Friday, December 31, 2010

I'd say we understand the message all too well

Apparently, the EU has not been communicating again. As ever, when I hear those words I think of Tom Lehrer's comment:
I feel that if a person can't communicate the very least he can do is to shut up.
Mutatis mutandis, that applies to organizations and transnational monsters. Besides, the truth is that when the EU says that they have not been able to explain properly what they have been doing we can reply as any sensible young woman would reply to a man who tells her that his wife does not understand him. Oh yes, she does, all too well, says the sensible young woman. Oh yes we understand what you have done, all too well, is what we say to yet another announcement that in future there will be better communication.

Yet, as the Wall Street Journal informs us, better communication will be the watchword next year.
According to one senior official, the heads of state and government agreed that "the communications cacophony has to stop."

Cynics might retort that the real issue in 2010 was not inept communication—but the underlying contradictions of the euro zone. Slick public relations can try to put lipstick on the pig—but underneath it's still a quadruped with a curly tail that grunts.

Nonetheless, there's not much argument that the discordant way euro-zone governments transmitted their views didn't calm trouble waters but only roiled them further.

This suggests that western European politicians haven't understood what many of their counterparts from supposedly less sophisticated countries have long internalized: You can't segment your messages according to the audience you are addressing.
I can't help feeling that a respectable newspaper could do better than refer back to one of Barack Obama's particularly unpleasant comments during his presidential campaign and, in any case, comparing a pig to EU policy is an insult to most porcines. As for tailoring your comments to your audience, that has been the norm for politicians ever since there was politics. Unfortunately for them, there is this little thing called the internet; there is also another little thing called the blogosphere. In other words, those disparate groups can now find out with great ease what was said to other groups and they often do not like being taken for mugs.

Furthermore, it matters little how you spin the message; the latter remains the same: the euro is a political project and a great deal of political capital has been invested in it, thus making its salvation essential despite the economic nonsense that it creates. In order to achieve this salvation a good deal of taxpayers' money will have to be spent at a time when all countries are looking round for cuts and savings and the rules created by the EU itself have to be broken.

Meanwhile, astonishingly enough, the eurozone is about to acquire another member and one that has had its share of economic and fiscal problems: Estonia, no longer the little country that can [scroll down].
Within Estonia, debate over membership has been heated. Support has waned since euro-zone countries had to step in and bail out first Greece, and then Ireland, whose massive government debt brought them to the brink of insolvency.

A government-commissioned survey shortly before Christmas found that slightly more than half of Estonia's 1.3 million people approve of the Jan. 1 switch from the local currency, the kroon, to the euro, down from peak support of nearly 60%.

Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip told legislators this month that joining the euro "will bring along more jobs, higher pensions and faster economic growth. It will bring us stability."

But opponents say that euro membership comes at too high a cost, especially as Estonia will be expected to contribute funds to rescue Ireland and any other indebted euro-zone country that may need help.
As Poolamets, a lawyer at the forefront of the campaign against euro adoption, says: "Estonia, Welcome Aboard the Titanic".

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The next Presidency is coming

End of December means many things to many people but to the EU it means only one thing: a new incumbent in the Presidential seat. As of Saturday it will be Hungary's turn to make pronouncements, promise actions and, in six months' time, fade away without achieving any of those promises.

Curiously enough the Hungarian government is not promising to simplify legislation and get rid of red tape, the never-ending mantra of previous incoming Presidencies. No, indeed. As befits a country with enormous economic problems (more here) Hungary is promising fiscal discipline to be the leitmotif of its Presidency. Well, that's nice to know.

Meanwhile, there are a few other problems. There is, for example, the media law:
Under the legislation, passed by Hungary's parliament Tuesday, a new authority will have the right to regulate all media content and impose fines of up to €730,000 ($950,000) or shut down news outlets that flout rules.
Apparently, the critics have not seen the small print of the new law. In order to facilitate this an English translation is on the way.

According to Statewatch, who, possibly, have not read the small print:
The European Newspaper Publishers’ Association (ENPA) and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), expressed concern at a draft law that would impose extensive fines against journalists and publishers if they refuse to disclose their sources or publish information deemed inappropriate by the government.

The proposed law, if passed, would seriously endanger freedom of the press by creating room for a subjective judgment about any individual news story and penalise publishers and editors through government-controlled regulatory bodies. The proposal could dramatically limit objective news media.
Let's not get too excited about the concept of objective news media, one that is hard to find at any time but it is certainly true that governments should not be in a position to decide what is and what is not inappropriate for the media to publish.

It seems that Hungarian Radio is already acting according to the new legislation in silencing criticism of it. Amusingly enough the Daily Telegraph wrote about a week ago that Hungary would be unworthy of the EU Presidency if it passed the new media law and might even face suspension from the EU. It never ceases to amaze me that journalists can come up with bilge like that.

Altogether the political situation in Hungary is as messy as the economic one. Let us not forget that the previous incumbent of the EU Presidency was Belgium, a country that cannot even agree on its own government. Hungary is, therefore, eminently suitable for the glorious position of the rotating EU Presidency. Or as they sing on the other side of the Pond: Hail to the Chief! Of course, they actually elect their Presidents.

Khodorkovsky's sentence extended

This needs more discussion but here is the news: a Moscow court has announced that Mikhail Khodorkovsy's sentence was being extended by six more years, only 18 months less than the maximum demanded by the prosecution.
The ruling indicates the Kremlin is showing no sign of easing its pressure on Mr. Khodorkovsky and his OAO Yukos, once Russia's largest oil company. The seven-year legal assault that has been seen as one of the highest-profile in the Kremlin's crackdown on opponents.

Western governments on Thursday renewed their criticism of the case. "The impression remains that political motives played a role in this process," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

In a statement Thursday, the U.S. State Department added: "We remain concerned by the allegations of serious due process violations, and what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends."

Western officials said, however, the ruling isn't expected to have a major impact on relations.
Or a minor impact either. Nothing will have any kind of impact on relations with the Putin-Medvedev run Russia.
The Yukos case is likely to continue to haunt the Kremlin for years in Western courts. Appeals already are pending against Mr. Khodorkovsky's first conviction—in 2005 on charges of tax evasion and fraud—in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. That court also is considering a claim for $98 billion in damages from the company that had held his stake in Yukos. Billions of dollars in other investor claims are pending in Western arbitration panels.

Several Western courts that have already ruled in related cases have said Russian courts' handling of the cases appeared politically motivated and unjust.
Russian officials insist that there is nothing political in their campaign against Khodorkovsky and Yukos - they are merely cleaning up corruption. It just so happens that they have not been able to get round to any other case of corruption and Khodorkovsy is conveniently in prison already.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas wishes

Well, yes, I ought to be blogging about such matters as the new Hungarian media law and the EU's attempt to bully both Switzerland (probably the most successful country in Europe) and Iceland, which is overcoming its economic problems but I have unilaterally decided to leave all that till after Christmas. I am officially off-line tomorrow (as opposed to just being too lazy or fed up to blog). In the meantime: Merry Christmas to all readers of this blog and a happy holiday to those who do not exactly celebrate Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cross-border health care

Just today I have been told again by somebody who thought he was very superior and sarcastic in his comments (for arguments they cannot be called) that the EU was not the enemy (true, it is the political class) and, really, what is all the fuss about. Has the House of Commons really voted away more powers recently, he asked with a smirk, and told me that his comments would probably leave me very angry. Actually, I said, determined ignorance leaves me full of contempt rather than anger.

When people genuinely do not know but ready to find out I am equally ready to explain. I am also very sympathetic to those who say they have enough trouble making their living and bringing up their family to have any time for rooting around in those boring EU documents. But when I hear somebody who is convinced he (or she, there are no gender differences in this) knows so much better than hopeless rubes like all those eurosceptics about politics and sneers in a superior fashion while refusing to find out the most basic facts, contempt becomes the most appropriate reaction.

On the subject of powers moving away: EurActiv reports
Despite opposition behind the scenes, plans to let Europeans seek medical treatment in other countries in the 27-country bloc surged forward Tuesday (21 December) when EU countries gave their stamp of approval.

The deal, reached at ambassador level (Coreper), paves the way for a vote in Parliament on 19 January and increases the chances the cross-border healthcare directive could be in force as early as 2013.
Coreper is the Committee of Permanent Representatives, possibly the most powerful body in the EU.

On the whole 2013 sounds a bit optimistic to me. There will be many hurdles to get over and even if the Directive is in place it will have to be implemented in the Member States and who knows what the situation will be by then.

As it happens, I think we shall do quite well out of this as a number of European countries have better hospital care and are ahead of the NHS in various treatments. For all of that, this will not be an example of a bilateral or, even, multilateral agreement between various countries. This will mean control over healthcare moving over to the EU. I am quite sure that the House of Commons will, if it comes up, vote the necessary legislation through and I am equally sure that I shall still get sneering comments about my obsession with power seeping over to the EU.

And this will solve what?

The Daily Telegraph's Adrian Blomfield reports from Gaza City that various EU Member States, including Britain or rather the Foreign Office are mulling over the idea that the Palestinian "general delegations" be upgraded to "diplomatic missions". This will not make any difference, the FCO spokespersons assure us or, at least, Mr Blomfield.
But a Foreign Office spokesman said the upgrade did not "imply recognition of a Palestinian state," adding: "We continue to believe that the creation of a sovereign and viable Palestinian State alongside a secure Israel is best achieved through negotiations."
Yes, those peace talks have once again collapsed and the United States has refused to push for a UN resolution that would halt new settlements in the West Bank. Anyone would think that was the crux of the problem. We all know, what it is: the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist. Solve that, and peace might become achievable.

Nevertheless, this idea does raise a few questions. In the first place, which Palestinian state and which diplomatic mission? Gaza is run by the thugs of Hamas and they do not acknowledge the supremacy of the thugs from Fatah. Fatah's thugs tend to crack down rather painfully on all supporters of the Hamas thugs. So, who represents the Palestinian state and how is it going to be set up and run?

Secondly, who is going to be paying for the enhanced status and thus, undoubtedly, enhanced expenses of the "diplomatic mission"? As a matter of fact, I think I know the answer to that.

Thirdly, symbolic gestures matter in politics. If this gesture is purely symbolic with no real content (and there can be very little content beyond some Palestinian delegates swaggering round the place with diplomatic immunity), why make it now when the peace talks have collapsed? In other words, why annoy Israel unnecessarily?

Fourthly, what about that diplomatic immunity? Will the Palestinian delegates, of whatever hue, acquire it?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pencils aren't the problem either

Every time there is the terrible tragedy of somebody going berserk with a gun and killing a number of people there is a cry for yet more tightening of gun laws. Uniquely, this country does not allow people to practice handgun shooting in clubs, presumably because all those who do are likely to go berserk and start slaughtering people right, left and centre. Nobody asks the obvious question of what would have happened in all those tragic episodes if other people had been armed and could have stopped the gunman with a well-aimed shot at an earlier stage.

Anyway, I was rather pleased and surprised to see that the Derrick Bird case did not produce the usual knee-jerk reaction from the government. Gosh, I thought, maybe there is something, very little to be said for the Boy-King. I suppose, it is possible that he was brought up among people who took shot-guns for granted and knew that they, in themselves, were not good or bad. However, as Philip Johnston says, we were all reckoning without the oleaginous Keith Vaz. (No, he does not say oleaginous as the Telegraph would not allow it, I expect.)
Hundreds of thousands of firearms owners who feared a new crackdown breathed a sigh of relief – but they reckoned without Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, who felt that another review of the law was in order. His committee's report was published yesterday, and while it shied away from the tough restrictions on ownership that some campaigners would like to see, it managed to recommend yet more controls on law-abiding users that would do nothing to stop a maniac like Bird or reduce the number of illegal guns in the hands of criminals.
Of course, not. That is not the aim of people like Mr Vaz who merely wants to control the law-abiding population. Much he cares about armed criminals. He does not live anywhere near them.

Read the whole article. I understand Philip Johnston was briefed by the Countryside Alliance. I see another campaign brewing.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Couldn't agree more

Joel Leyden is ... well, he explains in this article what he is. More important is what he thinks and he understand something important - Israel (and that, mutatis mutandis, applies to the West in general) is fighting two wars as this blog and EUReferendum have pointed out over and over again. (Too many times to link.) There is the bang-bang shooting war and there is the propaganda war, though Mr Leyden calls it PR war.
Who's winning the PR war?

Well before we can answer that question, is it really a war?
According to the Palestinians, they are only throwing rocks at Israel tanks.

Their public relations machine is working. And working very effectively.
And most of the world public has bought it hook, line and sinker. As Palestinian terrorists attack Israeli tanks with missiles, rockets and automatic gunfire, the world witnesses Palestinian children throwing rocks!

As Palestinian terrorists pump bullets into pregnant Jewish mothers and execute Jewish babies we only see Reuters, AP and AFP images of injured Palestinian children.

Who's winning the public relations war? Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Hamas, Iran, Jihadists and the Palestinians.

We are engaged in two wars - a bloody, sweaty battle of bullets and a real-time digital media war of words.

We are losing both fronts because Israel's governmental public relations and public affairs machine is weak and ineffective.

The PR war defines public opinion, public opinion decides governmental policy and that policy decides who wins. Ultimately, public relations will decide Israel's future security. It's stature as a democracy, its economic health and its very borders.
I am, needless to say, delighted that somebody is paying attention. Maybe next time Israel's PR will be better and faster; maybe their various official organizations will give those of us who see them as allies all the help we need.

What oil-for-food scam?

Claudia Rossett writes about the latest whizz by the UN Security Council:
At a special session chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, the United Nations Security Council voted Tuesday to end the Saddam-era sanctions on Iraq, as well as the remnants of the Oil-for-Food program. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was there, as well as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. In the way of such meetings, there was plenty of speechifying, with each of the five permanent and 10 rotating members delivering orations on the occasion. There were congratulations to the Iraqis on how far they’ve come, as well as advice, prescriptions, and urgings about stability, security, the Iraqi people, “the region, and the international community.”

Notably missing was even a single word of apology for UN complicity in the massive corruption of Oil-for-Food. You remember Oil-for-Food — the 1996-2003 relief program in which the UN took on the job of overseeing all oil sales of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and promised all proceeds would be supervised by the UN to ensure the money was spent on humanitarian aid for the people of Iraq. What came of this setup, in which the UN oversaw more than $110 billion worth of Iraqi oil and relief deals, was a bonanza of billions in kickbacks and illicit fees paid to Saddam’s regime, under cover of thousands of UN-approved contracts. Those illicit billions were skimmed out of oil revenues that were supposed to help the people of Iraq. This dirty business helped fortify Saddam’s murderous regime, and padded the pockets of a great many of his business partners.
I suspect that a lot of people who rely on the drive-by media, as Rush Limbaugh described them, will not know what this is all about and how the greatest scam of the late twentieth century was perpetrated. After all, Claudia Rossett and MEMRI, who, between them, uncovered it all, did not get that Pulitzer Prize.

Let's not forget also:
Today, the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council are a different batch from those who milled through the Council during Oil-for-Food (a group that toward the end included such stand-out collaborators with Saddam’s sanctions-busting graft as Syria). But the permanent five — the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — were, of course, along for the entire ride. And of that Perm Five, the two top business partners of Saddam were Russia and France. China also did quite well out of Saddam’s deals; the Volcker inquiry noted that China would have surpassed France as a purchaser of Saddam’s kickback-laden oil contracts, except that China made a lot of its purchases via a London subsidiary. For that matter, two of the current rotating members, Turkey and Lebanon, did substantial business under Oil-for-Food, and neither has made any visible attempt to pursue the allegations of graft raised by the UN inquiry.
There is also the role in the whole scam of the former SecGen Kofi Annan, whose various dealings and whose family affairs do not bear too close a scrutiny. But then this is the UN, the world's most corrupt admired organization. Is there any reason why we should not shut it down now?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Did you know ...

.... that forræðishyggja is Icelandic for nanny-state. I was so pleased to find this out from the author of EU News from Iceland that I decided to share the information immediately.

Who is intending to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?

OK, I admit it. I went to hear Mark Littlewood, Director-General of the Institute of Economic Affairs interview Nigel Farage the once and once again Leader of UKIP about his and his party's free-market credentials. It was, as readers can imagine, a very jolly affair and Our Nige performed rather well, though he did have to admit that when it came to some of his free-market, free-trade and just generally pro-freedom ideas, he had something of a fight on his hands with many members of his party. Younger members and supporters, however, as he told me afterwards over a glass of wine, tend to be of our sort of persuasion. On the whole that is true, give or take a few thousand hysterical teenagers who like to smash things in central London while shouting gimme, gimme, gimme. (Ooops, I promised not to write about them again.)

Inevitably there was talk about taxation and regulation and the City of London. Farage referred to an article I had read on my way to the IEA by Chris Blackhurst in the Standard, London's freebie newspaper.

Mr Blackhurst enumerates all the reasons why we, well, he viscerally hates bankers and the City, one reason being
The failure of the City to give more back is dismaying too. It suggests its workers really don't understand or, worse, don't care about the divisive society they are helping to create.
Before I could even begin to work out what that might mean I found the following information:
Yet those pouring scorn on the financial services industry (the City in its wider, non-geographical sense), and those who feed off it, need to think again. The unpalatable truth for those critics is that we need the City.

A report published today shows that total tax receipts from financial services in 2009/10 were £53.4 billion, or 11.2 per cent of the UK's entire tax take. The City is now far and away the highest contributing industry in the UK in terms of corporation tax, overtaking North Sea oil and gas. The 1.3 million employees in financial services across the UK paid £24.5 billion in employment taxes.

This, don't forget, was during a global recession — the previous year, 2008/09, the Exchequer received more than £61 billion. As recovery comes — and there are signs of a lift in the City again, with mergers on the increase and markets climbing — the City's overall tax bill will climb once more.
So, the City creates wealth and jobs as well as keeps large parts of this country going through its tax contribution. Remind me what should they give back and to whom?

As Mr Blackhurst points out the idea that we can somehow resurrect dead industries (killed by trade union activity, bad management and a complete inability to keep up with competition) is moonshine. Therefore, the government piling taxes and regulations on the City to the point when it can no longer function for apparently punitive purposes is, to put it mildly, short-sighted. Who is going to keep the huge public sector in funds if not the private sector? Of course, while we have politicians who enter the employ of their parties straight out of nursery that obvious fact will not be faced.

On the other hand, there appears to be one very obvious fact that Mr Blackhurst is not facing or, at least, not writing about and that is the ten-year old programme rolled out by the European Union of the Single Market for Financial Services in the name of which control of the City has been gradually handed over to all sorts of organizations in Brussels. What will it take for Mr Blackhurst and others of his kind to write about it and not just every now and then when it is a slow news day.

Oh well, this is going to work

Scary Dave demands that the EU budget be frozen.
In a blunt message to high-spenders in the EU, he [Scary Dave] said they could not carry on wasting money when other governments were battling to cut borrowing.
Worked so well last time when he was demanding a freeze on the budget, didn't it. Mind you, France and Germany are saying it, too. We shall have to wait for the European Council conclusions to find out what was really said.

Apparently, the Dutch and the Finnish Prime Ministers also signed that letter to the Commission but the poorer countries, such as Poland are insisting that there should be no cuts. Actually, we are talking only about not raising the budget but quite clearly Prime Minister Tusk has learnt from the British trade unions and other protesters.

Nice phrase

Glenn Reynolds describes communism as fascism with an incompetent face. Nicely put.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Meanwhile back in the House of Lords

Lord Willoughby de Broke asked a highly pertinent question:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the United Kingdom's participation in the European Union stability mechanism, and the proposed loan to the Republic of Ireland, are in breach of the "no bailout" clauses enshrined in the Maastricht treaty.
After all, we heard a great deal about the "no bailout" clause though it never seemed to me much of a problem. The EU cannot bail out a country but individual members can "decide to help", all at the same time. So, Article 125, I recall saying, may say no bail-out but Article 122 allows you to do just that in a round-about way.

It seems that I (and the Boss on EURef) were not far wrong. On behalf of HMG Lord Sassoon (for it is he, again) answered:
My Lords, Article 125 of the treaty, on the so-called "no bailout" clause, states that a member state,

"shall not be liable for or assume the commitments",

of another member state. Article 125 does not preclude member states from providing loans to one another. The European financial stability mechanism was established under Article 122.2, which allows the Union to lend to a member state that is in difficulties or,

"seriously threatened with severe difficulties ... or exceptional occurrences beyond its control".
To be fair, Lord Sassoon rather sheepishly hinted that he did not think this was a proper use of Article 122.2 but as our friends on the other side of the Channel would say: que voulez-vous?

Quite an interesting article

Marian Tupy, who is a friend, has an article in the Wall Street Journal about the euro and why it should not be saved. Worth reading. He was until yesterday at Cato Institute but is now coming to London to work at Legatum Institute. I don't wish to be nasty about an institution that has always been very hospitable, but they do need someone who understand the EU.

Twenty-seven rebels this time

There were 24 of them last time and the number has gone up by 3, so we shall, no doubt, be told that the euroscepticism and courage are growing in the Conservative Party. And if you believe that I have a bridge to sell that you might be interested in.

Needless to say, ToryBoy blog is rejoicing. Just say Tory rebellion and they all start rejoicing because it proves that some Tory MPs actually have conservative principles. Or something. It also proves, allegedly, that the new intake is incredibly eurosceptic, small government and generally good eggs. Sadly, the figures are not on their side.

There is also an article by Steve Baker MP, who is supposed to be one of those MPs. He explains why he voted with the government on the outrageous allocation of time motion (see below), abstained in the Second Reading (hadn't the heart to rebel) but did vote for Douglas Carswell's rather complicated amendment.

First of all there was a small rebellion [scroll down for vote] about the outrageous fact that an important Bill like the Loans to Ireland one, which will squander a great deal of badly needed British money, shore up the euro, which the Conservatives are not supposed to like and, inter alia, break the EU's own rules about "no bail-out" was going to have all its stages taken in one day. You'd think any parliamentarian would be outraged but no, most of those courageous Tories trooped into the government lobby like good little boys and girls. 22 people voted against it; of them 14 were Conservatives. A few more abstained.

Seven Conservative MPs actually defied the Whip to vote No on the Second Reading [scroll again for the vote but you might like to read the debate en route].

Here is the somewhat ridiculous Committee procedure. What can you achieve when you have one day for all the stages in the Commons? And if you scroll down you will find the list of those who rebelled and voted for Douglas Carswell's Amendment. It was lost, naturally. That ladies and gentlemen was the latest instalment of that shadow play, called the Conservative Eurosceptic Rebellion.

The worst catastrophe in China's history

As Glenn Reynolds says, American (and other) apologists for Mao were comparing him to the early Christians and assuring us all that his rule was benign, give or take a few deaths, and necessary in order to provide the Chinese with a decent basic living standard.

That would not apply to the millions murdered during the Great Leap Forward and the many more who have lived on near starvation level ever since because agriculture was destroyed and the peasantry terrorized.

Frank Dikötter, professor at the Universities of London and Hong Kong, and author of the seminal Mao's Great Famine, has an article in the New York Times, one of those newspapers that praised Mao's and, let us not forget, Stalin's collectivization. (Walter Duranty remains a Pulitzer Prize winner.)

The estimates of those who understood what had gone on but could not get any documents was that the death toll was between 25 and 30 million. Professor Dikötter has managed to travel round the country and see documents in local party archives thinks that the true figure is at least 45 million, of whom 2 or 3 million were tortured to death or summarily executed. Others simply starved to death or died of grief as the man who had been forced to bury his 12 year old son alive. The boy had stolen a handful of grain.

Even the few cases Dikötter cites in the article are harrowing. I cannot imagine how terrible the book must be. Both are very well worth reading, though.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

EU budget adopted

It is going up by 2.9 per cent and the MEPs have accepted it. There is the odd snag from our point of view.

First of all, there is the question of what the money is to be spent on. Here is an interesting little item:
One of the biggest budget increases is 100m euros in extra funding for the Palestinians and the Middle East peace process.
Oh goody. More of our money to go on funding bloodthirsty kleptocrats in Gaza and on the West Bank, not to mention children's programmes with psychotic mice, killer bees, demented rabbits and Jihadi teddy bears.

Then there is another item of news. The budget is the budget but that is not the end of the story.
MEPs and the EU governments, which are collectively called the Council, have not yet agreed on a contingency fund to deal with emergencies, nor on financing of the Iter nuclear fusion project.
And that is before the Commission presents "a formal proposal by mid-2011 on "own resources" - ways in which the EU can boost its own finances". Ahem, is Wikileaks going to publish any of this?

Ignorance lurks behind these ridiculous analogies

One of the many things that annoy me is inapposite and ridiculous analogies between some event and some other past event. It does not matter from which side of the political divide the analogy comes, it is rarely illuminating and most often completely wrong. But almost every time the analogy serves to make present events bigger, more important and, if needs be, more horrific.

No, capping housing benefits in order that people should live where they can afford to rather than where they want to is not "tantamount to fascism", as I was told on a forum. Quite the opposite. Nor is it anything like the Final Solution, as Polly Toynbee opined, though, apparently, she was forced to apologize; nor is it anything like ethnic cleansing as our own Mayor the egregious Boris Johnson pointed out (he, too, was forced to back down but did so extremely ungraciously).

I was overjoyed to read an article by that highly admirable historian Michael Burleigh on the subject in the latest issue of Standpoint.
Why do so many people accept such analogies? They surely reflect a nation's psyche, even when the experience of one country (say Britain and France in the 1930s) is actually being incorporated into that of another, as has happened with fears of appeasement in the US.

Looking to the past is part of any nation's sense of identity, whether for lessons to avoid or stirring examples to pursue. Simon Schama and David Starkey have built careers as pundits out of what are at best tenuous analogies with the remoter past and our present and future. The grim, thuggish, bureaucratic reality of Labour is unnecessarily dignified by comparing it with machinations at the court of Henry VIII.

Historical analogies also provide us with a reassuringly manageable cognitive map or route through a chaotically frightening present. Although there are significant differences between, say, parochial Irish Republican terrorists and the global jihadists, some take comfort in the delusion that a peace process lurks behind every corner. Everything can be negotiated if reasonable men sit down and settle. If it can't, then the "spirit of the Blitz" will see us through, even though "then" enemy aliens and Nazi sympathisers were also quarantined in internment camps and prisons.

For that is surely another reason for historical analogies. Our country is so partially and poorly informed about foreign affairs, not least by the likes of John Simpson, that it needs to be mobilised around sentimentalised snippets of a past it also hardly knows, which on closer inspection was less sentimental about our enemies than we like to think.
It is not just foreign affairs we are poorly informed on and ignorant about (one could argue that such ignorance was always present) but history in general. Past events are seen as mere sound-bites with no knowledge attached. Therefore, it is easy to draw inappropriate analogies.

No, they can't repatriate powers

It is good to see Lord Spicer becoming considerably more courageous than he was when he was simply Michael Spicer MP and a less than defiant Chairman of the 1922 Committee. This sort of transformation, I maintain, is one of the best arguments for the existence of a House of Lords that does not depend on the whim of the electorate or of the party machinery.

Yesterday he asked a Starred Question:
To ask Her Majesty's Government which powers they are seeking to repatriate from the European Union.
Remember that promise? It was at the heart of the Conservatives' campaign to win the eurosceptic vote and was much touted by all and sundry, including the great Daniel Hannan MEP. Some of us said at the time that this was not possible without a complete re-writing of the Treaties, which cannot be done without an IGC, unanimous agreement and implementation in all the Member States. To achieve a unanimous agreement other Member States would demand something in return for agreeing to whatever it is the Boy-King or his minions proposed. It was never going to work unless some radical threats were employed.

It would appear that HMG has come round to that position if Lord Howell's harrumphing answer is anything to go by:
My Lords, our priority has been the European Union Bill, but we have begun initial work on the balance of the EU's existing competences and what they mean for Britain. This complements our ongoing activity with the Commission to reform the EU institutions. All this work needs to be undertaken before we can determine the way forward, but we are also taking some action now. We will want to limit the application of the working time directive in the UK and we are deciding whether to opt into legislation on criminal justice on a case-by-case basis with a view to maximising our security, protecting our civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system.
That is a very long way of saying that there is nothing we can do and, therefore, we are not going to do anything.

Lord Spicer, clearly briefed by some of his colleagues, persisted:
Does my noble friend agree that, so long as the acquis is at the centre of the European treaties, it will be impossible to repatriate any powers?
More harrumphing from HMG in the person of Lord Howell:
My Lords, the acquis obviously embodies an accumulation of powers. We are now in the 21st century and I suppose that we would all wish to see, if I may use a domestic analogy, a bit more localism in the management of our affairs. However, we are reviewing the situation. The work is at a fairly early stage and I cannot make any further detailed comments on that matter now.
What on earth does it matter which century we are in if the EU is stuck in the middle of the last one and HMG happily goes along with it?

For once Lord Pearson of Rannoch was allowed to get in early and put the matter brutally:
My Lords, will the Minister not come clean and admit that not a comma can be changed in the treaties, nor can the smallest power be repatriated, without the unanimous consent of all 27 member states, and that therefore the repatriation of powers is really not possible?
And the response? Yes, you guessed it: more harrumphing and yet another reference to this being the 21st century, which is completely true and a very good reason why we should not be part of a completely outdated project, one, which was outdated almost as soon as it was proposed, moreover.
I understand exactly the noble Lord's concern on this, but I think that he is being a bit defeatist. It seems to me that there is a very widespread will throughout the European Union to reform it and indeed, if I may borrow a phrase, to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. That certainly involves a sensible pattern of competences between the nation member states and the central institutions. Therefore, I think that, by gloomily saying that nothing can happen until everyone agrees, the noble Lord is taking a very negative approach to an area where European reform is perfectly possible.
Various peers then proceeded to attack Lord Howell and the government policy with Lord Dykes going off on a tangent (as ever) by demanding that he and they should become more enthusiastic Europeans. Not for the first time one has to wonder what exactly is the purpose of Lord Dykes's existence.

Nevertheless, we are left where we were before: HMG may huff and it may puff but it won't blow that house down.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

This needs a brief comment

Just after my (fairly reasoned) rant about the need for the blogosphere to become stronger and more important in politics comes the news that Iain Dale is to give up blogging and party politics. I feel that needs a brief comment.

First, as ever, full disclosure: Iain is a friend and has been since the early days of Politico's, the bookshop and cafe whose demise I still mourn. We worked together on the Conservative History Group until he gave up being its Director and have discussed other possible projects that came to naught in the way most projects do.

Secondly, his reasons are ones I can understand. I do not have a successful media career and do not want one, nor a successful publishing business. For all of that, there are many times when I feel blogging and trying to find subjects to write about takes up far too much of my life. That is why postings are sometimes few and far between.

Thirdly, however, I have always been somewhat uneasy with political bloggers who are part of the media and political establishment and have felt that they were preventing the development of an independent British blogosphere. The Daley dozen was usually filled with politicians of various calibre and journalists blogging at the expense of the more independent ones. (Before I get accused of sour grapes I should like to point out that there was the odd mention of this blog as well and more of EUReferendum.) I shall miss Iain's blog but that is a personal feeling. I look forward to his new website that will appear in January. But I do want to see more blogs that are not connected with the political and media establishment.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What is to be Done?

I make no apology for using that hackneyed title again. Like so many political ideas it emanates from Russian radical circles, first used by Nikolay Chernyshevsky as title to his highly influential and immensely boring novel Что Делать?, which means just that: What is to be Done?. Written in the early 1860s, it outlines in many many badly written pages ideas about revolutionaries and the formation of the revolutionary elite. It says something about those radicals that they took to this novel (or pretended to do so) in a country that boasted at the time some of the world's greatest writers.

Other writers responded as did Dostoyevsky, viciously, in Notes from the Underground (Записки из подполья), published in 1864. This was a protest against the soulless materialism of what he perceived to be the modern age but, in particular, it was a sarcastic attack on Vera Pavlovna, Chernyshevsky's heroine and her interminable dreams, particularly the last one in which people appear to live in some sort of a crystal palace.

The great novelist Tolstoy wrote a pamphlet with that title in 1886, which is a description of Russian social conditions, presumably as seen from Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's mansion and estate. What was required, he thought, was change within people themselves.

The best known work is, inevitably, V. I. Lenin's. It is as boring and badly written as Chernyshevsky's but it is shorter and there are no dreams in it. The book is the most important one Lenin wrote as it gives a precise, if badly phrased, idea of the "need" for a revolutionary elite that would impose its own views on the people. There are also reasonably clear instructions on how that elite is to be formed into a coherent and disciplined party.

The reason for these musings is an internet conversation I have been having with no less a person than Gawain Towler (name published with his permission and encouragement), Head of Media at UKIP who linked to this story in the Telegraph.
If you were a Brussels bureaucrat and David Cameron dumped a cheque for a few billion onto your desk to spend on foreign aid, what would you do with it? Would you spend it (a) on poor people or (b) on cocktails and dancing for white European socialists, and on some vanity projects to promote the power of the EU?

Well, if you were a genuine Eurocrat, you’d probably have gone with (b). Thanks to the EU – which takes a fifth of our international development budget – a chunk of our aid isn’t spent on fighting global poverty at all, but on promoting the EU’s own political goals – which is why so much of it ends up in states that don’t need it, such as Russia, Singapore, India and China.

Last week, however, the Eurocrats decided to spend our money a little closer to home by hosting a major conference in Brussels. Along with providing lots of European Leftists with cocktails and a dance floor, this promoted “the key role of the European Union” in international development and helped to “improve European cohesion”.

To top it all, as Martin Banks and Gawain Towler report, the conference spent aid money to host a fashion show, showcasing seven European designers and one Moroccan. Apparently, this helped the delegates understand the Millennium Development Goals, but it strikes me that it was just an excuse for a jolly at the taxpayer’s expense.
Foreign aid or international aid, as we are supposed to call it now, money spent on parties and fashion shows is not precisely news. My response was that at least money spent on a party and fashion show in Brussels would not go into the coffers of evil, bloodthirsty kleptocrats who use it to fight nasty wars and oppress their people. I was accused of being ultra-cynical.

(In parenthesis let me add that I have been accused of cynicism many times, though not by Mr Towler, but I have never until a recent exchange on a particularly ridiculous forum, been accused of being a do-gooder and, by implication, a bleedin' heart liberal. This was not a person who knows me; nor had he bothered to read anything I write. There is a first time for everything.)

Anyway, moving right along, the discussion between Mr Towler and me then developed into the usual one of "well, what should we do to get people interested". As many times before I maintained that producing silly stories and yet more examples of corruption gets us nowhere. They produced two reactions: people either 1. shrugged their shoulders and said well what do you expect, yawn, what's on the tele, or 2. started getting worked up about the need for reform, control, supervision and transparency. When 2. did not produce the necessary results because they could not, people would revert to 1.

Well, what would you do, asked Mr Towler quite reasonably. Should we start swinging from the Cenotaph? No, I pointed out, as, apart from anything else, it achieved nothing beyond annoying very many people.

It is time, I continued, to start assuming that most people are adults and capable of assimilating serious ideas, such as international aid does not help poor people but keeps bloodthirsty kleptocrats in power and the EU is a state in the making that has already destroyed Britain's sovereignty and constitutional democracy as well as being economically, politically and environmentally regressive and destructive.

Ah yes, said he, but the media does not want that - the media wants silly stories. How well do I know that and how well do I recall being press officer for the Campaign for Independent Britain (CIB) and getting calls from journalists who wanted really stupid European stories. All right, I'd say, how about the really stupid common fisheries policy. Nothing doing. We want something our readers can easily understand. Square strawberries, for instance. Those stories kept appearing as did stories of corruption and wasted money and where has all that got us? We are ever more integrated in the Project and have a non-Labour government that is fully as bad as John Major's Conservative one was (which is when I became involved in all this).

When I say that we should accept that most people are adults who are capable of assimilating serious ideas I do not mean journalists or politicians. Sadly, I probably do not mean people who are involved in party politics either but those are ever fewer in number as we keep being told. But I do mean others - the electorate of all ages and social positions.

There is no question in my view: while it is quite a good idea to produce those stories of wastage and corruption, what we really need to do is go for the central problems, whether it be the EU, international aid or, for that matter, education in this country. Nothing else will get us anywhere. We do miss the likes of the old IEA that changed economic thinking in this country and there seems to be no money around for a eurosceptic think-tank as money tends to go to useless campaigns for referendums or to perestroika organizations like Open Europe or the Taxpayers' Alliance. We do have the internet, of course, and the American example of a blogosphere that became enormously powerful.

So here is my first response to the question of what is to be done - concentrate on the main issues and assume your audience is capable of understanding them and fight through the new media, whether it be the blogosphere (as Mr Towler does as well), other websites or, let's accept it, social media. That might get there somewhere. Anyone has any better ideas?

Makes perfect sense

Sorry, stoodents again. But this time I am just linking to Melanie Phillips's article in the Spectator. There are many times I disagree with Ms Phillips but on education none can better her. I am glad she quotes Professor Clive Bloom who says quite firmly that the rot set in when first-class polytechnics, which many of them were, became tenth rate universities. I like to remind various ToryBoys of that little fact. And who was Prime Minister then? Step forward John Major. Mind you, things went from bad to worse after that.

Oh yes?

Tim Montgomerie and other supporters of the Tory part of the Cleggeron Coalition are getting very excited about a new Bill that will "give power back to the people". This is known as the Localism Bill, which will "let councils and communities run their own affairs". The first thing I should like to point out is that councils and communities are not the same thing and the difference between a bunch of politicians in County Hall and a bunch of politicians in Westminster is minuscule. In fact, the main difference is that, by and large, local politics is more corrupt.

The second question is the inevitable one: will this Bill empower local councils or, for that matter, communities to ignore or reject EU regulations if they are deemed to be inappropriate and the people agree?

Might have guessed

I spent most of the day away from the computer, visiting the Royal Academy for the last day of its exhibition of paintings from Budapest and other matters, then I came back to find the news that the Swedish suicide bomber (thankfully, there was no homicide involved though it was intended) is one of our students.

The Telegraph reports
It emerged last night that Abdulwahab, who was due to turn 29 yesterday, is a former physical therapy student at Bedfordshire University in Luton, and that his wife and three young children still live in the town.

MI5 is now investigating possible links with extremists in Luton, whether the bomber was radicalised at the university and claims that he was helped by an extremist group in Yemen, the base for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
I wonder whether we really need a Bedfordshire University in Luton or anywhere else.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Definitely a terror attack

Not surprising really, but it is good to see that the Swedish police appear to be reasonably sensible in their approach. Carl Bildt' idiotic twitter message is a joy for those of us who collect political vapidities.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Not sure yet

News of two car explosions rapidly following each other in central Stockholm. One person dead and two injured. The way the dead one is described raises the probability that it may well have been somebody actually in one of the cars, which contained gas cylinders. Waiting for further news.

UPDATE: There were earlier rumours but the Guardian goes for it:
A Swedish news agency said it had received an email warning, ahead of the explosions, in which a threat made against Sweden and its population was linked to the country's military presence in Afghanistan.

The TT agency said the warning, which comprised sound files in Swedish and Arabic, was also sent to Sweden's security police (SAPO) and was received 10 minutes before the blasts.

It also referred to caricatures of the prophet Mohammed by Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who became the subject of death threats and at least one assassination plot after cartoons appeared in a Danish newspaper.
It definitely looks like one of the perpetrators is the dead body.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Worth saying

How is it possible that even people who appear to have recognized Communism for the evil it was still manage to heap praise for that monstrous mass murderer, Josip Broz a.k.a. Tito. Well, yes, he fell out (kind of) with Stalin. And so what? Did that make him a better person? Did that mean that Yugoslavia was a free country economically, socially or politically? Not so that you'd notice. Yes, it all fell apart after his death. Anyone who knew anything about it predicted that as the seeds of destruction were sown by dear old Tito and his murderous gang in power.

Those of us of the right age remember the tales of Yugoslav murder squads killing or attempting to kill opponents of the regime abroad, in West Germany, in Australia, in the United States, in Canada, in Britain. Yet Tito continued to be feted.

Belatedly, as Der Spiegel reports, Germany is trying to rectify matters.
Between 1970 and 1989, 22 Croatian exiles were killed in the former West Germany at the behest of the late Yugoslav leader Josip Tito and his country's communist party. Now the German federal prosecutor's office is looking into the crimes, while the interior minister is being asked to strip Tito of the German Order of Merit.
Read the rest of the story, especially if you cannot recall the various incidents.

The UN is not completely silent on China

Ban Ki-moon and Navi Pillay may not be attending the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony as their presence might offend the Chinese government but the UN is not completely silent on China and human rights.

UN watch reports
that the U.N. European Headquarters in Geneva today hosted a massive photo exhibit extolling China's human rights record and its alleged respect for Uyghurs, Tibetans and other minority groups, displayed next to the U.N. human rights office event marking international Human Rights Day.
Can anybody explain to me why the UN cannot be closed down immediately as an organization whose marginal usefulness stopped a very long time ago. As it happens, I do not believe even in that marginal usefulness, set up as it was according to Soviet ideas of international law and human rights.

On a lighter note

Brian Sewell remains one of my heroes. Probably he would hate me saying it (so vulgar my dear) but he shoots from the hip. Yesterday's Evening Standard had an article by him, which enumerated various far-ranging reforms that really would save money and help the arts in this country. Number one reform, I am glad to say, would be the abolition of the Arts Council. He goes on with some other sensible ideas though I do not agree with the notion of charging just foreign visitors to go to museums and art galleries. The idea of that bureaucracy would be nightmarish and it is those same foreign visitors who are likely to leave generous amounts of money in the collection boxes. After all, those museums in other countries that Mr Sewell (and all of us) pay to visit also charge their own citizens. Otherwise, I can find no real fault. Like education, the whole arts business and its relationship with the state needs to be reconsidered root and branch.

Meanwhile back in the big bad world

Later today the Nobel Peace Prize will not be awarded to Liu Xiaobo because he happens to be in a Chinese prison for publishing material that the Chinese Party and Government did not approve of. I expect he would quite like to trade place with Mr Assange but, alas, that is not going to happen. Nor is he going to get any support from Mr Putin, whose representative will not be present at the ceremony along with a number of other worthies. Ms Khan has not offered to put up bail for the Chinese dissident but then Ms Khan has not, so far as I know, spoken up for Mr Wilders or for Elisabeth Sabbaditsch-Wolff either.

Another person who has announced that she has a prior engagement that she had not realized before is Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. And so I should think. We can't have the UN human rights supremo appearing in support of Chinese dissidents. The idea! Nevertheless, UN Watch and 23 other NGOs have called on her to attend. Ms Pillay, however, is too busy expressing her shock at the targeting of WikiLeaks to spare a thought for Chinese dissidents and their families.

Oh yes, nearly forgot: SecGen Ban Ki-moon will not be there either. Inner City Press thinks this may have something to do with both of them wanting a second term in their respective jobs and knowing that China could block that. Surely not!

UPDATE: Liu Xiaobo's wife, Liu Xia is not in Oslo either. She is under house arrest.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

John Pilger, Jemima Khan and Vladimir Putin

What do they have in common? Obvious, really: they are all supporters of the sainted (if one listens to some people) Julian Assange. Presidetn Prime Minister Putin, a great expert in democracy and freedom of information, is, according to this story, leading the world-wide support for Mr Assange who was arrested in Britain at the request of the Swedish authorities as he has been accused of rape (a crime in this country, as well, though some people seem to have forgotten that). His treatment by the British authorities, says Mr Putin with only a slight chuckle, one assumes, is undemocratic. It is, of course, entirely possible that Mr Putin was not too happy about some of the surprisingly perceptive comments made by State Department officials and diplomats about the situation in Russia.

Needless to say, President No.1, Medvedev has also commented on Julian Assange. As Russia Today reports,
Non-governmental organizations should consider nominating Julian Assange for a Nobel Prize, a source in the Russian presidential administration has said.

Public and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “should think of how to help” the founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, the source said on Tuesday, as reported by Interfax news agency.
How very delightful and how it takes one back to the days of the dear departed Soviet Union when organizations that had been set up and allowed by the state and party would parade their willingness to repeat the party line.

One wonders how Ms Khan is reacting to her unexpected allies in the fight for Mr Assange's freedom. Of course, if all these people's worst suspicions should come true and the United States asks for his extradition, Mr Assange can, one assumes, apply for asylum in Russia. Of course, he will not be able to publish any material that might damage or seriously criticize the Russian government if he wants to stay alive and healthy, but he can, as the old Soviet joke had it, criticize the United States to his heart's content.

More peaceful riots in London

Happy to report that those spoilt kids who wanted to show that they are definitely part of the intellectual elite of this country and should, therefore, be subsidized by the rest of us, were out today in force and carrying posters provided by the Socialist Worker, who very kindly signed them all. Therefore, nobody can dispute the fact that the students and assorted school children were just too stupid to understand who was using them and for what purpose.

Here you can see the wonderfully peaceful behaviour by the protesters in attacking the police, burning down various objects in Parliament Square and attacking the limousine that was taking the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who seemed to behave with suitable stiff-upper-lip decorum, on their way to an official engagement at the London Palladium. (Scroll down to see the genius standing on the bench as it burns under him. A real intellectual, I've no doubt.

The Guardian is questioning police tactics though even they seem to be going through the motions. The NUS, I believe, has expressed itself to be disappointed with the way the third peaceful demo developed. Of course, normally, people who organize demonstrations are responsible for the participants' behaviour but the word "responsible" is not one the NUS understands. Perhaps, they cannot spell it.

Meanwhile, as expected, the government won by 323 votes to 302 (narrow but not as narrow as some of the votes on various European treaties were) with Chris Huhne remaining in Cancun with Nick Clegg's blessing. Better than the embarrassment of a Cabinet Minister abstaining on a government policy vote?

ConHome has a live blog (though, obviously, this is now an archival live blog) of the debate with a list of those who abstained or voted against. Tim Montgomerie agrees with the "liar Clegg" meme and rather gleefully assumes that the man is finished. I wouldn't go as far as that - as long as Cameron insists on that coalition, Clegg will be there - but one cannot help being amused by the problems the Lib-Dims are facing because, quite unjustifiably, they are in the government now.

Of course, none of this will solve the big problems we face in our higher education. Nothing but a removal of the state's control, something that politicians dare not contemplate, can do that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

European values

This is really by way of a rant. Few things annoy me more than the insistence of the colleagues that everything they do within the European project is in the name of something they call "European values", which never seem to include the nastier bits of our complicated history. The Renaissance, for instance, was full of blood and murder and crime as Harry Lime points out in that famous monologue on top of the Big Wheel in The Third Man.

It is not only the unpleasant parts of European history that are fudged in the name of glorious European integration; there is a reluctance to face up to the reality of those wondrous "European values" because they are the exact opposite of what the European Union and all its ideas stand for.

The reason this came back to me was because I have been reading Gordon Campbell's Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611 -2011, the story of that great work of theology and literature, 400 years old next year. Describing the early English translations of the Bible, or parts of it, Professor Campbell devotes an appreciable amount of space to William Tyndale, the man who is known as the "father of the English Bible".

Most of his life consisted of dodging around various European cities and states, avoiding the various emissaries of the English King and of the Pope and working desperately hard to translate various Books of the Bible and to have those translations published. He was welcomed in the Protestant states and his translations were smuggled into England where they were supremely popular. (Reminds me of the sight of a highly respectable elderly Russian lady doctor hiding a tiny copy of Leonid Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago among her underwear as she was preparing to return to Moscow.) In the end Tyndale's luck ran out and he was tried for heresy in Antwerp, sentenced to death and strangled with his body burnt afterwards. Ironically, this was a year after his great English enemy and persecutor, Sir Thomas More had been executed.

Of course, these days Tyndale would not have survived even as long as he did or not as a free man. For now, in the name of those "European values" that used to allow people to move around and live in places that were more congenial there is a system in place that aims to have just one legal structure, one set of punishments and one ideology to bind us all.

Who is dropping out of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony?

Because this year's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, still in prison in China (when will Wikileaks publish any documents from the Chinese Foreign Ministry?) there is a certain amount of trouble about attendance at the ceremony this Friday. For one thing the actual recipient will not be present but that will not be for the first time in the history of the award.

China is gleefully telling the world that most countries are staying away. Actually, only 65 countries were invited to send their representatives, these being the ones with embassies in Oslo. Of these 44 have accepted but 19 have foound that all their representatives have prior engagements.

The Christian Science Monitor not only lists them but gives helpful paragraphs that explain why the country in question should be particularly anxious not to upset the Chinese government. It seems that after some deliberation, India has decided to accept the invitation, despite the forthcoming state visit to India by the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao.

The Toy Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg is less than completely forthcoming in its support for Liu Xiaobo. There is a certain falling out between the thieves MEPs. The Green/EFA co-leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit of old extreme left-wing revolutionary fame, has accused the two main groups, EPP and the Social-Democrats, of silence on the subject and not expressing any support for Liu Xiaobo. It is not clear at this stage whether Baroness Ashton the hapless and ridiculous Head Honcho of EU foreign affairs will attend.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Well, now, how do we feel about the EU budget getting a fail again?

Not very positive, says HMG. But then all the previous HMGs said the same thing. They really did not like the fact that the Court of Auditors refused to sign off the accounts for the whichever time. They really did not and they were going to do something about it. This HMG, a.k.a. the Cleggeron Coalition is also intending to do something about it. It will do such things, as King Lear said. But what they are they know not any more than the silly old king did.
Lord Campbell of Alloway seems to have been asking this question year in, year out:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the grounds on which the European Union Court of Auditors has withheld approval of European Union budgets.
And year in, year out, HMG gave more or less the same response
My Lords, the Government are concerned that the European Court of Auditors has been unable to provide a positive statement of assurance for the 16th year in succession. The Government support the ECA's work but are concerned at the slow pace of reforms to EU financial management. The European Commission and member states are responsible for disbursing EU funds, and share responsibility for sound financial management. The Government take financial management seriously and will shortly publish a consolidated statement on the use of EU funds in the UK.
Well, that will be reasonably useful though it remains to be seen whether they will add the amount of money that had to be raised in matching funds for projects that the EU had decided on. Still, it does not deal with the problem of the not-signed-off budgets.

Lord Campbell has a solution:
May I by leave ask a question that perhaps the Government may accept? At their behest, by dint of diplomacy, will they seek an arrangement, be it by treaty or by some other means, to ensure that the ECA's decisions are always reflected, and that they are the only decisions reflected, in the contributions of all member states to the budget?
HMG, in the shape of Lord Sassoon, chose to ignore that and to blather instead:
My Lords, I reiterate that we take the situation enormously seriously. It is deeply unsatisfactory, but progress has been made. In their latest report, the auditors have been able to certify a greater percentage of EU expenditure as satisfactory than before. There are significant complications with anything that goes to changes in the treaty arrangements in this area, but the UK is leading by example by, for instance, producing this consolidated statement, which a number of other member states are now producing and which is welcomed by the Commission. We are adopting every route to try to get improvement. We are by no means complacent, nor should the European authorities be.
Then things got out of hand and even HMG found it impossible to agree wholly with Noble Lords who assured all and sundry that there was nothing really wrong with that budget.

Lord Williamson of Horton, for example, who has spent a good part of his distinguished career in Brussels, working for the Commission, rising to the heights of Secretary-General of the European Commission and has, no doubt, a handsome pension to prove it but sees no need to declare his interest, was anxious to set the record straight
My Lords, this is a good report. Does the Minister agree that, in relation to all the administrative expenditure of all the EU institutions, the court concludes without qualification that transactions were free from material error and that the supervisory and control systems complied with the financial regulation? Does he also agree that, in relation to other policies, the court rightly points out that there are some accounting errors and, in agriculture for example, some incorrect claims from member states, which the Commission will no doubt seek to correct and recover, but that this is not a finding of fraud?
What, one wonders, are those incorrect claims that must not be called fraud?

Lord Sassoon demurred:
My Lords, I can certainly confirm what the noble Lord says. This does not necessarily excuse anything. If around 50 per cent of expenditure nevertheless does not meet the standards, whether through laxities in accounting or administration of the expenditure, it excuses nothing. Indeed, the level of fraud itself, which has been much discussed, is nevertheless at a very low level. According to the work of the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, the level of fraud has decreased from 0.2 per cent of expenditure in 2007 to 0.07 per cent in 2008.
Well, OLAF is not the most reliable of organizations in the world and, in any case, the rather flexible definition of fraud does allow the figure to be quite low.

Other interventions came from such luminaries as Lord Kinnock (who also failed to declare his interest, otherwise known as a handsome pension) and Lord Dykes, a reliable spouter of europhiliac nonsense. In this case, he was so anxious to get in and to prevent Lord Pearson from asking what might have been a difficult to answer question that all he could think of was to repeat the stuff about it being just administrative and clerical problems rather than fraud that prevented the budget being signed off. Lord Sassoon was quite tetchy in his response.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How do I get a job like this?

International Relations and Security Network (ISN) a highly regarded think-tank in Zurich has put up a piece about the ongoing OSCE Summit in Kazakhstan. Solemnly it tells us that there are differences between all the members that appear to be irreconcilable.

I'll say there are differences. The President of Kazakhstan talked of a need for another reserve currency in the world without specifying which; Secretary of State Clinton called on the organization to take a greater share in matters of security in the area including Afghanistan, without specifying how they were to do that; President Medvedev huffed and puffed at the very idea of force being used, something that Russia would never dream of doing; and Nick Clegg who was despatched instead of William Hague, spoke about the need for human rights in all OSCE members. And that was just the first day.

It so happens that yesterday I took part in a discussion on the OSCE and its future with two experts, one from Russia, one from Kazakhstan on the BBC Russian Service. Not one of us thought that there was going to be any kind of a break-through for the OSCE in this Summit though the chap from Kazakhstan thought that the country and its leader had got a good deal of kudos from the meeting and, anyway, having a forum in which all these people can meet and talk was quite a good thing. He did not specify in what way it was a better thing than more low-key negotiations between two or more countries.

The Russian expert droned about the pointlessness of OSCE, citing its history of non-achievement and generally expressing the view that such disparate countries cannot achieve much in the same organization. He was going to go on to the subject of UN and the pointlessness of having members like Burundi in it but was interrupted by the programme anchor.

I was then asked my opinion on OSCE's present and future. Unusually, I agreed with the other participants. There will be no break-through and, in any case, nobody knows what sort of breakthrough is needed or wanted. After all, even Clinton and Clegg were talking about two completely different aims, never mind everyone else. But there is, I added, an inertia about all international and transnational organizations. Once they exist they just go on existing. Partly, there are too many people who have a vested interest in their continued existence but largely it is the unthinkability of somebody standing up and saying: the OSCE has never achieved anything and will never achieve anything. Let's disband it. But think how useful that would be.

There are now only two questions to ask. First is why on earth did we send Nick Clegg to Kazakhstan? The second is how do I get a well-paid job with some think-tank to write solemn articles about the bleedin' obvious.

More on those Leaks

This morning there was another item from the department of the bleedin' obvious in the WikiLeaks saga: Putin might well have known about the plot to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko. In fact, he probably did know. Gosh, I thought, not really! Then I thought: has Julian Assange actually got round to publishing Russian cables. He'd better look out then. But, of course, nothing of the kind.
Senior American officials believed Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin may well have known about the operation to murder dissident former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.

Washington's senior diplomat in Europe challenged suggestions that the killing could have been the work of "rogue elements" in the Russian security forces, according to the latest documents posted on the WikiLeaks website.

Assistant secretary of state Daniel Fried said that Mr Putin's attention to detail meant that it would have been difficult for such an operation to be carried out without his knowledge.
We are still in the realm of American State Department cables, acquired by Mr Assange with very little difficulty or danger.

As an article on the Henry Jackson Society site that also appeared in the Daily Telegraph, says:
If Assange is genuinely committed to shining light into the darkness, and exposing real corruption and human rights abuse, we must ask ourselves, where are the ‘Chinese Embassy Cables’? What has become of the ‘Iran Files’? Whither the ‘Chechnya War Logs’?

It is very important to make the distinction between the latest leaks about Russian corruption under Putin, which are allegations taken from Western sources, and the kind of revelations that would be truly devastating to the Kremlin's credibility: damaging revelations, in other words, from Russian state sources. This we have yet to see, and are unlikely to anytime soon.
The point is that Assange has made grandiloquent claims for his activity, quoted in the same article:
Speaking at a dinner of the Oslo Freedom Forum in April this year, Assange eloquently countered claims that he is anti-Western. On the contrary, he said, he is very much pro-Western. The object of his chagrin is not the West but its leaders, who have distorted and corrupted Western values for their own nefarious ends, and he – like all good revolutionaries – is out to claim those values back.

“The United States”, he said, “once had a proud tradition of freedom of the press... [but] when we see the path that [it is now] going down, we have to question whether it is really holding those values anymore”. The United Kingdom is no better, he says. 300 gag orders in force at any one time make a mockery of the notion of a British free press.

So far from the Enlightenment path has the West apparently strayed in its obsession with secrecy and perversion of justice that Assange now likens it to the Soviet Union in the era of Stalin and Solzhenitsyn. He speaks of an ‘Orwellian’ atmosphere of information control, and a muted media made incapable of speaking out.

Confronted by this nightmare, Assange’s duty is clear: “We have become the publisher of last resort... And in that endeavour [we have] been successful in putting over a million restricted documents into the historical record that weren’t there before. That’s more pages of information than is in Wikipedia.”
One's immediate reaction is that this man either knows nothing about Stalin's Soviet Union or is a liar of monumental proportions.

It is, nevertheless, true: if he really cares about freedom, transparency and human rights then he should start looking at some other countries that are somewhat more deficient in those than the West with all its undoubted problems.
It may well be that Assange – who claims that the ‘exponential’ increase in leaks to his site has forced him to refuse further submissions – has received nothing from any of these potential sources.

If that is the case, this in itself says something quite significant. Private Bradley Manning, the US soldier suspected of the latest leaks, can be confident that the worst punishment he will receive for his crime is a jail term if found guilty. Dissidents in the kinds of countries where Assange should be focusing his efforts could never be so certain. A bullet in the head for themselves and their families – no trial – would be the almost inevitable consequence. Small wonder there aren’t many leaks coming out of the Russian embassy or the Chinese mission.

The second answer to this question could just as easily be, however, that Assange is not really all that interested in exposing corruption and human rights abuse at all, rather his objective is to embarrass and weaken the US and its Western allies because he hates them for what they are and what they stand for. How many of the ‘US Embassy Cables’ reveal actual crimes? Sure, Prince Andrew’s comments about the Serious Fraud Office are unpleasant; certainly the revelation that the US Embassy in Paris sent a memo describing Nicholas Sarkozy as ‘thin-skinned and authoritarian’ is a bit embarrassing, but the majority of these leaks can be filed under the category ‘political titillation’ not ‘serious breaches of the law’.

Some of these leaks, however, are much more serious. Many contain highly sensitive information, the exposure of which will unquestionably do more harm than good to the kind of causes Assange claims he espouses. The fact that China may have been secretly communicating its intention to withdraw its support for North Korea, one of the most repressive and murderous regimes on earth, is enormously significant; the fact that Wikileaks has just made that information public will probably set this process back by several years. The revelation, if it can be described as such, that Iran’s Arab neighbours are so concerned about its nuclear ambitions that they are ready to support US-led military action against Tehran will only give an already paranoid President Ahmadinejad further cause to intensify the oppression of ethnic groups within Iran that he suspects of subversive activity.

Finally of course, all those would-be whistleblowers in countries where real corruption and human rights abuse take place will be vastly less inclined to share that information now than they otherwise would have been. If Julian Assange really wanted to encourage whistleblowing about issues that genuinely impact on human lives, instead of just weakening and embarrassing the United States, he would not be so reckless. Of course, the truth of the matter is that this doesn’t really seem to be his objective at all.
And all this time Julian Assange is staying in hiding because the Swedish police want to interview him in connection with a rape accusation.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This is fun

Look what the satellite image of the Airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran, also known as Iran Air, taken by Google Earth, has shown up.

This is timely

The Russian Duma has passed a resolution that condemned Stalin and Soviet officials for the murder of Polish officers at Katyn and two other camps. About time, too. Needless to say, the Communist Party argued vehemently against the resolution but was outvoted. Of course, this is not a completely new move. The Russian government acknowledged the crime in 1992 but since then several newspapers close to successive governments revived the old story of the Germans being responsible.
Earlier this year a few key documents to do with Stalin's and Beria's guilt were published on the internet.
Nobody has ever been convicted over the massacre, with Russian prosecutors arguing that those responsible are now dead.

A Russian judicial investigation in 2005 only confirmed the execution of 1,803 victims, while the actual number of Polish prisoners killed at Katyn and other Soviet sites is generally held to be about 22,000, including about 8,000 military officers.

The Duma declaration called for the massacre to be investigated further in order to confirm the list of victims.

The Duma also argued that Katyn was a tragedy for Russia too as thousands of Soviet citizens were executed and buried in ditches there in the years 1936-38, the period of Soviet history known as the Terror.
Which is undoubtedly true. Indeed, it is part of the evidence that the Polish officers were executed in exactly the same way as their "predecessors" in the mass graves.

This will undoubtedly make President Medvedev's forthcoming visit to Poland a happier occasion.

The Wall Street Journal, in its article on the subject, adds an interesting and very moving tale.
Other than WikiLeaks, two notable events occurred over the weekend: Russia's parliament issued a resolution taking responsibility for Stalin's murder of 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn forest in 1940, and Dave Brubeck celebrated his 90th birthday in a set at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City. Permit us to connect the dots of history.


Toward the end of a long and very fine set Saturday evening at the Blue Note with his quartet, Mr. Brubeck, who turns 90 next week, took hold of the microphone aside his piano and began to talk about a remembrance of Poland. He said that President Eisenhower had sent the Dave Brubeck Quartet to Poland in 1958 to perform as representatives of the American people. Earlier in his career, Mr. Brubeck had represented the American people as a member of Patton's Third Army in Europe.

After a visit to Chopin's home and being surrounded by "all these pianos," Mr. Brubeck composed a Chopinesque jazz piece with the Polish name "Dziekuje." Mr. Brubeck asked if anyone in the Blue Note audience knew what "dzieuke" means. "It means 'thank you,'" a lady called out.

"That's right," said Mr. Brubeck. "It means thank you. And I want to play this piece as thanks to the people of Poland for resisting Soviet Communism."
One of the many things Hitler and Stalin had in common was their dislike for and distrust of jazz.