Friday, February 24, 2017

Why the EU’s good works go unreported

Recently as part of my work covering bureaucracies around the world, I came across a story that I almost dismissed after reading the opening paragraph — the near bankrupt Kano State Government in Nigeria was being given seven new vehicles for one of its Ministries courtesy of the European Union.

Initially, it seemed rather humdrum; nothing of any great interest — but then I began to wonder why it had failed to grab my attention and realised that it was just one of a number of similar items that come across my desk almost every week.

Business as usual for Brussels, but in this case crucial for the workings of the Kano Government and scores of other jurisdictions around the world that are extremely grateful the EU exists.

Just this week the European Commission launched a project to address the root causes of the refugee migration from Africa that will involve some 250 migrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and Gambia being given vocational training. Some at least will be able to take their new found skills back to their original countries where they have a better chance of decent employment.

It is not widely known that the EU is the second largest aid donor in the Pacific region after Australia. Recently, the President of Kiribati was in Brussels to sign a six-year assistance plan for the island nation, supported by the European Development Fund.

The EU is also backing Indonesia’s efforts to stop illegal logging with a program that will boost the exports of legally-produced timber into Europe. In the Caribbean and Latin America, the EU has a $100 million program to support sustainable development, including a transition to green energy production, strengthening institutions and helping the growth of small business.

And in Greenland — yes Greenland — Brussels is running a significant education and vocational training project for that Arctic territory’s young people.

It is examples like this — and there are many others — that make me ever so slightly irritated when people ask me what good the EU is to anybody.

But I would have to say the EU is its own worst enemy when it comes to its ability to blow its own trumpet. The kind of information I have just outlined is often buried on its websites under uninspiring headlines and in media releases couched in dense, bureaucratic language. It needs to hire a good PR firm. 

This kind of lacklustre presentation plays into the hands of populist campaigns that rely heavily on appeals to the emotions, while disregarding hard facts. The United Kingdom may already be a lost cause, but Brussels needs to hit back hard against the rising tide of extreme right rhetoric and its claim to have easy answers to complex questions.

In the last six decades the EU has been an outstanding force for good, both in curbing the rabid nationalism which had devastated the continent in wars over and over again, and in its aid among less fortunate countries in the Third World.

It needs to tell that story, and tell it more aggressively. The gloves must come off. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Why globalisation has to work

Fears about a reaction against globalisation found a powerful voice in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this week when he said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that there were increasing demands to “withdraw from the connected world”.

Citing fake news, polarised views and “filter bubbles” for damaging what he called common understanding, Zuckerberg said the globalisation movement had underestimated the challenges it held for some people.

He urged Governments and private enterprise to “build the infrastructure to empower people” so that globalisation worked for everyone, not just for some.

Economic historian Harold James went further, saying the election of United States President Donald Trump and the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union suggested the international appetite for globalisation was collapsing and that this could plunge the world into war.

"We're swinging back again from an era when everyone thought globalisation was inevitable, to a period when people think there's really a big problem with globalisation," James said.

The Princetown professor said this era was becoming very like that which existed in the first decade of the 20th century when there was a nationalist reaction against globalisation that led to World War I.

Zuckerberg and James are wrong to believe that globalisation can be permanently derailed. We are living through a period of profound change — the main thrust of which is a movement away from the Westphalian system of nation states to an increasingly globalised world order.

This movement has been going on for some time, probably since the advent of transnational railway systems in the 19th century. Its progress was interrupted by two world wars, but has been continuing apace since, with the establishment of the United Nations, the European Union and a host of other bodies existing for the extension of international cooperation.

By the 1970s financial markets were fully globalised and not long after new technology brought instant communication to anyone with a smartphone.

There can be no retreat from this whatever populist politicians promise and however many demonstrators take to the streets. History does not have a reverse gear.

But Zuckerberg is right to point out that more must be done to help people through this inevitable period of change. Not to do so will produce more Trumps and Brexits as the old order thrashes around in its death throes – and yes, the very real possibility of Professor James’ war. It has happened before.

When former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, flushed with his Brexit victory, said he looked forward to the day when the entire European Union was dismantled and it was back to sovereign nations trading amongst themselves, he was harking after a time that never really existed in the modern era, except briefly and in a wasteful and highly unstable way.

The present system, in transition and in need of moderation, certainly has to be made fairer, but is far more preferable to Farage’s utopia which brought the Great Depression and two world wars.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Making sense of Trump’s Wonderland

The Trump Administration’s erratic relationship with Pakistan has taken another turn when White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus went on television to suggest that it could be added to the list of countries whose nationals will be banned from entering the United States.

Observers across the border in India said they were surprised that Pakistan had not been named in the first place. “Pakistan has long been a hot-bed of terrorism. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic State…they are all there,” one said.

Even so, this did not stop the then President-elect Donald Trump handing out lavish praise to Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif in a telephone call last December, Trump saying he was ready to play “any role desired” to resolve Pakistan’s problems.

Despite never having met Sharif he described him as a “terrific guy with a very good reputation for doing amazing work” and that Pakistanis were “one of the most intelligent people”.

But hold on. During his campaign for the White House a few months earlier he described Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries in the world and he intended to work with India to keep it in check.

This latest version of the relationship resulted in a flurry of advice on how to cope with Pakistan’s “continuing loss of influence with the United States Executive Branch”.

Analyst Sasha Riser-Kositsky urged Sharif to reign in local radical cells or risk losing some or all of the multi-million dollar funding that Washington provides to help Pakistan’s widening current account deficit.

In particular, he must deal with the Haqqani network that is closely associated with the State Intelligence Agency, Riser-Kositsky said. 

Maybe, but it could be equally prudent simply to wait for the Administration’s next change of attitude. After all, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Jalil Abbas Jillani was quoted just the day after Preibus’ statement as saying there were “indications of good relations” between the two countries.

“If you see the Republican Party presidential manifesto, there are two paragraphs on Pakistan in a very positive light,” Jillani said.

For the moment at least, the US president is dealing in broad brush strokes. It is unlikely he has heard of the Haqqani network, and isn’t interested in, or doesn’t understand the intricate problems the Pakistani Government faces in balancing the demands of religious fundamentalists, the ever-restive army and volatile public opinion in dealing with extremists groups.

In this climate, the best advice for President Sharif would be to keep his head down and stay under Trump’s radar until the wild ride of the past two or three weeks begins to slow.

If indeed it does slow. In considering the times we live in, it is hard to argue with veteran British Parliamentarian Ken Clarke, debating that other chaos-generating disaster, Brixet which he likened to Alice’s Wonderland.

“No doubt somewhere there is a hatter holding a tea party and a dormouse in the teapot,” Clarke said.

In 2017, the whereabouts of the hatter is beyond doubt, but for most of the world, it isn’t going to be much of a party.