Tag Archives: EU

A not so splendid isolation

Never was so much messed up for so many by so few. That pretty much sums the Brexit experience.

The post-Brexit referendum reality turned out to be worse than the gloomiest predictions. British stocks have taken a beating, the pound fell through a dark hole and the repercussions are being felt around Europe and the world. Nevertheless, these are the first panic reactions and it is best to wait for a while and see if things will be settling down. The long-term consequences are still unclear, but as a mental experiment, it is useful to try and catch a glimpse of what the future holds, based  on current trends. Fasten your seat belts, hold on to your hats and join me as we fast forward to… let’s say the year 2020.

Independence
The main slogan of Leave was “taking our country back”. What they did not mention was that “back” meant “300 years back”. Brexit meant independence alright. Scottish independence. As the negotiations between UK and the EU lead to nothing, Scotland voted to leave and declared its independence. Since it had already implemented all EU regulations and satisfied all demands, Scotland was welcomed immediately into the EU, on the condition it will join the Euro zone within 5 years. Empowered by Scotland’s success, Northern Ireland held  a similar referendum, with an extra question – join Ireland or become an independent state. They joined Ireland. Welsh nationalism saw a surge after Wales’ surprise victory at Euro 2016. English-Welsh tensions are reaching boiling point, as both countries are set to meet in the semi-finals of Euro 2020 at Wembley. Oddly, these developments “fix” the old mismatch. Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales were always members of UEFA and played international football while technically not being fully independent. As the UK and Britain are now history, the football countries now match UN member countries.

The economy
What economy? The economy of England has been annihilated. London banks left to Frankfurt, Paris, Dublin and Amsterdam. The credit rankings of England were slashed, leading to massive rise in national debt and falling pound caused a runaway inflation, only held in check by plummeting housing prices. Having failed to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU, England is now facing steep tariffs and taxes, pushing up the prices for imported goods like food and medicine. With the supply of Europe’s brightest students and staff to English universities cut off, tech companies are fleeing to the continent. Chinese, Indian and American students also no longer come, not wanting to study in a country that is cut off from its continent.

Immigration
Oh my. Brexit did stop EU immigration into England. With no agreement in place, EU citizens in England were given two years to apply for a job permit or leave. Not that most of them wanted to live any longer in a country plagued by the biggest recession in 300 years. EU countries each set their own rules with regard to English residing there. Most were lenient, bot some viewed the English pensioners as an easy prey and a cash cow, imposing new taxes on their savings and property. Many retirees were unable to meet the new regulations and returned to England, putting an extra strain on the NHS, already desperately understaffed after the doctors and nurses left to the EU. Tensions in Northern Ireland and Scotland caused massive English immigration into England, with the best and most capable choosing for Canada and Australia instead. Young and educated English are massively immigrating to Ireland, Scotland and mainland Europe, usually via the “Scottish route”, where they discover their Scottish roots that grant them the right to Scottish citizenship and free movement in the EU. The flight of the creative class has left parts of London, Manchester and other English cities ghost towns, only partly filled by remigrating pensioners.

All this is of course a doom scenario. The worse that could happen. But I’m afraid even 1/10th of the above will be devastating for England, Britain and possible Europe as well.

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I’m sorry, Boris…

In a few months, maybe even just a few weeks, Boris Johnson, PM, will be in Brussels, knocking on the door of the office of Jean-Cleadue Juncker, President of the European Commission.

– Come in, Boris (says JC).

-I come to negotiate (goes Boris).

-The terms of your surrender?

-Ha ha, very funny, JC. No, the terms of our new trade agreement.

-Oh, well, it was worth a shot. Have you handed in the forms that go with the application to withdraw from the EU, according to Article 50?

-Erhmmm… No, I haven’t. Is it really necessary?

-Well, Boris, let me see what I can do for you (pretends to be typing on his computer). I’m sorry, Boris, but COMPUTER SAYS NO!

At which point all other government leaders hiding in the corridor and eavesdropping through the door can’t hold themselves and burst in roaring laughter.

I hope someone will be smart enough to install a hidden camera. The look on Boris’ face – priceless.

 

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To Brexit or not to Brexit?

The Brexit referendum is looming, and this may (or may not) be a major milestone in European history. I was planning to write a serious, thoughtful article about this whole Brexit thing. How it might mean the end of the UK, with Scotland leaving to join the EU, and Northern Ireland following suit. I thought of mashing up that ridiculous, fear-mongering article Boris Johnson wrote about the Scottish referendum. You know, the one subtly titled “Scottish independence: Decapitate Britain, and we kill off the greatest political union ever”. Like, rewriting his article and replacing “Scottish” with “British”, and “Britain” with “European Union”. Would be fun to read Boris’ writing along the lines of:

Brexit: Decapitate the EU, and we kill off the greatest political union ever

By Boris Johnson

The British are on the verge of an act of self-mutilation that will trash our global identity.

Right: it’s time to speak for the European Union. If these polls are right, then we are on the verge of an utter catastrophe for this continent. In just 5 days’ time we could all be walking around like zombies – on both sides of the English Channel. I don’t just mean that we will be in a state of shock, though that will obviously be true: most people (especially the British) have yet to think through the horrific financial and constitutional implications of a British-EU divorce.

As I sat down to write my article, I started with a bit of background research. What is the referendum question, whether it is binding or not, that sort of things. Naturally, the first place I went to for information was Wikipedia. And then I realized, that I don’t need to write much about Brexit. One paragraph from the Wikipedia article about the Brexit referendum tells the whole story.

A Remain vote is supported by the British government, most economists, the leaders of the USA and the rest of the EU countries, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the G20, the IMF, and all living past and present Prime Ministers. The Leave campaign is supported by Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, UKIP, the UK fishing industry and James Dyson, the founder of Dyson.

So there you go. The UK government, the world leaders, financial institutions, thoroughly British businesses such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, historians, economists, healthcare professionals and scientists, and so on and on and on, all support Britain remaining in the European Union.

On the other hand, UKIP, the Communist Party, the majority of British fishermen, Aspall Cider (cidre manufacturing company), Go Ape (outdoor adventure company) and the Portsmouth City Council are in favour of Britain leaving the EU. And of course Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are also in favour of Brexit.

Dear Britons, in a few days it is up to you to decide on the future course of your country. Make up your own mind, and in case you’re still in doubt, the full list of endorsements is here. But do think of this – are a few more tons of fish worth it? Do you want to have a passport control booth on the border with Scotland? Is Putin the best of friends? When was the last time you agreed with the Communist Party? Right. Now stop being silly, would you?

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At the centre of Europe

Yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels have been immediately described as “terrorism in the heart of Europe“, “an attack in the centre of Europe” and so on. Is Brussels really the centre of Europe? And if the centre of Europe is not in Brussels, where is it? Previously, I’ve looked into the definition of “Central Europe” but I think that is not the same as the “Centre of Europe”.

Numerous attempts were made to define the geographical centre of Europe. The difficulty in agreeing on the “centre” is due to the unclear definition of Europe – the Eastern boundary is simply arbitrary. Other questions are whether islands are to be included or just the mainland. As one can expect, the EU has its own “midpoint”, the location of which is also not undisputed. But if you want to know more about this, just read the Wikipedia page about the topic.

The political centre of Europe is a completely different story. Brussels is often described as the political centre, since many European institutions are located there. However, the European parliament divides its time between Brussels and Strasbourg, the European Central Bank has its headquarters in Frankfurt, Europol is in the Hague, Frontex is in Warsaw – I guess its clear what I mean. Or not, but its Europe, so get used to it.

I propose a different view on the “centre of Europe”, a more statistical one. Where is the centre of a country? In its capital, naturally. Europe does not have a capital, despite all attempts to create one (previous contenders include Paris, Berlin, Rome and Moscow). Therefore, I looked up the location of the capitals of European countries, and calculated the median and mean of their latitude and longitudes. The median and mean are both close to where the borders of Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic meet.

Center of Europe

Map generated using Scribble Maps

The exact location depends on what counts as “European country”, but will not shift by much. Personally, I find this location quite fitting my expectations of the centre of Europe. It also simplifies the definitions of Eastern, Northern, Western and Southern Europe. This definition will not satisfy everyone, but at least it’s obvious that the centre of Europe is not in Brussels. Ain’t that a relief.

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There is no Greece

A Greek colleague of mine told me I have no right to have an opinion on Greece unless I lived there. I think its nonsense. I haven’t lived in countless other places and I still have an opinion on them. Nobody has lived on the Moon, but we all can have an opinion about it. By the same logic, most Greek who have not lived in Germany have no right to an opinion about it – they most obviously do. So I do have an opinion about Greece. And in my opinion, there is no Greece.

In a bizarre show of loss of touch with reality, the vast majority of the Greek, including their own government, believe they can say “OXI” to the rest of Europe. They decline all offers of help because they come with demands to demonstrate willingness to be helped and to do their share, and still want to remain a part of the EU and the Euro zone. The age-old truism that you can’t eat the cake and leave it whole does not seem to be able to “land” in Greece. But it will land, and it will be a very rough landing. As of last week, Greece simply ceased to exist. Having failed on its credit obligations, it has become a failed state – in line with other bankrupt countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan. Like the fathom image of the sun on your retina after you close your eyes, the Greek government and people are still there, but as the economy grinds to a halt and the institutions collapse they, too, will disappear.

As the country dissolves further and further and more and more services and parts of society cease to function, a torrent of refugees (there is no other word to describe it) already leaves Greece. For now, these have been largely the young, and even they are reluctant to leave, preferring to live on their parents couch off the pensions of their grandparents. As the reality of living in a failed state with no prospect of improvement in the coming decades will become clearer, all who are able to leave will leave. The real Grexit will be the mass migration of Greek who are capable of doing so. With the young and able leaving, the ones left behind are the sick and the elderly – which already triggers a downward spiral of an economic downfall and even higher migration rates.

The Greek economy has been sick for a while. Main cause are loans that were not covered by assets. Whether the Greek who took the loans or the Germans and the French who provided the money for the Greek banks to loan are to blame is by now rather irrelevant. Other countries have been able to overcome similar problems – Ireland, Cyprus and Iceland have all rebounded from a recent debt crisis. The ills of the Greek society are much deeper though and thus Greece, unable and (or?) unwilling to mend its ways, is rapidly disappearing. The Greek people are ill in the most literal sense of the word – Greece has the highest rates of obesity in Europe. What I find most astounding is that Greece has also the highest rates of smoking in the world. The adult Greek smokes an average of 3 000 cigarettes a year. A 5 to 6 BILLION Euro goes up in smoke in Greece every year – literally. If the Greek would quit smoking, they would have saved some 30 BILLION Euro since the start of the crisis in 2010. Talk about simple and efficient measures to help the economy – I’d say the EU should demand a ban on smoking as a condition to an emergency aid package.

It does not take a genius to see that the sick and ageing population, combined with an unprecedentedly low birth rate and mass-migration of the youth will lead to the disappearance of the Greek people within a couple of decades. Besides the human tragedy that envelops as we speak, this process is a unique opportunity. Greece, its economy (or lack of it), its demographics, its demise, are an illustration of what lies ahead for most of the rest of Southern Europe with Italy as the next in line. All the ingredients to repeat the Greek tragedy on a larger scale are present there. Greece is an opportunity to study ways to prevent or at least reduce the impact of the fall.

I doubt we will be able to learn the lessons from the Greek crisis. Which is sad, because its not only Italy that is next – it may very well be that the whole Euro zone, the EU and even all of Europe are bound to go down the same road. Worse of all – there are serious signs China is headed the same way. The Chinese economy is, like Greece, poisoned by irresponsible loans and is full of Potemkin villages. China has an ageing population of chain-smokers and, like the Greek, the Chinese view themselves as a cradle of civilization that must be if not admired then at least respected by the rest of the world. We might survive Greece disappearing and may even overcome Italy collapsing. But what are we going to do when China goes “boom”?

 

The Greek like to say they “invented” democracy and claim the rest of Europe should respect their democratic choice. They conveniently forget that in ancient Athens, only adult free male citizens were allowed to vote. Most significantly, citizens who failed to paid a debt were automatically stripped of their voting right (Atimia) and this disqualification was inheritable. The Greek should study their own history a little better before preaching about democracy. Next time a Greek says “democracy” – say “atimia”.

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Will Brexit become just Exit?

If the British vote to leave the EU, instead of Brexit (British exit) it might boil down to just an Exit (English exit), with the other members of the United Kingdom deciding to stay in the EU after all, as independent states. This way, Europe will be one big country poorer but four small European countries richer.

With the dust settling on Britain after the dramatic elections, the question on everyone’s lips is “what about Brexit”? That is, will there be a referendum about the United Kingdom leaving the EU, and what will be the outcome? To be honest, I don’t really care whether the UK will be a member of the EU or not. I don’t think most Europeans care much either. I do feel the British public is not fully aware of the impact of such a decision and I think their politicians and media are doing a poor job informing the public. 

Now that Nigel Farage, (former) head of UKIP, has left the political scene, it seems the referendum issue will lose some momentum. But it is unlikely that David Cameron will dare back off his promise to hold one. And if he will back off, there are plenty of people who will remind him of his promise. However, without Farage, who was the main force in the pro-Brexit camp, there is an opportunity for the British to engage in a meaningful discussion on the aftermath of leaving the EU.

What is it really about? The Brits are concerned about immigrants taking their jobs and straining the social services. They say the EU is costing a lot and is providing little in return. What they forget is that without the EU they would have to take back millions of Britons who retired to Spain. How’s that for strain on healthcare? It’s not like it would not be possible to retire or get a job in EU, it just would be much more difficult. Jobs in the UK, too, would be at risk, as exports to EU will suffer. And London, that lives on its banking system, will perhaps not be cut off all together, but will be left out of much of European decision making, and banking across the channel will be pricier. I’m pretty sure people in Frankfurt and Zurich would be more than willing to fill the gap.

Not that leaving the EU will stop the illegal immigration. The illegals are not EU citizens anyway, so they come regardless the UK membership. Leaving the EU is not going to address immigration from Commonwealth countries like Nigeria and Pakistan. I also don’t see how the UK will remove the millions of Germans, French, Poles and Romanians who live in the country for years or even decades. And who will do the plumbing? Are German doctors, French bankers and Dutch engineers also to leave? Sure, some immigrants are not model citizens. But leaving the EU because of them is a bit drastic, isn’t it?

What about Scotland? Surely, if the Brexit referendum will decide for leaving the EU, Scotland will want to hold a new referendum about leaving the UK? Having narrowly lost the previous referendum, Scottish nationalists stand a good chance of winning the next one, especially if the choice is between the UK and the EU. Scottish independence might reignite the flames in Northern Ireland and maybe even Wales will decide to split. And so, instead of Brexit (British exit) it might boil down to just an Exit (English exit), with the other members of the United Kingdom deciding to stay in the EU after all, as independent states. This way, Europe will be one big country poorer and four small European countries richer.

These are mere possible scenarios. I’m not claiming knowing the future or even that these are likely scenarios. I do think it is absolutely necessary for the British public, politics and media to be able to discuss the possible consequences of Brexit, without the rhetoric, in a polite, responsible fashion. If the BritishU do decide to leave the EU, its their legitimate choice. It would be a shame if they leave for the wrong reasons and under false assumptions. Whatever happens, Britain will remain a European country. They can vote whatever which way they want, but they can’t ship the whole bloody island to Australia. They can’t, right?

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Little Europes

Overseas countries and territories (OCT) and Outermost regions (OMR) of the European Union (by Alexrk2, via Wikipedia)

On a wide cobbled space on the sea front they found a guard of red-coated militia drawn up to receive them, and a crowd—attracted by their arrival—which in dress and manner differed little from a crowd in a seaport at home save that it contained fewer women and a great number of negroes.

The words above describe the arrival of a ship full of slaves – white slaves – to Bridgetown, the capital of the British colony Barbados, in late 1600’s. These lines are from one of my favourite books, “Captain Blood: His Odyssey”, a novel by Rafael Sabatini. “Home” refers to England, and today, crowds in most European seaports differ even less from the crowds in Bridgetown, Papeete or Paramaribo, as the ports of mainland Europe are rather diversified by the influx of immigrants from the (former) colonies. The colonial empires that were so dominant in the past 5 centuries are gone, most of the colonies have gained independence years, or even centuries ago. But a few remain attached to the “mother-country”, either too small to be able to stand on their own or too valuable as a honey-moon destination to be let go. Most of these bits and peaces of Europe scattered around the globe are French, as France has had the most difficulties ditching the notion of it being destined to rule the world (most French still cherish the thought that one day, the world will call upon them). But quite a few are British, some are Dutch, and even Norway has “colonies” in the southern seas.

For the most part though the so-called Outermost regions and Overseas countries and territories of the EU are either a rock in the ocean, like the famous Saint Helena where Napoleon was banned to, or a tropical paradise, making a living of newly weds and smuggling. The effect of these “little Europes” is rather unique. You fly out of the frozen European winter for 10 or even 20 hours, and suddenly you’re on the French Riviera, but on the other side of the globe. The heat, the white-washed buildings, the magnolias – its as if you’ve driven to Nice or Marseille. Even the number plates on some of these islands have the EU flag. And, as immigrants from Aruba and Martinique are drawn to Europe, there is a steady trickle of white Europeans to the tropics, nowadays for the most part not buccaneers or white slaves, but retirees, searching for a better climate to warm their elderly bones.

So are the differences between Europe and “little Europes” really blurred? Are Reunion, Saba and the Cayman Islands as European as Bristol or Vilnus? Yes and no. Being “Europe” seems less and less about pure geography. Although by now, pretty much every colony that had a serious desire and capacity for independence has become independent, the political and economical ties of the remaining colonies with the “mother country” are too strong to endanger by such a radical move as a declaration of independence. Its not the whole story though. Slower changes are simmering under the surface. Semi-dormant independence movements exist in most French overseas territories. The Dutch Antilles have been dissolved, some becoming states within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while others have become direct parts of the Netherlands. And regional ties are becoming more important than ties to the distant mainland Europe, as evidenced by the recent Samoa time zone change.

One thing is certain – these specks of Europe in tropical seas will remain a prized tourist destination, regardless of the geopolitics. Check out the map – Europe may be closer to you than you thought it is!

Curacao 9 Curacao 8 Curacao 7 Curacao 6 Curacao 5 Curacao 4 Curacao 3 Curacao 2 Curacao 1

All of the photos below were taken at Curaçao, a constituent country within The Kingdom of the Netherlands, which is a member of the European Union. However, Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten have the status of overseas countries and territories (OCTs) and are not part of the EU. Nevertheless, only one type of citizenship exists within the Kingdom (Dutch), and all Dutch citizens, including the Curaçaoans, are EU citizens. Got it? Me neither. But it somehow works.

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