Thursday, April 29, 2010

Europhrenia - Life’s a Fitch

Europe is being over-run by credit rating agencies like Standard and Poor’s, Fitch, Moody’s et al, who on long legs are walking over our lives. The Financial Times has just broken the news that Standard and Poor’s have downgraded Spain’s credit rating from AA+, which was ok, one imagines, to AA, which is less. This comes just after the same prophetically named organisation (I set Standards, you’re Poor) docked Portugal from an A+ to A-. Not even the end of April, and the nightmare of the worst end of term school report went to Greece. Only yesterday, S&B looked at the Hellenic nation’s smudged copy books with too many crow's nests and dog-eared corners, tutted and scratched “BB+” with big red pen. Meanwhile, my own native home, Ireland, fears “contagion.”

The press of course drools over the dispatches, and having looked deep into its conscience, says it's six o'clock and time to roll over. The euro has “dived”, because "market sentiment” is “contaminated”, oil prices are “shaken”, investors have “fears”. Firstly, what is utterly mind-boggling is that abstract entities such as markets and prices and currencies are attributed human emotions. The thrust of such misuse of adjectives is to suggest that they are victims of something i.e. victims of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, who go under the cheerful acronym of PIGS. Secondly, when we speak of investors (but can we now say that this word is in any way related to the root verb – investire - "to clothe in, cover, surround"?), we depict them as beaten kittens rather than cool-headed, quick-thinkers out for financial opportunity. A vocabulary has been developed that first of all does not describe these events as those enacted by real people, but of abstract nouns that behave like people. The idea that our economic life is governed by an agency as arbitrary as clouds is obscene. We are not so stupid as to forget that today like any other day, fearful banks and trembling institutionals accumulated wealth.

The problem is that a history of this economic crisis is written daily describing a reality that suits the leading actors. Who hold nations consisting of sprightly, sluggardly, careful, cancerous, bold and balding citizens to account for financial dealings they have had no say in. Paradoxically even these major actors to the drama seem unable to grasp the situation adequately, if only to themselves. Take OECD secretary general Angel Gurria. “This is Ebola,” he gushed. “When you realise you have it you have to cut your leg off in order to survive.” Forgive me if I’m wrong but I remember Ebola as a disease of the nineties where your skin sort of fell off in clumps like in a zombie flick and was supposed to wipe us all out, but didn’t. Surely if one legged Gurria wants to compare the Eurozone crisis to a disease whose threat was hysterically exaggerated, given that it’s all down to PIGS, he should have evoked swine flu. But perhaps a swine flu analogy wouldn’t scare us enough to gulp down the snake oil of bone-crunching austerity that is now, apparently, the only cure.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Europhrenia – Whatever people say Greeks are, that’s what they’re not

The BBC reports that only a few days after Athens was full-nelsoned into appealing for a €40bn-€45bn rescue package from the EU and the IMF… Greek bond yields are just a wee touch below last week’s whopping 9.15%. “The interest rate is 6.14 percentage points higher than that charged to Germany – seen as the safest investment in Europe,” the website chirps, explaining that even with Greece due a bung, investors are still “nervous”.
“Nervous” is an unusual term to denote that hard-nosed community of the tactically-minded who over the past few months like US drone operators have hovered over the nation’s economy, already a puny 2% of the EU’s, and reduced it to a smoking pair of old boots. But before we cry into our ouzos, they had it coming, the cheeky beggars. “The fundamental causes of this mess lie in Greece itself… Greeks really need to take a hard look at themselves and the way they have behaved”. So wrote Tony Barber in his Financial Times blog of 23 April, spinning the castastrophe as a kind of mid-life crack up. Come on, Iannis, you know it’s true!
Rolled out relentlessly, the view that the failings of successive Greek governments are actually the personal failings of the Greek people, is rife. And if swallowed will doubtlessly smooth the way for the next couple of decades of scrotum-tightening austerity that that country can look forward to under the lorgnettes of a German-led EU, IMF experts, and rating agencies. But if you think about it, to say that the corrupt Greeks are personally responsible for their country’s disaster sounds a lot like the Victorian prejudice that poverty amongst the lower orders was down to loose morals.
A similar narrative of “we are all in this together” and “we get the leaders we deserve” has allowed the Irish government to crash the country into a wall and then present it with the bill. But we should be wiser. One day after the death of the great Alan Sillitoe, author of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, we should remember one of his best lines – “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not“. When officialdom pronounces over the “Greeks” as irresponsible and reckless we should be as alert to the presumption as when investors are seen as so many shivering calves.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Europhrenia - Biofuel, it’s not so cool

Reuters has revealed that an EU document published in December 2009 cut out an annex showing that biofuels can produce up to four times more climate warming emissions than traditionals. According to the doc, Reuters relates, “Biodiesel from North American soybeans has an indirect carbon footprint of 339.9 kilograms of CO2 per gigajoule - four times higher than standard diesel.” And here’s more – “Biodiesel from European rapeseed has an indirect carbon footprint of 150.3 kilos of CO2 per gigajoule, while bioethanol from European sugar beet is calculated at 100.3 kilos - both much higher than conventional diesel or gasoline at around 85 kilos.”

The disappeared annex would have been truly embarrassing for the EU which by 2020 has set itself the modest goal of obtaining 10 percent of road fuel from renewables, mostly biofuels. However, a statement emanating from the glass palace of the European Commission denies that anything was “doctored”. “It was considered better to leave the contentious analysis out...” it goes. “The analysis prepared under this study applied a methodology which by many is not considered appropriate."

“Inappropriate methodology” is certainly unwelcome. We have only just emerged from environmentalism’s worst winter. Last year’s Climategate affair revealed climate scientists are averse to freedom of information acts and prone to bouts of screechiness. There was the IPCC prediction that glaciers will have all slushed off the Himalayas by 2035 that happened to be three hundred years off. To cap it all, the dark days of December, when the report was published, and cut, gave us the Copenhagen climate summit, an event in which some of the world’s best gasbags emitted speeches about our fragile planet and then, their consciences salved, sort of didn’t sign anything.
We now look forward to the results of “four major studies” that are currently underway, hoping that appropriate methodology produces results that are publishable, even if politically inappropriate.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

EUROPHRENIA- We are all Belgians now

As you might have heard Belgian PM Yves Leterme has just just resigned, again. This is the fifth time he’s quit public office, and his third exit as prime-minister. He may well be the Ziggy Stardust of Belgian poltics. Perhaps he’s always playing his last concert, but coming back once again, only a little more worn. One can sympathise. His coalition with Open VLD (Flemish liberals) collapsed over failure to reach agreement on the languages rights and privileges of French and Flemish speakers of the bilingual constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). This shouldn’t be serious stuff, but in the Lilliputian world of Belgian politics, micro-minded obnoxiousness rules. Just ten km from Brussels, in Lennik, the local municipality requires that in order to build on bought land you must speak Flemish, or “be willing to learn it”. In another Flemish town, Linkebeek, the French-speaking mayor has not been officially appointed because he has failed to comply with similar “language rules.” You get the picture. This is a feeble central state in which the hair-splitting pettiness of town hall politics trumps national concerns.
A lovely illustration of this addiction to hair-splitting, or, as the French say, to “enculage des mouches” (i.e. the buggering of flies) comes from Le Monde. François Pirette, who has radio programme on Bel-RTl, phoned up the Belgian municipality of Dilbeek, near Brussels, passing himself off as a French-speaking Ivorian diplomat looking for information. He first got answered in Flemish by the civil servant on the other end of the line, who then confessed that although he understood and spoke French he was forbidden to use it. Pirette as Ivorian insisted he needed the info badly as one of his colleagues was looking to buy a house in the region. The civil servant broke off several times seeking permission from his superiors to do French, which he obtained, but only, as he confided to Pirette, because he was “a foreign diplomat.”
This is all laughable. But wait. The Belgian state might be foundering on disputes over trivial issues, but if you look elsewhere, most of our politics is distinguished by the same pettiness. Tonight, the three leaders of Britain’s main parties are to debate national issues in the second of three live election debates. If their last performance is anything to go by, they will be in perfect agreement on substance – immigration (a problem), Afghanistan (more helicopters), public services (slash), but will be at pains to sound distinct from each other, but will attempt to fall out on the micro-management of such issues by deploying gassy rhetoric. Trivia politics is the norm these days in mainstream poltics. A tedium, one might argue, that drives ordinary citizens to the intoxications of identity-obsessed cretins like the BNP. We are all Belgians now.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

EUROPHRENIA - Burqa ban, and why not plastic surgery too?

Here in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has green-lighted legislation that will ban women from wearing burqas in public places. This is obviously great news for the 2000 or so unfortunates – out of a Muslim female population of approximately 5 million - who actually go round wearing two man tents over themselves. Just how the French police are going to enforce these rules in public remains to be seen, but surely candidates for legal martyrdom must already be queuing.
This bill is the essence of the Sarkozy administration. French has a great word for it – “brasser de l’air”, which means to makes swimming motion outside the medium of water just to give the impression that you’re saying something, going somewhere. After floating this foolish idea around until it returned as so much egg in face, with even the Constitutional Court doubting its legality, the government must have felt itself compelled to see it through since not to do so would have made it look all wishy-washy.
And even so the government squirms away from taking responsibility for a decision that directly targets a specific faith group by couching it in PC terms. Burqas "do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women," goes the declaration. But aren’t there other phenomena that undermine the dignity of women beyond Islamic ones, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was wont to ask?
Quite recently in the plush and altogether secular neighbourhood of the Marais in central Paris, I noticed that an inordinate number of women in their forties, fifties and sixties had inflicted some form of plastic surgery on themselves. Blown up lips, facial skin pulled tight and waxy looking, eyes drawn up into the corners, cheekbones bulged out. The effect was less unpleasant than just eerie. Trying to visualise myself as the subject, I keep thinking of those virtual reality visors back in the early 90’s that when clapped on threw you into a 3D world. Each time you moved your head, your virtual reality head followed along, just a fraction off. It got me thinking that plastic surgery is like the flipside of the burqa. The latter makes you glaringly invisible, less than human, but the former, by surgically caricaturing secondary sexual characteristics, makes you a sight beyond human.
The problem is that plastic surgery is practised by so-called empowered and independent women at the top end of society, the burqa by the stereotype of a downtrodden Muslim sisterhood that needs to be saved from itself. And yet both can be read as symptoms of an enduring and masochistic subservience to the male gaze. Only one gives rise to moral panic attacks and hand wringing about equality, however. So let’s not be confused in our progressive instincts by a government’s weasel words. Clearly, I’m not arguing for a ban on either of these practises. As I’ve mentioned previously, you cannot force dignity on anyone if they are not prepared to defend it themselves. We should also be free to ruin our lives too.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Europhrenia - Atom bombs, easy peasy

I was a guest on France 24’s The World This Week last Friday – here are links for parts one and two. For me one of the many interesting aspects of the debate was our discussion around the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington 12-13 April. Obviously at, we are not privy to high level security information like the US prez, but nevertheless his declarations on nuke security still have me puzzled one week on. "Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history,” said President Obama. “The risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." Oh yes, but from where? The Independent relays a statement by a “senior White House anti-terror aide” insisting on evidence “that acquiring rogue nuclear materials to mount attacks on a fearful scale was a prime goal of al-Qaeda.”
But what attacks have Al Qaeda been mounting in the West since 9/11? Aside from the Madrid and London bombings, we’ve had Richard Reid who couldn’t blow up his shoe, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who couldn’t blow up his pants. We’ve had the attack on Glasgow airport where the attacker, having rammed his car into concrete bollards, leaped out and set himself on fire (that’ll show you). In fact, the only impact most of these bozos have made is completely idiotic security measures in airports taken by our own governments afterwards.
The Al-Qaeda brand is so diffuse that anyone with a deathwish can sign on without passing a maths test. Aside from the fact that these “terrorists” are/were home-grown, i.e. mainly European, I’m just curious to know how from producing home-made bog-standard devices (and when you think of it, ramming planes into buildings is hardly new either) these mainly none too bright lights can, according to President Obama, move on to producing atom bombs. Even the production of nuclear energy is beyond many a state’s grasp, so how will some future martyr from Bromley or St Etienne have the financial resources, the logistics, and the scientific brain to blow us all up? Or perhaps I’m missing something?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Europhrenia - No fly ban, the sleep of reason

Early January I found myself on the main road from Sligo in the Republic of Ireland to Dublin. Outside, the temperature was minus five. The grass on the verges was sparkling white, the mountains snow-capped. The EU funded dual carriageway, though, was perfectly clear, as smooth and black and driveable as a runway. Nevertheless, everyone was going along at a crawl of 50 kph.
It was obvious we could have been doing twice that. But on the car radios across the nation, presenters were relaying police and road authorities’ demands that drivers should exercise extreme caution. People I spoke to in Dublin were of the same opinion, the reality of the particular road in question being beside the point. I detected a kind of pride, as if this hard put-upon nation, stripped bare by the civic unvirtue of its banks, was finding unity in the abolition of common sense and the dangers of three inches of snow.
Now that we’re into the fifth day of the “volcanic ash crisis” that has paralysed Europe’s airports, you can only wonder if the no fly ban implemented by our aviation authorities isn’t of a same piece. As early as Saturday 17 April, the Telegraph reports, airlines like Lufthansa, BA, and KLM were sending test planes up into the skies without incident. No ash cloud sandblasted windshields, blocked fuel nozzles, contaminated oil systems or blocked airspeed sensors. Ash did not collect on engine blades. Engines did not lost thrust or shut down. Conditions, as a BA spokesman has said, were “perfect” - i.e. without ash.
There is no ash, but computer says No. So we can't fly. Giovanni Bisignani, director-general of the International Air Transport Association has called this, “a European embarrassment… Europeans are still using a system that's based on a theoretical model, instead of taking a decision based on facts and risk assessment.” Air France pilots last night on France Culture were fuming too, as is Air Berlin’s CEO, which has also sent test flights up. He has declared himself "amazed" that the results of the German airlines' flights "did not have any influence whatsoever on the decisions taken by the aviation safety authorities."
And the politicians back them. “Mandelson’s Dunkirk” pipes the Independent, with a photo of him and luminaries in front Number 10, Downing Street. The British government is attempt to summon up the fondly remembered spirit of getting kicked out of France by the German army by deploying the Royal Navy to rescue 150,000 British citizens now stranded abroad. Denis MacShane in the London daily op-ed pages argues we need “a 2010 equivalent of the Berlin Airlift” to give the EU “a chance to show what it is made of”. The list of urgent measures is long. One includes "Local university students who speak the foreign languages of stranded citizens can travel to help monolingual people." So avid is the rush to the fostering of all sorts of spirits of World War 2 or Cold War unity, that the more obvious question as to why planes aren’t just back up in the sky shuttling monolinguals home is completely overlooked.
There's a cloud hanging over Europe right now, but not the one gushing from the mouth of Eyjafjallajokull. This one is an even darker fog projected by increasingly irrational authorities. Think of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters with its ghoulish birds flapping about the dozing scholar’s over-heated unconscious. In the past year we’ve been treated to swine flu pandemics, Himalayan glaciers melting, and Obama’s claiming that we are threatened by SPECTRE terrorist organisations bearing rogue nukes when Al-Qaeda operatives in the West have trouble even blowing their trousers up. Now there’s a toxic airborne event that hasn't brought down a fly. Exercising extreme caution when the roads and skies are clear are just another symptom that we can longer distinguish dream from reality.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Europhrenia - Ghost MEPs in the Brussels machine has revealed that 18 “ghost MEPs” have recently begun wafting down the corridors of power in Brussels and Strasbourg. Having emerged from the linguistic sludge of the Lisbon treaty, which increases the number of MEPs from 736 to 754. they will not officially be allowed to vote in the European parliament until June 2014, after the next elections, but in the meantime are endowed with “observer status”. The fact that these immaterial observers from beyond the democratic realm will not actually work as MEPs does not prevent them from collecting here below annual salaries and tax-free allowances. These happy wraiths from 12 member states can also claim back business class travel, staff and office allowances. By the golden dawn of 2014, when they can start hitting EP vote buttons, they will have cost €30m. Who are they and what do they want? No-one yet knows.

Europhrenia - Lech Kaczynski, a counter-homage

A few weeks back I had a bone to pick, or as they say in German, a hen to pluck, with LibĂ©ration’s Brussels correspondent Jean Quatremer after he had mounted one of his traditional hobby horses and bemoaned the excess of rosbifs speaking English at the European Commission. However, Monsieur Quatremer hits the nail on the head most days, calling spades spades, and, as the French say, cats cats; none more so this week with his welcome corrective to all the lachrymose homages to Polish president Lech Kaczynski following his death in Saturday’s Smolensk air disaster.
Promisingly entitled “Death of a Nationalist Reactionary”, Quatremer is amazed that death has transformed "this reactionary, bigoted, eurosceptic and brutal man, who was the worst president which Poland ever had, into a veritable icon... It was while his brother was prime-minister that he gave the true measure of himself. The two brother governed with the League of Families, a small anti-Semitic, xenophobic, violently reactionary party they protected. Authoritarian, little concerned with public liberties, they ruined the lives of hundreds of people throwing themselves into a fantasy witch-hunt of former communists.” Quatremer also quotes a European leader who described the Kaczynski twins as in need of some “good psychoanalysis.”
The article comes with a health warning, and regrets that the death of the legendary Anna Walentynowicz of Solidarity gave rise to fewer and less profuse hommages. “Let’s just hope that Lech’s death won’t mean that Jaroslaw gets elected in his place, the latter being even worse than his twin.” And so say some, though perhaps not all, of us.