Tuesday 11 December 2012

The Barroso has spoken - So What?

So that's it then.  The game is up, no need to bother with the referendum.   Might as well concede defeat now.  That seems to be the message from Unionists after the recent pronouncements of Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission.  In an interview with BBC radio he stated in response to a question about Scottish independence that, "For European Union purposes, from a legal point of view, it is certainly a new state.  If a country becomes independent it is a new state and has to negotiate with the EU."  The full transcript can be found here.  In passing it is interesting to note that he uses the verb negotiate, while at other times he uses the verb apply.  Seems to be a bit of confusion in Sr Barroso's mind.

As regards the substance of all this, it is not at all clear why anyone is making a fuss about his remarks.  After independence Scotland will become a new state!  Wow, I never knew that.  And this new state will have to negotiate with the EU.  Wow!  So many things I never knew before.  Let us all bless the great and supremely knowledgeable Sr Barroso for bringing us all this enlightenment.  Like all Unionist in this debate, Sr Barroso leaves out the key and salient fact that this negotiation will take place while Scotland is still part of the EU - ie from within the EU.  For after a Yes vote and until such time as the details of independence have been settled and signed, Scotland will remain part of the UK and thus part of the EU.

Further to this there is the crucial matter of how the UK government, about to become rUK, will react.  It is pretty much inconceivable that the rUK would not want to develop and maintain close and cordial relations with an independent Scotland, just as it does with the Republic of Ireland.  Which let us not forgot was also once upon a time a part of the UK.  So, following a Yes vote, it will be the rUK, led by David Cameron who will be contacting the Commission to inform them that the UK is changing and that Scotland will in, let us say, two years time become independent.  He will also have the pleasure of informing the Commission that this new state wants to maintain its membership of the EU and could the Commission kindly make the necessary arrangements.  What is the Commission going to say?  Sorry old bloke, we are very busy, so come back in five years time?  The reality is that it will be in the interest of the rUK for Scotland to become a full member of the EU and it will also be in the interests of the rUK for the negotiations to run smoothly.  Any demands on Scotland that would impact on rUK, such as compulsory membership of the Schengen agreement would be strenuously resisted by rUK.  Equally all talk about Scotland being forced to join the Euro is misplaced and betrays an ignorance of the EU treaties and procedures.  For details see this article.

There is also the rather important matter of EU citizenship to consider in relation to Scotland's continuing membership of the EU.  While in theory EU citizenship is additional to member state citizenship, it may be impossible to disentangle this in practice.  This is particularly pertinent in the case of the UK, which continues to recognise dual citizenship.  The relationship of the Republic of Ireland with the UK is a factor in this.  People in Northern Ireland for example can opt for either UK or Irish citizenship or both.  In the likely event that an independent Scotland allows for dual citizenship, we would have the situation in which a large number of people living in an independent Scotland continued to have a UK passport and thus UK and EU citizenship.  There is no precedent for the UK to take citizenship away from current passport holders.  So, if the EU were to deny an independent Scotland full membership of the EU, they would have to work out how to deal with the millions of Scots who retained their UK passport, either instead of or in addition to a Scottish one.  Even an arch Unionist like Eric Joyce, Labour MP regards all this talk about exclusion from the EU as nonsense.  His views can be read here.  For a more detailed look at the implications of dual citizenship see this submission from Professor Jo Shaw, Salvesen Chair of European Institutions, University of Edinburgh.

As a concluding point it is worth noting that when asked about the position of the rUK and if it would have to renegotiate its terms, his reply was, "No, no in principle no."  Interesting choice of words, for of course, no in principle usually means yes in practice.  For the rUK will in fact have plenty to negotiate about - the size of its rebate, the size of its contribution to the EU budget, not forgetting the size of its representation within the Parliament and the Council of Ministers.  

All in all it is clear that the rUK will do everything possible to ensure a smooth transition for Scotland to full membership of the EU - in its own interests.

Saturday 1 December 2012

The Olive Harvest in Palestine

This week I have the pleasure of presenting a guest post from Palestine.  Wedad Rami is a young student at An-Najah university in Nablus.  During our recent visit to Nablus we had the lovely pleasure of meetin Wedad, who in addition to her studies is a volunteer at the Hayat Centre for Civil Society Development-Palestine.  This is an article she wrote for the Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association.  In it she describes her recent experience of picking olives with some friends.  As she makes clear even this peaceful activity is fraught with danger from the illegal Israeli settlers.

Olive Harvest in Palestine
Palestinian farmers start picking their olive trees in the autumn months (September, October and November). The whole Palestinian family participates in this tiring, wonderful, and joyful harvest. In fact, many Palestinian families depend for their livelihood on the olive harvest because they can make from the olive tree many productive things, such as olive pickle, olive oil, olive soap, and also they can use olive wood in manufacturing furniture. 
My friend's family have land in Deeristia village – near Nablus - which is full of olive trees.  She asked me and other friends to help her family in picking the olives.  Actually, she asked us to do that because their land lies near a Jewish settlement and the Israeli soldiers gave them an exact time to finish their picking and If they don’t finish it in the exact time they will prevent them from continuing their picking. 
As I personally shared in this Harvest, I found it a very interesting, tiring and frightening one. It was a very wonderful experience because this was my first experience in picking olives, everyone is working, picking olives and talking at the same time. Then after we spent 7 hours in picking, my friend's mother prepared a very delicious lunch. In fact the ingredients are all from the land such as olive pickle, olive oil, yogurt, thyme, tomatoes, cucumber and tea. Also, it was very tiring because you have to wake up in the early morning at about 6:00 am in order to exploit time as much as you can and also to avoid the high temperature of the sun . Then we spent 13 hours in picking from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm.  Certainly it's a long time but we do not feel it because we love what we do. In addition, it was very frightening because this land lies near a Jewish settlement and during our picking we kept hearing the sound of shooting because the soldiers were training.  At first I felt a great deal of panic but my friend calmed me and I tried to forget what was happening. Then after we had picked almost 30 trees, we returned home very tired but holding memories I myself will never forget, as I murmured to myself  "it was the first time but not the last time I will go to pick olives and help these farmers." 
As you know Palestine is an occupied country and as a result of the Israeli Occupation this interesting harvest can be miserably turned into an unpleasant one, simply because of the difficulties that the farmers are exposed to from Israeli soldiers.  These range from preventing the farmers from harvesting their trees, expropriating land, to even uprooting their olive trees. Actually, after these abusive practices what do you expect from this poor farmer ??? Do you think he will leave his land ??? For sure No, he will insist to stay in his land, never giving up and willing to die for his irreplaceable and invaluable land – indeed as he called it his honor. Clearly, the reaction of Palestinian farmers towards zionist aggression reveals an important issue which is the strong relationship between the Palestinian farmer and the olive tree. Challengingly, Palestinian farmers stand in front of  Israeli zionists just as the olive tree does.  Although the Olive tree was exposed to harm from the zionist soldiers, it is still digging its roots deep in the earth and can regrow again and again.  Indeed, Palestinians are still staying here in Palestine like the olive tree.

Wedad Rami

Friday 23 November 2012

EU Budget - Round 1

The latest stushie over the budget for the EU is about par for the course.  Remember this is the EU, all 27 member states trying to agree on a budget for the next seven years.  Last time around it took three European Council meetings to reach agreement.  So, failing to reach a consensus at the first attempt is no big deal.  The process of agreeing a budget though does tell us a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the EU as currently constituted.

Some background first, which may clear some things up a bit.  This is not really a dispute about the budget, which is usually a one year plan.  Rather this debate is about the MFF or the Multiannual Financial Framework.  The Danish government usefully explained what this is, earlier in the year, when Denmark held the rotating Presidency of the Council.  "Since the end of the 1980’s the EU’s annual budgets have been laid down within the framework of multiannual budget agreements – the so-called multiannual financial frames, also abbreviated to MFF (Multiannual Financial Framework).  
The frames constitute the expenditure ceilings for the main areas of expenditure determined by the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission for a number of years. The current budget ceilings have been settled for the period 2007-2013, and as the next multiannual financial frames are to be negotiated for 2014-2020, talks are already under way.

The financial framework requires unanimity in the Council of Ministers when it has been approved by a majority in the Parliament."

If you are really keen or sad, and would like to know even more about the MFF you can consult this helpful document provided by the Council.  As can be seen from the Danish outline, the MFF negotiatons involve a lot of institutions and the Danish paper omits one of them, perhaps the most important one of all.  For in addition to the Council; the European Parliament and the Commission, the MFF proposals have first of all to be agreed unanimously by the European Council.  Confused?  Welcome to the byzantine world of the EU.

The two Councils referred to above both represent the governments of the member states in the EU decision making process.  The fact that governments have two bites at the cherry, as it were, says a lot about where the real power lies within the EU.  The Council (full name, the Council of the European Union) is where the day to day decisions about EU policies are taken.  If the issue is to do with finance, then the Finance Ministers of each member state come along and decide what to do, usually by qualified majority voting.  If the issue is agriculture for example, then the Agriculture Ministers would make up the Council.  The Council has a rotating Presidency, lasting six months and the current Presidency is Cyprus.  The website for the Cyprus Presidency is here.  However for the really big issues, such as the overall budget ceiling or the MFF, it is the heads of state or government who meet and decide.  When these august people meet they call themselves the European Council.  You can get their website here.  And it was a meeting of this Council which failed to reach agreement earlier today.  

The two other European institutions, the European Parliament and the Commission are supposed to represent the common interest of all Europeans and not the interests of the member states.  However as can be seen from the media coverage of the budget, all the power lies with the governments of the member states.

This imbalance of power within the EU can be seen as either a strength or weakness.  As a strength it ensures that the EU in its collective actions and policies is subject to the member states.  There are three weakness with this imbalance though.  Firstly the need for unanimity or even a qualified majority means that decision making can be a very slow and laborious process.  Often so slow that action when it comes can be too little and/or too late to make much real difference.  The power given to the governments of the  member states allows national politicians to indulge in lots of excessive posturing.  The final weakness is that by giving the decisive powers to the governments of the member states there has been no development of a popular EU wide politics.  Everything is approached and seen and reported in the media through a national lens.

This is unlikely to change any time soon.  It is hard to see member states giving up any of the powers they currently have.  So we can expect a lot more posturing and horse trading, all in the name of the well being of the EU as a whole.

Friday 16 November 2012

Killing 11 Month Old Babies is not Self Defence!

There is an inevitable sense of déja vu with the latest Israeli murderous assaults on Gaza.  The media here in the UK and the USA parrots without any checking the Israeli version of events.  Which is always the same - Israel is only responding to rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.  Often this is qualified as Hamas rocket fire, just to make sure we all know who is to blame.  And of course, right on cue, our hapless Foreign Secretary, William Hague, duly appears on the wavelengths to blame Hamas for starting this round of violence.  President Obama spreads the same message in the USA. 

Yet even a cursory look at the evidence shows that no Israeli had been killed due to rocket fire from Gaza, before the start of the latest escalation of Israeli assaults on Saturday 10th November. Yet prior to then, at least two Palestinians had been killed by Israeli soldiers.  On Monday November 5th Israeli forces shot and killed 23 year old Ahmad Nabhani.  Then on Thursday November 8th another Israeli force invaded southern Gaza, in the course of which they killed a 13 year old boy, Ahmed Younis Khader who was playing football in front of his house.  So much for targeted killing!  How much coverage did these unjustified killings of innocent Palestinian civilians get in the western media?  Where was William Hague and President Obama?  No word of blame was uttered against Israel for these two murders.  Yet when Palestinians in response to these killings do attack Israeli forces, Israel then unleashes hell on the whole of Gaza in a supposed right of self-defence.  And our brave western media just laps it all up.  The initial killings of a child and a young man by the Israelis cast aside in the rush to blame Hamas.  For more information on the timeline for the recent Israelis attacks see these two articles, here and here.  For an analysis of the biased coverage provided by our own BBC see here.

It is a rather strange kind of self-defence that causes the deaths of children including Omar Masharawi, the 11 month old baby referred to in the title of this post.  Yet another triumph for the much vaunted precision bombing of the Israeli airforce!  For of course this latest attack on Gaza has nothing to do with self defence.  It was, as is the case with all Israeli wars, a war of choice.  The nearness of the elections in Israel may have been a factor in the timing of the Israeli attacks.  Perhaps though, it was the prospect of a long term truce agreement with Hamas that prompted Israel to attack.  Many observers are of the view that Israel does not want peace.  A long term truce agreement would weaken the power of the military in Israel and more importantly put greater pressure on Israel to enter into serious negotiations with all Palestinians, including Hamas.  Not what most Israelis really want.  Much better to keep up the pretence of an existential threat to Israel in order to justify their unwillingness to enter into negotiations to bring about a two state solution.  Israel is doing everything possible, with its relentless expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to make a two state solution impossible.  So Israel has every reason to avoid negotiations.  And what better excuse than a little war of aggression against Hamas.  So a few innocent civilians, including children, get killed.  So what, in the greater scheme of things - securing a greater Israel, preferably free of all Palestinians.  This is alas, what out leaders in the UK are supporting by offering diplomatic cover to Israel.  Things do not look good.  For a more detailed analysis of why Israel chose to attack now, see these two articles by Jerry Haber and American Jewish writer, here and here.  Finally for an Israeli perspective on the deaths of the three Israelis in Kiryat Malachi, see this article by Larry Derfner from +972 magazine.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Was Hitler a Charismatic Leader?

This question arises in response to the programme on BBC TV last night, titled the Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler.  The tv series, three episodes in all, is based on the book of the same name by Laurence Rees.  Judging by the first episode, I am far from convinced that Hitler possessed much in the way of charisma, even of the dark kind.

The programme did not offer anything in the way of what might constitue charisma in a political leader, but simply focussed on Hitler himself.  We were shown lots of footage of the great man in flowing oratory, usually accompanied by flashing lights as a way of alerting us - here comes a bit of charisma - you dumb viewers.  Apart from the staring eyes and a penchant for long tubo-charged speeches, it is not clear just how Hitler was that different from other would be leaders.

For the central point to bear in mind is that for most of his career, Hitler was a spectacular failure.  He was a brave soldier in the First World War, but a complete failure as an artist, as a revolutionary leader - the botched attempt at a putsch in Munich - and a failure to win over many voters in elections.  What changed things for Hitler was the Great Crash and the Great Depression.  Now it seems to stretch things a bit to claim that Hitler's charisma caused the Great Depression.  For no mistake without this depression Hitler was going nowhere.  The response of the German elites - political, financial and business - to this catastrophe was to use mass unemployment as a policy tool.  No wonder extremists began to flourish.

It is also worth remembering that Hitler and his Nazi party never won more than 37% of the popular vote.  That was in the July election in 1932.  By the time of the November election in the same year his share of the vote had dropped to 33%, while the vote for the communists increased.  Not a lot of evidence of charisma here.  It was after the November elections that Hitler was appointed Chancellor, thus giving him the levers to shortly thereafter assume dictatorial powers.  It quite beggars belief that Hitler should have won the Chancellorship after losing votes!  Yet this is what the leaders of the Centre Party did.  In a vain effort to protect their own interests and out of their greater hatred of the communists.  A good lesson to remember when people today extoll the virtues of moderates.  

The programme itself was OK as a basic account of Hitler's rise, though it did flit around too much from  the 1920s to the 1930s.  This lack of a clear narrative framework lessens the value of the programme.  Less about Hitler's charisma and more about the social and economic realities of German would have been welcome.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Obama - What Next?

Congratulations to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party for their victories last Tuesday.  Obama retained the Presidency by a substantial margin in the electoral college, while the Democrats increased their lead in the Senate.  The Republicans retained control of the House, but two wins against one is a very good result.  But what might it mean for the next four years?  

As a non American, I have not followed the internal political battles in the USA.  My interest in American politics is primarily in its foreign and economic policies.  While the USA is no longer the greatest economy in the world, it is still by far the most important and as the dollar remains the world's reserve currency, changes in US economic and financial policy have enormous repercussions for the rest of us.  However my main concern here is with US foreign policy, as this is the area where the USA remains supreme in the world, in large part because it is the sole remaining military superpower.  So can we expect any changes in US foreign policy now that Obama has been re-elected and no longer has to worry about a third term?  Foreign policy is one area where there has been little change since Obama first won the Presidency.  Particularly in the Middle East US policy under Obama has remained much as it was under Bush.  In that part of the world the US seems to be stuck in a sinking mire.  The first rule of politics when in a hole is to stop digging.  Alas, under Obama the US seems intent on sinking even further into the mire.  The three most important hot spots in the region are Afghanistan, Iran and Israel/Palestine.

While the US has begun to get out of Iraq, in Afghanistan, Obama has increased the American military presence.  To what end?  Little of positive benefit seems to have come from this continuing military presence.  Hundreds of US and allied troops have been killed or maimed, while thousands of innocent Pakistanis and Afghanis have been killed or maimed.  Afghanistan is no more secure than under Bush, while Pakistan has become even more unstable, with a noticeable rise in extremism.  Just what is the end game for the USA in Afghanistan?  There seems to be no clear strategy beyond the current situation, which effectively amounts to Afghanistan remaining a bloody semi protectorate of the USA.

Iran is another country where Obama has simply pursued the existing policy and indeed with the imposition of punitive sanctions has been even more hardline than Bush.  The US has never really accepted the existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and has opposed it since its inceptions in 1979.  The current punitive sanctions are supposedly in response to the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme.  Now even if the Iranian regime was planning to develop nuclear weapons the simple response would be - so what!  After all our close ally in the region, Israel, does have nuclear weapons and moreover has still not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (which Iran has).  And of course Israel has never suffered any sanctions.  So why Iran?  The various international inspectors have never found any definitive evidence that Iran is planning to build nuclear weapons, never mind an actual programme to build weapons.  Every Supreme leader of the Islamic Republic has pronounced on several occasions that it is against the tenets of Islam to possess nuclear weapons.  Once again, what is the end game for the US in Iran.  It seems that the US is simply determined to bring down the Islamic Republic in its entirety.  Again to what purpose?  It cannot be democracy as the US supports non democratic regimes in the area such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan etc.  The imposition of these punitive sanctions does nothing to help the internal opposition to the current Iranian regime.  US policy here seems to serve no purpose other than simply to punish Iran.

Israel/Palestine is another area where Obama has made no difference to previous US policy.  The USA still offers unconditional financial, military and diplomatic support to Israel.  Again there seems to be no purpose to this policy.  The US is ostensibly and in public still in favour of the so-called two state solution for Israel and Palestine.  Yet almost every day Israel destroys the whole basis for this two state option.  If anything, the pace of illegal Israeli land grabs in the occupied West Bank and in occupied East Jerusalem has increased while Obama has been in office.  And the USA has done absolutely nothing to hold Israel to account.  Once more we wonder just what the US envisages as the end game in Israel/Palestine?  The US does nothing to advance the two state option, quite the reverse.  So what is going on here?

These are for me three of the most crucial foreign policy areas where Obama could make a difference.  It is not clear that Obama really supports the current US policy in these three areas.  Now that he no longer has to worry about future re-election, will the real Obama stand up?  Or is he too just as mired in the failed policies of the Bush era?

Sunday 4 November 2012

Scotland and the EU

There has recently been yet another flurry of media comment about whether an independent Scotland would or would not be an automatic member of the EU.  Leading to headlines along the lines of Further Blow for Salmond over Europe.  The sole source for all this shindig seems to be a letter from Viviane Reding from the European Commission.  This letter was in response to a question from Iñigo Mendez de Vigo, the European Affairs Minister in the Spanish government about independence for Catalunya.   Reding's letter is very brief and merely states that she agrees with de Vigo's interpretation of what the current EU treaties mean in the case of a unilateral declaration of independence.  De Vigo claims that in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, Catalunya's independence would not be recognised by the EU.  You can read her letter and the original request from De Vigo, here, in Spanish.  It is also worth pointing out that the European Commission has since the publication of Reding's letter officially stated that the Commission has not issued any formal statement about the independence of a part of a member state.  Furthermore the Commission would only do this in response to a formal request from a member state in which the precise constitutional framework for such independence was clearly laid.  Also worth noting that the Spanish government has confirmed that it will not be requesting such a ruling.  Now as observant readers will have noticed De Vigo's claim, even if true, has nothing whatsoever to do with Scottish independence.  This eventuality will come about as the result of an agreed, legal process as established in the recent Edinburgh Agreement.  The UK government has stated that it will respect the result of the independence referendum in 2014.  All of which rather begs the question of why our media were so keen to misrepresent the context of Reding's letter.   Can the Unionists be so desperate that they need to resort to this blatant lying?

As regards Scotland, the process and legal framework for independence is quite clear.  First,  there will be the referendum, in 2014.  Now despite the impression that some commentators want to make, even if we vote Yes in 2014, Scotland will not become an independent state the following day.  A Yes vote merely signals the beginning of the serious, detailed negotiations that will lead to full independence.  These negotiations are likely to take between one to two years to complete.  The negotiations will cover everything that needs to be in place on the exact moment when Scotland does become independent.  These negotiations will be primarily between the Scottish and UK governments, but some third parties will be involved, the UN, WHO and of course most important of all, the EU.  As part of the independence negotiations, Scotland, the UK and the EU will have to work out the details of Scotland's representation within the EU.  These negotiations will also at the same time have to work out the details of the representation of the rest of the UK within the EU.  So the Westminster government will have every incentive to ensure that these particular negotiations reach a successful conclusion.  While the details of Scotland's membership of the EU will therefore have to be negotiated, at no stage in this process will Scotland have ceased to be a member of the EU.  For the simple reason that during this period Scotland will still be part of the UK.  It is only if no agreement with the EU was reached would we face the prospect of Scotland being denied membership of the EU.  In which case somebody should be asked to produce valid legal opinion on exactly how the EU could legally deny Scotland membership.  For a fuller and more detailed analysis of the procedure for an independent Scotland to become a member of the EU, Graham Avery has provided us with a succinct and learned outline of the key issues, which you can read here.  This is his submission to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee's hearings on The foreign policy implications of and for a separate Scotland.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Defence Jobs - at what Price?

The UK Defence Minister, Philip Hammond was up in Scotland recently to visit the Faslane base for the UK's so-called independent nuclear weapons.  During this visit he confirmed that the current UK government is determined to commission an upgraded replacement for the Trident nuclear weapon system.  As part of this he announced a £305 investment on designing the new boats to host the weapons.  All this before the government's own review has concluded.  So much for open government UK style!

A key plank of Hammond's defence of renewing Trident is that it will provide secure jobs for thousand of people in the Clyde estuary.  Claims of up to 12,000 jobs are bandied about by the government and the clear message is that these jobs would go if we vote for independence.  This of course is all rubbish.  In the first place if Scotland does become independent, then we will still have a navy, army and air force.  Just how big they will be and the precise configuration of these forces will of course be a matter for us, the electorate in Scotland.  The first question to ask of a defence policy should be - against whom do we need to defend ourselves?  Only then can we make appropriate decisions about what kind of navy, army and air force we need.  As a relatively small north west European country with (hopefully) no dreams of invading other countries, we could get by with a much smaller defence spending that at present.  Even with a smaller defence spending there will still be plenty of jobs in the defence sector in an independent Scotland.

Secondly, spending on defence is about the most wasteful kind of public spending you can get.  It is outrageously expensive and in terms of job creation about as cost effective as space exploration.  Every study has shown that defence spending creates less jobs than just about any other spending.  Less money on trident means more money and more jobs for teachers, nurses, social workers, police etc.  Jobs that are more likely to make a positive difference to more people than Trident related jobs.  So for the same amount of public spending we can have more jobs in Scotland than the 12,000 that Philip Hammond like to crow about.

Thirdly it is interesting to note that the morality or ethics of this kind of job creation is conspicuous by its absence in the world of Philip Hammond and his ilk.  This is perhaps not surprising from a Tory, but still it is a shame that Labour in Scotland is too willing to parrot this line.  Jackie Ballie for one is keen to avoid talking about the ethics of nuclear weapons and will only talk about the jobs provided.  Strange behaviour for a so-called party of the left and an self-proclaimed internationalist one at that.  One wonders if the Jackie Ballies and Philip Hammonds of this world would have put up the same defence for concentration camps - they provided jobs and a boost to the local economy.  Think of all those train journeys needed to get people to the camps.  Must have been a wonderful job creation enterprise.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Nablus - It's the Occupation, the Occupation, the Occupation

I am not long back from a visit to Nablus as part of a delegation from the Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association.  We all had a wonderful time and some of the party are still there - the lucky ones.  This post will focus on my initial thoughts on what this visit has told me about the overall political situation in Palestine.

At first sight everything in Nablus looks fine and dandy.  The place is very lively, lots of busy shops, full of all kinds of goods.  The streets are full of cars and there do not appear to be any travel restrictions.  So it came as a bit of a surprise to find the town covered in posters with photos of armed resistance fighters - dead fighters, all killed by the Israelis.  
Still these posters did seem a bit out of kilter with the rest of the town.  That is until you look a bit more closely and ask a few questions.  You then remember that Nablus was occupied by the Israeli army from 2002 during the second intifada.  Though the soldiers are no longer in the town, evidence of their stay is everywhere.  Even our hotel had windows with bullet holes, like this one.
Even more disruptive was the destruction of whole houses. In the old town we met a Canadian woman who now lives in Nablus and she pointed out a newly rebuilt building just along from her house.  This was a building that the Israelis had destroyed, claiming that a resistance fighter was inside. He may have been, but in the process the Israelis killed nine people, including a pregnant mother and her baby.  So it is perfectly understandable that the Israeli occupation is never very far from the minds of Nabulsis.  

It is not the case that the occupation has ended.  It has just changed.  The Israeli presence is everywhere and the effects of their presence is a constant factor in living in Nablus.  During the week we were there, we witnessed Israeli military aircraft flying overhead, an unmanned drone crash landed just outside the town and soldiers invaded Balata refugee camp to arrest two young men.  The Israelis keep a permanent watch over Nablus.  This includes a military outpost on one of the hills above the town.  The small watchtower where Israeli soldiers look down on the town can be clearly seen to the left of the red and white tower on the right of this photo.
While travel in Palestine is less restrictive than a few years ago, the checkpoints are still there, as are the guard posts.  Cars still have to slow down due to the traffic slowing devices built into the road.  At any moment the Israelis can close a road and staff the checkpoints with soldiers.  There is even a military camp just outside Nablus.  Travel in and out of Palestine is of course completely controlled by the Israelis and it can be a terrifying experience to get in or out of Palestine through Israeli controls as we can personally testify.  Goodness knows what it must be like for Palestinians.  The Palestinian economy is, like travel, completely dependent on Israel.  The two economies are bound by the some currency - the Israeli shekel, over which Palestine has no say whatsoever.  We had the good fortune to visit the new Northern area Electricity Distribution company and see at first hand the modernisation programme they are carrying out.  But, they are totally dependent on Israel for the supply of electricity.

And of course there are these twin sides of the coin - the refugee camps and the illegal settlements.  While Jews from anywhere in the world can come and with Israeli government support illegally build houses on land stolen from Palestinians the Palestinians from Jaffa and other areas now in Israel, are forbidden to return to their villages and have to make do with living in a desolate, confined space in the camps.  Many of the settlers around Nablus are not averse to using violence to harass and even destroy the olive trees of the Palestinian farmers lower down the hillsides.  

So, while Nablus is a vibrant and lively town, you only need to spend a few days there to experience at first hand the debilitating and humiliating effects of the occupation.  For make no mistake about it, however much things have improved for some Palestinians, Palestine remains under occupation.  Two of the key demands of the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are brought to life by just a short stay in Nablus - End the Occupation and the Right of Return for Refugees.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Eurozone Prospects

It is getting a bit like Groundhog Day as regards the Euro and its future.  Every month of so, some supposedly very serious commentator, economist or politicians steps up to warn us the there are only two or three months left in which to save the Euro.  And yet two or three years later, the Euro is still there and nobody, not even the Greeks, has left the single currency.  At one level it is all a bit of a laugh.  Unfortunately this is a serious issue and the constant doomsayers are doing us all a major disservice.

Firstly because after a while most people simply cease to believe them and may wrongly, assume that all is well in Euroland.  Secondly, the focus on the survival of the Euro comes at the expense of the underlying economic realties which affect the Eurozone countries.  For the reality is that the main source of the woes affecting European countries is the application of more and more austerity.  Policy makers in nearly all countries seem hell bent on pursuing policies which all the evidence confirms is only making the situation worse.  Government debt is not coming down and most economies are either in recession or flatlining.  That this is happening in the UK, which is not in the Euro, would seem to indicate that it is not the Euro per se, which is the problem, but the "austerity at all costs" policy which is the problem.  Paul Krugman in a recent post outlines the crux of the matter.  Many of our governments seem to want to inflict pain on the rest of us for their own political agendas.

Getting out of this current and long lasting mess will not be easy.  Continuing with the current policy prescription is likely to kill the patient.   It is hard to see how the populations of countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece and even Ireland can continue supporting the consequences of the these policies for much longer.  What they face is a decade or more of deflation with high unemployment and the lost growth that this involves.  Not an enticing prospect.  At some point in the not too distant future something is likely to give.  Either some countries leave the Euro or the current policies will have to change.  Neither will be easy and all governments will try to avoid either happening.  But there has to be a limit to how much suffering people are prepared to endure, especially as there is little prospect of improvement in the medium term.

If the countries of the Eurozone want the Euro to survive there are various options available.  None of them involves rocket science and they have been know about for some time.  American economist Bradford DeLong provides a succinct summary of these options here.  As he points out the most likely outcome is a combination of the following three measures:

Northern Europe tolerates higher inflation – an extra two percentage points for five years would take care of one-third of the total north-south adjustment;
Northern Europe expands social democracy by making its welfare states more lavish;
Southern Europe shrinks its taxes and social services substantially.

Something along these lines is needed pretty soon if the Euro is to survive and the whole of the Eurozone gets a chance to rebalance its economy.  At the moment nobody in either northern or southern Europe is prepared to engage with their electorates about what these measures would mean in practice.  So the majority of Europeans are unaware of what lies ahead.  The sad thing in all this is that to continue as now is more than likely to make things even worse.  We are alas living through very difficult times with a bunch of scared politicians in nominal charge.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Catalunya - On the Way to Independence?

While the debate about independence for Scotland continues its slow march towards the referendum in 2014, things have suddenly become very heated in Catalunya.  The nationalist government in Barcelona has called for early elections, set for 28th November and if it wins has vowed to hold its own referendum.   In all this it is clear that there are many similarities between the situation in Catalunya and here in Scotland.  However the differences may be even more significant.

In the first place the so-called Nationalists in Catalunya are not in favour of independence.  The nationalists are made up of two centre-right parties,  Liberals and the Christian Democrats.  They have always worked together and present themselves as a coalition at elections, when they are know as Convergència i Uniò - simplified to CiU.  They mainly represent the Catalan speaking middle class and want better status for their own language - Catalan - and more and more powers, including fiscal powers for Catalunya.  There is a relatively small party - the Left Republicans, ERC, who do actively campaign for independence, but to date they have remained fairly small.  This is one of the key differences with Scotland, where it is the Nationalists who lead the campaign for independence.

Another key difference with Scotland is that the centre left, represented by the socialists - PSC, and the smaller left wing parties are all in favour of more powers for Catalunya.  Only the right wing PP, the party of the current government in Madrid opposes this.  There is thus ample support throughout Catalunya and across the political spectrum for more powers - what might be termed DevoMax, here in Scotland.  In particular the Catalans have pretty much united in calling for a new Fiscal Pact to give increased tax raising powers to the Catalan parliament.  This has recently been resoundingly rejected out of hand by the Spanish government.  And it is this point blank refusal in Madrid to even talk about more powers which has set alight the touch paper.

This all led to the massive popular demonstration in Barcelona in early September, when between one million and a million and a half people crowed onto the streets to demand independence, shown in photo at top.  And here is another key difference with Scotland.  All the recent initiatives seem to have come from the ground up.  There has been a long standing campaign at local level in support of independence which has involved local councils holding local referendums about independence.  With in most cases large majorities in favour.  The recent big demonstration was itself not organized by political parties.  But once they realized how big it was going to be, they quickly jumped on board.  It is this massive demonstration calling for independence which seems to have been the game changer in Catalunya.

The nationalists, at least some of them, have started to talk about independence, or Catalunya acquiring the institutions of a state.  They cannot, as yet, openly talk about independence.  Even the proposed referendum will be about sovereignty as opposed to independence.  The Socialists are now apparently all in favour of rewriting the Spanish constitution so that Spain can become a Federal state.  In the hope of giving Catalunya sufficent powers, while preserving the unity of Spain.   Apart from the right wing party, the Spanish governing PP, just about all the other Catalan parties are coalescing around the demand for more powers and in particular a new Fiscal Pact.  What will happen if the Nationalists are returned to power with a mandate for a referendum and the Spanish government continues to say NO, NO, NO, is anybodies guess.  Some nutters on the right - former politicians and retired military - have already called for the Guardia Civil to be deployed.  This is another difference with Scotland.  Despite the rhetoric on the Unionist side it is hard to imagine either David Cameron or Ed Milliband sending in the tanks to squash the unruly Scots.  We can only hope that cool heads prevail in Madrid.

However the opposition of Madrid to significant additional powers for Catalunya is something that is common to both situations.  London is equally set against more powers for Scotland.  Another similarity is that despite the best efforts of the SNP and the other pro-independence parties, the majority of Scots seem to want to stay in the UK.  Like their Catalan colleagues however the overwhelming majority want increased powers, including financial and fiscal powers for Holyrood.  The key difference is that in Catalunya the Socialists are also in favour of increased powers, whereas in Scotland the Labour Party has become entrenched in a “this far and no further” paralysis.  The LibDems too, while they proclaim their federalist crudentials seem only too happy to align themselves with the staunchest do nothing Unionists in the Conservative and Labour parties.

Another all too depressing similarity is the negative posturing of both governments in Madrid and London.  Both continually assert, with no evidence, that Independence will be bad for Scotland and for Catalunya. They also like to wield the EU card.  Independence will entail leaving the EU and we (Spain and the UK) will veto any chance of joining.  With supposed friends like these, who needs enemies?  It is interesting to note that one EU Commissioner, Viviane Reding, has already come out and denied that independence would mean leaving the EU.

For the pro-independence movement in Scotland, the changed political situation in Catalunya can only be a welcome shot in the arm.  Much will of course depend on the outcome of the elections in November.  But a renewed mandate for the Nationalists will surely provide some food for thought amongst the unionists over here.  For what is most noticeable about the Unionist campaign so far is its complete refusal to think beyond the UK.  One gets the impression from Unionists that independence has never, ever happened before.  They seem stuck in their own little world of make believe.  Events in Catalunya may just shake them up a bit.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Scottish Labour Going Down?

I have not posted here for some time as I took a little breather over the summer.  However Johann Lamont’s recent speech in Edinburgh has prompted me to put pen to paper again as it were.  I have read and reread her speech and still find it very hard to understand what she is trying to say and more importantly perhaps, why she went to all this bother  Her speech seems to be a very clear attack on the principle of universal benefits, despite some feeble attempts by her supporters to deny this.  Most commentators have concentrated on this part of her speech.
In this post I want however to highlight what was missing in her speech and to argue that this makes her both dishonest and defeatist.  To give her some credit she does make some very pertinent observations.  For example when she states: “This is the stark choice that Scotland has to face up to: if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere.”  She then goes on to correctly, in my view, state that: “Once we have decided as a country what kind of public services we aspire to, then we must have an honest debate about affordability.

Unfortunately the rest of her speech was to ignore completely the issue of affordability.  For this reason I feel she is being dishonest.  She repeatedly insists that there will be less money around.  While this is true for the immediate future, it is not the result of some immutable law of nature.  It is the wholly political and ideological choice of our current nasty government in Westminster.  Yet at no stage in her speech does Ms Lamont challenge this situation.  Her whole premise is based on accepting whatever Westminster decides to allocate to Scotland.  We can argue and debate about who gets what, but we must never challenge the amount we get.  This it seems to me is a most defeatist approach.  So in essence I accuse Johann Lamont of being both dishonest and defeatist.

In her speech Ms Lamont was quite happy to highlight some of the gross inequalities that demean Scotland.  For example she asks: “What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?”  In parliament she continued with this line by exposing how much Nicola Sturgeon and her husband earn.  Now, I agree with Johann Lamont on this.  It is wrong and in my view indefensible that we have people earning £100, 000 and more a year while pensioners need care.  But where I fundamentally disagree is that this iniquity can be solved by means testing or restricting universal benefits.  The answer it seems to me is to increase taxes on high earners like Nicola Sturgeon.  But of course Johann Lamont cannot do that because the Scottish Parliament has no real powers over fiscal matters.  And it is her refusal to contemplate any serious debate about this issue that confirms to me that she is dishonest when it comes to talking about affordability.  She is right that we cannot have a mature debate about what kind of public services we aspire to for our country without including affordability.  But equally we cannot have a mature debate about affordability if we do not have the powers over taxation and the economy in general.  
This does not necessarily mean independence, though of course that is one option, and the one I personally favour.  However there is a range of options within the UK for Scotland to be given control over significant areas of taxation to full fiscal autonomy.  But on this Johann Lamont has nary a word to say.  The only tax she mentioned was the Council tax.  Which she apparently wants to increase.  Probably the most regressive and hated tax of all.

Ms Lamont concludes her speech with bit of a rallying call when she claims: “But we can change Scotland now. We have the powers in the Scottish Parliament now, to change radically education, health, public services. What we lack is the will.”  This again is to my mind another example of the basic dishonesty in her whole approach.  Firstly a minor point, there are some radical changes going on in Scotland.  I will mention only one - the Curriculum for Excellence.  Whatever one thinks of this, it is certainly an attempt at radical change.  And one that was initiated under a previous Labour government at Holyrood.  So I find her belittling of what has changed and is changing in Scotland both insulting and surprising.

The more fundamental point of course is that it is manifestly not just the will which is lacking in Scotland.  It is the money.  As she herself admits, there will be less money around.  Yet she makes no suggestion whatsoever as to how we might increase the money available for public services.  Whether it is the UK or Scotland we are talking about very wealthy countries.  To claim that we must content ourselves with whatever Westminster condescends to give us is to my mind both dishonest and defeatist.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Scotland is Already Independent (in some things)

This is something that may come as a surprise to lots of people, but in many areas of life Scotland is already fully independent.  It is a fact nearly always overlooked by Unionists, who are so keen to demonstrate that independence will somehow damage us.  Yet in areas as diverse as sport and religion, Scotland is and more important, always has been independent.

Let us start with sport, one of the most popular activities of humanity just about everywhere.  In just about every sport, Scotland is, to use the Unionists' favoured term, already separate.  It is not just in football, golf and rugby that we have our own independent, sorry, separate teams and governing bodies.  Nearly every sport from cricket to volleyball is governed in Scotland by our very own, internationally recognised ruling association.  And as far as I am aware, not even the most ardent Unionist argues that Scotland should give up its independence in these sports.  Just look at the brouhaha over the fielding of a UK football team in this year's Olympics.

When it comes to sports, everyone accepts our right to be independent - to run things for ourselves and to be represented in the relevant international bodies in our own right.  It is also worth pointing out that in all sports we are fully independent or separate if you prefer.  This means that we are not subsidised by anyone, certainly not by England or the UK government.  Somehow we manage to successfully pay our way.  We may not be the most successful team in some sports, but hey, nor is England.  We accept with good grace and a few murmurs whatever we do manage to achieve and if it is not good enough then we try to work out how we can do better in the future.  But virtually nobody thinks it a good idea to give up our separate football team for a UK one.

The same can be said for another, some might say even more important facet of life - religion.  Here again it is an uncontested fact that all religions, or at least all Christian denominations, have their own, independent/separate lives and governing structures.  This is clearly the case with the Church of Scotland, which as its name suggests is a wholly Scottish institution.  Perhaps surprisingly to some, the same applies to the Catholic Church.  Despite the universal nature of Catholicism, the Church is run along national lines.  This means that the Catholic Church is separate/independent from the Catholic Church in England for example.  Scottish Catholics have their own direct line to the Pope, without the inconvenience of having to go through London.  Again the various Scottish religious groups manage to survive and provide services to their faithful, without the benefits of any kind of subsidy from England or the UK government.

Since devolution there is now a further range of public services in which Scotland is pretty much independent.  I refer to education, the Health Service, local government, social work etc.  All areas which are under the full responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.  Over the past decade or so, Scotland has become ever more different from the rest of the UK, especially from England.  We are pursuing an independent/separate line in the above areas.  And virtually nobody is advocating that we hand back power in these areas to Westminster.  The key difference between let us say, education and football, is that in the latter we have full control over what we spend.  Whereas with education, we can only spend what London condescends to give us.  So in relation to public services we are only partly independent.  

So why not go the whole hog and vote for full independence in 2014.  It is amazing that we are proud of our independence in sport and religion and we are equally proud of our separate education and NHS, yet Unionists would have us believe we are still somehow too wee, too poor to take full responsibility for everything - just like all other independent countries manage to do.

Friday 8 June 2012

Why pick on Syria? - Why not Israel?

I am somewhat amazed at the rather skewed media and political attention that is devoted to the situation in Syria.  The uprising and the bloody response of the government has caused great suffering among many Syrians.  Most of them civilians and some of them children.  However bad the situation is for some Syrians, I am not sure how western intervention will lessen the violence and the bloodshed.  Whether it is direct military intervention or supplying arms to the rebels, the result can only be even more deaths and serious injuries.  However my main concern here is the double standards that are once again on display, both by our media and our western governments.
However bad and appalling the violence is in Syria over the recent months it pales into insignificance compared with the violence inflicted on Palestinians by Israelis.  This week alone the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported 3 killed, 23 wounded, including 8 children, by Israeli troops.  Their report can be found here.  Other reports highlighted that Jewish settlers were on the rampage throughout the West Bank.

These were not of course isolated incidents.  Israel has been killing Palestinians for over 60 years now.  It was only three years ago that Israel unleashed Cast Lead, their massive murderous onslaught against defenceless Palestinians in Gaza.  This resulted in the deaths of over 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 300 children.  Yet what was the thunderous response of the western governments to this slaughter of the innocents?  Understanding of Israel’s right to defend itself - against civilians?  Regret at the deaths and nothing more.  No condemnation and no referral to the UN.  And absolutely nothing about military intervention to protect the hundreds of dying children.  Nor any chance of arming the Palestinians so they could better resist Israeli attacks.  In this of course our wonderful investigative media was largely silent if not outright supportive of Israel.
The lessons of this seems to be crystal clear.  The outrage against the deaths and sufferings of the innocent Syrians is permitted because the western governments don’t like the Assad regime in Syria.  When the Kuwaiti government was killing its own citizens there was very little condemnation from the western governments.  No surprise to learn that Kuwait is one of the West’s best friends in the Middle East.  And of course Israel can kill as many Palestinians as it can manage with nary a word uttered against.  Just to give a fuller picture of the violence committed by Israelis against Palestinians, here are the figures for the number of children killed since September 29, 2000.  The figures come from If Americans Knew.

Israeli children killed - 124
Palestinian children killed - 1,452
If there was any sense of justice within our western world, then it would be Israel that was in the dock for crimes against humanity.  But which of our brave politicians in the west is going to challenge Israel?

Sunday 3 June 2012

The Euro - One of Two Unthinkable Things Will Happen

It looks like things are going to get even more interesting for the Euro.  The uncertain outcome of the forthcoming general election in Greece has captured most of the attention, but it is events in Spain that are most likely to provide the tipping point  An exit of Greece from the Eurozone while very messy and of uncertain consequences for Greece, would not in itself prove fatal to the Euro.  Damaging yes, possibly very damaging but nevertheless containable.  This, on the economic and political assumption of "all other things being equal".  Which of course is manifestly not the case.  By all accounts Spain is in very serious trouble, with an enormous amount of money needed to clean out its banks.  Where will this money come from?  Even if the money is forthcoming, what effect if any will this have on Spain's disastrous economy?  Massive and rising unemployment and further austerity measures do not add up to much in the way of growth.  On the contrary further contraction is predicted and pretty much inevitable.

Faced with this situation the key question is can the Spanish government continue with its austerity policy?  Could any Spanish government?  While a Greek exit from the Euro would be unfortunate and unwanted - from a Eurozone perspective - a Spanish exit would more or less bring down the whole ship.  Neither Italy nor France could survive in the Euro faced with a massive Spanish devaluation - which is what would happen if Spain leaves the Euro.  The competition would be too severe.  A Spanish exit and devaluation would not be good new for German exporters either, while a collapse of the Euro is likely to be catastrophic for Germany.

Which is why the way forward is likely to involve either of two currently unthinkable outcomes.  Unthinkable that is to the members of the Eurozone.  The two "unthinkables" are 1.  the Euro is allowed to collapse or 2.  Germany accepts lots of debt relief, inflation and monetary transfers to other Eurozone states.  Neither is on the horizon at the moment, but things in the real economy can move at lightning speed.  The phrase about one of two unthinkables happening is from Paul Krugman.  He used it during a very interesting Newsnight programme on BBC2.  The whole programme is well worth watching.  You can access it here via the BBC iplayer.  The programme starts with the situation in Greece and the Krugman section starts at the 20.00 minute mark.  He discusses the options with another US economist, Ken Rogoff and despite their different perspectives, both agree that the only way for the Euro to survive is for Germany to bear a lot of pain.  Rogoff's view is that this will come anyway and it is up to Germany to decide which poison to take.  His prescription is pretty much identical with Krugman's second "unthinkable" - default on loans owed to German banks, higher inflation and financial transfers.  Some combination of all three is probably the optimum solution.  Certainly higher inflation in Germany seems to be the key to any survival of the Euro.  As Krugman points out, it is easier - both practically and politically - to improve Spanish competitiveness by raising the wages of German workers than by lowering the wages of Spanish workers.

The jury is out as to which of the two "unthinkables" will prevail.  The EU leaders will try to postpone any decision for as long as possible, but of course the financial markets may decide to take matters out of their hands and force the issue.  Look out for further signs of capital flight from Spanish banks.  The Newsnight programme also includes a wonderful section - starts at 31.36 minutes - in which Krugman single handed as it were demolishes the so-called arguments of two Neanderthals from the austerity and more austerity camp.  One of them, Andrea Ledson is even a Tory MP - Lord help us!

If the iplayer link above does not work, here is a link via youtoube to the section where Krugman and Rogoff discuss the future of the Euro.  Their discussion starts at 3.40 in.  And here is a link, also via youtoube to the section in which Krugman takes on the austerity monsters.



Monday 28 May 2012

Yes, Scotland

The campaign to win Independence for Scotland has formally begun.  Last Friday saw the launch of this new campaign - Yes Scotland.    Since the referendum is more than two years away, this was a fairly low key event.  Only two of the speakers were active politicians, Alex Salmond from the SNP and Patrick Harvie from the Greens.  This is important for a successful outcome.  Though the SNP are clearly the main party campaigning for independence, they are not the only party.  The Greens in particular could have a very significant role to play in convincing enough Scots to vote Yes.  It is also clear that though the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties will remain staunchly anti independence, this is not true of all of their voters.  So the Yes, Scotland campaign needs to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible.
Independence is not something to decide on lightly.  It is not just for today, but for the long, long term.  Therefore we need people to think carefully about what independence might mean - for them, their families and for future generations.  Which is one of the many very good reasons for the two year timescale before the referendum.  A majority of Scots need to be convinced that independence is the best option for Scotland.  Preferably as large a majority as possible.  Already commentators and bloggers are advancing their particular reasons for voting Yes to Independence.  You can find a couple here and here.  Gerry Hassan has also chipped in with a more considered list here.
Now I don’t want to demean any of these reasons, some of them I agree with myself.  However they do seem to miss the fundamental reason for wanting independence.  Independence will not in itself bring about any of the wish lists mentioned above, nor those of anybody else.  What independence will do is ensure that it is us the people living in Scotland who get to decide what policies to pursue, for good or bad.  You either trust us - the people living in Scotland in all our diversity - or you don’t.  It’s pretty simple really.  Who should decide on the key issues affecting Scotland - the people who live here or people living elsewhere in the UK?  I am clearly with the Yes, Scotland campaign and this simple statement - The people who live in Scotland are best placed to make the decisions that affect Scotland.  I would urge all my fellow citizens living in Scotland to join in the Yes, Scotland campaign.  Go to their website here, and sign the declaration.