Thursday, May 31, 2007

A purely imaginary world

One thing that struck me in the article by Chris Dillow in yesterday's Times - which was one of the reasons I reviewed it - was his comment, "The larger and more authoritarian the organisation, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds."

If we take that to mean that top decision-makers have completely lost touch with reality, then I am absolutely at one with Dillow, certainly as regards the performance of the officials at the MoD's "Specialist and Utility Vehicles Integrated Project Team".

At a time when the infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan is being equipped, as fast as is humanly possible with up-armoured vehicles – including the famed Mastiff (pictured) – in order to protect against the increasing threat from IEDs – what else can explain their bizarre decision to spend around £415,000 each (a cool £7.5 million) on 18 Swiss-built Bucher Duro Disposal and Search Explosives Ordnance Disposal vehicles for deployment in these theatres?

Called "Tellar" by the Army (pictured above), the type was recently described in a gushing puff on the MoD website as, "a state-of-the-art vehicle to help munitions disposal personnel move around safely on operations". They are anything but.

These vehicles are supposed to be designed to attend sites where suspected IEDs have been detected, or where there have been explosions and secondaries are suspected, for which purpose you would expect the very best available protection, especially as bomb disposal officers are often specifically targeted by insurgents.

But not a bit of it. Not only does the vehicle share with the Pinzguaer Vector, the positioning of the driver over the front wheel – in an optimum position to ensure maximum vulnerability in the event of a mine strike or explosion by a buried IED - the vehicles are devoid of any effective armour, being fitted only with "a level of riot protection".

By contrast, the USMC and the US Army provide their bomb disposal teams with the Force Protection Joint Explosive Ordnance Disposal Rapid Response Vehicle (JERRV), otherwise known as the Cougar, on which the Mastiff is based.

Not only is this vehicle actually cheaper than the Tellar (at about £250,000), it is designed specifically to afford protection from IEDs, in testament of which, Cougars have now taken over 2,000 IED hits, with no deaths amongst their crews.

Unfortunately, the "Tellar" is not the Specialist and Utility Vehicles Integrated Project Team's only venture into fantasy. Its input also gave us the Pinzgauer Vector (aka "coffin on wheels") and the absurdly expensive Panther - which is too unsafe to use in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Worryingly, this is the same team that is going to have a key part in selecting the vehicles for the FRES project. On current form, the design/selection team is unlikely to have learned the lessons that the current campaigns have yielded and, if its thinking on the "Tellar" is any guide, this is a group which is actually incapable of learning lessons.

And it is not as if their choices do not kill people – they do. Apart from the debacle with the "Snatch" Land Rovers, it is germane to note that the soldier whose death was so graphically recounted by Telegraph yesterday, was riding in a Viking APC when it was hit by a mine (or buried IED).

Yet this was the vehicle that was deployed in a blaze of publicity last year and then given sustained publicity by the MoD.

Although we were expressing our reservations about lack of mine protection, the media followed the MoD line with their own gushing puffs about the new kit (as they always do). Now, a man is dead because – as was self evident at the time of its introduction – the vehicle had wholly inadequate mine protection.

Returning to Chris Dillow's article, one can thus only agree with his thesis and remark that the officials who are entrusted with supplying our soldiers with kit are indeed living in one of his purely imaginary worlds. It is perhaps appropriate that their main energies should be devoted to FRES, a purely fantasy project.


One size fits none… again

Even if you accepted that there was any logic in the EU's drive to reduce carbon emissions, there is a special kind of madness in the way it is attempting to put its grandiose plans into action.

That much is evident from the comments of Raimo Sailas (pictured), a top official at the Finnish Ministry of Finance. He has sharply criticised what he sees as poor preparation of the climate policy of the European Union, declaring that, "It is truly a cause for concern that decisions of very great economic significance are made on the basis of such weak background work."

Sailas was referring to a decision made in March by the European Council, in which the EU countries committed themselves to increasing the proportion of renewable energy to 20 percent.

Yet such are the smooth workings of the Rolls Royce (or is it the Merecedes?) minds of the Commission officials that, in their calculations put forward as a basis of the decision, Finland's potential share of renewable energy was said to be as high as 45 percent.

Yet said Sailas, this was based on the assumption that Finland could use tidal and wave energy. "This," he said, witheringly, "is the level of background work by the Commission," pointing out that, while tidal and wave energy can be used on the coasts of oceans, the waves in the Gulf of Finland will not yield much energy, and there are no tides to speak of on any of Finland's coasts.

What passes for thinking in the Commission was based on building on the relatively high level of renewable energy used by Finland, standing at 25 percent. This is one of the highest proportions in the EU but, as Sailas observed, that is attributable to the pulp industry, which generates a large proportion of the electricity that it uses from process waste.

But what particularly seems to annoy Sailas is the blithe assumption that cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from the 1990 level by 2020 can be uniformly applied across the EU. It seems to have escaped the notice of Commission officials it is relatively cold in Finland – certainly compared with your average Mediterranean country, the industrial base is very energy-intensive, and the location of the country, believe it or not, is fairly remote.

All that means that the impact of reducing emissions would be much greater on Finland than on the EU countries on average. Just keeping emissions at the 1990 level would already have a greater impact on the Finnish economy than a 20 percent reduction would have on the EU countries on average. Achieving the target would reduce Finnish GDP in 2025 by 3.4 percent, which could mean the loss of 40,000 jobs.

None of this, of course, will have any significant impact on the Commission, wedded as it is to the mantra of "one size fits all" which, in practice, invariably means that one size fits none. Raimo Sailas, you complain in vain.


Poles "ready to die"

In what seems to be dangerous loss of perspective, Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski is reported stepped up the rhetoric over European Union voting rights, saying Poles were ready to "die" to get their way on the issue.

Kaczynski's government has already threatened to veto any new treaty unless it gets its way, demanding that votes allocated to each member state be calculated by taking the square root of the country's population in millions. On that basis, Germany, which has 82 million inhabitants, would have nine votes and Poland, which has a population of 38 million, would have six.

"I would like to clearly state that we are as serious as we can be about the square root proposal. We are ready to die for that, despite contrary information in the press," says Kaczynski.

Before he continues with his ill-considered rhetoric, Kaczynski might be advised to revisit his country's recent history. Not so very long ago, his countrymen really were "ready to die" to protect their nation - and did so in large numbers. Is he really saying that this current issue is of the same magnitude?


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Guessing about the future

We are all assuming that the World Bank directors will accept Robert Zoelick as their next boss but will they and all those who have been screeching their triumph over Paul Wolfowitz be happy with what comes next? On Zoelick’s past performance it seems unlikely that he will be a typical tranzi as Wolfowitz’s predecessors, John McCloy and James Wolfensohn (a close friend of former SecGen Kofi Annan’s) were. At best, one can say that his immediate manners are smoother than those of Wolfowitz.

Der Spiegel has an interesting and rather unhappy article on the subject. Zoellick, they point out, is a man Germans know and like.
Robert Zoellick will be the first World Bank president to take office already decorated with the Federal Cross of Merit, Germany's distinguished state honorary badge. His predecessors John McCloy and Jim Wolfensohn also received the Cross -- but only later. Zoellick already wears it, in recognition of his efforts to help bring about German reunification. As the main United States mediator in the "Two Plus Four Agreement" -- the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany that emerged from the 1990 talks between the two German states and the four World War II victors, and which led to German reunification -- he vigorously championed German self-determination. The Germans thanked him by awarding him the order.
He is also a man who seems to believe strongly in free trade across the world. Certainly, he pushed many of the WTO agreements forward. So, everything in the garden is lovely? Sadly, no.
It seems that Mr Zoellick puts America’s interests first. I am shocked, I tell you, shocked. That a man employed by the United States government should put that country’s interests first!!!

Worse is to come. Robert Zoellick, it seems, is a long-standing friend of the Bush family and part of the very close political circle around both Bush Senior and Junior.
When George W. Bush, then still the governor of Texas, set his sights on the White House, Zoellick was part of an intimate circle of advisors led by later National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. They called themselves "the Vulcans" and they sought to transform him into a man of the world.
Gulp and double gulp. The President nominates someone who is close to him politically and personally and has also a formidable track-record in international negotiations. This just proves it. Not sure what it proves but it proves something.

In case the Europeans who managed to get Wolfowitz out (notably it was not the Asian or African members of the World Bank who hatched or even took part in the plot) should relax, Der Spiegel has this to say:

Zoellick is "moderate" only by comparison to Wolfowitz and his former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, a classic neoconservative, writes Tom Barry, the director of the left-leaning International Relations Center. Zoellick himself accepts the "the neoconservative premise of US global supremacy" but wants to "wisely manage that power," according to Barry.

He's not an ideologist, then, but an idealist: As early as one year before George W. Bush took office in January of 2001, Zoellick articulated his ideas about a "Republican foreign policy" in an essay for Foreign Affairs. The United States would shape the future world order on the basis of its military supremacy, Zoellick wrote, predicting the events of the years to come. "A modern Republican foreign policy," he wrote, "recognizes that there is still evil in the world." Bush himself couldn't have said it better.

In other words, the left does not like him but he seems to appeal to others in the US, whether they are Bush supporters or not. To me, that is quite a good recommendation. His tough love approach to the EU over Airbus and sundry other matters is also something in his favour.

Meanwhile, Irwin Stelzer views the issue from a slightly different perspective in the Daily Telegraph. In his opinion, the Europeans, led by the Germans, ably supported by our own Hilary Benn, himself involved in some doubtful financial activity (but that’s OK, chaps, he is one of us, i.e. nuanced), may well regret their Pyrrhic victory.

They did not achieve what they really wanted, which is a non-American as President of the World Bank because it was made clear to Bush by the people who matter, his American supporters that this was out of the question.
As Pyrrhic victories go, this one is top of the list. For one thing, George W. Bush heard in no uncertain terms from his supporters that they would raise a fuss if he appointed a non-American, even the respected Afghanistan central banker Ashraf Ghani, who holds both Afghan and US citizenship. For another, to sacrifice the wounded Mr Wolfowitz is one thing; to sacrifice the perk that goes along with being the largest single contributor to the World Bank, with no concessions in return, is quite another.
One did not have to be a Bush supporter or a Wolfowitz admirer to feel disturbed, not to say nauseated, by the proceedings whereby the latter was got rid of. In other words, American opinion on the matter became more united, give or take a few out and out left-wing Democrats and nutroots, whose hatred of Bush and everyone around him overcomes everything.

This may lead to what Europeans, in their hearts of hearts, fear most of all: a slow American disengagement from all these transnational organizations. What Mr Stelzer does not postulate is that there might be a much faster disengagement from Europe and matters European.

That, I am sad to say, will include Britain. It would not have escaped anybody’s attention that of the developed countries only Japan supported Wolfowitz throughout the whole mess. (Of course, the actual countries to whom his fight against corruption matters, also supported him but that is another story.) Britain, on the hand, was among the leaders of the pack.

There is, Mr Stelzer thinks, a slow realignment in American attitude to the rest of the world. This has been said before, as one or two of the sillier responses to the article point out, but never with so much force.
The Europeans' partial victory is going to come at a very high cost. Americans, and not only the neo-cons so reviled by the elite in Europe's capitals, are beginning to wonder about the usefulness of their commitment to many international institutions: "These institutions need to be rethought and restructured," said Bob Rubin, Bill Clinton's highly regarded treasury secretary. The fight over Mr Wolfowitz made Americans notice that they are squandering billions on armies of bureaucrats who think it a good idea to wreak vengeance on a man who shaped official US foreign policy, and a man who had as his central goal the elimination of corruption at the bank and among its client states.

Then there is the World Trade Organisation. The Democratic Congress has decided that the costs of ever-freer trade are too high to make the game worth the candle, and is preparing legislation that will end in tariffs on Chinese imports, restrictions on purchases from countries that do not meet US-determined labour and environmental standards, and the likely death of the Doha round of trade talks.
What of the other organizations?

Then there is the UN, an organisation that recently decided that Zimbabwe is just the country to put in the chair of its sustainable economic development committee. With an inflation rate of 2,200 per cent, rampant starvation and a bankrupt government, Zimbabwe's UN representative, who would not be in the job were he not a supporter of Robert Mugabe, can't have very much to teach America - or anyone else.

Besides, even those Americans who are unenthusiastic about Iraq, and want to see Mr Bush back in Texas clearing brush on his ranch, were offended when the UN provided the platform for Venezuela's Hugo Chávez to rant at Mr Bush, as "the devil" trailing a smell of sulphur. There is a mounting feeling that money spent to support the UN - its reputation already seriously dented by the oil-for-food scandal, its members devoted to embarrassing America and Israel while forgiving Arab nations all their sins - might not be in America's long-term interests.

Perhaps of most significance is a growing realisation in Washington that Nato is past its sell-by date. As America takes mounting casualties in Afghanistan, EU countries, with Britain the notable and honourable exception, refuse to provide significant support for an effort in which they agreed to participate. The handful of German troops are not allowed out of their barracks after dark, and soldiers from other nations patrol the most peaceful regions of that violent country.

Besides, Americans are increasingly aware that Europe is funding its generous welfare states by stinting on military spending, something they can do because they rely on American-funded Nato "assets" such as transport planes. That makes America, stung by its experience in Iraq, more rather than less likely to cut back on its role as world policeman.

Perhaps the best early clue to emerging attitudes towards international organisations was Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's decision not to attend the recent meeting of G8 foreign ministers. He simply had more important things to do than to sit through sessions that could not possibly have tangible results. Mr Paulson's German counterpart agreed with the Treasury Secretary's priorities, and sent a deputy rather than postpone his own holiday.

Will all those who revile American “arrogance” be all that happy with that outcome? It would, however, be one of history’s supreme ironies that the slow destruction of tranzis will have been started by the arrogant and seemingly completely victorious activity of their greatest promoters.



A superb article by Chris Dillow in The Times this morning asks, not entirely rhetorically: "We put up with terrible, inept government. Why?"

Subtitled, "How Whitehall can learn from Tesco and John Lewis", he rails against general government incompetence and the simplistic solution – putting different backsides on Cabinet chairs. "Policy failures," Dillow writes, "aren't due to having the wrong personnel in charge. Nor are they exceptions to the rule of general competence. They are the inevitable result of bad organisational structure."

Dillow then goes on to tell us that one reason why big organisations become inefficient is communication failure:

Subordinates have lots of reasons not to tell bosses the truth. They don't want to burden "busy" people with detail, or rock the boat, or be victim of "shoot the messenger" syndrome. The upshot of this was famously described by the late Kenneth Boulding: "The larger and more authoritarian the organisation, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds."
The full article is well worth the read. As my co-editor recently wrote: It gives one furiously to think.


Tax Freedom Day

Calm down everybody. We have not reached it yet. The Americans have, on April 30. Of course, this is average calculation. There are states and cities in the US where tax freedom day is almost as late as it is here and others where it is around early March.

What of Britain? This year it will, once again, fall on June 1 as analyzed by the Adam Smith Institute. You realize what that means, don't you?
The Treasury now takes over 40% of the National Income in taxes – income tax, VAT, capital taxes, company taxes, inheritance taxes, and all the rest. That is 152 days’ worth of the average taxpayer’s annual wages.
Any Conservatives out there who might think there is something wrong with that? Something morally as well as economically wrong?
The tax burden is also a postcode lottery. Taxpayers in Wales work eight days less for the tax-collectors than the national average (until 23 May), but Northern Ireland residents have to work much longer (until 5 June). Taxpayers in England are spot on the national average (1 June) while those in Scotland enjoy their tax freedom earlier (26 May).

There are significant variations within England, too. Lightest taxed are Eastern England and Yorkshire & Humberside, with a Tax Freedom Day of 24 May, and the North East, on 29 May. The West Midlands is relatively lucky with a date of 31 May, while the North-West and South-West taxpayers have to work a day more, until 1 June. Highest taxed are the South-East (3 June) and London (5 June).
Well, that has made me feel a lot better.



The Dutch want a referendum on any amended EU constitution – some 65 percent of those responding to a poll declaring that as their preference.

But, according to Dutch News, junior foreign affairs minister Frans Timmermans is telling his voters that, if they again vote "no", the Netherlands may have to leave the EU.

Timmermans is quoted by the Volkskrant (what a lovely name for a newspaper) as saying: "If it's again no, then the question is: do we continue as an EU member state?" According to the paper his boss, foreign affairs minister Maxim Verhagen, agrees with him.

Given how the Dutch people snubbed their politicians last time, such a hubristic approach seems rather unwise. Common sense would suggest a little caution, otherwise the people may take them at their word. But that is not for the "colleagues". Not only do they pick at the sore of the EU constitution, they continue to tell their people how they should behave.

It strikes me we are not dealing with rational people here. Rather, they seem to be behaving as if they are in the grip of an obsession. Come to think of it, shorn of the rhetoric, that is what is really at the heart of the European Union – and nothing much more.


How to lose the war

Imagine the effect on morale if, instead of the headline (shown left) proclaiming the invasion of France on 6 June 1944 – and many more like it – the newspapers had run with: "Thousands dead in Northern France – troops slaughtered on the beaches".

Then imagine the newspapers running pictures of the dead, like the one below, zealously totting up the count for every following day – with absolutely no news on how the campaign was going. And how long do you think support for the war would have lasted?

Yet, is not that exactly what our media are doing, with a particularly egregious example in The Daily Telegraph today – straight out of The Independent school of journalism? The paper prints a picture of every single one of the 50 soldiers killed as a result of service in Afghanistan (including those killed in accidents) and then, on the front page, gives a graphic account of how one soldier met his untimely death.

More onDefence of the Realm.

Not quite Bolton or Rumsfeld

President Bush has nominated Robert Zoellick, the former U.S. trade representative and an executive at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and the Treasury Department's original candidate, to become President of the World Bank once Wolfowitz retires.

Zoellick is somewhat smoother than Wolfowitz or Bolton and he has always worked on the trade side rather than policies that might upset people who prefer to admire dictators and lambast the United States. So the board might be reasonably happy to agree to his appointment, having lost the battle to hand the position to a European.

As Bloomberg puts it:
Zoellick will take over an agency racked by conflicts over Wolfowitz's role as an architect of the Iraq war, his recruitment of staffers from the Bush administration and a campaign to battle corruption. The bank also faces questions over its role as a lender to middle income nations that can raise money in capital markets.
It is, of course, the last two that are really problematic and the first two were raised in order to prevent Wolfowitz from even attempting to deal with them. Robert Zoellick will need all the strength of character and acumen he can muster.


Driving out the news

We could predict what was going to dominate the UK newspapers by early evening yesterday and, sure enough, there is saturation coverage of the kidnap of five Britons in Baghdad and even more (in some papers) on the resignation of Graham Brady after the Boy King's extraordinarily maladroit handing of the grammar school issue.

But the penalty of the newspapers devoting so much space to specific issues is that much of the rest of the news – much of it of crucial long-term importance – is driven out, never to be covered.

One casualty of this phenomenon is the latest development in the long-running VAT fraud saga, a complex issue which the media needs no excuse to ignore. This we saw the last time there was a development.

At least, though, The Financial Times offers a report, retailing a warning from the International VAT Association (IVA) that proposed simplification of VAT rules for cross-border trading of services will undermine the battle against fraud, already costing billions of pounds a year.

Worryingly, as national authorities are cracking down on the more well-known scams – mainly involving computer chips and mobile telephones – the is reporting that (as expected) criminal are becoming more sophisticated. They are increasingly targeting services and also using a series of inter-connected transactions in which the sales of services mask the fraud.

What makes this issue so grave is the sheer scale of the fraud and the fact that the system is inherently vulnerable to such fraud. As fast as the authorities plug one loophole, the criminals find another.

Furthermore, this is real money being stolen – not some victimless accountancy scam - and many of the perpetrators are believed also to be involved in either the illegal drugs trade or terrorism (or both).

Yet, our increasingly juvenile media does not seem to be able to cope with the enormity of this criminal activity which, as we pointed out in our last piece, dwarfs such celebrated crimes as the Great Train Robbery. As for our politicians … well, the Boy doesn't do "Europe".


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

To debate or not

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries an article by Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University that makes me sigh with longing. Those darn stupid Yanks, I snarl. What do they mean by writing and publishing articles in an ordinary broadsheet that discuss political philosophy, concentrating on what it means to be on the right in politics? Aren’t they supposed to be too dumb to know what political philosophy is about?

Can you imagine any of our newspapers devoting space to the subject of “The Conservative Mind” (famously the title of Russell Kirk’s seminal book)? Then again, can you imagine anybody actually discussing the history of conservative thought in Britain where much of it originated?

Here is a longish discussion of the subject.


Losing the will to live

Using as a hook the death of the 50th British soldier in Afghanistan, The Daily Telegraph launches into a diatribe against the operation on its front page.

It really is interesting to see how consistent the narrative has become, where the paper, ostensibly representing right-wing opinion, either ignores our military operations or focuses largely on its negative aspects.

On the other hand, the strategic debate on defence issues seems to have been completely abandoned by the main newspaper, leaving the reporting to the business section, which today deals with the ongoing saga of the aircraft carrier purchase, plus a long puff about the defence procurement minister Lord Drayson.

The trouble with leaving defence to business writers is precisely that – their focus is on the business perspective, whereas the purchase of military equipment should be discussed in terms of the defence of the realm.

Thus it is that the Drayson piece offers some important detail about FRES, but nothing there deals with the strategic concept or how the military thinking is evolving (if at all). As you would expect, it is all about the commercial interest.

At a time when the Tories are tearing themselves apart over the Boy's views on grammar schools, it is interesting therefore that their defence spokesman Liam Fox was roped in to support his leader on this issue. This means that the shadow defence secretary has now taken a greater part in the education debate than he has in the debate on FRES – where his contribution has been precisely nil (try googling "Liam Fox" and "FRES" and see what you get).

Oddly enough, the title of the Telegraph puff on Drayson is, "On the offensive to secure our defences", but if the noble Lord persists in pursuing the FRES adventure, locking us into buying a pointless white elephant that will drain the Army of resources, in the same way that the Royal Navy has sold its soul for the dream of two, shining new flat tops, then he is doing anything but securing our defences. Rather, he is caving in to the Generals, besotted with their craving for shiny new toys.

What is so very worrying though – or depressing – is that we seem to have both a media and an opposition party that has lost the ability to offer a useful commentary. Even more worrying is the thought that both represent the wider population, for a nation that has lost interest in how it is defended is a nation that is losing the will to live.


Vaclav Klaus speaks

It seems that there is one politician in Europe who has understood the essence of the European project and why it is not a good idea for any of its members. Sadly, that politician is not one of ours. Nor is it President Sarkozy or Chancellor Merkel. In fact, I gave the game away in the title. I am talking the only East European politician who genuinely believes in democracy and the free market: President Vaclav Klaus.

On May 18 he gave a speech in Prague that summarized his reservations. After a more or less justified boast of the Czech Republics performance in most of the post-Communist years, he came to a discussion of what was wrong with the present situation.

In the last decade the Czech economic performance was affected by two external factors:
- the economic growth in the rest of the world, especially in our main export markets;

- the constraints connected with our membership in the EU, or to put it more explicitly, with economic growth restraining institutions and economic policies in the EU.
Of these, he continued, the second was more important and more harmful. One could and did adjust to the first but the EU with its growth-restraining institutions has become a real problem, especially as the gain that the Czech Republic may have had - the opening up of the markets - was achieved before membership.

(Of course, it could be argued that western markets would not have been opened but for the negotiations for membership but, as we have written many times before, that was going about it the wrong way. The EU could not envisage any relationship with the former Communist states but their membeship when the existing members were ready. This was not a particularly helpful and stabilizing attitude either for the old or the new members.)

Going on, President Klaus explained why he did not hold with the way European integration was progressing:
The past 50 years of the European integration have been usually considered to be a success, even if it is very difficult to statistically measure it or to prove it. We all know that there have been many other unique, unrepeatable historical as well as much more important evolutionary global factors which were influencing the economic (and not only economic) performance of the EU member countries at the same time. This is not very often explicitly discussed and recognized. All progress of that period is usually attributed to the existence of the EU.

What I consider important is the fact that the concept (or model) of European integration has been fundamentally changing over time. With the benefit of hindsight, and with the courage to generalize, I see two different integration models (or methods of integration) in Europe in the last 50 years.

The first one I call the liberalisation model. It was characterised by an inter-European opening-up, by the overall liberalisation of human activities, by the removal of various, in the past created barriers at the borders of countries as regards the movement of goods and services, of labour and capital, as well as of ideas and cultural patterns. Its main feature was the removal of barriers and its basis was intergovernmentalism.

The second one, which I call the interventionist and harmonisation model, is characterised by enormous centralisation of decision-making in Brussels, by far-reaching regulation of human activities, by harmonisation of all kinds of “parameters” of political, economic and social systems, by standardisation and homogenization of human life. The main features of the second model are regulation and harmonisation orchestrated from above, and the birth of supranationalism.

I am frustrated that the people in Europe do not see this fundamental metamorphosis sufficiently clearly and especially do not think about its inevitable consequences. I am angry with politicians and their fellow travellers that they do maximum to hide it and to make it fuzzy.

I am – as it is well known – in favour of the first model, not of the second. I am convinced that the unification of decision-making at the EU level and the overall harmonisation of societal “parameters” went much further than was necessary and than is rational and economically advantageous.

I consider it wrong. I am not satisfied with making only cosmetic changes. I am, therefore, in favour of redefining the whole concept of the European Union.

I suggest going back to the intergovernmental model of European integration. I suggest going back to the original concept of attempting to remove existing barriers among countries. I suggest going back to the consistent liberalisation and opening-up of markets (not only economic ones). I suggest minimising political intervention in human activities. Where this intervention is inevitable, it should be done close to the citizens (which means at the level of municipalities, regions and states), not in Brussels.

To summarize, I want freedom in Europe, not democratic deficit, I want democracy in Europe, not postdemocracy.
Read the whole speech. It is not long and well worth it.


Monday, May 28, 2007

Irish ayes

The Teflon Taoiseach is back with a third victory. Well, almost. Fianna Fail has 78 of the 166 seats and a coalition government will be formed after a certain amount of tough negotiation. Whether it will be any more stable than other coalition governments remains to be seen.

The results are interesting. Fine Gael has 51 seats, 18 up; the Labour Party has 20 and the Greens managed only 6, which is not altogether surprising in an election that was all about the economy. Sinn Fein has dropped from 5 to 4 seats, losing Dublin Central; the Progressive Democrats, the most likely partner in the coalition is down to 2 seats; and there are a few independents.

Fianna Fail’s victory has rather surprised the media and various commentators. Inevitably, one has to wonder whether there are any signs here for Britain.

At first sight, no. Irish politics is so different from British that no lessons could possibly be drawn. A similar turn to the two main parties would leave all others so far out in the cold that they would be forgotten till the next election.

In today’s Daily Telegraph, Dean Godson, whose knowledge of Irish and Ulster politics is among the best, says otherwise He thinks that there are certain lessons for British politicians to be drawn and they may not be the ones the Boy-King wants to hear as he enmires himself deeper and deeper in the schools row of his own making.

Some of Mr Godson’s points I am in agreement with. Others not so much. For instance he calls both hospitals and green issues “quality of life” ones. I know nothing about his private life but for most people medical care is of essence in life. So, if there were arguments about Irish hospitals they were presumably not as strong or as bitter as those in Britain.

Education, according to Mr Godson is not a “quality of life” but an economic issue, of huge significance to the aspiring middle class of Ireland. Can that be translated to the British situation? I think so, but I do not see which party could possibly garner support there.

Green issues, on the other hand, are usually “also rans” for most people unless the economy happens to be doing extraordinarily well. One has to assume that some of Mr Ahern’s popularity must rest on the fact that he has presided over the Irish growth, which is now spluttering a bit. Nevertheless, the voters might feel that the man could carry on as he did before.

Certainly, the alternatives, the left-wing socialist or green anti-growth parties did not manage to achieve the sort of result they were almost certain of.

Sinn Fein’s poor showing indicates that Ireland, despite past support and lip service still being paid to the idea of unification, would like to leave the problems of Northern Ireland somewhere else – Britain, as it happens.

This is rather a set-back for Mr Adams and makes that over-hasty agreement between him and the Rev. Ian Paisley pointless.

In the same way, as Mr Godson, points out:
Third, the reverses inflicted on assorted anti-American and single issue candidates, including those against US military landing rights at Shannon airport, were a sign that the voters want the State to play its full part in the international system - even in neutral Ireland.
Read the whole piece. It gives one furiously to think.


They're still trying

The European Air Transport Command (EATC) – the putative EU Air Force, agreed in principle by France and Germany in June 2001 – has acquired a new member, Holland, adding to the two original members plus Belgium, to make a group of four members.

The Netherlands Ministerie van Defensie signed up on 23 May, agreeing to the basis on their military transport aircraft should be pooled and how to manage the Command, which is based in Eindhoven in The Netherlands. However, the site, for the moment, will not become a central base.

According to Defense Industry Daily, the aircraft from the participating nations (mostly C-160 Transalls in France and Germany, plus some C-130H Hercules transports in Belgium & Holland) will continue to be stationed and maintained at their own air bases.

As presented, however, reports suggest that the command is newly formed but the operation was actually agreed in June 2001, initially as a European coordinating cell for air transport. It started operations in Eindhoven in June 2002 and Germany and France continued to pursue goal of European air transport command, as a model for other joint commands.

It was then relaunched after a Franc-German initiative in January 2003 and, on 1 July 2004, it became a European strategic air transport centre. The intention always was, therefore, that it would become a "European strategic air transport command" and the plan is that the Airbus A400M will become its key capability once that aircraft had come into service.

Three of the four countries now involved have ordered the A400M (France - 50, Germany - 60, Belgium - 7) and, says DID while the Dutch have made no firm decision on replacing their ageing C-130H-30s, their membership of the Command begins to weight the scales for that eventual decision.

And of course, DID adds, it also furthers the objective of creating a parallel EU military structure outside of Nato – which was the intention all along.


The news is out

According to Jane's Weekly (subscription only), the UK is to deploy a US-sourced counter-rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) system to protect UK forces in southern Iraq. This was announced by the magazine on 25 May, after the news had been "leaked" by a senior RAF officer at a defence conference in London.

It says a great deal for the "intelligence" on which the UK's premier defence journal relies that we published this same news on this blog on 30 April - nearly a month earlier – when it was also referred to by Tory MP Ann Winterton in her speech in Parliament.

From Jane's, however, we understand that the equipment is to be installed in Basra by the end of the month and, to meet the ambitious timetable, the C-RAM installations have been leased from the US, pending conversion of former Royal Naval equipment for more permanent installation.

This extremely welcome development is yet another indicator of the commitment of the British government to a continued presence in Iraq, forming as it does part of a growing package of measures designed to deal with the insurgency there.

Needless to say, this news has not been picked up by the MSM, most of which is still locked into the narrative that Gordon Brown is determined to speed up the timetable for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq.


Well, what a surprise!

Today's Daily Mail offers us the screaming headline: "Released foreign criminals set to flood Britain's streets".

This is how it describes the possible release of "up to 3,000 foreign criminals" into a population approaching 60 million - criminals, it says, who will be released from prison on to Britain's streets (after having served their sentences) without any attempt made to deport them.

The real issue, however, is the European Union, or more specifically, Directive 2004/38/EC "on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States", which came into force just over a year ago – an event we recorded on this blog.

In order to ensure compliance, an internal note has been sent to British probation staff, which the paper claims, says as few as 250 convicts from other European countries will face even preliminary deportation proceedings each year. The problem, according to the note, is the Directive, which prohibits member states from using serious crimes, or wanting to set a "deterrent" to other foreign nationals, as longer sufficient grounds for deportation.

Thus, the vast bulk of the estimated 3,300 European criminals released from jail each year - including burglars, thieves and muggers - will simply walk free.

Such is the Mail's grasp of EU issues, that even though this was discussed on this blog, over a year ago, the paper is able to declare that: "The revelation is a huge embarrassment to the Prime Minister and the man he charged with fixing the Home Office, John Reid."

In the wake of the foreign prisoner scandal last year, the paper tells us, Tony Blair promised: "It is now time that anybody who is convicted of an imprisonable offence and who is a foreign national is deported."

Instead of addressing the real issue, therefore, this is being dealt with in terms of personality politics. Shadow home secretary David Davis is cited, saying: "Yet again we see that the public will be put at risk as a direct result of John Reid's failure. He spun he had a deal to remove these offenders but the rhetoric has not matched the action."

Yet this is not Reid's "failure". It is an inevitable consequence of British membership of the European Union, this government acceptance of the Directive and Parliament's approval of it. That we cannot now deport any but a tiny fraction of offenders from other EU member states was and is an entirely predictable result.

But, as long as Boy Dave doesn't do "Europe", Davis can't possibly blame our membership of the EU. If he was in office, he would have to do exactly the same thing. Isn't that a surprise!


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Occupying the high ground

Not a week goes by now without some media speculation that Gordon Brown is poised to withdraw British forces from Iraq. First it was The Times, then – last week – it was The Sunday Telegraph and, this week, it is the turn of the Sunday Times defence correspondent, Mick Smith.

He is retailing the fears of unnamed (as usual) "senior army officers" that Gordon Brown is going to cut the number of troops in Iraq to such a low level that their effectiveness is jeopardised and lives are endangered. They say, or so Smith tells us, it is clear Brown is preparing to speed up the pull-out to draw a symbolic line under the Blair era.

Against such speculation, however, there are consistent denials from "sources close to Brown", but that would only be expected even if the intention to withdraw was firm policy.

On the other hand, what might be a more reliable pointer to Brown's intentions is the report from DefenseNews that the Army is about to take delivery of a "small number" of US-built fixed-wing surveillance aircraft.

These are King Air 350ER special mission aircraft (pictured), superbly well-equipped with electro-optical surveillance equipment, ground monitoring radar and a highly sophisticated communications package. They will replace the Army Air Corps Defender aircraft and, at an estimated £14 million each, represent a massive enhancement to Army aviation capabilities.

The point here, of course, is that these aircraft are primarily intended for deployment in (relatively) benign airspace, which means they are tools specifically designed for counter-insurgency operations. It stands to reason, therefore, that Brown – as chancellor – would hardly be authorising such expenditure if he intended to cut short Britain's deployment in Iraq.

Furthermore, the expenditure does not stop there. Rather than wait for the completion of the Watchkeeper UAV programme, not scheduled to begin deliveries until 2010, replacing the disastrous Phoenix UAV, the Army is deploying a new fleet of Elbit Systems' Hermes 450 tactical UAVs, purchased as an urgent operational requirement.

With the reported extension of the MPPV programme and other as yet unannounced equipment programmes, the indications are that the British government has been re-framing its procurement priorities and is showing a new commitment to fighting (and winning) its counter-insurgency campaigns.

Clearly unaware of this, The Times's Mick Smith records the woes of (another) unnamed officer, who complains that, "We are sitting ducks and have very little in the way of resources to react … If we mount an operation to deter a mortar attack it takes an entire battle group and ties up all our people … Any further reductions in numbers would leave British troops hanging onto Basra by our finger tips".

Smith believes that this danger has been illustrated this weekend by continuing battles between British forces and fighters from the Mahdi army militia. These follow reports that British and Iraqi forces killed the Basra commander of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army on Friday, after al-Sadr made a re-appearance in Iraq the same day.

But our man neglects two things. Firstly, the initial action was carried out jointly between British and Iraqi forces – with the British acting as "advisors". This would seem to confirm the growing confidence and capability of the Iraqi 10th Division, reducing the need for the direct involvement of large numbers of British troops.

Secondly, while, in the past, it has been necessary to field full battle groups to carry out even quite minor operations - such as the extraordinary operation last December, where tanks, armoured vehicles and 1000 men were deployed to capture five "terrorist leaders", these operations have been conducted without the high-tech capability that is now becoming available.

With better real-time intelligence and the other equipment that is coming on stream, and the support of the 10th Division, such mass raids – never desirable for the message they send out – will be less necessary than they were. The Army will, at last, have acquired the capability to fight "smarter".

From a political stance, this is going to have even more interesting implications. The Conservatives, to date, have relied entirely on their mantras, "overstretch" and "under-resourcing", to focus their attack on the government. But, with none of the current programmes officially announced, Brown, on assuming office as prime minister, is going to be able to unveil a significant increase in defence spending – all of it off-budget, representing real money – and a significant enhancement in capabilities.

Unless they are more astute than they have so far been, it looks as if the Opposition is going to be wrong-footed, leaving Brown occupying the political high ground on an issue which has, traditionally, been occupied by the Conservatives.


Decommissioning costs

Operators of Britain's proposed new nuclear power plants will be required to make regular payments into a fund that will meet future waste-treatment and decommissioning costs, or so The Sunday Times tells us.

The paper adds that detailed plans for the fund are being drawn up by the Department of Trade and Industry and its advisers, and are expected to be concluded before the end of the year.

In the interests of fairness, however, will the owners of wind factories also be required to set up a decommissioning fund for when the bubble bursts and people realise that these monstrous machines are a total waste of space?

After all, there are the costs of removing the huge turbines, of excavating the massive concrete foundations and making good, of removing the access roads (example pictured) and the surplus power transmission lines.

Of course the foundations could be left in place, for some future archaeologist to puzzle over, possibly postulating that they are the remnants of shrines built by some weird religious cult – this being the only explanation for their random and inexplicable distribution.

He won't be far wrong.


What a mess

Those who supported the people of Ukraine in their desire to have free and fair elections are now deeply disappointed. Those, on the other hand, who pronounced that Russia has every right to impose its nominee as president, by whatever means it sees fit, are rejoicing.

The situation is messy. From various sources, some Russian some English one can gather the following scenario.

In Kiev (for some reason everyone has gone back to the Russian rather than Ukrainian spelling) there were meetings of Yanukovich supporters. The two rivals for power, President Yuschenko and Prime Minister Yanukovich met to negotiate yesterday and that led to nothing. They were supposed to meet again today and eventually did so, two hours after they were supposed to. The outcome of those talks remains unknown.

Meanwhile, there is the saga of the Ministry of Interior troops, taken over by President Yushchenko because the Ministry itself is loyal to Yanukovich. Today he ordered them to march from various sub-regions to Kiev, though it was hastily announced that they would not be armed.

The sacked Prosecutor-General and the Ministry spokesman described the march as illegal and unnecessary, adding that there was no trouble in Kiev and the troops, with or without arms, were not needed there.

The latest news seems to be that the troops have been stopped before they entered Kiev. That, of course, still leaves open the question of the troops that are actually stationed in the capital. Were they marching anywhere in particular?

Meanwhile, as predicted here, Javier Solana, the Lord High Executioner of the common foreign policy, has been flapping. According to the BBC Russian Service, Prime Minister Yanukovich telephoned him yesterday and Solana expressed the view that force must not be used to sort out the crisis. Also, he added, there should be a reform of the electoral system to ensure that the parliamentary elections are conducted in a transparent fashion. Does he know something the rest of us do not yet or is he simply recycling his statements from the last big crisis?


And why would that be?

We are told by The Sunday Telegraph that senior government officials are secretly planning to kill off the crisis-ridden Home Information Packs (HIPs). The only part of the accident-prone scheme expected to survive the cull, the paper says, is the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), a document detailing a property's energy efficiency.

We wonder why that is. The Telegraph doesn't tell us.... although Christopher Booker does.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Fighting goes on in Lebanon

The BBC, as we know, has its own way of gauging what is important news. Thus in the section on the Middle East they lead on renewed Israeli strikes on Hamas:
About 40 people have now died in 10 days of Israeli bombings in Gaza, which Israel says is aimed at stopping rocket attacks on its territory by militants.
Militants? Oh well, let it pass. But I cannot imagine why the Israelis should say that.

To be fair, some way down the article there is a mention of the rocket attacks (somehow the word ‘relentless’ so much loved by our journalists when it is Israel doing the attacking gets forgotten) on Sderot and other places. It is mentioned that the Palestinian attacks were all on civilians and the Israelis are targeting those famous militants.

Only then do we get to the Lebanese story, which is of some importance, with the curious title of “New US military aid for Lebanon”. Then again, the Guardian does not even begin to hide its feelings on the subject, entitling the article “Lebanon defends military aid from US”. I wish I could understand how these people’s minds work. Is it that they hate America so much that anyone who is helped by the Americans becomes a bad guy, unless the help can be hidden from the readers, or is it that they feel so much for the Palestinian militants that they cannot stand the thought of anyone hurting them? If the latter then the Guardianistas and Beeboids must live in a terribly painful world.

There is, indeed, military aid going in from the United States but, according to Mehrnews, this was promised some time ago and rushed in faster to aid the Lebanese army against those pesky militants.

According to the same source, the Lebanese army is not only digging in around Nahr al-Bared but is conducting door to door searches in Tripoli to ensure that any militant that had managed to slip out of the refugee camp (a somewhat solid establishment, as one of our readers has pointed out), does not hide in that city. As I pointed out before the Palestinians are unlikely to be welcome in Tripoli for long.

Meanwhile Hezbollah leader, Hassan Sayyed Nasrallah, has been warning everyone. He warned the Americans not to intervene in Lebanon because that will turn the country into a US – Al Qaeda battlefield (as opposed to what we have now, a Lebanese – Al Qaeda battlefield).

He warned the Lebanese army not to storm the camp because that will make everybody unhappy.
“Do you want to turn Lebanon into a scene of clashes between the U.S. and Al-Qaeda?” asked the Hezbollah leader in an address to the Siniora government, which is dominated by members of the March 14 group.

Nasrallah said the Fatah al-Islam group has acknowledged its ideological proximity with the Al-Qaeda network.

“Do we want to engage in clashes with Al-Qaeda in Lebanon so that members of this network enter our country from across the world to fight the U.S.?”

He said resorting to military force for settling the Fatah al-Islam crisis can jeopardize the destiny of the Lebanese army.

Warning that storming the Nahr al-Bared camp would be very dangerous and would harm Lebanon, he said, “I declare that Nahr al-Bared camp and civilians and Palestinian groups are all red lines.”

He criticized those who are in favor of ordering the army to enter the camp.

“This act would lead to the victimization of the army, and the Palestinian and Lebanese people,” said the cleric in a message broadcast on Al-Menar TV.
But, he emphasized, he was not supporting Fatah al-Islam. He just didn’t anyone to pick on them, one assumes. According to the BBC report, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora saw it differently and accused Sheikh Nasrallah of effectively supporting the militant grouping (perhaps we can call them insurrectionists quite soon).

Mr Siniora described the alternatives:
Either they surrender themselves to Lebanese justice... or else the Lebanese authorities will be forced to take the decision to let the army deal with this matter.
Not much opportunity for Nasrallah’s political solution there. Mind you one wonders whether Mr Siniora meant this comment:
In short, it's almost... as if that amounts to justifying the [Islamic militant] Fatah al-Islam movement. Islam itself is innocent of that. And the Palestinian cause is also innocent of that.
Hmmm. Mr Siniora, undoubtedly knows that the Palestinian cause is littered with movements like Fatah al-Islam and saturated with a great deal of bloodshed, often in clashes with brother Arabs.

The UN and its agency UNICEF are calling for protection of civilians trapped in the camp:
"An estimated 10,000 civilians remain in the embattled camp with only sporadic humanitarian support during very brief ceasefire periods," said Unicef, the UN children's agency.

"Children living in Nahr al-Bared have been through unspeakable trauma," it added.

"Already living in a refugee situation, they have witnessed their homes being destroyed, loved ones being killed or injured, and were trapped in their homes hearing the terrifying sounds of gunfire around them."
This is undoubtedly true but one does wonder why the UN and its other agency UNRWA has been so active keeping those refugee camps going, preventing generations of Palestinians from establishing themselves outside them and why did they not raise the alarm when heavily armed “militants” entered the camp.

As I was writing this, the not entirely unexpected news came through that fighting has again broken out in Nahr al-Bared. Another cease-fire bites the dust.


The Saturday "toy"

The "toy" today is a Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, but it comes with a message. When, last week, Tory backbench MP Ann Winterton got her answer on the cost of operating the RAF's Merlin helicopters - a staggering £34,000 per hour – she also got an answer to her question about the operating costs of British Army Challenger tanks.

The question was actually framed in terms of operating these machines in Iraq but the defence minister, Adam Ingram, professed not to know this and instead offered the full capitation cost for the tank based on peacetime usage. This is calculated as £496.15 per kilometre which, in real money, works out at £793.84 per mile. Rounded up, you can call that £800 mile but, given the aggressive environment in Iraq, the real operating cost over there is probably well over £1,000 per mile – and that excludes crew costs.

The question goes to the heart of the debate we have been having on this blog and the one raised by Ann Winterton in her speech in Westminster Hall on 1 May – value for money in defence spending and the need to get more capacity for our expenditure.

What is remarkable, if unsurprising – as we noted at the time – was how the speech was completely ignored by the chattering classes in the media and by the political clever-dicks whose participation in the defence debate amounts to little more than braying the mantras, "overstretch" and "under-resourcing" while, in the Tory domain, noticeably failing to commit a future Conservative government to additional defence spending – not that more money would necessarily be a solution.

On the other hand, what has been surprising – and gratifying – is that the Winterton speech has tapped in to a debate that has been going on, off piste, so to speak, with some intensity, smoking out "players" of remarkable diversity and experience. All have been saying more or less the same thing as Winterton, expressing the same frustration that their message is not being heard.

This further points to the vapidity of the contemporary political discourse, where the "above the line" politicos and their wannabe groupies chatter and preen themselves over their own brilliance – and the media blather about their fatuous goings-on – while serious issues, of real importance, are completely ignored. Rather than participate in such debates, the chattering classes do not even know they are going on.

Turning to the specific issue of this hugely expensive "toy", we have questioned before whether a 65-ton juggernaut of this nature is the right weapon for dealing with a predominately urban-centred insurgency or whether, for most roles, cheaper vehicles might not only suffice but actually do a better job.

This is not a question that can be answered here. The point at issue is that questions such as these should be asked, and the answers should be debated openly, from which better understanding may emerge.

That should apply to the broad sweep of politics and dealing public expenditure. Rather that the top-down, airy statements about the necessity or otherwise of government spending, and the need for more or less of it, real value most often is achieved from bottom-up evaluation. Highly focused questions about the need for and efficacy of different systems, products and programmes can often yield answers which evade the head-in-the-cloud theorists and self-absorbed politicians.

Thus, the process that applies to an evaluation of the role of (and value of deploying) a Challenger tank could – and should – apply equally to NHS spending. Any remotely intelligent worker within the state hospital system could readily point to major areas of savings and it is undoubtedly the case that billions could be saved by tackling the bloated and grossly inefficient NHS procurement system – with no reduction in clinical services provided.

Much the same could be said of the approach to the European Union. As we pointed out in our earlier piece, this construct is popular with our ruling classes because it provides a valuable – and valued – service. Yet, if the costs of what it does provide, and efficacy with which it delivers, were subject to bottom-up scrutiny, it would quickly become evident that there were better and cheaper ways of doing things.

I once tried to explain this approach to a Tory Party policy guru – now a "respected" MP – only to be met with a stare of blank incomprehension and growing impatience.

That does much to explain the policy vacuum within the Conservative Party for, to achieve lasting and effective change, you have to understand the systems you are dealing with, and ask the right questions. But command of detail has never been the forte of our current generation of "leaders", who prefer the sound-bite and clever rhetoric to the discipline of careful analysis.

Thus it is that the world is divided: the "above the line" universe of our gifted rulers and their acolytes, and those of us down in the weeds who are asking questions like: how much does it cost to run a Challenger tank?


Neutralised and emasculated

VAT fraud cost the UK Treasury £4.75bn in 2005-06 and is estimated to be worth €250bn (£170bn) annually across the EU as a whole, says a House of Lords Committee Report. These are such staggering figures that they defy human comprehension.

Those who are old enough, however, will remember the Great Train Robbery - committed on 8 August 1963. A cool £2.3 million was stolen - £40 million in today's money – and the publicity was huge, reaching down even to the present, where the crime is part of our national folklore.

By comparison, just the UK losses to VAT fraud in 2005-6 amounted to the equivalent of 120 great train robberies, or one every three days. You have to say it again, for the enormity to sink in: VAT fraud was equivalent a great train robbery every three days. At a European level, that number soars to a colossal 11 per day.

For sure, more recently, the UK government has got to grips with some of the more obvious scams – involving computer chips and mobile telephones – through increased enforcement and tightening procedures. And it has done deals with the EU to change the part of the system applicable to chips and telephones – which we covered here and here.

But the House of Lords argues that these measures are unsustainable. Simply carrying out the checks involves about 1,500 staff, at a cost of £95m a year, with some supply chains under scrutiny involving up to 600 companies. And it carries the danger of withholding money from legitimate, smaller, importers and traders, possibly pushing some to the brink of bankruptcy.

Furthermore, the peers warn that the system change will simply shift the fraud from goods like mobile phones to others instead - such as cosmetics, precious metals, and computer software. Thus the fraud "will continue to migrate and mutate."

The only way we can get to grips with this fraud, therefore, is to change the VAT system and that – as even the Committee acknowledges – is not going to happen. It is an EU tax, it requires unanimity to change, and the majority of member states are against any fundamental changes.

So, we must continue to suffer the depredations of (largely) organised criminals, who will continue to rip off taxpayers (us) to the tune of billions each year. And because, politically, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, the media will note it as a curiosity (those that bother to report it) and go back to sleep while, from the Opposition, we will hear nothing.

That is the level to which we have been driven by our membership of the EU. Neutralised and emasculated, we can only tut-tut and shake our heads in dismay. It is truly bizarre.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Fun and games in Ukraine

The row between President Yushchenko (pictured) and Prime Minister Yanukovich in Ukraine is going on relentlessly with the people of Ukraine occasionally taking part in it.

The election called by President Yushchenko on dissolving the parliament in April and theoretically agreed to by Prime Minister Yanukovich, have now been put back to June 24 after protests by thousands from both sides of the political divide.

President Yushchenko has sacked the Prosecutor General, Svyatoslav Piskun, according to him because Mr Piskun refused to resign from his parliamentary seat as he was supposed to and according to Mr Piskun because he refused to take action against three Constitutional Court judges.

Then, Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko, ordered the troops of the Interior Minsitry to seize control of the sacked Mr Piskun's office, an act that President Yushchenko has condemned as illegal. To prevent further illegality of this kind he has announced that those Interior Ministry troops will now be under his command, though it would appear that there are certain legal and constitutional problems with that.

The question is, should the European Union, which is a "value based organization" as it was explained to me in Oxford yesterday evening, make some kind of a comment or statement on this extraordinary sequence of events? Whatever happened to the common foreign policy, whose purpose is to spread peace and happiness, as well as motherhood and apple-pie around the world? What is its attitude to a country on the EU's border?