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.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Who Needs Love?

Who needs love? So asked Razorlight. As do millions of singletons as they opt for individualism over responsibility and the sheer interference of another life embroilled with their own.

Relationships in the post-modern west are a complex thing. On the one hand romantic love has been elevated to a sacred status. Having killed God and political ideology, the only aspect of life ruled by earnestness remains matters of the heart. Not for everyone of course. The cogniscenti see this too as a Derridean game to be endlessly deconstructed and played with.

However, for your average person love still counts for something. The more pertinent question, however, is what love actually means. On the one hand it is the repository of lost hopes for postmodern humanity. On the other a slightly sniffling Hallmark card of a sensation, to be scoffed and derided in all its sentimental glory. Love is no more than a lost love, a nostalgia for the land of fiction which died with God and fairies somewhere around the demise of Nietszche.

Yeah I know, religion is making a comeback. At dinner parties across our continent faith is standing up once again to be counted as a marker of identity. However, in my opinion, our new fixation with faith has rather more to do with our fear of faithlessness. In a world where everything is portrayed as relative, with relations more about power and desire than fidelity and honesty, people are reverting back to this time-honored response. I detect more than a little desperation in the action though. Confronted with the ultimate unpleasantness of rampant consumerism and individualism - and lacking coherent modern responses thereto - people are falling back into old moulds. But with the inevitable whiff of scepticism that accompanies tradition for traditions' sake.

People are lost. And they are lonely. Of this there is no doubt. But they are not firm believers either. The cult of romance, the cult of Christianity. Both are clutching at straws. Not because they are obviously false (I am personally inclined to believe in a merciful God, and in the improvement in humanity that selfless love brings out in us). The problem, if you like, lies in the packaging. Both have yet to be scripted for the twentifirst century. Both exist in paradigms that the world has now outlived. But for lack of alternatives still craves.

Which brings me back to my initial question. Who needs love? The answer, of course, is all of us. Bot not in the form in which we believe it exists. Love in the modern age is little more than an emotional high. For as long as we are floating on a chemical cloud-nine with our beloved the world is wonderful. Like a cheap ecstasy pill, once the feeling wears off we have to take another one (often a different brand) or suffer the realisation of its fictional happiness. That is not love to me.

Love is that thing that develops when people's lives are interminably intertwined. Love is learning to live together, to survive the moments you despair of each other, you are bored of each other, in short, the moments where emotions rule your heart. Only the day-by-day predictability of other human lives enmeshed with our own can bring true love. Which is why childhood friends so often endure. Not only because they are close. But because they were, and are, there with us all through our lives.

Loving another human being should not always be a choice. Rather an attitude, a survival mechanism if you will, that grows between people who would rather work with, rather than against, each other. And that requires qualities which today's definition of love abjures: the ability to survive boredom, antagonism, fall outs, inequalities. In short, that which binds us together despite difference.

For further evidence look no further than your own family.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007


Re-reading the post on India's economic issues , I felt inclined to follow it up with a few thoughts. I referred in that piece to the 'superior standard of living' enjoyed by the West. I also mentioned how life in the villages, however poor materially, seemed superior to a life lived, poor, in city squalor. My point, I think, was that it was better to live a different sort of life than strive in vain in pursuit of Western economic standards.

Romanticising the poor? Maybe, but that's not what I had intended. Rather, that quality of life and economic gain are not necessarily commensurate. It is possible to have less and live better than a slum dweller on a dollar a day. Unfortunately that is not how statistics encourage us to view the world. Their definition of 'standard of living' is fairly rigid. It consists of biens materiels, of economic measures, of GDP, Of GNP, of percentage annual national growth. It's enshrined in laws and parliamentary resolutions around the world. In UN declarations, even.

But this definition - however widespread - is not without its flaws. Its economic take on human existence can only allow materialist conclusions. However it has nothing to say about the other great sustaining factors in our lives: family, love, beauty, society, belonging, fulfillment. Such definitions cannot promote these except by economic means. Therein lies the flaw.

We need something else. Or just as well. And that demands the economic system adapt and learn from other considerations. Particularly human ones. As the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko once said "The West has maybe contributed a great deal in giving the world a more industrial face. But the real task still has to come from Africa: to give the world a more human face.” Indeed, this is the face of most radical political and religious critiques of western 'values', boosting both anti-capitalism and Islamism, to name but a few.

I can't speak for Africa. But I did visit a village in Uttarranchal where the Van Gujjar people - recently evicted nomads from the national park, rehoused to let the animals roam in front of tourist lenses) - eked out an existence selling buffalo milk. They were happier in the forest, they said. There, their primary considerations were not to survive making (bad) money and live on the fringes of society but to be at the centre of their own priorities and pursue them at will. How could their new life compare to that freedom?

The West is blind at times. It sees everything through the economic microscope that our thought has become. As such, we often fail to see our own shortcomings. I am always interested to hear others' views on the West, as a result. So if you have any comments in this regard, please do put pen to paper.
Where is the work and family balance that characterises other cultures? Where is the emphasis on balancing the different aspects of our lives? We, who work 12 hour days at times, enclosed in our offices, stressed, with strained relationships and fatigue and cynicism. We who want more 'time to ourselves', with our families, or just relaxing rather than trapped behind a desk. But who won't do anything about it.

The truth is that these are futile dreams, dreams whose reality we have already renounced. We have become deaf to ways of rebalancing our situation. Worse, we have accepted negative aspects of our modern capitalist culture, passively, as natural without sufficiently interrogating their cause. This is an age where all thought, even that which is technically anti-establishment, takes place within the parameters late capitalist culture has set out. There is no real challenge to its hegemony. And that, more than anything else, is what should worry us.

Perhaps rapid globalisation and urbanisation will shake this anomie. Two major truths are emerging: that there will always be losers from the global market (however many people are pulled out of poverty, the gap between haves and have-nots is still increasing) and that we cannot all consume at the same rate. They say that if everyone in China owned a car the human race would expire from lack of oxygen immediately. Current patters of development are killing the environment. As such, all of us (starting from the developed world) will have to change our patterns of consumption and invest in greener alternatives. That may hurt. But it may also be the push we have been waiting for, to reprioritise and reorder our collective consciousness.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Single White Female

What is it about single females that makes them so vulnerable? I always think it's interesting to compare reactions when you holiday with men and with women: the experience is invariably very different.

My last few foreign escapades have been in the company of a very close gay pal of mine. Needless to say he was normally taken as my husband (or at the very least, via a squiz at his biceps) a force to be reckoned with, so I was left pretty well alone. There was the inevitable confusion, I guess, of people discovering he wasn't my husband. Which could be kind of fun. At our hotel in Egypt the staff were having a hard time working out why this camp English playwright we met seemed to be chasing my 'man' - and why I didn't look terribly perturbed by his advances. Even being close friends with a man was considered a novel concept requiring lengthy explanation. But still, this made only for some multicultural spice. A few people tried to buy me off him for several thousand camels (their idea of a joke, I suppose) but that was as scary as it got.

Travelling in the company of women, however, is an altogether different story. I have never ventured forth on my own - and frankly, am amazed that any amazonian types do, considering the general menace of the male species. But experiencing India with a female friend really opened my eyes to how gendered people's perceptions are. You get stared at and followed. You get harassed. You get groped, even. And you feel a lot more vulnerable than with a man at your shoulder. I don't think that's country specific either. I think it is just a general trend. I had a similar experience on holiday with girl friends in Cornwall when I was 17. And Cornwall isn't exactly a threatening place.

It makes you wonder what signals women give off when they are together to attract such attention. To be honest, in this instance my friend and I dressed very conservatively. And, sans maquillage, and often, sans laver, were hardly pretty pictures most of the time. But still. I have never felt more resolutely sexually objectified. I think it is alot to do with vulnerability. It reminds me of vultures. Scavengers don't have the courage to strike when a more powerful beast is in the vicinity. But when those have left the scene, they circle and move in. It's like that with weak men, anywhere in the world. Seeing a woman 'unescorted' they take their chance and do and say things they would never dare if a stronger man were there.

One particularly insolent rickshaw-wallah I had in Jaipur asked me straight out to go to bed with him. When I refused to acknowledge him and got angry he seemed genuinely surprised and said he thought that was what 'freedom' was all about in my country. To scr*w whoever you wanted, whenever you wanted. Reductio ad absurdum. What could I say?

What's worse (and I plan to tell the Rough Guide this) these guys actually had a rooftop restaurant they took any single white females to in order to ply them with alcohol (and/or slip a date rape drug in their drink) and then rent a room by the hour to take their pleasure. Often, I heard, more than one at a time. The mere fact that this was reported as a semi-regular occurance shocked and sickened me.

But it got me thinking. Why don't others put a stop to it? If some place has a reputation for abusing tourists then why not shut it down? I wonder whether it is the image of Western woman that causes this behaviour? If the majority of people see us as fundamentally loose is it hardly suprising that they leave you in the clutches of your abusers - even if they would never dream of doing such a thing to a woman themselves.

I can understand patriarchy to the extent that its intended effect is to make good men the defenders of women. Sadly, what often happens in patriarchal cultures is that the woman gets the blame for other men's lack of control. It is possibly to do with the idea that you are 'asking for it' simply by travelling alone that permits others - psychologically - to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment.

Apparently the world has a long way to go before it learns to be civilised. That applies to both sexes however.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

The Ethics of Tourism

Holidaying outside the comfort-zone that is Western Europe and the Med brings its own share of ethical dilemmas. Chief among these, it seems, is the question of culpability. India confronts you with poverty and illness of sometimes staggering proportions, side by side with the glossy malls and BMW's of the recent economic boom. It's all rather Dickensian really. The question is, how should we respond?
My travelling companion was unable to bear the weight of these dilemmas at first. She felt responsible somehow, she said. She couldn't countenance going to spend £40 (or rupees equivalent) on lavish wedding clothes when seconds outside the air-conditioned shopping complex families with small children were sleeping on the pavement and men with no legs were begging for her loose change.

I argued that simply by being there, by spending our money locally, and giving occasionally to those in need, we were doing as much as could be required. How could I, a citizen of a foreign country, be expected to take direct responsibility for what I saw around me? If this had been my own country, Scotland, I would feel it was my problem. I would vote, act, and pay more taxes to alleviate this sort of poverty. That, indeed, is what the political spectrum in any democratic nation is all about. In my opinion India's progress was India's responsibilty - specifically that of its government and political and business classes.

My friend responded that all our advantages are simply the result of good fortune, and the indirect effect of a global market which privileges the west at the expense of the rest. A highly Rawlsian argument. If we were no more entitled that these other people to our superior standard of living, why feel that what we have is necessarily ours to keep? Wouldn't it be ethically fairer to empty our purses in a poor district and get straight back on the plane to our comfortable lives rather than living it up surrounded by the failure of the market system eating directly into our consciences?

Even if that were true, I felt, simply giving right left and centre won't solve the central problem, namely why a country with expected 10% economic growth this year can't provide better basic services to its people. Corruption? Incompetence? Or simply the result of a system where class difference is institutionalised and poverty normalised? In any case, we were seeing everything through Western eyes. How could first impressions tell us whether globalisation, urbanisation and market liberalisation had improved or decreased standards for the average Indian citizen?

Since 1980 China, for example, has sustained the highest rates of growth in per capita incomes in the world. Not coincidentally, it has also been the most successful in reducing poverty. From 1981 to 2001, the numbers of poor people living on less than $1/day reduced from 634 to 211 million. Over the past decade it has become increasingly evident that trade policies are instrumental to reaching global development goals. Indeed, a study by the University of Michigan has proved that as a result of the Uruguay Round of WTO talks, worldwide welfare increased by 75 billion Dollars.

Before we presume to say what is in the best interests of developing countries, we should let them judge for themselves. As the eminent economist Jagdish Bhagwati explains, if workers in the Developing World accept what we - in the West - regard as extremely low wages, they must regard these wages as improvements. [1]. Several empirical studies find that - contrary to what Naomi Klein's 'No Logo' suggests - multinationals pay what economists now call a ‘wage premium' - that is they pay an average wage that exceeds the going rate, mostly up to 10 percent and exceeding it in some cases. [2] . That's why we have to be careful of taking the anti-globalisation lobby's fears at face value.

I guess the bigger problem for India is over-population combined with rapid urbanisation, as in many developing countries. Though I was surprised to learn that 75% of Indians living below the poverty line dwell in the countryside. Clearly poverty and quality of life are not directly correlatable. The villages I saw were mostly neat, clean and peaceful. They may have been poor but they did not suffer the overflowing sewers, rubbish and spread of disease that occurs in cities. People need space, they need greenery, they need fresh food and fresh air. Those cannot be measured by money alone.

[1] In his 2004 Treatise, In Defence of Globalization[2] (In Defence of Globalization, p. 172).