Monday, October 31, 2005

French politicians corrupt shock

A few days ago my colleague covered the remarkable story of 47 French politicians, 27 of whom can be described as senior, being found guilty of financial malpractice and receiving suspended sentences as well as rather high fines (which they may or may not pay). Let me repeat that: 27 senior politicians were found guilty. Not simply accused but actually found guilty after an exhaustive and exhausting trial.

Furthermore, it was made clear during the proceedings that one man was missing from the line-up of defendants: President Chirac, l’escroc himself.

Big news, one would have said. Well, one would have been wrong. The story was covered somewhat half-heartedly on the day and forgotten since then by most of the media.

Compare that with the acres of newsprint devoted to the indictment of Lewis Libby, former assistant to Vice-President Cheney and a man of whom few have heard in the United States until this week, never mind in Britain.

The indictment of this man on secondary charges (I shall come to that in a minute) has been trumpeted as the greatest case of political corruption since … well, since the last greatest case.

The White House, according to some commentators, has never sunk so low. Excuse me? In the previous Administration it was the President himself who was indicted and not for giving possibly misleading information to journalists (who, as we know, always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth) but for telling lies on oath and suborning others to do the same.

The only reason he got off was because those same Democratic Senatorsm, who are now screaming for Bush to apologize to the nation, which seems unaware that it has been wronged as even according to the Washington Post poll well over half think it was not the President’s fault, thought that perjury by the President was not big deal. Well, not if it is everybody’s favourite Dem President, “Slick Willy” Clinton.

In fact, the whole story is a bit of damp squib. Patrick Fitzgerald, who was clearly hoping to make his career on the case, has not managed to produce any substantive accusation. As he himself has said:
“We have not made any allegation that Mr. Libby knowingly and intentionally outed a covert agent.”
So what has Mr Libby done? Well, it seems that his story of what he told various Washington journalists is at variance with what they think he told them but, in any case, it was some months ago and they were discussing events of some months previous to that, so nobody really remembers anything. But after promising to do “such things …. that shall be the terror of the earth”, Mr Fitzgerald had to come up with something.

In some ways, this resembles the Martha Stewart case. The household guru was not accused of insider dealing and had not fiduciary duty to do with the shares that she sold but she was accused and found guilty of not telling the truth to the FBI about whatever it is she was not accused of. A dubious legal doctrine.

Still, one can rejoice in the fact that Martha Stewart has done extremely well out of the whole business. I understand Mr Libby’s novel is shooting up in the Amazon bestseller list, so he may well find himself crying all the way to the bank as well.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this saga is that it is the commentators on the left (and most MSM ones both in the States and in Britain are), to whom the CIA is usually anathema, who should be so “shocked” by the suggestion that a covert agent was outed. Surely, they are against covert agents as a class and believe all of them should be outed immediately, preferably in hostile countries.

But, of course, Valerie Plame had not been a covert agent for many years and, furthermore, seems to have used her position in the agency, quite against the rules, to promote a political agenda that was contrary to the Administration’s one. Many of her husband’s statements about his trip to Niger, on which he ought not to have been sent, seem to have been economical with the truth.

However, let us leave the details of the Wilson/Plame case to one side. In any case, they are very well covered by Christopher Hitchens in today’s Wall Street Journal.

What remains is the unimportance of Mr Libby’s indictment either in judicial or political terms. Yet there has been wall-to-wall coverage in the British media as opposed to a few articles on the day about the far bigger French case.

Some of this can be put down to the visceral anti-Americanism that leads all sides of our media to gloat whenever things seem to go wrong in that country. The gloating gets stronger as it becomes clearer that, actually, things are not going quite as badly as it was thought at first and, in any case, mistakes are being put right somewhat more rapidly than they are on this side of the Pond.

Some of it is led by American journalists who also produced wall-to-wall coverage of the Libby indictment, the preceding threats and even the rather empty reality. I don’t suppose there was similar coverage in the French press of the French politicians actually being found guilty of misappropriation of funds. (And, anyway, how many of our journalists read French well enough?)

But, in a way, this discrepancy in the coverage is an unintended compliment to the United States. French politicians found guilty of corruption? Well, hey, dog bites man. Gardener digs soil. Supermodel takes drugs. In other words, big deal!

A White House official is indicted on a minor misdemeanour, which may have involved him telling porkies to journalists? Wow! That’s like news, man.


The law of unintended consequences

For as many years as I can remember, the EU has been pushing the concept of a cross-border "withholding tax", to trap savers who take advantage of the "free movement of capital" provisions of the EU Treaties.

Otherwise, residents of one country could lodge their money in another, and escape the attention of the tax authorities in their own country – as was happening on a massive scale between Germany and Luxembourg.

And so it came to pass that on 1 July last, the self-same tax came into force, giving savers the option of paying tax at source, initially 15 percent, or allowing the banks to disclose their holdings to the tax authorities in their countries of residence.

However, according to the Sunday Times business section yesterday, wealthy savers have found a way round this inconvenience, giving a boost to a little known type of investment company called a Sicav (société d’investissement à capital variable).

Dreamed up by Swiss private banks, notably UBS and Credit Suisse, Sicavs are Luxembourg-based, similar in structure to unit trusts, but more flexible. And, for arcane reasons known only to tax specialists, they are not subject to the withholding tax. Although UK residents must still declare their income to Revenue & Customs every year and pay any tax due, neither is there any compulsion on the Sicavs to disclose sums held to the relevant tax authorities.

Thus, a tax law which was supposed to balance the effects of the treaty law allowing free movement of capital has ended up benefiting wealthy savers, as well as Swiss and Luxembourg financiers, without the tax authorities gaining a penny from them.

This, I suppose, is what is known as the law of unintended consequences.


We are truly amazed

As the WTO talks drone on, those loathsome French have been moving into high gear to sabotage any prospect of a realistic global cut in agricultural subsidies. That includes L'Escroc Chirac who, last week, effectively vetoed a deal if it gave more than the French would tolerate.

That has left Peter Mandelson to table a new offer on behalf of the EU (i.e., France) which the head of the WTO is now saying, according to AFX, is “worthy of serious debate”.

This, of course, is Mandelson's predecessor, Director-General Pascal Lamy, the former French EU commission in charge on trade negotiations. It is he, for decades, who has kept an iron grip on trade negotiations and ensured that the interests of his home country have been represented as the EU position.

And now, despite almost universal condemnation of Mandelson's latest offer, M. Lamy is "upbeat". We are truly amazed.


Something has to give

I swear, if the European Union was a television soap opera, the network would be sacking the script-writers – and the actors – so stale and predictable has the story-line become. Following the EU these days is like watching the same episode of Coronation Street over and over again, without even the relief of the commercial break.

Only on Saturday, the Daily Telegraph ran a leader, headed "EU schizophrenia" which complained of the "two EUs".

There is the official EU - the EU of commission press statements and council communiqués and Mr Blair's speeches - thousands of "unnecessary" regulations are to be scrapped. Back in the real EU, on the very day that the commission was making this announcement, MEPs were passing a law to do with circuses and another about eels.

The virtual EU, says the leader, is on track to be "the most dynamic economy in the world by 2010"; the real EU is creating almost no private sector jobs. The virtual EU is a sponsor of freedom worldwide; the real EU is collaborating with Beijing on weapons systems. The virtual EU listens to voters; the real EU has just allocated nine million euros to a campaign in favour of the constitution.

We are very familiar with this concept, Booker and I having dedicated a whole chapter to it in The Great Deception, in a chapter headed "theory and practice". And sure enough, in today's Financial Times, we see more of the "real" EU, the divergence between theory and practice, with a headline: "EU threat to growing business".

One almost doesn’t need to bother with the text but, just for the record, this is a warning by a private investment group about the effect of the Prospectus Directive which, it says, threatens to undermine the government's efforts to boost investment in growing businesses.

It appears that the UK's Financial Promotions Order rules were relaxed in March to encourage private investment in unquoted companies and now the EU's directive, which came into force this summer, contains requirements that exceed the FPO and risks "undoing much of the positive work of the UK rules".

It is all too familiar, as is a recent report from Reuters which retails another warning, this one from president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa who is concerned that the infamous REACH directive would hurt key mining industries in Africa and crimp development.

The directive, which would apply to metals in addition to chemical substances, would generate costs that would push African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states further into poverty, he says. This, is of course, on the back of the "virtual EU" pledging to increase aid to developing countries, and making all sorts of soothing noises about reducing poverty.

No wonder Saturday's Telegraph leader concludes, "This cannot go on for much longer." Indeed it cannot. Something has to give.


Sunday, October 30, 2005

Legal principles (or something)

As news comes through that the case of George Galloway seeming being economical with the truth before the Senate Sub-committee is being handed over to the Manhattan District Attorney and other parts of the US judiciary, it is worth comparing this with the random indictments of American (and some other) citizens by “trigger-happy” judges in Europe.

The latest case that is running its inevitable and useless course is the one Spanish judges have brought against three American servicemen for killing a Spanish journalist during the shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.

The story is inconclusive and has to do with various, so far unproven, allegations that American troops have been targeting hotels with journalists in them. The Palestine Hotel was shelled by a tank unit on April 8, 2003, during the capture of Baghdad. Two journalists were killed, including the Spanish cameraman, Jose Manuel Couso Permuy and it is his supposed murder that is causing the problem with activist Spanish judges.

The American response has been that the tank unit fired at the hotel in response to firing from it and around it. Whether it is from the actual hotel that they had been fired at is immaterial – decisions taken during a battle cannot always be second-guessed in courtrooms.

But it is not the death of one particular war correspondent (a breed that tends to be in danger) that is at stake but the whole concept of legality. The judge in Madrid who had issued the arrest warrant did so because “the Americans might have committed murder and a "crime against the international community" by firing on the hotel.” The idea that any place where a journalist might happen to be in wartime is sacrosanct is a strange one.

There are two points here and both have to do with the creeping attempts made by the tranzis to grab power for which they will never be accountable. One is the rather strange notion that somehow the Iraqi war is “illegal”. Illegal by whose standards? What is this body of legal opinion that can make judgements of that kind and apply them to the whole world?

The UN is not a judicial organization and has no body of criminal law on the basis of which it can act. The International Criminal Court makes up its rules as it goes along and, again, has no single body of criminal law to refer back to. What is illegal in, say, the United Kingdom, is not necessarily that anywhere else.

A war can be intelligent or foolish; it can be justified or not; it can be aggressive or defensive or pre-emptive; it can, even, be just or unjust, though one rather wonders how many of the people who are loudly condemning the war in Iraq for its “illegality” have bothered to read St Thomas Aquinas on that subject. But what a war cannot be is illegal, because there is no legality to break.

But as Eric Rosenberg of Hearst Newspapers says about the Spanish case and the Italian attempt to extradite 22 supposed CIA operatives for allegedly kidnapping an Islamic cleric from Milan (if we are talking about international legality, what about the story of the Italian Red Cross using its privileged position to smuggle known terrorists through American military check-points):

“Both cases underscore a trend among some European judges: stepped-up use in the past three years of a legal principle known as universal jurisdiction, the view that governments have the right to try anyone accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.”

What precisely is universal jurisdiction and on what basis do European judges claim the right to administer it? American response has been that no American citizen can, according to the Constitution, be tried by a foreign court, though, naturally, there are extradition treaties. Consequently, the United States has refused to participate in the International Criminal Court and refused to acknowledge European judges’ rights over their citizens.

Not surprisingly the universal jurisdiction principle is never directed against people, such as President Mugabe and many others who have committed many a crime against humanity, but inevitably against American, British and Israeli politicians.

“It's the same legal principle Spain employed in seeking the extradition of ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from England and a Belgian court used when it sought to put Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on trial for a massacre committed by Lebanese militias in Lebanon in 1982.

The principle has been used liberally against senior American officials, straining bilateral relations with U.S. allies.

In 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet and other officials were named in a criminal complaint filed in a German court on behalf of four Iraqis who alleged that American forces mistreated them at the at Abu Ghraib prison.

Belgium has been a favorite venue for such lawsuits. Courts there have allowed lawsuits alleging human rights crimes by Vice President Dick Cheney, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the 2003 invasion of Iraq, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former President Bush.”

No wonder they took so long to bring the paedophile murderer Marcel Dutroux to justice.

The Belgian efforts lasted only as long as Defence Secretary Rumsfeld started musing about actions and consequences, the possibility of moving NATO headquarters from Belgium or blocking some of the money for the existing buildings. The accusations were swiftly watered down and, in any case, even Belgian judges decided that the legal aspects were rather dodgy. The lawsuits were thrown out.

The principle, if it can be called that, has been taken up by Italian and Spanish judges. If one compares the Spanish case in particular with the Galloway case, we can see the difference between what is true legality and what is phony legality masking a power grab by over-ambitious lawyers and transnational organizations.

This is not to say that one can predict how the Galloway case will end. But the accusations are very specific and easily defined. The man was on oath, said various things and there appear to be several lots of documents that show him to have perjured himself. That is a felony in the United States and in most other countries. The papers from the Senate sub-committee have gone to various judicial bodies in America and copies have been sent to the House of Commons.

There are other papers that the Volcker Commission used to come to very similar conclusions. These are all definite matters – the alleged felony and the evidence.

The accusations levelled at the three American servicemen are, on the other hand, vague and impossible to prove, not least because the crime they are accused of is non-existent. According to this the presence of international journalists in a war zone makes it impossible for the combatants to act as that becomes a crime against the international community.

Behind that legal mumbo-jumbo is political activism – another attempt to impose irresponsible and unaccountable transnational power over responsible national authorities. And, strangely enough, all this judicial activism is always directed against democratic states.


A phantom army

In The Business today there is a lengthy leader headed "A watershed in British politics". It advances the thesis that the Blair government is unravelling with remarkable speed. Only six short months ago, it writes:

…Labour won an unprecedented third term. Only four months ago, in the aftermath of the triumph of winning the 2012 Olympics and the tragedy of the suicide bombers, Tony Blair still looked and sounded every bit the supreme leader. This weekend, as the clocks go back one hour to herald the arrival of winter, Mr Blair is giving an unwilling but convincing impression of the last divided and directionless Tory government under the hapless John Major: in office but not in power.

The wreckage is accumulating on all sides. In only one month (October) the Prime Minister caved into union demands not to reform public-sector pensions, failed to stop his Cabinet from squabbling over a ban on smoking, published school reforms which were considerably less "pivotal" than he claimed but were nevertheless immediately savaged by the Labour Left (including his own deputy prime minister), watched his high hopes for the British presidency of the European Union (EU) turn to dust, witnessed opposition mount from all sides to his latest batch of anti-terrorist measures and saw economic growth slump to sclerotic euro zone levels.
But what is of special interest to this blog is that another of Blair’s major projects is also unravelling with remarkable speed, largely unnoticed because it has been denied by the very government that is promoting it and ignored by the media. That project is, of course, the European Army.

The trouble here is that, because it is essentially a project that dare not speak its name, one cannot expect a statement to the effect that it has been abandoned, so one must read the runes – but they all add up to an unmistakable picture of failure.

Firstly, in today's Sunday Telegraph, Booker rehearses the story of the in-fighting over the funding of the EU's Galileo satellite positioning system, which suggests that this particular project is in serious trouble.

In the nature of things EU, one can expect a fudge on this, and the two test satellites being prepared at the moment will probably fly. But the very fact that the "colleagues" are dickering over a paltry €400 million indicates that the enthusiasm for Galileo has evaporated. And since it is Galileo, more than anything else, that underpins the autonomous European military force, the inferences are fairly obvious.

Then, there was the news last week of the British government abandoning any timetable for the building of the two super-carriers, which has significant implications for the European Rapid Reaction force, to which they were to be allocated. Since carriers form the core of any expeditionary force, this effectively puts plans for a serious European presence on ice.

Separately, there are strong signs that the Joint Strike Fighter, with which the carriers are to be equipped, is also running into trouble, not least the issues rehearsed on this blog.

Given even less prominence, however, if that was possible, is the fate of the so-called MARS (Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability) programme, a £2 billion scheme to replace the ageing fleet replenishment ships, a project which is a crucial element of the British plans for participation in the ERRF. Earlier this month, the MoD announced further delays in nominating the contractors who would enter into the final competition phase for the contract, and there are no reliable indications as to when the actual building phase will go ahead.

Then there are two "dogs that did not bark". Last August, we were expecting an announcement from the MoD on the allocation of the development contract for the first of the FRES platforms – essentially the next-generation armoured personnel carrier. But, despite expectations that this was to go to the Swedish Hagglunds company, not a thing has been heard since. And now we hear that the venerable FV432 APCs (pictured left), dating from the 1960s and due to be phased out, is to get a makeover. The vehicles are now expected to remain in service with the British Army until at least 2020, five years beyond the date when the FRES vehicles were supposed to be in service.

The other silent "dog" is the replacement for FOAS – the Future Offensive Air System – a joint project with the US, looking at a replacement for the RAF’s fleet of Tornado GR4s which is expected to reach the end of its operational life around 2018. The UK withdrew from FOAS last June and there has been complete silence on alternatives, yet the need to replace the Tornadoes remains.

All this is on the UK front, suggesting that plans for the UK to be able to make a credible contribution to the ERRF by 2010, when the force is supposed to be fully operational, are fading fast.

Furthermore, on the continent, things are no better. In The Business today, there is also a report on how the Dutch – which are also development partners for the project – are considering halving their order for the JSF, throwing the production plans into turmoil. More and more, it looks like this project will never come to fruition.

Elsewhere, we have already recorded the savage cut-backs in the Italian defence budget, while this week’s DefenseNews records that the Germans, under the leadership of Angela Merkel, are looking to slash the procurement budget.

Only France is holding to an increased defence budget, but it remains to be seen how long that can be sustained, before the reality of its own increasing deficit forces her to pull in her horns. From the heady days of the 1999 Helsinki Council, therefore – when the creation of the ERRF was agreed - another EU dream looks like it is running into the sands, and with it Blair’s dreams of being “at the heart of Europe”.

The worst of it is that, having already spent billions of pounds on procuring European equipment to harmonise with the ERRF, the British Armed Forces are being destroyed in order to set up them up to join what will be, in effect, a phantom army.


Neat reply

The Adam Smith Institute Blog muses on David Cameron’s rather fatuous comment:

“I don't think anyone wakes up and thinks 'gosh, I wish the state was smaller today than it was yesterday’.”

Madsen Pirie replies:

“He's mostly right, though there are a few of us who do put it in those terms (we tend to use the subjunctive were smaller). Other people probably wake up and think things like:

I wish I got to keep more of my pay without all those deductions.
I wish the planners hadn't stopped me building a conservatory out back.
I wish Ben were not facing prosecution for waving a cricket bat at those muggers.
I wish I could get some help in the house and looking after the kids without all that form-filling stuff when you hire anyone.
I wish my car didn't cost so much extra because of those EU rules.
I wish Gran could pass on her house and savings without all that inheritance tax.
I wish the nativity play and carol concert hadn't been banned by the local council.
I wish the local butcher hadn't been forced to close his business.”

I particularly like that little dig at Cameron’s inadequate understanding of grammar. On the substance of the posting: we can all think of a few “I wish” sentences. And, I am afraid, Mr Cameron, they do add up to what you say nobody thinks of.


According to the Sunday Telegraph today, Eurocrats are preparing to splash out loadsmoney – running to millions - on a 50-day party to celebrate the European Union's golden jubilee.

In the planning stage is 50 days and nights of back-to-back festivities, all to mark March 25, 2007, 50 years since the Treaty of Rome was signed. Brussels believes that this is such a key event that planning began last week, 17 months in advance. Says Sophie Goeminne, who represents the Brussels government on the jubilee celebrations steering committee, said: "We are looking at a series of events around March 25, possibly starting on that date and running until May 9.

Amazingly, showing just how far detached from reality, these tranzies really are, Goeminne says, "This will be our way of bringing the EU closer to its citizens."

Mind you, if they need any lessons on how to spend other peoples' money – not that they do – they could turn up at our very own Department of Trade and Industry, one of the most "European" of our departments. Again according to The Sunday Telegraph, its officers have been spending loadsamoney on exotic trips, staying at top hotels and running up huge bar bills – all at taxpayers' expense.

This has been discovered by a confidential inquiry into the DTI's export agency, UK Trade and Investment, and has led to the sacking of one senior official and the suspension of three others.

Someone who has not been sacked yet is UKIP MEP Tom Wise, who was very much in money, having paid cash from the EU parliament into his own account that had been claimed for his research assistant.

However, while the unWise may have had loadsamoney, the Telegraph tells us he now has a lot less, having refunded £21,000 of his excess claim to the parliament. Presumably, the parliament will put it towards their anniversary celebrations.

Happy AnniversaryCOMMENT THREAD

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Will the French and the Germans go for a harmonized tax base?

The Hungarian Tax Commissar’s statement on Wednesday about the Commission’s intention to harmonize tax bases, if necessary through enhanced co-operation, has engendered some commentary.

Not a lot, though. After all, the idea is not new and he is not talking about tax rates. Indeed, he specifically said that tax rates must remain in the control of member states. Few people can get excited about tax bases.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Europe (the only newspaper that went tabloid in format without going tabloid in content but available on the net only on subscription) summed the issue up:
“But tax matters fall under national sovereignty and harmonization would require unanimity among governments. Because that’s unattainable, France and Germany turned to the second-best option, supporting the Commission’s call for harmonizing tax bases.

This would also require unanimity but because it’s a much more reasonable proposal, it might be easier to sell. Giving companies with pan-European operations the option to use one set of standards for calculating their taxable profits would reduce their administrative costs – a desirable goal that has the support of many business groups.”
Not, you notice, of businesses but of business groups and no mention of the problems it will cause to companies who do not have pan-European operations. Also, we have not heard from the accountants yet, who will, before they can charge their clients exorbitant sums, spend equally exorbitant sums, retraining their staff. They may not be happy.

The article goes on:
“The problem is that it might set a dangerous legal precedent for eventually harmonizing tax rates as well, even without requiring unanimity. That’s most likely the real reason why France and Germany support this idea and certainly why countries rightly wary of further encroachment by Brussels on their sovereign rights reject it. Among them: the UK, Ireland and new members like Estonia and Slovakia.”
Apart from the rather quaint notion that there are all that many sovereign rights left to member states, the paragraph is a fair summary of the objections.

The WSJE, however, noted one interesting aspect of the proposal that seems to have been ignored by other commentators:
“But the really clever part of the Commissioner’s new inititative was to spell out what kind of tx base he had in mind. Mr Kovács said the Commission was likely to model its proposal on the Slovak corporate system, which introduced a flat tax last year. Their corporate profit base knows no exception, no exemptions or special regimes, he said.”
Ooops. That may not be at all what France and Germany had in mind. A flat tax regime introduced through the back door? Will they still support the idea when they work out the implications?

The WSJE appears to be delighted with the Commissar’s cunning.
“You’d expect a former politburo member who managed a seamless political transition to post-Communist Hungary – even becoming his country’s European Commissioner - to be clever.”
Well, you might. I am not convinced that is completely predictable. Of course, being Hungarian, Commissar Kovács is not, one assumes, unacquainted with revolving doors.

Still, the next steps in the tax harmonization game will be interesting to watch.


Some people do still care

Following on from the sneak announcement by Lord Drayson last week that the MoD had dropped its target date of 2012 for the delivery of the first two new carriers.

We now face the very real prospect that, from the first time since 1917, when HMS Furious was converted to become the Navy's first operational carrier (left), followed a year later by the first through-deck carrier, HMS Argus (below right), the Royal Navy will be without operational carriers. In fact, in terms of naval air power, the Royal Navy of 1918, with its Sopwith Camels (below left) was better equipped than our future navy.

Since Drayson's revelation, there has been a flurry of letters in The Telegraph. Firstly, there was Mike Critchley, of Warship World magazine, complaining that the fleet was continuing to "shrink below safe limits", and today we have two more letters, one from Commander David Burns, commanding officer, HMS Somerset, and the other from Dr Julian Lewis MP, Conservative shadow defence minister.

Under the heading, "Without aircraft carriers we'll be sunk", Burns reminds us that, in 1909, there was a public panic over the purchase of new Dreadnought battleships, and the slogan "We Want Eight" caused the Liberal government to step up its warship orders to match German production. Sadly, he writes, I hear no clamour for the more modest "We Want Two".

Lewis, on the other hand, asks whether the government think that the threats we now face in the Middle East and elsewhere have diminished rather than increased in the past seven years, over which there have been significant cuts in the fleet, supposedly to pay for the carriers which are not now to materialise on the time scale promised.

In reality, he adds, the pressure on the Royal Navy mirrors that on the Services as a whole: a requirement to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources.

Yet, in a propaganda exercise of truly Orwellian porportions, the MoD has today published a news release to mark the publication of its Annual Report & Accounts, proclaiming: "UK Armed Forces Amongst Most Professional And Best Equipped".

On the specialist military forums, there are a number of interesting threads here, here, here, and here, which collectively suggest that the MoD line has not altogether convinced "our boys".

All together, I suspect the Telegraph and the media in general have grossly underestimated public concern about the progressive weakening of our armed forces – even if the Army does complain about Big Grey Boats (BGBs) hoovering up all "their" money.

In short, people do care and perhaps, pace the 1909 slogan, it is time for a new cry – "Delays won't do: we want two!"


More on Iran and Europe

The ever useful USS Neverdock calls attention to an attempt in some western media to play down President Ahmadinejad’s speech in which he called for Israel to be wiped off the map. The example he gives is, inevitably, the Guardian, the highly civilized newspaper that has been known to publish cartoons of Ariel Sharon, which would not have disgraced Der Stürmer and has also been known to hire members of terrorist groups as trainee journalists.

This wonderful and unbiased newspaper, along with numerous other outlets of the MSM somehow forgot to mention that the President attended the, no doubt “spontaneous” anti-Israeli demonstration the day after the opening of the “World Without Zionism” conference. Not only attended but repeated his calls for Israel’s destruction.

Much has been made of the fact that several Iranian ambassadors have played down the speech and its aftermath, chuckling knowingly to the avid journalists that, well, you know, boys will be boys and politicians will be politicians and, well, there you are. Have to let him have his little fun but you and I know he means nothing by it.

Well, what a shame. It seems that three ambassadors, to France, Germany and the UK, have been fired and eighteen others recalled. These are all ambassadors appointed by former President Mohammed Khatami. From the little we have seen of the present regime, one does not expect the recalled and fired diplomats’ fate to be pleasant. I wonder, how many of them will ask for asylum instead of returning.

In the meantime the words coming out of Teheran cannot be said to downplay the presidential pronouncements. According to IranFocus:
“Ahmadinejad has been angered by what he sees as the envoys’ meek reaction to the global condemnation of his Wednesday speech against Israel and the West”, the official, who requested anonymity, said. “He made the speech with the full blessing of the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and has his green light to stifle any dissenting voice within the government”.
Among the top political and military figures who rushed to support the President (well, what else can they do?) was the Minister of Intelligence and Security (that’s secret police to you and me). One official, who, for obvious reasons, prefers to remain anonymous said:
“The Supreme Leader and his inner council see a window of opportunity for Iran right now, as the Americans are stuck in Iraq and the Europeans are divided over what to do. They are telling everyone not to be afraid of threats of military action by the West, as this is only a bluff”.
In other words, the European have played their useful part again. As we have said in numerous postings before, the “soft power” of Europe, seen in the endless negotiations conducted by Britain, France and Germany with Iran has led nowhere.

No, that is not quite true: it has led somewhere for the Iranians, who have openly and gleefully announced that the negotiations and the Europeans’s refusal to take the matter to the Security Council, have allowed them to proceed with nuclear developments and to amass money that would be useful, should they wish to go to war some time.

Iran may well be preparing for war against Israel and, then, other enemies. Whether this is practical or not from their point of view, is another matter. The mullahs make no secret of the money and arms that go to Hizbollah and, sometimes, Hamas, and the nuclear development is well in hand.

The idea that Israel will simply sit back and wait to be annihilated is a joke. The notion that the Americans will do nothing to contain this threat is also a joke. After all, they can turn to the Europeans and say: “We let you try to solve the problem and a rare old hash you made of it.”

Either way, the situation is becoming tenser (while, incidentally, Gaza continues to slide into a full-scale civil war and the terrorist attacks on Israel have not ceased). But I have no doubt that the bien pensants will continue to witter about Bush being the most dangerous man on earth.


Talk Sport

"Outspoken American Charlie Wolf must be the hardest working man in radio; he left us in to help a friend set up a new radio station in Cork, Ireland. His night time show there is already the most talked about show in Cork and number one at night in less than a year - he's still doing 'Cork Talks Back' and commuting back to London every weekend to work for us."

And every Saturday morning, at er... 3.00 am (sorry) Helen and I do "Euro Siege" with Charlie in a rumbustious half-hour of discussion, talking about the highlights of the blog for the week. You can listen in on 1089/1053 AM or from the website during the actual broadcast.



Friday, October 28, 2005

The "beautiful game" costs money

Scotland’s Deputy Enterprise Minister, Allan Wilson, seems to be a little confused as to what enterprise entails. In the land of Adam Smith, they appear to think that enterprise means getting lots of money from some central fund and dispersing it among various projects.

Mr Wilson has announced gleefully lowland Scotland has just received £75 million from the European Social Fund, described as a “very significant amount”, to go towards 400 projects.

One must presume that a similar amount will be disbursed towards highland Scotland and, maybe, another sum for the islands of Scotland. One must also presume that the Scottish “government” will have to come up with matching funds.

Among other matters, there is football. £175,000 is proposed for a project to “help young football apprentices acquire skills they will need if they fail to make the grade as professionals”.

Alternatively, you can describe it as “a scheme to equip would-be footballers in Scotland for a life outside the game”.

Well, of course, looking at the way those who do make the grade behave, it might be a good idea to equip them all with some kind of a life sense, but, surely, that is known as upbringing and education.

Well, at least, it isn’t just the British taxpayer that is footing (no pun intended) this particular bill.


What to do?

An issue to which we have paid scant attention is nevertheless emerging as a worrying humanitarian crisis, to which there is no obvious answer.

The Italian news agency ANSA reports that the country is being "besieged" by illegal immigrants, with 850 having landed on Italian islands or been rescued at sea in the last three days.

Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island, has borne the brunt of the arrivals, although migrants have also been brought in off the Sicilian coastline near Siracusa and Palermo. Seventy migrants have already been airlifted back to Egypt, while a further 200 were deported yesterday, aboard two interior ministry aircraft. But the situation, on Lampedusa in particular, remains critical. There are currently some 400 migrants in the island's processing centre, which is equipped to handle just 190 individuals.

The Italian government is now urging the EU to help it cope, with interior minister Giuseppe Pisanu warning that the situation was "increasingly dangerous and out of control", adding that the Maltese authorities had also pulled eight corpses from the sea."

Says Pisanu, "The resources currently earmarked by Europe are to deal with illegal immigration are absolutely inadequate," while his foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini is complaining that immigration has become an "increasingly disturbing problem”. His view is that it requires ever-stronger co-operation within the entire EU."

Meanwhile, the leading Catholic charity Caritas has warned that "far more" than 500 foreigners had drowned at sea last year while trying to reach Italy. It also says that a total of 13,635 irregular migrants arrived in Italy by boat in 2004, although this accounted for only 10 percent of the total. Fifteen percent entered the country by land, while the remaining 75 percent were individuals who became "illegal" by staying on after their residency permits expired.

The charity further notes that immigration policies cost Italy €144 million last year, €29 million on foreigners legally living in the country and €115 million on fighting illegal immigration. Clearly, in view of Italy's yawning budget deficit, this is unsustainable.


It's up to the national economies…

It is too much to expect the phalanx of witless hacks to describe the event at Hampton Court yesterday as an "informal European Council", which is precisely what it was – a meeting of our government over the water. But such polysyllabic sophistication seems to be beyond the average hack so, from the BBC to Reuters, they all contented themselves with the term "informal summit".

The Times, for the sake of convenience, leads the way, with its report telling us that the chances of a settlement on the EU budget during the British presidency are slipping away, with Blair conceding the obvious by stating that achieving a deal by December would be a "tall order".

This he knew from L'Escroc's helpful intervention earlier in the day, when he warned that he would be prepared to veto a deal at the WTO talks in Hong Kong if this involved any cuts in farm subsidies. On the other hand, Blair is maintaining his position any agreement on the rebate would be conditional on "big concessions" from France and others on the CAP. Did I hear "groundhog day"?

Thus, with the president whose name we dare not utter, and the prime minister whose name we prefer not to, at odds, the talk centred around fluffy bunny ideas from Barroso. These included programmes of action on research and development, raising standards in universities, developing a common European energy policy and combating illegal migration while promoting skilled immigration and promoting the work-life balance.

Gerhard Schröder, at his last meeting as German Chancellor, then put the boot in by pouring scorn on "free-market reforms" and voiced scepticism about a plan for a "globalisation fund" to help workers to adjust to competition from India and China.

This did not stop Blair warbling about "a strong sense among leaders" that "Europe needed to be put back on track". He then added that there had been "broad agreement" about the right direction for Europe's economic and social policy, which means, of course, that the discussions had been so vague that no one had found any cause to disagree.

Barroso, in that ghastly sing-song voice of his, nevertheless burbled that it had been "a great day with great atmosphere". "The spirit was really good. I believe this gives us the right political context for an agreement on the budget in December. I believe Europe is on the move again."

Oh, p-leeze.

Reuters also picked up the "cordiality" theme, telling us that European Union leaders "mended fences", agreeing the challenges posed by globalisation required "new thinking". But, it said, most participants complained that specific policy measures were thin. Instead, it seems that discussions centred on a "strategic vision" for the EU.

But, says the Financial Times, behind the bonhomie, intractable problems remain, with Europe divided on issues such as liberalisation of the EU's services market, farm reform, world trade negotiations and the British rebate.

And, of the French-backed policy idea – a globalisation "shock absorber" fund to help workers retrain in the event of corporate restructuring – Göran Persson, Swedish prime minister, said: "It's old-fashioned, it doesn't belong to a modern strategy. If such adjustments took place, it's up to national economies to deal with that."

And so, as the EU leaders trogged off back to their respective homes, they could glory in the fact that, once again, they – our real government – had yet again failed to agree anything of real substance and were unlikely to do so in the near future. Perhaps Persson has it: "it's up to national economies to deal with that." That does not say a great deal for the survival of the project.


So, why does Norway stay out?

Yesterday’s International Herald Tribune ran an article on Norway under the title of : “In Norway, pros and cons (the cons still win)”. Why is it, asked the journalist that “this increasingly wealthy North European nation remaining outside the fold at a time of broadening European integration?” And hey presto, you have the answer in the question: it is increasingly wealthy and does not need the EU, which is decreasingly wealthy.

Indeed, the article rather sheepishly admits it:
“At present, 54 percent of Norwegians oppose membership, according to a poll published Monday in the newspaper Aftenposten. Their opinion, analysts say, is intimately linked to the broad feeling here that oil-rich, high-growth Norway does not need an economically stumbling European club.

Projections show gross domestic product in Norway growing almost 4 percent this year, up slightly from 3.5 percent in 2004, compared with about 1 percent in the euro zone in both years.”
This is terribly sad for the new centre left Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and some of his rivals on the right. His left-wing coalition partners are against joining and, one suspects, quite a lot on the right is also that, though they may hedge their bets.

If the article is to be believed, most of the political establishment is in favour of joining but is rather unhappy at the thought of having to ask the people for the third time. They will almost certainly vote no again and that will kill the issue once and for all. Well, not once and for all, perhaps, knowing the determination of the europhiles, but for some years.

The problem is that there are no economic reasons for joining the EU. Norway is part of the European Economic Area and, therefore, it is often said, the country still has to obey the rules of the internal market. Which, according to some pundits makes them into a “fax democracy” because Brussels can simply fax their diktats over.

Whereas, if Norway joined, runs the argument, they would be able to participate in discussions and influence decisions.

This, apparently, cuts no ice with most Norwegians. One wonders why not?

Could it be because they can see that being one of the 25 does not precisely give you much influence and, indeed, the term “fax democracy” can be applied to the member states? (Now that I think of it, this is rather an old-fashioned term. Surely it is now an e-mail democracy that we have to talk about.)

Then again, the Norwegians may well realize that there is a great deal more to the EU these days than the internal market and being part of the European Economic Area still gives you the rights to make decisions about your external trade, foreign and security policy as well as financial matters.

Maybe the Norwegians recognize that when politicians say that Norway in the EU would have a stronger voice on the European level, they really mean that they, the politicians, would strut around in Brussels and feel important.

Then there is the fish. Norway may sell eighty per cent of its fish to the EU as the article points out but it runs its fisheries as it sees fit, which means, almost inevitably, much more successfully than the EU does through the CFP. This, apparently, is not appreciated by the author of the article.

So, it seems, the Norwegians will stay outside the euro-mess, getting ever richer, selling their produce to whomever they like and ignoring the blandishments of their political masters.


Thursday, October 27, 2005

The president whose name we dare not utter

Not hours before L'Escroc Chirac disported himself on the steps of Hampton Court today, making cooing statement to Tony Blair after laying down la loi about the PAC - as the famously dislexic Frogs insist on calling the CAP - the crook's own former chief of staff when he was mayor of Paris, Michel Roussin (below right), was being handed down a suspended jail term of four years and a fine of £35,000.

Of what amounts to limited coverage of what is a massive corruption scandal amongst the French political élite – going right to the very top - it is The Telegraph that covers it best, also linking to an earlier report in March, when we also covered l’affaire.

In all, 47 politicians, many of them close associates of Chirac, were defending corruption charges, with allegations that the group took nearly £50 million in kickbacks after awarding school building contracts in the central Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, between 1990 and 1995.

But what electrified the trial was the accusation made by Roussin’s defence lawyer, who spoke of "empty chairs" in the Paris courtroom, where the case was heard, declaring that one man missing from the proceedings was "the president whose name we dare not utter."

The main beneficiary of the kickbacks was, in fact, the RPR, the party L'Escroc founded in 1976 but, as president, he has immunity from prosecution. Predictably, he has denied knowledge of the illegal practices and has refused to give evidence on behalf of his former aides and colleagues, allowing them to be hung out to dry.

Another politician in the frame was Guy Drut, 54, an ex-sports minister who won an Olympic hurdles gold medal for France in 1976. He was given a 15-month suspended sentence and fined £35,000. Drut is a member of the International Olympic Committee but withdrew from Paris's failed attempt to host the 2012 Olympics to avoid embarrassing the bid. He was found guilty of taking a fictitious job at a construction firm.

Last week, another of Mr Chirac's former political supporters, Didier Schuller, 58, was jailed for five years, three of them suspended, in a separate case concerning the misuse of company assets. Schuller, who was freed pending an appeal, denied wrongdoing. It was, he claimed, like blaming a cabin steward for a plane crash, where the RPR was the airline, Chirac its president and former prime minister Juppé the pilot.

And this "president", we must constantly remind ourselves, is – through the wonders of our membership of the European Union and his membership of the European Council, a de facto member of our government.


Letter G in that report

Thanks to USS Neverdock, who tells us that George Galloway is listed, starting on page 79. So it is just one Senator, huh?

The full text of the report is here (long – 630 pages). Meanwhile, absolutely no mention of Galloway on the BBC website report or on the Radio 4 "World Tonight" news programme.


Names will be named

The fifth and final report by the Volcker Commission is due out today and this one will be naming names of private companies and individuals who gave kick-backs to Saddam Hussein, his friends and relations in the oil-for-food scam.

Try as it might, the media has been unable to get hold of the one thing they are interested in, that is the actual names, before the publication of the report. (Well, I am not sure the British media tried all that hard but, one assumes, they will be scanning the entries under the letter G.)

According to Associated Press the report will say that “about half of the 4,500 companies in the U.N. oil-for-food program paid $1.8 billion in kickbacks and illicit surcharges to Saddam Hussein's government”.
“The investigators reported that companies and individuals from 66 countries paid illegal kickbacks through a variety of devices while those paying illegal oil surcharges came from, or were registered in, 40 countries.”
It is assumed that many of the names will have something to do with France and Russia.

Despite this report concentrating on private companies and individuals, Volcker’s attention is firmly fixed on the UN, according to the New York Times:
“In my mind this part of our investigation, looking at the manipulation of the program outside the U.N., strongly reinforces the case that the U.N. itself carries a large part of this responsibility and needs reform.

Even though we are looking at it from the outside, it kind of screams out at you, 'Why didn't somebody blow a whistle?' The central point is that it all adds up to the same story. You need some pretty thoroughgoing reforms at the U.N.”
That may be so but the question as to why certain countries were so anxious to keep Saddam Hussein in power is not going to go away.


Multiplying the rubbish

On the avian influenza front, most newspapers today in some way focused on the comments made by the European Food Safety Authority's director of science Herman Koëer. It was he who, yesterday, urged people to avoid eating raw eggs and poultry because of a "theoretical risk" of contracting bird flu.

"Alarmist and unhelpful" was the view taken by British farmers, according to the Daily Telegraph report, with plenty more condemnation from other sources. The best that could be said of the man is that he had been "naive".

The Scotsman recruits Professor Hugh Pennington, to say that the European Food Safety Authority had reiterated long-standing advice related to salmonella in a "quite inappropriate" way, arguing that the chance of a human catching the virus from eating an egg was "for all practical purposes, zero".

In Italy, where poultry consumption collapsed by at least 40 percent in September and has continued to slump this month, poultry farmers were more robust. They have accused the authority of spreading unjustified fears and demanded the resignation of Koëer.

So much for the great European experiment, an impartial food safety authority which was going to cut through the self-interest of national politicians, beholden to their lobby groups. This was to be the "brave new world" of the impartial Platonic guardians who were to deliver the best, most reasoned and impassionate advice to keep the embattled consumer informed. As it is turning out – just as we argued at the time of the formation of this monster – it is just another "scare factory" which muddies the waters at a crucial time, and leaves consumers even more befuddled and confused.

Mind you, reading through the cuts this morning, Koëer needs little help. The newspapers, in their own way, are continuing to spread alarm and despondency – and ignorance.

Here, the piece by David Derbyshire, self-styled "Consumer Affairs Editor", in the Telegraph (link above) is a classic example of the genre. He writes:

Although attention has been focused on the spread of avian flu to Britain, health officials remain more concerned about the risk of a human pandemic. They fear that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a human form of flu that spreads easily from person to person. Because there is no immunity to the virus in people, it could kill tens of millions of people.
Thus spreads not the influenza virus but a more virulent form of disease – ignorance – which pervades both government and much of the commentariat. On offer is this thesis that the H5N1 virus could "mutate…" etc., etc., but this is not how it is likely to happen – if it happens at all.

While indeed viruses do constantly mutate, the chances of there occurring a spontaneous mutation of one the specific sub-types (or clades) of the H5N1 group – so as the emergent strain retains its virulence characteristics and develops an affinity to man, as a host – is so remote that, to borrow Pennington's phrasing, it is "for all practical purposes, zero".

Reviewing the latest scientific texts on the evolution of infectivity in influenza viruses, the more likely scenario is one where simultaneous infection occurs in a single host with a specific clade of the H5N1 virus and a human adapted influenza strain.

As the viruses disassemble in the human cell – as part of the mechanism by which the replicate – and them re-assemble, they can end up swapping genes, by which means an avian adapted virus can acquire characteristics which confer on it the ability in infect man.

Crucially, this can only occur under very limited circumstances, which presumably explains why H5N1 viruses have been circulating for over ten years, without any signs of them becoming human host adapted.

However, given that it could happen, the points at which it will most likely occur is birds which have close contact with man (i.e., domestic fowl) which then become co-infected with human influenza and H5N1, or people in close contact with these birds who have the opportunity acquire both viruses.

In epidemiological terms, this is vital information. If the disease breaks out into the human population, it is most likely to be seen first in poultry workers or other occupational groups which have close contact with birds. These groups are our "sentinels" who should be watched very closely for signs of disease, isolated and tested at the very first sign of their developing flu-like symptoms.

But, for all the intellectual firepower devoted to this problem, both at national and international level, we have the scientific director of the EFSA prating about a non-existent threat, while most of the energy and concern is focused on migratory wild birds. Yet, as far as the simple expedient of warning health authorities to watch out for poultry workers – and especially farmers – becoming sick, no advice has been given.

Rather like getting satellite television, when instead of suffering four channels of rubbish, you gain a further hundred or so extra rubbish channels, it seems spreading food safety competences to the European level, and multiplying the number of officials involved, also multiplies the rubbish.


I see no ships

In what should be a major issue for The Daily Telegraph, highlighted by us yesterday, it is left to Mike Critchley, of Warship World magazine, Liskeard, Cornwall, in a letter to the paper, to make the obvious and necessary points:

Sir - Now that ministers have come clean and announced what was so obvious - that Britain will not get her first new aircraft carrier in 2012 - can we urgently ask that a halt now be made to the continuing downsizing of the fleet to pay for them?

The promise has been made every time another ship is paid off - often well before the end of its useful operational life. "Jam tomorrow, chaps," is the cry. But these new ships aren't going to happen for many a year - if at all.

We do not live in a more stable world. Sorry, Mr Brown, you will just have to be persuaded that we must pay up. This is a matter of paying the insurance premium for the cover we as a nation undoubtedly need. We continue to be an island, importing over 90 per cent of our raw materials by sea.

Dare I ask about the promised reduction in Civil Service numbers at the Ministry of Defence while ministers and senior officers see the fleet at sea continue to shrink below safe limits?
This is clearly a man who knows what he is talking about, airing the concerns of many, his crie de coeur being that the fleet is continuing to "shrink below safe limits". That is important but, for the Telegraph, clearly not as important as "Murray in tears as he beats Henman", which graces the front page, complete with photograph.

If there is a definition of a decadent society, in the latter stages of decay, that is probably it.


Different developments

How stands the struggle for democracy and against terrorism? Well, not so badly in that supposed quagmire, Iraq, where the constitution has been voted through by a large majority and even the Sunnis have promised to co-operate with its implementation. It is not going to be easy but it is slowly moving in the right direction.

In Lebanon two people have been arrested for the murder of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri but what to do with Syria, whose government was named (well, named at first then accusations withdrawn) as being behind the assassination (as well as a few others) is still being debated.

Russia and China have announced that they will not support sanctions against the country. Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister said that his country wanted to see the murderers of Hariri brought to justice rather than go about imposing sanctions on a country. Given how ineffective and corruption-riddled UN sanctions have been in other places, Lavrov may have a point. There are ever more predictions, however, that Assad Junior’s regime will not survive for many more months as he does not have his old man’s total ruthlessness.

And so we come to Iran, the country that was going to be the great glory of European diplomacy. Not only have all hopes of stopping nuclear development for all sorts of purposes in that country have had to be abandoned, no matter what official statements may be made in France or Britain, but the new President has also burst onto the international field with another radical statement.

Shortly after a suicide/homicide bomber killed five Israelis and wounded dozens of others in Haldera, for which Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility and in response to which Israel intends to mount a military operation in the West Bank, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at an objectively titled conference in Teheran: “The World without Zionism”.

According to Al-Jazeera and other news agencies, President Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be wiped off the map. One must admit, his grasp of history does not seem to be any greater than that of our own politicians but he is considerably nastier.

To him the Jews are the historic enemy of Islam, which is not precisely true if one looks at the historic relationship between Jews and Muslims in the various Muslim empires. But the “fiery” speech seems to have lumped all the “enemies of Islam” together:
“The establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world. … The skirmishes in the occupied land are part of a war of destiny. The outcome of hundreds of years of war will be defined in Palestinian land. … The Islamic umma (community) will not allow its historic enemy to live in its heartland.”
None of this explains why the Islamic community has been so reluctant to help their Palestinian brothers and sisters to have a better life but you can’t have everything.

President Ahmadinejad has also attacked those Muslim countries who have made tentative steps in response to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, to regularize their relationship with Israel.
“Anyone who signs a treaty which recognises the entity of Israel means he has signed the surrender of the Muslim world.”
As Al-Jazeera points out:
“In September, Bahrain announced it was ending a decades-old law banning trade ties with Israel. Earlier this month, Qatar said it was donating US$6 million to help build a soccer stadium for a mixed Arab-Jewish team, the first such financial assistance by an Arab state for any town inside Israel.”
Understandably, there has been something of a furore in some countries round the world about this statement.

Israel is asking for Iran to be expelled from the UN – a request that is unlikely to be granted but the debate should be interesting.

In Washington, White House spokesman, Scott McClellan was blunt in his comments to reporters:
“It just reconfirms what we have been saying about the regime in Iran. It underscores the concerns we have about Iran's nuclear operations.”
Canada has strongly condemned the statements, with Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew telling reporters:
“This is the 21st century. We cannot tolerate comments of such hatred, such anti-Semitism, such intolerance.

And these comments are all the more troubling (given) that we know of Iran's nuclear ambitions. So I think it is very important that all countries do stand up together to make sure that we do not accept that Iran continues a nuclear program.”
Response has been slightly muted this side of the pond. France and Britain will summon the two Iranian ambassadors to ask for an explanation of the comments. The German foreign ministry spokesman, Walter Lindner, hedged his bets:
“If these comments were in fact made, they are completely unacceptable and should be condemned in the strongest terms.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was even milder. He brushed off Israeli calls for international action against Iran over its nuclear programme and pointed out that the whole issue was “too serious to be guided by politics”. It is not entirely clear what he thinks it should be guided by. Astrophysics? Microbiology?

We must assume that very little will come from the three wise monkeys who have been negotiating to no purpose with Iran for so long. Nor is the IAEA going to be much use on past record. But, with every day the problem of Iran becomes more serious and it is unlikely that Israel will sit back and wait for developments to take their own course. It has, after all, been warned by the Iranian President himself.


Transparent it ain't

One of the puzzles of contemporary international politics is how China is managing to finance an increasing military establishment and also a major re-equipment and modernisation programme on such a small defence budget.

However, according the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, it isn't. Actual Chinese military spending is more than double the level the country admits to publicly and is growing rapidly.

This is the Institute’s conclusion in its yearly assessment of global military power, estimating that China spent $62.5bn on defence last year, compared with the government's official figure of $25bn.

The report follows warnings by Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, in China last week that the US and other countries are concerned about a perceived lack of transparency surrounding the Chinese military budget.

The IISS has not yet calculated what it believes Chinese military spending will be this year, but the Pentagon estimates that it could be as much as $90bn, three times the official Chinese defence budget of $30.2bn.

The IISS assessment included fundamental parts of defence budgets such as research and development, weapons procurement, military pensions and some nuclear costs. It estimates the Chinese defence budget had grown about 10 per cent in each of the past 10 years.

Tim Huxley, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the IISS, says: "It has become more and more apparent that the official figures do not reflect reality, especially if you look at capabilities the Chinese are developing such as long-range missiles, rapid global deployment and Russian combat aircraft." "There is no way you could pay for a fraction of this if the official figures were accurate," he adds.

And I bet the figures do not include the expenditure on Galileo.


Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Holy cow!

On the eve of Blair's European Council in Hampton Court, the latest figures on agricultural production in the EU will give the assembled governmental heads pause for reflection.

Despite the so-called reforms of the CAP, aimed at cutting back production, in the first seven months of 2005, milk production increased overall by 1.2 percent. This is almost entirely due to an 11 percent increase in Poland, providing a harbinger of things to come.

Poland has nearly 50 million acres of agricultural land (about 60 percent of the country's total area) but, under the Soviet regime, extremely low productivity 119 workers per 1,000 acres – compared with a US ratio is less than 4 workers per 1,000 acres. Over 75 percent of agricultural land is located on 2.7 million private farms and the average private farm in Poland is only about 15 acres.

But, as development money flows in, farm size and productivity is steadily increasing and the potential for increased production is being realised. And it is this dynamic that will eventually blow a hole through the whole agricultural system in the EU, as Poland and the other former Soviet-bloc countries – especially Hungary - start to reach Western levels of productivity.

The mechanical cow (above), seen at a Polish arts exhibition, may not yet have taken over, but dairy mechanisation and improvements will not be far from the minds of Chirac and his fellow travellers as they seek to resolve the budget crisis.


Are we still interested in the defence of our country?

Beyond a short snippet in the Telegraph "in brief" section, and some local newspapers, there seems to be very little English coverage of what in fact the fairly major issue of yet another delay in the delivery of two aircraft carriers to the Royal Navy.

Speaking to the House of Commons Defence Committee, Lord Drayson apparently told MPs that the MoD had dropped the target day of 2012 for the delivery of the first carrier, with the second to follow by 2015. No new date could be set pending “critical” negotiations with defence contractors who were to build the ships.

Predictably, there is more coverage in the Scottish press, since some of the building work for the carriers was to go to Scotland. Hence we have the Scotsman reporting: "Thousands of jobs at risk" as a result of the delay in building the £3.5 billion carriers.

With the existing carriers, HMS Invincible, HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal, which are to be withdrawn from service between 2010 and 2013, what none of the media are pointing out is that, with the running delays, there is a very real risk of the Royal Navy being without any carriers for an indeterminate period.

Nor – as one has become to expect from media which seem to have lost interest in defence issues – has the media picked up on the troubles affecting the Joint Strike Fighter, which is supposed to equip the carriers.

According to DefenseNews, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is focusing on the escalating costs of the Royal Navy short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter – also to be bought by the USMC - and are considering whether it should be scrapped or delayed. There is even a possibility that the numbers produced might be reduced, escalating the costs which, to the UK, are already estimated at just short of £10 billion for 150 aircraft.

The STOVL version is already two years behind the original schedule, due in part to problems overcoming weight issues, and will only come on stream in 2014, which might explain why the MoD is prepared to accept slippage in the carrier-building programme.

As yet unresolved though is the vexed problem of technology transfer, with the US still refusing to pass over key aspects of JSF technology to the British, owing to concerns about "leakage" via her European partners to China. That, in itself, may further delay the programme and may even cause the UK to pull out of it altogether.

As it stands, however, commentators are suggesting that the delays are welcome to a hard-pressed Treasury, already having difficulty in funding the existing procurement programme – not least because of the extravagant sums spent on European equipment. The lack of response of the media, however, makes one wonder whether, as a nation, we are still interested in the defence of our country.


An international incident

The Telegraph today has picked up the story we ran last night, awarding it front page status, with the headline: "Vets admit mix-up over parrot tests".

"Government vets," says the story, were accused of an embarrassing mix-up which may have thwarted the effort to discover how potentially lethal bird flu arrived in a quarantine facility in Essex.”

The rest of the story is somewhat muddled but it is interesting to see that the incompetence of Defra is fast causing an international incident. The news agency AFX is reporting a "Taiwan quarantine official" saying that their own tests "undermine UK bird flu suspicions", with results in from the farm that exported birds to Britain. They have found no trace of the virus in the facility.

Some 40 birds on the farm in central Taichung county were examined and none were positive for bird flu, says Chiang Hsien-choung, an official at the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine. This, he says, shows “that it was unlikely birds exported from the farm had spread bird flu to others in British quarantine.”

From AP, via the Scotsman the story develops with news that Taiwan is to raise an official protest with Britain over Defra's allegations, following a robust statement from Chiang Shien-tsong, who is in charge of disease control at the Cabinet-level Agriculture Council. "We will lodge a serious protest to Britain for the irresponsible allegation," he says.

Chiang adds that the Taiwanese farm exported 185 birds in September after being issued an official certificate attesting they were free from viruses, including the H5N1 bird flu strain. These actually arrived on the 27 September at the Essex quarantine facility, while the parrots had been there since 16 September, and the two which have caused the furore were not found dead until 19 October.

The time line alone tells you that it is most unlikely that the Taiwanese birds were linked to the infection and now the data from the Taiwanese authorities further suggest that once again Defra have jumped to unfounded conclusions.

Thus, the Taipei Times is taking no prisoners on the issue, recording Taiwan's representative in Britain as demanded an explanation "Debby Reynolds saying before test results were out that the Taiwan birds carried H5N1 has not only seriously hurt Taiwan's international image but also exposed negligence in Britain's quarantine," Lin Hsin-yi said in an interview with the BBC

"We demand a report and an explanation from Defra and at the same time express our gravest concern to the British government," he says.

Yet this is the dire organisation which forms our first line of defence again the disease breaking through into the human population, if indeed that can happen. It does not exactly fill one with confidence.


Nobody seems to have noticed

Ever since early September, we have been reporting on how the EU's prestigious Galileo satellite navigation system seems to be running into the sand, with member states unwilling to fund extra development costs, sprung on them at the last minute.

The issue re-emerged at the end of September, again in early October and once more last week.

Yet, throughout this period, never one have we seen any reports of the travails of what is, in fact, the largest single project ever handled by the European Union, and one on which the Commission is staking a great deal of political capital.

Now, there is a further development, with the Commission yesterday announcing that former EU commissioner Karel Van Miert has been appointed mediator to "accelerate" – i.e., rescue – the programme.

True to form, not a mention of this startling development has reached the mainstream media. The only mention we can find is confined to the online Chinese news agency Xinhuanet.

Yet what is so remarkable about the appointment is that it provides confirmation that the project is in serious trouble, as the very issues which Van Miert has been set on to deal with should have been settled by now.

Van Miert's "mission" is to act as mediator between EU member states and industry in order, says the Commission, to facilitate decisions on the Galileo program. Only hinting at the underlying turmoil, it acknowledges that, over the past few weeks, some decisions at industrial level have been delayed "for various reasons".

Now, Jacques "Wheel" Barrot, the transport commissioner, has intervened to make the appointment, declaring, "Galileo is a project that only a united Europe can accomplish. A divided Europe can only endanger the success of the project," adding: "We want to see urgent progress…".

Finishing off with a call to "all those concerned", Barrot pleads with member states, agencies and industry, "to lend their help and support to Karel Van Miert so that he can successfully accomplish his mission as quickly as possible."

They are really in trouble – and nobody seems to have noticed.