Friday, November 19, 2004

Tony Blair to face impeachment

Well well well...

Of course, it's not going to get anywhere, but still - it's the first time in nearly two centuries that an impeachment motion has made it to the Commons order paper, so this may prove to be interesting.

Support the idea of making Blair justify his apparent misleading of parliament? Think he's a lying bastard who should be booted out of office? Just don't like his smug, smarmy, self-satisfied smile? Why not sign the petition?

(Hat tip to Manic for this one)

Europe: "inward-looking and self-absorbed"?

Well, yep. That sounds fair enough... Thanks to Alun (a lovely chappie like wot gave me an email heads-up on this one) for pointing out BBC Radio 4's Analysis: Eyes Wide Shut, which was broadcast last night. (I think you should be able to listen to it here, assuming you've got RealPlayer). I missed it due to excessive workloads, but will certainly try and have a listen in a spare moment later today. The basic argument seems to be the relatively obvious one that Europe is no longer the centre of world power, with economic and political strength increasingly shifting towards the US and Far East, but it will be in the details that the programme no doubt makes its most interesting points.

Coming the same day that Jaques Chirac gave a speech in London on his favourite topic of a "multi-polar world" and the need for a strong Europe to provide an alternative to the hyperpower that is the United States - and the same day that the new Commissioners were finally approved by the European Parliament (despite some typical bitching from the UKIP which led to UKIP MEP Nigel Farage being likened to a football hooligan) - could such a multilateral worldview be a useful model for any future shift in direction for the EU?

Chirac, to be fair on the guy, made some good points: "we must avoid any confusion between democratisation and Westernisation" and that, post-Iraq, "If you observe the way things are developing in the world in terms of security and the expansion of terrorism, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world, you cannot say, credibly, that the situation has significantly improved." He also made much of the shared thousand-year histories of Britain and France, and the bizarre yet unique love-hate relationship the two nations (especially England and France) still maintain.

He has, predictably, been attacked for his pains, with the Times seeming particularly annoyed: "[it] is not acceptable... is to insist in one breath that he wants to see a strengthened transatlantic relationship and a Nato in which Europe and America pool their efforts for peace, and then ridicule US domination of the world 'based on a logic of power' and qualify support for Nato by saying that its actions must have United Nations legitimacy. It is not simply the hypocrisy of juxtaposing his insistence that France would never forget what it owed America with his remark that the Bush Administration did not repay favours; it is his use of a visit to Britain to sneer at America and, by implication, Mr Blair’s trust in the US, that makes his behaviour so chiraquien."

Yet at the same time Chirac made a few nods towards the perceived "special relationship" between Britain and the US, and the UK's unique place within Europe as a result of this:

"Obviously for historical reasons, and for cultural reasons and linguistic reasons, it is obvious that the relationship between the UK and the US has a sort of a family (nature), an exceptional link. It is history that has given us that.

“Consequently, the fact that the UK can be a friendly partner between the EU and US is an advantage to Europe.

“The US and Europe have a natural vocation to work together in the face of the issues in the world of tomorrow.”

This is an almost Churchillian take on the UK/US/EU partnership, reminiscent of his famous "Zurich Speech" of September 1946. In that speech Churchill called for a "United States of Europe" - it was he who popularised the phrase. Of course, he didn't mean for Britain to actually be part of that superpower because he thought that the Empire would survive the post-war chaos and retain its position as a world power. But times have changed, and even the most rabid British nationalists have realised we lack the strength to go it alone - hence the constant binary choice those on the Right seem to offer - Europe or America? (Quite why it can't be both, I have yet to work out...)

Is Chiraq's revision of Churchill's hopes for a European future the right one? Well, as he said about Iraq yesterday, time will tell. One thing that is certain, however, is that Europe needs a new ideal to unite itself now that most of the groundwork of the union is done, the continent is finally united (if only in name), and the threat of war between nations in Europe has all but vanished.

With the accession of many of the countries of the old Eastern European Soviet bloc in May this year, the first stage of the European project as envisaged by Churchill is almost complete. The ratification of the European Constitution could be the next step, or it could be time for a shift in direction. Either way, the current global situation is far, far different to that of 1946 when the project was suggested, and from 1957, when the Six signed the Treaty of Rome and kicked the whole thing off.

Perhaps Europe really does need to take stock of itself, and take a realistic view of its chances in the current world. Should we look to a closer union, or go our separate ways, look to America, or look to the potential new economic powerhouses of the Far East, India, Latin America, or wherever else will be the next big thing?

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Remember the outrage with Ken Bigley's death? Noticed the lack of the same over Margaret Hassan? The former a guy who went to Iraq for a quick buck, fully aware of the dangers, the latter an aid worker who spent 30 years in the country trying to help out.

Well, I just made the mistake of going to Fark for the first time in ages, and started looking at the reactions of some of the posters there to the news that Iraqis have been upset and outraged by this latest murder - a murder of someone who has done more to help their country than pretty much every coalition soldier combined.

Some of the comments actually made me feel rather sick. The sheer levels of hypocrisy, hatred, ignorance and arrogance are astounding.

I'd like to think these aren't typical of the views of the Bush-voting American majority, but sadly I have a feeling these quotes may be fairly representative. This is not what the United States should be about:


"Now if they can muster any respect and outrage for all those who have been "featured" in such classics as: "The beheading of Nick Berg" and "The most gruesome demise of Eugene Armstrong" I might take them more seriously."

"What gets me is the fact that some of these Iraqis HAVE to know the caves or mosques these killers are hiding in. Come on, each and every one of us know where the drug-dealers and crackheads live in there town. What makes these arabs any different?"

"I don't think it would be too much to ask for the Iraqi's to get off their collective arses and help fight these asshole scumbags that did this and those like them."

"Seriously, if the Iraqis won't fight for their freedom and will be totally indifferent to US support, put Saddam back in power and let him quell this little rebellion."

"So they are unhappy about her being killed? Why don't they get off their asses and do something about it. The whole farking middle east is a waste of time, it will never get better. These people don't know any better. They were chucking rocks at each other thousands of years ago and all that has changed is the addition of bombs and RPGs. They can't be tought to appreciate freedom when all they know is to kill each other. We would be better off trying to teach a bunch of chimps to live with some manner of civility."

"Good, I'm glad they're "outraged." Maybe now they'll actually help, but I don't think they will because it seems to me that most Iraqis are weak-minded, pathetic, and apathetic."

"Savages... All of them."

But at least some Farkers tried to argue back:

"Congratulations. Some of you have managed to turn a thread about the death of a woman who spent her life helping those less fortunate then herself into a pile of ignorant racist bilge."

The internet: fostering stupid debate since the mid-1990s.

Plastic Politicians: Commission chaos and the destruction of the British constitution

This is genius. How better to revive the reputation of the European Commission in the eyes of a sceptical public than fashion a statue of the new Commission President out of Lego?

"To mark the many changes in Europe in 2004 and to present the newly elected members of the European Commission and the President of the European Parliament in an innovative way, the exhibition ‘A Face for Europe’ will be organised for charity at the Bibliothèque Solvay in Brussels, on 23 and 24 November, by PlasticsEurope.

The exhibition will feature the busts made from LEGO bricks of European Commission President José Barroso and European Parliament President Josep Borrell".

Fantastic. I am especially looking forward to the Lego Peter Mandelson...

But will it serve to help heal any of the rifts which have supposedly been opening between the European Parliament and the Commission? Barroso is trying to let the past be the past, but not only would it be foolish not to address the issues the Buttiglione affair raised to smooth over current tensions, it is highly likely that a similar situation may arise in the future. Why must the commissioners be an "all or nothing" affair? Why shouldn't Parliament veto just one or two of them?

It is not a good idea for one part of European machine to be pissed off at the other. Parliament and the Commission need to work together. Could this create yet more problems? Perhaps the Lego busts will sort it all out...

Then again, we're likely to have the same thing in Britain if the Commons forces through the Hunting Ban today against the wishes of the Lords.

I mean, who cares that the Parliament Act makes a mockery of a two chamber system, eh? Who cares that today the carefully set up checks and balances of the British parliamentary system are going to be thrown out simply so that we can stop a bunch of toffs from having their fun?

Who cares about the precedent this sets - especially for as long as the Lords remains the highest court in the land, who cares that this means that the Commons could overturn that court?

It's a bloody travesty - we're going to need some Lego statuettes to sort this mess out and all...

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

England also to ban smoking in pubs

I think I speak for all of us at Europhobia when I say "the bastards!" We've already covered how smoking bans in public spaces don't actually help people to quit smoking, and everything Rhona was saying about Scotland pretty much applies to the proposed English ban as well.

The fact that the English ban is in restaurants and "pubs that serve food" (whatever that might mean) makes this even more nonsensical. It smacks decidedly of a vote-winning ploy, aimed at the self-righteous, largely middle-class non-smoking lobby who want to be able to have a nice glass of chianti in a gastropub (probably along with their goujons of plaice in a light dill sauce with a side of sauteed asparagus and curly fries) without coughing on someone else's smoke.

The people who want to ban smoking in pubs are precisely the people who don't understand what pubs are all about. It's like me going into a vegetarian restaurant and getting annoyed that I can't have a nice juicy steak.

But hey - smokers can still go to pubs that don't serve food! So that's all right then. Pubs without food are - these days - usually in working-class areas. So the poor can still smoke themselves to death, as long as they don't do it where Tristram and Priscilla can be upset by their fumes and coughing.

Smoking has been a central part of pub culture for centuries - the majority of regular pub-goers either smoke themselves, or don't mind - and non-smokers have the ability to go elsewhere if they don't like it. It's called market choice.

So why can't this sort of decision be left to the landlords? The Wetherspoons chain (one of the largest in the UK, with pubs in most towns) are already introducing chain-wide smoking bans. This alone will give most towns at least one smoke-free pub. If the market is calling for more non-smoking drinking dens, more will appear, just as more no smoking areas are appearing in pubs and restaurants throughout the land.

Why legislate to force something on people when the market can dictate? That way everyone's happy - smokers get to smoke, non-smokers get to have pubs where they aren't bothered by me lighting up.

Update: Oh God... I appear to be agreeing with the Tories... (Although the proposal by the "Lib Dem Youth and Students" to introduce "smoking licenses" for pubs may also be workable...)

Monday, November 15, 2004

People in "preferring their mates" shocker!

Gordon Brown was on the Today programme this morning plugging a report he commissioned by Labour crony Alan Wood, chief executive of Siemens, which sounds like one long whinge about how the other kids aren't playing fair, and keep on not picking us to be on their team.

According to Brown and The Times, which has apparently seen it, the main gripes include "the award of contracts to national suppliers even where foreign bidders are believed to offer better quality or price; the drawing up of contracts to suit a national company; putting pressure on suppliers to use locally-based sub-contractors; and inviting foreign bids simply to beat down local businesses on price, not because they have a chance of winning the contract."

Now this is all naturally not on, as the EU is - after all - intended to promote "free" trade throughout the union. Favouring local companies at the expence of foreign - i.e. British - ones deserves lots of tut-tutting even if it is entirely understandable.

Unsurprisingly, the Eurosceptics have already started picking up on this story as yet another example of how the EU is a corrupt waste of time (with an added dose of anti-French xenophobia). All these points (well, bar the anti-French jibes) are pretty much fair enough.

However, as anyone who regularly reads Private Eye will instantly recognise, for anyone from the "New" Labour brigade to criticise other governments and companies for favouring their mates is laughable.

There's Paul Drayson of Powderject, a multiple donor to Labour to the tune of over £100,000, who was awarded a £22 million Ministry of Defence contract, as well as shares of serveral other contracts to produce vaccines, even though other bidders were offering competitive prices.

Then there's the on-going shock and horror of ever more government contracts going to the piss-poor Capita, headed by one Rod Aldridge, who has attended numerous Labour party fundraising events, has advised the government on outsourcing, and chairs the CBI's public services strategy board.

Added to this are the Bernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal affairs, where the big Labour donors got government favours in exchange for their cash - including in Mittal's case an assurance from Tony Blair that one of Mittal's companies was British even though it was based overseas.

There are also umpteen allegations that the once-socialist Labour party are - as are most politicians - in thrall to big business. To list all of these examples would be as lengthy as it would be stating the obvious (just read any back issue of Private Eye for thousands of these tales from every British government there's ever been).

To claim that other European countries are doing something dodgy by awarding contracts to domestic companies may well be perfectly fair and valid, but is also massively hypocritical when Labour are doing exactly the same thing. Only in Labour's case it is even worse, as it is the party which most directly benefits, not the country. At least if the French government awards a French company a contract ahead of a British bidder it is through the understandable desire to protect and promote French business and the French economy - when Labour awards contracts to BAE Systems or Crapita it seems largely to be to protect the party's own finances.

And in any case, how would being out of the EU make things any better? At least there are EU regulations designed to prevent this sort of thing happening, even if they aren't enforced very effectively. Without the EU, any European country could erect protectionist tarrif barriers AS WELL as preventing foreign companies from being awarded lucrative contracts. I don't know a great deal about economics, and I'll be the first to admit it, but surely it's a good thing that this is no longer possible?

Sunday, November 14, 2004

“Abracadabrantesque” - Chirac and the future of France

There's a good article in the Sunday Times today that neatly summarises the state of modern France, ahead of Jacques Chirac's state visit to London this week. Once he has gone - likely in a couple of years - there will be some major obstacles to be overcome by his successor, from the huge public sector to the threat of the extreme right, the confusion of Gaullism to the country's pensions deficit, governmental corruption to France's uncertain position as a world power.

The article doesn't manage to answer the key question - what to make of Chirac? But then, that's the nature of the man.

ETA to follow the IRA, but where's the EU?

What to make of Batasuna, the banned Basque nationalist party, in its new calls for an end to ETA terrorist violence against the Spanish state, on the back of calls by some of ETA's founders for the terrorists to lay down their arms? (Note: news of a possible new ETA attack - the first for nearly a year - could yet ruin this move to peace.)

The Basques have been unhappy with their lot in their part of northern Spain / southern France for centuries, with the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) paramilitary group launching a number of terrorist attacks in both Spain and France for the last 40-odd years. They had a certain amount of success, assassinating the Spanish Prime Minister - and potential successor to Franco - Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco in December 1973 and so arguably helping bring the fascist Franco regime to an end. But the majority have been terrorist attacks plain and simple, killing a mixture of civilians, police and soldiers often indiscriminately: in all, ETA terrorist attacks have ended the lives of 817 people.

The Basques were certainly not fans of former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar - the Bush crony who took Spain into Iraq against the people's wishes. He repeatedly refused to enter into any kind of dialogue, taking the old line of not giving in to terrorists and oppressing the ordinary, apolitical Basque people in the process via a mixture of suppression of free speech (banning the Basque newspaper "Euskaldunon Egunkaria") and political expression (the banning of Batasuna), and even state-organised torture of suspected terrorists and "terrorist sympathisers". As we all know, Aznar initially blamed the Madrid bombs of March this year on ETA, despite the lack of evidence. Aznar was chucked out at the polls by a nation fed up with its government's lies, and the Spanish people were slandered as a result.

New Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero effectively came to power on a promise of peace - both in Iraq and at home. To achieve this, the ETA problem must be addressed - will he take advantage of this new call from leading Basques, or adopt the "we don't negotiate with terrorists" line which has only served to irritate more people in the Basque region by depriving them of the right to vote for a largely respectable party, or try a move towards discussions - following the British lead of talks with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political overlords?

Why shouldn't the Basques have negotiations? British negotiations with terrrorists, or "peace talks" have worked in Northern Ireland - at least in as much as there hasn't been an attack on mainland Britain by any Irish paramilitary groups for the last three years - why can't they work in Spain?

More to the point, where the hell is the EU involvement in both these disputes? With any negotiation of this sort, a middle-man is a major help: US involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process was very useful - if only for its symbolic power, letting the Irish nationalists know that they wouldn't simply have a settlement imposed upon them by their British overlords. Couldn't the EU step in to help sort out the Basque/Spanish dispute?

If the initial reason for bringing Europe together as a community was to prevent another war on the continent, surely Brussels should think about getting involved in extinguishing such smouldering conflicts as have been going on in northern Spain and Northern Ireland for all these years?

(For more on the Basque dilemma, I'd strongly recommend Julio Medem’s superb documentary “La Pelota vasca: La piel contra la piedra”, or “Basque Ball” – a brilliant, dispassionately objective look at the conflict with interviews with participants and observers from all sides.)

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