Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Europe’

Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your colonies.

 

So, after Labour made it a point of triple-underlined principle to vote unanimously in favour of Brexit, and to deprive Parliament of any vote on the final deal, and that it wasn’t worth tying the government’s hands about possibly depriving 3 million Europeans in the UK of the rights they had been promised, it turns out the party of social democracy and the working class has found a principle that they feel strongly enough about to want to constrain the government’s freebooting negotiations. This tweet came today from the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union:

The language is appalling: “bargaining chip” is the language of defenders of EU citizen rights. Labour abandoned them, but believes that protecting Britain’s 18th century colonies is a noble cause worth fighting for. Much more important, too, than the right of young Britons to develop their talents and careers across the continent.

Tactfully

The Guardian reports on UK government posturing to back out of its financial commitments to the EU, ahead of next week’s formal collapse start of the Brexit negotiations:

The EU scrutiny committee chairman, the Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash, urged the UK negotiators to point out during the talks that the UK wrote off half of Germany debts after the second world war, and as a result did not owe the Germans anything politically or legally. 

Cash said the UK had been “net contributors for many decades” and the “massive contributions” paid to Brussels would offset any divorce fee demanded by officials. He urged the government to remind Europe’s leaders of the 1953 London debt agreement, “where Germany, for all its malfeasance during the second world war” and unprovoked aggression, had half its debt cancelled.

Cash said that given Germany’s dominant role in the EU, it might be worth “tactfully” reminding people “that there is a realistic position here that we really don’t owe anything to the EU, whether it’s legal or political”.

Well, that already sounds pretty tactful to me, backing out on financial commitments to all of Europe because of Germany’s “malfeasance” in the first half of the 20th century. It’s funny that the British didn’t mention how strongly they felt about this back when they were applying for membership in the EU. You would have thought their memories would have been fresher.

Das ist bei uns nicht möglich

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

Tertium non datur, Brexit negotiation edition

The Brexit Phony War is coming to an end.

Apparently the government is preparing to trigger Article 50 next week. Having trounced the House of Lords, the EU negotiatiors will be a cakewalk.

  • Commons: Give us the precious!
  • Lords: It is too much power. You must consent to some minor restrictions.
  • Commons: Give us the precious!
  • Lords: Okay.

Why do the Lords even bother to go on existing?

One of the more bizarre claims made by the government was to explain its opposition to the House of Lords amendment that mandates a final vote in Parliament on the Brexit deal in two years.

Downing Street has warned Lords that an attempt to give Parliament the final say over Brexit will “incentivise” the EU to give Britain a bad deal.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman argued that guaranteeing Parliament the power to reject Theresa May’s deal would “give strength” to EU negotiators during talks.

What is bizarre is that the usual argument is exactly the opposite: The negotiators are strengthened by being able to argue that their hands are tied by needing to convince skeptical legislators back home. Don’t bother offering us a crappy deal, because even if you dazzle us, it will never get through Parliament.

I understand the difference here — the EU doesn’t actually have much motivation to make any deal at all, and would be happy to have it rejected — but that just underlines how fatally weak the British position is. Supposing the EU negotiators would offer a deal that they are sure Parliament would reject. There are two possibilities:

1) The government would reject it too. In that case, it would never go to Parliament anyway, so Parliament’s right to a final vote is moot.

2) The government would accept it. In that case, what would motivate them to offer a better deal?

Am I missing something?

Who tricked whom into eating potatoes?

Reading Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815–1914, I discovered this anecdote about Ioannis Kapodistrias, appointed by Russia as governor of Greece in the late 1820s:

He introduced the potato into Greece, in an effort to improve people’s diet. At first, this met with deep skepticism among the peasantry, who refused to take up his offer of free distribution of seed potatoes to anyone who would plant them. Trying a new tactic, Kapodistrias had the potatoes piled up on the waterfront at Nafplio and surrounded by armed guards. This convinced local people and visitors from the countryside that these new vegetables were precious objects, and thus worth stealing. Before long, as the guards turned a blind eye, virtually all the potatoes had been taken — and their future in Greece was assured.

This reminded me of something I read many years ago, in Fernand Braudel’s The Identity of France:

In France, despite its early success, it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the potato was regarded as truly ‘worthy’ to be eaten, with partisans prepared to defend it on both dietary and culinary grounds… In the géneralité of Limoges, potatoes were originally banned because they were thought to cause leprosy…

The corner was not really turned until the severe famine of 1769-70. The following year, the Academy of Besançon set an essay competition on the subject: “Suggest food plants which might be used in times of famine to supplement those usually eaten.’ All the essays mentioned the potato — notably the winning entry, which came from Parmentier. He then embarked upon a massive propaganda campaign, deploring ‘the mocking humour of our scornful citizens’. He published widely, gave advice on the growing and storing of the potato, organized gourmet dinners in his own home at which nothing but dishes made from potatoes were served…, brought to Paris all the varieties then cultivated in France and had even more shipped from America to give a better selection. He finally obtained from Louis XVI, in 1786, permission to set up an experimental plantation on about 20 hectares just outside Paris in Neuilly, on the untended and infertile soil of the plain of Sablons. It was a complete success. In his efforts to attract consumers, Parmentier concluded that the best method would be to entice people to steal his potatoes. So he ostentatiously had his plantation guarded by the maréchaussée, the local police — but only by day. Similarly, he advised landowners not to force potatoes on their peasants, but to plant one fine field full themselves and ‘expressly forbid anyone to enter’ — a more subtle approach than that of Frederick II of Prussia who sent in the troops to make the peasants plant potatoes.

Is it possible that Kapodistrias knew of Parmentier’s example? I guess so. Was this actually a well-known method for tricking the childish peasants into trying something new? Maybe. Or are these anecdotes, rather, merely recrudescences of a universal myth about how to trick the childish peasants? I’m not interested enough to track down the references…

This is what sovereignty looks like

after Brexit. Good thing British values aren’t going to be subordinated to Brussels eurocrats!

Government intervention

It seems Theresa May has found her strategy for rescuing the British economy from the political damage the Tories are planning to inflict:

The prime minister will publish the strategy at a cabinet meeting in the north-west of England, setting out five sectors that could receive special government support: life sciences, low-carbon-emission vehicles, industrial digitalisation, creative industries and nuclear.

She will say the government would be prepared to deregulate, help with trade deals or create new institutions to boost skills or research if any sector can show this would address specific problems.

Great idea! As one of the people working on developing “skills and research”, I’d like to suggest that it might be a good idea to arrange an agreement to share students, workers, and researchers with our neighbours, who are similarly technologically-developed and share common scientific and educational traditions. We could call it the Anglo-European Union, or something like that.

But no, that would help “old institutions” like my own. The Westminster Pharaoh is only interested in boosting skills or research if it can create “new institutions” as a monument to her greatness.

Is Donald Trump British?

In some formal sense the answer is yes: His mother was Scottish, after all. But I’m thinking of two pathologies that are dominant in British politics, and observable in the purest form yet seen in Trump:

  1. Viewing all human interactions as sporting competitions.
  2. The delusion that they are brilliant master negotiators (“deal”-makers, would be Trump’s expression).

I’ve written before about the British compulsion to turn everything into a sport, so that it is impossible to imagine anyone winning without someone else losing. This is, at least, modulated by a charmingly deep-seated concern with “fair play” and being a “good sport”. (It is no coincidence that modern German has adopted the English word “fairness”. It is a peculiarly Anglo-American construct, not well covered by such overlapping concepts as Gerechtigkeit.)

But this interacts in peculiar ways with the peculiar conviction that they are particularly skilled at business and diplomatic negotiation. What they did have was an idiosyncratic blend of ruthlessness, geographic advantage, and technological prowess that they parlayed into a position of global dominance. Through stubbornness and admiration of their own idiosyncracies (“British values”) they have managed since then to turn their dominant position into a position of a weak, economically mediocre nation on the fringes of Europe, plagued by extreme inequality. But they think they’ve been winning or, where they have lost, it has been because of the perfidy of foreigners.

With Brexit, this delusion has entered its perhaps final stage. The UK has an incredibly weak hand in Brexit negotiations. They could appeal to comity and sentiment, but that doesn’t fit their vision of themselves as tough guys. They believe they know how to get what they want haggling with the lesser races — you have to show them you’re willing to walk away, and destroy both parties. That’s why the foreign secretary is threatening to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven saying the UK would “do whatever we have to do” if the EU doesn’t cave in to British demands.

Of course, that makes no sense for the UK economy, even if it wouldn’t be likely to result in crushingly punitive measures from Europe. But they think they’re brilliant, and by showing their willingness to damage themselves in order to punish Europe, the EU will agree to a “fair” deal (i.e., benefitting Britain). What is really likely happen is that the EU will be more inclined to bolt the doors against the lunatic, and leave Britain to complete its destiny as an offshore colony of Donald Trump’s America.

It’s obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago

This is Donald Trump’s opinion of NATO. And possibly of the U.S. constitution.

Keeping out the riffraff

I was just interested in comparing the conditions for citizenship and annual number of new citizens between the UK and Germany. The UK numbers I found on this government website. Under “Key Facts” the first thing they have to say is

Applications for British citizenship fell by 29% in the year ending June 2015 to 137,406.
There were 112,407 decisions about British citizenship, 40% fewer than in the previous year (188,910). Correspondingly, there were 42% fewer people granted British citizenship (-75,908 to 105,043). This was the lowest annual figure since 2002 (120,121).

It seems like they’re really proud that British citizenship has become so unattractive. The number of people acquiring German citizenship in around the same timeframe was slightly higher — 107,181 according to the Statistisches Bundesamt — which also notes that this represents a slight decrease (1.1%) from the previous year.

The Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel commented on these statistics with concern:

 Deutscher Pass verliert weiter an Attraktivität

Die Zahl der Einbürgerungen in Deutschland ist seit Jahren rückläufig. Das ist ein beschämender Trend.

German passport continues losing its lustre

The number of people acquiring citizenship in Germany has been going down for years. This is an embarrassing trend.

The Statistisches Bundesamt also compares these numbers to the “Einbürgerungspotenzial” — the “potential acquisitions of citizenship” — finding that only about 2% of the available citizen material has been “ausgeschöpft” (made use of).

I might note at this point that the Germans take only 255 euros as a citizenship fee, as opposed to the £1,236 that the British take. (One wonders if the whole Brexit thing is just a scam to get Europeans living here to apply for citizenship. If all 3 million apply, that will be worth nearly £4 billion.

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