Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Europe’

Don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?

I’ve had a number of conversations with Europeans that made me realise that many Europeans actually believe in the British self-image, that they are by nature calm and pragmatic. I may be wrong, but I think Americans — in common with Canadians and Australians — tend to have a more clear-eyed view of Britain, a nation so much in the grip of their ideologies — even as they flit from one to the other — that they can’t even recognise them as ideologies. Since the Thatcher reign the obsession has been market liberalism.

If there’s one thing the British excel at, it’s marketing, and they have marketed their own image brilliantly. It’s only with Brexit that the scales are falling from the eyes of the Europeans. One foreign academic who I was talking with today on the picket line said, in her first years in the UK she was constantly stressed because British colleagues would never keep to any agreement. If you try to appeal to the fact that something was agreed, even that it’s written down in a contract, you’ll be told how petty and unreasonable you are being. “Reasonable” is a favourite power play, because only the in-group knows which of the vast number of rules a “reasonable” person has to follow.

Anyway, I just happened to be reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, written at a time when the British were marketing a different self-image, and came upon this passage:

“Mrs. Gould, are you aware to what point he has idealized the existence, the worth, the meaning of the San Tome mine? Are you aware of it?”

“What do you know?” she asked in a feeble voice.

“Nothing,” answered Decoud, firmly. “But, then, don’t you see, he’s an Englishman?”

“Well, what of that?” asked Mrs. Gould.

“Simply that he cannot act or exist without idealizing every simple feeling, desire, or achievement. He could not believe his own motives if he did not make them first a part of some fairy tale. The earth is not quite good enough for him, I fear.”

It reminds me obliquely of when I came upon the odd passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles, where he remarks with pride how easily Englishmen pick up other languages, contrasting it with the incapacity of foreigners to learn English:

This also is proper to vs Englishmen, that sith ours is a meane language, and neither too rough nor too smooth in vtterance, we may with much facilitie learne any other language, beside Hebrue, Gréeke & Latine, and speake it naturallie, as if we were home-borne in those countries; & yet on the other side it falleth out, I wot not by what other meanes, that few forren nations can rightlie pronounce ours, without some and that great note of imperfection, especiallie the French men, who also seldome write any thing that sauoreth of English trulie.

The EU OS

Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

Post-Brexit UK to maintain world-leading position as platitude exporter

From the Guardian:

I commented before about the strange role of clichés in British politics. Finding a use for the banalest of banalities counts in Westminster as the very essence of statesmanship. So now, the British position, after 18 months of intensive internal analysis of its policy and extensive diplomatic soundings on relations with Europe is — It takes two to tango.

Showing the cards

The UK government thinks it’s playing poker with the EU. And it thinks it’s particularly good at it. “We can’t show our cards” is their standard argument for why they refuse to formulate a coherent negotiating position. Most recently, it was the argument for why Brexit minister David Davies couldn’t share with Parliament the voluminous economic impact assessments that were guiding the Brexit planning, though when threatened with citation for contempt of Parliament he admitted that they didn’t exist. (Has any schoolchild ever tried that? “I did my homework, but it would be unwise for me to show my cards right now by letting you see it.”)

Two important points:

  1. If you publicly announce that your position would be fatally undermined were the other side to see your cards, then that fatally undermines your position. If you secretly have strong cards, then the only thing you could be afraid of would be that the other side will concede too quickly. Which, I feel comfortable asserting, does not seem to be a significant problem for Britain in these negotiations.
  2. There are no hidden cards in this game. Or, at least, very few. If we are going to persist in the poker analogy, the game is five-card stud, so four of the five cards are face up. And Britain has a 2, 3, 7, 9 (of different suits). And they’re betting big, despite the fact that all 27 other players at the table already know that their cards are shit. But they have a brilliant secret strategy, consisting entirely of keeping their brilliant strategy secret. And pretending that they don’t know that their cards are shit.

Why is Britain being expelled from the EU?

Chris Grey, Professor of Social Organisation at Royal Holloway University, writes a blog about Brexit. In his most recent post he finds a formulation that captures some of the baffling features of the Tory approach to Brexit:

Observing Brexiters’ behaviour now, the thing that strikes me most forcibly is that almost all the time they act and talk not as if Britain had chosen to leave the EU but exactly as if Britain was being expelled by the EU…

Brexiters bemoan the failure of remainers to ‘get behind’ Brexit but they themselves seem singularly lacking in any big, coherent, optimistic, strategic or even enjoyable vision of Brexit. Given that (as they constantly say) they won the vote and are now enacting their dream policy you might expect such a vision, and if it existed many of the current problems would fall away. They would happily be saying ‘sure, we will meet our pre-existing financial commitments, these are of little importance given the exciting new opportunities Brexit brings’.

The post is well worth reading in its entirety, and it is spot on, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t explain why the Tories — and, by proxy, the nation — would put itself in such a position.

As near as I can come to an explanation that makes sense is to think of it — since everyone is talking divorce — in terms of the psychology of an abusive relationship, the relationship in this case being colonialism. Britain has the habit of dominance, acquired over many centuries. It is very common in such a relationship for the abuser to push off the blame onto the partner. “I don’t want to hurt you, but you’ve forced me into it.” The thing is, that is usually the action of the one who feels himself powerful and in control, not the one who is going to be hurt. Britain has overestimated its power, the inferior Continentals — and even the Irish — are asserting themselves, and the British government is reduced to wheedling and whining that Europe is mean and spiteful.

The next step after self pity is frequently violence. I suggested back when the referendum result was announced that the British would be shocked to discover how much the rest of Europe resents them, and how little leverage Britain actually has, and that there was a reasonable chance that they would then turn their fury against the enemy within, the resident foreigners. Nothing that has happened since then has made me more sanguine.

Naked Brexit

Arlene Foster is sad! So sad 😦 Why is Arlene sad?

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has accused the Irish government of hijacking the Brexit negotiations to promote a united Ireland… She said: “The Irish government are actually using the negotiations in Europe to put forward their views on what they believe the island of Ireland should look like in the future.”

The sacred Brexit negotiations are being misused to promote a nationalist cause! Outrageous!

This is Burroughs’s naked lunch, the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”, is something Britain — a declining power treated with far more deference than its actual power warrants — should have tried to put off as long as possible. Now it’s Britain that’s on the end of the fork. And it’s their own fork. (more…)

The new Athens

Reports from Theresa May in Brussels

Speaking on Thursday night, the prime minister said both sides needed an “outcome that we can stand behind and defend to our people”, hinting at the political difficulty she would have in selling a deal that involves handing over a large sum to the EU.

Translation: We made unrealistic promises to our people. Now it’s up to you to fulfill our promises. In the name of democracy.

As I recall, another European leader recently tried to reject financial demands from international organisations by appealing to the spirit of democracy and the results of a popular referendum. I wonder how that one turned out?

Harold MacMillan famously compared postwar Britain to the Ancient Greeks:

These Americans represent the new Roman empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.

I guess, after the last dreams of empire fade, the British establishment can still grasp for the hope of becoming the new Athens.

Warring factions seek EU mediation

That was my immediate translation when I saw this headline yesterday:

Theresa May and David Davis to travel to Brussels for urgent Brexit talks

Obviously the British are trying to create an impression of comity with the EU negotiators, to show that misunderstandings are being swept aside, and the negotiations are now going to run smoothly. An impression that is not fostered by this:

Though Downing Street insisted the dinner had long been in May’s diary, EU sources suggested it may have been more last-minute, but were not able to provide confirmation.

On the other hand, given the warnings about the security of post-Brexit food supplies, maybe they were just hoping to get a solid meal.

This could have been me…

Ten years ago, still living in Canada, I had to look into the procedures for acquiring the right to work in the UK. As my partner is German, and would be working here as well, I had the right to live and work here under EU law. The procedure looked easier, and it would be free. Instead, I chose to spend hundreds of dollars to get my own UK work permit. Why? Looking at comments on various web forums I got the general impression that the UK authorities were generally hostile toward the EU. It seemed to me that I could have trouble if the laws or circumstances changed, and the UK bureaucrats felt that I had evaded their laws to sneak into the country under colour of foreign laws. I wanted to have my rights registered under UK law.

Here is what could have happened otherwise:

A Spanish woman who has lived in the UK for 15 years has accused the Home Office of treating her family like criminals after her American husband and the father of her three children applied for a permanent residency (PR) card.

In a three-year ordeal, the Home Office threatened to deport the historian Stuart Ross three times, suggested he was lying about his wife’s work as a Spanish language teacher and refused to accept a judge’s verdict in a Belfast court that officials had been wrong to refuse him a PR card when he first applied in 2013.

 

Fascist alarm in Germany

There’s a lot of breast-beating, inside and outside of Germany, about the right-wing nationalist AfD getting more than 12% of the vote and taking seats in the Bundestag. I find much of this commentary overwrought. It’s not just the rhetoric that tries to make the AfD into the second coming of the Nazis, such as this from the Telegraph:

The far-Right could return as a force to be reckoned with in Berlin politics for the first time since the Second World War.

Almost identical lazy rhetoric appears all over the place, such as this from NPR:

It’s the first time since the Second World War that a party professing such xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views has been voted into the Bundestag.

I dare say that the previous time they are alluding to, the problem was not that the far-right was “a force to be reckoned with” in Germany. It’s a bit like if you were writing an article about the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and called it “the most significant nuclear incident in Japan since the Second World War.” (I suppose they could have made it worse by calling this instead “the second time since the First World War” that the far-Right was a force to be reckoned with.) (more…)

Tag Cloud