Category Archives: International

What on earth is going on in Catalonia?

I am fortunate enough to have several contacts in Catalonia, the region around Barcelona – fortunate because they are a fascinating people and I had occasion to visit the region on average every other year from 1992 to 2008. However, since 2008 things have changed unbelievably.

The old line was that “Everyone knows the Catalans want independence, they just don’t like to talk about it”. To be fair, even that wasn’t strictly true. One host family told me (at least I think they did, they insisted on speaking Catalan a language I partially understand but don’t actually speak!) that what they really wanted was a properly diverse Spain, where for example they could use their own language (Catalan) in the Cortes in Madrid (the Spanish Parliament). The fact is, however, that patience is wearing thin.

To cut a long story outrageously short, contemporary Iberia could be said to consist of three linguistic nations (although even that is ludicrously simplistic), who reconquered the peninsula from the Muslim Moors in the centuries up to 1492. To the west, there were the Leonese/Galicians; in the middle the Castilians; and to the east the Aragonese/Catalans. Those who moved south on the western (Atlantic) side formed the Kingdom of Portugal; in the middle formed the Kingdom of Castile; and on the eastern (Mediterranean) side to Kingdom of Aragon incorporating the Duchy of Catalonia. Ultimately those who did not move south on the western side came together with those in the middle in a powerful kingdom with its capital eventually in Madrid, which through the usual combination of royal marriage and militaristic opportunism eventually also came to incorporate Aragon-Catalonia from the early 18th century (and that means incorporate fully – unlike Scotland, Aragon-Catalonia did not retain its laws or legal system). Thus the whole of Iberia except the area occupied by the Galician speakers who did move south early in the second millennium became “Spain”; those Galician speakers who did move came to form “Portugal”.

Even this brief outline is a gross injustice to Spain’s complexities. For example, where foreigners see Real Madrid versus Barcelona as the clash between “Castile” and “Catalonia”, it is also a clash between “Right” and “Left”; and between “Centralist” and “Regionalist”; and between “Unity” and “Multi-cultural”; and all sorts of other things. This becomes even more complex when you note the Balearic Islands and Valencian Region are also partly (historically majority) “Catalan”-speaking (as opposed to Spanish), yet many in those regions consider themselves absolutely Spanish (but not Castilian); still others consider themselves specifically Balearic (even, say, Majorcan) or specifically Valencian with no real credence given to shared linguistic and cultural heritage with the Barcelona area.

Why raise all this? Firstly, I am wary of the seemingly obvious parallel to Scotland. From 1707, Scotland remained a country, clearly distinct from England not least because it maintained its own laws and legal system; furthermore, there is little serious dispute about where the boundaries of that country are, and that it is also culturally distinct. This is quite different, in fact, from Catalonia even though it suits Nationalists in both to promote the similarities. Catalonia did not retain its own laws and legal system (that is not to say it did not retain its own customs); yet unlike Scotland its own language is flourishing, albeit spoken by a minority as a first language even now. Also, very notably, it is unclear where the boundaries of Catalonia are: if they are to include only the current Spanish region that seems a remarkable cession to Spain and to decisions made by the rest of Spain; on the other hand, the maximalist approach which would include Valencia, the Balearics, perhaps part of Aragon and also probably part of southern France (the French city of Perpignan/Perpinya and the surrounding area is traditionally culturally Catalan to a large extent) would be obviously ludicrous.

Secondly, there are significantly greater centralising forces on the Spanish Right (these forces are now, thankfully, merely political). The current Prime Minister who is resolutely determined that a separation referendum would be illegal is himself from Galicia. When he speaks, he does represent a significant section of the population in the entire country, including in Catalonia itself – not least a significant minority of the population who are (or whose family is) recent immigrants from elsewhere in Spain. Unlike, say, English people who move to Scotland accepting entirely that it is a different country, Spaniards moving to Catalonia have had no such sense – such a status is still contested. That is to leave aside those proud Catalans – by linguistic and cultural heritage – who would really prefer a properly federal Spain respecting their cultural and linguistic rights to outright separation (but who are currently swinging towards outright separation in frustration that those cultural and linguistic rights are not respected in much of the rest of Spain).

Thirdly, and most markedly, is that Catalan separatists have done much less planning for “independence”, and are perhaps as a consequence much more divided, than in Scotland. In some ways they are more like Irish Nationalists, using cultural and linguistic distinctiveness to make the case for separation while never really getting around to the practical legal and economic details. To be clear, an independent Catalonia could without question form an economically viable European state if it put its mind to it; but the details of how this should come to pass have never really been considered. What about a diplomatic corps? What about immigration control? What about FC Barcelona having to leave “La Liga”?

It is perhaps small wonder, then, that the recent conversation went something like this: Catalan government “We want a referendum on independence”; Spanish government “You can’t have one”; Catalan government “Er, okay then”. Politics is always a facade – but like Gaudi’s cathedral, in Catalonia it is particularly incomplete.

I am a huge admirer of the linguistic development of Catalan and of Catalan culture and architecture – it’s hard not to be. It is also, of course, the greatest single footballing region on the planet – what could be better than that?! However I can’t help, albeit from afar, still take the view that everyone knows Catalans want independence, but they don’t like to talk about it…

US cannot sort out Syria on its own in multi-power world

20 years on from the terrorist ceasefires, Northern Ireland is definitely a safer place. 13 years on from 9/11, however, the world most certainly isn’t. As ever, the problem for the West is politics. Politics requires the perception that we are safe; yet perception is vastly different from reality.

Just over a year ago the UK Parliament stopped proposed military action in Syria. This was a very good thing – intelligence from research I myself was doing for a client in London indicated that the premise used to promote the proposed intervention (that Assad had used chemical weapons) was incorrect, just as in 2003 with the “weapons of mass destruction”. In fact, all the intelligence said that the Syrian opposition had used chemical weapons, not Assad. Is it not now interesting that we have come to view that opposition, not Assad, as the problem?

Last week I reluctantly supported military action. When genocide is ongoing within a democratic state which requests your assistance to stop it and you have the capacity to assist, you assist. However, no one supporting that assistance is suggesting a few RAF bombs will solve the problem; they are but a tiny part of a long-term and complex solution.

We still like to think we live in a binary world of “goodies” and “baddies”, but it’s a lot more complex than that – and actually there are a lot of “baddies” out there. To base intervention on particular atrocities would see intervention on different sides of the same conflict, so that’s useless (which was why I opposed intervention in either Iraq or Syria). To base intervention on which side suits the West only creates further outrage and fundamentalist opposition to the West in the long run. And the “sides” change all the time anyway!

The other issue, which I raised last month, is that the United States is no longer politically (or arguably even financially) in a position to sort these things out alone. Indeed, it never was – it has only been the sole superpower for two decades (while the Cold War looked and felt dangerous at the time, actually two superpowers provide enough coverage and a surprisingly secure sort of equilibrium which we haven’t had since 1991). Those two decades have seen the United States directly attacked, and then become embroiled in conflicts which served no purpose, cost lives, and reduced Allies – many countries involved in the first Gulf War had dropped out of the Western Alliance by the second.

Barack Obama was a horribly inexperienced President right from the outset, but even the greatest Foreign Affairs genius of all time in the White House could not solve the basic problem that is unclear what the United States should do; and it is clear that there are significant practical limitations on what it can do. Europeans now spent woefully little on their military to be of any real use as allies; and the IS surge in Iraq/Syria is in any case tied in all kinds of ways (primarily religious and trade) with conflicts ongoing all the way from the Sahara to the Black Sea.

What we are seeing in the world in 2014 is a shift to multi-powers, with the rise of China and perhaps other BRIC countries (with insecurity enhanced by their own and their neighbours’ jostling for power as others, including religious zealots, fill various new voids left by American inability or unwillingness to act decisively). It does look alarmingly like 1914, when a similar shift from Pax Britannica to the Cold War began and the lamps went out for a generation. It is extraordinarily difficult to see what we should do about it, however – the only thing which is clear is that if we are waiting for the United States to do it all, it will be a forlorn wait.

UK will have to stay in EU, and push for more integration

“What are we going to do to save the European project?” asked one correspondent recently. Having pondered this, I think the first step is to set out why we should seek to save it, and indeed advance it. On the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the last World War, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to why is one word – security.

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Crudely, we are now at the point where global conflict has already started. We can kid ourselves all we like that the vicious religious wars of Iraq/Syria, Israel’s and Hamas’ brutality in the Holy Land, the takeover of Libya by Islamists and other purges are confined to the Middle East; and that the Crimean/Ukrainian conflict is down to one man’s posturing in Moscow; and that sectarian violence across the Sahara from South Sudan to Nigeria is just down to localised power struggles. In fact, they are a series of inter-connected religious and economic wars. When we add to them the near certainty of conflict in the Far East as China flexes its muscles and Japan weakens in economic (and thus political) influence, the ever-present risk of turmoil in the Americas, and even on-going civil and economic strife within the Eurozone and the United States, we need to be brutally realistic – the upturn in strife, conflict and war is an inevitability made so by a shift in economic balance and the (not coincidental) unwillingness and inability of the United States to play the role of sole global superpower and thus sole global policeman.

The UK also needs to be brutally realistic. It has endured a period of harsh economic decline and, again not coincidentally, has cut back its defence spending. Until recently the second largest spender on defence in the world, the UK will soon slip out of the top ten. This means its role as supporter to the world’s sole superpower is no longer viable, even if the United States were willing to play that role – which it isn’t. The UK’s influence now will depend more than ever on diplomatic weight – a weight it can carry uniquely as the bridge between North America and Europe.

Here is the point, however – it can only play that role by retaining its strong intelligence links with the United States while at the same time remaining firmly within the EU. What the UK is grappling with is a harsh realisation that its influence depends on remaining within an ever-integrating EU – and indeed on being a core part of that EU. In the ideal world it would not be faced with this conundrum – but then, in the ideal world Russia would not have a President playing war games, moderate Israelis would negotiate a two-state solution with a dominant Fatah, the United States would be able to afford to remain in Iraq to build democracy as it did in Germany and Korea, the EU would be able to retain some degree of law and order along the Sahara, and the West’s economy would be in much better shape. We should probably have worked out by now that this is no “ideal world”!

Let us deal again with brutal reality in this new, non-ideal, turbulent world. There are two outcomes – one is World War Three; the other is a new multi-power world where the United States begins to share its role as global policeman with other powers (just as it once did with the Soviet Union), delivering security through a series of compromises and deals around global security and trade. One of those other powers will surely be China (with Japan increasingly irrelevant); another will probably be India (although Pakistan and others will need some role); another may be Latin America (headed by Brazil); and, here is the thing, another will be Europe. That latter will in fact be the United States’ most trusted ally among the new Great Powers; as this happens, Henry Kissinger’s old question will apply – what is Europe’s phone number? The UK has a straight choice – it can either join the likes of Japan on the sidelines (costing it influence on security but also on trade, with real social and economic consequences) and leave Germany unquestionably the main player in that Europe; or it can seek to position itself as a main player in Europe and thus retain relevance as the focal point of a Transatlantic Alliance which it can use for its own security (as well as trade).

The biggest problem we have with the European debate in the UK at the moment is that it is appallingly parochial, and proceeds as if the world has stopped waiting for the UK to make its decision. On the contrary, the world is becoming a more polarised and more dangerous place in which the last thing we should want to do is retreat into insularity and irrelevance. Most of all, we all – each and every one of us – need to grasp and grasp quickly that this isn’t the ideal world, any more than it was this day 75 or 100 years ago!

A “United Ireland” won’t happen. Ever.

I am pleased to see, over on Slugger, at least the hint of a real debate about a “United Ireland”. Most of the basic sentiments – that we need some economic reality and that Northern Ireland has to work for all its citizens – are spot on and conveniently are necessary to any constitutional preference. This is why my own politics were always based on those sentiments.

I have put forward various thoughts on how a United Ireland could operate – most obviously, like Australia (a federation with the current Monarch as Head of State). However, I have done so primarily to demonstrate that “Nationalists” are either so biased that they find this unacceptable, or so disinterested that they find this irrelevant. It is no surprise to me that the only threat to the UK comes from Scotland, not Northern Ireland.

The truth is this: a Unitied Ireland is not going to happen.

Why not? Let us go back to the Covenant. One of the main aspects of that document in September 1912 was the economic argument that splitting Belfast – its shipbuilders, rope makers, linen weavers and so on – from the rest of the UK would see tariffs imposed and thus create costs to exporting to the UK which would render them unable to compete with the West of Scotland and the North West of England in those key industrial areas. The point here is that in an era where there were tariffs imposed on trade between any two countries, it made sense to belong to a large country. There were two prime reasons for this: first, it gave you the biggest possible free trading zone; and second, it gave you the clout of a powerful government to negotiate trade deals with other large countries on your behalf. That is why the map of Europe at the outbreak of World War One consisted of a unitary British Isles, a larger single Germany, a huge Austro-Hungarian realm, a newly united Italy and large Russian and Ottoman Empires – alongside France. Spain and not much else (even Sweden and Norway had broken apart only in the previous decade).

A century later and we live in a vastly different Europe, where tariffs and many other trade restrictions between countries have been abolished. This makes it no longer necessary or even beneficial to belong to a large country. With the benefit of free trade, countries such as France and Germany are the exception in Europe – which contains a raft of countries at around 7-11 million (Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Sweden etc), another set at around 4-5 million (Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Finland. Slovakia, Croatia etc) and another lot at around 2 million (Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia). This is vastly different from what went before, but it is enabled by free and peaceful trade, and thus the pressure is for more break-up – perhaps in Catalonia, Venice or Scotland to give some obvious examples. After all, if Brussels is already handling everything from foreign trade to social regulations; and you are already handling domestic policies and laws, what role precisely do Madrid, Rome or London play?

Therefore it is no coincidence that, aside from Germany, there really is no precedent for uniting a country in modern Europe – the movement is all the other way.

Germany itself is not a useful precedent either. It consisted, legally and practically, of the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic (what the English-speaking world but not the German-speaking world referred to as “East Germany”) and the expansion of the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”) to incorporate its territory. The equivalent would be the dissolution of Northern Ireland and the expansion of the current Republic of Ireland to include 32 counties not 26. Overnight, the Northern (NHS-style) Health system would be abolished, its laws would be replaced (e.g. the Rules of the Road would change) or repealed (e.g. laws on equality or animal cruelty, which are often markedly lacking in the Republic), and rafts of people would be out of work (most civil servants would be unnecessary; all lawyers now unqualified; and so on). This would be much more dramatic in fact than it was in Germany, where some “Eastern” systems were maintained by the new States (in their own policies and laws; unlike Ireland, Germany is a federation) and “Easterners” gladly underwent training in new “Western” systems accepting from the outset that they were inherently better. This is why no one seriously advocates such a method of unification for Ireland.

So there is no precedent. In fact, most Nationalists who think about it come to suggest that Northern Ireland would continue to exist, with its own separate laws, education system, accounting methods and so on. But that takes us back to the above question – if Belfast continues to manage the domestic policies and laws, and Brussels does the foreign stuff, what exactly would Dublin be doing? The answer to that, hypothetically, is it would be working out what to do with its new security headache and how it was to manage a mammoth subvention to Northern Ireland – a subvention to a place with half the population but the same number of public servants, for some reason. Hypothetically… it wouldn’t be daft enough to do it in reality, of course.

Even without that headache, the simple fact is the “United Ireland” thus created would consist of a legally separate unit, with its own laws, institutions, heritage and identities. That has been tried, of course – in 1707, when the Kingdom of Scotland was united with the Kingdom of England. How’s that one working out in the modern context explained above?!

So no, a United Ireland is not “closer than it’s ever been”. There was one chance of it ever happening outside the UK, and it was wasted at Easter 1916. Towards 2016, all the trends across Europe tell us there was more chance of a sovereign Northern Ireland than a sovereign United Ireland some time this century. What was that about making Northern Ireland economically viable and a fair home to all, Irish, British and neither…?!

Why the lack of outrage re thousands dead in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, etc?

I should probably have a specific tag for posts which pose questions to which I am not sure of the answer and want readers’ help. This is one such.

As the death toll passes 1500, I continue to be disturbed at the lack of basic humanity shown by those who think Israel’s current actions are anything other than grossly disproportionate and counter-productive. Even the United States is beginning to accept that reality now, even though it has not yet acted upon it.

However, 1500 is the number killed daily by Assad, or by ISIS in Iraq and parts of Syria. That is also the number killed in South Sudan after a government (sectarian) crisis broke out there a year ago, where there is now a humanitarian crisis of the scale of the Irish famine. This is to say nothing of the 1500 killed (one fifth on a civil airliner) during Russia’s war games in Eastern Ukraine, nor indeed of the appalling Ebola outbreak in West Africa. So why all the concern about Gaza, and not about these and other horrors ongoing elsewhere?

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that the West in complicit in the partition of Sudan which entirely predictably was going to lead to sectarian violence. Several reasons have been suggested: Israel/Palestine is longer standing; it is a clear case of two sides (goodies versus baddies); where we stand on Israel/Palestine is also a self-definition (say, of Unionist/Nationalist or Right/Left); there is a direct religious interest in the Holy Land; there is a moral imperative after the Holocaust; there is a highly economically relevant Jewish diaspora in the United States; and others. All of these strike me as likely parts of the story. In this particular case, that the average age in Gaza is 17 surely also has something to do with it.

I cannot help but think, however, that another reason is that Israel is a Western country. By falling over themselves to try to argue that we in the West cared more about people killed on MH17 than people killed in Gaza, some commentators rather embarrassed themselves by missing the obvious point – that they themselves don’t seem to care about people killed or displaced in Syria, Iraq or South Sudan. Actually it rather seems to me that we do not omit to mention non-Westerners who were killed, but rather people who weren’t killed by Westerners (and Israelis count as Westerners).

I wonder also if there is even a collective guilt in the West. We all – every one of us – accept basically a global system policed predominantly by the United States (in preference, say, to Russia or China). Because of economic, geo-political and even internal concerns, the United States finds Israel a useful ally. Thus when Israel – seen almost as a proxy for the country we are happy to police the world at least to an extend – carries out a set of appalling and counter-productive atrocities, we look on powerless knowing that we endorse the system which brings such things about. After all, it’s easy to boycott Israel, but try boycotting the United States…

In Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, we in the West don’t believe we are participating so long as people are killing each other – even if, for example, Syria’s Assad kills more Palestinians than the IDF (which is the case, of course); or if more Christians are displaced than Muslims (“Wait, there are Christians in the Middle East?!”)

In other words, I don’t know the answer. But I do know there is a hell of a lot of hypocrisy about on the subject. Almost no one really believes every human life is equal – as is illustrated by our selective reaction to all these horrors.

 

Obama’s support for inhumanity means Nobel Prize must be removed

It was a crazy decision to award Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he had done anything. It devalued the prize at the time. It renders it utterly pointless now.

The 2009 award was yet another of those bizarre times when so much of humanity – particularly on the left, but not exclusively – get caught worshipping someone as almost a new Messiah when there is no evidence even to suggest basic competence. So it was when Obama was elected – purely because he was eloquent he was going to bring peace, democracy and fair play to the entire planet, apparently. I wonder how those who fell for the charisma and omitted to check for any competence feel now, as he blatantly endorses the IDF’s terror in Gaza?

It is all very well picking on Israel, but Israelis are informed by the most atrocious trauma in human history – they respond so outrageously and obviously disproportionately because they are, collectively, psychologically disturbed by that. The one country, in fact, that has both the power and psychological balance to end the horror in Gaza – right now – is the United States. And the one man who could order it is Barack Obama.

“We will reach out our hand, if you unclench your fist”, he said at his first inauguration. Get this – he was lying! He is no different from anyone else – interest before principle. It’s time to withdraw his prize, and place a black mark next to his place in history.

You don’t “defend yourself” by creating martyrs and encouraging terror

Okay, reluctantly, I’m going to bite and enter into the Middle East “debate”…

Like most people who have actually visited Israel and the Occupied Territories (i.e. both, albeit in my case the West Bank not Gaza), my first response to the all too regular outbreaks of murdering and maiming in the region is human concern. These are by and large fine, diligent, fun people who just want to get on but realise they are pawns in somebody else’s game. It doesn’t help to “take sides” partly because dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” is generally neither helpful nor legitimate, but mainly because it creates the view that this is some sort of sport where we have “our team” and “their team”. Actually hundreds of human lives are being wasted, and thousands of friends and relatives are being left in despair. It is more helpful to show concern at innocent lives being wasted through the actions of warmongering idiots than to pick a side on the basis of national or religious affiliation.

Closer to home, of course, we have the particular and frankly unbelievably irritating spectacle of thousands of people who have never been near the Middle East picking their “side” to legitimise their view of Northern Ireland rather than the basics of democracy, the Rule of Law and Fair Play. It is borderline pathetic to see people pick “Palestine” or “Israel” in the precise same way they pick “Celtic” or “Rangers”, and then justify or condemn everything from that ill-defined and frankly ridiculous position. It was the Israelis who kicked the British out in pursuit of a national homeland, and the Palestinians who (generally) seek partition, but, well, you know…

My good friend Richard Price pointed out the outrageous offence these parallels cause. The Army and RUC may have done some bad and illegal things, but they never carpet-bombed Newry; so shame on those who endorse equivalent actions elsewhere. Many people on all sides may have suffered from terror, but never on the scale of those on the Israeli/Palestinian border right now and on countless previous occasions; so stop pretending we “understand”. Most of all, we were never blatantly pawns in a global game, powerless in reality to do anything about our own society’s future – as we proved in 1998.

Then of course there’s the “well-meaning” but in the end almost equally non-sensical attempt to propose solutions which apparently “worked” elsewhere, which almost always involve for some reason involve South Africa. Let us leave aside the complete coincidence that Mandela’s release came five months after the Fall of the Wall (when the West no longer needed the White South Africans to defend Southern Africa from Communism) and 15 years after the ANC more clearly defined its goals and means of attaining them through popular protest and internal sanctions of a kind. Get this: South Africa is South Africa; Northern Ireland is Northern Ireland; and Israel/Palestine is Israel/Palestine.

Of course, there are universals in seeking peace and democracy, but so determined are we all to take “sides” or make “parallels” which happen to suit us that we tend to miss them. Firstly, if you want peace, it’s a good idea to stop killing each other; anyone doing so is to be condemned without reservation no matter what – and, for the record, you certainly don’t create peace by bombing hospitals and murdering children (an inevitable consequence of current Israeli action, no matter whose narrative it suits). Secondly, there’s more to democracy than voting – if people vote Likud or Hamas, be clear you’re not moving towards democracy (see above). Thirdly, and here’s the real biggie, people need to be motivated to seek peace – never underestimate the power of a populist seeking to justify violence for their own (not their people’s) ends.

On Israel/Palestine I will say this: we are all complicit in demotivating those who seek peace. The West has clearly decided that it is in its interests to prop up Israel, no matter how many children it murders; or even dare I suggest to promote instability in the Middle East no matter how many millions of lives it costs. I can only guess at the reasons for that, but I would guess they are at least indirectly almost all to do with oil. Until we in the West decide it’s actually in our interests to seek a degree of stability in the Holy Land through actions not words – and to deal with the short-term economic penalty (presumably a rising cost of living) to do so – we can put out all the hashtags we like, nothing will change. Honestly, I don’t expect to live to see that day – sadly.

Real German lesson: say yes to austerity!

It is an incredible thing – and indicative of how it has become entirely confused – that the “Left” repeatedly used the word “austerity” and does so with the supposedly automatic contention that it is a bad thing.

This is the same “Left” of course, which rightly argues against “excess”. It is indeed an outrage that City Execs get paid 180 times the average wage; that entertainers get such ludicrous recompense on the licence payer or the commercial viewer; or even in some cases that senior quangocrats get so much. Here’s the thing – the opposite of “excess” is, er, “austerity”.

Germany doesn’t get everything right by any means, but it is hard to dispute its recent sporting and economic success. Such success is not down to chance. One of the prime reasons for it is that Germany is a vastly more austere country and society than the UK, France or Spain.

Even in football this shows. The BBC and ITV both had a main presenter, a stadium presenter, a main commentator, a co-commentator, three studio pundits and usually also a stadium pundit – eight, in total. German TV tends to make do with one presenter, one pundit and one commentator – three!

Another obvious area is supermarkets. The big Tesco or Carrefour superstores of the UK and France are replaced in Germany by Lidl, Aldi and others very similar – based on the recognition that it is pointless to pay, in effect, to pay for the privilege of looking at products you’re not going to buy in the name of “choice”. It is the austere German version which is now coming to the fore in the UK and France, not he other way around.

The same applies to housing. While the social housing argument centres around the age at which children should not share a room in the UK, even the children of German professionals often share into their teens; thirtysomething Germans may still live in single-room flats; ownership in the exception in Germany, not the norm.

This austerity works, therefore. Underlying the German social model is the notion of what suffices, not what shows off. As a result, there’s rather more to go around – because, as a direct result of the promotion of austerity as a good thing, outrageous excess is frowned upon. Even successful businesses or indeed football clubs are absolutely expected to maintain community links and loyalty.

This is of course a consequence to a large degree of German history, particularly the lessons of the last War and its immediate aftermath, in which social and economic ruin was the prospect. Whatever about that, the simple fact remains in 2024 that all of these things are good and admirable – and austere. Austerity is a good thing. In this of all weeks, there is a German lesson we can all learn.

 

England won’t learn German lesson

It was the most astonishing series in international football I had ever seen. For a team of such serious World Cup heritage to concede four goals so easily, without offering any resistance and in such a mentally fragile state, was a truly unbelievable sight to behold. I am speaking, of course, of Germany – specifically Germany’s throwing away of a four-goal lead in the last half an hour in a World Cup qualifier at home to Sweden to draw 4-4 barely eighteen months ago.

Much is already being written about Germany’s World Cup triumph, and mostly correctly: it was a triumph of youth development; of involving clubs in the national team’s development; of top-quality coaching at every level; of promoting the game with a community sense and not just a business one. Yet another point is often missed – namely Germany’s remarkable ability to perform when it really counts.

This is a German team which recently lost at home to Australia; which got stuffed two years ago at home by the same Argentine team it beat in this year’s Final; which is decidedly average even in the occasional competitive qualifier. Yet it has appeared in every World Cup quarter-final since 1954 – a scarcely believable statistic, especially when added to a joint-record three European Championship wins in that period.

In fact, since 1954, Germany’s overall win-loss record is scarcely better than England’s. Yet Germany has now won the World Cup twice as often as England has even reached the semi-final; since 1966, Germany has reached the Final as often as England has reached the quarter-final.

There is a specific skill, even within tournaments, to managing performance – one the Germans have mastered. Take a quick glance at World Cup history and note how even Germany’s group games follow the same basic pattern – usually an opening win to get off the mark, followed by an average second game (sometimes even a defeat), and then the result required to get through; alternatively, if they happen to win the second game, they’ll often lose the third (to, say, Denmark or even in one case East Germany!) The team then begins to gather pace through to, and usually beyond, the quarter-final.

Even if the English got the youth development right, the coaching right and the club linkage right (and there is evidence they are getting somewhere with the first two of these at least), there is little evidence they understand how to be a Turniermannschaft – how to manage a competition and the level of preparation (mental and physical) required.

Thus, we should probably expect Germany’s fifth star before England’s second.

England needs to move faster to avoid further embarrassment

The fact that Roy Hodgson had more success with Switzerland than with England shows beyond any remotely reasonable doubt where the problem with English football lies – and it’s not with the manager.

The problem lies in a single German phrase. “Den Ball englisch kicken“, loosely translated, means “to kick the ball English”, but is used to refer to an aimless hoof upfield. That sums it all up.

For half a century now, the English have been both technically and tactically inferior from the very start. As I have written many times before, the problem is not that there are too many foreigners in the Premier League, but rather and specifically that English players are not good enough to play in it.

The new academy at St George’s will help, and the number of coaches being brought through is very impressive. However, I suspect still too many English players will grow up playing 11-a-side rather than small games (that’s when they’ve dragged themselves away from the X-box to play at all); and as a result they will grow up relying on the “big bloke up front”. That leads not only to technical deficiencies, but also tactical ones. Watch how England’s plan to draw level against Uruguay consisted of whacking it down the flanks and hoisting it into the box over and over again. There is a combination of a lack of trust in their technical ability to do something more creative and accurate than that; and there is no tactical notion about how to draw another team out of position and play around or through them.

I cannot help but think that even these deficiencies would not be magnified so brutally at the highest level if England had its players’ mental preparation right. I found it truly bizarre, for example, that preparation for the big game against Uruguay included talks from senior players about how awful it is to go out of a big tournament. Surely that’s mad?!

With a population of 53 million and the richest domestic league in the world, there can be no excuses. There should be less time spent on daft B-team leagues and more time spent on real youth development.

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