Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Just how much say do we have?

A move away from the common foreign policy to the common  agricultural one, known to us all as CAP. Do we want to be part of it as we undoubtedly have to be if we stay in the European Union? That one is a little hard to defend as it is so obvious that we have minimal say in the decisions made and no control over the regulations that are then imposed on our farmers but, I have no doubt, there will be those who will shriek with horror at the very suggestion that we no longer participate in this structure, despite the fact that they cannot name a single benefit or a single instance of British influence.

On February 26 the House of Lords had a short debate (what used to be known as an Unstarred Question but we have abandoned such traditional labels) on this very subject. Lord Willoughby de Broke asked HMG "what is their assessment of the effect of European Union regulation on British agriculture".

As there are several peers still in the House who know about agriculture and some who even understand the intricacies of the CAP the debate was quite interesting and I thoroughly recommend it to readers of this blog. But here are a few meaty quotes from Lord Willoughby's speech, to keep everyone going:
I declare my interest as a member of that disgruntled group of farmers. I farm in Warwickshire and I am disgruntled because during my time in the Lords I have served on the committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who is in his place, and have spoken in many debates, including debates in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2008. I think that in nearly all those debates there were calls for reform of the common agricultural policy. I think that both Front Benches in this House have always agreed with the idea of reforming the common agricultural policy. However, what has happened after all those fine words? Where are we now? Has anything changed? Has the common agricultural policy become less bureaucratic, less centralised and less corrupt? No, it has not. Has it made farmers any more prosperous? No, it has not. Actually, things have got worse, as I will explain.

The beef and sheep sectors are suffering under overregulation, passports and identification schemes, many of which are unnecessary and certainly very burdensome and time-consuming for stock farmers. Arable farmers are regularly stripped of their ability to grow profitable, healthy and viable crops at a time when they are being enjoined to feed an ever increasing population, but the rules from Brussels make it more and more difficult to do that. I take the example of winter wheat. One of the big enemies of winter wheat is the black-grass weed. Over the last couple of years, the most effective black-grass herbicides have been gradually withdrawn against the advice of our own very independent and expert Advisory Committee on Pesticides and that of the previous government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington. However, their advice does not really count. What counts is what goes on in Brussels. The ayatollahs in Brussels decide what we are going to do and we have almost no say there any more. The rules are decided by the agricultural bosses in Brussels in the Commission and are subject to qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, where we are regularly outvoted.

As the Minister will remember, the humiliating position of having no say in what goes on in agriculture in this country was underlined last summer when the Commission, spurred on by demonstrators dressed up as bumble-bees, suspended the use of neonicotinoid seed dressings for oilseed rape and other brassicas. Yet again, our Advisory Committee on Pesticides was against this, as to their credit were the Government and the Minister. Yet again, we are being forced to enforce a policy with which we do not agree.

The rule of unintended consequences will now kick in. Large acreages of oilseed rape have been damaged. The percentages are arguable, but these acreages have certainly suffered. According to Home Grown Cereals Authority estimates, about 40,000 acres of oilseed rape last autumn had to be destroyed, abandoned or re-drilled. The consequence of that is that as oilseed rape is a major food for bees and pollinators, there will be less food for them: there will be less oilseed rape. Now that neonics are banned, farmers will use airborne sprays. They have to be put on at flowering time. This initiative by the Commission will definitely damage bees more than was the case when we had neonicotinoid seed dressings—but welcome to the EU, and have a nice day.
The point is one that we make over and over again but it has not sunk in yet even after all these decades: it really does not matter what farmers in this country might want (and having worked with them in a previous reincarnation I can certainly affirm that many of the demands are completely unreasonable and often made by one sector at the expense of another one) or what our own elected politicians might proclaim. There is no possibility of getting our way in the structure as it stands.

The rest of the debate and the Minister's reply is quite salutary. Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dormer, for the Liberal-Democrats, decided to use her speech for the purpose of attacking UKIP's agricultural policy, which, according to her, veered from the slightly batty to the blatantly obvious.
One effect of the tabling of this debate was to make me look at UKIP’s agricultural policies. I was most surprised to see that number one on its agricultural policy list is to impose stronger controls on bush meat. Controlling bush meat, with all its health implications, is clearly very important, but that is not really a British agricultural issue. It is not in competition with beef or lamb. To mix my metaphors, it is a total red herring. That is an issue for the Home Office and border controls. The second top policy of UKIP is to support the trial culling of badgers for the control of bovine TB if veterinary opinion substantiates it. That is not original. It is common to all sides of the House so there is nothing to disagree with there. The third is that UKIP supports the principle of science before emotion on any agricultural topic. Who does not?
Actually, as it became obvious, the EU does not necessarily, still preferring the precautionary policy, much touted by various NGOs who, as we know, are paid for by tax money.

Then there were several examples of CAP regulations that were actually not that bad or even quite good, which is not to be denied. Even a stopped clock, as we know, is right twice a day. The question is not that but exactly how much rubbish do we have to accept in order to have some reasonable decisions, which, presumably, could be made in this country.

Some hope has been expressed in the wake of statements made by Commissioner Hogan, by Lord Caithness among others:
There has been an encouraging start by Commissioner Hogan, however, who has said many of the right things. I hope that he is more in the MacSharry mould than his predecessor. In his keynote address to the NFU conference in Birmingham two days ago, Commissioner Hogan said that he had made simplification a top priority for his work programme in 2015. He went on to say that he had launched a comprehensive screening exercise of the entire CAP to identify which sections may need simplifying. He went on to say that more than 200 Commission regulations implemented the common market organisation will be reviewed and simplified. If 200 are being looked at, what is happening to the others? Why are they not being looked at? In what timescale will this happen? How will we hold the commissioner’s feet to the fire? He has said the right things; how will we make him perform?
The fact is that every incoming Commissioner makes simplification his (or her) priority and every new Commission and new Presidency intends to cut back red tape and deregulate, possibly even decentralize within limits allowed by the acquis communautaire, which means not at all. It is a little odd that people should still find statements and speeches of that kind hopeful.

However, the really interesting speech is the one by the Minister, Lord De Mauley. It is very rational and full of good intentions as well as of a list of British attempts to achieve something, change something or prevent something within the CAP. What it is a little short on is actual achievements. I am afraid, Lord Willoughby de Broke's point is proved by the Minister who may well agree but cannot openly say so.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Muddled may be one word of describing it

Following on from my previous posting about the impossibility of an EU foreign policy (though still not taking up Mr Lucas's challenge directly) this blog's attention has been called to an interesting item on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) site:
The European Commission is questioning whether to drop its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and appears open to the possibility of closer cooperation with Russia.

The possibilities, spelled out in a draft document seen by RFE/RL, are part of an effort to come up by this autumn with concrete proposals for reforming the ENP.

The draft document, titled Towards A New Neighborhood Policy, will be presented to EU states on March 4 by foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and Neighborhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
It would appear from the article that the document asks questions rather than makes suggestions and the details may well be changed before March 4 (that is, tomorrow). Perhaps, the document should have been presented on March 5, the anniversary of Stalin's death but that might have been too full of symbolism. Let us simply note that in the wake of Boris Nemtsov's assassination within 200 meters of the Kremlin and while Russian ... how shall I put it? ... interest? .... involvement? ... in eastern Ukraine, the territory of a sovereign state, continues the EU's foreign policy High Panjandrum thinks that the best way forward is to have closer relations with Russia. (For the benefit to some of my readers I should point out that the alternative to having closer relations with a country one distrusts is not necessarily going to war with it.)

Not that it is such a bad idea to review and, perhaps, to abandon the European Neighbourhood Policy as it makes very little sense in its present form - there is no sense to having the same arrangements with countries that are very different. However, as I pointed out in that posting, the EU finds it quite difficult to have a policy that is not a generalized regional one because it finds it quite hard to have a common foreign policy not having a common foreign interest.

In view of recent developments in and around Russia it will be interesting to see that this new, rather desperate proposal for a common policy, which does not consult the UK's interests, will be just another attempt at appeasement or will come up with some rational suggestions. At present it looks like the former or neither, rational ideas not being part of the High Panjandrum's arsenal.

In the meantime, the House of Lords Grand Committee has debated and agreed to the Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Boris Nemtsov RIP

Readers of this blog know that it is not a great fan of President Putin's but it has always maintained that, bad and vicious and tyrannical though the man is, he is no Stalin. On the whole, I still think that but as the news of Boris Nemtsov's assassination and of the immediate official reaction to it came through I was not the only person who recalled another assassination, that of Sergey Kirov on December 1, 1934 and what came out of that.

The assassination was undoubtedly professional and well organized. Whoever was in that white car from which the shots were fired knew exactly what route Mr Nemtsov was going to take and when. In connection with this one has to ask questions about his companion, apparently a young woman, called Anna who had come from Kyiv just a few hours previously. That is what another oppositionist, Ksenya Sobchak, has said. The young woman herself has been taken away by the police for interrogation and not been seen since.

Bravely, the people of Moscow have been streaming to the site, which was cleaned up after a couple of hours (so thorough) and laying flowers. The opposition groups are planning what was going to be a march for peace in Ukraine tomorrow, called Vesna or Spring, into a memorial march for Boris Nemtsov and, it seems, permission has been given by the Mayor of Moscow. One can merely admire such courage and wish them well. At present I don't know whether there are any events in London in support of the Moscow march. As soon as I have any information I shall blog it and tweet it.

In the meantime, a representative of the Investigative Commission, Vladimir Markin, has announced that they will investigate the crime very seriously and are looking at several possibilities: an attempt at provocation to destabilize Russia (really, it is a shame from their point of view that Berezovsky is dead and people know it), a possible link with Islamist extremism (unexplained as Nemtsov had nothing to do with Chechnya but, unknown to anyone but the Russian security services he had received threats after Charlie Hebdo), and Ukrainian internal matters (it seems that on both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine there are loose canons who might assassinate Putin's opponents). There might also be other causes, said Mr Markin, to do with business matters (Nemtsov does not seem to have had any business interests) and private issues. So, there we have it. How many will be arrested?

In the meantime the police raided Mr Nemtsov's flat and took away documents, writings and the hard disk from his computer. One can only hope that there are copies on what he was working on in other places, preferably abroad, for his friends and colleagues say that he was researching details of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.

More as I find out.

UPDATE: There will be a memorial meeting in London tomorrow, March 1, at 2 pm outside the Russian Embassy in Bayswater Road. The organizers are asking people not to bring posters but only flowers, candles and, if they have any, portraits of Boris Nemtsov.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

In the House of Lords

It is hard to work out timing but this may well be going on now or will be starting soon: a short debate that is due to last an hour and a half about EU Regulations and British agriculture, initiated by Lord Willoughby de Broke. I shall, as I told his lordship, enjoy reading Hansard tomorrow and blogging about it.

The Grand Committee will be sitting in the Moses Room at 2 pm when, among other matters they will debate the three European Union Association Agreements, with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. President Putin's wars seem not to have the desired effect.

Monday, February 23, 2015

I do not think that word means what they think it means

Readers of this blog would have noted that I have been procrastinating. Not only I have not completed my response to Edward Lucas's challenge, I have not written about two events that discussed alternatives to Britain's membership of the EU. Indeed so. Here is another piece of procrastination caused by annoyance at people using some word or another without bothering to find out its meaning.

To start with, here is the short excerpt from The Princess Bride that gives the line I changed a little for the title:

I am sure readers of this blog have their own favourites and they are welcome to add them to a discussion, preferably affixing some kind of a moniker to to their comments but my own bĂȘte noire is the word nemesis. Readers of this blog will know that the word comes from the Greek goddess of divine retribution, who may or may not have been the daughter of Zeus or Oceanus or Erebus and Nyx. Mostly it means either the inescapable agent of someone's downfall or the downfall itself, often preceded by hubris, that is unthinking arrogance.

However, for some people who ought to know better the word has come to mean an enemy or just someone not much liked. I spent a good deal of time trying not to grit my teeth too loudly in bookshops as I went past a book by Bertrand Patanaude entitled Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky. Precisely: Stalin outwitted Trotsky, destroyed him, exiled him, hounded him from country to country and finally had him murdered. In what way was Trotsky the inescapable agent of Stalin's downfall? Judging by this review in History Today the author made no mistakes in his account in the book so who thought of the title?

Yesterday I came across an even more egregious use of the word. I went to see one of the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films at the National Film Theatre, State of the Union. It's the one in which Tracy is talked into running for President and finds that in order to do so he has to abandon all his (rather mushy and illogical) ideals and become a machine politician. Just in time and with the help of his wife, Hepburn, he wakes up to reality, abandons his quest and decides to become a different and not very well specified kind of politician. The film mostly moves along at a fair clip, slowing down occasionally for long political speeches and is a little clunky in the way it shows the Tracy character's sudden corruption. But its picture of political wheeler-dealering is wonderful and the two main stars are supported brilliantly by three others: a very young Angela Lansbury as the ruthless media mogul, Adolphe Menjou as the political fixer and Van Johnson as the cynical columnist who becomes a campaign manager and reluctantly begins to acquire some honesty in a very jolly sort of way.

The film was made in 1948, a year in which many people in Hollywood found that they had to make some difficult political decisions but also the year in which Harry S Truman was elected as President, having taken over on Franklin D. Roosevelt's death. The film, though it is about the Republican party, takes no real political sides only the side of the United States, as one would expect from its director and producer, Frank Capra.

In the background, however, there were ructions with the HUAC Hollywood hearings going on and the CPUSA playing its own games, usually on orders from Moscow. It was the CPUSA's decision  (well, probably Stalin's) to abandon the first line of defence for Hollywood's Communists, and that is the First Amendment and to order them all to deny their membership of the party thus turning the whole exercise into an attack on the Truman Administration who, they said, was persecuting the Left in general. At the time, this disgusted quite a lot of people; since then the CPUSA line seems to have been swallowed hook, line and sinker by film makers, journalists and assorted commentators.

Katharine Hepburn in real life seems to have been a good deal less smart and more naive than the parts she played, especially opposite Spencer Tracy. This is what we can read in the notes provided by the NFT, which, in this case, is an extended quotation from William J. Mann's Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn with, I think, some explanation from someone in the NFT in the square brackets:
Months before Kate's speech [Hepburn attacked the House Un-American Activities committee in a controversial speech at a rally by potential Democratic Presidential candidate Henry Wallace - the speech was written by Communist Party member Dalton Trumbo, and for the occasion Hepburn wore a red dress], Spencer had been negotiating with Frank Capra to make a film called State of the Union, based on Howard Lindsay's play about a crooked politician running for president who gets a lesson in values and morality from his estranged wife.
I suspect Mr Mann would have known that with Truman in the White House the potential of any other Democratic Presidential candidate in 1948 was zero and, in any case, Henry Wallace, widely and with some justification believed to be a Communist stooge, ran as the Progressive Party's candidate. Hepburn's behaviour cannot be called anything but rather silly. Reading out a speech by Dalton Trumbo is not the sign of political intelligence or independent thinking.

Both Capra and Tracy wanted Hepburn in the film, despite this rather awkward behaviour and the fact that she was once again regarded by Hollywood as box office poison. So they got her in and there she was up against the Adolphe Menjou character and against the man himself. Menjou was on the other side of the political divide and was much hated by the Left and, undoubtedly, the CPUSA for being a HUAC friendly witness. However, filming was done on a "reasonable and professional" basis according to others involved.

Now we come to an interesting part of the story and the original point of this posting. There is some evidence that HUAC intended to subpoena Hepburn but did not do so.
But at some point during the making of State of the Union, the right-wing radio commentator Fulton Lewis Jr announced on the air that Kate wished to recant her actions. According to Lewis, Hepburn said she didn't know what she was signing when she joined the Committee for the First Amendment, and that she'd had 'no idea of the type of speech' she was reading at Gilmore Stadium. Meanwhile, according to Kate's FBI files, Adolphe Menjou told a government official (from either the FBI or HUAC - the name has been blotted out) that Spencer Tracy insisted 'Hepburn wanted to make a statement in order to clear herself with the American public'. Menjou claimed the force behind this was Frank Capra, whose reputation for American values was unassailable.

This mea culpa, despite being secondhand, seems to have satisfied the investigators. Kate was never called by HUAC. What the records suggest is that her nemesis Adolphe Menjou, in association with Tracy and Capra, got the committee to back off.
In a round-about and I hope not uninteresting way we have arrived at the point I started with. How on earth could Menjou, who went out of his way to help save Hepburn from HUAC and, thus, her career be called her nemesis. She may not have liked him and she may not have liked being saved in that way, behind her back and without her knowledge (though the author is not certain about that) but nemesis does not mean what William J. Mann thinks it means.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Louis Jourdan 1921 - 2015

We interrupt the discussion of Brexit and foreign policy to bring you the news that one of the most talented and most underestimated actors, singers and musicians, Louis Jourdan has died. Not that he was particularly young but it is still sad.

We all remember him in Gigi, of course, but he hated the way he was always being pushed into playing smooth Latin (or just generally Continental) charmers. This track from his appearance on the Judy Garland Show is funny and the song he sings is very schmaltzy but his amusing attempt to get away from what he is known for sounds true enough.

I would say his best performance (much as I love Gigi) was in Letter from an Unknown Woman when he took the part of the smooth charmer and turned it into something desperate and tragic. If you have not seen it and get a chance, please do. It also has an astonishingly good performance from another slightly underestimated actor: Joan Fontaine.

This trailer gives some idea but only some:

And finally, yes, Gigi, but not the one the one you were expecting. At least I don't think you were expecting this:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Should we really abandon discussions of Brexit because of Russia? - 1

On Tuesday evening I attended an event organized by the Foreign Policy Centre (partner: the European Commission) at which they launched their new publication, Trouble in the Neighbourhood? The Future of the EU's Eastern Partnership. There is a good deal to say about the publication but in this posting I want to concentrate on something that came up during the panel presentation and discussion (all of which was about forty minutes too long).

But first: we have yet another agreement between Ukraine, Russia and, to represent the EU and the West in general, Germany and France (I'll come to that later on). The agreement, though arrived at after an all-night sitting, does not seem to be that different from the one signed in September, which was broken within hours.

As Baroness Falkner of Margravine said in the debate that followed the Statement on Ukraine in the House of Lords, also on Tuesday:
Does my noble friend accept that in the unlikely circumstance that we have progress in Minsk tomorrow and that Mr Putin sticks to his word perhaps for more than an hour or two, or even a day or week or two, the holding of any ceasefire is contingent on the verifiable force of peacekeepers?
Indeed, that debate showed that few of the peers, interested enough in the subject to participate, had any illusions about the Russian President (who continues to look ever less like a human being and ever more like somebody who could be put next to the Lenin wax work in the Mausoleum).

One of the participants in the FPC discussion was Edward Lucas of the Economist, a man who is very knowledgeable about Russia and other countries that had formerly been either in the Soviet Union or the European Communist sphere but whose great fault is inability to look beyond the European Union even though he spends a great deal of his time rightly criticizing its activity and non-achievement.

It was he who made the obvious comment that the whole idea of an Eastern Partnership was deeply flawed as it involved treating very different countries, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus as being essentially similar and homogenous. This is, undoubtedly, true but the problem is that this is the only way the EU can create policies. Mr Lucas also added that "we" presumably the West but mostly "Europe", a concept that was mentioned frequently throughout the evening, have no Russia policy. Indeed not. The EU has no Russia policy just as it has no Ukraine or any other policy because it cannot have one.

This goes back to the whole problem of common foreign policy on which I have written so often that it would be impossible to link to the various postings here or on my erstwhile blogging home, EUReferendum. Foreign policy has to grow out of some definition of interest and the European Union's member states have no common interests while the Union's own interests do not extend much beyond survival and ever closer integration. (In fact, one of the member states, Greece, is an ally of the Putin government and has always been pro-Russian, regardless of what was going on.)

When I first started writing about the common foreign policy and its non-viabiltiy, all those years ago, I compared the EU to an amoeba in that its survival depended on shape changing and swallowing of organisms close to it. At the time the nascent common foreign policy consisted largely of efforts to make the neighbouring countries into member states. There could be no question of policies or relationships. If a country could not become a member then we did not know what to do with it and that, obviously, applied to Russia.

The fall of the Soviet empire presented the EU with various problems, some of which it could solve to its own temporary satisfaction by taking the Central and East European countries in, even though at least two of them, Romania and Bulgaria, remain problematic. The Balkans were and continue to be a mess despite the fact that two of the former Yugoslav republics are now within the EU and little attention was paid to the former Soviet republics except for the Baltic ones that are, as agreed by all, in a different category.

No optimistic or pessimistic analysis can possibly postulate EU membership for any of the countries in question. Therefore, they will remain near (or relatively near) neighbours and some sort of a relationship needs to be established with them. But, not having any particular interests only general, ill-defined "values" the EU cannot do so. Therefore, it has fallen back on its past method of treating all the countries as one region and dealing with them as such. The fact that this method has been unsuccessful in the past does not seem to bother anybody. After all, argue the officials involved, what is successful? We have structures, we have conferences, committees, reports and funds for managing certain problems. What else do we need for success? The fact that we cannot cope and are not set up to cope with the huge crises in the various countries, let alone the war/civil war that is going on in parts of the Ukraine remains a detail.

Mr Lucas is right to point out the faults with this sort of policy but wrong in that he cannot see that it is endemic to the political construct he has (still) such high hopes for.

[I was hoping to cover the subject in just one posting but find that it is not possible. Therefore, I shall put this up on the blog and continue in a second installment.]