Pulling down the blinds – a true story

We are mid-way through a big house build project. As part of the build, we had the windows changed. The new ones really do make a difference to the noise from the road, but when they were fitted, the blinds in our bedroom were removed. The fitters put them up again, but inexpertly. So for the last few months, we’ve mainly just left them shut. It’s a bedroom. We’re generally asleep in there. The blinds are going anyway when the whole room gets redecorated.

Yesterday, the decorators wanted to check how much paint they’d need for the bedroom. So I opened the main blind. It’s not the first time I’ve done it, but the cord was so tangled I’ve tried to avoid doing it too often. Every previous time, I’ve carefully shut it again afterwards. Yesterday, I forgot.

Fast forward to the evening. Normally I’m the first adult upstairs, putting the kids to bed. Yesterday I was out at a community meeting, so it was my husband’s turn. Guess what? Annoyed that the blind was a) open, and b) not working perfectly, he yanked the cord and the whole thing came down.

By the time I came home, he was seething. It was the decorators’ fault, for wanting to look in the bedroom. It was my fault for permitting it to be opened rather than just switching a light on, and my fault for leaving the blind open when it was bedtime. He was ridiculously angry. I realised in part it was frustration with the build overall, and also that he hadn’t succeeded in fixing it back up and had broken our children’s reach-the-sink stool when standing on it to try. “I’m fed up with all this,” he complained. “Stupid blinds that fall off on me and I’ve had to throw a stool away because this room hasn’t been decorated yet.”

I picked up the blind, stood on a suitable-for-adults tough plastic stool and eventually managed to balance it on the top of the clips that hold it up – one had cracked when he pulled the blind down. It wasn’t perfect, there was maybe a centimetre of gap at the bottom where the cords had stuck and I could not get it flat, but it was maybe 99% acceptable given the imperfect situation.
“Don’t touch it again,” I told him. “It’s carefully balanced. We’ll need to get an expert in to set up the new ones when the room’s redone.”
“Don’t tell me not to do things I wasn’t going to do anyway,” he sulked.

About half an hour later, I was loading the dishwasher when I heard a shout. I ran upstairs. My husband had again pulled down the blinds.
“It was all wrong!” he said. “There was a chink and I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with all the light it would have let in.”
I was a bit cross. “Well now there’s no blind at all,” I said. “You’ve pulled two of the clips out of the wall and I’m not even sure if it can be put up again.”

It took me nearly 20 minutes – during which I heard again how it was all someone else’s fault except the actual blind-destroyer – but eventually, at nearly midnight, I managed to loop the cord over the remaining wall clips and suspend the blind. There was now a fifteen centimetre gap at the top of the blind. This was considerably worse than the balanced blind – perhaps 80% acceptable due to my hard work, but the best we were going to be able to make it. After all, neither of us are window blind fitters.
Until we actually went to sleep, my husband maintained that it would be easier to get sleep with the light coming in through a big gap at top of the blind than to suffer a tiny gap at the bottom.
Of course what we really need is to push on with the redecoration, and get new, tailor-made blinds on all three bedroom windows, that blend in perfectly with the rest of the room’s new colour scheme, but – even though we both know that – it all seemed to fly out the window when we got obsessed with a narrow focus on the short-term window covering.

What did we learn?:
* due to circumstances beyond our control, the state of the blind overall was not what we would want in an ideal world. But for the purpose we had – sleeping in a darkened room – it was sufficient;
* having the blind up was better than trying to cope without the blind all together which would have resulted in street and car lights visible all night and – when the bedroom light was on – greater exposure of us to the street outside while in our nightclothes or getting dressed;
* the option to purchase alternative window coverings was open to us, and always had been. We were not precluded from getting amazing curtains, it was just that having blinds made sense for those windows;
* in any case, we had already had the blinds fully operational for some time, and were going to purchase new ones when the room was redecorated in a few week’s time;
* besides, it was bedtime, you can only purchase window coverings if the shops are open or if you have the time to wait for internet purchases to be deliveries which tend not to be instantaneous (we’d still have been curtainless last nigh and probably a few nights more, even if the end product turn out to be great longer term);
* resolving the room’s need for redecoration soon would alleviate the whole window covering issue. Impatience with a bigger process was not only unhelpful but downright damaging to our interests;
* when something goes wrong unexpectedly, the people that caused the situation to occur may be multiple, but it is not helpful to blame others and refuse accept your own role in the process may not always be entirely positive, because that damages relationships;
* experts in something unrelated to the issue at hand – such as window fitters and decorators – can cause more problems when they wade into a similar but unrelated field – such as blind fitting – but non-experts will regard the two fields as indistinguishable and not understand why they got it so wrong;
* sometimes valuing what you have when it is 99% acceptable is better than demanding 100%, and risking bringing a whole structure down on top of you and ending up with something less good or no blind at all;
* there are people in life that – when something doesn’t work out as they wish – scream, shout, look to blame, look to say I told you so and that the whole disaster is not what they thought would happen. There are others that find an alternative stool to stand on and make the damned blind workable.

Twinkle twinkle

Jake Goodman here again. I know you’re used to my usual stuff on sex, life and why I don’t have a toolshed (and if you are not, buy tickets for my shows!) but I’ve been watching the news and spending time babysitting my kids over half term.
I keep hearing that the EU stuff is all too complicated.  Really? Ok. So let’s have a sing song instead…

Twinkle, twinkle European stars,
We Brits don’t get just what you are.
We’ve been told that you’re a superstate,
Now we might make a big mistake.
Twinkle, twinkle little stars,
let’s talk about just what you are.

In the 1970s we were told,
About this project, big and bold.
Both YES and NO told us a Common Market,
Was not the end but just a start to it.
Heads of State and Prime Mini-stars
Working together as partners.

The laws that come from “Brussels” are
Made by lots of British stars.
Not laws made by “faceless bureaucrats”:
The people that say that are – not very well informed…
Council, Parliament, Commission,
The people there are from each member nation.

We elect 73 UK MEPs,
That is direct democracy.
We ask them to speak for us there.
Some will be wise and some won’t care.
They make the laws and are elected by you,
They sit with other parties of a similar view.

The Council’s filled with Ministers,
The brightest, shiniest little stars.
Ministers come from our government,
That you’ve elected so they can represent.
For each subject the expert one attends,
Debates, argues, drafts and then amends.

What about the European Commission?
Surely a democratic perversion?
It’s a civil service: makes it all work;
Collects evidence; runs programmes; gets people to talk.
Proposes drafts laws for the elected ones
To change and shape until they’re done.

If you don’t like it, you have a choice,
You’ve got a vote, you’ve got a voice.
But you should know what you have got
Before you throw away the lot.
You can live, work, set up in any Member State;
Criminals can’t hide when we cooperate.

You think there is too much “red tape”?
Health and safety, working hours? (Did we “gold-plate”?)
Foreign policy; some share a currency;
Agriculture; fair competition; fish in the sea.
Clean environment; a single market:
If you trade, holiday or buy: you’re a part of it!

We take for granted the benefit
That we get from our membership.
It’s easy to say it’d be ok,
They need us, it won’t get taken away.
But there is no guarantee
And that’s not good enough for me.

In these days of globalisation
It’s tough to be an isolated nation.
The EU exists, it won’t go away,
So it’s with these structures that you’d have to play,
To work out an alternative
Less say on rules, but more “sovereign”.

People say that what you are
Is an EU-USSR.
Or a capitalist conspiracy,
Or always voting against me.
But facts do not support that view
The question is what WILL you do?

You can’t be a superstate:
Refugees came, countries closed their gates.
The euro’s not a great success,
Southern Member States are in a mess.
But you are by far our biggest market,
We’d be mad to up and scarper.

There’s no other countries calling: “Leave them be!
We’ll offer better trade!” It’s a fantasy.
And there is no one clear view
Of what exactly we would do.
Those that promise Utopia
Seem to think its based in Westminster.

And being In matters to me.
Don’t diminish my identity.
Don’t blame problems within my nation
Just on EU immigration.
Twinkle, twinkle, little stars
Reach for them, hold on, they are ours.

Under Starter’s Orders

At the end of the day, having a single document setting out Britain’s special position with the EU is a massive achievement.
Very shortly, we in the UK will be involved in a referendum on whether to remain in or leave the EU.
It is not a waste of time. It’s not insignificant, not worth bothering about, a load of old rubbish.
It’s about Britain’s future standing in the world and whether we stand in isolation, looking across far oceans, or stand with our neighbours as well as doing the looking across oceans thing.
While the changes negotiated tonight might be the defining aspect of a REMAIN/ LEAVE thing for some, others are basing their views on other things.

Were facts the major driver, then the result should be an absolute trouncing of LEAVE, because REMAIN has the evidence of over 40 years of life in the EC/EEC/EU and the establishment on its side, and LEAVE has speculation and anti-establishment figures.
The “debate” between then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Leader of UKIP Nigel Farage a couple of years ago showed that facts alone don’t win – Clegg explained with facts but Farage “won” in the eyes of the media and the public because his version of reality had been given so much airtime by the media and he spoke about it with passion.
So at present everything is 50/50 because REMAIN don’t have the media or the public’s hearts won at the moment.

REMAIN have to explain why all the rights and benefits we have now as EU citizens are not guaranteed if we vote to be no longer part of the EU club. They have to sell the good things about membership, which have been ours since before I was born, to a public that has been told little about these things as coming from our membership and only really told about the EU as a faceless bureaucracy to fight against.
They have to sell membership of an outer rim of the EU (not Eurozone, not Schengen) for the privileged position it really is (after all, keeping currency and border controls have been two of the main issues under debate so far in the media during this renegotiation).
They do need to talk about business and prosperity, and the fact that if trade with non-EU countries is going up while we ARE a part of the EU, then the idea that it is somehow being held back is nonsense (trade not being a zero sum game). It is also true that the EU helps us guarantee that our working hours and wages are not something that we should be giving away to give businesses an edge against each other – it is therefore in the interests of those that work as well as those that employ for us to remain in the EU and ensure that competitiveness is not at the expense of the workforce.
They need to talk about democracy – there’s a false belief that laws are foisted on us by foreign faceless bureaucrats and “quisling” Brits. In fact, the EU has the Member States’ Ministers/ Prime Ministers or Heads of State as the Council, and the directly elected Members of the European Parliament as the two bodies making most decisions, plus the European Commission (Commissioners appointed by the Council and endorsed or not by the European Parliament, staffed by civil servants who compete for jobs there in open competition from right across the EU Member States) which produces the draft laws which are then negotiated by the Council and Parliament. It’s not identical to Westminster – both chambers at EU level are filled with individuals that have been elected! – but that doesn’t make it less legitimate in democratic terms. What it does mean is that the public of the EU ought to be taking the European Parliament elections seriously and not using them as referenda on the performance of their own national governments…
But there’s a heart issue too and it is something that REMAIN must articulate properly.
It is patriotic to believe that being British is a great thing. Being privileged enough to be born in the British isles or of British parents is great, and it is one facet of who we are and confers some rights and privileges as well as responsibilities.
We are also European (and I’m using that word correctly to refer to citizens of the EU, not just residents of a continent) with the rights and privileges that come from that, as well as responsibilities, and I don’t want to lose out on that aspect of my identity. I’m happy with the responsibilities that go with that too. The idea that my children and grandchildren would be more hemmed in, and be less able to consider Europe as a whole their continent to live, work and travel in, is terrifying.
The Germans are not less German by being European, nor the French less French nor the Dutch less Dutch – are we really to think that being British is such a weak thing that we are less British for being European too? How can that really be a patriotic stance?

LEAVE will try to say that all the things we have as a Member State are still possible if we vote to leave, that we can be given all the good things without being part of the club.
The EU bureaucrats that our politicians and civil servants cannot at the moment best as a member of the club will roll over and grant us privileged access if we leave, apparently. We have 44.6% of our exports of goods and services trade going to the EU (2014, source ONS), 48% of Foreign Direct Investment to the UK coming from the EU (source HoC Library paper 06091). The UK receives 3% of goods exports from the EU (I don’t have a figure for the services side, and the source for the 3% is NIESR), so the UK would not automatically have the upper hand in any negotiations and it certainly does   not equate to ‘them needing us more than we need them’. Indeed, even with the generous parameters used for the Open Europe simulation of Brexit negotiations (which included retaining Freedom of Movement for EU citizens which those supporting LEAVE don’t generally like), the sheer cutthroat nature of the process shone through – each Member State’s representatives have to get a deal that their voters at home would tolerate.
LEAVE will try to say that there’s a shining bright world out there that we are being denied, and that we can both shut it out and be part of it.
Some admit that we’d need migration, even retaining Freedom of Movement in return for single market access (as Switzerland and Norway do and as the Open Europe Brexit exercise simulated), others talk of the UK  being “full” – but that’s two different visions of life outside the EU that cannot coexist.

No one’s quite sure what would happen in terms of our economy either.
We’re told that the rest of the world will want to trade with us if we are outside the EU. No doubt it is partially true as we’d still be a market of 70 million. And yet America wants the UK to remain in the EU. 32 of 50 Commonwealth states already have free trade arrangements in force or agreed with the EU, they’re not a British Empire and Australia (which considers itself an Asian economy these days and said they saw no advantage to the UK leaving the EEC back in 1975) had one of their former DPMs has explained why Australia also wants the UK to remain in now… In fact, there’s not really a clamour of countries saying please leave the EU and trade with us.
I think people who clamour for free trade deals only might not know what a trade deal really is these days… Iceland might have a trade deal with China while there is no UK or EU deal at present, but it is the TERMS of a trade deal that matter – the Iceland deal is hardly equal terms between the two parties. It is ludicrous to believe that the UK representing a market of 70 million would obtain better terms than a bloc negotiation of half a billion people. Of course it is not just the free trade aspect that matters in trade deals – the major elements are about standard harmonisation – exactly the “red tape” element of the EU that those supporting LEAVE most dislike!
LEAVE say that decisions need to be made at Westminster, and yet are the same people calling for this denounced Westminster as corrupt only a couple of years ago. The same thrill of being anti-establishment that was prevalent n bringing down politicians then is being harnessed now. When its people within Westminster feeling it, that’s practically zen… But being anti-establishment is both a blessing and a curse: the public’s innate conservatism carried the anti-AV referendum result last time there was a nationwide referendum vote so there is normally a bias in favour of the status quo from voters.
No one is willing to talk about what role xenophobia is playing in all this. From the assumption that the whole of Romania and Bulgaria would “flood” here when freedom of movement was allowed to those new Member States to refugee crisis from Syria, the idea that we are somehow special and should be able to lock ourselves away from the world is based in fear, not outward looking openness to the world.  The coordinated attacks on women in Cologne have led to an unpleasant attitude among some politicians here that that EU membership equates to ‘lock up “our” women because the Muslims are coming disguised as Syrian refugees’. Never mind that only three of those arrested are recent arrivals in Germany, nor that refugees are excluded from Freedom of Movement, nor that refugees don’t get German passports for ten years…
We need to learn from history – and yet a quick look back shows that LEAVE are using  the same accusations (higher prices, lower wages, NATO not the EU stops wars between its members, we’d be better trading with the Commonwealth) as NO did in 1975. LEAVE are doing without much challenge being made against them, partly because it seems that journalists themselves don’t seem to know enough to challenge it.
But then, when they are challenged publicly, those doing the challenging are accused of being in the pay of the EU. It cannot be the case that exposure to something and learning how it works automatically means that person is biased in its favour. If that were the case, no one arguing that Westminster should be supreme should be allowed to do so if they’ve ever worked there, and if that sounds ludicrous, then that’s because it is.
They also say that there would be a second referendum, with a fantasy story that a vote for LEAVE now would somehow result in a “better” renegotiation down the line after which they could then vote REMAIN. Nonsense on toast. The only way to get change in the EU – as Margaret Thatcher knew – is to be firmly committed to being in and then fighting for change for the good of all, not just your little corner. With so much change in the world right now, we should be keeping our friends close not alienating our nearest neighbours.
Basically, LEAVE is trying to sell a utopia without being able to agree even between themselves what that looks like.
And worse, the generation that already got the chance to vote on this is the one most likely to vote LEAVE and to actually turn out to do so. Young people 18- 29 are 63% in favour of REMAIN, versus 37% LEAVE, but are much less likely to turn out.

There’s one referendum, just one, and we’re under starter’s orders. If you are lucky enough to get to vote (and loads of people affected don’t, from Brits living in other EU countries to EU citizens settled here, and 16-17 year olds who were enfranchised for the Scottish Independence Referendum), please use that vote wisely.


Party Leaders Debates 2015: let’s hear it from the boys?

Ofcom today issued its consultation on who should be allowed to participate in the Leaders debates on TV in the run up to the General Election and, as “major parties” be allowed two party election broadcasts on TV and radio in advance of the election.

Their suggestion is that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats be allowed to participate as before, UKIP as a party that has recently won two by-elections and has the majority of European Parliament seats, it also has that status.

The Prime Minister has joined those who oppose Ofcom’s proposals, saying he would not want to be part of the debates if the Green Party were to be excluded. He is being accused of being chicken about the debates, but he makes a case of fairness as to why they should be included.

I’m not a member of any political party. I am not really a fan of Leaders’ debates – but that particular genie is already out of the bottle.
If the debates want to make it all about who comes over best on TV (“I agree with Nick!”) then it is only right and proper that the leaders of the parties running with a reasonable chance of obtaining seats in parliament are allowed to put their messages across.

Five thoughts:

1) Defining Major Parties
The Green Party, which had an MP at the last election rather than just obtained by by-elections, won three European Parliament seats and also has control of a local council (Brighton and Hove), according to recent polling has a younger, more female and better educated demographic – up to 18% of potential voters aged 18-24 (and 10% of 25-39 year olds) said they would vote Green according to data from YouGov.

The latest polling puts the Greens 2% ahead of the Lib Dems who are defined as a major party.

According to the House of Commons Library, the SNP (92,000) has a larger membership than the Lib Dems (44,000), UKIP (39,000) and the Greens (29,000). That means in terms of people willing to pay to belong, the SNP is closer to the Conservatives (134,000) and even the Labour Party (190,000) than the small parties, despite only putting forward candidates in one part of the UK!

Now that’s a bit confusing…

2) Content matters

We are about to go into the most uncertain election in decades.

While people in the media and beyond have criticised the Coalition, and the Lib Dems have lost support for “propping up an unpopular Conservative minority in a government no one voted for” (as a friend put it to me recently) rather than standing as a principled but powerless opposition party, it seems most likely that there will be another coalition, possibly with more than two parties in it after the next election.

That means that content matters.

We actually need to know what the parties stand for because – as was the case last time – what the next government actually agrees to do may well be an amalgam of policies from the manifestos of the parties that form the coalition, the coalition agreement taking the place of the manifesto as an agreed statement of government.

So arguably, while not national parties in the sense of standing in constituencies across the UK, the nationalist parties views and policies might conceivably be part of the government’s statement of government and can’t just be ignored as only relevant to a part of the UK population smaller than the number of people resident in London.


And it would be useful to know about the leaders and what really matters to them if they get into power.
Here’s an example… When the Lib Dems were negotiating the coalition agreement, Nick Clegg gambled that securing constitutional change – with a referendum on the voting system and reform of the House of Lords plus taking on the until-then pretty much ceremonial role of Deputy Prime Minister – was enough to change the face of British politics that other key policies (such as tuition fees) that could not be agreed between the parties could be sacrificed. The Lib Dems also secured one of the two Cabinet posts from HM Treasury and a couple of important departments aligned with their world view, but on a fifth of the votes and a fifth of the government posts, they could only really expect to secure in the coalition agreement a fifth of the policies. The gamble didn’t pay off – the referendum didn’t offer voters the STV voting system but AV, the alternative vote system, which can produce results as far from the actual votes cast as the current First Past the Post system, but without being as simple to understand. Lords reform vanished off the public’s radar, mired in the general mistrust of all politicians, elected or appointed.

Could anyone have guessed this from the chummy “I agree with Nick”s of the TV leaders’ debate? Probably not – I don’t recall coming away from watching the three debates feeling that, if in a coalition, the Lib Dems would put all their eggs in the constitutional change basket. But those were the first real TV debates, and the leaders were not pushed on that issue. I hope that they might be this time.

Given the dev max that was effectively proposed as an alternative to Scottish independence, what could an SNP coalition partner ask for? What about the Northern Irish parties? UKIP? The Greens? As the 2010 election showed, we need to hear it because the commonalities could put one group of parties in power.

3) Context setting

Both of the issues above lead to a realisation.Debate will be very different if the Greens are included.

Think about it this way.

Ten years ago, UKIP was a fringe party of what David Cameron felt free to call “fruitcakes and loons”. With persistence and help from the rightwing press, their key themes of immigration and the EU have become mainstream issues on which all the parties now have to have views. Farage was portrayed as a character, and – like Boris Johnson – being a bit of a joker, a bloke, allowed his statements to be made without being picked apart properly by opponents. Now securing more votes is leading to greater scrutiny.

Farage is right about one thing: the professionalisation of Westminster politics means that there has been more focus on getting the soundbites out than on actual discussion of what the country we want to be looks like, acts like in the world and how we treat each other and our planet.

Today the Greens are smaller than UKIP. But small parties grow, as UKIP shows. The demographic that votes UKIP (older, male, less well educated) is almost exactly the inverse of those that intend to vote Green. Younger voters will statistically be voters for longer… so the political current should be with the younger group, if they are persuaded to vote at all.

If the Greens are not represented, the debate will be filled with Farage making statements that fit his world view. As was shown by the Clegg-Farage EU debates- no matter how sensible (and accurate) the points put against him, he will set the agenda, he will dominate the coverage, he will be the story.
The context of the debate will be ideas of the right, and a distortion of all the possible thoughts out there about what is important for the country. Having the left-of-centre Greens in the debate will open up wider issues: not just the environment but the economy, human rights, and allow for better quality of discussion.

4) Let’s hear it from the boys???

If Ofcom’s proposals stayed unchanged (and with the Prime Minister’s intervention that now seems unlikely), the audience will yet again be presented with a range of middle/ upper middle class, white, middle-aged men. They may even all be millionaires (even if it were only property-price paper millionaire status).

My heart sinks. If politics is seen to be a rich, white man’s game, then how do we encourage younger, more diverse groups of people who are entitled to vote that they should exercise their right to do so? Much as we wish it wouldn’t, the appearance of things matters.

Just hearing if from the boys is a really big deal.
Women lead the Greens (Natalie Bennett), the SNP (Nicola Sturgeon), Plaid Cymru (Leanne Wood), but you wouldn’t know it if you just saw the leaders of the (apparently) big four.
How can we trust that issues that predominantly affect women are understood if there are few women, and even fewer mothers, involved in politics and – when they are – they are excluded from being publicly visible in key debates?
And that’s only for the representation of 50% of the population. What about race, disability, those of us that aren’t millionaires?

For this reason, if no other, Natalie Bennett ought to be featured.

5) But what is the purpose of the Leaders’ Debates?
To hear what a potential Prime Minister might say? Then there would be almost no point in either the Lib Dems or UKIP being represented either.
To be a stage managed, presentation of part of the political discussion in terms that make it simple to write headlines? Is that really what our broadcasters are for?

Concluding thought:
So there would seem to be a case for the Greens to be involved in the debates. 
Less so the nationalist parties, as none of the leaders are seeking to become UK Prime Minister. It would be more likely that Clegg, not Sturgeon, would be the UK Birgitte Nyborg…
Now to write to Ofcom…


You might be thinking “so what” or “oh dear”, or even “whatev’s”. You might genuinely think none of this matters.
There was a fascinating section in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe review of the year – a brilliant personal view from Adam Curtis on why “oh dear” is not a good response for democracy.


EU so misunderstood…

Debating the EU is tricky because it’s always easier to listen to those shouting: 
“EU, EU, EU – out! out! out!”
than to those saying: 
“What do we want?
A technical yet plain language discussion of the practical implications of the benefits and costs of addressing issues at different levels of political decision-making including European level, reappraisal of each and an institutional structure that faciliates this, accessible for and engaging with all!

When do we want it?
Within a reasonable timescale that allows for genuine debate without dragging on!”

I’ve been having a debate on the EU on Facebook. Dangerous I know, but sometimes I can’t help myself. After all, while I will always defend everyone’s right to free speech, I sort of feel that statements made about the EU should try to be based on fact rather than just statements. Facebook does not allow for the expansion of arguments and referencing that are needed in this sort of discussion so I’ve brought the discussion over here.

The FB status that I replied to read: TOTALLY SHOCKED! I did not know that the European Parliament only votes on laws proposed by the unelected commission, it can’t make or propose any laws itself! Democracy… NOT. Millions spent in the pursuit of jobs for the boys (& girls)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly sensible position for someone that believes in democracy to take.
Most political systems allow for the legislature as well as the executive to propose legislation (and the USA only the legislature).
But the EU is not a state, it is a different sort of entity, governed by Treaty and where the administration holds the right of initiative in order that there is a balance of power between the governments of the Member States and the European Parliament.
I wanted to know too who the “jobs for the boys and girls” refers to – given recruitment to the EU institutions is through open competition? If it refers to appointment of the Commissioners, well, yes, that does come about from appointment of candidates by governments, but more on that later.

So I replied:
I used to teach EU and constitutional politics. We are looking at a different separation of powers at EU level than in the UK. It’s in three parts: European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (member state governments, also called the European Council when heads of state and government are the ones attending).
The EU is not the USA – in the USA it is indeed congress and not the executive that proposes legislation. 
In the UK, legislation is proposed by the government, drafted by the civil service (parliamentary counsels, the specialist legislation drafters). Only private members bills are proposed by the parliamentarians themselves, and only stand a chance of becoming law if supported by the government (i.e. the drafters can be made available). The EP has a process of own initiative reports which are usually incorporated into the Commission proposals on any related issue and also has the right to ask for specific legislation to be introduced. 
The Commission has the official right of initiative to keep the balance between the directly elected EP, and the member state governments, to whom electorates usually say they feel closer. Its five year work programme is agreed with the EP and also with the Member States in the Council of Ministers, and a refreshed version each year in-between. That doesn’t mean nothing but the work programme happens, but it means that anyone elected and looking to get something specific done can get it done. 
The European Commission is for the most part a civil service, and is quite small given what it does (there are more people working for the UK Home Office than the European Commission). This is muddied by the appointment of politicians from different member states to the top level who we in the UK insist on describing as a kind of government (EP get a veto on those appointments). 
I’ll shut up now, but basically I don’t think that the EP constitutional set up on the right of initiative is shocking. Other stuff yes, but this seems not to be far out of line with what happens in Member States…

What I don’t think I expected was the response I got.
Er…. those proposing life changing rules, are not elected or accountable, just have very big expense accounts and pensions. What I don’t understand [rose22joh], is why you defend them so passionately?

What have the expense allowances and pensions of the European Commission officials got to do with who proposes legislation? I thought about this for a while. I guess you could say that, by paying people well, you make them out of touch with “real life”.
But equally, in proposing legislation that affects the lives of nearly 500 million people, I would want the people proposing it to be intelligent, well informed, realise the impacts of what they propose on real people’s businesses and employment, and to get them to be able to do all this, and without encouraging corruption with financial incentives from interest groups, I would pay them well and have strict rules on ethics and propriety. As for their relative value compared with others in other jobs, that’s another debate for another time.

By the way, I don’t think all lobbying is a bad thing. When it comes to making legislation, you have a choice:
i) have it drafted by people that don’t work in the affected sectors and with no contact with those sectors (such as politicians, civil servants or academics), so that it is “pure” but might have unexpected consequences;
ii) have it drafted by people in those sectors, but who come with vested interests for the status quo or particular change that would advantage one group over another;
iii) have it drafted by the first disinterested group but with input from that sector, and other groups with an interest, balancing the relative arguments and impacts and constructing a way forward that takes them into account, or not, depending on the political directions given.
Lobbying is a process for getting the information from experts to people drafting legislation. If it is more than that, with financial incentive for example, then it is bad and wrong, but I don’t believe it is wrong for knowledge and expertise to be shared.

Would it be better if it was all done by elected people? Well, I don’t think so, but then I fully recognise that I’m a bit of a technocrat. There’s an art to drafting legislation, and it needs to be learnt precisely so that you don’t end up unintentionally impacting people’s lives and livelihoods.
Are elected people able to be less beholden to self enrichment and interest groups than technocrats? Er, no. The evidence is pretty clear from the duck house and paperclips claims in the UK and all the various stings by newspapers. This might be due to the sort of people that are willing to put themselves forward for election, or the notion that power corrupts, or other factors.

However, simply getting a proposal out is the beginning of a long and complex process. And I believe in good administration, it is something I feel passionately about.
So I replied:

I’m not defending, I’m explaining. The proposal is important but not the end of the process. The proposal goes through three detailed complicated negotiations, with the EP and the governments views negotiated separately and together. The end result can be very different from the initial proposal and legislation can fall if it is not actually acceptable to the parties involved. You can vote for your government, you can vote for your MEPs, those are the people that decide on the legislation, not the Commission. If you want a directly elected Commission, that’s a very different sort of Europe (I don’t necessarily think it would be a bad thing, but I’d be a half-hearted member of a very tiny minority of people if I wanted to campaign for that!)
I care because simply the fact that we pay people to do a responsible job is not to me scandalous. I do believe we underpay other people doing very important and valuable work in society that affect the lives and quality of life for many people, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

I pretty much guessed what the response would be:
I have no time for unelected law proposers who cost us a fortune and are part of an organisation where massive and corrupt expense claims are the norm I’m in favour of a Euro Parliament in some form. The corrupt, interfering gravy train we have ended up with should not be defended. They are a disgrace.

I didn’t defend it, I explained it. Defending it would be to say that this is an amazing system. It’s not, it’s just a system although actually it allows for more of the aspects of the legislation to be debated than the UK two chamber parliamentary system does, which can sometimes leave chunks of text under-scrutinised.
And I could go back with a step by step rebuttal, but do you know, I’m getting fed up with it because once you get to this “corrupt interfering gravy train” line of argument that frankly can be applied to any political system, then you know that it is not an argument you are going to win.

So instead a few related thoughts:

  • It costs me 41p a day to be part of the EU. I don’t think that’s a fortune considering what I get out of it (see this video).
  • What massive and corrupt expense claims? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – not defending, remember – but I’d like to see the evidence of this. Is it a reference to Edith Cresson’s dentist eleven years ago? The Commission has cleaned up its act a bit since then, introducing OLAF, not a big strong Swedish guy to fight the bad guys, but an anti-fraud office. Corruption seems to be a massive problem across the EU including the UK, but the EU institutions need to be seen to be above reproach and leaving them out of the EU-wide corruption report feels like an own goal.
  • It is intensely difficult as someone that sees so much good coming from our EU membership when the EU does things that seem completely indefensible from a democratic point of view – even if done for a “common good” beyond national democratic boundaries – installation of an emergency Prime Minister in Italy, say and much of what happened in Greece since 2008. I’ve blogged before about the new issues of democracy that this raises. Also sometimes its Member States re-run referendums to get “the right result” (Ireland).
  • The EU is not close to the people (what organisation covering 500 million people can be without a pledge of allegiance???), and when the people do have a chance to vote for a directly elected representative, they often either don’t turn out or vote on national issues, or choose to vote for people that say explicitly that they will not actually represent their interests there because they don’t believe in the process. Then they say the EU does nothing for them.
  • The voting system puts power in the hands of the political parties – so it seems that party loyalty is a more important quality than being able to actually secure decent legislation?

In conclusion, I am glad my friend agreed we need a European Parliament.
We need decent MEPs because basically what I can’t get across is just how important that amending of legislation proposed by the European Commission actually is.

The entire structure of a piece of legislation can be changed, and the legislators, that is the directly elected people in the European Parliament, do that. They do it in Committees – becoming report leaders (“rapporteurs”) and by submitting amendments. They do it as Committee chairs. They can also submit amendments as non-Committee members in Plenary session, that is, gatherings of all MEPs at which they vote on the drafts produced in the Committee.
But if you don’t know that, don’t understand that, then the system could seem as if the power rests in the unelected, unaccountable Commission.
On most things it doesn’t.
Now, the Council of Ministers, that is a whole other story…

Jake Goodman’s 5 EU predictions

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to introduce a guest blogger today, Mr Jake Goodman. I won’t say much more, as he is more than capable of blowing his own trumpet…

Thanks Rose22joh. Hello, Jake here, novelist, comic, basically I write for a living. That means I spend a lot of time tapping at my computer. Then I turn off Twitter and stare out the window. Then I write at midnight. Much to my wife’s irritation.
Rose22joh’s “about” section suggests I should add married father of two, atheist, serial philande – better stop there. Busy mind. I have albums of stamps from childhood.

I wanted to write about the EU. Are you still there?

I read a TV producer saying they often get pitches for TV series set in the EU institutions. A bit Yes Prime Minister, a drop of Alan B’Stard, six parts The Thick of It, a smidgen of Mr Bean, Erin Brockovich, Legally Blonde (thanks, wife, for that reference).
They always turn it down. The EU isn’t recognisable enough to the public to be of interest, and much of what happens is beyond satire.

But this shit is important, as they say.
It is easy to mock the EU (I hear Stephen Fry’s Professor Trefusis in my head as I write that. The Liar, page 68.Oddly enough though I’ve never found it easy to mock anything of value. Only things that are tawdry and fatuous. Perhaps it’s just me”).
On this I disagree with the eloquent philologist. It is also easy to mock that which is poorly understood, little known and on which you can write just about anything, add the words “barmy eurocrats want YOU to” in front of it and people believe it.
The EU is an organisation that has helped stop war and foster prosperity, with no more or less corruption than other administrations, not all that tawdry and fatuous. Post 2008, the crash when the Euro’s poor planning was revealed for all to see, I come over all Trefusis. No, forget I said that, unfortunate phrasing.
The EU can be a comedian’s dream. If you add in cherman axents for spokesmen, beer drinking nationalists in every member state saying how different they are from each other and a French President having an affaire with an actress and you can see why us comics are itching to get that first script approved!
I’m digressing. Rose22joh was in Italy being an ancient Roman and asked me to come up with something so I said I would make five EU predictions.
Let me put my serious face and newsreader glasses on. The clairvoyant headscarf doesn’t suit me.

1) UKIP will win the 2014 European elections
Fish in a barrel, this one. Fourth in 2002, third in 2006, second in 2010, so maths says first in 2014.
People normally use European elections to punish the government midterm in a consequence free environment. They don’t usually vote on Europe in the European elections. I reckon they will this year, but the majority of don’t cares won’t turn out so UKIP will do well on a low turn out.
An extra prediction for you. The Lib Dems will LOSE a lot of votes but not by as much as it looks like at the moment, percentage wise. Europhiles that are not Labour activists don’t have much choice on who else to vote for and are going to want to make some sort of statement. That assumes europhiles are pragmatists and are not so depressed at the moment they cannot get out of bed.

2) UK influence in the EU will decrease after the 2014 European elections
You don’t think the EU does anything worthwhile for the UK so you send MEPs there that don’t vote. Or vote NO to everything (even if it might have been good for the UK). They don’t get any of the powerful Committee chair or rapporteur roles because that would be playing the game they don’t believe in.
Bingo! You have created a self-fulfilling prophesy. The votes in the parliament therefore don’t take the UK into account and the UK has decreased influence. No wonder rules made there seem like diktats.
You weren’t there when they were being discussed. Better places to be. Like off drinking beer alongside the other nationalists whom you have nothing at all in common with save a wish not to be making rules in Strasbourg or Brussels.
The next parliament is going to be a bit different. Not all of those fellow beer drinking nationalists are nice affable chaps who don’t mind the economy dropping off as long as the drawbridge can be pulled up. No, many of them are far right.
That means that UKIP could find itself isolated as the far right groups form a bigger group to the right of them. Or they may join it but that wouldn’t fit the nice bloke Dad’s Army image.
Also the ECR (the group the UK Conservatives are in) could vanish as the Conservative vote goes to UKIP and their partner parties either rejoin the EPP centre right group or align themselves further to the right. Without as many members in their group and isolated from the main centre right group, the UK Conservatives could have fewer committee chairs and places and rapporteur roles. So less influence.
The swing to the nationalist parties across the EU means this could therefore be the least “federalist” (in the UK sense meaning centralising) parliament ever.
Of course the rise of the extremes could mean a grand coalition of centrist parties pushing ever closer union.
Or it could mean less legislation getting through, or more nation state focused policy but with the UK voice missing. Irony, much?

3) No renegotiation will ever be enough
The problem here is that I want an elephant and a lion as pets. I don’t care that rules say I can’t keep them in my house, rules don’t matter to me when they’re not fair and I want something.
I don’t want to go to the zoo with everyone else with loads of other animals there too. I don’t care that I help fund the zoo by providing the elephant and lion and a few more animals. I don’t care that the zoo’s elephants and lions keep mine company and can breed more elephants and lions. But I want my own elephant and lion and I am not going to pay for that zoo any more.
Everyone else will still want to see them if I take them away, and they’ll still want to let me in the zoo without paying the entrance fee because I’m their best customer and come loads of times. But I can take my elephant and lion to all the other zoos everywhere and you can’t stop me. I know you regard it as a safari park and are all taking them everywhere anyway, but my elephant and lion being at what I consider a zoo stops me doing anything else with them, don’t you think?
So what good does it do me if you reckon you can get me a llama and a sheep back? I can get a herd of sheep, a spittoon of llamas. And I could feed them to my bloody lion if I had him back.

4) Labour will commit to an in/out EU referendum
Rose22joh last blogged on fairy tales.
Here is mine.
Once upon a time, a man had a nightmare. “It was awful. Labour won the 2015 election, just,and that wasn’t the worst bit. Cameron stepped down and several ran for leader, but all lost to Boris who took Cameron’s seat in the by-election. Boris was popular, witty and free from the responsibilities of government, it was left to Labour to make the case for Europe and do any renegotiating needed. The Opposition adopted the ‘better off out’ line their backbenchers loved so much and which could attract back the voters lost to UKIP in the 2014 European election and 2015 general election.
Labour was goaded by the Conservatives and the press, and  with their pollsters warning that they were losing the white, working class vote to UKIP over immigration, they matched the pledge for a 2017 in/out EU referendum. But like every government of recent times, they liked to portray success in the EU as a fight against the odds, the EU system, inferior to Westminster democracy, and they just didn’t have the time or the media support for the carefully nuanced explanation of EU benefits that was needed, or to persuade the other member states of how serious this situation was. That meant the 2017 referendum was basically fought as a YES from the decimated Lib Dems, a qualified YES from business and the Labour government, and a NO from the right, some of Labour’s backbenchers and the media.
Somehow, staying in was presented as less predictable than leaving the biggest and nearest political and trade bloc to us with absolutely no idea of what this would mean for the economy or our political future.
We suddenly found ourselves outside the EU. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”.
He woke up and found it was still 2014. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
When you look at it from the outside like a fairy tale, Labour promising a referendum as a way of winning the 2015 election, and then winning the election, is the most likely scenario for Brexit (Britain’s exiting the EU), in accordance with the law of unintended consequences.

5) Scotland makes everything even more unpredictable
Oh Scotland. We English love you really with your gorgeous scenery and distinctive culture that doesn’t find my comedy funny enough for a show at the fringe… But enough about me.
We agree with you to allocate quite a lot of money under the Barnet formula and suspect that if you were offered devo max you’d vote for that.
Business are warning they don’t think they can be based in you if you go it alone. You’ve big dreams of a resurgent economy. You’ll have new partners across the world that we stop you from having. You’ll have an international role in the organisations you want on your own terms. You’ll not only be civil with your ex partner but share with us the things you want, again on your terms, naturally.
The arguments for Scottish independence and for Brexit are basically identical.
Yet those on the right argue in favour of Scotland in the UK and against the UK in the EU.
They try to say that a vote for Scottish independence is a vote for the unpredictable. A vote to leave the EU, on the other hand, is the safe option as the EU itself is unpredictable.
It is as if the UK is the perfect size of nation state, and Westminster is the epitome of governance. The former is clearly bollocks – China and New Zealand are both valid nation states despite their population size difference. But seriously, where was this latter argument during the expenses scandal I call Duckhouse-gate?
The Scottish vote is before the general election. If it goes independent, we will need a new flag. Let’s do the Welsh dragon hugging St George and with a St Patrick’s cross sunset! Or just relabel the saltire’s blue as the sea, the white cross as the white cliffs and so no change necessary.
Losing Scotland means the UK, rather than being the EU’s largest member state by 2025 as is predicted, will be smaller than Germany and France and could lose Council votes and European Parliament seats. And therefore influence in decision making.
So Scottish independence makes the europhobe’s argument truer? It’s no joke. Maybe an independent Scotland would offer nationality to Brits that didn’t want to leave the EU, assuming the Spanish would ever let them in again.

That’s five predictions. Turns out there is a bit less humour in here than I intended. Leaving the EU suddenly seems no laughing matter.
Stuff that me and my mates take for granted is not a given,  it is part of being in the EU. Everyone keeps saying its no risk, but seriously, how do they know? The question is do you trust our political class to negotiate to keep them all and not get screwed over by the French? Or insert other belligerent, jilted European here. And we’d be dealing with the rest of the world as a country of fifty, sixty million rather than 300 million.
Bloody hell. I had better make sure I am registered to vote. Oi, Rose22joh, you knew this would happen!

I’ve been Jake Goodman and you’ve made it to the end of my euroramblings. You deserve a champagne. Or a whisky. Or an ouzo. But probably not by the pint. Goodnight!

The world post Mrs T

Whatever you think of her politics, Mrs Thatcher had a massive impact on Britain and around the world.

Her death today, peacefully, from a stroke marks the end of an era. For one thing, I was two when she became Prime Minister. Her union-crushing, cabinet-squashing, war-waging, handbag-wielding characteristics defined a way of being Prime Minister against which all of her predecessors have been judged, no matter how different the political circumstances in which they govern, even 34 years later.

For women, she was the first female Prime Minister. But while she used her femininity to her advantage especially when dealing with the private school and nanny brigade of men that formed her cabinets, she famously said that she owed nothing to feminism.
She promoted few women to the top ranks of politics, and did little to further the lot of women in society. Perhaps if you are the wife of a millionaire you see little need to help women balance their work and home lives if you chose not to.
But she is so totemic that she still inspires women of all political persuasions onto politics and any woman seeking to hold that top office will always be compared to her. And not just in the UK – Angela Merkel is forever described as Germany’s iron lady, and as a woman of the centre right the Thatcher comparison is apt.

It is interesting that Thatcher was sometimes misunderstood.
While she said that there was no such thing as society, the rest of the quote makes clear that she expected individuals and families to look after themselves rather than expect things to be handed to them, and then to look after their neighbours, not because the government said that society was to be structured so, but because her Christian upbringing and normal human decency meant this was the right and proper thing to do.
And on Europe, the much alluded to Bruges speech that set out her eurosceptic position looks positively pro-EU moderate compared with some of the language used today. She was after all the woman who agreed the Single European Act, the legislation that paved the way for the single market, which is one of the most far reaching and positively regard pieces of sovereignty pooling legislation ever agreed.

Mrs Thatcher made the role of Prime Minister presidential. In part this was because of her personal affinity for Ronald Reagan and the American way of doing things. In part, it was because she truly believed herself the most competent person for the job. But through her overshadowing of cabinet government (so brilliantly sent up in Spitting Image – Thatcher and the cabinet out to dinner “I’ll have the steak” “And the vegetables?” “They’ll have the steak too”), her embodiment of the nation on the world stage, holding her own alongside the USA in the cold war imagery… She set the tone for the cult of the leader and the televised Prime Ministerial election debates and the sound bite culture that is second nature for us now.

Thatcher was the most successful Prime Minister in terms of winning elections until Tony Blair. While we might talk of Prime Ministers of the future being the “heir to Blair”, we shouldn’t forget that Blair himself was keen to show himself to be as strong a leader as Thatcher had been, and ever Gordon Brown sought to bring a little authority and star dust to his premiership by wheeling out Mrs T to pose by the famous front door of No 10 Downing Street alongside him.

There is bound to be a load of comments about whether the world is a better or worse place after Thatcher, mourning and comments on the decline of the nation since in the right wing press and ding dong the witch is dead from the left wing commentators. I’m sure we’re about to get the state funeral debate.

But one thing is clear, she changed the political debate in Britain.

Life since Thatcher is different.
The cold war is over.
The “enemy”, the other, is much less easy to define.
The Falklands are still British.
The selective education system that enabled a middle class bright but poor girl like Thatcher to get to Oxford, get a good job and give her experience of work outside politics is reviled. Many politicians these days have not worked outside the political world.
The UK is still part of the EU although there is less consensus about what the EU is or should be and do than those simple days of rebate debates and ever closer union bicycles.
Britain retains its place at the world’s top tables, but the power balance in the world is shifting east, far east.

It is not possible to understand British politics today without knowing about Margaret Thatcher.
Not bad for a grammar school girl from Grantham.
That’s some legacy.

New for 2012…

Hello again!  It’s been a while, but I’ve had a lot going on that have taken me away from the online world.  If you think the blog has been underused, then my Twitter silence will have come as no surprise…

So what’s new for 2012:
– I’ve tried and failed as yet to get excited about the forthcoming London Olympics.  It might be the greatest show on earth but for me it’s a few months of transport hell;

– My newest novel attempt has reached 28,000 words. Please ask me more about this!

– We have a whole bundle of health issues going on chez Rose22joh, and are praying for a swift and happy resolution;

– I can blog about the EU again if I feel the need – and there’s a lot going on that could do with some reflection.

– I’m TIRED!

So voila: this year’s offerings are likely to be on writing, politics, parenting, faith and of course feminism. Probably.

And the fact that my New Year post is up before February? I’m counting that as a win!

Euro(w)s… Democracy versus Sovereignty

Croesus Pyre urn – if only his money were available to the Government in Athens right now and not burned up…

A few thoughts from watching Greece…

If one sixtieth of the population turns out on the street (e.g. marching against the Iraq war), our recent experience in the UK is that this is not sufficient for our government to change its policy.

There are riots, anti-cuts camps etc. in the streets of Athens.  The Greek Prime Minister has sacrificed his Finance Minister for someone that the Daily Mail tells me is “a populist” whose biggest achievement to date was delivery of the 2000 Olympic Games along with the crippling expense and squandered legacy that when with them.
But will the Greek government change its policy requiring more austerity measures?

I very much doubt it.
For much the same reasons.

There is understandably a lot of news coverage of the unpopular measures that the Greek government is going to need to take in order not to default and thereby avoid a financial crisis worse than 2008.

Much of the coverage has chosen to put the street protests in Athens in the context of the “Greece as cradle of democracy” story.

The question is whether the Greek government can or should decide that they don’t need to make the cuts being talked about (including 20% cuts to services and jobs in the public sector).  Given there is already 16% unemployment, this scares an enormous number of people there. According to Professor Peter Morici, writing in UPI:

Greece is slipping from a liquidity crisis into downright insolvency. Bond investors are demanding yields 20 percentage points higher on Greek debt than on comparable German debt. Rolling over existing bonds, as those come due, will be prohibitively expensive and the collapse of Athens’ finances seems inevitable.

But even if not inevitable, could Greece just be allowed to declare itself bankrupt? Could it default, if it were the will of its people?

This is where the difference between democracy and sovereignty comes into play.

Wikipedia defines democracy as:

a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. It can also encompass social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.

There are concepts that sit alongside democracy, such as the rule of law and moral behaviour codes which require the honouring of commitments undertaken.

Wikipedia defines sovereignty as:

the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided. In theoretical terms, the idea of “sovereignty”, historically, from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes, has always necessitated a moral imperative on the entity exercising it.

While ancient Athenian democracy was direct democracy (open to all men who had done their military service, but not to women, slaves, freed slaves, resident aliens etc.), modern democracy is generally representative democracy, with decision-making passed to elected representatives of the people on the basis of the greatest number of votes gained at democratic elections.

While the United Nations requires only that a State is sovereign by having effective and independent government within a defined territory, modern states are – needless to say – a bit more complicated than that.

Money is behind much of the complexity.  The money required for a state to operate is equally international, with each country’s balance sheet containing in addition to its citizens taxes loans from the private sector and other purchasers of gilts and bonds.

In a democracy, sovereignty is granted to the government by the people and actions are carried out by the government in their name.
But countries can be seen to give over some of their ability to act independently (sovereignty) to their financial creditors – the added finance available to the country being for the general benefit of the people of the nation.

Greece’s position as a sovereign nation is also in the twenty first century inter-connected world context.  In addition to the national we also have supranational (e.g. EU and euro) and international (e.g. UN, IMF) layers of governance, providing us with both responsibilities (defence, finance, market access, honouring of commitments) but also support (financial, market access, political and military).  This is made contractual through Treaties – pooling of sovereignty granted by the people to the government shared with others at supra- or international levels for the general benefit of the people of the nation.

The question is that old point of “no taxation without representation”.  In a bailout situation between states, it is not only the taxpayers of Greece who have a legitimate interest in how Greece handles its debts but the taxpayers of the countries providing the help via the IMF and the Eurozone… welcome to the complicated world we live in.

So who can legitimately tell a country what to do is indeed a bit more complicated.

There is talk of just “letting Greece default” and cutting Greece loose from the Euro.
This is not something to be flippant about.  While a Greece-with-Drachma could devalue its currency against others in a way that Greece-with-Euro cannot, Greek default could cause a shockwave across the economy in the way that Lehman Brothers collapsing did.

If the Greek government were to default, it would not only be Greece that was affected – in taking money from others, Greece is part of an inter-related global political and financial system.

Nor would it only be Eurozone countries affected – French, German and American banks in Greece’s market and with Greek government gilts and bonds would be hit directly. This would affect the network connections between banks (that’s the way in which banks hold national debts, lend to each other and buy and sell loans).

And while Eurozone countries would be hit because of the common currency they have with Greece and the money they have put up to keep it afloat, it would also because of the inter-relatedness of their economies.
If Greece has its debt restructured (i.e. it pays out on its debts at less than 100 cents to the euro), Eurogroup leader (and Luxembourg Prime Minister) Jean-Claude Juncker has already warned of the contagion effect and potentially bleak prospects for Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Italy and Belgium. Greek debt restructured would be the mark-to-market of other European countries’ national debts.  And as Norman Lamont pointed out a couple of days ago on Radio 4 – it would beg the question whether a Euro in Ireland, Portugal etc. was worth the same as one in Germany – and when that happens the Euro itself fails. No sensible person could want that.

While the UK is not part of the Euro, we are also bound into this.  The UK has loaned money to the Greek government – we’ve already done so as part of our IMF responsibilities and would have to do so again.  It’s part of the deal in our pooled sovereignty at  international level.  And in case we are telling ourselves we should just think national, we ourselves have had an IMF loan within my lifetime, so it is part of our international role and responsibility.  The wider interconnectedness of international finance means our banks and our pockets would be badly hit by a destablised Euro.

That said, it seems the £95bn loan last year didn’t help because the cuts hit any prospect of financial growth and the markets don’t want to loan money to Greece.  Evidence of this is that Greek government bonds are already at 30% return rates (compared with 3% for the UK and 5% for Spain).
It remains to be seen whether throwing more money (another £196bn?) is enough to tip the balance or simply good money after bad.

But is there anything else that can be done?
In May 2011 at a conference in Lisbon hosted by Left Block and GUE/NGL, Unitarian Left at the European Parliament, French researcher Benjamin Coriat proposed an alternative to IMF bailouts:

  • the European economy should “break with financial markets”, imposing “conducting audits on public debts so that can be identified who owes and what owes and so we would see that after all creditors have to pay more than borrowers“;
  • The “European Central Bank must buy government bonds on the primary market in order to lower interest rates and leave the rating agencies out of the game”;
  • This would be accompanied by establishing a fair and balanced tax base in order to “reverse the counter-revolution” in which the rich get tax breaks;
  • there should be changes to macro-economic coordination in Europe towards achieving a balance between the centre and the periphery because “Germany can not only take the benefits of Europe and leave the disadvantages to the others”.

But this is in the realms of fantasy – and I can only assume that there were neither Germans (who are pretty annoyed with bailing everyone else out) nor anyone with a grasp of the sums of money involved in actually doing any of that in the audience?
Realpolitik also suggests that if the Euro is not seen to be functioning brilliantly, politicians are unlikely to want to grant more powers to the ECB.

Are there any other ideas out there?  Well, if Greece were a company, others would be sniffing round to buy it up at a bargain price rather than bail it out with the current management.  But happily for democracy, the crossover between capitalism and politics has happily not gone this far yet!

Anything else? American (and some German) economists propose a strong-economy Euro (e.g. Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands), cutting loose weaker economies (e.g. Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) for the good of all.  I can’t help thinking that one would go down particularly bad with the French…

But one thing is clear – the Greek government cannot give in to the street protesters.
Well, of course they can – but they’d need to think through the global consequences of doing so.
But if the street protesters want to change the government for another, democratically via the ballot box, that is of course their right.  Storming the parliament is not the way to do it.
But in a democracy, sometimes what is for the best for the people overall is not what is going to be popular.
Sometimes we have to elect people to do what we individually could not.
And honouring our international obligations matters, whether we’re debtor or creditor on the ask.



Hungary for wider Europe…

(image copied from the excellent http://www.runawayjane.com/first-impressions-of-budapest/ until I can download ours)

Jó napot!  We’re back from a long weekend in Budapest.  I know, leaving it late in the day for the Hungarian Presidency but since I stopped working full time on EU stuff, it has been increasingly hard to visit each country at Presidency time.

Arriving at Budapest airport we were immediately impressed with the efficiency (and price!) of the taxis from the kiosk there.  The half hour trip to the Buda hills took us through the city and across the Danube.
In the last few years I’ve been lucky to travel to several of the newer EU member states.  There’s a lot of difference, and a lot of similarity in the mix of the beautiful past and the Soviet past architecturally.  Like many cities Budapest is a mix of old and new, elegant rococo confections and bunion-topped towers alongside utilitarian boxes and brutalist concrete.   The Buda hills felt a bit like a more verdant Hollywood – they share that orangey-yellow colour on the Spanish-style villas, the beautiful, massive mansions and mansion blocks so at odds with the tiny tenements in the suburbs of the city.

We spent our three days on three different things.
The first day, in 30 degree heat and high humidity, we took our toddler on reins around old Buda. This was a mistake – we ended up carrying him for most of the time.  Definitely take a pushchair even if it uses up some of your flight luggage allowance.
We caught a bus to Moscow Square (Moszkva tér, which has just been renamed in Parliament as Kálmán Széll tér) – a weird transport hub with tatty 1970s kiosks at the centre, crumbling concrete steps and the older, nicer buildings around the outside branded with the universally familiar American corporate logos of McDonalds and KFC.  I liked the fountain and the plastic bottle-and-chicken-wire-filled plaster of Paris seating blobs though.  We though the underground loos – clean, thirty florints cheaper than most, take the prescribed number of sheets off  the communal loo roll at the pay station – was hilarious and very ex-communist in approach.

We walked a bit randomly – we had our map but our hot, tantruming toddler refusing to walk and instead of taking the short walk to the UNESCO protected castle district we ended up down on the riverfront directly opposite the gothic splendor that is the Hungarian Parliament building.  We had a coffee (and a toddler nap) while we found our bearings.  On the way to the castle we found Batthyány Square which includes an old train station that has been converted into a shopping mall and yummy pastries are sold in the entrance hall, and the St Anne’s church – a hidden gem of Buda.
We didn’t visit the royal palace but instead headed for Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion) the light grey stone turreted walls around the Matthias church which look like castles should look if designed by little girls with a craving for real life Disney.  There’s a cafe up one turret if you fancy a drink rather than paying to walk the walls and the views are outstanding.
Amazingly, the steps there are in really good condition and perfectly spaced for climbing in the humidity of a Budapest summer.  The same cannot be said of the crumbling concrete steps and walkway at Moscow Square.
Oh yes, and to stamp your tickets on the bus, the manual ticket punch requires that you put your ticket in the top of the black plastic hole and tip the whole black bit towards you. The electronic ones don’t require you to pull them about at all!

On day two, we borrowed a pushchair, crossed the river on the tram and went into Pest.  We got out at Oktogon (junction of Nagykörút -Grand Boulevard- and Andrássy út – Budapest’s Champs Elysees).  Given that during the Nazi era, Oktogon was named Mussolini Square it seems fitting that the Terror Museum was located nearby.  Having been to the Latvian equivalent a couple of years ago, I knew pretty much what to expect there, but it was still moving.
The museum dedicates roughly equal time to the Nazi occupation and the Soviet era despite the different lengths of each period.  There is a massive black tank in the building’s internal courtyard, and the building itself is significant, having been both the Hungarian Nazi headquarters and used by the Communists.  Taking the stairs or the lift, you walk through a room of exhibits and film footage straight into a Hungarian Arrow/Nazi dining room complete with model in brown uniform, blackshirts on the wall behind you and crockery bearing the Nazi insignia.  Along with the wartime how-to film for correct wearing of your official uniform, Soviet-era listening equipment, the video testimonials of ordinary people and the interactive map of the gulags with prisoners’ belongings in cones, the biggest impact comes from the basement level.  It only takes a moment to realise, but the cells and chambers down there are real – prisoners of the regimes lived, were tortured and died there.
The specially composed music adds to the feeling of terror and you pretty much just want to get out.  The point is I guess that what is being come to terms with is that this was not just two occupations of Hungary, but occupations with which many ordinary Hungarians were complicit.  Confronting the past in this way is part of the healing process.

By way of celebrating capitalist freedom, we walked down Andrássy út which is lined with designer names.  We popped into Alexandre, the big bookshop, and admired its cafe’s ornate ceiling, but headed on down to the square by the National Bank of Hungary so that toddler could play on the play park and run through the dancing fountains there in his pants.  This is one of the top things for children to do in Budapest!  There was also a free music festival going on all over Budapest, and every new area we visited seemed to have something different going on.
We ate at TG Italiano – really lovely oregano bread, very good pizzas and wild boar pasta – but I’d steer clear of the lethal cocktails there if its a baking hot lunchtime…  We also visited the St Stephen’s Basilica, carrying the pushchair up the steps but while we were lucky to see a wedding taking place there, it limited our viewing of the inside of the basilica.  Heading down to Fashion Street we bought ice cream and then braved taking the pushchair on the metro system.  Wow – that was definitely a blast from the past.

On day 3, we pottered a little more – ice cream sundaes and Sajtos Pogácsa (cheese scones) at a local cafe, then a trip on the world famous children’s railway.  Another relic of the Communist era, this is a real railway service operated by 10-14 year old children (under adult supervision!) – we caught a heritage service with a little blue and white engine.
We had to prise toddler out or the driver’s cab once he realised you were allowed to go and see the train being driven!
At the end of the line, we caught a tram back down to a rather lovely little cocktail bar called Majorka – a nice way to round off the day (and just remember that just because the cocktails are a quarter of the price of those in London, you can’t drink four times as many!)

I was fascinated by the Angol shops – shops selling second hand clothes from English high street stores.  The story is that they came about in the immediate aftermath of the soviet era, when British charities sent clothes to Hungary and these became so popular that a secondary clothing market grew up around the surplus.
I also found the language almost impenetrable – not completely true, as a linguist I could pick out how sentencess were constructed and (almost) ordered my peach flavour ice cream correctly… apparently there can be at least eight different pronunciations of each vowel! I picked up “Jó napot” for hello and “Szia” (pronounced see ya and used like ciao) easily, but “Köszönöm” for thank you was hard and I would have been completely stumped by menus – I liked “Uditorial” as the word for soft drinks and guessed that “Naranča” was (like naranja in Spanish) oranges but “gombas” turns out to be mushrooms not prawns! – so we were lucky to be staying with friends and instead negotiating supermarkets and shops where a minimal amount of mime was necessary.

But visiting Budapest again reminded me why the European Union is important, not as a force of tyranny as it is presented in the UK, but as a protector of freedom, liberty and a way of ensuring that we never again see discrimination and oppression as a political force and neighbour turning against neighbour.
Visiting Prague, Riga, Bratislava and now Budapest shows me that when these things happen, its not that the people it happens to are somehow different to us, they are us.  It could have been us.  It’s why we should welcome Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and others that want to join and share our values.

And while we didn’t see everything we’d want to, we did a lot of exploring. I’d definitely go back to Budapest.