Saturday, December 31, 2011

I'll leave you with this thought

Thanks to a reader from Scandinavia and to The English Blog but, of course, in the first place, thanks to Patrick Blower of the Daily Telegraph. It will take a little while and the mess left behind will be great though not as great as the mess North Korea is facing. Happy New Year and all good wishes for 2012.

Sounds familiar

Here is an interesting quote from a long article that analyzes the problems of the eurozone and insists that it was founded on a lie and that politicians do not understand or will not admit what is happening:
Nevertheless, not one of the currency union's founding fathers will admit that it was poorly designed. The currency union brought together countries that weren't compatible economically simply because it was opportune politically. It replaced the currency exchange rate, the standard mechanism for balancing out differences between national economies, with the principle of hope. Now, the common currency was supposed to make the economies align themselves with each other, practically automatically.
In reality, however, the differences between the economies of the euro-zone countries became larger rather than smaller. The so-called "Club Med" countries benefited from the low common interest rate. They lived beyond their means and they consumed more than they could afford -- to the detriment of their already weak ability to compete.
A country with a flagging economy normally devalues its currency. Doing so makes its goods cheaper on the global market, allowing it to increase exports and cut back on its deficit. But, in a currency union, there isn't an exchange rate that can serve as a compensatory mechanism. If a country doesn't have a sound economy, the tensions only increase.
Yes, and your point is? I hear readers ask. Well the point is that the article appeared in Der Spiegel. Worth reading.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Never did I think ....

... that I would have to say this but the Boss at EUReferendum is showing signs of being far too charitable and to no less a person than Daniel Hannan, clogger extraordinaire and the man who thinks he can run with the hares and hunt with the hounds indefiinitely.

In a very measured piece, which is for some reason dated with tomorrow's date (they must be in a different time-zone in Bradford) the Boss takes apart young Hannan's latest piece. It is, indeed, full of mistakes and misjudgements none of which I need to point out as it has been done already.

What is so interesting is the growing realization among the various dead-tree media chatterati that, perhaps, not all is well with that phantom veto of a non-existent treaty. It seems that The Sun is uneasy on the subject as well. Of course, none of this is news to those of us who have been following events slightly more closely than the average hack but the development is interesting.

One of Hungary's controversial new laws is to be passed today

Reuters reports that the Hungarian Parliament, where FIDESZ has a two-thirds majority is set to pass one of the controversial laws that have been exciting commentators and politicians: the one that appears to impose political control on the central bank.

Undoubtedly, some of this blog's readers will approve of it either because they approve of politicians controlling monetary policy for their own purposes (the EU springs to mind) or because they like the idea of gallant little Hungary defying the big bad wolves of the IMF and the EU. There is a great deal to be said for the latter if it was accompanied by a more or less sane economic policy and if money were not badly needed from those sources.
It is uncertain whether negotiations with the lenders will start at all in January, after the IMF said on Wednesday the government should work with it on policy issues such as the central bank law if it wants talks to progress.
Hungary needs a new financing deal to back up investors' confidence and help retain its access to market funding next year when it has to refinance 4.8 billion euros worth of foreign currency debt, including repayments of a 2008 IMF/EU bailout.
Parliament, where the ruling Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority, is expected to pass the central bank bill smoothly. That could add to pressure on the forint, which fell to a one-month low on Thursday, hit by a scrapped bond auction.
Fidesz has amended the law to address most complaints from the European Central Bank, but has not backed down on a planned boost in the number of rate-setters and vice governors that critics say the government could use to influence monetary policy.
Other proposed laws are listed by The Contrarian Hungarian [scroll down].

Who knew ....

.... that there were functioning tax offices in Greece? I didn't for one. Apparently, they exist because they have just closed as the officials have walked out on a strike. Now, there is something we could learn from the Greeks.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Up to a point, Lord Copper

It cheers one's heart to read an article in the Wall Street Journal about Britain needing to return to its rightful place in the world, that is the Anglosphere, though in the first place, the authors talk of Britain's future being with America not Europe. As a short-hand it will do, particularly as the article itself talks of Canada and Australia and the Anglospheric countries in general. I suspect the hand of a sub-editor in the choice of the title.

Perhaps, I had better start with declaring my interests: not only am I a confirmed Anglospherist but the two authors, Iain Murray and James C. Bennett are good friends of mine with whom I have conducted many discussions in cyberspace and face to face. In fact, when I raised one or two objections to the article, I got helpful responses from the authors, which told me something that did not surprise me: the original draft was a little less complimentary to our Prime Minister.

I consider the authors' account of what Britain lost in joining the EEC and of the problems the eurozone and with it the EU is facing completely accurate. Naturally enough, I agree with their main thesis: this country should not belong to the sclerotic, bureaucratic, protectionist would-be European state that is not and cannot be expected to be based the Anglospheric political, constitutional and judicial ideas.

There are a few problems, though. In the first place, there are mistakes in this:
The European Economic Community (EEC) for which the British signed up in a 1975 referendum—a community of free trade and cooperation, not supranational bureaucracy—is long gone. Worse, even today's less-palatable EU will soon no longer be on offer.
There is the basic mistake of assuming that Britain signed up to the EEC in a referendum. As we all know, the 1975 referendum was called after two years of membership and some cosmetic "renegotiation", the gist of which nobody can recall. The question was not about whether anybody wanted to go into the EEC but whether they wanted to stay in.

Nor is it true to say that the EEC was ever a community of free trade and cooperation. At best it was a customs union with the Preamble to the Treaty of Rome speaking frankly of an ever-closer union of the peoples of Europe. The fact that so many voters preferred not to find out what they were voting about does not make the myth true.

More importantly, the article perpetuates the myth of David Cameron standing up for Britain, splitting the EU, creating a new role for Britain and so on, though there is a clear indication that he mucked up the negotiations. Readers of this blog cannot remain unaware of reiterated comments about what really happened at those negotiations. In case anyone has forgotten, here is a reminder. In brief: there was no treaty, no veto and no assurance that Britain may have gained anything. The chance to repatriate powers was given away as that cannot happen without a full IGC and a new treaty.

Still, one cannot argue with an article that ends with these words:
Up to now, however, the U.S. has pursued a policy of propping up the euro while discouraging British independence from Brussels. This is incredibly short-sighted. Using the vehicles of the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund to try to fill the gaping hole in Europe's finances will get everybody nowhere. Instead, British, American and Canadian policy makers (along with their Nafta partners in Mexico) should be taking the long view and preparing for a future in which the unsustainable euro zone inevitably collapses. Welcoming Britain back into the North Atlantic economic community would be a win-win for all involved.
It is unlikely to happen for a while since Britain is not free to join anything while she remains in the EU and that has not changed, despite the post European Council grandstanding.

We lost the propaganda war

The title refers to the Cold War, on which I have been meditating recently, what with the death of Vaclav Havel and the release of the new, completely inadequate version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. While militarily and politically the West won, in the more insiduous field of propaganda, it lost. We can see that in the neurotic anti-Americanism that makes people support some of the most oppressive regimes and ideologies in the world, in the continuing support for the once and future President, now Prime Minister Putin because he appears to be anti-Western, and, above all, in the refusal to face up to the truth about Communism. If you have any doubts about this, have a look at this interview the BBC conducted about the events of 2011 with their historian of choice: the life-long Communist and Stalinist (as long as it was the party line) and denial of Communist crimes, Eric Hobsbawm. I suggest you keep a sick-bucket somewhere close to hand.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The night before Christmas

It fast approaches. Let me just say that the demo outside the Russian Embassy went well. Between 60 and 100 people attended. There were a few speeches, some slogans shouted for fair elections and a new year without Putin (some hope); as it was largely a Russian event, somebody brought a guitar and there was much singing.

In Russia, tens of thousands turned out across the country. It seems the weather is relatively mild - General December is not on the side of the Kremlin. Reuters has photos.

I shall be signing off soon but I do want to wish all the blog's readers a very merry Christmas. Thank you for reading it, for commenting and for arguing with me. Thanks to the odd troll for providing us all with entertainment. Normal service will resume in a couple of days.

More about Hungary

I do apologize if the fate of this small and far-off country is beginning to bore readers. I promise to get on to some other EU member soon. However, if things go seriously belly-up in another one of the member states (and this time we shall see no resignations) that will have an effect on the EU, which, in turn, will have an effect on Britain. So, we had better be prepared.

At the time of the negotiations with the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, one of the things I wrote against it was that their political structures are quite fragile and economic problems that will almost inevitably follow their accession to the EU may well unbalance them. Is this what is happening in Hungary? The omens, as I said before, are not good.

Walter Russell Mead, not a man who can be accused of leftward leanings has an even stronger piece on his blog in which he wonders whether Europe is not approaching the situation of the thirties. Well, actually, no, as the situation today cannot be what it was in the thirties but the constant ratcheting of EU powers at the expense of any accountable national government together with severe economic problems is producing the result many of us predicted but one that was not supposed to happen under the benign gaze of Brussels: the growth of a more extreme and unpleasant form of nationalism.

Both Radio Free Europe and the BBC report arrests of opposition MPs who were protesting against the passage of  constitutionally important laws in haste on the last day before Christmas. (A favourite ploy in many countries, one may add.)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Support for Russian protesters

Christmas Eve is the worst possible time for demonstrations but it is different in Russia, where they keep Christmas according to the Julian calendar. So there will be people out again, demonstrating and demanding fair elections (though, really, what they need is regime change).

We, in the West, must try to support them. So, anyone in London on Saturday, who can spare an hour or so, please come to the demonstration outside the Russian Embassy at 12 or soon after. In fact, the demonstration will be in Bayswater Road as the Embassy is in Kensington Palace Gardens, which is private property. Nearest tube stations are Queensway and Notting Hill Gate and there are various buses that go along Bayswater Road.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Words have meanings

The Boss over on EUReferendum has been waging a valiant fight against what he calls "fantasy politics" as have numerous other bloggers. This blog has been doing its poor best to bring some sanity into the debate and, to be fair, a number of journalists out in the big bad MSM have been doing the same. For the time being we are overwhelmed by people who accept the Boy-King's notion that, like Humpty-Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass, he can make a word he uses mean what he wants it to mean.

The word I am talking about is, as readers would have realized, veto. There is a strange belief out there that the Boy-King has vetoed a treaty and all is well with the world. Setting aside the truth that we are still in the EU and subject to its ever more insane laws and regulations, there is a problem with the word. To quote The Princess Bride (ha, didn't expect that, did you): "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." To be fair, I have no idea what the Boy-King, his supporters, the ToryBoy blog or the so-called eurosceptics who are still whooping with joy think the word "veto" means. But I do not think it means whatever it is they think it means.

So, back to basics. The word comes from the Latin veto, vetare (first conjugation if memory serves), which means to forbid. Not to stay away from the discussions and the signature but to forbid.

In the sixth century BC the Roman Republic introduced the concept of the veto, the intercessio that could be used by the People's Tribunes (such as the Gracchi) and, possibly, one or both of the Consuls in order to control and moderate the Senate. When vetoed, a bill was denied the force of law, that is, its use was prevented.

With me so far? Good. Let us carry on.

According to the New Oxford Dictionary of English, a volume I tend to trust, though like Lady Bracknell with "the Court Guides of the period", I have known strange errors in that publication. However, the definitions of veto (noun and verb) seem correct.

Veto (n.): - a constitutional right to reject a decision or proposal made by a law-making body
               - such a rejection
              - a prohibition

For example, the President of the United States has the veto over legislation sent to him by Congress. He does, of course, need to have the legislation first and, once he has exercised his veto, it does not enter the law. Or, to give another example, a committee or board may have a veto over an appointment. There has to be a position and a person who has been appointed for the veto to apply and when it has been applied, the person does not get the job or position.

Veto (v.): - exercise a veto against a decision or proposal by a law-making body
               - refuse to accept or allow

Again, one needs something that one can refuse or allow in order to veto it and, once that has been vetoed, it is stopped from proceeding. Is that quite clear? Good.

The question is on what did Mr Cameron, the man who, by some freak of historical development, appears to be the Prime Minister of this country, exercise his veto on. He does have a veto on certain decisions, none of which had been made during the European Council that he graced with his presence, if rumour is to be believed, and on treaties that are produced by the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC). There had been no Conference so there was no treaty which he could have vetoed. QED.

Moving right along, we have to acknowledge that whatever is vetoed cannot happen. That is the whole point of a veto: it stops a certain event, piece of legislation or, in the case of the EU, treaty from going ahead. Well, what's this? Scotch mist? As it happens, this is the agreement (carefully not called a treaty but it is in all but name) that the Boy-King was supposed to have vetoed. It is called: DRAFT INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENT ON A REINFORCED ECONOMIC UNION and it has all the various measures that were supposed to have been vetoed.

The idea that the agreement when it is signed in March will have no effect on this country is moonshine. If nothing else this will make it easier for legislation to be passed under QMV, which is how all Single Market legislation and, as it happens, all those directives aimed at the City, which Mr Cameron was intent on saving, passed. (He might consider trying to save it from his own Chancellor but that would be like asking him to equip a fleet of porcine aircraft.)

So, we have Humpty-Dumpty Cameron telling us that the word veto and the word treaty mean exactly what he says they mean, which is a huffy exit and a wave of the hand to let the others get on with whatever it is they wanted to do. And we have a very large number of people, including all Tory MPs, the entire Conservative party and many others outside it in the media and among so-called political activists who believe it. Alice did better than that. She argued with Humpty-Dumpty, who then had a great fall.

Instead of a vetoed treaty that has been stopped in its tracks, we have an agreement that is going ahead, will undoubtedly be signed, will, if implemented, indubitably affect this country. The one thing we do not have is Cameron's right to veto it. That's right. He has actually given up his right to veto the next agreement because he was so anxious "not to bring a treaty back to Parliament". And while other countries will debate the resultant agreement, look for some kind of a desperate political alliance to implement it (in Austria, for instance, they will need two-thirds of the vote) and, quite possibly, be forced to have a referendum (as it is being discussed in Ireland, Denmark and Sweden already) we shall be sitting back, waiting for the decision to happen or not to happen.

That is not quite the way the veto was envisaged in the Roman Republic. But then, what did those Romans do for us?

What exactly will the "reformed" House of Lords be doing?

For some time we have known that in the new session, which, outrageously, will not open till the spring of 2012, there will be a Bill to reform the House of Lords. Those people who were so outraged by Nick Clegg's recent idiotic pronouncements about the present Chamber being an affront to democracy will do well to bear in mind that on this issue (as on so many others) he and the Prime Minister are at one. In fact, they are at one with the previous two Prime Ministers.

The need to "reform" the House of Lords is not immediately obvious and was not so even in 1997 when Tony Blair decided to use that and the ban on hunting as a sop to this disgruntled left-wingers. (Much good did it do him.) The Upper House does its business considerably better than the Lower one and, though its members are paid merely expenses when they sit in the Chamber, they spend a great deal more time and energy on their work as legislators and revisers of legislation than our highly paid Commons. I have written about this too often to be able to link to any specific post but as the Bill starts making its way through Parliament (and, maybe, even before) I shall return to the subject.

How people get there is, after all, less important than what they do when they are there. After all, our real government is in Brussels, in any case, and that is not about to change.

The real reason for the proposed reform is the need felt by this and previous governments and by the political parties to control the Chamber that is likely to oppose and revise whatever legislation they try to bulldoze through. It has been hinted that the reason Mr Cameron has appointed more peers than even Mr Blair did in his first year was to ensure that there was a large cohort of people grateful to him for when the "reform" is to be pushed through. That may be a miscalculation. For the time being, even appointed peers are not dependent on those who had appointed them and may well vote according to their consciences. They may even turn up for the debates, something many of Blair's appointees did not once they realized that a great deal of work and very little pay were involved.

That this "reform" will not be any better thought through than the previous one was, is indicated by the response given to Lord Kakkar's Starred Question on Wednesday.
To ask Her Majesty's Government why the draft Bill on House of Lords Reform makes no provision for defining the powers of an elected second chamber.
A fair question. After all, once the make-up of the House of Lords changes, its role and duties will change, too. The notion that the Upper Chamber is secondary to the Lower rests entirely on the assumption that the former is unelected. That will, logically, change once they are both elected and we have something resembling a Senate. Also, the elected members will expect to be paid and paid as handsomely as their colleagues are in the Lower House. In other words, everything will be different. Lord Strathclyde (for it is he, again) does not think so. At least, the people who wrote his reply do not think so.
My Lords, the draft House of Lords Reform Bill specifically provides that nothing in the provisions affects the status, powers or jurisdiction of either House of Parliament. We therefore do not believe that it is necessary to define the powers of this House in primary legislation.
The rest of the short debate, which is well worth reading, consists of peers attempting to point out to the noble Minister that the provisions of the Parliament Act applied to one elected and one unelected Chamber and, therefore, cannot apply in the same way to two elected ones, with the said Minister refusing to acknowledge that black is black and white is white. I quite liked Lord Howe of Aberavon's contribution (yes, yes, Geoffrey Howe):
My Lords, is it not possible that including such provisions in the Bill would make lucid and clear the increased risk of conflict between the two Houses and the disastrous consequences of the creation of a new structure? Will my noble friend tell the House whether that is the explanation, and is it the consequence of idle carelessness or deliberate deceit?
Dear me, what a suspicious nature some people have.

What is free speech?

Free speech is an expression that is much used by people who have absolutely no idea what it means. I have no time for people who say "I believe in free speech but ..." because that usually means they do not believe in it. On the other hand, I do not limit anyone's free speech by either not listening to them, not replying to them or banning them from my blog (not that I have had to resort to that yet but it may happen). My blog is my property and I do not have to put up with people's comments on it if I do not feel like it.

On the subject of private property and free speech, here is an article by George Reisman on the Ludwig von Mises Institute site: Free Speech and Occupy Wall Street.
Nevertheless, by the logic of the prevailing view of freedom of speech, protesters in the future will be able to storm into lecture halls and/or seize radio and television stations in order to deliver their message and then claim that their freedom of speech is violated when the police come to eject them, even though the police in such cases would in fact be acting precisely in order to uphold the freedom of speech. Indeed, since the days of the so-called Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, back in the 1960s, disruptions of speeches delivered by invited guests have occurred repeatedly on college campuses, in the name of the alleged freedom of speech of the disrupters. No attention has been paid to the actual violation of the freedom of speech of the invited speakers.
The prevailing view of freedom of speech is a major threat to freedom of speech. Not only does it provide justification for actual violations of freedom of speech of the kinds just mentioned, but it also makes freedom of speech appear to be a fundamental enemy of rational communication. Speakers cannot address audiences, professors cannot lecture to students if disrupters are permitted to drown them out and then hide behind the claim that they do so in the name of freedom of speech. If the prevailing view of freedom of speech were correct, the ability of speakers to speak and professors to lecture would require accepting the principle of the need to violate freedom of speech.
Read the whole piece. I don't often recommend this site but, for once, its publication is spot on while approaching the subject from an unusual angle.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Bill goes through to the Commons

Today saw the Third Reading of Lord Pearson's Bill, which seems to have been something of a non-event [scroll to Column 1784]. As to how it got to this stage so quickly, this is what I wrote but decided not to publish a few days ago:

 The Committee stage debate of Lord Pearson's Bill did not take place as there were no amendments. Lord Pearson moved as the rules say:
My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to the Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless any noble Lord objects, therefore, I beg to move.
There were no objections and the motion was agreed to.

What next? According to the House of Lords Companion to the Standing Orders:
8.94 If no amendments have been set down to a bill and it appears that no member wishes to move a manuscript amendment or to speak to any clause or Schedule, the Lord in charge of the bill may move that the order of commitment (or recommitment) be discharged.[310] This motion may be moved only on the day the committee stage is set down for and notice must be given on the order paper.

8.95 The Lord in charge of the bill says:

"My Lords,

I understand that no amendments have been set down to this bill, and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee.

Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment [or recommitment] be discharged."

8.96 The Question is then put "That the order of commitment [or recommitment] be discharged." If this Question is agreed to, the next stage of the bill is third reading.
There can be amendments at the Third Reading, which is scheduled for December 21 and the Government and Opposition Front Benches may well decide to defeat the Bill. We shall see. It is entirely possible that nobody wanted this debate now just in case the truth about the non-veto of the phantom treaty might come out.

It seems, there were no amendments. So the Bill is, perhaps unexpectedly, through the House of Lords and goes to the Commons in the new year. The First Reading, not yet scheduled, will be, as ever a formality. But, unlike in the Lords, the Commons divide at Second Reading as well as later on. We shall see what those much-praised, much-vaunted Tory eurosceptics will do. HMG is unhappy with the  idea of a establishing "a Committee of Inquiry into the economic implications for the United Kingdom of membership of the European Union". Who will rebel and say that it is, in fact, a very good idea, indeed?

In the meantime, I cannot help being somewhat surprised by the carefully phrased rudeness exhibited by the Lord Strathclyde, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster [just above the Third Reading].

As a number of Orders to do with mayoral referendums in various cities were referred to the Grand Committee, Lord Pearson asked:
My Lords, why are the Government so keen on all these referendums on the comparatively minor matter of who becomes the mayor in these cities while they refuse a referendum on the far greater issue of whether we stay in the clutches of the corrupt octopus in Brussels or leave them?
Well, as far as I can see, as readers of this blog know, a referendum of that kind would be a disaster as people, who were easily bamboozled by the Boy-King's phony veto of a non-existent treaty would undoubtedly vote to stay in but reform the unreformable. However, that cannot be HMG's argument. So what did Lord Strathclyde reply, having disposed of another objection:
As for the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, in the spirit of Christmas, it is always good to hear him. I hope he has a very quiet and restful time over the next two or three weeks, and if he wishes to have an even longer restful and quiet time, I am sure that would be appreciated by most of us, particularly those who work on European business.
A period of silence, eh? So we can get on with our business of handing over whatever remains of this country's sovereignty.

The answer to our problems with Greece

This link was sent to me by a reader of this blog who is highly knowledgeable about Greek affairs. The article was published in Forbes Magazine as long ago as July but its relevance has not dimmed.
It must be dawning on all but the most obtuse member of the banking elite that they can’t possibly steal enough money from German taxpayers to save the Greek government from default. Put it off, maybe, but collapse is inevitable.
Once this happens, what is the purpose of casting Greece into some selective temporary financial purgatory where the irrelevant Greek economy can continue embarrassing anyone foolish enough to lend their dysfunctional government a dime? Why not go all the way and give the country what many of its people have been violently demanding for almost a century?
Let them have Communism.
Hard as it is for young people to believe, Communism was once a major historical force holding billions of people in thrall. Outside the halls of elite universities, who still takes it seriously? Sure we have Cuba, where the Castro deathwatch is the last thing standing between that benighted penal colony and an inevitable makeover by Club Med. Then there is Venezuela, though hope is fading that Hugo Chavez will carry the Bolivarian banner much longer now that he’s busy sucking down FOLFOX cocktails while checking for signs that his hair is falling out. And frankly, a psychopathic family dynasty ruling a nation of stunted zombies hardly makes North Korea a proper Communist exemplar.
What the world needs, lest we forget, is a contemporary example of Communism in action. What better candidate than Greece? They’ve been pining for it for years, exhibiting a level of anti-capitalist vitriol unmatched in any developed country. They are temperamentally attuned to it, having driven all hard working Greeks abroad in search of opportunity. They pose no military threat to their neighbors, unless you quake at the sight of soldiers marching around in white skirts. And they have all the trappings of a modern Western nation, making them an uncompromised test bed for Marxist theories. Just toss them out of the European Union, cut off the flow of free Euros, and hand them back the printing plates for their old drachmas. Then stand back for a generation and watch.
The land that invented democracy used it to perfect the art of living at the expense of others, an example all Western democracies appear intent on emulating. Being the first to run out of other people’s money makes Greece truly ripe to take the next logical step beyond socialism.
Read the whole piece. It's hilarious and not exactly untrue.

Media misses big story

Well, OK, that headline comes close to dog bites man or supermodel takes drugs but it is instructive to find this sort of goings on across the Pond as well. Walter Russell Meade points out that the biggest story in Asian politics in the last few days was not, as it happens, the death of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il but something far more important.
The real news in Asian politics yesterday, the kind of thing that will likely show up in the history books, was a quiet meeting announced by the State Department. If you missed it, it’s because people didn’t cover it much, but for the first time ever, India, Japan, and the US held a round of trilateral talks on the future of Asia and the strategic picture. The session, reads a State Department media release, “mark[s] the beginning of a series of consultations among our three governments, who share common values and interests across the Asia-Pacific and the globe”. These three powers aren’t an alliance; the US and Japan have a treaty of alliance, but India remains non-aligned — and has no plans to change. This is an entente, not an alliance. It is a community that rests on common concerns and common views about important developments — but ententes are important. This one in particular (which besides the Big Three also includes important regional presences like Australia, Vietnam, Singapore and others) may play a bigger role in US foreign policy than NATO as time moves on.
That last comment ought to make the story important to us as well.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Worrying developments in Hungary

It is always difficult to disentangle truth from average left-wing hysteria in accounts of what happens in European countries, especially in Central Europe, when right-wing parties win elections. There have been all sorts of alarums and excursions about the Hungarian government, which last April won the two-thirds majority that the first post-Communist constitution specifically tried to prevent. (here and here)

This article in Der Spiegel is, as usual, muddled on the subject, assuming as a starting point that anything left-leaning is better than anything right-leaning. As before it lumps FIDESZ and Jobbik (the extreme right-wing party) together, though there is a throw-away comment on the second page that indicated Orban's efforts to distance himself and his party from the latter.

There is a mention of the growing popularity of Jobbik but no real indication of figures. Maybe it is worrying and maybe it is not; maybe they are just idiots who like marching around in made-up uniforms with torches in their hands.

However, I cannot dismiss the subject completely, as a good deal of the information is true, as I found out when I was in the country last month. The New Theatre has, indeed, acquired a new director who is an unashamed anti-Semite and who, together with his ultra-nationalist friend and colleague, Csurka, talks openly about rescuing Hungarian culture from the present rotten, liberal and foreign control. Anyone who knows twentieth century history can decipher the code there.

The plan to move Attila József's statue from the square outside Parliament is real enough and when I was there a twenty-four hour demonstration or occupation was going on of people who were reciting the great poet's works. As I was told one reason was his politics (though he was not actually a Communist) but the other was Viktor Orbán's apparent desire to restore the square to its early twentieth century appearance. It seems in keeping with the pronounced desire to "return" to the Hungary of pre-Trianon.

The iniquities of the Treaty of Trianon are part of the politicians' discourse and there are various plans to get the Hungarians in other countries to vote in Hungarian elections. Given how many of them there are (those iniquities were real enough) there could one day arise a situation in which the government of Hungary is decided by people who do not live in the country. (Of course, its real government is in Brussels, so one could argue that this is all a minor problem.) Unfortunately or fortunately, at present, the various groups in various countries seem to be unable to come to any agreement, as a political programme I watched on TV explained.

When I tried to find out whether people really cared about what happened almost a century ago, given how many other things happened afterwards, I could get no adequate reply but certainly I heard no conversations on streets, on trams, in shops about the Trianon. The price of goods, yes; the nasty foggy weather, yes; Trianon, no.

I did hear some complaints from people who thought developments of this kind were would not be possible in the EU, which is why they supported Hungary's membership (not such a stupid notion when you look at the country's history). What, I asked reasonably, did you think the EU would do? Answer came there none.

At present these are possibly worrying developments, which may not go very far either because the next elections will bring an end to the FIDESZ control or because Orbán will decide that this is not a good idea, just as he decided after much swaggering around, that the IMF was a better bet than China or Saudi Arabia, though that is once again in suspension.

Though our media tends to relegate Hungary's woes, there can be no question about it, the country remains another difficult problem, both economically and politically for the European Union.

Things I missed while trying to have a life

One piece of good news this week-end was the death of the Dear Leader of the Democratic People's Republic  of Korea, Kim Jong-il. Or, at least, it was announced this week-end that he died on Saturday. One can never tell with those People's Organizations or Republics. It's good news because he, truly, was evil. That word is bandied around a good deal but in this case and in the case of the rest of his friends and family, it is entirely accurate.

Of course, the horror of North Korea is not over; if the succession is peaceful the same will continue, if it is not, there will be a nasty civil war that may spill over into South Korea, where there is a distinct nervousness.

The sad news was the death of Vaclav Havel, who, to be fair, was more of a symbol and a talking head to be produced at many well-meaning international congresses, conferences and meetings. Still, he did remind us all of the heroic days of the dissident opposition to Communism.

There are so many obituaries of Havel around that I shall link to three only, one on the Cato site and two on ChicagoBoyz (here and here). Not unexpectedly, I shall try to eschew the sentimentality that surrounded the man and still continues. On the whole, he was more popular in the West than in his own land, despite the outpourings of emotion now, because the West saw the symbol and not the real politician who was far more controversial (as what politician is not).

To start with, he was a Central European intellectual, a form of animal life that is unknown in Britain or anywhere in the Anglosphere (and how lucky they all are). He was a playwright, who, even before 1968 wrote plays that were a somewhat daring departure from the required socialist realism. Neither those plays nor the later dissident ones about Ferdinand Vanek were particularly good. I saw several, so I can attest that abandoning the theatre and going on to the political stage was a very good decision to take.

Havel, I have always felt, would have been very happy with Communism with a Human Face, an impossible notion that was supposedly Alexander Dubcek's aim in 1968. The Soviets rightly decided that, left to itself, it would mean the dissolution of Communism, leaving it with no face at all, and put the Prague Spring down quite brutally but not as badly as some other rebellions. The country was plunged into gloom with most people averting their eyes from the public sphere.

There were a few exceptions, the signatories of  Charter 77, various other dissidents, the rock group Plastic Peoples of the Universe and so on. As these people were deprived of their jobs in universities, research institutes, theatres, schools, and other suchlike institutions, they had to become workers in factories, window cleaners, truck drivers and, sometimes, worse. This is what Havel wrote about in the Vanek plays.

Gradually, his name became synonymous with the low-key stubborn opposition to Communism in Eastern Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia and it was not surprising that during the Velvet Revolution, the demonstrators demanded that he should be in the Castle, that is become President. He was not so much the leader of the Velvet Revolution as its single public face.

Subsequent events proved that a man who made the perfect dissident was not necessarily a good politician. Indeed, many post-Communist societies found that. Havel, despite himself, presided over the inevitable split of the country's two parts, resigned because of it but was re-elected as President of the Czech Republic. There were, inevitably, various problems and a few scandals of political and financial nature. All this will have been detailed in the various obituaries.

In the late nineties we nearly said good-bye to Havel as he was diagnosed, twice, with lung cancer. But he survived and, given the length of time, was, presumably, cured. His wife, Olga, did die of cancer and he swiftly married again to a few raised eyebrows but then there had always been rumours about his private life. Of no real importance to a true Central European intellectual.

After his presidency, Havel travelled, wrote, spoke and, generally, became one of the great members of the international political intelligentsia, slightly left of centre as he would happily admit, very much in favour of various well-meaning transnational organizations. His intellect did not have the hard-edged ruthlessness of his great rival, Vaclav Klaus.

His death brings sadness. He was, in most ways, honourable and courageous; a man who who perceived the evil of Communism and was not afraid to fight it; a symbol of that struggle. Requiescat in pace.

ADDENDUM: It has been pointed out to me that there is a serious gap in my description of Havel's activity after he was President. He, unlike most of the Europeans he was associating with, opposed the bloody and oppressive Cuban regime without any caveats. Of course, he understood it better.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Well, it could be the answer

Forget the EU and the ill-fated euro, says the Progressive Party in Iceland. Why should we not adopt the Canadian dollar (the loonie?). Why not go the whole hog, say I, and join NAFTA? After all, they are in the North Atlantic. Or, even better, why not unite EFTA and NAFTA?

More on Russia

I have an article on Taki's Magazine about the role of the internet, the blogosphere and the social media in the growing rebellion against the once and future President, now Prime Minister Putin. The comments are of interest. They have little to do with the arguments or the analysis. In fact, they presumably come from the same stable that comments on any article on Russia come from. If only the Russian government spent less time, energy and resources trolling Western sites and a little more of all of that on improving the situation in the country, we might .... well, who knows where we might be.

How long will this last?

I stay away from the blog for two days and all sorts of things happen, not least with Blogger, but that's another story. There seems to be a treaty but it is not an EU treaty, so we shall not be debating it and certainly not voting on it. And now for the big news:
European finance ministers looked unlikely to reach a target of boosting IMF resources by 200 billion euros to ward off the debt crisis on Monday, after Britain said it would not take part in a plan aimed specifically at helping the euro zone.
In a three-hour conference call, ministers also assessed plans for tighter euro zone fiscal rules - a new 'fiscal compact' - that policymakers hope will insulate the 17-country currency zone against a repeat of the two-year debt crisis.
Treasury sources said Britain had made it clear on the call it would not participate in the plan to increase IMF resources by up to 200 billion euros, with 150 billion of coming from euro zone central banks.
"We were clear that we would not be making a contribution," one treasury source said, while another added that there was "no agreement on the 200 billion" euro funding boost.
A Treasury official says? Well, then it must be true.

ADDENDUM: Rowena Mason and Tim Ross in the Telegraph tell us that Britain is not the only country that is gibbing at the thought of more money being sunk into the euro:
However, many members of the IMF, including Britain and the US, are refusing to put in extra contributions to save the currency.
And, as one reads on, one finds the following ominous words:
Officials last night admitted Britain could still give up to £10 billion to the IMF for a new global bail-out fund, just not one specifically aimed at saving the euro.
Not everything is as it is first reported. In fact, nothing is.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

As ever, their problems are greater

BBC Russian Service reports [in Russian by Mr Google will translate if you ask nicely] that the latest census shows a severe decrease in the Russian population, despite a slight increase in the birth rate and standards of living in the last few years.

Between 1989 (the last Soviet census) and 2002 (the first Russian one) the population decreased by 1.8 million; by 2010 (the last census) another decrease was registered, this time of 2.3 million. The problems are manifold: low birth rate, ever lower life expectancy and the number of young people who leave the country (not mentioned in the story). In fact, the problem would have been even worse if there had not been an influx of Russians from the various former Soviet republics. The closest estimate is that about 7 or 8 million "immigrated" into Russia. What with various problems to do with housing and infrastructure they are not always welcome.

Friday, December 16, 2011

This is very sad

Christopher Hitchens, one of the world's best journalists and authors, a unique voice who listened to no-one and went along only with his own ideas, has died. There will be many obituaries, tributes and attacks (just as he would have liked since nobody relished a good fight more than Hitchens). Here is the one in Vanity Fair, his long-time home.

Feltham by-election

The results, out earlier than expected because there were so few votes to be counted, confirm much of what this blog and EURef, as well as others, have been saying. Labour held the seat, as was expected. Turn-out was 28.8 per cent, the lowest in 11 years. That is not a good sign for anything.

Results as listed by the Guardian:
Seema Malhotra, a former adviser to Harriet Harman, retained the seat for Labour after a swing of 8.56% points from the Tories.

Malhotra increased Labour's majority from 4,658 to 6,203 when she won with 12,639 votes. Mark Bowen, the Conservative candidate, came second with 6,436 votes. Roger Crouch, the Liberal Democrat, fought off a challenge from the UK Independence Party to hold third place with 1,364 votes. UKIP won 1,276 votes.
Labour majority is 6,203, which is, weirdly, higher than the 4658 it was in 2010. On the other hand, the low turn-out does not exactly show that the voters of Feltham and Heston are enamoured of the Labour Party, though Ed Miliband remains safe for the time being.

Certainly, we have seen no sign of the voters being so very pleased with Cameron's performance in Brussels but, I suppose, it is possible that they have heard nothing about it in Feltham. The only party that must be reasonably happy are the Lib-Dims as they stayed in third place, if only just.

Conversely, the most disappointed party must be UKIP who were set to beat the Lib-Dims as recently as last week. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that UKIP has done badly for one reason only: their astonishing inability to confront the Boy-King of the Conservative Party over the non-veto of the phantom treaty. Accepting the man's word and semi-supporting him was a ridiculous idea. I wonder who thought of it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You mean he didn't veto this?

Troubling news for all those who are rejoicing about the Boy-King vetoing treaties, getting us out of the euro (when were we in?), putting us on the same footing as Switzerland and generally restoring Britain's pride in herself: it seems that there is a fair chance that Britain will have to cough up another £30 billion in the form of loans to the IMF (loans?) that will be used to shore up the eurozone, which is not, incidentally what the IMF is supposed to be doing.
The fund revealed in its official Survey Magazine that non-euro countries would put up a quarter of all new money under the EU summit deal.

“European leaders agreed to make bilateral loans to the IMF of as much as €200bn —with €150bn contributed by eurozone members and €50bn from other members of the EU,” it said.

The report relied on a briefing by IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who was in the room with EU leaders during last Friday’s summit talks. Britain is the EU’s only large economy outside the euro.

The EU statement contained no reference to the €50bn figure for non-eurozone states. “If Britain has really agreed to this, it is a huge deal,” said Julian Callow at Barclays Capital.

David Cameron gave no hint of such an obligation in his statement to the Commons on Monday. “Alongside non-European G20 countries, we are ready to look positively at strengthening the IMF’s capacity to help countries in difficulty across the world,” the Prime Minister said. “But IMF resources are for countries not currencies, and can’t be used specifically to support the euro.”
What else might have happened at that meeting about which we have not been told?


They convicted Jacques Chirac of embezzling public funds? Really? Actually found him guilty? My goodness me. What is the world coming to? You mean a French politician cannot simply use taxpayers' money for his own political purposes? I find that hard to deal with. (Washington Post and Telegraph accounts. Two links will do.)

Are we to understand ...

... that while the Europeans (elite and non-elite) have been prancing around self-righteously condemning American states who execute murderers, some European firms have been supplying the necessary drug?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lord Pearson's Bill

Committee stage of Lord Pearson's Bill will follow Starred questions. As the House sat at 3 pm today, this will most probably not be till about 3.45. You can, if your computer is up to it, watch it here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On The New Culture Forum

I discuss whether state sponsorship of the arts actually corrodes the mind. Have to admit that I did not think of that brilliant headline. Must have been Peter Whittle, the Director of NCF.

Nothing has changed - Part 2

Let us continue with our survey of were we stand within the European Union. Here is an interesting comment from the Second Reading of Lord Pearson's Bill in the House of Lords on November 25, which you will find if you scroll down to the very end Column 1239, where Lord Kakkar is speaking:
I will concentrate on two areas: the European working time regulation and its impact on the training of young doctors and other healthcare professionals in our country; and the impact of the clinical trials and data protection directives on our ability to conduct high-quality clinical research. On the European working time regulation, there has been extensive review and discussion about its potential implications. Its purpose is well recognised, but the unintended consequences with regard to the practice of medicine are not always so well recognised.

If the working time regulation had provided demonstrable evidence of an improvement in clinical quality, the safety of patients and the training of our young doctors and other healthcare professionals, it would be a very reasonable regulation to adopt and apply to the practice of medicine in our country. However, there is little evidence that the regulation restricting hours of work to 48 per week and applying to medical practitioners in training has achieved those objectives.

Clearly there are differences between different disciplines in medicine. The craft disciplines of surgical practice such as my own require a high level of exposure to large numbers of cases in order to develop technical skills, and also a broad ongoing continuity of management of patients to develop the judgment necessary for ultimate independent consultant practice.

The Royal College of Surgeons has taken a keen interest in the potential impacts of the working time regulation on surgical training in our country. In 2010 it produced a report that looked at the potential cost implications of the application of the working time regulation with regard to surgical training. In the two years prior to the introduction of the working time regulation, it collected data using freedom of information requests that were responded to by 96 acute NHS trusts, and extrapolated the findings to the 160 acute trusts where surgical training takes place. It concluded that in the year of introduction of the working time regulation, expenditure on locum costs to cover rotas as a result of the regulation increased from some £540 million a year to £750 million-an increase of more than £200 million.

That was across the board. When the royal college looked at surgical locums, it concluded that costs increased from £170 million a year to £230 million-an extra £60 million spent on locums as a result of the application of the working time regulation restricting surgical trainees to working 48 hours a week. It also tried to determine the number of surgical hours lost per month as a result of the restriction to a 48-hour working week and concluded that some 400,000 surgical hours a month were lost as a result of the restriction. If we were paying this price for achieving an improvement in clinical care or in training, it might be completely justifiable. However, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Association of Surgeons in Training concluded that that was not the case.

The second area is the impact of European directives and regulations on the conduct of clinical research in our country. Twelve per cent of the global citations in clinical and healthcare research are of publications from United Kingdom institutions and nearly one-quarter of the 100 leading medicines in the world have been developed in our country. Biomedical research is therefore hugely important to our economy and in terms of what we can do for our own people as well as for others around the world. In January a working group at the Academy of Medical Sciences chaired by Sir Michael Rawlins published a report, entitled A new Pathway for the Regulation and Governance of Health Research,which looked at ways of ensuring that we remain competitive. It concluded that the European clinical research directive has had a detrimental impact on the conduct of clinical research in our country. The directive was introduced for good reasons-to improve ethical standards and to ensure consistency of data and, ultimately, to ensure that patients are strongly protected in all clinical research-but there have been unintended consequences which have made the approval of clinical trials much slower and the conduct of clinical trials less effective. It has also increased the cost of doing clinical trials, so much so that, in 2000, 6 per cent of all patients going into clinical trials globally came from our country while, by 2006, the number had fallen to only 2 per cent of patients going into clinical trials. That has a very serious impact on our ability to function in that area.

These conclusions were also confirmed by your Lordships' Science and Technology Committee in its second report for Session 2008-09, on genomic medicine, chaired by my noble friend Lord Patel. It also concluded that it would be important for Her Majesty's Government to review the working of the clinical trial directive and the data protection directive, which were having a detrimental impact on the conduct of clinical research in our country. I know that the Government are keenly aware of these important issues and that they are trying to address them. If a committee were established to look at the benefits and costs of our membership of European Union, consideration of the impact of European regulation on the conduct of research and the training of our doctors are important topics that should be considered.
I quoted most of Lord Kakkar's speech because it is about important matters that do not get aired frequently enough in public and because what he says shows our impotence in the face of EU regulation, whether it comes in the form of Directives or Regulations.

In his reply Lord Sassoon skated over the problems raised [half-way down Column 1256]:
The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, referred to another area of great strength for the UK: our world-beating excellence in clinical research. He made some telling points but, on the broad point about working time regulations, I stress that the Government are committed to the view that working people should decide the hours that they work, and we will continue to make that abundantly clear to the European Commission.
Very nice, too, but how is this world-beating excellence to be preserved and developed with the insane regulations that are destroying it?

Lord Pearson said in his final summary [towards the end of Column 1258]:
I think the Minister agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, about the working time directive and other European legislation that is damaging our National Health Service. He said that he would continue to press the Commission on this point. My final question to the Minister is: what is the point of the United Kingdom continuing to press the Commission on these and other burdens that come from Brussels? With 8 per cent of the votes in the Council, there is nothing that we can do to reverse them and we will not do so.
Quite so. Has that changed at all in the last few days? I think not.

Where does the money go?

Taking time out of the two big stories: Russia where they do not believe politicians and Britain's obsessive need to do so, I have returned to a question I have often asked myself and anyone who did not manage to move out of my vicinity fast enough: just where does the money go? Britain is a fairly rich country and the people in it are, on the whole, well off. Yet there is never any money for what matters.

Businesses are not expanding, not hiring, not investing; charities are short of funds; arts and think-tanks cannot raise enough and don't even ask about research institutions. When asked, we all blame the amount we hand over in taxes here and there yet our public services, whether it be education, transport, police or anything else you care to name, are among the worst in the Western world. So where does the money go?

Here are two stories to be pondered over.

One comes from the Daily Wail but is backed by others, such as the Independent and the Telegraph; even the Grauniad who was responsible for the story in the first place is getting a little tetchy. It seems that Glenn Mulcaire, who was actually arrested in connection with the phone hacking enquiry, could not have been party to the biggest scandal of all, the deletion of Milly Dowler's messages, action that had given the family false hope.

Surrey police is, according to the story in the Indy, desperately looking for yet another NoW journalist who might have been responsible. Or, perhaps not. As the Daily Wail says:
Scotland Yard yesterday said it has absolutely ‘no evidence’ that News of the World journalists deleted Milly Dowler’s voicemail messages.

The police force’s barrister made a dramatic intervention at the Leveson inquiry into press standards.

Neil Garnham QC said the ‘most likely explanation’ for the disappearance of the messages is that they automatically ‘dropped off’ the network after 72 hours.
It seems that the police may have wanted to tell the family this but were not allowed to do so by the family lawyer. Perhaps.

What does seem to be the case is that this huge enquiry, investigation and scandal may have been started on largely false pretences (most of the rest of the "evidence" remains unsupported tales by celebs looking for publicity) and has resulted in the closing down of a newspaper (no, I never read it but that is not the point), the loss of 400 or so jobs and a threat of strict control over the media. Not to mention what looks like a wrongful arrest. Behind it all looms the question that one cannot help asking: given the loud complaints about the police not paying enough attention to crime, not solving more than a tiny proportion, not being able to control looters in the street, why exactly do they spend so much time, money and energy on cases that involve celebrities? (Or travelling to Barcelona to enquire into vague rumours to do with the McCann story?)

Story number two, in the Evening Standard, comes from my neck of the woods, the Borough of Hammersmith of Fulham, whose council, as it happens, is one of the more efficient ones in the country, the White City estate and the Westfield shopping centre, which has been a huge commercial and social success.
Stephen Greenhalgh, who has led Hammersmith and Fulham council for five years and is close to Boris Johnson, wants to help channel Whitehall and local authority funds to the White City Estate in Shepherd's Bush.

He said: "White City has been a huge disappointment over a long period of time in terms of money that has been spent. For example, Westfield opened in the area with 8,000 new jobs and very few of them went locally.

"Nearly £70 million of taxpayers' funds - or £17,000 per household - is spent in this area every year. Despite this, unemployment is twice the borough average, the area has high levels of overcrowding, relatively low educational attainment and relatively high levels of crime." Commentators said the move could lead to similar projects being set up around London.
I recall that when Westfield opened they announced their commitment to local jobs. I also recall that when the snow came most of the shops had to close because the staff could not get in, which would indicate that by then the jobs were not local or that the local talent could not be bothered to walk down the road to the place.

Nevertheless, this is a pertinent question. Just exactly why have only a few of the Westfield jobs gone locally in a high unemployment area? And, even more to the point: what on earth does the £70 million a year go? If Stephen Greenhalgh can find that out he is a better man than most. I await his report with interest. He will report, will he not?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Nothing has changed - Part 1

In the light of the stupendous and misguided hysteria about the Boy-King's "fantastic achievements" in the recent European Council, which just confirms my view that an IN/OUT referendum would be a disaster, I have decided to start a series of the various ways in which Britain's position has not changed one iota. For those who are thinking along the lines of the UK being like Switzerland, I can say one thing: there is a difference between being outside the EU and signing bilateral agreements and being inside it and having to obey all the laws that flood towards us and will continue to flood.

First up: levels of immigration. I rarely get involved in that debate as I think it is almost entirely misguided. The problems are to do with our welfare and education systems not with immigration. Nevertheless, it is interesting to hear what HMG has to say on the subject.

On December 7 Lord Roberts of Conwy asked: "what steps they are taking to reduce net immigration".

HMG's response was the usual waffle and not entirely unexpected:
My Lords, we are committed to reducing net migration to tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, by the end of this Parliament. We have already introduced an annual limit on the number of non-EU workers, overhauled the student visa route and increased enforcement activity. Our next steps are to break the link between temporary and permanent migration by restricting settlement rights and to reform family migration.
The relevant part of the discussion comes some way down when Lord Willoughby de Broke asks:
My Lords, if the aim is to reduce net immigration, will the noble Lord say whether he is going to repatriate the power over immigration from the EU? It would surely help to reduce net immigration if we controlled immigration from the EU.
The answer?
My Lords, there are no plans to do so.
Of course not. We cannot do anything about it as we have no right to change EU rules.

Was this not one of those matters on which repatriation of powers was discussed in the dim and distant past (last week or so)? Yes, but you see, you can only change structures and repatriate powers by having a new treaty and that is something the Boy-King will not have.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Protests in Russia

The wave of protests passed off reasonably peacefully, as far as one can understand with the militia behaving well even when they arrested people. In Moscow, estimates vary from 20,000 by the police, to 40,000 by Reuters [in Russian] and 100,000 by the organizers. I think I shall assume that Reuters is the most accurate of them all. The picture above from the Reuters site shows the thousands going to the meeting.

The BBC Russian Service has more photos.

I shall write more about events in Russia tomorrow. In the meantime, let us remember that there is this to be said for Russians: they do not believe their politicians. How different from another country I can think of that has had a good deal more experience with them.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Back to reality

Huge meetings are expected across Russia to protest the fraudulent election, which still gave United Russia less than 50 per cent of the vote. Rank incompetence. 30,000 have signified that they will turn out in Moscow and the Deputy Mayor gave permission to hold the meeting on Bolotnaya Ploschad', just across the river from the Kremlin. Here is a video of people arriving. The text is in Russian but the numbers can be seen. Meetings are expected in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other cities. Will Putin be able to bring this discontent under control by the time of the presidential election in March, the traditional month of uprisings?

Game, set and match ... to them

It is a long time since I have seen this amount of bilge written about the EU and what the British PM has achieved, probably not since John Major's "game, set and match" at Maastricht. How unfortunate then, that so many of the people who sneered at those of us for opposing that great achievement at the time should now rather sheepishly admit that we were right: it was a disaster. Do we have to wait for another twenty years to hear that admission about what is happening now? I would like a life, thank you.

Right. Into battle. Luckily, I do not have to go through any details as the Boss over at EURef (who has been thoroughly fed up with me grousing and practically ordered me to write this blog just to get me off his back) has done so very effectively. Three cheers for the Boss.

In the meantime I have been having quite surreal arguments with people who have accused me of not knowing my facts (always a favourite one with those who believe any old bilge dealt out by politicians and the media); even more surreal ones with supposed eurosceptics who are over the moon with Cameron being so tough; and absolutely out of this world ones with people who actually think that Cameron's behaviour has put us on the same sort of footing as Switzerland.

Let's deal with the last of those first. Switzerland, as every schoolchild should know but as many an adult who feels that they need to comment on political matters does not, is not even in the EEA, let alone the EU. How does anything Cameron does or says short of getting us out of the European project put us on the same footing? Answers on a postcard, please.

Next: how can I be so nasty about Cameron who has done the right thing for once by vetoing the treaty. Ahem, what treaty? The Boss has written about it here. Has anyone seen this treaty? Of course not, because it does not exist. There is no treaty without an IGC and we have not had one of those. So far as anyone can tell, there is no draft treaty even, as Gisela Stuart says in the Evening Standard, but, in any case you cannot veto a draft treaty.

Mind you, this is not the first time the Boy-King has come up with comments about a European Council that seemed to be at odds with communications from that Council. Then, as now, hacks and politicos refused to find out anything. We shall see what the Council communique will say when it is published but I do not think it will say anything about a treaty being vetoed because the Council is not the body that decides or even discusses treaties. Someone should tell Cameron so he should give his fantasies some sort of a reasonable grounding. Then again, given how easy it is to fool a large number of people, why should he bother?

So, the Boy-King has not vetoed any treaty. What has he done? He has allowed Merkozy and the others to go ahead with far greater speed than they even dared to hope with a complete reconstruction of the eurozone, that aims to create a fiscally integrated bloc at the heart of the EU, which will be able to pass any legislation through QMV that it might want to.

So far from repatriating powers, which can be done only through a new treaty that the Boy-King has rejected (not vetoed, just rejected) he has lost any possibility of vetoing whatever speedy conclusions will come out of the forthcoming negotiations for a new agreement.

The assumption was that a full IGC will not be convened till 2013. Agreement, let alone subsequent implementation would be very difficult and Cameron would have the right to veto whatever treaty is agreed on. Or, he could bring it back and let Parliament throw it out; or he could activate the referendum lock and then veto it as we would most probably win a referendum on a new treaty.

Instead we shall have a hastily cobbled agreement that will incorporate everything Merkozy and Rumpy-Pumpy want and that will be passed early next year if the eurozone survives that long. The notion that a new agreement will be any more effective in imposing fiscal discipline on the likes of Greece, Italy or France than any of the previous ones is laughable. What it will do, as Allister Heath wrote on Thursday, is to create a bloc that will be able to force any legislation they want through. That famous financial transaction tax from which Cameron is supposed to have saved the City? It will go through when the eurozone will want to destroy anything outside itself to save its own stagnating economy.

In fact, having got what they wanted from Cameron, Merkozy will almost certainly try to force through the few remaining bits of legislation that will destroy the City. Let's face it, this government does not care about the City and does not want to upset the colleagues in Brussels. Allister Heath again:
Of course, a revolution was required in the City after the mad bubble. Many of the reforms since 2008 have been good, including getting banks to hold more capital, be more liquid and cut their leverage. Some have even been excellent. The move to introduce resolution schemes and living wills to allow even the biggest banks to fail in a controlled way – more advanced in the UK than elsewhere – will help banish bailouts for ever.

But there have also been lots of job-destroying, stupid and unnecessary policies, punitive taxes and a relentless stirring up of anti-City sentiment. The British government has also tolerated or even embraced a tidal wave of EU rules, nearly of them flawed or disastrous. Hedge funds, private equity, insurers and now accountancy firms have all been hammered; new pan-EU regulators have been created. The coalition’s original aim was to shrink the City; then to shrink it as a share of GDP; now, with manufacturing in recession again, it has suddenly realised that it must find growth and jobs wherever they are created. Fine – but it shouldn’t pretend that it has always been the City’s best friend.
The outcome of the last two days' shindig in Brussels does not alter any of that.

So what could or should Cameron have done? It is actually, very easy. He should have said that the European Council is not the proper body to discuss such matters; the proper body is the IGC - even if it consists of the same people, it is a different body, summoned differently with a different mandate and accountability. He should have insisted on a full IGC and a completely new treaty as the changes that are being introduced require one. That would have taken a longish time, as I said above; would have required a good deal of negotiation and discussion in the various countries, including Britain; would then have required unanimity (chance for a veto); and would have had to go through all the stages of implementation. The colleagues would not have liked it; they did not want it; and they managed to avoid it. They will now have their agreement, which will not be called a new treaty and Britain will be sent a copy but it and whatever legislation comes out of it will still be binding. Will there even have to be Parliamentary legislation as there was with every previous treaty? Certainly the referendum lock will not be activated.

Game, set and match to them, I think.

Just one more thing: the markets will re-open on Monday and they, too, will have a say and will go on having a say, unlike Mr Cameron.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Double plus not good

In Oregon a US District Judge has decided that a blogger who reports seriously and, it appears, accurately about investment firms does not have the same protections as a designated journalist who might be "affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system". This is not about her content but about her standing as a person who can refuse to name her source as a "bona fide" journalist would be allowed. In fact, it is just about her standing.

So, a new treaty or not?

Here is the text of that letter from Merkozy, as the twain are now known, to Rumpy-Pumpy, as the Council President is now known. What they propose require a new treaty, which requires an IGC, though HMG is at pains to tell us that it is not so. But then, even changing a Protocol, requires a new treaty, which requires and IGC and unanimous agreement and implementation in all member states. I feel slight dizzy. Must be all that going round in circles.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

And to follow up ...

... what are the facts about that Social Chapter? You know the one, the Party Formerly Known As Conservative keeps promising to do away with. Well, it will not be easy to do so as it no longer exists. It has, in fact been integrated into the Treaties as separate Articles and a complete change is needed in order to get rid of them. The change that we are not, apparently, going to have.

According to the official Glossary on the Europa website
The Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers was adopted in 1989 by all Member States except the United Kingdom. The objectives of the Charter have been included in the Treaty of Amsterdam since the integration of the provisions of the Maastricht social protocol in the Treaty. The Lisbon Treaty makes reference to it in title X on social policy (Article 151 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).
I seem to recall arguing this for some time with a number of people who "knew better".

It so happens that the subject came up in two Written Questions in the House of Commons:
Mr Douglas Alexander: To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills what recent assessment he has made of the costs and benefits of proposals to withdraw from the European Social Chapter; and if he will place any such assessment in the Library.

Mr Davey: None. There is no distinct “European Social Chapter”; the EU's provisions for social and related matters are integrated into the treaties.

Mr Douglas Alexander: To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills what representations he has received since May 2010 calling for the UK to withdraw from the European Social Chapter; and if he will place a copy of any such representations in the Library.

Mr Davey: There is no distinct “European Social Chapter”; the EU's provisions for social and related matters are integrated into the treaties. This Department regularly receives representations from stakeholders on matters concerning aspects of European employment law. It would not be practical to deposit all such representations in the Libraries of the House.
Can we now stop talking about it as something we shall repatriate just as soon as that commission starts working on what it is we want to repatriate and how we should go about it?

Where are we on that repatriation of powers?

Attentive followers of the Boy-King's pronouncements on how he will fight in Britain's corner for Britain's interests will recall mentions of the Social Chapter and the Working Time Directive that we shall get rid of, repatriate, exterminate or whatever.

The subject came up again in the House of Lords during a debate on December 6 that followed Lord Grenfell's Starred Question:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have agreed a list of powers to be repatriated from the European Union, and, if so, when they expect to launch negotiations with the United Kingdom's European partners.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire, a committed europhiliac, responded in a suitably vague fashion:
My Lords, the Government are committed under the coalition agreement to examining the balance of competences between Britain and the EU. We have made no commitment to a particular outcome of this review. Work on the review has begun and is in its early stages.
Lord Grenfell followed up in a somewhat breathless fashion:
My Lords, I am relieved to read that the Prime Minister has recognised that Friday's negotiations on a fiscal compact are not the occasion to try to repatriate any powers. That is good news, and it should at least save the Prime Minister from having another ASBO slapped on him by the President of France. The Prime Minister says that he wants to be constructive at these negotiations but that he will have some modest demands to make. Does the Minister agree that the chance to participate constructively in the negotiations being held among the 27 does depend on them being among the 27, because that gives him a seat and a voice, whereas if negotiations were confined to the 17 eurozone members he would have neither? If the Prime Minister arrives in Brussels with a list of concessions which he wants granted as a price for his co-operation, there is a serious risk that the 17, tired of Britain's repeated requests for special treatment, will simply close the door on the 10 outsiders and negotiate without them. What influence will he then have on the outcome?
Since HMG has not the slightest intention of repatriating powers there really is not the slightest need to rejoice in the fact that they will not be using this occasion to do so. Then again, if this is not a good time to start those famous repatriations and renegotiations, when is?

After a certain amount of the same we get a reasonable question from Lord Hannay of Chiswick:
My Lords, what would the Government's response be if, in the intergovernmental conference about to meet, a member state other than Britain were to introduce a proposal for the repatriation of some portion of the single market?
To which the response is:
My Lords, I am happy to say that that is extremely unlikely. We are some way off an intergovernmental conference. The German Government believe that we can have a very short IGC next March and hope that ratification of limited treaty change can then take place by the end of 2012. The position of Her Majesty's Government is that treaty change is not necessary, as we argued when ratifying the Lisbon treaty and again on the EU Bill. The Lisbon treaty has an enormous amount of headroom under which powers can be taken, and we think advantage should be taken of that, rather than getting into the messy, unavoidably uncertain and long process of treaty change.
Hmm. That is not quite the way this whole process has been presented to the media.

After a lot of other smug assertions about how wonderfully well everything would go if only those nasty eurosceptics would go away and stop being right not display a nasty carping spirit, we have Lord Pearson of Rannoch:
My Lords, given the requirement for unanimity among 27 nation states before a single comma can be retrieved from the treaties of Rome, is not all talk of repatriation a convenient red herring?
Oh pshaw!
No. There is constant negotiation. The working time directive is currently under review, as the noble Lord will be aware. Sixteen member states, including Britain, currently have opt-outs. Twenty-three member states, not including Britain, are currently under contravention for not implementing the working time directive. There is therefore room for reconsideration.
That's it then?

Makes sense to the BBC

In BBC-speak people who consider that they and others should look after themselves and their families whenever possible and help other people in their own way with their own money, if necessary, are absolutely selfish. Being unselfish is wanting to pay higher taxes (or wanting other people to pay higher taxes) that can then be used and abused by highly paid but seriously victimized officials to make people do what is good for them in the eyes of those officials. Makes some kind of a logical sense and can be the only explanation why the BBC should misrepresent the National Social Survey as Philip Booth explains. Read the whole posting.

Will this be a new treaty?

City AM reports with some shock in its tone that
MOST countries will not get a vote on tighter fiscal integration, allowing Germany to force through new financial controls across the Eurozone, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said yesterday in a report sent to EU leaders ahead of tomorrow’s two-day summit.
I have already seen comments that this is a denial of democracy. Actually it is not, given that the EU structures are not exactly democratic. This may well be a denial by the EU of its own rules, which would not be the first time. (Here, here and here)

The question is will this be a new treaty or merely the old one tinkered with. Rumpy-Pumpy says it will not be a new treaty but tightening up of rules, which were supposed to be tight enough already (no, he didn't say that last bit).
By changing only protocol 12 of the EU treaty, which relates to “excessive deficits,” Van Rompuy believes the proposed changes “do not require ratification at national level”.

This means “rapid and significant changes” can be introduced to stop any repeat of the current debt crisis.

“It is crucial to enhance the credibility of our budgetary rules and to ensure compliance,” said Van Rompuy, which will help “restore market confidence in the Eurozone.”

The report also outlined plans to keep national debts below 60 per cent of GDP, and followed German plans for a “golden rule” on balanced budgets.
Well, now, will our valiant Prime Minister go along with that?

Just what does that mean?

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked HMG in a Written Question:
To ask Her Majesty's Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord McNally on 15 November (WA 140), whether the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Nick Clegg, is eligible to receive a pension from the European Commission; if so, when that pension will become payable; what will be its annual amount; and whether the terms of that pension constrain his actions.
HMG's response was a little odd:
The Deputy Prime Minister is no longer eligible to receive a pension from the European Commission.
No longer? What does that mean? Was he at any time and why is he not so any longer?

Big deal!

The BBC reports that
Parliament will be asked to vote on any new treaty relating to the European Union, Downing Street has said.

No 10 said any treaty signed by the UK "will need to go through Parliament", although it did not say whether this would require new legislation.
Goodness me! Not really! I have news for Downing Street and the BBC: all the treaties have gone through Parliament and the legislation was passed as an Amendment to the European Communities Act 1972. That's it? Those are the great Conservative concessions to democracy?

Meanwhile Mr Clarke spoke the inconvenient truth:
Mr Clarke, the most pro-European Conservative cabinet minister, told the Financial Times he did not expect any repatriation of powers as a result of this week's summit: "No, we're not going to renegotiate any transfers of powers, in my opinion."

He said Britain should focus on "how to maintain the financial stability of the western world", adding it would be a distraction to try to open up discussions about the "wider structures of the union".
He is not wrong about those famous renegotiations. Even Cameron is not saying they will happen, merely that he will demand safeguards. And who defines what are adequate safeguards? Why, Mr Cameron, of course. Neat, eh?

Interestingly, the FT carries a slightly different headline from the BBC's anodyne one: "Clarke rejects call for EU power grab". One wonders who chose those words "power grab", Mr Clarke, the interviewer or some sub-editor. After all, the implications are that power rightfully belongs to the EU and HMG is somehow thinking of grabbing some of it away from them. That couldn't be what they meant, could it?

Otherwise the interview trots out all the bromides: now is not the time, eurozone stability and financial rectitude are more important, Britain should play a positive and constructive role. Blah, blah, blah.

On EUObserver

The Boy-King, that referendum lock and other matters.

Seventy years ago

USS Arizona burning after the attack by the Japanese Air Force on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Who is right, HMG or the Commissioner?

There seems to be some problem about those powers to scrutinize member states' budgets that the Commission is claiming despite, as Lord Pearson of Rannoch pointed out yet again and to some murmured agreement in the House:
My Lords, is it not grotesque that an organisation that has not had its accounts signed off by its own internal auditors for 17 years-there being no external auditor-should be handed these powers, given that if it had been a private company in this country the directors would have been in prison every year for the past 17 years?
And yet there are noble peers like Lord Davies of Stamford who can come up with questions such as this:
My Lords, a few years ago was there not a proposal that the Commission be given a duty of auditing the national accounts of member states? That proposal was turned down at the time by the Council. Is it not the case that if it had not been turned down and had been accepted, we would have had an earlier insight into the problems of Greece, the Greeks would have been unable to falsify their accounts, and the grave problems we all now face might have been significantly reduced?
Is an organization who has not had its own accounts (or budget as it is grandly named) signed off by the Court of Auditors really a competent judge of what is and what is not adequate auditing?

All this was part of a short debate on Lord Willoughby de Broke's Starred Question last week:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the proposal by the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs that the European Commission should have the power to scrutinise member states' budgets and impose such financial penalties as the Commission deems fit.
As ever Lord Sassoon waffled in response though appeared to agree with the idea that national budgets should be subject to discipline from the Commission whose own budget ... etc etc.
My Lords, the Government strongly support the recently agreed economic governance legislation to strengthen the stability and growth pact. This provides for stronger and more responsible economic governance across the European Union. Under the new legislation, a range of financial sanctions can be imposed by Council within the euro area where member states are deemed not to have taken adequate action. Sanctions are set out under Article 136, which applies to the euro area only.
Lord Willoughby then came back:
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, the statement by Commissioner Olli Rehn applies not just to the eurozone but to the whole of the EU, including this country. Therefore, will the Minister confirm that today's Autumn Statement by the Chancellor is nothing more than an aspiration-a wish list? Will he confirm to the House that this will have to be ticked off and agreed by the European Commission before it can take any effect?
The response was somewhat mystifying though the noble Minister did admit that Britain is not entirely free from the various eurozone-related rules:
My Lords, this country has always been party to the stability and growth pact, but as I am sure the noble Lord knows, under Protocol 15 the UK has an opt-out, which means that we have to endeavour to avoid excessive deficits but are not subject to any sanctions such as members of the euro area are. Furthermore, the UK secured particular treatment that ensures-has ensured and will ensure-that Parliament will always be allowed to scrutinise the UK's budget ahead of the European Commission.
It is, of course, reassuring to know that the House of Commons who had, in days gone by, fought for the right to control the finances of this country, will, for the time being, be allowed to scrutinise the UK's budget ahead of the European Commission. Allowed? By whom? As if I didn't know.

There is, however, a problem with the noble Minister's answer that he so blithely insisted on. Not so long ago, Commissioner Olli Rehn, he who is responsible for the EU's Economic and Financial Affairs, published an article in the Daily Telegraph, in which he reiterated his statement on the matter of the six new pieces of regulation that had been nodded through in order to "stabilize the eurozone" or some such strange notion. In this he made it clear that more than just the eurozone is intended.
When this legislation enters into force later this year, the EU will have in place a much stronger framework for preventing the economic mistakes that have cast a shadow over the recent past.

We will be able to scrutinise the Member States' public finances, in particular the level of debt, much more carefully and pre-emptively than ever before. This will include co-ordinated examination of economic policies and budgets in the first half of each year before their adoption by national parliaments in a process known as the European Semester. And budgets will have to be designed and presented according to a common framework, in line with best international standards, so that budget-making is more transparent both for citizens and policy-makers.
No mention of the UK's opt-out there or in this statement of November 8.
This is first and foremost about safeguarding financial stability in the euro area and in the EU by exerting preventive and effective surveillance, according to the rules we have democratically given ourselves.

Let me be very blunt on this: It's either the EU institutions, according to our own rules, procedures and democratic accountability, or the market forces that will do the job. For me, as a committed European and a committed democrat, the choices are clear.
So who is right? The Minister or the Commissioner?