Friday, February 25, 2011

Democracy – but beautiful

Here’s my editorial for Presseurop on the Irish elections, Arab revolutions, and more…

An angry Ireland votes today, and will doubtlessly elect as its next Taoiseach Enda Kenny of Fine Gael, a centre right party, to replace Fianna Fail, another centre right party, widely blamed for the country’s economic crash. Mr Kenny, like most of Ireland’s political leaders, intends to pursue more or less the same policies espoused by his predecessor: more austerity budgets, abiding by the terms of the EU/IMF bailout and providing more billions of public money for Ireland’s failed banks. As columnist Fintan O’Toole observed: “It will mean that all the rage and disgust, all the cursing and fist-shaking, will have amounted to nothing very much.”

As the Irish resignedly exercise their democratic right, they are also watching the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, where hundreds are dying for basic freedoms. Many riveted to Al Jazeera or BBC as events thrillingly and frighteningly unfold must feel moved and also inspired, because they, like most of us, must instinctively grasp what a noble thing democracy is. Correspondingly, their hearts must also sink at the idea that at some point, after all this sacrifice and blood spilled, that the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya will have to choose between local variants of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, bickering about which taxes to tweak, public services to cut, and how to get a better interest rate for EU/IMF reimbursements. Read full article at

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

EU couldn’t keep peace in a Buddhist monastery

In the wake of the EU’s reaction to the events in Egypt, I can’t help thinking again of President Van Rompuy’s recent Warsaw speech. “Europe is the best guarantee for peace. It was and is a work of peace.” Then, “Europe has to be the fatherland of peace. We owe this to our history ... The bloody battlefields from our history have been replaced by Brussels negotiating rooms.”

No-one could accuse Van Rompuy of the sin of an original thought. 60 years of peace, runs the Schumann foundation. 60 years of peace, says Merkel, Sarkozy et al. This EU "achievement" is repeated so often that the more it’s rolled out, the ever more dubious it becomes. Why, otherwise, does it need repeating ad nauseum? Partly, I would argue, because it's a foundation myth, and also because it's completely false.

False because in the post-war period America dominated Western European foreign policy, false because the Soviet threat acted as a sufficient glue, false because the only country capable of waging another war – Germany – was occupied, hamstrung, partitioned, false because Europe was warred out.
This, however, will not stop the EU, with its "negotiating rooms", from fatuously trying to take the credit for matters it has been nothing but a spectator to. It suffices to think back but eight years to the last Gulf War to see what impact its diplomacy had as the Union split in two, half of it going off into the Iraq murder spree. “Ah yes, Europe, the fatherland of peace” – that must be on the lips of all the citizens of Bagdad and Basra. As it is, er, in the streets of Belfast and Bucharest...

Indeed, it suffices to think back only a few days. Echoing Obama’s weasel words that Egypt’s demonstrators should express themselves “peacefully” against government hired thugs marauding in Tahrir Square, Lady Ashton called on “all parties to exercise restraint and calm.” Later, once Mubarak fell, “I pay enormous tribute to the calm way people have conducted themselves.” And “It is fantastic to see all the young people come out and to say what they want in a calm and orderly way.”

Leaving aside the sham evenhandness of asking “all parties” to exercise restraint, it is completely untrue that the people behaved in a “calm way.” The last thing you need if you want to topple dictators is “calm and restraint”. Calm, restraint, and expressing yourself in an “orderly” way are exactly virtues that keep dictators in palaces and private jets in the first place. For Mrs Ashton, the courage and boldness of the Egyptian people is actually but a side effect of Chlorpromazine use, or some other mood-suppressant.

But we can expect nothing less, because the EU’s instincts are cowardly. Bureaucracies thrive not on boldness, courage or innovation but on their opposite, which is why Ms Ashton’s vision of the Egyptian revolution is so deadening, so devoid of vitality, and so untruthful. As long as wars and revolutions occur in far-off lands, such cowardly instincts have little immediate impact on us over here, but will not save anyone the day Brussels ever has to handle any internal crisis or major stress of any scope. As long as we’re ruled by moral pygmies, (and I baulk at the slur on the reputations of pygmies), I doubt that the fatherland of peace could keep things zen in a Buddhist monastery.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

As queer as a jobless recovery

Ireland is in “recovery”. Such is the sage counsel of NCB, “one of Ireland's largest independent securities firms” and “a leading provider of institutional equities, wealth management and corporate finance services to our clients for over 25 years.” NCB has just produced a 104-page opus entitled “Ireland Moves Forward” (IMF for short, notes Jason Walsh @newswhip). Chirpy corporate titles about going forwards often make me think backwards, but before one gets too cheeky, let’s have a look.

Well, house prices will continue to fall, Irish gross debt to rise to 113% of GDP by 2013, the banks are insolvent and illiquid but for state and EU support, sovereign debt restructuring can’t be ruled out, emigration will emigrate and employment will “contract” i.e., there won’t be any. But wait. NCB, whose “philosophy is simple and is based on a commitment to putting the interests of our clients first and Irish people last” (are you sure about the last four words? – ed), sees green shoots. “We like Irish bonds which mature before June 2013.” Pray why? “They are essentially guaranteed by the EU/IMF.” To whom the Irish state owes 85 billion euros. How will it pay?

“The potential for the State to dispose of certain of its assets is something that has been on the agenda for some time and certainly prior to the EU/IMF funding package.” Hmm, I’m not sure what that means. Could you be a bit more specific? “We identity a number of assets which could be sold including those in the areas of forestry, energy, networks and ports, the household cutlery, the shirts off your back.” (not sure about those last two items, please check – ed).

As Flann O’Brien once wrote, Ireland is indeed a queer old country, and there are a number of old expressions that denote the strangeness or the unusualness of things. One of them is, “a tree full of fish”, another – “a bottle of crisps”. And NCB, whose customers includes “major institutional investors” and “high net worth private clients” (will they fork out for a forest or a nice port? I wonder), must shake their heads at the topsy-turvy world we’re living in when in the midst of crisis “Irish exports increased to the highest figure ever recorded in 2010, increasing 7%”!

But what could be queerer than the NCB’s conclusion that we will have “a jobless recovery in 2011”, a phrase that dominated the headlines yesterday. Unlike the NCB, with its “superior service and ideas”, I am unable to conceive of the notion of recovery where there are no jobs, in the same way that I cannot imagine doctors advising patients that they can look forward to recovering, except they won’t be alive. But maybe I’m mistaken since “securities firms” like NCB produce nothing, and yet conjure up money like so many trees full of fish.