Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hopes of a soft Irish border fading

A report from the Irish Revenue Commission appears to rule out any hope of a so-called ‘soft border’ between the Republic and Northern Ireland should the United Kingdom leave the European Union without a comprehensive trade deal.

The report states that after Brexit “the UK will become a third country for customs purposes and the associated formalities will become unavoidable”.

These “associated formalities” will include customs posts at routes across the 500 kilometre border and long queues as goods are checked for the required paperwork and passports are scrutinised.

This was the main reason why the people of Northern Ireland voted solidly against Brexit, only to see their preference negated in the overall UK context.

It is also why, ever since, the Government at Westminster has been desperate to come up with some kind of compromise that can equate a continuation of the current border situation with the decision to quit the EU.

Among the suggestions: Allow traffic to flow normally each way only to be halted at unobtrusive places a distance from the actual border for checks; make the border between the island of Ireland and the UK mainland; handle all the formalities in cyberspace so there is no need for any physical barriers at the border.

These and other proposals have been derided as “magical thinking” by one EU official, who added that the British proposals were long on aspirations but short on workable solutions.

Both the Republic and the UK fear that a ‘hard border’ will reignite passions over a united Ireland that has poisoned relations between the countries in the past and could lead to a resurgence of violence sponsored by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the boundary between north and south has essentially disappeared. It has been stated many times that the only way drivers can tell they have travelled between jurisdictions is when the road signs (kilometres in the south, miles in the north) change.

With Ireland united in all but name, this largely destroyed the IRA’s raison d’etre and ushered in a prolonged period of peace and stability as both sides put the notorious ‘Troubles’ behind them.

However, all bets are off should a border be reinstituted.

Writing for the Centre for European Policy Studies, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast, Katy Hayward, says a customs border would also raise the economic attractiveness of smuggling. 

She calls for "flexibility and imagination" to be employed in finding a system that would somehow overcome the difficulties that inevitably lie ahead.

It used to be said that when the UK sneezed, Ireland caught a cold. So much so the Republic felt it was obliged to follow its larger neighbour intro the EU is 1973.

Things have changed drastically since. 

Ireland has prospered under EU membership, and is currently recovering strongly from the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008. Its continued membership is in no doubt.

The border issue was never properly put to the electorate during the febrile referendum campaign of last year. It is just one of the consequences that are now becoming clear.

One of the biggest constitutional issues that has faced the country in 100 years should never have been disposed of in a simple first-past-the post vote, the result of which split the nation almost down the middle.

History will condemn the hubris of those who so casually entered into the arrangement, but it is done and the UK’s leaders must rise to the challenge.

There is still time for wise heads to prevail and for a ‘confirmation referendum’ to be held when negotiations are complete and all the facts and consequences of Brexit are on the table.

A mature, democratic society that cares for the rights of all its people — not just those who shout loudest — can have no other choice.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The unforgotten forgotten

We hear a lot these days about the ‘forgotten people’ — United States President Donald Trump refers to them repeatedly; they are supposed to have voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union last year; in Australia, One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson claims to be their champion.

Rather than being forgotten, they appear to be the most talked about people in Western democracy — but who exactly are they? 

It rather depends on the time and the place. The first reference that I can find belongs to William Graham Sumner, a professor at Yale University in the United States during the 1880s. His forgotten people were those who “attend no meetings, pass no resolutions, never go to the lobby, are never mentioned in the newspapers, but just work and save and pay”.  

In other words the solid middle class, the nouveau riche or not so nouveau riche who were emerging from the melting pot of post-Civil War America and were rapidly becoming the backbone upon which the country would transform into a world power.

They popped up again in quite a different form less than half a century later when in an election speech in 1932, US presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that national prosperity depended upon plans “that build from the bottom up and not the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the financial pyramid.”

In 1932, as the US economy was spiralling into the Great Depression, this was an obvious reference to the poor workers forming ever increasing dole queues, unable to feed their families and with seemingly no hope for better times ahead.

No more than a decade later and Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, at that time temporarily out of office, claimed the life of his nation “is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, for what their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of the race”.  

Move on and US President Richard Nixon was speaking about the “silent majority” bewildered by irrational protests over the Vietnam War, and not much later another US President, Ronald Reagan hailed the “heroes of America” a classless majority made up of factory workers and entrepreneurs.

So it goes on.

What are we to make of this? The forgotten are the staunch middle class with a solid work ethic; the poor and the unemployed; the god-fearing propagators of the race; pro-war and anti-war; factory workers calling for isolationism to protect their jobs and entrepreneurs revelling in the global marketplace.

One thing they are not is forgotten.

They have been courted by politicians the world over, hoping to achieve power by the populist road. They have been promised the earth — their jobs back in industries where the work is now being done by robots; a return to flag waving nationalism in a world that increasingly draws its wealth from inter-dependence.

They are the tools by which political parties and individuals climb to power. They are indispensable to every potential demagogue with simple answers to complex questions.

They will be tricked, lied to, duped, filled with false hope, always to be eventually disillusioned — but they will never be forgotten.    

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Macron’s vision for a new Europe

Perhaps inevitably, French President Emmanuel Macron has become public enemy number one among the United Kingdom’s anti-European leaders and their rabidly pro-Brexit (and largely overseas owned) media backers.

Late last month in a 100-minute speech in Paris, Macron set out a series of initiatives for a future EU – they included the creation of a military intervention force, a common defence budget and new agency to curb illegal immigration.

These are measured and reasonable steps to make in the progression of the European project, broadly according to the vision of the EU’s founding fathers who saw the Treaty of Rome as the first step on the road to full European unity.

Indeed, it was also the view of the UK’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill who in a speech in Switzerland on 19 September 1946, looked forward to a “United States of Europe” as a counter to conflicts such as the one that had just ended.

In that respect the EU has been remarkably successful, presiding over a period of sustained peace within its borders.

But the time has come to move on and Macron’s roadmap is not simply timely, it is essential.

Not so according to the UK’s main European attack dog, Nigel Farage who in a comment that sounded uncannily like one of United States President Donald Trump’s tweets, claimed the EU leaders were “bad people. They treat countries like the communists did”.

Farage’s outburst comes at a time when he should be celebrating the success of his friends in Germany’s far right where the Alternative for Germany Party won enough votes in the country’s General Election to enter Parliament for the first time — a rare success after the firm rejections of similar parties in France and the Netherlands.

But it also comes at a time when his beloved Brexit is in trouble. As commentator and geopolitical specialist Colin Chapman* points out, after the British voted by a narrow majority to leave the EU (with more than a quarter of voters abstaining) little progress has been made.

“UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s weakened and divided Government has switched tactics,” Chapman writes.

“Having been prepared to walk away from the world’s strongest economic bloc (“no deal is better than a bad deal”), her position is now that Britain remains in the EU in all but name for at least two years after the official exit in early 2019.

“Britain will try to secure open access to the EU single market for UK manufacturers and services.”

Chapman says that May appears to be moving from a ‘hard’ Brexit to a ‘soft’ one, but these new tactics are not bearing results.

“May’s fragile Cabinet unity is collapsing, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resisting an EU divorce payment and breaking ranks to host an event this week for a new think tank, the Institute of Free Trade, that argues for a hard Brexit,” Chapman writes.  

“And at the conclusion of Labour’s annual conference this week, the popular party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, changed his position, arguing for Britain to remain in the EU single market and customs union.

“Labour has only to gather a few Tory rebels — and there are a growing number — and the Government faces defeat in Parliament and another General Election. On current polls, Corbyn would win.”

In the face of this chaos, the last thing the Brixiteers need is a Europe with a renewed focus and an attractive vision. It is no wonder that increasing calls for a second referendum when the terms of exit are finally known is being greeted by strident, almost hysterical rebuffs from the UK Government’s Department for Exiting the European Union.  

*Colin Chapman writes for Australia Outlook, a program of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Why Kim has won his greatest game

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung Un is reported to be a gaming fanatic.

According to those who were once close to Kim, there is nothing he likes better than an evening in front of his computer screen, blowing away virtual enemies, climbing to ever higher levels and degrees of difficulty.

Now the man who has probably the most recognisable face on the planet is taking his gaming talents to new heights in the real world — and in the six years since he assumed absolute power in North Korea after the death of his father, the Great Gamer has consistently outplayed his opponents.

Level One: Constantly berate and threaten the United States and its allies.

Level Two: Show off his armed forces in huge and fantastic parades through his capital, Pyongyang. If paramilitaries are counted, it is estimated that 25 per cent of the country’s population receives regular military training.

Level Three: Develop a nuclear arms capability, ignoring the protests of the wider world.

Level Four: Develop missile capability, ignoring international protests.

Level Five: Explode atomic bomb, ignoring protests etc.

Level Six: Launch test missiles into the surrounding region putting his near neighbours into helpless rage and panic.

Level: Seven: Explode a thermo-nuclear device, four times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Japan of course is a near neighbour and in the firing line.

What have Kim’s opponents been doing as he progresses through the levels? They have issued cries of outrage, been to the United Nations Security Council on innumerable occasions, issued some trade sanctions with so far fruitless calls for more, while others have made even more fruitless calls for dialogue and negotiation.

There are higher levels in this game, but as far as Kim is concerned it is over. He has won. Of course he has no interest in using the weapons he has acquired, because that would inevitably lead to the end of his regime and the destruction of his country, but he has them, and that is all he needs.

In the weeks, months and probably decades to come, the North Korean dictator will continue to explode a few bombs, launch a few more rockets and make ever more outlandish threats, while the international community will run out of adjectives to describe his behaviour and continue to call for more sanctions at ever more irrelevant Security Council meetings.

We will, at least for a while, continue to see click-bait headlines forecasting doom and destruction. China will continue to call for dialogue while sending its neighbour all the oil it needs to keep its economy running; likewise Russia.

Eventually condemnation fatigue will set in and the world will have to accept there’s another nuclear power to worry about and return to business as usual.

There is one wild card that could upset the equation — the United States President. Donald Trump gets really upset with the way Kim insults him and has issued some very colourful threats about what he is prepared to do.

The feeling in some quarters is that if Kim prods him enough he might explode into action.

But Washington is no stranger to brinkmanship and Trump would find it would never be a case of him just calling up his nuclear codes and pressing the button.

While Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) might not actually be the case in a conflict between the US and North Korea, the devastation that would probably result to its major allies in the area, and the damage to US standing in the world would make such an action unthinkable.

In other words, Trump would be told, gently but firmly, to remove his hand from the trigger.

Not the best outcome for the majority of civilisation that would prefer to live in a world free of nuclear weapons – or at least with an effective means to control them — and certainly not for the North Korean people who must live with their ruthless and uncaring dictator for another 30 years or more.

But in effect, it’s game over. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

UK over-stayer problem is May’s fantasy

Last year British Prime Minister, Theresa May came to India to promote her ‘open for business’ agenda in the wake of the Brexit vote. Given her much stated slogan that, free from European Union shackles the United Kingdom could embrace the rest of the world, most here expected that trade ties would be top of her agenda. Not so.

Instead the locals got a lecture about the number of Indian nationals in the UK who had over-stayed their visas and demands that New Delhi put more pressure on them to come home.

The Prime Minister’s outburst left many in her audience wondering exactly how it was India’s responsibility to round up illegals and over-stayers in another country. From her remarks it appeared she believed there were tens of thousands of Indian students and others, crowding into ghettos, straining welfare services, taking jobs from the indigenous population.

Yet a new report, published this month by her own Government, says exactly the opposite. The vast majority of Indians in the UK leave well before their visa expires. In fact, Indians have one of the highest visa compliance rates among non-EU people living in Britain.

Interestingly, the number who do the right thing (97 per cent) are part of a declining overall figure of Indians coming to the UK in the first place — a reduction of 50 per cent in student numbers since 2010.

This is largely because of the closure of hundreds of so-called colleges that purported to offer academic courses, but were actually a back-door way of getting people into the country who could then ‘disappear’ into the low-paid, illegal workforce. 

These bogus institutions have tarnished the UK’s reputation as an educational provider to the extent that genuine Indian students are now looking elsewhere.

The new figures show May is more obsessed with a ‘Britain for the British’ agenda rather than negotiating a reasonable deal on non-British citizens in her country.
She prefers to ignore the fact that without the contribution of Indians and other Asians, a good number of UK institutions, most notably the National Health Service, would come close to collapse.

This was emphasised by a member of May’s own Conservative Party in the House of Lords, Jitesh Gadhia, who said Indian visitors, students and workers brought “huge benefits” to the UK through their purchasing power, academic contributions and skill sets.

“The UK Government should now have much greater confidence in providing Indian visitors, students and skilled workers with favourable access terms which are not discriminatory in any way,” Baron Gadhia said.

Something that is unlikely to happen soon given the ideological orientation of those occupying the Front Bench in the Lower House.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Privatising governments are out of touch

A recent report from the Transnational Institute on the transfer of public assets into the private sector has revealed what many consumers around the world already know — four decades of privatisation have generally not brought anything like the golden promise of cheaper, more efficient services.

Instead they have often produced a litany of run-down operations, failed infrastructure, corner cutting and profit and shareholder value maximisation over the needs of the consumer.

Such is the extent of the problem that in Europe there is a major shift towards wresting privately-run utilities back into public ownership. In Germany alone there are hundreds of municipalities deciding not to renew private company contracts; France is not far behind.

In the United Kingdom, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn struck a chord with the electorate when he promised to re-nationalise the privately run rail network. Years of ownership by various companies have seen the price of travel rise in direct proportion to the decline in services provided.

In Australia, the reputation of the four major banking companies has never been lower, to the point where the Government is casting around for new players in the market in the hope that competition might placate a population thoroughly fed up with high charges and indifferent services.

Professor at the School of Economics at the University of Queensland John Quiggin summed up the mood when he said that most Australians now firmly believed that privatisation was a policy that had consistently failed.

“Yet it is still remorselessly pushed by the political elite. It is little surprise that voters are turning to populism in response,” Professor Quiggin said.

He cites the example of “the comprehensive failure of vocational education privatisation…yet despite this, the push for privatisation has gone on…for-profit education in the United States has been a disaster area”.

The UK’s Corbyn nearly caused the biggest election upset in modern times with a platform that contained the re-nationalisation of the railways and water industries. Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell pointed out that three decades of water utilities in private hands had led to ownership by a handful of foreign investors, many based in overseas tax havens. 

“Meanwhile, prices have increased by 40 per cent and over a quarter of the amount consumers pay on bills goes towards servicing debt interest and paying out dividends,” McDonnell said

In Indonesia, the courts have intervened to annul water privatisation contracts in the capital, Jakarta, finding that the public-private partnerships had been negligent in fulfilling the human right to water for the city’s residents.

For decades we have been fed the mantra that the private sector, existing in the “real world” where competition mandated management efficiency, would do a better job of running public assets than lazy, uncommitted and incompetent public servants. Over time that rationale has resulted in privately run prisons, security systems, telecommunications networks and the management of resources.

If the chaos and misery spread by the global financial crisis was not warning enough of the effects of an out-of-control private sector, surely the Government of US President Donald Trump, a businessman with no experience in public administration, is the clincher.

While the private sector has a role to play — and in some areas it is just too complicated to return to public ownership — a rebalancing of the privatisation craze is necessary if we have any hope of moving towards a more just, sustainable future.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Public servants are Patel’s latest target

Priti Patel, the woman who is waiting for British Prime Minister Theresa May to make one more mistake so she can jump into the breach and drag the Conservative Party even further to the right, has been targeting the country’s public servants in her latest outburst.

Government workers’ pay rates are “crazy, wrong and out of step with pay for comparable posts in the private sector” she is claimed to have said (without actually defining what these ‘comparable posts’ might be) and “must be restrained”.

What really seems to irk her is that many senior public servants earn more than she and her Ministerial colleagues. Patel is one of those Members of Parliament, and there have been many down the years, who believe that Government Ministers should automatically be better paid than the people to whom they give orders.

In fact, any rational comparison between the work even a mid-range public servant has to do, compared with that of a Minister, would suggest otherwise.

When a Treasurer, produces a Budget in Parliament, has he sat down and worked out all the figures, making the policies proposed at least halfway affordable? Is Ms Patel as International Development Secretary, across every item of aid that goes to every country that her Department supports?

When Ms Patel sits in her office and signs the cheques, or rushes off to some donor country for photo opportunities, it is the workers in her department who have decided on the number of water purifiers and sacks of rice that can be afforded and from whom they can be purchased.

It is they who will decide what level of security she will need on her trips overseas and who provides it. They will even write the speeches she delivers to the grateful aid recipients.

In the past Ministers have always come back with the claim that they are ultimately responsible, and if public servants foul up it is the Minister that takes the hit. Yet how true is that in the modern political climate? How many Ministers actually resign these days over mistakes others have committed in their departments? Wriggling off the hook is a skill well practiced and honed to a fine art in today’s Government.

Of course Patel, who learned her politics at the knee of Margaret Thatcher, cannot help but hate public servants. It is in her DNA that they are a drain on the taxpayer, unproductive, lazy, their jobs protected from the ‘real world’ and so on.

She has accused top bureaucrats of having been too close to companies that have been awarded lucrative foreign aid contracts. This from a woman who has constantly advocated on behalf of the tobacco and alcohol industries and has sought to have bans that discourage smoking overturned.

One wonders how Patel would cope for one day without the support of the workers in her department. How her beloved Brexit would cope without hard working public servants trying to unravel the mess that her incompetent Front Bench colleagues are creating daily.

She should do no more than listen to the restrained response to her ranting from a Government spokesman: “The Civil Service deals with varied and complex issues and needs to attract, recruit and retain highly skilled individuals, which means it is sometimes appropriate to pay higher salaries.”