Friday, March 18, 2011

Ireland for sale

It seems a rich, if not bitter, irony that on the feast of Saint Patrick, the day Ireland pats itself on the back, that its new government should announce a plan to sell off its state assets, the “crown jewels”, as the Irish Independent puts it. Although the Dublin daily doesn’t go into the specifics of what jewels will go under the hammer, a recent report by NCB, an Irish securities firms, suggests that these could be in the areas of energy, ports, forestry, networks. Price tags for these are hard to come by, though it’s been suggested the latter two could go for €1.3bn and €5bn respectively.

One possible way to come up with a total might be to combine the total cut the IMF is supposed to take (€10bn) and the €2bn cut from the proceeds the government wishes to use to “create jobs” in “energy, water and telecom” sector. Ironically enough, these are the same sectors it is thinking to sell off, so the process by which jobs are supposed to be created afterwards is far from clear. Nor is it clear where the government will rustle up the further €5bn to complement its proposed €7bn jobs stimulus programme, as it’s clear, after selling off its forests, ports, gas and electricity companies, there will be nothing left to sell off.

Unemployment in Ireland is nearly 15%, one of the highest rates in Europe. And while any kind of truncated job stimulus programme is to be welcome, coming as it does, as the Independent writes with a note of relief, “with IMF/EU approval”, there still remains the black hole of Ireland’s banks, which with IMF/EU approval, the government is committed to keep feeding. Indeed, Ireland’s new Minister of Finance Michael Noonan, after strangely quipping that he is not “a bookie” (a bookie?) admitted that he “does not know” if the banks would need up to €35 billion in the EU-IMF agreement. Indeed, as the Independent notes, the terms of Ireland’s bailout are such that any “windfalls” – money set aside for the job stimulus? – might have to go into repaying the debt.

All this was churning around my head as I went to the Irish embassy in Paris for the St Patrick’s evening do, in an extraordinary 18th century building with lofty ceilings, heavy green velvet curtains, golden ornamental mouldings, exactly the kind of environment, in this rushed, cramped city, where you have the space, the breadth, the height, to think. Out of a 400 strong gathering, 75% of us must have been Irish, with faces and manners that are distinctively from “back there” – 700 kilometres away. Read full article at Presseurop…

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.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Laurent Wauquiez - dodgy oxygen

Here’s Laurent Wauquiez, French Minister for European Affairs, in a speech in Helsinki on bringing Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen area (HD to @beranger_v4 for info). “If the Schengen zone’s data-base falls into the hands of international organised criminals, then it’s European internal security in its entirety that is wiped out.” He then argues that it’s in Romania, Bulgaria and Greece that “three quarters of the problem of illegal immigration, arms trafficking, the drugs problem, child trafficking, linked to the entry of persons and goods into the EU are concentrated.”

Let’s have a look at Laurent Wauquiez. Schooled in top lycées Louis-le-Grand and Henri-IV, the young Laurent tops off his studies in ENA, i.e. the Jobcentre for the French political elite. In typical French fashion, he might be a member of the Cabinet, but he isn’t even elected to the National Assembly. His only true democratic claim to lead anyone is that he is Mayor of Le Puy-en-Velay, a backwater in the backwater Auvergne region, with a population of 18,879. How did he get to be mayor of Le Puy-en-Velay? You might want to ask his Mum, Eliane Wauquiez-Motte, mayor of Chambon-sur-Lignon, all of 2,662 souls, also in Auvergne.

Put it like this, it always strikes this blogger as particularly rich to hear a coddled, thrice pistonné confirmed son of the French political elite – a famiglia unto itself in all but name, riddled with corruption at the best of times – to insult the populations of Romania, Greece, Bulgaria as if they were all members of an “international crime organisation”.  Once again, those at the top of that so-called club of equals the European Union, of which free movement of citizens is one, if not the only, benefit, are spouting obnoxous nonsense. It’s also an insult to the intelligence, if only to his own, that a man with such a gilded education, can conjure up “international” organised criminals “wiping out” the Schengen area data-base. What is that actually supposed to mean? That you need to be in a Schengen Area computer to do a spot of hacking? Er, I suspect he crossed his fingers when he utttered these inanities.

Indeed, it’s not easy to take anything that seriously emanating from Monsieur Wauquiez, particularly in matters of iffy cross-border dealings, given that on June 28 last year, while his party was floundering in the Woerth affair, with its heady mix of great family fortunes and political affairs, he went to a Mayfair club in London to meet up with the French business elite of the City. The purpose of the meeting? To solicit financial aid for his own private and “confidential” micro-political grouping – a burgeoning industry in France – called Nouvel Oxygène (New Oxygen). Although this is above board if individual donations stop at €7500 (Wauquiez’ Nouvel Oxygène received €34,000 in 2008, the last official figures), there is never anything pretty about the peddling of influence within the sealed off world of international finance (so distinct from international crime). If Monsieur Wauquiez’ speech on the free movement of our fellow Europeans is intended to be New Oxygen, then pass the gas mask.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The IMF has such good taste

After a hard week chuckling over the future of Europe with my transcontinental colleagues at the Presseurop offices, there’s nothing I can resist quite as much as scooting off to poor banjaxed ould completely knackered Ireland in an Air France jet and just “letting go” at the Merrion Hotel, “one of the finest luxury hotels in Dublin City Centre” as its elegant website informs me. Whether I’m in for a €239 “Superior King Bed” or a “Speciality Suite” at €1100 per night, let me tell you, there’s always something special about the “exquisite service” provided by an army of discreet and wide-cheeked Eastern Europeans, especially when they earn a lot less than me.

Whether I’m laughing my head off in the Carrera marble bath, or chucking down my gullet Half a Dozen Carlingford Oysters (€42.00) at Patrick Guibaud’s “Michelin” starred restaurant - a €98 Roast Lacquered Challans Duck to follow! - one thing about the Merrion is that you won’t hear anyone quacking about “bankers” or “de politicians” because, like me, they’re the only people who can afford to be here – as I guzzle a caramelised pear (€24).

All this to say I would like to raise a glass of vintage port (€25) to the IMF, which have booked no less than 16 rooms at my home from home for a minimum of three weeks, with a bill of anything from €80,304 to €369,000 to enjoy “magnificent views of Government Buildings” - which is apt, considering they are the new government ;-). Like Ajay Chopra and the “lads”, I too have a taste for rooms with “Irish fabrics and antiques to reflect the architecture and original interiors of the 18th Century Townhouses.” And of course by the time Ajay has finished overseeing the Irish budget of €15 billion in cuts, 18th century Ireland it will be! Santé, and here’s to austerity, les amis…

Sunday, November 21, 2010

It's TINA, stupid

This is the Presseurop editorial I wrote as the EU / IMF men in back landed in Dublin. It's available also in 9 other languages at our site.

In the coming weeks, if not months, the story you are likely to hear will be one of a plucky nation, emerging from a legacy of colonial oppression, poverty and mass emigration, whose rise to riches was as spectacular as its downfall. And there are no better masters of this narrative than the Irish themselves. On the day that experts from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary fund flew into Dublin to oversee Ireland’s economic affairs, the Irish Times leader lamented - “There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be masters of our affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty”. The cause of this? “Having spent the last decade in a fog of intoxicating self-congratulation for our economic success, we now face the reality that it was illusory,” writes novelist Joseph O’Connor, in the Guardian. “Inept politicians, greedy bankers and property speculators have wrecked the certainties on which our recent notions of ourselves were founded.”

But is Ireland’s economic car crash a purely local phenomenon, one that can be attributed to its inept politicians and greedy speculators? Looking to the south-western fringe of Europe to Portugal, rumoured to be the next candidate to hand over the keys of economic sovereignty to the EC, ECB, IMF triumverate, then another narrative emerges. “Portugal’s problem is different,” writes the New York Times. “Its banks are not especially troubled, but the state itself has high debts and low growth, and the mound of both public and private debt is considerable.” If we add to this unfortunate duo the recent case of Greece, once accused of "ineradicable guile", clientelism and fraud by German weekly Focus, it is nonetheless surprising that three such highly distinctive destinies all lead to the exact same outcome – collapse, bailout, loss of sovereignty. Read on at