View from Brussels - General

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Will the banks beat Bitcoin?

9 February 2016 by Pelle Neroth

How do the banks feel about Bitcoin? They don't like it. They like the underlying technology, the so called Blockchain, though.

A group of European and North American banks has launched a project to exploit the new technology underlying Bitcoin, Blockchain, which does away with the need for a third party authority to oversee and guarantee financial transactions.

Bitcoin is the global, virtual cybercurrency that is issued by no government and floats around the internet, the invention of a mysterious hacker called Satoshi Nakamoto whose identity has never been made public. It is surrounded by arcane rules; it's all deep in geek territory.

It seems to work: you can buy things with it, provided your opposite number "accepts" it, and you can buy bitcoins - at whatever the day's exchange rate in dollars - with a few clicks of the mouse.

The ingredient X is the underlying technology, Blockchain. Which is very useful indeed, which even normal banks have cottoned on to. They are also well aware it threatens their business model.

As many techies will tell you, Blockchain is potentially highly subversive stuff. Think of all that money sunk into expensive looking bank buildings, designed to project credibility. Credibility is the lifeblood of third parties in financial transactions, the Banks: it requires an initial investment, to build credibility, but they can start "printing money".

This model is under threat. Not to get too technical, what is good is that the Blockchain is that every distributed user is able to verify every transaction taking place, in a slightly computationally different way depending on their location.

To fake a transaction would require a fraud of enormous complexity, acting against each verifying user that it probably can't be done.

The upshot is that allows people, strangers to each other, to conduct commercial monetary exchanges in a completely secure way, in complete confidence that they won't be defrauded, without either having to trust each other - or having hand over the responsibility for brokering the deal to some credible third party authority, ie the banks.

How are the banks responding? By embracing the distributed verification mode in general, while excoriating Bitcoin - associated with crazy anarchists - in particular.

In Sweden, one of the country's biggest banks, SEB, now bans and blacklists companies that deal with Bitcoin.

And it ran a huge sponsored article in one of the main papers recently arguing that Bitcoin was on its last legs. The transactions were taking longer and longer, the bank's chief economist in the sponsored article said.

That may actually be true: there is a fight going on the Bitcoin community, too recondite to outline here, but at the centre of it is the concern that the file containing every historic transactions getting longer and longer, which translates into transactions taking longer to be verified, hours rather than instantaneously as before.

That might not be as bad as the few days it takes for banks to carry out a foreign cash transfer in their old style manner, but still it doesn't reflect well on Bitcoin.

SEB has instead joined an international consortium, a score or more of banks including HSBC, to see how they can use the technology to sell shares and carry out international transactions more easily.

My take is this. The Bitcoin community also appears not have worked everything out. News reports indicate the cyber currency is in trouble.

It would be a shame, though, if their anarchist spirit were not allowed to live on in some manner. Some in their community argue that banks were making more money than they deserved through their third party brokering. And banks have messed it up big time, in other ways, and would not have been able to do that without the credibility of their role as brokers. Before Bitcoin disappears, we ought to ask ourselves if the idea of distributed transactions is too good to be taken over by the big boys and exploited only by them. Innovations get co-opted and absorbed by establishments and a dream dies.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 09 February 2016 at 08:35 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 09 February 2016 08:04 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Europe gears up for the driverless car revolution, but at what cost?

4 February 2016 by Pelle Neroth

Driverless vehicles is the trend everyone in Europe is talking about.

The Swiss town of Sion, with 33,000 inhabitants, has started trialling electric buses that are driverless, piloted by computer. The project will be starting off gently, with the bus routes for the electric buses being little used, well paved routes connecting tourist hotels to the town proper.

The bus is called the Arma, the software by the Swiss company BestMile. There are no control panels in the 4.8 metre vehicle, so no way for occupants of the vehicle to have any control whatsoever, but there will be an emergency stop button.

The Arma has a whole array of technical systems for autonomous movement: Infrared cameras and other sensors give the bus an accuracy of to within 20mm when parking. The maximum speed is 45 kph and the battery of 64 kWh allows the bus to be used for 24 hours before being recharged.

The two Arma buses will be in constant communication with each other, exchanging data, as they gather new experiences, enabling them to navigate their route ever better. The project begins this spring and there will be an evaluation period, possibly leading to further expansion elsewhere in the town.

In Gothenburg, Sweden, Volvo is gearing up for an even more ambitious project to launch in early 2017: one that involves normal people who will, for most of the time, be driving their vehicles, but, for crucial stretches, relinquish control to an autopilot, This hybrid partial control may be the first system to roll out for private motoring, rather than completely autonomous cars. One hundred XC90 models will take to the city of half a million's streets. Volvo have developed something called IntelliSafe Autopilot, which means the driver, when given the instruction to do so, activates driverless mode and then takes control again through a panel reached from the driver's seat. When the driver is on a road where the driverless mode is permitted, a lamp on the steering wheel begins to blink.

When he finds himself in a situation where he has to switch off the autopilot and return to driving the car himself, the lamp blinks again and a sixty second countdown period begins. If the driver fails to take charge of the car in that time, the Volvo parks itself somewhere safely on the side of the road and stops. The roads that allow autonomous driving have been carefully worked out in conjunction with the Gothenburg authorities, and will activate when the cars reach a speed of 50km an hour.

Commuters and child families will be in on the trial, which will involve 100 cars in the first instance. Volvo pioneered the safety seat belt in the fifties, which spread quickly to the rest of world and has always been known for its intense focus on safety. So if anyone can convince the punter that driverless cars are safe, it is the innovators at Volvo. Like Sion, Gothenburg will be a town to watch.

In the United States both Google and Apple are developing their driverless car projects. So it is an area in rapid development, truly a trend. The advantages, experts say, is that traffic will be safer. Robots make fewer mistakes than people. At the same time, the rise of the phenomenon of electronic communication between cars means the autonomous car can be put to use more efficiently than one that depends on the driver's sleeping and other habits. It can be ordered by computer to drive, pick up and drop them off again. At the moment, studies show, the average car is not in use for 98% of the day.

Imagine cars in use for 25 times that amount of time, say 50% of the time. Will that not decrease the need for cars in our cities by a factor of 25? If ownership issues can be sorted out, imagine the parking space freed up. There will be far fewer cars about, as those in use are used to a much higher degree.

Taxi services by their nature solve the ownership problem. So expect the international taxi service Uber to be in the vanguard of the driverless car revolution. Looking ahead at the potential of this revolution - which of course has had no impact yet - not everyone is happy, though.

They are picturing a cityscape of ten or fifteen or twenty years' time, where a lower number of cars on the street, possibly quiet and powered by electricity, moving around in a ghostlike fashion, picking up and dropping off people. One of the great pleasures of life is driving. Will the bubbling up of excitement in the stomach as you move up the gears and press on the gas and feel that the world is yours for the taking be a thing our descendants will never know, just as so few people alive in western societies knows, say, the excitement of the hunt for animal prey, for food, experienced by our ancestors?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 04 February 2016 at 01:11 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 04 February 2016 01:00 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Why leaving the EU club may not be the best option

25 January 2016 by Pelle Neroth

The French have an expression, les absents ont toujours tort. Those absent are always in the wrong. A freer interpretation would be: those who are not there don't get a vote.

Many who work away from the head office in any profession will know the feeling: the concern that one is away from the centre of decision-making, where all the politicking is carried out, and as such that, whatever the merits of one's arguments, one is less likely to be taken into consideration than if one was in the thick of things. Quite simply, one is not there to make one's case. And that is a problem. Who was it that said that sixty percent of being in a job is about turning up? Les absents ont toujours tort. I always thought that was one of the main points for the UK to stay in the EU.

A supremely realist position. (And everyone else of the member states is, really, too, despite the veneer of idealism about closer European peoples.) You stay in the club because, once outside, people will get together and make rules disadvantageous to you. Being out of the EU is like being away from the office. EU politics is a version of office politics, but on a continent-wide scale. If Britain left the EU, it would still have to export into the single market, without having any say on how those rules are formed. What special rules will not be made up with the specific aim of disadvantaging British firms to the benefit of European rival firms?

Sometimes the best thing to do in any given situation is to ask yourself what your worst enemy wishes for you and do precisely the opposite. With reference to Britain's continued membership of the EU; Britain's worst enemy is France.

The French would love to be able to occupy the position closer to the one they had for the first thirty years of the EU's existence: the French brain ruling over German brawn; the French representing the politics, the Germans doing the economic stuff. The French as the rule makers, everyone else as the rule followers. Europe was a multiplier of French force and power projection. France lost Vietnam and Algeria, its French empire, after the War, but thanks to the machinations of brilliant French bureaucrats and the absentmindedness and arrogance of British officials and politicians, and German guilt, gained a European empire.

That has been chipped away at with British membership in 1973 and the German resurgence of confidence following reunification in 1989 and the fading away of war memories. Europe has become more Anglo-Saxon, more market oriented. Much more English-speaking. In about 1995, the EU press room ceased to become francophone and became bilingual. You were allowed to ask questions in both languages.

These days, most people in the press room speak only in English. virtually all EU documents are in English first before they become translated into other EU languages. With language dominance follows dominance in modes of thought. Read the French press and the articles of their Brussels correspondents and you become all too aware of this. Especially in the comments section, where a lot of French EU officials comment anonymously, they are praying, begging for a British EU exit. It is true that the French would probably never have the commanding moral and political position over Germany they had back when the French elites were able to pretend that France had been on the winning side of World War 2, but, with Britain out of the game, France, Britain's rival, would find its position much strengthened. British and Anglo-Saxon modes of thoughts would weaken. French culture of thinking and administration would get a new lease of life, helped by the fact that Brussels is, after all, a French speaking city. When France wants something Britain should do precisely the opposite. That is, stay in the EU.

A recently published think tank paper from the Centre of European Reform by Jean Claude Piris argues that EU exit would be a disaster for Britain. (google it). He argues the realist approach, along "les absents ont toujours tort." He outlines Britain's less-than-EU-membership type options: the "Norway solution", the "Swiss solution", the "Turkish solution" and the "WTO solution". In all options, there would be different tariff levels, Britain would have access to the cherished single market, but only in goods, not in services, which is Britain's strength. And would have no say in making those rules. At any time, Britain would be subject to the rule changing whim of the insiders, the EU members. The City of London is eyeing nervously the long standing French dream of making Paris the financial capital of Europe, at London's expense, by excluding London from access to certain European financial markets.

If Britain wants any really important change, in the treaties, to favour it, such a vote would require unanimity from all 27 members. The argument that Europe "needs" Britain because of Britain's trade deficit with Europe doesn't hold, since the EU has a much larger share of the British trade pie than Britain has of Europe's. (The UK only having about 65 million to Europe's 500 million.) All in all, this former high ranking French diplomat, who knows a thing or two about realpolitik, doesn't think leaving the EU is a good idea. EU membership has its costs, but being outside the club is even worse. Don't leave the table - because you won't get a vote.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 25 January 2016 at 09:17 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 25 January 2016 08:45 AM     General     Comments (0)  

People-smuggling. Is there an app for that?

16 January 2016 by Pelle Neroth

The smartphone is a revolutionary device. Europe's refugee influx - one million into Germany alone in 2015 - would arguably not have been the same without it.

Populist, immigration-sceptic politicians have been fuming that, while the young men coming to claim asylum status in Europe always seem to lose their passports - in 95% of case they do, perhaps because it prevents them from being definitely sent back if their applications fail - none of them ever lose their iPhones. They can't be that poor if they have iPhones is another rejoinder. True; but then, many of them have paid thousands of dollars in smugglers' fees, and the cost of an iPhone is a small proportion of that. So of course they will have invested in a smartphone.

The smartphone really is a realisation of Douglas Adams's fictional Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the device that knew everything and imagined his travelling heroes Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent to go absolutely everywhere in the known galaxy. The smartphones tell these modern day travellers everything they need to know about Europe.

Actually the original Hitchhiker's Guide device didn't communicate (why did so few science fiction writers dream up the smartphone or even the simple no frills mobile phone? It is neither in Adams's work nor Star Wars?..) So the smartphone is an improvement on the sci-fi device made famous by Adams. The refugees use messaging services like Whatsapp, Facebook messenger and Viber to communicate, both with folks back home, with each other, and with information sites such as the Facebook groups that tell them which countries are closing their borders and which people smugglers are offering which rates.

Refugees are also sharing their routes with other refugees, sharing GPS coordinates and cutting out the smuggler middlemen. Translation services such as Google translate allow the refugees to navigate in foreign lands. Internet money transfer services allow relatives in the destination countries to wire money to the refugees en route. Many refugees travel in small boats across the Mediterranean; if their boat sinks, they can phone land to try and get a rescue organised. One Norwegian naval officer in a ship patrolling the Mediterranean was surprised to get a call from a refugee calling from a small refugee vessel in need. (How the refugee got the number has not been revealed.) The refugees on the boat were all picked up successfully.

When refugees arrive, the need for information is, if anything, even greater. That too is catered for. A website called Gherbtna, which means loneliness in Arabic, set up by an exile Syrian, informs refugees about the procedure for getting residence permits and opening a bank account in countries like Sweden and Germany.

The European authorities are bound to be a step behind. Political signals about holding the borders are, at best, mixed, and there is a huge motivation difference between those who want to get in, and those whose task it is to keep the multitudes out. The intelligence agencies can of course use mobile phone traces to track the common smuggling routes, and can doubtless get information on any single individual they want. But how to prioritise and how many resources do they get? Presumably they are focused on security threats. ISIS is said to use the European smuggling routes to move their people into Europe to set up "sleeper cells" to be activated for the Next Big Terrorist Attack. There are stories about border guards confiscating refugees' smartphones.

The Finnish authorities, who have seen the fourth largest asylum influx in Europe, in a once extremely homogenous society, have contracted a software developer to set up an app that tells refugees the rudiments of Finnish language and customs, available in English, Somali and Arabic Equal rights of men and women is very high up on the agenda of things refugees need to be taught, many Scandinavians feel.

In the wake of the mass sexual violations that took place in Cologne on New Year's Eve, it has come to light that seemingly organised sexual violations took place at a music festival for young teenagers in Stockholm last summer, as well as in some smaller Swedish towns on New Years' eve. The New Year's Eve celebrations Helsinki witnessed some harassment.

Consequently the Finnish government has set up an app that teaches the ideals of sexual equality that the migrants must learn if they wish to get on in their new host countries. You can really question how successful this well meaning effort will be at changing modes of behaviour: how many young men read admonitory advice from government, wherever they come from, Somalia or South London, even if it is glammed up as a smartphone app? There is a huge gap between the ideals of politicians (and NGOs) and the messy reality of migration and integration in a globalised world.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 16 January 2016 at 11:54 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 16 January 2016 11:48 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Europe became great because of war, mayhem, military technology - and because it wasn't a superstate.

11 January 2016 by Pelle Neroth

Europe's success was its fragmentation, says a scholar of history and technology at Caltech.

California Institute of Technology professor Philip Hoffman, author of Why did Europe conquer the World?, argues that Europe's many nation states of approximately equal size successfully fought each other for centuries, and that this bred technological and military innovation, which, thus honed, was then used to conquer the rest of the world.

China may have invented gunpowder, and the Arabs perfected advanced mathematics, but it was Europe that conquered the globe and sets the tone of planetary culture and economics today, not least through its New World offshoot America. But the Chinese lived in a vast, bureaucratically organised empire that was largely internally at peace.

The Chinese fought the nomads, but didn't need gunpowder for that. The Europeans on the other hand, lived in kingdoms many of whom were of approximately equal size whose were rulers were almost constantly at war, innovating, researching new ways to deal the enemy.

Even when they lost, they were scheming and stealing the opponents' ideas and technology. You could call it the tournament view of international politics: always a league table, always in competition. It was the European kingdom or nation state that was the driver of this innovation. Empires are inferior in this respect; they create peace but also stasis, and Hoffman speculates that if Charlemagne's 9th century empire in Europe had lasted a few more centuries, or the Mongols managed to conquer China, Europe may have remained the static continent and the Chinese might have benefited from the dynamic boost of warring competition and become masters of the world.

From 1400 and for several hundred years onwards, European states were warfare states: The taxes they were able to raise on their benighted peasantries were enormous by modern standards, between ten and forty times heavier than the Chinese state levied during the same period on its citizens, and nearly all of it was spent on warfare. Louis XVI's Versailles, for instance, only cost a mere two percent of the Sun King's revenues. The remainder of it was spent paying back loans used to fund the King's wars.

The innovation bred by the constant warfare made for more efficient and above all cheaper weapons: between the 16th and 18th centuries, the price of a rifle fell by a factor of six in England, while in China firearms remained expensive.

When Europe's explorers opened up the world, Europe was ready to unleash its fiercely honed competitive instincts and cheap weaponry on the relatively placid civilisations of the rest of the world.

There were psychological factors at play, too. Hoffman also argues perhaps surprisingly that Europeans had a massive inferiority complex, a feeling that theirs was the poorest and most hardscrabble part of the world.

As recently as 1800, both India and China were large, wealthy empires. This encouraged Europeans into expeditions of conquest. Unlike the East Asian empires, which restricted the private use of gunpowder technology and limited private initiatives, European kings allowed freebooters, entrepreneurs and adventurers to take the initiative and do their own exploring of the world. This created a dynamism that other regions couldn't compete with.

Later states took over what individual colonisers and explorers had found; these public private partnerships were successful, and by 1914, Europeans controlled 84% of the world's land surface. Then, of course, Europe imploded in two world wars.

Hoffman's book is convincing, better than Niall Fergusson's book on the same theme, which argues that Europe had several "killer apps", such as property rights and the rule of law, which put it ahead of other regions.

But while Hoffman tells a story - of how fragmentation leads to competition (in war) which leads to innovation - it is not the whole story. Europeans were not only driven by the urge to dominate and conquer, nor were the Europeans the only people with such motives. Non Europeans were hardly saints, and while slavery, for instance was universal, it was the Europeans, the British, who first abolished it. Europeans were also driven by a thirst for ideas, for being challenged intellectually, for understanding for its own sake which gave growth to the scientific revolution. Hoffman understates this.

Still, Hoffman's book has many merits: it is, in a way, a powerful argument against the European Union. If he is saying China fell back compared to a disunited, chaotic Europe because it was a huge super state, doesn't that imply that a united Europe today will be a pretty undynamic place too?

Someone on the eurosceptic side ought to pick up and develop that argument. Sadly, At the same time, when we are assaulted from the left with cultural Marxist arguments about white Europeans' infinite guilt for past colonisation efforts, there is the danger of throwing out the baby of the many things our civilisation has to be proud of with the bathwater of our past misdeeds. The solution to past misdeeds is surely not wilful cultural self destruction.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 11 January 2016 at 02:48 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 11 January 2016 02:37 PM     General     Comments (0)  

The big vote coming up

4 January 2016 by Pelle Neroth

Another New Year's Day, another chance to look ahead. Will Britain be out of the EU in a year's time?

It looks increasingly likely that David Cameron's long promised referendum on whether the UK will stay in the EU or leave will take place in 2016, possibly in June of this year. For a long time it looked as if the stay-in crowd faced an easy victory. But now it is no longer so clear. The British are extremely hostile to immigration. Every poll shows that. Britain has an opt-out from the Schengen open borders agreement - which is why a third world slum has grown up outside Calais for would be refugees who can't get any further. It is called the Jungle and standards of hygiene are appalling.

But while the failure to be part of Schengen can keep out migrants from the third world who have fled from places like Syria and Afghanistan, EU migrants from poorer Eastern Europe can come and settle as long as Britain is part of regulations regarding the free movement of citizens.

It is strange. We haven't seen much in terms of EU debate. In John Major's time, the press talked of little else. The right wing of the Tory party was, in those days, very driven, very persuasive, in its opposition to Europe. The dissidents in John Major's cabinet, people like Peter Lilley and John Redwood, made his life hell. I don't know why the EU seems so much less interesting than it was then. Is it possible to create a debate about it? It is pretty important. I think everything can be made interesting if you work at it. To me, it is a question of sorting out the winners and losers from EU membership.

Big corporations are the winners from EU membership, that much is clear from a recently published book by a think tank on the comprehensive British government Balance of Competences review. This was a huge exercise prepared by civil servants which took evidence from thousands of stakeholders active in Europe. A very broadbrush summary would be that big businesses liked the EU and small businesses didn't. What was the right balance between the EU and the member states in the distribution of powers? Big businesses favoured common legal and business standards that would enable them to expand into new European markets without being discriminated by particular, and particularist, national legislation. The single market has meant the development of complex, cross-border supply chains that would not have been possible without these common international standards. The British car industry sources 90% of its components from Europe. The integrated, just-in-time supply chains made possible by the European single market are a fantastic boon to British industry.

Small businesses, though, disliked Europe because they associated it with unnecessary red tape that hampered their chances of making a profit. This was particularly true for small businesses that don't export into Europe, which didn't see the point at all. However, a book devoted parsing the Balance of Competences Review (so that you don't have to) argues that British national legislation would be just as tough as European legislation if Britain left the EU. Partly because Britain would wish to export into Europe even if outside and therefore would have to have compatible health and safety standards. Secondly, at the moment, small companies blame Brussels. But even if the UK left Europe and companies were hypothetically speaking not interested in export markets, legislation would be just as tough. British lawmaking is intrusive and not at all laissez faire. Forget Brussels: it is the British way, argues the report.

But politics is not only about business interests, big and small. Politics is about emotions. There is a large pool of voters who reside in UKIP territory. There is a general disaffection with globalisation and the flattening out of culture associated with large movements of people across borders. That is a prevalent cultural feeling. Fears of migration play into that, along with stories that EU migrants are able to lift benefits like children's allowance even if the children themselves are not resident in the UK.

Yet, as we have seen, against this general feeling, this zeitgeist, there is the fact that many people work for large British corporations that are unequivocal winners, or perceive themselves to be, from European Union membership.

What will win out, the head or the heart?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 04 January 2016 02:38 PM     General     Comments (0)  

The political message of Star Wars

28 December 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Not many people know this, but George Lucas modelled the rebellion forces in Star Wars on the Viet Cong guerrillas.

You know, the sneaky little Vietnamese fighters with their ambushes and kalashnikovs that the US Marines called "Gooks". As an impeccable lefty, he thought of the America in Vietnam as the Empire.

It didn't play out the way Lucas planned, however, since most Americans didn't heed the lesson that Lucas wished to impart, that their country was the bad guy. Rather they identified themselves, and their country, with the freedom loving, lightsabre wielding, swashbuckling rebel alliance headed by white American-accented Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and the space cowboy Han Solo.

Remember the era in which the script was written. Early seventies, a time of Watergate and Nixon. The shootings of students at Kent State university and general American self loathing among the elite and liberals. Lucas was never famous for dialogue. Harrison Ford allegedly said "George, you may be able to type this *****, but you can't say it."

He may not even been that great an action story teller. Several script writers had a go at the original trilogy before they became the polished, exciting products we know today. But he was brilliant at imagining detailed alternative worlds, complete with their own history, fauna, flora and societal organisation. And politics was one of Lucas's great interests.

Star Wars was replete with references and borrowings. Lucas mined Samurai lore for the Jedis, Joseph Campbellian "journey of the hero" stuff for the construction of the narrative. Freud for the relationship between father Darth Vader and father-slaying son Luke Skywalker, dark side and light side respectively. He tapped into Cold War anxieties with the planet destroying Death Star. Darth Vader's helmet and the black steel look of the empire from Nazi iconography. The huge number of references to key elements in Western civilisation is a reason why Star Wars has such cultural resonance with us today, But his central intention, a voluminous recently published book on the Star Wars universe tells us, was to do a parable of the Vietnam war then raging. Powerful technological superpower being taken on by a rag-tag band of freedom fighters. Perhaps by making the rebels white North Americans he wished to increase mainstream America's identification with the Vietnamese.

The message was so subtle I would say nearly everyone missed it. If there was a historical trope that main street America seized on it was rather this: America's own revolutionary war, 1776, with the American freedom fighters - freedom-loving democrats - taking on the evil powerful empire of King George III's Britain. This trope was assisted by the fact that, as the Star Wars film was made at the Pinewood studios outside London, most of the bit part actors playing imperial soldiers and commanders, such as Hammer Horror veteran Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin, spoke with English accents. While all the actors playing rebels spoke with American accents.

Star Wars is one of the most important and popular films ever made, And I believe this misidentification has had two negative consequences for the United States.. One is that the many in the United States, which is an empire in all but in name, still tends to think of themselves as less than the planet girdling empire that America in fact is. Star Wars strengthened the trope, encouraged by westerns but also revolutionary history, that America was a a country of individualists, frontiersmen, lovers of freedom. Many Americans are blind to the enormous amount of imperial meddling America does in other countries.

A second consequence is that politicians and mainstream media have an easy sell when they meddle in various sovereign countries, be it Kosovo, Libya, Syria or Ukraine through proxy clients such as the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army) or the Transitional National Council in Libya. These people can be drug running extortionists and gangsters, like the KLA, or jihadist, Al Qaeda spinoffs such as the rebel forces in Libya. But as long as there is these proxies can be cast in the heroic rebel mould, some of the Star Wars gold dust rubs off on them. George Lucas was enormously successful as a film maker; but, in terms of getting the message of his choice across, he was a failure.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 28 December 2015 at 05:58 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 28 December 2015 05:52 PM     General     Comments (0)  

A rational argument for learning languages

17 December 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Is bilingualism good for you? Anyone who lives with their family and works in Europe confronts the issue all the time. Expats are faced with the question: what languages should we teach our children? Is it good or bad to be proficient in many languages?

Before the 1960s, many educators and parents thought it was a bad thing to be multilingual. You ended up with a lot of half competences instead of one full competence. Bilingual children attain language fluency in their primary language later, and end up with a smaller vocabulary in each language than they would have done had they been monolingual. (Their overall knowledge of words if you added the two languages together would of course be larger.) Many Welsh parents took note, for instance, and discouraged their children from learning that country's beautiful language.

Since about 1970, in line with the era's more tolerant and multicultural approach to things, bilingualism has tended to be seen as a positive.

Not only because it introduces us to different ways of thinking, makes us more open to new ideas and more tolerant. But there is literally a positive effect on the brain. You learn to be able to screen out unimportant stimuli and it boosts what researchers call your executive intelligence.

Your ability to plan and get things done, the first thing to go into decline if you abuse alcohol or drugs, and which drops precipitously as you age.

The researcher Ellen Bialystok has done a lot of work in this area, and she is worth a Google search. Another benefit, which has received a lot of media attention, is the alleged positive effects on brain health: the constant juggling between two languages helps stave of the onset of dementia by up to five years, researchers find.

A newer finding, of particular interest to engineers and other people who put a premium on rational thought is this. You become a more rational thinker when operating outside your native language. This is not an argument so much for complete bilingualism but for learning any second language to a level of adequate proficiency. Professor Boaz Keysar, at the University of Chicago, found that people's loss aversion was much smaller when they made decisions in a non native language.

"A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking," wrote Keysar in the paper "The Foreign Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases."

The experiment tested English speakers who were learning Spanish at university level. The test involving giving people $15, which they were allowed to spend on up to 15 $1 bets. The bets consisted of a coin toss. If they won they would gain an extra $1.50, if they lost, they would lose the dollar. That is a winning proposition since the rewards on average work out higher than the costs. (If you assume, as the test does, that you lose half the tosses and win half.) On ten coin tosses, you are likely win $7.50 and lose $5 it it goes your way half the time, a net gain of $2.50. The rational thing is to bet your whole stake for 15 different bets.

How many students did this? Distressingly few when tested in their own language. When they considered the problem in their native language, English, students only took the bet 54% of the time, but when they took the test in Spanish, it rose to 71% of the time.

One of the co authors of the paper is cited as saying: "Perhaps the most important mechanism for the effect is that a foreign language has less emotional resonance than a native tongue," co-author Hayakawa said. "An emotional reaction could lead to decisions that are motivated more by fear than by hope, even when the odds are highly favourable." When thinking is more dominated by emotion, as it is when thinking in your native language, an instinctive "loss aversion" prevented the students from doing the rational thing and betting their whole stake.

So when you want to make decisions unencumbered by emotions, the provisional evidence shows it may help if you are thinking in another language. Engineers, crack open those language tapes.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 17 December 2015 at 01:04 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 17 December 2015 12:22 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Much investment needed to make climate change promises a reality

13 December 2015 by Pelle Neroth

A historic deal, world leaders said. A few weeks after the terrorist explosions in Paris, the leaders of the world gathered in the same city for talks on combating climate change, leading to a signing of a climate agreement on Saturday.

In the past few years there has been a general impression that climate change negotiations, which have been an annual thing, have been going nowhere. The Climategate scandal of 2010 - in which it was alleged that scientists at the University of East Anglia had fudged their figures to make climate change seem worse than it was - took the wind out of the sails of the something-must-be-done brigade. That story has arguably faded into history now.

Instead, comments after the signing ceremony from around the world clearly tried to overturn the past few years of passivity and apathy, caused by doubts about global warming being human caused, as well as scepticism that, even if global warming existed, anything could be done about it.

"We came together around a strong agreement the world needed," said President Obama, speaking from the White House on Saturday evening "We met the moment. This agreement represents the best chance we have to save the one planet that we've got."

Non politicians who didn't have the obligation to "meet the moment" were sceptical. Jim Hansen, the former NASA scientist who was the first public figure to raise the alarm about climate change in the eighties, called the Paris talks a "fraud, a fake really."

Why the doubts? Only parts of the agreement are legally binding, such as the requirement on all countries that the transparently report their emissions. There are no legally binding targets on the important stuff, though; instead there will be voluntary emissions targets called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. Each country sets a target it thinks it can abide by, and that is it. Hence Hansen's scepticism. But Obama's problem was that the second biggest CO2 emitter, the United States, wouldn't ratify any legally binding deal. The Senate wouldn't do it. Only one in five Americans would be prepared to pay higher electricity taxes to save the climate, only one in three prepared to pay higher petrol taxes, according to the Pew polling company.

Away from the big words in Paris, Nicholas Stern, an academic at the LSE who is a former British government "climate change tsar", highlights in a recent paper what we actually need to do in practical terms.

Based on the voluntary Nationally Determined Contributions, the world will hit an annual carbon emissions figure of 55 to 60 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030, compared to 50bn tonnes today. That is lower than the "business as usual" scenario of 68bn tonnes annually in 2030, but is way short of the 40bn tonnes emissions pathway which would give us an evens chance of limiting climate change to 2 degrees C. So, according to Stern, even if nation states doubled their cuts over those already pledged, that would only be a 50% chance of limiting global temperature change to 2C.

A "culprit", if you like, has been growing emissions in the rapidly industrialising world, India and China the big polluters. India has now presented an ambitious solar plan, so we will see about that, but their moral case is, as an Indian climate change negotiator once put it to me with admirable succinctness: "You in the West committed five murders. Let us at least commit one murder." Total Indian emissions are huge at the moment. But the West has been polluting for much longer, and per capita pollution levels are much higher.

And, if some EU countries' emissions are falling, there is an argument that the falls in European emissions levels are related less to EU virtue; more to financial crisis and the outsourcing of manufacturing capacity to the East. The West still "consumes" more carbon, but because the products the West consumers use are actually manufactured in the East, these countries have the emissions formally on their tab. The EU carbon emissions scheme, aimed at creating a market for regulating carbon emissions, backfired after the financial crisis in 2008, when the cost of emissions allowances collapsed, meaning it was much cheaper to buy emissions allowances than cut emissions. Fraud resulted when some factories actually emitted more CO2, deliberately, so they could claim, and sell, spare CO2 allowances when they cut emissions again.

While there are promising developments in technology in the offing, such as much cheaper solar panels and more powerful batteries to store renewable energy, the example of the EU shows how hard it can be to cut emissions genuinely. Stern estimates that what is `needed is a total green infrastructure investment around the globe in the next 15 years of 90 trillion dollars. An enormous amount of money; on the bright side, potential opportunity for engineers.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 13 December 2015 10:38 AM     General     Comments (0)  

The oil mystery resolved?....

6 December 2015 by Pelle Neroth

Will what is going on the Middle East split the European Union? The EU's leaders have just signed a deal that will pay Turkey, led by the erratic President Tayyip Erdogan, three billion dollars in return for which Turkey says it will guard its external borders towards the Middle East, as well prevent refugees already in Turkey from heading to Europe.

After the deal was signed, the Turks demonstrated proof of their intent by arresting 1,300 refugees, and a handful of people smugglers, in the countryside near the town of Ayvacik, a Turkish town on the Turkish mainland north of the Greek island of Lesbos.

The deal also involved resuming EU membership negotiations with Turkey - negotiations that have been frozen for years, because of objections from several countries against the possibility of a large, poor Muslim state inside the EU. Finally, the deal allows visa free travel to Europe for the country's 78 million inhabitants.

To my mind, this deal struck with Turkey by the EU's leaders will only boost Euroscepticism in Britain, which faces its referendum on whether to stay in the EU within the next 18 months. Both for immigration reasons and terrorist reasons. While Turkey hasn't supplied any terrorists involved in attacks on the West, the country has been a victim of its own, homegrown terrorist attacks in the past. Weakening border controls between Turkey and Europe that visa free travel implies, may or may not, more likely may, increase the overall terrorist threat Europe faces; it won't reduce it. In addition to this domestic terrorist threat, Turkey's promise to keep its Middle-East facing borders shut has to be taken on trust. The worrying possibility is that continued leaky borders with the Middle East is something the Turks can use as a point of extortion to make further financial demands on Europe.

It would have been much better if Europe had spent money on something it can be sure to be control of: the EU's own borders. Frontex, the European frontier agency, is in desperate need of resources if it is to improve its efforts in the frontline Mediterranean states.

Another thing the Europeans could have done was eject leaky Greece and maybe Italy and Spain, too, out of Schengen, and recreate the passport free travel zone to cover just the core European countries, while maintaining a strong Frontex presence in these countries that had just been ejected. Since these core EU countries of the new, smaller Schengen zone (Benelux, Germany, France, Scandinavia) have high policing standards, they would be more likely to keep refugees out of their countries than the current situation allows them to, as they have effectively outsourced their border control to countries who don't care so much about tough border policing as they do. Refugees don't want to stay in Italy, Spain and Greece. There is no money to be had here. So the incentive for these three EU states to control their borders as adequately as the generous northern welfare states would wish them to do is weak.

Turkey's shootdown of the Russian plane two weeks ago and the allegations about Turkey effectively funding ISIS by allowing its oil to be smuggled through the country and sold on the world markets show that Turkey is an unreliable ally for the West and for Europe. The Russian shootdown dared the Russians to be provoked into a military response which would allow NATO-member Turkey to invoke article 5 of the NATO treaty which says that an attack on one is an attack upon all. It is likely that a NATO-Russian military conflict would soon escalate into nuclear war.

It is still a matter of dispute whether the Turkish or Russian version of events of whether the Russian were in Turkish airspace is true, but everyone agrees that the Russian Su-24 bomber was not a threat to Turkey; and even if the Turkish version of the flightpath were true, the Russian plane was only in Turkish airspace for less than 15 seconds and was, when hit by the Turkish missile, on its way out of Turkish airspace. Turkish fighter jets, commentators point out, breach neighbouring Greece's airspace many times a day. The standard routine in these incidents, observed by nearly all countries, is to scramble and escort out an intruder. The Turkish shootdown suggests the Turks were looking to create an international incident by presenting the Russians as aggressors against Turkish territory. That would turn world opinion against Russia, a country that is currently trying to win it way back into the West's favour by doing the lion's share of the bombing of the joint enemy ISIS.

Here, too, Turkey's role is an ambiguous one. The Russians are bombing inside Syria to seal Syria's border with Turkey for good reasons: to stop the steady leakage of ISIS volunteers who travel from Europe to Syria via Turkey. These are the radicalised Muslims from Europe's suburbs seeking religious redemption and violent thrills fighting for the Islamic State. It is amazing that Turkey has been letting them through and Europe, so far, at least until the three billion dollar payout, hadn't lifted a finger.

The Russians also say they are trying to stop the oil truck transits from oil wells controlled by ISIS to world markets, via Turkish territory. It is hard to determine the veracity of these stories - the Turkish counterclaim is that it is the Russians who are effectively funding Isis by buying its oil - but the Qatari-owned news website Al Araby has a detailed story that explains how Isis funds the activities of its vicious, evil, nasty little statelet.

Last year, Isis fighters seized a number of oil wells, and captured a large number of Iraqi oil engineers and oil tankers. Isis smugglers transport the oil in stolen tankers along mountain roads into Iraqi Kurdistan, where it is auctioned to the highest bidding oil smuggler. (But still at well below market prices.) The oil is refined, then transported in a different of tankers into Turkey itself. From Turkey it is mixed in with smuggled Kurdish oil and piped to the terminal at the Turkish port of Ceyhan, from where much of it (apparently) is sold to Israel. The whole fascinating story is here:

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All truths about the Middle East have to be regarded as provisional, and there is a lot of "info war" out there. The American State Department has told reporters very little oil is in fact smuggled through Turkey, based on information from their own sources. But it is fair to say that Turkey has a credibility problem. Why Europe sucks up to Turkey while maintaining sanctions on Russia is a mystery. Incidentally, the whole affair shows that there is an energy angle to nearly all Middle Eastern political events.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 07 December 2015 at 11:35 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 06 December 2015 07:09 PM     General     Comments (0)  

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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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 26 October 2015 04:57 PM     General     Comments (0)  

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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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 18 October 2015 07:48 AM     General     Comments (0)  

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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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 10 October 2015 11:26 AM     General     Comments (0)  

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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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 01 October 2015 08:12 AM     General     Comments (0)  

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