Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year from her

Another hour left of 2005 and, again, I am going to get in there before my colleague with the seasonal wishes. This was the first complete year of the blog and we are quietly pleased with the way it has gone, with the number and diversity of readers we have acquired and with the forum that has developed in its own rather idiosyncratic way.

I have already listed my resolutions in the Christmas message. I am still sticking to them and that may last for several hours or days. Of course, not being able to attack our readers means that I probably shall not have much of a presence on the forum, but, hey, that’s the way it crumbles cookie-wise.

As it happens, blogging on my part will be a little light in the first two weeks of the year, as I am off to New York tomorrow (if I can get to Heathrow) and shall have to rely on a complicated arrangement to have my “letters from America” posted on the blog. But I shall keep an eye on it and on the forum.

There is a possibility that I shall get down to Washington DC as well and be able to talk to some people there, persuading them of the basic wrongness of the European project. If that comes off, I shall keep our readers informed.

On a more personal matter (it is rare for me): some of you will remember that I have had a somewhat difficult year with much medical treatment and endless rows with the NHS. Yesterday I completed my treatment and will now keep my fingers crossed for the check-ups that are looming early in the year. This is a good time for me to thank everyone again for their support and good wishes. It meant a great deal to me and to those close to me.

And now, enough sentimentality. A happy and prosperous 2006 to all our readers. May the Force be with us this year.


Great fleas and lesser fleas

If Tony Blair had said it on the eve of the British presidency of the EU, all hell would have broken lose, with multiple condemnations our beloved leader and his "negative" approach to the European Union.

But seeing as it's only Austria, it doesn't aeem to matter chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, only hours before his country assumes the presidency, has complained that the European Court of Justice has overstretched itself by extending European law into areas of national competence.

The court in recent years had "systematically" widened its competences "even into areas where there is firmly no Community law", he added, citing past court judgements on women serving in Germany's armed forces and the admission of foreign students to Austrian universities. Both concerned areas of policy that should clearly be governed by national law, he said.

However, his remedy is not one that even our beloved leader would have countenanced. According to Reuters, in an interview with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, Schuessel suggested EU member states should consider whether a new higher authority was needed to "legitimatise" the court's actions.

It looks like he is suggesting that we have yet another layer to the European Court, a new "supreme" or appeal court. And even if the idea does not meet with the approval of the "colleagues", it can hardly be dismissed as evidence of Euroscepticism.

That notwithstanding, it does rather prove the contention of Victorian mathematician, Augustus de Morgan: "Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so on ad infinitum."


The two cultures

As a political researcher, I inhabit a strange world, performing a function which is almost surreal. Shorn to its essentials, my primary task is to inform members of parliament on issues about which they know nothing – or very little – about which I too often know very little. The old saw, "the blind leading the blind" comes readily to mind.

Given the variety of subjects that I have to cover – ranging from agriculture, commercial fishing, defence procurement, police reorganisation and, latterly, road charging, research skills are at a premium. Not a few times I bless my supervisors who guided me through the trauma of my research degree, teaching me things at a time in my career when I thought I knew everything.

Even with these skills, however, there is no way I can match the technical knowledge of the subject specialists – the experts – many of whom have devoted a lifetime of work to a very narrow field.

But here is the interesting reflection on our society. In many, many instances, decisions on the use of science and technology are not made by the subjects specialists, but by politicians – who may be wholly ignorant of the details of the subject (and are often woefully misinformed) - briefed by people like me, who have a (sometimes slender) grasp of the issues but with limited knowledge of the finer points.

In so doing, we often encounter those who are often dismissed as the "techies" who share the same contempt for us as we do for them – they in their ivory towers, shrouded in their acronyms and technical jargon, and us pitying them for their naïvete in matters political and their total inability to reduce their arguments to "bullet points" covering no more than one side of one sheet of paper.

What brings this to a head are my recent postings on Galileo, here and especially here, and the forum thread which has provoked some highly informed commentary.

Interestingly, one post drew the complaint from a reader of "arrogance". I could have added the descriptor "patronising", but stayed my hand. Experts in their fields, who have to deal with ordinary mortals, often unwittingly project their knowledge in this way, impatient at our ignorance and sometimes resentful that we have strayed into their domain.

That much is evident on one of the specialist aviation sites, where any number of anal retentives lie in wait for the unwitting generalists, ready to pick them up on terminological inexactitudes or technical errors.

Therein, however, lies the downfall of the "techies". They can be so jealous of their technical excellence and so imbued with the magnificence of their own expertise that they lose sight of the "big picture". Their discussions are filled with impressive detail, but at the same time they exhibit that unworldliness which renders their erudition sterile. People less kind than me have referred to it as "intellectual masturbation".

So it is with Galileo. Although a technical accomplishment (when it happens) of enormous complexity, benefiting from the skills and dedication of some very clever men and women, it is fundamentally a political project. And its political progenitors were not in the least interested in the practical possibilities of the system. They saw in it a means of enhancing the political identity of that construct they call "Europe" – otherwise known as the European Union – as another step in the process of economic and thus political integration, and of countering the technical and political hegemony of the United States.

Primarily, these people saw – and still see – the system as separate, a rival to the US Navstar, and one which will stand as a symbol of all things that are good about "Europe", forcing others to make a choice between the "decadent" United States and the oh so cultured Europeans.

Hence one sees the preening of the Europeans about how much more accurate the system is (which it isn’t), how it is a "civilian" system as opposed to the warmongering Americans whose system is under the control of the Pentagon (which it isn't), and how – unlike the US – it can guarantee service (which it can't).

On the back of this ego-driven enterprise, however, the Europeans (and here we are talking about the politicians) have ambitious plans. With their "Single European Sky", they planned to develop an air traffic control system that was totally reliant on Galileo, which will not only give control of commercial aviation to EU institutions but also generate a tidy sum in revenue.

Similarly, they plan to impose a Galileo-based system as the sole provider of railway signalling systems in the European Union – starting with those which comprise what they grandly call the Trans European Network. Then, in another major revenue-generating exercise, they also plan to take over the road charging schemes that are set to proliferate throughout Europe.

In aviation, however, it looks that the grandiose plans are running into the sands. This being a global industry – and in the forefront of technology – it is not disposed to shackle itself to narrow, regional standards for what is, after all, a global system. And the techies have the answer.

Relying on largely US political pressure which has forced on the European a degree of interoperability that was not originally envisaged, they have been able to come up with receivers which do not rely on any one system – be it Galileo, Navstar or the Russian Glonass – but can integrate the signals from all three, to produce a solution that is better than any one can provide.

Thus, claims about Galileo being "better" than Navstar – or vice-versa - are rendered irrelevant as the combination of all three systems gives a performance that neither, operating in isolation, can claim.

This does not entirely wipe out the revenue-earning potential for Galileo in aviation, as the EU will still be able to levy charges on the users of air navigation services, to underwrite their satellite system, but the potential is much reduced.

Not so, though, with the other, terrestrial transport systems – road and rail – where the EU has already moved in with technical harmonising directives, aimed at paving the way for a Galielo monopoly, which will underwrite any new systems installed.

And then there is the military dimension. The fact remains that autonomous European military adventures are impossible if they rely on Navstar, and the US disapproves to the extent that it is prepared to shut down the system in areas of EU operation. Neither can European military equipment manufacturers sell wares designed to rely on GPS to third parties, as long as the US controls the system.

Whatever advantages Galileo might bring to aviation, therefore – as well as other fields, the political implications of deploying a European system are still profound and, depending on one's point of view, the disadvantages far outweigh any technical gains.

In advancing that thesis, though, I am reminded of C P Snow's famous book of the late fifties, The Two Cultures, in which he advanced the idea that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities (the "two cultures" of the title) was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

Here, we are also dealing with "two cultures" – even if they are different. These are the politicos and the techies and, as with Snow's cultures, neither are talking to each other with the facility and understanding that they might. In their enthusiasm for the wonders of technology, the techies lose sight of the political dimensions while the politicos are too often making their mad plans without any understanding of the technical realities. In that way, as so often, lies disaster. But on our forum, at least, the two cultures are beginning to talk.


Russia and Ukraine stare each other down

Gazprom insists that if Ukraine does not agree to pay the quadrupled prices for gas, the supply will be stopped on January 1. And, as the Daily Telegraph reported today:

“Gazprom said yesterday it had bought up all the gas that will be exported from Turkmenistan in the first three months of next year - gas which otherwise would have flowed to Ukraine.”


“The Russians have also bought a section of pipeline that runs through Belarus in exchange for cheap gas. The deal will help secure at least one route for Russian gas into western Europe and weaken Ukraine's bargaining position.”

The Ukrainians are saying that they have enough gas to last them through the winter but would like to negotiate about phasing in the price hike.

President Putin distanced himself rather grandly from the whole mess, accusing both sides of creating a crisis needlessly. Then he offered Ukraine a loan of up to $3.6 billion (an enormous sum for Russia). In all probability prudently, President Yushschenko rejected it. A loan of that size would put Ukraine even further into Russia’s power.

So far so difficult. The European Union has refused to intervene or even mediate. As we know from past experience, it has never been able to come to any kind of a conclusion about problems that happen on its doorstep.

There is, however, another aspect to the story. Russia not only sells gas to Ukraine but pipes the gas intended for western Europe (about 30 per cent of its supply) through that country and there is a possibility of that coming to a halt as well. This would mean another price hike, over and above the one already promised for next year.

To this the EU had to respond by convening a meeting of its gas industry experts on January 4.

In the meantime,

“Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said there was a "detailed plan" to ensure that supplies transiting Ukraine to the EU would not be disrupted.”

He did not explain what those detailed plans were but Germany has become worried enough to call on the two sides to settle the dispute as soon as possible.

Clearly, Russia wants to become an important player on the energy scene and is not too particular about its methods. As we have said before, the problem is not the raising of the price, but the way it is being done. And the Europeans had better take note of Russian business methods.


Friday, December 30, 2005

Euro siege

Our weekly spot with Charlie Woolf on Talk Sport is on early this week, starting at ten past midnight.

You can tune in, or listen on-line via the above link.


"Run away, run away"

According to Al-Jazeera

“There have been a spate of kidnappings, gun battles and armed takeovers of government institutions in the Gaza Strip in recent months, putting more pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to instill order ahead of the January parliamentary elections, in which his Fatah party faces strong challenge from HAMAS.”

One cannot argue with that summary but they seem to have simplified the story somewhat. (Don’t tell me Al-Jazeera is dumbing down!)

At present we have the following players in Gaza: Fatah, which has been splitting and splintering but has come together for long enough to put up a single list for the elections; HAMAS, which did extremely well in the municipal elections but has not precisely given up its intentions to keep attacking Israel; various Gaza families, who seem bent on fighting each other to the death if necessary; the Palestinian security forces who are answerable (after a fashion) to the Palestinian Ministry of Interior; the Palestinian police force, which seems seriously dissatisfied with the Palestinian security forces; an unknown group that kidnapped the British “peace activist” (according to Al-Jazeera) Kate Burton and her parents; the Palestinian Police Chief Alaa Housni, who keeps making statements; the EU monitors at the Rafah crossing; the Israeli government and Israeli Defence Forces; and last but hardly least, the Egyptian government and forces, who have been notably quiet as all hell breaks lose in Gaza.

At any given time some or most of these are participating in the growing anarchy in the region.

Israel has had to declare a “no-go” area in the north of Gaza after persistent firing of rockets in the direction of Ashkelon and has retaliated, though not much. At present they do not seem to want to move back into Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas has made a statement asserting that they have no right to do so, no matter what the provocation is, even if it is the firing of rockets, which, he added belatedly, he also deplores.

This seems to be President Abbas’s role: to deplore matters. He also deplores the persistent kidnappings of foreigners in the area. Most of these appear to be peaceful. The kidnappers use their action to emphasise some point in a dispute between families or demand employment in the government sector. The victims are routinely released.

Not so with Kate Burton and her parents. Ms Burton, confident that her record as a human rights activist or peace activist (take your pick) would protect her and her visitors despite FCO warnings that Gaza was a dangerous place to be in, blithely took her parents to Rafah crossing, where they were kidnapped by an unknown group.

Curiously, even after 36 hours the group has made no demands and there seems no information of the Burton family’s whereabouts, despite the house-to-house searches conducted by the Palestinian Security Forces in the Gaza town of Khan Younis.

This has not prevented Police Chief Housni from making the following statement:

“Those who have them have not yet made any demands and have not yet announced who they are. These are enemies to the Palestinian people. We will get them. If we have to use force we will.”

Oh fine. But surely, before he uses force it might be a good idea to find out who the people are. Or maybe not.

All sorts of other people have been calling for the release of the Burton family, including the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and, inevitably, HAMAS.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Association of Britain (a completely new player) has announced that if the hostages (well, since we do not know why they were kidnapped, this may not be the right word) are not released by Saturday morning, an envoy would be despatched to negotiate. Unfortunately, negotiation does have this in common with the use of force: you do need to know who the other guy is.

As it happens, the sending of an envoy may or may not be a good idea. As Reuter’s says:

“The Muslim Association of Britain had previously sent an envoy to Iraq to seek the release of British hostage Norman Kember, who was abducted in Baghdad in November and whose whereabouts remain unknown.”

Maybe somebody, somewhere is collecting peace activists.

Today the kaleidoscope shifted again. The Palestinian police, dissatisfied with the Palestinian security forces and the general lawlessness of the region, which resulted in the death of at least one of their officers, stormed the Rafah crossing, which is supposed to be monitored by EU officials.

The latter are not, of course, equipped to deal with groups of Palestinians fighting each other and, therefore, they prudently fled from the whole mess, taking refuge with the Israeli Defence Forces in Kerem Shalom. The crossing had to be closed as, according to the carefully worked out agreement, it cannot function without EU monitors.

Police Chief Alaa Housni (yes, him again) has announced that the situation has been resolved, though he did not specify what the resolution was. It seems that the EU monitors have returned and the crossing has been opened.

All of which leaves a few problems. Will Mahmoud Abbas be able to create some kind of order in the various unruly parts of his fiefdom, without which the idea of a Palestinian state remains a chimera? And last but very much not least, what will the Egyptians do?

Gaza, let us recall, was not an independent state before the Israeli invasion, but a part of Egypt, a country that has had its own problems with terrorists. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood, rather successful in the last elections, is the progenitor of all the other extremist Islamic organizations.

Egypt is also described by numerous commentators as the country that is steadily arming itself with some of the most up-to-date equipment available. One wonders how much of the annual American aid of $2 billion, not to mention aid from other sources goes on that.

The assumption is that Egypt is readying itself for a war with Israel but there are other possibilities. An unruly Gaza and a nominal Palestinian state on its borders may not be quite what the Egyptian government has in mind for the future. Just a thought.


Thieves falling out?

Just before Christmas, the Portuguese prime minister, Jose Socrates, said that he would take up the challenge of reviving the EU constitution during his country’s EU presidency in the second half of 2007. This followed an announcement from Merkel that she would pursue that objective during its turn at the presidency in the first half of that year.

"The project of the constitutional treaty was signed by the 25 member states and it would not be right [to forget it]", said Socrates told his own parliament.

Then, yesterday, on the eve of the their EU presidency, Austrian officials said they were sympathetic to an initiative by Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, to revive the constitution. "We don't want it to die. But we have to be realistic," one official said. "It's going to take one or two presidencies to reach a solution."

This morning, however, on RDP Antena 1 radio, Lisbon, Portuguese foreign minister, Diogo Freitas do Amaral (pictured), was singing a different tune. He declared the EU constitution "no longer viable", complaining that the "colleagues" had drawn up "a huge and unclear text, full of appendixes, with hundreds of clauses, with hundreds of pages which no one will read, which no one can read, which no one can be bothered to read."

In Amaral's view, it "says nothing to the European citizen" and "is the total opposite of what is required." It would be prudent and honest of EU leaders to learn the lessons of these French and Dutch referendums, he added.

"Prudence" and "honesty" though, are not the most obvious characteristics of "EU leaders", so it will be interesting to whether Amaral will be whipped into line or whether this is a case of thieves are falling out.


Good news on the blogosphere

January and February were dark months on the blogosphere. First the dissident frogman, a breath of sanity out of France stopped blogging, then The Diplomad, the voice of the dissidents in the State Department fell silent.

Many of the American blogs have been doing a round-up of those who have not lasted the year and whose absence has been keenly felt. All of them listed the two above. In response to the Mitch Townsend’s posting on Chicagoboyz, the dissident frogman replied and suggested that we all have another look at the blog.

And sure enough, it has been resurrected in its full bilingual glory. His posting is called The dissident frogman’s 2005 winter offensive and to give our readers some idea of the style and content, let me quote his list of enemies:
“The usual crowd really: Socialists from the Left, Socialists from the Right, Islamists and their fellow travelers, Anti-Semites and Christianophobes, Sovereignists, Nationalists, National-Socialists, International-Socialists, Transnationalists, Statists and Stasists, in short, authoritarians and Idiotarians of all kind, race, color and persuasion.”
Go on, spoil yourself. Read the dissident frogman. For one thing he makes us look calm and easy-going.


Thursday, December 29, 2005

I suppose it is important

We would rather the Telegraph had used the space for a grown-up commentary on the political implications of Galileo – but then we would wouldn’t we – but even then, what the paper did actually print seems to display a rather odd sense of priorities.

For sure, the subject of its lead editorial was worthy enough – an examination of the case for the Boy King taking the ModCons out of the European People’s Party in the EU parliament, and issue we have rehearsed on this blog.

But what is odd about the piece is its timing. Lacking a topical news "hook" it pops up out of nowhere, quite unrelated to any recently reported events, at a time anyway when the EU parliament is in recess and nothing much is happening.

However, careful reading – and a little inside knowledge – suggests a sub-text. The leader writer reminds us that pulling the ModCons out of the EPP is the one unequivocal promise that the Boy King made during his leadership campaign and, "failing to deliver on the one thing he can do in opposition would make voters doubt his ability to deliver in government".

That last assertion is a little overblown, as the average voter neither knows nor cares about the EPP. But it is an issue that is passionately important to a small section of the faithful and the piece seems to suggest that there is some doubt as to whether the Boy King is going to deliver. It is, therefore a "shot across the bows", warning of trouble if the promise is not honoured.

Clearly, the Tory Europhiles entrenched in their comfortable niche in the EPP are mounting a rearguard action, and are going to make the Boy King’s life very difficult. He may be tempted to abandon the struggle, or kick it into the long grass. Whether he does will indeed be a good measure of his resolve so, I suppose it is important.


We are so cultured

It is one of the mantras of the European project that not only is Europe the most cultured of all Continents (a dubious proposition these days) but the only way to keep this delightful state of affairs is by pumping huge amounts of taxpayers’ money into the arts, film, music, what have you.

We have seen the lamentable results of that policy in this country, though, at least, we do not take state subsidization of the arts quite as seriously as they do on the Continent in that the money we pump into bad films, poor performances and downright ghastly art is considerably smaller.

Furthermore, apart from the Kultur Kommissars (for one must never forget that where there is state subsidy there are ministries, regulators, officials, hangers-on of various kind, all being paid inflated salaries out of our taxes), not many people seriously suggest that we should practise cultural protectionism.

Two wonderful stories appeared in the media today, both illustrating the joys of state-subsidized European art.

For the first one we must go to Austria, that country of human rights and self-righteous indignation (though it seems that 70 percent of those asked in a poll in Graz were against removing Arnie’s name). It is also the country that takes over the EU presidency on January 1.

What better way of celebrating than by handing over tax money for an art project? €1 million was given by the Austrian government to something called 25 Peaces that is part of euroPART. This brings together 75 European artists. More money is supposed to have been contributed by the private sector but one wonders how much of it came other governmental organizations.

The first fruit of this entire project has just appeared in Vienna – a series of posters of naked figures clearly engaged in sexual activity, wearing masks depicting the Queen, Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush. I guess Chirac must be annoyed to find himself in that company.

As today’s Daily Telegraph says:

“The images of the naked trio were designed by Carlos Aires, 31, from Madrid. He said they depicted "the most recent changes in Europe and the resulting spacial constructions". The project's organisers called them a "direct criticism of globalisation".”

Well, there you are, then. Art or what?

However, the Austrians are not happy and a fine little political storm is brewing. It seems that both the Right and the Left are upset, which is quite an achievement.

“In today's Krone newspaper, Wolfgang Schüssel, the Austrian chancellor, condemned the group sex image as "highly tasteless" and promised to have it removed.

"It has nothing to do with art," he said. "The borders of good taste and reasonableness have been crossed by a long way." Meanwhile, Norbert Darabos, the chairman of the Austrian Socialist party, asked: "Is this style of welcome by the EU presidency suitable? Is it going to solve any of the problems on the agenda?"

Heinz Christian Strache, the head of the Right-wing Freedom party, said the poster depicted nothing more than "group sex fantasies". He accused the government of "using taxpayers' money to drag pornography into the public arena". Women's rights groups called on the women's minister, Maria Rauch-Kallat, to condemn the poster campaign as misogynist.

Newspapers in the staunchly Catholic country have also labelled the images as "pure porn".”

It is questionable whether Chancellor Schüssel has any power to remove the posters.

Meanwhile, at another section of the European cultural front, an interesting item appeared in the Daily Telegraph. It seems that l’escroc Chirac is looking for a new career to be pursued, perhaps, after his prison sentence. Or, maybe, he is so taken by the idea that he is a reincarnation of l’empereur or of Louis XIV that he has decided to take a hand in matters artistic.

France has led the campaign for cultural, artistic and cinematographic protectionism, otherwise known as censorship or, at the very least, state control of what people can see and read.

In particular, the French government and elite dislikes Hollywood (except when it gets on its left-wing high horse). The truth is that, given a choice, most people in France want to see American entertainment rather than the heavily subsidized French films so they must be prevented from doing that.

There are some exceptions, though, and one of them was Amélie, a slightly twee French film, much disliked by the bien-pensants about a sweet Parisienne, who goes around sorting out people’s lives. Its star Audrey Tautou can be described as enchanting or someone whose sweetness gives you a permanent toothache but she is box office. And Hollywood understands box office.

Mlle Tautou was, therefore, cast as the French cryptographer Sophie Neveu in the forthcoming film of Dan Brown’s blockbuster The Da Vinci Code. I have not read the book and do not intend to see the film but I understand that much of it takes place in Paris and thither the American film-makers, Ron Howard, director and Brian Glazer, producer, repaired last year to hold auditions and to start filming.

According to the story in Newsweek, the two were invited to meet M. le Président and went to the Elysée, expecting a five-minute chat and a photocall. Instead, they were plied with coffee and conversation (presumably “Jacky” recalled that he could speak English quite well) that turned to the casting.

It seems l’escroc had someone in mind for the part of Sophie Neveu, a friend of his daughter Claude’s, the latter being known as the person who engineered her father’s recent political career.

Chirac also wondered whether the French actor Jean Reno might not be given an increase in his fee. But those dam’ Yanquis behaved as boorishly as they could be expected to do. They thanked M. Chirac for the coffee and the advice and … stuck to their own choice, who turned out to be Mlle Tautou. (At least, we do not think she is Claude Chirac’s friend.)

Much to the fury of the satirical Le Canard Enchaîné, the name of the not so lucky actress who did not get the part has not been discovered by Newsweek. At least, we don’t think so.

One assumes, incidentally, that there will be no calls for the removal of The Da Vinci Code from French cinemas.


The Osthoff saga goes on and on

It seems odd to think that there was a time when we did not have the archaeologist or aid worker (take your pick) Susanne Osthoff to entertain us. The story has reached Advent Calendar proportions: you open a window each day and there is something new and improbable there.

Having annoyed the German media (with some left-wing exceptions) by giving her first interview to Al-Jazeera, by refusing to return to Germany without specifying where she might be going next, and by not getting in touch with her family, Ms Osthoff has now given an interview to the German public television ZDF.

It is unlikely that this interview will reverse German feelings towards the good will she had garnered while in the hands of the kidnappers.

In the first place, she appeared in a yashmak, that is a veil that hides everything except the eyes. No doubt, this is a sign to Arab women that they should not even try to fight for their freedom, as spoilt westerners like Ms Osthoff will not support them.

Secondly, she seems to have changed her story. On Al-Jazeera she explained that she had been kidnapped by poor Sunni Arabs from the Triangle near Baghdad, who, being unable to kidnap Americans, have to make do with Europeans like her in order to get humanitarian help.

On ZDF she said that it was a group connected with Zarqawi that had kidnapped her and released her for reasons she is still unable or unwilling to explain, though the German media appears to assume that a ransom had been paid.

Reuter’s ends its piece with the following purely factual but somewhat tongue-in-cheek comments:
“ZDF broadcast excerpts from the interview, in which Osthoff gives few direct answers and digresses at length. She ended by thanking former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who made a televised appeal for her release, but pointedly declined to thank her sister who did the same.”
I wonder what will be in tomorrow’s window. Oh, and by the way, where is that driver?


The strange death of politics

Today's Telegraph cartoon says it all about the Conservative Party, but it would be wrong to attribute the vacuum of policy solely to the Boy King and his cohorts.

Strangely, an illustration of the effect of this vacuum comes in the paper's coverage of the launch of Giove A – the first experimental satellite in the EU's Galileo programme.

If yesterday's coverage was bad, today's is, if possible, even worse. But what is so striking about it – especially in The Telegraph and The Times is the absence of a serious political dimension to the reporting, which is taken on a "Boys' Own" level, largely recycling the exaggerated claims from EU press releases.

Thus does Roger Highfield, science correspondent for The Telegraph, under the headline, "Navigation system to rival the US could improve air safety, locate lost children and find nearest cashpoint", warble about the system with which "it will be possible to find local theatres, shops, restaurants and cash machines on a mobile." Tourists, he adds, will be less likely to get lost with multimedia maps and directions delivered to their phones. Other services may locate children separated from their parents.

Oh, p-leeze.

The Times is no better, headlining, "Satellite will bring cinema listings to your mobile phone," its science correspondent chirping that the system will "transform the consumer applications of satellite positioning technology, allowing mobile phones with a Galileo chip to receive local weather forecasts and entertainment listings."

The point is that an issue such as this do not acquire a political dimension, and especially a party political dimension, unless the opposition parties make it so – whence the media will pick up on the controversy and report it. But, with very few, muted exceptions, the Conservative Party has been utterly silent on Galileo. I could not even tell you what its policy is on the issue, the Party website being devoid of any official statement.

Yet, there are major political implications in the project. For instance, there is the cost, not just in overall terms but in respect of the UK contribution. I have seen one report which mentions £92 million, but that likely to be a gross understatement for a project, the finances of which are anything but transparent.

Taking into account that much of the finance has been laundered through the EU’s framework research programme, with additional subventions through DG Transport, to which the UK will have contributed as part of the EU budget, I estimate that, by the time the Galileo constellation is fully deployed, British taxpayers will have shelled out in the order of £400 million.

This, even in today's inflated terms, is a lot of money yet, at no time do I recall either the taxpayers or Parliament having been asked to approve that expenditure. Whether we should have done so, when the US Navstar system is available to us free of charge, is a legitimate political question, and one on which the Conservative Party should have had a view.

By all means, you can argue that Galileo is a more accurate system and gives better coverage, but is that worth £400 million to the British taxpayer? That is especially relevant when Navstar is being progressively upgraded so that, by the time Galileo is operational, there will be very little difference in performance between the systems.

Another central question is whether the EU should at all have been involved. This project started off with the European Space Agency, which is not an EU institution. It is an intergovernmental agency, including members who are not part of the EU. Yet, over time, the EU has gradually hijacked the system, to call it its own.

Given that the EU is to run the system, a crucial issue comes with its political control. It is all very well warbling, as do the journos – faithfully repeating EU "spin" – that it is a civilian system run by a civilian consortium, but it is an inescapable fact – as we pointed out in our posting yesterday – that it is dual use.

Since the EU has allowed China to become a full development partner in the system, there is the distinct possibility that the People's Republic will exploit the military applications, and a possibility that weapons using Galileo will be deployed against the United States or its allies. The British view on this, and the effectiveness of political controls and decision-making, are vital political issues, especially in the context of our relationship with the US. They should have been discussed at the highest political level. Once again, the Conservative Party has been silent.

On the military aspects, the present government maintains the stance that Galileo is a civilian system – despite its dual-use capability – and that Navstar is to remain the standard for British armed forces, under the umbrella of Nato.

On the other hand, the French government has made it very clear that it intends to use Galileo for its armed forces, while our government is committed to military integration with our European "partners", not least through the European Rapid Reaction Force. In this, GPS is the core system in the modern, "net-centric" military, bundled with other systems to such an extent that, unless we also use Galileo, our electronic equipment will not be compatible – and therefore interoperable – with European forces, negating the whole concept of the ERRF.

This raises the questions of whether we will be forced to abandon the Nato standard, whether we will have to bear the huge cost – if practicable – of providing dual-standard equipment – and, if we do abandon Navstar, the implications for the Atlantic alliance. None of these questions have been rehearsed by the Conservative Party, which has uncritically accepted the government assurances on the continued use of Navstar.

Turning to broader issues, many of Galileo's applications have to do with transport. A central plank of the EU's strategy is to use the signal to manage the "Single European Sky", requiring all aircraft using European airspace to be equipped with Galileo-based equipment. Air transport, however, is a global industry and since the US is not likely to abandon Navstar in its own airspace, the EU action will inevitably require most aircraft to be fitted with both systems. Do we really want this, and what are the implications of the EU charging for GPS-based navigation systems when the US is providing them free of charge? These are political questions, again unasked by the Conservatives.

Still on transport, the Telegraph's Roger Highfield writes that Galileo will "underpin road-pricing", and he is not the only one to write in such vein. For sure, GPS provides one of the technical options available to manage road pricing, but is it necessarily the right one? And are we in favour of road pricing schemes at all? These questions have yet to be fully debated. Now, the problem is that, with such a huge investment in Galileo, member states – and the EU – will be looking for schemes to justify (and recoup) the investment – creating huge pressure for GPS-based road charging, for financial rather than operational reasons.

The same goes for controlling shipping, for regulatory issues such as monitoring fishing vessels and even for farm animal movements, where the pressure will be to use Galileo rather than Navstar.

Then there is the biggest question of them all, oddly enough acknowledged by the Europhile press such as the Guardian and the Independent. Both these papers readily attest that Galileo is a political project, aimed as much at increasing the prestige of the EU and Europe's independence from the United States – although, with inintended hilarity, The Independent writes about the network of satellites orbiting the earth at 14,000 feet (sic). In this case, writes one of our readers, wouldn't it be cheaper to push them out of the back of a low-flying Hercules (or European equivalent) rather than blast them off from Kazakhstan?

But the serious issue is very serious. Is it in our national interest to be part of a system that is, as the Guardian puts it, " a challenge to US"? What does this do for our "special relationship"?

The issues thus are profound, but discussion of them is absent from the media today in part because the Conservatives have been silent on them. They have put down no "markers" and let the issue go by default. And, in continuing his silence on a wide range of issues, the Boy King is contributing to this strange death of politics.


Immigration - the last straw?

Despite the express and implicit wishes of what is probably a considerable majority of the British population that mass immigration should be curtailed, the influx of migrant workers is so economically advantageous for Gordon Brown and his NuLab colleagues that it is unsurprising that popular sentiment has gone unheeded.

Crucially, a constant supply of workers prepared to accept low wages has had the important effect of suppressing inflationary wage pressures. This effect has been aided by the influx of cheap imports from China and other developed countries, keeping the price of staple goods like clothing down. It has also been bolstered by improvements in technology and manufacturing techniques which have reduced of the price of a wide range of electrical and electronic goods.

These three anti-inflationary pressures combined have served to blunt the effects of the chancellor's increased taxes and have thus contributed to the continuing "feel-good" factor amongst voters, which have been instrumental in keeping the Labour government in power.

However, according to the Financial Times, citing official figures, the boost to the economy from immigration, and the popularity that brings, may soon be neutralised by the rise in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit.

This figure rose in November rose for the 10th month in succession to 902,000, the longest stretch of increases for almost 13 years. More worryingly, the unemployment rate, regarded internationally as the best guide to the jobs market, rose to 4.9 percent, the highest level since 2003.

Although still half the jobless rate of big European competitors such as France and Germany, this rising unemployment could prompt a backlash against migrant workers, if they become stigmatised for under-cutting wages and "stealing the jobs the jobs" of native Britons. Potential victims could include existing minority ethnic communities which already suffer unemployment rates much higher than the national average.

Particular targets for popular ire might be the recent migrant workers from eastern European countries such as Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. Almost 300,000 east Europeans have applied to work in Britain since May last year, and the real numbers are likely to be much higher as official figures record only migrant workers willing to pay the £70 registration fee.

The backlash may be intensified by other factors, such as one instanced by a report in yesterday’s Times, which retailed how the number of EU students enrolling in British universities is expected to jump by an astonishing 75,000 over the next two years.

These new arrivals are not "overseas" students, who are coveted by bursars because they pay up to five times the fees demanded of domestic students, but will come with the same rights to interest-free loans and deferred repayments that British students enjoy.

This predicted influx is prompting concern that domestic students may be turned down by top universities in favour of applicants from elsewhere in the EU, who are often better educated than their British rivals, leading to complaints from potential students that they have been "frozen out" by immigrants, subsidised by the British taxpayer.

But a more immediate bone of contention is highlighted by the The Daily Telegraph, which reports that Labour has presided over a 60 percent increase in house building on Green Belt land since 1997, while the paper’s leader attributes this erosion to immigration.

The landscape of much of the south of England, it says, has been ruined. What were until recently isolated villages are now part of a Greater London, a more-or-less continuous metropolis spreading across the Home Counties. Bluebell groves have disappeared under Tarmac and Chestnut coppices have been cleared to make space for "homes for keyworkers".

This thesis was emphasised by home affairs editor Philip Johnston, who tells us that last year, 2004, saw the highest net migration on record, with an inflow of 223,000 - 72,000 more than the previous year, largely as a result of the EU's expansion. Yet, when Labour took office in 1997 net migration was about 50,000 a year.

Tellingly, the leader adds: "We signed away our countryside when we signed away our immigration controls."

But it is not only migrants from EU countries that are having an effect, as is recorded by The Daily Telegraph a few days ago when it published a story on how Indian workers were "slashing" IT wages.

It seems that Indian technology workers are flooding the UK on temporary permits, undercutting local wages and raising the prospect of a homegrown skills shortage, according to the Association for Technology Staffing Companies. ATSCo chief executive Ann Swain said: "Wages are being undercut by companies bringing over Indian workers, who are put up in hostels and paid poorly."

Home Office immigration figures show that 21,448 foreign IT workers have been issued work permits this year, a 15 percent increase on 2004 and almost double the level five years ago. Of those, 85 percent now come from India, where an experienced software programmer receives £6,600 a year compared with £33,000 for his counterpart in the UK.

After paying their travel, permits and living expenses, the Indian workers are charged out to clients at around half the rate asked for a similarly home grown IT expert, a phenomenon known as "onshore offshoring".

Currently, this influx is managed by the British government but, under recent proposals, the EU wants to introduce a "Euro green card", which controls the influx of skilled workers from non EU countries.

So far, immigration is not always seen in terms of the EU but, with the UK having taken migrants from the EU enlargement countries, with the EU exercising increasing control over our wider immigration policies and with the EU's "green card" initiative in place, this might change dramatically.

There is a possibility, therefore, that any backlash over immigration is also expressed in terms of a backlash against membership of the EU. On the other hand, activists may not make the connection but, if they do - and, given the powerful emotions that are often released when this issue hits the headlines - it could even be the "last straw" which eventually drives the UK out of the Union.


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Schoolboys should be seen and not heard

That, presumably, is SecGen Kofi Annan’s attitude to the subject. Why else would he have called the experienced New York correspondent of the Times, James Bone, “cheeky” and “an overgrown schoolboy”, not a serious journalist at all.

One assumes that the SecGen’s idea of a serious journalist is a latter day Pravda hack, who would not dream of asking awkward questions. Unfortunately, Mr Bone did. The question that really sent the SecGen into a spin was about the Mercedes car that his son Kojo seems to have bought in his name, thus not paying taxes on the purchase or on the importation to Ghana. The car, it seems, has disappeared.

Mr Bone has responded to the SecGen in today’s Wall Street Journal Europe with an article, entitled “An ‘Overgrown Schoolboy’ Asks: Where Is the Car?”

The piece traces the tortuous way in which the details about young Kojo’s employment with Cotecna became public and his father’s probable involvement.

The news of this first broke in January 1999.
“At the time, the secretary-general turned to a respected financial figure, Joseph Connor – a former chairman of Price Waterhouse World Firm who was then the U.N.’s under-secretary-general for mangement – to investigate. The inquiry – which had a crucial paragraph mysteriously added to Mr. Connor’s signed version – took less than a day. It found that Kojo had resigned from the Swiss firm, Cotecna Inspection SA, before a U.N. contract was awarded to the firm. We now know that was false.”
The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that no matter how respected a financial figure is, once he becomes a tranzi, all is lost. But Mr Bone does a bit of mea culpa himself.
“Before attacking me at his news conference last week, Mr. Annan bemoaned that the press had been misled by “deliberate leaks”. Sadly, I can confirm that. I was shown Mr. Connor’s confidential report – including the added paragraph – by a furtive Annan aide. I regret I incorporated that U.N.-sponsored falsehood into a piece I filed. (“Geneva firm has ‘nothing to hide’ in oil-for-food row”: the Times of London, April 24, 2004).”
Um. Either Mr Bone has misdated the article or he persisted in believing those “UN-sponsored lies” for a very long time. Still, he has made up for it.

As he points out, SecGen Annan pulled in another highly regarded financial figure, Paul Volcker, to report on the oil-for-food scandal. In actual fact, the report has not been quite what Annan expected. Volcker kicked over the traces somewhat. But in one respect he has not been very forthcoming: the question of the SecGen’s knowledge of his son’s involvement with Cotecna. There is evidence for knowledge and for meetings that Volcker prefers to pass over lightly.

Then there is the Merc. Mr Volcker’s investigators found a memo on the computer of one of SecGen Annan’s assistants, which makes it clear that the whole office knew who was buying the car and how. Equally clearly, an authorization was sent to the firm that was selling the car from the office, which saved young Kojo $6,541 on the purchase price and another $14,103 in tax when he imported it to Ghana. Every little bit counts.

Strangely enough
“Neither Kofi Annan, his aide Lamin Sise, nor his assistan Wagaye Assebe, can recall what happened, and the original documents have disappeared – but somehow the Mercedes was purchased with the diplomatic discount anyway. Adoulie Janneh, the U.N. official whoa rranged the tax exemption in Ghana, was recently promoted to U.N. under-secretary-general, in charge of the Economic Commission for Africa.”
Meanwhile, where is the car? Nobody knows and repeated questions produced Annan’s choleric outburst.

Why, one wonders, are people so sceptical of the UN’s ability to reform itself or of SecGen Annan’s intentions to do anything about it.

There are two issues here. What James Bone is talking about is personal corruption and, no matter how SecGen Annan twists and turns, more and more dirt sticks to him. At the very least, he used his position to try to cover up for his son’s behaviour, but the probability is that he did a great deal more.

Then there is the corruption of the organization itself. The UN, which claims to be a burgeoning world government is completely unaccountable in any sense of the word: financial, legal, political. It is not elected; it has no body of law to administer; it answers to nobody. A large proportion of its member states are run by tyrannical, bloodthirsty kleptomaniacs. Another lot is run by kleptomaniacs who do not necessarily kill thousands every month. And yet, it claims a moral authority over countries like the United States or Britain.


What is she on?

Susanne Osthoff, the German archaeologist who had been mysteriously kidnapped by an unknown group in Iraq and even more mysteriously released a little while ago, has been telling the world about her deep respect for her kidnappers. This could be an extreme case of Stockholm syndrome or she might be taking something apart from Arabic coffee.

It seems that she has been described as being deeply knowledgeable about the country, which is why she did not leave, even though she was aware of the dangers. This deep knowledge has not prevented her from coming up with gems like this on Al-Jazeera:

“"Do not be afraid. We do not harm women or children and you are a Muslim," she quoted them as saying.

"I was so happy to know that I had not fallen into the hands of criminals," she said.”

Well, I am happy that she is happy. But how did she know that this was not one of the groups that had planted, at various times, explosive-filled vans by lines of children who were being given sweets or beside markets where women with their children were shopping? How well does she know Iraq if she believes that these groups do not harm women and children?

It seems that all her kidnappers wanted was humanitarian aid to the Sunni Arabs in the Sunni triangle north-west of Baghdad and thought Germany would be able to provide them with schools and hospitals. As they don’t seem to have made this plea public, it is hard to see how they were going to achieve their aim.

But, really, Ms Osthoff cannot blame them for kidnapping them. They are very poor, after all, and “they cannot enter (Baghdad’s heavily fortified) Green Zone to kidnap Americans”. Sheesh. Those Yanks! They don’t think of other people at all. Fancy fortifying the Green Zone to such an extent that no kidnapping becomes possible.

Meanwhile, a few questions have not been answered. One is whatever happened to the driver. Was he involved in the kidnapping? If not, where is he?

Then there is the daughter, who, last heard of, had been parked with relatives on a permanent basis in Bavaria. Presumably that arrangement will go on.

Most of all, however, one would like to know what the whole episode was about. Let us discard the nonsense about schools and hospitals – no archaeologist is worth that much. Ms Ostroff maintains that the Berlin government had made no contact with her kidnappers, which shocks her rather. She also maintains that she was “sold”, without specifying by whom and to whom.

Meanwhile, there is news, mentioned by one of our readers, of an unknown group who had kidnapped a French engineer early in December and is demanding an end to the “illegal French presence” in the country and an immediate withdrawal of French troops. Either they have better information than the rest of the world does, or they are seriously confused.


Just precisely what has Mr Cameron been doing in the last year?

One assumes that the Boy-King has been preparing for leadership for a little while (well, longer than the week before the Conservative Party Conference). If that is so, there is precious little evidence of it. He has not put a foot right in any sense of the word since his coronation.

Clearly, the one thing he has not been doing is reading. Actually, the other thing he has not been doing is listening to anyone outside his media-run circle. Neither he nor anyone close to him bothered to attend a conference this summer organized by the International Policy Network (IPN) on the best way forward in the Third World, especially Africa.

No, the best way forward is not pumping vast amounts of taxpayers’ money into the coffers of kleptocratic bloodthirsty tyrants, as advocated by the Boy-King’s new best friend, Sir Bob Geldof but to open up trade, to encourage African countries to open up trade between themselves, to help, if we can, those countries to build up free and stable political systems, based on legality and the right of property. Nothing else will work. But these are difficult ideas. How much easier it is to say, let’s throw some more money at it. And, of course, it is the taxpayers’ money, so much the easier.

It seems the Boy-King is unaware of the fact that Live8 (apart from achieving very little except, it seems, for expensive gifts to the participants) was severely criticized at the time, not least by people like the Ghanaian Franklin Cudjoe of the Imani Institute, the South African Moeletsi Mbeki, businessman and political analyst, and the Kenyan economist James Shikwati and many others.

But hey, what do they know? They are only African writers, thinkers, analysts. They cannot tell the Boy-King and the Compassionate Conservatives (CompCons) what is right for that Continent. After all, we have it on the very good authority of Master Oliver Leftwing that the poor need to have money redistributed to them by the all-caring, all-sharing state rather than be enabled to run their own lives and climb out of poverty. What goes for this country, goes with knobs on for Africa.

Why exactly has the Boy-King brought that ancient rocker and part-time philanthropist with other people’s money, Sir Bob Geldof, into his circle of advisers? Who is going to be impressed by that?

Sir Bob’s ideas, if one may call them that, have been proved wrong over and over again. When we get people like Richard Dowding of the Royal Africa Society asserting that pumping aid into all those countries has not just not achieved anything but has made matters worse. Almost every African country is poorer now than it was thirty years ago, while the equivalent of six Marshall Plans has been poured into the Continent.

So, does the Boy-King really not understand what people are saying? Does his existence in the bubble of Westminster and media (not to mention the wine bars of Notting Hill) make it impossible for him to grasp that it is not rock musicians who know about the poor of the Third World, but economists and serious political analysts. They are the people to listen to, and even then one’s critical faculty must be switched on.

That is not for the new Compassionate Conservative Party (CompCons). Gesture politics and emotions are all, it seems. It is time for somebody in that benighted party to pay attention to the simple truth, enunciated in the Daily Telegraph leader today:
“But public policy ought to be aimed at ameliorating the lives of Africans, not at making Westerners feel better about themselves.”
Too much like hard work, that, and not nearly glamorous enough.

Then again, it is the professed policy of the Boy-King and his acolytes to ditch the hard core Tory supporters and, presumably, that means they do not care about the pontificating of the Daily Telegraph. It is the glamorous young vote that they are going for, the people who would otherwise vote Lib-Dim. (Though I would like to see an age profile of the Lib-Dim Party and its supporters.)

So, do they really think that Geldof appeals to those people? Is Geldof really the pin-up for the young? The man has teenage children. He is a wrinkly without any of the hard-edged glamour of the Rolling Stones (and I do wonder who actually goes to those geriatric concerts).

Then again, was there not another youthful politician not that long ago, who proclaimed that this was a young country, that he would appeal to yoof and did so by inviting lots of pop musicians to his parties. Yes, indeed. His name was Tony Blair and he has been singularly unsuccessful in mustering the yoof vote, largely because it does not exist.

Young people are just people who happen to be young. Their opinions may be influenced by the particular stage of their lives they are going through but they are not likely to be impressed by the touting of ancient rockers.

A surprising number (surprising to the leadership of the CompCons, that is) of young people know what sort of lives they want to lead, how they want to arrange things for themselves and, most importantly, what is really happening in the world. They, just like their elders (not always betters), do what the Boy-King seems incapable of doing and look beyond the immediate pap presented to them by the media. (Well, some do and others don’t, I suppose, in which they are not different from other age groups.)

Undoubtedly, I shall once again be told that I am unfair to the Boy-King, who is such a nice chap, and I should give him a chance, wait to see how he performs.

To which one can say many things and some of them are suitable for what is a family blog. In the first place, silliness is not the same as niceness. One can be very stupid and very pleasant but not very nice.

In the second place, we have now seen whither the Boy-King and his court are heading. His two new best friends are Zac Goldsmith and Bob Geldof, people whose ideas have been shown to be less than intellectually satisfactory time and time again.

We shall see a lot of protectionist, interventionist green policies and suggestions of doubling, tripling, what the heck, quadrupling aid to African dictators.

We have heard pronouncements from Master Oliver Leftwing on redistribution of people’s hard-earned money and have been assured that no real reform of the public services is contemplated.

We have seen the Conservatives fumble over the European budget, an open goal, if ever there was one. In the European Parliament they could do nothing, being part of the EPP, and left the field to Nigel Farage and Roger Helmer. In Westminster they managed to lose the ball. The Boy-King showed himself to be ignorant of the most basic aspects of the European project, which can be blamed partly on his researchers and advisers but largely on his own lack of curiosity about the outside world.

Above all, we have heard what Christmas means to the Boy-King: recycling of wrapping paper and Christmas cards (something that many households do, anyway, without making a song and dance about it).

Clearly, his passion for recycling goes further than paper. He is recycling old socialist ideas on taxation, public services, education and international development. And, of course, he is recycling old rock singers.


And so we are ill-informed

The damn thing was launched at 5.19 GMT from Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome aboard a Soyuz rocket and is now apparently sending signals from orbit. We are, of course, referring to Giove A, the first of the experimental satellites in the Galileo programme, the European answer to the US Navstar and the Russian Glonass systems.

After having virtually ignored what is now being described as "Europe's biggest infrastructure project", the media are duly covering the launch, Google recording over 260 articles, in a torrent of ill-informed commentary, myth and downright misinformation – mostly based on agency copy produced by Associated Press.

Typical of the misinformation is the coverage by the English-language Deutsche Welle, which offers two articles (here and here), in which the usual stress is placed on the US system being "originally developed for military targeting and positioning and is still overseen by the Pentagon", while the European system is "the first to be designed for strictly civilian use".

Never mind that civilian uses of Navstar now far outweigh the military uses, and that, since 1997, the US system has been under the control of the Interagency GPS Executive Board, which includes representatives from State, Transportation, Agriculture and Interior, as well as Defense.

Nor indeed does it seem to matter that GPS is inescapably dual-use. It is equally applicable to military and civilian applications and, crucially, once the signal is produced, its application is user-defined. Put GPS kit in a bright red truck with blue flashing lights, dashing to a fire, and it is a civilian system. Put exactly the same kit in a green truck carrying men with guns dashing to a fire-fight, and it becomes a military system. The provider has no – or limited – control as to how the system is used.

What is perhaps worse is that, while the US system is actually under control – its operators ultimately being responsible to the US president, who is both commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of state, the political control mechanisms for Galileo have yet to be defined – and are likely to be extremely cumbersome.

Here, the crucial issue is denial of service. Where a hostile force intends to use – or is actually using – the system for weapons that are threatening European interests or those of its allies, it is absolutely imperative that the facility should exist to close down part of the system, or degrade its accuracy.

The US commander-in-chief can readily make such a decision, within the framework of a well-establish chain of command. In the European context, any such decision comes under the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), which remains within the ambit of the European Council.

Currently, Javier Solana has day-to-day responsibility for the policy but high level decisions such as shutting down part of the Galileo system would have to be referred to the European Council. This only meets three times a year, and such a decsion would require unanimous agreement of all 25 member states.

Then, because the system is part-operated by the European Space Agency, which has non-EU members, and other non-EU states – such as China – have been brought in, there are contractual and treaty issues which may limit scope for action. Having taken €230 million off the Chinese, is the EU actually in a position to deny service to a partner in the programme?

In short, it remains to be seen whether Galileo is actually under any form of meaningful political control, in any sense.

That aside, the media happily warble on about the cost of the programme, estimated at $3.8 billion, and the marvellous job opportunities, claimed to be as many as 150,000, so it was a refreshing change to hear, on the BBC Today programme of all places, a dissenting voice.

This was Professor Heinz Wofis, former head of the European manned space programme, who cast doubt on the validity of the project, dismissing it as a "largely political" exercise, reflecting the nascent anti-Americanism of the EU, and arguing that costs had been underestimated. He suggested that the real cost could be as much as five times the headline figure.

Where, of course, the EU plans to make the system work financially is by using its regulatory power. It plans to make the system compulsory for its Single European Sky project, railway signalling systems and for road charging. Irrespective of the fact that an upgraded US system will be provided free of charge, the EU plans to levy users and thereby recover its costs though these means, effectively imposing a user tax on EU member states and their commercial enterprises.

Then there is also the payback in sales of military technology using GPS, which explains why, in particular, French aerospace contractors are so keen on the system, attracting the support of French defence minister Alliot Marie.

None of this, perforce, finds its way into today's media coverage, which emphasises the "touchy feely" aspects, such as the mobile phones that "will enable people to determine their exact position, down to the very meter (sic), free of charge," without also stating that such systems have their "big brother" aspect in that they will enable the authorities to keep track of everyone using such a system.

But such is today's media. Lazy to a fault, superficial and ill-informed, it has long given up serious journalism, and is content merely to recycle news agency copy and EU "spin". And through such neglect, so are we ill-informed - about issues which are, in fact, of considerable importance to us all.


Fight to the Finnish?

Nobody respects a country with a poor army, but everybody respects a country with a good army. I raise my toast to the Finnish Army.

Attributed to Joe Stalin, 1948.

In the same way, it seems, we must raise a toast to the Finnish people, the majority of whom, according to the Newsroom Finland site, are against EU membership.

This is the finding of a poll carried out by the research agency Taloustutkimus for the dailies Etelä-Suomen Sanomat and Satakunnan Kansa. Some 49 percent those interviewed said they would vote “no” in an EU accession referendum.

The poll suggested that 44 percent would vote “yes” and eight per cent of respondents did not state a view.

Furthermore, it seems that the level of Finnish discontent is breaking records - the popularity of the Union having declined since Finland joined in 1995 – a situation which is largely confirmed by the latest Eurobarometer survey, which found 45 percent in favour of membership in the spring and only 38 percent in the autumn.

However, despite the antipathy, a majority of the respondents said they did not wish to see Finland withdraw from the EU. Perhaps, in the absence of any organised political resistance, they have the feeling the resistance is futile. Perhaps, though, they should remember their wartime record.


Well that is that

The city of Graz has followed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s instructions (or the conscience of its Green Party) and removed his name from the stadium that once again goes under the name Liebenau.

Far from being a proud proclamation of Graz’s supposed opinion of Governor Schwarzenegger’s attitude to capital punishment, the deed was done under cover of darkness and caught the locals by surprise. It is possible that not all of them follow the Green and Communist Parties notions of human rights.

Meanwhile, the ring that Arnie returned to his city, has arrived. Mayor Nagl has suggested that it might be exhibited in the local museum. He is rather worried that tourism will drop off without Arnie’s name to play around with. Perhaps, they could create, as a substitute, an exhibition of the history of Austrian human rights.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Russia lurches on

A year or so ago, Mark Leonard the all-round wonderboy of the europhile movement, proudly proclaimed that the EU was quietly but certainly influencing developments in countries as far apart as Rwanda and Russia. At the time I wondered whether he would not regret making that statement. Probably not though almost anyone else would.

Even now Rwanda is hardly the country, whose political development is particularly praiseworthy and if the EU has really had some influence there, one would like to know what that was.

But Russia remains the real problem. As it takes over the presidency of the G8 group of countries, a law has been passed that severely curtails the activities of non-governmental organizations; the media is almost entirely controlled by the government (most recently an administrative error was used to stop the BBC Russian Service in Moscow from broadcasting in Russian); the economy is being centralized with the state controlling the energy industry and acquiring control over machine production; and the setting of gas prices is used as a political weapon to influence or punish former Soviet states (and bribe former German chancellors). While the horrors of the Chechnyan war go on and on.

The upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, has today voted 153-1 in favour with 1 abstention for the Kremlin-sponsored legislation to control non-governmental organizations, particularly those that engage in what might be described as political activity or receive money from abroad, regardless from the actual source.

The law will come into force as soon as President Putin signs it.

Although the original draft was softened somewhat with regards to large international organizations, Russian ones will bear the full brunt. As Mosnews reports:

“According to the bill, all of the country’s 450,000 NGOs will have to re-register with a state body. Foreign NGOs will have to send notification to the Federal Register Service outlining their funds and plans. Some groups have said the law would also expose them to a heavy tax burden. NGOs may not be registered if their goals “oppose the Constitution and Russian law, threaten Russia’s sovereignty, political independence, territorial inviolability, national unity and originality, cultural legacy and national interests”.”

As President Putin appears to support that group of historians and political thinkers, which considers autocracy to be part of Russia’s “cultural legacy and national interests”, the outlook for Russia’s fledgling civil society is bleak. Some of the human rights organizations are talking of going the European Courth of Human Rights as Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, an organization that supposedly aims to promote democracy.

It is no secret that President Putin’s worry is that one of those many-coloured revolutions might hit Russia, so he and his henchmen are doing their best to prevent such a development.
At the same time Gazprom is putting pressure on the former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine, Putin’s bugbear since the triumph of the orange revolution, by increasing the gas prices.

Gazprom’s argument is that the prices have, until now, been considerably lower than world market ones and it is time the former Soviet republics learned to behave like grown-up countries. Curiously, this does not apply to Belarus, whose President Lukashenko is working hand in glove with Putin on the blocking of the coloured revolutions.

Ukraine, who is going to be hardest hit, has acknowledged that Gazprom has a point but said that the rise should be introduced gradually. Gazprom refuses and as of January 1 Ukraine will have to start paying $220 per 1,000 cubic metres as opposed to the present $50.

Price rises for other countries seem to be erratic. For Moldova the price is going up from $70 to $150-$160; for the Baltic states from $80 to £120; for Armenia, which is trying to reduce its energy dependence on Russia by building a pipeline with Iran, the price is doubling from $56 to $110; for Georgia that has blocked Russian attempts to buy a stake in its pipeline the rise is by 70 per cent to $110.

Belarus will continue to pay $47 per 1,000 cubic metres.

This move is seen as part of a political game of putting pressure on what President Putin considers to be Russia’s economic space, though the countries in question see themselves as being independent.

As Judy Dempsey notes in the International Herald Tribune, however, Gazprom’s action may well push the countries in question towards reform and diversification in the energy sector. Russia may not do as well out of this in the long run as it hopes to.

Meanwhile the last link with President Putin’s early liberal economic ideas are being severed by the resignation of his economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, who has announced that he could no longer work for a government that was leading the country towards greater centralization and stifling freedom.

Illarionov was marginalized some time ago, as Putin turned away from his policies. In particular, he lambasted the forced sale of Yukos after Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment as “the swindle of the century”. He was immediately deprived of his position as Russia’s ambassador to the G8 group. It is, therefore, appropriate that he should resign finally (though Putin’s office is insisting that Illarionov is to be dismissed) just as Russia takes over the presidency.

Illarionov’s position has been a matter for conjecture both in Russia and the West for some time. Some considered that he had lost all influence, others that he was kept on as a kind of court jester – the man who can be relied on to speak up against sycophantic courtiers.

It seems that the court jester’s time is up.


The teflon country

We are all used to seeing France in the lead whenever there is a chance to attack American troops, politicians, anything and everything, however dubious the source of information. We are equally used to pompous French politicians lecturing the rest of us on the greatness of their own culture and the wondrousness of their message to the world.

We are, of course, wearily accustomed to French leaders grabbing the biggest slice of whatever cake is being divided at a European Council while hectoring the current British Prime Minister in outraged terms about Britain’s greed not helping those poor East European countries.

So, among all the synthetic outrage about the as yet unproven CIA prisons and the transportation (with the full knowledge of European governments and intelligence services) of suspected terrorists, let us have a little look at one particular episode in recent French history.

This time we are not talking about the outrageous behaviour of the French troops in Côte d’Ivoire. Instead, let us cast our minds back a decade or more and to the other side of the African continent: Rwanda. For a very long time that name will conjure up appalling horrors in most people’s minds. Well, correction. Most people seem to have forgotten about the horrors of the Rwandan massacre and the pathetic behaviour of the UN, whose Chief of Operations, one Kofi Annan (father of Kojo) refused to send in troops when these were desperately requested by the officers on the ground.

Where do the French come in? Ah well. It is worth recalling that the Hutus, who did the massacring (not just Tutsis but some of their own people, as well) are Francophone, while the Tutsis are Anglophone.

Anxious to retain influence in Africa, during Mitterand’s presidency, as the Times tells us in yesterday’s edition
“France armed and trained President Habyarimana’s forces, which critics say formed the backbone of the Hutu militia during the genocide.”
This has been known for some time and has caused a small controversy in France – a few quiet voices saying that, perhaps, that was not such a good idea, all drowned out by TV pundits who start their pontificating with noble words about France’s mission to civilize the world.

Unfortunately, the whole controversy is about to be revived and in a very unpleasant form. A lawsuit has been filed by six survivors of the massacre against the French army, accusing it of actually conspiring in the Rwandan genocide. President Mitterand sent in 2,500 troops in what was named Opération Turquoise, but there have been accusations all this time that the troops did nothing to prevent the massacre and, indeed, aided the Hutus. The new accusations are more specific.

The Ministry of Defence has made stupendous efforts to stop the case from going ahead and the Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, has described the claims as “outlandish”. However, the prosecutor at the army tribunal Jacques Baillet has deemed two of them to be sufficiently crdible to warrant an investigation.

The accounts of the two survivors tell of French soldiers throwing Tutsis out of safe camps they were guarding to certain death, of them standing by while the Hutus carried out their atrocities and, in one case, suggesting that they joined in the killing spree.

This is not the first investigation. There was an attempt to establish the role played by the French troops in 1998 by a parliamentary committee but it was refused most of the documents it wanted on grounds of national security. We shall see whether M Baillet will fare any better


Do as I say, not what I do

Of the many news organisations which covered the failure of EU member states to reach their Kyoto targets, it was the Yorkshire Post which got the headline right, with "Do as I say, not as I do".

This refers to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), outlined in detail by The Scotsman, which has found that ten of the 15 European Union signatories to the Kyoto Protocol will miss their targets by 2010 without urgent action.

The worst offenders are Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy, each up to 20 percent off target. Spain will miss - by 13 percent - its target of limiting emission levels to 15 percent more than were recorded in 1990. Ireland will fail to hit its target of emission levels by 20.4 percent. Austria on current performance is 21 percent off its target

Only Britain, Sweden and France are remotely on target, and even out CO2 emissions have increased by 9 percent since 1999. And before we preen ourselves, Britain's performance, such that it is, has been achieved largely through the contraction of the coal industry, making us dangerously reliant on imported gas supplies.

The Yorkshire Post also reminds us that, even worse than the EU is Canada, which played host to the international climate-change conference in Montreal earlier this month. While mouthing platitudes about remaining "fully committed" to its Kyoto obligations, by the end of 2003, its emissions were up 24.2 percent on 1990 levels. Meanwhile, since 2001, a period in which greenhouse-gas emissions across the EU have increased, those from the United States have fallen by almost one percent.

Kyoto was never meant to be an excuse for the self-righteous among nations to preen themselves on the global stage while doing nothing concrete to meet their own grandiose pledges, says the YP, yet, as the date nears by which action is supposed to have been taken, it is increasingly clear that this is the case.

However, it seems that the Kyoto hypocrisy is very much in character – almost the defining attribute of our masters. Whether it is MPs who award themselves ever-more generous pensions, while cutting back on ours and demanding we work longer, or the EU which creates more and more laws enforcing financial probity on commercial companies while itself failing to get is accounts signed off for 11 years, the "do as I say…" ethos seems to pervade modern government.

Even on more mundane matters it seems to apply, for instance with the police, who – according to The Scotsman this morning, stand accused of believing they have "carte blanche" to break the speed limit, while, on the same day, The Telegraph reports that six "road safety" partnerships have each made a profit of more than £1 million from their speed cameras.

Our readers will, no doubt, be able to offer many more examples of our masters' double standards. And if we ourselves are so forcibly reminded that there is one law for them and another for us, and that much-paraded “commitments” are so much hot air, then the essential consent which underpins democratic government becomes steadily eroded. In the final analysis, Kyoto may be more damaging than even its worst critics could have imagined.