (The irony in Germany’s case of course being that they so recently fought such a bloody war to conquer Europe-they need not have bothered-their cheque book would have done instead).

It is heartening therefore to see something like the Visegrad group emerge. It is good that a large and strong block of member states have appeared who have the capability (if not always the need or desire) to oppose the Franco-German position on key issues. Visegrad is not quite as strong, but it is a start. I read a piece in Stratfor recently which suggested that Bulgaria and Romania should join the Visegrad Group and I for one think that is a sound idea. That will strengthen the bloc enough to ensure that France and Germany cannot steamroll over the council and will provide wavering Member States another strong grouping with which to side if they do not agree with what is being proposed.  There are two big problems with such a state of events. Firstly, a face off between France and Germany on the one side and Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (+ Possibly Bulgaria and Romania) will rekindle the old East vs West divide. Furthermore it could lead to a constant stalemate in the council which would cripple EU decision making. This could of course be avoided if the politicians involved act in good faith and do so intelligently. However if we could trust them to do that, then we would not be where we are now in more ways than one.  To a large extent the problem with France and Germany dictating policy is that they often do not do so in good faith. Overtly, the idea is always for the benefit of the Union however it is a very naive soul who believes for a second that their individual leaders are not constantly trying to make it so their nations benefit the most. The council is not a place where the common interest takes precedence and that is why we need the Commission. How then are we to believe that any member state could be trusted to make a decision in the common interest? For my part I see that as nonsense. In order to avoid the need for Cold War mk2 in the EU council every member state must be more willing to be robust in the face of Franco-German domination. That won’t be easy, but it must become the norm. Personally I don’t think they hold that much over the rest of the EU 27 as seems to be the common fear. By that I mean, that the relationship is symbiotic. The net payers contribute the vast part of the EU budget and in return get disproportionate representation across the institutions. However, a look at the relative in/out stats for the EU 27 shows that France and Germany’s position is not that unique. While they are the two biggest contributors the difference between them and say Italy in the UK is not vast. While they provide the biggest net amount into the budget when you factor in the money they get back, they are not the most hard done by per capita-those would be the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. Should those states also not have a similar say? Moreover since their situation is such, why are they not pushing the status quo harder?

The UK’s case is unique, in the sense that it is the politically strongest member state outside of France and Germany but most “wins” it gets revolve around trying to extricate itself from the day to day life in the Union and from its obligations. Therefore, the UK, which could have been a leader of the EU and a major counterweight to the “Dictat” has instead made itself into a political non-event through its own Euro-skepticism. The way which the UK treats its EU partners means that it could never become a leader in the Union-you cannot lead those who widely despise you. A major PR drive (as well as tackling Euro-skepticism at home) is necessary if the UK is to assume a role in the EU which would benefit both it and the Union as a whole. The other closest possible rival is Italy, who however has genuinely been in agreement with the policies emanating from Paris and Berlin-or at least Silvio Berlusconi has (the two not being quite anonymous). Once he finally, mercifully, goes it may be another story and we may have a genuinely powerful member state with the appetite to have more of a say long term (provided that their economy doesn’t collapse in the mean time).

The reason this is such an issue is that we must get our political process in order before we can successfully deal with our financial problems.  In fact our political situation is possibly one of the major roadblocks to fixing the crisis. It should by now be obvious that the approach of brutal austerity and vast bail outs is not working. This is the stance taken by France and Germany and they seem unable or unwilling to consider another approach. The main strength of the EU is its many “heads”-at this stage we should use them all and come up with a better solution than the one being peddled by Paris and Berlin-they have hijacked the EU’s decision making process for too long and what is more, their solutions aren’t helping. The latest, Tobin tax idea is actually quite good but that can’t make up for everything else. Simply put we need all hands on deck to tackle the problems we have and that means Member States need to step up and bring France and Germany down to Earth one way or another.

Something is definitely afoot. A cursory glance at current political discourse (as well as the relevant actors) will show that the political discussion on how to resolve our current economic crisis is being dominated by right wing thought to the extent that alternatives are not even being considered. It’s not a case of, is hard line austerity the answer but exactly how hard line and exactly how fast.  This is wholly unfortunate and bewildering-its a sobering thought to realise the sheer degree to which the western world is gripped by this bout of fiscal conservatism mania. In all honesty, there should be no one who does not recognise that most if not all western governments have lived beyond their means (like many of their citizens) and that a degree of fiscal consolidation is necessary. However, the scale of what is demanded is unrealistic and damaging.

From the insanity of the Tea Party in America who have held the world hostage to their ridiculous demands to Germany and the IMF’s brutal imposition of austerity on Greece, Portugal and Ireland, quite frankly, we’re in trouble.  The pain inflicted by this austerity drive on the ordinary tax payer would be worth it if it at least was the correct route to take towards recovery. As the UK’s growth figures have shown, the slash and burn approach leads to almost no growth at all, which will damage the chance of recovery in the long term-and that is if it doesn’t push the UK back into recession. The approach does not seem to be working anywhere else either.   Lets start with a simple analogy. Rightists love to use the family budget as an analogy for the state budget, saying how we must all tighten our belts and reduce spending when times are lean. Of course, that is true, even though the economy of a state is much too complex to simplify in such a way. Even if you accept the simplification however consider this. If you are in personal debt that means that your income (ie salary) is lower than your outgoings. The conservative way is to drastically slash your outgoings. This works in principle and must form a part of any sound economic plan. However, while in your personal finances you can easily decide what you can do without, it is not the same to make that decision for an entire country-for example deciding that the country can do without a chunk of its policemen (the folly of that was very recently exposed) but there is no need to ask banks and the like to contribute proportionally to solving the mess they themselves created.  To carry on the analogy, if you need to boost your budget, sure you can cut spending in the short term but the only way to improve your situation permanently is to boost your income. In a one person situation that means getting a higher paid job. For a state that means increasing tax revenue.

There are two main ways to increase tax revenue-raise the tax rate and/or boost growth which leads to higher spending and income and therefore a higher real terms tax revenue from the same tax rate (or even higher if the tax rates are raised also). Fiscal conservatives, like most conservatives, fail to see the big picture. Crushing the state to lower your deficit in one quarter and appease the markets will only come back to haunt you when there is no growth, lower tax revenues and your deficit rises again. Furthermore, since austerity leads to unemployment, that increases your benefits bill and further eats away at the state’s income. It should be becoming obvious that it is impossible to balance the state budget without real growth and therefore our policymakers need to start delivering credible plans for growth.

The entire European, UK and US policy approach is centered around pleasing the markets and the ratings agencies. Three things need to be said about this. Firstly, politicians are elected to lead, not follow and so must make up their economic policy in a way that they and their experts believe will be best for the country rather than what would please the markets most-the two are connected but not identical. Secondly, kowtowing to the credit agencies and paying serious attention to their “expertise” is a dangerous game-after all these are the same people who gave several now bankrupt US banks a clean bill of health despite their disastrous financial situation. I would tremble if these same people also thought everything was ship shape in my economy. Their astounding lack of judgment could mean either stunning incompetence or potential corruption-both are not the traits of people who should be trusted to judge on the health of a state’s finances. Lastly, even though the markets often act like a pack of preschoolers (and media coverage of investors being constantly “spooked” does not help that impression) there are plenty of investors who are in no way stupid. What these people want to see is both a credible plan for controlling runaway state spending and a credible plan for growth-they (apprently more than our politicians) realise that you need both. Don’t take my word for it however-here’s the head of the IMF saying pretty much the same thing: http://www.moneymarketing.co.uk/politics/lagarde-deficit-reduction-plans-must-not-damage-growth/1036306.article

 

 

Christine Lagarde is many things, but a left winger she is not. If such a prominent fiscal consolidator is telling you to think about growth, it may be time to listen. As head of the IMF, she is right in principle to demand that Greece undertake some austerity in order to receive more money-the Greeks have taken much more than their fair share of foreign funds with no return so they are due a lot of austerity, however not on the absurd scale demanded by the bail out Troika. This is counter productive. Such harsh austerity will paralysis the country (if nothing else through civil disobedience) and eventually bankrupt it. Then there will be no return at all. Greece needs to start making money to repay money and unless the Troika get wise to this fact soon things will get worse quickly. Throwing money at them and demanding more austerity wont fix the problem and Greece will eventually have to default-a lot of economists seem to hold that opinion already or at least fear that scenario. Even Germany will run out of money eventually, besides they are badly needed elsewhere. This applies to all troubled Eurozone states-assuring the market that they are backed up with cash will do nothing, since this crisis is as much political as it is economic. It seems apparent that market forces are in a way making a run on the Euro and trying to bring down the single currency for one reason or another-therefore they will not stop unless it is patently absurd for them to continue. The only way to make it so is to return the troubled states to growth and start mending their public finances that way (with appropriate levels of austerity to speed the process along without grinding their economies to a halt).

As a last example of an alternative we have Hungary. They have undertaken a program of deficit reduction which shuns cuts in public spending . Have the markets turned on them-no. In fact their credit rating outlook has been raised lately by two of the three main rating agencies. Whether their judgement is accurate is currently irrelevant-the point is that the markets and rating agencies have not savaged a government which has not implemented austerity and is instead cutting its deficit by a series of emergency taxes on big business.  While politicians are busy cowering at the mere mention of the markets or rating agencies, they should consider that what their tormentors want to see is not necessarily extreme austerity but a balanced approach which works-this involves fiscal discipline AND growth. Fingers crossed they figure this one out before they send us into the Great Depression MkII.

The last few days in England have been…disturbing to say the least. And it’s not yet over, however it seems that the Police may finally be getting the upper hand.  Having weathered the storm, London and England is now counting the cost-in the case of Birmingham, sadly, that cost extended beyond money and into human lives. It should not have gotten that far.

Is it possible to say that the Police did not do enough, without blaming them? “The boys in blue” faced a job which is difficult for anyone to do. I must restrain my observations to London since I know little of the other cities experiencing riots, but I know that London is a vast city and even without cuts in numbers, there were not enough policemen on the ground over the weekend and Monday to cover it all-it’s impossible. The reason why businesses and buildings burned down without the fire service getting to them was because the police was too stretched to provide protection for the firemen as they did they work. That we even got to this stage is shameful and harrowing. These riots were unprecedented not just because of their scale but also because of the mindless brutality which the represented. Forget mocking the French from now on-at least when they protest and riot they do it for a coherent reason, they have goals and an overarching political motivation. What we saw in London was different-it may have started with some semblance of a point but it quickly disintegrated into pure crime on an epic scale.  Did the police do enough to prevent it-no. Could they reasonably be expected to deal with this level of mass crime without serious support (and also leadership from the country’s holidaymaking leaders)-no.

So how did we get here? As politics.co.uk’s Ian Dunt says, its hard to say we did not see this coming. Perhaps not the scale, but we all knew something was wrong. I will try to offer an idea on what drove these events, based on my personal experience growing up in London during the Labour years. When I moved to London about 11 years ago, the city was a wholly different place. Coming in, I was struck by how polite everyone was and it generally felt safe. Over the next decade, somehow, this all started breaking down. Much though I have always hated to admit it, David Cameron’s Broken Britain creed has had more basis in reality than most of his other mantras. There are areas and areas of course, but at least in the suburbs of London (as we just saw) all is not well.  This kind of thing starts early. When I came to London, I settled in Ealing with my mother and, not knowing anything about the local schools, I signed up to study in a school close by called Brentside High School. I was later to  find out that Brentside has the reputation of the or one of the worst schools in west london-performance wise and crime wise. Without wishing to be unduly harsh to the school and staff, I would say that this reputation is mostly justified. The reasons for this are myriad and are I think connected to some of  the underlying reasons behind the riots.

So what was Brentside’s problem? The teaching-not really. As with any school, we had great teachers and we had absolutely terrible teachers-including some who regularly turned up late to lessons or didn’t turn up at all. But for each of those we also had teachers who really cared, gave their work their all and inspired their students to achieve.  The teachers we had who did not put the effort in did not do it out of laziness-they did it because they had given up. And why was that-because for every “set 1″ class there were three to four “sets” full of rude, uncooperative and often violent children or youths. I helped out as a teaching assistant one year and if I were any older I would probably have been driven to drink-that’s how bad Brentside’s crop of students generally was. In fact I am positive that a lot of the looters in Ealing who didn’t come it from out of town, were the type of kids we had in Brentside.  A note of caution here-the rude and violent of Brentside came and still come in all shapes, sizes, colours and creeds. This was not a racial phenomenon , but a wholly social one. I always got the vibe that these children were not properly disciplined at home, though a lot of them did display at least some fear when being threatened with having their parents come in. It is probably fair to say that parental authority has been erroded in recent years and along with it, so has responsibility. However, when children are of school age, they spend the majority of their time in School-or at least so we hope.  The place where we need authority restored, the place where we can nip this thing in the bud, is our Schools. In Brentside, the teachers had almost zero authority and that is why the school was mostly in a state of barely controlled chaos.

Due to the state of the law currently, teachers are unable to discipline pupils, and if you know you cannot take it further, it is useless scream and shout at them (not that our teachers did not try). Up until a certain age, a senior teacher shouting at the top of his or her lungs still had some sway over pupils but as they get older, bigger, stronger that control wanes. From what I have heard, Brentside has gotten worse since I left-students throwing chairs in the classroom, physically pushing teachers regularly etc.  Of course, there are many students who get along their day, study hard and never put a foot wrong. In a school like this, these are the real victims. Their education is being ruined by the thugs which schools fail to control. And now, those same thugs felt strong enough to spill out onto the streets and terrorize their whole community as opposed to just their teachers of classmates.  This must end, and it can end if teachers are given back their authority over pupils. This does not extend just to being allowed to smack students, though that is very necessary. It also extends to the right to expel-for example a boy in my year was only suspended for a day after he choked and punched a girl who had done nothing to him. What that boy did was an actual crime, but all he got was a slap on the wrist and a day off school. We need harsher punishments, so that the youth learns early on that they are not invulnerable.

To do this, we need to change our whole mentality towards our children. Parents and adults generally seem afraid of young people and it should be the other way around. The ban on smacking children at home and in schools has made them feel inviolate. This is wrong. The best way for a young adult to feel that there are consequences for their actions is the acute realization that they will suffer for any wrong doing. Furthermore, there has been this mentality which I have seen develop in schools (but I think also at home) over the last 10 years, namely that education should be tailored to every child’s individual needs to the extent that work is easier if a child is deemed of lower ability and “low ability” children are cut a lot of slack. There is also this attitude that children should be praised for anything and everything they do, even if it is not really that good. With respect to the people (who probably have degrees in this sort of thing) who came up with this, this approach is comprehensively wrong and I believe is one of the main enablers for what we saw these last few days. There are several reasons why this approach is incorrect. Firstly, by lowering expectations for lower ability students, this removes any drive they may have had to improve their ability. If they are reaching these lower targets and getting the same praise, they will not aspire to more. To that end, the whole “set” system must be abolished. I have studied in a different (post communist) educational system which is far superior in this sense.  Children there are not separated by ability and all have access to the same quality teaching and facilities (which is fairer) but are in turn expected to work to the same standard. This drives those at the bottom forward rather than pushing them down as the fear is in the UK.  If a child is indeed struggling then this can be rectified by a good teacher and private tuition-however setting the bar lower is counter intuitive, unproductive and frankly insulting to the child and parents.  Children should be taught to aim for the top at all times and not satisfy themselves with less.  Furthermore, children should get real praise when they really achieve and not when they do pretty much anything halfway decent-otherwise the children who do achieve will be discouraged to continue and the children who don’t wont be encouraged to try harder.

It is vital to not bring the school down to the level of the least able pupil, but the elevate every pupil to the standard of the school. That is where Labour got it badly wrong in Government. With this, and with better discipline through harsher punishments we may be able to reverse the trends we are seeing in today’s youth.

I was moved to write on the Cyprus issue again by this article:

http://www.todayszaman.com/news-252815-turkey-warns-greek-cyprus-against-hydrocarbon-drill.html

However, this has I think moved beyond an issue about the island itself or even Turkey’s potential EU membership (my views on this are well enough documented on this blog). This is now an issue about how the EU deals with its neighbours . Considering the size of Cyprus, it seems that many people casually forget that they are a fully fledged EU member state-in other words an integral part of one whole-the EU.  What you essentially have here is an EU member state deciding to start a commercial exploration in its own waters and Turkey feels that it has a right to an opinion, and what is more a right to issue threats. The basis of their delusion is understandable, since they somehow think that the presence of Turkish Cypriots anywhere on the island of Cyprus entitles them to a say in the business of Greek Cyprus.

While indeed, the Cyprus situation is more complicated than is usual, it still is an indictment of EU foreign policy that Turkey feels strong enough relative to the Union to take up such an outrageous and belligerent stance.  The issue at this stage is that Turkish side has began to forget itself and it is high time they are reminded that the political, economic and military disparity between them and the EU as a combined force is similar to the disparity between Turkey and Cyprus. It is poor form indeed from the Union leadership to continue to allow Turkey to bully one of its member states purely because they see economic benefit in appeasing Turkey. The reality of the situation is that while Turkey is a strong trading partner, commerce works both ways. Turkey cannot “withhold trade”  without considerably harming its own economy and any concerns to that effect are misguided. Furthermore, while Turkey has so far been a key moderate ally in the region, it is moving more towards the Islamic side of its political spectrum (especially after the en bloc army resignations) and therefore Europe must be weary of assuming that Turkey will be a long term partner. Ideally, that trend will reverse and positive relations continue, however one must not blindly make plans without considering the political situation in the country as well as their historic aspirations. Turkish foreign policy in Cyprus smacks of imperialism and individual politicians in Turkey have on several occasions expressed views that it is Turkey’s right to interfere in the internal politics of countries which host Turkish minorities (presumably only smaller countries since I have not seen them work up the stones to aggravate Germany).

Simply put, it is time for the EU to reassess the way it does business with Turkey and neighbours generally. EU foreign policy is a mess, which is not helped by the ineptitude of its High Representative. In the Cyprus issue specifically, the best way to deal with the long term situation is to put serious effort into resolving the long term problems between Greek and Turkish Cyprus. However, this cannot be done before the EU begins to act like the Superpower it can be and starts applying real pressure on Turkey on this and other issues. It is high time policymakers in Brussels realised that Ankara is not Moscow-there is nothing to fear and until they realise this Turkey will walk all over them and Cyprus.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.