16 May 2013 by Pelle Neroth
The tragedy, perhaps, for the well-meaning designers of Europe is that the groups most likely to take advantage of these flexibilities - the young, the adventurous, the footloose, and the unsettled, often ethnic, are not a powerful bloc at the ballot box. It is precisely because they are not so established in their home society that they move in the first place.
The few percent who are mobile in the European sense do not provide a lobby national politicians need cater to. Unlike the grumbling, settled, hard working stay-at-homes who stay a fixed address for long enough to get onto the local electoral roll.
If Britain left the EU, about which there is much debate at the moment, will, in the future, the last thirty years be seen as an unusual period of free movement? That is one way of looking at it. To be fair to the grumblers, this freedom of movement was always likely to have asymmetrical effects given that, while EU mobility is international, the welfare state is still a national project. Taxation is a national affair. So is most politics. And those with a fixed address, and on the electoral roll, are more easily taxed...and therefore have something to grumble about.
You can see this in higher education. The EU's freedom to settle also means the freedom to study on the same terms as locals, and residents of those countries where higher education is free or low cost could reasonably ask why they should be subsidising the flocks of young Europeans coming from countries where higher education is of poor quality and/or is not subsidised by the local taxpayer. It is sort of a problem in England.
It is true that English universities charge tuition fees. Unlike Germany and Scandinavia, where it is mostly free, or France and Belgium, where the costs are a in the hundreds of euros. These countries are therefore more generous to EU students than the UK. On the other hand, an English university education remains highly in demand, and EU students pay the same capped tuition fees as domestic students, and are eligible for student fee loans on the same terms as English students. The fees are only repayable once they have got a job. The BBC reported a few days ago that foreign EU students owe £50m to the Government in non paid fees. Hard to track down when they have returned home...And who is to know, when they are back home, that they do have a job that compels repayment? So it is sort of a subsidy to EU students.
A benefit if Britain leaves the EU is that it could free up university places for domestic students as the number of EU students arriving on UK shores is likely to fall. The reason: with Britain outside the EU, fees for EU students would rise to the levels currently paid by overseas students, those from India and Saudi Arabia, and the like, and they would not be eligible for loans.
A researcher at the LSE, Gill Wyness, has looked at the costs and benefits to British education if the UK leaves the EU. She thinks there would be less competition and easier for British students to get into the university of their choice. There are currently 74,000 EU students studying here, the equivalent of seven medium-sized British universities.
In addition, university funding shouldn't suffer. If you went by current demand, at 1.3 students per place, UK students could easily fill the places vacated by the EU students, paying the same rates - and the money might more easily be chased up.
On the other hand, there are costs too, argues Gill Wyness. The EU students who displaced British students presumably got their places because they were more academically able. Their absence would lead to a "fall in the quality of the student intake", argues Wyness. Since EU nationals make up not a small proportion of the teaching and research staff at UK universities, the university environment as a whole would lose out if it was made harder for them to work here. Three of Britain's last five Nobel prizes went to Europeans active at British universities.
One of Britain's few remaining areas of true excellence is its science base, which surely draws on its culture of openness to international recruitment. Britain has the best universities in Europe, a reputation that continues to make Britain the destination for the brightest minds in research. It is the envy of other EU countries, and in fact Germany, Britain's main science competitor in Europe, has just launched a new research initiative, Zukunftspakt 2022, aimed at, by additional funding, getting a couple of universities to the top of the European league, currently occupied by Imperial and Cambridge.
The recommendations, apparently backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, tipped to win this autumn's German national election, include the funding of 250 additional professorships at German universities. A scientist herself - unlike the arts graduates at the top of British political life - she seems to understand the value of science spending. George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, is cutting British public science spending in real terms, but that's another, and sad, story..
It's a hard call, Britain receives many thousands of EU students a year. Some of these may be a net drain to the tax payer - although it must be emphasized they are not eligible for maintenance loans, only fee loans. On the other hand, among those many, a large minority raise the academic tone by virtue of the greater competition they introduce. And there are a few who go on to make a great contribution to British life. Hard to know which ones, in advance, will do so.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 16 May 2013 at 01:19 PM by Pelle Neroth
Technology smuggling in the Cold War
4 April 2013 by Pelle Neroth
The German-Swedish historian Christoph Andersson's Operation Norrsken (Operation Northern Lights) tells us some new things about East German Swedish relations by digging in Stasi archives and talking to ageing protagonists on both sides of the iron curtain. Some of his findings are new; others are better known but put here into a better context, Most of the material came from the Stasi archives BStU In Berlin. The Swedish archives have not been quite so open.
The context was Reagan's campaign to win the Cold War one of whose aspects was strangling Soviet Union's and its allies' access to western high technology without which the USSR would even more rapidly lose the economic race with the West.
Sweden's background was that, as part of policy of neutrality, it had one developed one of Europe's most powerful military defences from the 1950s to the late 1970s, with a surprisingly large arms industry developed as a measure of independence from the two opposing blocs, NATO and Warsaw Pact. The Social Democrat governments which totally dominated Swedish politics for thirty years after the war were quite hawkish, right wing and anti-Communist. All that changed with the election of the left wing Social Democrat Olof Palme in 1969. He was pacifist and did not believe in military expenditure, which the faltering Swedish economy hit by the oil crisis of 1973 anyway found increasingly hard to afford. Through Olof Palme's defence procurerment cuts, the large domestic arms industry was left without a domestic market and desperately cast abroad for new customers while abiding by Sweden's policy of "moral" arms exports - which excluded countries at war or belonging to a military bloc. Which left rather a narrow field.
Then you had the middle men, Germans, Swedes, or German Swedes (some of who had been anti Nazi exiles who fled Germany before 1939) looking to make a fast buck through helping Swedish arms companies circumvent export restrictions by using East Germany as a conduit or secret destination in return for generous commissions. And then you had the East German state, desperate for western and Swedish technology and arms as well as hard currency to be earned from reexporting Swedish materiel to regimes like Iran.
In some cases, the ruses seem transparent to us now. Leading defence firm Bofors transported trainloads of gunpowder from Sweden via West Germany to neutral Austria, which was legal. But the rail carriages were then redesignated with a new destination - Finland, via East Germany this time. The rail carriages got "lost in transit" through East Germany, courtesy of Stasi in a secret deal agreed with Bofors. The gunpowder cargo was shipped out of Rostock to Iran, which was an illegal destination for Swedish arms exports because it was at war with Iraq at the time. The smuggling was exposed when West German customs officers got suspicious that the same railway carriages returned to West Germany from Austria, the fake destination, with full cargoes and a new destination only an hour after leaving the country. Still, the smuggling went on for three years.
More serious for Sweden's relations with the United States was how, in the 1980s, Swedish businessmen took advantage of Sweden's freedom to import American high technology, Vax super computers, and re-exported them to the East bloc. When the Swedish authorities found out, unpaid taxes on the enormous commissions from Communist regimes seemed to bother the Swedish authorities much more than illegal smuggling of American high technology to the East bloc. Sweden famously, in those days, had the world's highest taxes.
How many of these cases were unknown to the Swedish government? It is still unclear.
But one final instance of goods transfer worth mentioning was legal, indeed sanctioned, by the Social Democrat government of Olof Palme. The Swedish engineering firm ASEA was allowed to export isostatic presses to East Germany, ostensibly for making tape machine recording heads, but the presses also had a dual use as nuclear weapons production technology.
Twenty years on, the author, Christoph Andersson, tracks down one of the presses to an abandoned factory in former East Germany, complete with posters of East German nudes and dusty coffee cups. But the other three presses he is not able to trace. The author thinks the Palme government was too trusting of Erich Honecker, the East German leader
Andersson shows that both overt and covert relations between Sweden and East Germany were closer than suspected. Sweden's neutrality in the Cold War was more complex - and less pure - than thought.
The Americans took Swedish technology smuggling to the East bloc very seriously indeed. And the whole story affected relations between the right wing Reagan administration and the left wing socialist one of Olof Palme which "preached peace in the morning " but which seemed to have a cavalier approach towards American security and technology interests at the same time.
Whether the factual Swedish East German revelations will lead us any nearer the solution to Olof Palme's murder is anyone's guess. The investigation is said to have been reinvigorated by the renewed public interest. The fictional TV series, penned by a former academic at the Swedish police academy, said the killing was carried out by the Swedish security forces, who thought Sweden's relations with the East bloc were far too close. Of course, that is just fiction.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 12 April 2013 at 11:31 AM by Pelle Neroth
ECJ case could change the way Google polices the net
14 March 2013 by Pelle Neroth
The Spanish data protection authority is presenting a number of cases before the European Court of Justice where damaging information about Spanish citizens appear on the net, affecting their careers or livelihoods. In one case, a surgeon complained that a malpractice charge in a local newspaper appeared high up in the search results when his name was googled, when the news that he was in fact acquitted of the charge didn't appear at all. Guess what potential clients are likely to think as they google him?
Another case relates to the auctioning of a man's property relating to non payment of social security charges. In this case, the information was not wrong, but old, and likely to haunt the man's reputation.
The Spanish data protection authority Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) sided with these complainants - and about 200 other cases of embarrassing or misleading information. After being through the Spanish courts, with Google at the losing end, the issue has now been referred upwards to the European level.
Google's argument is it is merely a conduit of the information which it indexes and that it is up to the publishers to remove the information from their website. The search engine's lawyers told the 15 judge panel at the ECJ last month that the world's largest search engine isn't a "data controller" but just an "intermediary in terms of the data which it indexes".
Requests to remove information from Google when it was put online by a newspaper would mean a big shift in responsibility from the publisher to the search engine and that would amount to censorship.
Google's lawyers added that "Only the publisher can take the view to remove content. Once removed from the source webpage, content will disappear from a search engine's index. Of course, there will be times when information is published online that is subsequently found to be incorrect, defamatory or otherwise illegal, Such content can be removed from the source website and from search engines. But search engines should not be subject to censorship of legitimate content for the sake of privacy or for any other reason."
A preliminary decision from the EU's advocate general comes in June,and a full decision by the ECJ later. Its decision will apply to the entire 27 nation bloc. The European Commission will be looking at the decision closely when framing its "right to be forgotten" privacy directives later this year. The Commission's lawyers argued to the ECJ that Google does control data, thereby contradicting a conclusion by the group comprising the EU's national data watchdogs, saying it doesn't.
My prediction is that the ECJ, steeped in the more limited Continental European tradition of free speech and more extensive concern for privacy than the US where Google is based, will side with the Spanish data protection authorities. In that case, it would appear that Google becomes responsible for the information it indexes.
It is a tricky and hugely important question, and I am conflicted..
While one fully sympathises with people who can't live down their pasts because of something published on the net they can't persuade the publishers to take down - perhaps because the publishers have a legal obligation to list it, or is out of jurisdiction, for example - it would place a huge onus on Google to police the net. And it may pave the way for an avalanche of claims from powerful actors and individuals to remove information about them which they find disobliging.
Where to draw the line between unfair harm to a vulnerable individual's reputation and just censoring free expression of opinions actors happen not to like? The internet has been a revolutionary and very free place, Now it may become more reined in - and that may not be a good thing.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 14 March 2013 at 09:52 AM by Pelle Neroth
'Green deal' housing efficiency measures threatened by Brussels
28 February 2013 by Pelle Neroth
The Green Deal is also under threat from Brussels, which has threatened to take the British Government to the dreaded European Court of Justice.
The Green Deal programme unveiled a few weeks ago grants loans of up to £10,000 to homeowners to improve their homes. The government claims the eventual total savings on the energy bills will make the renovations a worthwhile outlay for most homes..
So what is the fuss? As part of its plan, the British Government has set a lower VAT rate for "green" building materials to lower the costs further for the homeowners. They will be charged at a VAT rate of 5% rather than the usual 20%.
The European Commission is objecting. In retaliation, Tory MEPs think the EU is mad, in its worst prawn-cocktail-crisp-ban mindset. After all, isn't the commission devoted also to greening the planet? The EU says that lowering VAT rates for products for socially redistributive purposes -for instance, on baby foods to help young mothers - is okay under single market rules, But not building materials, Because they come under environmental regulations.
Moreover, its officials argue, it won't actually have the desired effect, Most buyers of building materials are not private consumers but the construction industry, and the EU says, in effect, "we all know they never pass on their lower costs to the customers".
Ironically, two weeks ago one EU regulator approved the Green Deal, saying that there is no distortion to competition in the single market. But the tax directorate overruled this, saying building materials are outside the list of goods and services that can be eligible for a reduced rate VAT drawn up by EU governments in 2009. If Britain starts breaking the rules, who knows where it will end?
The Commission has passed on the case to the European Court of Justice. If the Court rules against David Cameron, the UK will face a growing series of weekly fines unless he withdraws the legislation. That would be a blow to his environmental ambitions. .
In this typical Brussels spat, green lobby groups are insisting the UK stand its ground and argue that, of course, double glazing your home could be regarded as a social policy since low income groups are less likely to have this installed.
In an interesting development, the European Commissioner for tax issues, Algirdas Semeta, has promised to have another look at the possibility of lowered interest rates later this year, So does that mean he really is in fact okay with lower VAT on ecological building materials after all - provided the Commission and not the British Government is the body that comes up with the idea? A matter of prestige.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Engineers at risk from terror in North Africa
14 February 2013 by Pelle Neroth
Ironically, as Gaddafi's departure was largely due to the efforts of the West, his regime is now regarded as having been a bastion against terrorist extremism.
The French intervention now looks to be a success. A few weeks' worth of airstrikes have apparently left the Islamic militants in disarray, and an African force from the African Union is now beginning to take over on the ground. But France also has economic interests in the region. Admittedly Francois Hollande, the French president, says France currently has no major economic interests in Mali itself. The country's chief export product is gold which France does not import. But it may soon have economic investments to protect.
Several companies, including Total, are prospecting for oil and gas in the Taoudeni basin in northern Mali. Another regional economic interest ithat France has is that Mali is a neighbour of another desert state, Niger - separated from Mali by just a line in the sand - and Niger is a key supplier of uranium, amounting to 30% of French needs. The loss of the uranium mines at Arlit and Akokan (a third is under construction) in northern Niger would be a disaster for Areva, the French-based multibillion euro energy giant. As it would be for the Nigerien government, which earns 140 million dollars a year from these mines, representing 30% of the country's export income.
The French press are reporting that French commandos are now guarding the mines at Arlit. The decision was made in the wake of the dramatic hostage incident in Algeria on 16 January, which followed the French intervention in Mali, which began on 11 January. In the Algerian incident, several hundred gas workers were taken hostage, and 69 people died, including 39 hostages and 29 Islamist kidnappers after the Algerian army intervened in a heavy-handed way. The Arlit site has also seen a hostage incident. Seven plant workers, including five Frenchmen, were taken hostage in September 2010. Four of these workers are still being held hostage somewhere in northern Niger.
French soldiers currently guard the French space port in French Guyana, and French marine soldiers are statined on ships in the Indian Ocean to protect against Somalian piracy. But the presence at Arlit marks the first time soldiers from the French army have actually been sent to guard a private installation on land.
Two young Frenchmen, Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory, were kidnapped in plain daylight in the centre of Niamey - the capital of Niger - on the 7 January 2011. They were then taken to the terrorist bastions in the north of Niger, just on the border with Mali. They were then killed in a failed rescure attempt by French special forces.
According to Le Monde, quoting Algerian security sources, the Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists in Mali/Niger haves earned 150 million euros in ransom for hostages in the last couple of years. The region is increasingly becoming a highly dangerous place to work
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Britain and Europe: uncertainty ahead
7 February 2013 by Pelle Neroth
The Eurosceptics have some attractive arguments. Repatriating the common agricultural and the common fisheries policy could save the UK a lot of money. Employment legislation - such as the equal rights for temporary workers - seems to have had the unintended consequence of there being a fewer jobs of that kind to go around, and temp jobs were a way into the job market for many unemployed. So that could be repealed. As could the working time directive, which has cost the NHS billions, because it bureaucratically interfered with doctors' hours,
A most important benefit would be the ability to strike deals with the emerging powers of the East to open up the market for British services with these countries in return for various levels of access to the British market. Britain is the world's second largest exporter of services. And yet, because Britain currently negotiates as a member of a bloc, the deals struck don't necessarily benefit Britain's unique strengths in this area, say Eurosceptics. The free trade agreement with Singapore struck recently concerned mostly rules of origin rules for Champagne.
There is very little of an international market in services in Europe, either, incidentally, countries like France and Germany putting up barriers about special professional qualifications requirements for UK companies that wish sell their services abroad. Just try get a job as a teacher with British qualifications in France.
As in all services, there is an information barrier. (Also known as buying-a-used-car problem.) People can't be bothered to change bank accounts, so why should they go through of finding out enough about legal services being sold on the basis of another country's rules? Britain has agitated for many years about this in the EU. Since Britain can't make headway here, in an area of its greatest relative strength, it might as well bail out and try to strike deals alone with Asian countries that are willing to open up their markets.
The services argument for me, is one of the strongest reasons for leaving the EU. Euroscepticism appeals to a certain kind of young man, striking out in life, typical of the new Tory Eurosceptic intake. I agree that the argument about staying in the EU because otherwise there will be barriers to British goods is unlikely. Set aside the facetious argument that repatriation of the Common Agricultural Policy will save Britain so much money it can afford to pay the tariffs imposed upon any British exporters to Europe. Britain is likely at the very least to be able to get the "Norway solution" - access to the single market, albeit without any say-so in its formation. (Yes, as Britain cannot prevail on a single market in services, why bother one might ask?) Britain is Europe's biggest export market for goods, so if they chose to punish Britain for staying out, they would be punishing themselves. Anyway, the very worst back stop case is that British goods would pay World Trade Organisation rates for goods entry, which is four percent.
And yet I think it is too early to head for the exit, following the young rakes of the Tory party making arguments like these. The City of London is vulnerable to legislation concerning trade of the euro, while currently it has protection under the single market rules.
One thing in life to consider is what one's worst enemy or rival wishes upon you - and then do precisely the opposite to that. France wants Britain to leave. They still have hopes of shaping Europe in their own image, now that, in the wake of the euro crisis, a set of reforms are getting underway that will mean much closer fiscal, and possibly political union. Why give the French that pleasure, to enable them to reverse the humiliations of Waterloo? Plus, there is still the full opening up of the telecoms and energy markets, which Britain could push for.
I am minded to say that what Britain should do is overcome its old prejudices and take the outstretched hand offered by Angela Merkel and build a solid alliance with Germany. (Sweden has apparently offered to act as a bridge.)
She wants Britain in Europe - agrees on same free trade issues, and needs help resisting calls from Southern Europe to use Germany as a cash machine. According to press reports she is willing to give a number of concessions as long as his does not mean a painful reopening of the treaties. But the "stay in" argument has to come up with stronger concrete arguments that will appeal to the average voter. Bringing those Common Agricultural Policy expenses home would save an agreeable amount of money.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
UK lags many EU states in innovation indicator
17 January 2013 by Pelle Neroth
Other leading innovators are Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, and perhaps surprisingly Portugal and Ireland. Only companies with at least 10 employees were covered and the sectors in the survey included manufacturing, telecommunications, transportation, financial and insurance activities, wholesale trade and publishing.
The UK lies below the EU average of 53%. At least it's better, though, than the bottom ranked countries in the survey. The laggards, the least innovative countries, include Bulgaria (27%), Poland (28%), Latvia (30%), Romania (31%) and Hungary (also 31%).
The survey also found that cooperation over innovation with other institutions or enterprises was rare, and international cooperation over innovation rarer still. Only 27% carried out joint efforts with other companies or universities, while the remainder fell back on their own resources. The leader here was Cyprus, with a figure of 62%, with Austria at 51% following behind. The lowest proportion of co-operation among enterprises was in Italy (12%), Malta (18%) and Portugal (20%).
Only one in ten EU companies has carried out innovation cooperating with a partner in an EU state. Leaders include Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus, not surprising perhaps as these are small countries. Italian enterprises are bottom of the list here in terms of cooperation with European partners (4%), only a little less than Spain (5%), Germany (8%) and Portugal (9%).
Finland (12%), Sweden (11%) and Slovenia (8%) had the largest shares of innovation co-operation with partners in the United States, and Finland (9%), Sweden (7%), Luxembourg and Slovenia (both 6%) with partners in India or China. Britain, admittedly, has failed to supply statistics over international cooperation innovation, but what it has supplied - on overall innovation activity - does looks gloomy, does it not?
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Dutch university case highlights fraud in science
10 January 2013 by Pelle Neroth
In Germany there is Vroniplag, which examines people's doctorates in minute detail for signs of plagiarism, where Google is their friend. But actually the most written about recent case happens to be one that was not exposed by volunteers, but by the graduate students of the golden boy of Dutch science.
It is the case of Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands. Three graduate students who studied and took notes of his behaviour for months finally exposed him. He had fooled dozens of national and international journals. Science, America's premier science journal, retracted and apologised for publishing his work. Stapel wrote an open apology in which each blamed the pressure on ambitious scientists to publish frequently, and in top journals, to get ahead.
He may be on to something. If fraud is indeed on the increase - and some leading journals are reporting a tenfold increase in retractions - experts seem to agree that part of the problem is the structure of science careers and their link to scientific publication. There is enormous pressure on scientists to publish lots, publish flashy stuff, and publish early. In a badly paid profession, with late career development, to pass through the eye of the needle and get that professorship by forty, the pressure is enormous.. It is not surprising that some, like Stapel, cut corners in a very fraudulent way. But there is a whole spectrum of more or less dodgy practices. For instance, the common custom of successful scientists or form "citation cartels" where they put their names to what essentially is each other's papers to up their citation count.
It is partly the consequence as I explored last year I think in a blog post on John Ioannides, is the very nature of the interaction between grants, citations, and publication driven science which biases towards false positives and works against checking and replication.
The ideal of science, the one they teach you in the textbooks, is that it is a self- correcting mechanism. That if you get it wrong, someone behind you will correct, refine or expose the fraudulence of your result But that is a myth. Results are not often verified - as in independently replicated after publication. The elegant-sounding prepublication peer review is a much more casual process than outsiders imagine. And then, after that, the results are not often verified because the truth is scientists are much keener to produce their own new result that will catch the eye of the science journal editor than to verify someone else's work.
Not only is it ungratifying to the ego but it is also hard. In a recent survey, 47 out of 53 attempts to replicate high end medical science findings failed!. It is not necessarily a question of fraud. Scientists are seldom as explicit they ought to be when writing about methods. That process ought to be much more explicit.
Other reforms? Less importance attacked to getting flashy results in elite journals. Instead journals ought to encourage solidity by publishing new results that failed to prove something dramatic but still managed to tell us something. Brave tries. Without publicising failures, you get an incomplete picture of science, like a gambler who counts only his winnings. Failure can be just as educational, and those who lucked out but made genuine productive effort should also be rewarded. The problem of the unwillingness to verify other scientists' results could also be solved. Citations should be shared between those who got an original result and those who replicated a result, linking them electronically in the journal, to give the verifiers a share of the glory. And there are yet more things that could be done, say experts.
More collaboration between science teams. There is less pressure from the public and politicians on scientists to come up with the goods. The media play an important, and often negative role, raising the bar for what counts as exciting, and always looking for a new story.
A few weeks ago, in December 2012, the Dutch authorities published an extremely detailed report on Stapel's activities, which had outed the year before. At an early stage in his career he was appointed a fellow of the Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences and collected large funds from the Dutch science foundation NWO. They found that in at least 55 publications the data were fully or partly fabricated and that this went back to at least 1998. The report called Stapel a narcissist and schemer. As if to live up that description, Stapel wrote book about his own cause and was, the week the report came out a few weeks ago, busily promoting it by giving signing talks at an academic chain of bookshops in the Netherlands.
The Dutch report was very self critical. It said there was a lot wrong with Dutch research culture. On cue, the Erasmus university of Rotterdam said it had its very own case of fraud looming, with six hundred papers of one suspect scholar being given the read through again. Yet the Netherlands has one of the best science traditions, and some of best universities, in Europe. It's a problem elsewhere in Europe too, of that I have no doubt.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 04 March 2013 at 09:33 AM by Pelle Neroth
Despite flourishing hacker scene, Germany's Pirate Party tanking in the polls
3 January 2013 by Pelle Neroth
In a week where many others digested their Christmas excesses in front of television reruns, five thousand visitors attended the four day festival of unrestrained geekiness between 27 and 30 December.
The Chaos Communications Congress started in 1984, in West Berlin, with a handful of enthusiasts. Now it has moved to Hamburg and several thousand visitors listened to talks in three parallel auditoria. The geeks apparently drank alcoholic cocktails mixed with mate (mate is a kind of Latin American shrub tea; very good for you), handed out a yellow-green-red card decks to prevent the few women present from receiving
inappropriate male behaviour. (Google the name "Creeper Move Cards": looks impeccably politically correct). They flew remote-controlled model helicopters that buzzed around in the air above the regiments of working activists. their laptops laden with the usual stickers. It was an event to meet and discuss big ideas.
There were numerous little sectioned off areas where impromptu and not so impromptu meetings between hackers could take place, where they could hold workshops or small lectures.
Serious matters of cyber politics were discussed in the larger meeting halls, reported the German media. Russian hackers expressed concern about the growth of the Russian surveillance state, assisted by the adoption of the technique known as deep packet inspection originally used by the large mobile providers to prevent customers from file sharing or using Skype over the mobile network, but now modified and used by the Russian authorities to monitor, and ban, inappropriate content. An example: instructions for committing suicide.
Russian hackers warned things could get worse, and that the secret services' monitoring of content was running rampant.
Germany, which has a developed civil liberties tradition relating to internet issues, is also at risk, warned a German hacker activist. The difference between the situation between Germany and that of Russia or China is a single configuration file. You can change that in a few minutes and have a good censorship machine.
Denying that they are crying wolf about the surveillance state, the activists warned that the copyright industry may be at the forefront of exploiting the deep packet inspection technology to prevent the dissemination of copyrighted works. Which may not be a bad thing actually, if you are a copyright holder or content provider.
That fact, that there are arguments both for and against some of the most cherished beliefs of hackerdom, may be one reason why the German Pirate Party, the world's most successful of its kind, a sort of spiritual-political outgrowth of the Chaos Computer Club, is collapsing in the German polls.
Its programme of anti state cyber surveillance and free software and movie sharing appealed to many young people, as did its vaguely leftist idealism. Germany had a large green party before the rest of Europe got mainstream green parties (excepting the UK). So there was hope that this would pave the way for cyber issue party in many other national legislatures too.
But after a high in national polls of 13% in the summer of 2012 and a couple of state (länder) election successes they are now down to below 5%. They may therefore fall to achieve the vote threshold for seats in the federal parliamentary elections held in September this year. It is interesting and good for Germany, though, that it has such a lively hacker scene, and that Berlin is fast growing as a start up scene, benefiting from the city's reputation for anarchy and creativity.
And the CCC are certifiably on the ball, for who else would host a congress between Christmas and New Year?
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 03 January 2013 at 01:58 PM by Pelle Neroth
In Europe, 4G rollout continues at different speeds
27 December 2012 by Pelle Neroth
European telecoms companies certainly seem to be gearing up for it. In November, Britain made a leap into the 2010s when a joint venture between Orange (ultimately owned by France Telecom) and T-Mobile (Deutsche Telecom) called EE launched Britain's first 4G, or fourth generation, mobile broadband network.
November also saw France's SFR launch that country's first high speed network in Lyon. A number of other French cities will get joined up to the 100Mbps speeds in the spring, though Paris will have to wait until the autumn of 2013, not earlier, because of the planning difficulties of erecting new mobile phone masts in the City of Light.
Sweden has actually had a 4G network, courtesy of TeliaSonera, since December 2009, and claims this was the world's first ever 4G network, a year before the US rollout, usually claimed as the pioneer. Most usage of the ultrafast Swedish network has come from not from people surfing on their phones, however, but laptop users surfing with USB "dongles", modem attachments especially adapted for 4G use. Like everyone else, Swedes have been hampered by a lack of 4G adapted handsets, although the provision of 4G-compatible handset models is expanding changing now as we move into 2013. Belgium launched its first 4G services this autumn. So Britain is a little bit behind in this race, but not by much.
European telecoms companies are paying a lot for all the infrastructure, masts and suchlike, on top of the licence fees to operate the new network paid for in auctions held by national governments. Norway's Telenor's chief executive recently complained to Reuters that the high costs of these licences are limiting the ability for expansion. One Dutch telecoms company, KPN, on winning its licence, announced it would be cutting dividends to shareholders this year. The huge costs incurred on British mobile companies when they bid for 3G licences a decade ago must be fresh in many executives' minds.
German's Deutsche Telecom has also announced it won't be paying dividends, at least to the German government, a major shareholder. Angela Merkel is known to be very keen on upgrading the German network to 4G, and actually Germany has gone further than most. By September this year, 40% of the German population had access to 4G services, and the figure is growing by the week. The figure rises to 80% or higher in business hubs like Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, despite German media reports of delays in the processing of licences.
In the poorer eastern and southern European countries, it is altogether a starker picture, and when the EU budget for the next seven years is finalised next spring, the Connecting Europe Facility - EU funds for 4G expansion - is the item experts think is most likely to be cut in late night haggling when faced with the immovable rock of French and Polish farming interests.
Still, the European Commission a few weeks ago did its best to help move 4G development forward by increasing the amount of spectrum available for 4G, at the expense of 3G. Europe now has about 1,000MHz available for 4G use, which is twice the amount of spectrum available to it compared to the United States. While Europe's northern tier will be thankful for this, it may be years before the poorer southern and eastern states have developed their 4G infrastructure enough to benefit.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
The vested interests that hold up EU aviation reform
20 December 2012 by Pelle Neroth
The airline industry is also furious, since the dog leg routes they are forced to follow as a result of the effective preservation of national systems raises fuel costs and increases carbon emissions at a time when airlines are under pressure from the European economic crisis.
With jealously guarded airspaces, Europe has more air traffic controllers
employed than the US - covering about the same airspace, around 11
million square km, but far less traffic a year, 10 million flights a year in
Europe compared to 17 million flights a year in the US, according to figures supplied by Lufthansa.
Lufthansa, which has ruthlessly cut running costs since 2009, argues one of the reasons there has been no incentive for national governments to reform their air traffic control services is because they have been able to pass the full costs of their services on to the airlines - and, ultimately, the passengers. Lufthansa's chief executive
Christoph Franz told the Association of European Airlines earlier this year that he was "furious that the largest EU member states are simply not delivering on their commitments".
IATA, the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines' interests, says governments are just paying lip service to reforms. "They have turned this key administrative reform into a box-ticking exercise and continue to operate their air navigation service providers in silos," said Tony Tyler, IATA's director general, in a statement on 4 December.
The guiltiest member states are France, Germany and the Mediterranean states. Britain, in contrast, does quite well. Consolidating air traffic control systems may represent the kind of sensible European reform Britain can actually live with.
Under the commission's plan, the 38 national airspace organisations were to be consolidated into nine so-called FABs, or functional airspace blocks. Some of these are actually up and running. The FAB covering Ireland and Britain has been operating since 2008, while Denmark and Sweden have gone a step further and formed a joint company for integrated air traffic control services. But elsewhere progress has been patchy.
To be fair,the UK-Ireland FAB, dealing with only two member states, was
probably easier to implement than some other FABs.
The complicated central European FAB, covering Belgium, France, the
Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Germany, is only "partially ready" - which may be a bit of a euphemism. While some countries, such as Spain and Portugal, which are due to share a FAB in southwestern Europe, have not even signed a cooperation agreement yet.
The commission has promised it will launch letters of formal notice against non compliant states. Siim Kallas, the EU's transport commissioner, said: "Fragmented airspace has imposed extra costs of €5 billion a year. That is an appalling waste of time and money and puts an unnecessary extra burden on the environment."
However, it is the member states that are ultimately in the driving seat, and the European Parliament's monitor of the aviation reform, Georg Jarzembowski, says that "transport ministers don't take the issue seriously". Questions concerning sovereignty of airspace are the main concern, while the powerful air traffic controllers' unions resist efficiency drives that would put air traffic controllers out of a job.
Governments are also reluctant to allow foreign air controllers potential
control of airspace above their military installations. The airlines, though,
will continue to emphasize the costs of delayed reform to the overall
"Cost efficient air transport infrastructure is important to the 7.8 million
jobs and €475 billion in European business supported by the air transport industry," said IATA's Tyler. "Only a lack of political will is getting in the way."
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
In Poland, opposition to European climate change policies
5 December 2012 by Pelle Neroth
Poland is more politically to the right than many European countries - the Polish right, in its social conservatism, is closer to the US right than are the British Tories. And with that follows greater natural sympathy with the US Republican scepticism on climate change than nearly every other European country.
But there is not just scepticism about the science but genuine reasons of realpolitik for a stance that threatens progress on climate talks in the EU. Poland is unusually dependent on domestic lignite coal for its supplies, with a politically powerful coalmining lobby that puts pressure on parliamentarians to preserve those jobs. That´s one thing. Further, politicians are sensitive to the energy security issue. Poland has no nuclear power plants and is extremely reluctant to become overly dependent on natural gas from Russia, for fear of becoming dependent on Russian whims to cut the gas off or not.
Poland has pioneered European fracking efforts, in order to source its
energy domestically - so far, with several licences awarded for
prospecting, it is early days.
Russia is an extremely sensitive issue in Polish history - the country
dominated Poland for much of the last century and when Russia and Germany signed the Nord Stream Baltic gas pipeline agreement that would allow Russian gas to bypass Poland and be piped to Germany without using Polish pipelines - and therefore become an instrument of Russian pressure on Poland - the current foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, then defence minister, did not mince his words. The Oxford-educated rightwinger compared the deal to a "Molotov Ribbentrop pact" after the agreement that partitioned Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War 2. Harsh words that reflect a historic strong sense of national insecurity, a legacy of being at the whim of other, larger countries.
Well, these days an independent, EU-ensconced Poland has more leverage to use against other nations than perhaps at any time in its modern history, and regarding climate change it has several points of leverage. First of all, Poland is currently refusing to go along with other EU nations in extending the union´s 2020 renewables targets. The regular Energy Council meeting in Brussels yesterday, attended by environment and industry ministers from the 27 EU states, ended in a deadlock, with Poland in opposition to most other states.
The 2020 goals require member states to source at least 20% of their energy needs from renewables by the year 2020. The European commission, supported by northern eco-pioneers like the Netherlands and Denmark, want to plan ahead and set new, tougher targets for 2030. Poland, for the moment, does not.
And Poland is saying no elsewhere too. The world's environmental actors are currently meeting in Doha, Qatar, for the latest round of global climate negotiations and are looking for a replacement to he Kyoto treaty, which expires at the end of this year. Another point of blockage concerns Poland's glut of pollution allowances, allowed under the Kyoto treaty, which Poland has been able to hoard since the baseline level of pollution permits was set in 1990 before the deindustrialisation and closing down of inefficient factories that followed the end of communism. Several states, including the
European commission, want to take these hoarded permits away from Poland once Kyoto expires. Poland wants them to be rolled over to the next period. Poles see it as their "strategic reserve" to enable them to continue to play catchup with western Europe untrammelled by environmental commitments. They also sell the permits to other countries, a nice little earner. The Polish economy is currently one of the fastest growing in Europe and they don't want the EU
to put a stop to that - especially as fast developing Asian countries that
are squeezing EU growth are not signatories to Kyoto.
To that end, because the commission wants "bad boy" Poland to toe the EU line in Doha, Poland has threatened to push back on a related issue. The EU's own pollution control mechanism, the Emissions Trading Scheme, which suffers from its own glut of permits that threatens its viability. It is a separate scheme and Poland has threatened to veto the commission proposal to withdraw permits from sale to raise their all time low price that make curbng pollution more difficult. Partly as a result of Polish opposition, an EU vote, originally planned for 13 December, has been delayed until next year.
At the extreme end of the Polish debate, there is talk of the EU as the new USSR, based on the bankrupt ideology of "warmism"- global warming alarmism - to sustain bureaucratic jobs - just as the USSR was based on the bankrupt ideology of Communism. Polish workers, as everyone remembers, were instrumental at engineering the fall of the East Bloc....
While the Polish government is much more mainstream European in its approach, and has the main newspapers behind it, global warming sceptics form a lobby in the Polish parliament, the Sejm. All ths plays to Polish people´s self image as individualists who do their own thing. Next year's global climate change summit will he held in Warsaw - a diplomatic coup by the Polish government - which will perhaps offer opportunities for the Polish coal mining lobby for an interesting "exchange of views" with the bevy of international delegates.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Intractable farming lobby means European science faces cuts
29 November 2012 by Pelle Neroth
What the science heads were on about was the EU budget for the years 2014 to 2020, which was discussed at a summit of EU leaders, including David Cameron, in Brussels last week. These summits, discussing all sorts of things, are becoming increasingly common. A few years ago there were three a year. These days David Cameron has been getting on the Brussels Express every month, it seems. Usually it's been Greece and the rescue of the eurozone that
has been on the agenda. This time, as said, it is the EU budget, which covers EU spending on science, administration, agriculture, cohesion funds and some smaller items.
Let us be fair-minded. The European commission likes and understands the value of science. For the next seven year science spending programme, Horizon 2020, it originally proposed an 80bn euro spend. That proposal actually marked a 29bn euro, or 55%, increase over the previous seven year science programme, covering the period 2007 to 2014. (Ie, we are still operating under the old science programme.) The European parliament, which in this instance is one of the "good guys" - if you appreciate the importance of science, that is - proposed an even bigger science spending hike, 100 billion euros. Britain ought to be grateful to this as, being Europe's arguably top science nation, the country is a great beneficiary of EU science spending.
For instance, the UK is host to the largest number of European Research Council (ERC) grants - which fund usually young scientists at the innovation frontier - clearly having the universities where frontier resarch is most profitably conducted. A lot of these teams coming to the UK with their generous ERC grants are not actually from the UK originally, but from the rest of Europe, so they must find the UK a good place to do their research - with the EU money they bring with them a welcome addition to their British host university's coffers.
The commission's overall budget proposals - covering everything, from
agriculture to transport, was set at a five percent increase. So while
science spending makes up a small proportion of overall EU spending of one trillion euros over seven years, it was the field which was proposed for the biggest hike in funding.
However, the EU of course does not have its own funds. It is not EU money. But money from the EU member states. They are the paymasters. And government leaders from the prosperous northern countries, the net contributors, those who by and large pay more in than they get out of the EU, and that includes the UK, are slightly outraged that the commission proposed a five percent increase at a time of austerity when governments elsewhere are slashing their spending.
There is a lot about the EU that is incredibly wasteful. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which swallows 40% of EU spending - it once took 70% - has its critics.
It effectively pays farmers to overproduce food. Critics say the surplus is bought up by corporations very cheaply and sold less cheaply - but still very cheaply - so they make a profit selling to consumers in the Third World - devastating Third World agriculture, which cannot compete with the low prices. France, or its farmers, is and always has been the main beneficiary. France gets much more out of CAP than the UK gets out of EU science spending. The CAP has been the European Economic Community's main spending ticket from the start in 1957. The CAP has been called "disguised war reparations" from West Germany to France, the prize West Germany had to pay to be let into the club of civilised nations after 1945. Of course, it was designed before the UK became a member so when the UK applied to join in the seventies it had to like it or lump it. Greece is another major beneficiary of the CAP.
The second big item of the EU budget is the cohesion funds, regional funds to poorer regions which have also been subjected to abuse. There is a lot of material on this. A fascinating article in the New York Times last month about corruption and unfinished motorways in southern Italy finds local analysts arguing that it increases corruption. The newspaper argues this kind of "financing has yielded little of the productive investment that might now be helping southern Europe as it tries to climb out of an economic ditch".
Then there's the third big ticket item of EU funding; administration costs,
including the cost of new EU buildings - most recently a visitors' centre for the European parliament - and the low tax salaries of well paid commission staff. All these three items - CAP, cohesion funds and administration costs - all much bigger than science spending - were ripe targets for cuts, and Cameron suggested taking an axe to several of them.
The unsurprising obstacle to this has been the beneficiaries of these funds, led by France, which is backed by many of the southern and eastern European states, which have flatly refused to accept any cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy. So last week, during the summit, EU president Herman van Rompuy who, despite his grand title, is more of a kind of go-between between national leaders, came up with a compromise budget - which accommodated some of Cameron's calls for cuts but directed these cuts at the next science programme, since science, with a weaker lobby than farming, is the most painless item to cut. Also badly hit was a fund for the expansion of next generation broadband. These may, if implemented, warns the chairman of the ERC council, Helga Nowotny, actually lead to real term cuts in the EU's science budget, compared to the 2009-2010 baseline figure, not just a smaller rise.
That is how positions stand after last week's meeting broke up without any final agreement. The talks will resume early next year. But a science lobby is belatedly gathering strength: scientists from all over Europe, including some Nobel prize winners, have signed petitions and have started lobbying the commission and member state governments. Cameron wants rightly to slash the EU budget but, faced with the immoveable object of the farming lobby, will science and technology spending be hit instead? In that case, Europe is surely cutting off the route to its own prosperous future.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Would new EU nanomaterials rules put the UK on the back foot - again?
21 November 2012 by Pelle Neroth
Nanotechnology is one of his examples. His frustration was obvious, and I happen to think he is largely right, but let us cross the Channel to grey Brussels, a city where the institutions we know - commission, parliament and council - are just the very tip of the politicking pyramid. In offices in the institutional quarter, there are hundreds, maybe more, interest associations and organisations.
Every kind of lobby is represented. Many of these are on the left, representing church, environment, health or labour organisations, and march to a very different philosophical drum than the actors in British politics. In Britain, the commissions gets the blame for red tape. On the Continent, the commission is blamed for being a Trojan horse for British "liberalism" (always a bad word) and market force interests that always takes insufficient account of the "little guy", the worker or the health consumer.
And so it was with the commission's latest communication on nanomaterials, its first since 2008. Aforementioned groups cried out "extreme disappointments" and "deep concerns" over the fact that the commission, with an eye to its watchwords of innovation and economic growth, chose not to propose specific regulations regarding nanomaterials or evaluation of their risks. These hostile groups said it will give a free hand to manufacturers who are now able, without legal sanction, to put more and more toxic products on to the market.
Nanotechnology is everywhere, in sunscreen lotions, odour-free clothing, dressings, medical equipment. More than two thousand products in the EU contain nanoparticles, which are less than a billionth of a metre in diameter and as a result of their small size have special and interesting physical properties - which can include greater strength, conductivity, adhesiveness. The problem, though, claim opposition groups, citing French studies, is that they can penetrate the skin or lungs and disperse in the water, soil and air.
The commission, and the British government, says it is enough that nanoparticles are included in the current chemicals regulation called REACH, which tests the properties, monitors the quantities of and finally authorises every chemical used on the EU market. But nanomaterial sceptics say REACH only covers materials whose usage is more than a tonne a year in the EU, and many nanomaterials are produced in lesser quantities than that. Plus, the reporting schemes do not account for the fact that nanomaterials come in different forms but the same chemical makeup.
Some of these may be toxic; others not. The European parliament's Greens have protested and the European Consumers' Association says the commission has its "head in the sand": specific nanomaterial legislation is necessary. However, some nanofriendly insiders in the European parliament fear that nanomaterials may go the way of GMOs if public opinion gets behind this. Despite their widespread use in much else of the world, without apparent harm, only two genetically modified crops have been authorised for European use, and of those two varieties, one, a potato, has been virtually given up while the other is banned unilaterally in many member states.
What chills the bones of those who see the potential of nanotechnology is France's unilateral decision to impose reporting requirements for nanomaterials in France starting in January, which may be just the beginning. Recently, France and 12 other cautious member states put in a petition that called for specific legislation on nanomaterials. something the British government is absolutely hostile to. Willetts says there is already a substantial regulatory regime in place and the REACH regulations are sufficient:
"It is vital that a plethora of separate approaches with different interpretations of the precautionary principle do not stifle the development of nanotechnologies," he added at a recent speech.
In contrast, you hear voices from France stating proudly that it is good that "France is leader among nations" at securing the health of EU citizens by seeking to impose regulations on nanomaterials.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
UK at odds with EU over female boardroom quotas
15 November 2012 by Pelle Neroth
Yesterday it proposed legislation that aims at attaining the goal of a 40% female complement on company boards.The rules would apply to publicly listed companies; small businesses would be exempted. Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, called it a "historic day for justice and equality". The rules would apply to the 5,000 publicly listed companies in the EU.
The rules would be "binding" but it is not clear what, if any, sanctions would be applied. It all has to go through the European parliament anyway. According to insiders, the key phrase in this intensely ideological area of legislation has shifted, from the original "quota" requirement to an "objective", a weaker idea. It may end up being the kind of legislation that, while overtly insubstantial, if nothing else puts the issue on the agenda and moves the positions forward - a little anyway. EU legislation is fought in campaigns where victory is not achieved at one fell swoop.
Several of her female colleagues in the commission are resolutely opposed to quotas.They include the Brit Catherine Ashton, in charge of foreign policy, and Connie Hedegaard, the Danish climate action commissioner. Opponents of legislation tend to argue that companies must not have their hands tied when looking for candidates that have the "vision, skills and experience" to attain company aims.
UK does not want EU involvement
Nine countries, including the UK, have written a letter to the commission saying they would block any vote at the EU council level. (The council is one third of the EU legislative set up, the part consisting of the member states.) The letter recognises that "there is a problem ... that there are too few women and there must be efforts to promote women but these should be national approaches."
At the moment, in the EU, on average, men fill nine out of ten executive positions on company boards, eight out of ten non-executive positions. This despite the fact that women make up sixty percent of university graduates in the EU. Reding said that the proposed legislation aimed at "smashing the glass ceiling" that kept women out of top jobs. Olli Rehn, the commissioner for financial and monetary affairs, co-hosted the press conference. He argued that research shows more gender diverse companies performed better in the market.
Eleven EU countries have passed laws to ensure gender balance on boards, with France leading the way among the bigger EU countries, with fines for companies that don't comply. Pan European legislation would "export" these standards to the 16 EU countries that have no legal provisions in this area, including the UK.
France is the country that has improved the most in terms of proportions of women on the board in the last two years, thought women still only comprise 20% of the total in France. Other leaders are Latvia, Sweden and Finland. The UK is above the European average, with about a quarter of non-executive positions on boards held by women.
The picture as regards executive positions is a very different one. France and Sweden, good performers when it comes to companies having women in non-executive roles, do unusually poorly regards women in executive boardroom positions. Ironically, the UK does better than many countries in this regard; better than either France or Sweden - in the UK, 7% of executive roles on boards held by women. The EU says it has no plans to set quotas for executive positions as this would interfere with companies' rights to run their businesses.
While Rehn argues that diversity improves company performance, the findings are not unequivocal, however. A pan-Scandinavian study* on this subject by a group of Scandinavian business schools shows that board diversity does not positively influence profits. On the other hand, gender diversity does not negatively influence profits either.
The authors summarised their study by saying that enhanced board diversity, as a deliberate choice or as forced by law, can be achieved "without a negative effect on firm performance and shareholder return".
This report from Canada** says something pretty similar. While the performance question is still open to discussion, says a third report***, the issue may also be framed in terms of ethical considerations, that it is right in terms of ethics to have more women on boards.
* http://bit.ly/QIMm2T [PDF]
** http://bit.ly/SsbLc5 [PDF]
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 03 January 2013 at 01:38 PM by View from Brussels Moderator
EU red tape hampers space innovation (and more), says science minister
8 November 2012 by Pelle Neroth
Let me first say I think he is largely right, though it would be wrong to blame the commission, which is quite innovation friendly. (Even more so now that the chief scientific adviser is a Brit, Anne Glover, formerly Scotland's chief scientific adviser.) Don't shoot the pianist! The commission is under pressure from several member states, each a bit superstitious and retrogressive in their own way.
Indeed, in my view, it is strange that the Germans sneer at the American penchant for creationism when they have their own skeletons of irrationality in their closet, such as an overpowering hostility to nuclear power and GM crops.
So what is Willetts on about?
The British government has just published its new technology policy, looking at areas where the UK stands a chance of being a world competitor; also which areas are worthy of government support. At the same time, separately, Cameron has asked ministers to help inventorise the advantages and disadvantages of the EU in their area of departmental responsibility. So, for his part, Willetts has been looking at whether EU membership is good or bad for Britain's science and technology sectors.
There are definitely some bad things. Many EU countries have a moral objection to stem cell research. Which is their right, but the EU common legislation means impositions on the British way of doing things. The recent Brustle judgment at the European Court of Justice has led to a ban on stem cell patenting in Europe, which could deter companies from investing in bringing therapies to market.
Stem cell research uses derivatives or lines derived from long ago discarded embryos not used in IVF procedures. These early embryos were only five or so days old. But still many Catholic member states objected, talking of the sanctity of life. It is a thorny moral problem. But you could argue the Catholics are making an overly big fuss, since most European countries, including Catholic ones, permit abortion of far more developed foetuses.
The problem as concerns innovation is that it may lead to a ratcheting process. Encouraged by the ban on stem cell patents, which has already alleged to have driven British research to non EU states, there is a political pressure building to ban EU funding for stem cell research in Europe altogether.
Willetts also has problem with one of the mainstays of European legislation: The precautionary principle which says, basically, better safe than sorry. Just because we don't have proof it's harmful doesn't mean we should not take as many precautions as possible. But, the minister says, the law has to be applied proportionately and reasonably, setting off costs and benefits, and not be allowed to prevent all innovation just because the risk factors are not all known. In 2004, the Physical Agents directive set such a low level for accepted occupational exposure that some MRI scanning procedures, standard throughout Europe, suddenly became technically illegal. If the directive had stayed on the books, more patients would have had to revert to more hazardous X-ray procedures. Further, innovation in MRI technology - an area which the British pioneered - would have been hampered.
The British health and safety executive in fact concluded that this "directive has no health benefits for Britain". The directive was put on hold while the scientific facts were looked at again. Years on, upper limits have been accepted as safe. It took years of lobbying to raise the levels to more sensible limits.
Out of date legislation
The third issue Willetts is that some legislation not constructed for purpose. As the situation is now, for example, there are no laws that allow aircraft to land from space. This could hold back Richard Branson's plans to build a space port either in Kiruna, Sweden, or in Lossiemouth, Scotland. At the moment his spacecraft will be taking off from one of the six certified "space ports" in the United States.
Judging by these examples, it is easy to see the New World and Old World living up to their usual old narratives: in the left corner, the forward looking optimistic America that lands men on the moon, and, in the right corner, a Europe that is concerned with banning curvy bananas or prawn cocktail crisps. Because of "unhealthy" flavouring ingredients.
Britain does the best science in Europe (though Germany is not that far behind, and catching up.) So I sympathise greatly with the coalition. The question is whether it is better to stay inside - and add Britain's weight to the not insubstantial number of science nations that exist. Besides, Germany and France have their own separate prejudices and are not united on everything. Or leave and find themselves closed out from a single market that applies even more restrictive rules than Britain would like.
It's the culture, stupid
One observation is that it shows just how persistent European cultures are. The technocrats failed to account for this nebulous quality when designing a political Europe. Religion is important; so are national cultures. The Greek crisis happened because Greece is Greece and Germany is Germany. They are countries with different approaches to work, solidarity and paying one's taxes. Thirty years ago, the Dutch anthropologist Gert Hofsteede carried out research on different nations' approach to individualism, hierarchy and what he called uncertainty avoidance. The French and Germans were very into uncertainty avoidance (where the French in addition had a high hierarchy index - the boss is king.)
That means fear of change, fear of loss of control in their lives. While the Brits, Scandinavians and indeed, to take a non European example, the Chinese were very tolerant of uncertainty in their lives. You see those differences played out today in the EU's very strong backing for the precautionary principle in certain parts of Europe. Northerners are sceptical of the EU's precautionary principle, continental Europeans more embracing of it.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 08 November 2012 at 10:21 PM by Pelle Neroth
EU report shows sharp UK decline in goods export share
1 November 2012 by Pelle Neroth
It ranks Britain thirteenth in the global prosperity league, a composite of subjective-seeming measures of governance, health, education, personal freedom, economic growth and social capital. Not so good on economic growth, true, but high on entrepreneurialism, governance and personal freedom. So what? you may say. But look at the rivals. France 21st place, Italy 33rd. USA 12th, even mighty Germany 14th. Germany - less prosperous than the UK! At least according to Legatum.
The countries doing better than the UK are all the usual suspects, small northern countries like Norway, Netherlands and Canada. The UK is the best scoring large European country.
Then there's the other report in my inbox, This time from the European Commission, it paints a very different and more familiar picture. It's the annual European Competitiveness report. Its headline statistic - in a very big report, with dozens of tables - is this one: exports. It looks at how much each EU country exports compared to other EU members and finds that Germany is by far the EU's biggest exporter, at 26 percent of the total EU export share, looking at both global and intra-EU exports. And that this share has grown over five years. France and Italy have held their share. While the UK has dropped from 10% to 8% of total EU goods exports, that is less than a third of Germany's figure, and puts the UK in fifth place behind Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, a country, need I remind you, with one quarter the UK's population. No other country has performed as badly as an exporter compared to five years ago, when the UK was almost level with France.
Another headline statistic from the report. Access to bank lending for SMEs. Britain was near the top five years ago, and is now near the bottom, above only Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. The commission's report then looks at each country's strengths and weaknesses. Britain has an excellent business climate, a reasonably well educated work force, scores okay at innovation. But is terrible at productivity. And companies are very bad at buying new equipment.
If the commission's report had been published before Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson's recent book went to press, I am sure they would have included its findings. The two economics journalists recently published a book about Britain's economic weaknesses*. The summary of what they say is. It is not good enough to have niches of excellence like the BBC, a pop music industry, a few good universities, and a few world class manufacturers. Britain doesn't have the depth of manufacturing capability that Germany has.
Britain hasn't run a current account surplus since 1983, and its successive hopes - North Sea oil, deregulation, finance driven capitalism - have all failed to ensure long lasting means to help Britain pay its way in the world. Their response? Stop feeling good and focus honestly on the whole picture. Britain should "recognise the problem" in the same way as an alcoholic who has hit bottom.
Recognise that, and you can start looking for solutions. It should cease its pretensions to be a world player and take a good look at its strengths and weaknesses. The two authors admit they are better at creating wake up calls than diagnosing how Britain can get ahead. There are no quick fixes, but improved education for the "working class" is part of the recipe. They tentatively suggest two models, that the UK should either sail the high seas of globalisation, like Singapore, a giant free enterprise zone, immensely flexible and competitive and lean. Or become social democratic, an egalitarian, high innovation welfare state, like Sweden. But they conclude that the UK is probably too big for either option.
Not everyone might agree with them, and say Britain has always been good at talking itself down, indeed self deprecation is part of the country's charm - although these are exactly the kind of blithe optimists the two authors target. The optimists, though, could always point to that Legatum report, which puts Britain ahead of Germany in terms of prosperity...
*Going South: Why Britain will have a third world economy by 2014. Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson Palgrave Macmillan, £14.99
EU competitiveness report 2012
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 07 November 2012 at 09:08 AM by View from Brussels Moderator
Is the fact Nobel winners are getting older a good thing?
25 October 2012 by Pelle Neroth
Smart move by the Nobel foundation. It is always good to have maximum publicity for science.
There will be the usual congratulations at the actual ceremony that will be taking place, as it always does, in Stockholm in December. In the meantime there is the Nobel Prize Foundation's excellent website to click through. Lots of statistics on things like how many women have won prizes, how many scientists have won two prizes. One statistic I didn't see was this one. Nobel prize winners have been getting substantially older at the time they made their great discovery. In the early 1900s the average Physics winner was 37 when did his ground-breaking work, on average. Today he'll be nudging 50. The trends have are less extreme with the Medicine and Chemistry prizes, but they are there.
Various sociology and history of science researchers have looked into this phenomenon - which repeats itself through science - and are worried. If the trend continues like this scientists will be dead by the time they do their best work. Of course you can't produce when they are dead, but it suggests that they will produce suboptimal science because age sets an upper limit.
Benjamin Jones of the Kellogg School of Management, in a paper*, had has some ideas about why this is the case. And his thesis is this. The expansion of human knowledge in especially the physics field, but also the other natural sciences, means more has to be taken in and absorbed before one reaches the knowledge frontier, the coal face where new discoveries are made. Does it matter? Well, yes.
Because scientists are reaching the so called innovation frontier later they have less time on the innovation frontier and thus produce less useful science than their predecessors, given that active lifespans and careers have remained relatively constant. Apart from having a shorter time at the top of science, they also start being actively contributing to the science corpus when their brains are less sharp, when they are in their fifties rather than their thirties as was the case before. Statistics back all this up. Over the decades there has been a long-standing decline in the per capita output of R&D workers both in terms of patent counts and productivity growth.
It seems many scientists, instinctively or not, realise this. One thing scientists to do to resolve the issue of the longer distance to the innovation frontier is that they specialise over a narrower field. Jones gives an example: when faced with a choice, a chemist might choose to study, say, just the synthesis of metal alloys rather than both alloys and organics, because he knows he will reach the innovation frontier quicker if he specialises in just the one area. As a sign of this, science papers with multiple authors are becoming increasingly common in scientific publishing as scientists pool their increasingly narrow areas of expertise in a manner of compensation.
Team sizes for taking out patents is also increasing. That is one solution but scarcely an optimal one: the best innovation comes from the combining of specialisms within a single scientist's person, arguably rather then residing in different persons working in a team.
So what to do? Jones's proposed solution is to look at the early "training period". Make sure you would be scientists do not have any interruptions in their education (for many Nobel prize winners, the second world war service delayed careers.) There is a remarkably constant span of time between the age of taking one's PhD and coming up with one's best work. So take you PhD earlier, you will be younger when your great ideas comes along.
Okay. But there are limits to how much education you can cram in at a young age. And if all interruptions are removed what then? Is the natural human lifespan an unbreachable barrier to new science in say 100 years' time when the science frontier has expanded yet further?
Perhaps there is one consolation in all this. There could be fewer and fewer of those annoying science prodigies around that make us feel even more inadequate than we already are. But does it not also suggest there is a biologically defined upper limit to where mankind can go with science?
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 26 October 2012 at 01:13 PM by Pelle Neroth
Lack of trust by Berlin towards partners undermined BAE-EADS deal
10 October 2012 by Pelle Neroth
With 225,000 employees and 75 billion euros in revenues, the combine group would have been bigger by half than Boeing. But it needed the go-ahead from the governments of France, UK and Germany - plus the green light from private shareholders. The British government has a so called Golden Share in BAE while the other governments have direct or indirect shareholding interests: in BAE for the British government, and EADS for the French and German governments.
An EADS company spokesman said it was primarily the fault of the German government, according to the news agency AFP. But actually the story is more complicated than that. You could argue that the root of the problem was this.
The French government did not want to sell its 15% stake in EADS (which would have been nine percent of the merged group). and even talked of extending it by buying the 7.5% share owned by the French media conglomerate Lagardère. But because Germany did not want to lose its political influence in the group, it refused to renounce its intention to buy Daimler's 15% shareholding in EADS. Meanwhile, EADS's chief executive Tom Enders wanted a European aerospace company without any political involvement. So did the British.
Berlin might have had other motives. While dirigisme is in fashion again, the truth is Germany's experience with capitalism is that their companies have grown best without political interference. Their "interest" (via Daimler) in the current EADS share set up mainly to check the French instincts for fidgeting with the running of EADS and putting Frenchmen in a disproportionate number of company positions. Further, in recent international mergers with the French, the Germans see themselves as having drawn the short straw.
Many Germans are convinced that the 1999 Franco-German merger between Germany's Hoechst and France's Rhone Poulenc to create pharma giant Aventis was to France's advantage. One merger later France had a national pharmaceutical champion while Germany was left with nothing at all. What happened was this. In 2004, the Franco-German management of Aventis called for a merger with Swiss pharma giant Novartis, perhaps the world's best run pharma company. But the French government, pushed by then finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy, opted for a "French solution" to create a French pharma champion: merging with French pharma company Sanofi Synthelabo, without any mention of German interests.
In doing so they created a national French pharma champion. As German commentators saw it, the German government was ignored and reduced in role to a spectator.
The Germany CDU party's economic spokesman said today that his country ploughed billions of euros in developments costs for EADS and was deeply uncharmed by the current proposal to site the headquarters of the new group jointly in London (for the military division) and Paris (for the civilian division). According to a leak to Der Spiegel, the German counterproposal to make Munich the new headquarters was flatly rejected by the British and French governments. Maybe the Germans remember how earlier this year the European patent court was divided up between London and Paris - Paris getting most of the business - despite Germany having the biggest patent industry in Europe.
Nor was the commercial logic all that appealing to the Germans. BAE,a defence company suffered from the defence spending downturn in the UK and the US.
EADS has, through Airbus, ten years' worth of orders in backlog, but still had a desire to diversify unto defence in a big way and also crack the US market.
The Pentagon is said to be hostile to any EADS merger with a US defence giant so BAE it had to be - except it not clear whether the new Franco-German-British group would find the same profuse access to Pentagon contracts than a purely British company had and has. The new merged EADS BAE might find doors closed to it in Washington that were open to BAE, that access being one of BAE's strengths and attractions, ironically, for EADS. Put bluntly, the Pentagon may have some trust problems with Paris; just as Berlin does.
However, it is Britsh BAE - lacking EADS's surfeit of orders - that may suffer the most from the failure to merge.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Estonia teaches coding to school children
20 September 2012 by Pelle Neroth
The tiny Baltic country of 1.3 million has long led the way on issues like e-government and e-health. When Estonia won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, its economy produced very little and its people literally went hungry with the collapse of the Soviet economy and food and goods distribution systems.
The factories of capital Tallinn were like museums of obsolete Soviet industrial technology. Fortunately, Estonia had a very westward- looking population, with access to Finnish TV and many emigres living in Sweden and Finland. The country had a very youthful leadership - ministers in their twenties and early thirties - who were determined to make a fresh start.
The country set out to become as positive to technology and innovation as Scandinavia, added to a little more resourcefulness. The Estonians could draw on the advantage of having been brought up in a society where improvisation and do-it-yourself skills became important when dealing with Soviet bureaucracy and frequent Soviet equipment breakdowns.
So, within years of independence, Estonia streamlined its bureaucracy to make it easy to start up new firms. A flat income tax was introduced to encourage entrepreneurs. A programming/entrepreneurial culture evolved which eventually led to KaZaa and Skype. (Skype may have been cofounded by Swedish and Danish entrepreneurs - but it was built by Estonian engineers, an intense source of pride )
But e-government and e-services were pushed too. The government went online early, and the country pioneered electronic signatures, online banking services, mobile phone payments for car parking and voting in national elections by internet. They introduced an e-health system which allowed people to read their health details and order health prescriptions online. Finally the government introduced the e-school platform, which offered a 24-hour classroom where students could check their test results and do other school-related stuff.
Now the Tiigrihüppe (Tiger Leap) foundation, which has been involved with e-initiatives since 1996 , is piloting the ProgeTiigri project; teaching seven-year-olds to code as part of the regular curriculum. The project is being trialled in a small number of schools starting this term in Grade 1, and expects eventually to cover the whole country and every single of the basic school's nine years. The coding will initially be taught by the regular teachers, so we will see how that goes, and private firms will also be involved as it is they who stand to benefit.
Bigger European countries will surely be watching the Estonian experiment closely. Most governments and experts are convinced the development of proper computer skills among the population are a key to 21st century prosperity. Coding teaches people an important life skill - how to think analytically - even if they don't become computer programmers in later life. But just taking Britain, for instance, the percentage of students studying Computer Science has dropped from 5% to 3% of the annual intake in a decade - and it has become ever more male dominated.
Some argue that programming skills among youngsters at large are worse than they were two decades ago. Today it is argued teenagers are content consumers, enjoying a surfeit of music and film on their Ipads and smartphones. In contrast, two or three decades ago they messed around with their Vic 20s or BBC Micros and learned proper, if basic, programming: content production of sorts.
In British schools at GCSE level, ICT studies is available, but the subject has been criticised for focusing on teaching just word processing and spreadsheet skills - "Microsoft 101" - rather than how to program computers.
One American wag joked on seeing the Estonian coding announcement, "Great, we'll just bring these Estonians to America in 20 years' time", but I suspect most countries will look to copy Estonia's educational innovation for their own schools rather than one day steal their programmers.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
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