Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Media: the other side of the coin

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While there may be reasons why the media isn't telling us things, it is as well to ponder about the other side of the coin - why it is telling us the things it does. And leaping into that category is the news about "Bopris" (as the Mail happily misspells him in one of its captions) fathering a previously secret "love child" (aka bastard).

What is interesting about this piece of news is the extent to which Mr Johnson sought to conceal it, and the effort which the Mail sought to publish it, defending a case in the High Court and then fighting a case in the Appeal Court.

In this latter case, the findings of Master of the Rolls Lord Justice Dyson are pretty damning, the judge effectively ruling that the public has a right to know about Boris Johnson's philandering past, which takes precedence in this instance when "weighed in the balance against the child's expectation of privacy".

The disclosure, however, is more that just a news story. From last year when Mr Johnson was the darling of the media and being widely slated as the next Conservative prime minister, possibly deposing the incumbent, this amounts to a signal that his bid for the leadership is over.

Even the Telegraph Media Group Ltd, which must have been aware of its employee's behaviour, but so far kept silent, has been forced to out its employee.

And, with the outing, it may well be that Mr Johnson's utility as an over-paid columnist is numbered. Certainly, to some of the business's customers, his attraction will be reduced and – as anIndependent poll indicates – to a measurable extent.

But what is also very interesting is Mr Johnson suddenly became so popular – especially as this is a man with few demonstrable leadership skills who handled the August riots badly, and who has none of the political experience that would be required of a prime ministerial candidate. Not only is he not, currently, an MP. He has no ministerial much less cabinet experience.

One suspects here that Johnson found so much favour with the media for the same reason that Mr Farage is so much in vogue – he was a useful stick with which to beat David Cameron. And, if that is the case, now that Mr Farage has so willingly stepped up to the plate, the London Mayor is redundant.

There, possibly, is the real agenda behind today's news. For you, Meester Johnson, ze varr ees over. And you read it first in the Daily Mail.


Media: you read what you are allowed to read


One of our number remarked recently on the absence of any mention of Article 50 from the broad sweep of the legacy media. A quick search proved that to be the case.

Autonomous Mind coincidentally notes the role of Article 50 as an antidote to FUD, the latter from the Goldman Sachs stable. Its report author was careful to avoid any reference to the potential of the Article to enable an equitable settlement to be negotiated, in circumstances which must be deliberate. 

One wonders, though, whether the general absence of comment in the media represents active censorship, which is turn invites dark thoughts of conspiracy between media bosses. 

Before these thoughts are dismissed outright, the emergence of yesterday's piece from Booker provides more than adequate testimony that pieces which contradict the editorial line do get spiked. Active censorship is a fact of life in the media, and everything you read is filtered through the system of editorial approval. 

So it was in the early days of UKIP in the European Parliament, where we found that stories submitted by journalists which mentioned UKIP were edited, and any reference to the party was removed. 

As a result, self-censorship took over. Not uncommonly, journalists would remove quotes attributed to Farage or one other of our MEPs, and similar quotes substituted, bearing the names of Tory MEPs. Daniel Hannan, himself a Tory MEP and then a leader writer for the Telegraph Media Group Ltd, was particularly prone to this, something for which I have never really forgiven him. 

This does remind us though that the current wave of publicity afforded to Farage and his party is neither accidental nor spontaneous. He gets publicity at the pleasure of the media barons - because they permit it. The moment that permission is withdrawn, Farage will disappear into the obscurity from which he emerged. 

That further raises the question as to why Farage is getting such a volume of (largely) favourable publicity, especially as the corporate businesses that run the major newspapers do not share his values or objectives. With the possible exception of the Express none want to withdraw from the EU. Given the opportunity, all will support any renegotiation concluded by Mr Cameron or his successor, no matter how weak it might be. 

An obvious conclusion to draw from this is that Farage, and thereby his members, are being used. Senior Tory members are convinced that he is a convenient stick with which to beat Mr Cameron, who has – for several and different reasons – fallen out of favour with the media barons and their corporate interests. 

Should Cameron at some time rebuild his bridges, or a more acceptable replacement be put in place, Farage will be ditched, leaving UKIP members in the wilderness. At the moment, journalists are being allowed to play, but the moment business gets serious – round about general election time – the teachers will rap the table, and the children will be brought back into line. 

That gives the clue to the treatment of Article 50. On the face of it, invoking the Article, seeking EFTA/EEA membership, and repatriating the acquis offers a sensible, temperate solution to withdrawing from the EU. It minimises any collateral damage and allows trade to continue uninterrupted, without loss. 

And that, of course, is the last thing that the corporates - which include the media interests -actually want. They do not want a solution to the problem, otherwise people might agitate for it, and we could end up actually confronting a successful withdrawal. Thus, they will publicise Farage, under license, but not Article 50. 

Through this dynamic we get the surreal situation where the self-appointed "expert" from Open Europe manages to write a long piece about leaving the EU, without mentioning Article 50 once. It is raised only in the comments by a reader.

The point to emerge from all this is the reminder that we are very far from enjoying a free press in this country. Anything of political significance that you are able to read in the print media is there only because someone decided you should be allowed to read it. 

There may be exceptions, but these only go to prove the rule. A few licensed dissidents – such as Booker - are allowed. They are treated with benign amusement, and kept on because they have high page traffic. But they are kept firmly in the "ghetto" and not allowed to play with the rest of the girls and boys. 

Sadly, though, people – the dwindling band that continue to read newspapers and believe what they say – actually believe that they are well-informed after they have expended so much of their life-energy reading the tat they are permitted to see. 

But they should never forget that most censorship comes not from governments but from the media itself. They have the power to dictate the agendas and they are not at all reticent in using that power. You read only what you are allowed to read. 


EU referendum: a common vision

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The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs, it says here, is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

That was written a while ago, but it may give some hint to the fact that this blood-sucking parasite it not universally adored. And it may, therefore, be a mixed blessing for the europhiles to have it reporting that a British departure from the EU would result in a "loss/loss scenario" in which both the UK and the rest of the bloc would be damaged. 

The report is from Kevin Daly, a member of the investment bank's economic team, and it says that a UK exit would "come with a significant economic cost to the UK" because it is "highly integrated" with the EU. 

Crucially, Daly then dismisses those who argue that Britain could negotiate a trade deal with the EU once it had left. "Given the size and importance of the UK economy, it is unlikely that the UK could negotiate the same access to the EU single market that Switzerland and Norway have achieved", he says. 

Now, that Mr Daly so carefully refers to Britain negotiating a trade deal with the EU "once it had left" cannot be an accident. It must be done for effect, especially as Article 50 refers to negotiationsbefore a withdrawing country leaves. 

Assuming that the default position of any responsible government would be to invoke Article 50, Goldman Sachs is therefore engineering a scenario which is both extreme and highly pessimistic - and not provided for in the Treaty. And, without it offering a range of scenarios, this can only mean that the bank is talking a partisan and therefore worthless line. 

The thing is, of course, is that the UK could opt for membership of the EEA via EFTA, and for repatriating the entire aquis. This may not be acceptable to the "unilat" fundamentalists of UKIP, who are singing from the same songsheet as Goldman Sachs, but it is a tenable option and one espoused by at least one British cabinet minister. 

But then, Goldman Sachs could not possibly consider this scenario if it is to stand up its headline finding that the UK leaving the EU would be a "loss/loss scenario". And, for a company that works hand in glove with the European Commission, this is the only conclusion that its employees would be permitted to draw. 

It was, after all, Goldman Sachs alumni, Mario Monti who took over the governance of Italy at the behest of the Commission, it was Goldman Sachs who cooked the accounts to allow Greece to join the euro, and it was then Goldman Sachs people who engineered the Greek "bailout" and the haircuts which tipped the country into the depression. 

That such an eminently untrustworthy organisation thus reports adversely on the UK exiting from the EU is, therefore, no bad thing. But how fascinating it is that both Goldman Sachs and the UKIP fundamentalists share a common vision of how the UK will manage its departure. 


Monday, May 20, 2013

Media: Booker uncensored

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As the pages of the Telegraph and the Mail are swamped with pieces about the ongoing crisis at the heart of the Tory Party, the ever widening rift between David Cameron and his grass roots, it may be germane to recall a curious episode back in December 2006, a year after Cameron became the Tory leader. 

On the Friday of that week, as usual, Christopher Booker submitted his column for the Sunday Telegraph, including a lengthy item analysing why it was already clear that what he called "the greatest gamble in modern British politics" had not come off. 

This was Mr Cameron's attempt to turn the Tories into a "Not The Conservative Party", contradicting pretty well every principle the Tory grass roots believed in. 

On the Saturday afternoon, just when the paper was due to go to press, he received an incandescent call from his then-editor, Patience Wheatcroft. There was no way she could allow such a piece to appear in her paper. That week's Booker column would have to appear in absurdly truncated form. 

This little incident briefly caused a flutter of interest behind the journalistic scenes, prompting some mischievous observer to post entries for Wheatcroft and Booker on Wikipedia, describing what had happened, But these before long disappeared, Ms Wheatcroft herself did not last much longer as editor, her successors never censored Booker in such a way again, and history rolled on. 

Six and a half years later, however, as the rift between Cameron and the Tory grass roots, contemptuously dismissed by his party chairman as "mad, swivel-eyed loons", makes front-page headlines - with Nigel Farage taking out a full-page advertisement in the Daily Telegraph inviting disaffected Tories to come over to UKIP en masse - those words which Telegraph readers were never allowed to see now seem even more apt than they might have done at the time, 

This was what Booker wrote:
David Cameron ends his first year as leader of the Opposition, there are clear signs that the greatest gamble in modern British politics has not come off. The little group of ex-public schoolboys who last year hi-jacked the Conservative Party have seemed to gamble on just one strategy. List everything the Party used to stand for – low taxes, the family, rolling back the power of the state, encouraging business, upholding our defences, curbing criminals, common sense – then go for the opposite.

The essence of the gamble has been the belief that, in wooing the support of Lib Dems, would-be greenies, Guardian readers and the supposed "soft centre", they could take their supposed "core" supporters for granted. But as support for Cameron falters, all the evidence seems to suggest that those wished-for new recruits to his "Not The Conservative Party" are not forthcoming, while the Party's former natural supporters are left baffled, dismayed and increasingly angry.

All this was neatly symbolised by the recent photo-opportunities staged by the three men now competing for the role of Britain's prime minister. Mr Blair and Mr Brown, aware that defence and national security (not long ago rating 34 percent on a Mori poll) still rank very much higher as voter priorities than "environmental" issues (only eight percent), flew out to the Iraq and Afghan battle-zones to pose in front of the largest guns they could find. Mr Cameron, at the same time, flew out to the Sudan, in Lord Ashcroft's CO2 emitting private jet, to be pictured cuddling a little refugee child. It was the "Men from Mars" against "the Boy from Venus". "Darfur Dave" did not come well out of the contrast.

The tragedy is that, confronted by the most corrupt, hypocritical, inefficient, illiberal, discredited government in history, what millions of voters are looking for is an alternative which might put an end to the sleazy, self-regarding sham of the Blair era by displaying some "masculine" firmness: in cutting back on the bloated public sector and the out-of-control bureaucracy which is destroying our health service, education and police; which might encourage enterprise; which might restore democracy to local government; bring back some balance into our public finances; sort out the shambles into which our Armed Forces are sliding; uphold Britain's national interest, as we suffocate under the malfunctioning system of government represented by the European Union.

In other words, what much of the country is crying out for is a party which represents precisely those values which Mr Cameron's Not-The-Conservative Party seems so hellbent on abandoning. As for what he stands for instead, almost the only clear message Darfur Dave seems to have put over to the voters is his sentimental "save the planet" greenery, on which his dotty little gimmicks and practical ignorance have simply made him a laughing stock.

What many voters sadly begin to conclude is that Dave and his cronies seem so hopelessly ill-equipped to take on the serious business of government that, if we have to choose between one gang of PR merchants and another, better stick with the devil we know. Hence the evidence of the latest polls appearing to show that the gamble has failed. Ever larger become the number of would-be Conservatives sorely tempted to join that 40 percent who already feel so alienated from politics that they just stay sullenly at home. But the Guardian readers are scarcely flocking to replace them. So where does all this leave our country?
And that was more than six years ago. Even more so now than then, we are asking the same question. As the Conservatives go into complete meltdown, where does all this leave our country? 


EU referendum: none of your business

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The europhile Independent wants us to believe that economics is more important than politics, giving a group of self-interested corporates license to peddle this lie in a letter to the paper, with front-page treatment afforded in this and the sister "I" publication.

It is in the latter paper that the lie is at its most prominent, the front-page legend (illustrated above) having it that, "Leaving the EU would cause economic disaster". And an egregious lie it is. Given our exit scenario, where we maintain the Single Market through membership of the EFTA/EEA, and then repatriate the acquis, the net effect of our withdrawal from the EU is economically neutral. 

For sure, we lose some of our influence in the decision-making on the EU's versions of the rules for the Single Market, but this is largely compensated for by our regaining our influence on international bodies such as the WTO, UNECE, etc., from where most of the rules originate in the first place. 

What these corporate pirates are doing, though, is conflating membership of the Single Market with membership of the EU. The very last thing this dishonest crew wants to do is admit that we can be members of the Single Market without belonging to the EU. 

In peddling their lie, however, the corporates are aided and abetted by the "unilats" – the eurosceptic groupuscules who are wedded to the idea of unilateral withdrawal. These people are intent on precipitating exactly the economic disaster of which the corporates are now warning. 

Nevertheless, the corporates have over-reached themselves. In complaining about eurosceptic MPs putting "politics before economics", they are placing their interests above those of the people. The EU is a political construct, and the argument over withdrawal is political. It is not about economics. It is about who governs Britain. 

In this, elected MPs are perfectly right to put politics before economics. It is totally out of order for former VAT fraudsters like Branson to suggest otherwise. Business has every right to expect that its interests are taken account of, but when it comes to how we are governed, that is none of their business. 

We the people must make that decision, and without the interference of the self-interested corporates, represented by the chairmen of BT, Deloitte, Lloyds, Centrica and others, who, when push comes to shove, are only interested in lining their own pockets at our expense. 


EU referendum: hostages to fortune

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Former EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson was in full flow on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday. But what he said was of very little importance in the greater scheme of events, any more than anyone really gives a damn about what "dead sheep" Lord Howe has said.

What might stick, though, is Mandelson's jibe about UKIP whom he called the "UK Isolation Party". That is just the sort of snide slur that can gain a certain currency, and it struck me at the time that it was far from spontaneous. This has been worked on by Mandelson and his little friends, all part of the classic technique of denigrating the opposition. 

If it does stick, though, it will be because there is a grain of truth in it. One just has to look at the comment threads on the online Booker columns, and other threads on EU-related issues. Very visible and voluble are the self-identified UKIP members who demonstrate by their comments that their only interest is immediate withdrawal from the EU, whatever the cost, and whatever the damage caused. 

This we also see on our own forum, the relentless advocates of unilateral withdrawal who are so obsessed with leaving that they would destroy any chance of a negotiated settlement and cause endless damage to British business and other national interests. 

What these people don't seem to realise, though, is that our withdrawal will almost certainly depend on us winning a referendum. And it is there, where the vote is soft that we will be relying not on the politically committed, but on the swing voter, who will have no settled view on the EU issue. 

What people also need to realise is that political engagement is a minority occupation. Only a tiny and diminishing band of people follow politics. The "mainstream" media is in fact purveying a minority view, and the bulk of people who get their news only from television rarely give the bulletins their full attention. 

Yet, it is these people upon whom will be relying to get us out of the EU. They are people we haven't spoken to yet. These are people who don't read the comments (thank goodness) and who don't read the blogs. Many of them don't even vote in most elections. 

But it is these people who will be most affected by the scare tactics of the europhiles, and the claims of people like Mandleson, who revel in claims that we are isolationists and "little Englanders". And they will be given plenty of opportunities by the BBC and the legacy media to make their points. 

Then, it will we our own rabid, swivel-eyed loonies, foaming at the mouth about "traitors" and "illegal treaties", German domination and all the rest, who let us down. 

Their squealing for immediate repeal of the European Communities Act, regardless of the damage caused, will seem to confirm the slurs from the Mandelsons of this world, giving their claims credibility as they seek to tar us all with the same brush. 

Thus, as eurosceptics, we need to be thinking hard, not only about our arguments, but how they play with the politically uncommitted. What might sound good to the faithful, or stack up the "recommends" on the comment threads, are not necessarily the arguments that are going to convince the swing voters. 

To do that, we are going to have to be careful what we say, and compromise. What many committed eurosceptics could end up doing, in promoting their preferred courses of action, is alienating – or frightening - ordinary people to such an extent that we end up losing a referendum. 

As it stands, it is going to be difficult enough to win. There is no need to make it impossible. 


Sunday, May 19, 2013

EU referendum: disturbing stability in the polls

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The Telegraph Media Group Ltd is citing an ICM poll today which has 46 percent of respondents saying they want to leave the EU, as opposed to the 30 percent who want to remain – giving a 16 point margin in favour of withdrawal.

In the Independent on Sunday we have the results of a ComRes poll and it also puts the number wanting to leave at 46 percent, as opposed to 25 percent who want to stay in. That gives us a slightly healthier margin of 21 percent. 

However, this poll also tells us that voters would back remaining in the EU by a margin of 43 to 24 percent if some (unspecified) powers were returned to the UK, a finding which is very similar to the June 2012 YouGuv survey which found that people would elect to stay in the EU by a margin of 42 to 34 percent. 

Taking that last finding, on the face of it, the margin for staying in the EU following renegotiation has strengthened from eight percent just over a year ago, to 19 percent currently, in what could be considered a boost for Mr Cameron. 

But the main findings are nothing to write home about either. The 16-point ICM margin compares unfavourably with the Mail on Sunday poll last October, which gave a 17-point lead to the "outers". But, when the YouGov poll in July 2012 also gave the "outers" a lead of exactly the same 17 points, one can conclude that sentiment is not moving a great deal. 

One can take greater comfort from the ComRes poll and its 21 percent margin, but that would only represent a four-point shift in a year which has seen an upsurge in support for UKIP and a supposed strengthening of anti-EU sentiment. 

Here, we have to remind ourselves – as always – of the private poll conducted for the Labour Party in August 1974, which showed that, should there be a referendum on membership of the Common Market, 50 percent would vote to leave, against 32 percent who would vote to stay in, a "huge" lead of 18 points. 

At around the same time, Gallup confirmed these proportions, with a poll coming out at 47-30 percent in favour of leaving, giving a lead of 17 percent, almost exactly the same as the ICM poll. And, as we well know, nearly a year later in 1975, 67.2 percent voted to stay in the EEC, while those voting to leave had fallen to 32.8 percent – a lead of over 34 percent in favour of staying in, representing a swing of over fifty percent. 

What is puzzling about the current findings is the stability of anti-EU sentiment. In broad terms, it has hardly moved in years and seems largely resistant to the ebb and flow of the debate on the EU. And, if we are to take the historical precedent, the level of support for withdrawal is by no means enough to ensure a victory in any coming referendum. 

Patrick Hennessy in the Telegraph ventures the opinion that 44 percent wanting an immediate referendum – as opposed to 29 percent prepared to wait until 2017 – represents a "further boost for the eurosceptic cause", but on current showing, we would most certainly lose an early referendum. 

The most disturbing thing, though – given the lack of movement in the polls and the favourable response to the suggestion of renegotiation – is that we might lose a referendum in 2017 as well. 

We can only hope that the opinion dynamics might change when a referendum is declared. But, if they don't, it could be too late to find out why and affect significantly the course of public opinion. Anyone truly interested in getting out of the EU, therefore, might feel some alarm at these figures, and be looking for stratagems which might improve future odds. 


Booker: we can't have our cake and eat it in the EU

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How symbolic it was, writes Booker, that just when those 114 Tory MPs were voting to deplore the omission from the Queen’s Speech of any mention of an in/out referendum on the EU, the EU's finance ministers in Brussels were voting for UK taxpayers to give another £770 million to this year's agreed EU budget, with a further £400 million to follow.

George Osborne had gone over to Brussels determined to resist this additional demand, but was derisively outvoted. UK taxpayers must therefore fork out a further £1.2 billion, making a mockery of that ancient and jealously guarded rule that money can only be taken off them by agreement of the House of Commons. 

The previous week, our Government, in the Queen's Speech, could only scrape together proposals for a mere twenty new Bills, when not long ago Parliament could regularly pass up to 200 Bills in a session. 

But this is because so much of our lawmaking has now been outsourced to our real government in Brussels (the European Parliament website lists over 1,300 "legislative acts" being considered in its current session). The MPs we elect to Westminster have no more control over that than they do over the EU's decision to filch another £1 billion of our money. 

A measure of just how far the power has drained from our emasculated Westminster Parliament is the sight of our politicians now resentfully stumbling around in a fog, arguing one way or another about some possible referendum, without really grasping any of the realities of the situation in which we now find ourselves. We see them falling into three main groups. 

The first includes all those unreconstructed Europhiles who think it pointless even to discuss a referendum because the polls show "Europe" way down the list of issues voters think important. Oddly enough, the last thing such people want to explain to those voters is that the EU is now the chief engine of our government, let alone what an unholy mess it is making of all it touches. 

A second large group, led by Mr Cameron, favours the "have our cake and eat it" option. They admit that Britain's position is desperately unsatisfactory, but kid themselves into thinking that we can remain a member of the EU while somehow renegotiating the return of some of those powers we have given away. 

But they are baying for the moon, ignoring the most sacred rule on which it has steadily accumulated its powers for 60 years: that once power is given away to the centre, it can never be handed back. The "reformed" EU they babble of is one that does not and cannot exist. 

Still further across the spectrum are those dreamers demanding an in/out referendum as soon as possible, because they want us to get out. What they overlook is that, if such a referendum were held in the foreseeable future, the "yes" vote to stay in would win overwhelmingly, because a) no one has yet offered a properly worked out and positive vision of how well Britain could fare if we were to leave, and b) the leaderships of all the major parties, most of the media – led by the BBC – and big business would campaign to keep us in. 

Because of the absence of a positive alternative, it would be only too easy to scare voters into thinking that we would be left miserably out in the cold, losing half our trade and all that influence that we enjoy sitting around in Brussels being outvoted by our 26 colleagues. 

In short, we might be just like Norway and Switzerland, the two most prosperous countries in Europe, outside the EU but free to do more of their trade with it than we do. In many ways they actually have more influence on its affairs than Britain, through belonging to those global bodies that now make many of the rules on which we are represented only by the EU. 

Scratch away at what Mr Cameron's lot think they are after, and what it really comes down to is that they want us to be allowed to continue trading with the EU, like Norway and Switzerland, but without all that suffocating political baggage that goes along with the EU's drive to "ever-closer union". 

The only way they can get that is by invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which alone could compel the EU to sit down with us to negotiate precisely the sort of a deal they want. But the snag is, of course, that we can only open that door by saying we want to leave: the very last thing Mr Cameron is prepared to do.

He wants to have his cake and eat it, Booker concludes – a dish that is simply not on the menu.


EU regulation: olive oil in the frame

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There is an amount of wibbling over the announcement of an EU requirement to serve olive oil in restaurants in labelled, non-resealable bottles. In particular, we get complaints that the measure is "authoritarian and damaging to artisanal food makers", and condemnation of unaccountable technocrats (see comments). 

What is interesting, though, is that this proposal has been on the table for some years, as a way of increasing the support for the quality end of the industry, and reducing fraud. Marked, single-use bottles, it is felt, will reduce the amount of product adulteration, and thereby up the purchases of higher-grade product. 

The Italians were calling for non-refillable bottles in 2009 and two months ago passed the so-called "Mongiello Law" – on which the EU law is modelled – which requires single-use bottles or packs. Meanwhile, the Portuguese industry has been using non refillable bottles in restaurants since 2005, with positive results. 

Nevertheless, it is easy for the media to get renta-quotes from up-market Belgravia restaurants, and the statutory eurosceptic, about "EU bureaucrats", but they are missing the mark. 

The measure was only proposed by the commission after prolonged lobbying by producer organisations and after evidence of its effect in at least two countries. As to the law itself, it was passed not by EU bureaucrats but by member state officials, acting on instructions from their own governments, working through the mechanism of the food industry Management Committee.

In the committee, the measure was backed by fifteen member states, mainly the Mediterranean olive producers, including Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain and France, but also with the support of Ireland and Poland. Britain abstained and opposed were mainly northern states, amongst which were Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. 

Yet, for all the hyperventilation of the Telegraph Media Group Ltd, it concedes that the Spanish Association of Bars, Cafes and Restaurants has supported this new law. "Now we will be able to guarantee the quality of extra virgin olive oil on the table," said a spokesman – exactly the point made by an embarrassed commission spokesman on Friday, himself insufficiently briefed to tell the full story. 

And despite his inadequacy as a spokesman, given the widespread problem of olive oil adulteration which even the loss-making Guardian has noticed, he did have a point. 


Saturday, May 18, 2013

UK politics: party activists are "loons"

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Grassroots Conservative activists are "mad swivel-eyed loons" who are forcing Tory MPs to take extremist positions opposing gay marriage and Europe, one of David Cameron's closest allies has said.

That was according to the Telegraph Media Group Ltd,which is now asking who the Tory is behind the "slur". Sources close to the centre, however, are suggesting that the perpetrator is Andrew Feldman, Chairman of the Conservative Party & Chairman of the Party Board. 

If it is him, of course, he is toast. But the intervention raises serious questions as to the relationship between the Tory leadership and the constituency parties. Up to press, it has only been UKIP which has been on the receiving end of the Tory lash, but if the hierarchy is going to war against its own members, this represents a development of some significance. 

The broader issue is that it signifies an authoritarian streak emerging in the party management, where the duty of the members is seen to be to fall into line with the dictates of the party leaders. Gone is any idea that the wishes of the members should be taken into account. 

To that extent, one can see why Mr Cameron is very much in tune with the EU ethos, where top-down management is the preferred style and democracy takes a back seat. If that it is attitude, though, party leaders would have been better advised to spend more effort on keeping their view secret. 

The much put-upon party activists are not going to take kindly to being told what their leadership really thinks of them.


EU politics: economic government for the eurozone

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It should not pass without comment that, the day after the House of Commons tortured itself on the question of reducing the power of the EU, François Hollande was addressing 400 journalists in the Elysee Palace, to announce that he wanted to establish an economic government for the eurozone.

It almost goes without saying that British coverage of this has been slight and, with French media guarded by paywalls, one of the better reports comes from Die Welt. Hollande is under pressure, it says, the economy is limping, and the poll numbers are bad. And now he dares to rush forward and announce a Europe-wide campaign. 

This, incidentally, was the second major press conference of his term and it took two hours forty minutes for Hollande to entertain his audience of 400, plus his entire cabinet. 

Given continuously declining popularity ratings and depressing economic data, the expectations from Hollande's encounter was not just limited to the press, says DW. The unemployment rate has exceeded the previous record of three million, the European Commission has granted a two-year delay, so that France's budgetary objectives may be met by 2015 and, since the beginning of the week, the country has been officially in recession. 

This was confirmed after a meeting with the Commission last Wednesday, when Hollande admitted that growth in France would probably be zero. That would mean that he is not going to fulfil his most important promise - to reverse the trend in the labour market by the end of the year. Nevertheless, Hollande promised at his press conference that he would try everything to achieve a turnaround. 

It is against this background that, in the manner of a magician pulling a king-sized lapin out of le chapeau, Hollande decided to embark on his European adventure. 

Enter now Reuters which tells us that "European officials" gave a lukewarm response to president'slapin. Proposals for an "economic government" for the eurozone, complete with its own budget and a full-time president were, they say, not exactly nouveau, having been in circulation for some time. 

Since Hollande's "sweeping vision" also encompasses "a harmonised tax system" and "eurobonds", two ideas roundly rejected by the other half of the motor of integration, there is something of a suggestion that il se fout de ta gueule.

In two hours forty minutes, however, the president did manage a few soundbites of his own. "It is my responsibility as the leader of a founder member of the European Union ... to pull Europe out of this torpor that has gripped it, and to reduce people's disenchantment with it", he said. 

"If Europe stays in the state it is now, it could be the end of the project", he then said, before then dealing with the troublesome rosbifs. "Europe existed before Britain joined it", Hollande purred, only then to remark that, "I hope Britain stays in the European Union but I don't want to decide for the British".

That sounds suspiciously like, cela nous est complètement égal, but – to judge from the British coverage - we don't give a damn either. The grand gesture lives, says the BBC

But at least Hollande got one thing right. Opening the proceedings, he referred to his own unpopularity and told journalists that this, "was not a goal I set myself". One wonders what the French president might have achieved had he been really trying. 


Friday, May 17, 2013

EU referendum: the "little Europeans" of the CBI

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There is some merit in dismissing the Conservative manoeuvres on the EU referendum as "gesture politics", as there is a huge element of showmanship in the current proposals. But therein also lies danger. The referendum has been moved up the political agenda and the possibility of there now being a poll on or before 2017 cannot be ruled out.

Certainly, the apparatchik currently heading the CBI, John Cridland, is not leaving things to chance. Already on the CBI blog and through the loss-making Guardian he is launching a counter-attack with a goodly dose of FUD (Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt), all in anticipation of a speech today to the British American Business Council. 

The intervention is helpful in that it reveals the tactics, with Cridland seeking to marginalise the EU issue by suggesting that other things are more important. But, in the FUD department, it is clear that the Norwegian and Swiss options worry them. 

Says Cridland, "Business has to make the nuts and bolts case for what our relationship with Europe should look like", then adding that: "Maintaining our influence to shape, and our access to, the Single Market will be central to that case".

The CBI pitch is that, "We have to focus on a positive vision of reform so Europe does less of the things we don't want, and more of the things we do: boosting competitiveness and resisting bad policies that work against growth and stability". 

This leads to the punchline as Cridland says: "Let's be clear. Being a member of a reformed EU is the best way to preserve market access". He goes on to say:
There are some who say that we could retain access to the Single Market without being a member of the EU; that the UK could withdraw and have a relationship with the EU more akin to Norway's or Switzerland's. I'd urge them to really look at the detail.

Norway's membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) – being outside the EU but part of the Single Market – means that it still pays the bills and follows the rules but has much lower influence on EU decision making than if it had a seat at the table.
There we have the "little European" talking, and the last thing he wants us to do is look at the detail. Cridland thus avoids any reference to the globalisation of regulation and standards, where increasingly rules for the Single Market are determined by international bodies working at a higher level than the EU. 

Nothing therefore is said about the fact that we are unrepresented on many of these bodies, as the EU takes our seat, while countries like Norway and Switzerland have direct representation and are shaping the rules to which we must conform. 

This dishonesty pervades the CBI case, with Cridland calling in aid the Norwegian Conservative MP, Nikolai Astrup, who has told the CBI: "If the UK wants to run Europe, it needs to be in Europe. If you want to be run by Europe, feel free to join us in the EEA".

"Taking rules without the power to influence them is certainly not my idea of much-touted greater sovereignty", says Cridland, neglecting to point out that Norwegian Conservatives are so keen to join the EU that they will do anything to denigrate the EEA. 

To an extent, this illustrates the scale of our problem. When it comes to the referendum campaign proper, Cridland, like Mr Cameron, has the easier job. They have no intentions of making the "positive case for Europe". Their strategy is to spray out the FUD, and tell only part of the story. It is left to us to tell people what has been missed out, and to complete the picture. 

In fact, neither EU nor EEA membership (outside of the EU) is entirely satisfactory, but as an interim measure, EEA membership keeps us in the Single Market, giving us time to work on a better deal. 

But the most important thing for British industry is to break out of the cloying grip of "little Europe" and to embrace the wider world. Sadly, you will not hear this from the CBI.


UK politics: Farage at bay

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"We've never had this kind of reaction before", said the clearly taken-aback party leader as he was surrounded by protesters chanting often crude anti-UKIP slogans.

Scotland has always been difficult for Farage and, as he gets higher-profile, something like this was bound to happen. One wonders, though, whether the UKIP leader should have been better briefed, and whether he would have listened if he had been. 


EU politics: eurosceptic splits

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DWN has been running a story about a power struggle that has broken out in the AFD, which has the potential to cause serious damage to the emergent party. And quick to intervene has beenHandelsblatt, with comment and readers' letters, while there is some further analysis on our own forum. 

Without dwelling specifically on the fate of the AFD, one can observe that this dynamic seems to be a characteristic of political groupings – witness the constant talk of "Tory splits". But this dynamic seems at its most virulent in the eurosceptic movement, which, as we have already remarked, increasingly resembles the Monty Python anti-Roman factions. 

Of the various groupuscules inhabiting the eurosceptic terrain, at this time there are perhaps as many factions as there are Pashtun tribes, each with their own fanatical adherents which make the People's Front of Judea look moderate. 

Factions are, in part, defined by their beliefs, and some of the more vitriolic adhere to the "trappist" doctrine – the belief that invoking Article 50 is a "trap" and that withdrawal from the EU should be occasioned only by the repeal of the European Communities Act and the unilateral abrogation of the treaties. 

These factions have recently been fortified by the support of convicted criminal and former MEP, Ashley Mote. He asserts that an unnamed "bureaucrat", of unspecified rank, location and employer, was "honest enough" to tell him personally that Article 50 is "about being told, after two years of discussions exclusively amongst the other members, what our terms of leaving would be". 

According to this anonymous official, as conveyed exclusively and uniquely by Ashley Mote, "we would then have to accept the EU's terms or withdraw the application to leave" – even though, in the absence of an agreement, the self-same Article 50 specifies that the Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question … two years after the notification of withdrawal. 

Such an egregious misreading of the Article, however, does not detract from the religious fervour of the believers, who are given even more sustenance by the holiest of all cult leaders, Rodney Atkinson. He has recently handed down The Word from on high. 

Should, as a result of a referendum, the decision be to leave the European Union then the 1972 European [Communities] Act will be repealed, he has pronounced. Then, "the United Kingdom will leave the European Union and begin negotiations AS A SOVEREIGN UNENCUMBERED STATE to establish free trading and co-operation agreements with the EU together with other EEA States not part of the European Union". 

Thus, we are informed, the UK will not act under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty since the country will no longer be part of that constitutional Law. 

Quite what we are supposed to do by way of trade, in between the period of leaving and concluding negotiations to establish free trading and co-operation agreements, we are not told. But given that such negotiations – should the EU member states agree to them – could take some years, it is of more than academic interest. 

Nevertheless, what these tiny groupuscules think is generally of very little importance but for the tendency of the opposition to pluck them from their deserved obscurity and project their views as representing the eurosceptic community as a whole. 

The BBC is particularly adept at this technique, and nothing would serve the europhile cause better than to suggest that the alternative to staying in the EU is immediate, unilateral withdrawal, with all the uncertainty that that entails. The prospect of the chaos that would ensue is probably the best advert for staying in the EU that could be devised. 

Another reason why the "trappist" cult is dangerous is that it plays into the hands of the pretend eurosceptics, the so-called "europlastics" such as Rodney Leach. They belong to the rival "reformist" cult. 

The majority of the public, the political class and business, cultist Leach recently asserted, "are sceptical about the EU but rather than leaving it they want a new deal to reduce its power over their lives". And, high up in the list of reasons he uses to justify this assertion is the claim that none of the "outers" (recent or otherwise) has set out a credible alternative. 

Leach is very selective in order to make this claim, as there have been credible alternatives set out. These, he ignores, enabling him to cite the "trappists" in order to make his point. In his rivals, he has a ready-made alternative to condemn, one that completely lacks credibility. 

However, while Leach is quick to brand his rival cultists as lacking in credibility, his own plans miraculously escape a similar appellation. Yet, in the Leachate "new order", the EU is redefined as the Single Market, "not as a vague aspiration to political union, still less as a currency union". 

Safeguards, he then says, would be put in place to ensure that the eurozone did not write the rules for the rest of the member states, following which, "the next step would be to strengthen the powers of Westminster over EU decisions".

Here on this blog, we have been known to accuse the "trappists" of fantasy politics, going for what we have called the "magic wand" option. But Leach is in a league of his own. In a twinkling of an eye, he wants to reform away over sixty years of political integration, turning the EU into a cuddly free market. Then, for his next trick, he wants to weaken the primacy of EU law.

Supposedly, though, the "trappist" and "reformist" cults are both eurosceptics, sharing the same faith.  In theory, therefore - like the AFD - they should be united behind their common banner. But the reality is that, when there is such a yawning chasm between the different ideas, unity will always be a façade.

At the beginning, we saw in the AFD the elements of disharmony when they could not agree whether the euro should be abolished, or whether eurozone should just contract, to include only the northern European states.

With that much difference, there was never going to be harmony. And when British eurosceptic cults range from trappists to reformists, it is hard to concede that they even belong to the same religion. Their differences are not so much "splits" as the Grand Canyon on steroids.

Such cults, sharing only the tendency to indulge in fantasy politics, are never going to be united. But "split" is far too mild a word. They don't even inhabit the same universe.