Monday, December 30, 2013

An anniversary

Saddam Hussein was executed after a long and open trial on January December 30, 2006. This is not a particularly important anniversary but people seem to be talking about it so I thought I'd link to the pieces we wrote at the time on EUReferendum. This is the Boss, writing on the day, this is one of mine a couple of days later and another one just over a week later. I still think we were right.

An odd take on Ukrainian events

The Ukrainian situation at present is both complex and somewhat opaque, the latter meaning that it is not clear where any of it is going. The general opinion seems to be that Putin has won against the EU and the West in general though that requires some qualification.

In the first place, it is not entirely clear what an EU would have consisted of. Presumably, the initialling of the trade and closer co-operation agreement, which would have given very little to either side. Contrary to what many people seem to believe, membership of the EU was not and is not on offer.

Secondly, winning "hearts and minds" by a combination of a huge bribe that the EU could not possibly top and blackmail over energy supplies works in the short term but trouble is not simply brewing, it is there already. Those demonstrators in Kiyiv may not know exactly what they want or how they are going to achieve what they might think they want but they do know what they don't want and that is closer relations with Russia. The fact that there is a very large minority in Ukraine that makes up almost half the population who do want closer relations with Russia and are suspicious of the EU makes that country an unreliable ally for all, including Russia.

Thirdly, Ukraine is largely dysfunctional and the EU already has dysfunctional members. No more are needed. The problems need to be sorted out by the Ukrainians themselves with possible help from the West but that help would be limited. Of course, moving more definitely into Russia's orbit means that the country will remain dysfunctional but signing that agreement with the EU would not have made any difference from that point of view.

In other words, the whole situation is a mess and Putin's victory is Pyrrhic at best. Indeed, some people might say that it is time he started paying attention to what is going on in his own country, especially after the horrific double explosions of Volgograd that follow on a number of other explosions and terrorist acts throughout the year. (Whoever is responsible for what happened yesterday and today, they were still terrorist acts.)

Having said all that, I do find it slightly odd that a school of thought is developing that calls all this something of a diplomatic success for the EU. Andrew Rettman outlines the sequence of events, which ended in Yanukovich and the EU mutually discarding and reviling each other but, curiously, he also says:
The EU this year lost a battle for Ukraine, but nobody is laughing at its soft power any more.
More like sneering, I'd say. The one thing we can say for certain: neither in Ukraine nor anywhere else has EU soft power achieved anything in the last year (or any other year). That Ukrainians do not want to be in the orbit of President Putin's dysfunctional, lawless and bullying country is not much of an achievement for the EU as nothing very much seems to come out of that.

Meanwhile, Leonid Bershidsky speculates on the Bloomberg site as to why President Putin has been so laggardly in his response to the terrorist outrages in Volgograd when other heads of state and government managed to make statements of condolence and condemnation almost immediately. One imagines that when his statement is made it will be tough and full of nasty language. Also, if past experience is to go by, any suspects will be killed by the security services before they can get anywhere near a trial.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bah humbug!

Time for me to spread my usual Christmas gloom and misery. Let us start with that iconic Christmas book, Charles Dickens's magnificently well written and utterly ridiculous A Christmas Carol. Gosh, it's a silly book despite the language and the characters (well, one character). Why oh why, I ask every year, does Bob Cratchitt not either change his job (not an indentured slave) or stop having children. In fact, one wonders how on earth he and the missis manage to have children that often. They are not likely to have a great deal of privacy. As for Tiny Tim, don't even start me on him. Little horror. But it is still worth reading if just for the description of the blind beggars' dogs pulling their masters away from Scrooge as he trudges down the street before his highly ridiculous reform. Presumably the dogs will be all over him after it.

And now on to the other iconic Christmas offering, also an astonishingly good and astonishingly silly work of art, the film It's A Wonderful Life. Here is the ending, which shows that George Bailey's rather frustrated and circumscribed life was ALL WORTH IT and also that the people who got money out of him for ... ahem ... sub-prime mortgages were actually not that badly off. I have to admit to still liking the film. It has an excellent cast with James Stewart at the head (who could ask for anything more?) and is a little more complex than its sacchariney reputation has it.

Normal service will resume after the holidays.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pussy Riot members released

Three months before they were due out Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina were released. They immediately announced that this was all a farce and that they would continue to fight for other prisoners. Then they made themselves coffee, lit cigarettes and got on the phone. Way to go girls!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Khodorkovsky in Berlin

Well, I was wrong but I was also right. I said that the hastily issued amnesty will not extend to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and it did not. Nevertheless, the man has suddenly been snatched from his Siberian labour camp and brought out to Berlin, released on the say-so of Tsar Vlad the Impaler. So I was wrong on that: I did not think he would be released and wondered whether Putin would be mad enough to have a third case against his arch-enemy.

Although the BBC's website led with the story of two completely unknown people who used to work for a celebrity cook not being found guilty of whatever they were accused of, most of the rest of the media led with the astonishing story of President Putin announcing on Thursday that he was thinking of pardoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky just because he has spent ten years in prisons and labour camps (he was due out next August, incidentally) and the man's appearance outside prison and then in Berlin on Friday. a mediaeval monarch could not have done better. So I say and so it shall be.

Mind  you, we have been here before with the dear departed (more or less) Soviet Union. Remember the sudden exchange of Vladimir Bukovsky for the Chilean communist Luis Corvalán even though the Soviet Union had "no political prisoners"? Or when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was suddenly bundled out of the USSR? Now it is Khodorkovsky's turn and the rumours and speculations are rife. Nobody knows what the deal is but most people (especially if they are Russians who have lived in the comfortable West all this time) has opinions.

An interesting article on Echo Moskvy [in Russian but can be translated] analyzes the ten-year long (actually a trifle longer) battle or chess game between the two and speculates as to what might have prompted this latest move and what might happen next. At least, the author freely acknowledges that he has no idea but he doubts whether Putin has really won this time any more than he has done in the past. After all, the net result of Khodorkovsky's imprisonment on trumped up charges was that the world was endlessly discussing his fate, Putin was questioned at every international press conference, the subject was raised by various foreign politicians. The man just would not go away and as he was not killed in the first few months it all became very difficult.

For ten years Khodorkovsky held out and now he asked to be released because his mother is being treated for cancer and he wants to be with her. His own statement affirmed that he was not acknowledging his guilt. Putin may have shown himself to be more powerful but Khodorkovsky has once again grabbed the moral high ground.

Western media outlets like Der Spiegel have been speculating that the very limited amnesty and this latest move are part of Putin's belated effort to make the Sochi Olympics in February an international success rather than something of an embarrassment with Western leaders staying away, if not in droves, then in respectable numbers. Will this work? After all, those leaders are getting worked up about the treatment of LGBT Russians not the general state of human rights, which is deplorable, to put it mildly. How will Russians react if various leaders stay away from Sochi? Will they feel humiliated and blame Vlad for it or will they be angry because self-righteous Westerners dare to lecture them? Clearly, the Prez is not taking any chances.

Reuters also speculated about Sochi but added
It also appeared to show that Putin is feeling confident in his control of the country after facing down street protests when he was re-elected last year.
Again, maybe. Certainly Khodorkovsky immediately raised the subject of others who have been unjustly imprisoned, particularly those involved in his case. Platon Lebedev, his co-defendant, is still in a labour camp.

There are numerous other stories out there but all tread the same paths, raise the same points and speculate along the same lines.

What will Khodorkovsky do now? Meet his family and rest, one assumes. And then? Will he lie low for a while, giving a few interviews and then staying quiet? Hard to believe. Will he become a kind of modern day Alexander Herzen? That is possible. After all, as has been pointed out, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the successful businessman, the putative reformer of Russian business and political practices, trod a well known Russian path: while in Siberian labour camps he became a symbol of resistance and a man of conscience.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Youth plans have not been submitted

Readers of this blog will know that I do not think the EU is either like Nazi Germany or like the Soviet Union. Anyone who looks at the three political systems seriously knows that those parallels are not just unilluminating, they are nonsensical. But they do come from the same matrix of ideas and there are times when one wonders whether any lessons have been learnt at all from failures in history.

Take this headline, for instance: EU summit to warn youth guarantee laggards. Let's not bother with the obvious point that what is starting today is not a Summit but a Council as it has now been more or less officially decided that every Presidency will have two Summits.

Let us look at the gist of the article in EurActiv:
EU countries that have not yet submitted their national plans to introduce so-called Youth Guarantee schemes will be requested to do so without delay at an EU summit, which opens in Brussels today (19 December).

Internal European Commission documents seen by EurActiv reveal that a majority of countries have not sent any plans and risk losing the funding for the initiative, aimed at tackling youth unemployment.

The draft conclusions of the summit, obtained by EurActiv, call on member states that have not yet submitted their Youth Guarantee Implementation plans to do so without delay.

Under the Youth Guarantee, young people without a job will be guaranteed an offer of employment, training or further education within four months of finishing school or becoming unemployed (see background).

A €6 billion pot in the EU budget for 2014-2020 has been set aside to tackle youth employment in regions with high levels of unemployment.
We have national plans, youth guarantee schemes, the Commission handing out money to member states who have submitted the best (or not so good plans). A proposed disaster of statist socialism, in other words, though that still does not make the EU anything like the Soviet Union.

According to the Commission, the cost of not acting under the Youth Guarantee will in fact be much higher. The European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has estimated the current economic loss of having 7.5 million young people out of work or education or training at over €150 billion for the EU every year (1.2% of EU GDP) in terms of benefits paid out and lost output.

According to a Commission paper obtained by EurActiv, only 11 out of the 28 members have submitted national plans. The Czech Republic and Hungary have submitted a final draft, while France, Croatia, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia have submitted a first draft.

The document shows that Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Spain, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Sweden, Slovenia and UK have not submitted their national plans within the required deadline.

However, Austria, Finland, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands appear to be a special case. Austria and Finland have an excellent track record in combating youth unemployment and their experience is a source of inspiration for the EU, while Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark lead in averting youth unemployment, studies say.

But it may appear as a paradox that Greece, a country under bailout programmes,and Spain, with the highest rates of youth unemployment, and Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU, have not made the necessary steps to receive EU funding to tackle youth unemployment.

Reportedly, the implementation of the Youth Guarantee is more complex than it appears at first sight. For many member countries, its implementation will require structural reforms. For example, public employment services must be able to ensure young people receive appropriate advice on job, education and training opportunities most relevant to their own situation.

Another area requiring structural reforms concerns vocational education and training systems, where member countries must ensure that they give young people the skills that employers are looking for. In this respect, trade unions, employers' organisations, educational establishments and public authorities have a role to play and prove their maturity.
I do not suppose it has occurred to any of the people in Brussels that by taking money out of the economy of the various countries in order to operate these schemes (and that means paying the people who operate them as well as handing out money) they are actually making it less possible for young and not so young people to get jobs? No, I don't suppose it has. If a job is guaranteed then somehow it will materialize and central funding will be provided out of the taxes gathered. Certainly, it is useful to remember one particular saying from the old Soviet Union: "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work".

Alas, given the thought processes of our own politicians, I do not think that this sort of nonsense would necessarily stop if we were out of the noxious European Union.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The row over gender segregation in British universities

Read that title and marvel that we can even have such a row. Can you really believe it that some universities and their unions allow gender segregation in meetings and, indeed, demand it when certain speakers appear? Could anyone imagine having a discussion about segregation by race?

As the grand-daughter of a woman who went to university in 1914 to study medicine (yes, she did become a doctor and a very good one, too), I feel very strongly on the subject and ought to have written about it before. (Not sure where the last few weeks went but blogging has been sparse with little else to show for it.)

For the moment I am going to take what might look a lazy way out and publish somebody else's thoughts on the subject. Tehmina Kazi (full disclosure: she is a friend and has agreed to my publishing her piece) is the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Here is her summary of the arguments:

Aspects of the gender segregation debate that have annoyed and perplexed me

1. Denial that gender segregation even exists in universities.

2. Downplaying of the discrimination and shoddy treatment faced by women who have experienced it, which goes back many years.

3. Those who are unable to see why it is problematic for a public body like Universities UK to prioritise the whims of external speakers over university public sector equality duties, and THE SPIRIT of equalities law.

4. No-one has given me a GOOD reason as to WHY gender segregation it is practiced in the first place, in either civic or theological terms. "Because we've done it for years..." does NOT count.

5. When I ask how gay, lesbian, transsexual and intersex people can fit into gender segregated environments, many people seem to assume they can sit where they like - and are able to exercise this in reality. This completely ignores the power dynamics at play here... Who could forget the case of trans Muslim convert Lucy Vallender, whose local mosque told her she was not allowed to pray alongside women? As Kate Maltby wrote for the Spectator: "Basing your very seating arrangements on the belief that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are the fundamental categories of human existence is deeply discriminatory to transgender or intersex students – these fenced-off areas offend by their very presence, even if mixed seating areas are also available." Further, how many of these mixed seating areas are, in practice, for married couples only?

5. Women who turn around and say, "But I've never had a problem with being segregated." Fair enough, but where is the empathy for people who HAVE suffered as a result?

6. The endless comparisons with toilets. Since when did the privacy issues of taking a dump compare to those of engaging one's brain and listening to a speaker as part of an audience?

7. The endless comparisons with single-sex educational establishments, which people actively CHOOSE to attend. Even if the choice was made for them by their parents, you'd think they would be able to enjoy such freedom of choice themselves at the age of 18, SHOULD they decide to attend university. What people effectively have NO choice over is attending a public event at a MIXED university - either as a guest or student - where the arrangements inhibit them from sitting or entering alongside the opposite gender.

(As for the single-sex colleges at Cambridge University, they were originally set up to help redress the gender imbalance in higher education. As I understand it, at least one of the Cambridge colleges in question intends to become co-educational when the proportion of women at Cambridge reaches 50%).

8. The automatic willingness to believe opportunists who have SMEARED activists who peacefully protested against segregation at the UCL event in March 2013 (which triggered the Universities UK guidance in the first place). One of these activists is a good friend who has gone through quite substantial hardship to raise money for orphans in a MUSLIM-MAJORITY country, no less.

9. Confusion over the distinction between discretionary segregation (where people randomly sit where they wish, perhaps in same-sex clusters) and organised segregation (which is either enforced by the event organisers, or requested by the student societies in question).

10. Complaints that the issue is receiving disproportionate public attention NOW. Where were these complainants when women's rights activists were raising these issues within the community for YEARS? Keeping schtum and not upsetting the apple cart, yes?

11. Complaints that those who raise this issue MUST have an Islamophobic agenda, when many of them are actually Muslims whose concerns have been brushed aside for years. (As an aside, many of these same Muslim activists have ALSO done a lot to challenge GENUINE anti-Muslim sentiment).

12. Assumptions that those who campaign against gender segregation in university events MUST also automatically oppose it in congregational prayers. This is not about acts of worship, as Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive Mark Hammond made clear: “Universities can also provide facilities for religious meetings and associations based on faith, as in the rest of society. Equality law permits gender segregation in premises that are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of an organised religion where its doctrines require it. However, in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public it is not, in the Commission's view, permissible to segregate by gender."

Some of these points I find more important than others but all of them are worth thinking about. I suspect I shall be returning to the subject in future blogs. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Is Albania coming in?

Well not for a long long time if the Dutch Parliament has anything to do with it.
The Dutch parliament has voted against a government proposal to grant Albania the status of EU candidate, preventing EU leaders from rubberstamping the proposal during a summit in Brussels on 19-20 December.

The Dutch parliament adopted yesterday (12 December) a decision which obliges the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte to reject the European Commission proposal to give Albania EU candidate status.

The development is likely to inflict a heavy blow to the accession hopes of the Western Balkan nation, which according to the Commission has delivered on EU requirements and so should be granted the status of candidate country.
It would seem that the Dutch Parliament is also unhappy with Romania and Bulgaria becoming part of Schengen though the Commission (that has, on numerous occasions, withheld funds from those two countries because of widespread corruption) thinks that they have now fulfilled the necessary criteria.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The highly effective Cathy Ashton

Cathy Ashton (Baroness Ashton) is the High Panjandrum of EU foreign policy and, as such, spends a great deal of money on her staff and on jetting round the world talking to people and settling issues according to her and her minions.

Since the nearest issue to be settled is in Ukraine, off she went there.
The European Commission released a statement regarding the topic in Brussels on Sunday.

"He [Barroso] recalled the need to respect and to exert maximum restraint. He announced that the High Representative/Vice-President, Catherine Ashton, would travel to Kiеv this week to support a way out of the political crisis," the statement said.
Jolly good. Alas, things worked out slightly differently. Yesterday the Ukrainian police moved against the camping protesters in Kiyiv and clashes broke out, the police taking the central square just hours after the High Panjandrum arrived in the city.

As EUObserver puts it: Ukraine police attack protesters under Ashton's nose.

According to the BBC's latest report both the police and the protesters have pulled back from their previous positions and the Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko has promised no use of force and called on everyone to calm down. More people are pouring into the city to lend support and solidarity to those already there but  it seems unlikely that President Yanukovich will do a U-turn on his previous U-turn. And if he does? What will happen if other demonstrators come out demanding that he stick to his agreement with Russia? Will Cathy Ashton make another trip to produce a political solution?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Slightly odd that this has not happened before

The demonstrators in Kiyiv have pulled down a statue of Lenin (maybe THE statue of Lenin). A little strange it was still there.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

CAP Reform - a guest blog

Richard Munday, the author of this piece, is a farmer and a man who has written about the EU, farming and gun ownership in various countries. He actually prefers to be known as a "reactionary peasant" but I am not convinced that is a term that can be applied to anyone in England after the fourteenth century. He has kindly allowed me to post this piece on my blog. All comments are welcome. 

CAP Reform 
Richard Munday

The EU’s titanic Common Agricultural Policy is currently being reformed. Like the repainting of the Forth Bridge, there is nothing novel about this; the chief interest of the current proposals for the general public is the shift to what are appealingly called "greening" measures. Henceforward, for instance, almost all arable farms above smallholding size are to be obliged to grow three crops: on the face of it an attractive and laudable rebuff to monoculture; but one which will come at a price.

The price for this crop diversification will be paid chiefly by that most endangered of all rural species, the small farmer. Already marginalized by the technological developments that have changed the big 60 horsepower tractor of fifty years ago into the 600 horsepower one of today, and the subvention structures that have favoured ever larger landholdings, the chances are that the surviving small farmer now relies on contractors using equipment he can no longer afford but with which he can no longer compete. If he now has to grow three crops on an area as small as 75 acres (30 hectares in newspeak), at what price will the contractor be bothered to bring in his huge equipment to cultivate each one separately? Chances are again that the small farm will disappear, its fields aggregated with larger landholdings where the economies of scale present no problems to growing multiple crops.

Changes of economic scale have of course destroyed or transformed many industries: should the fate of the family farm specially concern the wider public? Or indeed the fate of UK farming as a whole, given that since 1870 it has been cheaper to import American wheat and Argentinian beef than to grow it at home, and that thanks to our global economy supermarkets can supply year-round strawberries (in looks, even if not in taste)? For the past century British agriculture has been in a terminal condition from which it has only ever been artificially resuscitated. When the German submarine threat to our food supplies in 1917 brought Britain to within three months of defeat, the dereliction of late Victorian farming was rued and remedied, but not for long: agricultural support was withdrawn again after the war, and a quarter of the now close to valueless land in the country had changed hands by 1922. Many fields lay derelict until the U-Boats once again came to the British farmers’ rescue in the Second World War, and the life of the country hung, in Churchill'’s famous fear, on the Battle of the Atlantic.

Agricultural subvention today is a last legacy of wartime experience, but WWII is long ago and memories are short. Even in the days of the notorious EU "grain mountains" of the 1980s, Britain’s food reserves stood at barely three weeks; today we have only what exists in the supply chain: some ten days’ supply. We live "nine meals from anarchy" (in Lord Cameron’s phrase), and less than a fortnight from starvation. There is nothing very special about that: through most of human history starvation has been such a common cause of death that the two words are often linguistically cognate.

Perhaps, like our recent brave strategic assumption that we can leave a gap of years between scrapping our last aircraft carrier and building a new one, we can assume that we will not face a food crisis for the forseeable future. But whereas even a generation ago Britain could feed 80% of a stable population with home-grown produce, we are now down to under 60% of our need, and our population is growing. Technologically, moreover, we are much more vulnerable than we were in WWI or WWII: the monster agricultural machinery of today can be halted by the failure of a microchip, and the old simple machines of the family farm have mostly been scrapped or exported to the Third World. The dying breed that is the British farmer now has an average age of 59: where are his successors? While we have the luxury of making decisions about the Common Agricultural Policy, it behoves us to consider these issues.