Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Putting the Pieces Together

''Lebanon is more than a country - it is a message.'' So said the Pope when he visited Beirut in 1997, as the country was picking up the pieces of civil war and its way towards peaceful coexistence. ''A country of many religious faiths, Lebanon has shown that these different faiths can live together in peace, brotherhood and cooperation.''

Since then, Hariri's assassination, the 2006 war with Israel, and the recent murder of General Francois Hajj - tipped to become head of the army as part of the effort to resolve Lebanon's presidential impasse - have strained that metaphor to breaking point. But its relevance remains.

If Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Druse, and Jewish people cannot live in peace in Lebanon - where they have coexisted for millennia - what hope is there for the modern multicultural state, where doctrines of ethno-natural unity are increasingly challenged (the far right would say 'undermined') by migration and labour mobility?

Prior to this, my first trip to Lebanon, I would have been equally sceptical . Constant reference to sectarian tension across the media over the past few months seemed to point to the fact that these people simply couldn't live together, despite the best efforts of an elite political class to find consensus. Yet on arrival I found that the opposite is true.

Most people I met, from all sides of the religious spectrum, agreed they couldn't trust their politicians and that it is foreign interference, not personal grievance, which is responsible for much of the tension. Many also point to the quota system, whereby posts are parcelled out by politicians on strict sectarian lines, as a major factor in discouraging national unity. Change, they believe, can only come from the bottom up when citizens - tired of war, enmity and insecurity - take on their leaders and demand a fresh start.

It has worked before. Mass demonstrations following the murder of former PM Rafik Hariri, where sixty percent of the country, largely peacefully, picketed the parliament - leaving only young children, the elderly, and infirm at home - forced the Syrians out. And although Damascus' influence still hangs over the country, popular protest has largely delegitimised it.

I wouldn't want to speak too soon on the Lebanese situation. As my travelling companion pointed out, you only start to understand Lebanon once you realise how complicated the whole country is. However I do believe, from my brief exposure to its form of multiculturalism, that this country can give Europe some pointers when it comes to countering the recent upsurge in support for extreme right ideologies.
From what I was told, Lebanon's problems stem from politicisation of difference in the aftermath of Ottoman occupation, both during the French protectorat where Christians were given the upper hand, and post-independence, as part of the struggle over who had the right to claim the country for its respective tradition.

Conversely, the rise of racism and xenophobia in Europe is linked to the perceived threat to our dominant cultural norms by recent immigrants, be these norms secular - as is the case in France - or religious. Whether it's bans on Christmas nativity plays or bans on headscarves, there's a war being fought on our continent on whose sensitivities win the day. Yet one thing we have not realised -that the Lebanese have, after decades of fruitless civil war - is that there can be no winner in these stand offs.

We can - and they did - argue long and hard about who has the 'right' to dominant cultural expression but if we cannot recognise the diversity that exists on the ground (much of which, in Europe's case, was simply airbrushed out of the history books for the fiction of national unity in the face of minority cultures ) then we will never reach a resolution to current problems.

With time, Britain absorbed the Angles, the Saxons, the Picts, the Vikings, the Normans and the Danes. It welcomed Jews, Irish and Italians who now fit seemlessly into our understanding of who we, the British people, are. Why should we not expect the same from the cultures of recent migrants, while acknowledging that it will take a while for the rough edges to be smoothed through cultural acclimatisation?

The Lebanese example does not show sects mixing to the point of homogeneity - as Europe's integrationists, and many policy makers, increasingly demand. It does not demand an iron secularism, that precludes religious debate, for nowhere is religion a stronger force than in this tiny territory. Equally, experience of war exposes the pretence of the extreme right that the majority can simply exercise an iron fist over the minority and 'send them all back home' without a measure of violent payback.

With 12% of Europe's population of migrant descent, and growing, we are well past the point where people should seriously be entertaining old ethno-national ideas of cultural supremacy. But we are. A 2004 poll revealed that 33% of Europeans consider themselves racist, yet Europe needs migrants like never before to support its growth and social services in the face of population decline. Why? One reason must be the propensity for our leaders, like the Lebanese, to use these problems to their own advantage and create electoral dividends.

When people like you and me stop simply listening to media scaremongering, and go out and meet our neighbours, learn to understand their differences, and start to treat them as human beings, then - and only then - will we find the kind of solutions we can all learn to live with.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Work Worries

Here's a query....what do you do when you have too much work and too little time?

a) cancel your weekend to do it - in this case an all expenses paid trip to a conference in Beirut?

b) do as much as you can, take the plane, turn the phone off - and deal with the fall out upon your return?

c) admit as much to the boss - then when he tells you it's gotta be done before Monday, offer to resign in the hope that not doing it in time isn't worth the hassle of replacing you??!

Phone lines open now! Amusing anecdotes welcomed

Monday, 10 December 2007

To Greet or Not to Greet?

Christmas Cards. A time honoured way of keeping in touch. An opportunity to send out some festive cheer at an otherwise gloomy time of year. A chance to donate to charity without buying fair trade products you never really wanted.

An ecological disaster??

Think about it. All that paper produced, then discarded. All those postal miles involved with their atendent emissions (unless you're using a pigeon or the services of a friendly group of Boy Scouts who run around your neighbourhood with a satchel). All that money wasted on disposable goods.
Is this the kind of social institution the ecologically-minded should partake in at Christmas? After all, religious festivals are times when we should be thinking more about our values, and how to exercise them in daily life, not simply abandoning them to conventions.

There are many who resolve this dilemma by way of 'e-greetings'. These can be all singing, all dancing affairs, that let you deal with all your pesky friends and relatives in one batch mailing. And at little, or no, expense. But somehow, it's not quite the same.

Now, I don't think I am being overly sentimental or nostalgic here. It's just that the effect is in direct proportion to the effort involved. Just ask any lobbyist. That's human nature.
If someone remembers you, puts in the effort to find your current address, and scribbles a personal greeting on paper (especially given how little we hand-write anything these days!), it makes the world seem a better, friendlier, more considerate place. It'll sit on the mantlepiece for weeks, be read and re-read, maybe even stored away as a mark of human warmth.

If someone sends the same mass greeting to everyone they've ever met it will be opened and deleted without the same magic ingredient - remembrance. It's intangible, ephemeral, lacking in personal thought. So, in a curious way, not only does it not convey its purported 'best wishes' but it acts as a reminderof all that is lacking in many human relationships. Others seem remote, distant, cold. And that is most certainly not the message of Christmas, let alone the intention of the average sender.
Christmas is one of the few times we really take the trouble to remember friends and family. That's why we need to continue to take the trouble to show them we care. And the less virtual communication involved, the better. After all, it's only once a year folks. And if you really don't want to send a card? Make a phone call or pay them a visit instead ;)

Friday, 7 December 2007

Join the Fight Against 'Inactive Women'

I've long maintained that, despite its ostensible focus on individualism, our society is becoming increasingly one-dimensional and conformist.

One casualty of the capitalist-materialist world in which we live is that the family, indeed, human relations in general, is paid little more than lip service by policy makers who view life exclusively in economic terms.

People are no longer treated as citizens but workers, taxpayers and consumers who matter, if at all, only in terms of their productivity and spending power. Little attention is paid to what other factors are necessary for a pleasant, fulfilling, and ultimately ethical, stay on this planet of ours.

Thus people are educated not so they can gain knowledge, insight, or creativity but so they do not place a burden on the state. Innovation is important not to improve lives but so we can produce more, faster, than ever before. Witness so-called labour saving devices, which, far from giving us more time for leisure and family, simply allow us to spend more hours in the office.

People must keep healthy not so they can profit more from life but so they can work harder. Of course, if they are so foolish as to smoke, or to get old, then they must accept being treated as human trash for which our economy (read society) no longer has any use.

It is clear that the 'government machine' is more interested in perfecting its various systems - the prison system, the education system, the health system - sorry, 'service' - than responding to the real and varied needs of human beings.

This is disturbing because it means that citizens have gone from being the ideological end, to the means, of democratic government. Ministers are more interested in managing the systems in place than rethinking them in terms of what citizens actually want.

That wouldn't be so bad European States claimed to be feudal oligarchies instead of liberal democracies - then we would all understand the deal. But we are simultaneously proferred the illusion of political choice by parties whose policies are little different and no real means of changing anything.

What if I don't want to live in an atomistic, selfish, and material society where consumer goods are prioritised - for example - above social relations and solidarity. What if I don't want to live in a society where I only really exist if I am young, pretty and dynamic? What happens if I don't want to live in a society where the old, infirm, disabled or simply dumb, are sidelined? Where everyone must conform - or be discarded.

No-one is spared this relentless economisation (if that's indeed a word). Witness a recent European Commission press release which pointed the finger at all the inactive women out there who are sacrificing their economic prime to - gasp - raise their children, look after their parents, and get an education.

Not surprisingly, the UK won the war against 'inactive women' before anyone else. That is the predictable legacy of Thatcherite policies that cut welfare for (single) mothers and force children into full-time schooling at the age of three. Compared to our near neighbour Ireland, where 30% of women are 'inactive' due to family responsiblities, the figure in Britain is only 1.9%.

However I fail to see why this should be a blueprint for the rest of Europe to follow. A few more statistics are necessary to see why. Britain has the lowest productivity and job security on the continent - surely no coincidence. British kids are the most depressed in Europe according to recent OECD figures, have the lowest educational attainment in the EU, and are most likely to take drugs and be involved in knife crime.

Perhaps it's time we stopped taking such a reductive attitude towards work-life balance. It is not good enough just to shove as many people as possible into professions. It is also necessary to raise non-dysfunctional children into a society where people can once again learn to take responsibility for their local community, environment, and yes, occasionally, their own family.

Not that this should be too prescriptive. I am a firm believer in the fact that what works for one, will not necessarily work for all. But people should be given a real choice, and a real voice, when it comes to determining the priorities that drive our society, and indeed, their own lives. Forcing all women into the workplace is as violent a violation of our rights as the Victorian practice of forcing us to stay at home with our children.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Customer Service, Belgian Style

I have done a number of posts in the past about Belgium's peculiar attitude towards the customer. And the stories just keep on coming.

Not only does customer service, as the Western World knows it, simply not exist here but I'd be surprised if Belgians were even aware of the concept.

What we have instead is some kind of proto-Soviet attitude that means the service provider is doing YOU a favour, rather than the other way round. This is partly because monopolies are still such a part of life here. Every commune is linked to a specific gas, electricity, or cable company so you either go through them, or go without.

As such, I find myself having to visit friends in a different commune to watch BBC 2 which is unavailable in Ixelles, but available over the road in Etterbeek. No one has yet taken me up on my offer to let them watch Rai 2, Italy's answer to the BBC, featuring semi-naked girls in cages and endless chat-shows.

Rather less surprisingly, this attitude is firmly engrained in the so-called public services. Now I cannot really argue with transport in this country. Trains run on time, there are eco-trams galore, and nothing is too expensive. However they are rather less than flexible.

Witness a recent train trip I took to Ypres with a friend to visit the World War One Battlefields. I arrived, somewhat late, at the platform and she had bought the ticket in advance. I say ticket because, despite asking for 'deux aller-retour' both our names were on the one piece of paper. No problem, I thought to myself, we'll sort this out later.

That evening, after our tour, we returned to the station. I would just like to point out that Ypres 's main income derives from the countless Brits, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who come to see the trenches and cemeteries for themselves.

So when I approached the station attendant I was a little surprised to note that his English was rather patchy. I intimated the problem, accompanied by lots of ticket waving and pointing. Two people, one ticket, I mimed. I want to leave now (the train was about to pull up), she wants to leave three hours later, after the last post is played at the Menin gate.

"No problem", he said, "that will be 7 euros 90". I was taken aback. "But I've already paid for my ticket", I said. Thinking he hadn't understood the first time, I pointed out that we didn't want to travel together. "OK, then, he said, that'll be 7 euros 90". Frustrated, I raised my voice, at which point his English, rather conveniently, disappeared altogether.

I tried again in French. After all, the Flemish are always praised for their linguistic aptitude and it is an official language of Belgium, after all. He replied in Dutch. Language Politics - what a nightmare.

The train drew out of the station. I paid my seven euros and went to the bar.

It's Another Case of Blair versus Brown

People say politics these days is all style over substance. After a decade of Smiler's spin, followed by Blair-lite Cameron, it seemed that what we all craved, what we all longed for, was a little more content. Apparently we overestimated ourselves. But is that such a bad thing?

First Ming the Merciless, the Liberal Democrats elder statesman, went the way of the Dodo because he was deemed too old and uncharismatic to revive the Party's flagging fortunes. Now Brown the Steady, torchbearer of reason and responsible policy making back in the dark days of Tony's wars of religion, has become something of a national liability.

The media cites incompetence. But I'm hard pressed to see how the mistakes of an Inland Revenue underling in Newcastle, or under-funded political rivals, can really be blamed on the Prime Minister, even if he had known about them at some level. And they certainly needn't have spiralled so far out of control.

Gordon Brown's problem is not so much what happened but how he handled it. Tony Blair managed to cause civil war in Iraq, sell honours for cash, and make parents pay thousands for their child's education and he still survived.

Politicians make a hash of things all the time. That comes as no surprise. All the public expects from them, I suppose, is a modicum of sleek professionalism when it comes to handling difficulties. Some convincing spin to lend style, polish, and coherence to even the most preposterous of situations.

Why? Because no one likes to watch leaders losing control of a situation, however much they might enjoy backbiting. Indeed we almost admire it, a politician who can rise to the challenge, shrug off his opponents with a pointed quip, and stare down adversity - even when he is in the wrong.

"Making chaos out of order" as Vince Cable MP described it the other day, is the worst of politics' cardinal sins precisely because it reinforces the public's worst fear that life, the world, and everything, is infinitely more chaotic and unmanageable than we dare admit.

We expect politicians to reassure us with at least the semblance of order, in the same way that we expect political ideologies and manifestos to give us the semblance of choice and control. When either becomes unstuck we are faced with the fact that politics is largely a matter of amateur guesswork rather than the science of government.

So when it comes to the contest between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne I know who I' m going to vote for. Up until yesterday, when I attended the hustings in the European Parliament, I was convinced Huhne was my man. He has ideas, writes well, comes to the point. An original thinker, a new departure, a man capable of reconciling social liberals and economic liberals? So it looked on paper.

In the flesh however, I was struck by the feeling there was no real contest. While Huhne is clearly capable of providing the Party with the intellectual thrust it needs he doesn't seem to have the empathy, engagement, or conviction to sell his ideas - and make others believe in them. It was like he had simply memorised his briefing and trotted it out, with a couple of compulsory 'human interest' stories thrown in, when he was in fact the leading force behind much new Party policy.

Nick Clegg, by contrast, whose Leadership campaign stole most of its ideas from other Members, and who doesn't seem to be at the cutting edge of Lib Dem policy making (if such a thing exists) came across as ideologically involved and believable. He had heart, charisma, humour in abundance. And by combining these with some intelligent, well-balanced responses, managed to win over an audience which had previously seemed quite evenly split.

That is not to say either would be a bad choice. They are both very capable people who, in my opinion, stand head and shoulders above the Iron Chancellor and Chameleon Cameron. But seeing them together in a room reminded me of nothing less than Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And for all his faults, Blair's decade-long premiership gives me hope that Clegg, rather than Huhne, has the capacity to lift my party from the doldrums and restore its credibility amongst the wider public, just as Blair did Labour's. That's why he'll now get my vote for Leader.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Quo Vadis Scotland?

Following on from the previous post I thought I'd illustrate our bleak national character with Alistair Reid's much-vaunted poem 'Scotland'.

The interesting thing about this poem is not just its merciless critique of the Scots but the author's merciless attitude towards it now.

The 100 Poets Gathering in 2007 was brought to an extraordinary close when he stood, read it one final time, and burnt it.

Why? Not only because he felt he was being overly-defined by this one piece of poetry, but because Scotland in 2007, he felt, was very different from Scotland in 1971 when it was composed.

'Scotland', he said, was obsolete because Scotland has changed, moved on, abandoned its Reformation misery for a more cosmopolitan, international, less guilt-ridden existence.
I'm inclined to disagree and say rather that it has only just started to change.
Compared with the rest of Europe it is really rather isolated and inward looking, with fewer immigrants and cultural influences from outside (not counting the Poles who have come in such large numbers that we now have roadsigns and newspapers in Polish).
Furthermore, after devolution and the advent of the Scottish Parliament, it has actually become more parochial in recent years, with a press corps firmly fixated on affairs in Holyrood at the expense of the rest of the world.
This tendency may or may not be exacerbated by an SNP administration which, to give it credit, is at least Euro-friendly (cod wars aside) and has a strong record on strengthening relations with small EU member states on which it often models itself.
But back to our national charaacter. Does a nationalist election victory point towards the need to distinguish a Scottish spirit different from that of our confreres in the south? And if so does that mean turning back the clock and embracing Knoxian puritanical ways as the soul of Scotland? Only time will tell. I wonder what the rest of you think?

SCOTLAND - Alastair Reid

It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,

when larks rose on long thin strings of singing

and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.

Greenness entered the body.

The grassesshivered with presences, and sunlight

stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.

Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,

the woman from the fish-shop. 'What a day it is!'

cried I, like a sunstruck madman.

And what did she have to say for it?

Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves

as she spoke with their ancient misery:

'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'

A Marriage Made in Hell?

Scots are ascetic, Calvinist people. You can tell by our dress, our food, our temperament. Plain, unadorned, drab even, at first glance, this grim picture is leavened with an irony and self-deprecation that brings colour to our culture and saves us from ourselves.

Perhaps things are changing now: the glitz of a Glasgow night out, all fishnet tights and sequined tops, bespeaks a society unafraid of enjoyment though still too repressed to be capable of it while sober. Yet Scotland is still very much a product of, and prisoner of, mentalities ushered in during the Reformation. Mentalities which have affected Scottish cultural life in myriad different ways.

George Mackay Brown called us the "Knox-ruined nation". Works of religious art, rivalled only by those existent in Flanders, were destroyed by the iconoclasts in the mid 1500s. Along with them, he says, went a tradition of song, theatre, and story-telling going back to pagan times. After Knox, many argue, Scotland lost its medieval Catholic colour and staggered out of the Reformation in mournful black.

Like a modern-day Iraq or Afghanistan our nation turned its back on the 'heretic' past to embrace the austerity and uniformity of fundamentalist Protestantanism - an ideology that eschewed the power of images or words to bring our fallen humanity closer to God and scorned its ability to comfort in times of need. And it is only in recent times, when the Kirk lost its moral and social authority, that Scotland has opened up to change.

This is one, perhaps even the prevailing, reading of the legacy of the Scottish Reformation on Scottish culture. But is Scotland really as artistically stunted as some critics have suggested? Richard Holloway, former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh and patron of the Scottish arts set out to explore this question when he gave the St Andrew's Day lecture on "religion and art: a marriage made in hell" at Scotland House last night.

I was aware of Bishop Holloway's rather unconventional approach to religion. After all, he famously said that the Bible was an anachronism that needed to be updated to reflect liberal humanist ethics. He has led campaigns to ordain gay priests and ensure equality for all in the church, regardless of sexual orientation. He is a member of the BMA steering group on ethics and genetics and come out in favour of embryo research. He likes High Anglican traditions and incense, for heaven's sake. So I rather expected he would second Mackay Brown's point.

He started as if he were going to do so, by claiming that Scotland had never understood the basic distinction between the artist, and their often dubious morals, and the majestic sublimity of their work which, despite its lowly origins, could speak the language of beauty and truth. 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' wasn't in vogue in Knox's fire and brimstone sermons. Scots were taught humanity was weak, fallen, and above all, never to be pitied by an angry God demanding vengeance. Art could not mediate the divine, or even reflect its atributes. And therefore it too, must be corrupted and ultimately without value.

Yet, Holloway postulates that it is precisely the overwhelming rejection of human comfort, beauty, and weakness by Scotland's established church which led to the development of a strong, counter-cultural literary movement - one which had many adherents in a population with few other outlets for imagining. It led to the Scottish enlightenment, to David Hume and Walter Scott, to a 'literate, argumentative nation that exalted words, and still does'.

What Scotland's great writers did, he feels, was make room for weakness, for comfort, for hope while still retaining the Reformation sense that life was destined to be miserable, difficult, and short. That is why so much of our literature, labeled 'miserabilist' by some, is in fact infused by the empathy which comes from those who are used to suffering, who know they have fallen, who have sympathy for the failings of others - of artists whose lives were often broken and difficult.

In this respect, he argues, the Reformation had misunderstood its own sacred texts. Jesus preached compassion and mercy, not fear and terror. Scottish literature was simply reclaiming the moral ground that the official religious authorities had squandered - and it was its compassion that made it morally valid.

To that extent, Holloway believes, art and the Bible share a common purpose: to explore the tension between good and evil, between despair and hope, that is an integral part of human existence and needs to be explained somehow, whether through poetry, myth, or sacred writing.
Although he believes personally that the Bible is a human creation which reflects the values and (often misogynist) expectations of its time, putting him at odds with more mainstream literalist Christians), he also argues that the overarching themes it addresses - the themes, after all of all great literature - are universal and relevant to all human beings.

As such, he says, it makes no difference whether ethics are explored in the Bible or any other artistic work. The important thing is not the origin, divine or otherwise, but its usefulness to making our lives, and the lives of others, as beautiful, just, and fair as they possibly can be.

To which all I can say is 'Amen to that".

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Desert Dreams

It doesn't happen often that the words 'parliamentary hearing' and 'inspirational' go together. Indeed I was moved to laugh as I listened to the range of activities sponsored by our members this morning, which ranged from beer tasting to the place of Jesus in modern policy making and someone presenting a 'real' Austrian Christmas Tree to the President. Not exactly earthshattering stuff.

Something, however, did catch my eye and that something was 'Clean Power from Deserts', a conference co-hosted by the Greens, the Club of Rome and big business (another unusual combination). As I was feeling quite hungover after the two spectacular bottles of montepulciano consumed last night over dinner, I decided to go along for the duration and 'take notes' so I could retain the appearance of working without having to use my mind overly much.

On arrival, however, I was refreshed and surprised by the presentations- so surprised I even woke up and paid attention. The speakers were a range of scientists and politicians, notably the former head of the Club of Rome Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. They were petitioning parliament to give its support to the DESERTEC concept for generating clean electricity and water, as outlined in a white paper published today.
The concept is remarkably simple and, I must say, stood up to some rigorous scrutiny from energy experts and sceptics in the audience at question time. Basically it relies on generating electricity from solar panels placed in the desert - large mirrors that face each other, reflecting sunlight that is then turned into energy.

It acts just like a usual coal powerstation, providing electricity on demand, security of supply, and storage capacity, but with an enhanced fuel, and thus, CO2, saving to reduce carbon emissions. It is tried, tested, and cheap to maintain. Most importantly it has the potential to provide more than double the projected energy demand for the EUMENA region (Europe, North Africa and the Middle East) by 2050, at lower relative prices than we currently pay.

So much for its environmental credentials. What about its political ones? Wouldn't locating the source of Europe's future energy reserves in an unstable Middle East at the time of a so-called 'clash of civilisations' be dowright stupid? Well, there are two answers to that according to the organisers.

The first is that we are already horribly dependent on dangerous oil rich nations, from Russia to Saudi Arabia. So no change there - although sceptics would say that one aspect of the drive towards renewables is Europe's energy autonomy.

The second is that interdependence on the energy front would improve peace and cooperation between the north and south Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum, or 'our sea', as the Romans called it, shouldn't be a cultural dividing line but a meeting place, and shared energy investment and infrastructure would concretise this.

Would it work? Look no further than the European Coal and Steel Community, which harmonised relations between France and Germany five years after the worst war in Europe's history. In 1945 citizens from those respective countries couldn't have a civil conversation, let alone get along. 50 years later, as politicians never fail to remind us, the EU has built peace and prosperity for 450 million Europeans. Why couldn't enhanced EUROMED cooperation do the same for the EUMENA region?

Good questions indeed. So why has DESERTEC been so slow to catch on? Why, amidst the general handwringing about climate changed and Middle East peace has this apparent miracle-cure attracted so little political support? It was first mooted back in the 1970s, for heaven's sake, and has been tried and tested in California for the last twenty years. Plants are being built in Morocco and Spain. It has been earmarked for EU pilot funding for the last decade. But it has never really taken off.

MEPs blamed lack of support from industry; lack of interest from the powers that be - as was, of course, the case for environmental policy in general until a few years ago; a powerful, and growing, nuclear lobby; and cynicism about investing in an unstable Maghreb and Middle East.

That's why they called for politicians across Europe to give their vocal and consistent support to this project. For the true costs to be put forward and - if acceptable - part funded by the EU budget and part from government backed tariff systems, such as those used so successfully in Germany to stimulate new markets, that guarantee long term investment and reassure private investors.
A symbolic gesture might also be called for. For me, the most poignant and pragmatic idea put forward was to fund a pilot solar plant in Gaza, currently experiencing dreadfully electricity and water shortages, to show both what this technology is capable of and how it could help heal the rifts between people. I hope you agree.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Boycott Beijing?

When China was making its bid for the 2008 Olympics there was a general expectation , reinforced by Communist Party officials, that these would produce a climate of greater openness, freedom and respect for human rights. Instead, figures from Human Rights Watch suggest that violations have increased markedly in the last seven years.

In Beijing the beefed-up security bureau, run - not uncoincidentally - by the same man in charge of the Olympics, is clamping down on dissenters, with many placed under house arrest or even in mental institutions. Workers on Olympic sites have been labouring in conditions of modern slavery while Beijing residents have been evicted, and their homes demolished, to make way for sporting venues. And media freedom - a key commitment from the Chinese hosts to the International Olympic Committee - is nonexistent despite a new 'temporary regulation' that supposedly guarantees this to the international press corps, if not Chinese journalists.

Not only are these developments entirely against the spirit of the Olympic Charter which demands hosts uphold "fundamental ethical principles" like human dignity and freedom of expression - for undermining which, apartheid South Africa was banned from competing - but they are in direct contravention of Chinese government commitments.

China is a signatory to the International Declaration on Human Rights and revised its constitution recently to include a Human Rights clause. Most damning of all, its Host City Contract, signed with the IOC, commits it to improving its record on democracy, human rights and free speech prior to the 2008 Olympic Games.
It is telling that this contract - made public by all other Olympic Hosts - has remained outside the public domain . And equally telling that the international community - which never loses an opportunity to eulogise Human Rights - has steadfastly avoided demanding that the Chinese authorities publish it and respect the commitments it contains. For such demands could lead to only one conclusion: a boycott. Failing to live up to their promises in the contract would make it difficult for the IOC to give the go-ahead, so both sides, it seems to me, have agreed to keep it quiet.

As such, the Chinese have pulled off an amazing coup. Not only do the Olympics legitimise the ruling Communist Party in the eyes of the world and Chinese citizens but they have gone some way towards convincing dissenters that the international community is on the side of their oppressors instead of standing up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Even the IOC, jointly responsible for the conduct of the games, has stated that there is 'no proof' of deteriorating human rights conditions in China and that it is too soon to measure the effects the Olympics will have on the political situation there.

This is clearly nonsense. The Chinese have had seven years to clean up their act, seven years in which the IOC and the international community should have been pressurising them to uphold their commitments. They failed to do this and now we are told that the threat of a boycott would fatally undermine Western relations with the People's Republic.
As such, EU leaders are now keeping well and truly stum. Keeping quiet while a blacklist is prepared that will keep media and NGO representatives, as well as vaguely defined 'dangerous elements' (for which read any and all critics of the Communist Party) out of the country during the Games. Keeping quiet as the clampdown on dissenters intensifies, condemning AIDS patients, starving villagers and jailed Tiananment victims to a future without hope. Keeping quiet while state-sponsored slavery, murder, genocide and torture carry on unabated.

The only issue on which the West has been prepared to lift this veil of silence is over CO2 pollution levels in the Beijing air which, they claim, will negatively affect their athletes. Thanks to last minute pressure from governments Sarkozy now claims he has clinched a deal on environmental standards that will resolve this problem. It is a shame similar pressure could not be brought to bear by the self-proclaimed champion of human rights to ensure China respects its international obligations and protects its citizens.

Should we boycott the Olympics? Morally speaking yes. But then, morally speaking, we should have agitated much longer ago for the fulfillment of China's empty promises. At this late stage in teh game, the West is implicated as much as the Chinese are. With less than a year to go, the lease they can do is say, "A Deal is A Deal" and demand that Beijing publish, and accept responsibility for, its Host City Contract and the commitments made therein.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Liberals: Doomed to Defections?

Has Liberalism lost its way? Certainly defections from the Lib Dem to Conservative Camp this week suggest something is amiss´at the heart of liberal democracy. But is the change of heart by Jean Pierre Cavada, chairman of the European Parliament's influential Civil Liberties Committe and Lib Dem Sajjad Karim, indicative of an ideological loss of confidence or simply the fear of electoral failure?

In the case of both men, the temptation to join forces with a revived conservatism just before the elections may simply have been too great. Certainly Saj Karim's distant second place on the Lib Dem list behind Chris Davies MEP was a sting that was hard to ignore. Harder still may be the brute electoral facts. At Lib Dem conference in Brighton his aides talked openly about the unlikelihood of having both men re-elected in 2009 when the party's share of the vote is expected to fall sharply. Cavada, fighting for a municipal seat in the 2nd arrondissement in Paris, clearly feels that Bayrou has lost his way and is putting his faith in the winning side.

But is this the same as idelogical disintegration, as Karim alleges? I think not. It is true that both the MODEM and Lib Dems have found it difficult to steer their parties' priorities of late, but that is due in large part to the opposing currents - and therefore factions - inherent in Liberalism rather than an ideological loss of nerve. Indeed, just as the Labour and Tory parties have undergone periods of introspection in recent years to resolve internal disputes over the place of market liberalisation or attitudes towards Europe, Liberals, who perhaps over-emphasised their unity over the last decade, now need to do the same with regards to the economic/social liberal divide.

Even then, I don't believe the gulf is as big as the media suggests. Huhne and Clegg's appearance on Question Time was memorable, if at all, for the remarkable similarity of their positions which led one viewer to ask 'How can we tell you apart'? The Calamity Clegg incident days later may have been bad publicity but it wasn't really based on policy divergence either, although you could argue that Huhne is the ideological leader and Clegg the follower. If this leadership contest is the sign of a party in ideological crisis, then what standards do we set for unity?

It may not be the best time for Liberals in Europe, with convergence to the centre by both socialists and conservatives squeezing our vote. But that does not mean we are an irrelevance. Our battles will be fought on the issues, the ideological issues, that the other parties neglect or tacitly consent on in their quest for electoral dominance. Whether it is the security state , abdication of human rights , euroscepticism, warmongering, scaremongering over immigrants, or nuclear rearmament beloved of left and right we will be there offering voters choice, where otherwise none would exist.

The Liberal Democrats, whatever their faults, have at their heart an ethos of internationalism, openness, environmental sustainability and respect for fundamental rights that the other parties, whatever their propaganda, simply do not share.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Denmark Down the Drain

Well it seems the Danish people didn't take notice of my last minute plea for tolerance (ha ha). They voted in overwhelming numbers for extreme right and left wing parties, essentially collapsing the moderate centre and creating a politics of antagonism which could have worrying consequences for Denmark's domestic stability.

Fogh Rasmussen's centre-right 'liberal' party will struggle to form a government after losing six seats yesterday. With the Danish People's Party on board, as well as a rogue Faroese, and the possibility of five seats from the recently created 'New Alliance' he will just reach the 90 seats needed to form a minority government. However there is an enormous political distance between the New Alliance and the revitalised DPP, especially on key issues like immigration, which could spell troubled times ahead for the government. Since both parties essentially hold a veto over any Prime Ministerial proposals it could mean that nothing of substance gets the go-ahead.

As far as some social liberals in Denmark are concerned, giving both sides ministerial positions and watch them descend into civil war might be the best way out of the current mess. To a certain extend I think they are right. Early new elections would at least resolve the current impasse. However if they happen too soon they might also give extra strength the extremist currents already visible in Danish society. To regroup and revitalise the centre needs a little time to lick its wounds and wait for this unholy alliance to trip itself up.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Save Denmark!!

Denmark. Used to make me think of happy blonde people, fairy tales, pig farms, mermaids, and yeah, I'll be honest, nude sunbathing. All in all the picture of a stable, tolerant European country. These days, it must be said, the reality is somewhat different. The first thing that might spring to mind is the Mohammed Cartoons, followed by the (rather inexplicable) ban on Danish exports, which - it must be said - made me a Defender of Denmark back in 2006.

However, the aftermath of the cartoons crisis suggested that the 'freedom of speech' mantle I had picked up wasn't entirely the true story. After all, Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper which ran the infamous cartoons had also commissioned them. It had done so as part of its self-chosen role at the forefront of right wing anti-immigrant media propaganda. It had been accused - prior to the cartoon furore´- of inciting racial hatred. It had promoted a toughening of Denmark's - already quite insane - immigration laws so that they would be in breach of European Human Rights legislation. Danes - perhaps not such innocent symbols of the tolerant European ideal after all.

However I hadn't quite lost all hope in this nation until last night. One of my best pals is Danish and had been contemplating loping back from Brussels to the wilds of Copenhagen of late. Until, that is, the Danish election campaign which she 'experienced' on her recent trip home. I should point out that this is about the blondest blue eyed Dane you could possibly imagine. But so strict is the measure of national conformism in Denmark these days that she was pretty much branded a foreigner: accent didn't sound quite right, lived in foreign parts, had failed to start a family early enough with another Dane...umm....its all a bit too kinder, kuche, kirche for my liking, with more than an inkling of national socialism about it. Imagine, therefore, how difficult life would be if you were called Aicha and weren't blonde... These campaign posters are very telling. The one on the left reads something like 'Immigrants should give, not just take, from Denmark" - a reference to the idea that they are all scroungers really.

Things get worse. The country is in the grip of extreme Euroscepticism and the radicalisation of politics, with a large and growing extreme right which - due to its support for Rasmussen's government over the last seven years - has been increasingly mainstreamed. Non-whites are essentially second class citizens, denied equal access to housing, welfare and job opportunities. The state has put in place rigid policies controlling who you marry, where you are allowed to reside, even your child's citizenship status.

In Denmark, if you are Danish and you marry a foreigner you aren't even allowed to live with your spouse in Denmark if it's possible for you to live in their country. Now I am sure it would be possible for me - in theory - to live all kinds of places from Kabul to Kazakstan. The question is, would i want to? would they be safe places to bring up my kids and raise a happy, secure family in - and this is important - the European culture to which I belong??? (Of course I am not Danish but you know what I mean - for my friend, for anyone, this is a fundamental consideration).

Technically this is against European law but the Danes don't give a monkeys. In fact, they are proud of their motto "We don't want to be a multicultural society".That's why there are villages of Danish exiles and their pariah foreign partners living across the water in Sweden and commuting to work in Copenhagen. It's true, there's something rotten in the state of Denmark and make no mistake

The Danish elections are tomorrow. It's a chance for the Danes to choose in favour of the moderate centre ground, and their representatives in the recently formed 'New Alliance Party'- Let's hope it is they, and not the Right Wing crazies who get to prop up 'liberal' Rasmussen's government next time around. And that the extreme right doesn't gain at the expense of openness, moderation, and fundamental rights.

It is extremely worrying when traditionally liberal countries like Denmark and the Netherlands become bastions of the right. For as we have seen in Belgium with the Vlaams Belang, once the extreme right gains a foothold they are extremely hard to dislodge and encourage the spread of such ideas right across the political spectrum in all EU nations. It is no surprise that Sarkozy toughened his policies to gain the trust of growing numbers of Le Pen supporters in France at the last elections. Let's just hope this tactic does not spread, or it could spread very bad news for all of us who love liberty and diversity.

In the meantime, if the Danes do vote in favour of the extreme right I suggest an extreme solution. Short of suspending EU membership, as we threatened to do with Jorg Hyder in Austria, individuals should act - perhaps, mirroring muslim outrage, a boycott is in order (er....here we go again...dont buy danish bacon!)

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Airport Etiquette

Customs, as we know, vary from country to country. One very British custom is queuing. People like to joke that we will join a queue even if we don't know what we are actually queuing for, so strong is the emphasis on waiting your turn.
I'm no different. I'm an inveterate queuer and a stickler for politeness, generally speaking. But this isn't always true of Belgians. Here, you must always be on the look-out in case you lose your turn. Nothing can be taken for granted.

I made the mistake of letting my guard down while waiting at Zaventem airport last week. On arrival, tired and dazed after a week of hell in Strasbourg, I joined the back of the line while my friend went to get us a much-needed coffee. On returning ten or fifteen minutes later she commented that I hadn't moved very far in that time. Indeed, on turning round, I discovered I was still very much at the back of the line.

The only thing was, though, that some Indian guys who had walked past five minutes or so before were spearheading a new tributary to the queue which had started from the other direction. I was in a hurry. I hesitated - should I, shouldn't I? Then thought what the hell and went to reclaim my 'rightful' place just behind them.
It caused uproar. I was shouted down by a Flemish gentleman about my lack of manners, and a couple of angry ladies who claimed my action was thoroughly unscrupulous. I tried to explain, in French, that the people I was standing behind had clearly arrived later and that, in the freeforall, the main queue - mine - had effectively been sidelined. Useless. Or perhaps that was my language skills. After a few minutes I decided just to keep silent and stand my ground.

On nearing the partitions for the checkout desk I was surprised by a sharp jab in the ribs. A Belgian couple behind me were clearly squaring up for a fight and before I knew it the man had lifted my suitcase clear over his trolley while his wife took great delight in placing it firmly in the middle of the concourse, at the end of the line. He didnt mince his words either, demanding i 'bouge mon cul' and other equally unflattering remarks.

To reinforce the point his wife then took hold of the trolley and proceeded to run over my foot in an effort to evict me bodily. Realising it was just creating more of a scene her husband took over the reins and shoved me a good four or five metres with it as I protested loudly.
Finally an airport worker came over and threatened to throw them both out the queue. In some ways I had won the argument. But I was very confused and upset.
My question, I suppose, is who was in the right? I wouldn't have asserted myself if I didnt feel I had a point. But then, what seems right and wrong and what are right and wrong are very different. If everyone else felt I had committed a fault, should I have accepted that was just and backed down? Or was I right to stand up to this situation?

Terrified of running into my fellow passengers, I spent some time hovering around the security gate before ducking into the plane at the last possible second. On emerging with my bags in Delhi - without further run-ins - I presumed myself safe.

But bizarrely, I did run into that ferocious couple again, this time 50k or so from the Tibetan border on Shimla's main street. This time, my partner had skipped the queue and - not recognising them - I pointed out they had been waiting before us. I couldn't work out the cold reception at first nor their certainty that I must be 'Belgian' (my accent being a dead giveaway). Maybe that was karma completed for this trip...

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Future: A Workerless World?

Apparently Jeremy Rifkin, the professor famous for predicting a Third Industrial Revolution on the back of Green Technology, has made one other prediction that kept rather more under wraps by our leaders. In the technological heaven that is the 21st century, he suggests, there won't be much work for human beings left to do since many of us will be replaced by robots.

Indeed, although"The global economy has never been more productive worldwide, unemployment is at its highest since the Great Depression. Out of 124 million American jobs, 90 million are potentially vulnerable to replacement by machines."

Now, as someone who values my leisure time that seems pretty good news at first sight, as it does to Professor Rifkin. Yet like labour-saving devices, feted in the 50s for giving us more free time away from chores but which simply give us more time to work, it seems this change could seriously back-fire on the human race.

Why? Well let me copy and paste Bob Black's critique of this theory:

Problem Number One: No Work; No Money; Huge Underclass
"As Rifkin reveals, the tech-driven downsizing of the workforce spares no sector of the economy. In the United States, originally a country of farmers, only 2.7% of the population works in agriculture, and here -- and everywhere -- "the end of outdoor agriculture" is foreseeable. The industrial sector was next. And now the tertiary sector, which had grown relative to the others, which is now by far the largest sector, is getting pared down. Automatic teller machines replace bank tellers. Middle management is dramatically diminished: the bosses relay their orders to the production workers directly, by computer, and monitor their compliance by computer too.
We approach what Bill Gates calls "frictionless capitalism": direct transactions between producers and consumers. Capitalism will eliminate the mercantile middlemen who created it.
In Proletarian Heaven, the handloom weavers must be snickering. What's wrong with this picture? Fundamentally this: the commodities so abundantly produced in an almost workerless economy have to be sold, but in order to be sold, they must be bought, and in order for them to be bought, consumers require the money to pay for them. They get most of that money as wages for working. Even Rifkin, who goes to great lengths not to sound radical, grudgingly admits that a certain Karl Marx came up with this notion of a crisis of capitalist overproduction relative to purchasing power"

Problem Number 2: The Fewer Workers, the More Stress - Both For Those With Jobs and Those Without

"Today we work longer hours than we did in 1948, although productivity has since then more than doubled. Instead of reducing hours, employers are reducing their fulltime workforces, intensifying exploitation and insecurity, while simultaneously maximizing the use of throwaway temp workers, momentarily mobilized reservists with little job security and lots of stress.

The work of the remaining workers, the knowledge-workers, is immensely stressful. Like text on a computer screen, it scrolls around inexorably, but for every worker who can't take it, there's another in "the new reserve army" of the unemployed (another borrowing from you-know-who) desperate to take her place. And the redundant majority is not just an insufficient market, it's a reservoir of despair.

Not only are people going to be poor, they're going to know that they're useless. What happened to the first victims of automation -- southern blacks displaced by agricultural technology ending up as a permanent underclass -- will happen to many millions of whites too. We know the consequences: crime, drugs, family breakdown, social decay. Controlling or, more realistically, containing them will be costly and difficult"

The Way Forward:

Jeremy Rifkin thinks that the only way out of this nightmare is getting the semi and unemployed to be paid in return for voluntary service. Community work. Cleaning Streets. Clearing woodland. Whatever you want to call it it is far from sitting on a beach with a pina colada, enjoying the benefits of not working. In fact his solution bears more than a passing ressemblance to slavery. Bizarrely Jeremy Rifkin thinks this is a great solution because - what would people do if they didnt work??

It is clear that, in this case, the Protestant Spirit and Work Ethic are coalescing seemlessly. Ask people in other countries - Italy, for example, where everything always seems to be closed, or our Mexican fisherman from the previous post - how they would live without work and they would tell you straight away: focus on their personal priorities. Work is created so we can pursue these - not so we can ignore them and plough on in 15 hours a day. Some poor souls have the misfortune to have badly paying jobs. In the past, it was they who worked hard to survive. These days, city bankers are as likely to slave away all the hours God sends - just to have their two weeks of leisure per years, sitting by the beach with their blackberries on standby.

Bob Black has a better idea. Get rid of the control element which underlines such ideas. Let people work fewer hours, let them job share, to give more people a chance to earn. Then we might all be happier.

Vive la France, Vive la semaines des 35 heures!

Why Work?

I get to the office pretty early in general, as I have to be there in time for an 8am morning meeting. This is not as early as the majority of my 'team' who, for reasons best known to themselves, like to get there around 7.30. Given the majority is still there at 7.30 at night I wonder how they manage their lives, relationships, shopping - even little things like ironing or going to the bank.

I'm not very good at living like this. For a start, I hate mornings. Always have. I can just about cope with starting up my brain around 10am but before that body and mind simply don't coalesce. Of course, I can't argue with the boss about coming in at this horrendous hour. But I don't have to be happy about it either. As far as I am concerned I work hard, and have to deal with a lot of stress as it is. Surely he should understand that I do this only under duress?

But no. Today I met him in the lift on the way to the meeting. He asked how I was and I said, 'fine thanks, but tired'. He stopped, turned around, and looked at me amazed saying 'how can you be tired. It's already 8am! You should start work earlier, you'll get more done". I didn't really know what to say (and was stifling irritation that I now appear lazy simply because I don't live in the office 24/7) but my real objection was this. Why do we always have to do more, more, more? What are we working for, exactly, that we have to dedicate ourselves body and soul to the cause?

It's not like we are at war, or in a national emergency or something. It's not even about short-term necessity. It's a chronic condition based on the assumption that nothing in life could be more important than work. And equally, that there is nothing worse in life than not working. That is why stay-at-home mums these days find themselves so isolated and lacking in self-worth and why the unemployed, or worse, beggars, are so stigmatised - even though full employment is no more than a pipe-dream for most countries.

I simply don't accept that this is the best way to live. However, I am clearly in the minority. Living to work is one of the great givens of the modern age. What we do, how much we earn, who we know - these are the keys to our identity and status. The private self, the domestic self has been essentially devalued. For me, this is the malaise of modern Europe - but one for which other world cultures still have the antidote. I'm always amazed how friends from other countries - particularly those in South Asia or the Middle East - think Europeans are oppressed. No time for leisure, for family, for contemplation, even to cook a proper meal or say hello to your neighbours they say. What kind of life is that?

I'm bound to agree. While I can't simply ignore my own culture and do things differently I would love to work part-time, do a bit of studying or volunteering, look after my kids and cook proper food. I would love to have a garden and grow my own veg. I would love to have the time and the energy to see family and friends without having to fit them into an already bulging Saturday full of household chores.

To illustrate the stupidity of our current situation I chanced on this amusing anecdote. Remember it next time you are tempted to take a high flying position with a 16 hour working day and no holidays.

The story, of unknown origin, goes something like this: An American investment banker, visiting a small village in Mexico, encounters a Mexican fisherman. The fisherman describes his life: "I sleep late, fish a little, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffs at the fisherman’s lack of ambition and goes into great detail about how he could expand his small business and make millions. "Then what?" asks the fisherman."Then you would retire," replies the American. "Move to a small village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos."

For more arguments along the same lines go to the website: http://www.whywork.org/

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Just Ask Barbie...

I'm aware my last couple of posts have been a bit depressing. So I thought I would lighten the mood with some journalistic ineptitutude.

Now I know that MEPs aren't generally well known in their respective countries but I am surprised that those employed by the parliament don't seem to know who they are either.

(I definitely suffer from this problem: two women had plonked themselves at the table we'd reserved in a Thai place - one of my favourites - after a very long day at work. I asked my colleague, in a rather loud voice, what 'those girls' were doing there and shouldn't we ask them to leave: sadly for my career one of them turned out to be an MEP from my delegation...I guess it always pays to pay attention).

This months prize mix-ups are truly hilarious, stemming I think, from a combined ignorance of politicians AND the English language which is endemic in Brussels. I was reading the 'what's on' guide to the last session to see the Members' activities. And I discovered that Mary Lou 'Macdonalds' was giving a press conference on food safety. That made me laugh pretty hard. But it was nothing compared to "Barbie de Brun" leading toy safety campaigns.

I wonder what Sinn Fein's feisty Bairbre de Brun and Mary Lou McDonald would think of that.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

But Shariasly

Two phrases that don't normally go together attracted my attention today: 'EPP Working Group' and 'Sharia in Europe'. But there it was, advertised on a poster in the main lobby as I dashed to a meeting of the - wait for it - Working Group on the Separation of Religion and Politics to discuss apostasy. What the bejeezus is going on?

Gone are the days when European Parliament debates ranged from the proper curve of cucumbers to distribution of structual funding in outlying regions of Greece. Religious issues are enjoying the kind of political currency in our corridors of power unheard of for most of the twentieth century. A fact which is used to further various political ends, bóth electoral and ideological.

Fearmongers from the left of the political spectrum warn of the retreat of secularism in Europe and the abandonment of our humanist heritage. Cultural relativism and weak defence of enlightenment values by government and the media, they claim, has resulted in the birth of new forms of totalitarianism whether in the guise of Islamic extremism or papish plots to ban abortion and demonise homosexuals.

For many MEPs, their aim - thinly veiled, if you'll excuse the pun - is to sideline the 'backward' forces of religion and promote their own aggressive brand of secular humanism. Abolition of religious education in schools, bans on religious symbols in public spaces, and an emphasis on civic ethics is their endgame, and one which exhibits as much exclusivity as your average religious fundamentalist.

On the other side of the bench, conservatives and ultra-nationalists point to the revival of 'Judeo-Christian ethics' - exemplified by the heated debate over the place of God in Europe's tentative Constitution and Polish attempts to put 'values' firmly back on the political agenda - as an example of the EU reclaiming its heritage from the mistakes of multiculturalism and liberal neutrality. In their version of reality immigration is responsible for the widely cited 'breakdown' in European society, providing a pretext to forcibly assimilate or deport non white citizens.

Both are allied against liberal apologists whose 'flabby' thinking is supposedly handing the field to Islamists prepared to misuse the discourse of human rights and religious freedoms to undermine the very values liberals seek to protect. In reality, of course, many critics of liberalism dislike the freedom from social conformity which is its corollary and are more than happy to seize on reasons for curtailing individual rights which they deem in opposition to necessary state control and surveillance.

In all versions, the demonised Muslim minority is used as a lever to force political change. So pervasive has the motif of mad mullahs on the streets of Europe become that the stereotype has been normalised - a fact which constitutes simply one more example of the mainstreaming of far-right policies in the political life of our continent which has taken on an increasingly xenophobic and nationalist streak.
Liberals, of course, are wrong not to condemn political islamists of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir persuasion and deserve all the pummelling they currently receive for lying down in the face of would be theocratic despots. Equally, their opponents are wrong to tar all Muslims with the same brush, By synthesising the programme of Political Islam with religion in the public mind, anyone who declares themselves to be a Muslim (whether Salafi, Reformist, or downright secular) is deemed a suspect, a traitor, and the antithesis of all things European.
Just yesterday two far-right politicians - Frank Vanhecke and Filip Dewinter of the Belgian Vlaams Belang - were arrested outside the European Commission for protesting against the Islamisation of Europe. Shouting 'No to Sharia Law' and 'Democracy Not Theocracy' supporters clashed with the police and bemused immigrants in the EU quarter of Brussels.

Their numbers may have been small - in the hundreds rather than thousands due to a ban on the grounds of maintaining public order issued by the mayor - but they hit the headlines big time. Not allowing them to demonstrate may prove a major mistake by the authorities as it rallied the supporters of free speech to the side of people who are fundamentally racist, misguided, or both.

What I saw in the parliament today did nothing to dissuade my fears for the future. It is time politicians and the media (who don't generally have strong theological backgrounds) started to put much greater distance between the jihadi rhetoric of extremist political groups and ordinary followers of the Islamic religion. Likewise, governments must have the guts to institute formal bans on all Islamist groups and their cover organisations which promote violence and undermine democracy. It is frankly outrageous that leading lights from organisations like the Hizb, having been expelled from Muslim countries, continue to enjoy the right to speak out against a Western way of life that they do not respect and in many cases wish to destroy. That way alone lies compromise and a return to a middle ground that too often seems to have been abandoned.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Of Pride and Prejudice

How can you spot a friendship is dying? Most of the time friends who exit our lives do so slowly, and in stages. You start seeing them less and less (rarely intentionally, and with the best intentions of rectifying the situation) until the fact that they have moved, or married, or got a new job, sinks in and they recede to the back of your facebook page. Such changes in our personal priorities are rarely painful. Indeed, they are rarely anyone's fault. Most likely, they come about naturally, and with assent on both sides.

Every so often, however, someone carves you out of their life with a decisiveness which is as startling as it is unexpected. The last time it really happened to me was at high school - with all the psychological brutality teenage girls normally reserve for one other. I remember the pain of it still: my best friend turning against me from one day to the next, and of spending about two years trying to work out why apologies and explanations hadn't ironed things out. I've also done the same to some others in my life - people who thought I was angry with them, and thus refused to communicate, when in reality I was just indifferent and wanted them to go away.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes we need to move on from certain people in our lives. Perhaps we have little in common; perhaps we have grown out of them; perhaps we simply don't like them; perhaps we need to prioritise; or perhaps our relationship is somehow inappropriate. That happens. We develop. However the real question - and the ethics, if you like - is how to go about making the separation. I still feel rather guilty after leaving an ex-boyfriend (who was always calling me 'as a friend') high and dry. Every so often I would agree to meet him for coffee and invariably, when the moment arrived, I would find a reason to cancel. I'm not surprised he hated me afterwards. I simply wasn't honest enough.

Nobody likes being rejected by someone they care for. Especially not by being given a chronic cold shoulder until they get the hint. Sometimes it is fairer to be cruel than to be kind, even if that is more difficult for the perpetrator. So many people take the attitude that if you ignore something it will go away. Very often, all that happens is that this breeds resentment and self-hatred in the injured party. Fundamentally, if you are indifferent to someone who cares for you, that does not mean to say you wish them ill. Just that you no longer wish to see them. As such, damaging someone's self-confidence for the sake of an easy way out is egotistical in the extreme. The 'its not you, its me' line might be cliched - but it saves a lot of worthless soulsearching in the long-run.

So much for responsibilities. What about rights? To what point can the injured party blame the other for their hurt feelings or sense of loss? And to what point are they entitled to an explanation? Personally, I think that if someone respects you enough to break ties with you, and tell you why - as is done in many breakups, if we're honest, which, however unpleasant at least have the relief of finality about them - you should respect them back and bother them no longer. However, if they refuse to confront the issue, or deny there is a problem, they do bear responsibility for that.

In that case, you can just tell them so, I suppose. And be done with it

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Counter Terrorism and the Surveillance State

As news breaks that the Germans have foiled a 'massive bomb plot' aimed at Frankfurt Airport and Ramstein Army Base, as well as the usual infidel haunts like pubs and clubs - in probable commemoration of the September 11 attacks in a few days time - we have been discussing current anti-terror measures in the European Parliament.

The debate was scheduled in July, and, given that the summer was clearly some sort of down-time for Europe's Al-Qaeda affiliates (perhaps they were off in warmer climes, enjoying the sun n'surf or a bit of jihadi training after the cock-up that was the flaming Jeep 'attack' on Glasgow airport) we had prepared a lot of statements about EU laws not being proportionate to threats. Today's revelations throws that into relief somewhat. But I still stand by the Liberal line.

Let me expand. Compared to, say, the Cold War period or even the IRA's reign of terror in the 70s and 80s, Europe is actually a safer place today than it was for many years. That many believe it isn't is testament to the success of propaganda designed to manipulate our sense of insecurity for political ends, most especially those of state surveillance and control of ordinary citizens, like me.

Before you protest against my loony liberalism in the face of fundamentalism I should point out that there is a big difference between introducing a) measures that actually combat terrorism, b) those which are designed to reassure the public -the legislative equivalent of a press release - and c) those which are really designed to deal with domestic issues under cover of the foreign threat. 3 obvious examples would be a) improving cross border police cooperation and harmonising extradition procedures for suspects, b) not letting liquids - or indeed lipsticks - on board planes and c) retaining sensitive data on the population at large, for indefinite periods of time.

All three have been legislated at European Level as part of our response to the terrorist threat. Yet only one, as far as I can see, is actually of any use at all (that's a, not b or c, in case you didnt work it out). B is mostly designed to reassure the public we are doing something (or indeed anything) while we think of a useful response to the problem, and C is designed to bring in through the backdoor a law which will be used against citizens of that state and would never, in a million years, be passed by a democratic parliament back home. In fact, the only reason it can be passed at European level is because deals are done behind closed doors in Council. Once the Ministers shake hands, no parliamentary scrutiny is ever brought to bear on their decisions. We are supposed to take them on trust.

The deficiencies of such a system are quite obvious. First, we have no method of evaluating - in a transparent manner - the laws which are put through in private. As such, with no sunset clauses to speak of, legislation can remain on the statute book without proper scrutiny. For any rational person this is clearly damaging to civil liberties. Insisting that such and such a law is in fact imposed by Brussels is just another way of getting round the legal safeguards to our rights that Constitutions are supposed to establish.

I uncovered a little historical snippet in the New York Times to illustrate the dangers of such a situation. In the autumn of 68BC the world's only superpower suffered a terrorist attack by a loosely organised band of pirates. In panic, according to Plutarch, the Roman Senate granted Pompey "absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone" through the Lex Gabinia.
By the oldest trick in the book, the military high command subverted Liberty, Democracy and the Constitution with the assent of Rome's frightened citizens. Sound familiar?

It should do. News that DNA storgage in Britain is higher than any in the world (we do manage to do the surveillance state better than anyone else: we also have 50% of the world's CCTV cameras, or something) is frightening. Since 2004, the data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England and Wales - all but the most minor offences - has remained on file regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted. Now thanks to the EU Data Retention law - pushed through during the UK Presidency after the government failed to get it through the Commons - the scope of such institutionalised surveillance has been vastly widened.

Tellingly, according to Home Office Figures, that amounts to 5.2% of the UK population including nearly 40% of black men, 13% of Asian men but only 9% of white men. What we are creating, in effect, is a system of racial profiling that will lead to many more being prosecuted for crimes they did not commit.How so, sceptics will gasp? Well, as with the Criminal Record Bureau database, its not as watertight as it sounds. Seemingly, over 2000 people have been refused work or arrested because their details ressembled those of known paedophiles and criminals. Yet, judges now want to extend DNA profiling to everyone in the UK, including foreign visitors. Reassuring, non?

Let's go after the terrorist types. But let's do it in a manner that doesn't undermine our own freedoms and culture at the same time. If we let our governments go down that line we may as well be living in a dictatorship like Saudi Arabia. The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that Europe's anti-terror laws do not do the same.

Problem Solved

Success. Somehow my curmudgeonly computer decided - in its own good time - to act on instructions issued to it hours ago. I feel like an all-powerful computer programmer now...

Technologically Stumped

No, my campaign to free journalist Alan Johnston long after he in fact left Gaza is not due to a hazy awareness of world news (though lord knows, with the situation there, its possible that he or another ill-fated sort will have been kidnapped again by the time I get around to removing it). Rather, I am unable to master the, apparently simple, technology required to get the icon off my sidebar. I did the obvious and went to 'templates' where I chose to erase said 'page element'- unfortunately, it has failed to budge since. If any helpful readers with a more developed understanding of HTML can advise me on what to do to edit the text I would be most grateful.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Happily Ever After...Until Death You Do Part

Marriage. Few words inspire such profound - and often violently different - reactions amongst those of my generation. In previous eras it was more or less regarded as a fact of life - a bit like queuing for the bus, eating fish on Fridays, or looking after your parents in their senility. And, like aforesaid activities, you could either moan about them or extol them when you met your friends to gossip over a cup of tea. Question them you did not.

Like many things in the modern world, however, that has changed dramatically. Sure, people - by and large - still go out and reproduce but the concept of pledging yourself, til death you do part, is, if anything, regarded as a touch anachronistic. Instead, our lives are complex webs related to our own self-image - and this informs much of what we think about marriage. Are we independent careerists, carefree creatives, the mothering type or too picky? Are we ready? Have we met the right person? Will our priorities change? And what about our biological clocks? Can medical science work wonders once we're forty? Who's willing to bet on the advances of the future to save their career today?

Negotiating what was once an unthought transition into a new phase of life is now fraught with philosophical difficulty. Rather than simply choosing someone and living with the consequences - or indeed simply dumping them when it got too much- many of us are anchored in a semi-permanent state of self-inflicted pyschological warfare. Confused by conflicting desires, social pressures and - if we're honest - the experience of an irresponsible yet liberating individualism which permeates our twenties and thirties, the idea of bringing other human beings into your sphere on a PERMANENT BASIS can seem a trifle terrifying. It is the psychological equivalent of being born again, with the same turnaround in lifestyle that religious conversion brings. At least once the kids come along.
Despite our reluctance to get legally involved with the opposite sex until well into our maturer years, we seem to understand, au fond, that there is a 'good age' to do these things, somewhere between 25 and 35, and it's then you have to decide if you're going to do them. Once you reach said age the existential process of banging out your stance on the issue becomes both normal and necessary. In case you haven't followed this rather garbled explanation up to now let me give you a concrete example. Twice this week I ate with a hoard of girlfriends, all aged between 26 and 32. Somehow, regardless of cultural and career differences, all these women had only one thing they wanted to talk about over dinner: marriage.

A year or two ago they were focussed on jobs, travel, degrees, political causes or their latest bedtime reading. Now, it seems, they were either defending their desire to commit - or, conversely, their determination not to. Only one girl was actually married, a fact which provoked a certain degree of incredulity from the others as if she were 16 years old when she walked down the aisle and not 30 years old already! Either way, for what post-modernists have dubbed the great non-issue of the twentyfirst century, the 'm' word has taken over our lives. as successfully as it did previous generations: the only difference being that it is in theory rather than practice.
As for me, not wishing to waste too much more time thinking about men - that's years of my life down the drain already, lost on a succession of suitors I no longer even talk to - I have decided that being single is simply too demanding on one's time. I would rather just make up my mind to be with someone and then think about something else...preferably food, philosophy, or both at the same time.
All joking aside, I am quite unconvinced by so called feminist libertarian arguments against marriage. It seems to me that most women's problems are caused by scoundrels not stepping up to their obligations. Absolving them of their responsibilities towards us completely (as per the 'laissez faire, do what you want' school of relationships) instead of reforming said institution, seems to have handed the more misogynistic variety of male success on a plate.

Why don't we want men to protect us, to care for us and our kids, to earn their keep, and ours too, while they're at it? Why is it preferable to work all the hours Gods sends, AND look after your children, and the house, simply to say you're independent? Why is it better never to commit, all in the name of some formless notion of choice, even though that could mean you never have children or a happy home? Isn't it about time feminists started suggesting more ways to balance our commitments and our careers instead of keeping men out of the picture completely? Isn't making women's lives easier a definition of what feminism should be about?

I understand why the first wave of feminists had a problem with marriage as a social phenomenon at that time. After all, women had barely been let into the workplace by the time Germaine Greer came along. And I do agree that when men felt they could control women financially, have full legal rights over her, or simply take her for granted, there were real problems.
Yet their valid critique of failed marriages in what were, frankly, quite different social conditions has caused us to throw the baby out with the bathwater for, what seems to me, few very good universal reasons. Both men and women are now used to the (concept, at least) of gender equality, human rights and equal ops at work. Why couldn't a better form of marriage now work in our favour?

Perhaps the time has come - with more than 50% of kids born outside wedlock - to rethink the patterns of our behaviour. Whether that means shelving or accepting marriage remains to be seen. But we should at least step back and reflect on our reasons for dumping one of society's main building blocks, lest it should come back to haunt us all in our (potentially lonely) later lives. To be continued...

Friday, 31 August 2007


No, I don't want to talk about weight loss, size zeros, or encouraging anorexia, but the fact that inspiration has been pretty thin on the ground recently.

I didn't want to bore you with content-free reflections or the state of my daily life (which has, for reasons best known to my obsessive-compulsive side, centred around cooking recently: though perhaps this week's strawberry jam marathon, the outcome of an over-enthusiastic fruit purchase at 1 euro a kilo at the market, merits a mention).

However I am aware that I did start this blog for a reason and should at least attempt to keep it going regardless of my current mood. As such, I thought I'd include an essay I've just written for a journal on the Future of Europe to gauge reactions and convince myself to get into the blogging swing again after a long summer break. Hope it is of some interest to someone.

" Europe didn't heed the warnings. Three years after the Laeken summit underscored a pressing need to reconnect Europe with its citizens, the Union train went off the rails. By early 2005 survey after survey revealed a seething discontent with the process of European integration amongst ordinary people. The majority felt disconnected from European politics and ignored by Europe's policy-makers. Yet the Brussels establishment, assured of the pliability of the voting public, and united in their ambitions, proceeded blithely along the road to Constitutional ratification without thinking to consult citizens first.

Pride, as always, came before a fall. In this case, the karmic retribution inflicted on hubristic governments was as swift as it was savage. While many factors contributed to Dutch and French citizens voting 'No' in the constitutional referendums, chief amongst these was the fact that at no time in the recent history of the Union's development had anyone ever asked for their opinion. Seen in this light, rejection of the Constitution was symbolic of a deeper malaise at the heart of the European project: a democratic deficit and lack of conviction that threatened the very future of European integration.

The fall-out from the Constitutional debacle has been multifaceted. On the one hand, today's leaders are accused of uniting Europe without first uniting Europeans, who are increasingly dismissive of the purpose of the Union now that its original raison d'etre - keeping the peace and promoting economic co-operation across the continent - is no longer relevant. On the other, the difficulty of extracting national consensus on key issues has caused many to wonder whether Europe's capacity to absorb new members and pursue political integration has been exhausted. Instead of building a wider and deeper Union, they argue, an enlarged EU should whittle its role down to that of a trading bloc and abandon its political pretensions.

When Bulgaria and Romania acceded to the Union in January 2007 it had grown from an initial core of six members to encompass 27 states, each with its own culture, political colouring and strategic national interests. The requirement that all policies proceed from a basis of unanimity in the Council of Ministers has meant that, under the current Treaty arrangements, the Union is struggling to agree common priorities. Lack of consensus has meant that politics proceeds at the level of the lowest common denominator at a time when radical reforms are required to tackle challenges ranging from international terrorism to energy security and migration management. Surely, critics argue, this proves that public policy should be left to the preserve of individual Member States.

They could not be more wrong. Today's big challenges are supranational and require a level of political cooperation and consensus unprecedented in human history. Take climate change, energy insecurity, or health pandemics for instance, which know no borders and move quickly from one national jurisdiction to another. As Europe discovered in the aftermath of Chernobyl and the BSE crisis in the 1980's, the assortment of un-coordinated national measures, which were the only tools then available to Member States, were simply incapable of responding effectively or efficiently to the problem at hand. Only enhanced cooperation on environmental issues, they realised, would enable them to counter such threats in the future: as such, robust environmental legislation is now one of the cornerstones of European policy-making.

Until the events of 9/11, however, this logic was never adequately extended to other key areas of public policy. Prior to this the European Parliament had put forward a number of proposals to improve the level of police and judicial cooperation. These were largely sidelined until the spectre of international terrorism raised its ugly head, first in New York and then on home soil, through the bombing of the London Underground in July 2005. Suddenly, the demand for a robust, integrated security policy was the EU's number one priority. As a result, we have seen agreement - with high levels of public support - on legislation ranging from the European Arrest Warrant to information sharing.

However, we cannot afford to stop there. To tackle a sluggish economy and falling tax returns, national governments will have to rethink their desire to shut the gates of Fortress Europe on all-comers. Previous enlargements have provided the Union with a bigger internal market and a wider pool of skilled labour which is alleviating skills shortages and contributing to long-term growth. Indeed, Vladimir Spidla, the Employment Commissioner, recently released statistics showing that those countries which did not impose Transitional Measures for citizens of the New Member States are enjoying the maximum economic benefits of enlargement. We can expect similar results through managed migration from third countries - especially since the working population in the 27 EU Member States is set to fall from 303 million to 297 million by 2020, putting an intolerable strain on pensions and social services.

Likewise, with finite natural resources fast depleting, Europe will have to radically re-examine its patterns of energy supply and consumption. This year, for example, the UK will become a net importer of gas for the first time since its North Sea reserves opened over thirty years ago. A similar story is being repeated across the Union, from the Ruhr to the Rhone. Indeed the Commission estimates that the EU could be 90% dependent on Russian oil by 2020. Achieving greater autonomy in energy supply and developing a Common Energy Policy are therefore among Europe's most pressing concerns, especially since Russia's aggressive energy politics threatened to cut off supplies to the EU's Eastern Members last winter. However, lacking EU competency at present - which the Constitution would have afforded it - the CEP faces an uphill struggle against blocking forces in the Council, where the absence of qualified majority voting so often results in stalemate.

For how long, I wonder, will the impetus for further integration continue to be driven by developments in the outside world instead of idealism from within? If anything, the European Project arose from a distrust of the concept of borders. It exists because people understood that conflicts and confrontations born of nationalism brought Europe to its knees in the past. And because evidence continues to show that barriers - be it to trade, migrants or ideas - will only damage our interests in an era where the biggest threats, and the biggest opportunities, are global in nature. As Sarkozy noted recently, “Europe alone has accumulated, during the long process of building the community, the practical experience of a shared sovereignty that corresponds well to the demands of our times.” But we can only maintain that momentum if we win the battle of ideas, both at home and abroad.

President Barroso rightly said that "It is through practical achievements that we will reinforce our links with citizens and rally them to our cause." To that end, the Commission and Council have been keen to promote key initiatives to improve Europe's added value. One of the most damaging media allegations in the eyes of the public is that the EU is simply an expensive white elephant. Reversing that suspicion will be difficult, however, unless national governments give the EU Institutions the money and the legal capacity to push them through and a predominately eurosceptic national press is prepared to acknowledge that. That is why the time has come for politicians to seize the agenda and confront the Eurosceptics with brute facts. Citizens know that the benefits of globalisation like more choice, lower prices and greater mobility come alongside challenges like migration and organised crime as Europe opens its borders. It is time to respond to this new reality.

Which brings us to the question of future enlargements. The EU's borders now run from the Black Sea to the Atlantic and from North Cape to the Mediterranean. Europe, many argue, has now reached its 'natural boundaries'. Yet this ignores certain important political realities, not least that Europe's Neighbourhood Policy relies heavily on the promise of access to EU markets and institutions. Similarly, securing stability in Europe's immediate vicinity, in areas like the Balkans, is dependent on the prospect of EU Membership which has already transformed Romania and Bulgaria - previously a by-word for corruption and organised crime - into modern liberal states. In these areas the enormous soft power wielded by the EU is bringing peace and prosperity to its neighbours and guaranteeing stability and security within our Union. That is why leaving the door open is in Europe's best interests.

As Robert Schuman, one of the fathers of European Integration remarked, Europe should be open "to all those who share its values". Values have no borders. This is why Europe should not reject those who wish to draw closer to it, least of all Turkey whose economy is growing at more than five times the rate of France, and an expected 10% this financial year. Indeed, Turkey's desire to share Europe's values has been evident since it first applied for full Membership of the EEC in 1987. It abolished the death penalty in order to enter the Council of Europe and has modified its Constitution several times to meet the Copenhagen Criteria for Membership, including reform of the penal code, institutionalisation of women's rights, and improvement its human rights record - particularly with regard to minorities. Although the process is not yet complete Turkey is slowly transforming itself into a truly democratic society based on European rules, values and laws which the election of the pro-European Abdullah Gul as President should only accelerate.

We should recognise that Muslims, Jews and Christians have coexisted in this region for centuries, alongside those of many other beliefs and none. That diversity is what makes Europe unique. And it is that mixing of peoples which has inspired the history of our nations and forged those values which today we call 'European'. The contribution of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba to developments in medicine, mathematics and astronomy, not to mention how their translations of ancient Greek texts were to influence European Enlightenment, is testament to this fact. Xenophobic attitudes that attempt to impose an anachronistic homogeneity on our continent have no place in today's discourse. The only thing we should demand of citizens in a liberal democratic society - regardless of where they are born - is that they abide by the laws of the land and respect values like tolerance, democracy and Human Rights which underpin our political system.

Unless Europe makes progress on political integration now and reasserts its belief in the humanistic values which have made us an inspiration to developing democracies across the world we risk losing our place as a global standard setter and putting ourselves at the mercy of rising economic giants like China and India. To that end, Europe's political class awaits with baited breath the outcome of the Intergovernmental Conference on Treaty Reform which is expected to conclude before the end of the year. For to function efficiently, effectively and democratically the Union needs to put the institutional building blocks in place to drive its development for the next 50 years. Any attempt to abandon it could seriously weaken and divide the Union. Just as any attempt to create a break-away Core of European States would circumvent the constitutional process for the Union as a whole, to the detriment of all.