Thursday 29 October 2009

Afghanistan and the Generals

Does anyone have a clue about what is really going on in Afghanistan? And by anyone, I include the likes of Brown and Obama. Day by day we get more reports of bloody fighting with the usual high numbers of civilians killed or severely injured. As regards the development of a stable democratic society in Afghanistan this also seems to be a complete mess, with almost daily reports of corruption and infighting among the various local warlords who seem to have what passes for real power in the country. And of course the fighting has long since passed into north-western Pakistan, with all the possible destabilizing consequences this brings for that country. All for what? Nobody seems to really know.

Our political and military leaders give out different answers depending on who is asked or which day of the week it is. However, more and more people with direct experience on the ground in Afghanistan are speaking out agains this misadventure which is costing so many lives. One of the latest is Matthew Hoh, a former US Marine captain who fought in Iraq, and who later served as a civilian State Department representative in the Zabul province of Afghanistan. Hoh has recently resigned from his post as he longer believes this war is worth fighting. He explains in some detail his reasoning, based on his own experiences in Afghanistan, in his letter of resignation. You can read the full letter here. It was reprinted in an article on the War in Context website. You need to scroll down a bit to get the full letter.

Hoh is just one of many with first hand experience of the war who now object to the whole premiss. However it is interesting to see just who are still vociferously supporting the war. The usual suspects appear of course - the neo-con establishment of armchair warriors who egged us on into invading Iraq and would just love to see us bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. This time around though the top military brass are getting involved. Even in the UK the top military figures are more and more willing to speak out and demand the government give them more of this and that in order to do the job. This politicization of the military is very dangerous and pretty much unheard off in the UK. It is a clear sign of the weakness of the Brown government that it has not sacked some of these generals.

This political involvement of the military has gone further in the USA. There the actions and comments of some generals has been openly described as insubordination. This applies particularly to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander in Afghanistan, who, according to one report, “has put on quite a show of insubordination in the past month or so in an attempt to cram his escalation plan down the throat of the America public. He has waged open information warfare in the media, right wing and otherwise, against President Barack Obama. I wonder how much longer Obama will up with it. More to the point, I wonder if he can stand up to it.” This quote is from an online piece by Jeff Huber a now retired Commander in the U.S. Navy. You can read the full piece here.

What is going on? The top US military establishment, including General McChrystal and his boss, David Petraeus, head of Central Command, were of course all appointed by the Bush/Cheney regime. It seems that not surprisingly they are mostly, if not all, of the neo-con persuasion. Faced with a newly elected and popular Democratic President the generals and their allies in the media seem to have decided to go on an all out attack to force the President not just to continue the war in Afghanistan but to up the ante and increase the US forces there. To reinforce their pleas they and a pliant media dole out scary tales of what might happen if the US pulls out - the Taliban and Al-Qaida return not just in Afghanistan, but take over Pakistan as well and before you know it the end of civilization has come.

But why all this rush to escalate the war? None of the generals and their neo-con allies can believe any of this guff about a resurgent Al-Qaida. The answer can only be that the top military brass fear a downsizing of their precious empire. The military are of course not alone. Ever since the 1940s military spending has brought enormous profits to the companies supplying the equipment that all armies need. Just think of all those planes, tanks, helicopters, battleships, aircraft carriers, missiles and all the other bits and pieces that go in to keeping an army, navy and airforce on the go. This infamous military-industrial duopoly has come to exercise enormous power in the USA and to a (slightly) lesser extent in the UK. The military industrial economy is one of the most protected, uncompetitive and thereby one of the, if not the most profitable business in the world. If there was no enemy and no more wars to fight, what would happen to all those profits?

It is no coincidence that the neo-cons and their allies keep banging on about the need for a Long War. A never-ending war suits them just fine. Lots of glory for the generals and even more money for the profiteers. A war atmosphere also helps keep down those nasty liberal civil rights people who might otherwise investigate the relationships involved in this military industrial complex, including the politicians who benefit. Watch our for General McChrystal - the further he goes, the worse it will be for us, never mind the poor long suffering people of Afghanistan.

Sunday 25 October 2009

What chance for a Euro League?

Recently there has appeared in the football pages another round of articles talking about the creation of a European League to replace the current Champions League. This has always seemed to me to be complete hogwash. The top clubs in Europe are just not interested in a European League. The reason is quite simple - the current set-up suits the top clubs fine.

The most audacious proposal is for a European League to replace not just the Champions League, but the national leagues as well. The top clubs would no longer play in their own national league, whether that is the Spanish, English or Italian etc, but only play in a European League. While this appears at first sight an attractive proposition, at least for TV companies, a closer look exposes the weaknesses. The most important weakness is that only one team can win this new league. Everyone else fails, some more than others. What is even worse is that some will fail so badly that they will be relegated. Where to? A second European division or back to their national leagues? Whatever the case the prospect is frightening for all but the winner. Teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, Bayern Munich etc would not tolerate a set-up in which all of them bar one will fail.

Given that a European League would need to be open to all European clubs there is also the prospect that in a few years time other clubs from the rest of Europe will gain promotion to this League. Clubs with a famous and successful past, such as Ajax from Amsterdam or Benfica from Lisbon, would expect to form part of this new European elite. Other clubs from central and Eastern Europe - from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey for example will also want to be part of this elite. And once they gain access to the increased revenues that would come from this participation there is no reason to doubt that some of them will succeed.

But if they succeed some of the current top clubs must lose out. Can we seriously imagine that the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United etc would ever vote for a set-up which could lead to their eventual demise as an elite club? Why, some of them would even face the prospect of relegation. No chance.

Compare this with the current set-up. While only one team can win the Champions League, all the other clubs can still aspire to win their own national league. Which means many of the top clubs can still have a successful season without winning in Europe. There is more - finishing in the top three or four places in their national league gives these clubs access to the Champions League. And for many clubs qualifying for the Champions League can be seen as at least some degree of success. Furthermore, on the whole, the current group of top clubs in Europe do not normally, or ever, face the prospect of relegation. The worst that can happen to them is that they fail to qualify for the Champions League and have to make do with the Europa League. So it would seem to me that the current set-up suits these top clubs very nicely and none would want to change it.

Another option talked about is the creation of a mid-week European League to replace the Champions League, but not to replace the various national leagues. Whilst this option does not threaten the top clubs in the same way it does not really offer them much. There is the small matter of all these additional matches to fit into an already overcrowded season. But once again the main objection is that only one team can win the league. While this is the case with the Champions League, at least there is the prospect of reaching the semi-finals and the final itself. With any league some teams will be out of the running after about a third of the matches have been played. The remaining matches offer very little to either the players or the fans and both would be likely to concentrate on winning their national league. There is also the small matter of qualification for this European League. Is to be as at present through winning or finishing high in national leagues or would there be relegation from this new league? Whichever there is nothing in this version which offers more to the top clubs than the present set-up.

On the subject of European leagues, once again the old chestnut of Celtic and Rangers leaving the Scottish League to play in some richer league has been raised in the media. As usual this boils down to either joining the English League or joining a newly formed Atlantic League to be made up of the top teams in Scotland, Belgium and the Netherlands. In some versions Portuguese or Danish clubs are also included. Again both visions seem to me to be doomed. Joining the English League is a non-starter. A majority of English clubs would never vote for it. An Atlantic League or something similar is a realistic proposition and has much to recommend it. However it does suffer from the major handicaps that I outlined above for a European League. Namely that only one team can win the damned thing. So immediately two or three clubs lose out. Again as this new league develops it would, like all leagues everywhere, come to be dominated by two, three or at most four clubs. How many of the current top teams in Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands etc, want to take the risk that their club fails to reach the top and becomes an also ran - a middle of the table team. Not something that the likes of Celtic, Rangers, Ajax, Feijenoord, Anderlecht etc would willingly accept. But the reality is that only a few of them would succeed. Furthermore in order to generate the additional revenues that would make such a venture worthwhile the larger the number of countries that participate the better. Which of course increases the number of clubs and also increases the number of cubs who would be seen to fail. Are the likes of Celtic and Rangers prepared to risk swapping the current set-up in which one or the other wins the Scottish League and qualifies for the Champions League for an Atlantic League in which one or even both clubs would remain forever middle of the table teams who almost never win anything. In other words how do they fancy becoming the Hibs of the Atlantic League.

It is easy to talk about changes to the current set-up, which is far from perfect. However those in favour of change should remember the old Chinese saying: be careful of what you wish for - it may come to pass.

Monday 19 October 2009

The Isenheim Altarpiece

During our recent trip to Alsace, we were able to see the Isenheim Altarpiece. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our whole holiday and only came about by chance. Before leaving I casually mentioned to John, my friend and walking buddy, that I was planning to spend a weekend in Alsace and that we would probably stay in Colmar. Upon which news he immediately pressed me to visit the Isenheim Altarpiece which is to be found there. Apparently the altarpiece is renowned as one of the great masterpieces of all times. I of course had never heard of the altarpiece, though I am keenly interested in art. Anyway armed with this recommendation we did make the visit and it is undoubtedly well worth a visit.

The altarpiece is now housed in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar in what was formerly a 13th century Dominican religious sisters' convent. The Museum features a fine collection of medieval and early Renaissance religious art, but the centrepiece is undoubtedly the Isenheim Altarpiece. We only had a short time for the visit, but were really only interested in the altarpiece. Unfortunately we arrived just behind a large group of tourists who had descended from a large coach and were queuing up for the audio guides. As we would have had to wait some time to get one of the audio guides we decided to do without. A big mistake. There is not a lot of written information available on the walls or in each room, so we missed out hearing about the background to the piece and about the details of the composition.

A little research however has since established that the altarpiece was painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald sometime between 1512 and 1515. It was originally made for the hospital chapel of the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim a village near Colmar. The hospital was a lazar-house which meant they treated people with infectious skin diseases. The altarpiece as originally built was a very complicated structure. It had two sets of folding wings which opened out to reveal a final, third altarpiece which consists of three carved wooden statues of saints flanked by two painted panels. It also had two painted side panels and a painted base. Now that it is a museum piece the various folding parts have been dismantled and now hang on their own.

In the museum you are not allowed to take photos using flash. I tried with my little digital camera, but it used the flash mechanism and I was immediately told off by an observant attendant. The pictures here are courtesy of Wikipedia. If you click on the photos you can get a larger view.

Once inside the Museum it took us a bit of time to find the Isenheim altarpiece. Despite arrows showing the way we found ourselves in rooms showing other religious works from the same period. Some wonderful stuff, including paintings by Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein. However we had little time to dally and strode onwards until we did finally find the main hall with the altarpiece. The photo at the beginning gives an overview of the room. No photo though, can convey the feeling of wonderment and awe at first seeing the depiction of the crucifixion. The paintings are huge with what appears to be larger than life sized people. The overwhelming image is of darkness, with the predominantly black background only emphasized by the red cloaks of the other characters - the Madonna being comforted by John the Apostle, Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist. Christ is shown somewhat bloodied, all twisted and in obvious pain. This central piece is flanked by paintings of St Anthony and St Sebastian. This group of panels formed the first, or closed view of the altarpiece.

When the central panel wings were opened the second view was revealed. In contrast to the first view the paintings here are all light and bright colours. They show three scenes of celebration - the Annunciation, the Angel Concert for Madonna and Child and the Resurrection. In the museum the panels are not shown as in the original. Presumably for reasons of space the two outer panels are show together hanging separately from the two central panels.

The final altarpiece revealed when the central panels were opened, consists of the wood carvings by Niklas Hagenauer, which are now flanked by Grünewald’s painted panels of The Hermit Saints Anthony and Paul in the desert and the Temptation of St Anthony.

All the paintings are wonderful, but the initial crucifixion scene is undoubtedly the most powerful. This image of a suffering Christ must have made an enormous impression on the true believers. Even in this agnostic or atheistic age it is still an awe inspiring vision. As I mentioned at the beginning we only had a brief time to explore the museum. The whole collection is worth visiting and I am very keen to return to spend more time contemplating Grünewald’s visions. Alsace of course is a delightful region and well worth visiting in any case. Lovely scenery, good food, good wine all put into perspective by the sufferings depicted on the Isenheim Altarpiece. How could anyone resist?

Thursday 15 October 2009

A Nordic Scotland?

A recent piece in the Scotsman by Lesley Riddoch raises the prospect of Scotland applying for membership of the Nordic Council. Her article can be found here on her own website. This is not a completely new idea. In 2007, the Scottish Left Review contained a piece which also dealt with Scotland and our Nordic neighbours. This can be accessed here.

New idea or not, it is a most welcome suggestion and one I wholeheartedly support. As I see it there are two main reasons for supporting this initiative. The first is the need to enhance Scotland’s voice and representation in international bodies. At present, outwith some sports, Scotland is not represented in her own right. A current case in point is the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Copenhagen. The Scottish government requested ministerial representation at this conference as part of the UK delegation, as this is a devolved issue, but the UK government has refused. Thus Scotland’s contribution to this important international issue will go unheard. Or if heard, only at the whim of the UK delegation. This cannot be right.

Membership of the Nordic Council would allow the Scottish government and members of the Scottish Parliament to raise issues and suggest programmes without needing the prior approval of London. Membership would also force the Scottish participants to come with sound proposals which would be subject to serious scrutiny by the other delegations. Sound bite politicking is not the Nordic way. This would be a useful spin-off from membership.

The other major reason for supporting this idea is that exposure to developments in the Nordic countries will help wean Scots, not just MSPs, but journalists and academia, away from their current overdependency on what happens in England. England is and will always remain an important point of reference for Scots, but it should not be, as seems to be the case at present, the only point of reference. Scotland does have a lot in common with the Nordic countries and we should be willing to share our experiences and to learn from them. To take just two very important examples - the role, size and financing of local government and the structure of the health service. Both have been the subject of major debates and legislation in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. I am sure there is much we could learn from the reports and research produced in these countries concerning these two issues.

A brief word on practicalities. The fact that Scotland is, not yet, an independent country, does not prohibit membership. The Nordic Council includes three substate bodies - Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands. Still, the UK government would need to agree to any application for membership. Which, given their recent no to Scottish participation in the Climate Change Conference, is not something they are likely to favour. To overcome this hurdle the Scottish government could do three things. One would be ensure that the application restricted Scottish participation to those areas of government that are currently devolved. This might reassure the UK government somewhat. The second action would be to in the first instance apply for observer status or perhaps associate membership. This would allow all parties - the Nordic Council members, the Scottish government and the UK government - to test the waters as it were. The third action and perhaps the most important vis-à-vis the UK government would be to secure all party support for any application. This should not be too difficult. If the small Åland islands, an autonomous province of Finland, can be a member, without upsetting Finland, then surely a majority of MSPs can be persuaded that membership is in the interests of Scotland, whatever one’s views on the long term constitutional position of the country. All Scots should welcome an opportunity to participate in the Nordic Council and thereby further enhance our continuing links with a part of the world which has historically been of crucial significance to the creation and development of Scotland.

Monday 12 October 2009

Slasher Cameron and the Long Knives

It seems that consensus has broken out at Westminster, at least among the three main UK parties. Judging by the sounds from their recent party conferences we are all in for a prolonged bout of cuts in public spending. The three leaders all seem to by vying to win the contest for the most savage cutter in town. All this of course is economic madness as any half decent economist could testify. Indeed as could anyone with even a half a brain of common sense. In the midst of a recession, with unemployment rising our leaders have determined that the way forward is to increase unemployment and further decrease in demand. Really clever those chaps, what!

The reason given is our national debt, which is apparently quite high and due to become higher in the coming years and is projected to reach 76% or more of GDP. According to Cameron and Osborne a national debt at 75% of GDP makes a country "bust." Strange then, that while the UK was acquiring the largest the empire the world has ever seen and started the industrial revolutions it was apparently “bust”, with a national debt always above 80% of GDP. At times in the “great” Victorian age the debt even touched 200%! All without the collapse of either the economy or the country. Perhaps the large debt had something to do with our economic success? Even in international terms our current position is not, pace Cameron and Osborne, particularly worrying. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2008 - before the recession had kicked in - Japan's debt was 198% of national GDP, Italy's was 104%, Germany's was 76%, France's was 65%, the US's was 61%, and the UK's was 43%. All countries have rapidly increased borrowing during this recession. While the UK may have borrowed more, this would only move the UK towards the middle of the ranking of western industrialised countries.

Why the panic?

It is clear that there is no economic reason for cutting public spending, even right wing commentators such as Sam Brittan acknowledge this. So why are all our major UK parties lining up for slasher of the year award - curtesy of the Mail and the Sun? The answer is to further their political agenda - the further advance and consolidation of neo-liberalism as the dominant ideology in the UK. This is a process that has been going on for decades, even before the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. This current recession is seen by the advocates of neo-liberalism as an ideal opportunity to push forward their favourite policies - weakening the welfare state, restraining trade unions, privatisation etc. The purpose of all this is to cut the share of national wealth going to working people and corespondingly make life easier for the rich and the really rich. The only future for the UK as foreseen by the Tories, Lib-Dems and New Labour is as a low wage economy servicing the richer world. Of course the City of London and the financial sector will be protected in this scheme and there will be rich profits for private companies as working people scramble for any kind of job they can get, however low paid or insecure it may be.

Given that New Labour sold out decades ago and the Tories and LIb-Dems are only reverting to type, the only surprise in all this is the pathetic response of our mainstream media. Once again there is very little in the way of regular and consistent challenge to the neo-liberal junk that passes, usually without comment, as the only way forward. Almost every political and economic forum in the media takes for granted that the UK is in a mess and that the level of national debt is intolerable and unsustainable. The only question is how much the public services need to be cut and how quickly. There is hardly any TV or radio programmes or newspapers that consistently offer an alternative. Even though the alternative is supported by the economic evidence from the past. Just how corrupt is our media?

Thursday 8 October 2009

Weekend in Alsace

During our last visit to see Emma in Zürich we managed to fit in a weekend trip to Alsace. One of the many attractions of living in Zürich is that you can access so many other places easily. Our journey to Alsace only took us three hours by car. The most difficult part was getting through Basel, but once in France the journey was very pleasant. We left on Friday, early in the afternoon and our first destination was Turckheim. This charming little town is very near to Colmar and lies in the foothills of the Vosges mountains. Turckhiem is one of the many Alsace towns famous for its wines. Riesling, Pinot Gris and above all, our favourite, the Gewürztraminer. There are some fine wine shops in the town and we availed ourselves of this opportunity to buy some bottles of the devine stuff. Turckheim is also known as one of France’s villes fleuries and it is certainly deserving of this honour. We had time to wander around the old streets, admiring the buildings and their decorations. As it was by now late afternoon, there was not much open in the way of cafes, but we did find one delightful little place, the Salon de Thé, where we partook of coffee and delicious cakes.

On to Strasbourg

Our destination was Strasbourg, where we stayed for both nights. Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace and home to various European institutions, including the Council of Europe and for one week each month, the European Parliament. These buildings are all situated on the outskirts of the city and are all examples of modern glass and steel architecture. Happily this was not the reason for our visit to Strasbourg. The main reason for visiting the city is to wander about the old town which is surrounded by rivers and canals. On the Friday evening we only had time to see some of the central squares including the cathedral which was all lit up by the time we strolled past.

The city was very busy and we had difficulty finding a restaurant in the old town with spaces for us all. Eventually we ended up in a traditional Alsace restaurant and made our first acquaintance with the celebrated Strasbourg hospitality or rather, the lack of it. The food and the wine were very good and the restaurant itself very pleasant, However the one waitress was none too concerned about her customers. No welcoming gestures and a distinct reluctance to speed up the service. The first course took so long to arrive that while waiting we asked for some bread for Alessio. Well the bread did come, but we were more or less scolded for the temerity of eating bread before the first course! Still the main course was simple but very tasty - traditional sausages with potatoes.

The Saturday morning we spent mainly wandering along the banks of the canals in the Petite France area of Strasbourg. This is a enchanting area, full of traditional half timbered buildings.

It must have been a working area once upon a time, full of barges and merchants. Nowadays it is full of shops and restaurants and visiting tourists. The origin of the name Petite-France refers back to a darker side of Strasbourg and France. According to Wikepedia, the name was conferred by the former German inhabitants not for architectonical reasons, but because of the numerous prostitutes working there in the MIddle Ages— prostitution used to be known in Germany as "the French business". Also, syphillis often contracted in that specific area was then known as Franzosenkrankheit ("French disease"). Despite this Petite France is well worth a visit.

We then wandered through the old town and had a picnic lunch by the canal. After this we found a lovely old square, the Place du Marché Gayot, near the cathedral, traffic free and completely enclosed by buildings. It is now full of cafes and restaurants and has an arty, bohemian look and feel to it. We took the opportunity for a little liquid refreshment, while Alessio ran about. A curiosity of the cafés in the square - they did not sell food, but you were welcome to bring and eat your own.

As the morning was mainly for the adults in the party, it was Alessio’s turn to be entertained in the afternoon. For this we went to the Orangerie Park, which is adjacent to the European institution buildings. The Orangerie is a very large and beautiful park, with lovely flower beds and most importantly, lots of space for Alessio to run around. It also has a little zoo with very pretty flamingos and some strange looking members of the ape family. There is also a very tiny farm area with the usual farm animals - cows, pigs, donkeys, chickens etc. It also boasts what must be about the most dilapidated tractor in the world. I hope this is not a tribute to European technology!

In the evening we returned to Petite France for another encounter with Strasbourg hospitality. This time the restaurant was busy, but again the waiters and waitresses were in no hurry to serve or even to acknowledge your presence. Charm seemed to have by passed the premises. Once again the food was delicious. We all had different versions of the famed tarte flambée, which is not a million miles away from a pizza.

Colmar and Munster

On the Sunday morning we left the hotel quite early to head for Colmar and what was to be the highlight of the visit, at least for Kathleen and I. Colmar is about half way between Strasbourg and Basel and is a substantial town with a population of around 67,000. We started our visit on the outskirts of the old town, where we found a café that was mainly frequented by locals. It was another of those establishments where they did not serve food, not even croissants. Luckily there was a bakery close by. Unfortunately they had just run out of fresh croissants, so we had to make do with other delicacies. We then set off to wander around the old town. This central area is typical of Alsace with its half timbered buildings and wonderful displays of flowers.

Colmar is known as the capital of Alsace wine and certainly boasts a large number of fine wine shops, some of which we managed to explore. Our main reason for stopping off in Colmar though was to see the Isenheim Altarpiece. This is a magnificent example of late medieval/early renaissance art and is the opus magnus of Matthias Grünewald and it is well worth a visit to Colmar just to see this masterpiece. I intend to write a piece just on the Altarpiece.

After Colmar we headed for Munster, which despite its Irish name, is another of these charming villages which lie in the foothills of the Vosges. Luckily for us the village was in the midst of an end of summer festival - la fête de la transhumance et du munster. Around the main squares there were displays of local produce, including several live animals. There were also children’s entertainments, which kept Alessio amused for some time. While there we had a little picnic on the steps of the church and later on partook of the local beer - jolly good too - at one of the local hostelries.

Not long after we were back in Switzerland, en route for Zürich. Thus ending a really good weekend. We just managed to get a brief glimpse of Alsace, but it looks a very beautiful and interesting place. Well worth a return visit.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Will the Lisbon Treaty finally make it?

Now that the Irish have voted yes in their second referendum, it looks like the Lisbon Treaty will finally come into force. The Poles and the Czechs have still to ratify the Treaty and there may be a hiccup or two with the Czech ratification. Still, the new Treaty should complete its full ratification by all the member states and come into force before the next general election in the UK. Which means that the (expected) incoming Tory government will not be able to stop the Treaty. What has all the fuss been about?

Particularly in the UK there has been an enormous amount of hostility to the Lisbon Treaty. Which is most surprising, given the relatively minor changes it makes to the way the EU works. I know that it was originally supposed to be a constitution and for some reason the very word constitution caused some people to turn apoplectic and loose all reason. The revised Treaty does retain much that was in the previous constitution, but what terrible things are now in store for us?

A look at the main changes proposed in the Lisbon Treaty show further, but relatively minor steps towards making the EU function better and become a little bit more democratic. What’s all the fuss about?

There is no change to the fundamental power structure within the EU. The main power remains with the national governments of the member states. Meeting together as the Council of Ministers, it remains the national governments who decide what decisions and what legislation, if any, to pass. Within the Council of Ministers more decisions will be taken on the basis of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). This will in future be based on the principle of the double majority. Decisions in the Council of Ministers will need the support of 55% of Member States (currently 15 out of 27 EU countries) representing a minimum of 65% of the EU's population.

The European Parliament will gain some powers as a result of the Lisbon Treaty. In future most decisions will be require the full approval of the Parliament. This co-decision process will become the norm and will include energy, asylum,immigration and the full EU budget. The Parliament will also in future elect the President of the Commission.

There are no new exclusive competences given to the EU. This means that Unanimity will continue to be required in areas including tax, foreign policy, defence and social security.

There are some institutional changes that for some reason seem to have generated a great deal of passion and rage. The Treaty provides that the present functions of the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and the European Commissioner for external relations will be merged together. This person will be appointed by the European Council. He/she will be a member of the Commission. A new External Action Service will be set up to support the High Representative. All this has caused many people to become fearful about a common foreign and defence policy for the EU. The problem is that we already have a common foreign and defence policy. The trouble is that it is subject to unanimity. Which means that each member state can continue to follow its own course in foreign and defence matters. The changes should mean better co-ordination and sharing of plans and when there is unanimous agreement the policy can be better implemented. But despite the changes in personnel there is no change in substance here.

This is also pretty much the case in relation to the other big institutional change - the creation of the post of President of the European Council. He or she will be appointed by the European Council for a two and a half years term, which is renewable once. The President will chair and co-ordinate the work of the Council. This should provide greater continuity and stability to the work of the European Council. It is important to note that the European Council is not the same as the Council of Ministers, which is where the main decisions are taken. The European Council is where the Prime Ministers and Presidents of the member states meet to provide overall political direction to the EU. At present the task of chairing and co-ordinating this work changes every six months. Thus momentum can be lost and continuity and accountability can be difficult to maintain. The new post should help overcome this. The new President will not of course have any powers in his or her own right. The final decisions will as at present continue to remain with the national governments of the member states.

So, once again, what is all the fuss about? As someone who supports the European Union and sees the Lisbon Treaty as a minor step forward to better decision making it is difficult to understand the hostility. The EU has changed from a relatively small and informal group of states who took decisions on unanimity to the current Union with 27 member states where Qualified Majority Voting is the norm. But all the key decisions about this development took place in the early 1980s with the active support of the then Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher. The key change came with the Single European Act which was pushed through the UK Parliament by Thatcher. And ever since large segments of the Tory party has regretted it bitterly. Still not sure why. But I never have understood the Tory party anyway.

Pending the decision of the Czech courts and government we may see the Lisbon Treaty come into force. The one really, really big downside to all this is that we may have put up with Tony Blair as the first President of the European Council for five years. Ah well, you can’t have everything.