View from Brussels - General

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Silence from governments on GCHQ Belgacom hack

18 December 2014 by Pelle Neroth

In 2011, GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, based in Cheltenham, hacked three employees at the Belgian telecoms company Belgacom. This enabled British intelligence to prowl the network of Belgacom subsidiary BICS undisturbed for two and a half years, according to reports in the Belgian and Dutch media. The communications of NATO, EU and the customers of hundreds of international telecoms carriers were all targeted.

According to the Belgian newspaper De Standaard, GCHQ was able to intercept communications to almost every mobile phone number in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Belgacom always denied that its customers had been hacked, but the slides - as part of a powerpoint presentation the Belgian news outlet acquired - show how the penetration was discussed by Britain and its Anglo-Saxon allies, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. These five nations have a special intelligence sharing agreement known as Five Eyes. The operation was codenamed Operation Socialist and the malware used has been described as being among the most sophisticated security researchers have ever seen.

It is a story the large UK media outlets have been rather quiet about. The first of three powerpoint slides labelled Top Secret acquired by the Belgian newspaper's journalists shows how the British and Canadian intelligence services worked very hard to select a number of high profile targets. The document contained three names, two of whom were Belgian citizens. The second slide shows why the penetration was carried out: the secure, encrypted communications of BIC is actually one of the world's main communications arteries. Through this link, British intelligence was eventually able to penetrate local telecoms networks around the world, according to the Belgian newspaper.

Belgacom uncovered the spying operations in June 2013 after investigations of operational problems with an internal mail server. Initially, Belgacom claimed none of its customers' confidentiality had been compromised. But the latest media developments appear to show that the hack was more extensive than that. Belgacom said it would not respond for comment to the British attack "as long as the judicial investigation is ongoing." GCHQ also refused to comment.

Interviewed by the Intercept, an online newsmagazine, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who first broke the story last year about widespread Anglo-American internet mass surveillance, said this was the first case of one EU state being found out spying on another.

Sophie in 't Veld, the liberal Dutch MEP who chaired a recent European parliament inquiry into Snowden's revelations, has said Britain ought to face sanctions if the intrusions are proven. Britain's fellow EU member states have been conspicuously quiet, though - perhaps because they are involved in the same activities themselves or benefit in some way from intelligence cooperation with Britain.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 18 December 2014 02:50 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Juncker sacks pro-GM science advisor, dismaying scientists

11 December 2014 by Pelle Neroth

Jean Claude Juncker, the new president of the European Commission, has said he won't keep on the current chief scientific advisor, Anne Glover.

Glover, a well-respected professor of molecular biology from the University of Aberdeen, formerly an advisor to the Scottish government, was told on 31 October her post would no longer exist.

Juncker's decision to discontinue the post - instituted by his predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso to give independent scientific advice to the European Commission - has been bitterly attacked by various figures in the science community. The Chief Executive of the British Science Association, Imran Khan, said: "Everyone - Europeans and the rest of the world alike - will rightly see this decision as the European Commission downgrading both the

practical and symbolic value of science in Europe."

Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, described her departure as a "very backward step". He said in a statement: "Scientific advice must be central to EU policymaking otherwise you run the risk of having important decisions being unduly influenced by those with mixed motives." Nigel Brown, president of the Society for General Microbiology, said he was "appalled at the abolition of the chief scientific advisor post".

Why did Juncker sack Glover? He had been put under pressure to terminate her role by Green lobby groups over her very public support for genetically modified (GM) crops. In a speech to a conference last year, she described opposition to the GM crop technology as a "form of madness". She said: "No other foodstuff has been so thoroughly investigated as GM.

"No scientist will ever say something is 100 percent safe, but I am 99.99 per cent certain from the scientific evidence that there are no health issues with food produced from GM crops. Just about every scientist I know supports this view."

While genetically modified crops are permitted in Europe, the number of authorisations is relatively few and regulations have sometimes been termed the toughest in the world. Several European countries, including France and Germany, are fiercely hostile to the GM crops - these countries backed Juncker most strongly in his job candidacy earlier this year.

In contrast, the British government, one of a minority of EU governments to mainstream science advice through science advisors in government - you could say it was a British innovation - has made strongly positive statements about GM crops. Anyway, Glover also put a few European noses out of joint in another speech, delivered in May, when she took on an even broader target. She accused the EU policy impact assessments that take place after every policy proposal - implemented by notionally independent consultancies - of being carried out to order. That is, far from being independent, they just supported the conclusions the consultancies' taskmasters in the Commission wanted in the first place. Consultancies, she said, did not have the incentive to produce evidence that went against the Commission's agenda. "If they want repeat business, they are not going to go out and find the evidence to show [the Commission's proposal] is a crazy idea." In short, the "evidence" and "science" the commission relies on is prefigured to fit the Commission's own agenda. Such plain speaking could clearly not go unpunished.

It remains to be seen whether Juncker will re-establish a scientific advisor in some other form. If he doesn't grasp the nettle of this crisis, he strongly risks alienating one of the most arguably pro-European segments of British opinion - the science community, which remains a huge beneficiary of EU science funding, due to British science excellence. It may be a sign, though, that after a decade or so of at least paying lip service to technological innovation and evidence based policy, the EU is returning to a more traditional identity. And it definitely is a sign of reduced British influence at the heart of EU thinking.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 11 December 2014 11:12 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Merkel wants to abolish net neutrality, conference remarks suggest

5 December 2014 by Pelle Neroth

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, seemed to make her stance clear in the infected net neutrality debate this week when she told a conference that some services should be allowed to benefit from a higher quality internet connection.

She said, speaking at a Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications meeting in Berlin, that services, for instance telesurgery or driverless cars, were entitled to a higher degree of security. But this appears to put her stance at loggerheads with the European parliament, which voted for so called net neutrality earlier this year in a legislative proposal that dealt with the future of the internet in Europe. Net neutrality means that the internet should offer equal access to all users.

The right to offer faster services, not just for telesurgery applications but something as prosaic as stutter-free movies on demand, has long been a demand of the large European telecommunications firms. It would give them the opportunity to charge a premium price to those who can afford to, or which to pay for premium, ultrafast speeds. But it has been criticised by net activists as destroying the holy principle of the internet, that everyone should have equal access.

One academic specialising in internet issues told a German newspaper that "the revolutionary thing about the web is that the content can be decided on by anyone and, the principle of it, is that anyone can access it. But if you poke holes into net neutrality the way Chancellor Merkel suggests, then it's no longer democratic".

Merkel's stance also appears to differ from that of President Obama, who last month said the internet should be regulated in the same way as electricity, with equal access for all, in a statement interpreted as giving a strong impetus to the Federal Communications Commission to prevent US broadband companies from offering a two tier internet.

Activists claim that companies may say they are committed to "an open internet" but that the fact remains that, unless they are going to build a second, parallel internet, the limitations of bandwidth mean that offering a faster, better service for some inevitably means offering a slower service to others. In the American debate, activists say: should the internet be regulated a utility, like those for electricity and water, or regulated like cable TV companies? Merkel has just implied the internet should be regulated more like cable TV.

Since the issue has not yet been decided by the Council - the assembly of EU member states' governments - and Germany is the most powerful member state, it seems clear net neutrality is not yet in the bag, despite the European Parliament's vote. While the European Parliament calls for equal treatment of all data in the network, the Member States are still wrestling around a common position.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 05 December 2014 09:26 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Norway's passport to technology branding

19 November 2014 by Pelle Neroth

I was going to write about the new energy wars between East and West. But then I decided against it; it is too depressing. Instead, I shall this week write a good news story from Norway.

Nation branding is a good thing. It puts small countries in the global spotlight for a bit. It provides a focus for domestic efforts. The importance of national identity cannot be underestimated, if it motivates people in a practical way to live up to their identities. Paul Collier, the famous Oxford University Africa specialist, who argues that third world countries mostly lack "identities" for its people to buy into, is good on this.

Grubby post-Soviet Estonia very consciously and deliberately has built up for itself an identity as electronic E-Stonia. Fake it till you make it, if nothing else. The country billed itself as the world's first e-government, teaches coding to all children and produced Skype. (I know it is billed as a Danish Swedish invention, but the Estonians did all the hard technical work.)

In a way, this took a leaf out of the Scandinavians' book. Sweden is the master of public diplomacy: Denmark is pretty good too. Both countries sell themselves on openness, liberalism, equality and all the rest of it - plus beautiful design and advanced technology, often in combination. And people live up to those models, argues Collier. Every Swedish engineer walks in the footsteps of Hasselblad, Volvo and Spotify.

Well, Estonia has some way to go before being a design Mecca, whatever its technology prowess. This column is not about Estonia but about Norway, though.

Norway is less known for its people's technology achievements (as opposed to its scenery) than Denmark and Sweden. Norway is more woollen sweaters and "lunch packets" than streamlined lamps, ultrasafe cars or fancy computer programs.

This is to some extent unfair: Norway has achieved considerable innovation in the oil and gas sector. Norway though has a bit of a self confidence problem, having won its independence from Sweden only in 1905. It was a Danish colony for six hundred years before that.

So it is nice to see that they have had two "design / technology" coups in the last two months. The new bank notes are striking, and have achieved international coverage. Samples can be seen here.

The design studio Snohetta (literally 'Snow heat") has designed the striking rears of new bank notes which represent pixilated versions of Norway's coastal scenery, presented in the more traditional manner on the front.

It is Norway's long coast facing the Atlantic that has shaped the country's identity, and means to make a living. Shipping, transport and the gifts of the sea - once fish, now principally oil and gas.

The pixilated rears represent both a stylised versions of the coastal horizons and Norway's digital future. The patterns also vary according to the denomination of the banknotes: small value notes are represented by small cube-shaped pixels, high value denominations have sharp oblong pixels.

If you are a fan of computers and of striking Nordic scenery it's really worth checking out.

Norway's second "design/technology" coup to hit the international headlines is the truly beautiful new passport design.

The growing number of immigrants to Norway and growing abuse of the Norwegian passport has prompted Norwegian police to call for new falsification proof designs. What the Norwegian design company came up with was a passport whose pages show up the northern lights, Aurora Borealis, when shone upon by the passport officers' UV lamps. This has already earned plaudits in CNN and British newspapers.

It will take a bit more to establish Norway as a design and technology country on par with its neighbours - with a sort of double effect of motivating both the local population and encouraging foreigners to see Norway in that way - but every little bit helps.

British Eurosceptics will also be delighted that the gorgeous minimalistic effect of the Norwegian passport, new or old, is helped by not being burdened with having the design "disfigured" by explanations in all twentysomething EU official languages, Norway not being part of the EU.

Will Britain get a nice new passport design if it leaves the EU?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 19 November 2014 at 01:15 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 19 November 2014 12:56 PM     General     Comments (0)  

'Phantom' submarines stalk Baltic waters

22 October 2014 by Pelle Neroth

We all need something to laugh at sometimes, and the Swedish navy has provided it. By sounding the alarm for a Russian submarine in waters outside Stockholm and then failing to find it.

"Mystery Russian submarine" is a bit of a contradiction in terms - for if it is indeed a mystery how can you be sure it is Russian? - but that hasn't stopped the Swedish media from using those very headlines in its dramatic 72 point third world war-style typeface. The international media coverage has been far calmer, not to say sceptical. To be fair, the general public I meet from day to day in Sweden have also been fairly phlegmatic about it. They shrug their shoulders and say: instead of Sweden spending 4% of GNP on Europe's most generous refugee policy; just spend a bit more on defence. "No one takes us seriously" is one comment one hears.

"Miniature navy hunts miniature submarine" jokes the Guardian in an editorial. The Swedish navy - what is left of it - has been racing up and down the fjords outside Sweden's beautiful capital and have appealed for help from the public to keep their smartphone cameras at the ready. The Swedish navy's sonar helicopters were sold in 2008.

Unfortunately the general public have taken things that they thought was Russian related but turn out to have more innocent origins. A "spetsnaz commando" waiting ashore in the distance, all dressed in black, menacingly out of focus, was front page news in the Stockholm dailies for a day. It turned out to be Ove, a Swedish pensioner who had been snapped doing a bit of fishing. Not for Russian submarines, it must be hastily added. One mystery vessel that looked indeed like a minisub was photographed, between trees, navigating down a fjord. This engaged the pundits for a day. It turned out to be an "experience sub" owned by a leisure company.

The twitter community duly latched on to the meme, showing the kind of creativity that gives crowdsourcing its good name. Some enterprising person had dug around and found photos of world leaders climbing into or out of submarines. North Korean leader, German chancellor Angela Merkel. A man looking very much like Putin - but wasn't - was included in a submarine vessel with a huge glass bubble front where he could be seen pulling the submarine levers, Dr Doom style. (Probably some inventor, but since the man was bald and slightly out of focus it did look like Putin.) The leaders in submarines were set out in a long line. The headline was "phantom submarine, the suspects". Another twitterer had found a photo of a giant piece of installation art from a city in Europe somewhere, from some years back: a full size real submarine bursting out of the street asphalt. Headline: Stockholm this morning.

So what is really going on? Are there real foreign submarines about, are these really Russians and, if they are, why are they doing it? The main "serious" piece of evidence is an intercepted emergency radio broadcast in Russian, said to originate in Swedish waters and picked up by the Swedish signals intelligence agency, which duly leaked it to the press The Russian air force has also certifiably intruded in Swedish airspace, several times in the last two years. You can't hide flight intrusions, so these have definitely been taking place. The jets were "testing Swedish defence capabilities" said the experts. The Russian air force having goaded the Swedes, is now the Russian navy wanting to get in the act and conduct a bit of harassment? A payback, perhaps, for decades of humiliation at western hands, and Sweden is close by.

It is seriously possible that it is the Russians playing games. Putin is narked by Sweden. Sweden signed an agreement with NATO two months ago to allow basing for NATO forces in the event of a serious crisis with Russia. Sweden sits at at a crucial strategic location, an excellent jump off point for attacking Russia. But it has always been tantalisingly off limits for NATO because of Sweden's longstanding neutrality. The deal signed in August changed all that. The NATO deal was one of the last - and in my view most significant - acts of the right wing Swedish government that was ousted in September after eight years in office. Sweden was scrupulously neutral through the cold war - been neutral since 1809 - and this was a pretty giant positive signal towards NATO.

Russian involvement is a definite possibility. But actually not the only one. This submarine business, you see, is a very old story, and awakens personal memories for every Swede over 40. In the 1980s, there were regular submarine hunts in Sweden, and every time there was an accompanying hysteria. The subs, then, were assumed to be Russian, and one indeed was Russian; it ran aground in November 1981. The famous Whisky on the Rocks incident. But, in the dozens of incidents that followed, submarines were detected, but never identified, and never brought up. Every year for a decade, submarine hunts were a regular feature on the Swedish calendar. Even though the subs were never identified, everyone "knew" they were Russian, or rather, Soviet as was then.

That certainty was not justified. Two big government investigations in the 1990s and 2000s showed that, when the navy had said subs were Russian, they had had no grounds for it. (Apart from that first one) There was no proof either way, but the latter of the two big investigations, headed by Sweden's top diplomat, Rolf Ekeus, concluded that NATO also had a motive to mess around in Swedish waters. Swedish historians have since done more work and found that not only did NATO have a motivation to be in Swedish waters but they actually did so. Regularly. To stoke Swedish fears of the Bear, since the Swedes would automatically take them to be Russian. NATO was playing tricks.

There were Russians subs intruding - but also NATO subs. Both sides were at it. But NATO's intrusions were more high profile, because they had a deliberate theatrical, psychological motive. Deception. To raise the hostility level against the Soviets (as then was) among the neutral Swedes.

At first, researchers and historians putting forward these theories were regarded as cranks. Now it has become much more mainstream. It is an enduring neuralgic issue in Swedish modern history: books have been written about this, and there are academics and historians who absolutely hate each other on each side of the debate. The Swedish navy admirals involved at the time furiously deny they struck a deal with NATO to discredit the then Social Democrat government's pro-Soviet foreign policy. But western officials who were involved in the operations have said something different. These officials have admitted that the US and UK were involved.

Twenty years after the end of the last Cold War, would western forces be at it again? ("Russian" Radio broadcasts could easily be faked, experts say) The risks and embarrassment of being caught would be considerable, though perhaps the real risk is small if a secret deal has been struck, again, with the Swedish navy. To my mind, the obvious reason would be the accession of the new Social Democrat government in September.

The new government's foreign minister, Margot Wallström, is much more left wing than her opposition predecessor, the very hawkish and right wing Carl Bildt, who was involved with the Project for a New American Century and has good links with American neoconservatives.

Wallström's and the new prime minister Stefan Löfven's first foreign policy move last month was to make Sweden the first west European country to recognise Palestine, a clear signal against Israel and a signal to the United States that Sweden is going to run a more independent foreign policy than under Carl Bildt. "Russian submarines" poking around Swedish waters would remind Swedes not to cleave too far from the American line. Just speculation? I don't know.

They could well be Russian. I am just saying we can't be totally sure the submarines are Russian - unless one is actually brought up and identified. And both sides, East and West, use psychological warfare. Submarines may be among engineers' finest constructions, but they are also excellent for sending signals to a state without them being sure exactly who is doing it.

*My book on the Cold War in Scandinavia will be published next year

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 22 October 2014 at 01:40 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 22 October 2014 01:16 PM     General     Comments (0)  

For a free university education, head to Germany

11 October 2014 by Pelle Neroth

Germany scored a publicity coup last week with the news that all German universities had now abolished tuition fees. A university education in the country of Lorelei and Goethe tuition will be free - to all students, whether they are from Pennsylvania, Paris or Peru.

The American press picked up the news in a way that put Germany in a very favourable light. Wunderbar! Americans should start learning German immediately.

Another column mused that if German had been adopted as America's official language in the 19th century - the possibility of which is actually a bit of a myth, but never mind - then American students would be flocking across the Atlantic. American university fees are among the highest in the world. As for the English, it might also be thought tempting, as English (not Scottish) tuition fees are the highest in Europe, were German skills among the English not so abysmal, with the number of students taking A levels in German falling year by year.

If language were not a problem, the thought might be appealing,. German university academic standards are rising, reflected in the country's high representation in the global rankings of the world's top 500 universities.

The UK and the US typically dominate the top of the lists. MIT, Stanford, Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard are typically in or near the top five in the Times Higher Education university rankings, which polls academics from around the world to nominate the best seats of learning.

Lest one thinks the Times Higher Education supplement list shows an Anglo Saxon bias, the global rankings compiled by staff at Shanghai University shows a similar picture. The Germans quite compete at the very top level. The best German university, Munich, is ranked only 29th. But Germany does well at a slightly lower level of rankings, in the 50 to 200 category. In fact, after the US and UK, Germany is now third in the list of countries with universities inside the top 200. It is worth noting that one of this year's Nobel prizes went to a man affiliated with a German research institution.

It is true that German university education doesn't come with all the bells and whistles you get in the United States or the UK. No Olympic-sized swimming pools or climbing walls on campus. No frat houses or, on this side of the pond, privileged living in 13th century ivy covered colleges. German students live at home, or in independently organised apartments, and attend lectures as if going to work or attending high school. The lecture theatres are often bigger, and more filled. Professors are far less hands on. They are less familiar with their students. The university is far less of the complete social, artistic and cosseted academic and personal growth experience it is in the UK and US. Although you won't have to pay, it is clearly a system which puts the onus on self motivated learning.

However, the challenge of the German language may not be the problem it is made out to be, as an increasing number of courses are held in English.

Just looking at the engineering field, for instance. The University of Oldenburg offers a BSc in Engineering Physics, The Rhine Waal university of Applied Sciences offers a BSc in Bioengineering. The University of Wurzburg offers a BEng in Business and Engineering. All in English. That is far from the complete list.

There is much more information about how to study in Germany on the website. British and American universities are probably a bit more nervous than they were about the competition from Germany, but for the school leaver looking at life and career options, worried about UK or US student fees, a German university education offers just one more opportunity worth looking into.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 11 October 2014 at 12:26 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 11 October 2014 12:16 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Northern Finland pins hopes on 5G

25 September 2014 by Pelle Neroth

The Finns are in a bit of a funk at the moment. Because of EU sanctions against Russia - an important trading partner for Finland - the Finnish economy is expected to contract this year. Finnish politicians feel betrayed by the sale of Nokia's handsets division to Microsoft. To cap it all, the snows in Finland are early this year, possibly presaging a long winter. Will a new technology initiative in the Arctic North cheer them up a little?

In April, Microsoft finalised its takeover of Nokia's handsets and services decision for a little over 5bn euros. The two firms had inaugurated their collaboration earlier, when Microsoft used Nokia handsets for its Windows Mobile operating system. The Nokia deal is part of a buying spree prompted by the US tax system, which impels US corporations to park their overseas profits in their overseas subsidiaries to avoid the relatively high rate of US corporate tax of 32%.

These hoards of cash - $92bn in Microsoft's case - are then most profitably used buying further overseas acquisitions. Skype, an Estonian-Swedish-Danish product, was an early target. Minecraft, the massively popular construction game which originated in Stockholm, another, more recent, acquisition by Microsoft.

No doubt the deal was helped by the fact that an old Microsoft hand, Stephen Elop, headed Nokia when the deal was struck. He and several other Nokia executives went over to the new Windows Mobile operating division.

Still, what remained of Finnish Nokia would continue to sell patents profitably to Microsoft and the American company pledged a commitment to keep jobs and expertise of its slice of Nokia in Finland, under the new name. Then, in July of this year, it announced job cuts: 12,000 ex Nokia employees worldwide, including a thousand highly qualified staff in Finland.

Finland's finance minister Antti Rinne told a Finnish business newspaper said she felt a sense of betrayal, because Microsoft had said it was committed to Finland. Unions called on the US company to live up to its "social responsibilities" and to initiate a support programme for those whose jobs were lost.

No place was =more affected by the Microsoft decision to cut back on the former Nokia operations than the northern town of Oulu, where five hundred jobs developing features for smartphones were lost.

So it is good news that, two months later, Nokia Networks, one of the remaining divisions of Finnish Nokia that wasn't spun off, has made a commitment to Oulu to use the city as a testbed for its 5G projects.

5G is the next new standard for mobile phone telephony, expected to come into play in the early 2020s, and will allow a high resolution film to be downloaded in seconds. In the current, already superfast, 4G technology, that would take minutes. The decision was announced at an innovation conference in the city. Oulu has experience and expertise in the area.

The university has a centre for wireless communications that was involved in the development of 3G, an earlier mobile telephony standard.

Later it worked with the Finnish army on a large scale radio project. There are several start ups in the area, connected to the University.
5G might seem to be redundantly fast for consumer needs today, but in a future development called the Internet of Things requiring massive quantities of data transfer, 5G could come in very handy indeed. In the future, we will see ever more smart homes, smart cities, smart hospitals, smart workplaces, all of whose processes will be linked together via a vast, unobtrusive network of 5G connections. The Internet of Things will also find its use in various industrial sectors.

A company called Cyberlightning was founded at the University of Oulu in 2010. Its flagship product is something called CyberVille, a software platform for monitoring and controlling the data and the physical infrastructure through the Internet of Things. Complicated as networks are, Cyberville allows them to be reduced to a 3D visualisation that can be manipulated from the screen of a smartphone.

As isolated as they are, the Finns can't really do anything else but specialise in R&D and technology. But the Scandinavians have a proven track record of innovations that become household names: Nokia, Spotify, Skype, Minecraft, Linux.

It is that kind of track record that makes Scandinavia a role model for the Scottish Nationalists, whose bid to break away from the United Kingdom we all know failed last week. Out with the deep fried Mars Bars, in with a bright new world of innovation-driven Scandinavian style prosperity.

For what it is worth, the big Scandinavian newspapers were negative to Scottish independence in their editorials. Residual loyalty to London probably played a large part. A feeling, also, that Scotland would have a long institutional and cultural journey to make. Perhaps the subject for a future blog post, as the impetus for Scottish independence has hardly gone away.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 25 September 2014 at 11:12 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 25 September 2014 10:59 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Whoops! When Nobel committee member endorsed cold fusion

13 September 2014 by Pelle Neroth

Three years ago I wrote about the Italian engineer who claimed to have solved the world's energy problems with an apparatus little larger than a shoebox.

No one was allowed to look inside, but inside the oddly shaped construction was an "ingredient X" catalyst that created an enormous energy output when you combined the two smaller amounts of other inputs, hydrogen gas with powdered nickel, added to a little heat. There was, certainly in the beginning, quite a lot of extensive, mostly favourable, coverage of it.


It is well worth reading. Rossi's story is exciting, long and detailed.

Andrea Rossi's ECAT project's believability was boosted by the support it had from a leading figure in one of the world's most prestigious science organisations: the chair of the energy committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sven Kullander, prof emeritus in Particle Physics. The Swedish Academy, in case you weren't aware, awards the Nobel prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine.

Kullander went down to Milan to check out the project, accompanied by several very senior Swedish physicist colleagues, from Uppsala University and the Royal Swedish Institute of Technology KTH, Sweden's equivalents of Cambridge and Imperial, respectively.

One, Hanno Essén, was not only professor emeritus in Nuclear Physics at KTH but also chairman of the Swedish Sceptics' Society, an organisation dedicated to sniffing out hoaxes. The august gathering of scientists attended a showcase experiment hosted by Rossi. Ingredient X was a commercial secret so they still weren't allowed to look inside.

The input mechanisms were carefully checked. The energy output, measured by the temperature rise of water in a pipe flowing through the ECAT machine, was measured. The conclusion was that the reaction inside the machine could not be explained in chemical reactions, whatever ingredient X was. Given the surplus of energy released, it had to be some kind of cold fusion. Since there is plenty of nickel and hydrogen in the world, Rossi's ECAT machines, suitably scaled up, could solve the world's energy problems.

Kullander told the international media that his group had checked over Rossi's figures and methods and could not find anything wrong. They agreed: it looked kosher. Kullander suggested to Italian television Rossi might be even deserve the Nobel Prize. Rossi experienced big investor and media interest in Sweden and Italy.

For example, here. (in English)

Now, in 2014, it has to be said that shares in Rossi's credibility have fallen considerably.

A three part Swedish journalistic investigation by reporter Marcus Hansson at Swedish state radio's flagship science programme, has found that Rossi has a past as a fraud.

The programme is sadly only available in Swedish, but here is the gist of the story, Back in the eighties, it has emerged he entranced investors, journalists and local town officials with his waste-to-fuel project. He bought an old oil refinery in the northern Italian town of Lacciarella and started getting paid by the Italian government for receiving toxic waste. Nothing came of it, according to the local mayor. Instead, thousands of fish turned up dead in a local river, the result of leaks from the waste chemicals stored in cisterns and basins, unprocessed.

Rossi was arrested for fraud, left the country, came back, was caught on a bus, and sentenced to jail. The local mayor says Rossi's project cost the local authorities 40 million euros to clean up.

A few years later, then, he was free and promoting his ECAT project. The Nobel prediction by Kullander was the highlight of Rossi's career. Two further tests have been carried out that have failed to verify Rossi's own results. In one test, at Uppsala University's Tandberg laboratory, the machine fell apart before any test results. Rossi drove home to Italy, in a huff, failing to attend the dinner held in his honour at the Royal Swedish Academy's banqueting suite. Another more damning test carried out in Italy by the official Technical Research Institute of Sweden found that Rossi had underestimated the heat energy going into the reaction by two thirds. In the new calculations, zero net energy was released. In other words, there was nothing to it.

Italian journalists told reporter Marcus Hansson that the quietly charismatic and scholarly-looking Rossi is not quite as genuine as he claims to be. Kullander died earlier this year, while the other top Swedish scientists are lying low. More tests are said to be carried out secretly at an undisclosed location. Could Rossi yet be vindicated? His remaining supporters certainly hope so.

Not everyone is happy with the way the story was covered by Swedish Radio

Rossi himself has sold his idea to an American start-up and has apparently moved to Miami Beach.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 13 September 2014 at 12:17 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 13 September 2014 11:59 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Swiss company offers back bailouts

30 August 2014 by Pelle Neroth

In the public mind, Switzerland is known for cuckoo clocks, Swiss army knives and watches. Cliches, but also a sign that Switzerland has a long and excellent tradition of intricate mechanical craftsmanship. Of course, Swiss technology has not stood still since the early 20th century, whatever the tourist brochures say.

The Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich is one of the world's top universities. And the university is helping to organise the world's bionic athletic championships in 2016, where Switzerland is predicted to do well.

Bionics and cyborg engineering is already a cottage industry in the surrounds of Switzerland's biggest city. Bionics make much use of exoskeletons, and in this area a Swiss startup called noonees has come up with a not very elaborate but immensely practical solution to factory workers' woes. BMW will be trialling it on the factory floor this autumn.

It is an exoskeleton chair.

The exoskeleton construction wraps around the worker's legs with straps around the bottom. Just two kilos in weight, it shouldn't be too impeding. There is not much to meet the eye: four textile straps that wrap across each knee, two metal struts 30 cm long behind each calf.

When a button is pressed, these struts go "stiff" and allow the worker to crouch, or to "sit in the air", with the exoskeleton creating the stiff structure to enable the worker to assume a sitting position "in the air" while his feet maintain contact with the ground.

It takes enormous weight off the muscles and strain off the back. Workers can either use it when resting or when having to maintain a particular posture for a length of time when working with whatever they are working with. The 6v battery lasts for 24 hours without needing recharges.

The chief executive of nonees (geddit?), Keith Gunura, 29, had the idea when, as a 17-year-old, he was working in dogsbody job in the UK packaging industry, which required a lot of time being on his feet and was exhausting.

It is a brilliant idea and makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. As a privileged journalist, deskbound mostly, I feel guilty about those whose jobs keep them standing on their feet. This takes some weight of my mind as it takes weight of the users' postures! Perhaps it is also an argument for budding engineers doing at least a few crap jobs in their lives. Long moments can be spent dreaming of solutions to make those jobs more comfortable - and help make the world a better place.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 30 August 2014 at 02:30 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 30 August 2014 02:14 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Germans criticise Russians for botched Galileo satellite launch

25 August 2014 by Pelle Neroth

Europe's equivalent of GPS, Galileo, received a setback when the project's two first fully operational capacity satellites were launched into the wrong orbit by a Soyuz rocket - provided and controlled by the Russians.

The £7bn Galileo project is already ten years late, so the latest cockup cannot have made people happy at the European Space Agency. The plan is that a total of 30 satellites would be in orbit by 2017. Four satellites have already been launched (two in 2011, two in 2012), but these were less technologically advanced than the two, dubbed Doresa and Milena, launched on Friday

Launched from Kourou, in French Guyana, in the Russian made Soyuz rocket, the latest two satellites ended up at a wildly elliptical orbit of between 13,700 km and 25,900 kilometres above earth instead of the planned circular orbit of 23,500 km. A European commission of inquiry is being launched today to investigate how it could have happened.

While the actual launch took place at the ESA's space port in the South American tropics, the whole operation was controlled by many dozens of Russian technicians and engineers flown in especially for the launch. Since the demise of the space shuttle, Russia has enormous power in space in terms of getting supplies and astronauts up to the international space station, or launching satellites.

It cannot possibly have been an instance of Russian sabotage.
More likely is that there was some kind of mechanical failure in the upper stage of the Soyuz Fregat rocket. Although the past eight Soyuz launches at Kourou have taken place without a hitch, at Baikonur, the Russian launchpad, there have been several problems with launches using the Proton rocket, with six false starts since 2008 alone. In July last year a Proton rocket carrying a GLONASS satellite - GLONASS being Russia's very own GPS equivalent - crashed near the launch site due to a mispositioned location sensor in the first rocket stage.

The worst case scenario for the awry Galileo satellites is that they will have to be destroyed. European space officials are examining whether the satellites can be manoeuvred into the right position using their own thrusters. The thrusters are not very powerful.

Even before the mishap, the ESA had signed a contract to have the remaining 16 satellites launched into space by French Ariane 5 rockets. The next launch is due in 2015

The whole timing of this disaster has been very unfortunate. While the Anglo-American media have been quite objective about the accident, German opinion formers have focused on Russia's responsibility for this blow to Europe's prestige space project. Some British critics, though, have called Galileo expensive and redundant, merely duplicating the efforts of GPS and Glonass.

The important daily Die Welt railed against "error prone Russian technology" being an "absolute disgrace". As is well known, Russian and European/American relations have hit a post cold war low due to the Ukraine crisis which, incidentally, the prestigious US current affairs magazine Foreign Affairs blames squarely on Western provocations. Let us hope this unfortunate failure doesn't increase anti Russian sentiment in the West.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 25 August 2014 at 01:53 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 25 August 2014 01:21 PM     General     Comments (1)  

German goal line technology installed in Brazil to prevent another 1966 ghost goal controversy

18 July 2014 by Pelle Neroth

There have been more serious disputes between the English and Germans. World Wars 1 and 2 spontaneously come to mind. But surely few more recent contretemps rank higher than the disputed goal in the World Cup final of 1966, where the referee ruled in England's favour. England went on to win the trophy.

The goal put England 3-2 ahead of West Germany in the 11th minute of extra time. The ball hit the bar, bounced up and down on the line and remained in play until cleared. The Soviet linesman ruled it a goal and the referee, who did not see the incident, went along with the linesman's judgement call over the protests of the German players.

Fired up by being ahead, the English played with renewed verve and Geoff Hurst scored another goal on the final minute, as fans started streaming on to the pitch at Wembley. Final score: 4-2. That third goal has always been a point of contention since. An unconfirmed story has it that the Soviet linesman, when asked why ruled against the West Germans, replied with a single word: "Stalingrad". The huge, vicious battle that turned the tide on the Eastern Front, where half a million Soviet soldiers died, had, after all, taken place just 23 years earlier.

A paper from the Oxford University of Engineering Science by Ian Reid and Andrew Zisserman concludes, after drawing on extensive video analysis, that the ball never CROSSED The line and that it have need to travel another 6cm to do so. In other words, it was not a goal. Their paper is available here.

Forty four years on, there was another disputed goal in an England Germany match, during the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. This time the ref favoured the Germans. English player Frank Lampard's shot hit the crossbar and crossed the line before bouncing back into the German goalkeeper's arms. The goal was disallowed, but subsequent video replays show that the ball went in. The goal would have levelled the score to 2-2, but in the end the Germans won 4-1.

The incident reignited calls for goal line technology and, bowing to pressure to innovate, FIFA finally allowed the use of goal line technology in this year's World Cup in Brazil. Technology companies from Germany and England led the bids for the tender. Guess what, one of the German companies won.

The German company Goal Control sent 35 technicians to Brazil and invested 200 to 300,000 euros in equipment in each of the World Cup stadia. The system uses seven cameras trained on each goal, each capable of taking 500 pictures per second and determining accuracy to within 5 millimetres. When the ball crosses the line, the referee receives a GOAL message on a specially designed wristwatch. The system was needed within days, in an inconclusive goal between France and Honduras. It ruled in France's favour.

The system will continue to be used in league games played in Brazil, in those stadia where it was installed. But will it be used elsewhere. There is a lot of resistance elsewhere. Michel Platini, the French head of UEFA, the European football association, is sceptical about the cost to benefit ratio. These "ghost goals" are rarer than one thinks, and the installation in European stadia would cost tens of millions of euros, he says.

Goal Control wasn't the only German technological innovation present on display in Brazil. The German football team, ensconced in its own purpose built football camp, Campo de Bahia, complete with spas and advanced training equipment, wore special monitors threaded into their football kit to monitor performance while training. Heartbeat, speed, acceleration and every move was recorded by the tiny monitors and beamed to the coach's iPad. They beat Brazil 7-1 in the semifinal before going on to win the final, so the technology must have been doing something right.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 18 July 2014 at 02:38 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 18 July 2014 02:20 PM     General     Comments (0)  

EU court's 'Right to be forgotten' ruling causes controversy

10 July 2014 by Pelle Neroth

It is one of those rare European tech stories to have crossed over into the UK media mainstream. Big time. The European Court of Justice ruled in May that EU citizens have a Right to be Forgotten on Google. The judgment said that search engines have to, if requested, remove information deemed "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant", or be subjected to fines.

Google began taking down results at the end of June. In just the first few days it was flooded with 50,000 applications, leaving the company with big backlog to work through, despite hiring more staff, since each application has to be individually assessed. According to latest reports, the number of requests gas now reached the quarter million as of 9 July. Only Europeans are eligible to file requests from the special web page set up by Google, and applicants have to apply in their own name, with photos of identity papers attached.

On the one side of the argument, it has been called the next step in internet censorship and a "licence to rewrite history". On the other, the European Court of Justice points out that privacy is a human right under European conventions, and that individuals should not be forced to live with out-of-date and unflattering information on the internet haunting their lives and careers .

Critics fear that the judgment will lead to groups like corporations, criminals and politicians requesting the removal of important information. But backers of the European court's judgment said the court specifically indicated that Google should not remove links to information when the public's right to know outweighed the individual's right to privacy, ie, the story is in the public interest. Companies or public organisations are not covered by the ruling.

When I touched on the upcoming judgement in a column some time ago, I noted that the whole issue originated in a case the Spanish courts couldn't deal with and so passed upwards to the European level. A Spanish private individual, a lawyer by profession, was irritated to find that Google searches of his name linked prominently to a 1998 notice in La Vanguardia newspaper that his house was being confiscated because of a failure to pay his taxes. The man felt that while true, it was no longer relevant. Besides, it damaged his professional reputation and therefore likely his livelihood as a lawyer.

The ECJ did not quibble with La Vanguardia's right to publish the notice, since it was in the public interest. But it ruled that Google, the world's largest search engine, violated his privacy by making the information so easily available.

Many will sympathise with the right to have disobliging stuff removed about you. Quite a lot of people don't want their lives open to scrutiny by employers, enemies, family and the general public. Many will sympathise with another guy whose case, highlighted by the BBC, involved him being sacked from his job in Britain because someone had googled his name and found an old drink driving conviction. He wasn't even in a job that involved driving. But there is a large grey area. Does a person have a right to have a photo of them behaving badly at party removed from a search? Maybe. But what about reader review sites that rate local doctors' or lawyers' professional competence? Google has already received many requests that pose such ethical dilemmas. Google has an ethics committee including a philosopher at the Oxford Internet Institute and the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. British journalists, like the BBC's Robert Peston, have complained that disobliging stories by him about business leaders' dodgy dealings are being removed from the Google search, even though the material is in the public interest, so clearly Google are interpreting the ECJ's restrictions generously. Or maybe they are deliberately going along with requests to wipe public interest stories in defiance of instructions in order to get influential journalists to agitate against the ECJ's decision? Just speculation.


It is worth nothing that Google is only deleting information that appears on its own results pages. It can't control information on the original website. (In the Spanish case, for instance, La Vanguardia's online archives.) Further, the ruling does not apply outside Europe, so while results will be censored on,, etc, they will not be censored at the US parent site

The information will still be out there! And, for now, experts think that America's commitment to free speech through the First Amendment will mean it is unlikely that US courts would ever impose the European model where privacy rights can trump freedom to publish.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 10 July 2014 at 12:26 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 10 July 2014 12:09 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Technology and access to resources helped tip the scales in the Great War

6 July 2014 by Pelle Neroth

There is a lot of attention being paid to the First World War this year, in commemoration of the centenary of the year the war started, 1914. Two weeks ago, EU leaders met for a memorial dinner in Ypres, Belgium. Our nations' ancestors fought each other on battlefields there, think Passchendaele.

I would like to focus on a less commonly examined angle. World War One was the first telecommunications war and the first oil war.

Some years after the treaty of Versailles was signed, Winston Churchill wrote that the Great War differed from earlier conflicts because of the terrifying strength of the combatants and the enormous means of destruction that they possessed. All of it the result of the rapid developments in technology in the decades preceding this most important of all conflicts. The internal combustion engine was invented in the 1880s.

And along with the naval rearmament race chiefly between Britain and Germany that characterised the 20 year period after 1890 there was a race to discover and exploit the world's oil resources.

When Winston Churchill became First Sea Lord in 1911, most of the
Royal Navy ran on coal fired steam turbines, but coal had obvious disadvantages. Much energy and time was laid down by crew on loading up on coal and feeding the turbines.

Ubiquitous coal dust made for a terrible working environment. And ships were not able to load up on coal while at sea, which seriously limited ships' range. Oil had twice as much energy per unit of weight as did coal. Oil driven ships could accelerate twice as fast and had a higher maximum speed.

The burning of oil gave off less smoke, which made warships harder to discover out at sea. Plus the fuel could be replenished while on the move, which gave oil driven ships a longer range. Much had been invested in a vast necklace of coaling stations in Britain's various far flung colonies.

The price of oil fluctuated wildly. Yet the risky decision taken by Admiralty to adopt oil, helped along by shrewd deals cut with Middle Eastern potentates, paid off: when war finally came, it helped strengthen the Royal Navy over its German counterpart, and, crucially, the Royal Navy dominated control of the world's shipping lanes.

The allies were able to draw on global oil resources in South America and the Middle East, plus American resources when that country joined the war in 1917, while Germany was limited to oil supplies it could source overland from Romania. Shortages meant that the many Germany aircraft stayed on the ground and tanks immobile in the more fluid, latter parts of the war. One of the reasons why the Germans surrendered while the army was still undefeated and in occupation of parts of France was that the German general staff realised that, without access to oil and given the war's growing mechanisation, there was no way Germany could win

Germany had the engineers, the innovation abilities and the technical know how, but the country lacked the resources. Even before the war was over, western companies, backed by their governments, began a wild chase for new oil resources. A race that goes on still.

The Great War also marked a struggle over control for long distance telegraph and telephone communications. The day Britain declared war on Germany over the latter's invasion of Belgium, 4 August 1914, he British cable ship Telconia localised and cut Germany's Atlantic cables and attached the ends of the five cables to Britain's own telecommunications network; France did the same to cut off all links between Germany and South America.

In one instant, Germany lost 5000 kilometres of cable network, 90 per cent of her capacity. Further, in the autumn of 1914, Germany's radio station in her East African colonies were systematically attacked by the British. Germany was reduced to communicating with her overseas outposts via two radio stations in northern Germany and through the diplomatic services of neutral countries with pro German sympathies, chiefly Sweden. Unfortunately for the Kaiser, the British early on broke the German codes, so were able to read Germany's radio traffic for most of the war.

The most important upshot of this activity was British operatives' decoding of the so called Zimmerman telegram, to the German embassy in Mexico, in which Mexico was urged to go to war on the USA. The British leaked the information to the American press immediately and this became one of the causes that shifted America over to the Entente (allied) side and into the war, making Germany's defeat inevitable.

As the Guardian's and Washington Post's revelations last year about the NSA and GCHQ show, even today the Anglo Americans command the world's electronic information highways.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 06 July 2014 at 10:32 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 06 July 2014 10:09 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Brussels, populists versus industry and science communities

1 June 2014 by Pelle Neroth

The European parliament now has a lot of populist MEPs in its ranks. In a way, the EU is now a focus for the public's interest in a way it hasn't been for a generation. Sadly for the European parliament, people still won't care what it thinks or does. Rather there is a macabre kind of interest in what stink bombs the Bash Street Kids will throw at the "serious" politicians.

The European elections last week were a watershed in that they mark the first time there has been an increase in turnout from the steady decline since the first polls over thirty years ago. Largely I believe this is because of the rise of the populists, who believe they stand for regular people's concerns about unemployment and immigration, and blame Europe for some of it.

The Bash Street Kids, ie the populists, with Britain's UKIP and France's Front Nationale at the head, will pit themselves against the swots, that majority of MEPS who take do their homework on time and meet and do the stuff that elected representatives normally do, such as pass legislation. (Quite a lot of it in the European parliament's case) UKIP, which topped the UK poll with 27% of the vote, and Front Nationale, which came top in France with 25%, will also, I predict, be at loggerheads with each other.

Internal squabbles are in the nature of opposition movements. Remember Monty Python's Life of Brian, where the People's front of Judea stand vehemently opposed to the Judean People's Front. In the comedy film, they sit on the bleachers and accuse each other of being splitters. The new populists come from most of the 28 EU member states, in varying sizes, in slightly different flavours, from nationalist to, Eurosceptic to left wing populist, to neo Nazi.

I predict the FN and UKIP will be caught up in the usual Anglo-French rivalries as they scramble to bring on board the six other parties from across the EU to their respective teams for the seven required to create a European political grouping, which brings with it several advantages. This includes European funding and better speaker privileges, and is an important symbol of power - and with potentially even greater powers to disrupt the EU's functioning, if that is what they want.

At the same time parties like UKIP will be wary of associating themselves with the kind of racist parties that will earn the disapprobation of their domestic media. I think the FN will have fewer qualms about this. The British Tories are also fishing in these waters. One of the most "respectable" populist parties, the Danish People's Party, which successfully brought immigration on to the mainstream Danish agenda (which hasn't happened in Sweden), is said to be close to joining the Tory's own parliamentary group, the ECR, the European Conservatives and Reformists.

There is no doubt the new parties represent many people's concerns about jobs and immigration, dilution of identity. Also, the Brussels machine is an oligarchic system where lobbyists and big business feel at home. At the same time, in the UK, despite its Eurosceptic media, a reader's poll in the Mail on Sunday had 44% wanting out of the EU. 40% staying in. And that in a paper which takes an anti European stance.
That suggests there is everything to play for the Europhiles, that the British rather like Europe only not the way it is currently constituted. And British industry and science community remain firmly against leaving. Science journals such as Nature have carried laments from British scientists complaining about the generous funding they'd lose if Britain quit.

Britain is the big winner when European science grants are handed out. The British medical industry and industrial firms fear negative legislation passed that will disadvantage British exporters into Europe if Britain is not part of the club. Other countries have found that Europe's high environmental standards, as they are presented to their own publics, are sometimes a cover for sneaky protectionism.

My suggestion for keeping the populists happy is to look at the regulations allowing total freedom of movement. That is, if the populists are willing to take place in the legislative process. In the last session, they kept away from lawmaking and stuck to using the parliament as a "glorified youtube channel" for vicious attacks on the Brussels elite and their padded lives.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 01 June 2014 10:58 AM     General     Comments (0)  

I understand Ukip's support, but wouldn't vote for them today

22 May 2014 by Pelle Neroth

The European elections are about - what exactly?

For many it is a proxy national election. Or a means to get further into, or out of, Europe. Ironically it could be argued that the European parliament is not the forum for these kinds of discussions.

A decision to get out of the EU will be decided by a public referendum. If the UK stays in, its revised relationship with the EU will be decided by the UK parliament or UK government.

When you choose who to vote for today, you have to realise what the European parliament does. It is certainly a talking shop. Its prestigious foreign affairs committee is powerless, yet produces more hot air and CO2 than a Polish coal plant.

In many areas, however, the European parliament does have quite big powers to modify, or nullify, quite important but quite technical European legislation in many areas in not least technology, issues such as patents, internet privacy, telecommunications, motor vehicle standards and much else I have been covering for years. It is good at standing up to the likes of Google and the United States congress.

When large global agreements are being cooked up, as for instance in the upcoming EU US free trade agreement, it does represent a democratic and accountable body that can demand insight and represent the popular will in negotiations that are otherwise too often only reserved for international bureaucrats and the highly paid lawyers of big business.

To restate: the body is both a forum for resolving differences between member states and the public and industry's interests and a forum that gives the peoples of Europe a voice in international negotiations.

Here is my main point. In both these situations, a vote for Ukip, predicted to top today's poll, is a vote wasted since many of their MEPs don't take a very constructive approach. They get their expenses and do as little work as possible, attending few committees and holding few rapporteurships (the post of piloting a piece of legislation through parliament). They claim it is their way of bringing down the useless EU as quickly as possible. Nice argument! Self interest cannot be discounted, though!

Another way of looking at it is that as long as the UK is in the EU, for another three years at least, until the in/out referendum the Tories have promised in 2017, the UK will have to abide by EU legislation and as long as Ukip don't play the legislative game and stand up for Britain's interests they are abrogating their responsibilities.

Sadly, some of the hardest working, most competent, MEPs, who know their stuff inside out, are Liberal Democrats and thus most under threat from annihilation in the European elections.

Where Ukip is useful is that it articulates a segment of opinion in the UK that, as elsewhere in Europe, is being neglected by mainstream parties.

As the British conservative thinker Phillip Blond has pointed out, there is a socially conservative sector of the population that is not in love with the media's and the mainstream parties' obsession with being as socially liberal as possible on politically correct issues.

They want to live ordered, quite traditional lives, and find the insecurities posed by the internet, globalisation, multiculturalism, and mass immigration quite overwhelming. At the same time as they are being assaulted by this anomistic liberalism, the certainties of the welfare state are crumbling beneath them. A welfare state is essentially a contract between generations of unrelated people in the same community.

The EU has never been able to resolve that,combine it with free movement of labour and "universal" EU citizenship. Ukip's warnings about massive labour migration from Europe - as they correctly point out, over 500 million people are entitled to settle in the UK - is dismissed by the biens pensants of the liberal media. But who knows what the future will hold? In many east European and southern European countries youth unemployment of up to 50% has devastated a generation of young people. And Britain, not least because of the language, remains an attractive destination for them.

Ukip represents those in Britain who feel disenfranchised by politics. These are people who socially are on the right but economically on the left who would have happily voted for the old pre Blair Labour party. Or in France or Italy they would have voted communist. Today the French working class votes for the rightist Marine Le Pen. In the UK, they are drawn to Ukip. For the "elite" people who work in steady jobs in global finance or well paid media, or yes, the European institutions, to dismiss these parties s populist or fascist is insulting and wrong. To draw a US parallel, these people are like Nixon's or Bush's red staters.

No one could claim, though, that the quality of US lawmaking has improved by the growing polarisation of Congress. The worry is if happens in Brussels. When British interests, for instance to preserve the right to research stem cell therapies, are challenged in the European parliament, can you trust a Ukip MEP to fight the fight for British interests?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 22 May 2014 at 11:31 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 22 May 2014 10:26 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Scotland markets itself as indispensable to Europe

9 May 2014 by Pelle Neroth

A few years ago, Jacques Delors, retired ex-president of the European Commission and Margaret Thatcher's old nemesis, confidently predicted to a French newspaper that Scotland would soon become independent. Did that wily old fox know something that Westminster didn't?

This when the polls showed that Scottish independence was an unlikely prospect and few politicians or mainstream commentators in London thought it was likely to happen.There is an argument, a bit conspiratorial I will admit, that says the commission always planned regional subsidies with the aim of splitting up nation states, the biggest barrier in the commission's "plans" to create a federal Europe. What is true is that larger regions, and many cities, have found it imperative to have lobbying offices in Brussels, jockeying for influence and EU money.

From there it is but a short step to wish to extend influence even further by having a seat on what remains the EU's most powerful body, the Council of Ministers, where the nation states are represented. It is entirely rational for large subnational entities like Scotland to do this, to cut out one layer of politicians, in national parliaments and in national governments, and have a seat directly at the top table.

But Scottish membership of the EU is not automatic. It will have to reapply from outside, commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said in February. Any member state could veto Scottish membership, and several countries, like Spain, have powerful regions, such as Catalonia, that could go Scotland's way if Scotland is given too easy a ride. So might be tempted to punish Scotland with a no.

Consequently, Scotland has been busy marketing itself in Brussels as an indispensable member, a technology and science hub, with Europe's richest resources of oil, wind and tidal power and some of Europe's top universities. With an eye to the situation in Ukraine, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond said, in a speech in Belgium this month, that Scotland was vital to Europe's energy security. Speaking at the European college in Bruges, Nick Clegg's alma mater and the site of Mrs Thatcher's most famous speech against European integration (the "No, no,no" Bruges speech from 1988 ) he also threw Scotland's attractive fishing grounds on to the scales. What Spanish government in its right mind would deny this bonanza to its fishermen by vetoing Scottish EU entry?

What he did not say was that Scottish green initiatives have be so far not been the cash cow hoped. That in fact withdrawal of UK subsidies for Scottish green initiatives could leave a large hole in the Scottish budget. Although Scotland produces 10% of the UK's electricity, it receives 28% of current renewables support. In my opinion, it is clear that wind power - which Scotland is touting along with tidal energy - is the least promising renewable. Scotland's threat that the rest of the UK could face blackouts and miss its carbon targets without Scottish renewables has also been questioned.

UK energy secretary Ed Davy has rejected this by saying the rest UK (rUK) could easily source its green electricity from elsewhere. Scotland provides just 5% of the rest of the UK's needs, and rUK could easily import any shortfall via cables that have been built to Belgium and France, whose electricity is mostly produced in non carbon emitting nuclear reactors. Both of these countries are closer to South East England and their supplies are cheaper at the current market price. The unspoken thought is that if Scotland is not really essential to rUK, it is unlikely to be indispensable to the rest of Europe either. There are no cables linking Scotland's energy supplies to potential customers on the Continent.

Scotland's claim to be an energy haven may weaken yet more as cheaper solar energy becomes available. A recent analysis from Citi group, quoted by energy secretary Davy, is that we may see a collapse in the price of solar panels in the same way we have seen a huge fall in the price of computer chips. Exponential falls leading to a huge rise in computing power. Another report already suggests that the price of solar is falling by three quarters this decade. In that case, the power in renewables will shift to southern Europe.

Unless Alex Salmond has some scheme to change Scotland's climate to something sunnier up his sleeve.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 09 May 2014 at 03:50 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 09 May 2014 03:27 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Europe braces itself for US takeovers

4 May 2014 by Pelle Neroth

This is ironic. A remote ethnic conflict of little concern to Britain becomes a huge source of concern and fingerwagging to British ministers. But a foreign takeover that could lead to the crippling of Britain's future means to pay its way, its life sciences industry, is just blithely waved through.

The British government appears to have given its informal green light to the biggest takeover bid ever seen in the British isles, US drug company Pfizer's 60 billion dollar bid for AstraZeneca, the jewel in the crown of Britain's most successful manufacturing sector, pharmaceuticals.

Most newspaper commentators are up in arms. Scientists are worried about losing jobs and patent portfolios to America. That old warhorse and fan of industrial strategy Michael Heseltine points out that most non European countries have the national interest defence when strategic firms are subject to takeover bids.

The British government, in the grip of free market ideology like no other major state, says the shareholders should decide. Yet shareholders will be enormously subjected to pressures from lobbyists, PR people and lawyers ostensibly working for the interests of the target company but, who, as always in mergers and acquisitions cases, stand to gain personally financially from the deal.

Executives get a quick cash in from share options and enjoy the feeling of expanding their empire, regardless of the fact that surveys show that mergers and acquisitions seldom pay off in terms of increased synergy. So much time is taken up merging company cultures and dealing with the inevitable layoffs that the cost-benefit trade off is highly dubious.

If this is not a moral hazard problem I don't know what is. The loser will be the British research base and, down the line, British industry and jobs. There is no such thing as a pure free market. Everything is political, and US companies benefit enormously from the "exorbitant privilege" of the United States which is able to print money and issue debt to ultimately pay for the subsidies that its many defence firms get when competing on the global market.

Ironically even were not Britain's Treasury in hock to free market ideology, the competition directorate in Brussels, largely a British creation, has the real power in this area. Often it is European companies that chafe under its "tyranny". The French are less able to defend their national champions than in the past, and have responded rather than the outright rejection they may have chosen to a parallel raid from the US's General Electric on French engineering firm Alstom by seeking a deal with Germany's Siemens.

Armand de Montebourg, the finance minister of France, supported a Franco German engineering alliance with the words "Faced with being bought out by Boeing it is better to create another Airbus". According to the French media, the political class agree with him in opposing the GE takeover proposals, and report that the Germans are enthusiastic politically for a share swap that would create a European engineering giant, despite GE's and Alstom's greater complementarity. The final word, though, rests with Brussels, which could block either merger.

The frustration of national leaders faced with power ceded to corporations and Brussels could explain the enthusiasm to which they take to old fashioned 19th century sabre rattling and geopolitics. Hence, perhaps, all the grandstanding over Ukraine.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 04 May 2014 at 11:05 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 04 May 2014 10:47 AM     General     Comments (0)  

ECJ rejects controversial data retention law

13 April 2014 by Pelle Neroth

Tony Blair was unpopular in large parts of Brussels, for his role in getting Britain involved in the controversial Iraq war and splitting European foreign policy right down the middle.

Now one of the most controversial pieces of European legislation pushed through Brussels under Blair's government has been given the thumbs down by the European Court of Justice.

According to the EU's top court, the mass storage of telecommunications data is illegal and breaches privacy rights, in a ruling announced on 8 April.

The directive, passed in 2006, obliges telecommunications providers to store all connection data about individuals for at least six months. No prior suspicion is necessary. The name and address of the subscriber, his phone number and date of the phone call are recorded. However, the content of the conversation is not recorded.

For mobile calls, the location where the call was made is added to the information stored. Many billions of pieces of information about people's lives were stored across Europe. Now it has been declared illegal and governments have to go back to the drawing board.

The Luxembourg based ECJ said the measures went beyond those necessary to fight terrorism and serious crime. Germany, with a different political culture, never implemented the directive, which was accused of being a case of policy laundering by the British government.

In 2001, Britain passed the Anti Terrorism Crime and Security Act which gave extensive powers to oversee data retention. The legal provision for Internet Service providers store information without compensation was thought to be a step too far, so the UK parliament put a small spanner in the works for the Labour government: it made the code voluntary for Internet Service Providers.

Tony Blair's New Labour, to get its way, decided on what Liberal Democrat MEP and European parliament home affairs spokesperson Sarah Ludford calls "Brussels policy laundering". That is, get something controversial that can't get passed domestically instead pushed through the Brussels policy machine, beyond the range of attention of the domestic media and policy makers. Then, as the date for domestic implementation arrives, shrug and "blame it in Brussels".

A deal struck between the right and left wing blocs in the European parliament meant the body agreed to what British home secretary Charles Clarke had already pushed the Council of Ministers into agreeing. Horror and sympathy for the London bombings in 2005 did play a part.

The Germans were always cool on the legislation, though, in part because of the legacy of the Gestapo and Stasi meant public opinion was very sensitive about privacy issues. There are more checks and balances in the Germany system and, although the Bundestag approved the implementation of the EU directive, the German constitutional court rejected it. It was not against mass storage of data in principle, but wanted it to remain limited to cases of serious crime and had concerns about the security of the data stored. The German government couldn't agree on a revision and the EU commission actually launched an infringement directive to force the Germans to implement the directive.

The directive actually helped boost a German version of euroscepticism, as it was seen as meddling with German freedoms.

The ECJ usually deals with a problem after an issue has been referred to it by national courts. In this case it was the regional court in the Austrian province of Carinthia. Last December the ECJ's advocate general came to the conclusion that the directive breached the EU's relatively new Charter of Fundamental Rights. So it wasn't surprising the full court came to this conclusion too. It usually does. The mass storage of telephone data of citizens was in contravention of the right to a private life as enshrined in the Charter, it was ruled.

Privacy International, a lobby group with offices in London, put out a statement that the court states that it is not and never was proportionate to "spy on the entire population of Europe". The information stored was "incredibly revealing about Europeans' lives". it said it was right and overdue that the legislation was given the thumbs down.

The legislation caused tensions with the British coalition government. The Conservatives, like their Labour predecessors, being less concerned about the privacy costs compared to what they believed was a security benefit than the Liberals.

In response to the ruling, Liberal MEP Sarah Ludford writes that she is "delighted that the authoritarian government under Tony Blair's leadership has finally got its comeuppance from judges in Luxembourg".

According to the BBC, the official British government position is rather more ambivalent. Governments don't have an option to ignore ECJ rulings but a British government spokesman said: "We cannot be in a position we companies are unable to retain this data" and said that legislation played a crucial role in maintaining national security. The BBC said it was ironic to see a British government angry, rather than pleased, about the repeal of a piece of Brussels legislation.

In theory it ought to give eurosceptics pause for thought. That Brussels strikes down intrusive legislation that the British government wishes to preserve somehow doesn't fit into their rather smug picture of an ever encroaching Brussels apparat.

Europe's governments now have to contemplate new legislation on data preservation in such a way that it helps the fight against serious crime and terrorism while satisfying the ECJ's judgments about the right to privacy. A narrower law, with a much smaller number of records stored, and on a targeted rather than a wholesale basis, is more likely. The European commission will have a look at it in the autumn.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 13 April 2014 at 03:52 PM by Pelle Neroth

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Ukip are winners in social media game

5 April 2014 by Pelle Neroth

The European parliament gathered together a large number of internet gurus and experts the other day to tell them how to reach the European electorate via social media. The four yearly elections are held over four days, May 22-25, depending on the country,

MEPs were curious to be taught. But the messages from the experts were not simple. What is an indisputable fact is that today's young voters present a challenge to political establishments as never before. Statistics show that young Europeans spend five or six hours a day online, which is twice the time their parents' generation spent watching TV. Political parties are seeing big drops in memberships.

To avoid further declines in interest, some experts say politicians have to be aggressive about going after voters where they most often are, that is, online. However, politicians tend to feel overwhelmed by the new power shift from hierarchies to networks that means they no longer control the message the way they used to, when leaders sent their voters messages twice a day, via the newspaper and the evening TV news. Now, with much more interactivity, and most media sites offering reader comments, the politicians' message was in danger of getting made fun of or distorted.

Some politicians were winners in this new media landscape, typically populists. The Tea Party wing of the Republicans in the United States had managed to virtually take over the venerable party because of its ability to organise online. Whereas ten years ago, it would have remained a minority sect. Europe's populists, like the French rightwinger Marine Le Pen, Italian comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star party, polling at 25 percent in Italy, or Nigel Farage's Ukip, had an advantage in that their simple messages were punchy enough to break through the internet hubbub.

Their underdog status gives them an authenticity that travels well on the "narcissitic" internet. These are predicted to be winners in the European elections.

Andrew Keen, an internet entrepreneur, told an interviewer that social media users have a sweet spot. A politicians who breaks into the personalised version of the universe that the social media user has constructed for himself is on to a winner. It is not easy, but perhaps the way forward is for politicians to build up networks. While people increasingly don't trust politicians, or mainstream journalists, for that matter, too often both seen as part of the same establishment, they do trust the opinions of their peers, friends, family and colleagues who are part of the same network. A more sceptical view liking an internet page that your friend recommended could be just gesture politics, nothing to with real engagement.

The European parliament had one million followers on Facebook, but how many of those were really likely to go out and vote?
One common sentiment was that the internet has bred a generation of narcissists, living in private bubbles. The mass politics of the second half of the last century. where unions and party youth associations brought people together as activists, was a matter of distant history.

Some mainstream politicians are good at working the new media. The conference mentioned two Scandinavians. Carl Bildt, foreign minister of Sweden, who has been a prolific blogger for over a decade, was one. Alexander Stubb, the FInnish foreign minister, was another. Arguably their being early adopters of social media strategies fits in well with their countries' brand aspirations to be seen at the forefront of global technological progress.

Getting interest in European parliament as an institution, and the rather technical legislation it passes, was seen as being very difficult to translate to social media.

A lot of interesting material was handled at the conference. But in my opinion, the speakers were a bit hard on the populists. The truth is that establishments can no longer reply on consensus formation as much as they used to when they had sole control of content dissemination. For better or worse, they could create truths, narratives, which people had no choice but to accept.

In my opinion, it has had a deleterious consequences for the climate change debate, where the internet has favoured the message peddled by the deniers. In other respects it has been more positive. For instance, foreign policy, where it used to be that the establishment could claim in concerted media campaigns that this or that renegade country posed a threat to the west. Famously you had the Iraq war of 2003, fought on false premises.

The internet has brought more sources of information to the table and a lot of thinking voters are realising the truth is more complex than the leaders and the mainstream media make out. Hence public hostility to action in Syria, and extreme scepticism over whether Putin really is as bad as he is made out to be in the paid for newspapers. In many regards, bloggers, commenters and twitterers keep journalists on their toes, quick to force them into being more consistently accurate.

Summary: some politicians are winners in the social media game, and we could see a much more populist European parliament than ever before. A lot of populists hate the European parliament and the whole elite,corporativist politics it stands for. So the next term could be quite interesting.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 05 April 2014 at 05:51 PM by Pelle Neroth

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Russia stops selling cheap gas to Ukraine. Will EU taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab?

28 March 2014 by Pelle Neroth

The EU, unprecedentedly unpopular in current member states, has found itself a new task in life: Ukraine.

This week, a pile of European commissioners and their entourages travelled to Kiev in the wake of the part completion of a political and economic association agreement between the EU and the former Soviet republic. But the enormous rise in gas prices as Russia cuts its subsidies and the big austerity programme imposed by the IMF could lead to economic hardships for the Ukraine, experts fear.

The energy subsidies, which have involved Russia selling Ukraine gas at well below market prices since the end of the Soviet Union, are to cease on 1 April following the breakdown in relations between the two neighbours following recent events in Kiev and the Crimea, when pro EU protesters toppled the pro Russian, if fairly and popularly elected, government and Russia responded by invading the peninsula on which one of its principal naval bases is located.

Ukraine already owes the Russian gas company Gazprom 1 billion dollars. The energy subsidies on their own represent 8% of Ukraine's Gross Domestic Product. With Russia terminating Ukraine's privileged relationship, Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, told the Ukrainian parliament this week that the country was on the brink of bankruptcy, and that the economy could decline by a tenth this year unless urgent steps were taken

The IMF, the international monetary fund, has promised to tie Ukraine over with huge loans totalling up to 20 billion dollars, but these come with harsh strings attached, which will make it harder for the money to reach poorer families in need, which will be hit by the higher gas prices as well. Not a smart move if you wish to preserve social stability and dampen extremism in the run up to May's elections.

Prof Michael Orenstein, a US academic associated witrh Harvard, says that the reforms imposed by the international community, with Europe at the head, could make things worse before they get better, even if the grace period is granted where the austerity is imposed after the election.

What is going on with the EU and the Ukraine is happening under the radar of European public opinion, distracted by the high profile occupation of the Crimea by Russia. It's the Pottery Barn rule: break it, and you own it. Do European voters really want to take responsibility for a huge and extremely poor East European state, with all its geopolitical baggage? One of this week's big political stories in the UK was a political debate between British liberal leader Nick Clegg, pro European and the leader of the anti EU Ukip party, Nigel Farage.

Farage made much of the Ukraine and Europe's responsibility for the conflict. And it does raise questions: even if some kind of closer association goes ahead, won't Ukraine's antiquated industries go to the wall if the doors are opened to European imports? Will Ukrainian agriculture, dependent on pesticides banned in the EU, be able to export to the EU?

And, if it all fails, is the European voter prepared to pay for the whole thing? If not, isn't there some truth to Farage's claim that an "imperialist, expansionist" EU "fed a group of Ukrainians with false hopes so they that actually toppled their own elected leader".

He added that "I do not want a European foreign policy". A Yougov poll of British viewers held immediately after the debate gave Farage a victory with 57% of the vote, while 36% of respondents supported Clegg. If a similar result is achieved in the European election in May, Ukip will be the largest British party in the European parliament and this would push the UK a little bit closer to the EU exit. It would be ironic if, having attracted Ukraine, the Eurocrats find themselves losing Britain.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 28 March 2014 at 10:34 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 28 March 2014 09:33 AM     General     Comments (1)  

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