Category Archives: International

Austria real cause for alarm

Bist du schwarz oder rot?” (“Are you black or red”) was the first question I was asked upon arrival to stay with a family in the Vienna suburbs in 1993. I have never forgotten it. Now, it really matters. 

For all our parochial concerns about devolved elections and even “Brexit”, perhaps the most significant political event in our lives occurred yesterday, in the form of the resignation of the Chancellor (head of government) of Austria.

Post-War Austria developed a system of “pillarisation” known as “Proporz”, whereby almost everyone was identified politically as “black” (centre-right, a supporter of the People’s Party) or “red” (centre-left, a supporter of the Social Democrats). Those two parties dominated elections, after which they almost invariably formed a Grand Coalition and dished out initiatives, ministries and even appointments in everything from the civil service to banks in proportion to size. (Indeed it was believed that even foreigners fell into one or the other, hence the question above.)

As the generations passed and memories of post-War occupation receded, younger people began to turn away from the two great monoliths and the allocations of appointments associated with them (one man’s “fair apportionment of appointments” is another man’s “corruption”), and parties such as the Liberals and Greens saw their chance. Unfortunately, the party which best grasped the opportunity was the Freedom Party, nominally liberal but really populist-conservative, led by the late Jörg Haider. He developed his own political base in the south of the country and rose from there to come second in the 2000 elections, thus securing a place in government. As Austria is associated in most outsiders’ minds with another right-wing leader of a not dissimilar name, foreign governments were appalled but there was little they could do.

Herr Haider was killed in a single-car crash, and so it was thought his movement would decline. This was another lesson of history not learned. Renewed and reunited, it won the first round of the presidential election last month ahead of an Independent Green, with the two great monoliths placed fourth and fifth behind another centrist independent.

Inevitably, below all this, there is a strong cultural and historical imperative. Austrians celebrate the fact, for example, that Ottoman Muslims made it as far as Vienna in the mid 17th century but no further; thus, the underlying notion that it is a Christian country is strong. There is also, among large sections of the population, an acute sense of loss; Vienna is the capital of a country of only 9 million, but any visitor can see it is obviously designed and built to be an imperial capital (as it was for centuries). Austria also never underwent the process of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” taken on in neighbouring (West) Germany after the War.

Why does this matter to us? By some measures, Austria is the most prosperous country in the EU except tiny Luxembourg. If its democracy is collapsing into crazed anti-immigration populism, no democracy is secure from it. It is also a significant warning to those who believe that collapse of the established political order is necessarily a good thing – in fact, if it is not properly managed and planned (as inevitably it isn’t), it is invariably a recipe for chaos.

For us in Northern Ireland, the post-Agreement generation is finding not that our politics is becoming more like everyone else’s, but that everyone else’s is becoming more like ours. In response to ever more complex issues (such as the refugee crisis), the population is turning for comfort to people offering ever more simplistic answers.

This is a bad time to be a liberal democrat.

#Brexiteers – what happens to EU workers?

I am going to use the Tuesday slot on this blog to ask those proposing “Brexit” a few questions, since they are the ones proposing change.

The first concerns workers from different EU states. What would happen to workers from other EU states currently working in the UK? And what would happen to workers and retirees from the UK living elsewhere in the EU?

The answer can’t be “nothing”, otherwise this would not be an issue raised at all. But it is also reasonable to assume it will work the same way in both directions – noting that 2 million nationals of other EU states live in the UK and 2 million UK nationals life elsewhere in the EU.


“Norwegian Model” plus influence gives UK best of both worlds

For months now, supporters of so-called “Brexit” promoted the benefits of the “Norwegian Model” – a mythical land where access to the Single Market is secured while the country is protected from the perils of currency union, political integration and shared immigration policy.

Last Friday, David Cameron delivered just that – except the UK remains at the table, not only for EU issues but even for Eurozone issues where they affect the UK.

The UK is left in an enviable position. It is part of the world’s largest free trading bloc but shielded from having to contribute to Eurozone bail-outs; it has full access to the single market but does not have to participate in common migrant or refugee re-settlements; it can retain its alliances in Europe within a common agreed framework while also firmly committed to intelligence sharing, investment and cultural exchange with North America and Australasia.

The UK, in other words, is firmly rooted where it should be – at the centre of the civilised industrial world’s axis, speaking the world’s most spoken language, trading in the world’s largest free trade zone, operating as a global hub without obvious parallel.

If we trust Messrs Farage, Galloway and Grayling to come up with an alternative plan we could, of course, choose to throw this all away on 23 June. I know what my choice will be.

EU is all gain, no cost

This is, literally, a random UK tax bill (shared last week on social media) – showing how taxes are allocated.


Now, spot the EU contribution…

And here is the thing – outside the EU, many others of these expenditures would increase:

  • Health costs would increase as reciprocal arrangements, generally advantageous to UK taxpayers since the British spend more time in other EU states than vice-versa, would likely be withdrawn;
  • Education costs would rise as Erasmus opportunities and other exchanges became more limited (ask any Norwegian about that);
  • Defence costs would rise as it became harder to form mutual arrangements under common regulatory frameworks, notably key ones with France;
  • Public Order and Safety costs would increase as data sharing inevitably became more limited;
  • Culture would become more expensive and cultural exchange became trickier;
  • Business costs would increase (no doubt with some government assistance required) to overcome tariffs now introduced with our largest export market – this would likely also see utility costs rise;
  • Government administration would increase as functions currently pooled with 27 other states (not least negotiating overall trade deals) had to be managed by one alone;
  • … and this is all before we get to the point that the average household would have less to contribute in tax because the cost of imports would have risen.

“Brexit” would cost. Be in no doubt about it.

Time for Cameron to step aside from EU debate

If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

One of the most astonishing moments of the Scottish independence referendum was when the three “unionist” party leaders shared a platform to explain “The Vow”. So badly had the “No” campaign been run, that it ended up doing the explaining – going into detail about what staying in the UK would mean. A less complacent and better run campaign would never have been in such a position; it would have forced the “Yes” side to do all the explaining (as Alasdair Darling had done successfully in the first debate), leaving all the uncertainty on the “Yes” side. As it was, it was left almost as unclear what a “No” vote would mean as a “Yes” vote – and a 30-point lead was reduced by two thirds come polling day.

Prime Minister David Cameron is now at risk of doing the same thing. He is spending far too much time discussing what his “reforms” are all about, at the expense of the much more fundamental debate about what is in the interests of households across the UK. The referendum question does not ask what we think of Mr Cameron’s reforms, nor (note well) what we think of Mr Cameron himself. It asks simply whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union. That, and only that, is the issue.

Mr Cameron would be best, therefore, stepping aside now. His “reforms” are largely irrelevant. The issue is whether the UK wishes to remain part of the world’s largest free trade bloc (with the range of advantages that brings from a lower cost of living to an enhanced role on the global stage), or leave it and be sidelined (with all the uncertainties that brings from tariffs on food an electrical items to border controls and limited opportunities for R&D, science and agriculture).

As families for the first time in nearly a decade get used to wages rising in real terms but continue to be wary of global economic conditions, as we are faced with the greatest humanitarian horror on our frontier since at least the collapse of Yugoslavia, and as our free and democratic way of life is threatened by everything from Middle East terrorism to Far Eastern economic expansion, whether a few people have to wait a year or four years for in-work benefits is frankly neither here nor there.

Leaving the EU could see our holiday entitlements reduced; it could see the cost of living raised by up to £3000 per household; it could restrict our ability to seek trade, educational opportunities or even holidays in Continental Europe; it could destabilise the UK itself (with a second Scottish independence referendum and border controls re-introduced in Ireland); it could lead to American administrative, business and even military interests being transferred from the UK to a new “special relationship” with Germany, left as undoubted leader of Europe in the UK’s absence; it could see the withdrawal of CAP and PEACE funds from the UK’s periphery, enhancing the wealth gap between north and south (to the marked detriment of Northern Ireland); and it could see investment and jobs flow away from the UK, leaving our young people trapped with few opportunities (in a country which long ago lost its export base).

Proponents of “Leave” may want to deny some or all of the above. Let us hear them do so. Levels of child benefit for Romanians have nothing to do with anything – this debate is about the fundamental risk to our cost of living, job opportunities and social well-being that tearing us apart from the EU could cause. So let us have this debate, without delay.


Sweden causing harm by trying to be nice

I wrote late last year about how it is necessary to judge policies not by their intentions but by their outcomes. The (relatively) new Swedish Government is finding that out the hard way – adopting policies of no doubt noble intention which are actually causing considerable harm.

(Relatively) new Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom intervened several times in recent weeks on the topic of Israel’s “extrajudicial killings”. What she said was absolutely justified. However, it has seen her banned from Israel, and that is a serious problem – Sweden has traditionally been seen as a neutral broker in moving the Israel-Palestine process forward, but has now succeeded in removing itself from that role. This is all for the sake of a few words which, while justified, were actually never going to help move things forward. They drew and inevitable response from Israel which will result in more damage than good.

Of course, more well known is Sweden’s ludicrous immigration policy. It was no doubt a policy of fine intention for Sweden to throw its doors open to refugees from across the Middle East and North Africa. However, the outcome has been vast pressure on Sweden’s public services, huge difficulties at the borders of the European Union as people seek passage through, and most of all that refugees have arrived in the “promised land” with no realistic prospect of building a career there. News that police have been covering up prosecutions for crimes, most notably sex attacks, committed by refugees from Afghanistan, is just a subset of this tendency – it is well intentioned to try to stop news of such things spreading fear among the broader population, but in the end it makes this far worse when the news does spread.

To be very clear, this very blog will show that I have been opposed to Israel’s current government’s warmongering, and supportive of accepting more refugees than we are in Northern Ireland. However, going too far, even with good intentions, can have negative and even dangerous consequences.

Countries like Sweden, which have not always been in position to provide moral leadership but may feel justified in doing so now, need to do better than naively pursuing policies whose negative practical consequences anyone can foresee. Europe’s response to the Middle East in general is an incoherent mess, but while we have a duty to get this right morally, we also have a duty to get it right practically. To fail in the latter is to contribute to worsening the problem, not solving it.

Judge policies by outcomes, not intentions

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has drawn significant support from other populist hard left groups, like Sinn Féin. This is the same Sinn Féin which backed Syriza before it wrecked the Greek economy just as it was entering recovery mode and, of course, the same Sinn Féin which backed Hugo Chávez and his faction in Venezuela.

Chávez’ policies have just been rejected by the Venezuelan electorate. Astoundingly, it turns out there is rather more to delivering fairness and equality than just talking about how nice it is. It is reasonable, indeed necessary, to take account not of Señor Chávez’ intentions (regardless of how you view them), and look instead at the outcomes.

Venezuela 1999-2015

Ahem. Poverty up, crime up, access to goods down, corruption up, economic development down. And all this in a country with vast natural resources whose neighbours have been doing well on most or often all of those measures. Oh dear.

Who governs a country actually matters surprisingly little, which makes it truly astonishing when a government manages to wreck a country completely. But that is what Chávez managed in Venezuela. That is the same Chávez endorsed all the way by Sinn Féin, who are now busily endorsing Corbyn. The voters of Ireland and, in due course, the UK, will take note no doubt.

Outcomes not intentions, remember?!

BBC a jewel which must be protected

The BBC has its faults – its priorities can be exasperating; it can engage in odd capital projects; its news focus can be unhelpful. However, it is quite possibly the single biggest accomplishment of the post-war UK – a global phenomenon, respected and even revered everywhere.

Quite why any government would seek to tamper with that mystifies me.

I was driving towards O’Hare Airport in Chicago late one night in 2001 when the local radio went over to through-the-night coverage provided by the BBC. I arrived at a hotel in Copenhagen in 2007 to find the computer used for internet access had its homepage set to the BBC. I noted in Cologne last year that BBC-branded Attenborough videos were prominent among potential Christmas gifts. Is there any UK business which has attained anything like this level of global coverage and automatic respect?

To us within the UK, we have an impartial news service; an outstanding history of drama and comedy; protected sports events; superb entertainment (both internally and externally sourced); and magnificent documentaries and learning programmes – all available on an array of TV and radio channels, via On Demand services, or on an outstanding web site.

The Economist recently reported, on the basis of a range of sources, that the UK has the largest “soft cultural” reach and influence in the world, bar none. The BBC is the corner stone of that – in addition to its outstanding range of local and national broadcasting and web services within the UK.

The BBC is a jewel. Only a fool would risk it.

Tackle China to tackle Climate Change

I do not write much about environmental issues for the simple reason that I am not an environmental scientist and, thus, know very little about them. That does not mean I do not think them important; it is simply that I prefer to choose subjects about which I am at least halfway informed.

However, there is one straightforward statistic about the share of global greenhouse emissions accounted for by each of the world’s three largest economies:

  • China 24%
  • United States 13%
  • European Union 9%

Of course, there are more people in China than in the United States and Europe combined – the United States in particular still emits more greenhouse gases per person than China does (although that is no longer true of the European Union). However, China’s economy is roughly the same size as the United States’ alone, or as Europe’s alone (i.e. all three are about equal size with each other), and yet China accounts for more harmful releases into our atmosphere than the United States and Europe combined. In other words, if China’s exponential economic growth continues and its (car-driving, factory-building, plane-flying middle class grows as expected by hundreds of millions), even its per capita emissions will come vastly to outstrip even those of the United States.

So the problem is not really ours, right? It is up to China to put its house in order?

Sort of. There is no doubt that China, and the Far East generally, will be much more dangerous to the environment than North America or Europe in decades to come. Any direct action taken by the West to limit climate change could be rendered almost irrelevant by Chinese growth. Yet it may still be decades before a burgeoning Chinese professional class is in a strong enough position both to recognise the problem and persuade compatriots to do something about it.

However, on what basis is the Chinese economy (and thus potential to damage the environment) growing? Well, by selling “stuff” to the West, in large part.

So, there is something quite obvious we in the West could do to protect the environment. We could stop buying this “stuff”. By doing so, we would limit the growth of the Chinese economy (thus giving more time to find a means to grow it without rapidly rising emissions from a country accounting for more people than North America and Europe combined), and we would even reduce transport costs.

That is a “win-win”, surely? Well, of course, it would mean the “stuff” we did buy would be made in Western countries with employee rights, health services and welfare systems as opposed to one where these basics do not exist. We would be doing our bit not just for the environment but also for human rights, but that “stuff” would, therefore, be considerably more expensive.

So, what about it…?


Solidarité – but with Beirut too

When three people were murdered in a terrorist atrocity in Boston, Twitter went in to meltdown. When 147 students were gunned down in Kenya in April, however, we just scrolled on.

This is something which is not completely irrational, but it should concern us.

"ISIS" also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

“ISIS” also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

Likewise, at the weekend Daesh (or “ISIS”) carried out attacks of unimaginable brutality in Paris and Beirut. The former got almost all the public attention.

This is understandable. More of us have visited Paris and were likely to know people currently in Paris than Beirut. Paris is also more like us – a Western city in an established democracy.

In the case of Paris, we in the West (many familiar with the city) were able to relate better to acts of inhumane brutality but also of astonishing kindness and heroism (and superb journalism too, not least by some of our own). We were genuinely shaken by such fear and terror so close to home in every sense. Of course we connected to it more closely than to the attacks in Lebanon.

However, it is also greatly disconcerting – or, at least, it should be. What we are saying really is either that we place an economic value on life (therefore people killed in the West are more important than people killed on the Developing World); or worse still that we care more about those who are like us. Or both. To emphasise: this is not irrational – but it matters.

The fundamental implication is that if we accept that we care more about those who are close to us or about those whose lives have economic value, we accept that social justice is impossible. Logically, we tell the rest of the world, even the best educated in poor countries, that in fact we do not care about them. They can burn hundreds at a time for all we care. How do we expect them to respond to that?

Worse, how does this notion that we care primarily about those who are like us play out even within our own homeland? Do we care more about those of the same class, or same locality, or same religion, or even same race? Is this not all on the spectrum somewhere? If so, we probably need to address it, at least to some extent.

To be clear, I had hardly noticed Kenya and I probably noted Beirut only because refugees from there were among my childhood friends. I am as guilty as anyone else. However, we do need to ask ourselves what the implications are of who we care about and who we don’t.


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