View from Brussels - General

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Manipulation, Identity politics and the internet

26 May 2016 by Pelle Neroth

So, hmm, what is Europe up to these days, these weeks, in what may, if some polls are to be believed, be the last fading moments of the United Kingdom's full membership of the EU.

That is right. Requiring Netflix to produce more shows in French. Yep. The European commission is asking the video streaming services - of which Netflix is perhaps the best known - to carry a certain minimum proportion of European-produced content on their networks. Terrestrial networks in Europe already have to do that, so that US cultural imperialism doesn't get to reign supreme. So to level the playing field the eurocrats are asking the video streaming giants to do the same.

It is all part of the latest proposals for the Digital Single Market project. Netflix protests, saying it already produces locally based shows - never heard of their soap opera Marseille? - but resists being tied down by quotas and rules which, you know, Europe is good at - less good at the creative, innovative stuff. European lawmakers retort that Netflix's local commitment is pretty small: only one percent of their annual revenue is spent on local content. Only rules and regulations will get Netflix to man up and meet its European cultural responsibilities.

I sometimes wish the European parliament would grabble with the big ideas, rather than just playing the lilliputians tying down the American technological Gulliver all the time. For instance, I love the idea - which I saw recently - that the young are being stupidified by consumerism delivered through their smartphones under the noble pretence of identity politics.

The argument, briefly goes like this. Why do western Europe's young (and not so young, as I shall explain) hate Putin? Because the media have persuaded them that Putin's Russia is anti-gay. (Homosexuality is legal; promotion of homosexuality to the young is illegal. While there are gay clubs everywhere in Russia, it is probably fair to say the climate is less permissive towards gays than in Western Europe.
Mind you, there are differences between urban and rural western Europe.)

But how committed is this "hatred"; will it make a difference to the gays in question, or is it only about burnishing one's identity as a good person, with the "right-on views". To express your disapproval of Putrin's Russia you rebadge your facebook identity in rainbow colours according to a template (helpfully provided by Facebook itself) and suddenly you get lots of likes. Politics is the personal, it is no longer aboout going out in the world - and we have technology to blame for that, as social media offers all the tools of a massive identity construction project for the self.

We are moving into an increasingly retarded era of human maturation where the process of identity formation - once a feature of your teens - becomes a continuous process, lasting into your forties, and driven by product and ideas consumption, where suggestions for expansion of that identity is helpfully suggested by product placements on Google and Facebook, free for you to like and buy. (Often determined by the nature or your friends and history of previous likes.)

These cost free signals of virtue - always left-liberal for some reason - for the garnering of "likes"are effortless, egostical and, as said, incredibly adolescent.

They don't require intellectual and emotional engagement, or understanding, and that makes today's Facebook-addicted Europeans supremely manipulable on issues of huge political import. Anyone who knows anything about the Ukraine crisis, for instance, realises the truth is more complex than blackhatted (an supposedly "anti-gay") Russians versus the freedom loving Ukrainians.

Big business is behind it of course: Facebook is not a charity. You sell your data in return for the service Facebook provides. What is interesting is how the social movements of the sixties were coopted by capitalism when the corporations realised they could transmute the burgeoning individualism of that era (after the post war conformism of the fifties) into consumerist egotism. The young stopped wrecking the social order; instead they were encouraged to turn their energies into a narcissistic pursuit of the self. The corporations scoop up pseudo dissent and presented it as yet another consumer choice. You didn't achieve change, you bought an item of clothing that provided a simulacrum of rebellion.

Threats to freedom are now seen as something intensely personal, and the smart phone is a medium that heightens that intensity - that connection. Huge, real inequalities exist in our world. But it seems significant that Putin could be "nailed" on the homosexuality issue, as many of the identities the modern young adopt at will and associate with freedom - through the internet - are sexuality based. The real result is synthetic emotion - righteous hatred of non left liberal views - stupidification, and ultimately disenfranchisement of the young.

I wonder if the US intelligence services plan these internet mobilisation campaigns? In summary, I think focusing on Netflix production quotas by the European commission/parliament is a very downstream solution to the deculturalisation (Americanisation?) of Europe's youth.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 26 May 2016 at 04:22 PM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 26 May 2016 04:15 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Is the auto industry too pessimistic about the future of electric cars?

23 May 2016 by Pelle Neroth

The EU demands a 30% cut in CO2 transport emissions by 2030. The question is, how to get there?

The European car industry proposes more of the same - incremental improvements to current petrol car technology. Brussels's green lobbyists, predictably, claims that the European car industry's raft of proposed measures, outlined in a recent study*, will hamper take up of their favoured transport mode of the near future, electric cars.

The electric car certainly seems to be on a roll at the moment. Elon Musk, the busy Canadian-American entrepreneur, founder of PayPal and whose other projects include a space company with ambitious plans to eventually colonise Mars, is perhaps best known for Tesla Motors, the company which produces sexy and fast all-electric cars.

He has really put the electric car on people's mental map, thanks to favourable media coverage. A recently announced model, the sleek, 215 mile range Tesla 3, expected to cost around 30,000 pounds, is already nudging 400,000 pre-orders. Hundreds of customers queuing up outside car dealerships to make their pre-orders suggests the kind of buzz we normally associate with Apple's products.

Musk's "competitor" to the BMW3 series and Jaguar XE will arrive on the European market in late 2017 - availability, given the huge waiting lists, may be a problem.

European governments are doing their bit, too, for the electric car. In Germany, it has just been announced that car buyers will receive a 4,000 euro rebate when they buy an all electric vhicle, the cost shared between the taxpayer and the carmakers. Norway grants electric car buyers free parking and an exemption from VAT and purchase taxes.

Jumping on the bandwagon, the lower house of the Dutch parliament has just passed a motion banning the sales of diesel and electric cars from 2025. The motion has to be passed by the Dutch senate to be legally binding, but gives a clear indication of where the Netherlands, known for spearheading environmental innovation, wishes to go.

A consortium of companies from the car and oil industries - including VW, Toyota, Shell and BMW - argues, however, in a recent report, that a series of "low cost improvements" in areas "where there is already high customer acceptance" is the way forward in the medium term.

The measures they propose include further optimisation of engines and power trains plus a higher biofuel proportion in the petrol and diesel sold at the pumps. With this raft of measures, the report says, the 30% target can be achieved; and, unlike electric cars, their measures are not a pie in the sky.

The report has been dismissed as "finding what the car industry wanted it to find" by green campaigners - and there is a controversy about biofuels' greenhouse gas emissions - but, on insufficient take up of electric cars, the industry surely has a point.

Despite the buzz, electric cars only make up fewer than 50,000 of Germany's car fleet of 45 million cars, around 0.1%. (Hence the subsidies.) The availability of charging points is perhaps the biggest problem: for instance, there are only 70 Tesla supercharging points in the British Isles at the moment, of which one in the Scottish highlands, two in Wales, none in Ireland. Tesla owners who want to have their "car advert" experience, zooming along the moors at sunset, will have to plan their journey meticulously if they are not to run out of juice in the shadow of Ben Nevis.

The car industry reckons Europe will need about five million charging points before consumers start switching to electric cars en masse.

It is a question, in part, of chicken and the egg, though, isn't it? Should the car industry lead the way or just be satisfied with the "realist" approach? Another recent report, by the Lux Consultancy, awards the car industry "failing grades" in the electrification of its car fleets. This report lambasts industry's failure to present consumers with affordable cars that can drive 200 miles between charges - which, in context, makes even the upmarket Tesla 3's 215 mile range impressive.

* "Integrated Fuels and Vehicles Roadmap to 2030+", Roland Berger Consultancy

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 23 May 2016 08:33 AM     General     Comments (1)  

Why don't our masters want transparency over EU-US environment and trade deal?

17 May 2016 by Pelle Neroth

Supporters of TTIP - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - have called it an "Economic NATO".

Yes, well. The statement was meant to give a boost to the idea of closer US-EU economic ties and takes as given the idea that NATO is a good thing. (And took as given that his audience, the European public, would automatically think so too.) While TTIP is ostensibly about reducing non tariff barriers to trade between the Europe and US, adding tens of billions of Europe's GDP - claims the European Commission -- there are many Europeans who actually see NATO as an instrument of American control over Europe.

So a statement meant to boost the standing of a disputed trade partnership in the works may actually serve to undermine it further: 70% of Germans in a poll are against TTIP. If TTIP hasn't been a feature of the British debate it may be, as the leftish Independent newspaper put it, "because you are not meant to have heard of it".

If you ever wanted ammunition for the idea of the EU as a remote, undemocratic playground for corporate lobbies, TTIP is it. It is pretty widely believed that the upwards shift in power from national parliaments to the European parliament in the past three decades has been detrimental to democracy. There is no European demos, no European political arena, no European media. MEPs work in a bubble heavily influenced by business lobbies with deep pockets and dedicated public relations people.

So it is with TTIP, decided in Brussels. Actually, it is worse than that. Regarding many political issues decided at a European level, MEPs can turn around at their sceptic detractors and say that the debate goes on in public and can be influenced by the public - only you have to pay attention to what happens in Brussels to be part of it. British newspapers could start by upgrading the freelancers eking out a living by reporting from grey Brussels committee rooms to full-time correspondent status.

They have a point. They public can engage, but don't, and there are various reasons for that. But in the case of TTIP, not even that is true: it has all been totally untransparent.

MEPs are allowed to read the negotiation texts, but they are not allowed to circulate them, take them home, digest the material at leisure, try to work out what is important to their publics among all the bureaucratic language. (Some MEPs are actually quite conscientious.)

This is the procedure: MEPs are only allow consult to TTIP negotiation documents in a secret room on the fourth floor of the Paul Henri Spaak building of the European Parliament. They are not allowed to take a mobile phone or a camera. They are allowed to write notes by hand, but they are not allowed to quote from the text verbatim. And what a big and complex text it is. How can such an environment be conducive to serving the interests of the European publics? Few MEPs have photographic memories.

To rectify the lack of transparency, someone, somewhere has actually leaked the documents to Greenpeace in the Netherlands. Having studied the latest proposals as they stand, Greenpeace finds they show a lack of concern for the environment. The EU applies the precautionary principle to environmental issues: in other words, the producer has to show a chemical product is safe before he is allowed to start marketing it. In the United States, the opposite principle applies: a chemical is first introduced to market, and then it is up to the Environmental Protection Agency to show the product is dangerous.

The problem is that the dangerous effects of some chemicals only take 20-30 years to show up. In the cosmetics field, the EU has banned 1,300 chemicals with reference to the precautionary principle, while the US has banned only a few at the federal level. If American lawmaking imposes itself on Europe, the whole precautionary principle will be in danger, say Greenpeace.

I know some people in the Shires harrumph and say this is typical EU red-tape socialism. But think about this. Public health standards are hard to measure, but it is not immediately obvious that the American model is the one to follow here: According to Wikipedia, male lifespans in the US are several years below West European countries. (76 compared to 79 or 80 in much of Western Europe.) A fascinating public health report published by the Credit Suisse Research institute shows that Americans were the tallest people in the world in 1945. Now even the Italians have caught up with average American heights, and Americans are actually shorter today than they were in 1945. Taking heights as a very rough proxy for public health - the murder rate is not that huge in the US - what does that tell you?

A second concern is that TTIP may facilitate exports to Europe of the relatively dirty American fossil fuels extracted from tar sands and shale gas. A third worry is that new EU environmental legislation will be drawn up only after transatlantic consultation if TTIP is passed. A fourth concern is the opportunities in the new treaty for corporations to sue states, if new legislation is seen as threatening a corporation's investments. The latter is a very loosely worded law that could give a field day to international lawyers and, warns Greenpeace, could end up costing a lot of taxpayers' money in compensation, while further weakening democratic nation states' ability to look after their populations. (The EU is also part of the problem here, of course.)

The philosophical essence of the case for Brexit is really about matters of sovereignty and self determination. Many people feel disenfranchised as the centre of power in matters concerning their daily lives has shifted to Brussels, away from the national parliament which they are familiar with. But Brussels is not the only alternative centre of power; you also have the more diffused control residing in the international corporate and financial system, which is harder to put one's finger on - and here Brussels, isolated from national publics, sadly plays an enabling role.

The EU is not antagonistic to international corporations (often American) but their facilitator. Both, working together, impinge on national democracies. But that link is not really being made in Britain, perhaps because anti-European conservatism remains firmly wedded to the Atlantic as well as corporate connection, at all costs.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 17 May 2016 at 09:52 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 17 May 2016 09:45 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Will Saudi's technology plan for 2030 ease migrant pressure on Europe?

8 May 2016 by Pelle Neroth

There are several Saudi Arabias. There is the comfortable expat one, based in the foreigners' compounds, family-oriented, headscarf-free, pleasant and an experience described by one British engineering expatriate as "bit like living in a conservative American suburb without the alcohol".

There are pools and maids and high expat salaries. This engineer said: "It is extremely comfortable, but also boring and you can't bear it for more than five it to pay off your mortgage or student loan back home." Eighty-five percent of the country's 200,000 engineers are expatriates; British, American, Dutch, Egyptian, Filipino, what have you.

There is the privileged, occasionally louche, double standards Saudi Arabia of the expansive royal family. Then there is the strict Saudi Arabia of the Madrasas.

There is also the Saudi Arabia that angers human rights activists and foreign policy analysts, whipping outspoken bloggers at home and sponsoring political disruption abroad.

A country which sponsors its extreme version of Islam by funding mosques in Europe and beyond. A country that has latterly even been in the sights of US Congress for its potential links to the 911 attacks.

Is there yet another Saudi Arabia on horizon, though? if a recent government prospectus is to be believed, the country is set upon becoming some kind of benign Norway of the Middle East: a positive departure indeed: the plan just launched by the Saudi governments posits a technologically savvy, innovation-oriented Saudi Arabia, preserving its oil wealth for a rainy day in a gigantic sovereign wealth fund.

A country set upon becoming independent of its oil wealth and developing its own manufacturing industries, importantly a domestic defence industry.

A country whose population has expanded from 3 million to 31 million in the course of a few decades and has woken up to smell the coffee: a country that can't continue going down the easy route of exclusively living off the black gold that spouts out of the ground.

Different Saudi Arabias

Saudi Arabia is a complicated place; like all countries are really, containing a multitude of realities, depending on where you stand. It's not a country where camels walk the streets or women are forced to wear full covering with a slit for the eyes on pain of violent punishment. (Although it is true they are not allowed drive motor vehicles.)

Expatriates, putting a positive of a spin on the country of their daily experience, describe a family-oriented country with freeways and air conditioned shopping centres and endless fast food restaurants, where white women can go with their heads uncovered and the morality police are unobtrusive, mostly making sure that shops are closed for prayer times.

It is also country that has been one of the West's closest allies since President Roosevelt struck a deal with King Saud at Bitter Lake in 1945. Keeping the US and UK arms industries afloat with gigantic arms purchases - remember the Al-Yamamah deal in 1985? - and keeping the world's largest oil reserves out of the hands of Arab nationalists and into the petrol tanks of the West's consumers.

This alliance has arguably made the West look the way at some of the problematic aspects of the way Saudi has spent its enormous oil wealth over the years. (Apart from spending it on an advanced welfare state for its indigenous population, a project that has become ever less affordable as the population has expanded.)

A 2013 report for the Foreign Affairs committee of the European Parliament doesn't mince words, "Saudi Arabia has been a major source of financing of rebel and terrorist organisations since the 1970s."

It adds: "Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Saudi-based private actors (i.e. wealthy businessmen, bankers, charitable organisations ) have been providing financial and relief assistance to Muslim communities affected by natural calamities or conflicts."

The conduits have been organisations with names like the Islamic International Relief Organisation (IIRO), the Al Haramain Foundation, the Medical Emergency Relief Charity (MERC) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).

Does that sound benign? About 20% of the $10 billion spent, however, says the European parliament report, has been diverted into terrorist activities for organisations such as Al Qaeda, the Haqqani network and Jemaah Islamiyah. That was because senior posts in these charities were occupied by the senior lieutenants belonging to the terrorist organisations, with the foreknowledge of the Saudi donors.

Bin Laden connection

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 could be considered the starting point for Saudi financing for Sunni Muslims pursuing political or religious goals consonant with Wahhabism, the strict variant of Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia.

That the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was opposed by the Saudis because the "godless" Soviets had occupied it is a well known fact of Cold War history; the CIA and Saudis (and the military regime of Pakistan) worked together on this one.

They supplied money and weapons to the Mujahedeen and drove the Soviets out of the country, helping to break the Soviets' self confidence by creating, as American policy-makers put it gleefully, a "Soviet Vietnam".

Osama Bin Laden, whose career began opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan, was one of the beneficiaries of Saudi largesse when building up his own terrorist army, initially aimed against the Soviets in Afghanistan: a Saudi national himself, he relied on a network of Saudi and Gulf Arab sponsors known as the Golden Chain.

Christopher Blanchard, a terrorism expert quoted by the European parliament report, argues that Al Qaeda's financing activities: "were facilitated in part [...] by the "extreme religious views" that exist within Saudi Arabia and the fact that "until recently" Saudi charities were "subject to very limited oversight.".

Inasmuch as this was supported by the Saudi leadership, the Saudis may have been motivated by as much by defensive as offensive motives: to distract attention from what the country's religious right thought was the unacceptably louche behaviour of a Saudi Royal Family that had an important role as guardian of the holiest sites in Islam.

Sponsorship of defeating external enemies gave the Saudi religious right something else to focus on. When Bin Laden, who thought the Americans were as godless and morally corrupt as the Soviets, and resented American military presence in Saudi Arabia, bombed the Twin Towers in 2001, it was called the biggest blowback in modern history. A blow ack is a covert operation - in this case US/Saudi support of the Mujahedeen and Saudi support for Bin Laden- in another part of the world that comes back at you.

The Saudis got off scot-free. Instead, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who was evil in a different way but who had nothing to do with 911 and nothing to do with Islamic extremism - indeed opposed it - took the hit, as we all know. The American public bought the Bush propaganda.

The confusion created in the public's minds that Saddam was somehow responsible is indicated by polls showing after the Iraq war that half the American public believed Saddam was behind 911. Well, he wasn't.

As if the Bin Laden link was not damaging enough, Saudi Arabia has, more recently, been accused of having links with ISIS. Although experts such as Lori Plotkin Boghardt for the Washington Institute for Near East policy states that there is "no credible evidence that the Saudi government is financially supporting ISIS", she argues that "Saudi citizens represent a significant funding source for Sunni groups. She writes that "Arab Gulf donors as a whole -- of which Saudis are believed to be the most charitable -- have funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria in recent years, including to ISIS and other groups.

"There is support for ISIS in Saudi Arabia, and the group directly targets Saudis with fund-raising campaigns."

And she is critical of the Saudi government's failure to do enough to curtail donations; the donations are often channelled through Kuwait, where rules for these things are laxer. The donations have become less important in the last 18 months as ISIS has acquired other funding sources, such as oil, antiquities and arms smuggling. But Saudi private donations were important in the beginning.

What was the motive this time? It is not so well known among the Western Publics that many Sunnis - where Saudi Wahhabism is an extreme variant - are extremely hostile to the Shia variant of Islam, which has around 100 million followers, mainly in Iran and Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Syria. Many Sunnis, especially Saudis, regard Shia Muslims as non Muslim apostates and polytheists.

'God help the Shia'

British journalist Patrick Cockburn - one of Britain's best informed Middle East experts - recalls a conversation he had with Richard Dearlove, former chief of MI6 and now master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, some years ago, he recalled recently. Drawing on past experience, Dearlove said Saudi strategic thinking was shaped by two deep seated attitudes: one was that there was no admissible or legitimate challenge to Wahhabi credentials as guardians of Islam's holiest shrines. Secondly, the Saudi conviction that they had the monopoly on Islamic truth meant they were "deeply attracted towards any Islamic militancy which can effectively challenge Shiadom".

Dearlove recalled to Cockburn a chilling comment made to him by Prince Bandar, one of the Saudi regime's leading figures and long standing ambassador to Washington ( and friend of the Bush family). Prince Bandar told the then MI6 chief: "The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally 'God help the Shia'. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them." That loathing could explain why the Saudi soldiers put down a Shia uprising in neighbouring Bahrain in 2011 - with nary a protest from the West, incidentally

What has this got to do with ISIS? One of the unintended consequences of the Iraq war was the rise of the long-oppressed Shia majority in that country and the dethronement of the Sunni minority that was Saddam's powerbase; the Saudis were happy to Saddam go but very unhappy with the Shia rise to power. The Sunnis had made up just 20% of Iraq's population but dominated the military and the higher echelon's of Saddam's Baath party. The new Shia dominated Iraq was friendly with Shia Iran and Saudi Arabia hated this.
The "Arab Spring" democracy uprising in Syria in 2011 was Sunni in character and, peaceful in the very early stages, but was quickly hijacked by jihadists, who were often sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Reason? Assad's regime was allied with Shia Iran and newly Shia-ruled Iraq was friendly and Syria's Shias had a better deal than the country's Sunnis from the Assad.

Soon, the Sunni Jihadist uprising spilled over into the parts of Iraq were the now oppressed Sunnis were numerous. Out of this grew ISIS, which today dominates swathes of Syria and Iraq and which shocks global opinion with its truly gruesome violence; while the Saudi regime is intensely aware of the danger of blowback - and some commentators say, fear ISIS as much as the West does, it does not, as said, do enough to curtail private citizens and organisations from supporting ISIS. The Saudi government does its bit by maintaining a climate of negative opinion towards everything Shia and therefore Assad and his Iranian ally.

Some commentators believe that ISIS's growth has also been facilitated by American passivity towards ISIS on account of their Saudi ally's ambiguous relationship with the movement. The Americans, who were hostile to Assad on account of human rights abuses, set much store in the "moderate Assad opponents" and supplied something called the "Free Syrian Army" with arms. However experts now believe there is no such thing as a moderate Syrian opposition, that it was just a fiction and that the American weapons merely end up with ISIS or its affiliates. Another foreign policy own goal.

Washington vs Saudi

There seems to be a growing realisation of this now in Washington, where opinion is more sceptical of the Saudis than in many a year. Obama has been cool on the Saudis and it can sometimes be heard pointed out in the corridors of the White House, according to journalists, that 15 of the 19 911 hi jackers were after all Saudis - not Iranian or Iraqi. More worryingly for the Saudis than even Obama's scepticism - they hope to wait him out - is a bill before Congress, which, note this, has bipartisan support, which would allow the Saudis to be held responsible for individual Saudis' role in the 911 attacks. Obama, despite his cool relations with the Kingdom, has appealed against the bill, citing the potential of diplomatic complications. The Saudis have threatened to sell an astonishing 750 billion dollars' worth of US treasury bills if the proposal goes ahead, citing fears that their US assets could be frozen to pay compensation if they don't sell them quickly. It would be a blow to the US economy.

So all this is the context to Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 technology plan. Is Saudi diversifying out of fear of the cooling of the American connection, or would they have reformed anyway? Middle East commentators such as Patrick Cockburn are sceptical of the royal family's vision of "getting the Saudi people down to work, starting their own businesses and working in their own factories", noting that other Middle Eastern regimes had tried top down technology-oriented reform and failed; the Shah in Iran in the 1970s being one example. Iraq being another: Saddam made a brief effort to diversify into the non-oil economy with factories and irrigation schemes, but the debris of that can still be seen outside Baghdad.

One can only wish the Saudis will buck the trend, though can one not? The project, which will start with the progressive privatization of Aramco, the national all company on which all Saudi prosperity depends, may even lead to less meddling in other countries' affairs, if the Saudis are engaged in building prosperity the hard way: education, training, manufacturing, modern society-building. The Saudi-backed Sunni conflict against the Shia - whose extreme manifestation is ISIS - is undoubtedly one of the factors that has sent streams of refugees into Europe, the great crisis of this moment for the EU.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 08 May 2016 at 10:25 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 08 May 2016 10:13 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Should we take UK tech firms' Brexit threat seriously?

29 April 2016 by Pelle Neroth

There is a certain deja vu about international businesses threatening to abandon Britain if the UK votes to leave the EU. In a poll for the members-only fintech (financial technology) association Innovate Finance, 82% of firms said they wanted the UK remain in the EU. In another survey, conducted by Reuters, 7 out of 10 tech companies contacted said they would consider leaving the UK if Brexit took place.

Scary stuff. But let me put on my EU news sceptic (as opposed to merely eurosceptic) glasses. Seven out of ten is a meaty headline from a respected news organisation; maybe it will even make Boris Johnson and George Osborne take an extra large gulp of their morning coffee as the implications of that survey register on their eurosceptic retinas.

London's attractiveness as a fintech destination has been one of the feathers in Boris's cap. As London mayor, he has stuck his neck out on the immigration issue as he believes a large, multinational talent pool is what has made London prosper in this new field of technological innovation, fintech. (At a time when some Brits have been wondering why the UK has never come up with a global consumer game changer like Skype, Amazon or Facebook.)

Open borders, a friendly investment climate, a deep pool of financial expertise that comes from London being Europe's financial capital; all this has helped the UK's fintech sector become the largest in the world, earning last year, nearly 7 billion pounds in revenue, and beating New York and California into second and third place.

Several European fintech companies have relocated to London to mature their business there, Estonia-founded Transferwise being one example. (Transferwise aims to make international money transfers cheaper, a great boon to travellers and removing a ludicrously lucrative source of income from the banks.) About a quarter of the lobby group Innovate Finance's members are run by chief executives from other countries.

There are loads of homegrown fintech entrepreneurs that have flourished in London too, including GoCardless, a company set up by a group of young Oxford graduates that allows any individual or small retailer to set himself up as a direct debit recipient for a very low fee.

At the same time as Boris Johnson has been proud to preside over this success, he has also perhaps the most well known politician to place himself in the leave EU camp. He is worried, presumably, like many of us, about the democratic deficit in the EU: lawmaking by unelected European judges from post-totalitarian countries in combination with puffed up MEPs none of us have ever heard of. Many of us also carry resentments from the way the European Community's rules developed in the 1960s and early 70s with the rules stacked against British interests - usually by the French - before Britain was allowed to join. How to balance the heart and the head? His spokesman refused to comment on the Reuters story.

At the same time, European commission sources are indicating to selected Brussels journalists that Europe's two heavyweights, Germany and France, are ready to put the thumbscrews on the UK the day after the vote, if the "No" side wins. "Britain would be cut adrift without any preferential relationship with its biggest trade partner" warn aforementioned sources.

If Britain chooses to stay in the EU, a small task force in the Commission headed by perhaps the most senior British official still on the Brussels ship, Jonathan Faull, will be implementing the (relatively modest) changes agreed between Cameron and Brussels earlier this year as part of Britain's rebooted relationship with the EU

If Britain votes to leave, Faull's little group will be dismantled, obviously, and a new UK leave team, comprising French and German officials, will negotiate the details of the divorce. A quick and brutal divorce, the sources promise. Since Team Cameron's hands are tied - the outcome, exit, being known - the upper hand will be held by the Continentals. And they will play hardball with the British, not least to forestall any other EU member states from being tempted to head for the "out" doors That is the message the Commission wants to get across.

Despite the scaremongering, from both a British business and a European commission direction, polls suggest the yeas and nays are evenly balanced among Brits at large. A YouGov poll published yesterday showed a virtual dead heat, 42% of Brits want to leave the EU, ie would vote for Brexit on 23 June, 41% to stay in.

It is worth observing that the "wisdom of the crowds" was right when it came to the euro issue, 10 or 15 years ago.. Back then, the British business community was urging, with a nearly unanimous voice, that Britain join the single currency project. There were dire warnings about the damage to the British economy and threats by financial firms to quit London for Frankfurt and Paris. In contrast, the British public, polls showed, were against the euro. In the UK, Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made the decision, surely cognisant of public opinion, to stay out. Blair had wanted to join.

Sweden, unlike Britain, actually had a referendum on the issue: the Swedish public voted against the euro, in this case once again contra the wishes of its political and business elite. Both Britain and Sweden have flourished outside the euro, and the City of London hasn't been harmed at all, while countries inside the Euro, such as Greece and Italy, have been hamstrung by an inability to devalue to remain competitive visavis Germany. Unemployment in these countries is very high.

The "seven out of ten" threat to leave the UK figure should perhaps not be taken too seriously, either: it apparently means literally seven out of the ten companies contacted.

Those ten, needless to say, may not have been a representative sample. Coverage elsewhere suggests that some London tech companies are unhappy with the commission's digital legislation proposals.

Property Partner, a London-based crowd-funding platform that allows people to buy shares in individual properties for as little as 50 pounds, was recently touted by KPMG as a top 50 emerging Fintech company. The company seems to be on to a good idea: for an investment they can afford, it enables the young and not-so-rich to keep up with rising property prices instead of falling behind.

The company's chief executive, Dan Ganesha, is complaining that the Commission is mulling proposals to strangle the likes of his company in so much red tape it will hardly be worth it. The chief executive said that he recognises the advantages of being part of a single market of 500 million consumers, and realises the UK will have no influence over EU policy if it stays out.

On the other hand, he chides the EU for misjudgments like the one that threatens tro hamper his business which explains why Europe's economy "is in such deep trouble". That ambivalence paints a better picture of the truth about the EU than alarmist headlines about the number of tech companies who think leaving the EU is so insane they are mooting relocating to the Continent.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 29 April 2016 01:01 PM     General     Comments (0)  

EU leaders to discuss Bitcoin's future

21 April 2016 by Pelle Neroth

European leaders may propose legislative measures when they meet in June against Bitcoin, the virtual currency that allows the transfer of assets worldwide instantaneously.

Also in the EU's sights is virtual wallets, apps that allow you to "pay by mobile phone", as well prepaid cards - real Visa and Mastercard plastic that can be preloaded with money and is not linked to any current account.

The Brussels terrorist attacks in March, which killed 32, and the Paris attacks in November 2015, where 137 people died, have created an atmosphere in which the EU has to be seen to be doing "what it can" against the way terrorists fund their activities under the radar of the surveillance state.

The attackers in Paris reportedly funded their hotel bills by the use of prepaid cards, and ISIS have reportedly amassed anonymous donations in Bitcoin worth the equivalent of three million US dollars. The latter information courtesy of an anonymous group of hackers called the Ghost Security Collective.

However, the Bitcoin community is likely to resist what it fears may be badly thought out legislative proposals from politicians who do not understand the technology and have made contacts with the European Parliament to help them do so. In the past, the European Parliament has often been charmed by young geek lobbyists from the tech community, and has taken on board their worldview.

At a hearing in January, MEPs expressed their sympathy for Bitcoin activists' argument that monitoring of the situation was better than legislation. The European Parliament is in a position to veto any anti-Bitcoin proposals coming from European leaders.

In its case, the Bitcoin community wished to point out it that, actually, Bitcoin transactions are not anonymous. It is true that you can instantly send Bitcoins around the world at almost no cost, without intermediaries who could halt the transaction.

However, Bitcoin was very unsuitable for funding terrorism for two reasons: while there is no direct link to a person's identity in a Bitcoin transaction, every transaction is recorded in a public ledger called a blockchain, which cannot be deleted or undone. Unless an operator - a would-be terrorist funder - is very skilled at using anonymising technology, anti ISIS hackers could without much effort link a transaction to the operator's IP address.

Informal groupings of self-styled vigilante hackers from around the world are already working 24/7 on a volunteer basis to "out" ISIS's Twitter accounts - used to spread terror propaganda - and claims that thousands have been closed so far. It is part of a "battle" to drive ISIS off the public internet into the "dark web", the parts of the web that require specific browsing software to access, which makes it harder for ISIS to reach out to would-be recruits. EU government law enforcement authorities are, of course, also monitoring ISIS's online activities - and funding flows.

The other reason why Bitcoin is not suitable for terrorist funding, activists say, is that, in the absence of a Bitcoin infrastructure in ISIS territories in Iraq and Syria, Bitcoin still has to be swapped for real money at some point and moved into the territories controlled by ISIS. Money thus realised would be "a traditional currency interacting with all the traditional banking systems" and "subject to government regulation and oversight".

Looking at Bitcoin legislation, you have to look at the bigger political context: Europol, the EU's law enforcement coordination agency, says that, in contrast to the Ghost Hackers' claims, ISIS have not used Bitcoin to any great extent.

Even if the three million dollar Bitcoin account exists, it has to be compared to ISIS's main source of income, the $100m worth of oil smuggled through Turkey and sold on world markets every month - with the acquiescence of Turkish officials at what level?

Turkey, Europe's NATO ally, which has just signed an agreement with Europe for visa free travel starting in June. You can also ask questions about the political support that has allowed ISIS to flourish in the first place, not only from Turkey but Saudi Arabia, a close US ally.

The US has come under criticism for seemingly failing to destroy these ISIS oil convoys. Of course, these are extremely difficult questions of high politics. The upshot of the activists seems to be: don't just pick on Bitcoin because it seems an easier target.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 21 April 2016 01:19 PM     General     Comments (0)  

What is it all about anyway? asks the Philosophy of Technology

15 April 2016 by Pelle Neroth

Is the Philosophy of Engineering a worthwhile subject?

I have just been leafing through a couple of back issues of the technology journal Techne, published in English but whose contributors have a heavy bias from Europe, from the Netherlands for some reason.

Techne is derived from the ancient Greek and is often translated as "craftsmanship", "craft" or "art". For the Greeks, it meant all the mechanical arts, including medicine and music. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Techne was concrete, contingent and connected to everyday things, and often related to the practical activities carried out by slaves.

In contrast, free men concerned themselves either with the truths of the Cosmos - which were a priori and eternal, they then thought, in contrast to the contingent nature of everyday practical issues - or the noble causes of politics and ethics.

Sometimes, though, when the Greek gentleman exercised practical skills, he brought a higher order awareness to it. He understood the theoretical basis for it; he combined episteme, knowledge, with practice of techne. The distinction between a slave doctor and a free doctor was that only the free doctor had the ability to give an account of his doings.

The slave doctor relied on experience but could not explain what he was doing. (According to one account of Plato's understanding of techne.) While the free doctor's understanding of the theoretical basis of what he was doing carried the advantage that he could explain his activity and consequently elicit cooperation from his patient.

This suggests that it is better to have some higher second order awareness: having a theoretical knowledge of what you are doing, knowledge "of" rather than just knowledge "that". (It is unfortunate, incidentally, that the English language does not have verbs to distinguish between knowledge of and knowledge that, as some European languages do. Spanish has saber and poder, French savoir and pouvoir.)

Engineers didn't exist in Plato's day, but would it be fair to say that some of the practical and theoretical distinction exists between the technician and the engineer in today's terminology? The engineer is supposed to be in possession of a kind of theoretical self-awareness?

Anyway, in my reading that is what the journal Techne sets out to do, to furnish a body of abstract reasoning about the profession itself. Many educated people today have heard of the existence of a Philosophy of Science and a Philosophy of Politics. Even more aware people know that the Natural Sciences were called Natural Philosophy for a long time. The two still exist side by side, in a kind of mutual relationship.

From what I can determine, the rule seemed to be that when a topic can be quantified, defined and used instrumentally, it moves over from the area of philosophy to the area of science. (The Philosophy of Science also contains some areas that will never be reducible to mere numbers.) As we have moved from Davis Hume's and John Locke's day, as science has grown, mystery has shrunk, Natural Philosophy has shrunk. In that line of thinking, Natural Philosophy is a kind of pot-luck box of inchoate ideas, some of which make it over to the more concrete field of Science when new instrumentation is invented to measure it (among other things.) In other words, philosophy is both vague and self referential.

While the philosophies of Science and Politics are quite well known concepts, then, I would wager that hardly anyone has heard of the Philosophy of Technology, a kind of philosophy of particular interest to engineers. Perusing the journal Techne was therefore an interesting experience.

One very interesting issue of the journal was devoted to safety questions. Of course safety concerns are a very important to engineers, and I understood the article that explained that safety was maximised when you had as many independent safety barriers as possible; when you built considerable redundancy into safety margins. And then there was a discussion about to what extent, when designing bridges for instance, do engineers have a responsibility to guard against "stupid user behaviour"? And what about the responsibility to try and second guess potential future uses of a piece of technology that no current user would contemplate?

Another article spent several thousand words talking about the two space shuttle disasters, the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003, and concluded that we needed to shift over from a culture of individual responsibility - which paradoxically means everyone is trying to shift responsibility to another individual - to a culture of collective responsibility. The writer called for the development of "civic virtue" to govern relations in an engineering organisation such as NASA. That would reduce the penalties of whistleblowing - ostracisation, delayed payrise, drawing attention to one's partial responsibility for a disaster - and help reduce the number of engineering accidents.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 15 April 2016 at 09:29 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 15 April 2016 09:00 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Would closing borders necessarily be bad for Britain?

7 April 2016 by Pelle Neroth

Russ Shaw gives a good spiel. The founder and director of Tech London Advocates argues that nearly the entire London tech community favours staying in the EU.

Continuing skills shortages in "Europe's tech capital" is said to be the main problem companies face, and leaving the EU would deprive London tech firms from hiring Europe's best and brightest engineers. So they are firnly against Brexit.

He says things we all kind of know, and says it in a very compelling way. In a newspaper just recently he argued that there are some groups in the City that have nailed their colours to Boris Johnson's Brexit mast. Shaw writes in the business newspaper City AM that the tech industry is not one of them:

"One group that is almost unanimous in its desire to stay part of the European Union is London's tech community. A survey by Tech London Advocates published this month showed that 87 per cent of tech professionals are in favour of remaining in the EU, with only 3 per cent calling for a Brexit. More than seven in ten believe leaving would make it harder to reach EU customers, while about eight in ten believe it will make it harder to employ people from EU member states."

"The reason the digital community is so vocal in its support for EU membership is that Brexit would exacerbate many of the challenges the industry has worked so hard to overcome.

"The talent shortage is the single greatest threat to both the London and UK tech sectors. Technology is our fastest-growing industry and an important source of UK economic growth, but I regularly hear from London startups and scale-ups about the difficulty they have in filling roles in areas like data analytics, software development, product management and cyber-security," says Shaw, the director of London Tech Advocates.

Just a dissenting thought: isn't the ability to hire European staff off the shelf contributing to the fact that Britain doesn't develop its own domestic talent properly? Which is the chicken and which is the egg? Of course, skills shortages are a very complex problem. There are cultural issues - engineering is hard, and young people all want to work in TV, or whatever - political issues - the British school system is declining, according to the international PISA surveys. All the kinds of problems that require a complex diagnosis and take years, maybe decades to resolve. Which is not the kind of time you can spare if you're an extremely ambitious entrepreneur are set upon growing your first "unicorn". You'll take talent wherever you can get it, even if it has been nurtured by other countries' tax and public education systems. But really, it has to be addressed.

One of the more interesting glosses put by the Russian leadership against the sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States after the Ukraine conflict is that it will force Russia to develop domestic equivalents to the sectors affected. They have no choice; but there is the added argument that it may actually be beneficial. The lack of competition opens up a space for domestic sectors to be nurtured in isolation. Of course that argument is anathema to a generation, like me, schooled in the Thatcherite virtues of competition. But there are other historical comparisons. Nineteenth century United States and Germany grew industrial sectors that were ultimately able to take on mighty Victorian powerhouse Great Britain precisely because they abjured free trade, at least in the initial stages of that industry's development: behind trade walls, their sectors could grow without being outcompeted until they were strong enough to hold their own in global free markets. The belief that free trade has always been beneficial to all parties, a win-win situation, is I believe a mistaken one. Nineteenth century German consumers may have been short term losers from the closing of the market to British producers, but in the long term German producers, and therefore all members of German society, and consumers too, were the winners.

Here is something to think about, a thought experiment. If Britain closed its borders to all immigration, then the ferocious lobbying energy now devoted to keeping Britain in the EU might de diverted into ensuring more and better domestic talent comes on stream for tech firms to hire. Which might put pressure for better British policymaking in fields like education and science.

Of course there would be a short term price to pay, and maybe the "surging" London tech scene can't afford to lose a moment in the global race. But the thought experiment is worth conducting, is it not? The dislocation of lobbying forces away from the UK and to Brussels, away from the democratic debate, is one of the reasons British politics seems so anaemic and empty - to this semi-outsider, anyway. A Brexit leave vote might restore some of the vigour to British politics, and begin the big task of solving Britain's long term pressing social problems, for instance in education. London may be the tech capital of Europe and the fin tech capital of the world, with innovations humming along at a decent pace. But one thing the British tech scene hasn't been able to come up with is a world-changing technological invention. Now why is that? Why hasn't Britain in technology produced what in music, in a few short years in the late sixties, transformed and still dominates global fashions in popular music? Or is that not an appropriate parallel?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 07 April 2016 09:47 AM     General     Comments (0)  

'Give the University back to the academics'

2 April 2016 by Pelle Neroth

I lived in London through the Blair years and had never heard of the actual phrase New Public Management until a few weeks ago.

Then I came across the term twice in rapid succession.

First I watched Adam Curtis's documentary the Trap. Adam Curtis is the BBC's favourite film maker. He is a geek and an intellectual and isn't afraid of tackling ideas through television. That is notoriously a hard thing to do. Have you ever counted the number of words in an average TV-script? Not many pages of A4 there. Visuals don't lend themselves easily to illustrating the abstract either, not in a profound way, anyway. Curtis manages it, though. He also seems to have been given privileged access to the entire BBC news archives. There is lots of footage therefore of 80s and 90s everyday scenes. Nostalgic and interesting.

Another name for New Public Management is target culture: starting with Thatcher, but picked up with enthusiasm by New Labour, target culture's attractive rationale was the idea of liberation of the individual from the tyranny of bureaucracy, by turning us from citizens into customers, first, and, second, making bureaucracy accountable and quantifiable by setting up numerical targets for them to achieve.

The idea was that the customer made decisions and that choice was a much more effective incentive to improvement of bureaucratic structures than the democratic process. Democracy is slow and diffuse; when you elect someone, you don't know what they will do when in office, especially when, according to New Public Management theory (and indeed the beliefs of your average cynic), politicians, once elected, they do their own thing, just working to boost their own careers, mainly.

Very few of us track local political issues. Therefore, if you, as the voter, want reform in a public body, the messaging process, by voting for a politician, the ability to get this across, is very imperfect. The market is much better for this kind of thing, the theory went: the customer walks away from a bad product or a bad commercial service, and that sends a clear and nearly instantaneous message. Turn the citizen into a customer and you get a better bureaucracy, that was the idea.

NPM flourished in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union provided an illustration of a totally discredited centralised, authoritarian command management society.

What Margaret Thatcher, John Major and later Tony Blair did was to provide choice in hospitals and schools; to help the customer along. Because capitalism only works with the informed customer, hospitals were given targets to hit and rated accordingly. The customer, the citizen, was given the tools to discriminate and allowed to choose. The improvement of the welfare state would come from below. Bad performers would wither on the vine.

What Curtis shows is that teachers, doctors and civil servants were annoyed in the crude system of targets, which they took as an attack on their integrity, their independence and their professional esprit de corps. Rather than reduce bureaucracy, it created a new layer of bureaucracy, the hospital manager, who learned how to game the system to hit those targets.

For instance, to cut average waiting lists, they would instruct surgeons to carry out easy to do operations, like vasectomies, as a priority. Many operations could be carried out in one day, and target rates could be hit. To hit the target of the number of patients "seen to", they would hire meet-and-greeters to handle patients in the waiting room; they would count as being "seen to", even if nothing was actually done.

Trolleys were reclassified as hospital beds by removing the wheels of trolleys of patients lying in corridors, and another target was hit. So long as there have been rules, people have found their way around them. And so on.

But did it really help the public, now reclassified as customers, with their list of hospitals and their targets achieved to choose from? Maybe not. The state of NHS compared to other health systems is an issue of constant controversy.

I have just been making a documentary, during which I came across New Public Management in another context. Swedish higher education. I have talked to a number of professors, both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences. The New Public Management reforms went even further in Sweden than elsewhere. The problem, I was told, is that - with the customer, the student - in charge, it made universities very vulnerable to their brand reputation. Which is a fickle thing. Just one or two free-spirited remarks on twitter, picked and amplified by the media, can put a professor in trouble.

Not good for academic self confidence or the integrity of academics. Freedom of speech is holy in an academic environment; it is what universities are about. It also turned students into kings, as customers, at a time of life when academic and even general judgement is not well developed, and subtly altered the power relationship between professors and students in a way that disadvantaged the former.

This was not good, either, for the concept of the university, which is institutionalisation of the ancient process of passing on wisdom from respected elders. There is constant pressure from vice chancellors on professors to pass weak students who didn't deserve a pass grade because "otherwise we will look bad in the statistics" and "we won't get any customers" - ie, students - "applying next year".

The squeezing of academic self confidence between market force oriented vice chancellors and degree result-oriented students has prompted academics to retaliate. A couple of senior professors have started a group called Academic Rights Watch Sweden, which aspires to restore the collegiate model of the university, which puts professors in the driving seat: with more influence over appointments, promotions (since they know who among their colleagues is really doing good research), to hit back at the culture of university branding and delivery by results.

What about Britain? "The situation is even worse," I was told. "We have many academics applying from the UK who are fleeing your country's university system." It would be interesting to explore that claim. It was clearly a second hand report, and the "fleeing academics" sound as if they have a bee in their bonnet. I haven't had the opportunity to talk to these exile academics yet.

Oxford and Cambridge are the top two universities in Europe in every ranking (QSS, Times, Shanghai). Imperial and UCL invariably in the top ten. So it can't be all bad in Old Blighty. But do these "refugee academics" have any point at all?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 02 April 2016 at 10:45 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 02 April 2016 10:21 AM     General     Comments (0)  

In a time of European crisis, what can engineers practically do?

26 March 2016 by Pelle Neroth

The metro station in Brussels where 21 people died, Maalbeek, is one where I have passed through hundreds of times. The terror is getting closer.

Maalbeek - the very name sounds sinister to the English ear, doesn't it? - is one of two metro stations serving the EU quarter. It is where you get off if you're heading to the European parliament, about ten minutes' walk away. The EU quarter is a physically unattractive area. A grid of densely packed office blocks containing organisations all in some way connected to the EU's activities. From the European Association of Small Businesses to European Free Trade Organisation.

The EU quarter is bisected by two intensely busy roads where the traffic races through to the suburbs. At ground level near Maalbeek station, there is not much activity: people heading into their place of work, to their lobby group or think tank or EU directorate. There are a couple of sandwich bars where you can get a glass of Jupiler beer and a sandwich au fromage for a couple of euros. The elegant restaurants of eurosceptic lore where pampered MEPs dine on foie gras are situated elsewhere in the city.

From a casual glance of the published lists, I didn't know any of the victims. But I know the faces of Brussels commuters, know the people who work inside the EU machine - the secretaries, officials, press officers, security guards, handymen. They work for embassies, lobbying organisations, the European parliament and commission. They are, needless to say, innocent victims, and many (especially the handymen and security guards) are themselves of Middle Eastern origin. Brussels has a very large Arab population.

I know the rhythm of commuting in Brussels, intimately, so I can exactly imagine the scene. The bright red tiling of Maalbeek metro station, the eerie, ethereal canned music that plays on the platforms between the arrival of the trains. No lyrics to the music, ever: Brussels and Belgium, the capital of "united Europe" is an intensely divided city, in a country divided by two language communities, French-speaking and Dutch-speaking.

In Brussels, you see political correctness in spades on everything to do with language policy; even the music can't be allowed to take sides. Everything in Belgium is decentralised because of the conflicts between the country's two language communities, French and Dutch. That is why Belgium is dogged by weak central authority. That is why counter terrorism efforts are so weak in Belgium. That is why Belgium has been a base for terrorist attacks on neighbouring France, a much more top-down controlled, effectively policed country. Brussels alone has half a dozen police forces.

The Brussels attacks could be another nail in the coffin for the Schengen Agreement on passport free travel between EU states. The attacks just keep on piling up: Paris, twice last year, Copenhagen, now Brussels. It could push Britain yet another step towards the EU exit; we will have to see what the polls say. People usually vote against change, past referendums show that, in Britain and elsewhere. But we'll see: the Brexit vote in June could be different.

A visceral event like this overshadows developments elsewhere. There is supposed to have been a ceasefire in Syria. And the Germans have looked ahead, offering to train Syrians who will one day return home in practical and engineering skills. I wrote about it in this month's magazine.

If I may be forgiven for abruptly changing the subject: At the Munich Security Conference a few weeks ago, Germany's defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, attempted to create a positive momentum for what the West can actually do about the migration crisis, on the assumption that the beginnings of a peace process may be taking shape."The migration pressure falls mainly on Europe," she said. "It will not disappear by itself. It requires a systemic response." And Europe, she said, had to take the lead.

She lamented the fact that Europe found itself on the back foot, in permanent humanitarian crisis mode, and the fact that 1.5 million individuals on the move, though large, has seemed to paralyse the political will of an entire rich continent. Worse, it is a crisis that has threatened to drive the EU apart, since the Schengen agreement of passport-free travel across the EU is danger of disintegrating. Reason: national leaders are scared of large refugee inflows on their patch.

Germany has been the biggest generous exception, but Ms von der Leyen indicated there were limits even to German openness. The open doors policy that has seen over a million migrants into Germany in the past 12 months has put huge pressure on Chancellor Merkel's popularity. Germany is looking ahead, therefore. Ms von der Leyen called for measures to strengthen the EU's external borders; and a crackdown on the massive international smuggling networks, using NATO warships. At the beginning of March, Chancellor Merkel and other leaders struck a deal with Turkey. Turkey contains some of the refugee flows in return for a restart of its long stalled EU accession talks.
But the long term solution, after peace, has to be helping in the reconstruction of Syria. She pledged that the German army, the Bundeswehr, would help jump start refugee competences. In a variation of the Biblical injunction about teaching people how to fish rather than giving them fish, rather than the German state just dousing the refugees with welfare, she said she had instructed the Bundeswehr to think ahead. The army has in fact committed itself to training, in Germany, large numbers of Syrian refugees in various practical and engineering-type professions, such as bomb disposal experts, electricians, fire fighters, logisticians, sanitation engineers, and more, to help rebuild a post-war Syria. While it's early days, they will apparently also be training "management experts" in higher planning skills - a future middle class, ready to take over and run the ravaged country.
Contrast this to Sweden, for example, the other big recipient country, which has so far taken a completely headless approach, in my view: thousands of young Syrians are lodged expensively in hostels and hotels at the equivalent of 200 pounds a night. Few of them work. Funding taken from the aid budget, including Sweden's contribution to the camps in Turkey and Lebanon, where all the Syrian refugee women and children are waiting. The UNHCR already complains of a massive shortfall in the funding for these camps. Obviously, 200 pounds goes a lot further in Turkey than in Sweden.
Let us wish Ms von der Leyen luck. She has sometimes been touted as Merkel's successor.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 26 March 2016 03:05 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Conformism and scientific research

18 March 2016 by Pelle Neroth

There is common picture of the artist as the liberated contrarian and scientists and and engineers as narrow-minded, conformist nerds.

I used to completely disagree with that. This was my argument: artists and comedians often play it very safe with prevailing nostrums of society: it is the very subjectivity of taste that makes them wary of challenging the authority of public opinion, the authority of art critics and the whims of the grant-making authorities. Not to mention the raft of anti freedom of speech laws ostensibly aimed at protecting people's dignity, but in reality which do so very selectively.

Artists may be transgressive, but in a very safe way. In Sweden, a woman who faked a psychosis was taken to hospital by ambulance and given treatment, costing thousands of pounds. It turned out her fakery was an installation of performance art. This was her final degree work. She had the whole thing secretly filmed by a friend. She became famous. So did the exhibition of photographs of dramatised scenes from the bible, including a photo of two homosexual men cradling the infant Jesus, the latter portrayed in a very erotic, borderline paedophile, way. The exhibition was displayed at Uppsala Cathedral - supported by the senior clergy of the nation - and won plaudits from the country's art critics. Over 100,000 people saw the show.

Cool, eh? Or maybe not. For neither this eroticised Jesus artist nor the one who faked a psychosis were really trangressive, because they were operating in a political and intellectual climate that applauds that kind of art. They were not risking anything; they were not challenging public taste - or at least not the public taste that mattered, the elite who pull the strings of the art world.

They did not act outside the bounds of taste of that influential group of people she needed to impress. In other words, while they may have been transgressive two generations ago, today they were acting entirely within the limits of official taste. Now, making fun of Islam - that, as we all know, is really taking a risk, in a way it wasn't before the rise of Islamic radicalism and the Rushdie affair. Very few artists mock Islam, the religion. There are thousands of hip, trendy artists who break taboos-that-seem-to-be-taboos-but aren't really. But the few that do, aren't they very much braver than the one who mocked Christ and (he knew beforehand), knowing, in our secular west, that mocking Christianity is an entirely safe target?

I used to cite that example whenever artists of my acquaintance told me artists were transgressive individualists, in contrast to scientist conformists. I thought scientists and engineers were more likely to resist fashion and follow the path of truth, than those self regarding types on the other side of the Two Cultures divide. Scientists were logical, rational people who could defend their arguments Science was less evanescent than art; perhaps, romantically, I felt scientists possessed a greater strength of character. I was irritated about the ignorance demonstrated by artists, like everyone else of a humanistic bent, towards the scientific process.

Since a member of my family contracted diabetes recently, I have been forced to think again. The illness caused considerable pain in the extremities, but has recently gone into remission since that person went on to a low carb diet: lots of meat and eggs and fish, no bread or pasta. Not even any vegetables. There is lots of carbohydrates in bread. Carbohydrates, unlike the protein and fat in meat and fish, spike the bloodsugar very quickly.

Normally insulin, produced by the pancreas, takes care of it, and transports the product into the cells as stored energy. Diabetics produce insufficient amounts of insulin so, unless medicine or injections of insulin bring the blood sugar down, the heightened levels, in time, cause all sorts of havoc with the body, damaging nerve endings, reducing eyesight, causing problems to the kidney and liver.
In the 1920s, before the discovery of animal-sourced insulin saved millions of lives, the only way to keep diabetics alive was to feed them meat, eggs and fish.

These foods contain lots of fat (and protein); few carbs. Doctors working in remote colonial outposts, with what used to be called "native peoples" whether India, Africa or Greenland, found that the "natives" who hunted for a living and ate huge amounts of fatty foods - like the inuit - very seldom contracted the diseases of Western civilisation. What characterised these carnivorous peoples, whose diet was heavily fatty, was very low rates of cancer, heart disease (even when controlling for age) - and no diabetes.

In the 1970s, however, we saw the growth of the "low fat, high carbs" philosophy. The key character was an American researcher called Ansel Keys, a very strong willed fellow. He promoted his theory relentlessly. Eating Fat was bad for you. It raised "bad" cholesterol levels in the blood. High cholesterol increased the incidence of heart disease, which shortened lifespans.

It actually turns out that each link in Keys's chain of arguments is controversial. Further, a book published last year found that Keys was very selective in his use of evidence: he travelled around Europe, from Finland to Crete, and gathered data on fat consumption and heart disease. Controversially, he missed out on data points which would have disproved his theory: France for instance where fat consumption was high and heart disease levels low.

One of his researchers, it was further revealed, found that sugar consumption (ie carbohydrates) correlated even more closely to heart disease than fat consumption did, but Keys had discouraged even looking at that correlation.

He was fixed upon the idea of fat. It was an example of Bad Science.
Keys's lobbying led to the publication of the American diet recommendation published in 1977, which, for the first time, established the food pyramid: lots of carbs at the base, protein in the middle. Fat at the narrow apex. Eat lots of carbs and little fat. Even its chief drafter now admits it was based more on ideology than on knowledge. The food industry latched on and started selling low fat versions of everything. The trouble is, low fat foods have less flavour. Solution: add carbs and diabetes-causing sugar. Oh dear. But by God it was profitable.

Meanwhile Americans, and others in the Western world, have been getting fatter in fatter in the last three decades, despite a reduction in their fat consumption. How so if Keys was right? A small number of dieticians and researchers are now finally being heard with a message that found it hard it to get a hearing in that same time. Fat doesn't make you fat, carbs make you fat. And high carb consumption is much more likely to give you diabetes than high fat consumption. Diabetes is the epidemic of our time.

The message would have got out earlier had not researchers on this track found it hard to get grants, have papers published, on this subject. They didn't get invited on to expert panels. Many chose just to switch off their brains and go with fashions. One who did not conform, writes author Nina Teicholz, who has written one of the definitive books on the story of meat's exclusion from the healthy diet, was one of the twentieth century's most revered nutrition scientists, the organic chemist David Kritchevsky. On a panel for the National Academy of Sciences, he suggested loosening the restrictions on dietary fat.

He said, in her book: "We were jumped on!People would spit on us! It was just like we had desecrated the American flag."... "They were so angry that we were going against the suggestions of the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health."

Now who was it that said that artists had a monopoly on political correctness? Teicholz writes: "the most remarkable aspect of the nutrition research community was its surprising lack of oxygen for alternative viewpoints. When I started out my research, I expected to find a community of scientists in decorous debate. Instead, I found {dissident] researcher..., who, by their own admission, was a cautionary tale for independently minded scientists seeking to challenge the conventional wisdom."

What I have realised is that you get people who dare not rock the boat - both among artists and scientists. Interestly, the low fat dogma was never as common among European researchers. There was always more tolerance for different views on the fat question here.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 18 March 2016 at 07:54 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 18 March 2016 07:13 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Turning our backs on Europe: will engineers suffer or benefit?

9 March 2016 by Pelle Neroth

Would British engineers win or lose from Brexit? The boss of Siemens is in no doubt. Speaking at the German British forum recently, Juergen Maier certainly did not mince his words.

He painted a dark portrait of Britain's economic and industrial future if it chose to exile itself from the European Union in the June referendum.

For Siemens, the UK would "not be an interesting country enough on its own". He seemed to stop short of indicating an specific reduction in investment, but said that its markets were worldwide and "by developing just for British standards" his company would not be able to export technology around the world as easily.

Siemens has 13 factories in the UK and employs 14,000 people, out of a worldwide workforce of 348,000. Maier said of his British factories: "They need to be involved in R&D across borders and play a role in setting standards."

Another speaker at the event, Dick Elsy, chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a technology strategy organisation, spelled it out what Maier hinted at: he warned that Britain would lose access to the EU's technology research projects as well suffer a massive loss of private R&D investment from European and international industrial companies if British voters said no.

So, leaving the Union would be madness? Well, put it this way. Opinion is extremely polarised. A completely different story emerged at speech by a leading Tory Brexiter, David Davis MP, at the Institute of Chartered Engineers.

He talked about an economically and politically dysfunctional union that did harm to many of its members: a union where unemployment rates in the South were too high because these countries were locked into the euro and so couldn't devalue to make their weak economies competitive again. "The euro has become a destroyer of jobs, an experiment that has failed," he said.

David Davis's main gripe is political, not economic, however. It may sound abstract to the average voter (and even for the average engineer) but it is very real for British politicians, who have seen the power of Westminister drain away to Brussels over the decades.

This is the Tory Eurosceptic narrative, believed by a fair proportion of the Conservative party. The believers have put enormous pressure on Cameron; their narrative goes something like this. Britain has suffered a non stop drain of sovereignty since 1973, and the British voters were not told this would happen.

The UK joined cap-in-hand in 1973, after decades of humiliatingly slow economic growth, an organisation designed for the benefit of the French and their farmers. The West Germans were happy to pay the bills and defer to Paris in return for political acceptance. The British thought they were joining a "common market", an economic, not a political, organisation. A White Paper of 1971 said there would no "essential loss of sovereignty" for Westminster. A referendum on the new common market membership in 1975 - where the Tories' new leader Margaret Thatcher incidentally was on the "remain side" - did not mention "ever closer union" once in the pamphlet sent out to all households.

Yet just two days after Britain had signed its accession agreement in 1972, the other six members agreed among themselves in Paris to achieve political and monetary union by 1980. The direction of travel was set. Bureaucrats minted the idea of neo-functional integration: every sharing of powers automatically triggered further integration. The UK, one of the poorer nations, became one of the biggest net contributors because of the way the union was mainly funded by external tariffs, and the UK was a big importer. (Because of historic Commonwealth links.)

In the 1980s, Thatcher, then by PM, was seduced by the idea of a truly single market, which would give a boost to British business, in return for surrendering the national policy veto in a number of policy areas, as well as moving control over these policy areas from the Westminster to Brussels.

Eventually, health, safety, employment, home affairs and environment became EU competences the UK reluctantly signed up to the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties. Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that "the process of Union [which it had been renamed in 1992] is like the Rhine flowing to the sea. Anyone who stands in its way is crushed against the river bank".

In 2005, French and Dutch voters rejected the latest upwards ratchet of EU power - the EU Constitution - but when the constitution was returned to Europe three years later under a new name, the Lisbon treaty, with essentially the same content, no European publics were allowed a referendum on it.

Cynical, or what? Today's East European-dominated EU offers greater opportunities than ever for corrupt misuse of agricultural and regional funds, while Britain's relative voting influence in a Union of 28 members has halved in the last decade. And Britain remains, despite Thatcher's rebates, the second largest financial net contributor. (But gets some of it back in market opportunities) Time to leave, says our fictional MP: restore national democracy and seek out global economic opportunities.

The Leavers are not wrong, but it is not the whole story. Which is why the British public are as divided as they are.

There are sharp practices in the City; it is not just the EU that is corrupt. British democracy, especially at the local level, is far from perfect. And what about the MPs' expenses scandal of a few years ago? Besides, the British still get to drive on the left, use the mile, consume English mustard, enjoy substandard plumbing, speak the world's most spoken language and possess one of the world's most successful cultures. American technology has arguably done more to change British life than the EU ever has.

The homogenisation of the UK High Street is not an EU thing. The French have managed to maintain their unique shopping culture, have they not? Thanks to the EU, Grandad can live in Spain and Ryanair can fly there for £9. So what is the big deal about being part of the EU? Besides, leaving might cost jobs, and create a situation where companies like Siemens stop investing and the UK is cut out of EU research and technology projects. The pound might crash.

There is a battle of narratives here. The abstract political one about preserving British sovereignty versus a more concrete case against the possible harm done to people's economic situation. When the referendum results are known in June, we will know which narrative has won. Most engineers in jobs would probably benefit in the short term if Britain stayed in. Not worth rocking the boat...

But perhaps there also has to be a thought given to the potential responsibility for the future of democracy, even if it is an abstract concept? Especially if carrying on as before is, everybody knows deep down, cements the Brussels version of a flawed democracy of 500 million which, as Davis has said, has had negative economic consequences already and may have others in time too.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

Edited: 09 March 2016 at 09:34 AM by Pelle Neroth

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 09 March 2016 09:11 AM     General     Comments (0)  

Technology would have made it harder for the assassin to slip into the night

3 March 2016 by Pelle Neroth

The Jack the Ripper mystery, the JFK assassination. The fate of Lord Lucan. People want to know, don't they? Or do they? It is the space between knowledge and doubt, an almost religious place where the not-knowing creates a delicious sense of vector in the human mind.

If it was completely obvious who killed Kennedy, it would cease to be a mystery. And then it would become less interesting. A historian who writes a weekly column for a large newspaper tells me that he gets huge numbers of emails when he writes about what some would call "conspiracy theories", weighing the evidence for and against different outcomes just as a good historian should. But when just tells an up and down straightforward history story, he gets almost no emails.

Here is a thought: If uncertainty begets an interest in history, acts as a locomotive, what is wrong with that? Maybe all teaching history should be reconfigured as teaching mysteries, and then the pupils at the back of class would be paying much more attention. Just a thought.

This column is not about JFK or Lord Lucan, however; it is about an intriguing unsolved European assassination that is very important. Brits and Americans don't know much about it. It is the assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, aged 59, in 1986, and I declare an interest here. I have written a book about his life and times, and look at possible solutions to the very mysterious assassination. The book is available on Amazon Kindle, here, for a fairly modest sum:

I may have written about Palme before on this blog, but this, I believe, is the first time I do so at length. I promise not to make this a recurring indulgence. My excuse is that this week marks the 30th anniversary of his assassination. The Swedish media haven't speculated as much as during previous anniversaries.

Perhaps because they have gone through all the options before. Its claim to be the "European assassination of the century", as some have called it, is based on the size of the investigation, said to be larger, in shelf meterage, than the Kennedy murder or the Lockerbie bomb. It also has a grip on the Scandinavian imagination like no other event in history. The Danes, Finns and Norwegians have followed the twists and turns of the murder closely.

The way he was gunned down in the back on a dark winter's night still reverberates in these extremely peaceful, pacific, societies. He was an old school, big welfare state Social Democrat. His death perhaps in real terms hastened the arrival of the political, social and economic changes that took place in Sweden (and Scandinavia) over the next two decades; his death certainly, in the public's imagination, symbolised the changes.

After he died, Sweden became a more capitalist, less high tax, more consumerist, more open society, with greater inequalities. In security policy, an abandonment of high handed neutrality, when Sweden acted as the world's finger-wagging mother-in-law, with Palme's legendary eloquence giving backing to anti colonialist and humanitarian movements everywhere, to a close rapprochement with NATO and Anglo-American security interests today.

Sweden has become Anglo-America's most dependable friend in Europe even though, formally, Sweden is still non-aligned. That is just to keep the Swedish public, still attached to the old formalities, happy. The Swedish signals intelligence agency FRA is said to be the only spooks from a non-Anglo Saxon country, and only European country, invited into the Anglo-US-New Zealand-Canadian-Australian Five Eyes secret-swapping arrangement.

Allegations about who the man dressed in dark clothes who escaped up a side street after gunning Palme down at 11.21 pm on 28th February while Palme and his wife were strolling home from the cinema (without bodyguards) have sprawled in all directions. There is the CIA trail, the South Africa trail, the crazy unemployed Stockholm drug addict trail. Turkish and Croat terrorist trail. The religious right winger trail, the Swedish cop trail. The thwarted arms industry assassin trail. Was it a political murder or was carried out for other reasons, jealousy or personal resentment? Was it a team or an individual, planned or unplanned? Was it a lone wolf driven by passion, resentment and opportunity, or was it a murder carefully organised by some grouping or foreign state, for Palme's many irritatingly righteous foreign policy stances?

Still so many questions. Some of the trails might be disinformation trails placed by the guilty party, if it is indeed a political murder. Journalists do their best - or worst - by coming up with their own theories, which sometimes provide illumination, and sometimes just confuse things. So many books, so many articles, so many TV programmes.

So much bandwidth that this sprawling murder has taken up in the Sweden's conversation with itself over the last three decades. It is all very complicated, and the murder is as unsolved as ever. If French lunatics seem to have a compulsion to believe they are reincarnations of Napoleon, every Swedish lunatic sometimes, it seems, has confessed to having carried out the Palme murder. Over 130 people have come forward so far. Approximately 129 of them must be fantasizing.

If the murder had taken place today, thanks to the advances of technology, it would have been less of a mystery.

The technical evidence was very meagre, back then. The Swedish police were pretty amateurish, even without a conspiracy allegation. (That they deliberately sabotaged the investigation because some among their number did it.)

They had roped off far too small an area at the murder scene, Sveavagen, one of Stockholm's major shopping streets. Finger prints were not taken off the window where there murderer stood waiting for the couple to come strolling past. (Palme's wife was also shot at; the shot missed. She survived, and is still alive.)

Two bullets were eventually found, one 12 metres from the dried pool of blood where Palme fell. And one on the other side of Sveavagen from the crime scene. Both were deformed when hitting the tarmac and are hard to trace to a particular weapon. The technicians did their bit by cleaning the bullets of flesh fragments which would have enabled the National Forensic Laboratory to ascertain that the bullets found were actually used in the murder, and not placed there by the "conspiracy" afterwards, to confuse the investigation. But you can't just blame amateurishness of a police force in a peaceful country overwhelmed by the challenge of this expertly executed assassination. Swift, deadly, from a lithe assassin dressed in black. DNA technology was in its infancy, too. The first DNA tests were only taken in 1991, and a DNA register was only started in 1999.

It took ages before the police took DNA tests of Palme's coat. The killer placed his hand on Palme's shoulder before shooting and apparently said something. There may have been both saliva traces, and DNA traces from the man's hand. When the police defrosted Palme's coat, kept in cold storage for decades, finally did a DNA trace on it they found only Palme' DNA. Today's technology, though, has advanced to the point where a small DNA fragment can reveal a person's skin colour, hair colour, eye colour and from which continent he comes. All that would provide useful information, helped narrow down the sprawling options.

Had the murder taken place today, Sweden's National Forensic laboratory would also have been able to complement the information with pictures from security cameras. Even if the security camera is of poor quality, fast computers can compare pictures of the suspect with the security camera footage to get a figure on the degree of likeness. Sensor technology would allow age determination from fingerprints and blood from pictures. You could also film crime scenes with the help of a laser in order to visualise it in 3D. Drones with cameras also allow a good overview of a crime scene.

Mobiles were extremely uncommon. Sweden's Ericsson was a pioneer in car phones - and one witness in a car actually alerted the police on one - but today, obviously, it would have been a completely different story. Today the police would have got all the data from nearby mobile masts to get a complete listing of mobile phone owners who were in the cinema with Palme in the two hours before the assassination.

Who was in the streets around him when he was shot? Not just phones would have provided lots of information about who was doing what and where near the scene of the murder, in this most wired up of countries. Electronically stored information from supermarkets, restaurants and shops about debit and credit card purchases would have given further information about who was in the area and might have provided useful witnesses to suspicious activity. Computerised analysis of barrel impressions on the used bullets would have enabled an easier determination of the kind of gun used.

All well and good, though if the publics want all their mysteries taken away from them is another matter. If technology allowed us to know everything everywhere, wouldn't that remove some of the numinousness of life?

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 03 March 2016 02:19 PM     General     Comments (0)  

Leaving the EU will create a new reality both the EU and UK will have to deal with

25 February 2016 by Pelle Neroth

My feeling about the British EU referendum campaign at the moment is that, while the diplomats and corporate interests will quite accurately tell you that there are risks in leaving, I am tempted to urge: take a punt on Brexit.

At least contemplate it seriously, as your hand hovers over the referendum slip in the voting booth come June.

It will create a new reality, and the British will have to deal with that, and Europe will have to deal with that. It may be costly - if tariff deals have to be renegotiated or there are punitive exit costs - but the British may have gained something invaluable, that cannot be measured in money: a sense of control over one's destiny.

The human spirit is not something the social or economic engineers can quite understand or account for. If the British say no to exit, if they decide to stay in, everything will continue as before, and I am not sure either the British or the continental Europeans will be the better off for it. The corporate and political elitist train will continue chugging along, for five years, ten years, with the British public as back seat passengers; the status quo will persist for another generation.

Until the next crisis erupts and is resolved or not by the Euro elites - in closed airport conference rooms, in Greece or wherever. Let the British public take control by being at the centre of the locus of change, rather than bystanders. Britain has already been as semi-detached member for a generation.

A double lack of engagement. So why not take a gamble and see what happens? It will be the last chance for the people to have their say. If the British say yes the EU will have seen it as a mandate for growing integration for the rest of my lifetime. If the Brits, ultimate sceptics and individualists, say yes, the EU must be good....which other nation's future expression of scepticism towards the EU project would stance a chance against the endorsement of the respected Brits? Eurocrats will use the British "stay" vote as Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason use their Royal Warrants: as seals of quality and approval.

All is not well in global politics. People in developed societies are not happy. There is an instinct manifested all over the world - seen across the pond in the successes of the Trump campaign - to give the top "1%" a kicking. Trump wants to preserve the American way of life, doesn't want the United States to turn into a hybrid Hispanic country by 2035 as it is on course to do with all demographic projections.

In defiance of the entire US political and media elite - from Fox News end of the spectrum to New York Times readers - who think immigration and rapid dynamics is uncontroversial. millions of Americans agree with him. He may even win the presidency.

We are seeing the end of "one world" politics, a hybrid left right post national ideology, an ideology that has been supported by corporate and technocratic elite as well as leftist intellectuals and politics

Publics everywhere are showing the inclination to bring politics home. That is what many of the so called "far right" movements in Europe - Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary - are about. The "far right" labelling of them is so much elitist rhetoric.

France has hinted at the opportunity to make British economic existence outside the EU very hard indeed, after the automatic exit negotiations have taken their course after the British no.

But let us entertain this fancy: many Europeans found themselves liberated but a British no and ask questions about their own country's membership of a union as currently constituted whose democratic deficit is enormous.

Let us list the problems: accelerating and increasingly undemocratic political supranationalism, unaddressed anxieties about the future of the generous and important national welfare states in a time of unprecedented flux of people across borders, and a euro that puts the weaker southern economies into an almost colonialist subservience to Germany.

It is hard to imagine a British vote sparking an intellectual uprising in Europe's capitals admittedly. But a British yes is just going to be an endorsement of an unsatisfactory-business-as- usual situation. The Americans seem willing to take a spin on Trump. If the British say no to Europe, maybe it shows the two Anglo-Saxon owers taking a global lead in bringing "politics home".

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 25 February 2016 10:07 AM     General     Comments (0)  

No chip and pin for your fish and chips

18 February 2016 by Pelle Neroth

On one of my recent visits to England, I did something I never did when I lived here: I visited a fish and chip shop. Just something to write on the postcard.

It was North London, and the Cypriot owner, George Michael's cousin surely, wrapped up the delicious haddock doused in the finest vinegar before apologising that he would have to refuse my proffered visa payment card. Cash only, he said. I said I had none on me. He admitted a lot of the European tourist trade from the hotel opposite came up equally short. There was, however, a cash machine a ten minute walk away. Seven minutes if I walked really fast.

A few weeks ago at Davos, the annual conference of global decision-makers, the CEO of Deutsche Bank told his fellow elite audience that the end of cash is nigh, that we will see the cashless society in Europe within the decade. Is that so? Not judging by fish and chip shops in North London, maybe.

But what about Sweden, which earned a flurry of articles in the British press some months back as the world's fast cashless society? The Swedes have introduced a mobile phone payment app called Swish , which is in fairly widespread use. and the report by the Royal Swedish Institute for Technology which made the wires and then found its way into aforementioned British press reports find that 80% of Swedish customer transactions are indeed cashless, either with Swish or with Visa and Mastercard debit cards.

I spend a lot of time in Sweden, and it is true that I seldom pay with cash. Sweden has the lowest number of cash machines per capita in the EU, a survey has shown. You have to do a quick google to find the nearest one. And, while I have never bothered to download Swish, retailers are happy to take my regular visa debit card for even the smallest amount, say one or two pounds. (With no surcharge whatsoever.) That said, 20% of transactions are still cash based in Sweden, and while it could be argued that Sweden is further down the cashless route than other countries, there is still a debate about whether the phase out the remaining 20% of transactions

The arguments for the cashless society is that money is expensive and dirty. It causes holes in your pocket and you lose it. It is expensive and environmentally costly for banks to freight around. Indeed, one in three Swedish banks branches have gone entirely cashless: they neither pay out or receive cash. Cash also attracts criminality. You can't trace it and the transaction is anonymous. But sceptics of the cashless society say there are privacy issues if your every transaction can be tracked. Why should some authority somewhere, if need be, be able to call up details of your every purchase of sanitary towels or pub drinks? Cash is the last refuge of anonymity.

As for crime, cash is not the problem as much of crime is cashless. Banks are quiet about the mass fraud being perpetuated when their systems are hacked or people's cash cards are stolen and misused. In France, there are internet databases listing financial crimes against banks. There is a debate in Sweden whether Swedish banks should make public all crime perpetuated against them. Banks are loath to do this because it harms their credibility. But doesn't the public have a right to know? Meanwhile, Swedish retired persons organisations are the strongest lobby against the cashless society.

Cash is something its members are familiar with and the organisation is calling for the banks to reopen some of their cash machines. Sweden is a country with a very low population density. It is estimated that 5% of the population has to travel more than 40km to get to the nearest cash machine! The Swedish federation of small businesses said that the overwhelming number of its members support the retention of cash, with no plans to stop accepting it, for the time being, with old people especially in mind. What they will think in ten years is anyone's guess.

As for that fish and chip shop experience, I found the cash machine and returned. The fish had gone cold. I now always carry change when in the UK.

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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    Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 18 February 2016 08:47 AM     General     Comments (1)  

Will the banks beat Bitcoin?

9 February 2016 by Pelle Neroth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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

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

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

4 February 2016 by Pelle Neroth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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

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

Why leaving the EU club may not be the best option

25 January 2016 by Pelle Neroth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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

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

People-smuggling. Is there an app for that?

16 January 2016 by Pelle Neroth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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

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

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

11 January 2016 by Pelle Neroth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent

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

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

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