Friday, May 20, 2005

Help make MEPs more accountable

It is a constant and largely fair complaint that the EU is somewhat lacking in democratic accountability. Members of the European Parliament seem always to be ignored by the people they represent, and rarely - if ever - receive coverage in the local press to anything like the extent that our Westminster representatives do.

Not only do European elections always have shockingly low turnouts, but it is unusual even for those who vote in them to pay any attention to who won, or to who has ended up representing them in Brussels and Strasbourg. It is still more unusual for any regular member of the public to be able to say exactly what it is that an MEP's job involves - all we ever hear about are the allegations of expense-fiddling and petty corruption, not what actually goes on within the EU's corridors of power.

As such, this Early Day Motion, proposed by Labour MP Derek Wyatt (who scraped back in with a majority of just 79 on May 5th) deserves widespread support - whether you are pro- or anti-EU. After all, how is it possible to hold our representatives to account if we don't know what it is they get up to?
Derek Wyatt
* 1
That this House believes that, as Europe prepares to vote on the EU Constitution, MEPs in member countries should instead of repairing to Strasbourg once a month, return to their own national parliaments to report back on their work; further believes that this would give an opportunity for there to be a constructive debate between honourable Members and MEPs and would root the latter in both their national parliaments as well as the European Parliament.
As anyone who has worked at the House of Commons or who follows Westminster affairs will tell you, EDMs rarely, if ever, manage to achieve anything - they are there, at best, to make a point, and are effectively petitions to the government which Downing Street can ignore or not at its leisure. Nonetheless, this is one well worth supporting. If you want more accountability in Brussels, urge your MP to sign. You can contact your MP free of charge through

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Sun Says... a load of old bollocks, apparently

Page two of today's Sun - Britain's biggest-selling newspaper, owned by the eurosceptic Australian tax-dodger Rupert Murdoch - is dominated by a huge banner headline about the proposed EU constitution stating "EU DEAL END FOR POUND". Considering page two of pretty much every tabloid is used for burying "boring" political news, the headlines are all that most Sun readers will have noticed - distracted as they are by the pert bosoms of some Essex slapper on the opposite sheet. (and yes, I know this makes me sound like an intellectual snob - but I was the one reading The Sun in a pub at lunchtime...)

In other words, this Sun headline - the size, the positioning, the alarmist language, everything - is deliberately designed to be taken on face value, and make the paper's three and a half million readers start fretting that their beloved coinage is in imminent danger of abolition.

This is, of course, total nonsense. Not only has Blair already stated that there are no plans to switch to the euro before the next general election - a significant step back from the last decade of "wait and see" uncertainty - but the constitution doesn't actually have anything much to say about the EU currency of choice.

In fact, should any of the Sun's readers be able to tear themselves away from the "charms" of the buxom lovely on page three, they'd see in the very first paragraph that the headline is entirely unrepresentative of the actual "story". A story which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, based on some propaganda from the newly rebranded "No" campaign (which made the utterly implausible claim on Newsnight last night that "none" of its members advocated withdrawal from the EU) - propaganda based on a "No" campaign-commissioned ICM poll of just 1000 people.

The story is the somewhat depressing but altogether unsurprising one that the British public are sorely uninformed about the EU, and specifically about the constitution:

"SEVEN out of ten people believe the Pound will be axed if Britain signs the EU constitution... They are convinced backing the EU’s new diktats will automatically kill off Sterling. They say Britain will be dragged into the euro whether we like it or not."
This is, of course, palpable nonsense - but then, it is the "Great British Public (TM)" who are allegedly saying it. Even if the constitution did have anything concrete to say about takeup of the euro, all three major parties are committed to holding a referendum over joining - another prime example of the buck-passing insanity of the damn things, but that's beside the point.

The Sun's article quotes the constitution's Article III-69 - which they say states "
The activities of the member states shall include . . . a single currency, the euro".

This is a slight misquote, due to a misplaced ellipsis. It actually says (with The Sun's quote in italics) "
the activities of the Member States and the Union shall include, as provided in the Constitution, the adoption of an economic policy which is based on the close coordination of Member States' economic policies, on the internal market and on the definition of common objectives, and conducted in accordance with the principle of an open market economy with free competition. 2. Concurrently with the foregoing, and as provided in the Constitution and in accordance with the procedures set out therein, these activities shall include a single currency, the euro"

The implication they are trying to make is that the constitution says that all member states must adopt the euro, and specifically adopt it as the national currency rather than merely for the purpose of trade within the bloc - lest we forget, inclusion and adoption are very different things. Of course, the vagueness of this particular article (as with the whole damn constitution) is such that that could be one interpretation, but - and vitally importantly, considering this is a legal document we are dealing with - there is no explicit statement that EU member states must adopt the euro as their sole or even primary currency - merely that the euro will play a part in the EU's economic activities.

Now I'm not going to try and deny that it is in the interests of the EU for every member state to adopt the Euro at some stage. Nor shall I deny that this is what the clause is hinting at. But there is - vitally - no timescale on the takeup of the euro mentioned anywhere in the constitutional text.

All the constitution says is that the euro will play a part in EU-wide economic activities (as will, surely, every currency of every member state - but the euro is the most logical one to use for intra-EU trade). There is nothing about member states having to adopt it as the currency of the high street, and the fact that Britain has partially been trading with euros ever since it came into being as the shoddily-named Ecu is, the way The Sun and the "No" campaign have presented their scare story, not important.

To those who are against the whole thing, what is apparently more important than what the constitution actually says - and allowing the British public to form their own opinions based on fact - is scaremongering headlines, selective quotation and partisan poll results designed to make the thing out to be forcing the country to adopt measures about which the constitution actually doesn't have an awful lot to say.

It's actually a very cunning approach. There isn't - apart from the headline - a single actual lie in the entire article. But it is, nonetheless, an opinion piece dressed up as a news story with a large and misleading headline which deliberately shepherds any unwary readers to accept that opinion as fact. We're going to be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing - from both sides - over the coming months. My advice - when it comes to debates over the EU, don't accept anything at face value.

A potentially pretentious pondering - perhaps propitious, perhaps palmary, possibly pertinent to peruse

Sorry about that - got all alliterative of a sudden.

Just an idea, loosely prompted by this meme from a few weeks back - anyone interested in participating in a blog-based book group? Could make a nice break from politics every now and again, plus help point us all in the direction of some genuinely good reads.

Basic idea would be I name a book (perhaps based on suggestions from participants) - probably broadly European, considering the focus of this blog - and set a date, probably a month or so later. Those who want to take part go off and read the thing then come back on the chosen date for a nice lengthy discussion in a comments section where we can all dissect the thing, suggest similar books, point out plot holes and the like.

Who's up for it? Anyone? If so, drop me a line in the comments. My initial suggestion is one I'm currently re-reading, and I'd forgotten just how good it was - Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco:

To give you a basic idea without ruining the plot, it's basically The Da Vinci Code if it had been written by someone literate, intelligent, with a superb grasp of character and plot, and who had actually bothered to do some original research. It is also a fantastic read - perhaps Eco's best.

What do you reckon? Worth pursuing? Am I being a pretentious twat? Different book to kick off?

Let me know in the comments if you're interested - if enough people are, I'd suggest we reconvene on Monday 20th June for a hearty literary debate. Should be enough time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Woo! Fancy new site logo thingie and stuff!

Post-election, and with all the joys of spring, some people have decided to opt for a complete redesign while others first went for a redesign and now profess to be thinking about giving up.

Me? I've opted for the middle-ground of a dinky logo type thingie for the masthead, like wot I just knocked up in Photoshop and stuff. And yes, yes that is a nosemonkey plonking its fat arse on Turkey. The buttocks/Turkey interface is not, however, meant to be symbolic in any way - and nor is the fact that the little bugger's turned his back on Europe. At least, I don't think it is...

Anyway - check out my mad photoshopping skillz. I rule.

George G. vs. George B.

Say what you like about George Galloway - and I frequently do - he turned in a largely impressive performance in front of the Americans yesterday. Chicken Yoghurt has a good take, while Martin Stabe has a roundup of US blog reactions, a particular highlight of which is this little gem:

"We won the Revolutionary War fergossake. This shouldn't be so hard."

Meanwhile, Respectites Meaders and Lenin seem to have been enjoying themselves - even Harry's Place had to admit George put on a good show, but it seems that the folk at the New York Post weren't quite as impressed:
"SOMEBODY, please inject our senators with a heavy dose of testosterone.
"Maybe then they'll be able to deal with thugs and bullies like George Galloway.
"...He insulted our administration. He decried the war against terror.
"...It gets worse.
"As he hijacked Congress to unleash his outrageous, insulting tirade, our senators did not pipe up.
"Rather, they assumed the look of frightened little boys caught with pants around their ankles, nervously awaiting punishment."
I say again - heh!

IslamOnline have a good press roundup for those who fancy some other reactions.

The only question now is will he ever get a chance to go off on a similar rant in the House of Commons, or will he (as I suspect) somehow fail to catch the Speaker's eye?

A quick plea for help

After spending the last few days churning out reams and reams of text on everything from the EU constitution to Samuel Pepys to Batman Begins (the latter two not here, obviously), I've hit a distinct lack of inspiration.

Come, faithful readers - assist me. I've got to knock up a 1000-1500 word article on the Celts in Britain - not Ireland - with an emphasis on places tourists can visit and which photograph well, and I've come entirely unstuck. It's become too in-depth for the middle-brow target audience and so far has precisely no travel aspect. Help me out, go on - I need suggestions of celtic sites and attractions more than anything. Ta. This is currently about 600 words - I need to cut some bits and add some bits to make it fit:

In the 5th century BC Heroditus recorded the Celts as living between the source of the river Istros (the Danube) and the Pillars of Hercules – effectively from Germany to Portugal. Their first recorded appearance was in c.400 BC, forcing the Etruscans out of the Po valley in northern Italy and clashing with envoys of Rome in the process. Marching on to the capital of the nascent Empire, the Celtic leader Brennus inflicted one of the worst defeats that Rome would see for centuries. A few decades later, in 335BC, Alexander the Great met a Celtic delegation on the shores of the Adriatic where, according to Ptolemy, they offered their friendship, stating that the only thing they were afraid of was the sky falling down around them.

According to 1st century BC Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, the Celts were “terrifying... They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane.” Another distinguishing feature, in a world where tunics were still the norm, was the habit of the men to wear bracae, or trousers.

Today, the descendants of the Celts survive predominantly in the British Isles – primarily in Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, though with strong remaining influences in the northern and western fringes of England, to where they were driven by successive invasions by the Romans and Anglo Saxons. But no one really knows how the Celts themselves came to Britain – were they the descendants of those who built Stonehenge, invaders or peaceful migrants? Some have even argued that they were merely an invention of 18th century Empire-builders, keen to create a sense of British national pride.

But the sense of mystery, the tales of warriors, the traces of complex and sinewy artworks and the ever-present legends of the Druids, not to mention the ongoing pride of the Celtic nations, has helped ensure that the Celtic peoples retain a very particular place in European, and especially British identity.

Despite their warrior origins, the Celtic tradition was, until the coming of Rome, entirely oral. As such, it was only after the Roman conquest that any written record of the Celts appeared in the British isles, and it is doubtless in part due to this that the Celtic tradition today is that of the plucky and oppressed underdog. Revolts in the 15th and 16th centuries to preserve the Cornish language have been followed in the 19th and 20th centuries by concerted efforts to revive Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, while Scottish and Irish immigrants to North America have continued to cling to their Celtic roots even while, like their forebears during the coming of Christianity, they have become integrated with their new culture.
Too tedious at the moment, isn't it? Damn. (Oh, and sorry - I wouldn't normally do this sort of thing; highly unprofessional etc.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Most "my government"s since 1999

I always wonder how Her Majesty can bring herself to read out the nonsensical drivel she's always handed for the state opening of parliament. This year's speech also had the added sick-making factor of seeming to want to identify itself more than usual with old Brenda - Blair's lot seem especially keen to remind the country that they are the Queen's government after their shaky election performance.

In a bored moment I decided to count up how many times her Maj was forced to refer to Blair and Co. as "my government". In an even more bored moment, I decided to do some comparison. The last time that phrase was used as many times was back in 1999, where the poor dear had to associate herself with Blair's lot 39 times. Back to Buck House for a few G&Ts after that one, methinks...

Is there any significance to this, or just an example of piss-poor repetitive speechwriting on the part of Downing Street? Who knows - but the last Queen's speech under a Tory government only used the phrase 14 times, and they're meant to be the royalists...

Here's the Blair/Brenda Queen's Speech love-in tally, for anyone interested:

1996 - 14
1997 - 27
1998 - 31
1999 - 39
2000 - 22
2001 - 22
2002 - 23
2003 - 27
2004 - 28
2005 - 33

(And no, I can't be bothered to go through counting the broken promises, or to trawl through the pre-internet speeches prior to 1996...)

Poor old Liz. She, after all, has to accept responsibility for all Blair's crap as the only person in the country who actually made him PM, and something tells me she's not exactly in a position to break with recent tradition and use her royal prerogative and get rid of the bastard. But you can tell from the look on her face she's not happy. Gawd bless 'er (etc.)

Religious and political hatred

The Queen's Speech today is going to announce the revival of this particularly stupid bill (among many other, equally stupid bits of legislation).

What I still don't get - an obvious point, maybe - is precisely how it is possible to ban incitement to religous hatred without banning religion itself?

Be it the Christians with their "one true God" (which is, of course, a slightly different one true God depending on which sect you belong to) or the Muslims with theirs, the whole POINT of religion is that you believe that you are right and everyone who believes differently is wrong - heathens, gentiles, infidels, whatever. If you are strongly religious - of whatever faith - you by definition have a massive superiority complex over all the unbelievers, as you have seen the way, the truth and the light and they have not. Such smugness breeds contempt on both sides; contempt leads to hatred.

In most interpretations of most different faiths, it is the solemn duty of any true believer to convert those who have not seen the light. Missionaries are sent out. Evangelists stand on street corners. They generally spout on about how we're all going to burn in hell unless we do and believe exactly what they tell us. (Sounds a tad like the government and their terror warnings, come to think of it...)

Does someone telling me I'm going to burn in hell for not embracing The Lord God Our Saviour Who Died For All Our Sins (TM) count as religious hatred? Does me telling them to fuck off and leave me alone? Does slamming the door in the face of a Jehovah's Witness count?

What about things like The New Humanist, which exist solely to dissect and challenge religious belief? Is the government proposing to ban The Rationalist Society? How about atheists - are they going to become illegal? They frequently mock and challenge religious folk and doctrine.

And in any case, isn't part of the point of having faith to be able to have that faith challenged yet to continue to believe? The Christian martyrs were tortured to death, yet held onto their conviction that their God was the true one. Are their spiritual heirs really so weak-willed that having a few people mock them and call them idiots will make them abandon Christ? If so their faith is already dead and pointless. We're doing them a favour.

According to that FAQ, the people affected by the new law would be

"Individuals and members of extremist and racist organisations and parties who stir up hatred of groups defined by their religious beliefs. Also, religious extremists who stir up hatred against members of other religions."
So, that would include not only every evangelist in the country, but also the entire Cabinet, all of whom have been complicit in the post-9/11 anti-Muslim tirades (which, naturally, were aimed solely at the extremists and fanatics, but which have nonetheless ensured that Musliims throught the country are now viewed with distrust and fear by the rest of the population). Will Charles Clarke have to arrest first the Prime Minister and then himself?

Of course, what this really is is merely another facet of the "anti-terror" legislation Blair and Co. keep trying to force through. The people most likely to use inflammatory rhetoric will not be Catholic priests or the beardily inoffensive Archbishop of Canterbury, but the hardline mullahs of the more extreme mosques.

After years of trying and failing to get rid of the likes of Abu Hamza for connections to terrorism (for which there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, but we allowed him to be extradited anyway despite his holding a British passport because, erm...), a law like this would enable an instant lock-up because their overblow language - not that different to the fire and brimstone sermons of the Victorian Church of England - can happily be interpreted literally.

In other words, this will all come down to semantic interpretation. The local vicar telling us how the pharasees and Jews betrayed and killed Our Lord Jesus Christ will be fine (because, you know, the fact that Jews have frequently faced attack from irate Christians over the centuries due to their involvement in the Christian God's death OBVIOUSLY hasn't come from Biblical blame-throwing...). But if someone at a mosque suspected of having terrorist links happens to use the term "infidel" then we'll lock him up and throw away the key.

By showing absolute contempt for religion in using it as a convenient veil for more suspect motives, is the government again in breach of the proposed bill? And what the pissing hell right does Tony fucking Blair have to dictate to anyone about religion in the first place? The smug little God-botherer. He was the one who incited me to religious hatred through his holier-than-though insistence that everything he does is alright because he "believed it to be the right thing to do". This belief stems from his Christian faith, so I hold his faith in contempt.

Oooh, I'm annoyed.

A bit of nice reading

While remaining overworked and uninspired, there are a couple of interesting pieces over at The Sharpener.

First up is Third Avenue with a great overview of precisely why referendums are so rubbish and anathema to the British political system. After all, how can a "yes/no" question possibly be enough to provide an indication of national feeling on issues as complex as devolution or the EU? Applying a strict monochrome interpretation to an issue which is decidedly greyscale is liable only to create further difficulties should the UK ever get to hold its referendum on the constitution.

Then we have Meaders on some of the faultlines which have sprung up after the general election, which is well worth a look. I think we can forgive him his partisan appeal just this once...

Meanwhile, the Curious Hamster has a handy linkdump of some topical stories from around the UK and the world amidst ponderings on what to do with his blog now that the election has finished and us self-appointed pundits have to try a bit harder to dig out engaging stories.

Still, expect some more of the usual trademark Nosemonkey wit and insight (*ahem*) tomorrow, probably - freelance deadlines are clogging up all my spare writing time. Hopefully by then I'll have my radio working properly again so I can get the inspirational news hit that is The Today Programme when I wake up of a morning. Radio 3 is all very well and good, but Rachmaninov is hardly conducive to prompting topical news analysis. (And by the way - can anyone explain the mentality of running a pirate drum 'n' bass station at seven o'clock in the morning? The absolute bastards have wiped out Radio 4 completely for me...)

Monday, May 16, 2005

The global revolution

Nope, I haven't turned into a commie or anything. I am, however, feeling rather uninspired - unlike those revolutionaries and rebels contained within the Carnival of the Revolutions over at Siberian Light - a handy summary of all the various revolts and uprisings currently kicking off around the world.

Uzbekistan is currently in the news following the slaughter of hundreds of protestors by government forces over the weekend, but central Asia isn't the only for pro-democracy activity. It's about time we started looking beyond our own back yards after the last few months of Anglo-centric obsession. A bit more foreign affairs will be returning to Europhobia over the coming weeks. Probably.

Update: Manic gets a tad miffed at the double standards and hypocrisy in the UK's official attitude to Uzbekistan. Good stuff.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

EU budget balls-up

As predicted, the negotiations for the EU's new budget were not exactly easy, and have ended in collapse.

Brussels really isn't trying overly hard to make itself seem appealing in the run-up to contentious constitution referendums, is it? Bloody shambles.

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