Saturday, May 29, 2004

Expanding the EU - reply to Georg 

Georg from Ostracised from Österreich asked me to put together my own case for Turkish accession to the EU in response to my link to Mehmet Ali Birand's Hürriyet article. I couldn't fit my response in the comments field in less than 5 posts (!) so here is my, at this stage quite untidy, response:

Georg: will try and put something together - obviously I know a lot more about Turkey than Ukraine or Algeria!

Turkey is at least as ready to join as Romania, or on some measures, Slovakia, Bulgaria or Latvia. Ukraine is some way behind (members of the opposition have a habit of disappearing and the economy is in a real mess!) and I'm not sure if it's even ready to begin serious pre-accession talks. Of course that's no reason not to begin what will inevitably be a very long process.

Morocco and Algeria are different concepts. I have no objection in principle to the North African littoral joining the EU, and while Morocco's path to democracy has been steady it has also been inordinately slow.

The EU has just introduced some assistance to help Algeria in recovering from the (partly French and American caused) Civil War and in stabilising democracy. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are further behind yet. These are very long term projects indeed. And the psychological shift required both among the EU élite and the general public to accept North African accession can only take place, in my view, following a successful Turkish accession to the EU and some sort of resolution of the Israel/Palestine problem... otherwise the Arab World will simply be seen as a No No.

In those circumstances, there's an argument for saying that the Levantine littoral in an ideal world would be an easier place to start than North Africa. A democratic and post-settlement Holy Land, in whatever political form, would be an 'easy' expansion, Lebanon would also be manageable in that context, given it's successful transition to post-conflict democracy and reasonable economic state, and a democratic Syria would be secular and educated enough not to frighten too many horses. Jordan is managing the transition to democracy in a strongly Islamic country perhaps better than anywhere else (Turkey is just not Islamic enough to compare!), has a more robust economy than Algeria or Morocco, and doesn't have a big enough population or generate enough emigrants to frighten the horses either.

But let's face it, optimistically we'll be talking about Turkish accession in 2012-15, in a best case scenario Ukraine in 2020-2025 and the Arab countries not for a long time after that. Look at how long it took the USA to expand from 'sea to shining sea'!

But I agree that the EU should be built on values, not geography and certainly not religion, and that whatever the final status of the EU is we cannot erect a 'Belgian curtain' magically locking instbaility in the ex-USSR or the Arab world. In the short term, free trade agreements, mutual exchange of civil servants, and better managed migration from the EU's periphery would go a long way to making our neighbourhood 'stable'. Democratic political parties in the 'periphery' should be invited to join the EU political groupings on an 'observer' basis. And it would be great if the EPP could bring itself to deal more seriously with the 'Islamic Democratic' parties like Turkey's AKP.

And all this, bear in mind comes from someone from the EU's furthest North-Western fringe, where Newfoundland is almost as close as Ankara.

Election fever in London 

Well, not exactly as far as most of the public are concerned, but Simon Hughes and a big crowd of LibDems were leafleting Queensway at lunchtime today, while the Respect Coalition were driving round Maida Vale in a big van playing, oddly enough, Aretha Franklin's Respect when I went to the dry cleaners this afternoon.

Right, I'm off to review some pubs for Fancy A Pint?

Very hard vocab quiz 

Found via The 6th International, via Nicholas Whyte - a very hard but rather fun vocab quiz. Nicholas scored 189, Mrs. Tilton scored 190, whereas I managed a paltry 165 out of 200. Diddums!

Friday, May 28, 2004

A history of Communism in Ireland 

Via Workers' Republic - an interesting history of Communism in Ireland.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Why socialism failed 

From an otherwise interesting article on neglected English, and working-class, composer Havergal Brian, whose Gothic Symphony I am enjoying as I write.
All music which speaks in the 'vernacular' (to use Deryck Cooke's expression), and not in a private language, belongs surely to all the progressive elements which cut across all social classes though most work for social progress is undoubtedly to be done in the working-class when it is socially aware and when it is organized by progressives who have often come from the middle-class.
To think that those only a few years older than myself can remember a time when this sort of drivel was taken seriously. The trouble is, those middle-class progressives haven't gone away. Instead they now lead the working-class towards a New Jerusalem not of the perfect Socialist future, but of a lifestyle from the pages of the Guardian's G2.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Dictator Ian MacPhee of the Republic of Ulster? 

Brief but amusing alternate history of an Ireland not partitioned by the treaty.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Turkey and the EU 

I've been trying for a while to compose a sensible and deatiled post on why Turkey should be given a firm date for EU membership this December. Luckily (thanks to Turkish Torque for the link, veteran Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand has done it for me.

Yes, it's a bit over optimistic in places. But it has the right ideas.

Purple Haze. All in my brain? 

There has been much agonising about the recent Fathers 4 Justice stunt where Messrs Blair, Brown and Prescott were pelted with purple flour. I have a certain regard for Fathers 4 Justice - their stunts are usually quite funny and the have highlighted a serious issue about inherent sexism in the family court system. I must add, of course, as everyone else does that it's a tragedy that family disputes ever end up in court. But the reality is that we do and that some fathers and mothers are stubborn, manipulative or just plain stupid. But I digress...

There is absolutely no way that anyone could have thrown a bomb or fired a gun at the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Why? Because to get access to the Palace of Westminster, you need to pass through airport style metal detectors. If guns and bombs can be smuggled through those then they can be smuggled on to 'planes, and I think we'd know about that by now.

As for the Anthrax suggestion - how much weaponised Anthrax is available to terrorist across the globe? I'll give you a clue - it's an integer less than 1 but greater than -1.

Which brings me to tonight's Westminster Hour. I've always believed the LibDems were sincere in wanting to bring democracy closer to the people. Tonight, however, we had Mark Oaten telling us that 'professionals', not Parliament, should decide the terms of public access to Parliament, and if that meant denying the public access to the chamber, then so be it.

This is really disillusioning. Turnouts are collapsing, virtual politics has proven to be no substitute for the real thing, and politicians are an increasingly remote and self-selecting class drawn from the ranks of professional lobbyists, lawyers and full-time trade union officials. Mark Oaten may be right in saying that most people in the Commons public gallery are foreign tourists rather than members of the British public, and that few people exercise their right to lobby their MPs directly in Parliament these days. To my mind, however, that's a disgrace and something to be fought, not accepted.

The LibDems are supposed to be the Party who support direct access to democracy. I don't see how hiding politicians from the public behind walls of security helps anyone. Politics, even ignoring Al-Qa'eda, is a risky business. But then again, it has always been a risky business. Politicians then didn't hide themselves behind walls, and I don't see in a time of public disconnection from politics how it helps now.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Ghost walking over my grave 

I was in Paris Charles de Gaulle on the Friday before last, and was in crummy old Terminal 3 rather than one of the flashy new terminals. Quite fortunately as it turned out. God help the poor people who got caught in it.

Uninformed Krazy Illiterate People 

The first of two posts on tonight's Westminster Hour on Radio 4...

The United Kingdom Independence Party's Roger Knapman was on the Westminster Hour talking about why they think we should leave the EU. I occasionally slag off lefties and deep Greens for being economically illiterate, but this little performance from the ultra-right was on a plane of its own.

Mr. Knapman, inbetween being extremely rude about our Euopean neighbours, suggested we negotiate a special relationship with the EU similar to that of Norway. He seemed to be unaware of how Norway has to implement decisions faxed as faits accomplis from Brussels with absolutely no say - in contrast to Britain, a big player both in terms of votes in the Council of Ministers and by virtue of being the most successful big EU economy.

Neither Norway nor Switzerland, the other name often bandied about by Eurosceptics, are credible models for Britain. Norway is indeed extremely rich. So is Kuwait. Both have vast energy reserves and minuscule populations. Switzerland might have a diversified economy, but one that has been stagnating since the middle '80s, with its GDP gradually slippling into the middle of the European pack. It also gets a certain amount of decisions, requiring implementation into Swiss domestic law, faxed from Brussels although not to the extent that Norway does.

Knpaman repeated the usual mulch about NAFTA and EFTA. In EFTA we could join other economic giants like Iceland and Liechtenstein, while as the recent dispute over American steel tariffs showed, NAFTA barely functions as a free trade bloc. In any case, NAFTA receives only a fraction of Britain's trade that the EU does, while Britain's golden goose, the financial services industry, is unlikely ever to be allowed access to the USA's over-protected markets by the xenophobic and manifold American regulators. Then Knapman started banging on about Australia and New Zealand, where Britons sailed to open new markets. Nice thought, but the Antipodes' 23 million population doesn't really compare as a potential market with the rest of the EU's 400 million and growing. The whole of Oceania has roughly the same population as the Benelux countries.

There was another wonderful comment that 'Amercia doesn't make political demands of Britain'. Really, Roger, well what the hell are we fighting a war in Iraq for then?

An interesting aside - the Westminster Hour history slot was on Jim Callaghan. They reported a bit of one of his anti-EEC speeches before EU entry, where he spoke of the language of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton being relegated to second place. Of course, now English is the dominant language of the EU institutions and of European business and culture. Like most nationalist arguments against the EU, Callaghan's turned out to be complete nonsense.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Germanophobia and British denial 

The Mail on Sunday is to journalism what the alimentary canal is to the human body. But even by their standards, Mark Almond's recent article on “Why America is fighting the German way” trawls new depths.

Staring with a ritual denunciation of American torture, Almond comes up with a novel reason for why US troops violated the rules of war – Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz are of German descent, and both are disciples of the German émigré philosopher, Leo Strauss, and all are steeped in the ‘Prussian military tradition’. Simple really. As long as you ignore the fact that most of them are Jewish – notably Strauss – and unlikely to have had much time for the Prussian military tradition.

The Iraq War is, he claims, a German-style war because it was a pre-emptive war. Of course, silly me, I forgot that only Germans had pre-emptive wars. The British Empire emerged thanks to countless unprovoked African and Indian attacks on the British homeland. Naturally.

As well as some pretty nasty, but sadly routine, pieces of German bashing (when will the English get over World War Two?), Almond indulges in some selective amnesia about British military history. To whit:
The British squaddie would hardly lay claim to a classical education but the our tradition of fair play even in a life and death conflict rather than the win at all costs West Point approch insulates most of our troops from casual callousness.
In this little fantasy world, our Tommy Atkins doesn't do the sort of nasty things that Fritz and Uncle Sam do. It's world where embarrassing moments in British military history, from concentration camps in the Boer War to the fight against the Mau Mau, are conveniently forgotten.

It's a world that simply isn't rooted in reality. I have a friend in his early 80s who was an officer in North Africa (the Algeria landing party rather than the Desert Rats) during WW2. A decent, tolerant, literate and impeccably Social Democratic man, firmly opposed to the Iraq misadventure, he told me about one of the men under his command shooting a German prisoner in cold blood in Tunisia in 1943. The reason? The Major had been killed, ‘legitimately’ as it were, in action. What did he do? Nothing. What could he do? There was a war on. People do bad things during wars. Even Tommy Atkins.

The myth of incorruptible British decency isn’t just a quaint little annoyance, however. Without it, Blair could never have convinced the British public to go to war.

Thanks to exil.co.uk for the link.

Chalabi – you read it here first 

It took the BBC until the early hours of Friday morning to work out that the American raid on Ahmed Chalabi’s house was big news, worth more than a two line bullet point. Remember, you heard it first from the fogey!Chalabi – you read it here first

Thursday, May 20, 2004

US raids Chalabi's house? 

Buried in this pretty much standard BBC News report of death and destruction in Iraq (dead American soldiers barely even rate a mention these days), is news that the US Army has raided the offices of former American Nabob-in-Chief, Ahmed Chalabi.

Al-Jazeera has a more detailed story on the raid, interspersed with their usual salty and partial comments. On one level, and despite myself, I almost feel sorry for Chalabi. While I've no doubt that he is a crook and a Walter Mitty, the speed with which the Americans have turned on him is astonishing. On the other hand, following on from the deal with the ex-Ba'athists in Fallujah, if this is a sign that the State Department and Pentagon are slowly winning the administrative battle in Washington with the neo-cons, it's a very good sign indeed.

The big question this begs is what will the Americans do now. Ratting on Chalabi leaves them with no proxy leader in waiting. Unless of course this is the price of some sort of backroom deal with Sistani and the Shi'a?

Monday, May 17, 2004

Plug for a Mate's Blog 

A good non-blog friend of mine has just started a new blog: Hackney Lookout.

Also, welcome to the blogroll The Joy of Raki, an ex-expat teacher of English in Turkey. The first blog of interest I've found from the 'most recently updated blogs' popup on the blogger homepage.

Airbus: paradise delayed 

Virgin Atlantic have delayed their order for Airbus' new superjumbo, the A380 (see previous Fogey comments), for a number of reasons including Los Angeles airport's inability to make necessary upgrades. California!

However, Virgin claim they are still committed to the A380, and Singapore Airlines will take delivery of the first model in 2006.

Inflation: dead or alive? 

Christopher Fildes asks in today's Telegraph whether inflation is really dead or just sleeping? He laso makes an important point about the validity of price indices which ignore housing costs.

Shut the Opium dens, kill the children 

Since time immemorial, the consumption of opium has been a part of life for the hill tribes of Laos. In recent times, the demand for opium-based drugs in rich countries has provided the people of Northern Laos with a ready cash crop. Drug prohibition in rich countries has meant that the prices the Hmong, Akha and neighbouring peoples receive for their opium vastly exceed that of any potential alternative.

The Laotian government is weak, and Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. As a result, aid-donors can put significant leverage on Laos. Due to this pressure, the Laotian government has recently begun an attempt to completely eliminate opium production. As The Economist reported a few weeks ago, hill tribes are facing an economic and social catastrophe. With their main source of income gone, mortality rates are rocketing. Although the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and other well meaning agencies talk about the need for alternative agriculture, everyone knows that none of these can provide the same escape route from poverty that opium can.

The consequences of drug prohibition in the West are well document, but we tend to be less aware of the impact on producer countries. The experiences of Laos' hill tribes mirror those of the people of Afghanistan or the Andes when drugs rooted in local culture and providing a ready source of income have been made the subject of eradication programmes by unelected bureaucrats in far off lands.

Once again, the interference of the rich in the lifestyle choices of the poor results in crime, poverty and catastrophe. When will we ever learn?

Asia turns left? 

The Economist looks at political prospects in India, where Congress' shock election victory is already tarnishing, and in South Korea, where President Roh Moo-hyn has survived a speculative attempt at impeachment, and will now lead South Korea's first left-wing government with a working parliamentary majority.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Flags of the world 

Nicholas Whyte directed me to this wonderful Flags of the World website with a difference. Countries' flags are given marks like undergraduate essays, from The Gambia's A+ (90%) to the Northern Mariana Islands' F (2%).

Also has wonderfully salty examiners' comments interspersed. A few examples without giving too many spoilers away:

Guam: I have given it this high a grade because it would actually make quite a nice tea towel.
Mozambique:Automatic weapons on a flag are especially bad. Appears to have been designed by a committee all of whom had stupid ideas for pictures of extra things to put on the flag.
Pakistan: Unfortunately, it depicts something astronomically impossible, namely the eclipse of the moon by a star. But perhaps it's not a star but a nuclear satellite-weapon aimed at India?

Funniest thing I've seen on the web for a long time. The marking scheme is bloody funny as well.

Oral sex lessons to cut rates of teenage pregnancy  

Don't blame me. It was a real headline in today's Observer.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Airbus - a European success story 

Conventional wisdom is that sclerotic old Europe can't compete with the hi-tech innovation factories of the USA or the Far East. Conventional wisdom is that European integration can't work, doomed to end in a Tower of Babel of recriminations.

However, the launch of Airbus' new A380 super passenger plane, produced across Britain, France, Germany and Spain shows this up for the fallacy it is. Europe can compete with the best in the world, and co-operation across the continent can and does work. While Boeing spokespeople are claiming Airbus will have an insufficient market and that they see more future in the market for medium-sized aircraft, we all know the real reason Boeing has pulled out of the top end of the market is that Airbus have been kicking their backsides for the past number of years, in every sector of the market.

The A380 is a symbol of scientific progress, the white heat of technology, the blood of international commerce pulsing round the veins of the world, and the extraordinary breaking down of barriers between people that my generation has the privillege of being at the cutting edge of. Today, Ich bin stolz Europäer zu sein!

Punishing schedule next week! 

Wednesday evening: train from London to Brussels.
Thursday evening: train from Brussels to Paris.
Friday evening: flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle to London Luton, connecting with another one to Belfast Int'l (i.e. the wrong airport in Belfast).
Sunday morning: back from Belfast International to London Luton.

Hhhhhhhmpfffff.

Typically, Easyjet start flying direct from Paris CDG to Belfast next month!

Thursday, May 06, 2004

What sort of spy are you? 

Nothing to do with Mr. Scarlett's appointment. Sometimes when you do a silly little Quizilla quiz, you spot the answers rolling towards an outcome miles off, and then just pick the one you want...

Careful, patient, cuckolded
Careful, patient, cuckolded:
You are George Smiley!

Was it really worth all that just to get your
lighter back?


Which ambiguous secret agent are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

I want to be George Smiley! I really want to be George Smiley! Please let me George Smiley. And if I were George Smiley he wouldn't have wasted his time chasing after women anyway.

Captain Scarlett! 

The new head of MI6 is to be John Scarlett. Wonder will he find any Mysterons in Iraq?

It's got to be nuts 

According to the BBC, the apparent rise in peanut allergy is causing schools to become nut-free zones! If this were a case of schools changing their meals policy I could understand it, but apparently it has spread as far as banning nuts even in packed lunches.

Given the difficulties schools have in keeping contraband like cigarettes, booze, knives and drugs from the premises, I'm all eyes as to how effective the nut police will be in action. In any case, I'm not convinced that making schools 100% risk-free zones in sensible. As David Reading of the Anaphylaxis Campaign says:
"Children also have to learn for themselves how to avoid nuts, he says - because outside school they will face situations where they will need to make such choices."
The article claims that nut allergy, virtually unknown a generation ago now claims 1% of the population as its victims, with a trebling of nut allergies since the mid-1990s. This rather beggars belief. Higher awareness can account for some of this, and misdiagnosis undoubtedly accounts for rather a lot too. But nut allergy like, for example, asthma, is one of those illnesses which seems to have rocketed as people have become more concerned about their lifestyles. Is this another case of not exposing children to enough challenge in early childhood?

Reading down the article, however, we discover that the real culprit is, surprise, surprise, litigation. Not only are teachers worried about being sued if they administer adrenaline injections to pupils allergic to nuts, but suncream, warnings of melanoma or not, has been the cause of a series of bizarre flip-flops:
Recently teachers were warned by a union that they should apply sun cream to pupils to avoid the risk of litigation over pupils getting sun burn.

Teachers had previously been warned not to apply sun cream to pupils because this could be misinterpreted as an assault.

In another case, schools had been told not to apply sun-tan lotion - in case it caused allergies.
Of course, the simpler solution is to not allow your children to go to school, lock them in a hermetically sealed bubble, don't allow them to have any potentially mentally or physically distressing contact with other children - and then of course they'll die either of a collapsed immune system or kill themselves from boredom. But at least that way no-one will be sued!


Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Abashidze out? 

According to my friend Nicholas Whyte, who has deals with Georgia professionally:
It's all over in Ajara. Abashidze has lost control of the police and the Russians are sending a senior minister to tell him to leave quietly. No shooting, thank heavens.
So good news for once from Georgia, I hope.

Update 16:47

According to the BBC, while police have joined the demonstrators, Abashidze still has the support of his private militias. And these are the real power in Adjara. So not out of the woods yet.

Update 02:40

He's gone. Hooray!

Haven't booked my summer holidays yet so wondering if there's a possibility of a quick return visit to Batumi?

PS - does anyone else think Abashidze is the spitting image of John Reid?

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Chaos in Adjara 

So, Georgia threatens to slide towards its thrid civil war since independence as the mafioso leader of breakaway Adjara, Aslan Abashidze, brutally cracks down on demonstrations against him.

I'm rather sad about this as I spent a wonderful sunny August night in the Adjaran capital Batumi in 2000. Inside the usual ring of Soviet concrete tower blocks is a very pleasant city of wide boulevards and beach front parks set beneath the lush green mountains of the Lesser Caucasus. However, even then it was clear that there was trouble in this paradise. The border between Adjara and the rest of Georgia was marked by road blocks where police extorted money from drivers with even less compunction and rather more menace than in the rest of the country. In the centre of Batumi, sinister men with black polo shirts and sub-machine guns patrolled the streets near Mr Abashidze's home. Even in a country stuffed with ex-KGB crooks, Abashidze has managed to stand out of state criminal number one.

Adjara's autonomy is a typical piece of Soviet balkanization, but with a slightly different twist. In Adjara, long under Ottoman rule, many ethnic Georgians converted to Islam from the 17th-19th centuries. As a result, Adjara was guaranteed autonomy as part of the post-WWI Soviet-Turkish treaty which fixed Turkey's North-Eastern border. During the Soviet period, this autonomy was as meaningless as any other in the USSR. Since independence, however, Abashidze who is, surprise surprise, an ex-Communist Party apparatchik has used this quirk of Soviet administrative terminology to turn the province into a personal money making factory, with extremely negative results for Georgia - Georgia's vital road corridoor to Turkey and on to Western Europe passes right through the extortion-rife region. The irony is that about half of Adjarans are Christian anyway, and all, Christian or Muslim, identify as Georgians first and foremost. Few local Muslims practise their religion.

So quo vadis Georgia? I'd love to see Abashidze get the boot, as even the chaos and corruption in the rest of Georgia is an improvement on the situation in Adjara today. However, given Georgia's poor record of taming loopy leaders in breakaway regions (e.g. Abkhazia), I don't think this, one of Europe's poorest countries, can afford yet another bout of violence.

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