Category Archives: International

I disagree with Anna Lo on United Ireland

Anna Lo’s comments two weeks ago on the long-term future of Northern Ireland caused a furore when she said, in a personal capacity, that she thought it should unite with the Republic of Ireland.

Since I share Anna Lo’s social liberal stance on most issues, I will have no difficulty giving her my first preference vote, and campaigning for her. But I have to say I take issue with her explicit view that Northern Ireland would economically, politically and socially be better off uniting with the rest of the island.

So I guess I should come off the fence and state clearly an unequivocally where I stand. It is quite clear that, economically politically and socially, Northern Ireland should become the seventeenth state of Germany.

Economically, the case is quite simple. Over the past decade, German economic growth has been by far the fastest in Europe. German unemployment is also low at 5% (even youth unemployment is only around 7%), so you can take that map of unemployment in Ireland and shove it! Of all the parts of Germany, living standards have risen fastest in the five Eastern States, newly added to the Federal Republic in 1990. That is the type of growth which would also await Northern Ireland – except better, because DeLoreans are better than Trabants.

Politically, the case is even more compelling. Far from having to merge laws with the Republic or make up some new, unprecedented “Federal Ireland”, Northern Ireland would be joining what is already a Federal Republic – its domestic laws, legal system and education arrangements could remain unchanged, managed from the existing Northern Ireland Assembly (Nordirischer Landestag) in Belfast.

Even socially, in terms of identity, it makes sense too. Unionists will know what the Duke of Schomberg came from what is now Schaumburg, which is already in Germany. To seal the deal, Nationalists effectively get a United Ireland anyway – after all, the Republic has effectively been governed from Berlin and Frankfurt since 2008.

Northern Ireland would be one of the smaller States of Germany, of course, but far from the smallest – Hamburg is about the same size; Bremen and Saarland (itself transferred from France in the late ’50s – so a clear precedent, just in case anyone was thinking this proposal odd) are considerably smaller.

By the way, when it comes to sport, never mind a united Ireland football team – what about joining with Germany? In fact, it’s only right given that the penalty kick, which they have since perfected, was invented in County Armagh in 1891. “Wir sind nicht Brasilien, wir sind tatsaechlich besser” (“We’re not Brazil, we’re actually better”) would no doubt soon become a fans’ favourite.

Would the Germans want us? Well, probably not. But we should at least try, making the point that dealing with us would at least give them a break from having to deal with the Greeks once in a while.

The case is clear. Vorsprung durch Wheaten Bannock, as they whisper in Lurgan…

Meanwhile, in Catalonia…

“Everyone knows the Catalans want independence; they just don’t like to talk about it”. I had the great fortune to visit Catalonia on average every other year from 1992 to 2008, in almost every mode – business, conference, leisure, staying with a family. That sentence summed up the mood with regard to its constitutional position. However, since 2008, the changes have apparently been dramatic – I am always cautious about judging such things from afar.

Where once the impression I got was that most people there sought a federal state, or simply fiscal autonomy (as the Basques enjoy under age-old Charters), the polls and even the street demonstrations now point plainly to a desire for outright independence. My understanding is that this sentiment increased markedly upon the new centre-right Spanish Government’s insistence in 2010 on striking down aspects of the new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia, agreed in 2006. Specifically, it sought to strike down aspects of it which were the same as neighbouring Valencia, but did not seek to do so in Valencia’s case. Catalans were outraged – and fully a third of them turned out at a single demonstration to show it.

That’s where it appears to get tricky, however. “Independence” isn’t a straightforward thing. How do you secure your markets in the rest of Spain? How do you fund, recruit and train your new diplomatic corps? How, even, do you ensure FC Barcelona can continue to play in La Liga? It is all very well to have your own national, linguistic and sporting identity – but what about the practical stuff?

The parallels are obvious. Why is nobody thinking?!

*Southwest* Ukraine may be next for Russia

Russian troops massing on East Ukrainian border – US says they may be preparing to invade” scream the headlines.

I doubt it. Russians are subtler than that; and in any case East Ukraine is not next.

A decade ago I spent part of the summer on a pro-democracy mission in Moldova, the outstanding aspect of which was a series of meetings in the breakaway region of Transnistria (variously spelled and even named depending on linguistic preference).

Moldova-Transnistria

At the very outset of all of this I mentioned Transnistria, and watched in astonishment as almost no one else did! Remember, its existence essentially amounts to the occupation of part of the sovereign territory of Moldova by Russian troops, and has done since 1997 (the date after which Russia had agreed to withdraw them).

Now Transnistria is mentioned, but only in the incredibly simplistic way that it is “majority Russian-speaking”. I scarcely heard anything other than Russian there, admittedly, but then I scarcely heard anything other than Russian on the streets of Chisinau, the Republic of Moldova’s capital city. As I wrote last yet, it just isn’t that straightforward – and the media shouldn’t present it as such!

A little like Crimea, most of Transnistria was simply shifted from one Soviet Republic to another during the Soviet era (effectively, therefore, between what were seen as internal “States”) – in this case from Ukraine into Moldova. The rest of what is now the Republic of Moldova had been taken by the Soviet Union in 1940 during World War Two (western Moldova wasn’t – it remains part of Romania).

As was frequently the case, people were moved about in the Soviet Union, and those being moved typically adopted Russian as their first language regardless of ethnic origin or perceived nationality (as Russian was the Union’s language of business and administration). As a result the Republic of Moldova, essentially Romanian-speaking from a linguistic point of view, developed a large Russian-speaking minority – of course, those moving went primarily to the cities, and thus often became a majority (not least because Russian was simply more useful than Romanian to just about any resident of the Soviet Union).

Transnistria, of course, hadn’t really been Romanian-speaking to start with; it was actually Ukrainian-speaking if anything. However, a combination of Moldovans moving within their home Republic into its new zone (transferred precisely because it was industrial and thus provided the otherwise largely agrarian Moldova with an industrial hub), and Russian-speakers moving in from elsewhere in the Union, saw Transnistria become effectively tri-ethnic – about 30% Ukrainian, 30% Moldovan, 30% Russian with a few others making up the remainder (noting that these themselves are crude terms doing a gross injustice to the multiplicity of identities, ethnicities and nationalities really contained within them, not least once two or three generations of inter-marriage are introduced into the equation).

At the end of the Soviet Union, as many newly independent Republics did, Moldova adopted its originally native tongue (essentially Romanian, though some prefer to call it Moldovan and it is in fact referred to officially most often simply as the “Language of the State”), notably switching from Cyrillic script to Latin. There was even talk of union with Romania. As Transnistria did not originate from this, a civil war ensued, resulting in an uneasy truce in 1992 in which Transnistria effectively became an independent state backed by Russia but officially remained recognised as part of the Republic of Moldova. I think it fair to point out that the West has to understand this – it was not unreasonable for Russian troops to remain in 1992 when there was a real risk that Russians elsewhere in Moldova would be absorbed against their will and without cross-community consensus into Romania. However, they agreed in 1994 to leave within three years, and by 1997 the “Greater Romania” issue had passed – yet they are still there.

Transnistria adopted its own language policy, becoming officially tri-lingual but banning Latin script – thus road signs, for example, are in Russian, Romanian and Ukrainian but all in Cyrillic. (In fact, we visited a Transnistrian school which broke this law and taught Romanian in Latin script – it was a horrendously uneasy atmosphere and I was unsurprised to hear that the authorities promptly bulldozed it the following month.)

You can read about Transnistria but you cannot quite grasp the discomfort of the place. The authorities had cut off all phone lines, introduced their own currency, introduced their own stamps (unrecognised internationally, meaning Transnistrians have to leave Transnistria just to post a letter anywhere outside it), stopped dual-band mobile phone access, and it was clear every room we were in was bugged. Soviet statues predominated, militaristic parades were common, and public toilets (such as they were) consisted of a less-than-generous hole in the ground. Entrance to Transnistria itself involved passing two military checkpoints (one of which was openly Russian); there was one road only into and out of any town, and it too had checkpoints. Such was the paranoia of the place, the authorities even sent someone after us to Chisinau 48 hours after our departure to pretend to be an opposition spokesperson agitating fairly and democratically for union with Romania (complete with a Romanian-language T-shirt in Latin script) – even though he spoke only Russian and was obviously acting (literally) for the government.

Here’s the historical thing: contemporary Russia’s particular interest in Ukraine itself dates from Ukraine’s (perceived “anti-Russian” but actually anti-trafficking) decision to insist essentially that any imports into Ukraine from Transnistria be registered with Moldovan authorities – the inevitable response to which was a “referendum” in Transnistria where 97% “opted” for Transnistrian independence in “free association” with Russia. Sound familiar? It is astonishing that anyone reporting or analysing the Crimean situation would have missed this – yet they all did, as far as I saw! However, it must be said that Transnistrians in 2011 were free enough to vote for the wrong guy for President (an ethnic Ukrainian opposed to both main Transnistrian parties, to confuse matters).

Here’s the contemporary thing: Transnistria is already Russian-occupied and funded; and it is to the southwest of Ukraine – but it borders a part of Ukraine on the Black Sea which is comparatively pro-Russian. Geographically this part of Ukraine, centred on Odessa, juts out geographically like Crimea. So, ethnically justifiable on the same grounds as Crimea, historically justifiable similarly, and even geographically justifiable on the map, this all means that Southwest Ukraine is the obvious next stop for Russian “intervention” - not least on the grounds that it would constitute a “reunification of Transnistria with its original hinterland (in fact, Transnistria’s Prime Minister comes from Odessa)” while at the same time “respecting the results of the [aforementioned] 2006 referendum”.

Moldova is, of course, a “brother country” of Romania, which is now part of the EU. If Russia effectively annexes part of an EU member state’s “brother country”, is the EU going to do anything (like, really do anything) about it? What happens if it annexes a bit of the neighbouring sovereign state as well?

No, obviously. We are doing the opposite of what we should be doing. Quite aside from ensuring the linguistic and democratic rights of “Russians” in the Baltic States and as far as possible elsewhere and then putting it up to the Russians to act similarly democratically, we are in fact propping up an unelected government in Kiev allowing the Russians to justify taking away chunks of their territory. And few of the people commentating on these decisions in the Western media and to Western governments have even heard of Transnistria…

Simplistic view of “identity” causes Western confusion

Another aspect of reporting and commentary on the Crimea situation, and Russia’s interventions broadly, is the alarmingly simplistic way in which notions such as “Russian identity” or “ethnic Russians” or “Russian speakers” (or similar) are referred to. None of these is a remotely simple concept – identity, understanding of ethnicity and language choice changes over time, depending on trends and circumstances.

For example, on my own visit to Chisinau in 2004, I noted that the road signs were in Romanian (sometimes referred to as Moldovan) yet the language spoken on the street was almost exclusively Russian. When I asked about this, I was told several times that in fact the language on the street “changes depending who is in government“, and that the language had been Romanian before the Communist Party had regained power, and would probably become Romanian again once they lost power.

This whole situation was made even more complex by controversy surrounding the terms “Romanian” and “Moldovan” – while few disputed they are the same linguistically, many disputed they are the same ethnically, and thus were inclined not to use “Romanian” to refer even to the language. This again was something which had changed over time and may change again – upon independence from the Soviet Union, many Moldovans were tempted by unity with Romania (western Moldova actually forms part of Romania; Moldova is partitioned); this temptation had declined over time, yet I noted most people on my flight held Romanian (and thus now European Union) passports. On the other hand, many Russian speakers were in fact not ethnically Russian at all, but Ukrainian or something else.

In Estonia, I visited the border town of Narva, where one looks directly at a citadel and an imposing hill with the very word “RUSSIA” written on it in Cyrillic script, Hollywood-like. Narva is 96% Russian-speaking (though again, by no means all ethnically/nationally Russian). When asked where their capital was, most people said “Tallinn”, an acceptance of a degree of Estonian statehood; yet when asked who their President was, most said “Putin” – after all, Russia gives many of them a vote as Russian citizens, but Estonia disallows them because they do not speak Estonian. Such split identity is rarely stable.

It is exactly this uncertainty which Putin himself has capitalised on in Ukraine. Crimea’s population is indeed 58% ethnically Russian and huge-majority Russian-speaking, yet there had been no serious attempt on the part of its citizens to unify with Russia. Many had come to accept a trial identity – Crimean (region?), Russian (nation?), Ukrainian (state?) – without real difficulty. Yes perhaps, when their media is taken over by people suggesting they are being purged and troops enter the streets to “protect” them, their identity shifts to predominantly “Russian”. But it is far too simple to cast them off as solely that.

A further important point is this: within Ukraine itself, the prime identity shift is not west-east (the maps doing the rounds of social media displaying mere “linguistic majorities” do not do justice to the sizeable minorities across the country), but over/under the age of 25 or so. Those below the age of 25 had no experience of the Soviet Union, and grew up in a sovereign Ukraine. Few – even those who prefer to speak Russian – have much difficulty with that situation. Those above the age of 25 may long for the “good old days” as a world superpower – event those who prefer to speak Ukrainian.

In other words, “Russian identity” outside Russia often really means “nostalgia for the Soviet Union”, and perhaps for the Superpower status that went with it. Again, Putin has skilfully played to this – while the one-dimensional West has totally missed it.

We in Northern Ireland should be well versed at this. A BBC NI report on Sunday showed people at Ballynahinch Rugby Club cheering on the new Six Nations’ (i.e. European) Rugby Champions. The team they were cheering was Ireland, i.e. all-Ireland; yet we can be fairly sure that, to a man (and woman), they almost all vote Unionist (i.e. for NI to be part of the UK, not an all-Ireland). They will probably happily cheer on English athletes competing for “Team GB” at the Olympics, but probably split when it comes to their fellow Britons in the “England” football team. Of course, they will probably be Euro-sceptic, but will perhaps assemble at the very same location to cheer on the “Europe” team at the Ryder Cup later this year…

Even the “nostalgic identity” strikes me as relevant in Northern Ireland. When people say they are “British” or “Unionist”, do they really mean that in a contemporary sense for a multi-cultural UK? Or do they really mean it as a means of promoting nostalgia for a time when the UK was a Superpower? And is it this which conditions their political views – from instinctive Euro-scepticism to promoting pointless air routes to Canada rather than rationally useful ones to Germany (more of which tomorrow…)?

The Western media would have us believe identity is a single, lineal thing – you are either “Russian” or “Ukrainian”; “British” or “Irish”. It isn’t! Our misunderstanding of that is leading us to make appalling errors of judgement in our commentary on Crimea and elsewhere; and perhaps much closer to home too.

BBC completely misses the point on Crimea

The BBC is a fine institution, widely and rightly acclaimed for its impartial news service among other things. However, on Crimea it has been consistently out-reported by ITV, Sky and Channel 4 (as well as a range of non-UK channels) – because the BBC does not understand the issue and has not invested in enough quality journalism to put that deficiency right.

Yesterday’s reporting of the referendum in Crimea was a fine example of how the BBC has comprehensively missed the point. Its reporter was reasonable enough on the facts, but her analysis was shockingly inept. Essentially, she reported:

  • the referendum has taken place and been deemed “illegal” by other countries;
  • the referendum was boycotted by some groups unhappy at the absence of a “status quo” option;
  • Russia will probably be content with Crimea because it will be an economic drain, so it won’t be going for East Ukraine and certainly not for “Lithuania” because it’s in the EU and NATO.

Aside from the last (which we’ll come to), these are not unreasonable points in themselves. But they completely miss the big picture. Partly, perhaps, this is because of the BBC’s pledge of impartiality – “Other countries say it’s illegal, Russia says it’s legal, so we’ll let the viewers make their minds up”; and partly it is a failure of analysis (a growing and widespread problem).

The referendum is illegal; that is not something to be left to the viewer, that is a matter of fact. More than that, it is a very important matter of fact, for reasons well beyond mere sovereignty.

Rarely reported but fundamental to this case is the 1994 Budapest memorandum. This wasn’t just a quick chat between a few powers pledging to accept Ukraine’s sovereignty. It was an agreement that Ukraine would give up all the nuclear weapons on its territory in return for protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity by the three original nuclear powers (the United States, Russia as successor to the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom).

Put another way, it was agreed in return for Ukraine giving up the ultimate defence system, that it constituted a single sovereign unit (incorporating Crimea). No part of its can unilaterally secede – and if it does, all three signatories are bound to protect it.

What has happened is that one of those powers, far from protecting Ukraine, has mounted a subtle invasion of part of its territory, and thus blatantly breached the agreement. Let’s note this again: Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in return for Russia’s protection of its sovereignty – and Russia is now the very country breaching those terms!

The consequences of this do not bear thinking about. How is one to defuse the situation in South Asia, where both India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons? How is one to defuse the situation in North Korea? How is one, most of all, to defuse the situation in the Middle East, where Israel (ahem) already has and Iran soon will have nuclear weapons? Remember, as of March 2014, “You don’t need nuclear weapons, we’ll protect you” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on…

Even leaving aside the Big Picture, there are some more details about the Small Picture any journalist on the ground at the location should have picked up.

For example, of Sevastopol’s 385,462 residents, an astonishing 474,137 managed to vote for Russia. The basic rigging of the referendum should have been first item! (Even this is before noting Sevastopol’s special status outside Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea area; there was no reason for Sevastopol to vote on any Crimea issue at all, in other words.)

Even all of this is to leave quite aside the point that the Tatars in Crimea are now completely vulnerable to the hated Russians, of whom their recent experience is one of forced deportation.

As for the last bullet point, the reporter’s answer is laughable. Here are a few bullet points of my own:

  • Putin couldn’t give a stuff about economic drains, he is all about himself and he will simply blame Western sanctions for any economic misfortunes;
  • Russia didn’t stop in Georgia so it’s hardly going to stop now – eastern Ukraine is indeed on the list (we know this because it has already sent people in); and
  • he won’t bother with Lithuania because it has the smallest “Russian” population of all the Baltic states, but he has already waged cyber-war on Estonia and stated an interest in goings-on in Latvia.

The underlying notion, stated by the BBC Reporter, that Putin isn’t really behind events in Crimea is just shockingly ludicrous. What is more, the order of events is unbelievably obvious:

  • he was already in possession of a chunk of Moldova his troops were supposed to leave in 1997 (the West did nothing);
  • he maintained possession of a chunk of Georgia by force in 2008 (the West did nothing);
  • he has now taken a chunk of Ukraine by tricks and force in 2014 (the West did nothing);
  • he may as well now take more chunks of Ukraine (the West has proved it will do nothing);
  • so why not the Baltics next, exactly? Because they’re members of NATO? You mean the military alliance headed by the two countries other than Russia which signed up to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and then did nothing about it?

Putin may well opt not to recognise Crimea as part of Russia, but as sovereign in its own right, at least initially. Why does no one mention this? It is what he or his predecessors did in Moldova (Transnistria) and Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) – frozen states under Russian domination which the West pretends are integral to their home country (and thus pretends not to need to bother with). It suits all sides.

This is pretty basic stuff, yet what the BBC reported flew directly in the face of it – one can only assume the Reporter had forgotten Georgia and knew nothing of Moldova?

It was a poor report from an organisation which has never properly got up to speed on the issue because it functioned only with reporters, not journalists. ITV’s James Mates and the entire Channel 4 crew, on the other hand, have been busy on the ground finding things out (and also, very effectively, using social media as well as broadcasts). Frankly, we would be better informed by googling stuff ourselves than from the BBC updates! The BBC needs to cut a few senior executive wages and invest in proper journalists.

Of course, another part of the problem is the BBC isn’t impartial. It has an innate bias towards professional, civilised, liberal people. Small wonder it comprehensively misses the point when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin…

Northern Ireland: your real problems are in the Crimea!

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know what worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

So wrote Baz Luhrman in his famous single “Wear Sunscreen” based on an earlier article.

People in Northern Ireland need to listen to him!

Channel 4′s Paul Mason explains why. What has blindsided us, in fact on an idle Saturday, is the incursion of Russian troops into the Crimea.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry said that, in the 21st century, you don’t just walk into other countries on the basis of phoney trumped up pretexts. The problem is, his country did exactly that just 11 years ago. This has cost the United States any moral authority, any internal popular support, and thus its place as the global policeman. Without it fulfilling that role, the world order changes and becomes more uncertain – and so do all our economic fortunes.

In other words, a movement of troops thousands of miles to the east has a direct impact on our daily lives. Our energy supply, the supply of cheap products (smartphones and so on), and the supply even of cheap food are endangered. Not only is the supply line beyond our control, but it is beyond the power of reasonable prediction – held, as it is, in unreasonable hands.

And you think your biggest problem is a flag on a building? You think your biggest problem is a local government boundary? Actually, you think your biggest problem is a comparatively minor change to your pension, or being in negative equity?

No chance. It may not be quite so apocalyptic as Mr Mason suggests as there is good economic reason to suggest China will in fact side with the West, but the world is an uncertain place. Our politicians argue over irrelevance because we argue over irrelevance. It’s time to get relevant.

EU must act on recognition that Russia will defend its people

By any definition, a country which implements a “population policy” which has the obvious and frankly deliberate practical outworking of depriving fully one third of its own residents of the vote should be an international pariah – even more so when one sixth are left without any citizenship at all! Incredibly, not only does such a country exist, but it was allowed into NATO a decade ago this week; and into the European Union two months later! This is a democratic outrage – yet I doubt many in the UK are in the least bit aware of it!

The country is Estonia. It requires people to be citizens in order to vote; and it requires people to speak Estonian in order to be citizens. So far, so reasonable until you realise that a third of its citizens came from elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the post-War period – a Soviet Union whose commercial and administrative language was Russian. Some of those (most obviously those who came from Russia itself) have been able to claim Russian citizenship; some have none at all; but none can vote in the country in which they live and the West has done nothing about it.

The same year I visited Estonia on a pro-democracy mission, I also visited Moldova. Rather than having people move into Moldova from elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the post-War period (although this undoubtedly happened), what the Soviets did instead was to detach an industrial part of southwest Ukraine and attach it to Moldova (actually eastern Moldova – Moldova itself is partitioned; the western part is in Romania). Upon Moldova’s independence, the inevitable result was civil war in that detached industrial part, as it was still minority Moldovan (ethnically and linguistically) and felt much more affiliated to the old Soviet Union. The result was the breakaway republic of “Transnistria”, which is unrecognised but exists to every practical purpose… with its borders patrolled by Russian troops. In other words, Russia has blatantly occupied part of the sovereign Republic of Moldova and the West has done nothing about it.

On an international pro-democracy trip to the breakaway Republic of Transnistria in 2004

On an international pro-democracy trip to the breakaway Republic of Transnistria in 2004

I have never visited Ukraine, but the conditions for conflict existed on the precise same basis from its very coming into being. Likewise, it has a sizeable self-identified “Russian” population of at least a third of all residents – around half of whom are simply pro-Russian, and around half are Russian. In this case, they can vote and indeed managed to get in one of their own as President in 2010 as the rest of the population became disenchanted. Likewise also, Ukraine received a “detached part” – Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine to give it a Black Sea port in 1954. Likewise, that “detached part” is more Russian – ethnically, linguistically and politically – than the rest of the jurisdiction. Russia has now occupied that part – and you know what, the West will likely do nothing about it (although I have placed proposals on what the EU could do about it below).

Estonia should not have been allowed into the EU until it pledged to treat its Russian minority properly (not least ensuring it had the vote; also no doubt respecting Russian language rights, and so on). We need not think Russia didn’t notice this obvious democratic outrage involving its own people on its own frontier (and, by the way, we really need to stop thinking Russia sees the world the way we do – it doesn’t!), and we should be setting high democratic standards, not stooping to theirs.

Moldova, like Ukraine, has its pro-EU champions and even some who propose re-merger with western Moldova and thus unity with Romania. This can only be resolved if it too pledges full rights and respect for its Russian minority – and it may mean consideration of the unthinkable (i.e. restoration of pre-Soviet borders). Singapore separated from Malaysia because of a differing ethnic make-up – frankly, it happens.

Ukraine itself, then, should have been told that it isn’t a serious candidate for EU membership – certainly not if it wishes to remain united under current boundaries. Too many among its population orientate towards Russia. This is no one’s fault, it is just the way it is. What is required is not a battle of wills (and force) between pro-EU and pro-Russian factions, but rather a new Ukraine respectful of its large pro-Russian population. Ukraine always was a borderland with boundaries shifting.

Underlying all of this is the obvious point that there remains a sizeable Russian population – ethnically, linguistically, politically and nationally – in all the other former Soviet states. Sure, that was essentially deliberate on the part of Stalin and the lads – but that doesn’t change the fact now, in 2014. What it also means is that Russia has the same right to protect them as any other country would if its own citizens came under threat. In other words, Russia does have a direct and legitimate interest in all other former Soviet states. That’s just the way it is. We had better get used to it.

Of course, Russia’s treatment of minorities (and not just ethnic minorities) within its own frontiers is shocking. Of course, Russia should not have been awarded events like the Winter Olympics and World Cup given its stance. Of course, unilateral military intervention on foreign soil, as carried out by Russia on Saturday, is utterly wrong. But then, so is showing disdain for democratic norms purely in order to shift power from Moscow to Brussels; and it is not like the West is averse to throwing its military on to foreign soil without UN approval!

Thus we need to face the fact the EU made horrific blunders allowing fundamentally non-democratic, ethnic-based countries into its club in 2004. It continues to make horrific blunders by suggesting that countries which are divided as an inevitable consequence of their Soviet past may be brought into the EU on the same basis, ignoring the rights of a sizeable minority within their borders. It is all very easy to play “good guys versus bad guys”, but we are guilty here too – and if our media reporting is anything to go by, we still haven’t learned.

Russia will defend its people. We have long since had the opportunity to prepare for that. If we are to have any hope, we have to distinguish the interests of its ruling elite from the interests of regular Russians (both inside and outside its frontiers); ensuring that the latter are well catered for while the former are marginalised. We have not been doing that.

We are going to have to start using what weight we have to do that now. This may include the EU agreeing to:

  • enforce minority rights (including voting and linguistic) for Russians and Russian speakers within EU member states, while being clear that those standards will have to be met before entry by any future EU applicant;
  • respect the requirement for autonomy of areas such as Crimea and Transnistria, including conceivably transfer between States in the event of EU membership and that being expressed as the popular desire at EU/OSCE-monitored, free and fair referendums; and
  • require the same standards for minority rights and same respect for autonomy of Russia, and implement trade and sporting sanctions (including withdrawal of hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup by threat of boycott if necessary) until this requirement has been met.

Russia will act to defend its citizens and interests. We should stop blaming them for doing that – and get on with acting similarly decisively to defend ours and our allies’.

UKIP – United Kingdom In Pieces

A piece I authored for the European Movement NI web site, in a purely personal capacity.

UKIP provided a welcome reminder last week that it really is a bunch of “fruitcakes”, with its contention that recent flooding in the UK was God’s punishment for same-sex marriage. “Ah, no, it wasn’t UKIP who said that, it was one member now suspended”, Mr Farage may insist, but the fact is this now happens all the time in UKIP.

A more interesting aspect to UKIP came last year when its entire leadership in Scotland was stood down. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, its prospective European candidate in Northern Ireland also turned out to be a fruitcake with some, well, interesting tweets…

However, the real issue is that UKIP’s core policy would actually leave the UK anything but “independent”; in fact, it would leave it in pieces.

For varying reasons, there is no real support in Scotland or Wales to leave the EU. If it became evident that a overwhelming anti-EU vote in England could force the UK out of the EU, Scotland (particularly) and Wales may well opt out of the UK – not just because they want to remain in the EU, but also because it would be further evidence of how different their political interests are from England’s. It is possible that an EU exit would also see the constitutional question put back on the table in Northern Ireland in a way which is not currently conceivable (not least if there are ructions in Scotland).

In short, it is hard to see how the UK stays together outside the EU. That’s one for Conservatives and Unionists to ponder, surely.

“Nordic Model” horribly misunderstood

Does Scandinavia want Scotland, asked a BBC Radio 4 programme recently. Not really, was the frank response. But it was taken for granted that Scotland wants Scandinavia!

Scandinavia has long been admired for its “model” (what is perceived to be its socio-economic model); but “Scandimania” (to use the name of another current TV series in the British Isles) has been further enhanced by its growing cultural reach through novels and series such as “The Killing” and “Borgen”.

For those on the Left in particular (everywhere; but particularly currently in Scotland where the independence case is centred on the notion that Scotland is fundamentally more left-wing than England), the “Nordic Model” is highly tempting. It suggests that socialism can be combined with liberalism to produce a standard of living arguably unparalleled anywhere.

However, to get the right answers you need to ask the right questions. What, in practice, is the “Nordic Model”? Is it really desirable? Most of all, is it replicable?

The “Nordic Model” is presented, particularly by outsiders (who tend to be on the Left), as a high-tax and thus high-public-spending society complete as a consequence with a generous welfare system and high levels of spending on healthcare and education. Up to a point, this is true – in the industrial world, Denmark and Sweden in particular are notable for their high taxes, specifically high profit and income taxes (some around double those in the British Isles).

However, there is rather more to it than that. Strong property rights and the expectation that citizens will participate in the workforce are often ignored by foreign proponents; as is the focus on family (which leads to enviable care spending both on children and older people). Although some areas of business are highly regulated, the market itself isn’t – something which is more Liberal than Socialist. Also, public services are by no means always provided by the public sector – notably in Denmark, where even the Ambulance Service is privatised.

Also, there are practical out workings, some of which are not emphasised. As a consequence of high taxes, it is arguably easier for smaller businesses to become established (as high taxes and consequential high tax regulation level the playing field); but as a consequence of that, a national minimum wage would be impractical. Instead, wage levels are negotiated by vocation – Unions are big but moderate. Another consequence, arguably, is that property booms (and indeed property ownership generally) become much less likely, and property prices themselves remain low. On the other hand, the lower premium on property also means that Scandinavians typically live in smaller homes – it is much more common, for example, for two children to share the same room until into their teens. But then that means that children cannot wait to leave home. Grown-ups living with parents beyond age 20 is almost unknown across Scandinavia – but they tend to end up in rented flats rather than mortgaged houses. High taxes mean higher prices in the shops (but not on property – thus the overall cost of living is probably roughly even with comparable countries for those living in Scandinavia; it is much higher for those visiting), which in turn limits consumerism, and in turn means out-of-town shopping centres and such like are very unusual.

It is noteworthy also that the system has had a limited lifespan thus far. Will it work for a century or more? Possibly not – some trends, notably on growing inequality, are going the wrong way. Integration of large numbers of immigrants within the system – some who may not share the assumptions of those used to it – is proving challenging (and each country is going about it in very different ways).

Is this actually desirable, therefore? It is a completely different way of life from that in the British Isles. On the positive, probably, less money is spent on property, smaller businesses have a real chance, and society is in general more equitable. On the negative, there are less options in shops and restaurants, living accommodation can be more cramped, and prices for goods are extremely high. If you are used to that, it probably works quite well. But we’re not! Indeed, serious questions have been asked about whether it is really desirable in Scandinavia itself. For example, the British Left won’t mention too often that, in the past generation, public spending has been slashed by a third in Sweden and hire-and-fire has been implemented in Denmark. Also, the specifically Nordic way of life is perceived to be under threat from globalisation by some – hence anti-immigration movements now hold, have held or are about to hold the balance of power in all of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Is all that desirable?!

Definitely Western Europe’s lowest life expectancy (Denmark; though Scotland’s taken alone is lower still); Europe’s highest murder rate (Finland); Europe’s sickliest workforce (Norway); and a European country to have lost both its Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to assassination within the last 30 years (Sweden) would demonstrate that it’s not all desirable. Of course Denmark and Norway paint themselves as green countries reliant on renewables – all while being Europe’s leading exporters of fossil fuels; Sweden paints itself as neutral while being a leading arms exporter. Desirable hypocrisy?!

Even if this is still largely desirable – and, even while not of the Left, I must say I still find it tempting on my thankfully frequent visits to these wonderful countries – the real question is whether it could be replicated in any part of the British Isles. There, the answer is comprehensively “no”!

The “Nordic Model” is misunderstood because it is perceived to be a socio-economic model. But actually it is a cultural model. It is underpinned by Lutheranism, and the basic sense of social responsibility which that brings. When the vote was given to landowners in 1832 in the British Isles, that enfranchised just 5%; in Norway in 1815 a similar law enfranchised 45%. The Nordic countries were already instinctively more equitable and more responsible to each other (while arguably as a consequence being less individualistic and innovative). As a result, the whole relationship with the “State” is perceived differently – in Scandinavia, broadly, the State is trusted, politicians are held in reasonable regard and the tax authorities are seen as being there to help you make your contribution; in the British Isles, the State is mistrusted, politicians are viewed with cynicism if not contempt and the tax authorities are seen as being there to catch you out (which is still an improvement on the way they are seen in the United States). As a consequence of this cultural heritage, anyone visiting the Nordic Countries will notice immediately that they are just more tranquil places; people go about their business more calmly; if anything, the worst thing about them is that life is so stable it can become tedious!

The “Nordic Model” wasn’t designed by anyone. It is a consequence of the culture and heritage of the countries in which it applies. It is hugely admirable, almost inspirational; but then it’s worth noting that most Scandinavians would say the same about the British Isles! We admire each other’s social and economic models because they (and indeed we) are so different – and yet so often complementary.

Do we need to review Big Bang Theory?

A completely off-the-wall blog post struck me as a good way to introduce 2014 – almost literally.

Gamma Ray Burst

It was not widely reported, but the beginning of 2013 saw confirmation of a truly startling astronomical discovery – and the end of 2013 saw confirmation of one twice as startling.

It has long been known that the Earth forms part of the Solar System which forms part of the Milky Way Galaxy which forms part of the Local Group of Galaxies which forms part of the Virgo Supercluster of Galaxy Groups.

To put this back on earth, it is almost like living in a neighbourhood in a district of a city which forms part of a county which forms part of a province/state, for example. The neighbourhood is the Solar System, the province/state is the Supercluster.

There is an argument, however, that with increasing populations cities are increasingly merging – the ultimate example of this, arguably, is the East Coast of the United States, which may now be seen to constitute effectively a single interdependent urban coastal zone running all the way from Boston to Washington DC.

In the same way it is increasingly being recognised that galaxies and clusters of galaxies can form “filaments” – vast interconnected (gravitationally bound) strings of galaxies. Similarly huge groups of quasars have been established too.

Here is the problem: it is increasingly the case that groups of quasars (most obviously in January 2013 the Huge-LQG) and filaments (most obviously in November 2013 the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall) are being found, which are simply too big to have formed since the Big Bang.

The Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall is a staggering 9.8 billion light years across (more than double the Huge-LQG, previously the biggest structure on record). Or, to be precise, it was 9.8 billion light years across when the light left it that we see on Earth – almost exactly 10 billion years ago… but that means we are seeing it as it was less than 3.8 billion years after the Big Bang, at which stage it could not possibly have grown to that size…

I am merely the most amateur of amateur astronomers, having long since lost the telescope I was given for my ninth birthday! However, it does strike me that we are finding so many gravity-bound structures of this scale, that the Big Bang theory as we currently understand it needs a fundamental re-write.

A few amateur thoughts about what we have wrong:

1. Could we have the age of the Universe/time of the Big Bang wrong? I suggest we could, but by nothing like enough to make a structure of the size of the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall to have grown (the current estimate is around 13.8 billion years; this Great Wall would need it to be more like 30 billion!)

2. Could large gravitationally bound structures somehow overcome expanding space and/or the Cosmological Constant? One essential feature of the Universe is that not only can/do objects move away from us at up to the speed of light, but space itself if expanding (theoretically even at faster than the speed of light, though current estimates suggest it is at a relatively constant, though historically varying, rate) – this means we can actually “see” objects/structures more than 13.8 billion light years away. This expanding space is not relevant to the local cluster of galaxies, because they are gravitationally bound. Is it possible that somehow gravity can (or, more likely, once upon a time could) overcome this constant expansion of space, thus merging structures into the vast sizes we see? I doubt it.

3. Could structures such as the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall actually be in, er, another Universe? Perhaps, to put this another way, is it possible there was more than one “Big Bang”? Hmm… I have not seen any experts posit this option. Should they?!

4. Could there have been more than one Big Bang time-wise? In other words, is it possible that there was one around 13.8 billion years ago, but that it was merely one of many – perhaps happening every 20 billion years or so? I doubt this, as evidence would already have been obvious.

5. Is there something wrong with our model of exactly what happened when the Big Bang occurred – perhaps specifically with something like the rates of expansion we have applied to it historically, or perhaps just generally? This seems the most likely, yet the rates of expansion suggested are already unbelievable.

It’s all very odd. Perhaps Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan could help us sort it out?!

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