Thursday, April 30, 2009

A French Existentialist Radio Play: Dans la Chambre

When I was a child, my family used to take me on camping trips to France. Once, on one of these trips, I was playing in some rock-pools on a beach in Normandy and a French boy about my age came up to me. He started asking me questions.

In the best French accent I could muster, I tried to answer him: "Je suis Angleterre!"

He must have thought me either mad or patriotic in the extreme (if a distinction exists).

Since that day, my French hasn't really improved. I can just about string together series of words into meaningless sentences.

Not very good for camping holidays in Normandy... but perfect for a French existentialist radio play!

I present "Dans la chambre" - a play looking at the very essence of what it is to be human in a world without meaning.

The purpose of this is to practice my French in a fun way. If you speak French, please let me know how my pronunciation is!

Bon appétit!


video

Comment: Should Gordon Brown Hold a Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty?

Bit of debate on Etan Smallman's blog here.

Gordon Brown promised a referendum on the EU Constitution. The Constitution was rejected in referenda in France and the Netherlands. It was then re-drafted as the Treaty of Lisbon. Is Gordon Brown still obligated to give the UK a referendum? Are the EU Constitution and the Treaty of Lisbon really that different?

My comment:

They’re about 90% the same (if not more). All references to states or constitutions removed (no mention of national anthems or flags, etc). Some stuff was shifted around from the main body into annexes (no practical difference in doing that, as it’s still legally binding, but makes it less obvious)

I agree that if you make a promise for a referendum on the constitution, it should still apply to Lisbon. I have no polling data at hand, but my gut tells me it would fail.

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Comment: TH!NK ABOUT IT in the Greek Media

Stergios Mavrikis reports in his blog (here) that the TH!NK ABOUT IT project has been recieving some attention from the mainstream media in Greece. Great stuff!

Me and Stergios were involved a few weeks ago in a discussion about the conflict in Cyprus (on another blogger's page - here). I had been fairly critical of the original post, and I had behaved badly. Cyprus is a modern conflict in which there have been many deaths and tragedies, and so when speaking to someone directly involved, you have to show sensitivity. I don't think I did this properly.

It's okay to be critical - but you also have to remember that if people are directly involved, it is not an abstract thing they are talking about. They may be personally involved in the conflict, and these are issues very close to them.

Still, I hope there aren't any hard feelings!

Here's my comment:

Congratulations, Stergios!

All of the TH!NK writers are involved in a very exciting experiment! Is it possible to artificially create a community of online writers through a competition such as this?

You have now demonstrated that you have the attention of at least part of the mainstream. Now you have to consilidate that attention build upon it!

The most interesting thing for me is to see if TH!NK bloggers keep on writing AFTER the competition is concluded. I hope you do!

P.S. I hope we’re still on good terms after our earlier conversation about Cyprus. I read your profile, and you have almost identical interests to me (especially when it comes to European identity). I’d love to hear more about your research!

Regards,
Joe

P.S. I do know how to spell consolidate!
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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Modern Slavery Inside the EU


READING TIME:
10 minutes.

Most people associate "slavery" with the transatlantic slave trade, abolished in the 19th century. One estimate puts the number of Africans enslaved in that trade at over 11 million. But slavery did not end in the 19th century. It's still with us in the 21st.

Zambia, human trafficking posterImage by mvcorks via Flickr

As with most statistics on crime, calculating the extent of the problem is difficult. Victims are unlikely to be reported unless they are actually discovered by authorities. The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) admits that:

"Available information is often based on estimates with little explanation on how figures were calculated." (UN.GIFT, 2008, p.3)

Nonetheless, UN.GIFT fears the problem is growing each year and might even be "reaching epidemic proportions" (ibid). Those sources that do cite figures, despite running into the methodological problems outlined by UN.GIFT, can at least suggest the scale that modern slavery is operating on.

The UN International Labour Organization (ILO) published a "Minimum Estimate of Forced Labour in the World" in 2005 and came up with the figure of 12.3 million (Belser et al, 2005, p.1). Another study, published by Dr. Kevin Bales of the NGO Free the Slaves, puts the figure higher at 27 million (Bales, 2007, p.2).


DEFINITIONS: A PROBLEM OF IDENTITY

There is, of course, still the problem of how to actually define "slavery." Free the Slaves has published a list of 12 terms commonly used in place of the word "slavery" by journalists, academics, politicians, etc. These terms vary from "debt bondage" to "human trafficking" to "slavery-like conditions [popular with journalists]." The problem is, most of these terms actually are technically distinct: debt bondage is not the same thing as human trafficking!

By making these technical distinctions clear, is the power of the word "slavery" lost? Does it become easier to disconnect emotionally from the topic? And if it does become easier to disconnect, is this necessarily a bad thing? Does it not, in fact, provide needed objectivity? Or does it just encourage people to ignore the issue?

Certainly, we only seem to make these technical distinctions when discussing modern instances of slavery. "Debt bondage" and "human trafficking" have existed since the institution of slavery was first recorded, yet we still speak in more general terms of "slavery" when we refer to the practices in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece (Greene, 2000). Why then is there such a language bias today? Is it because we conceptualise slavery as belonging to the past? Or is there a more complicated reason?

HUMAN TRAFFICKING: A TERM WE CAN ALL AGREE ON?

One of the terms used most often when describing modern slavery is "trafficking in persons" (or "human trafficking"). Some commentators, though, have strongly criticised this term for being too detached:

“The transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries involved the trafficking of eleven million Africans across thousands of miles to work as slaves on plantations. Why is this historical practice termed a slave trade and the same practice today termed trafficking? This linguistic attenuation scrambles global attention and blunts abolitionist policies.” (Kara, 2008, pp.4-5)

Even the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, has written about the problems of terminology, arguing that:

"The term trafficking in persons can be misleading: it places emphasis on the transaction aspects of a crime that is more accurately described as enslavement." (Costa, 2008, p.1)

If it is misleading, then why does "human trafficking" still persist as the term of choice used to describe modern slavery? The critics certainly seem to have a convincing argument: describing it as "human trafficking" makes it sound like the crime is in the moving of a person across borders, rather than in the enslavement of a person against their will.

Perhaps a part of the reason for the continued use of "human trafficking" might be the increasingly blurred boundaries between what is actually human trafficking and what is just "human smuggling" (i.e. "illegal" or "irregular" migration, as it is also known). Some critics point to a "migration-crime-security continuum" that sees "migrants themselves... criminalized and their experiences of victimization [overlooked]." (Goodey, 2003, p.416). In other words, according to this argument, politicians are eager not to be seen as being too "soft" on illegal immigration, and this can also unfortunately result in victims of trafficking being prejudiced against legally as a result.

The UN's legal definitions of both human trafficking and human smuggling are set out in the two "Palermo Protocols" adopted in Palermo, Italy, in the year 2000. The Palermo Protocols replaced an earlier definition of human trafficking from 1949 that had proved less than successful:

"Few countries had signed the 1949 Convention, partly because of controversies over its definition. (Skilbrei and Tveit, 2008, p.11)"

The definition of human trafficking is a sensitive subject for a lot of countries (including the United States, Germany and the UK, none of which had ratified the 1949 Convention), but the ILO argues that the distinction is now (post-Palermo Protocols) legally clear:

"The distinction between smuggling and trafficking, now firmly anchored in international law, has clarified that irregular migration processes can involve violation of human rights as much as they are a violation of state borders. Those who have suffered human rights violations are seen as trafficked victims and should be afforded protection measures." (Andrees, 2008, p.1)

So whether a victim is deemed to have been "trafficked" or merely "smuggled" (and also, therefore, the nature of the legal protection they are afforded) is dependent upon the treatment of the victim by the trafficker/smuggler. Specifically, according to the Palermo Protocols, the determinate of whether or not a victim has been "trafficked" or "smuggled" is whether or not the victim is being "exploited" commercially through "sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs" (Article 3a) and whether that exploitation is being achieved through illicit means (such as force, deception, abduction, fraud, etc.).

This goes right to the heart of the controversy surrounding the definition of "human trafficking," because by defining human trafficking as being essentially the same thing as human smuggling with the caveat that trafficking involves the infringement of the individuals' rights, this definition is potentially offering extra legal rights to "illegal immigrants."

BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES EVEN FURTHER

Elizabeth Pisani, author of The Wisdom of Whores, warns of the dangers of taking the worst-treated victims of human trafficking and generalising their experiences across the entire sex industry. She believes that, in the context of protecting sex workers:

"[T]reating all sex workers as though they are the helpless victims of trafficking is short-sighted and counterproductive." (Pisani, 2008, p. 227)

Furthermore, she argues:

"The 'victim' thing takes us back to the religious convictions of right-wing voters in the United States. In recent years they have launched a crusade to equate prostitution with human trafficking... I don't doubt that some pimps and brothel owners hold women and young girls against their will, forcing them to sell sex and sometimes even keeping all of the payment for themselves. But these cases of slavery appear to me to be relatively rare." (ibid, pp.213-217)

By challenging the identification of prostitution with "victimhood," Pisani's argument serves to further blur the boundaries between human trafficking and human smuggling. Is a woman who is smuggled for sexual exploitation with her consent not necessarily a victim of trafficking? Should she be treated as a criminal or as a victim?

A closer reading of the Palermo Protocols does not help matters. Sub-paragraph (b) of the definition of human trafficking states:

( b ) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph ( a ) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph ( a ) have been used;

So even if a victim consents to being smuggled, they should still be considered trafficked if certain means are employed in their recruitment. These "means" include not only force and deception, but also the abuse of a "position of vulnerability" over the victim. This immediately raises certain complications.

Martin Wyss, for example, Chief of Mission of the International Organisation for Migration in Moldova, has argued that in Moldova (one of the poorest countries in Europe) most victims of trafficking come from:

"vulnerable, broken families... [they] have looked for an alternative in Moldova and didn't manage to find one... [and they] act out of despair." (IMO, 2007)

Does this mean that, because of their especially vulnerable economic and social environment, irregular migrants from Moldova should automatically be considered victims of trafficking and not smuggling?

Wyss argues that a fixation on the question of consent is, at best, unhelpful:

"[The] question is always: how well did the victim know before she entered the trafficking trap. How 'guilty' she is... It is completely unfair to blame the victims, because even if they knew that they had to work [as a prostitute] in a bar, they never imagined the working conditions and they were always promised things that they didn't get." (IOM, 2007)

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

Human trafficking/slavery is always a highly complex issue in any regional context. But the nature of the European Union, with relatively poor countries in Eastern Europe sharing borders with the wealthy countries of Western Europe, and especially with the porous nature of national borders following the Schengen Agreement, makes for a particularly complicated situation (Kara, 2008, p.11).


In addition, the status of human trafficking in Europe is not a static, unchanging thing. It is constantly evolving in response to the new possibilities of globalization, the pressures of economic forces and the reactions of states, NGOs and law enforcement agencies. Anti-trafficking policies, if properly targeted and implemented, can have a real impact. Martin Wyss reports, for example, that:

"The statistics show that there are now very few victims from the Balkans these days. We believe that a concerted action from the international communities has had an effect." (IOM, 2007)

But just as fast as old trafficking routes are closed down, new ones open up. Lilia Gorceag, a psychologist working with the IOM Mission in Moldova, explains:

"At the beginning it was Kosovo and the Balkans. Today it has shifted to the Middle East, especially Turkey, as well as Russia and Ukraine. There is also internal trafficking." (IOM, 2007)

So what is the correct approach to take? Critics of the current international response have argued that "the international community has been... obsessed with stretching out their hands to the victims of trafficking" at the expense of a concerted focus on prevention (IOM, 2007). More effort needs to be spent addressing the root cause of trafficking, i.e; the conditions of poverty in developing countries that make people so desperate. But is this goal at all realistic? Elizabeth Pisani thinks not:

"To wipe out prostitution, you'd have to wipe out the poverty that fuels the supply side. A noble goal. But [some studies] suggest that prostitution is driven by demand more than suppply. So you'd also have to wipe out whatever it is that makes men buy sex." (Pisani, 2008, p.220)

Pisani is speaking in the context of international prostitution but her argument could equally be applied to human trafficking in general. Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is by far the most common form of trafficking (representing 79% of all victims) - although it should be pointed out that there could be a statistical bias at work here (Costa, 2008, p.2).

Pisani's argument is that it is essentially not possible to eliminate prostitution. In an age of increasing globalization, people will always cross borders, whether legally or illegally - and they will travel to anywhere better paid jobs can be found. Pisani thus calls not for prevention, but for more attention to be paid to targeting those factors that make life for prostitutes so dangerous and unbearable. These measures could be better distribution of condoms, funding for sex-education programs, and possibly even the legalisation and regulation of prostitution.

Would the legalisation of prostitution and increased representation of the rights of prostitutes (for example, through unions) help ease those factors that generate the violence against and mistreatment of victims of human trafficking? It's not completely clear that it would. Trafficking also takes place for the purposes of exploitation of manual labour (Costa, 2008, p.2) and labour is not prohibited like prostitution. Slave labour is exploited because it is cheaper than normal labour, and likewise sex slaves would always be cheaper than well-protected prostitutes.

Siddharth Kara, in his book, Sex Trafficking, argues that:

"The best short-term tactics against the industry are those that reduce the aggregate demand of consumers and slave owners. The most effective way to reduce aggregate demand is to attack the industry's immense profitability by inverting its risk-reward economics, that is, by making the risk of operating a sex slave operation far more costly." (Kara, 2008, p.200)

In other words, a greater emphasis on effective law enforcement and punishment. So where should the emphasis lie? On prevention, on protection (of victims rights) or on enforcement? In a perfect world: on all three. But in a real world of limited resources and political attention, the solution is unclear.

The difficulty in finding a definition of modern slavery is not just a side-argument, though. It is absolutely fundamental. It represents the current divided political opinion about modern slavery. Are modern slaves innocent victims of violence and intimidation? Or are they immigrants trying to cross borders illegally and fully aware that they will be entering into prostitution or other forms of exploitation?

In the middle of a global economic recession, it is entirely possible that views on modern slavery may harden even as increasing poverty drives more and more people into the hands of traffickers. If anything is clear from my investigations into the status of modern slavery, it is that more needs to be done to promote a general understanding of the realities and problems of the situation.

Beyond that limited suggestion, it is difficult for me to fully endorse one approach over another (especially given my limited knowledge of the subject). International institutions such as UN bodies have produced many considered and well-researched suggestions, but their hands can still be tied politically as they depend upon governments for support and funding. Opinions from academics and activists depend on who you are talking to and what their political beliefs are.

The fundamental question, then, is still one of definition. How you respond to human trafficking will depend on politics, and politics depends on how you define human trafficking. We seem to be getting closer to a consensus (with more countries having signed up to the Palermo Protocol than the 1949 Convention) but until clarity is achieved, we may find ourselves continuing to work at cross-purposes.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Andrees, B. (2008) Forced Labour and Trafficking in Europe: How People are Trapped In, Live Through and Come Out, International Labour Office, Geneva

Bales, K. (2007) Defining and Measuring Modern Slavery, Free the Slaves, http://www.freetheslaves.net/Document.Doc?id=21 (Accessed April 2009)

Belser, P. et al (2005) ILO Minimum Estimate of Forced Labour in the World, International Labour Office, Geneva, http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_081913.pdf
(Accessed April 2009)

Costa, A. (2008) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons: Executive Summary, UNODC

Goodey, J. (2003) "Migration, Crime and Victimhood: Responses to Sex Trafficking in the EU," Punishment Society, 5 (415)

Greene, J.D. (2000) Slavery in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Franklin Watts

IOM (2007) Testimonies of Victims of Human Trafficking (DVD), International Organisation for Migration, Mission to the Republic of Moldova

Kara, S. (2008) Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Columbia University Press, New York

Pisani, E. (2008) The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS, Boydell & Brewer


Skilbrei, M. and Tveit, M. (2008) "Defining Trafficking through Empirical Work: Blurred Boundaries and their Consequences," Gender Technology and Development, 12 (9)

UN.GIFT (2008) Human Trafficking: An Overview, United Nations, New York, http://www.ungift.org/docs/ungift/pdf/knowledge/ebook.pdf (Accessed April 2009)



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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Comments: TH!NK ABOUT IT Bloggers Start Interviewing MEPs

I've been commenting a lot on the TH!NK ABOUT IT site recently. I promise I do comment on other blogs, and you're probably all bored about me banging on about TH!NK ABOUT IT all the time, but I've been really impressed by both the quality and quantity of posts coming out of that site.

Today, for some reason, was a great day for interesting posts in the EU blogosphere, and a good number of them came from TH!NK. That project really has become the centre of the indy EU blogosphere in many ways (must. stop. over-using. the. word. blogo. sphere.)

Unlike most EU blogs, TH!NK ABOUT IT bloggers are not blogging as part of an institution or political party. Sure, they're being encouraged by the European Journalism Centre, but there're still writing independently of it. I really hope that at least some of them keep their taste for EU blogging and continue posting after the EU competition.

In fact, things are really starting to get very interesting over at the TH!NK ABOUT IT project. Not only is the daily post count rising, but the latest evolution of the project has seen more bloggers start carrying out filmed and written interviews with members of the public (usually fellow students) and, more impressively, with MEPs! Although this gives MEPs a chance to propagandise a bit with (mostly) unexperienced proto-journalists, it's also an example of EU bloggers doing actual primary research instead of just analysis!

Bart Staes managed to score an interview with a Belgian Green MEP and asked some very interesting questions (including a couple of tough-ish questions, such as: "Why are Greens needed if the other parties put these three crises on their agenda too?") [EDIT: Bart Staes is actually the name of the MEP! The blogger's name is Veerle Vrindts and "he" is actually a "she"! Sorry, Veerle! This is what I get for not reading things properly!] His [EDIT: HER!!] post can be read here.

I left a comment on his [EDIT: her] blog, encouraging him [EDIT: her] to try and get more interviews and asking him [EDIT: her] to share some tips so that other TH!NK bloggers will have an idea about how to go about setting up their own interviews with MEPs.

Here's my comment:

"Great job, Bart!

More and more TH!NK bloggers are actually getting out there and doing original journalism - conducting interviews with the public and with MEPs! That’s exactly what we need! (Nobody else is covering the EU elections, so you guys should do it!) :D

Tell us a little about how you went about your interview, though. Did you have a tape recorder? A camera? Did you take notes with a pen and paper? Did you have your questions pre-prepared, or did you think them up on the spot?

Regards,

Joe"


Frank Schnittger posted a very interesting analysis here on the current situation facing Libertas, the anti-Lisbon Treaty party. What most interested me, though, was that Frank has managed to arrange an interview with a politician and is asking his readers to submit questions. Not only would it be great if TH!NK bloggers organised more interviews with MEPs, but if they all asked readers for question submissions it would be fantastic! I'm not sure if people will take Frank up on his offer (it's difficult to think up good questions when you're not familiar with the politics!) but I'd strongly encourage everyone to use the opportunity!

I left a comment on his blog chastising him for not making a bigger deal about his interview:

"Hi, Frank!

Great article - very well written!

I have one teeny piece of criticism, Frank… it’s that you wrote this very interesting article about Libertas, and then RIGHT AT THE VERY END you have a miniscule paragraph about how you will be interviewing a Fianna Fáil politician and you’re happy to take questions from your readers!!

When is your interview? Please, please, if you have time, put together a seperate post briefly profiling Dick Roche and asking for people to submit questions! This is a great opportunity and really deserves to be another post in itself. At the moment, your Libertas analysis is distracting from it!

Other than that, good stuff!

Joe"


In contrast to the good proto-journalism being carried out by TH!NK bloggers, there were a couple of posts bemoaning the lack of attention the mainstream media is giving the EU elections, and the lack of campaigning by parties. To think! A bunch of grubby bloggers putting the mainstream to shame!

Eamonn Fitzgerald (here) spotted what might be Italy's first EU election poster in Rome.

My comment:

"Woo hoo! If I’m not mistaken, you’ve spotted Italy’s first EU election poster! And it’s all about… national politics.

Hehe, well - can’t complain! At least “Elezioni Europee” is mentioned!"


And Etan Smallman (on his blog here) noticed a Conservative Party EU election poster in the UK.

My comment:

Hi, Etan!

This is an interesting poster. The slogan “give us a referendum” makes it sound to me like the Tories are demanding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU!

Of course, they’re actually only talking about a referendum on Lisbon.

This might just be the way I’m interpreting the poster, but I’m sure the Conservatives are going for the Eurosceptic vote.

Well - at least they’ve actually started campaigning!


I look forward to more posts like these!



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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Comment: Don't They Know The Elections Are a Month Away?

TH!NK ABOUT IT is churning out plenty of high-quality posts recently, and there's another one there today from Helena Mercer, a student in the UK, lamenting the lack of any obvious campaigning by UK parties despite the elections being a little over a month away.

My comment:

Hi, Helena

It's not just the UK, unfortunately! Everyone in Italy is focusing on the local elections in May - and the European elections have received no attention.

Just yesterday Katrina wrote an interesting piece about the threat of the BNP getting in if you don't vote in the European elections:

http://www.thinkaboutit.eu/2009/04/wheres-the-hype/

I have to say, it definitely makes me want to vote!

Joe
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E-mail re "The Results of the Icelandic General Elections"

Dear Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson,

I've been reading your blog, EU News from Iceland, with great interest! Your latest post about the Icelandic elections was well written and explained things clearly to us outsiders!

However, somebody recently tipped me off to an article in the Icelandic review that argues the exact opposite - that a vote in the Althingi for applying to join the EU will likely pass with a
43 out of 63 majority.

I was wondering what your views were on this? Is it likely?

Regards,

Joe Litobarski

P.S. I have cc'd a copy of this e-mail straight to my public blog here. I'd love to publish your response as well, but please let me know if you would prefer me not to.

Comment: Vote in the EU Elections or the BNP Will Get In!

A nice post by Katrina Jane Bishop over at TH!NK ABOUT IT.

My comment:

Cheers for this post, Katrina!

I have to admit: I hadn't thought about the EU elections this way. It seems much more important to vote when you consider that by abstaining you are making it easier for extremist parties to get in.

Comment: TH!NK ABOUT IT Interviews with Young Europeans

I'm going to make more of an effort to comment on other blogs. I'll post a copy of whatever comments I make here (I'm using Scribefire, so there's no excuse not to).

Today, I came across an interesting post by Bulgarian blogger Boyan Yurukov on the TH!NK ABOUT IT competition site. I just left him some encouragement. Here's my comment:

Nice post, Boyan!

Good use of pictures and it's nice to see more interviews! One tiny thing: a couple of Plamena's questions and answers are mixed up - but it's very minor!

Regards,
Joe

Friday, April 17, 2009

Less Than Zero: The Impact of The EU Blogging Circus

[Image: Scary Clown - Burning Life, Constanza Volare, 2008,
Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic, edited by Josef Litobarski, 2009]

The always interesting EU blogger Julien Frisch came up with a provocative post today about the state of the EU blogosphere. I've wanted to post something about EU blogging for some time now, and Julien has given me the kick-start I needed.

His argument was a sophisticated one: Julien feels that because the EU blogosphere is so very small and so very geeky, we write under the illusion that nobody is actually listening to us. On the rare occasion that a "non-geek" does actually lift the lid on our grubby little world, it's a rather disconcerting experience.

The EU blogosphere is a "quasi-private" realm. It's not quasi-private because our ramblings are concealed - everything is conducted very publicly - but because the obscure, geeky nature of our subject-matter ensures that hardly anybody bothers to read what we write. Julien calls this public/private world the "Circus of Geeks."

"Look Mummy, There is a Geek. And He's Blogging!"

It's difficult to know how much this quasi-privacy is actually an illusion. After all, as Steffan pointed out in his blog today, comments are not always the best way to gauge how much of an impact your blog is having. Tools like Google Analytics can help you determine how much traffic you are receiving, and if any of that traffic is coming from important domains like the offices of the EU Commission or Parliament, but that's a very nerdy and very imprecise way of assessing your impact (also, does that mean your blog is a failure if it hasn't been read by an intern at the European Parliament on his/her coffee break?)

Is the best that our carnival of geeks can ever truly hope to achieve really a "close to zero" impact on the real world? Are we doomed to look on in envy as "mainstream" political bloggers get ministers fired and expose political scandals (and how bad is it when you can describe other bloggers as "mainstream"?)

Stephen Pollard wrote a piece in The Times this week about the dangers of over-estimating the impact of blogging:

I know from my own experience as a blogger, a columnist and now an editor that there is no comparison between the impact of a newspaper and a blog. If I write something critical of government policy on my blog, it might produce a sage nod in agreement somewhere, but that's it. When, however, the Jewish Chronicle recently attacked the Government's plan to grant a visa to Hezbollah's spokesman, it helped to bring about a volte-face by the Home Secretary.

This goes double for the EU blogosphere. I'm quite sure our impact is less than zero.

EU 2.0b or Not 2.0b - That is The Question

Frank Schnittger, one of the bloggers over at the TH!NK ABOUT IT competition site, wondered last month if the competition might be dying.

TH!NK ABOUT IT, a project run by the European Journalism Centre, is a blogging competition designed to provoke interest in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections in June. Judging by the predictions of historically low turnouts in many member-states, by that criteria the project may not have been much of a success.

However, in terms of expanding our little circus of EU geeks, it could be great. Far from dying, the project is generating a lot of interesting posts and discussions. For my part, I've decided to make more of an effort to encourage all of the TH!NK bloggers to keep posting as we get closer to the elections. Not that I think their efforts will have any real impact on the actual elections - but the more geeks in the carnival, the bigger the show! In other words: if we have close to zero impact at the moment, it can't hurt things to develop a larger EU blogosphere.

And it really does encourage you as a blogger to receive comments and questions. Even if it's only fellow geeks commenting, it reminds you that people are actually listening. This is why I'm going to try to comment more on both TH!NK ABOUT IT and on other EU bloggers' sites in general from now on. Furthermore, I'm going to have a go at writing more posts like this one: examining what's being said by other bloggers and writing follow-ups. This is how debate takes shape.

The idea behind web 2.0 was always that it's not so much about the technology (which is often already in place) as it is about the community. By commenting more, posting more, interacting more and generally strengthening the network, it's possible to build up a vibrant internet community that draws from itself and turns up unique and fascinating debate.

In some respects, the tiny nature of the EU blogosphere is actually its biggest strength. There are literally a handful of names that turn up in the comments section of blogs, time and time again. It's easy to get to know people, and to start developing a dialogue. People are friendly and polite (if they insult each other, then absolutely nobody will be reading their blogs) and generally very welcoming to newcomers.

There' s Another Show in Town

Despite trying to be as neutral as I can in my approach to the EU, I find myself reading and commenting on broadly pro-EU blogs more often than not. This is a mistake. There is, you see, another show in town. Over the road from the circus-tent of the EUrophile geeks is the EUrosceptic geeks' tent. The two groups of clowns mostly stay in their separate tents, but very occasionally one or two will wander across for an argument.

Now, the blogosphere is a great place for debate. But it's also very prone to the dangers of tribalism and cyberbalkanization. I was having a debate with a EUrosceptic on Nosemonkey's blog recently, and I was reminded how important it is to engage properly with people that oppose your views (and I mean actually listening to what they're saying and trying to find common ground rather than just thinking up counter-arguments).

There was some minor heckling and name-calling on Nosemonkey's blog, but mostly the discussion has been civil and very interesting. I honestly feel I learned a lot. And it got me thinking: if now is the time to develop the EU blogosphere and strengthen the network of connections between bloggers, then now is almost certainly also the perfect time to strengthen those connections between the two tribes of geeks.

The EU blogosphere, whilst insignificantly tiny now, will not stay small forever. Despite growing painfully slowly over the last few years, it has nonetheless been growing. And as it grows, there are two possible directions it could take. The two camps could either grow increasingly polarised and separated, or they could maintain civil (and maybe even friendly?) relations.

So, in order to try to encourage the latter path of development, I'm going to try to visit, read and comment on as many EUrosceptic blogs as I can. I'm also going try to tone down the rhetoric when speaking with EUrosceptics, and call them out when they lapse into their own rhetoric. And I will be doing exactly the same when I speak to EUrophiles, especially if I see them mocking or insulting a position. If possible, I'd like to be on first-name terms with as many bloggers as I can by the end of this year (both EUrosceptic and EUrophile).

A Hippy Love EU Blogocooperative

This doesn't mean I want the EU blogosphere to morph into some sort of hippy love EU blogocooperative. My point is that it's useless to stay within your own ideological tribe and not to engage properly (and politely) with all opposing views.

Here are some of the things I intend to do:
  1. Write more blog posts in response to things other EU bloggers have posted.
  2. Admit more often (publicly) when I've made a mistake or changed my opinion. It's not "flip-flopping" and it doesn't invalidate my whole system of belief to admit I've made a mistake.
  3. Listen closely to what other people are saying and engage with them seriously, no matter how badly argued I may feel their position is (I may very well not be understanding them properly - see below).
  4. Make sure I'm absolutely clear I understand what a person is saying before I attack their point.
  5. Ask more questions.
  6. Do more research.
  7. Criticise people from both sides of the debate if they lapse into rhetoric or insults.
  8. Read and comment more (offering both support and criticism) on blogs from both sides of the debate.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Are Carrots Fruit? Does the EU Destroy Lives?

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This post grew from a lengthy discussion I've been having with readers on another EU blogger's site. As often happens with the EU, things quickly became a bit bogged down in the details and soon veered completely off-topic. And, as often happens in my life, lengthy and detailed discussions about jam and trucking ensued.

I'll open up a thread here just so that Nosemonkey's blog doesn't get dragged even further off-topic. If anyone feels like commenting, you're welcome to. Otherwise: here's the gist of what I was arguing.

Carrots = Fruit, Jam for the Making Of?

Things kicked off when Tim Worstall argued that:

"I don’t think there should be a law about whether carrots are fruit, jam for the making of, or not. So long as your Doce de Cenoura has a great big picture of a carrot on it to explain the orange colour, and the label as “cenoura on it, that’s all that anyone needs."

The EU directive claiming that carrots are fruit can be found here. I gave it a quick once-over, and it's a fairly dull directive largely concerned with standardising product labelling across the EU so that jams made in one member-state can be sold in all the other member-states. It was first adopted in 1979 and then amended in 1988 in order to expand the definition of what constituted jam.

As far as I can tell, the directive does not go so far as to force jam-makers to use only fruit to make jam (or "jam-like" substance). It just seems that the directive only applies to those fruits/carrots listed in the text:

"Article 1

This Directive shall apply to the products defined in Annex I."


However, I very much doubt that you could market your cat-food flavour (or other non-fruit flavour) jam as an actual "jam" if it didn't conform to the directive. You would have to call it cat-food "preserve" or something like that. Also, note that the very fact the directive was amended in the first place should at least demonstrate the potential for future flexibility.

Nonetheless, Tim also pointed out an apparent absurdity contained within Annex II of the directive, in which a number of permitted additional ingredients are listed, including:

"leaves of Pelargonium odoratissimum: in jam, extra jam, jelly and extra jelly, where they are made from quince"

In other words, Pelargonium odoratissimum (aka apple geranium leaves) are only allowed to be added to jams made... from quince. Why does the directive only permit apple geranium leaves to be added to jams made of quince? I don't actually know. It does seem a tad odd.

I put a kettle on and had a bit of a think about this one. Maybe the list of additional ingredients is a consumer protection measure? It is a fairly comprehensive list, and could be designed to stop jam manufacturers from adding "filler" to their products and ripping off customers. Or perhaps (and more likely) different member-states had different legislation when it came to permitted additional ingredients, and the directive was attempting to standardise all the different laws. Or maybe apple geranium leaves give a jam a lovely appley flavour, providing the illusion that a particular jam is made from apples, and not from old socks and earwax. I'm not sure.

What is clear, however, is that the directive is about standardising jam labelling and (to a lesser extent) manufacturing. Tim's response to this was to argue that standardisation is anathema to competition, and it inevitably results in inefficiency and waste. Just look at the USSR.

The problem with this argument, however, is that without at least some standardisation, there is no market at all! If 27 different member-states all have different legislation covering the manufacture and labelling of jam products, then making jam for every country in Europe would be a massive headache.

Proponents of the single-market often argue that any barrier to trade between member-states is (or could potentially be) a form of protectionism, and that this runs counter to the liberal economic model. In times of economic hardship (such as the current financial crisis) domestic political pressure often forces a government to employ protectionist measures (remember Brown's slogan: "British Jobs for British Workers"?). The European single-market makes it much harder for member-states to actually implement protectionist policies.

On Trucks, Truckers & Trucking

The next topic was prompted by Robin, who proposed that people did not properly understand the anti-EU position because:
"You haven't had your way of life destroyed, so you wouldn't have the same emotions about these people than if you did."
He then gave various examples of groups of people whose professions, he argues, had been damaged by Britain's inclusion in the EU. One group mentioned was British international drivers.

Robin's argument was essentially that British hauliers are currently being unfairly discriminated against on British roads because they pay extra taxes to the British government, which EU drivers are exempt from paying.

The British government does indeed issue a Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), which is paid upon purchase of a driver's license. The UK is free to do this under EU law. I don't want to bore people by posting reams of EU law, but I would like to quote just two paragraphs from a directive. Specifically, directive 2006/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, which governs the application of toll charges by member-states, and says:

1. "This Directive shall not prevent the non-discriminatory application by Member States of:

(a) specific taxes or charges:

- levied upon registration of the vehicle...


The above paragraph is the one permitting the UK government to levy the VED. The second paragraph I want to quote demonstrates that EU truckers are also obliged to pay British tolls (at least, as far as I can gather from the directive):

"Article 7

4. Tolls and user charges may not discriminate, directly or indirectly, on the grounds of nationality of the haulier, the country or place of establishment of the haulier or of registration of the vehicle, or the origin or destination of the transport operation."

There is also something Robin didn't (as far as I can remember) actually mention, but which also affects British truckers: the high fuel charges consumers pay in the UK. Foreign hauliers are able to fill up with cheap petrol on the continent before arriving in Britain, giving them an edge over British truckers. This, however, is still a national policy, and is set by the UK government.

Next, Robin (quite rightly) pointed out that British hauliers are still obliged to pay to use toll-roads in other European countries, yet foreign hauliers don't have to pay VED in the UK (although it should also be pointed out that the EU does put pressure on member-states to keep toll-costs below a certain amount, as happened recently in Slovenia). This is true, but again: this is a national policy!

The British Conservative Party did, in fact, put forward a plan in 2007 that they claimed would make things fairer for British hauliers. I'm not sure if the plan is still current, or if they will actually have any success implementing it when they almost inevitably come to power in the next general election, but they claim that their plan conforms to EU competition law.

My point is this: the problems facing trucking are all issues that the national government can (potentially) do something about.

Of course, I'd certainly be interested to hear from you if you disagree!

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tax Havens - A Necessary Evil?

[IMAGE: Financial crisis / Finanzkrise, 2009, alles-schlumpf,
This is a follow-up to an earlier post about banking secrecy and tax havens. Since that post, the G20 has met, and tax havens were indeed discussed. Furthermore, the G20 announced that it intends to:

"take action against non-cooperative jurisdictions, including tax havens. We stand ready to deploy sanctions to protect our public finances and financial systems ... We note that the OECD has today published a list of countries assessed by the Global Forum against the international standard for exchange of tax information."

Will G20 countries ever actually go so far as to deploy sanctions? I'm not sure. But some commentators have been up in arms about this threat. One chap, blogging for the conservative US Heritage Foundation, wrote:
"The attack on tax havens is, at best, a politically motivated irrelevancy. At worst, it is the start of a broader campaign to find new sources of money to tax and stigmatize as international wrongdoers states that, as an expression of their national sovereignty, have chosen to have lower taxes. These states are using their political freedom to promote economic freedom: They are benefactors, not malefactors."
But, as ever, it's not so simple. Yes, states are well within their rights to set their own tax rates and compete with other states for international investment. But does that also give them the right to assist in tax evasion? In other words, do democratic states not also have the sovereign right to collect taxes?

Leftist, Big Brother Anti-Tax Haven Bureaucrats

Bob Bauman, writing on the "Offshore Asset Protection Blog," was even more critical:

"all this G-20, leftist, Big Brother anti-tax haven pressure is a smoke screen for welfare state tax collectors aiming for complete destruction of financial and personal privacy for everyone... These tax bureaucrats demand access to every citizen's financial lives, no matter where you live or where you may have assets."
But the "banking secrecy" employed by tax havens goes above and beyond the level of privacy provided by normal high-street banks. The issue essentially boils down to cooperation with government tax authorities: regular banks cooperate with tax authorities against tax evasion; tax havens do not.

Bauman goes on:
"[the OECD] also produced a blacklist of 34 supposedly "bad" tax havens, the sole criterion for "bad" being these jurisdictions will not automatically turn over requested tax information about foreigners with bank or financial accounts in their countries.

Of course the authors of the "bad" jurisdictions list carefully excluded themselves, including the United States and the United Kingdom, two of the leading tax havens in the world."
In actual fact, the list published by the OECD is not a moral judgement. It is a statement of fact. Indeed, it's not even so much a "blacklist" as it is a progress report. It doesn't mention "good" or "bad" tax havens. It just lists the progress of various countries in implementing regulations involving the sharing of tax information. Switzerland, as it hasn't yet implemented any OECD regulations, was on the list (although it was made clear that Switzerland has announced it intends to sign up to the regulations).

The United Kingdom and the United States were, despite what Bauman writes, also included on the list. They are at the top, beneath the heading "Jurisdictions that have substantially implemented the internationally agreed tax standard." This is because they have actually signed up to most or all of the OECD regulations. Switzerland has signed up to none of them. This isn't a moral judgement. It is a statement of fact.

Nevertheless, unhappy about being included on the list, the Swiss government then vetoed part of the OECD budget. This seems a tad spiteful. The OECD was vetoed, essentially, for reporting the truth. The amount vetoed was 134,800 euros - hardly a sum of bail-out sized proportions, but the veto sends a message.

The Oil That Greases the Machine?

The law firm Allen & Overy recently published an article defending tax havens. The article describes tax havens as:
"the oil which enables many uncontroversial financial and commercial transactions to run smoothly and it would be a mistake if changes which are necessary to prevent abuse were to result in that oil being drained from the system."
Their argument is, essentially, that tax havens should continue to exist because otherwise the international economy will suffer. Tax havens allow international transactions to cheat what would otherwise be an overly clunky system:
"The tax systems of most large economies are not perfect; they are complex and inflexible and often give rise to adverse mismatches which are unexpected and unintended and which do not reflect the economics of the transaction... A tax haven entity can be used as a very efficient pass-through for unexciting but important flows of money, in situations where unnecessary or uncertain tax rules would operate to make the transaction unattractive."
This may seem like a fair point. But surely it would be better for genuine tax competition to be taking place, rather than for businesses to constantly try and cheat the system. If a government has a clunky tax system in place, then it should suffer for that economically. If there aren't any negative effects, there will be no impetus to reform the tax system. This is supposed to be how liberal competition works.

The Dark Side of Tax Havens

By painting their critics as loony lefties or as big-brother conspiracy types, supporters of tax havens are ignoring the darker side of tax evasion. The truth is that the countries suffering most from tax havens are not rich, developed countries. They are countries in the developing world. Angel Gurría, the secretary general of the OECD, wrote an article last year in which he claimed that:
"developing countries are estimated to lose to tax havens almost three times what they get from developed countries in aid."
This is a truly shocking figure. Oxfam estimates that at least six trillion dollars of developing country wealth is currently being held offshore by individuals. This figure doesn't even include money moved offshore by private companies.

Now, I've listened to the arguments from both sides on this one. I honestly can't see any valid justification for allowing tax havens to continue operating. Even on their own terms they are a failure, because they distort global tax competition. When you add to this the damage done to the developing world, the continued existence of tax havens seem
indefensible.


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Monday, April 6, 2009

Fareed Zakaria on the EU

[Image: Fareed Zakaria, 2007, Larry D. Moore, GNU Free Documentation License]

Last Wednesday (3 April, 2009), I went to see Fareed Zakaria, editor of the international edition of Newsweek, give a talk in Rovereto about the green economic policies of President Obama. I had this conception of Zakaria as a fairly conservative commentator, and so I was surprised at how liberal his ideas actually were.

I had already heard a lot of Zakaria's arguments made by other people, but he pulled them together into a coherent whole and presented them nicely. He spoke mostly about green technology and the pressing need to start adopting it as our oil runs out. At one point he said he would respond to those who say climate change is a hoax by saying that, if true, it would be "the most beneficial hoax in history" because it would have spurred the development of renewable energy. Of course, the problem with this point is that there is still plenty of coal in the world, and the debate is about whether or not to start exploiting it. Whether climate change is a "hoax" or not has a real impact upon this debate.

Zakaria also talked a little bit about the European Union. He criticised Europe for their initial response to the financial crisis, which he said had been to blame the US. Zakaria pointed out that European banks had, on average, three times the leverage of US banks (mostly invested in Eastern Europe). I would argue, of course, that there's a big difference between investing in the development of Eastern Europe and running a hedge-fund off the back of toxic mortgages, but he is correct in that this crisis was not purely the fault of Wall Street and the US.

My favourite soundbite from the night was this one: "Everything is globalised except the politics." Zakaria was arguing that the conflict between a country's domestic interests and its international interests produces harmful results. European banks invested heavily in Eastern Europe, convincing countries to allow them to operate in their markets by telling them "you don't need local banks, we will be your local bank." Then, when they had to be bailed out and partly or fully nationalised, the public in their home-countries objected to taxpayer money going to support these bank's Eastern European obligations. So the banks dropped their Eastern European obligations. Now, after this financial crisis is over, Eastern European countries may no longer trust Western European banks and may restrict how they can operate in their markets. Everything is globalised except the politics.

Asked about European leaders, he said that he thinks most of them are "serious people." Angela Merkel is a "serious person." Mr Sarkozy, on the other hand, is a "fascinating person." He ran for election telling the French people he would be a Reagan-style economic liberaliser, yet now he tells the press he is currently reading Marx's Das Kapital. Zakaria thinks he's just doing it for show, as Das Kapital is "an incredibly boring book."

The most "serious" person of all, however, in Zakaria's view, is British Prime Minister Gordan Brown. Zakaria said Brown is "almost an intellectual." But Brown's greatest flaw is that he does not "connect with the people" in the way that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi does. The two of them should have a child, mused Zakaria, and it would be the perfect politician. I'm not sure how many people would agree with that.

When it comes to the great debate about the European Union, Zakaria thinks the problem is that we have never resolved the relationship between the EU and the member-state. Every time something unpopular needs to be done, national politicians cry "don't blame me, it's all the fault of evil Brussels." And then when politicians say they want to build a stronger Europe, they complain they are unable to because Brussels is too unpopular with the public.

We are constantly taking away legitimacy from Brussels by blaming it when unpopular decisions need to be taken. The EU is like the whipping boy of national politics. The problem with this argument is that it makes Europe sound like we have only one politician, who can never make up his or her mind about Europe. In truth, we have many, many politicans, all arguing from different perspectives when it comes to the EU, and hardly ever coming to agreement.

Still, it's interesting to hear an outside perspective.

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