Friday, February 28, 2014

First things first

Those few hours seem to have turned into a couple of days. Also, although I really ought to tackle Ukraine as a blogging issue, the situation seems so fluid that I can never quite decide where to call my own halt. Of course, to nobody's surprise, attention is now on Crimea, a bone of contention between Russia and Ukraine ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Could Putin have had this in mind all along: the detachment of Crimea from its sixty-year old home, Ukraine (then still the Ukraine)? It is, otherwise, hard to explain why he decided to intervene and destabilize (well, help to destabilize) that country for the second time in ten years, with no particular advantage for Russia.

But first, something about British politics. Among the various envelopes that awaited me at home was the latest paper from the IEA, The Sock Doctrine by Christopher Snowdon. This is the third in the "Sock" series of papers about the so-called charities, voluntary organizations and members of the "third sector" that actually receive money from the government in one form and another in order to lobby the same government to introduce legislation that would increase or fail to decrease the role of the government.

This paper deals specifically with organizations whose aim is actual political campaigning that ought not to be financed out of the tax money in any circumstance. Well worth reading if only for the arguments that the defenders of the system put up and for the (incomplete) list of organizations that wage various unpopular campaigns out of our money.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cruella is baaaaaaaaaaaaaack

Hospital stay turned out to be a little longer than expected but I am back now and ready to launch into the usual ranting ... ahem .... blogging. Be with you in a few hours.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Temporary blogging silence

Yes, I know, I have just broken that silence but am about to re-impose it, this time officially, for about a week. Early tomorrow morning (you mean there are two 7 o'clocks in the day?) I have to deliver myself into the hands of the NHS for it to deal surgically with a problem in my back that has been making my life very difficult for some months. Make that a couple of years. Anyway, they can deal with it and the operation will be, I hope, if not the end of the problem, at least the beginning of the end. To be honest, I will settle for beginning of the end as anyone who has had back problems that affect mobility (95% of the population) will agree.

Fear not. I will return.

No, this is not a new Prague Spring

I am not a great one for banning political terminology even when it has lost its original meaning. Although I always point out that by liberal I mean the European or British or original meaning of the word I do not demand that Americans change their word.

However, I would dearly like to see the end of people using the word "Spring" whenever there is the slightest chance in political thinking and the suffix "-gate" whenever there is even the smallest political scandal. Watergate was the name of the building that was broken into. That's it. There was nothing there about gates or not as far as the politics was concerned. Neither was it the greatest scandal in American political history but that is another issue.

On to the word "Spring". We all know where it comes from: the 1968 attempt in Czechoslovakia to reform the Communist system, to give it a "human face" and to try to combine it with some form of freedom and democracy. It failed when the Soviet tanks rolled in but eventually contributed to the collapse of the whole system and the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

We also know that the so-called "Arab Spring" was nothing like the "Prague Spring" for many reasons, not least the almost total absence of any ideas to do with democracy and freedom. If they were there at the beginning, they disappeared very swiftly and not just because the tanks rolled in.

Now we have the new Czech Foreign Minister, Lubomir Zaoralek, bleating about a new "Prague Spring". The title intrigued me. Is he proposing an EU with a "human face"? Some democratic modification to the system? How far will that go, there being no tanks to roll anywhere?

Alas, no. Mr Zaoralek is tentatively suggesting that the aim of the new "Prague Spring" is "to project a more positive attitude towards the European Union, overturning years of skepticism that has at times pushed his country to Europe's margins".

I am not sure what exactly anyone means by the country being pushed to Europe's margins. It cannot help being where it is geographically speaking and it is not exactly on the margins culturally speaking. Politically? That's anybody's guess. Certainly, Mr Zaoralek seems a little vague on the subject as he appears to think that there is some choice in whether his country can "engage" with Europe, by which, I assume, he means the European Union. Has he not read those treaties? Has he not understood what acquis communautaire means? No, I suppose not. He is a politician, after all.
Attending his first EU foreign ministers' meeting since being appointed on January 29, Lubomir Zaoralek said the new center-left government was determined to re-engage with Europe and show its commitment to joining the euro, even if it remains too early to set a date.

"Our ambition is to create a new Czech policy which will not be nebulous or dubious, but will be understandable, predictable and maybe credible," he told Reuters in his first interview with the foreign media since taking office.

Asked whether that represented a new "Prague Spring" - the period of political liberalization and openness to the rest of Europe the former Czechoslovakia experienced in the late 1960s - he agreed, although with conditions.

"Maybe the prerequisite is to have a clear stance towards the euro - that we are ready to do everything that has to be done during this period to be ready to enter the euro zone."

Quizzed about the timing of any entry, Zaoralek was cautious, saying it depended on meeting the EU's criteria on deficit and debt, joining the exchange rate mechanism that binds currencies to the euro, and shifting Czech public opinion.
He certainly knows how to use weighty words without saying anything but there is no real explanation how jumping on to that floundering ship called the euro resembles Alexander Dubček's attempts at reform.

The EU's role in Ukraine's problems

This is still not a long posting about Ukraine but I noticed that at least one person has said something I've been saying almost since the Ukrainian events began: the EU is of no relevance to anything that happens in that country. President Yanukovich's refusal to initial the trade agreement last year may well have triggered off the first demonstrations but it all developed into a general discontent with the government, the political system, the corruption and the general dysfunctionality of the country. The fact that there are demonstrations and discontents in the east of the country, in the areas that are generally pro-Russian and where Yanukovich was supposed have a great deal of support is indicative of that.

Fortunately for my self-esteem the person voicing similar opinions is Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine's best and funniest modern novelist, whose political satire, Death and the Penguin, captured readers' imagination in many parts of the world.

According to him, the not-so fragrant Cathy Ashton, the High Panjandrum of EU foreign policy is not known in Ukraine at all and nobody hears of her shuttling back and forth, repeatedly announcing a break-through or lack of one.
“There is not much information about their visits and most people don’t know who they are. Among those who do know, quite a lot of them think they do not take Ukraine seriously, that they come here to show their own public that they care about what’s going on,” he said.

He noted the EU diplomats get coverage almost exclusively on internet media.
All of that is true enough but the question remains: exactly what can the EU do to sort out what is an internal Ukrainian crisis growing out of the country's internal problems? Individually, we can support the opposition, assuming we know what they want but will that make any difference? The question Ukraine faces comes in two parts: will it be Russia's colony or will it be an independent democracy that looks to the West while, obviously, not losing her links with Russia, an impossibility in any case: and, secondly, will it be another post-Soviet autocracy like almost all the successor states or will it finally become what it should always have been:a constitutional democracy that relies on the rule of law? Where, in all that, is the European Union?

The Swiss are different

Well, for one thing they have never bothered to be part of Europe or so I recall some stupid politician describing their action in rejecting the blandishments of the European Union. How a country that is right in the middle of Europe can be not part of it is a mystery that only a political mind can save.

Before we go any further with this story, which I expect most of my readers know already, here is a clip from a well known film that sums up the comments that have been emanating from Brussels and various europhiliac organizations:


As any fule kno, the cuckoo clock was actually invented in Germany but this is a great scene in a brilliant film.

Now for the story: the Swiss have voted narrowly in a referendum in favour of reintroducing quotas on immigration from the EU thus upsetting the previous agreement for freedom of movement and generally upsetting the EU (cannot be done too often, especially by a country like Switzerland).
In a nail-biting vote, 50.3 percent backed the "Stop mass immigration" initiative, which also won the required majority approval in more than half of Swiss cantons or regions, Swiss television said.

The outcome obliges the government to turn the initiative, spearheaded by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), into law within three years.

It reflects growing concern among the Swiss population that immigrants are eroding the nation's distinctive Alpine culture and contributing to rising rents, crowded transport and more crime.

Net immigration runs at around 70,000 people per year on average. Foreigners make up 23 percent of the population of 8 million, second in Europe only to Luxembourg.

"This is an enormously important decision because the direction must now be shifted," SVP politician Luzi Stamm told Swiss television. "The Swiss population have said that, instead of free movement of people, quotas have to be introduced."
What the EU would like to do now is to punish Switzerland in some hitherto unspecified fashion but that seems rather difficult. Switzerland, despite being outside the great EU, is a rich and powerful country and a magnet for many businesses, especially in those Cantons that sensibly kept their corporate tax level very low. Despite that fact, the threats have started:
"For us, EU-Swiss relations come as a package," said Hannes Swoboda, a member of the European Parliament. "If Switzerland suspends immigration from the EU, it will not be able to count on all the economic and trade benefits it is currently enjoying. We will not allow ... cherry-picking."
There are dire predictions that the Swiss will be made to vote again but that, too, seems unlikely as they are not and have never been part of the European Union, whose members can be made to vote often until they get the right result. And suppose, EU pressure prevails and another referendum is called on the subject in Switzerland? The most likely outcome of that will be an even bigger margin in favour of those quotas. Analysis on the BBC site tries to weigh up the possibilities:
So the Swiss have chosen to regain control over migration even though it risks undermining the relationship with Brussels. There will not just be quotas but also restrictions on the right of foreigners to bring in family members and access social services. Businesses must give Swiss nationals priority when hiring staff. There will be a new clause in the constitution stating that migration must serve the nation's economic interest.

Many of the precise details of the quotas have yet to be worked out and the current system will continue in the meantime. But all eyes will be on the reaction from Brussels. As the government in Switzerland admitted, "the new constitution runs contrary to the agreement on the free movement of people". It accepts that its relationship with the EU will have to be put on a new footing.
But it is not only Switzerland that is facing a few problems:
For Brussels there are no easy options. Free movement of people is one of its core principles. It sees it as integral to the single market. It has reminded the UK of this and if it embraces a compromise with the Swiss, other countries might chose to follow.

And yet European officials will also be aware that with the European elections pending in May, there will be many anti-establishment parties pushing for the same restrictions as the Swiss voted for. Brussels will believe it has to defend a core principle, yet it will also be aware of how strongly the immigration issue plays with voters.
Mind you, following Switzerland's example is not so easy for countries that are part of the European Union rather than just have a set of agreements with it but it will be interesting to see how the negotiations for a new relationship will shape up. Britain cannot emulate Switzerland - the situation is very different and we would have to bring about that Brexit first - but ideas for the future may well be picked up.

Whether UKIP will benefit from this in the forthcoming Euro elections is another matter.