Sunday, February 21, 2016

Odd mix.

Spain and British politics: The Spanish are reported to be unhappy about the negotiations just ended[?]. See here. One thing they object to is the UK's ”lack of solidarity”. But what this word usually means here is continuation of the EU subsidies that flow to Spain. And anything that threatens these is inevitably unpopular.

The Immigrant Tide: Most Brits seem to think there are too many of these. And that the problem arises because the UK is just too damned attractive. Firstly, because the economy is growing; secondly because benefits are generous; and thirdly because they speak English there. In which case, why don't we hear of people heading for the Netherlands in even larger numbers? All 3 factors apply and at least 2 of them are better there. Possibly all 3. Is it because the cunning Dutch hide their light under a bushel? Well, no. It turns out they do have a big problem – see here – but it doesn't make the British or Spanish media. One Dutch friend – who's usually right - cites massive divisions, plenty of violence and the rise of far-right political parties. I just didn't notice any of this when I was there recently.

Britain and the EU: If this interests you, there are two eurosceptic articles and one pro-EU article at the end of this post. All come from the behind the paywall of The Times, which is why I can't just link to them. What you might call the Major and Minor views. Or the Top down and Bottom up views. Or even the Wide and Narrow views. Only the other way round. It's impossible, of course, to choose between them on the basis of indisputable facts. One's personal decision will be visceral - involving not just the brain but also the heart and the gut. As all major decisions are. Choosing between evils.

Ms Harper Lee: I wonder if I'm the only person in the world who hasn't read and enjoyed To Kill a Mocking Bird. I say that but I really mean I can't recall reading it. But, then, since I can't remember whatever I read yesterday - and have never been able to do so – I may well have read it in fact.

Nice Quotation: Life is too short and too crowded to let oneself be distracted into trivia. List your priorities and stick to them. Reject all else. Set your face against the sloth which threatens to overtake and misdirect you. Plan and execute your private life as you would your business life. That's easy for you to say, whoever you are or were.

Persian Poetry: Andrew Marr has recently published a wonderful book on British poetry through the ages. The earliest bits are in Old English. So good luck in trying to understand them. In contrast, Persian speakers can easily understand poetry written a thousand years ago. And, thanks to a BBC podcast [What did I do before these came along?], I've learnt of Rumi, considered one of the greatest poets writing in Persian. Click here for info on him and his works. For which there are, of course, translations on-line. Strangely, he's been – and maybe still is – very popular in the USA.

Finally . . . You may not be aware it's been scientifically established that the secret to happiness is vanilla yoghurt. Or yo-ghurt, as out American cousins call it. If you find this hard to believe, have a listen to this BBC podcast from the excellent Adam Gopnick. I venture to guess you'll be convinced. Even if you aren't, you'll get an answer to the question of why people have found the Mona Lisa beautiful, when I certainly don't.


EU Referendum: papering over the lies

So, Mr Cameron says he has secured a "special status" for Britain within a reformed EU. He has done no such thing. His deal pretends to be legally biding but it is not.

He has cobbled together a pretend treaty combining a mish-mash of aspirations and political declarations, with no legal force whatsoever. Those parts which promise substantive change are dependent on treaty change at some unspecified point in the future, with no guarantees that they can be delivered.

Thus, the claim to have opted out of "ever closer union" - the federalist ratchet at the heart of the 28-country project – can have no legal effect until this future new treaty is in place. Likewise, the supposed safeguards on the eurozone are entirely dependent on this mythical treaty. They rest on clauses yet to be written by future leaders, which then have to be agreed and ratified by all 28-member states – and any others that may have joined in the interim.

The supposed "emergency brake" on welfare benefits is the ultimate confidence trick. Mr Cameron and the heads of state have simply re-cooked a 22-year-old provision written in the European Economic Area Agreement, fiddling with minor provisions in existing EU law which now need European Parliament approval and which can be overturned at a drop of a hat.

The "red card" is nothing but a hollow joke. It only applies to a fraction of the EU law book and can only be evoked on such narrow technical grounds, that even former Foreign Secretary William Hague joked that if the Commission proposed to slaughter the first-born, we would not be able to stop it.

Britain is still in just as much danger of being dragged along in the slipstream of the Continent's headlong rush to the formation of a new state that will crush what is left of our freedom and democracy. Having offered a new treaty in his 2013 Bloomberg speech, in which he first promised a referendum, and then promised a "full-on" treaty change, Mr Cameron has come back from Brussels with a pretend treaty which amounts to a fraud on the British people.

What this amounts to is the Prime Minister trying to cover up the brutal truth that he has made a promise which he can' t deliver. When he called for EU treaty change in 2013 during his Bloomberg speech, he had assumed (wrongly) that a new treaty was imminent. In fact, this had been proposed by Angela Merkel has already, the previous autumn, put it on hold.

Unaware of this, Mr Cameron thought he could go to Brussels and emulate the actions of his heroine, Margaret Thatcher, and "handbag" his way though the summit, demanding changes to existing treaties in exchange for approving much needed powers to manage the eurozone.

It was against that timetable that the then opposition leader set the timetable for the end of 2017 but, even by the time of his election victory in May of last year, it was already apparent that there could be no formal treat in the time set. Mr Cameron was already doomed. He was tied to a promise he could not deliver.

Since then, we have seen the dance of the seven veils, as the Prime Minister has sought to conceal from the British public this brutal truth, culminating in last Friday's charade when he pretended to have negotiated a "special status" which isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

Mr Cameron may have in his mind’s eye the image of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich in 1938, triumphantly waving his "piece of paper" at Heston Airport (where the M4 service station now stands), but at least Mr Chamberlain’s "deal" bought us critical time, allowing us to re-arm sufficiently against the Nazi menace.

But this piece of paper is nothing but a fraud – a pretence. This Prime Minister has brought nothing back, nothing of substance, and is now intent on using is as the basis for a referendum where he is intent on selling his snake-oil "special status".

Yet, all the time, Mr Cameron's efforts have been a sideshow besides the main event – the real renegotiation under way to transform the 19 members of the Eurozone into a single state. That is the EU real agenda not the stage-managed drama of the Prime Minister emerging blinking into the light and announcing he has secured our future for a generation.

Nor should we assume that the Brussels barons will treat us kindly if we vote to remain in the EU. They will brush aside future British protests, telling us that we have had our chance to do things our way and rejected it. Our prospects sitting uneasily on the margins of the emerging superstate will not be promising. Unloved, ignored and marginalised, we face an uncertain, even risky future, on the outskirts of the new European empire.

This is why, on 23 June, we have to vote to leave the EU. To buy into Mr Cameron's pretence is to give him and successive politicians a license to lie. If as a people, we accept this garbage, we will take anything – and deserve what we get.

EU Referendum: a gap in the market

Once or twice, I may have mentioned the need for an exit plan. And now, from the Prime Minister's statement announcing the date of the referendum, we have another good illustration of why one was needed.

When Mr Cameron announced that we would have referendum in May last year, after his general election victory, Flexcit was ready. If the leave campaigns had adopted it, and promoted it, we would not now be having a prime minister saying that leaving the EU was "a leap in the dark".

Nine months later, we are still no further forward in agreeing a coherent exit plan. Instead, we have an incoherent babble from the eurosceptic "aristocracy", while the fool Cummings is seriously proposing we start by repealing Section 2 of the European Communities Act.

The stupidity of this has been explored by Pete, who has also ventured that the lack of a coherent exit plan "is why we will likely lose the referendum".

I believe he is right. We have wasted too many months. When we could have been locking a plan into the consciousness of the public, reassuring them that leaving the EU is a safe and credible option, we have been frittering away precious time, time that we no longer have.

Had the Prime Minister chosen to go long, as I constantly, predicted, we might have had time to catch up. But my suspicion is that the lack of coherence in the leave side was one of the reasons why he chose to go early.

Now, despite his campaign being built on a foundation of lies, he must be confident that the inability of the "big leaves" to come up with a coherent plan outweighs his obvious handicap. He is stressing that to remain in the EU is the "safe" choice, and there is nothing lodged in the public mind to counter that.

Having given the Prime Minister a head start and, in my view, left it too late, in the high-noise environment of the next four months, there will be insufficient time to recover from this unforced error.

However, the deed is done – or undone. We have laid down a marker, to which we will return in due course. For now, we have to fight with what we have, and for the next four months that's what this blog will be doing. After that, there will be plenty of time for the reckoning that must then come.

Brexit would mean that we don’t give a damn

A breakaway would seriously damage Europe. The West are the good guys, after all, the torchbearers of civilisation.

It is possible these eleventh-hour shenanigans in Brussels really are make or break. It’s possible they’re phoney, scripted to inject theatre into an already done deal. Frighteningly, it’s also possible that what was meant to be scripted has taken on a life of its own. Michael Gove may be forgiven for his decision but he will not be forgiven for the timing. 

Soon enough the referendum campaign may be under way. Already, commentators seem agreed about what sort of campaign it will be. But I wonder. “When the shoeshine boy says ‘buy’,” a Wall Street zillionaire once warned, “sell”. If an opinion begins to feel like a cliché, it may time to think again.

Project Fear has become that cliché: whichever side can scare the voters most, wins. “Waverers,” says the shoeshine boy, “will never believe life will be better if we stay. Only fear that it will be worse if we leave can move them now.” I’ve argued this. Britain will never love the EU, and economic doubt will prove the Stay campaign’s most powerful recruiting sergeant. I’d despair of making “the positive case for Europe” with any passion.

But I wonder whether the trading of rival economic scare stories may be approaching its natural limit. This contest will never be clinched by arithmetic. 
Each side can bandy figures and each can bandy rebuttals and there is no white-bearded Economist-in-the-Sky to adjudicate. Among the undecided, exasperation with the cost/benefit trench war is already surfacing.

Enter the Positive Case for Europe? Not quite. But in place of Project Fear, how about Project Care? We might pause to remind ourselves of some of the big things European unity does for the West as a whole. We might give a thought to the impact British withdrawal would have on this. Not just “What’s in it for us?” but “What would our departure do to Europe and the world?” This is a dangerous time in world history. Is a united Europe helpful to the West — and, if so, should Britain wreck it?

Setting aside, then, the bean-counting and migrant-counting that dominate the news as David Cameron brings home the bacon (or doesn’t), we should ask whether it’s only about the bacon. Is the EU good for Europe as a continent? We should care about that.

Europhiles cite a clutch of areas where co-operation makes practical sense. But I have something much bigger in mind: as important to our survival as it is cloudy and imprecise. The impact on 21st-century history of a major fracture within Europe is impossible to calculate, but I believe it would reverberate through this century. Could it be that, after all the crying wolf, this really is about the future of western civilisation?

Britain’s exit would rock the West to its foundations. And I do mean the West, to which we may add Japan and Australia; not just Europe and the Americas. An irony about both the Leave and the Stay cases as popularly presented here is that both have implicitly demeaned our own country’s importance. The Stay campaign has dwelt on the goodies the EU showers on us. The Leave campaign has preferred an underdog whine about the horrible things “Europe” does to us. One side thinks we should be grateful, the other reproachful. Either way, Britain is cast as supplicant.

But how about the other way round? We are Europe’s second-largest economy and the fifth largest economy in the world. We are Europe’s biggest defence power and the fifth biggest in the world. We’re the second most powerful (after America) member of Nato. We occupy one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council.

If cited at all, we hear these facts cited as evidence that Britain could go it alone — and who can doubt it? But carrying the weight we do, what would our storming out of the West’s most important concert of nations do the West? A great wound would be inflicted to the clout that the continent of Europe carries, to the self-belief of European civilisation and to the image of Europe in the world.

British Europhobes, who set much store by our friendship with the Americans, should ask how Washington would see a major fracture within democratic Europe. They set much store by our friendship with the old (white) Commonwealth. They should ask Canada, New Zealand and Australia how those nations would greet the cracking up of Europe.

Use your imagination. Picture an inevitably angry and bitter British exit. Ask how Islamic State would broadcast this new example of disunity within the West. Would jihadists take fright — or heart — that European nations were dividing? Ask yourself how Putin and the Kremlin would view the news. Imagine the glee. Do you envisage apprehension in Beijing, now that they would be dealing with a disunited Europe?

For all its squabbles, for all its bureaucracy, its somnolence and its clodhopping complacency, there is such a thing as European civilisation and there is such a thing as the West. We are the good guys; we are the believers in democratic values; we are the torchbearers of the age of reason. We are on the side of light. Whether or not, postwar, we did best to clothe our fellowship in the machinery of a political association, the machine has become a fact and we have become part of the fact. 

Our breakaway would be a collapse for the whole. It would carry profound implications for more than the balance of power in the world: but for the battle of ideas and values, too: a battle which is turning critical, and for which the century ahead looks ever more likely to form the stage.

With or without us the future of the European Union looks fragile. Without us I’d predict disintegration. France is no longer a counterbalance to Germany; Italy struggles; Spain is still finding its democratic feet. With Britain’s great weight removed the centre of gravity of the whole lurches. Germany, whose besetting sins are over-confidence and clumsiness, would finally topple the whole. And history would be right to cast Britain as accomplice to the wreck.

Quitting now would be an abdication of responsibility. We should care about that. There aren’t enough people in today’s world trying to get on with each other. Let’s stick with those that are. In the coming 18 weeks I would not despair of getting this argument across. Even to the shoeshine boy.

A modification by my friend Eamon in La Coruña. The obvious error is that the 'Spanish nun' is too tall.


Eamon said...

You are standing on the road while the nun is just standing on the kerb of the pavement gaining four inches in height.

Alma Patist said...

Very well said, Colin. As a Filipina turned European by virtue of marriage and lifestyle, I totally agree with the need for unity. Now more than ever we have to pull together to defend the values that the Western world stands for. The alternative is simply much too frightening.

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