View from Brussels - General

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Lockdown in Brussels highlights policing failures

26 November 2015 by Pelle Neroth

All eyes are on the Middle East. We may rue the times when our biggest problem was Brussels legislating about widgets and the democratic deficits associated with those decisions being made in Brussels.

That Brussels went into lockdown last week after media stories surfaces about the quarter of Molenbeek in the West of the city being terror central for Islamic terrorism doesn't surprise me at all. I know many assistants in the European parliament who have been mugged. MEPs too: at least one MEP in the Rue Wiertz in front of the European parliament, just metres away from the entrance with its officious, but actually impotent, security guards. It is all hushed up.

Belgian policing is weak. Belgium was founded in 1830 as a buffer state between the larger warrior states surrounding it. An abhorrence of war and a penchant for good food and an easy life has been a defining characteristic of the country ever since. Brussels is said to have more Michelin starred restaurants than Paris. While the petty bourgeois pacifist mentality can be appealing, I don't think policing is as tough as it ought to be, either against muggers or anyone else.

It is a policing system adapted to the much more peaceful, and closed, society Belgium would have been in the sixties and seventies.
I have been in the police station off the Grand Place a couple of times. The service is very off-hand. You never see the police on patrol, even though the area near the Bourse and Grand Place is a high crime zone. Pickpocketing, that sort of thing. A couple of times I have seen groups of Muslim young men with very particular fascist-type cropped hair styles and bomber jackets holding up metro doors, and preventing the doors from closing and the train from departing. I don't know why they do this - is it to say "I am in charge?" London has its foreign areas too - I have lived for a long time on the borders of Brent, North West London. But in Brussels the mood feels much more threatening.

I have always attributed it to the greater firmness of British policing. British right wingers would doubtless said that British policing is far too feeble...well, they have never experienced Belgian policing.

Tim King, a writer at Politico, the newspaper covering EU affairs, describes the Belgian police thus:

"In a country where all politics is local, politicians are reluctant to give up their patronage by merging resources. For instance, Brussels has 19 communes, or boroughs, which range in population from 20,000 to 150,000. Each commune had its own police force. Although they have been now consolidated into six, that is still a logistical nonsense in a city of only 1.4 million. It still means that the commune police are perceived as a local provider of jobs for the low-skilled. Occasional brushes with such police do not inspire confidence."

That is the problem with the Schengen agreement: terrorists can be based in a country with weak policing, and then just drop into the country where they want to carry out their attack. France for instance has a much better policing service, but also this open border with Belgium. There are lots of arms from the Balkan wars floating around Europe. I am amazed the gunman firing into a crowded venue to cause maximum mayhem hasn't been tried by terrorists before.

The EU has had a summit, inevitably, after the Paris attack and agreed new security measures. The European Parliament has, in its head-in-the clouds way, called for a pan-European intelligence agency to combat terrorism. But of course that was never going to happen. Intelligence agencies, with their links to the most secret parts of government, are the most jealously guarded aspects of sovereignty. What they did agree on was this: there is to be a push to agree to better intelligence sharing of airline records on passengers, something hitherto held up by the privacy-minded European parliament.

Member states are called upon to check the passports of EU citizens returning from non European countries against the Schengen Information Database, which records police alerts on individuals and information about stolen travel documents. Amazingly - and I didn't know this - that is not routinely done. I thought that is what the passport police did when they swiped your passport through a machine reader. However, according to reports, "individual states, though, will retain significant power over the level and frequency of these checks".

In other words, Europe's outer borders will only be as firm as the weakest of them. And of course there are no passport checks at all at the intra European borders.

The huge rise in asylum cases represent another terror threat. Nearly every refugee arriving in Sweden (I can't vouch for the rest of the EU) arrives without papers: where he comes from is on his say-so. Often, as whisteblowers inside the migration agency attest, often not even basic tests of accent, cover story and test questions about Syria are asked.

Migration agency staff are subjected to "lean management theory"; and know that the more cases they process, the greater the prospect of a salary rise. So handling a case as quickly as possible is important. Some of the applicants are Syrians safely resident elsewhere who want the benefits Sweden has to offer. Others come from other part of the Arab world, Morocco or Libya, And of course no one knows if some of these young men - nearly all the people arriving in Sweden are men in their twenties - have terrorist connections.

Gothenburg, Sweden's second city, holds the dubious distinction of being the city in Europe that has sent the most people down to fight with the Islamic State. The contrast between Belgian, Swedish and probably general European slackness on all the questions related to our destinies is stunning compared to the extremely detailed checks the Americans carry out on those few refugees that are settled in the United States.

According to Time magazine, nine different government agencies scrutinise the refugee's application:

"Among the agencies involved are the State Department, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS officer conducts in-person interviews with every applicant. Biometric information such as fingerprints are collected and matched against criminal databases. Biographical information such as past visa applications are scrutinized to ensure the applicant's story coheres."

When will Europe wake up? And when it wakes up, will this mean the end of the open borders European dream?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 26 November 2015 at 09:59 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 26 November 2015 09:53 AM     General     Comments (0)  

The West should put its own house in order first

19 November 2015 by Pelle Neroth

"We publish news, it is the other side that publishes propaganda", we say. But scepticism about propaganda ought to begin at home.

The European Union has just formed an information unit to, via social media and other means, combat "propaganda" coming out of Putin's Russia, from the likes of Russia Today and the Sputnik news agency. Russia Today's slogan is "Question More", and while even its staff admit they don't examine the Putin regime too closely, the 24 hour news channel broadcasting in English but funded by the Russian government boasts that it raises issues about the West that the "mainstream corporate media" don't touch, or don't cover enough.

The negative consequences of immigration on the social cohesion of Western Europe's cities or the truth about how the banking sector in the West extracts exorbitant privileges at the expense of the average taxpayer being two examples RT supporters like to cite. Russia Today also likes to say that the Western media criticising RT for lacking in objectivity is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

I was just watching a documentary by Canadian film maker Jean-Philippe Tremblay called the Shadows of Liberty that seems to support this view. The director talks to a number of American journalists who were sacked by their employers for chasing stories that the media outlets they worked for found inconvenient. For example, CBS news chief correspondent Roberta Baskin, who went to Vietnam and discovered that workers in the factories that made Nike running shoes were treated badly. The workers, invariably female, were coshed over the head - with a training shoe - for seemingly small infractions. Baskin said, when interviewed about it later, that Nike's freedom asserting slogan "Just do it" ought to be amended to "Just do it, or else". The reportage had an enormous impact: Nike Town stores across the United States were picketed by angry customers.

Baskin's follow-up reportage was canned and when she complained that her employer CBS had done a tie in deal with Nike sportswear so that the TV station's presenters would be wearing their winter jacket gear when presenting the 1998 winter Olympics - to defray some of the expensive costs of paying for the viewing rights - Baskin was demoted and edged out of her job.

Another case dealt with by the documentary is the downing of TWA flight 800 in July 1996. Officially the cause of the plane crash was an explosion in a fuel tank, but several witnesses described seeing a missile heading towards the jumbo jet flying over Long Island on that fateful evening of 17 July 1996. The lead investigator for the National Safety Transportation Board, Henry Hughes, produced a 49 page affadavit where he mostly distanced himself from an investigation that he describes in terms of a whitewash.

What he and his group did find was worrying enough, though: as group chairman of their airplane interior documentation group, he and his officials found that his analysis meshed with the suppressed eyewitness accounts. "The official [FBI] theory for the crash - the explosion of the centre wing tank - was not consistent with the hard evidence" or, he adds, "witness accounts".

Hughes wrote in his affidavit: "The damage patterns my team catalogued , including seat damage and passenger injury patterns, were random, which indicated a high ordnance detonation, not a low speed explosion like the centre fuel tank blowing up. The damage patterns were consistent with a high degree of separation of parts early in the crash sequence which is consistent with a high order explosion from a military type explosive detonating a significant distance away from the airframe and could not have been caused by the officially adopted low velocity fuel air explosion."

The NTSB leadership were not interested in what Hughes had to say, and prohibited Hughes and his team - one of a subset of the NTSB part of the investigation - from writing the customary analysis report based on his group's findings. "This was the first time in my 26 years as an accident investigator that I had been asked not to write an analysis", Hughes said. The chief medical examiner and the aeromedical forensic consultant were asked to send in autopsy photographs of the recovered bodies, but were not called upon to do any analysis. The same day the FBI closed the investigation while announcing there was "absolutely no evidence" a "criminal event" ( ie a missile attack) had caused the downing of the TWA plane. Four months earlier, at a Congressional hearing of TWA 800, the FBI's official in charge of the investigation testified under oath that "no eyewitnesses" had described seeing a missile. Even though many dozens of witnesses had in fact reported such a thing

At a fact-finding open hearing conducted by the NTSB in Baltimore, witness accounts were not allowed to be heard, something that contravened NTSB practice and had never been done before or since the TWA shootdown. Contravening the orders of his boss, the official charged with witness testimonies group in the NTSB photocopied his witness fact report and distributed to those present at the hearing. Among the statistics cited was the following: of the 102 eyewitnesses who had reported to the FBI they had seen a streak of light, 96 said the streak rose from the earth's surface. This contradicted the controversial animation for the FBI, and shown on primetime American TV, that contended that the streak of light was the airplane shooting upwards after the internal explosion. After the Baltimore hearing, the independent-minded witness group investigator was moved off his job by the NTSB. So was Hank Hughes.

Kristina Borjesson, a CBS producer who was on the job the evening of the crash, was tasked to go out to Long Island where bodies had started drifted ashore and to make reports about the crash. She soon discovered some of the anomalies about the crash. She has spent 15 years trying to rehabilitate her name - by showing her hunches were right - and in 2013 completed a documentary on TWA 800 that made a cogent case, said New York TV critics, for the argument the jumbo was shot down by a missile rather exploded due to a fuel tank accident. Who was responsible? There was a US Navy exercise going on in the area at a time. A gruesome accident three months before the US election that might have torpedoed Bill Clinton's reelection chances?

Borjesson's extremely well documented documentary - as professional as these things can be - was shown only on the obscure cable channel called Epix, but word of mouth has assured several million views, as of counting, for repeat showing on the video-on-demand service Netflix. Why was she sacked? Tremblay quotes commentators in his documentary that point to CBS's ownership by Westinghouse, a large corporation with nuclear industry interests that was also a large supplier of military material to the United States armed forces at the time. If CBS had gone ahead and created a scandal of enormous proportions, both for US Navy and US government, how many billions of dollars of lost US government contracts threatened CBS's owners?

So perhaps that was why they put the lid on it. Dan Rather, the classic anchorman for CBS for over thirty years, has spent his retirement denouncing the corporate media system of which he is part. He argues, in the Canadian documentary and elsewhere, that connections between US government and the huge corporate entities that own the large TV stations are tighter than the general public could possibly imagine. And to get favours from the administration - such as a 1996 decision by Bill Clinton that allowed a huge consolidations to take place in the media market - like a later merger between ABC and Disney - the corporations go easy on the White House . Dan Rather says TV news definitely comes under the category of entertainment, and that, in the US at least, you don't go there to find out what is going on in the world.

These cases are just small examples of how news doesn't have a neutral slant, but there is an often agenda. It is not only in America, and not only by omission - by spiking stories - that influence takes place. In Europe, in Poland, two young journalists have exposed the state think tank PISM's sponsored reports on nuclear and defence issues that are very influential with media and policy makers. The sponsors just happen to be the American defence/nuclear industry companies that would benefit if Poland and the rest of Europe rearmed to take on a Russian threat whose reality, they say, has been exaggerated by the mainstream media.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 19 November 2015 07:52 AM     General     Comments (0)  

The end of Schengen?

14 November 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Can Schengen and the EU survive the terror attack in Paris?
France has closed its borders after a terrorist attack that killed 120 people, or even more, in Paris following multiple terrorist attacks by Islamists in Paris on Friday night.

It raises the question of whether Europe can really afford to maintain a union of open borders, from the tip of Brittany to the coasts of Sicily, from the Hellespont to the Arctic Circle. The Daily Telegraph talked this morning of the dangers of a fleet-footed refugee mass from the war in Syria taking advantage of the open borders in Europe, mainly to exploit the generosity of the welfare state that offers the best deal, or the most likely chance of asylum.

Once settled in, in, say, Germany or Sweden, with newly minted German or Swedish passports, they can then move to Britain (under free EU rules to settle in another country) where employment conditions are easier and where the language barrier is lower. This would mean big changes for Britain, one where the British people have not been consulted. Britain is not part of Schengen, but other EU states are more vulnerable, since the refugees don't even have to wait for passports to make their move: Europe has open borders.

The Paris attack - written after the Telegraph opinion piece was published - raises the further possibility that terrorists might use open borders to conduct their operations more successfully. A cell might establish and organise itself in one country, where policing and surveillance standards are lower, then simply slip across borders to hit their target.

The Danish minister for immigration recently attacked Sweden for having had an extremely irresponsible immigration policy for quite a long time. The opinion climate in Sweden on immigration has long been what could be described as "left McCarthyite". An extremely strong humanitarian, some might say naïve, policy has encouraged people from the developing world to come and live in Sweden. Any politician who advocated a restrictive policy in the national interest - say, similar to the British government's policy - was until recently hounded out of public life by an inquisitorial media. Sweden will take in 150,000 migrants this year. At the current rate of 10,000 a week it could be 400-500,000 next year.

This in a country of nine million people. You don't need to be a genius to work out that, if the numbers continue to be like this, the Swedes are making their own culture extinct within a generation. There is not particular economic necessity to do so, since Swedish birth rates are quite high in a European context. The costs will be social, cultural and very possibly economic, since the gap in employment rates between immigrants and natives is the highest in the EU. In nearby Norway, where migrant employment levels are also low, studies have shown that the average non-European immigrant draws 4 million Norwegian kronor more in benefits than he pays in taxes during a lifetime.

The sum total, if translated to 500,000 immigrants per year, would come two trillion kronor (£200bn) per year. Sweden's public finances have been in good shape for the past 20 years, but the government is now having to make cuts across the board, in elderly care, for instance, to fund the influx. With rooms at hotels, hostels, spas all being bought up to house refugees, asylum seekers are now being housed in tent encampments.

If Sweden really does close its borders, the migrants, already in Europe, may stop off in Denmark instead. This is what the Danish immigration minister meant about Sweden's irresponsible immigration policy. Sweden has sent signals, which the whole rest of the world has received loud and clear: come to Europe, you will be welcome with open arms and a financially generous settlement.

There are numerous Arabic language websites run by people smugglers that point to Sweden as a country of milk, honey and benefits.

Only the existence of the Mediterranean sea, Turkish naval policing efforts and Hungary's oft-derided effort to build a border barrier along its southern perimeter - derided as anti-humanitarian by Swedish politicians and commentators - has prevented the numbers from being even greater than they are.

The Swedish security police admits there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of migrants who are members of ISIS. A Swedish police whistleblower called Goran Larsson admitted there were several fake passport networks operating in Sweden, complete with forgery equipment. And that Sweden was something of a centre for people smugglers, on account of its slack policing.

His unit had already exposed several members of one false network but then, unbelievably, the police work was stopped from going further by the police leadership, sensitive to the politically correct signals coming from the politicians.

As of writing, we don't know if the Paris attacks are a domestic effort. This is quite possible. France has an enormous Muslim community. But the argument in many European countries to close their borders will be more compelling, on emotional level at least, than the notion that the European Union might be a solution to the terror crisis, through for example more European commission mandated intelligence cooperation.

Sweden has obviously put solidarity with the rest of the world above solidarity with other EU member states, most of which are extremely against anything that would encourage mass migration from Africa and the Middle East, partly out of fears of social cohesion, and, not least, a terror threat. When a "good" country like Sweden pursues its own agenda so, to the detriment of the interests of its neighbours, what hope is there for the EU?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 14 November 2015 at 08:04 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 14 November 2015 07:57 PM     General     Comments (0)  

George is smarter than Angela

12 November 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Clever George Osborne has just pulled a rabbit out of a hat: a pivot to China, the media call it.

Following the state visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Britain, with all the stops pulled out, commercial, industrial and cultural deals galore have been struck. A tieless Cameron and Xi drink pints and proclaim each other mutual favoured partners.

Funny symmetry: just as the UK created a foothold in China once upon a time, through Hong Kong, China is using the UK to gain a foothold in Europe

What is positive is that is a way of signalling openness, saying Britain is open for business at a time when anti-immigration sentiment is running high in Europe. At the same, the reality of the matter is UK government is keeping the borders firmly shut against the hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving in Europe from the Middle East and Afghanistan, many not at all fleeing war but just looking for a better life.

Germany and Sweden are taking the lion's share here, betting on people with generally low skills levels to transform their economies and not be a burden on their welfare states. The perceived risks of this largely Muslim immigration is hammering the Swedish and German governments' popularity. Osborne's idea of rapprochement with the industrial and soon-everything-superpower China seems way smarter

One wonders, though, whether it has been cleared with the Americans, currently complaining about the "Hollandisation" of their closest ally: Cameron seems to be withdrawing from geopolitics in favour of building up Britain's battered commercial and economic position.

China and the US are currently having a war of words over the semi-submerged Spratly islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese are building artificial reefs in order to claim the sea around the islands, sitting astride one of the world's major shipping lanes and in an area of unexploited gas reserves. Fleet Street has been relatively pragmatic about these developments, and Chinese human rights problems generally. Funny double standards. If the Russians had aimed at control over vast swathes of ocean the way the Chinese seem to be doing you can only imagine the reaction in the British press.

Anyway, Britain needs to pay its way in the world and Osborne knows that. The manufacturing sector is still weak; the economy overly dependent on services and loan-financed consumption. But Britain is a world leader in the export of services.

The EU has not offered the breakthrough for free trade in services many thought. So could China be the alternative?

It is true that the Chinese are helping to build the new UK nuclear power station, Hinkley Point C, with the help of French EDF. Chinese expertise at railway building - they have just built a high speed railway in Xinjiang province at 3,600 metres' altitude - could be useful in developing a high speed infrastructure in the UK.

But Premier Xi has spoken of a rebalancing of the Chinese economy away from production into consumption and services, and the British could find an even more profitable opening here. The Germans, who are the by far biggest exporters in Europe to China, and currently see themselves as the privileged partners thank you-very-much (Chancellor Merkel scooted off to China very shortly after the Chinese state visit to Britain) have been please to find that the Chinese haven't used their links with German car makers to innovate their own competitive alternatives. Rather, as long as they get the profits from co-production, they are happy to let German marques dominate the upper end of the Chinese market.

The Chinese are less interested in competence transfer than joint ventures leading to profits. The British must hoping something similar for services.

Osborne is said to be a Eurosceptic, but the pro-EU think tank British Influence points to all the important battles still to be won in Brussels, in opening a single market in Europe for telecoms and energy and offer opportunities for British firms. President Xi has said it is important that Britain stay in Europe to be interesting to China.

Inward investment to the UK from Europe would dwarf Chinese commitments even if Chinese investment quadrupled from its very low level of 0.1%. So Britain has to be careful that the lure of the novelty of eastern opportunities doesn't crowd out the management of the continuing importance of Europe.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 12 November 2015 at 10:15 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 12 November 2015 09:27 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Electric dreams: Norway's love affair with the Tesla

7 November 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Norway is one of the world's leading markets for the Tesla electrical car, billed as the non polluting alternative to the BMW. In fact, the third largest market behind the US and China.

Not bad for a country with a population smaller than Hong Kong. And somewhat ironic, perhaps, given that Norway is Europe's largest exporter of oil.

A glamorous thing to have in your drive, the sleek, head-turning Tesla luxury saloon is a brainchild of genius inventor Elon Musk, the Canadian-American engineer, inventor and investor also known as the entrepreneur brains behind Paypal and founder of the space transport services company Space X.

Popularity of electric cars has surged in Norway as the small Scandinavian country is engaging in the world's most ambitious effort to wean a population off fossil fuels. Two years ago, electric vehicles made up just five percent of car sales. This year, until October, electric cars make up 22.2% of new car sales - an astonishing quadrupling of numbers in just two years.

Not just the Tesla Model S - whose top variant, the P85D, retails in Norway at the equivalent of £62,000 - but also the more modestly dimensioned Nissan Leaf car and the domestically produced Think hatchback. Another best-seller is the e-Golf, the electric car version whose petrol and diesel equivalent costs several thousand pounds more in Norway, thanks to the subsidies accruing to the electric version; whereas in the UK and Sweden, the e-Golf is dearer than its fossil fuel equivalent.

Electric vehicles only make up 2% of the total car pool, but, if these sales figures hold up, Norway could be well on its way to outdistancing the number two country in the electric car league, Holland, by several further laps.

The good thing about electric cars is that they don't produce CO2 emissions, and if they are powered by electricity that itself was produced cleanly, so much the better. Rainy, mountainous Norway is almost entirely self sufficient in non polluting hydro electricity. The natural gas is not used for domestic electricity production, but exported across the North Sea - to the UK.

But the main reason for the sales boost appears to be less concern for the environment, more related to the economic incentives the government has put in place: electric cars are exempt from the eye-wateringly high sales taxes imposed on diesel and petrol cars. There is some relief on road taxes. Norway is a high income country, where high taxes, and prices, on nearly everything is just a fact of life.

The government throws in free parking, and exemptions on road tolls, bridge and ferry tolls. Electric cars are allowed to use bus lanes. Petrol is expensive in Norway - of course - while recharging your car costs only a couple of pounds.

What is there not to like? Well, Oslo only has about 700 charging points, while there are 66,000 electric cars in the country - the majority concentrated in the prosperous Oslo area.

That is a hundred cars per charging point: to avoid the aggravation of facing down other electric car users for desirable inner city public charging slots, most people charge their cars at home.

Norway is a large, sparsely populated country of mountains, empty tundra and fjords, so unless the network of rural charging points is massively expanded, electric cars will remain a commuter option rather than long range cruising options. (Though the Tesla has a longer range than most, 400km.) The exemption from road and bridge and ferry tolls has negatively hit the rural operators of these services.

Even though Norway manages the world's largest sovereign wealth fund - it is where all the oil and gas income is parked - there are questions about whether the government can afford, or is willing, to subsidise electric car users indefinitely through exemptions on taxes.

What will happen to the electric car market of the subsidies are removed? Will the market sink or swim?

Elon Musk and his company are said to treasure and nurture their popularity in Norway - the company has just opened its ninth dealership in the country. In return, the Norwegian example is used in the company's and the rest of the electric car lobby's battle with legislators in the United States.

Norway, they say, should be an example for the US in its enlightened tax subsidy policy. It produces clean transport and helps save the world's climate. Only there is this irony: Norway can afford to subsidise electric cars because it earns billions from oil and gas exports.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 07 November 2015 02:18 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Europe's ganging up on Google just a sign of its digital crisis, says report

3 November 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Another day, another statistical beauty contest: this time, the prestigious Harvard Business Review publishes a digital evolution index. There is both good and bad news for the UK (and Europe).

The good news is that western Europe does quite well in absolute figures in the magazine's digital evolution index. The UK one of the best actually, second in Europe after Sweden, comfortably ahead of same-size rivals France, Germany and Italy.

The index identifies how countries compare in their preparedness for the digital economy on four broad measures, which are then aggregated: transactions and e-business infrastructure; financial and business internet savviness; entrepreneurial and financial eco-systems and, finally, institutional preparedness, including government attitudes and legal effectiveness in the digital field.

The bad news is that Europe is falling behind in growth on these measures, with the exceptions of Switzerland and Estonia. The United States leads Europe both in absolute digital evolution figures and in growth. China is behind in absolute figures but soaring ahead in growth. And, while some educational and infrastructural measures may be lagging, there is the very size of China:

By 2018, China's e-tail market is predicted to rise to over $1 trillion dollars, bigger than the e-commerce markets of Japan, the UK, Germany, the US and France. China has over 4 billion bank cards in circulation. While, by this time tomorrow, another tens of millions of Chinese will have exchanged money via their mobile phones.

The report is an exercise in Whiggish capitalist boosterism that appears to believe in a world of non-finite resources, but here goes: we are moving towards a digital planet at different speeds, says the report. Everyone is chasing market share.

US giants such as Amazon and Ebay will seek "new growth and new markets". While the huge business-to-business e-tailer Alibaba, based in China, is looking to expand in Europe. They are favoured.

None of the world's 15 largest digital economy companies are European: a couple are Chinese, the rest American. The report's authors blame the EU's priorities, which seem to be driven by a negative fear (envy?) of American entrepreneurialism rather than conducted in a positive manner to try and combat the inability Europe seems to have in coming up with a Google or Facebook rival.

So Europe takes down Google when the European Commission charges it with abuse of its dominant position in the search engine market. The European Parliament recently voted for Google to be broken up - admittedly a nonbinding vote.

Or Europe focuses on privacy issues - Deutsche Telekom has launched an email service whose selling point is that all the data servers are located in Germany, away from the prying eyes of the National Security Agency. Fine to be concerned about digital human rights, but not sufficient.

Then the French intelligentsia work themselves into a conspiratorial lather about the mighty American business juggernaut they dub Gafa, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon. Again, preening cultural analysis is no substitute for action.

So what should Europe do? The European Commission talks of launching a Digital Maastricht Treaty, DMT. (The original Maastricht treaty of 1992 paved the way for the euro and the European Union in its modern supranational form). The DMT hopes to add 400 billion euros and 4 million jobs to Europe's economy, though such figures should always be taken as extremely speculative.

What should the DMT deal with? The internal market still isn't harmonised for digital products, and postage rates across borders are still too high. You can't do much about the diversity of languages, but you can "streamline digital rights management regulation". The venture capital situation in Europe remains rather poor, weak and undynamic, with the partial exceptions of London and Berlin.

Too great a proportion of investment has come from the banking sector. Because realising gains from an IPO is so difficult in Europe, entrepreneurs have to sell to US firms as their exit strategy. It happened with Skype and Mojang, the Swedish makers behind Minecraft. This is tragic, since it effectively dumps the fruits of such European innovation as there is into the Americans' laps.

The continent needs to shake off its scepticism towards funding from other kinds of risk capital, from other financial sources. Europe needs to change its culture of caution and fear of failure. According to the Youth Business International and Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, more than 40% of Europeans aged 18-35 are deterred from becoming entrepreneurs by fears that they will fail, compared to just 28% in Latin America and less in Africa.

Finally, more cities and universities in Europe should help create start-up financial, technology and advisory ecosystems that will help innovations flourish. Europe has a couple of cities, such as Berlin and London, that function thus; also, a few universities, such as Twente in the Netherlands, Heriot-Watt, Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne and Zurich. The authors, Bashkar Chakravorti and Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, also advocate more immigration to Europe. In the US, foreign-born individuals are massively overrepresented on the start-up scene. The report's authors conclude that, while all the attention has been lavished on the rise of the far right, the soaring unemployment, the crisis of the Euro, Greece's troubles and the continent's ageing problems, the "digital crisis" is potentially as serious as any of the others.

All this is music to the ears of the kind of globalising Eurosceptic who complains that Europe is too old fashioned, too set in its ways, for the UK to continue to hitch its wagon to. Another view would be that, for all this, Europe is still the continent with the second highest income per capita, and arguably has the highest quality of life and standard of living still. And, even if it is growing more slowly than the US, still scores a fair bit higher on HBR's digital evolution index than Africa, Asia, South America, and even fast-catching up China.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 03 November 2015 at 11:00 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 03 November 2015 10:26 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Is the Stay Behind story the biggest secret in Cold War Europe?

26 October 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Twenty-five years ago this month, the European Parliament did something unusually counter-establishment: it passed a resolution that found that the intelligence agencies of various EEC member states had carried out "serious cases of terrorism and crime". And that they "jeopardised the democratic structures of the states they were operating in".

Welcome to the world of the Stay Behinds, which is either the biggest secret of the Cold War in Western Europe, or, its detractors say, a conspiracy theory whose refutations would have to fill an entire book.

Stay Behind movements - sometimes known as Gladio after the movement's name in Italy, where the effect was worst - was a pan- European military resistance project set up by the British and Americans in former occupied Europe after the end of Second World War. Based on the SOE partisans who parachuted into Nazi controlled Europe - think Violette Szabo and radio sets and sten guns hidden in French barns - the Stay Behinds were forces that would remain quiescent until brought into play by a Soviet invasion.

The British and American experience was that it would be better to have partisans trained in blowing up enemy trains, assassinating collaborators and rescuing downed pilots before any Soviet invasion, rather than take a long time to build up as had happened during the Nazi occupation. The men were divided along a cell structure, prioritising anonymity and secrecy. Many ministers, generals, police chiefs in the target countries knew of the project.

There were several thousand ground operatives in a large country like Italy, several hundred in each of the Nordic countries, and so on. They had access to weapons hidden in arms caches hidden away in caves, country fields and churches. If the name was Gladio in Italy, it was Absalon in Denmark, ROC in Norway and SDRA8 in Belgium. The movement was present the Netherlands, France and West Germany too, where it was called the 'Technischer Dienst' (TD).

Europe's general publics were completely unaware.

The problem was, as security and intelligence historian John Prados puts it, introducing one of the most detailed accounts of the subject, Dr Daniele Ganser's NATO's Secret Armies, the cells originally to be activated only in a major war started to exercise their influence in peacetime political processes, sometimes even resorting to violence or terror to change the political situation in their host country.

Even worse, the police and security services in a number of cases chose to preserve their Cold war capabilities. The efforts carried out by the Stay Behinds were very real, but their controllers remain in the shadows. The CIA, MI6 and NATO have all stonewalled calls for clarification of their role. Various acts of political violence in Europe, from a series of supermarket terror attacks in Belgium in 1985, to the assassination of prime minister Olof Palme of Sweden in 1986, have been attributed to the Stay Behinds by local media.

The exposure of the existence of such a movement all started in Italy in 1984, when an investigative judge Felice Casson opened a cold case, a bomb attack against Carabinieri (the Italian paramilitary police) policemen twelve years before. The attack took place in a forest near the Italian village of Peteano. The bomb exploded when one of the Carabinieri opened the bonnet of an abandoned Fiat 500; three men were killed, one wounded. An anonymous phone call three days later implicated the Red Brigades, a Communist terrorist group which was trying to alter the political situation in Italy through hostage taking and assassinations. The police cracked down on the left and ordered the roundup of over 200 Communists.

But the attack was never really resolved until Casson started digging into the case. He found that the police expert had provided a fake report on the explosives, falsely saying it was of a type usually used by the Red Brigades, when in fact it was C4, an explosive commonly used in NATO. Casson also found a hushed up report from the same year, 1972, when a group of Carabinieri had found a weapons cache which included C4 explosives near Trieste. The police then went into discover a whole network of stashes which they went into great effort to keep secret. They all belonged to the Stay Behind cells.

In the event, a right wing terrorist called Vincenzo Vinciguerra was convicted and sentenced to life for the bombing at Peteano. But he insisted he was only the last man in a long chain of command that included Italian ministers and senior policemen, the puppetmasters of the Stay Behind movement.

Vinciguerra said at his trial:

"With the massacre of Peteano and with all those that have followed, the knowledge should by now be clear that there existed a real live structure, occult and hidden, with the capacity of giving a strategic direction to the outrages. [This structure] lies within the state itself. There exists in Italy a secret force parallel to the armed forces, composed of civilians and military men, in an anti-Soviet capacity, that is, to organise a resistance on Italian soil against a Russian army."

But why would anti Communist, anti Soviet grouping organised along military lines and of which the police and military establishment were members be involved in the killing of innocent policemen? This is where it gets conspiratorial: it was part of a strategy of tension, to get the left in Italy blamed, and shunned, and thus reduce the popularity of the Italian Communist Party, which was the major opposition party at the time.

So perhaps the Stay Behinds had another role: not just as partisans in the event of Soviet Occupation (which became increasingly unlikely since the guarantee of mutual nuclear destruction made military invasion suicide for the Soviets) but as political operatives existing to prevent, by means fair or foul, a legal takeover of Europe, in democratic elections, by the domestic Communist parties.

There were several, much larger, terrorist attacks in Italy after 1972. The historian of the Stay Behinds Daniele Ganser writes:

"Prominent massacres in Italy included a bomb which on May 28,1974 exploded in Brescia in the midst of an anti-Fascist demonstration, killing eight and injuring and maiming 102. On August 4, 1974 another bomb exploded on the Rome-to-Munich train Italicus Express, killing 12 and injuring and maiming 48. The atrocities culminated on a sunny afternoon during the Italian national holiday when on August 2, 1980 a massive explosion ripped through the waiting room of the second class at the Bologna railway station, killing 85 people in the blast and seriously injuring and maiming a further 200."

No one was ever convicted for these attacks. But were these attacks part of the "strategy of tension"? Casson gained the attention of a number of Italian senators, and this forced the Italian prime minister at the time, Giulio Andreotti, to admit the existence of the Stay Behinds in the summer of 1990. He added a few weeks later that the movements existed all over Europe, still operated, and that the most recent meeting in Brussels, to share information and strategies, had been just days before. So the movement was still going strong 45 years after the war.

However, he insisted the Stay Behind movement was benign, and totally denied it had been involved in terrorist attacks.

A series of admissions about the existence of Stay Behinds in other European capitals followed in the late autumn of 1990, culminating in the European parliament resolution.

There was one exception: London, allegedly as the spider in the organisational web the most implicated government of all. Even though it was in the middle of the run up to the first Gulf War, over Kuwait, British reporters still found time to ask about British ultimate control over the Stay Behinds.

The MOD said: "I'm afraid we wouldn't discuss security matters", and "It is a security matter. We are not speaking about it". Tom King, then defence secretary, said: "I am not sure what particular hot potato you're chasing after. It sounds wonderfully exciting, but I'm afraid I'm quite ignorant about it. I'm better informed about the Gulf."

With some delay, the BBC took on the subject. Newsnight reader John Simpson criticised the fact that MI6 and the Ministry of Defence were keeping quiet while "on the back of revelations that Gladio existed, it has emerged that other European countries had their own stay-behind armies - Belgium, France, Holland, Spain, Greece,Turkey.

"Even in neutral Sweden and Switzerland there has been public debate. And in some cases inquiries have been set up. Yet in Britain, there is nothing."

Simpson said that, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a year earlier, the British had learned about the secret conspiracy and terror operations of the Stasi, the Securitate and other secret services in
Eastern Europe.

"Could our side have ever done anything comparable? Surely not."

In 1992, the BBC broadcast a hard-hitting three part series on Gladio/Stay Behind, which remains the standard TV documentary on the subject.

(more in next post)

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 26 October 2015 at 05:59 PM by Pelle Neroth

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Do diesel cars deserve to die?

18 October 2015 by Pelle Neroth

The European car lobbyists at ACEA are trying to make a chauvinistic point about VW-gate: they have apparently written to ministers in EU states that the "US wants to challenge the leadership role that European manufacturers have taken" in diesel technology.

Background: VW engineers put some extra lines of code into the software platform that runs VW cars to make them produce better emissions results in test conditions than they would in the real world. (This stuff about "defeat devices" that the media talks about is overhyped. It's just code, it's not as if they have soldered extra equipment onto the exhaust).

It enables VW's boffins to outsmart the bureaucrats at the EPA, the American Environmental Protection Agency. Independent researchers catch VW out. Media scandal erupts, Twitter goes into a frenzy, hashtag #autogate. VW management heads roll. VW announces plans to retrofit millions of vehicles. VW - a German crown jewel, regarded as world-leading in auto design and production - suffers a huge reputational blow, particularly in the US. Hello BP, have we been here before?

So, a conspiracy by American national interests? That, then, is apparently what the European car industry would have us think. It is not impossible that it is so. The American corporate sector is not a bunch of saints. Everyone knows all this testing is always a bit of a fiddle, done with a nudge and wink. Why single out VW? Some say.

But the respectable NGO Transport and Environment would like us to start thinking differently: this is a long overdue alarm bell. The NGO argues that the European car industry is flogging a dead horse. Diesel is finished. A little tweaking here and there to improve the CO2 emissions profile - whether genuine improvements or fake tweaking as VW engineers were caught out doing - is neither here nor there. Europe's car industry had better just face it.

Jos Dings, director of T&E, writes: "A diesel car costs €2,000 more than a petrol one. And what do you get for all that? 10-15% less CO2 and worse air quality, while for the same €2,000 you can make a petrol car at least 30% more fuel efficient without air quality trade-offs."

Non Europeans somehow get this. European carmakers may be leaders in diesel technology, and 1 in 2 cars sold in Europe (higher in some countries) are indeed diesels. But diesel is not an export success: only 5% of vehicles outside Europe are diesels.

T&E has compiled a fact sheet about diesel's health issues. NOx is a mixture of mainly nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. Diesel produces loads of it. "Testing conducted by the independent International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found that a typical modern Euro 6 diesel emits 7-10 times more nitrogen dioxides (NOx) on the road than the Euro 6 limit achieved in tests (80mg/km). Petrol cars have a tighter limit (60mg/km) that is typically met on the road." Diesel exhaust fumes cause cancer, and there are short term health effects like asthma. While in the air, nitrogen oxides are converted to harmful pollutants like ozone.

Some countries are throwing in the towel: France and Belgium, where diesel makes up 65% of cars, are ending the tax privileges of diesel over the next few years, leaving Germany as a powerful holdout. Will Germany be stuck in the slow lane of auto innovation while China forges ahead to build an all electric car fleet? Far from blaming those damned Yanks, argues Dinks, we should thank the Americans for taking on the European car lobby who subjected us to decades of noxious diesel emissions. "Not a single national type approval authority [in Europe] did any serious checks on the vehicles it approved, even though they all knew something was very wrong with the NOx performance of almost all diesel cars."

When it throws the rule book at corporations, Europe sometimes likes to argue that "regulation breeds innovation", or "bans breed innovation". A variation on the theme of "necessity is the mother of invention". Some industries, read the car industry, may have been protected by powerful nation states, read Germany. But for our health's sake, isn't it better to lift that innovation and force the automotive industry to innovate itself to success?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 18 October 2015 at 07:59 AM by Pelle Neroth

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Technological advances have slowed since 1971. Is this the EU's fault?

10 October 2015 by Pelle Neroth

In Brussels the other day I heard a woman from the greater-safety-in-clinical trials NGO talk tough to the medicines companies: she wanted access to more clinical trial data for medicines made decades ago so that we could get better medicine in the future.

I could see the man from the European Pharmaceutical industry sink in his seat. Maybe he had a point: is this drive for greater safety leading is to less innovation?

Of course, he couldn't say that. Nor could his employer. But maybe they should, really? Fewer new medicines are coming out of the pipeline because of ever more onerous reporting requirements, ever more pedantic clinical trials. The woman in Brussels wanted old clinical trial data because medicine already on the market had not been subjected to the clinical trial standards that prevail today. For a moment, I imagined I could read his deepest thoughts: not only the left NGOs want to make it difficult to get new medicines on the market, they want to restrict the ones out there, that have already earned us billions.

I thought of the industry lobbyist perspective the other day when I saw an article that speculated that innovation had actually slowed down after around 1971. Of course we have had the internet, and mobiles, great things, but the journalist argued against the prevaling narrative that the 21st century was a world of accelerating advances.

Actually, changes are not nearly as fast as they were between the years 1945 to 1971, the Golden quarter century. We fly across the Atlantic in eight hours, the same as in 1971. (And in between we had Concorde, which crossed the Atlantic in three.) For our grandfather's generation (mine was born in 1909), change happened at a dizzying pace. Born into a horse and cart world, he witnessed the moonlanding aged 60. He was an Edwardian character, where gas light was more common than electric light, yet by late middle age he had already seen a world of electronics, computers, the pill, the TV, and antibiotics: Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and civil rights. That postwar quarter century, which coincided with Keynesian economics and full employment, was good for technology.

Apart from the internet and cheap telephone communications - it is as easy to call Somalia as next door - what has the late twentieth century, the period 1971 to 2015, ever delivered for us, compared to the period 1945 to 1971? The death rate for cancer has hardly dropped. We still drive combustion cars; the revolution in genomics has not yet made a difference to our lives.

One reason why the postwar period delivered so much was that it was a result - unfashionable to say now - of the enormous R&D effort created by the war. Other reasons raised by the economist Tyler Cowen in his non fiction analysis of this, the Great Stagnation, is the possibility that capital is more concentrated on a few rich individuals now than before, leading to less productive investment. There is the argument that the "low hanging fruit" of technology was picked off after the war; the step change to go the next generation aeroplanes is so much greater.

But there is another psychological reason, maybe. The generation that had fought the war were not afraid of risk. The world of the Golden quarter century of technological change was also a predominantly masculine world. In the 1960s it took eight years for a new drug to gain approval from the authorities. The EU has, in that same period, seen its influence grow hugely, arguably become the world defining force in health and safety standards. The figure for bringing a drug to market has now risen to 20 years; costs and bureaucracy have exponentiated likewise. Compare the length of these bits of writing:

Pythagorean theorem 24 words, Lord's Prayer 66, Archimedes Principle 67, Ten commandments 179, Gettysburg address 286, US Declaration of Independence 1 300, US Constitution 7 818, and EU regulation on sale of cabbage 26 911 words

An organisation in Brussels that I respect, the Corporate Europe Observatory, which seeks to expose big business shenanigans, has just come out woth a report on how the chemicals industry gamed the European commission and parliament to get weaker controls on "toxic chemicals" through parliament. All good, persuasive investigative copy. With all respect to their journalistic efforts at exposing big business, isn't this part of the problem, rather than a solution, to innovation? Something to think about. We worry too much about risk, there is too much regulation, and that leads to less innovation.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 10 October 2015 at 11:33 AM by Pelle Neroth

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pro-EU groups running scared

1 October 2015 by Pelle Neroth

I have had a very interesting off-the-record briefing in Brussels from someone close to the thinking in the main British pro-European mobilisation group, which aims to bring together industry, decision makers and media on a common platform to keep Britain in the EU.

I understand these pro Europeans are terrified that British voters will vote to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum over the immigration issue, and they have no strong arguments against it.

"Our campaign is in a mess," the source said, as polls - admittedly in the biased Daily Mail - show that British membership of the EU is on a knife edge, with numbers wanting in and out almost evenly balanced over whether to leave the European Union or not. The referendum is expected to come within the year..

The pro Europeans in Brussels have so far aimed their arguments at the British elite. A scorecard of how Britain gets its way on central issues such as advancing services and telecommunications legislation - and where it benefits British industry and the strong British service sector to have a seat at the table - has been published, and which shows that Britain gets its way on a lot of issues. Britain has a Rolls Royce diplomatic service; and the Permanent Representation, the UK's "embassy" to the EU, is working overtime to represent UK commercial and industrial interests.

English is the lingua franca of Brussels, which inevitably translates into "soft power" and the easy circulation of British ideas. That influence, the implication is, would be lost if Britain pulled out of the EU. The "Norway situation" is often cited by pro Europeans as Britain's likely fate if it leaves. Norway incurs seventy percent of EU costs, while no seat at the table and "rule by fax". Norway, after all, has to follow many EU rules as a condition for access to the European market, but doesn't get a say in how those rules are formed. So far so good: the arguments are strong.

But the pro Europeans admit they have been blindsided over the immigration issue, which is something "normal people" can understand. And it is the "normal people", not the elite, who will decide Britain's EU destiny, since a vote is a vote, and economic and political power that usually keeps the elite's interest ticking over matter less in a referendum.

Surveys show that something like three quarters of the British people want less immigration, and the TV footage of refugees flooding across Europe's open borders this summer have undoubtedly impacted on the public's feelings towards the EU. The pros were ahead as recently as a few months ago. (It is true that Britain is not a signatory to Schengen, but the million or so refugees expected to come to Sweden and Germany in 2015 will get EU passports in a few years, and Britain , with its flexible jobs market and English language, is a highly desirable destination.)

UKIP's message on "taking back control of Britain's borders" was popular with voters, but UKIP's amateurism and leader Nigel Farage's "clownishness" is now a liability for the "outs", the pro Europeans claim. But the "out" campaign may take on new, powerful forms, thanks to new Labour leader Corbyn's appeal to the traditional working class and his ambivalence about the EU.

The pro Europeans are mow belatedly scrambling to reach out to the "white working class", to formulate a policy that sells the EU on social protection issues, as the core sentiment against increased immigration is a sense of insecurity felt by less advantaged British natives at a time of globalisation. Good luck to them: It is a hard sell, since 25 years of basically Thatcherite media coverage of the EU has always presented social protection measures as harmful to innovation and business, so awareness of it is zero. Besides, the EU can't help but be an inclusive, globalist organisation, which inherently believes that larger entities are better than smaller ones.

There is a growing feeling among Europe's publics (or in northern Europe, at least) that the nation state is the only guarantor of the welfare state and therefore of people's basic sense of security, and that Brussels is just too remote to be able to look after the "little people's" interests.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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Lobbying in Brussels, an introduction

24 September 2015 by Pelle Neroth

When you first arrive in Brussels, you get the impression that the European parliament is some kind of university. Seminars and conferences every day on every conceivable policy topic, with experts, academics and industry figures flown in from every corner of the world.

For policy nerds, it is like a sweetshop. It is better than a university because the resources are much more extensive, that much is clear: the best experts, and every conference is followed by a champagne and canape cocktail party, held in one or other cove of the building complex's luxury airport-sized interior.

I thought this was the way of the world, the best of all possible worlds, and didn't think much of it when I first arrived, some years ago.

Democracies need the best kind of advice if they are to serve their peoples, all 700 million of them, and why not wind down after a hard day's work, tapping away at laptops and listening to endless succession of speakers? In time, I worked out that the quality of advice wasn't always as detailed, comprehensive and cogent as one would find in an academic seminar. Corners were cut, conclusions a bit too neat.

There was a lack of detail in some presentations. And I have gradually come to realise that in the EU lobbyists of every shape and size fill the legitimacy vacuum created by national media and voters' total lack of engagement with the EU. This is not to say that important decisions are not made here.

But it is an engagement by the elites of business and industry into the political process, and here lobbyists play an incredibly important part, often in the guise of genuine academic experts who have been paid fees to give their tuppence worth to parliamentarians. Apparently many of them are not even properly aware their academic insights serve the policy interests of the companies who booked them in to appear in Brussels.

An amusing book published as the "Lobby Planet Guide to Brussels" (geddit?) presents itself as a travel guide to the EU quarters and exposes the lobby industry in all its glory. It is essential reading if you're new to Brussels: the people behind the pamphlet, a leftist NGO called the Corporate Europe Observatory, may have a monotonally anticorporate stance but the book they have produced inculcates a healthily sceptical cynicism about the Brussels process.

There are thousands of businesses in Europe who want, need their view, heard in Brussels, who want to sway legislation their way.

The Brussels EU quarter is four square kilometres of mixed modern and old architecture East of the city centre, bisected by the Rue de la Loi. Like the City of London, it is largely empty at weekends. It has two centres, the Rond Point Schumann, near the European Commission's Berlaymont Building, and the Place de Luxembourg, just adjoining the European Parliament, about a kilometre away.

The Rond Point Schuman is a dull traffic circle. The Place de Luxembourg is a cosy, cobbled square, a slice of old Brussels, that contrasts to the giant glass and steel complex of the European parliament overlooking it: the square has nice bars and restaurants where MEPs like to be entertained - and persuaded.

Many of the offices in the EU quarter are occupied by companies employing lobbyists, the 20 to 30,000 people actively employed trying to influence the work of the EU institutions. (And as said, a large number of genuine experts are flown in to be of service). Two thirds work on behalf of business interests, while civil society is underrepresented.

Lobbying in its narrow definition means trying to influence legislators through direct representation, usually a personal visit, in return for payment for those who employ the lobbyist. But a broader and holistic view would include in the lobby category all those involved in communication and research activities that support and underpin the formation of policy. There are several notionally independent think tanks in Brussels, for instance, that turn out to be part funded by industry.

Technology companies such as Microsoft and Google have large inhouse lobbying operations, while Cefic, for instance, the European Chemical Industry Council, had 170 staff when the guide was published and a budget of 45 million euros. Companies that don't have inhouse lobbyists can hire the services of persuaders like the Finsbury Group, Hill & Knowlton or Burston-Marsteller, the latter two originally from the United States but whose European launches have helped cement Brussels's status as the second most important political city in the world (after Washington).

H&K for instance has been active influencing MEPs on behalf of Russian gas giant Gazprom by holding closed door events at the parliament in Brussels. the lobby firm also flew MEPs to Siberia in a private jet on behalf of Rosneft, according to media reports quoted in the guide.

One controversy has been the habit of European commissioners walking straight into a lobbying job after leaving office. In 2010, Finsbury International hired the former commissioner for maritime affairs, as well as some of his former staff. Is it a coincidence that Finsbury also lobbies on behalf of some international cruise lines on maritime issues that concern them?

The witty guide may seem over the top in that it doesn't seem to examine the possibility that lobbying is a legitimate way for business to get their concerns heard: they are active in Brussels precisely because the politicians are so very powerful role in determining over business destinies. And it is not a black hat vs white hat, Goliath vs David thing either. "Good guy" NGOS like Greenpeace are expert lobbyists in their own right, and are not exempt from criticism that they are trimming the true story to serve their agendas. And despite their smaller budgets, civil society lobby groups can sometimes get their wishes through, in part because many MEPs have an idealistic streak.

Many come from journalism or teaching themselves. The victory for the movement to abolish computer patents was an example of a lobby effort run on a shoestring by younger IT hacker idealists.

That said, far too much journalism never goes beneath the surface of the rolling news calendar to examine the real correlation of forces that makes up the Brussels political scene. So as such a pamphlet such as published by the Corporate Europe Observatory is fascinating.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 24 September 2015 at 03:18 PM by Pelle Neroth

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Facebook targets "hate speech" following German pressure

21 September 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Internet censorship - or fighting the good fight against racism?

The decision by Facebook to work with the German authorities to flag up and remove "hateful content" aimed at refugees raises the old questions about freedom of speech versus the right not be abused for who you are.

Will this manifest itself an infringment of the right to express criticism of German's ultra generous refugee policies. Or is it a necessary policing action to prevent "net hatred" from flourishing in the darkest corners of the internet?

Germany expects to receive 800,000 refugees this year, from countries like Syria and Afghanistan. There are plenty of sites on Facebook where disaffected Europeans gather to complain about the controversial influx, share stories from the alternative media about scams such as the sale of Syrian passports to non Syrians (since Syrians have a greater chance of receiving right of residence than other nationalities) or rejoice at stories about the Hungarian decision to build walls and fences to try and keep refugees who have through the Balkans and want to get into the EU.

Some comments I have seen are extremely rude. But most others are aimed at politicians, not refugees, and express deep frustration at the process which they feel powerless to influence, given the European and German elites' determination to have more generous border policies than they would wish.

The German authorities have kept their beady eye on Facebook for a while.

Last month, the German ministry of Justice ticked off Facebook for not doing enough to police "hate speech", saying that the social network acted quicker to remove sexual imagery than racist remarks. Then, last week, German Justice minister Heiko Maas announced the creation of an online task force after a meeting with Facebook executives in Berlin. German legislation makes comments against particular religious or ethnic groups punishable by up to three years in prison, five years for Holocaust denial.

It raises questions: in what sense can the word "refugee", which describes an action, be said to represent an ethnic group?

Predictably, critics of the proposals complain that this is one more nail in the coffin of Europe (On top of the changing ethnic composition of Europe), since what made Europe special was a fearless commitment to examination and discussion of all topics, even or perhaps especially taboo subjects.

We will have to see what the effect of the new approach will be. IT companies sometimes hate having their arms twisted by governments. But I have seen the observation made that multicultural societies that work, eg Singapore, have an absolute and total taboo about discussing ethnic questions. Singapore is a technocratic wonder, but not exactly known as a place for zingy democratic debate, as if there is a spillover from one area of self-censorship to everything else.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 21 September 2015 at 08:19 AM by Pelle Neroth

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Is Germany ever going to integrate its refugee professionals?

13 September 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Notwithstanding the temporary closure of Germany's borders, announced today, public opinion in that country seems welcoming to the large influx of Middle Eastern refugees, which they believe will rejuvenate the country. Germany famously has a birthrate problem.

Unemployment is low and the economy is booming. The Nazi legacy still leaves the country with something to prove. But will it all work out?

The VDMA, the Germany engineering federation, has issued a somewhat lukewarm appeal to cut red tape to enable Syrian (and other foreign) engineers into work more quickly. According to Eurostat, Germany has one of the highest employment rate differences between natives and immigrants in the EU. Bureaucratic tendencies die hard.

Germany has introduced a Blue Card for non EU professionals, but the visa has to be applied for from abroad - so a bit of a logistical problem if you learn this when you have come over on a smuggler's dinghy and your hometown has been levelled to the ground. The German press abounds with examples of highly qualified Syrian professionals becoming ever more despondent in refugee camps as the bureaucracy grinds on.

Die Zeit has an article about the "super refugees" Mariam and Yusuf, Iraqi Christians (Iraqis driven abroad for same reasons as Syrians), in their early thirties, she a radiologist, one of the top in her class, he a communications engineer. The article about the various hoops they have to jump through is as dispiriting as a Kafka novel. He built up the mobile network in Iraq for a major Chinese company.

When Yusuf left his country his boss said: Whatever you do don't go to Germany. "That is like going to retire. You do get real money but you sit around forever without getting to do anything." Yusuf laughed in his boss's face: he just didn't believe him. The article quotes an employment agency in Hamburg staffed by one Mir Ghaffari. Many of the Syrian refugees have professions for which there is no demand in Germany or the West, such as carpet weavers and ceramic makers. They are hopeless cases.

Or there were professions for which they lack a foundation in Germany, lawyer for example. But Mariam and Yusuf were of a calibre she rarely encountered, and had universal specialisations. However, several months on, they are still living in uncertainty, on a series of three month extensions. Mariam has to find out whether her medical qualification is accepted. Then she has to apply for a German doctor's licence, Then she has to take an advanced medical exam in technical German. The article says the couple are "trapped in a grey zone" at a "standstill". And they are the most skilled the Middle East has to offer.

Germany is trying to remarket itself as an immigration country, American style. The sceptic in me looks at the very poor level of integration of Turkish Gastarbeiter, who have been in Germany since the early 1970s, and wonders whether the Syrians can manage any better. Culture is persistent. The Germans are good at many things, including discipline and high standards, but easy acceptance of divergent and easygoing ways may not be one of them.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 13 September 2015 at 10:01 PM by Pelle Neroth

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Teaching children how to code on the Syrian border

6 September 2015 by Pelle Neroth

What to do about the Syrian refugee question? "It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little," wrote 19th-century clergyman Sydney Smith. "Do what you can."

I deal with the tensions created in the EU by the combination of refugee flows and open borders in my upcoming magazine column, where I will argue that fear of immigration is driving British opinion towards EU exit in the upcoming referendum, a prediction confirmed by today's Mail on Sunday poll (with all the reservations that implies, given the Mail's stance on these things) which finds a majority of the British people against EU membership for the first time in a long time. According to the poll, 51% of respondents believe Britain should leave the EU, 49% stay in. That is a change from 55% stay in, 45% leave, in June.

For years, the British public have had an increasingly positive relationship towards Europe. The EU is all right really, aren't the Eurosceptics a fringe, ranting on about paragraphs and clauses in a European constitution no one has read and doesn't affect our lives anyway? That was then, this is now. The refugee crisis has handed the Eurosceptics as potent a weapon as they have ever had.

Victor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, recently said that mass immigration threatens European civilisation: "There is no way back from a multicultural Europe. Neither to a Christian Europe, nor to the world of national cultures," Orban told a conference in June.

Orban's stance has a lot of supporters in eastern Europe, where the experience of Communism is a living memory: among immigration sceptics in those countries such as Orban, Communism is cited as a civilizational threat they have recovered from, and they don't need another, thank you very much. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary have been doing all they can to avoid accepting any refugee quotas, and if they do, they quotas must be very low, and the refugees must be Christian. Fear of terrorism is a factor in public opinion.

So Cameron has had a lot of allies in Europe in his campaign against refugee quotas, but he has also had opponents, primarily German chancellor Angela Merkel and Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven, who between them have taken hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The Germany authorities recently estimated that 800,000 refugees would arrive in Germany by the year's end. Cameron seems to have relented on the refugee question, but he must know that he faces a Hobson's choice. Merkel is his key ally in staying in a renegotiated relationship with the European Union, which is Cameron's referendum stance. But he is also alienating her with his "cold" approach on refugees. On the other hand, if he changes his mind, as he now seems to have done, he could be driving the British people towards an EU exit, which wasn't his plan...

It seems to me that the solution to the Middle Eastern crisis has to be negotiated politically and on the ground. And then some reconciliation, then reconstruction, has to take place. One problem with accepting elite refugees, as many seem to be, is that they are the kind of people these countries need to rebuild their shattered states. What is to say they will ever go home once their kids are rooted in Europe?

One argument is that the refugees "get training" in their skills in Europe, so that they will be even better when they go back. Sweden is a country which received 81,000 asylum seekers in 2014. (scaled up to UK population levels: it is as if the UK took in half a million a year.) But unemployment of Syrians in Sweden is high. Numerous well-educated Syrians are languishing in rural hostels and asylum camps, living on the equivalent of two pounds a day and wondering whether an investment in the Swedish language is worth it. It is demoralising. While the expensive welfare state that scoops them after they have received permanent residence has been notably poor at getting immigrants into jobs. The reasons are disputed. Racism, incompatible qualifications? Exaggeration of their competences? The passivisation and demoralisation wrought by a benefits culture?

Anyhow, immigration sceptics have argued that the money spent expensively on what is after all chiefly men who have had the energy to come to Europe would be more profitably spent on the weak and needy women in children languishing in camps in Turkey and Lebanon. Every "refugee minor" - a term for under 18s, but widespread fraud in age reporting has been covered in the newspapers, so many are energetic men in their twenties - costs the Swedish state the equivalent of £200 a night.Two hundred pounds goes far in a Middle Eastern refugee camp.

It is in that context that it is encouraging to read reports about the sterling work done by NGOs such as the Karam Foundation, which teaches coding to young Syrian children in Turkey. Tech entrepreneur Moe Ghashim is apparently something of a legend in Syrian circles, founder of the ecommerce enterprise ShopGo. He runs schools along the Syrian border which teach children computing. After all, it is the supremely transferable skill, and can be conducted from anywhere. One of the students who has benefited is Moustafa, from Homs, who taught himself five programming languages online and has designed "more than a hundred games". Much more needs to be done: Ghashin doesn't run that many schools, a much vaster coordinated effort will ultimately be needed. But note the Sydney Smith quote about the argument that it is better to do little than nothing at all. And the self help focus is a good thing.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 06 September 2015 at 10:06 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 06 September 2015 09:46 AM     General     Comments (0)  

EU offers cash and expenses to aspiring entrepreneurs

30 August 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Erasmus is a student exchange programme in the EU which has a very low UK takeup but which people who have actually completed seem to enjoy. Maybe it is the whiff of kumba-yah that puts young Brits off.

It may be worth considering though. Every year, the European Commission packs off thousands of citizens of EU states with an EU grant to universities in other countries for a period of time. It is mainly a life learning process at the undergraduate level, I get the sense. The lingua franca is a kind of Euro English. You get to walk back from nightclubs when the last bus has gone. Pick up some lectures in the local language, be appalled by the peeling paint in Continental lecture halls.

Meet Bie from Belgium and Piotr from Poland. A bit of campfire love thrown in - Barcelona is a popular destination - and it is an as agreeable way as any of finding out about oneself and one's destined path in life. One's twenties is a period of exploring, why hurry?

In Continental EU countries, Erasmus is regularly cited as one of those things that the EU does that people actually like, and makes them feel happier about the EU. As such, it is undoubtedly an instance of successful public diplomacy by the European Commission. Other powers do it even more thoroughly and successfully, Through various schemes, the United States identifies students who have potential as future European leaders - in opinion-forming, politics, business - and gives them American scholarships. Much bigger, more expensive, more serious, than anything the EU offers. No formal obligations, but it leaves an American imprint.

Anyway, boosted by the success of Erasmus for students, the European Commission has taken Erasmus to cover another category of young person: Erasmus for the young entrepreneur. If you are in your twenties, want to succeed in business, have got as far as a business plan, but want some experience, sign up for the project at the EU's entrepreneurs website. When you have jumped through a couple of bureaucratic hoops, you get a list of companies that offer internships in your destination countries. The internship period has to take place in another country. International contacts is what the EU is about. Maybe you can learn something about other business cultures.

Petra, an Erasmus Entrepreneur intern from Slovenia, went to Finland recently to learn both "offline" and "online" skills. Her business plan was based on a "responsive application for trying on glasses". Her business plan was 22 pages long, explaining her business idea, presenting a marketing analysis.

On her blog, she warns that the business requires a lot of work. When that is done, the next step of the application involves scanning a list of companies in the host country offering internships. Petra got a reply from her company of choice within a day.

Read her very sensible account of her time as as Erasmus entrepreneur here. Young engineers looking for a break may find it interesting.

The Erasmus for Entrepreneurs website here

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 30 August 2015 at 09:56 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 30 August 2015 09:44 AM     General     Comments (0)  

How dubious are the origins of the Green movement?

25 August 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Is there a link between fascism and the Green movement? Hitler was a vegetarian and did not smoke. Himmler, the architect of technological mass extermination of human beings, was staunchly against vivisection and cruelty to animals. All that is fairly common knowledge. But is there anything else?

The background to my interest in the subject is the intense demonisation campaign in Sweden of the Sweden Democrats, a populist party that wishes to cut immigration by a very large amount. (Incidentally not far off the pledges in the UK Tories' manifesto.) Sweden is the number two recipient of asylum seekers in Europe, after Germany, but is a much less populous country than Germany, so the demographic changes are more noticeable.

A gruesome knife attack at an IKEA store carried out by a failed asylum seeker, the appearance of beggars outside many, many supermarkets in Sweden (even in small rural towns). A number of shootings and hand grenade bombings in the big towns. Plus stories of corruption in the asylum process have all led to the popularity of the Sweden Democrats soaring.

One poll this month had them as the largest party in Sweden, toppling the leftist Social Democrats from a perch that they had occupied since the early 20th century, an unbroken 100 year run.

That is an astonishing result. Two other polls put them behind the Social Democrats, but not by much. And yet the party only entered parliament in 2010, and had only 2% of the vote 10 years ago. In the election of September last year they received 12.9% of the vote, about half their 25% popularity (in the most flattering poll, admittedly) today.

Political developments in a mature democracy like Sweden have tended to be a slow, so the Sweden Democrats' meteoric rise really stands out as the biggest happening in a very long time.

The party has a dodgy past, though, and media and politicians have treated the party's representatives very aggressively. The party may wear suits and ties and talk about moderate social conservatism, say journalists who crusade against them, but their roots are in cobblestone throwing, "viking rock" and skinhead ideology. Sieg heiling and brawls. That the party went through several reform in the 1990s and 2000s, where demonstrations and overt racism were banned, and gone through two waves of replacement of personnel, has not changed their fundamental nature, opponents allege.

A few months ago, the Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Lofven called the party "neofascist" in parliament. Many MPs from other parties refuse to shake Sweden Democrats by the hand or greet them in the lift.

Worse things happen too, from violent activists on the left who think they are fighting the good fight. The New York Times recently published an article on its prestigious opinion page entitled Sweden's fraying tolerance that decried not only Sweden for producing a far right party but for the intense harassment meted out to members of what is, after all, a democratically elected party, the third largest, whose immigration policy, outwardly anyway, is no more extreme than that of many conservative parties in Europe and which has not been associated with any violence in its current incarnation.

Wrote the NYT:

"The party's emergence undermines Sweden's cherished identity as a global beacon of tolerance and social progressivism that have kept the far right at bay." But the newspaper also added: "But if rising nativism has tarnished the country's reputation for progressive values so too has the reception given to the Sweden Democrats."

"A 2012 police study found that nearly half of the party's politicians reported threats or assaults in 2011. Some had been beaten with iron bars, some had bombs detonated in their cars, and some had cans of tear gas emptied into their mouths in front of their children. Mainstream responses to such behavior have been weak. In speeches, interviews and op-eds, politicians and commentators have either dismissed the party's allegations as disingenuous attempts to paint themselves as victims or, worse, offered veiled endorsements of the attacks."

It is doubtless true that the Sweden Democrats suffer from a total lack of trust from Sweden's intelligentsia and opinion formers. Their history weighs heavily on them. Some Sweden Democrats, desperate to be seen as respectable, have gone onto the counter offensive, saying other parties have skeletons in their closet too.

The Social Democrats had their "People's Home" society for their long rule 1932-76 that was conformist and safe, but sterilised thousands of "different" women against their will and was full of prohibitions. The Greens may be a bunch of anarcho libertarians, but is there not something Fascist in their Anti fascism?

And - more tenuously - what about the roots of the Green movement itself?

Books have actually been written linking Nazism to the Green movement. Both were offshoots of very German streams of thought, and flowed into and out of one another. In the 1920s, various occult and pseudoscientific ideas came together in Germany under the umbrella idea of Volk, romantic nationalism and worship of nature. It distanced itself from soulless western consumerism and technology.

Popular writings of the "ecologists" (the word a German invention) invoked an order where the natural Germans (as opposed to false and shallow commerce-minded British) ruled the world. Their closeness to nature gave them a heightened sense of authenticity and aliveness. The new cosmic faith was embodied in their Aryan blood, which could be grasped only through intuition rather than science.

Even though the Nazis have become associated in the public mind with inhumane technological industrialism, they actually sought harmony between nature and technology, according to Peter Staudenmeier, in the book Ecofascism, a history of Nazism and the Green movement.

Of members of the Weimar Era Naturschutz, nature protection programmes, in 1939, 60% had joined the Nazis, compared to about 10% of adult men and 25% of teachers and lawyers. These early Greens must have had an assessment of what Nazism stood for if they liked it so much.

Several leading Nazis, Rudolf Hess, Hitler's right hand man, and Fritz Todt, the architect of the autobahns, were convinced ecologists. A historian of German engineering said "Todt demanded the completed work of technology in harmony with nature and landscape thereby fulfilling modern ecological principles of engineering as well as 'organological' principles of his own era with their roots in volkish ideology." Todt himself said: "The German highway must be an expression of its surrounding landscape and an expression of German essence".

Opponents of these linkages might say that the Green Movement had its anarchist, libertarian wing too. And this doesn't mean anything.


But there is something unyielding, and therefore slightly fascistic, in the Green-Red government running Sweden today's policy on immigration? A quarter of the Swedish population (more among men) are being driven into the Sweden Democrats' arms because they are not getting rational answers to simple questions, such as "how will our welfare state pay for this" or "What will our demography look like in 20 years' time" or "What about the security consequences of letting in 2,000 mostly male asylum seekers a week from war zones". The Swedish Greens, for some reason, have transferred their idealism from questions about the environment to a belief in open borders. They don't much talk about the environment anymore.

Anyway, the historic connections between Nazism and the environmental movement, and the fact they are both German in origin, is something UKIP haven't yet mentioned. I am almost surprised. After all, some Ukippers believe the EU Is a German plot and few Ukippers care much for the EU's environment policies - such as tackling global warming - either.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 26 August 2015 at 06:51 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 25 August 2015 08:31 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Europe has a go at Indian pharmaceutical companies

17 August 2015 by Pelle Neroth

This is a subject that goes to the heart, literally, of people's lives.
The EU is banning hundreds of non-brand name, also known as generic, drugs produced by medicine manufacturers in India. These drugs have been cheap lifesavers for millions of people - but now the EU is effectively saying they are risky.

Generic drugs - treating everything from ulcers to heart disease - have been a boon to consumers, since they are much cheaper than identical named drugs, but European pharmaceutical companies, such as Glaxo and AstraZeneca, have long had to grin and bear it since they spend billions of dollars and many years developing drugs in the first place. Only for the Indian companies to end up copying them and selling them to a pharmacy near you. There are probably plenty of generics in your medicine cabinet. How do you define piracy? It is as bad as ripping off Vuitton handbags or photoshop software?

Generic makers deny of course that what they are engaged in is piracy, since the named drugmakers - Glaxo, etc - get patents, usually around 20 years, sometimes more, that enable them to exploit a period of exclusivity at good profits. They charge high prices to European health systems, and hopefully get to recoup their drug projects' enormous development costs - and more. Only then are the generic drugmakers allowed to be part of the action and get to start selling the big drugmakers' drugs more cheaply. These cheap prices make the NHS and other European health systems happy, It means their budgets go further,

It has worked, kind of, for decades, but in recent years European drugmakers have been complaining that the rising costs of new drugs development and increasing threats of investment without return makes their activities less attractive. There have been constant battles behind the scenes in Brussels between lobbyists for the generics industry and for the established drugmakers. The established drugmakers want patent extension for this or that reason, the generics industry is always pushing for lower patent periods, for what they claim are equally legitimate reasons. Longer patent periods mean, of course, bigger profits for the established European drugmakers.

Are other desperate measures ever tried by the European firms? Of course, European drugmakers would claim to be above leaning on European commission officials to impose a bit of regulatory discrimination to harm their generic rivals.

I say that because a spat has sailed up between the Indian and European authorities after the European commission imposed a ban on hundreds of generic medicines, citing flawed testing procedures, which of course, if true, could jeopardise the safety of the drugs.

The ban was prompted after French investigators, the French National Agency for Medicines and Health Product Safety, or ANSM, claimed flaws in bioequivalence testing conducted by a company called GVK Biosciences on behalf of several Indian drugmakers. As a consequence, the EU banned 700 Indian-manufactured medicines, from many different manufacturers, for up to two years.

The Indian authorities are furious, and the Indian drugs maker concerned, GVK Biosciences, claims the FDA, the US equivalent to the European Medicines Agency, the European authorising agency, says the trials procedure was okay. The FDA confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that their own investigations "did not reveal systemic issues that affect the safety or efficacy of [the] drug products". As of writing, the Indian government has expressed its displeasure by pulling out of EU-India trade talks on August 28. Is this a serious breach or will the two sides sort it out in time for the talks to be reinstated?

It has long been rumoured that the phaseout of incandescent light bulbs for the new environmentally friendly ones was carried out to advantage European light bulb manufacturers, which couldn't compete with cheap incandescents from the developing world. This surely isn't more of the same, using regulation to give European business an unfair helping hand?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 17 August 2015 at 03:56 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 17 August 2015 03:41 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Is the internet destroying Capitalism?

7 August 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Books have been published on the impact of technology and the liberation of information brought about the internet, and the consequences for society.

Few seem to have been savaged so much by the critics as Paul Mason's Postcapitalism, published last week.

The Guardian thought it was confused. The Telegraph thought it was deeply misguided. The Spectator argued it showed how the left had run out of ideas. The fact that Mason - economics editor of Channel 4 - was a former music teacher was highlighted in some blogs as an explanation for his failure to join the intellectual dots. Overpromoted to his current post. He was a Trotskyist in his youth...once a Trotskyist, always a Trotskyist.

I don't know. I have always thought: if lots of people oppose something vociferously, then it is has probably got something going for it. The main thesis of the book seems to be that, since the cost of information thanks to the internet is getting lower and lower, and firms under capitalism depend on the exploitation of exclusive information, not held by others, for their financial success, then capitalism is doomed.

One critic of Mason's book argued that, on the contrary, capitalism had always depended on efficiencies, innovation and cost cutting to sell to the consumer at a profit, and free information was entirely in that vein. The internet has rejuvenated capitalism, far from burying it.

May I offer my own take on these issues? Maybe both Mason and his critics are right. It has benefited some capitalist firms, the big internet giants. But the declining cost of information is reducing the need for many services.

The internet giants exploit without remuneration the work of millions of people. For instance, Google's free translation service, Google Translate, uses the work of millions of translated texts - apparently a lot of it published texts from the European and Canadian parliaments, which operate multilingually in the one case and in English/French on the other - as a reference it mines when offering translations to and from various languages of your text at a click of a button. Google news aggregates news headlines and puts news stories from many sources all in one place. The translators remain anonymous and unpaid for this repeat use of their work; the journalists get no compensation either.

And of course, the translators find much less need for their services since the arrival of Google translate. The examples can be multiplied across middle class professions dealing with the manipulation of information. In return, Google uses the information implied in your search history, combined with information supplied from other sites in the Google family, to place advertisements from which they take a percentage profit.

You think you are getting all this information for free, but in fact, you are giving away that most precious thing, personal information, which is gold for advertisers and businesses. Google is "giving" you lots of services - and what Google offers is truly fantastic - but is unfairly using the work others have done, without paying for it.

Winners are consumers, provided they don't mind the loss of privacy. (But who knows, it may come back to haunt us.) Losers are people seeking work in areas which Google's services are making redundant.

Mason, who has done much reporting from Greece, laments the rise of the far right in Europe.

Modern information technology coincides in time with the decline of the salariat and the rise of the precariat, thus named by a sociologist, coming from the word precarious. Educated people, burdened with student loans, taking internships and temporary low quality jobs, chasing the job of their dreams, of which there is an ever declining supply. It wasn't like this for their parents or grandparents' generation. At the same time, there are cutbacks to the welfare state, both due to austerity policies and because of the growing cost of immigration.

The fact that the precariat can spend its ample free time on playing retro computer games or read all the books for free online seems to not offer a satisfactory compensation... all this feeds support for far right parties,.

It is often much easier to diagnose a problem than offer a solution. Financial compensation to individuals sharing their data, a citizen's basic wage, more volunteering. There will doubtless be more books in Mason's vein.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 07 August 2015 at 10:52 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 07 August 2015 09:42 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Power station politics

3 August 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Sweden is usually thought of as one of the most prosperous countries in Europe, if not the world, but you a different Sweden in its far less urbanised northern half, one of the least densely populated regions in Europe.

In summer, the green, empty and idyllic mosaic of lakes and forest is an appealing experience, but, while the roads are invariably good, the villages look impoverished and lacking in life. You will be lucky to see a hairdresser, or a shop of any description, in many of them. The paint flakes off the wooden houses, and few people can be seen.

Locals complain that while the region is extremely rich in natural resources, as well as a huge power generation capacity, they don't get to keep any of the financial benefits from these resources.

The river Indalsalven, broad and mighty to the English eye, has several huge hydropower stations sitting astride its girth. But locals I spoke to call their area, the northern region of Sweden, a "colony of Stockholm". The electricity generated by the flow of the rivers generates huge profits for the power companies, and the state takes billions of kronor in taxes. Only a fraction of this returns to the region in the form of social assistance or investment.

It is not as if the locals aren't trying to do something about it. Local politicians organised a lobby group 15 years ago, the Association of Swedish Hydro Power Municipalities, which aims to get more of the taxes generated returned to the local region. They argue that, while the early 20th century saw plenty of local jobs generated in construction and maintenance of the power stations, these days all the infrastructure is completed and the power stations remotely run by computer, creating few local jobs. At the same time hydropower is hugely profitable and generates a lot of tax wealth for the Swedish state. According to Nils Olov Lindfors, a northern Swedish politician for the Centre Party, the state takes over five billion kronor in tax income from the hydropower companies every year. The local municipalities get less than 100 million kronor, or just 2%, of that back. That is an astonishingly low figure.

The situation is very different in neighbouring Norway, where the municipalities where hydropower is generated receive 6 billion Norwegian kroner a year. The Norwegian state is rich, thanks to income from offshore oil, so can afford to allow the hydropower regions to keep the tax money generated in their area. But there is also a political will to let the "regions breathe" in a way that doesn't happen in Sweden. Impressionistically, rural Norway looks much more prosperous and the farms bigger and better kept than Swedish farms at the same northern latitude.

Lindfors, the Centre Party politician, has tried to get the Swedish state to adopt a Canadian "Rental Fee Agreements" model, which means that the power companies have to pay a regional fee for every cubic metre of water that passes through the power station dam, regardless of whether it generates power or not. The rule is thus written to ensure the power companies make their electricity production as efficient as possible. Lindfors has been on many visits to Stockholm, pleading his case with the Swedish parliament. It has been a challenge to get a hearing.

Sweden's largest hydropower municipalities, namely Jokkmokk, Sollefteå och Ragunda, also have among the highest local taxes, since social needs are great. That can't be right, say local politicians, and if they were able to benefit from just a fraction of the profitable hydropower generated in these regions, they would be among the richest, perhaps most rejuvenated, areas in Sweden. Lindfors quotes the famous 17th century politician Axel Oxelstierna: "Northern Sweden shall be our India". Quite.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 03 August 2015 at 10:15 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 03 August 2015 10:07 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Euro dreams are a bit like the fetihisation of technology

24 July 2015 by Pelle Neroth

So the Greeks folded their cards. The prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, sacked his game theorist finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, and abandoned the school of thought that believed the Germans could be outblackmailed in return for debt relief.

Instead, in return for a large tranche of money to pay off the next incoming package of debts, Tsipras has promised more harsh austerity reforms - and more cuts.- for his beleaguered Mediterranean country. No debt relief.

Many economic experts are saying this is just kicking the can down the road. The reforms will make it even harder for Greece to grow its economy, the money loaned by the Greeks is not, after all, being paid to invest infrastructure or education, but to pay off the French and German banks that hold Greece's debt.

While the package of money it has been granted tides the country over for a short time, one day, next month, next year, Greece will be standing there, cap in hand, with even bigger debts and even more stagnant growth. Since the cuts will either not be implemented properly or act in such a way to limit growth even further.

The alternative option would have been to walk out in its debts and devalue. Other experts have said this is the only sustainable long term way to get Greece to live within its means. The biggest threat then would have been the appeal to other non performing euro states, particularly in the southern tier, emulating Greece's success and flouncing out of this misconceived euro project straitjacket, scotching the dream of Europe's political idealists.

And effectively closing off markets for German products: the euro has been autobahn for export sales of German fridges and German cars to the Med states in a way that wasn't possible when the Greeks and Spanish held devalued drachmas and pesetas. It is true, French and German banks would be in hock to large unpaid debts, too. So what: unemployment in these countries is currently way too high, and maybe they would return to growth like Greece.

You could argue that the euro has been a failure. It has been a misconceived idea to yoke together vastly disparate economies, different sets of institutions, values, cultures and economic structures - manufacturing giants like Germany and tourism backwaters like Greece - without the compensation mechanisms of cash transfers that the smooth things in nation states, even the federal United States. But the failure is not even because of the part implementation of the European project: monetary without fiscal union.

The political union necessary for the legitimacy for hue cash transfers that take place within a nation state were never likely to exist. And the Germans are chafing enough as it is at paying 75 billion euros a year for the poorer eastern provinces, former East Germany. So what were Europe's leaders thinking? In retrospect, the euro has been a triumph of idealism and wishful thinking over conservative rational scepticism.

Not that a cautious pro Europeanism hasn't been good for Britain. I know I have been advocating this for years on this blog; the basis for it has been pragmatic. I am reminded of Keynes's wisdom about the rationality of following the herd in misconceived investment booms: the markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. Britain cannot know when Europe will collapse. Until then, it is not wise to leave the negotiating table.

Since Europe is capable of doing considerable harm in terms of passing legislation harmful to the UK. Leave the table, and they will shoot you in the back, or, as the French say, les absents ont toujours tort. That said, it would beneficial if Britain could regain control of its borders. So I am in two minds about that, too.

All this brings me to the work of Kentaro Toyama, a US-based academic who argues that technology can't just solve essentially cultural and institutional incompatibility problems such as I have just outlined in Europe. I have been reading him for my summer holidays.

An academic who worked for Microsoft, he travelled around rural India and looked at the interface of for instance smartphone technology and the lives and economies of rural farmers. His message, outlined in the just published book Geek Heresy, is a bit depressing: his thesis is that technology is an amplifier, not a paradigm changer. As he puts it, "What people do with technology depends on what they can do and want to do even without the technology."

His book is about racks of computers that never get used because of electricity shortages, human rivalries at a local rural level undermining innovation, about undereducated people never getting to first stage of computer literacy because of basic reading problems. Rural scepticism about expensive technology that doesn't seem to be an immediate benefit. "Technology amplifies underlying human forces," he said in a recent interview.

"So where those forces are capable and positive, technology can augment that. But it also means that technology doesn't help much in cases where the human institutions are either dysfunctional or corrupt."

"That's the heresy of this book," Toyama said on American radio. "You can think of a geek as someone who makes a fetish of technological solutions. The heresy is that technology has limits in the kinds of problems it can solve. Specifically, it's not a solution to very deep, persistent social challenges."

There is a similarity here between the euro fetishists who thought the euro would solve Europe's wealth differences, deeply related to differing histories and cultures, and the technology fetishists who thought that, by throwing technology at rural India, problems could be easily solved. An alternative title for his book could have been: It is all about the culture, stupid.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 24 July 2015 02:13 PM     General     Comments (0)  

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